Will Smith’s career is back in focus with “Concussion,” the compelling true story of revered pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) and his earth-shattering discovery that connected severe brain damage – diagnosed and termed as chronic traumatic enchepolapthy (CTE) – to repeated concussions in NFL players. Based in Pittsburgh, Omalu first made the correlation after the untimely death of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (a barely recognizable David Morse), and the subsequent deaths of other NFL players.
Not surprisingly, NFL officials don’t want to confront the issue, and do their best to discredit Omalu and his colleagues to protect its vast business interests. The supporting cast is stellar, including strong performances by Albert Brooks as famed pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht and Alec Baldwin as former Steelers team physician Dr. Julian Bailes – who helped Omalu convince the NFL of the problem. Save a horribly miscast Luke Wilson as current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, “Concussion” is a riveting, must-see movie whether you’re a fan of the NFL or not.
“The Big Short” (R) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Director Adam McKay impressively steps away from his normal world of Will Ferrell comedy fare and channels the filmmaking expertise of Martin Scorsese in the process with “The Big Short” – a searing portrait of four groups of Wall Street outsiders who envisioned the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 and tried to stick it to the big banks in the process.
In their turns as the outsiders, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling are at their best, and Steve Carell continues to impress in yet another stunning dramatic turn on the heels of his Oscar-nominated role in “Foxcatcher” last year. Moving at breakneck pace throughout, “The Big Short” contains lots of complex Wall Street jargon, but McKay creatively works in star cameos to break things down in layman’s terms. The film, while entertaining in the way it is presented, is infuriating at the same time.
“Daddy’s Home” (PG-13) 3 stars out of four
Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg reteam after the hilarious romp “The Other Guys” with “Daddy’s Home,” a wonderfully sweet comedy about a doting yet hapless step-father (Ferrell) who must deal with the return of the children’s far cooler biological dad (Wahlberg). We’ve seen both actors play these sorts of roles before, but familiarity aside, there’s no question the pairing works wonders here as the two dads engage in a nasty game of one-upsmanship to win the affection of the kids and their mother. “Daddy’s Home” is far from perfect, but it’s an enjoyable movie nonetheless.
Tom Cruise truly makes the impossible possible with “Rogue Nation,” a serious contender for the best installment in the five film “Mission: Impossible” series. Expertly directed and co-written by Christopher McQuarrie, “Rogue Nation” maintains the same energy, thrills and explosive action as it’s awesome predecessor “Ghost Protocol,” yet continues to advance the “Mission: Impossible” narrative instead of running into the trappings of most film sequels.
Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, a rogue agent of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) and No. 1 pain in the ass of CIA honcho Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who finally manages to convince the government to absorb, and effectively, abolish, the IMF program. Apart from his past misgivings, Hunley is also fed up with Hunt’s obsession with the terrorist organization known as “The Syndicate” — a group that the CIA claims is a product of Hunt’s (Cruise) imagination.
But after a deadly encounter with The Syndicate’s head (Sean Harris), Ethan confirms the group
is indeed for real; but he needs the now small group of his fellow IMF colleagues to bring the group down. Ethan is forced to take a leap of faith and trust Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a Syndicate agent who for reasons unexplained, helps him escape torture and certain death at the hands of her employer.
The great thing about “Rogue Nation” is that it’s full of surprises, starting with the highly-publicized scene where Cruise hangs onto the exterior of a cargo plane. Usually the sort of show-stopping scene you’d see in the third act of a film, the plane scene actually kicks off “Rogue Nation,” raising the stakes higher than they’ve ever been for a “Mission: Impossible” film (with maybe the exception of the Dubai tower scene in “Ghost Protocol”).
From there, “Rogue Nation” is naturally jam-packed with riveting action scenes (including a dizzying cycle chase), yet never once loses sight of the film’s detailed narrative. Loaded with twists and turns, “Rogue Nation” will keep you guessing until the very end.
Cruise is spectacular once again as Ethan, and you have to really admire his commitment to the physical demands of the role and the ever-expanding narrative of the “Mission: Impossible” series. He’s clearly the star of the series, yet generously shares his screen time with co-stars Simon Pegg (funnier than ever), Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames — the only IMF agents he can trust.
Cruise also has an amazing eye when it comes to bringing new actors into the fold, particularly Ferguson, an experienced star of Swedish and British film and TV, who marks her second appearance in a U.S. film with “Rogue Nation.” Smart, physically lethal and sexy as hell, Ferguson possesses a classic Hollywood screen beauty rarely seen in today’s films. Even as a relative newcomer to American film, she more than holds her own against Cruise.
“Vacation” (R) 1 star (out of four)
The “Holiday Road” has hit a dead end with “Vacation,” a dreadfully unfunny remake of the Harold Ramis-directed gem “National Lampoon’s Vacation” from 1983. Packed to the gills with moronic jokes and forced humor at every turn, “Vacation” is easily a contender for worst movie of the summer, if not worst movie of the year.
After an amusing opening featuring a couple-dozen pictures you’d see in an Awkward Family Photo album (full disclosure – the first photo they show is of my wife’s second cousins), “Vacation” picks up with Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), who shifts gears away from the usual summer vacation destination and insists that his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and two sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) retrace his family’s cross-country trip to Walley World from 30 years before.
Renting a knock-off hybrid vehicle that instantly becomes trouble, Rusty loads up his wife and kids for the long trip from Chicago to California. Naturally, they run into one disaster after the next, yet hold out the hope of making it to Walley World in one piece.
Opening with a classic “Holiday Road” tune from the 1983 original film, the music switches gear to an F-bomb laden rap song, setting the tone for the sort of trashy movie the new “Vacation” quickly becomes. Whether it comes with the revelation of Debbie’s torrid sexual encounters during college to her puke-soaked attempt to regain her former glory during a stop at her alma mater; or the family’s dip into the festering sewer waters which was revealed in the film’s red band trailer, “Vacation” seems intent to make you cringe and gag in the hope that you’ll laugh at it, too. Cringe and gag you will. Laugh you won’t.
But that’s not the worst of it. There’s the youngest Griswold (Stebbins) who plays one of the most annoying characters in recent movie memory: a smart-ass preteen who drops the F-bomb with wanton abandon; and also kicks off the movie’s string of oh-so-funny (NOT) jokes about pedophilia and rape that pollutes the film.
By far the most embarrassing thing about “Vacation,” though, is Helms, who assumes the role played by Anthony Michael Hall as a child (if the filmmakers thought Hall wasn’t able to play himself as an adult, the joke’s on them). It’s too bad, because Helms (as evidenced by “The Office” and “Hangover” films) can be funny; but here he’s relegated to effectively playing the same, horribly misinformed dad that Chevy Chase embodied in the first film. Chase, naturally, shows up in a cameo, as does Beverly D’Angelo, but they’re really not given anything to work with because frankly, there’s nothing there.
As awful as “Vacation” is, there are a few bright spots: Chris Hemsworth, who plays the very well-endowed husband to the adult Audrey Griswold (Leslie Mann), is quite funny; and Charlie Day nails his bit role as a chipper whitewater rafting guide. While not as funny as the still photos in the opening credits, the stills to close the movie (along with yes, another trashy, F-bomb filled song) signals the film’s squandered potential. And, um, Thor does swing his mighty hammer in the end credits, so beware.
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers