REVIEW: Concussion

21 12 2015

Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” is barely good enough to avoid a pun about the film causing its own kind of head trauma. It is not successful enough, however, to avoid one about the film’s facts and message hitting with unnecessarily blunt force.

Even though the message of this sports-related film rings depressing (rather than the usual uplift), “Concussion” can not avoid the temptations of the genre’s heavy-handed filmmaking. Like many a tale of this ilk, the film features an unlikely protagonist who must persevere against intense obstacles and opposition. Here, that person is not a player but a doctor, Will Smith’s Bennet Omalu. This Nigerian immigrant, perhaps more educated than an average bucket full of American citizens, lets his intellectual curiosity lead him to the discovery of a particular brain condition endemic to one group of men: ex-football players.

When Omalu breaks it down in the parlance that comes most naturally to him – science – the issue proves quite captivating. Framing the game of football as a series of shocks that the human body was not built to absorb makes his case strong. But when “Concussion” frames his struggle as one against a shadowy, monolithically evil NFL, the film falls completely flat. The silencing by commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the league probably happened, if I had to conjecture based on Goodell’s rather reckless actions over the past few seasons. Yet even as someone staunchly opposed to the league’s head honcho, the film comes off like a half-baked, crackpot conspiracy theory.

When a two-dimensional character goes up against a one-dimensional enemy, no one wins. Not the film. Not the issue. And certainly not the audience. C+2stars

SAVE YOURSELF from “Horns”

2 08 2015

HornsLast summer, a friend of mine posted a cringe-worthy Huffington Post article on my wall that was titled “8 Movies From The Last 15 Years That Are Super Overrated.”  How on earth this piece managed to secure publication on a website of that caliber is beyond me since it included such memorable phrases as, “The problem with 2011’s ‘The Descendants‘ is that it sucked.”  Beyond being a terribly constructed and redundant sentence, it is also clearly NOT film criticism.

I try to avoid poor writing and potshots in my own reviews (although sometimes the devil on my shoulder manages to win).  But wow, I sure am tempted to pull out some low blow for Alexandre Aja’s “Horns,” one of the most wretched movies I have watched in quite some time.  So rather than drop to the level of that piece, I just decided to revive an old column … “Save Yourself!”

I can understand why Daniel Radcliffe and his management team might have thought this film seemed like a good idea on paper.  What better way to shed the squeaky clean image of The Boy Who Lived than to play someone who literally sprouts horns and basically functions as a Satanic figure?  “Horns” is basically his equivalent of Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke at the VMAs, though turns in “Kill Your Darlings” and “What If” accomplish the goal far better by just letting Radcliffe play convincing, real people.

Aja essentially lets Radcliffe off the leash in the role of Ig Parrish, letting him play the entire movie at the energy level the actor rapped “Alphabet Aerobics” on “The Tonight Show.”  After being falsely accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Ig’s horns serve as a supernatural blessing (or curse) to divine the real killer because – get this – the protuberances force people to spill all the skeletons from their closets.  Every moment feels so incredibly over the top and overblown, be it for comedy or for violence.  Actually, come to think of it, the violence even becomes perversely (and appallingly) comic in its heightened proportions.

“Horns” is not like a film in the vein of Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” where the ambiguity and ambivalence leave an exhilarating void for the viewer to supply their own reaction.  It’s just an indecisive tonal scramble, not sure whether it wants to be an all-out festival of gory horror or a black comedy.  Aja does neither effectively, and the film becomes a brutal slog to endure.  It’s not even overdone to the point of “so bad it’s good.”  This is just pain bad.  D1star

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 18, 2015)

18 06 2015

If you watched “Les Misérables” and thought, “This was great, but I really wish Jean-Luc Godard directed it,” then I have quite the movie to recommend.  You simply have to watch Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” which he made back in 2000 (before the remarks about sympathizing with Hitler).  This kitchen sink realist drama/musical has to be one of the most heartbreaking, gut-wrenching films I have ever seen.

As you might have pondered reading that last sentence, realist drama and the movie musical are two territories that seldom overlap.  Hard-hitting, issues-based filmmaking concerns itself primarily with getting us to focus on the real, observable world.  Musicals, on the other hand, mostly offer us a pleasant diversion away from thinking about those problems.  von Trier finds the harmony between these two elements and combines them to devastating effect in my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Over the course of “Dancer in the Dark,” Björk’s Czech immigrant Selma Ježková slowly loses her eyesight and thus her ability to provide for her son.  The degenerative disease also takes away her one passionate activity outside of work: acting in community musical theater.  With that gone, she begins playing out musical numbers in her head – which we get to see acted out as vivid productions – to escape the depressing fate before her.

Essentially, Selma’s life recalls Fantine from “Les Misérables,” played out in slow motion and for an entire feature.  So, needless to say, “Dancer in the Dark” is not for those looking for a joyous, uplifting experience.  But those looking for an intellectually stimulating as well as emotionally engaging watch simply must watch this little marvel of a film.  Those who endure will be stunned by how anything can simultaneously be Brechtian and maudlin as well as beautiful and tragic.