The Coen Brothers have crafted the latest in a recent string of movies about movies with “Hail, Caesar!” - a comedy designed around a major, fictitious Hollywood studio of the 1950s.
Josh Brolin is terrific as Eddie Mannix, the head of production of Capital Pictures. Dressed more like a detective that a studio big shot, Mannix is the man who makes sure that all the shoots are going smoothly, all the actors and directors are taken care of and that they’re properly represented in the press - even if that means drastically changing their images and personal lives.
The studio’s biggest production of the year is the biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar!” starring A-lister, Baird Whitlock (played by the current king of Hollywood George Clooney). But when Whitlock is kidnapped by a mysterious group called The Future, Mannix must find a way to get him back.
While the trailers and commercials lead you to believe otherwise, this plot development isn’t really what “Hail, Caesar!” is all about. This isn’t a “who kidnapped the big star?” film. In fact, this is the weakest part of the film, as it’s awkwardly presented, oddly executed and provides no legitimate payoff. There isn’t much deep meaning behind anything in “Hail, Caesar!”, though some of it is highly creative and entertaining.
Much of the movie focuses on the daily workings of a big-time movie studio and on Mannix, the man in charge of keeping all the balls in the air. The Coens weren’t afraid to devote chunks of time to lengthy production scenes - and most of them produce smiles and even some laughs. Ralph Fiennes is great in a small role as director Laurence Laurentz. And about halfway in, we head into Soundstage 8 for a memorable Channing Tatum-led sailors dance number. This scene gives us an indication of what, I think, the Coen Brothers were going for - for “Hail, Caesar!” to be both a farce and an homage to this period in cinema.
But their script is unfocused, surprisingly safe, and not as consistently clever as it thinks it is. As for Clooney, he's actually miscast - he’s about 10 years too old to play this goofy character. Scarlett Johansson, as the starlet of the aquatic movies, isn’t very convincing, either. And Jonah Hill (seen on the poster) and Frances McDormand are in just a single scene each.
Yes, some of the movies back in the 50s were lightweight and corny and may not have had much of a point. But just because this is a movie about those movies didn’t mean it had to follow that same formula.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Hail, Caesar!” gets a C+.
I look forward to checking-out The Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films every year. Normally, within the group of five, there are at least one or two standouts. However, that’s not the case this year. Instead, we have a lineup that is universally weak in story and largely unimpressive. Here are the Nominees:
"Bear Story" (Chile, 11 min.) - This short comes from Chile. It’s about a male bear who’s created a wind-up diorama of his tragic life with his wife and son. The soft animation works but the tale is slow and not nearly powerful enough. C+
"Prologue" (UK, 6 min.) - The animation is hand-drawn pencil and paper from the legendary Richard Williams. That, itself, is quite an achievement. But the thin Athens vs. Sparta battle story is so basic, and the outcome so meaningless, that it left me flat. C
"Sanjay's Super Team" (USA, 7 min.) - Pixar's nominee debuted in theaters with “The Good Dinosaur” back in November. It tells the (mostly) true story of little Sanjay who prefers watching his favorite superhero TV show to doing his Hindu rituals with his father. But he uses his imagination to bring these two worlds together. I didn’t love this the first time I saw it, but I actually appreciate it more after the second viewing, and out of this group of five, it’s by far the most positive, commercial and effective. B-
"We Can't Live Without Cosmos" (Russia, 16 min.) - The first half is largely comedic, as two life-long best friends go through rigorous training to qualify to become cosmonauts. There is a dramatic twist midway through, but I can’t say I was surprised by it or what happens next - and definitely not as emotionally invested as I wanted to be. B-
"World of Tomorrow" (USA, 17 min.) - It’s about a little girl named Emily who is contacted by a third-generation clone of herself, informing her of what is going to happen to society in the future. The sarcastic, quite dark humor is sharp, and this sci-fi satire does have a lot to say. But it could’ve been much stronger if it was shorter and tighter. B
And the four "Highly Commended" shorts shown are:
"Catch It" (France, 5 min.) - Meerkat mayhem ensues when they battle with a vulture for a delicious treat. Very basic and unimaginative, with a really goofy ending. D+
"If I Was God..." (Canada, 9 min.) - This tale of a grade-school boy and his science class frog is rough to watch. C-
"The Loneliest Stoplight" (USA, 6 min.) - For me, this is best short of the nine. Bill Plympton's comedic look at a stoplight (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is creative, quirky and memorable. B
"The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse" (France, 7 min.) - Not terrible, but it's a story we've seen before so many times (including in these Animated Shorts competition practically every year). C
Overall, On The Official LCJ Report Card, the "2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation" gets a C, the lowest grade I’ve given this program in the seven years I’ve been seeing/reviewing the animated shorts.
"Kung Fu Panda 3" is DreamWorks Animation's 32nd theatrical feature, but their first ever released in the month of January. A big-budget, high-quality animated film this early in the year is rare, and while this third chapter of Po the Panda, Master Shifu and the Furious Five doesn't quite live-up to the original, it's fast, furry-ous, and a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.
At the tail end of 2011's "Kung Fu Panda 2", a message from "The Universe" was sent to Po's biological father, living in a far-off location, alerting him that "My son is alive." "KFP3" picks-up right from there...well, sort of...since father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) needs some time to journey from his hidden Panda village in the mountains to reunite with his long-lost son in China's Valley of Peace.
Meantime, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) has asked Po (the always highly-energized Jack Black) to take-over as teacher of the Furious Five. Po has a difficult time handling his new responsibility, as well as mastering the art of Chi, which is the foundation of the group's ancient beliefs. But when an old enemy - the bull Kai (J.K. Simmons joins the voice cast), returns with plans to wipe-out all the masters and rule China, Po's teaching and spiritual skills are put to the ultimate test.
DreamWorks continues to raise the bar when it comes to visionary animation. The action sequences are well-staged and some of the more dramatic and symbolic moments feature characters surrounded by bright and beautiful visuals. And the creation of an entire village filled with pandas, each with its own, distinctive personality, is a major success. This is the aspect of "Kung Fu Panda 3" that kids will enjoy the most. Seeing Po playfully interacting with fellow pandas in this new environment provides many of the films memorable scenes.
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni deal with the elephant in the room head-on: Po now has two dads. Is Po's adoptive father, Mr. Ping, jealous of the new father - and vice versa? There are some effective moments involving family and relationship dynamics that feel authentic and aren't over-done, and they allow for this third installment to have a much more fun and consistently positive tone than "KFP2".
What "Kung Fu Panda 3" lacks is a gripping story arc. There are hardly any real surprises and the climax isn't as inspiring or motivating as it needed to be. The entire A-list voice ensemble is strong, and there are flashes of smart dialogue, a few solid running jokes and gags, particularly during scenes at the panda village. However, the final 20 minutes aren't po-werful enough and the script, as a whole, is a little too basic.
But, overall, this is an impressive-looking and entertaining addition to the series, and hopefully not the last we've seen of these characters and this saga on the big screen.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Kung Fu Panda 3" gets a B.
Well, congratulations to “Dirty Grandpa” - which is the first Worst Movie of 2016. And it could hold on to that title for awhile. This film is rude, crude, offensive and wrong in so many ways - but that’s not the reason “Dirty Grandpa” is a spectacular failure. “Ted 2” was all those things and it was one of my favorite comedies of last year. (It also had a coherent story.) And “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” (an Oscar Nominee, let’s not forget) worked as well, even with such a wacky premise. But there are NO LAUGHS here - just a lame premise, stock characters and unfunny gags.
Robert De Niro plays “Grandpa” Dick Kelly. A few days after his wife dies he convinces his buttoned-up grandson Jason (played by Zac Efron) to drive him from Atlanta to his retirement home in Florida. Jason is a lawyer and is about to marry his uptight, perfectionist fiancée, Meredith (“Dancing with the Stars”’ Julianne Hough), but he sees this trip as an opportunity to re-connect with his grandfather.
It doesn’t take long for Jason to learn that his grandpa is a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, unapologetic old timer who sees his wife’s death as the golden opportunity to get some youth back in his life. Jason can’t believe all of antics grandpa drags him into (and you’ll be stunned by what De Niro is asked to do here as well) - especially when they take a detour to Daytona Beach and into the middle of Spring Break.
This premise had potential - if “Dirty Grandpa” wasn’t so poorly written, edited and constructed. The script is filled with cheap dialogue and every situation is unbelievably phony. And no one escapes unscathed - including co-stars Dermot Mulroney, “Parks and Rec"'s Aubrey Plaza and even Danny Glover. As a “shock-comedy”, “Dirty Grandpa” tries way too hard, with the non-stop throwing of profanities, drugs use, sex references and nudity at the screen to see what sticks. Almost nothing does.
De Niro‘s got nothing to lose playing a character like this - hopefully he got well-paid. As for Efron, with “Neighbors”, its upcoming sequel, and now this, the former musical and romance heartthrob has somehow gotten typecast into raunch-fest movie roles. It’s time for him to exit this genre before his career suffers any permanent stains.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Dirty Grandpa” gets an F.
Ice Cube and Kevin Hart made for a fun and likable pair in 2014's buddy-cop action comedy "Ride Along". In just two short years, Hart's star-power has significantly risen to (sadly) the point of overkill. He dominates the screen in "Ride Along 2" and his brand of over-the-top, wacky humor mixed with an occasionally smart wisecrack isn't able to drive this unoriginal and rarely entertaining sequel very far.
Returning director Tim Story takes James (Cube) and Ben (Hart) from Atlanta to sunny Miami - mainly so shots of fancy cars, bikini-clad women and loud pop music can accompany practically every scene. Set one week before Ben will finally get married to James' sister Angela (the once again underused Tika Sumpter), the two soon-to-be "Brothers-in-Law" get caught-up in an even more outrageous and far-fetched case than last time, involving - you guessed it - and illegal drugs operation.
All of the new cast members aren't able to stand-out amidst such a basic and quite mediocre story. Olivia Munn ("The Newsroom") plays a Miami P.D.'s top detective. Benjamin Bratt is the obligatory wealthy businessman who's also, secretly, a crime boss. Ken Jeong is his double-crossing computer hacker. And Sherri Shepherd plays Ben and Angela's argumentative wedding planner. All seem to be going through the motions.
A couple of car-chase scenes provide the most fun and energy in "Ride Along 2" - but they only add-up to about one-tenth of the film's running time. Cube's chemistry with Hart isn't nearly as genuine as the first go-around, and I only chuckled, maybe, a half-dozen times.
Sequels should try to elevate and expand on what worked in the original - at least the good ones. Or, as in the case of "22 Jump Street", the same formula can be used, but in an even more creative and smart way. "Ride Along 2" has the same ingredients as the first but doesn't add anything new, inventive, or remotely interesting in the content department, resulting in exactly what this film is: a January money-grab.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Ride Along 2" gets a D+.
One year after co-writer and director Alejandro G. Inarritu guided "Birdman" to Best Picture honors at the Oscars, he's back at it with "The Revenant", a gritty and engrossing two-and-a-half-hour saga, with meaty, memorable performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.
The definition of 'revenant' is someone who returns from the dead. And that's, basically, what happens with DiCaprio's Hugh Glass, a legendary, real-life scout and frontiersman, (the script is based on a novel which is based on a true story) hired to lead a group of trappers into the dangerous, untamed wilderness of the American West in the 1820s. From the opening scene, in which he and his half Native American son are two of just ten members of the group who escape an attack by one of the many Native tribes in the region, Inarritu surrounds us with fear, violence, and death.
One of the hunters, a hot-head named John Fitzgerald, disagrees with Glass' plan on how to get the group safely back to their camp. Glass is severely injured in a bear attack (possibly the most violently disturbing animal attack scene in movie history) and Fitzgerald, his son and another young trapper stay back with the dying Glass, with orders to bury him properly when the time comes. But some dramatic events take place, and Glass is simply left for dead. Amazingly, he survives, and from this point the story graphically follows his agonizing attempt to remain alive, with a mauled body and in the brutal weather conditions, track down Fitzgerald and get his revenge.
Outside of a few mystical flashbacks experienced by Glass during his journey, "The Revenant" is told in a linear fashion, which is its one main weakness. However, practically everything else - from the acting, to Inarritu's bold vision, to the captivating cinematography, is quite impressive. This is a superbly crafted film.
Not only does "The Revenant" dare to ask the question: "How far would you go to get revenge?", but It also demonstrates how far DiCaprio will go to finally win an Oscar. The five-time nominee, at times unrecognizable behind long hair and a beard caked with mud, ice and blood, grunts and screams more than he speaks actual lines. It's a very physically demanding role. And while it's impossible to tell in which scenes it's actually DiCaprio and when his many stunt doubles may have stepped-in (credit the flawless editing), it's safe to say that Leo got down and dirty during this shoot. Hardy's Fitzgerald reeks of pure evil. The southern twang in his voice is slightly cartoonish, but his devious dialogue is irresistible.
Inarritu's style is unmistakable here and, at times, it did bring me back to "Birdman". He doesn't film "The Revenant" in one continuous shot, but there are pockets of that technique, as well sweeping pans, creative camera angles, a character floating in mid-air and even a few fireballs falling from the sky. And while there aren't a lot of them, the action scenes are some of the most impressive of the year. And the score is appropriately haunting.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Revenant" gets a B+. It's certainly not for everybody, and the spiritual elements didn't work within the story as well as they could have. But as a Western revenge survival thriller it's a major success.
The eighth film directed by The King of Big Screen Blood, Mr. Quentin Tarantino, is appropriately titled "The Hateful Eight". Like "Django Unchained" (his 2012 western for which he won an Original Screenplay Oscar), "The Hateful Eight" is about two hours and 45 minutes long, though this time Tarantino adds an intermission - as part of his homage to movies of yesteryear - and just because he can.
Once again Tarantino exhibits his very interesting storytelling style. There's a lot of set-up - somewhat expected when a film is nearly three hours. However the first act, which introduces us to the snowy Wyoming setting of the post-Civil War era and key players Major Marquis Warren (played by Samuel L. Jackson), bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), drags like a horse-drawn plow in a muddy field. Thankfully, once they and a few others finally arrive by stagecoach at Minnie's Haberdashery to escape a coming blizzard, "The Hateful Eight" begins to pick-up steam. There we meet a handful of other interesting characters, each of whom may or may not be who they say they are.
While "The Hateful Eight" is lengthy, it's rarely dull. Tarantino has crafted a comedy/mystery and it's fun to play along. And there's enough of his signature quirky dialogue, handled expertly, as always, by Jackson with his classic deep voice, to keep us entertained. The who's who?/who done it? elements, which mainly take shape following the intermission (and Tarantino's own narration recap), work well. While, as for the performances, out of the entire, hit-and-miss ensemble, it's Jason Leigh, in the showiest and most memorable role, who gets top honor.
The biggest disappointment for Tarantino fans may be in the area of the bloodshed. Yes, there's buckets of blood on display, at times covering the floor and walls of the saloon, but there are really only one or two "shocking" moments. The majority of the violence is so staged (much of it taking place in a rare "four-fifths of the way through" flashback) that the surprise element is lost. Tarantino thrives on showcasing ultra-violence and the freedom to do whatever he wants on screen, whether it makes sense in the context of the movie or not. And there's much of that is present in "The Hateful Eight", along with a weak ending which provides no pay-off.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hateful Eight" gets a C+. I didn't hate "The Hateful Eight", but it ain't great.
"Anomalisa" is a rare R-rated animated feature. Directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson have crafted an adult story using puppets and stop-motion animation techniques. Many have embraced "Anomalisa" for being bold and unique. It's true that F-bombs, sex scenes and graphic nudity aren't regular features in Pixar or DreamWorks Animation movies (for good reason). However, having these elements alone doesn't make a film worth seeing. There's got to be an interesting story with something to say. I was expecting so much more from Anomalisa" than it delivers.
David Thewlis voices author and motivational speaker Michael Stone. He's in Cincinnati to talk at a seminar on workplace communication. The entire film takes place within Michael's 24-hour stay in his hotel. We notice early on that all of the voices from the supporting characters are the same (the credits list "Everyone Else" as voiced by Tom Noonan). Clearly, Michael doesn't get much from or appreciate the people he comes across in on daily basis, including his wife and young son.
Following a brief encounter with an old girlfriend in the hotel bar, Michael meets a diehard fan who's also staying at the hotel for the conference. Her name is Lisa, and Michael actually can hears her voice (as done by Jennifer Jason Leigh). They, not surprisingly, instantly connect and spend the night together. But their relationship doesn't work out as Michael planned.
There are a lot of problems with "Anomalisa", the first being that it takes way too long for the story to get to this point. The animation style may be "stop motion" but the story is executed in SLOW MOTION. The conversations, while authentic, are dull as dirt, as most real-life conversations are. Having to listen to puppets say these lines instead of real actors doesn't make them any more interesting. Nor does watching a puppet character urinate or take a shower or two puppets having sex. None of these "daring" scenes add anything to whatever it is that Kaufman is trying to say. The notable symbolism is extremely obvious, and it's muddled within context and situations that simply don't add-up.
I do give Kaufman (who adapted the script from his own play) credit for the inventive animation, and the attention to detail, particularly in the hotel lobby and Michael's room. But the puppets themselves are distracting, their faces divided into sections as a mask with lines across their eyes. I kept thinking they look like the Phantom of the Opera wearing glasses.
There was an opportunity for Kaufman to use this genre and his amazing imagination to say something interesting about people, life, love, relationships - but, basically, Anomalisa" provides nothing new on any of those topics, while presenting them in an unappealing and uninspired fashion.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Anomalisa" gets a C-.
Five years after they were "The Other Guys", Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg re-team for the refreshing and consistently funny final comedy of 2015, "Daddy's Home".
The story centers around Ferrell's Brad Whitaker, a mild-mannered radio executive in New Orleans who recently married Sara ("ER"'s Linda Cardellini) and is now Step-Dad to her two children - Elementary School-age Megan and Dylan. The kids are finally starting to accept Brad as their new dad when biological father Dusty (Wahlberg) unexpectedly calls and talks his way into a visit. Dusty's "bad boy" persona - slicked-back hair, muscular body and motorcycle - is directly opposite of Brad in every way.
Obviously, the two don't exactly get along, and a rivalry begins for the love of the kids. This premise provides director Sean Anders ("Horrible Bosses 2") with a toolkit filled with comic opportunities from Ferrell and Wahlberg, and thankfully the majority of them get the job done. The hijinks, much of it over-the-top, all feature the quintessential Ferrell touch accompanied by Wahlberg's equally playful nature. These two, once again, make for a fun pair.
What makes "Daddy's Home" one of the funniest films of the year is the script, which includes a successfully high amount of dry, sarcastic humor and some great wisecracks, and not just from the two leads. Both Hannibal Burress ("30 Rock", "Neighbors") as a handyman who ends-up moving into the Whitaker home, and Thomas Haden Church, as Brad's boss at "103.6 - The Panda" add major laughs. Unfortunately, Cardellini has little to do in any of her scenes but react.
Intentional product placement gags abound, from Red Bull to Cinnabon and the all-new, family-friendly Ford Flex. However, the family-friendly description can't be used to describe "Daddy's Home". While the story does feature young kids, and the months of promotion has been geared to families, this is a legitimate PG-13 comedy. The dialogue is filled with adult language and there are plenty of sex jokes and references, including some lengthy scenes at a fertility clinic. These elements could've been trimmed or eliminated and the film would've worked just as well, or better.
Like most Ferrell comedies, "Daddy's Home" has its problems. Some scenes go on too long, the bedtime story running joke gets thin after the third or fourth time, and the messages aren't as clean and clear as they could have been. But this is one of those comedies that clearly exceeded my expectations. I never expected to laugh as much as I did. And even though it's been all over YouTube and dominating commercials and trailers for months, Ferrell's half-court shot escapades at a Pelicans/Lakers game joins the small group of his all-time memorable movie scenes.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Daddy's Home" gets a B. In a year of sub-par pure comedies, it's nice to end on high note.
"Point Break" is a remake of a 90s action/crime/surfer film that was directed by future Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker", "Zero Dark Thirty") and starred Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze. It went on to earn Reeves the 1992 MTV Movie Award for "Most Desirable Male" and, for some reason, became a cult hit/guilty pleasure. In this 25-years-later version, the story has been modernized, but why any studio felt the need to finance this project will be one of the great mysteries of 2015.
The pitch meeting probably went something like this: "It's a two-hour action film filled with footage of extreme sports stunts like the ones that teens and 20-year-olds watch over and over again on YouTube. We'll cast a relatively unknown lead (Luke Bracey), but he'll have his shirt off a lot for the ladies. We'll attach a title to it that audiences are already familiar with. And we'll release it on Christmas Day, so maybe those who get sold out of "Star Wars" will give it a shot."
I reached my breaking point with "Point Break" early on, having to endure one of the first (of many) endless action stunt scenes. Surfing 100 ft. waves, snowboarding down steep slopes, climbing sheer rock walls without a rope - all of this must be incredibly exciting to do, but watching others do such daredevil acts, especially in a movie, is extremely boring. And the story: a young, hotshot, undercover FBI agent gets caught-up with a bunch of Robin Hood-esque criminals looking to find spiritual enlightenment by stealing and killing, is just as unappealing.
This movie is completely flat, formulaic and just plain mindless. There's no suspense. We don't care about the characters or what's going to happen to them next, maybe because we already know what's coming five or six scenes before they do. And the acting is gold medal level cornball, with chuckle-worthy dialogue and some of the goofiest facial expressions of the year. The only "rush" moviegoers will get from "Point Break" is when they rush to the exits after the appropriately ridiculous final scene - if they haven't left before then.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Point Break" gets a D-.
In the scene that Will Smith will be most remembered for from this biopic/drama, his Dr. Bennet Omalu (a Pathologist from Africa who comes to America and becomes a crusader in the area of traumatic head injuries in football) repeatedly asks a reluctant colleague to "Tell the Truth!" Well, that's exactly what I will do regarding this movie, starting with Smith, who delivers an outstanding performance that puts him at the top of the standings of Best Actor contenders.
Based on the GQ article that first exposed the issue of former NFL players literally losing their minds, and their lives, due to brain damage suffered from playing football their entire lives, "Concussion" begins in Pittsburgh in 2002, with Omalu working in a local hospital. He's a quirky doctor with unique methods of conducting autopsies (he actually talks to the dead bodies, asking for their help to get the answers he needs). He's also highly skilled and extremely dedicated, with numerous degrees in various areas of medicine. But determining how people die is his passion.
When former Steelers great Mike Webster is found dead at age of 50, after years of erratic behavior that led him to becoming homeless and living in a pick-up truck, Omalu gets the case. He can't come-up with a clear answer for the cause of death and decides to investigate further. Omalu knows nothing about professional football but, with results from extensive tests, along with watching video clips of NFL games, he comes to the conclusion that years of head-to-head collisions while playing the game caused Webster to suffer severe, unrepairable brain trauma. Omalu names this discovery CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).
Of course, once officials of the National Football League learn of Dr. Omalu's findings they are not pleased. And when more and more players begin to suffer symptoms of CTE, and start committing suicide, people begin to pay more attention to Omalu's conclusion - that football is to blame for these deaths. He's then targeted by the NFL - one of the most popular, powerful and profitable corporations in the country which, as colleague Cyril Wecht (played by Albert Brooks) tells him, "owns a day of the week - the same day the Church used to own."
The most interesting parts of "Concussion" are Omalu's battles with the NFL. It shouldn't come as a surprise that ads for the movie likely won't air during games throughout the rest of the season, because the League should be embarrassed by how they are depicted in a number of scenes in the film. Luke Wilson plays current commissioner Roger Goodell. It's actually a very small role, but the commissioner and, and the league is general, is shown as having very little interest in the well-being of their former and current players, which, many will point out, is factual.
The players and stories in "Concussion" are real, and this film, overall, has a very authentic feel. Where writer/director Peter Landesman fumbles a bit is in making Omalu's "head-to-head" battle with the NFL only about half of the story. "Concussion" also spends a lot of time as a character study of Omalu, including his relationship with future wife, Prema, a nurse who has also emigrated from Africa (played by "Belle"'s Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Diehard football fans looking for two hours of the concussion battle will be disappointed, and everyone will be let-down by a fairly tame final half-hour, which somewhat negates much of the hard-hitting content from earlier in the film.
The good news: Smith scores big in every scene, perfectly portraying an outsider who simply wants to do good, going-up against an opponent that he doesn't understand. Brooks is also terrific, and Alec Baldwin is quite strong as Omalu's partner in this fight, former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (who, as I write this, has now taken a public position against Omalu's stance that kids shouldn't be allowed to play football until they're no longer kids: 18-years-old). Bailes is the most conflicted character in "Concussion". He loves the beauty of football, but must admit that the science is right. Baldwin's best scenes are when Bailes talks about sending players back on the field, even after they'd been knocked unconscious, because winning games and championships was all that mattered.
Could "Concussion" have gone even deeper and further on this hot topic and cut-back on the relationship elements? Absolutely. But you have to keep in mind that this is a Hollywood production, not a documentary, and that movies that are just about sports, in general, don't win big at the box office. However, there's definitely still enough meat on this very timely and controversial subject to hold your attention and leave a lasting impression.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Concussion" gets a B.
“Joy” marks the third collaboration of director David O. Russell and “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” stars Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. While Lawrence is, once again, a knockout, this true-life “rags-to-riches” story isn’t nearly as strong as their previous work.
Lawrence plays Joy Mangano. As the film begins we see just how much her early years did not live-up to her name. Joy grew-up on Long Island with a half-sister, loving mother and businessman father. She was happy and liked creating and inventing things. But when her parents decided to divorce, Joy’s life was torn apart and her outlook on the future turned grim. She was valedictorian of her high school, but skips college to take care of her parents. She marries an unemployed lounge singer and, as the script reaches present day - 1995 - she’s divorced and barely keeping her head above water, while responsible for the entire family.
She's taking care of her two kids, with the ex-husband living in the basement. Her depressed mother in bed watching soap operas all day, her half-sister is constantly putting her down, and father Rudy (played by De Niro), just kicked-out by his second wife, is also moving-in with Joy.
While Russell needed to show Joy’s sad life for us to sympathize and root for her, there’s a little too much misery. Everything changes, both for “Joy” and Joy, when she comes-up with her breakthrough invention - the Miracle Mop. She sees this as her one chance to change the course of her life. Mangano’s early efforts developing the mop, getting it produced and then trying to sell it - including a scene in a K-Mart parking lot - are fascinating.
And then…Joy gets the opportunity to pitch her product to a small, 10-month-old network located in rural Pennsylvania called QVC. Once Cooper, who plays Neil Walker, the President and head of programming of the shopping channel, enters the story, “Joy” comes to life. The scenes of Lawrence and Cooper together are dynamite, from Neil explaining to Joy what QVC and live television are all about (the good and the bad) - stressing that the hands and voice of the on-air personalities are most important - to Joy eventually getting to pitch the Miracle Mop on air herself, with no previous on-camera experience. Russell nails this section of the movie, including the authentic set design, and the brave casting for an iconic early QVC celebrity pitch personality.
“Joy” features a solid ensemble, but it’s Lawrence who shines, carrying a number of great scenes. In a rarity, De Niro actually plays a regular guy who’s extremely unlikable. In the flashback to Joy’s wedding Rudy gives one of the worst toasts of all-time - both in movies and in real life. This guy is a total jerk and De Niro captures him perfectly. And Cooper continues his winning streak with another refreshing take on a role, that in lesser hands, wouldn’t have worked at all.
But, overall, “Joy” is too restrained and mild in tone, lacking consistent energy, palpable tension and bite. And the climactic scene doesn’t do justice to the story, Joy or Lawrence. It’s no surprise this is Russell’s first PG-13 movie, only earning that rating for some brief strong language.
Many theaters will likely be “completely sold out” for this film over the holidays, with employees having to mop-up plenty of spilled candy, popcorn and soda. But most moviegoers will be less than joyous heading home after seeing this well-intentioned but disappointing effort.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Joy" gets a B-.
Much happens in a marriage over the course of 45 years. But the quiet drama "45 Years" shows that a lot can also happen between a husband and wife over the course of just one week. The story centers on Geoff (played by Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling), who live in cozy home on the England countryside and are about to celebrate the title milestone length with a grand party on the upcoming Saturday night. But on Monday a letter arrives revealing some surprising news from the past which, over the following days, will put unexpected pressure on, and actually begin to change, their relationship.
"45 Years" has an authentic feel, highlighted by Geoff and Kate's very natural conversations. But the pacing is extremely slow, even for this intimate genre, and we're challenged, for the first hour or so, to invest in these characters and their situation. There are occasional moments of interest, particularly when director Andrew Haigh keeps the camera rolling to capture reactions in the dark following the couples' nightly bedroom conversations.
And then, thankfully, Kate makes a discovery in the house that becomes the game-changing event of the film, raising tensions between the pair and leading to a heart-wrenching conclusion.
The slow pace of "45 Years" does allow us to really appreciate Rampling's performance. She has a number of excellent scenes, many of them when she is alone on screen, not saying a word. The impact of her wide range of restrained emotions come through: the pain, anger, frustration, sadness, confusion - all of which, she admits at one point to her husband, she cannot express aloud. Courtenay holds his own in this character study, but it's undoubtably Rampling's performance that makes this movie worth your time.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "45 Years" gets a B.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” may be the most hyped movie of the most hyped movie-franchise of all-time. Ever since Disney bought Lucasfilm back in 2012 and announced a brand new trilogy set in that Galaxy Far, Far Away…the anticipation from fans of the original three - and the younger generation of die-hards - has been off the charts. The Force surrounding “Star Wars” and Episode VII has never been stronger - as for the film itself …well…
J.J. Abrams traveled from “Star Trek” to “Star Wars” to co-write and direct “The Force Awakens”. He and his creative team were rather smart in how they carefully crafted this movie as a marketing and merchandising monster. There are three new protagonists: The central figure in this chapter is female - Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) - a power symbol for girls everywhere (who will want to buy tons of action figures). There are two new characters for the boys and Fanboys: ex-Storm trooper turned good-guy Finn (John Boyega) and ace fighter pilot Poe (played by Oscar Isaac). For the kids there’s the small, wise and highly entertaining droid, BB-8. And “The Force Awakens” draws-in the older fans by going nostalgic: bringing back icons of the original series, including Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, his co-pilot and partner in crime, Chewbacca, and Carrie Fisher’s Princess, now General, Leia.
The opening credits scroll in typical “Star Wars” fashion, complete with iconic music, and a basic plot description to get us up to speed with the on-going battle between the Republic and the Resistance. And we‘re off - and for the next 2 hours “The Force Awakens” doesn’t feature or include much in the way of suspense or surprises. These have always been very simple, straightforward stories of Good versus Evil, and this time is no different: so much so that it’s actually amazing Disney “forced” the cast and everyone involved to keep the plot such a secret.
And while so many diehard fans will blast me for comparing the two “Star” franchises, there’s no denying that Abrams’ “Trek” movies have so many more layers and legitimate emotion to them. There’s only one scene in “The Force Awakens” that delivers on those levels, and you’ll know it when you see it.
Here’s what I can say about “The Force Awakens”: the visuals are absolutely spectacular and the action scenes are easily the best part of the film - along with seeing Ford having so much fun back at it again: shooting down Storm Troopers, cracking one-liners with Chewy, and taking to the skies in an old friend. The best supporting performance comes from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as an important ally of the Resistance - through you won’t be able to tell that it’s her.
As for the rest of the story itself, I zoned in and out of many of the escapades, always waiting and hoping for something extraordinary. Instead, we go from space shootout to light saber dual and back again - with very little heart in between.
It will break all kinds of records - and people will be afraid to say it’s just OK because they don’t want to seem “uncool” - but this movie - as a piece of cinematic entertainment - IS simply OK.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” gets a B-.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been friends for a long time. They’ve made us laugh on the small screen, both when they’re together on “SNL” and as hosts of The Golden Globes, and separately on “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation”. But their big screen pairing as “Sisters” is easily one of the year’s biggest wastes of time.
It’s clear from the first five minutes that this project was simply an excuse for these two to work together again, and I bet they had a great time goofing their way through this ultra-bland comedy. It’s the rest of us who suffer. Nearly everything about “Sisters” is unimaginative and unfunny, from the title to such a basic story that a 3rd grader could’ve written the script - with help from an adult to insert all the foul language, drugs references and sex jokes.
Maura (played by Poehler) is a successful nurse in Atlanta, while sis Kate (played by Fey) can’t hold down a nail salon job or take care of her moody teenage daughter. The sisters head to Orlando to visit their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest - who also head the family on CBS‘ new sitcom “Life in Pieces”) and discover that mom and dad have decided to sell their childhood home. So Maura and Kate realize that they need to relive their youth by throwing one final, outrageous party in the house before it’s sold. That’s the plot. There’s not even enough here for a decent six-minute SNL skit.
Early on there are a handful of chuckle-worthy one-liners and situations. But once the big party kicks-in, it’s all downhill. “Sisters” is two hours long and the party takes-up more than half that time. If the jokes and gags were even mildly humorous, this could’ve been a mindless bit of escapism over the holidays. Instead, 99% of what takes place is REALLY embarrassing for the actors, uncomfortable to watch and just plain ridiculous.
John Leguizamo and “SNL” pals Bobby Moynihan and Maya Rudolph play old high school classmates and wacky guests, and John Cena shows-up as a drug dealer….and they all take-turns showcasing career-low performances …in fact, no one in the cast remains unscathed. Even secondary characters are victims of this mess of a script. There are pointless attempts to insert heart into the predictable finale, and, of course, closing credits bloopers - always a desperate sign that the producers (Fey and Poehler among them) realized the movie they’ve made isn’t funny, but are hoping to leave the audience laughing with outtakes. Problem is: even these aren’t good.
Clearly Fey and Poehler suffer here from the Adam Sandler syndrome: rounding-up a bunch of their pals who they think are funny and hoping they can turn a really bad idea into a really good movie. In fact, they should have called this: “No Grown Ups”, and that would have been the most creative thing associated with this film.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Sisters” gets a D.
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