Friday, December 25, 2015


CONCUSSION (Peter Landesman, 2015)

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Coroner’s Office seems like an unlikely place for a challenger to the National Football League to emerge, yet that’s where Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) makes an important discovery in CONCUSSION. The Nigerian immigrant and absurdly well-educated neuropathologist has no particular interest in or objection to the American sport until he performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster (David Morse). Omalu believes that repeated blows to the head are responsible for causing the early dementia Webster experienced. He publishes his findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and naϊvely believes the NFL will be grateful to learn about risks to their players’ health.

Fair or not, CONCUSSION does not compare favorably to SPOTLIGHT, another recent process film about exposing a systemic problem that leaders have hidden or ignored. CONCUSSION well-assembled but indistinct scenes of research in the first half show Omalu working at personal and financial cost to find out why professional football players are exhibiting such unusual psychological distress that result in premature deaths. He pursues the answer to a question not being asked and arrives at a conclusion that could threaten a hugely profitable corporation. When it sticks to the work Omalu does in the morgue and at his kitchen table, CONCUSSION grants a glimpse into the thankless efforts that go into producing such a study.

After Omalu and colleagues have published, CONCUSSION falls prey to the trap of needing to make the NFL into the proverbial moustache-twirling fat cat villains with pervasive menacing influence like one of James Bond’s SPECTRE foes. There are intimations that the league may have a hand in the FBI leveling trumped up charges at Omalu’s boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) to remove him from office and coming after the good doctor too. CONCUSSION also suggests the possibility of he and his girlfriend-turned wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) being followed. Such finger-pointing and dramatic turns pull CONCUSSION into thriller territory that is at odds with the research and policy matters at hand.

CONCUSSION succeeds in showing the toll football took on some gridiron heroes and their families, but ultimately the story belongs to Omalu. Smith portrays him as a gentle and generous man, but the film and performance struggle to develop him beyond being an honorable do-gooder. Omalu’s romance with Prema generates some nice moments, especially when he talks about being an outsider, yet these scenes stray from the film’s focus.

Grade: C-

Thursday, December 17, 2015


SPOTLIGHT (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

At the urging of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) in SPOTLIGHT the Boston Globe’s four-person investigative reporting unit directs its attention to the story of an area priest who molested children. The team, known as Spotlight, consists of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) begins work on the story in 2001 and soon learns that the abuse isn’t limited to one bad man in the Catholic Archdiocese. Rather, they uncover a pattern of institutional cover-up in which the problematic priests are moved among parishes.

SPOTLIGHT presents a thrilling examination of how journalists research and report a story. Although the film contains mystery elements, its attention is focused on the method and dogged determination to reveal the horrible truth that, in this instance, seems to have been an open secret among certain people in power. Writer-director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer excel at retracing the Globe reporters’ steps to connect information hiding in plain sight and gain access to documents that have been buried or removed. This may be the first and last time creating spreadsheets from rooting through old church directories can be described as compelling viewing.

Clearly the abusive priests serve as villains in SPOTLIGHT, but none of them are the ultimate targets of the reporting. To borrow video game terminology, the big boss awaiting the print heroes is the Catholic Church itself. The Spotlight team is squaring off against an antagonist without a face, yet McCarthy finds subtle ways to remind of the size and prevalence of their opponent. Cathedrals and their spires are often seen in the rear of shots as if ominously looming over the city and across the street from the publication. Church bells are heard in the background, one more indication of how it permeates the community.

The members of the investigative unit identify as Catholic, even if they may not be practicing. The majority of their newspaper’s readership is Catholic too. McCarthy and Singer do well at using the coded language groups employ to stress and enforce rightly held attitudes among those within a circle. The screenplay and the actors are also on point in demonstrating how reporters have to talk, almost as confessors, to their interviewees so they can extract key information. As a process film, SPOTLIGHT is exemplary.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Ron Howard, 2015)

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA tells the story purported to have inspired Herman Melville’s MOBY-DICK. The author (Ben Whishaw) shows up in the film’s framing device as he interviews an old Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the 1820s tragedy when a whale destroyed the ship the Essex. In the flashback scenes Tom (Tom Holland) is a boy who finds work on a whaling vessel along with experience-challenged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA has the basics for a rip-roaring adventure yarn with the chase for magnificent beasts of the ocean and fight for survival in dire circumstances, but director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt are not able to locate a center for this incredible story. Although Tom is speaking with Melville, Hemsworth’s brawny sailor functions as the default main character, leaving the storyteller as a supporting player in his own life’s narrative. It’s likely why there’s a curious distance between the action and the emotional current. In his telling Tom doesn’t create much of an inner life for himself as a young man, let alone Owen or any of the various seamen aboard the Essex.

Howard demonstrates more interest in the day-to-day operation of whaling expedition. The most exciting sequence comes as the men capture and kill their first whale on the voyage. Howard pinpoints the dangers, from occupying tiny boats beside the enormous creatures to needing to allow for enough rope to a harpooned whale so it doesn’t drag them to their doom, and the disgusting reality of disassembling a whale into its saleable parts. It’s fascinating to observe what was required to succeed in this kind of living.

Toward the end IN THE HEART OF THE SEA strives to achieve meaning of some kind, but the attempt feels tacked on to a story that has never quite understood what or who it is about. The seafoam green visual palette, water level shots, and heavily scarred CGI whale add some verve to what is otherwise a frustrating account of tragedy.

Grade: C

Friday, December 04, 2015

The Night Before

THE NIGHT BEFORE (Jonathan Levine, 2015)

Fourteen years ago Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) took out their grieving friend Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on Christmas Eve for a night of chemically-enhanced celebration in New York City. Ethan’s parents had died recently, and he needed a boost to his spirits. In THE NIGHT BEFORE the three made this raucous time an annual tradition, but it’s agreed that this year’s holiday revelry will be the last. The guys are in their mid-thirties, and two now have other obligations upon them. Isaac will soon become a father. Chris is enjoying the benefits of fame from a breakthrough late in his professional football career.

Ethan, on the other hand, remains adrift in menial jobs and is moody about his break-up with Diana (Lizzy Caplan). He seems reluctant to let go of the Christmas Eve debauchery, but if this will be the final year of it, he’s prepared to do it up big. Employing sticky fingers as he works in a coat check, Ethan procures passes to the Nutcracka Ball, the city’s preeminent party at a secret location. Although the friends are looking forward to an evening of mindless fun, circumstances cause them to confront their greatest fears about the future.

Although Rogen doesn’t have a screenplay credit, THE NIGHT BEFORE touches upon a theme that pops up in several of the comedies he’s starred in, NEIGHBORS in particular. Rogen and his on-screen buddies wrestle with being responsible grown-ups while wanting to hang onto the freedom and recklessness that marked their young adulthood. Rogen’s Isaac has been taking impending fatherhood seriously, so his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) grants him a free pass--and gives him a box of random drugs--for the good and supportive behavior he’s demonstrated through her pregnancy. Rather than letting Isaac cut loose, the permission to be irresponsible makes him face up to his anxieties about the major life changes that await and for which he feels ill-prepared. Filled with existential panic while in an altered state, Rogen is funny as he tries to keep his composure while high as a kite at Midnight Mass and in front of a friend’s mother.

As the guys’ pot supplier Mr. Green, Michael Shannon counters Rogen’s hysterical energy with a dry wit filtered through a typically intense performance. Mr. Green and his product serve a purpose akin to the ghosts in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, making Shannon ideal as someone whose presence indicates menace streaked with ribbons of humor to help his clients’ get through their cloudy mental states.

While THE NIGHT BEFORE produces a decent share of funny moments, it runs into a fair number of bumps in the road. Director Jonathan Levine and his co-writers can’t quite find the right mix of outrageous humor and dramatic material. Ethan is kind of a downer as the adventure goes deep into the night. The film’s hedonistic attitude gets tempered as THE NIGHT BEFORE advances toward a sentimental conclusion. That’s par for the course for films like this one, but it makes for a weird fit alongside Chris’s subplot regarding his steroid use to become a star toward the end of his football career. Like a sampler box of chocolates, some of it is good, and some is better left untouched.

Grade: C

Thursday, December 03, 2015


CREED (Ryan Coogler, 2015)

CREED’s Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the product of an affair and never knew his father, so he has plenty of conflicted feelings about the man the world knew and loved as heavyweight champion boxer Apollo Creed. Rather than going by his mythological name, he prefers to be called Donnie and doesn’t trumpet his heritage. He inherited physical gifts from his father, though, although he exhibits them on the sly by fighting on the weekend in Mexico than in a recognized organization.

Donnie decides that he must follow his heart to be a boxer, so he moves from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and tracks down Apollo’s old rival and friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the hope that this other boxing legend will train him.

As the seventh film in the ROCKY series, it would stand to reason that CREED might play like a retread. Instead co-writer and director Ryan Coogler delivers a familiar but dynamic offshoot. CREED takes a comfortable position in the tradition of these underdog sports movies and builds upon it. The story beats are similar, yet as a character study of a different up-and-comer and an icon who moves from inside ring to the corner, it is surprisingly affecting. Stallone, who did not have a hand in writing a ROCKY-related film for the first time, is critical to the film’s emotional tug. Rocky isn’t the last of his kind but is the last from his circle, and in part CREED is about coming to grips with that. Stallone plays Rocky with a sadness about him. He isn’t looking to regain past glories. He misses the people who used to be around him, not the titles. Stallone wears the heartache well, revealing the soft spots inside the warrior’s body he still possesses. Coogler conveys Rocky’s melancholy with subtle touches. Paulie’s old room in Rocky’s house remains the way it was when he died. Rocky keeps a folding chair in a tree at the cemetery, a sign that he’s a regular visitor at his trainer and wife’s graves.

Although it’s inevitable that CREED will build up to a big fight, Coogler is more interesting in Donnie’s internal struggle to reconcile where he comes from and who he is. The fight is with himself, which Rocky wisely points out in a training exercise in front of a mirror. Jordan plays Donnie as someone at once confident in himself and insecure about a background over which he had no control.

The emotional beats achieve the strongest reactions, whether between fighter and trainer or Donnie and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a singer that he falls for. Still, the boxing scenes pack their share of thrills, especially Donnie’s first billed fight that Coogler stages in a single unbroken shot. The technique dazzles while serving a dramatic purpose of understanding what it feels like to step into the ring for a first professional fight.

Grade: A

The Good Dinosaur

THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Peter Sohn, 2015)

THE GOOD DINOSAUR considers what might have happened if the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs never occurred. In the animated film’s imagined millions of years after the devastating meteor misses Earth, talking dinosaurs have developed agricultural practices while non-verbal humans in roaming packs are among the pesky critters that try to swipe their stockpiled food. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an undersized apatosaurus among his two siblings, is tasked with catching and eliminating the pest. The feral boy is caught but gets away, leading Arlo’s father (Jeffrey Wright) to take the youngster in search of the thief and finish the job.

A flash flood sweeps away Poppa, so a grieving Arlo blames the boy for his father’s death. When he turns up again, Arlo shows no restraint in chasing after him, but he gets knocked out while in pursuit and awakens far from home. The boy proves to be Arlo’s means for surviving, as he provides him with food and protection. He shows dog-like loyalty to the dinosaur, thus leading to Arlo naming him Spot (Jack Bright). He’ll need the help as they encounter fierce creatures on the long journey home.

For better or worse, a new Pixar film bears the weight of expectations of being nothing less than great. With its visual elements THE GOOD DINOSAUR lives up to the high standards set by its predecessors. The natural scenery’s photorealistic rendering captures the beauty of land, vegetation, and geological formations untouched by civilization. It’s astonishing to compare how far computer animation has come since TOY STORY was released in 1995. Director Peter Sohn uses some lovely visual storytelling too, especially in the scene with Arlo and Spot finding a common language through sticks and sand to share their tragic family backgrounds.

As great as THE GOOD DINOSAUR is to look at, the story is a jumble of scenes in which a fearful dinosaur child matures through a daunting quest home. Arlo wanders through this archetypal western tale without clear markers of progress or picking up notable supporting characters. The narrative just sort of ends without any awareness of how close he’s getting to the homestead. The biggest threat on the journey come in the form of a trio of pterodactyls who aren’t as good-hearted as they initially seem. These nasty beasts introduce a fair amount of terror to their scenes but are in the film for so little time that their impact is diminished.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR doesn’t shy away from the hostile nature of the world and those encountered in it, which may make the film scarier for younger viewers than might be anticipated. Death and imminent harm hang over the film, yet the greater takeaways is the bond formed between a dinosaur and his pet boy as they face conflict. THE GOOD DINOSAUR does lighten the gravity of the situation with some loopy humor, such as Arlo and Spot’s awkwardness at bathroom time and their hallucinogenic visions after eating fruit. It’s unlikely to be anyone’s favorite Pixar film, but the majesty of its visuals and scattered idiosyncrasies are rewarding.

Grade: B-