Movies: Concussion, SWVII, Hateful 8

We’ve been going to the movies a lot more lately, searching for something of value. The pickings have been rather slim. Here are some picks from the litter, some good, some not so much.

Concussion

ConcussionOne surprise was Will Smith’s Oscar-worthy performance in Concussion, writer-director Peter Landesman’s bio-pic depicting Dr. Bennet Omalu’s epic struggle to force the National Football League (NFL) to confront the fact that the majority of the league’s players have and will continue to suffer the long-term effects of repeated head traumas inflicted during their playing careers. It is both obvious and disturbing that such facts (you cannot repeatedly hit someone on the head without scrambling their brains) could be ignored and contradicted for so long by the NFL, the players, and the sports fans themselves.

What was surprising about this film wasn’t Will Smith’s Oscar level performance, but rather the fact that Smith has only been nominated twice and has never won the damned statue. This might very well be his year, especially considering the competition, which has been broad but shallow in the best actor category. If you haven’t seen this yet, be prepared to appreciate veteran character actor David Morse’s equally Oscar-worthy turn as the late Pittsburgh Steelers center, Iron Mike Webster. Alec Balwin turns in another dependable performance as Dr. Julian Bailes who bails out of his position as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ team physician to join Omalu on his hunt for justice for Webster and other afflicted NFL cast-offs.

It is rare that “cause” films like this one turn out to be good films as well as important ones. This one is, helped along by British-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw who plays Bennet Omalu’s wife, Prema Mutiso. Mbatha-Raw brings some strong scenes to the film, without which it would have been played by almost exclusively male cast. The daughter of a doctor and a nurse herself, she plays a Nigerian nurse who immigrated to the U.S., falls in love with Omalu and encourages him to keep up the fight. 

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

sw7On the other hand, there is Star Wars Episode VII, also known as The Force Awakens, an annoyingly familiar remake of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which kicked off the legendary franchise in 1977. The plot of Star Wars VII is basically a rip-off of the original film, with Daisy Ridley playing Rey, a female Jedi-recruit-to-be, replacing the Young Luke Skywalker character from the original plot. Adam Driver is also on-hand playing Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren. Since the plot follows basically the same curve as the 1977 classic, this lukewarm remake is really powered by some very strong computer aided graphics, and heart-warming turns from original cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill in their archetypal roles, aided and abetted by Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2D2), and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca). (Does ANYONE really know why Chewbacca is called Chewbacca?)

If you haven’t been following the continuing story of the Star Wars universe since The Return of the Jedi in a series of knock-off paperbacks and graphic novels, then you are going to be a little out in left field, because you won’t know that something called The New Order has arisen to replace the fallen empire which, as it turned out, was merely bloodied but not defeated during the original trilogy. This, of course, paves the way for Star Wars VIII, reprising The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars IX, which will reprise The Return of the Jedi, unless Disney realizes that too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing and restricts itself to just one more remake. Knowing Disney, where over the top is never enough. Expect Episode VIII (“eight” for those who don’t speak in Roman numerals) is scheduled to be released in 2017. Interestingly (pseudo-spoiler alert!), at least two of the actors named in the cast list for VIII played characters who died in VII. A third one was on life support when the film ended. Episode IX is scheduled for a 2019 release. More’s the pity, because VII didn’t even rise to the same level as Stars Wars I, II and III.

The most interesting news item to arise from this remake was the cameo appearance of Daniel Craig as Stormtrooper JB-007 in an uncredited bit in which he plays a weak-minded stormtrooper who succumbs to would-be Jedi Rey’s first use of the force. (Craig was shooting his latest Bond outing on the sound stage next to the one where Star Wars was being shot and simply walked across the way to slip into his stormtrooper guise.)

When this film was first released, there was some grumbling about the fact that one of the key characters, John Boyega, is black. Boyega plays Finn, a stormtrooper who deserts from his unit and hooks up with the rebels, but some people got their panties in a twist because they think that Star Wars is a white universe. (What they were really upset about was the nascent interracial romance between Daisy Ridley’s Rey character and Boyega’s Finn persona.)

Well, the truth is that Star Wars has always been set in a multi-racial universe, not all of them human. Billy Dee Williams played the brigand Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. Samuel L. Jackson played Jedi master Mace Windu in The Attack of the Clones (Episode II if you are still keeping track) and The Revenge of the Stith (Episode III, ditto.)

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful EightThe real disappointment this week was Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8 which, despite some really fine acting by Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the seemingly inescapable Samuel L. Jackson (who still hasn’t gotten his Oscar either), just doesn’t cut the mustard. The film is too-long and has several interminable mood-setting establishing shots of stage coaches driving through the wilderness that contribute nothing to the plot. Character development is achieved, to the extent that it was achieved at all, by the characters telling each other about each other, which gets tired very quickly.

Russell and Jackson are well-suited to each other. Each overacts in a spectacularly predictable fashion, but we expect this of them, so that’s a small comfort. They just seem rather too friendly toward each other for competitive bounty hunters trying to bring their respective victims to justice. (Come to think of it, Russell has never won a statue either.)

The film is graced by excellent cameos from Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern, another Oscar-lacking star. Walter Goggins rounds out the principal members of the cast with an excellent showing as Sheriff Chris Mannix but, like the rest of the cast, he is trapped in a series of Tarantino’s trademark “flashback within flashback” techniques which often leaves the audience gasping for air as they try to keep up with who’s who and what’s what in the story. In Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction, and again in Django Unchained, this technique works because we actually care about the characters so we want to know how they came to be in their various predicaments. In The Hateful Eight, the characters are so damned, well, hateful that we don’t really care where they came from, where they are going, or what happens to them along the way.

To round out this nitpicking, there’s something about the sets for this film that just sets my teeth on edge. Why do film directors and set designers think that people on the frontier actually lived in houses with gaps between the sideboards on their houses? Ever hear the term “tar paper shack?” Tar Paper was invented in the early 1840s as a roofing material, but it was quickly pressed into service by people on the frontier. The tarpaper was tacked to the frame of a dwelling and then the tar paper was covered with planed boards. Houses and barns were made originally from sod, then from logs, and finally from planed boards as the lumber mills caught up with the western expansion, but they were never built with gaping holes open to the environment. That’s a good way to get dead from hypothermia. To top it off, who the hell puts an outhouse a good 100 yards away from the house? (By the way, Quentin, people on the frontier didn’t march out to the outhouse during a blizzard to freeze their asses off on the bare wood seats: they used chamber pots.)

One final note. In those establishing scenes of the stage coach rolling through a mounting blizzard, it would have been better if the road had not been plowed before the scene was shot. Stage coaches don’t leave plow marks in the snow.

I’m not saying that The Hateful Eight has no redeeming values but I’m not sure what message Tarantino wants us to take away from this film. Graphic depictions of violence become gratuitous when there’s no redeeming social values in the film’s message…but The Hateful Eight doesn’t seem to have any messages, redeeming or not.

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