Category Archives: Oscar Contenders

Films that should earn buzz during awards season.

‘The Shape of Water’ May be 2017’s Best Film

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)Michael Shannon is a national treasure and we are not worthy of him.


“The Shape of Water” stars Sally Hawkins as a mute custodian worker living in 1962 Baltimore. When the secret government facility she works at brings in an aquatic creature from the Amazon, she befriends it and seeks to break it out. Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer also star as Guillermo del Toro directs and co-writes.


I hadn’t seen a trailer for this but had just heard that it was classic, strange del Toro, and the buzz out of Toronto Film Festival and Venice was glowing. Knowing del Toro’s style and previous works and taking critical hype with grains of salt I walked into this film knowing very little what to expect; and I was blown away.


This film looks and sounds incredible. Set in del Toro’s version of 1960s Maryland the streets have a neon-noir feel and glow about them and are accompanied by the trumpet and piano musical background score to fit. The big-windowed apartments, the classic diners, the underground government labs, every room and location in this has its own style and feel and adds to an already engrossing experience.


Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is a mute, having had to have her vocal chords removed at birth. Unable to speak, Hawkins relies on her eyes and small reactions to get her characterization across and she does it masterfully. You can almost instantly tell what her character is like, mousy and far-too-innocent, and she deserves all the award nominations that are coming her way.


Like I began with, Michael Shannon is a true gem and always a pleasure to watch and same goes for Richard Jenkins. Shannon plays the film’s villain, a cruel Colonel, like only he can and from his initial entrance to his motives I couldn’t help but compare him to Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”


Jenkins is warm and charming as Hawkins’ neighbor, a closest gay artist. It is a role that is as heart-breaking as it is funny and he adds a sense of gravitas to every scene he is in.


The film’s only true flaws are there are two scenes that are decently abstract and jarring in their tonal shift and/or need to suspend disbelief, and some of the dialogue and visual cues-particularly towards the climax-are a little cheesy and heavy-handed.


It is upsetting that del Toro felt the need to add those two sequences because the film would have been unchanged without them and he wouldn’t have lost the audience and need to reel them back in.


I wouldn’t quite start throwing the M-word around just yet, but “The Shape of Water” does have brilliant stretches where it scrapes being a masterpiece. The production design is incredible, the score is memorizing and the creature design is phenomenal (this is all even more impressive when you realize the film was made for under $20 million). Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon are all honors to watch and I will be telling everyone between now and February to check this one out; it is one of the finest films of 2017.


Critics Rating: 9/10


Fox Searchlight

‘Allied’ a Slow-Burning Thriller Worth Watching

Allied_(film)Part of me spent the entire runtime of this film hoping it would turn out to be an “Inglourious Basterds” spin-off…


“Allied” stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as two spies in World War II who meet and fall in love during a mission to assassinate a German official. Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan and Matthew Goode also star as Robert Zemeckis directs.


This is one of those films that on the surface screams awards season, if not Oscar-bait. Two Academy Award-winning stars and an acclaimed director teaming up to make a WWII period drama released in November? It’s clear what they want to sell this as. Well it turns out “Allied” isn’t really interested in awards (we’ll touch on that), nor is it really centered on the plot its trailers have been selling (again, more on that in a second) but is an old-fashioned adult spy thriller that, for the most part, is fine entertainment.


First things first, the performances are all solid here, but duh. Brad Pitt is never bad (as much as it’s near impossible to see him as a character and not just “Brad Pitt pretending to be [blank]”) and Marion Cotillard is hardly ever bad (we’ll give her a pass for “Dark Knight Rises,” there were way worse things about that film than her death scene). The two have good chemistry and sell their characters, making us buy into their romance but still question their motives.


The production value and costume design are both top notch and really put you into the 1942 settings of WWII North Africa and England. This is where my note about awards comes in, as this film will be what I pick for my Oscar ballot to win those two categories; the score is also mesmerizing.


The biggest problem with “Allied” is it isn’t fully sure what it wants to be, or at least refuses to commit to it. The trailers sell it like the whole film will revolve around Pitt trying to find out if Cotillard is a German spy, but in actuality that plot point doesn’t come into play until the halfway mark. The main plot of the film, at its core, is the love story between these two spies, with a war-torn city as its backdrop.


And I am fine with that, I dug the immersion into the world, but it creates some riffs and some slogs and the middle of the film, transitioning from their assassination mission to Pitt becoming aware of her possible spy-ness (a term?), does slow down and you just want something to happen that isn’t a picnic with their baby.


By the time the credits began to roll, I can say I enjoyed “Allied” enough to recommend it, but also issue a grain-of-salt warning that it is a slow-burner and there are some people who won’t be engrossed by love plot or distracted by the time period and will find the whole ordeal boring. But hey, this is my review and I’m saying if you like the stars, the setting or good ole fashioned spy thrillers, then this is a type of film seldom made anymore worth checking out.


Critics Rating: 7/10

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

‘Hacksaw Ridge’ a Bloody, Moving Story of Conviction

Hacksaw_Ridge_posterI thought it was interesting the trailer for this said “from the director of ‘Braveheart’;” apparently it’s still too soon to use Mel Gibson’s name as a brand…


“Hacksaw Ridge” is the true story of World War II Army medic Desmond Doss, a pacifist who refuses to bear arms despite enlisting in the military and being thrown into the belly of the Pacific Theater.  Andrew Garfield portrays Doss as Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving and Vince Vaughn co-star with Mel Gibson directing.


Gibson is a talented director, although no one has ever accused him of being subtle. He last directed 2006’s “Apocalypto” (an underrated gem) and is best known for directing “Braveheart” (an overrated flick, don’t @ me). “Hacksaw Ridge” puts the best and the worst of Gibson on display (to varying degrees), with two halves featuring conflicting tones and pacing, but powerful messages and impactful violence that make for one of the most moving films of the year.


Andrew Garfield is best known for starring in the failed “Amazing Spider-Man” reboot, but his best performances have come in “The Social Network” and “99 Homes” (which if you haven’t seen I implore you to check it out; one of 2015’s best). He is a great “young” talent (I put young in quotes because he’s 33 years old, despite looking 23) and after this and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Silence” he should finally get the award attention he deserves.


Garfield’s Doss is a soft-spoken Southerner who is strong in his convictions to not pick up a weapon, and we fully buy into his reasoning. The film isn’t overly preachy about its Christian-based backing, but it does make you see why Doss truly would rather be court-martialed and go to prison than even practice firing a gun.


What really is surprising and pleasant to see, however, are the performances from the supporting cast, many of whom we are not used to seeing in dramatic roles. Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey and Vince Vaughn all fit their roles perfectly as the doubting Captain, bully solider and yelling, dark-humored drill Sergeant, respectively. Vaughn is a little jarring when he first walks on screen (visions of “True Detective” flashed before my eyes) but he carries his own and has a few funny insults that he yells at the new recruits.


Per classic Gibson, the film is brutally accurate in its depiction of war. Especially since this is Okinawa, where things did not go easy-breezy for the Americans, there is a lot of blood and loss of life in this film, and those with weak stomachs need not apply. But it is a necessary evil, as it only begins to display the horrors of war that Doss and his men endured, but after a while things do grow a tad repetitive.


Which brings me to my central gripe about the film and that’s that it can grow a tad monotonous. The first half is filled with constant instances of Doss refusing to fire a gun and getting punished for it in one way or another; we get it, he won’t kill. The second half is filled with constant instances of gratuitous violence and Doss running men to safety, which as awesome and lump-in-the-throat-inducing as it is, you can’t help but get a sense of emotional manipulation after a while. There is even a cheesy low-angle shot of Doss slowly standing up and putting on his helmet like something out of a Captain America comic.


Teresa Palmer is almost nothing but a plot device and while it is important to give Doss a little bit of backstory, her girlfriend character really doesn’t do much besides add runtime and a bit of romantic comedy relief to the film.


“Hacksaw Ridge” isn’t the war epic is sometimes thinks it is, nor is it as memorable as I’m sure many people were hoping, but in-the-moment there are few that know how to put the power of the human spirit on screen better than Mel Gibson. On an unrelated note, it must’ve been dusty in the theater I was in because by the end of the film I was tearing up from my allergies…

Critics Rating: 7/10

Summit Entertainment

Summit Entertainment

‘The Birth of a Nation’ a Well-Acted but Heavy Handed Drama

img_8255Another 2016 film, another disappointment.


“The Birth of a Nation” tells the real-life story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Nate Parker directs (in his debut), co-writes, produces and stars as Turner, with Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King and Jackie Earle Haley in supporting roles.


This shares a title with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, and that’s no accident. That film is famous for its impressive and revolutionary technical achievements and is subjectively good but objectively racist, depicting the KKK as heroes and black men (some as white men in blackface) as unintelligent. This 2016 film attempts to take the name and give it a new meaning for the 21st century, but despite the best intentions and valiant efforts from its cast, it never rises to its grand aspirations.


Comparing this to “12 Years a Slave” is somewhat lazy but I feel inevitable. And it isn’t simply because both are tales about the evils of slavery in America, but because both feature powerful performances and gorgeous cinematography, however are narratively lacking and feature heavy-handed direction.


Parker is the main character and his Nat Turner is an emotionally conflicted man. He respects his master and is strong in his faith, never wavering that despite being enslaved, God is looking out for him and his family. Parker has several scenes that display his range, going from angry to in tears at the drop of a hat. Annie Hammer plays his master and is a quiet man, and you get the feeling he resents slavery but recognizes its importance to the world he lives in. Hammer has the most arch of any character, as he begins to drown his sorrow in liquor and succumb to the evils of the system.


Subtlety is nowhere to be found here. Parker is a rookie director and this is an ambitious story to take on as a first time project, but he feels the need to make sure no implications are missed. From slow-motion stare-downs to imagery of red blood falling on white cotton, Parker doesn’t miss a chance to make sure you get every point he is trying to get at. It comes off as in-your-face and is almost insulting because he doesn’t think the audience would be intelligent enough to figure things out themselves.


The film also takes a while to find its footing. For almost an hour, nothing happens. We know the film is building towards Turner’s rebellion, so for the first hour to have his life he relatively “good” (his owner was a childhood friend and Turner travels around with him) we never feel the evils that will inevitably push Turner over the edge.


When we finally start to see the true horrors of slavery, it is awful and graphic, and even they surely pale in comparison to the real life events. However nothing feels earned; we know Turner has seen awful things but even once he begins his rebellion, his actions still feel evil and horrific themselves, not fully justified.


Some historians call Turner a religious fanatic, not too different from modern day Islamic extremists, because he used his faith to justify slaughtering men, women and children. If it was Parker’s intentions to create a divide about Turner’s place in history then the film is to be commended; however I don’t think it was his goal to have Turner remembered as anything but a hero.


“The Birth of a Nation” features impressive performances, especially from Parker and Hammer, but it never builds up stakes and is heavy-handedly directed. It is an important story however I had a more engaging and interesting time reading up on Turner’s story afterwards than I did while watching the actual film. It’s an ambitious first project, with Parker as its strongest asset and biggest weakness; but it is his flaws make “Nation” hard to recommend.


Critics Rating: 5/10


Fox Searchlight\

‘Sully’ Gets Oscar Season Off to Solid Start

Sully_xxlg.jpegOh, Oscar season. How we’ve missed you so.


“Sully” stars Tom Hanks in the titular role of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 which was forced to perform an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in January 2009. Aaron Eckhart stars as Sully’s co-pilot and Laura Linney plays his wife as Clint Eastwood directs.


On paper, this has all the workings of a major Oscar player: a real-life story about an American hero, with Tom Hanks on the poster and Clint Eastwood behind the camera. So it may be a little disappointing that “Sully” is good-not-great, but it is still a confidently made adult drama that gets the fall movie season off to a steady start.


It may be somewhat lazy to do, but I find myself comparing this to Eastwood’s last directorial effort, 2014’s “American Sniper.” That was also a good film that had greatness escape its grasp due mostly a shifting narrative; however a strong central performance and powerful set pieces hold it together.


To say Tom Hanks is the reason this film works would be a waste of ink (well, characters on a keyboard). His Sully is a soft spoken, polite-to-a-fault man who hates that people think he is a hero for doing what he views as simply his job. There isn’t much to his character and if this was most any other actor than Hanks it would probably be a boring one; however as we know by this point in his career, Hanks is not most any other actor.


Eckhart turns in a quietly great performance as Sully’s co-pilot and confidant, never questioning Sully’s decision to land the plane in the Hudson but you can see the fear in his eyes. Linney simply has a few scenes talking and crying to Sully on the phone as the obligatory worried wife and she is fine, but unlike Hanks you could slip any actress into the role and it would be unchanged.


As I said earlier, the film’s biggest problem is its narrative. It is based off an event that lasted two and a half minutes but is stretched into a 96 minute movie (very short by Eastwood standards) and although the film is paced well, the way it is constructed is a tad disjointed. The film constantly jumps between the present day investigation against Sully and different perspectives of the crash, and it get a little messy at points. At other times it comes off as underwhelming, as some viewpoints of the crash simply aren’t as engaging as others.


There also isn’t a whole lot on the line, as we know historically that Sully made the right choice (despite what the film wants you to think people think). The trailers also try and paint a Denzel Washington “Flight” plot of Sully being questioned about possible alcoholism or troubles at home, but those are questions answered in one breath and never touched on again.


“Sully” has a strong performance from Tom Hanks and the main crash sequence is invigorating and looks and sounds as real as anything. It may not flow as evenly as one may like or hope based on the talent involved, but just like the white haired seasoned professional on which the film is based, Eastwood shows that even at 86 years old, he still is as capable as anyone in Hollywood to craft a solid drama.


Critics Rating: 7/10

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Reactions to 2016 Oscar Nominations

Another year, another Oscars. The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced on Thursday, and as usual there were some surprises, both good and bad, with the best film of 2015, “The Revenant,” rightfully leading the pack with 12 nods. Here I’ll do a quick rundown of the major nominations along with my thoughts.



The Big Short

Bridge of Spies


Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revanant



I’ve seen all of these but “Brooklyn,” and while none are a surprise, a few, in my humble opinion do not deserve their nominations. By now I’ve made I clear I am the only human on the face of this earth that hated “Mad Max,” but apparently I’m wrong and everyone else saw a movie that wasn’t dumb, loud and lacked anything resembling narrative. Fine. “The Martian” is a blockbuster film that picked up random momentum and pop culture support, and I sadly didn’t love “Bridge of Spies” or “The Big Short” (to varying degrees). Would have loved to see “Straight Outta Compton,” “Steve Jobs,” or even “Creed” get a nomination here, but “Revenant” and “Spotlight” are two of 2015’s best films, so hopefully one of them pulls it out.



Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revanant

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

DiCaprio and Fassbender were the only locks here, and they gave the two best performances of 2015 so that makes sense. The other three aren’t surprising, but each one flirted with being odd-man-out and pushed out by likes of Johnny Depp or Will Smith. Much like the film he was in, I think Damon got a nod because it was the cool thing to do, and while I didn’t love “Trumbo” it’s cool and well-deserved that “Oscar Nominee Bryan Cranston” is a thing now.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant



Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Only saw Brie Larson and “Room” of this bunch, but she’s essentially a lock to win. Jennifer Lawrence will get nominated for any and everything she does for the rest of time because she is this generation’s Meryl Streep, so not giving her an Oscar nod would be a crime.



Christian Bale, The Big Short

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Very satisfied with this group. Bale (along with Carell) was only bright spot of “Big Short,” Hardy was commanding in “Revenant,” Ruffalo is underrated in everything so glad to see him get love, Rylance gave the best supporting performance of the year in my opinion, and Stallone’s comeback story can’t help but be loved. Idras Elba and Michael Shannon were both on the outside looing in, and I still think Seth Rogen’s work in “Steve Jobs” has been overlooked all awards season, but what on that film hasn’t been ignored?

Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Sylvester Stallone, Creed



Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara, Carol

Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Winslet for “Steve Jobs,” yay. Alicia Vikander for “Danish Girl,” didn’t see the movie but love her so yay. RACHEL MCADAMS, HECKS YES… (clears throat) sorry. That nomination came out of nowhere but I really thought I was the only person who thought she gave the best performance in “Spotlight” and assumed she wouldn’t get her name called.



Adam McKay, The Big Short

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant

Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Like…ok. I’m happy McKay got an Oscar nomination (or rather, two, more on that in a second) but the fact he got them for “Big Short” baffles and almost angers me. That film has no real scope or reigns on its story, and that is due almost entirely to his direction and screenplay (again, more in a second). Iñárritu deserves love for “Revenant,” what he had to do for that movie is insane, and McCarthy’s direction in “Spotlight” is so subtle it’s almost brilliant. Like, cool, George Miller gets his “Mad Max” nomination, whatever, it’s a well-made film; more surprised at Abrahamson getting nominated for “Room.” Unless he is the sole reason Larson and Jacob Tremblay gave stellar performances, it seemed he didn’t have a great grip on the material.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant



“Earned It” – Fifty Shades of Grey

“Manta Ray” – Racing Extinction

“Simple Song #3” – Youth

“Til It Happens to You” – The Hunting Ground

“Writing’s on the Wall” – Spectre

“Oscar nominee ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” is my suicide note but at least it isn’t for “Love Me Like You Do.” How Wiz Khalifa and “See Your Again” didn’t get nominated is a mystery. I guess the Academy either (A) hates rap songs (but Eminem won an Oscar, so) or (B) thought they were being hipster by give two random films nominations. Either way…


The Big Short



The Martian


How, in the actual heck of it, do you not nominate Aaron Sorkin and “Steve Jobs?!” I know the film underperformed at the box office, which in turn turned voters off from the film, but it was not only an apparent lock to get a nod, it was the odds-are favorite to win. I’m actually physically upset at this. It still is the best script of the year, but then again “Gone Girl” was one of the best of 2014 and it didn’t get a nomination… I don’t get the love for “Room’s” screenplay, like it’s fine, but “The Big Short” is a mess that didn’t do a good job describing its confusing stock terms despite thinking it was mastering it. “Two-time Academy Award nominee Adam McKay” is now a thing, so I guess that’s cool. Like he’s a nice guy… [sigh]


Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out


Straight Outta Compton

Pumped “Straight Outta Compton” got some love, although a little surprised it was for Screenplay; it’s a fun script but nothing I thought the Academy would recognize. Glad “Spotlight” got nominated but I think “Inside Out” got love for the originality of its concept more than the actual content of the script (the whole idea of the film actually falls apart if you think about it for more than a minute, like so do the emotions have emotions? I’m getting off track).

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton

Those are my thoughts on the big awards, I’ll have more as Award Season pushes on, including predictions and my own personal awards for the best in 2015 films. The 88th Academy Awards air on February 28, 2016.

Beautiful, Gritty ‘Revenant’ Is 2015’s Best

The_Revenant_2015_film_posterI think this is it. I think Leo will finally get his Oscar.

“The Revenant” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as 1820’s frontiersman Hugh Glass, who after being mauled by a grizzly bear is abandoned by his fur trading company (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter). Glass then sets out on a path of revenge against the men who left him for dead. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who won the Oscar for Best Director for last year’s “Birdman,” directs here.

Obviously Leo is a fan favorite for everyone, but he is my personal favorite actor, and as a fanboy of cinematography, having Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot the breathtaking “Gravity” and the amazing “all-one-take” “Birdman” (winning Oscars for both), got me excited. However there was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama, including problems with location shooting and numerous crew members quitting/getting fired, resulting in the budget ballooning from $60 million to $135 million and shooting lasting until this past August instead of the planned March. Production problems doomed “Fantastic Four” earlier this year, so was “The Revenant” another victim? No. Not even close. Because “The Revenant” is the most beautifully shot film possibly of all-time, is 2015’s best films, and may finally give Leo the statue that has so long evaded him.

Right off the bat, this is a fantastic, masterfully shot film that somehow manages to be both gorgeous and gritty at the same time. Set in in the early 19th century American wilderness, there is plenty to behold. At several points the film shows the majesty and massive scale of the world we live in, and my jaw hit the floor. What is all the more impressive is this this was filmed with all natural light, giving the film a more genuine feel. If you know anything about filmmaking, you know how insane it is to shoot without using studio lights; if you aren’t familiar with film, allow me to tell you how absolutely insane it is to shoot without using studio lights.

There are also numerous one-take scenes including the five-minute bear attack sequence, which is one of the most intense and gritty things ever put on film. Lubezki will win his third straight Oscar, so sorry, Roger Deakins, looks like you’re going to have to wait another year to win yours (he’s currently 0-12, likely 0-13 after hopefully getting a nod for “Sicario”).

The acting here is top-notch. DiCaprio doesn’t have too much dialogue, and spends much of the film crawling around and lying next to campfires. But it is those physically demanding crawls, and well as all the sympathetic or painful emotions conveyed through his eyes that quietly makes this possibly the top performance of his career. Supporting actors Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, and Domhnall Gleeson all turn in career performances as well and more than hold their own with DiCaprio, although much of DiCaprio’s scenes are him on his own, eating raw bison meat or climbing inside of a horse for warmth.

There really aren’t any glaring problems with “The Revenant.” The plot itself is pretty straightforward but it is engaging nonetheless, although there is one subplot (won’t say what it is to avoid spoilers) that adds probably 10-plus minutes to the 156 minute runtime, and in the end of the day it does nothing to alter the narrative or outcome.

“The Revenant” isn’t something you pop in and watch on a Saturday afternoon with your friends, but it is a fantastic film, and it seems all the behind-the-scenes drama that Alejandro G. Iñárritu caused in his strive for perfection paid off. “The Revenant” demands your viewership with its gripping performances and breathtaking cinematography, and hopefully is the final push DiCaprio needed to finally bring home Oscar gold.

Critics Rating: 9/10



‘Concussion,’ Smith Let Down By Script

Concussion_posterWell…it’s going to be awkward watching my next NFL game…

Based on a true story, “Concussion” stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who fought against the National Football League from suppressing his research on the brain damage suffered by football players. Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin co-star as Peter Landesman writes and directs.

Will Smith doesn’t do too much acting nowadays, but when he does the film ranges from average (“Focus”) to dumpster fire (“After Earth”); it can be argued his last good movie was “I Am Legend” in 2007. “Concussion” falls into the former category, as it is a film that has an important message and a strong central performance, but falls flat in most every other category.

Movie accents are a fickle business. They can sometimes propel a performance, like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond,” but all too often they come off as cheesy and derail a film before it can even get going. Luckily, Will Smith’s African accent isn’t distracting and actually adds to his performance.

Smith’s Omalu is a kind, sympathetic man who growing up in Nigeria wanted nothing more than to be an American. So he continuously does things to try and fit in and help his fellow countrymen; which makes it all the more painful and confusing to him when they reject his discovery of what football hits do to the brain. Smith does a lot with his eyes, and even though he is at the center of the plot and in most every scene, it is a nuanced performance.

Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks both give entertaining and dedicated performances as two of Omalu’s associates, continuing to back him even when the NFL and even FBI threaten him.

Much like “Spotlight” angered us by what the church did to hide the priest sexual abuses, “Concussion” does not paint the NFL in a good light. Not only did they reject Omalu and his research, but they had known about what multiple concussions does to the human brain for years and had said nothing. It is a problem that has come into the mainstream in the past several years, but it isn’t going away anytime soon. I love football and played it for eight years, but this film isn’t going to make me (or likely anyone) stop watching, and that may make you feel guilty when you see what men go through, essentially risking their minds and lives for our entertainment.

Impactful story and performances aside, there is really nothing else done here worth mentioning. The script acts like a cliffnotes of what happened with Omalu, flowing more like scene-scene-scene than an actual fluid film. The film doesn’t even build to any real head, but instead jumps ahead a few years to show the aftermath of everything. The editing is also at times awkward and off-putting, with various cuts to different angles mid-monologue, with the dialogue is almost lagging behind. And this was shocking to me because it is spliced together by William Goldenberg, who won an Oscar for the brilliantly edited “Argo.”

Combining the confused script and the editing, several sequences simply make no sense. There is one scene when Omalu’s wife believes she is being followed by a car, and then in the next scene she is shown having a miscarriage. The correlation? The purpose? Not a clue.

“Concussion” is the very definition of a rainy Saturday afternoon cable movie. You can have it on in the background and if you miss a scene here or there it won’t affect your understanding of what’s going on. Smith’s efforts are to be commended (he earned a Golden Globe nomination) and the film’s intentions are pure, but really I was never moved by the film itself, and by the time it really starts to become anything resembling interesting, it is almost over.

Critics Rating: 5/10



Cranston Is Solid, ‘Trumbo’ Is Not

Trumbo_(2015_film)_posterAt least once a year there is a film that has a very solid central performance, however it is the quality of that performance that exposes the mediocrity of the film they’re in.

“Trumbo” stars Bryan Cranston as the titular screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who along with others was branded a Communist in 1950’s America and blacklisted. Trumbo then begins to write uncredited scripts, all while trying to stay true to his beliefs. Diane Lane, Helen Mirren and Louis C.K. co-star and Jay Roach directs.

“Trumbo” should be right up my alley because I love me a good script, Bryan Cranston is good in anything he does, and 1950’s Los Angeles is my favorite period in time. So it is all the more disappointing that “Trumbo” is an average film with an above-average performance, and a few fun and interesting points can’t save a dragging narrative and workmanship execution.

Dalton Trumbo’s real-life story is a fascinating if not frustrating one as he was jailed, shunned and all but exiled simply for his political beliefs. And the film does do a decent enough job illustrating Trumbo’s struggles, however it never really delivers the message home to the audience as much as it thinks it does. The film wants to make the viewer angry that the screenwriters were fired and blacklisted simply for belonging to the Communist party and that their first amendment rights were infringed upon, but you never truly feel like they were cheated beyond the fact the characters continue to spoon-feed you lines about equality and freedoms.

Cranston does a very good job in his portrayal of Trumbo. Trumbo was an eccentric character, writing scripts in his bathtubs and walking around with a parrot on his shoulder, and Cranston does a good job to make this unique man relatable. He seems to want to give every person the benefit of the doubt and hates to disappoint people, even those who testified against him in court. Meanwhile Louie C.K. does some nice nuanced work as a fellow blacklisted writer, who constantly questions Trumbo’s intentions and points out that he “talks like a radical, but lives like a rich guy.”

The biggest problem with “Trumbo,” ironically, is its screenplay. A lot of the dialogue comes off as exposition or made-for-TV schmaltz, and the plot is all over the place, and really none of it is paced well. It is almost like the filmmakers wanted to get all the cliffnotes of Trumbo’s career into the film (his arrest, ghostwriting for B-movie studios, writing “Spartacus” for Kirk Douglas) but weren’t sure how to make that 20 year period mesh well together, so they just filmed them and hoped it would all work out well in the end; it didn’t.

I am going to be honest: this is one the worst paced films I have seen in years. When Trumbo gets released from prison I thought to myself, “well geez, there’s probably only 30 minutes left in the movie, they really are going to have to cram a lot in.” Except there wasn’t a half hour left in the film; there was probably an hour 15. Then the film takes forever to wrap up before finally concluding with Trumbo delivering a speech, which essentially acts as a summarization of everything we have just seen for the previous two hours.

Several points throughout “Trumbo” a character tosses a script on the table and says, “this isn’t great, but there’s a good story in here,” and that’s exactly how I feel about this movie. Cranston is great and some of the behind-the-scenes of old-time Hollywood are interesting, but all too often the dragging plot and cheesy dialogue are too much to overcome, and that’s a shame, because Trumbo’s story and struggles deserve to be shared and honored. The movie is admirable in its efforts, but unfortunately underwhelming in its execution.

Critics Rating: 5/10



Emotionally Powerful ‘Creed’ Is One of Year’s Best

Creed_posterIt’s OK, Michael B. Jordan. All is forgiven for “Fantastic Four.”

“Creed” is the seventh installment in the “Rocky” franchise and the first since 2006’s “Rocky Balboa.” The film follows Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son (Jordan) as he attempts to come out of the shadow his father left behind. In order to be taken seriously as a boxer, he reaches out to the retired Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Ryan Coogler directs and co-writes.

Michael B. Jordan was put on mainstream Hollywood’s radar after 2012’s found footage superhero film “Chronicle,” however it was the following year’s “Fruitvale Station” (directed and written by Coogler as well) that made everyone start to see him as a possible star. “Creed” finds both Jordan and Coogler at the top of their game, and shows why Stallone and the studio made the right choice putting their faith in two under-30 guys to continue a historic franchise.

I liked how “Creed” isn’t a full-blown “Rocky” sequel, nor does it try to be. As a person who doesn’t know much about the series outside the major cliffnotes, it was important that I could relate to and understand what was happening throughout the film. I’m sure I missed a callback here or inside joke there, but I knew the characters and motivations without the film spoon feeding them to me.

The film is shot masterfully, with numerous long takes. There is even a fight in the middle of the film that is one single take, and it’s amazing. Being one take adds immense tension to the scene, as there aren’t cuts to give us a chance to breath and relax. Coogler and his team deserve massive props for pulling this off, because people get cut and bloody but there aren’t chances for makeup teams to have applied it. Movie magic, I suppose.

The film uses hip hop for much of the backdrop, which gives the film a unique and “modern” feel compared to the other “Rocky” films, however still has some nice instrumental moments, including the famous theme (even if it initially feels a bit cheesy for its cliché timing).

The film flows at a nice pace for most of the time, although it does slow a little when Creed is preparing for the big final fight. The film also decides to add a dramatic twist to the story, which definitely feels a little forced and formulaic however does give Stallone the opportunity to deliver a nice speech (possibly his “For Your Consideration” moment for the Academy?).

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t getting a little choked up during the climax, which features both powerful bits of dialogue as well as an engaging fight. “Creed” works as both a standalone and a revival to a franchise that many thought had its best days behind it. It is one of the year’s best films and a star-confirming vehicle for Michael B. Jordan, and also shows that maybe Stallone still has more to offer than cheesy “Expendable” action flicks.

Critics Rating: 8/10