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Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-


Hidden Figures (2016)

hidden-figures-posterAfter the end of 2012’s Red Tails, I said to myself that those men of history deserved a better movie. By the end of Hidden Figures I was thinking the same thing for the unheralded African-American women of NASA in the 1960s Space Race. It’s an inherently engrossing story that the public knows precious little about, and the biggest problem with director/co-writer Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent) film is that is rarely breaks free from its formula for feel-good mass appeal. Rather than allowing us to absorb the complexities of the three women featured (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae) the movie wants us to just know about their struggles over injustice and inequality. That’s a fine starting point but rarely do these women become fully fleshed out. They’re kept as symbols, put-upon figures, and less as people. That allows them to have their Big Acting Moments where they uncork a snappy retort to institutional prejudice that is the kind of stuff meant for Oscar clip packages. Henson is given the most significant part but even her math genius feels like a crude Hollywood extrapolation of a stereotypical movie nerd. Monae was the one who left me most impressed with her feisty attitude and swagger. It’s all a pleasing and moderately entertaining package but the presentation and artistically stilted character development hinder the movie’s message. I would have preferred a documentary on the same subject, something that would allow further depth as well as the direct testimony of those women involved. I believe Henson’s character is still alive and in her 90s, so there’s no time to waste. Hidden Figures is a safe yet still appealing biopic that hits some of the right notes but lacks greater ambition. Not all films have to try and redefine their genre, but when you’re giving the titular hidden figures of history their much-deserved spotlight, maybe a little more effort is deserving and necessitated.

Nate’s Grade: B

McFarland USA (2015)

McFarland-USA1Many movies follow a proven formula very closely, but sometimes a well written, well executed formulaic movie can remind you how appealing that formula can be, and that is McFarland USA, an inspirational Disney sports film that warmed my heart. Kevin Costner stars as a science teacher and sports coach for a working class California town mostly populated with Mexican-American immigrant families. He sees the endurance and speed of several students and decides to form a cross-country team, even though he’s never coached anything related to track in his life. What follows is a mixture of the inspirational teacher film and the inspirational sports team film. Thankfully the screenplay and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) take their time to flesh out the runners, giving them personalities and different degrees of depth, troubled by real-world problems without easy answers. The movie works as a great tool for empathy as it respectfully illuminates the limited economic opportunities and backbreaking labor of so many Mexican-American immigrants toiling in our fields. The movie creates an amiable sense of community and even though moments can feel contrived, I always had a smile on my face. The people came across as people, complicated, proud, hopeful. It opens up a world and showcases just how hard these people work to assist their families. Costner is a stable anchor for the film but it’s his young cast that really give the film its lift. The emotions are genuine and the uplift is earned, thanks to careful plotting and generous characterization. McFarland USA is a feel-good movie that’s better than good and a perfect film for the whole family.

Nate’s Grade: B+


Selma (2014)/ Black or White (2014)

selma-movie-poster_1421369437_342x511There’s a reason that race is regarded as the “third rail” when it comes to American politics. A half-century after the marches and protests, chief among them the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., the world feels just as fractious as ever when it comes to race relations. The inauguration of America’s first black president was seen as a significant touchstone, but optimism has faded and recent headline-grabbing criminal cases, and the absence of indictments, have prompted thousands to voice their protest from assembly to street corner. Race relations are one of the thorniest issues today and will be for some time. Two recent films take two very different approaches to discussing race relations, and they’re clearly made for two very different audiences. Selma is an invigorating, moving, and exceptional film showcasing bravery and dignity. Where Selma is complex, Black or White is a simplified and misguided sitcom writ large.

In 1965, Alabama was the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) has his sights set on organizing a march from Selma to the sate capital in Montgomery. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), is worried about the safety of their children, as death threats are sadly common for MLK. He needs to turn the tide of public perception to light a fire under President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get him to prioritize legislation that would protect every citizen’s right to vote.

Selma-1Without question, Selma is one of the finest films of 2014. It is powerful, resonant, nuanced, political, immediate, and generally excellent on all fronts. It’s a rarity in Hollywood, namely a movie about the Civil Rights movement without a prominent white savior. This is a film about the ordinary and famous black faces on the ground fighting in the trenches for their freedoms. There are compassionate white people who heed the call, don’t get me wrong, but this is a movie told from the black perspective. I suspect the portrayal of President Johnson had something to do with Selma’s poor showing with the Oscars, though I can’t fully comprehend why. Yes, Johnson is portrayed as a man who has to be won over, but he’s on MLK’s side from the beginning. He is not opposed to legislation to protect voting rights; he’s just hesitant about the timing. Johnson says, “You got one issue, I got 100,” and the pragmatic reality of pushing forward legislation through a divided Congress was real. Johnson was not opposed to MLK’s wishes; he just wanted him to wait until the political process would be easier. In fact, in my eyes, Johnson comes across as compassionate, politically savvy, and he clearly makes his stakes on which side of history he’s going to be associated when he has a sit-down with the obstinate Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth). Like the rest of the varied characters in Selma, it’s a nuanced portrayal of a man in the moment.

The march in Selma is a moment that seems like an afterthought in the narrative of the Civil Rights movement, dwarfed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. The movie does a great job of re-examining why this moment in history is as significant, an eye-opening moment for the nation to the brutal reality of oppression. The opposition is entrenched, thanks to a stagnant system that wants to hold onto its “way of life.” It just so happens that way of life meant very different things for black people. The movie is politically sharp, with dissenting perspectives arguing over the next course of action in Selma and the national stage. Selma is another in the current crop of biopics eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave approach to highlight a significant moment that highlights exactly who their central figure is (Lincoln, Invictus). With Selma, we get a battleground that allows us to explore in both micro and macro MLK, the man. The courage of ordinary citizens in the face of violent beatdowns and police bullying is effortlessly moving and often heartbreaking. There is a moment when an elderly man, reflecting upon a recent family tragedy, cannot find words to express his grief, and my heart just ached right then and there. I teared up at several points, I don’t mind saying.

Selma+Movie+(2)There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel that director Anna DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) was taking the easy road or pulling her punches. The screenplay respects the intelligence of the audience to sift through the politics and the arguments, to recognize when MLK is igniting a spark, and just how complicated and fragile the Selma situation was back then. Here’s a movie ostensibly about MLK but spends much of its time on the lesser known individuals like James Bevel and Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside the man, taking time to flesh them out as people rather than plot points. MLK’s wife is also given an important part to play and she’s much more than just being the Wife of Great Man. DuVernay’s direction is impeccable; you feel like she has command over every frame. The sun-dappled cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) makes great use of shadows, often bathing its subjects in low-light settings. The score is rousing without being overpowering, just like every other technical aspect. This is a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking with vision and drive.

With respect to the Academy, it’s hard for me to imagine there being five better performances than the one Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) delivers as the indomitable Martin Luther King Jr. It is rare to see an actor inhabit his or her character so completely, and Oyelowo just sinks into the skin of this man. You never feel like you’re watching an actor but the living embodiment of history made flesh. This is a complex performance that shows refreshing degrees of humanity for a figure sanctified. He was a man first and foremost, and one prone to doubts and weaknesses as well. An excellent scene with top-notch tension and peak emotion involves MLK and Coretta listening to a supposed tape of Martin’s infidelity. In the ensuing tense conversation, both parties acknowledge the reality of his affairs. It’s a scene that’s underplayed, letting the audience know she knows, and he knows she knows, but not having to rely upon large histrionics and confrontations. It’s the behind-the-scenes moments with King that brought him to life for me, watching him coordinate and plan where to go with the movement. Oyelowo perfectly captures his fiery inspirational side, knocking out every single speech with ease. It’s a performance of great nuance and grace, where you see the fear in the man’s eyes as he steps forward, hoping he’s making the best decision possible for those in desperation.

There isn’t one bad performance in the entire film, and this is a deep supporting cast including Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Lorraine Toussaint (Netflix’s Orange is the New Black), Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jeremy Strong, and Oprah Winfrey.

It’s been weeks now since I watched Selma but there are still many moments that I can recall that still have a tremendous power on me even in mere recollection. The opening sequence of the Birmingham bombing, a moment of horror frozen in chaos and debris, is a gut punch of a way to begin a movie about human beings fighting for equality. The sheer brutality of the response from the Selma police force and associates is horrifying, and a true pivot point for the movement in the eyes of the public. More so than anything else, Selma brilliantly and beautifully recreates the suffocating reality of injustice that was so prevalent for many African-American citizens, especially in the South. This is an era where people are being lynched with impunity just for being “uppity.” There was a supreme danger in simply standing up for equal rights, and many suffered as a result. The movie recreates this mood, this permeating feeling of dread and outrage and sorrow, so expertly and so artfully. From an early scene with a middle-aged black woman jumping through hoop after arbitrary hoop just to register to vote, you quickly realize that this vehemently hostile environment was never going to settle things on their “own time,” as apologists are prone to citing in lieu of federal intervention. Selma makes it abundantly clear why MLK felt the movement just could not wait, as Johnson requested. People are senselessly dying and being beaten all for the right to fairly vote. You feel the same sense of urgency with every scene, whether it’s cold-blooded murder, noxious intimidation, or reciprocation that goes above and beyond any sense of responsibility, you understand exactly the terror it was to be black in the South during this time period.

selma-marchAnother potent point of acclaim for Selma is how relevant it is to our own world today. While 12 Years a Slave was an often stirring and very professionally made biopic that exposed the ugly reality of slavery, it was not a film that screamed “immediacy.” Slavery ended in this country over 150 years ago, and while we’re still dealing with the repercussions of treating other human beings as property, it’s an easy film to dismiss in a backhanded, “Well, that was so long ago, and we’ve come so far” manner. The actions of Selma and MLK are still being felt to this day. We live in a world where many feel the justice system has its own separate-but-equal division, and the recent controversial grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner cannot be ignored. The reality for many black men in this country is statistically far more dangerous than others, fueled by a culture of entrenched racial bias that assumes the worst at first. The transit officer who executed Oscar Grant (detailed in the harrowing 2013 film Fruitvale Station) served eleven months in prison for a crime that had scads of witnesses. Garner’s death is captured on video, and yet even the Staten Island coroner’s report of “homicide” wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury that there was sufficient cause to at least go to trial. It’s been noted that prosecutors could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 30,000 cases that were not prosecuted in this country, only 11 were because a grand jury did not return an indictment (.0004%). However, grand juries rarely indict when a police officer is accused (In Dallas between 2008 and 2012, there were 81 grand jury investigations of officer shootings and only one actual indictment). It’s hard not to feel like these things don’t add up.

Then there’s the all-important struggle of voting, central to Selma and the plight of African-Americans in the South. You would think with Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act that we wouldn’t be litigating the same issues of the past, but the Supreme Court determined that this country is far different then it was in the 1960s and there was no need for the Voting Rights Act today. Within hours of striking it down, scads of new legislation appeared in the (primarily Southern) states that had been limited beforehand because of their past history of discrimination. The right to vote is just as relevant as it was during MLK’s time and there are forces trying to stifle that right, to throw up new obstacles, new hoops, new challenges, all in the name of “polling security,” never mind that the cases of in-person voter fraud are so rare as to be one in every 15 million voters. It’s a solution without a cause, and it’s why many see it as a disingenuous political ploy. It’s the twentieth-century, and yet the struggle for equality frustratingly repeats too many of the same battles. It’s this historical and contemporary context that gives Selma its extra surge of relevancy, reminding how far we still have to go, reminding the world that MLK’s work is by no means complete and that it is up to the rest of the populace to fight for the kind of country that he spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

MV5BMTYyMzE2NTE5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI3ODI2MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_It is this complex, complicated, and dire reality that hobbles another movie that tackles modern-day race relations, Mike Binder’s imprudent Black or White. The plot of the film, inspired by a true story reportedly, centers on Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a rich lawyer who has custody over his biracial granddaughter Eloise (the angelically adorable Jillian Estell). Now that Elliot has lost his wife, Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), wants joint custody so Eloise can spend time around “her own people.” The two of them push and pull and lock horns over what’s best for their grandchild, which gets more complicated when her biological father (Andre Holland, who is actually in Selma as well) comes back into the picture.

Right away you can tell very early on that there will not be anything approaching subtlety in the world of Black or White, its own title serving as the first clue. The characters are sketched broad and the premise feels like a weird mishmash of Archie Bunker appearing in a court drama. It’s a preachy movie that doesn’t have a deft hand when it comes to crafting a message that rises above easy observations disguised as something deeper. Eloise’s father, Reggie, is so poorly underwritten that he feels like he stepped off the set of some after school special. He’s addicted to crack, a lifelong screw-up, and a general disappointment that has never been present for his daughter’s life. He even smokes crack out in the open on the front porch across the street from where his mother lives. At one point, Anthony Mackie’s character berates Reggie for being a walking stereotype. Just because Binder calls attention to it doesn’t excuse it. But he’s not alone, because Spencer’s sassy black matriarch character and Costner’s gruff and frequently soused character are right there with him. The frequent arguments feel like they should be punctuated by studio audience hoots and applause, that is, if you could hear them over Terrence Blanchard’s relentlessly overpowering musical score instructing the audience exactly how to feel with every clunky moment.

-1In a way, the overbearing musical score gets at the major problem of Black or White, which is that a complicated case is being told from the safest point of view. Elliot is more akin to Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino then, say, Archie Bunker. He’s irritable and prejudiced and old-fashioned and wary but balks if you call him a bigot. I mean he’s polite to his Hispanic housekeeper. The more you examine the character the more you realize this is a movie designed to coddle an older generation (my tiny theater was packed with patrons over 60). The movie doesn’t challenge anybody and actually rewards Costner’s character and his outdated viewpoints. The opening conflict over his refusal to share custody with Rowena makes no sense. She’s an excellent grandmother, caring, nurturing, a fine role model as well for her perseverance and starting several small businesses out of her home. Not only that but Rowena is surrounded by a large family of relatives that adore Eloise. It’s contrived that these two could not agree on shared custody when they both have much to offer the girl. The only way any of this works is if Reggie is somehow responsible for the death of Eloise’s mom. Perhaps he introduced her to crack and she overdosed. Unfortunately, it’s never explained in the slightest, and so Elliot’s hostility for the entire Jeffers clan seems petulant, especially with the happiness of his granddaughter in the balance. Without better context, his rampant anger seems to be guilt-by-association overkill. To his credit, Rowena has a major and annoying blind spot when it comes to Reggie’s stability as a parent. In fact he’s so obviously still on drugs that her ongoing refusal to accept reality harms her character irreparably.

-2In the end, Black or White isn’t so much a film that about race relations as it is about privilege. Costner’s would-be bigot doesn’t have a problem with black people, just as long as those black people abide by his rules of conduct and expectation. It’s the same kind of qualification he’s never had to consider for himself, and one the intended audience will likewise miss. He comes from a wealthy position and Rowena and her family are likely lower middle class at best. He has a world of class privilege at his disposal that the loving Jeffers family does not, and because of that he feels they are less suited to raising little Eloise. Perhaps he’s worried about Reggie re-entering her life, but what animates Elliot Anderson is spite. He’s consumed with the overriding assumption that he must be right in all things. While the film draws many heavy-handed parallels between Reggie’s drug abuse and Elliot’s alcoholism, it clearly presents the both of them on completely different planes of judgment. One of them is ultimately redeemable and the other less so. Elliot’s perspective is essentially he can provide more and therefore more has to be better, but his definition of more is a private school, a housekeeper, a tutor who is treated as a caricature of initiative. Rowena provides a large and loving support system, but apparently they are less valued in the eyes of Elliot. And if you needed any more of a clue that Elliot and his sense of privilege are the unbeknownst star of the movie, he gets to deliver the big speech at the end that Says Something Meaningful. It feels a bit odd that the one character that uses the N-word in the film (albeit there is context) is the one telling lower-class black families how to live.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger); I don’t think he purposely made a film to make older, primarily white Americans feel better about thinking what they do about these troublesome times. It’s not a nefarious movie but it is misguided and will provide cover for a certain selection of audience members who wonder why nobody is asking the old white guys their opinions on modern race relations. Even overlooking this charge, Black or White is just overblown melodrama that has to constantly explain everything to you at all times and guide you through every strained point. Selma and Black or White are both aiming at hearts and minds, looking to add to the conversation on contemporary race relations, but only one of them works as both an eye-opening message of empathy and as an exceptionally made film itself.

Nate’s Grades:

Selma: A

Black or White: C


Draft Day (2014)

draft-day-posterLet there be no question, while baseball may still cling to the title of “America’s sport,” the real king in the realm of sports is football. The NFL has grown by leaps and bounds and dominated American culture, to the point that the NFL Draft is an event that millions more watch than actual games in other sports. In some way the Draft is the most optimistic day in football, where every professional team thinks they’ve found the missing pieces to make that championship run, that their draft picks will all pan out. It’s a rare day where even the Cleveland Browns can be optimistic. There’s also been a shift with the fans. Decades ago, most people would fantasize about being an NFL head coach; nowadays, in the age of number-crunching and fantasy football, most people would prefer being an NFL general manager (GM), assembling their dream team. The landscape is ready for a film like Draft Day, but will the fans turn out for a fictional outing?

Sony Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) is the GM for the Cleveland Browns and he’s put the team’s future all on the line. He’s traded draft picks with the Seattle Seahawks, jumping from number seven to number one. Everyone assume that Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) is the consensus number one. Sonny has traded his team’s first round draft picks for the next three years in order to make this move. Now, with less than twelve hours remaining before the start of the NFL Draft, he has to make sure Bo Callahan is the kind of player he wants on his team. Highly regarded Ohio State linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) has sparked doubt in Sonny. Despite what the experts think, is there something amiss with Bo? Sonny has no shortage of people with opinions on what he should do: the owner (Frank Langella) demands Bo so they can sell tickets, the coach (Denis Leary) wants a prized running back rather than having to struggle with a rookie QB, and Sonny’s coworker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), wants Sonny to come clean about their secret relationship and her impending pregnancy.

113623_galLess cerebral than Moneyball but still mightily entertaining, Draft Day is a pressure-packed crowd-pleaser skillfully made to deliver big payoffs, regardless of whether you watch football or not. Like the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, the focus is less on the game than the micromanaging of the game behind the scenes with the key personalities of an organization. The movie is knowledgeable, swift, and stuffed with characters that each have their own demands, always crashing into Sonny and pulling him in a new direction. It’s easy to see why this script was the number one screenplay on the Black List in 2013; it just moves, so effortlessly, cognizant of the ticking clock at every moment and the impending stakes for our hero. It’s a man with one mission: the future of the Browns, but with infinite ways to do it, each side pushing a favorable case for themselves. There are so many permutations to putting together a team, let alone having the number one pick. And if Sonny doesn’t make a splash, he knows he’ll be out of a job at the end of the season. It’s a position rife with conflict and dramatic payoffs. There’s the pressure of the fanbase, hungering for a winner to finally root for, the pressure of the owner, salivating over the ticket sales a splashy QB can provide, and there’s the pressure of Sonny’s own father, a man who recently passed that forces Sonny to reflect on what will be his own legacy with the Cleveland Browns. As a sports fan, it’s fascinating for me to listen to experts talk about the nuts and bolts of putting a team together. As a movie fan, it’s easy to get into the film with its underdog protagonist, a man trying to get out of a hole of his own doing, which means his moments of triumph are even more resonant.

The film smartly presents itself as a combination of an investigative mystery and a high-stakes con game. Sonny has the number one pick and yet his gut is telling him something is amiss with the surefire can’t miss quarterback prospect. With the Draft that very day, Sonny is under tremendous pressure to conduct a speedy background check into Bo Callahan. Each minute that passes the more significant it becomes to know who Bo is and follow the leads on questionable evidence; Sonny can’t assign the future of the franchise to a player that will leave it in ruins (or in the case of the Browns, more ruins). Sonny has mortgaged his team’s future and the pick better be worth it. The Freakonomics guys estimated that a bad franchise QB (think the Raiders with JaMarcus Russell in 2007) could set back a team on average five years. Likewise, the film balances this ongoing mystery with a con game. Every team is trying to fleece the gullible and needy, and Sonny fields offers for his top pick, some laughable and some tempting. Once the Draft kicks off, and Sonny steers his team in the direction he desires, that’s when the film gets even more exciting. We watch the man spin and deal and conspire, flexing muscle against other teams and regaining a position of strength. It’s tremendous fun for football fans and non-fans alike just to watch a professional in their element con his way to victory.

With as much conflict that comes naturally from the setup, I wish Draft Day didn’t feel so sitcom-y at times, shoehorning in trite additional conflicts and storylines. Let’s just assess the day for Sonny: he’s the GM with the number one pick, his future and the team’s future hangs in the balance, but his father also just died, his mother insists upon an ashes scattering burial that day, he has to perform a deep background check on his would-be franchise QB, he’s been harboring a secret relationship with an assistant who wants to go public, and he’s just been informed he’s going to be a father. That’s a lot of conflict for one man in a period of one day, and the confluence of all this drama in such a short window of time is far too unbelievable. You might wager that at the end of Draft Day Sonny puts a pistol in his mouth. The romance with Ali, and his impending fatherhood, never really works, serving up Sonny an opportunity to reflect and squeeze in some exposition, a life outside of football. The romance subplot feels tacked on and malnourished. Likewise, there are characters and moments that feel like they were slapped together as apart of some broad marketing package. Ali has a hapless intern who always comically happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, it’s supposed to be funny, but it just feels forced. There’s a scene where the Browns’ coach sets a draft analysis on fire, dropping it onto Sonny’s desk, only to have Ali douse it with a fire extinguisher. Football is a theatrical game to begin with, attracting colorful characters with oversized egos, but actions like this just feel strangely silly and false.

113630_galDirector Ivan Reitman hasn’t made many films since 2001’s underrated Evolution, and one of those was the horrendously unfunny, misogynistic My Super Ex-Girlfriend, so the prospect of “an Ivan Reitman film” doesn’t have the same draw as it once did. His touch with actors is still kicking. Costner (3 Days to Kill) is great in a role suited to his talents. Even with a thankless role, Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) can be a winning big screen presence. The film is packed with great actors filling out even the smallest of roles (hooray Sam Elliott, Chi McBride, Terry Crews, Timothy Simons, and Kevin Dunn). Boseman impressed me more with a handful of scenes here than in the entirety of 42 as Jackie Robinson. The best decision Reitman makes as a director is to present the movie as the breezy two hour-entertainment it is, keeping the pacing to the floor. However, Reitman gets drunk on his use of split-screens. It begins on an interesting note, with one side transitioning beyond the division of the split-screen. Then it happens again and again, sometimes repeatedly in one scene. It was a neat visual device that Reitman just can’t let go of, which might actually get some people queasy with the sliding scenes.

Time for a personal disclosure: as a diehard fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes and a relative fan of the ever-suffering Cleveland Browns, this movie was tailor-made for my own sports fandom. The people of Cleveland will especially enjoy this movie. During my preview screening, when the Seahawks brass asked, “Who would be that desperate?” and the scene cut to a skyline of Cleveland, my audience cheered. That’s us, they all agreed. The world of Draft Day also exists in a slightly parallel plane where the Dallas Cowboys have won “a lot” including recent championships. Enjoy that fiction, Dallas fans. In the original draft by writers by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, Sonny was the GM of the Buffalo Bills, but cosmically it just feels correct that it’s the Browns, a team defined by its long history of letdowns, epic collapses, draft busts, and comical mismanagement. It’s eerie that the Browns themselves are faced with a similar situation for the 2014 Draft. Many pundits predict the Browns will select a new franchise QB with their number four pick, but are any of these young men up to snuff? Are there character concerns for Johnny Football? Should the Browns give their own promising quarterback another chance after a season-ending injury before starting over at the position? Eerie.

Draft Day isn’t exactly the football equivalent of Moneyball, but it’s close, though more mainstream in appeal and execution. As a football fan, I’ve been looking for an intelligent and analytical look behind the scenes of the most physical of American sports. In 1999, Oliver Stone came close with the noisy and expansive Any Given Sunday. With this movie, we have a mixture of genres (mystery, con, existential drama) that turn the sports movie into something greater. It’s fun, often humorous, breezy, charming, and agreeably entertaining even when it takes one too many forced detours amidst all the conflict. You don’t have to be a football fan to have a good time with Draft Day, though it helps. This movie very well may be the highpoint of the Cleveland Browns’ season this year.

Nate’s Grade: B+


3 Days to Kill (2014)

3-days-to-kill-posterLuc Besson has long been a household industry when it comes to action movies, especially in the last ten years. The man has had his hand scripting, producing, and sometimes directing the Transporter films, Columbiana, Lockout, District B-13 and its soon-to-be released American remake Brick Mansions, The Family, and most popular of all, the Taken movies. Besson’s got his fingers in just about every Parisian action movie. But with a prevailing influence there is also the challenge of keeping things fresh. It’s easy to fall back on formula, which is precisely where 3 Days to Kill finds itself stuck.

Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is one of the top spies for the CIA, but a rare and terminal medical condition has taken him out of the field. He seeks out his ex(?) wife (Connie Nielsen) and their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), a girl he’s mostly sent messages on her birthday as the extent of his parental involvement. While living in Paris with his family, the mysterious Vivi (amber Heard) promises a radical drug treatment to extend Ethan’s life, but in return she needs his help killing some notorious terrorists in town.

112896_galWe’ve all seen this movie before. In fact we’ve probably seen something similar enough produced by Luc Besson just in the last year or so. The formula is worked over and only the most die-hard action junkies will walk away fully satisfied. The plot is predictable from start to finish, short of the comic flourishes, and has all the trappings you’d expected with a simple middle-of-the-road genre picture. It’s a major surprise that the action sequences are lackluster and unimaginative. With Besson as co-writer, and McG as director, I expected at least a few sequences that would stand out from the crowd, some inventive takes on the action genre. Alas, it’s the same old shootouts, car chases, and the like. I’m not a huge McG fan but I can at least credit the man for his visual style, which, despite the quality of the films, was evident in Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation. With this movie, you would never be able to tell that a former music video stylist directed this. There is no trace of style outside a brief series of shots inside a Parisian tattoo parlor/club that provides some PG-13-approved partial nudity. It’s workmanlike direction with few images or compositions that rise above ordinary. Like most of 3 Days to Kill, the visuals are disappointingly bland and drably familiar.

There are also sizeable plot holes that jump out immediately. I’m not even talking about the usual action film clichés, like the good guys being expert sharpshooters, etc. First off, the name implies a remote time period, a natural opportunity for a ticking clock. He’s got three days to kill the bad guy… or else. But the movie never really provides an or else, nor does it really justify the title. Why does Ethan need three days to kill the bad guy? He’s spending three days watching his daughter, but that’s it. We’re given no real sense of urgency and the characters, the spies, don’t ever seem to sweat or panic. Ethan spends most of the second act bonding with his teenage daughter, teaching her how to ride a bike, and so on. These are not the actions of a man with a ticking clock. Then there’s the premise that Ethan has a rare cancer that requires a rare treatment that only Vivi offers. Ethan injects himself with this magic substance and it seems to do the tick, that is, unless his heart level gets too high. Then he starts to hallucinate and collapse. So there you have it, the plot of the Crank films now with a French polish. The problem with this scenario is that it ONLY happens during the most stupid of times. Instead of Ethan’s heart rate getting too high in the middle of deadly shootouts and speeding car chases, it’s generally when he’s one-on-one with an unarmed bad guy. Even with this, apparently drinking alcohol will slow down his heart rate. Knowing this, why doesn’t Ethan carry a flask of liquor on his person at all times then? He’s supposed to be a professional!

Despite the overwhelming mediocrity and formula-laden efforts, there are a few surprising and effective notes in 3 Days to Kill. The humor, Besson’s tongue-in-cheek genre riffing, is spry and involving enough that I wish the film had followed this tantalizing angle and become an all-out comedy. Ethan’s attempts to balance watching his daughter with his spy hijinks bears well developed comedic moments. Take for instance an informant that Ethan is intimidating for vital intel. His daughter’s phone call interrupts the scene, and she says she needs a recipe for spaghetti sauce. It just so happens the informant is an actual Italian, and so Ethan puts him on the phone. The informant recognizes that the longer he talks the longer he might live, so he draws out relating the recipe, and keeps mentioning how much he truly loves his mother and how she has no one else to take care of her. It’s a small scene but it’s clever and a nice twist on the formula. There’s another humorous scene where Vivi and Ethan debate the difference between beards and mustaches, since she told him to kill the guy with one and not the other. Ethan also forms an offbeat relationship with another informant, a limo driver named Mitat (Marc Andreoni), that becomes so casual, he knowingly helps himself into Ethan’s car trunk, requesting to be back before 4 PM since that’s when his daughters get home. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll make an effort,” Ethan says before slamming the trunk shut. This is the kind of stuff the film needed more of, well-crafted asides that punctuate how silly spy movies often are. If only the film just wanted to be funny.

video-undefined-1A34901500000578-98_636x358I think Besson and his coterie believed that Heard’s (Paranoia, Machete Kills) character was a constant source of comedy, but she’s really a hollow pinup, a video game avatar come alive. There is no character here, which may be part of the jape, because she’s all style and moody, pert sexuality. She just sort of appears whenever the movie needs a dose of sex appeal (sorry Costner fans). I think her aloof and calculating manner is meant to be taken as comedy. She’s brusque but without any real sense of joy. Not to take anything away from heard; she is a woman of stellar beauty, but just having a sexy gal make droll quips while dressed in a corset isn’t the stuff of comedy but fetish.

I have enjoyed Costner’s (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) late spate of film roles and even enjoyed Mr. Brooks. But he’s all wring for this film, which looks like a modern Liam Neeson vehicle that he wisely passed on. Costner is convincing as a no-nonsense authority, but he’s not ready to take that Neeson-sized step into AARP action star. He sounds like he has a frog permanently lodged in his throat, or they filmed the entire film during a month where Costner was getting over a furious case of step throat. Perhaps he was doing his best Harrison Ford impression. Whatever the case may be, it’s not exactly winning, and while the actor sells the comedy bits easier, the badass moments lack the real punch the movie needs. Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender’s Game) has a nice rapport with Costner and she doesn’t overplay the teenage outbursts. Her character starts to grow a more intriguing dimension when she seems to possess her father’s traits, but she’s too quickly funneled back into being a helpless damsel to shriek and cry.

When it comes to 3 Days to Kill, there isn’t enough new to justify or even enough effectively entertaining to justify your valuable time. Now, if your time is less valuable, say disposable, and your expectations are low, then perhaps you’ll find a serviceable amount of entertainment in this formulaic action thriller. When the most exciting part of your movie is the comic relief, then maybe it should have been time to start over.

Nate’s Grade: C


Man of Steel (2013)

1985I think I began my review for 2006’s Superman Returns the same way but I don’t care. Does Superman have any relevant appeal in today’s society? I understand being a moral pinnacle has been his MO from the start, and I understand that today’s generation likes its heroes dark and broody and tortured. I know you can make Superman into an interesting figure (the man just celebrated his 75th anniversary, so there have to be some people who identify), though it is a bigger challenge, surely. I think taking a darker tack can be achievable but needs finesse. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, having fashioned the highly successful Dark Knight trilogy, seem like a formidable pair to shepherd a darker Superman into the twenty-first century. Combine that with director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), and you’re guaranteed a pretty movie. Where does Man of Steel go wrong?

You know the drill at this point: Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) was originally born on the doomed alien planet Krypton. His biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), sent his son to Earth with the hope that he could survive and achieve great things. Raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), he then accepts his destiny to be mankind’s protector, butting heads and flirting with dogged reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Except now Superman has the entire genetic code of Krypton’s history (?) transported into him via a “codex” (whish resembles a charred baby skull). General Zod (Michael Shannon), imprisoned off planet when Krypton was destroyed, is determined to retrieve that code and start his race anew. He and his crew travel to Earth and demand superman turn himself in, or else Earth will suffer.

man-of-steel-flagWhere this movie gets into deep trouble is that it fashions Superman into an inactive loner, turning him into a super bore. He has such superhuman strength at his command but his doubtful dad has taught him that humanity would lose its mind if he revealed himself. And so Superman goes through half this movie hiding his super ability. He actively avoids conflict and confrontation. It’s basically the same formula as the Incredible Hulk TV show, where Bruce Banner would drift from town to town, warning others not to make him angry, then mournfully have to leave yet again. He can’t help himself save lives but, in flashback, dearly departed dad admonishes him for it (Clark: “Should I just have let them die?” Pa Kent: “Maybe.”). I think the isolation the character endures is essential to understanding his heavy burden, but at the same time this was compensated by Clark Kent, Superman’s opportunity to blend in with the natives, assume a frail phony identity, and to flash some much needed personality. In Man of Steel, he doesn’t become Clark Kent, news reporter, until the very last scene. It’s not a movie about a man becoming Superman but Clark Kent, experience-free reporter.

Two of the chief complaints about Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman movie were that it was too reverent to its source material, namely the Richard Donner films, and it lacked sufficient action. Well, both of those issues are tackled in the very opening of Man of Steel. Goyer reworks plenty of Superman mythology from a science fiction angle, and so we get stuff about alien invaders, genetic bloodlines, clone baby labs, teraforming, and all sorts of spaceships. The characters keep referring to Superman as “the alien,” and dad worries that the knowledge of his super son will upset people’s worldviews about humanity and God (have no fear, there’s still messianic imagery to sledgehammer you with). I’m fine with Goyer playing fast and loose with Superman’s history but his alterations need to have solid reasoning. Nolan played around with Batman’s history and it worked because, in the context of the world and characters he developed, it fit. Does Jor-El riding a dragon like a live-action Heavy Metal fit? Does a billion people’s DNA transposed into Superman’s cells fit? Do Superman’s actions during the quite controversial ending fit? Does Clark’s stepdad, Jonathan Kent, willingly dying in a tornado fit? Does Lois Lane immediately knowing who Superman is, before he even adopts the Clark Kent disguise, fit? I doubt it, though it still could have worked. However, Goyer’s script is a mess structurally, preventing the story from gaining serious traction. First, we start with twenty-something minutes on Krypton, which could be condensed in half, then we slam into the present and this new formula appears: present, flashback, present, flashback, present. That happens for another twenty minutes. Then there’s 40 minutes of Superman dithering as the reluctant hero. Then the last hour plus is a nonstop barrage of meaningless action that squeezes out room for character growth.

I’ll credit Snyder and company for likely tripling the action quotient of any previous Superman movie (maybe even all of them combined), but I never thought such action would be so boring. Oh sure, it delights for a while with advanced special effects and Snyder’s eye for visuals, but the action sequences drag out far too long. A long action sequence? Isn’t that what you’re always demanding, critic Nate? Well anonymous and theoretical detractor, yes, I enjoy a well-developed and sustained action sequence. The problem with action sequences is that they have to matter. They have to accomplish something even if it’s just there are less enemies or the hero got from point A to point B. There has to be, at bare minimum, something that is accomplished. Sadly, this is not the case with the action in Man of Steel, which is why the sequences drag and feel like they are twice as long as their already bloated length. There’s a brawl between two evil Kryptonians and Superman and after a whole 10-15 minutes of sparring, the bad guys get on a ship and leave. Come on, Zod has like a crew of twelve henchmen. Can’t one of them at least die in a preliminary battle? Worse, the final confrontation between Zod and Superman could just as easily been eliminated. They punch and yell and punch and yell and stuff gets all smashy, but by the end of the fight, nothing has substantially changed, except the foundational surroundings (more on that below). Having two invincible beings punch each other for a half hour is not engrossing. For a lengthy action sequence to work there need to be complications, organic to the situation, and the stakes should escalate. James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are masters at crafting escalating action. J.J. Abrams is pretty good himself. Even Michael Bay has his merits. I don’t know whether to lay the crux of the blame on Snyder or the screenplay he had to give life.

man-of-steel-michael-shannon-600x437-thumb-630xauto-37875As the plodding action continued to pound me senseless, I was left to seriously ponder just how epic the scale of Superman’s collateral damage truly is. At one point, when Supes is fighting in the small-town center of Smallville, he tells the residents to, “Stay inside. It’s not safe.” What then proceeds to happen is a fight that rips up almost all the pavement in town, takes down a helicopter, a few fighter jets that crash in town, exploding, as well as a train car, plenty of ricocheting gunfire, and debris everywhere. But have no fear because those citizens stayed away from the windows and locked their doors! More than likely they are dead. The concluding clash in Metropolis is like 9/11 times eight. I counted three different skyscrapers that came tumbling down, and this is after the Krypton gravity field has ripped up the city and smashed it to dust, as well as missiles exploding around the city and Zod’s various spaceships. Then there’s the fight where Zod and Superman are blasting through just about every high-rise office building, and even when they collide outside it creates such force that buildings crater. They even fly into space, destroy a satellite, which then comes down as fiery debris that rains down on poor Metropolis. The final plan to foil the bad guys involves, get this, opening a black hole above a major city. It’s not like that sounds as if it will have catastrophic blowback.

The 9/11 imagery is unmistakable and I don’t care if it has been 12 years now. Couldn’t Superman at least react to the desolation he was causing? I really hope some enterprising soul via the Internet tallies the number of estimated deaths because I sincerely believe it would reach into the millions (Update: Ask and ye shall receive). Superman decimates the city and I thought less about the gee-whiz factor of the special effects and more about the innocent lives being lost amidst the CGI devastation. It looks like an atomic bomb went off. Perhaps a sequel will start with Lex Luthor rebuilding Metropolis.

And that’s the problem when you try and make sense of Man of Steel’s more realistic, grounded approach. This is a Superman that came of age in the 80/90s. While touches like young Clark experiencing sensory overload with his powers, like a scared autistic child, are clever and nice avenues toward relatability, you still have to square the more bombastic, over-the-top, and downright stupid moments that clash with that refined tone of greater realism. Nolan wanted Batman to exist in a recognizable world, so it makes sense that he and Goyer would attempt to do likewise with DC’s other champion. The prospect of an invincible alien among us is a potent source for some thoughtful and topical drama. It’s just not going to happen when Superman can demolish cities without blinking an eye or when anyone else fails to register the scale of this tremendous trauma. We don’t even have outside reactions or opinions to the earth-shattering revelation that we are not alone in the universe.

Then there are just the little things that annoyed me. Jonathan Kent dies in an effort to save the family dog. This comes off as lame, especially when Superman could save dad but has to hold back, per pa’s wishes, so as not to expose himself. Except, by the end, when the United States accepts Superman, doesn’t this invalidate all of Pa Kent’s worldview? If so, then the man died for nothing. Also, General Zod wants to transform Earth into Krypton. Except… on Earth all Kryptonians have godlike powers. Wouldn’t the man just want to keep that? Also, why does Zod never dispatch more than two Krypton lackeys to fight Superman? He has all these godlike warriors and decides to just keep them locked away in his spaceship. That just doesn’t make sense from a tactical standpoint. Also, Pa Kent tells his son to do his best to blend in, but in one scene bullies harass Clark as he’s reading from Plato. Yes, because your typical teenager can’t rip himself or herself away from the likes of Plato. Careful: Plato is a gateway read to Epicurus. Then there’s the overbearing product placement. Usually I give movies a pass if they’re not obnoxious with product placement; however, Man of Steel stages entire action sequences so we can get long-lasting looks at the logos for Sears, 7-11, and IHOP: “This callous destruction brought to you by the good (surviving) people at Sears.”

man-steel-amy-adams-henry-cavillCavill (Immortals, TV’s The Tudors) sure has the look for the part. He’s appropriately bulky but because the role is too often inactive loner, always holding back, that makes his performance somewhat bland and more reticent than necessary. Part of this is also that Snyder has historically been a poor actor’s director. You can tell throughout the film as talented, Oscar-nominated and winning thespians like Crowe and Shannon will just give off deliveries, little tinny trills that clunk, moments that a director should have stepped in for. Shannon (Take Shelter, Premium Rush) is one of our best working wacko actors, but even he comes across as a bit too unrestrained and stiff, especially when he has to scream “I will find HIM” half a dozen times in a row. I thought Zod’s second-in-command played by German actress Antje Traue (Pandorum) had more personality and better moments. Adams (The Master, Trouble with the Curve) is a good choice for a plucky Lois Lane, especially one sharp enough to see through Clark’s disguise. The movie is packed with good character actors like Laurence Fishburne, Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni, Michael Kelly, Richard Schiff, Mackenzie Gray, and two actors from Battlestar Galactica. That’s nice. The best actor in the movie is Dylan Sprayberry as teen Clark.

Snyder’s reworked Superman for our modern age just doesn’t cut it as popular entertainment. Its misshapen structure, heavy with exposition, doesn’t provide enough space for the characters to develop, and the general edict to make Superman an inactive loner on the fringes of society is a surefire way to keep an audience at bay. The CGI-heavy action sequences feel like they go on for an eternity, straining and struggling to keep your attention because the stakes fail to escalate or have consequences outside ridiculous amounts of collateral damage to rival the worst of Mother Nature. The over-amped sci-fi reworking tries to make a clean break from the demands of Superman’s mythology, and while some revamps work, most feel needless and ham-fisted, like Pa Kent’s somewhat pointless death. But the worst charge is that the movie is just too boring. I know people have levied this charge against Superman movies in the past, particularly the 2006 Singer film that I will still stand by my positive review for. Man of Steel is a good looking movie for certain, often a great looking movie, but all those pretty pictures are for naught because of a flawed approach and overindulgence with tedious action sequences. Given its box-office riches, I expect this Superman retread will garner the sequel that Singer’s film did not. I just hope the next chapter in the new adventures of Superman experiences a Dark Knight-level rise in quality.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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