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Draft Day

Draft Day

(2014)
10 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

April 11, 2014

"Draft Day" is at its best and most absorbing when it focuses on the deals, politics and inner-league drama that undoubtedly ensue on the day of the NFL draft. In this regard, it's sharp, rhythmic and convincing, and the characters' decisions and fates are important to us.

But it also pads these better qualities with the contrivances and melodrama of a traditional Hollywood screenplay, which unfortunately slow things down. It's as if two different movies are duking it out for screen time-one that's daring, credible and insightful; and another that's safer and more feel-goody, whose developments we can easily anticipate. In the end, I'm not sure which movie wins out, but because the performances are strong and the characters likable, I opted to give "Draft Day" a marginal pass.

As the name implies, the entire film takes place on the day of the 2014 NFL Draft. Over the course of 12 hours, we follow Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, who, like all the NFL's GMs, has a lot riding on him. It's his job to pick the most promising young men among the 224 candidates who are graduating from college and hoping to sign NFL contracts.

For Sonny, his decisions are also personal. The city of Cleveland, according to the movie anyway, doesn't have a lot gong for it except its sports teams, and Sonny feels he has an obligation to deliver it a winning franchise after a long losing streak, not least to continue the revered legacy of his father, a former Browns coach who died a week earlier and whom Sonny had the unfortunate task of firing at the request of his mother (Ellen Burstyn).

Because Cleveland has the second pick in round one, a lot of people are calling Sonny in the wee hours of the morning to make last-minute deals and negotiations. All eyes are on the hotshot quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) and everyone wonders whether Sonny, if given the opportunity, will go with him. This would certainly please his boss and Browns' owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), who tells Sonny he needs him "to make a splash."

But Sonny isn't so sure about Bo. His gut tells him to keep an open mind and consider defenseman Vonte Mack (Chadwick Boseman), who's talented but comes with a chip on his shoulder. There's also Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), a running back who recently had a run-in with the law but whose father (Terry Crews) is a former Brown.

At first, Sonny veers toward the obvious choice of choosing Bo, but at what expense? Not only is he willing to trade his first-round draft picks for the next three seasons, but also, he fears, his integrity. All the pressures and anxiety Sonny feels make it easy for us to identify with him, and it's not just the issues tied to his job, but also his father's passing and the sudden news that his girlfriend and co-worker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), is pregnant. He's also got Coach Penn (Denis Leary) breathing down his neck for not consulting him about every little detail.

As Sonny's boss, colleagues and family members relentlessly pursue him for answers and updates, we're able to recall similar moments from our own lives, and it's these connections that ultimately make "Draft Day" work as an entertaining drama. But it's also intriguing because director Ivan Reitman and screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph offer us a glimpse into the NFL on one of its most important days of the year, and it's sometimes fascinating. Even though the specifics of Sonny's world will be unfamiliar to most viewers (myself included), the dialogue and intonations of the characters ring of truth and we feel like we've gotten an actual taste of the high stakes and challenges associated with the organization.

But just as it takes us into relatively unexplored territory, "Draft Day" also settles for generic plot developments and character archetypes. There's one particularly mawkish scene when Sonny and his staff members watch an old tape of a college football game, which functions solely to generate sympathy for a single character. I was insulted by the way it sunk to such a shameless level simply to tug at our heartstrings.

This is followed by other moments that aim to paint certain characters in a darker light than others, all in an attempt to make Sonny's final decision easier. It's too bad the movie didn't stick with its initial theme all throughout--that when it comes to the NFL draft, there are no easy decisions. Perhaps the studio felt they couldn't sell the movie on being about the NFL draft alone and needed more traditional elements to soften the audience up. But if that's the case, I think they're under the false impression that we don't want to be tossed into a world we haven't been in before and therefore require standard narrative devices to get us through it.

Even so, "Draft Day" has enough going for it, especially its performances and sharp, intelligent dialogue, that we forgive it its other flaws. Costner falls naturally into his role, as does Leary, and watching the two of them and the other NFL big wigs talk shop proves engaging. If the movie had focused just on these aspects, it would have been a leaner, more satisfying experience. As it is, it feels weighed down by unnecessary melodrama. Fortunately, its goods keep it afloat.

Sugar

Sugar

(2013)
12 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

November 22, 2013

Does anyone ever choose to be homeless? That's the running question throughout "Sugar," a raw, cynical film about young people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Despite the hardships of their situation, the characters are relatively upbeat, probably because they never feel like they're alone, which is both a good thing and a sad thing in this case.

The story follows a close-knit group of adults in their early 20s and one minor as they parade around Venice Beach with no clear direction in mind. Day to day, they either hang out on random corners, along the L.A. river basin, or they take the bus to and from Hollywood, all while relying on free handouts from strangers and working odd jobs to survive. They don't seem to care about how they look since they mostly go unnoticed anyway. Each comes from a broken home, or not home at all, and to them their freedom is their most important possession, and in an effort to feel like they're in control of their lives, they'll tell you this is the choice they've made.

But when it comes Sugar (Shenae Grimes), we get the sense her homelessness is not something she ran toward, but rather the result of her running away from something else. The opening scene more or less tells us what this "something else" is, which I won't reveal here, but Sugar's recollection of the tragic event gives her nightmares and has her waking up scared and anxious.

Perhaps this is why she figures it doesn't matter where she sleeps, since her nightmares and inner demons will follow her wherever she goes. At the present moment, she sleeps under a bridge next to her boyfriend Marshall (Marshall Allman), a drug addict with a short fuse. Despite his small size, he's ready to fight anybody who gives him the slightest look of condescension, and credit to Allman for convincing us his character would be merciless, even before he proves it during a violent scene involving a skateboard.

The other members of Sugar's posse include a minor named Ronnie (Austin Williams), who's just about 15 or 16 and whom Sugar claims as her responsibility, if only because it give her purpose; Free (William Peltz), who doesn't mind living his days on the streets so long as he can sleep in a warm bed with a different girl every night, which he's managed to do so far; and Sketch (Corbin Bleu), an artist with a slow mind but a sweet heart.

One of the ways Sugar makes money is by talking to a counselor named Bishop (Wes Studi) at a youth shelter. He pays her to document her life on the streets and write about it in a journal, perhaps in an effort to use her as a successful case study and get her and other kids like her off the street, hopefully reconnecting them to their families and society.

Sugar has a family who loves her, including a concerned uncle (Angus Macfadyen), and we know she's smart and capable enough to make something of herself, but fear, grief and sadness have paralyzed her from taking the steps to go back home. It's easier for her to simply hide and laugh things off, but deep down she knows she can't do this forever. Yes, she's probably right that living day to day on the streets is easier than taking full responsibility--like working a job, dealing with people, making important decisions, etc.--but the long-term effects of such a lifestyle eventually wear on you, or at least they do to someone as bright as Sugar, and she knows it.

We've seen enough movies of this nature to know it will likely take a tragic or near-tragic event to force the protagonist to come to grips with her past. The overall trajectory of the story and ensuing drama are mostly familiar and inevitable, which is not to say they're ineffectual, but the heart of the film stems from its honest, unblinking observations of its characters and the dialogue they share, which likely underlines the bonds real-life homeless people form. On this level, it feels very true. The director and co-writer, Rotimi Rainwater, supposedly based it on his own experiences and he's made a deeply personal project.

"Sugar" is not the most professionally made movie, and its low-budget and somewhat inexperienced cast are sometimes distracting and interrupt the momentum of the storytelling, but its substance and the particularly strong performance by Grimes raise it above just a simple cautionary tale. Despite the overly manipulative ending, we truly care about the heroine and hope she finds her way home, or at least a place where she chooses to be and no longer has to bear nightmares.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(2014)
16 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

April 4, 2014

After seeing "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," a friend informed me that Marvel Studios currently has movies slated through 2028. Given how popular the Marvel comic book characters have become with movie-going audiences, this is hardly surprising. In fact, I imagine the date will be pushed out even more, probably through the middle of the century.

But with great popularity comes great responsibility, and that means the onus is on the filmmakers to make each installment stand out. Considering their ubiquity, though, I wonder, is that even possible? When anything in life-not just movie genres-becomes so commonplace, it's difficult to make it fresh and distinct.

"The Winter Solider," an otherwise acceptable and well-made sequel, unfortunately succumbs to this inevitability. A week from now, I'll have likely forgotten the specifics of the plot and the state of the characters. I'll only know there was a plot, which added another layer to the cinematic Marvel universe and that once again disrupted the status quo, forcing the heroes to defend the world from bad guys who have the usual ambitions to take it over. I'll also remember the movie developed the characters a little more while simultaneously introducing new ones.

Such characteristics are more or less standards of sequels, and with "The Winter Soldier," they're serviceable but not exactly special. The movie is basically entertaining and exciting, but I remember a time when superhero movies went beyond "basic." When we think about "Superman: The Movie," "Spider-Man 2" or "Batman Begins," we think of them as truly awesome, innovative and energetic experiences. I didn't feel that higher sense with "The Winter Soldier." And now that such movies are a dime a dozen, will I ever feel that way again? In order to enjoy these countless superhero films, should I lower my standards?

The film takes place two years after the events of "The Avengers," and Captain Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), has settled into a fairly routine lifestyle of carrying out special missions for S.H.E.I.L.D., which he does alongside the slick and curvaceous Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Both take orders from leading agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who doesn't always disclose all the organization's key objectives.

During a rescue mission of S.H.E.I.L.D. intelligence agents from Algerian pirates, Captain America catches Black Widow downloading data from the ship's computer system, something Fury instructed her to do separately. This irks C.A. because he doesn't believe soldiers working for the same army should have different tasks. Fury later briefs him on Project Insight, a secret operation in which S.H.E.I.L.D. plans to launch three helicarriers into the sky that would sync up with satellites in order to detect terrorist threats early on-essentially by spying on the entire world. Or as Rogers puts it, "Holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection."

The project, along with S.H.E.I.L.D.'s secrets, force Rogers to question his entire value system. Plus, he's still trying to acquaint himself with the modern era (you'll recall from "Captain America: The First Avenger" he was frozen for nearly 70 years and recently awakened in the present day). There's a funny moment when he takes out an old-fashioned pencil and paper and adds to his laundry list of things that would help bring him up to speed, including listening to Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and watching "Star Wars" and "Star Trek." Rogers confesses his uncertainty to a fellow soldier named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who will later aid him in the fight against evil as The Falcon.

Said evil comes when Fury uncovers a dark truth about S.H.I.E.L.D., which may or may not be linked to one of its alpha officials, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and a mysterious and extremely powerful assassin known as The Winter Soldier, who comes equipped with a metal arm that yields one hell of a grip. Fury warns Rogers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised and to "trust no one." This sends Captain America and Black Widow, both considered fugitives, on a mission to expose the organization's hidden agenda or die trying.

What we get out all this is a semi-intriguing espionage plot and one explosive action sequence after another, which demonstrate, once again, the heroes are trained for anything and everything that could potentially threaten their existence. This leads me to a problem I have with modern superhero movies, which may explain, along with their overabundance, why their efficacy has started to wane: the heroes themselves never seem to be at risk of losing their lives. They're always ready for just about anything the enemy throws at them and there's never a real sense of danger lurking underneath the fight scenes, which unfortunately makes them less consequential.

For instance, in one sequence, Captain America is shot twice in the chest, and yet he's still able to maneuver and utilize all of his upper body strength. If that's the case, why even have him be shot? I'd rather watch an action movie where it seems the heroes' lives might actually be at stake.

All this isn't to suggest the events and developments in "The Winter Solider" aren't at least interesting or exciting to a degree, and die-hard fans of the comic book, as well as anyone who hasn't yet grown tired of this genre, will have little cause for complaint. But in the grand scheme of things, the movie just didn't bear much relevance to me, even though its plot will likely have ramifications in later sequels, particularly "Avengers: Age of Ultron." I concede my reaction is likely due to "Marvel superhero movie" overload and not the movie itself. But it's sometimes a cold truth that movies are a product of their time, and, in this case, "The Winter Soldier" also happens to be a victim of it.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

(2014)
25 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

March 7, 2014

"Mr. Peabody and Sherman" took me by surprise. What I assumed was going to be a silly, pun-filled children's movie turned out to be a jolly, witty and relentlessly energetic laugher for kids and adults alike. The filmmakers have done a good job of balancing the entertainment value for both demographics, and that makes it a win for the whole family.

Why was I taken by surprise? For starters, the trailer and ad campaign focused heavily on the fact that Mr. Peabody (voice of Ty Burrell) is a dog, and therefore made us endure such words and taglines as "vale-dog-torian" and "He's leaving his mark on history." Wah wah.

But luckily the movie gets over this shtick sooner rather than later. The idea of Mr. Peabody being a dog isn't just used to harbor cheap jokes; it actually drives the plot. And I suppose in this first installment of what the studio hopes will be a long-running franchise, that's appropriate, since most viewers will be introduced to Mr. Peabody for the first time. They'll learn, just as I did, that he isn't your average dog, but a hyper-intelligent beagle who talks, wears black-rimmed glasses and a red bowtie, and possesses an insatiable thirst for knowledge and culture. He seems to be the only one of his kind, too. What other dogs can rightfully call themselves a genius inventor, brilliant scientist, star athlete, multi-talented musician and gourmet chef?

Yes, Mr. Peabody can pretty much do it all, including one of life's most difficult tasks: raise a human child. Years ago, as we see in a flashback, he found an abandoned baby boy in an alley and convinced the court system to let him adopt him. Because Mr. Peabody never had a real home of his own growing up (he was always overlooked at the kennel and deemed "too sarcastic" by potential owners), he didn't want this boy, whom he names Sherman (Max Charles), to go through the same thing. So he volunteers to be his father, though he insists Sherman call him "Mr. Peabody."

Older viewers may remember Mr. Peabody and Sherman from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show," which aired in the1960s, but the characters have been given a 21st century makeover. No longer are they flat and 2D (a format that still has its charm), but sharp, three-dimensional characters living in a computer animated world.

In order to see their old versions, we'd probably have to utilize Mr. Peabody's WABAC, a highly sophisticated time machine that allows him to provide Sherman first-hand accounts of some of history's most famous people and events, including Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. These lessons give Sherman an edge over his classmates at school, where he's able to demystify such beliefs as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, which Sherman declares is an "apocryphal" fable that was made up just teach kids a valuable lesson.

Sherman's knowledge annoys his jealous classmate, Penny (Ariel Winter), who resorts to calling him a dog because of his father. As a result, he ends up biting her and the incident calls into question Mr. Peabody's fitness as a parent by a snappy Child Services agent (Allison Janey), who threatens to take Sherman away pending an investigation.

As damage control, Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over to his swank Manhattan apartment for a fancy dinner. Things start out swimmingly until Sherman shows Penny the WABAC machine, leading Mr. Peabody and the two kids on series of space-time misadventures to such places as Ancient Egypt, where Penny is betrothed to King Tut; Italy, during the Renaissance, when Leonardo Da Vinci was trying desperately to get Mona Lisa to smile; and eventually Troy, at the onset of the Trojan War. Of course, each of these times and places yields its own set of goofy send-ups of the respective historical figures.

I've never seen the old "Mr. Peabody's Improbable Segments" from 50 plus years ago, but I imagine "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" maintains its basic structure. In fact, the movie feels like an elongated episode, except that it has to take the time to introduce us to the characters. Even so, I enjoyed it for the way it lampooned history and gave its zany, classical figures modern-day sensibilities.

I also appreciated how the movie attempts to teach kids something, despite the looseness of the facts. I could actually see kids absorbing the history behind Mr. Peabody and Sherman's wild predicaments and it was nice to see the movie go beyond the usual means to get kids attention. It's not just bright colors, slapstick comedy and body humor. Who knows, perhaps "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" could possibly jumpstart kids' own thirst for knowledge. Plus, the movie has a big heart and director Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King") makes it touching as well as humorous.

Does "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" deserve to be ranked in the upper echelons of computer-animated family movies? No, but it's a funny, cheerful and affecting just the same. If there's a sequel, I wonder if the filmmakers' next move would be to provide Mr. Peabody a significant other. His love life is one aspect they don't touch upon, but knowing Mr. Peabody, if he were to fall in love, he'd attempt to explain it with logic and reason. I guess we'll have to wait and see, but I'd welcome the chance.

Divergent

Divergent

(2014)
25 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

March 21, 2014

If it hasn't already done so, "Divergent" will no doubt draw comparisons to other dystopian-set stories, most notably "The Hunger Games" and perhaps even "The Matrix." It too centers around a protagonist uncertain of who she is and what role she plays in a chaotic world, one in which the ruling body's chief concern is maintaining order and control over its citizens by limiting their independent will. As the story almost always goes, the heroine will become the leader of a rebellion that aims to subvert the system and reclaim freedom for the people.

Stories like this have become exceedingly commonplace-so much, in fact, they practically make up a subgenre all their own, across both the literary and cinematic landscapes. Unfortunately for "Divergent," as a film at least (I haven't read Veronica Roth's novel), its narrative treads overly familiar territory and we feel like we've "been there, done that." As a result, it's not able to stand out among its brethren and serves as little more than a slight diversion (no pun intended) for the Saturday matinee crowd, who likely won't remember it for very long afterward.

The movie takes place in a futuristic Chicago, some years after a devastating war left the city dilapidated and in near ruin. A large, protective fence surrounds the urban area, supposedly in an effort to protect it from outside forces, though little is told to us about the actual war or what lies beyond the fence, which I've no doubt we'll find out in the sequels ("Divergent" was Roth's first installment in a trilogy, though if the movie series follows the same trend as "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," the last chapter will be broken up into two parts). In the metropolis, skyscrapers stand half erect; former places of attraction are weed-invested and abandoned; and the general atmosphere is quiet and dreary.

That isn't to say people still don't live here. Society has been split up into five different factions: Dauntless (the brave and physically adroit police force); Amity (the happy and peaceful farmhands); Erudite (the fact-seeking intellectuals); Candor (the direct and brutally truthful); and Abnegation (the selfless, whose job is to helps others in need).

Upon turning 16, men and women are injected with a serum and issued an aptitude test that determines which faction best suits them. Ultimately, it's their choice, but the safest bet is to join the faction that corresponds to one's test results, because in the eyes of the government, that's what you're "supposed to do," even if it means joining a faction different from the one you born into and leaving your family behind for good.

Not everybody knows their place, however, and some people are relegated as "factionless," making them homeless outcasts. This ostracism becomes peoples' greatest fear, and it's no different for Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), who, along with her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), was born into Abnegation under her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). Rumors begin to circulate that Abnegation, which runs the government, is planning an attack on the people, and it's obvious Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) from Erudite is behind them, all in an effort to assume power. Deep down, she believes it's human nature to lie, cheat and steal and it's the government's duty to control people through any means necessary.

Not if Beatrice has anything to say about it, even if she doesn't know it yet. Her test results turn out to be inconclusive and her proctor (Maggie Q) informs her she doesn't belong to just one faction, but three. This makes her a "divergent," whom the government views as a threat because divergents are incapable of being brainwashed. Beatrice keeps this a secret and decides to join Dauntless, although she's not exactly sure why, other than she knows she's not completely selfless like her parents.

Thus begins the movie's long, drawn-out second act, in which Beatrice, who shortens her name to just Tris, goes through a rigorous two-stage training process, with stage one focusing on physicality and combat, and stage two evaluating mental competence. Those initiates who don't make the top ten will be dismissed and become factionless. Of course, Tris starts out in last place, but pretty soon her inherent skills and determination begin to reveal themselves and she quickly rises through the ranks. It helps that her hunky instructor, who goes by the name Four (Theo James), takes a liking to her. To no surprise, a romance blossoms between the two as they console each other and disclose their innermost secrets, fears, etc.

With its foregone climax in place, complete with shootouts, chase sequences and a culmination of all the knowledge the characters' obtained in the first two acts, "Divergent" adds up to a fairly routine "adolescent dystopian movie" that's sometimes exciting but mostly perfunctory. By the time the ending arrived, I was reflecting on how rigidly the movie adhered to its traditional structure rather than caring about fate of the characters. It's just as well, since it's clear from the beginning who will live, who will die and who will go over to the dark side. This doesn't make the movie bad, per se, but it does make it a template, and template narratives simply aren't as interesting as original ones.

This is a shame, too, since the performance are actually quite good, especially Woodley, who creates a likable, empathetic and convincing heroine. We root for her because she seems real, despite the confines of the screenplay.

It's already been confirmed the last two books in Roth's trilogy will be made into movies, and hopefully if this first installment is successful enough, it will give the filmmakers the leverage and confidence to be more creative with the sequels, allowing them to stray from the standards that often govern movies like this. Their goal should be to craft and present them in such way that we won't be able to describe them as movies "like this."

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