Posts Tagged ‘movies’

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According to ‘Concussion,’ when real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) first decided to publish his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, he expected the National Football League to be relieved and take action against the degenerative disease driving so many of their retired players to depression, dementia and early deaths.

And when the NFL does what anyone would expect a billion-dollar corporation built on the backs of human crash test dummies to do — reject and ridicule Omalu’s findings — the good doctor is lovingly chided for his naivete.

“You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” he’s told by his mentor, played by Albert Brooks.

The exchange holds an interesting parallel to the movie itself, which is to be released on Christmas in what is, no doubt, a play at awards-season attention, but which coincidentally occurs at the zenith of the college football season, with the NFL’s super bowl just around the corner. Not only is Smith’s latest film competing with Star Wars for the eyeballs of film-goers, it also needs to convince football fans (of whom there are many) to pay the admission price and watch a movie about how their favorite sport is recklessly killing people.

It’s not easy task, but ‘Concussion’ handles the challenge with surprising grace. Smith is charming and heartbreaking as Omalu, an extensively educated Nigerian medical examiner whose own personal American Dream is slowly shattered by the ambivalence of our country’s institutions. His journey begins in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office, where the death of a former Steeler’s center collides with Omalu’s natural curiosity, creating the spark that ignites the doctor’s drive to discover the unseen malice that lie in the thousands of blows to the head that players experience during their careers.

Surrounding Smith are Brooks, Omalu’s guide and cheerleader, Alec Baldwin, a former NFL team doctor racked with guilt and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the love interest that helps humanize the lead character.

While directed and performed well, the segments of the film concerned with Omalu’s personal life are its weakest. ‘Concussion’ is at its best when it’s at its most outraged, describing the science behind CTE and tangentially showing the former players who are spiraling out of control. Each one of those deaths is a tragedy of its own, and in making extra room for an immigrant love story ‘Concussion’ does a slight disservice to the real lives lost that spurred Omalu’s work.

But the occasional flaws in the film are little in the face of its strengths, particularly the clarity of Omalu’s case against the league and the ugly but unsurprising steps the NFL took to avoid the blame when now-expendable players lose themselves in a fog of the mind. Far from giving the NFL a pass, ‘Concussion’ relentless points a finger at the league, but a more focused script may elevated the power of the story to a knockout blow.

Grade: B+

*Concussion opens nationwide on Friday, December 25.

 

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Not every great movie is beautiful and not every beautiful movie is great. But every so often, you get a movie that is both.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger in ‘Youth,’ a lilting, dream-like film directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Set at a posh resort in Switzerland, Ballinger’s retired composer/orchestra conductor traipses through a routine of massage, upscale dining, dips in the hot tub and discussions of prostate with his longtime friend Mick, a celebrated film director played by Harvey Keitel.

He’s a tortured man, facing his own mortality and desire to live out his days quietly under pressure from his daughter to reconcile his life as a husband and father and a nagging emissary from her majesty The Queen, who would like him to perform his most famous (and pedestrian?) work one last time.

Mirroring his story is that of Mick’s, who is crafting his “testament,” a screenplay that will define his career, but one which challenges him to craft a satisfying third act.

The parallels to old age are obvious, but rather than hide from the metaphor, Sorrentino injects fantasy and levity to challenge expectations.

That the director is an Italian is no coincidence, as the film is undeniably European, interspersing bits of quiet plot between pseudo-surrealist montages of life at the resort with metaphorical and philosophical discussion between the core cast.

There’s plenty of meat for the various actors to enjoy — a brief appearance by Jane Fonda and a subplot with Paul Dano are particularly great — but the best moments are reserved for Caine and Keitel, whose friendship speaks to the melancholy pain of memory.

Grade: A-

*‘Youth’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 25.

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“The party is over”

That’s the expectation of on character near the end of “The Big Short,” a movie that tracks three independent teams of Wall Street outsiders who foresaw the housing market crash of 2007 that decimated the U.S. (and world) economy and bet big on a bursting bubble.

He’s referring, of course, to the big bankers, whose behavior leading up to the crash can be described in the nicest terms as negligent (but are more accurately described in less nice terms). The banks will be broken up, he says, and those responsible for cashing checks on the backs of millions of woefully ill-advised mortgages will be sent to jail.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, as hindsight and the film make abundantly clear, the big banks marched forward with the aid of a taxpayer-funded bailout, earning gargantuan bonuses for their chief executives while millions of American families lost their homes and livelihoods. The party, for the wrong people it would appear, was over.

It’s hard not to get angry while watching “The Big Short,” which deftly balances a frenzied excitement — akin to a subdued “Wolf of Wall Street” — while still possessing bucket loads of moral outrage. The outsiders who saw the disaster coming are mocked and ridiculed while shouting out to anyone who will listen the danger at the country’s doorstep.

And director Adam McKay, best known for low-brow comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, turns out to be an inspired choice. Any talk of adjustable interest rates and asset-backed securities is bound to glaze the eyes of casual film-goers, so McKay amps up the showmanship by having the film narrated by a smarmy, fourth-wall breaking Ryan Gosling, who occasionally delegates his explanatory duties to guest star cameos, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath giving an Econ 101 lesson on subprime mortgages.

It’s heady stuff, but rather than get lost in the weeds, McKay and “The Big Short” (rounded out by an incredible cast including Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale) keep things light and breezy, explaining just enough of the big picture to string together the insidious bread crumbs that led to financial catastrophe.

Grade: A-

*The Big Short opens nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

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“All hail Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter.”

Adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience is no simple task. Even the most literate of audiences can struggle to keep pace with The King’s early modern in iambic pentameter.

That’s why most director’s add a little sizzle to the steak, like the kaleidoscopic eye-jazzery of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’  or the winking casual-Friday approach of Joss Whedon in 2012’s phenomenal ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

Which brings us to ‘Macbeth’, the Michael Fassbender-staring take on The Scottish Play, in which Justin Kurzel fills the screen with a lustful amount of gorgeous imagery, to the point that you almost forget how disengaged you are.

As it always has, ‘Macbeth’ tells the story of the titular Thane of Glamis, a general in the army of Duncan, King of Scotland. After a major victory, Macbeth is visited by a trio (now a quartet, inexplicably) of witches who prophesy a chain of promotion’s in the general’s future, including future king.

When one of those promotions is then bestowed on him by Duncan, Macbeth, at the urging of his wife, commits to a murderous plot to end Duncan’s reign and seize the throne for himself.

But in ‘Macbeth,’ the movie, the descent from valiant soldier to mad tyrant is crudely telescoped, eliminating much of the subtlety and moral struggle in Shakespeare’s work. We know little of pre-treason Macbeth, which robs his later decay of its emotional impact.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, as Lord and Lady, make the most what little breathing room is left in the script. As an Irish-German, Fassbender slips a little more easily into his role than the French Cotillard, and both wisely avoid straining to adopt overtly Scottish affectation.

What the film lacks in dramatic heft, it nearly makes up in its visuals. The battle scenes, enmeshed in smoke and fog, are shot in a trance-like speed while the palace intrigue is backdropped with an eerie, palpable darkness.

It’s a stunning thing to look at, but falls short in its storytelling.

Grade: B-

*‘Macbeth’ opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 11

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Most movies about European immigrants chasing the American Dream are not bright, sunny affairs (think Gangs of New York or, more on the nose, The Immigrant).

But in ‘Brooklyn,’ written by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley, the idea of romance and opportunity awaiting across the Atlantic seems endearingly possible.

After a seasickness-filled voyage across the sea, Eilis (a sensible Irish woman played by Saoirse Ronan) meets and eventually falls in love with an Italina, baseball-loving, plumber. She’s beyond lucky, with a job and boarding house lined up before she arrives, and the trick Crowley executes is acknowledging the charmed life of his protagonist without melting into a pool of sugar.

It’s a testament to the period details included in the script, like a holiday meal at the local Irish parish that pays tributes to the cheap immigrant labor that built New York City, or the hint of anxiety as a family of fellow travelers is pulled aside to face quarantine.

And Eilis’ fortune evolves into the central drama in Act III, when she’s temporarily called back across the pond and faced with a choice between her new life in America or an unexpectedly-improved situation in Ireland.

The tension of that choice arrives a little late in the movie’s running time, setting up a resolution that feels earned but could have benefited from a little more time in the oven.

Ronan already has a number of fine performances under her belt (if you haven’t seen Atonement, do so post haste)  and while ‘Brooklyn’ is hardly a breakout vehicle, it’s the latest fine choice in a growing resume of quality work for the young actress.

Grade: B+

*Brooklyn opens in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 25

 

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It’s 2001, George  W. Bush has just entered the White House, AOL is advertising on billboards and a massive, decades-long cover up of child molestation by Catholic Priests is about to be exposed by an elite team of journalists.

That’s the setting of Spotlight, which tells the true-life story of the Boston Globe division that spent a year interviewing victims and pouring through church and court records to unravel one of the most insidious conspiracies in modern memory.

It’s a great story, and just like the scandal needed the Globe’s Spotlight team to tell it right, Spotlight, the movie, is the perfect fit to tell the tale on the big screen.

Full disclosure: I’m a journalist, and I have no illusions about how much these types of films preach to my choir. But even as I attempt to set that bias aside, I maintain that Spotlight is a great piece of drama and not just first amendment porn.

That’s because director Tom McMarthy is working with a perfect cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo Liev Schriber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and John Slattery. And together they create an incredibly human story about individuals working together to move a mountain.

Because this is Boston, and The Catholic Church (or simply, THE Church), is an institution that is all but immortal. But the Spotlight team made it bleed.

As a piece of drama, Spotlight shouldn’t work. There’s no back-alley meet ups with anonymous sources, no bricks through windows. Even fellow based-on-a-true-story Zodiak had the unspoken possibility that its journalist character could be murdered by the titular killer.

Instead we have long segments in which the characters furrow their brows and run their fingers down the pages of a directory, or type names into a database. It’s not sexy stuff, but Spotlight makes the machinery of a newsroom as compelling as a car chase.

When the pieces start coming together, and the Globe team realizes its not just a handful but dozens of priests with hundreds of victims between them, the script hums with electricity. The audience is treated to a sample of firsthand accounts from survivors, and the knowledge that it’s the tip of a very dark iceberg is handled with deft, unsettling precision by McCarthy.

The film would have been forgiven for playing into the criminal acts of the Catholic Priests. It’s easy to imagine an alt-universe version of Spotlight that plays like an episode of CSI, showing us a string of horrendous crimes as our heroes get closer to the truth.

McCarthy resists that temptation, and the film is better for it. It’s not a story about depravity, it’s a call to action.

Grade: A

*Spotlight opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, November 20

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If you believe the reports, Daniel Craig is definitely done playing James Bond. Unless you believe the other reports that he definitely intends to return for the final film in his contract.

That type of behind-the-scenes uncertainly wouldn’t normally be an issue, especially for a franchise where perpetual casting changes are built into the machine, but for the fact that in Spectre, Craig et al deliver a film that very much feels like the final chapter in a Bond quadrilogy.

There’s a gravitational pull with most franchises to deliver the movie that Ties It All Together™, and more often than not its an impulse best avoided. Such is the case with Spectre, which attempts to retcon all of Craig’s villains – Le Chifre, Mr. White, Dominic Greene and Silva — into a shadowy organization headed by Hannes Oberhauser (Chistoph Waltz), a figure with a mysterious tie to Bond’s past.

But before you can say “Wait…how?” the film skips off to Tangier in an attempt to distract you with beautiful women, beautiful locales and beautiful fights on a train so that you’re too occupied to question how Oberhauser could have possibly orchestrated the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. For one thing, QUANTUM already gave us one shadowy organization, which now was a subsidiary? Is this a Bond movie or a quarterly earnings report?

It’s par for the course of Spectre, in which THINGS HAPPEN out of necessity, with little time spent on the “why?” of it all. There are plots and subplots, villains and sub-villains, but they’re parceled out like a paint-by-numbers book as the film follows the establish Bond formula established decades ago (the introduction of Andrew Scott as a drone- and surveillance-minded head of British security intent on shutting down MI6 is the definition of an afterthought).

And that’s a shame, because the Daniel Craig era has been marked by an overall sense of freshness and experimentation. Beginning with Casino Royale (still the strongest entry of Craig’s time in the tux, IMHO) the four films have enjoyed a sense of unpredictability, even while calling back to the tried-and-true aspects of the cherished (by many, myself included) franchise. Spectre, on the other hand, is quite predictable, from the car chase in Act I, to the love interest in Act II and the Big Twist Reveal in Act III.

None of this is to say that Spectre is a bad film, it is not. The visuals are delightful (the film opens with a beautiful tracking shot meandering through Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico) and the introduction of classic bond elements like Moneypenny and Q that began with Skyfall continue to pay dividends as the new era of the Bond Team develops. The female characters in Spectre (you know, the Bond Girls) are also more developed than their predecessors, with Lea Seydoux in particular offering more than just a pretty face.

Spectre’s greatest challenge is its own success, coming off the heels of Skyfall and hearkening back to Casino Royale. It falls short of those elevated expectations, but continues the trend of overall quality that has defined the recent exploits of 007.

Grade: B

*Spectre opens nationwide on Friday, November 6

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