I usually do movie reviews on Sundays, but what the hell. Sometimes it’s good to vary up the routine a bit.
Director: Peter Landesman
The story of the lone man fighting the good fight against big money never really gets old. No matter what you think. Yes, plots can become hackneyed and artificial, and stories can descend into gratuitous emotionalism of the worst sort. But you have to realize that people need to hear these stories; organized systems of power can behave abusively, and sometimes reform has to come from outside the system.
Concussion is the story of a Nigerian-American pathologist Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) who, in the course of his routine autopsies, realizes that the repeated blows to the head sustained by career American football players can eventually lead to dementia and death. So begins his crusade against the NFL, one that takes the usual twists and turns you would expect: (1) Big money denies everything; (2) Big money attacks you and causes damage; (3) Hero digs in for the long haul while everyone tells him he’s crazy; (4) Vindication comes much later down the road.
I was at first skeptical that Will Smith would be able to pull off the mannerisms and accent of his character, but these concerns were quickly dispelled. Smith does a fine job here in a role that offers little in the way of surprise. And there’s nothing wrong with that in a movie like this. We all know the deal here, and everyone speaks his lines on cue. There is some over-the-top emotionalism, and some excess in length, but the film generally stays on point. The NFL, just like every big-moneyed industry, wants to control the narrative and maximize profits. Of course. But the truth matters, too, and has a right to get out. This is not Michael Clayton, and gives us nothing spectacular, but it’s still worth watching.
The indestructible Albert Brooks even makes an appearance, displaying the character he plays in every movie and that has given him a career: the aggrieved, self-righteous mensch who just wishes everyone would leave him alone. But no one does this schtick better than Brooks, so it’s all good.
Promised Land (2012)
Director: Gus Van Sant
A bit more cliche-ridden is this uncertain entry from director Gus Van Sant. The plot: a mid-level employee for a large natural gas company (Matt Damon) arrives in Small Town America (does it even matter what the town’s name is?) to collect signatures for permission to start the wells a-drillin.’ As he goes about his task, he encounters salt-of-the-earth country folk who make him question the purpose of what he’s doing. Along the way, we get lectured to on the evils of fracking, the need to keep land in the family, and how there are no shades of grey in the world.
Everything is black and white here: the locals are presented as hardscrabble idealists, and the gas company is nothing but a conniving colossus out to throw Grandpa Melvin off his homestead. And the film never departs from this sanctimonious script, even when it has multiple opportunities to do so. There’s even an “environmentalist” who makes an appearance here, whose shit-eating grin and smug assurance derails every scene in which he shows up. As the film wound itself down, I found myself asking: does Matt Damon really think the world works this way? Watch if you must.
Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour”
Director: TV series (2002-2003)
I know this isn’t a movie. But I’ve been watching these episodes on Netflix and thought it might be a good idea to throw in the occasional TV series review as well.
This, I think, was Tony Bourdain’s first TV series, and it’s compulsively watchable. You have to admire this guy. He was a cook for many years, but always kept writing on the side. Eventually he hit paydirt with the publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000, a sort of “insider look” into the restaurant world. He’s kind of a dark guy (which is good); seeing him slither (there is something serpentine about his movements) around the world with a cynical smirk and a cigarette in his hand is somehow life-affirming in a way that no other grinning, sicky-sweet TV cook can reproduce.
The format is the same for each episode: Bourdain rolls into town, hits a bunch of eateries and restaurants, and muses on what he likes and doesn’t like. And there are some unintentionally hilarious moments: the horrible iguana tacos he had in Mexico; the disastrous fish pie he munched on (alone!) in St. Petersburg; and the looks on his face as he strolls through a putrid market in Morocco.
Cynicism sometimes is man’s best defense against the possibility of misfortune. I think Tony would agree with me on this.