Saturday, June 27, 2015

New Release! Jurassic World (2015)

The Mosasaurus in the poster is one of the most
awe-inspiring visuals in the movie.
Director: Colin Trevorrow

Plenty of popcorn fun for most movie-goers. Discriminating viewers will need to turn off their brains a bit, though.

If, like nearly all of the modern world, you saw the original 1993 Jurassic Park, then you can guess what to expect from the plot. Yes, there are a few updates and tweaks to the mythology. By the time Jurassic World starts, the original park has recovered to its status as a Disneyworld-like destination theme park of the highest order. Various species of the long-extinct dinosaurs have been brought to life through the marvel of genetics, and they are running all over the mountainous and tropical terrains of the island. Of course, it isn't long before something goes amiss, thanks in great part to the hubris of several people involved in the park's operations.

In this particular episode of the series, the missteps of the human scientists, greedy capitalists, and a military zealot coalesce into the terrifying form of a murderous new species of dinosaur, dubbed the Indominus rex. The Indominus, which is a mysterious hybrid of initially-unknown species, breaks free of its prison and goes on a kill-crazy rampage around the island. This sets up many different action and suspense sequences, pitting Indominus against other dinosaurs as well as platoons of human soldiers sent out to take down the monstrous beast. For those who like plenty of action and aren't bothered by heavy use of high quality CGI, then the movie will give you more than your fill.

For my part, the action became rather dull by the mid-way point of the film.  There are some scenes and sequences that I found rather clever and entertaining, especially during the initial escape of the Indominus. Eventually, though, the movie became a near-blur of hundreds of dinosaurs running and flying around while thousands of humans either ran from them or tried to shoot them. There were times when I couldn't shake the sense that I was watching a massive multiplayer online first-person shooter video game. It also didn't help that there was almost no initial build-up to the actual reveal of the dinosaurs or the park, which robbed the film of some potential awe factor.

The plot does nothing to enhance or evolve action adventure movies, either. The human element takes the form of two brothers, the hyper intelligent 12-year-old Gray and his detached 15-year old brother Zack. The two get stuck in the wild as the Indominus wreaks havoc, which predictably becomes a bonding experience for the siblings. There is nothing exactly wrong or offensive about these characters or their story, but there's also little that is especially interesting about them, either. Gray's implied genius - the one possibly fascinating character trait that either of them have - is somewhat underused.

After seeing how well he played a rebellious, funny action
hero in
Guardians of the Galaxy, it was a little disappointing
to see Chris Pratt have to work from an oft-lukewarm script.
Other characters fit a little too well into adventure movie stereotypes. You have Claire, the career-obsessed "ice queen" female who needs disaster, dinosaurs, and a strapping hunk to remind her that human lives matter. You have Owen, the savvy, swaggering adventuring "man of action." The latter is actually given enough depth to make him interesting, but he still is the one who saves the woman and children from the rampaging thunder lizards around them. It's a basic story arc that would have been right at home in a 1940s western starring John Wayne.

All that said, I can't say that the movie was bad. There are just enough clever moments, decent jokes, and grand spectacle to fulfil its promise to summer moviegoers. It's an escapist flick with a whole bunch of dinosaurs stomping around. The movie's attempts to get profound or funny may fall flat much of the time, but the essential fun is there. Kids who love dinosaurs will get plenty of excitement from it, and anyone wanting to have a little harmless amusement at the movies are likely to enjoy it with them. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

New(ish) Releases: The Theory of Everything (2014); Mr. Turner (2014); Bad Words (2014)

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Director: James Marsh

A decent movie, but one that I found to be a bit over-hyped by the Oscar attention that it garnered.

As you likely know, the movie follows the life of Stephen Hawking, easily the most famous astrophysicist of the last half century. Almost everyone on the planet, if not exactly familiar with Hawking's scientific theories, is familiar with the iconic image of the genius who has been confined to a wheelchair by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) since he was in his early 20s. There have been more than a few books and documentary films which have covered the man's theories on time and space. The Theory of Everything, however, focuses on the relatively little-known ground of his personal relationship with his first wife.

Most of the film tells the story of Hawking's meeting and marriage to his first wife, Jane Wilde. The two met while Hawking was a doctoral student at Cambridge, and they fell in love shortly before his diagnosis with ALS. The movie covers the roughly two decades that follow, focusing much on Jane's struggle to care for her brilliant but incapacitated husband through his growing fame and success. Theirs was an alternately touching, sad, and complex relationship, made no less difficult by the intelligent Jane's own trouble balancing her own ambitions and desires. There is certainly enough material for drama.

I must admit, though, that the film didn't capture me as much as it perhaps could have. There is nothing that I can say is "weak" about it. The acting is excellent, spearheaded by Eddie Redmayne's Oscar-winning performance as Hawking. The sets and costumes are brilliant, and the general direction is strong. However, I felt that the overall impact of Hawking's theories on humanitys' body of knowledge was not emphasized enough. We can see that he becomes a celebrity, but the gravity of his scientific contributions felt conspicuously absent. The love story also seemed to lack a bit of punch, to the point that I found myself only marginally engaged in the entire story.

If you're interested in Stephen Hawking, the better approach is probably just to read one of the biographies on him, read his A Brief History of Time, and then watch Terry Zwigoff's brilliant biopic/documentary of the same name. It will be far more fulfilling and informative.

Just one of the many, many beautiful shots which are worth taking in.
Mr. Turner (2014)

Director: Mike Leigh

When I checked this out from Viva Video!, the proprietor Miguel stated that this was a movie that he was a bit reluctant to watch, fearing that it might be "too British."

His fears were well-founded.

Mr. Turner is, indeed, one of the most "British" movies you are likely to see. There are stuffy old white guys, highly polished accents, and a several drawing room discussions. For much of it's running time, though, there is no real problem with this. By its end, though, it all felt rather long in the tooth and bloated.

If you've heard anyone talk about the movie, they have probably mentioned the visuals. They are, indeed, stunning. The colors of Turner's landscape paintings are dazzling, as are many of the shots of actual landscapes in England and Holland. Add in the meticulously designed and constructed costumes and sets, and you have a film that is visually entrancing.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the portrayal of Turner himself. For about half of the movie, it is interesting to watch this bulbous, grunting, artistic genius go about his life. It doesn't take terribly long to see that he is a hefty bag of contradictions wearing a stovepipe hat. He's a quietly profound and brilliant artist with a keen eye for rendering landscapes in novel and beautiful ways. At the same time, he has no idea how to communicate with people about his emotions towards them, including his wife and children, from whom he is estranged. He is also locked in a bizarre sexual relationship with his maid, whereby he treats her with the same consideration he offers a piece of furniture, despite their physical intimacy.

These things are interesting to learn about this enigmatic and supremely talented man. The problem is that we learn all of these things by the one-hour mark. After that, it takes another 70-plus minutes to watch him slowly become marginalized, artistically, and then die. Granted, the film is polished enough that it doesn't really feel like a chore until the final 20 to 30 minutes a clicking along. Up until that point, the visual skill and the performance of Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner are reason enough to watch. Still, it lost enough steam by its end that I would never feel the need to watch it again.

You can be sure that Trilby either just said, or is about to say, something that
no kid should hear. You can also be sure that it's pretty funny.
Bad Words (2014)

Director: Jason Bateman

Just what I expected - a decent comedy with some good, hearty laughs laid over the top of a very shaky premise that simply exists to set up the jokes.

Jason Bateman, in his directorial debut, plays Guy Trilby, a bitter 40-year old who, through a loophole, competes in a prominent national spelling bee meant for children. Already, I'm sure you can imagine the holes in this fragile premise. All the same, the movie marches on with just enough energy and humor to keep one from analyzing its flaws too closely.

Essentially, the story serves as an excuse to have Jason Bateman say a lot of foul things to and around young children. For my part, I think it's rather funny. Sometimes it's hilarious. It is very much in the vein of Bad Santa, that raunchy classic in which Billy Bob Thornton is a pitch-perfect degenerate with an unfiltered, X-rated mind and mouth. Bateman's Trilby character never approaches the grand levels of depravity that we got from Thornton, but the wry verbal filth which he unleashes has some solid, adult humor value. His interactions with the oh-so-cute little spelling whiz, Chaitanya, provide more than a few laughs.

The details of the plot are hardly worth remembering. It does involve the mystery of Trilby's odd vendetta against the spelling bee, which is mildly intriguing. The payoff offers little more than simple closure, though, rather than anything particularly creative.

It is certainly not a comedy classic, but Bad Words is worth the 90 minutes.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Before I Die #546: Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (1979)

This great poster from the original U.S. release in
1979 has a great caption at the top. It suggests many
of the singular themes of the movie.
Original German Title: Nosferatu: Fantom der Nacht

Director: Werner Herzog

Scary, but not in a traditional horror movie sense. It is, despite being a remake, a visionary movie, however you look at it.

In 1979, maverick German director Werner Herzog decided to make a modified version of the 1922 horror masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror by F.W. Murnau, a director whom Herzog greatly admires. The resulting film, though certainly faithful in many basic ways, bears many of the very best hallmarks of Herzog's finest movies.

It's worth looking at the two primary background sources for Herzog's version.

The novel Dracula by Bram Stoker was a tremendous hit upon its publication in 1897. Even if you have never read the book, you may know the original tale from Francis Ford Coppola's commendable film adaptation in 1992. Centuries-old Count Dracula of Transylvania was an immortal vampire whose prolonged life was fueled by the regular consumption of human blood. The original story sees this diabolical character descend upon London, England, as he seeks to literally leech off of the populace.

In 1922, German director F.W. Murnau sought to do a silent film adaptation of this classic horror tale. However, since Murnau could not acquire the rights to the novel, he simply altered the name of the title character - Dracula becomes "Orlok" - and followed the basic story. However, his alterations were equally striking and genius. Stoker's novel often presents Count Dracula as a stylish, debonair creature which is able to shift his appearance and demeanor in order to seduce his prey. Murnau's Count Orlok is a ghastly creature whose mere appearance is enough to strike fear into both fellow characters and us viewers. His deathly pallor, long and sharp claws and teeth, and bald pate give him the appearance of the ghoulish vampire that he is.

It was this major change to the arch vampire's physical appearance which Herzog most obviously emulated from Murnau. However, Herzog did not stop there. Even more than Murnau, Herzog presents Orlok as a creature both terrifying and pitiable. The utter loneliness of immortality, as well as the isolation of being a uniquely despicable inhuman, are on full display in the 1979 version. The pall of death that follows Orlok wherever he goes can almost be taken as a supernatural extension of his depression and despair. When seen this way, the rash of plagues and deaths that follow Orlok to the big city carry a slightly different weight. It all makes for a film that is more engaging and challenging than a tale that relies on more primal suspense and terror.

When it comes to the finer detail in the movie, I feel that it can be a bit uneven. There are elements of pure genius, such as Jonathan Harker's initial journey to Orlok's castle. His lonely trek across the countryside builds an amazing sense of quiet, slowly mounting doom. Also, the scenes of plague and death in the capital city carry the same visual power as the strongest scenes in Herzog's brilliant Aguirre, The Wrath of God. And of course, Orlok's appearance is just as hideous as in the 1922 original. Herzog film mainstay and all-around wack-a-doo Klaus Kinski was the perfect casting choice.

Would you be as composed as Harker looks in this scene?
I sure wouldn't, with that thing pouring my wine.
However, not all elements hit the mark to me. The reactions of certain characters to Orlok were often oddly subdued. The most notable is Jonathan Harker. While Harker is a tad taken aback by Orlok's appearance, villainous posture, and predatory actions, he often seems relatively blase. The same goes for certain other characters, resulting in an inconsistent emotional tone at times. These are, however, smaller details amidst what is an exceptional horror film.

For those who haven't seen it, you should not expect anything resembling most modern, popular horror movies. There is less use of darkness, shadows, or horror movie cliches that accompany them. On the contrary, a surprising amount of the film features vibrantly colorful scenery, sets, and costumes, often filmed in broad daylight. This all makes for a creepy openness about the horrors in Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night, which makes it all the more unique and fascinating.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Game of Thrones full series review

Since we are now nearing the end of Season 5 of HBO's Game of Thrones series, I've gone back to watch the first four seasons (only the first two of which I'd already seen).

I should state that, long before the HBO series, I was a tremendous fan of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire. Since 2001, I’ve read the first three books three times each, the fourth twice, and A Dance With Dragons once. I recall the excitement I felt at the low-key announcement back in 2006 that HBO had purchased the rights to the series, and I wondered if they would be able to do such a great literature series real justice. Here are my thoughts on the results so far:

Casting actor Sean Bean as the patriarch Ned Stark was just
one of countless excellent choices made by the show runners.
Season 1

Season 1 was a phenomenal start to what could have been a disaster. As a devotee of the novels, I could hardly have been more pleased.

Following the arc of the first novel - A Game of Thrones - the show sets up the Stark family and the lands of Westeros brilliantly. It's a massive, detailed world, with no end of characters and motivations, locales, and mysteries to be discovered, and a lesser team of creators could have fumbled things in many ways. Instead, show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss knew exactly where and how to streamline things, without losing the lifeblood of the show.

The story of Ned Stark's tragic journey to the capital King's Landing is a great one, told very well in this first season. Those who hadn't read the book before the show were as stunned by Ned's fate as I was when I read of it long ago. This, of course, sets a certain tone that continues through George R. R. Martin's novels - that no characters is ever "safe". It's one that very few writers have the courage to follow, given the difficulty in creating characters that thoughtful readers love and will follow. Martin has never minded offing a strong character, if it makes sense within the tale or it makes the story more interesting.

The acting was without reproach. There will always be some characters who won't match the way a reader envisions them, and this TV series is no different. More importantly, though, is that they all nail the spirits of their characters perfectly. Sean Bean wears his anguished sense of duty right on his sleeve. Maisie Williams carries every scrap of Arya's toughness and surliness in her tiny little frame and on her face. I could go on and on, without finding a single casting misstep.

Shae and Tyrion - my least and most favorite characters,
respectively, through much of the TV series. 
The only things I can even gripe about are very minor, and they only come from my close familiarity with the novels. The very small one is that Robert Baratheon is nowhere near as physically large as I felt he should have been. Mark Addy is a great actor, but his character is described in the books as being a massive man, though one grown fat after 17 years of indulgence. In his scenes, Addy is often shorter than several other men in the room, which takes a little something away from the power that he is meant to have. My other gripe is with a lesser character, but it is far more annoying: that of Shae, Tyrion's favored prostitute. She only appears towards the end of the first season, but she very quickly becomes extremely biting and confrontational towards Tyrion. This is something that never happens in the books, and runs counter to nearly everything she is about. In the books, she is perpetually sweet and loving towards Tyrion (even if out of self-interested greed rather than genuine affection). In the novels, she will become pouty when dissatisfied, but she never exhibits the fury or surliness that the TV character has.

Two rather small things in a first season filled with literally hundreds of potential pitfalls. Not bad at all, really.

Season 2
The Battle of the Blackwater was the best of several
extremely tense situations in which characters' true
mettle (and lack of) is on full display. 

This season mostly follows A Clash of Kings, the second novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. The arc of this season, as with the novel, is the further fracturing of Westeros as the Lannisters take over the kingdom. Various other kings proclaim themselves, including each of dead King Robert's two brothers Renley and Stannis, as well as Ned's eldest son Robb being dubbed "King of the North." This leads to battles and preparations for battles that raise the stakes ever higher. Meanwhile, across the sea, Daenerys seeks to not only survive with her three newly-hatched dragons but also build an army to sail back to Westeros and reclaim the Iron Throne.

The maneuvering of the major players is plenty fascinating, but they are not even my favorite part of season two. What I love is that this is Tyrion's true time to assert himself. Once his father grudgingly makes him acting Hand of the King, Tyrion has the freedom to use his considerable wiles and intelligence to constantly one-up his many adversaries. It's an amazingly entertaining display of brains over brawn, and Peter Dinklage continues to fulfil the promise of the character.

In season 2, we also start to see the TV series creators Weiss and Benioff modify and streamline certain parts of Martin's original tale, to great effect. The standout change to me is the running story at Harrenhal of Arya Stark accidentally becoming the serving girl to Tywin Lannister, who is unaware of exactly who she is. The scenes between Maisie Williams and Charles Dance are all incredible, and they enhance the series tremendously.

One other aspect of note stand out. If any viewers of the series found that they particularly liked the episodes Blackwater in season 2 and The Pointy End in season 1, then you may note what these two episodes have in common: they were both adapted for the screen by George R.R. Martin himself. Martin, who has a ton of work experience in TV through shows like Beauty and the Beast and others, shows that he can carry his brilliant writing skills from novel to screenplay form.

Season 3

The third season begins to show more adjustments and alterations to the source books, while keeping nearly all of Martin's original "Holy s--t!" moments intact, as detailed in the novel A Storm of Swords, with a sprinkling in of material from the next book A Feast for Crows.

Jaime and Brienne - one of the greatest odd couples ever.
There's plenty of fun to be had just deciding whether Jaime's
tongue or Brienne's martial prowess is more impressive. 
The major story arcs follow Tyrion's attempts to rise up after being cast down by his stern father, Jon Snow's double agency with the Wildlings as they march against the Wall, Robb Stark's military conquests, and Daenerys's gathering of her army across the sea. There are plenty of other plotlines that are excellent, if not as large in scale as the others.

As with the novels, one of the best arcs is that dealing with Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth - two characters who are so opposed in every way that their unlikely pairing becomes the stuff of brilliant storytelling. The show's handling of Jaime's development as a character is just as deft as George R.R. Martin's, and it becomes just as compelling as any of the larger scale stories unfolding.

Any viewer of the show knows that the 8th episode of the season, The Rains of Castamere, contains what was, to date, the most shocking and violent plot turn in the series. Without giving it away for any who haven't yet seen it, suffice it to say that just when you think you're getting a footing on how the broader story is playing out, the tale completely flips things on you. As usual, such chaos creates plenty of fodder for the various characters in Westeros to test their mettle. This serves as the perfect set-up for the following season.

Season 3 does seem to be going heavier with the sadism than previous seasons. The most obvious example is Theon's imprisonment by Ramsey Snow. It's hardly the only one, but the brutality and graphic nature of the images can be off-putting once the point of Ramsey's twisted nature is made abundantly clear. By the end of this season, my hope is that this doesn't become an expanding trend.

Season 4

Things continue to roll along nicely in season 4, with a few of my earlier annoyances vanishing but others growing. 
The Viper and the Mountain - a brutal highlight of season 4.
As much as I love Bronn's cunning duel in the Eyrie in season 1,
this duel is perhaps the best of the series so far. 

We finally get the satisfaction of seeing one despicable character get killed in suitably gruesome fashion. This, of course, sets off the sad but compelling story of Tyrion's horrible tumble from grace. This plot line is a strong one, though it's hard to watch Tyrion take even more abuse, especially after acquitting himself so well during seasons 2 and parts of 3. Still, it did lead to the fantastic duel between the Viper and the Mountain, which was almost as good as in the source novel. 

The other storylines are all compelling in their ways. One of my favorites is Jaime's development after returning to King's Landing, sans sword hand, where he has to reinvent himself. This also leads to the fun pairing of the amusing squire Podrick with the grim Brienne. These two make for a curious contrast with the other odd couple of this season - Arya and the Hound. Arya's darkening worldview is one of the more fascinating, if ultimately disturbing, arcs of the entire series.

As always, Daenerys still gathers herself across the Narrow Sea, where she continues her conquest of liberation. Seeing how she deals with the grayer areas of leadership add some welcome depth to this storyline. It also gave us one  of the best killings of the series, when Daario Naharis takes out the Champion of Mereen in hilariously, awesomely efficient fashion.

The penultimate episode was arguably the best of the series to that point. This is the only episode to date which has remained exclusively in one setting - the Wall, where Jon Snow attempts to fight with his fellow Crows against the oncoming hordes of Wildlings. This episode had all of the tension and excitement of some of the very best battle scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Two annoyances stick with me after watching the whole season. The lesser one is how actor Aiden Gillen has gone a little overboard voicing Littlefinger. He always gave him a rather sinister tone, but in this season it becomes almost cartoonish. His voice has the low, hushed tone of a one-dimensional schemer in a lame TV crime drama. It's a distraction.

The irredeemably odious Karl. Along with Joffrey and Ramsey,
he completes a trifecta of horrid characters that exist to do
little more than turn viewers' stomachs. 
More pervasive and annoying, however, is a concern of mine from season 3 - the escalating sadism. The books and show have always had some brutal characters, and Joffrey was clearly a nasty little sociopath from the get-go. But whereas Joffrey was the lone main character who was a sadist through the first three seasons, we now get more of the depraved Ramsey Snow mutilating and tormenting Theon and others. If that's not enough, we get multiple scenes of the vicious Karl lording over what is essentially a rape camp north of the Wall. There were times when the show wandered a little too close to - and arguably into - the realm of torture porn. Fortunately, most of these elements were front-loaded into the first 4 or 5 episodes, leaving the more palatable stuff for the latter half of the season.

The Next Season is Coming...

So that's my overall run-down. While I haven't stayed on top of the series from week to week like the most dedicated viewers, I do think it's an outstanding show. I'm just happy to live in a time and place where the technology and resources exist to bring such a vibrant, engaging, and epic tale to visual life.

A review of season 5 will be coming, once I catch up on all of the shows in a week or two...

Monday, June 8, 2015

New(ish) Releases: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014); Nightcrawler (2014); Draft Day (2014)

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014)

Director: Isao Takahata

One of the most beautiful, and saddest, animated films that you will ever see.

Director Isao Takahata, long-time collaborator with iconic Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, drew from Japanese folklore for this film. The story, better known as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, is at least 1,300 years old, and it is arguably the single-most famous story in all of Japan.

The tale is of a middle-aged bamboo cutter who, while working in the forest one day, discovers a tiny princess embedded inside a bamboo shoot. He brings her home, where she magically transforms into a normal-sized human infant whom they name Kaguya. Over the next few years, Kaguya grows with supernatural speed, both physically and intellectually, in the rural town where her surrogate parents raise her with unbridled love. She eventually understands that she came from the moon, her true home, but she was sent to Earth for some purpose which she cannot recall. Just as Kaguya approaches womanhood, her father decides to use a magically-produced cache of precious gems to finance her entrance into the aristocracy based in the capital city. Kaguya then must decide just who she wishes to be and what she truly loves about earth, her adopted home.

Being an animated movie, you might wonder just how much emotional punch the story may have. I can tell you that it is extremely powerful. Using techniques best utilized in the animated medium, the emotional tone of key moments are conveyed beautifully and powerfully, occasionally using impressionistic and wild visuals. The resolution of the story bears many hallmarks of Japanese Zen existentialism, which adds impressive depth to what might appear to be a mere fable for children.

I would guess that a young child will enjoy this movie. However, the deeper themes and emotions will only be perceived by viewers with a greater wealth of life experience. The Tale of Princess Kaguya can only be fully appreciated by mature viewers, and it shows exactly why a film should never be written off artistically simply because it is animated.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy

As the title might indicate, Nightcrawler is bound to leave you feeling uncomfortable and disturbed. Even so, this is an exceptionally well-done film.

The movie follows the rise of Lou Bloom, an unemployed petty thief who gets involved in the field of "nightcrawling," the finding and filming of violent accidents and crimes which occur at night in the Los Angeles area. Such footage can be sold to covetous morning news shows which follow the credo "if it bleeds, it leads." Bloom proves himself a highly capable and energetic study of the profession, and he will stop at nothing to become the premier provider for such graphic footage.

The technical elements of the movie are virtually flawless, capturing the danger and fear of not only the profession of nightcrawling but also the nighttime environment of L.A. The camerawork and framing carry the story along visually,which is no small merit given the subject of the film.

What sets the movie apart, though, is the character Bloom himself. Though it is difficult to imagine such a person existing in reality, he certainly represents an engaging amalgam of several very real characteristics. Some of these are actually admirable: his diligence, intelligence, and tenacity are the stuff of "The American Dream." However, Bloom's obsession with success and his utter lack of morals or empathy reflect the darkest aspects of a monomaniacal desire to reach "the top." Bloom is unnervingly persuasive, especially with those who share his selfish need for personal success. Jake Gyllenhaal is eerily effective at bringing the singularly creepy Bloom to life.

Nightcrawler is not a movie that will leave you feeling warm or fuzzy. It is, though, an extremely well done piece of cinema with one of the more unique protagonists you are bound to find.

Draft Day (2014)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Though far from terrible, Draft Day is a rather lame movie, however you look at it.

The plot follows the roughly 24 hours of the first day of the National Football League (NFL) Draft - the day on which professional teams get to select the very best players from college to play for their franchises. It's a day on which entire futures can be made or broken, based on how effective teams are at projecting potential success or failure of young, extremely talented and aspiring athletes. There is certainly more than enough drama built into this real-life sports event that a clever filmmaker could construct a solid movie from such material. Such is not the case here, though.

Specifically, the movie is about fictional coaches and administrators of real teams in the NFL, with the primary focus on the Cleveland Browns and its general manager, Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner). Weaver is a second-year GM who is feeling pressure from all sides to make the draft selection that will change the fortunes of the Browns' franchise. The problem is that Sonny's ideas about player evaluation are at odds with his fiery new head coach, Penn (Denis Leary), the team owner, other draft analysts on his staff, and of course, the seething masses of rabid Cleveland Browns fans. The three players most under Weaver's microscope are a "can't miss" quarterback, and a linebacker and running back who both show extreme talent but also have a few character concerns.

The basic ingredients are there for some decent drama, and I admit to being just curious enough about the outcome to watch the entire movie. However, as a passionate fan of football and movies in general, the outcome was never really a mystery. Once the first few little wrinkles in the plot surface early in the picture, it's no great leap to figure out almost exactly what will happen and how. Though the actors all acquit themselves well, the lack of suspense lets far too much air out of the proceedings (no apologies to Tom Brady).

Just one of the many unrealistically tense confrontations
between coworkers in the film. Anyone who has seen
Knocks, or has some sense, will find them implausible.
Three greater weakness really sink this movie to no better than mediocrity. One is that anyone who has closely followed a football team will notice all sorts of unrealistic depictions. A college coach gets extremely snarky with an NFL GM. The GM for Jacksonville is sweating and shaking in his boots on draft day like a kid who forgot to prepare for his fifth grade oral book report. Several GMs seem to have absolutely zero back-up plans when their targeted player is taken unexpectedly, leading to laughably unrealistic panic. Several GMs, including Weaver, seem to forget the draft order. A veteran quarterback goes into a rage and trashes the GMs office. These and several other ridiculous actions completely undermine the credibility of the movie's attempt to be authentic in its depiction of this real event.

The second weakness is one that dogged Costner's other late-stage sports movie The Perfect Game, which is the attempt to insert a completely unrelated romantic story into it. Weaver is in a secretive relationship with the Browns' financial expert, Ali (Jennifer Garner), who has just that morning informed Weaver that she is pregnant. It's a completely tangential storyline that does nothing to enhance anything else about what is otherwise a movie completely about sports. Nevermind the fact that we get yet another relationship featuring an attractive woman and man nearly old enough to be her father.

The final problem is that there is no true sense of closure. Anyone who follows sports teams knows that draft picks, no matter how sure a team might be about their strengths or weaknesses, have the potential to brutally disappoint or pleasantly surprise. Draft Day never gives any indication of what, exactly, happens with the players whom the Browns select. The day of the draft ends, everybody hugs, and that is all. I was expecting, at the very least, some final title cards giving the future lifetime statistics of the three players involved, just so we could get the satisfaction of knowing for certain that Weaver's evaluations were correct. No such information is given, leaving us to simply assume that the players would go on to fail or succeed just as Weaver hoped and expected. Sports simply don't work this way, as it is a true meritocracy in which the proof must be in the pudding and not just look good on a recipe card.

With a better script and a better understanding of just how in tune many football fans are with the inner workings of their teams, Draft Day could probably have been a much better movie. As is, I wouldn't recommend it to any serious football fan. A very casual football fan might enjoy the artificial drama of it, but few others will. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Before I Die # 545: Clueless (1995)

This is the 545th movie I've watched from the 1,169 movies to "See Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Amy Heckerling

A fairly pleasant little surprise, and certainly a slice of pop culture from my formative years in the 1990s.

This is one of my wife's favorite movies, so she was able to fill me in on the interesting fact that this is a modern comedic adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. This alone piqued my interest a little more, and I was rewarded with a pretty clever and entertaining movie that I somehow had never previously seen.

The movie follows several months in the life of high school senior Cher, an obliviously wealthy and priveleged teen whose primary concerns are fashion trends, having her way, and occasionally helping those she deems "in need." The film unabashedly wears its place and time on its sleeve, from the fashion aesthetic to the soundtrack to the quirky slang. And few things say "mid-1990s" like Alicia Silverstone, the "It Girl" for a brief period. Fortunately, these dated elements do nothing to diminish the basic story and the humor of the film.

My wife informs me that the story is, indeed, a reasonable facsimile of Jane Austen's classic novel. Cher, like that book's protagonist, is a priveleged rich girl who actually does have a sense of goodness, though it takes her some time to get any kind of true sense of herself and the world around her. Her fumbling ditsiness still makes for some solid humor, even these 20 years after the film's initial release. The script holds up surprisingly well, with plenty of the supporting characters rounding out the  movie nicely. The cast has more than a little to do with this; a young Paul Rudd and Brittney Murphy feature, and veteran Dan Hedaya are just a few of the actors who nail their roles and lines.

Admittedly, I found some of the elements a tad sappy here and there, which is unsurprising for what amounts to a romantic teen comedy. Still, the movie never takes itself seriously enough to invite harsh criticism. The tale is amusing, if slightly familiar.

I have to confer the highest compliment that I can for a movie like this: I enjoyed it. Considering what it is, and the fact that I was expecting to find it a chore to watch, this is high praise.

That's 545 movies seen. Only 624 to go before I can die...