Tag Archives: David Oyelowo

Concussion (2015)

concussion

“Tell the truth,” Will Smith (and Jada)! Concussion didn’t deserve any Oscar nominations!

After all the hoopla about how the Smiths boycotted last month’s Academy Awards because of a perceived snub against the film — and in particular, the Fresh Prince’s portrayal of Dr Bennet Omalu — I decided it was time that I checked out this controversial flick about the deviating effects of repeated head injuries in the NFL.

As the true story goes, Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian forensic pathologist, performs an autopsy on former gridiron great Mike Webster (David Morse), who suffered from terrifying mental illness in his post-playing days prior to his death. He found it bizarre that Webster turned out that way despite his apparent sound physical health, and further investigation and research led him to conclude that repeated head trauma incurred throughout a long career in football was the cause behind a disorder he refers to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Needless to say, this finding doesn’t go down too well with a lot of people (I thought it was common sense that getting concussed isn’t good for your brain, but whatever), from organisations that make billions out of the brain jolting to casual lovers of America’s No. 1 sport. As you might expect, Omalu is faced with loads of obstacles, abuse and threats, but the determined dude soldiers on to force the NFL to “Tell the truth!”

First of all, I’m going to address the controversial inaccuracies before casting them aside. I didn’t know how closely the film followed real life until I read up about it later, so I’m not going to let that affect my initial impressions. It does appear that Concussion took a lot of “artistic liberties” with the truth, and while some of it can be attributed to the same people who wanted to silence Omalu in the first place, there are several  irrefutable facts that are clearly manipulated for movie purposes. But let’s not pretend Concussion is the first “true story” to have a few fictional elements.

My problem with Concussion is that it comes across as far too neat, far too conventional, and far too shallow for what is supposed to be a complex, explosive, adrenaline-pumping drama about something so many Americans care deeply about. While it is well-made for what it is, the film follows a familiar Hollywood trajectory that hits predictable plot markers all the way through. You know he’s going to find something and you know it’s going to stir up trouble and you know he’s going to fight. There’s really nothing that will catch you off guard.

To be fair, there is sufficient intrigue — largely thanks to the subject matter — to maintain interest, and the performances from the all-star cast add a nice touch of class to what is obviously a top notch production. But the overwhelming vibe I got from watching the movie is “packaged”. Its depiction of the scandal is extremely simple, straightforward and one-sided, and for a story like this you almost need it to be messier and to have more risk-taking.

That scene in all the trailers where an emotional Omalu demands that they “Tell the truth!” is a great illustration of my point. You can tell it’s been set up as Will’s big “Oscar moment”, from the lighting to the camera angles to the fact that Omalu had never been anything close to as animated as he was, making the outburst somewhat jarring. I imagine they had planned for the clip to be played during the introduction of the Best Actor nominees at the Oscars ceremony. You know they did.

Will Smith typically plays characters with clean images, and Omalu is unfortunately also portrayed as a saint, which I believe is to the detriment of the film. He’s a man of God and science, a genius with more than half a dozen degrees, and a perfect gentleman with the utmost manners and integrity. He’s a little eccentric but not socially inept or odd, and the only time he loses his temper is when he wants people to “Tell the truth!”

It’s fine if that’s who Omalu really is, but from some accounts he’s actually quite a flamboyant character who doesn’t mind the finer things in life. Wouldn’t a complex protagonist be a lot more interesting than some boring, lionised hero who always does the right thing against all odds?

None of this is a criticism of Smith, who delivers another stellar performance notwithstanding his lack of physical resemblance to the real Omalu (think a shorter, chubbier version of David Oyelowo, who actually would have been an awesome choice). And you could have fooled me that Smith’s African accent wasn’t shaky because it sounded pretty good to my untrained ears.

The rest of the cast is also very solid, with Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks being the standouts along with rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who feels slightly wasted in the love interest role.

In other words, the fundamentals of a good drama are all there. Writer and director Peter Landesman also doesn’t press too hard on the audience manipulation, setting up the impactful moments but not shoving the emotions down our throats (apart from “Tell the truth!”). For some, that might actually be a negative, as there are audiences who no doubt prefer to be told how to feel (a la The Blind Side).

Concussion is therefore not a bad film, but it’s also an unremarkable one. While the subject matter and overall quality of the production guarantee a viewing experience of a certain level, the decision to play it safe and stick to the oft-used blueprint for true stories/biopics denies it the opportunity to rise above the pack in the way that Spotlight did. And that’s the truth!

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year

Now that the Oscars are over I’m going to continue my movie reviews with a huge snub. For whatever reason, the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year was not even on any radars this Oscars season, which is strange considering it features so many critic-pleasing characteristics — a unique premise, moral quandaries, superb performances, gripping drama, crafty action, and that solemn, Oscar-bait feel of a top-class production.

Written and directed by JC Chandor (previously best known for Margin Call), A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, widely regarded as one of New York’s most violent years. Oscar Isaac (Finding Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) is Abel Morales, the seemingly upright owner of a heating oil company on the verge of a major breakthrough. But when his oil trucks begin to get hijacked, making him to lose not just money but also precious reputation, Abel finds himself being painted into a corner and forced to take drastic action. At the same time, a local assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) begins to target Abel for alleged anti-competitive practices and tax evasion.

A Most Violent Year, despite its name, is not a particularly violent movie by today’s standards. What it lacks in violence, the film makes up in tension, atmosphere and style, though the presentation is grounded firmly in reality. In an age where protagonists are typically remarkable people with otherworldly skills, experiences or attributes, Abel is portrayed as an ordinary man with real fears and emotions like you and me. Unlike typical modern crime thrillers, are no criminal masterminds in this film, no outrageous coincidences, no expert marksmen or world-class racing car drivers in getaway cars.

And yet, rather than coming across as dull, the film becomes actually more compelling because it enables us to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the characters and their predicaments. Overexposure to onscreen surrealism has made most of us numb, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that, hey, guns are scary; dealing with mafia people is scary; burglars are scary; police looking into your business — even if it’s perfectly legitimate — is scary.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without Chandor’s skilful direction and script, which prove that he is a filmmaker who has clearly studied the classic works of the genre and the techniques of the masters. Rather than loud and shaky, the action sequences are smooth, slick and suspenseful, notwithstanding the lack of explosions and rapid cuts. Rather than pretentious and dull, the silences and lingering shots actually have meaning.

The other key element is the central performance by Isaac, who is destined for stardom and will apparently appear in the next Star Wars movies. He’s a tremendous talent who deserved recognition for this controlled and charismatic performance where anger, desperation and fear are all delivered with nuance and subtlety. It’s perhaps not a stretch to say he channels a young Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone.

All of the supporting actors are very good too, especially Jessica Chastain as Abel’s astute wife, whose father is implied as not being the most upstanding citizen. David Oyelowo, who got a whole lot of attention at the Oscars ceremony for his Selma snub, is also solid, as are Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s troubled employees.

I will readily admit that it is not a film for most modern average movie-goers, who tend to expect a lot of things to happen on the screen at all times. A Most Violent Year has a deliberately measured pace I would have found slow in my youth, and it adopts a “less in more” mentality in its execution some might find dull. While it is undeniably interesting, I would not be surprised if others wonder what the fuss is all about.

This is a ultimately story about a good man trying to survive in a corrupt world, and having to make some very difficult choices and compromises along the way. Gritty and brooding, and powered by Chandor’s self-assured approach, A Most Violent Year harks back to crime classics like Goodfellas, Heat and even The Godfather. It’s of course not quite on the level of those epics, but it is still a classy, well-executed film that commands your attention and respect.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Selma (2014)

selma

Selma, the Martin Luther King Jr biopic, was the last of this years’ Oscar Best Picture nominees to cross off my list. It’s not that I have no interest in the American civil rights movement — it’s just that it seemed like one of those slow, solemn films that you need to be in the right mood to see.

And I was right. Selma is indeed one of those slow, solemn films. But I happened to be in the right mood and I really enjoyed it. With an explosive performance by David Oyelowo (previously best known to me as the dickhead in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as King and a cinematic yet realistic approach by director Ava DuVernay, Selma is goosebump-inducing drama.

Set in 1964, just as King accepts his Nobel Peace Prize, the film zones in on the Alabama town of Selma, where racial inequality and bigotry still reign supreme despite the end of segregation. King travels to Selma and begins calling for US president Lyndon Johnson to introduce federal legislation to allow blacks to vote unencumbered. Those who know their history will be able to tell you that their efforts culminate in the historic Selma to Montgomery marches that eventually gets King what he wants.

What makes Selma a great film is that it gives audiences an important history lesson filled with fine details, but never comes across as preachy or condescending. Admittedly slow and controlled, it is probably not a film I would have enjoyed when I was younger, especially as it presumes some knowledge of historical events and people. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve been able to appreciate the nuances of the craft and how less is almost always more in terms of generating a genuine emotional response.

Kudos to DuVernay’s composed direction, never rushing and always knowing when to focus on the most pivotal moments with care and subtlety. I know the film must have its fair share of historical inaccuracies, but DuVernay’s approach and the great acting almost made me feel like I was watching a documentary, with the more personal scenes being what would have transpired had there been cameras following them around at all times.

I was very surprised that although the film received a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Oyelowo was snubbed for Best Actor. It doesn’t make much sense, to be honest, considering that the film is only what it is because of his remarkable performance. I knew he was going to be good channelling King’s charisma during public speeches, but I was actually more impressed with him during the quieter moments, especially the scenes with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). With all but Michael Keaton receiving nominations for playing real-life characters this year, it’s a head scratcher why Oyelowo missed out.

The rest of the cast was also exceptionally good, and I had no idea there was so many big names involved. The reliable Tom Wilkinson is Lyndon Johnson, who was surprisingly portrayed as a semi-villain unwilling to institute change, while Tim Roth brings out the douchebaggery in Alabama governor George Wallace. Other names you might recognise include Common, Cuba Gooding Jr, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Stephen Root and Martin Sheen. Everyone knew their place, even Oprah, who does her best to stay inconspicuous as civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper but is still a bit of a distraction because, well, she’s freaking Oprah!

I do wish the film tackled King’s “alleged” infidelities with more balls — it was done rather respectfully with just one scene — though I suppose the intention was to show that he was a flawed preacher as opposed to exposing him as sex addict or moral hypocrite. It would have been good too if the “bad guys” like Wallace and sheriff Jim Clark were given more opportunities to be multi-layered characters than just standard villains. Nonetheless, Selma is one of the better civil rights films I’ve seen and in my opinion it bests other recent efforts such as fellow Best Picture nominee Lincoln and The Butler (which incidentally also features Oprah).

4 stars out of 5

PS: One of the most amazing things I discovered about this film is that none of King’s original speeches could be used in the film for copyright reasons, meaning DuVernay had to rewrite all of them. Apparently, King’s estate had licensed them to DreamWorks and Warner Brothers for an untitled project by Stephen Spielberg. It is also interesting that Lee Daniels had a choice between The Butler and Selma and went with the former, thereby opening up the opportunity for DuVernay.

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

This review was supposed to be further back in my backlog of to-do posts, but I’m moving it right to the top because I can’t stop thinking about it.

The reboot origins film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, had been my ‘most anticipated movie of the year’ for months ever since I caught a glimpse of the awesome trailer.  I had always been somewhat interested in the Apes franchise, even though I had only seen the 1968 original and the entertaining but slightly misguided Tim Burton 2001 remake.  But this one was a must-see: an ingenious present-day setting, seamless digital effects, what appeared to be all-out action, and Andy Serkis (Gollum, Kong) doing motion capture for the lead ape, Caesar.

With such high expectations, it would have easy to have been disappointed.  But no, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was everything I could have hoped for and more.

Those who have seen the trailers and/or are familiar with the franchise will have a fairly good idea of what happens in this film.  James Franco plays Will Rodman, a young scientist working on a cure for a debilitating human illness.  The clinical trials are conducted on apes, and unexpected side-effects arm the mistreated subjects with human-like intelligence.  And you don’t need much intelligence (human or otherwise) to guess what happens next.

Ordinarily, knowing how a story unfolds dampens the excitement of a film, but surprisingly not in this case.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes the audience straight into the action and doesn’t let up.  The storytelling is so efficient that I found myself utterly engrossed throughout the 110-minute running time, never getting the feeling that I knew exactly what was going to happen next or pausing to contemplate potential gaps in logic.

Of course, a main reason to go see this film is the special effects, which are amongst the best I have ever seen.  No more humans in clunky ape make-up — these apes look creepily, frighteningly real, and the range of facial expressions they exhibit make them easy to connect with emotionally whilst keeping us wary of what they are capable of.  Andy Serkis as Caesar, in particular, is absolutely mesmerising as the true ‘star’ of the film.  You know the effects team have done a good job when you don’t even think about the quality of the effects until the credits start rolling — you just take it for granted that what you’re seeing on the screen is real.

Having saturated the film in praise, I have to admit that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does have flaws.  I’m not sure if it was miscasting or just a poorly written character, but James Franco’s human scientist came across as a fairly weak protagonist.  I never really felt that the bond between him and Caesar was as strong as it ought to have been.

Perhaps it was intentional to allow the apes to be propelled into the forefront, as the rest of the human characters were all rather weak — either cardboard cut-outs or over-the-top stereotypes (I’m looking at you, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo!).  Freida Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) as Franco’s love interest was almost invisible — you could have written her out of the script entirely and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  The only human character that made a connection with me was the great John Lithgow as Franco’s father.

However, my issues with the human characters aren’t as crucial as they may seem, for Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really Caesar’s story, told from his point of view.  I just find it bizarre for me to wonder whether it’s a good thing that the apes were more human than the humans…

Finally, the all-important rating.  Usually it would be inconceivable for me to contemplate giving a film like this anything more than 4 stars.  Sure it’s clever, entertaining, exciting and visually spectacular, but it’s still a flawed movie about apes taking over the planet.  But you know what?  I’ve looked through all my reviews this year and I can honestly say there is no other film that I’ve liked more and enjoyed more in 2011 than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  So what the heck.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Note that this film is considered a ‘new origins’ prequel to the 1968 original (and has numerous delicious allusions to it) because it does not match up with the storyline in any of the subsequent films.  In many ways, this is a much better origins story that reflects the rate of our current (frighteningly rapid) advances in technology and sets the stage for at least a couple of mind-blowing sequels (can’t wait already!).