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.