MOVIE REVIEW SPECIAL: A Springtim Mix and Match
April 10, 2014
With Spring in full bloom and along with it the freewheeling spirit of growth, vibrancy, color and the brightness of a new day after a long cold winter, not to mention spring breaks taking hold across the nation this week, Hollywood adds its own bouquet to the mix with a colorful collection of studio releases and indies alike with something to please everyone from the animated and musically delightful RIO 2 where we take a trip south of the border to the Amazon rainforest with everyone’s favorite blue macaws Blu and Jewel to a demonically possessed mirror in OCULUS, to the sensually languid ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE with the vampyrically delicious Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, not to mention the 5th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
Number 1 in my heart and my Number 1 movie draft pick this weekend is DRAFT DAY. As I told director Ivan Reitman, I may love the football draft day itself, but I LOVE DRAFT DAY the movie. Talk about a winning team! Directed by Reitman from a script by diehard football fans and screenwriters, Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, DRAFT DAY takes us off the field and into the executive suites during the course of one day in the life of football and the life of Cleveland Browns fictional General Manager, Sonny Weaver, Jr., that day being “Draft Day”.
With Kevin Costner calling the plays as Sonny Weaver, Jr., DRAFT DAY boasts one hell of an offensive line-up with some special teams to rival any cast on screen today - Jennifer Garner as girlfriend and Browns salary cap manager Ali, Denis Leary as Browns head coach Penn, former pro football player Terry Crews as Browns legend Early Jennings and fellow player Arian Foster as his son and early round draft pick Ray Jennings, Josh Pence as #1 draft pick Bo Callahan with Sean Combs easily adding two point conversion as Callahan’s agent Chris Crawford, Tom Welling as the current QB Brian Drew, Ellen Burstyn as Sonny’s mother Barb Weaver and Frank Langella as Anthony Molina team owner-without-a-clue-about-the-game. And if that’s not enough, how about a back line with, among others, NFL players Demario Davis, James Brewer, Ramses Barden and Stephen Hill, not to mention the actual ESPN on-air crew of Chris Berman, Mel Kiper, Rich Eisen, Mike Mayock, Deion Sanders and Jon Grudenalso. And how about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell himself?
With less than 13 hours until the 2013 NFL draft starts, all eyes are on #1 prospect Bo Callahan, a QB out of University of Wisconsin. Thanks to his savvy agent Chris Crawford is postured as the subject of what many predict will be an intense bidding war during these final hours. Browns coach Sonny Weaver is behind the eight-ball. With a 2012 6-10 season, owner Anthony Molina is looking for any reason to fire him, as are the Cleveland fans who are less than disappointed with the fact that when Weaver came onto the scene, he fired his own father, a legendary and beloved coach who took the Browns to greatness in the past, while Sonny Jr. Has done anything but. Needing a miracle to save his job and the Browns, Weaver is slated to pick seventh in the first round; not an enviable place in Weaver’s current position. And as if this isn’t enough pressure, the morning of DRAFT DAY his girlfriend Ali - who also happens to be the team’s salary cap manager - drops the bombshell that she’s pregnant and wants to discuss the situation “now.” For Sonny, on today of all days, “now” isn’t possible.
But Sonny Weaver is no ordinary man. He will get through the day. He will make the plays and pass the ball as needed, starting with making a deal with the Devil; in this case, the Seattle Seahawks. Sonny will get the Seahawks #1 first-round draft slot in exchange for the Browns’ next three years of first-round picks. This will give Sonny a shot at Bo Callahan, but is that who he wants, is that who he needs, is that who the team needs, especially when they have a QB who is at the top of his game playing better than ever. Adding fuel to the frenzied fire is Coach Penn who not only dislikes Sonny but he hates rookie players. Penn wants a running back, specifically one RB - Ray Jennings, son of Browns legend Earl. It doesn’t hurt Penn’s cause that Ray and Earl both are also hounding Sonny to draft Ray. And then there’s Ohio State linebacker Vontae Mack who will give up his soul to play for Sonny and the Browns. And Vontae’s got something that Sonny values above all else - character and integrity.
And so the wheeling and dealing begins with Sonny making deals upon deals with fascinating methodical machination as the clock ticks down to the NFL Commissioner declaring “Draft Day” open.
As Kevin Costner has done for the sport of baseball, so he now does with football bringing his own "everyman, everyday conscience and ethics" and setting the tone. Costner’s Sonny is the calm amidst chaos. Giving Sonny an introspective and quiet nature, on the occasions when the voice does get raised or the fist pounds the table, the effect is palpable and forces you to sit up and take notice both on and off screen. Jennifer Garner is a delight as the no-nonsense Ali, finding the balance between hard nose businesswoman and just being a woman in love with a man. As Garner disclosed during our press day for DRAFT DAY, to prepare for the role of Ali she actually shadowed the Browns salary-cap manager, a female by the way (as are many), incorporating not only manner and style, but actual clothing style to further the authenticity of the experience.
Some wonderful foils come in the form of Denis Leary, Ellen Burstyn and Frank Langella. Each commands not only their respective role but our respect when on screen. Each is confident, loud, brash and the individual dynamics created with Costner resonate.
A perfect blend of talent comes from Tom Welling, Josh Pence, Chadwick Boseman and particularly, Terry Crews and Arian Foster, themselves involved in actual draft days; for Crews it was in 1991 when he was 11th round #281 when picked by the L.A. Rams while for Foster the phone never rang on draft day but he was eventually signed as an undrafted free agent. As Foster stated, “[Making DRAFT DAY] gave me my own draft day!” Boseman’s Vontae Mack is a perfect youthful compliment to Costner’s Sonny while there is never a second that you don’t see Welling, Pence and Boseman as football players.
Given that comedy legend Ivan Reitman is the man at the helm of DRAFT DAY, I was expecting a laugh out loud funny comedy. That’s not what we get. What Reitman and team deliver is a richly textured character study not only about a man and those around him, but about character, ethics and integrity. The fact that this man happens to be a general manager in the NFL just adds that extra point and affords screenwriters Joseph and Rothman the opportunity to steep the film in authenticity with stats, scouting, analysis, rewatching of game-day videos of potential draft picks, telephone calls upon telephone calls among various team managers, and dialogue that serves up a perfect blend of actual historical names, plays and real life 20/20 hindsight. Even more interesting is the infusion of budgetary concerns and salary caps as well as appeasing the all important fans. But then Reitman gives us something we haven’t seen before - full participation of the NFL, multiple teams in the league, ESPN and the biggest surprise of all, being allowed to film during the actual DRAFT DAY at Radio City Music Hall. Blending actual “Draft Day” footage shot in more an experiential documentary format with the narrative of the rest of the film is effective and engaging, fully immersing the audience in the excitement of the moment.
Calling on cinematographer Eric Steelberg. Reitman and Steelberg create a clean, bright, unfettered pallet that gives the characters room to breathe in what is essentially a claustrophobic situation. Tension and suspense are ratcheted up as the clock keeps running thanks to a split-screen technique closely associated with Ross Hunter films back in the 60's but now taken to a new level that not only gives life to the static nature of telephone calls, but moves characters seemingly from one screen into the next, one call into the next, pacing, walking, active motion that crosses over between the split screens, giving not only a three dimensional life to these phone negotiations, but puts the audience in the room with the coaches and managers. This is fantasy football come to life.
As Costner himself describes DRAFT DAY, “It’s really about the human element. . .It’s the moments [like that] where we see ourselves and we chuckle. When we’re in the middle of our own life, it’s not very funny and we’re confused. But this movie, it’s not about football. It’s about that age old thing of people who love each other who just can’t seem to get it together for a while and then finally do. We adore that. We want that.” And yes, character does count.
THE RAILWAY MAN
Based on the true story of former WWII Japanese prisoner of war Eric Lomax and script adaptation by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, director Jonathan Teplitzky brings us Lomax’s harrowing story of survival under the most brutal of circumstances, and the power of redemption and forgiveness.
Seeming a mild-mannered slightly odd duck with an obsession for railroads and timetables, it doesn’t take long for us to learn that Lomax is a bit damaged from his experiences in the war, experiences of which he doesn’t want to speak, experiences which terrorize him day and night. While serving as radio man for a British contingent stationed in the Far East, on capture as prisoners of war, Eric and his entire unit, as well as others, are forced to work as slave labor, building the Thailand-Burma Railway aka Death Railway.
A loner for the past 40 years, serendipity plays a hand when Eric meets Patti on a train. It’s love at first sight. But Eric tells Patti nothing about his past and it is only after they’re married that she sees him start to break down, become more reclusive, violent, confused. A former nurse, Patti realizes this is a result of whatever happened in the war. She also knows that the only way to heal is to face the past, confront it, and after pleading with one of Eric’s former brothers-in-arms, she learns of the horrors all of the men endured as prisoners; that is, up to a point, as Eric has never spoken to anyone of what happened to him, what tortured he endured, when he was taken from the group and imprisoned alone, in a cage, in a dark room. And now decades later, those tortures are as real as ever.
Set in the 1980's, Teplitzky relies on vividly lensed flashbacks of Eric’s time as a Japanese POW that assail the senses with light, texture, saturated color and sound. The terror is real, palpable. We feel the pain of each horror inflicted on Eric. We see his future being shaped by the tortures inflicted upon him. We also see the strength of the human spirit, the resilience and hope.
Those human qualities are delicately and expertly brought to life not only by Colin Firth as an aged Eric, but moreso, by Jeremy Irvine as Young Eric who should garner Academy attention come Oscar time. As Eric’s loving and devoted wife, Patti, Nicole Kidman brings a quiet gravitas to Patti of which I wish we had seen more. Kidman and Firth connect with a comfortable ease serving as a soft balance to the tortures of Eric’s past life. Stellan Skarsgaard serves well as Eric’s former commander Finlay, giving the character an authoritative yet compassionate edge instrumental in the development of the film’s third act.
Not to divulge the plot developments for those who haven’t read Lomax’s book of the same name on which the film is based, suffice to say that THE RAILWAY MAN packs an emotional punch to move even the coldest heart; so powerful you feel the pain, you feel burdens lift as demons are faced, you feel the forgiveness fill the screen and the room....and just watching, you are lifted and uplifted.
For full reviews and interviews on these movies and more, as well as some TCM Film Festival red carpet highlights of its celebration of the Golden Age of Hollywood, go to http://www.moviesharkdeblore.com.