Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Football is a dangerous sport, and it is at its most dangerous on the professional level, where bones and ligaments and muscles are smashed and torn and shattered. Today, we know that the most important muscle, the brain, is the most vital to a player…and also the most vulnerable, and that it would foolish to deny that smashing heads together would never cause a problem inside the ol’ coconut. But it was only a short time ago when the National Football League (NFL), the biggest sports league/corporation in the world…did exactly that.

After Hall of Fame player Mike Webster (David Morse) passes away, his autopsy is performed by Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) who discovers a new deteriorating disease of the brain caused by years of impacts. With the support of his new wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), boss (Albert Brooks), and former team doctor (Alec Baldwin), Dr. Omalu publishes his findings, and is immediately attacked by the NFL.

CONCUSSION sets itself up as a David vs. Goliath story, with the relatively unknown (but very well educated) Dr. Omalu going up against a corporation which, as the film says, owns a day of the week once held down by the Church. Dr. Omalu, who is Nigerian born but knows next-to-nothing about the business or the cultural impact of football, has all the good intentions behind him and only wants the truth to come out to protect players…and kids who are playing the game. In retaliation, the NFL fires back by discrediting Dr. Omalu, even going as far as hiring their own doctors to offer differing opinions. In addition to being David vs. Goliath, CONCUSSION morphs into a look at doctors who are on a corporate payroll and where their loyalties really are.

While the material is perfect for a good drama, CONCUSSION stumbles around like a cold-cocked player in the telling of its story. The film is assembled of scene after scene after scene of big, long speeches; often with Dr. Omalu long-windedly telling (or yelling at) people how the truth must be known…or of other people even more long-windedly telling or yelling at Dr. Omalu to let him know that the NFL is going to crush him. It’s an entire film of big speeches, most of it redundant, giving CONCUSSION a very dull feel. Director Peter Landesman, working off his own script, does way too much telling and not enough showing.

If not for Will Smith, CONCUSSION would be a disaster on the field. Smith nails his accent perfectly, and displays the emotions of compassion, confusion, and the weight of the sporting world on his shoulders in a great performance. Smith vanishes into the role in one of his best outings. The lovely and talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw keeps up with Smith as good as he is, and goes through her own set of tough emotions. Albert Brooks is once cast as a grumpy old man, but it works and he is once again very funny despite the harsh makeup job he has to act through. Alec Baldwin gets a lot to do but his Louisiana accent only shows up every once in a while. Luke Wilson has the odd job of playing the well-known NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but only gets a few lines (during press conferences) and is smartly used sparingly. The show is nearly stolen by David Morse, who as the rapidly deteriorating Mike Webster shows just how frightening this newly discovered disease really is. Morse is so good, the film could have survived on him alone.

There is a very long buildup headed towards some sort of expected showdown which never happens, and although the history books don’t call for it, as a film there is very little climax. There is a very important story to be told here, but despite a great performance by Smith, CONCUSSION feels like a football team which moves the ball all over the field, but never crosses the goal line.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Reel Opinion: A Merry STAR WARS Christmas

THE FORCE AWAKENS, the first STAR WARS movie ever to be released in December, has come to us as a Santa-sized gift. It’s a good movie which is blasting box office records, heralded by critics, and praised by fans. New characters have made a splash, and the old characters kept us all in smiles with warm feelings and good memories of beloved faces we first met nearly 40 years ago.

One of the many remarkable storylines of THE FORCE AWAKENS is that its arrival mirrors what happened in 1977, when the first film, sub-titled A NEW HOPE, was released to an unsuspecting world. Prior to A NEW HOPE, it was (ahem), a dark time for the movie industry, when theatres were dominated with dark,  pessimistic, and nihilistic films such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE GODFATHER, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and TAXI DRIVER..all fine films but not quite filled with the type of characters or environments we would want to spend more than five minutes around.  The first STAR WARS film changed all that with its expressed purpose of giving pleasure by embracing a full sense of fun. The simple ideas of good vs. evil were relatable, and the finale which included an arm-raising victory topped off by a medal ceremony with triumphant horns…opened up everyone’s eyes to the light side of filmmaking; fun, yet maintaining enough intricacy to be taken seriously as true cinema.

Much like its predecessor, THE FORCE AWAKENS comes to us at just the right time. Aside from the usual stock of animated kiddie flicks and the occasional Marvel superhero romp, in the past decade or so we’ve been treated to a similar age of filmmaking that the 1970’s was stuck in. Recently, we’ve been introduced to miserable superheroes (MAN OF STEEL), self-absorbed characters (BIRDMAN), and yes…more nihilistic characters (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). THE FORCE AWAKENS counters that by once again embracing the spirit of adventure, hope, heroism, characters who believe, and the type of whimsy that only celluloid magic can deliver.

Just like in STAR WARS, the industry needs a balance of light and dark. It’s okay to have movies that are tough to watch (life is tough, so the art can’t hide from it), but Hollywood in this current era tends to be a copycat-land; if Studio-A finds something that works, you can bet that Studio-B and Studio-C will follow suit. Whether or not THE FORCE AWAKENS wakes up the good-feelings in Hollywood, only time can answer. It is certainly a feel-good film with its emotion-tugging nostalgia, thrilling setpieces, and a return to the old spirit of STAR WARS. It’s the type of movie long-time fans of STAR WARS needed and the world deserves. It is a reminder that movies can be fun while retaining dignity, that there is always light to counter the dark, and that there is always hope.

Happy Holidays, and may the Force be with you.

Friday, December 18, 2015


A long time ago (40 years, to be exact), when STAR WARS creator George Lucas began to piece together his galactic opus to the world, he did so by being heavily inspired by the power of storytelling and the intricacies of myth. The long-running behemoth of a franchise has veered away from those humble beginnings in the past decade, but with the seventh installment, THE FORCE AWAKENS, director J.J. Abrams gets things back to the origin, bringing STAR WARS back home at long last.

Thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke Skywalker has vanished and the galaxy is facing a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. A young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) discovers a droid (BB-8) which may have Luke’s location, and she enlists the help of a defected Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), and an old space-smuggler, Han Solo (Harrison Ford).

THE FORCE AWAKENS is a film which embraces the idea that going backwards is sometimes necessary to go forwards. Gone are the progressive-thinking storylines of political turmoil and forbidden love stories, and in its place is a true commitment to galactic adventure.  It’s a back-to-basics approach, as AWAKENS borrows a little from the 1977 film by using the every-person who stumbles upon a key to saving everyone…but it’s not exactly the same. Director J. J. Abrams, working off a script by STAR WARS veteran Lawrence Kasdan, gives everything a clever spin which makes it all feel new. The usual and expected beats are there, but the re-working makes it all feel very fresh.

Abrams knows what the fans want, and he delivers all that and more. The old characters such as Solo, his pal Chewbacca (once again by Peter Mayhew), and the now General Leia (Carrie Fisher) not only get to bring back waves of memories and nostalgia for long-time fans, but are also given important tasks to do; the stakes are very high this time around, and as the plot unfolds every character is given a storyline. AWAKENS has a lot of humanism going on despite the magnificent space battles and locations. Real human stories are happening, making EPISODE VII the one film in the long series to have the most amount of life.

Abrams keeps the pacing brisk and the plot moves from planet to planet at light-speed, but things are organized well and never get confusing, nor do they bore. Visual effects are a treat with some well-realized CGI…which seems to be used sparingly as the practical sets and real-life locations are used often and well. For the first time in a long time, we’ve got a STAR WARS movie which is photographed beautifully; perhaps the best-looking of the series and by far the best-looking Abrams has produced. John Williams’ score soars with a beautiful mix of the old and new. The droid BB-8, an actual working model, is a revelation and conveys emotion despite communicating only in beeps and boops.

Acting is superb. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega get a ton of screentime and a lot of emotional baggage to get through, and they both pull it off brilliantly. Harrison Ford steps back into his old boots with ease and gives us a nice balance of the older Han and the old Solo. Carrie Fisher returns to Leia nicely…and Adam Driver, as our new galactic villain, is a perfect menace and a baddie that the world would now love to hate. The supporting cast of Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Domhnall Gleeson, and Lupita Nyong’o are all excellent.

There are some well designed twists and turns throughout THE FORCE AWAKENS, with plenty of moments to laugh, cheer, cry, and weep over. With everything that Abrams had to accomplish in one movie, he overall finds a way to explore the power of storytelling and forging a myth all on his own. Just as it did in 1977, that far, far away galaxy has exploded onto the big screen as a beacon of hope; lush with adventure and the magical whimsy that only cinema can provide. STAR WARS has returned home.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Reel Preview: Everything You Need To Know About STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS

This weekend, arguably the most anticipated film in the past several decades finally arrives in theatres in a major worldwide event; the 7th episode in the STAR WARS trilogy, entitled THE FORCE AWAKENS. If you’re been a fan of the franchise through all of the ups and downs, most of this blog-entry will probably be nothing new, so let it be a refresher…and for the new generation, everything that needs to be known.

What is this about? – THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place 30 years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983); the film which wrapped up the Original Trilogy of films which started in 1977 with A NEW HOPE, and the first sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Unlike the Prequel Trilogy, which told of the events prior to A NEW HOPE, THE FORCE AWAKENS has the advantage of bringing back the original cast which started it all.

Who is in this? – As stated, the original cast of A NEW HOPE is back, which includes Harrison Ford (as Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (as Leia Organa), and Mark Hamill (as Luke Skywalker). They are joined by other STAR WARS veterans such as Anthony Daniels, (C-3P0), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca). Rounding out the cast are a strong group of newcomers such as Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS), John Boyega (ATTACK THE BLOCK), Adam Driver (LINCOLN), Andy Serkis (THE LORD OF THE RINGS), Domhnall Gleeson (EX MACHINA), Lupita Nyong’o (12 YEARS A SLAVE), and Max von Sydow (THE EXORCIST). You can read more about the cast (here) from last year’s casting announcement.

Who is making this? – This is the first STAR WARS film to be made without the total involvement of series creator George Lucas. Taking over the directing duties is J.J. Abrams, whose directing credits include STAR TREK (2009), SUPER 8 (2011), and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III (2006). The script is written by Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), and what is currently considered to be the best of the STAR WARS movies, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Also contributing to the screenplay, in the early stages of production, was Michael Arndt, who won an Oscar for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Fun Facts – The STAR WARS franchise was sold over to Disney by George Lucas in 2012. Part of the deal was Lucas’ written treatments for three new STAR WARS movies * During the course of production, Disney, along with executive producer and head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy, veered away from Lucas’ original vision for the new trilogy * Lucasfilm is now run by Kennedy, who has produced nearly all of Steven Spielberg’s films, including JURASSIC PARK (1993), E.T. (1982), and LINCOLN (2012) * John Williams is back to compose the score * Mark Hamill was the same age (63) as Sir Alec Guinness was when he filmed A NEW HOPE in 1976-7 * This is the first STAR WARS movie to be released in December. The previous six were all released in May * This is the second film Harrison Ford and J.J. Abrams have worked on together. Ford appeared in REGARDING HENRY (1991), which was co-written by Abrams *

What to expect? – The first frame of reference to look at is J.J. Abrams’ work in that other big sci-fi franchise, STAR TREK. His films in that universe where slick and clean and loads of fun, and his touch for big adventure and high thrills was on full display. Those films stumbled from clumsy scripting, which is why having Lawrence Kasdan back in the cockpit is a major win. The old cast is sure to bring up loads of nostalgic feelings, as every fan of STAR WARS has long been in love with Han, Leia, and Luke…the true principal characters in perhaps the entire franchise. We can expect a high-thrill adventure, which is something the Prequels lacked, and a strong sense of the good old days being back.


STAR WARS EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS opens in full December 18th, with limited showings on the 17th.

Friday, December 11, 2015


In 2010, with his Oscar-winning THE KING’S SPEECH, director Tom Hooper took an obscure and nearly forgotten-about moment in history and turned it into a very human story which felt epic. With his newest, THE DANISH GIRL, Hooper returns to that time period to tell another story which has fallen to a victim of the past; the story of the world’s first transgendered woman.

Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are two artists living in London in the 1920’s, with Einar the successful landscape artist and Gerda as the struggling portrait painter. When Einar poses in a dress for Gerda for a new series of paintings, nicknamed Lili, he awakens something in himself which begins his journey to becoming a woman.

There is a theory in filmmaking, and in storytelling in general, that there is only one plot that all stories have: Who Am I. THE DANISH GIRL is very much that, as it follows Einar’s painful struggle to find his true self. The film follows the happily married couple, who are very much in love; through the steps of what is at first a playful game which turns into Einar adapting the persona of Lili in full. Their marriage is put to the test, and things are compounded when the Lili portraits become their only true source of income, and Gerta’s only long-awaited reward of being recognized as an artist.

On the surface, THE DANISH GIRL feels like it would be just a step-by-step journey of a man becoming a woman…steps that include the harsh treatments by an un-educated medical community, the common bully on the street, and right up to and past the very scary surgical procedures (the first of its kind at the time). But director Tom Hooper, not content with the heroine’s journey alone, turns the film on its end as a true love story. This is a journey that Gerda and Lili take together, and Gerda’s storyline of a woman who must watch her husband disappear before her eyes, practically a living wake, gives the film a tremendous heartbeat. What it means to have loved and lost is a theme that Hooper explores in full and makes THE DANISH GIRL a very deep and complex story.

Hooper’s excellent talent for framing a shot is on full display. His screen is exquisitely filled with faces and objects which aid him in telling his story, and there is not one wasted shot in the entire film. His gentle and loving touch handles matters which could have been crude and insensitive in the most tasteful of ways. Alexandre Desplat’s score is magnificent. The makeup job on Eddie Redmayne to turn him into a woman on film is stunning, and there isn’t much disbelief to be had when looking at his character.

Eddie Redmayne puts in the performance of a lifetime as Lili. There is a wealth of emotions that the character must endure, and Redmayne nails every one of them. There is an amazing level of depth at work, as the actor is playing the part of a man trying to be a woman and he is always convincing. As good as he is, Alicia Vikander matches him perfectly. She too must go through a lot, and her performance is by the far the best of her young career. The supporting cast of Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, and Matthias Schoenaerts are all excellent.

Considering the subject-matter, THE DANISH GIRL is certainly not a film for anyone with a frat-boy mentality or with the dismissive and barbaric notion that all transgendered people are insane. The film does have its awkward moments, but those brave enough to look past it will easily find one of the most exquisite films of 2015.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Reel Review: TRUMBO

In the late 1940’s into the 1950’s, Dalton Trumbo was one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. He was king of his domain, but because of his political beliefs, he and his colleagues, nicknamed the Hollywood Ten, were blacklisted from working in Hollywood. It is one of the darker, and more interesting times in not just Tinseltown but in America itself, and comes to life in TRUMBO.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of Hollywood’s top-paid screenwriters, refuses to testify in front of a congressional committee investigating communism in America, and is blacklisted from working in Hollywood. Undeterred, Trumbo and his team of writers begin writing under fake names in secret, and wind up writing some of the best films of the decade.

It was a turbulent time for America. The Second World War was over, but the fear of communists working in secret in the U.S. with the intent of overthrowing the government was growing, and one of the targets, and tragedies in that time was Hollywood. TRUMBO for the most part is how Dalton and his friends, who considered themselves members of the Communist Party simply as a way of expressing their freedom of speech, are persecuted for their beliefs. As Dalton begins writing in secret, the film becomes a joy ride through Hollywood of the 1950’s, showing how heralded films such as SPARTACUS and EXODUS came to be with a writer who could not attach his name to the work. Fans and students of the history of film would find TRUMBO to be a joy.

Where TRUMBO stumbles a little is with the family dynamic. Once things get difficult for Dalton to earn a living, naturally his family life begins to suffer, specifically with his wife (played by Diane Lane), and oldest daughter (Elle Fanning). While the acting is superb, there are too many sub-plots and moments within the family that go nowhere; Dalton’s over-reliance on popping pills to stay awake during overnight writing sessions is given time but never goes anywhere, and a huge blowout-fight between he and his daughter is given a lot of attention but is apparently resolved off-camera, as it is never mentioned ever again. TRUMBO gets the story behind the motion picture business perfectly right, but has little idea what to do with the family life.

Director Jay Roach films a colorful looking movie in bringing back to life the whimsy and innocence of 1950’s Hollywood. The tone is light, the pacing is brisk, and the moments of humor are true knee-slappers. Archival footage is mixed perfectly with the movie, and TRUMBO never bores.

Bryan Cranston is fantastic as Dalton and completely vanishes into the man himself. Diane Lane is her usual magnificent self, and is still a stunner on-screen. Elle Fanning also turns in a very good performance, as does John Goodman…who plays a B-movie producer who hires Dalton in secret. Helen Mirren appears as a gossip columnist who aligns herself with the anti-communism portion of Hollywood, and comes off as a fantastic screen villain. Louis C.K. pops in as the angry writer providing comic-relief and is very entertaining, and Alan Tudyk is his usual brilliant self. The cast of actors playing famous faces are also excellent, including Michael Stuhlbarg (as Edward G. Robinson), Dean O’Gorman (as Kirk Douglas), and David James Elliott (as John Wayne).

After a finale which is not as emotionally rewarding as it thinks it is, TRUMBO finishes off with a nod towards history and perhaps a wink towards our present day, where people are persecuted for what they believe in, and not for what they actually do. It isn’t preachy, and it works…but TRUMBO still feels like a very un-even film. It is a fascinating look at a dark time in Hollywood; it just needed a little more soul.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2015, Episode XII

The final month of 2015 brings with it the most anticipated movie of the year if not the last decade. And while all eyes may be turning towards that far, far away galaxy…there are still plenty of other Oscar contenders and notable films to pay attention to.

It all shakes out with…

MACBETH – William Shakespeare’s classic gets another shot at the big screen, with Michael Fassbender (SHAME, 12 YEARS A SLAVE), playing the role of Macbeth. He is joined by Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, and David Thewlis.

KRAMPUS – Based on the ancient legend of a hoofed beast who steals naughty children from their beds on Christmas Eve, this black-comedy horror film stars Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA – Director Ron Howard (APOLLO 13), adapts the book of the same name which tells the true story which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Stars Chris Hemsworth (THOR), Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Wishaw, and Brendan Gleeson.

THE BIG SHORT – Also based on the book of the same name, Adam McKay (ANCHORMAN), moves over to drama with this story about the housing and credit crash in the 2000’s.  It has an all-star cast of Christian Bale (THE DARK KNIGHT), Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Karen Gillan, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS – Director JJ Abrams (STAR TREK) brings back the beloved franchise with an adventure taking place 30 years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI. The original cast of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher reprise their roles as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia…and they are joined by Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, and Anthony Daniels. The script is written by Lawrence Kasdan (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) and Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE).

JOY – Director David O’ Russell (AMERICAN HUSTLE, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) is back with his annual appearance with Jennifer Lawrence (AMERICAN HUSTLE, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), in this true story about the single mom who invented the miracle mop. Co-stars Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT – Quentin Tarantino (PULP FICTION, KILL BILL) returns to the Old West with this little yarn about a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) who winds up in a cabin during a snowstorm surrounded by strangers. Co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, and Channing Tatum.

CONCUSSION – Based on a true story, Will Smith (MEN IN BLACK, ALI) plays the doctor who fought against efforts by the NFL to suppress his research on the brain damage suffered by football players. Co-stars Alec Baldwin, Arliss Howard, Luke Wilson, David Morse, and Albert Brooks.

THE REVENANT – Oscar winning director Alejandro G. Inarritu (BIRDMAN) takes his actors out into the frigid wilderness to film this true story about a man seeking revenge while battling the elements. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Domhnall Gleeson.

ANOMALISA – Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), directs this stop-motion film about a man and his inability to connect with people. It features the voice-talents of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan.


Next month, Episode I will preview the month of January.