Draft Day

There are so many things to love about life that some days it amazes me how often I’m in a bad mood. For instance, I love football. I’m a Trojan and I bleed Cardinal and Gold. I have season tickets to the new Arena Football team in Southern California, the L.A. Kiss. I had season tickets for the L.A. Express of the USFL and I went to Rams and Raider games when they were here in L.A.. I also love Kevin Costner. He can be weak in a movie and I can still enjoy it because he has star power still. Almost twenty-five years after he was the biggest movie star in the world, I can still look forward to a movie that he stars in. I love movies, obviously. For some reason, I love sports movies and Costner and sports movies go together like peanut butter and jelly. I love getting to see movies early. In the old days, when I was in the preferred demographic, I went to dozens of advance screenings and I still like a mid-night screening if I can work my old bones up for it. I am also developing a strong love for AMC theaters. They currently run classic films on the big screen, they host the annual Best Picture Showcase and they have the best rewards program in the business. So how does this all fit together? I got to go to an advance screening tonight of the new Kevin Costner football film, “Draft Day”, because of the AMC Stubbs program.

Oh, and in case you could not guess, I loved the movie. “Draft Day” is almost genetically engineered to appeal to me. It is an adult movie, about the game that I love, starring one of the most appealing screen actors of the last three decades. There are no real football sequences, just a few film clips that are used to familiarize us with the potential players. There is no big game, player showdown or coaching miracle. This is a story about the behind the scenes maneuvering in the NFL for draft positions and the strategies used to improve your team or solve problems. There is almost as much macho posturing in the war rooms of the draft as there is on the field. Everyone has an opinion and an agenda, but ultimately someone has to choose. In this story the man who has to make that decision is Cleveland Brown GM Sonny Weaver.

Weaver is in a no win situation, the Browns are notorious at failing their fans. The best joke about that which I know is the longtime Browns fan who requested in his will that the pallbearers at his funeral be Browns players. When they show up out of respect, someone asks if he really loved those players that much that he wanted to honor them with this request. The answer was “No” he just felt that it would be appropriate at the grave for the team to let him down one last time. Costner’s Sonny is the son of a legendary former coach who had died just a week or so before the draft.  It turns out that he actually fired his own father a season before. Everyone is rooting for the Browns to grab a Golden Ticket and make a run at the Super Bowl. An opportunity is presented to Sonny to trade up for the number one pick and a chance at a franchise quarterback, potentially of a Manning, Luck, Elway status. The pressure to make a deal, the desire to please the fans and his father’s legacy, seem to conspire Sonny into making a choice he is not entirely comfortable with.

The NFL must have a piece of the action on this film. There is so much inside access to the Draft day events and personalities that It almost becomes a commercial for the business (cynics will probably take out the word “almost” in that last sentence). Real figures with the current NFL mix with our fictional characters and it all plays out like a backstage musical where we get to see what goes on behind the curtain. The story throws in some personal conflicts in the form of a demanding widowed mother, Ellen Burstyn, and a pregnant girlfriend who happens to be the front office money manager for the team played by Jennifer Garner. There are a slew of good supporting players including the devious GM for the Seahawks, the impervious owner of the Browns, and a couple of other prospects that Sonny has his eye on. The movie goes deep with character actors and peripheral characters that add color and context to the events in the film. There is a good deal of humor and as the clock starts counting down on the draft, there is a good deal of tension.

I don’t think I have seen as much split screen use in a movie since the original “Thomas Crown Affair”. The director turns out to be Ivan Reitman and he knows how to make an otherwise dull phone call something of an event. The personal stories don’t get in the way of the dynamics of the business, they just flesh out the day a bit more. This is a movie that is well written when it comes to making the inevitable outcome suspenseful and entertaining.  Costner plays it real, never overdoing the drama and reflecting a man who knows what he wants but is not sure that everybody else will want the same thing. You will be cheering for the Browns and that is truly a piece of film making magic.

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The Shawshank Redemption

There is nothing so wonderful as a free Sunday afternoon and a classic film playing on a big screen somewhere. AMC has been doing screenings of classic films consistently over the last six months. I applaud them making the effort and I wish I’d made more of them than I have. Fortunately, today I was able to see “The Shawshank Redemption” back in a theater in the twentieth anniversary year of it’s original release. This is a movie that received critical attention but not box office love when it first played. In it’s initial release it made about $16 million and then, when it was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, it added another $10 million or so. Today, it felt a little bit like a repeat because there were only five people in the screening, and I was the first one to buy a ticket according to the box office attendant. Those issues are still a little frustrating because this movie has built a reputation since it was released, like no other I have ever seen.

It is the number one rated film on the IMDB, and it ranks above another 1994 film that is often looked back upon as the film that should have won the Oscar that year “Pulp Fiction”. For a movie so middling at the box office, it’s reputation has to be based on secondary market exposure, so maybe now that everyone has seen it on DVD, Blu Ray, Pay Per View, Cable, Satellite and broadcast television people may feel it isn’t necessary to revisit it. People out there, if that’s you, you are wrong. The experience in the theater makes a movie sing like it can’t anywhere else. I first saw this with my friend Anne at the old Hastings Theater in Pasadena. There was a sneak preview that was supposedly sold out but we went and got in anyway.  She loved it immediately and while I admired it, I thought maybe it was a little cliched. Over the years my opinion has changed and the main reason for that is an appreciation of the story structure. The whole segment with Brooks, the convict who got released seemed tired when I first watched it, but as I saw the movie again over the years, I realized that the segment is so much less about that character than about all the others in the story. It is a window into the mind of the reluctant “Red” and the hopeful “Andy”.

I’m still not convinced that the Mozart moment would have played out the way it does in the film. but the narration by “Red”, delivered by Morgan Freeman, makes the moment so poetic and beautiful, that I can now suspend my disbelief for two minutes and appreciate the scene for the moment of glory that it truly is. The shot of the yard with the transfixed faces and bodies of the prisoners and guards is visually arresting. The beatific expression on Andy’s face as the Marriage of Figaro plays over the loudspeakers makes the punishment he will receive seem worthwhile.

The other sequence that is so worth watching on the big screen is the reveal of Andy’s plan of escape and redemption. From the discovery of the exit, with the warden staring into the void in the wall, to the moment the warden enters the void himself, we get a perfect encapsulation of Andy’s true brilliance. The just revenge that follows his exposure of the murder and corruption that takes place in the prison, is an incredibly satisfying moment. After having seen what Captain Hadley and Warden Norton were capable of, there is not an ounce of pity for either of them. Clancy Brown has been in many other films and made a great impression in them, but his sadistic guard makes most of the bad guys he has played over the years look tame. Whenever I see Bob Gunton in a film or TV show, I know that he is a good actor, but he has never had another part like this soulless bureaucrat again.

The Drew Struzan artwork for the tenth anniversary of the film.

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins are both believable and heartbreaking in this film. While they have both subsequently won Academy Awards in the supporting actor category, this might have been the one time I can think of where a duo award for actor could be justified. They are two sides of a character trapped in prison, and they reflect the hopes and resignations of someone in that situation very memorably. Roger Deakin’s photography looks amazing on the big screen and the shot of Andy in the sewer pipe will make you gag because it is lit just well enough to let us know how horrible that 500 yard crawl would be. Kudos to Thomas Newman’s score which also sounded great in the theater today. It’s playing again tonight at seven and on Wednesday, March 26 at 2 and 7 as well. Don’t miss this opportunity, get busy living people.   

Muppets Most Wanted

I may need to see a doctor or a dentist next week. My mouth and jaw are sore from smiling so much this morning, I’m not sure if I need a pain killer or another injection of Muppet hysteria to make my brain start functioning normally again. I can’t say that this movie will win over any non-Muppet converts, but if you are among the initiated in the ways of Kermit, Piggy and the rest of the gang, you too will likely find that the smile you wear for the rest of the day is a pleasant penance to pay for the nearly two hours of felt and foam pleasure.

Let me say that I hope this will be a two or three year repeat event for the rest of my life. Like James Bond, a new Muppet film is something that I will always look forward to. The characters always entertain me and if the movie is put together with some thought, it should be a memorable experience. “Muppets Most Wanted” lives up to my expectations and it will be a film that any fan can return to and enjoy from almost any point in the run time. The story is an almost immediate follow up to the rebooted version of the Muppets from 2011. The character of Walter is now just another one of the cast and the focus is on the whole crew of Muppets with special attention to Kermit. His resemblance to the most dangerous frog alive, the number one criminal right above the “Lemur”, is what propels the story. “Constantine” is a vaguely Eastern European amphibian, locked up in a Russian gulag, who makes good his escape and manages to replace Kermit in the Muppet Troop as Kermit is banished to the Siberian prison that held the criminal. It’s sort of like “The Prince and the Pauper” or “The Prisoner of Zenda” only with frogs.

The master criminal is going to use the Muppet Show as cover for a series of crimes aimed at gaining access to the crown jewels. This means that we will have several bits that harken to the original Muppet Show. There are guest stars dancing with Muppets and Piggy trying to hog the spotlight and Gonzo with another weird act he is trying out on the road. I would have been perfectly happy with those moments but we get some other elaborate productions also. There are plenty of singing and dancing guest stars and Muppets to go around the world a couple of times. As the crimes are being investigated, a mismatched pair of vaguely French Interpol agent and Sam The Eagle from the CIA pursue the trail of the criminals and try to break the case. Meanwhile, Kermit plots escape and survival in the Siberian Gulag he has been cast in.

The movie features eight original songs by Bret McKenzie, one half of “Flight of the Concords”, and they are all a kick. “We’re Doing a Sequel” is self mocking and enticing at the same time. The Muppets are joined in singing by a couple of guests, but the focus is clearly on them and their desire to figure out what it is that they are doing next. “I’m Number One” is a status defining character piece that uses the amusing Ricky Gervais as the straight man to the nefarious Constantine. The esteem crushing lyrics will go a long way in making sense of a twist payoff that is silly and memorable and involves the dumbest costume for a master criminal this side of the sixties Batman TV show.

All of the non-Muppet stars in the movie get moments to shine, but many could use a little more screen time. After seeing some clever jokey TV promos featuring Danny Trejo, I could have used a couple more scenes with that craggy faced, tattooed treasure. Tina Fey is coy and tough at the same time as the Russian officer in charge of containing the prisoners in Siberia. She gets carried away just enough during rehearsals for the prisoner review that we can accept the crush she seems to have on our main hero. Ty Burrell is pleasingly goofy as the E.U. weenie who gives we Americans something to laugh at in the European settings. There are cute little surprises in the background casting and several big stars get into the movie for just seconds because it looks like they like the Muppets as well as we do. If you never find the Muppet characters to your liking, I’m sorry for you, and this movie is something you can stay well away from. If you love the Muppets like I do, then this is the most sensational, inspirational,celebrational, muppetational, film you are going to see this year. You should love it.

Come on, get in the picture Muppet Fans.

300: Rise of an Empire

When the original Zack Snyder version of 300 was released seven years ago, we got a fresh approach to making a graphic novel into a movie. The combination of animation, CGI, background art and live action was intriguing and visually stunning to look at.  Since that time there have been other films that have aped that look, including new works by director Snyder himself. While they have had varying degrees of success, it is safe to say that “300” itself still stands as the model for this vision. Now there is a sequel/prequel/simultaneous story told using the same techniques and while not directed by Snyder, the screenplay is co-written by him and co-produced by him and it perpetuates the franchise pretty well even if it is not as strikingly original as it once was.

I should be ashamed that I do not know my Greek history well enough to pick out all the enhancements, modifications and outright fabrications that this story must give birth to. I am wise enough though to know that you should never let a movie be your source of historical knowledge. To do so would lead you to believe that Abraham Lincoln killed vampires prior to freeing the slaves. There is enough of an historical tapestry to make this movie interesting without having to make any of it credible. Themistocles as historical political and military leader clearly was instrumental in the Greek repulsion of the Persian forces. The visual of him in this film involves the usual chiseled good looks that all the soldiers had in the original film.  Artemisia is another historical figure that is blended into the story and gives us a terrific antagonist in the form of Eva Green. It seems unlikely that Themistocles and Artemisia met on board her ship and conducted a sex exchange as violent as most of the battles depicted in the movie, but who am I to complain when the film makers manage to give us lusty images of the two of them engaged in violent naked conflict.

This movie is all about the bloody battles and staging them with gleeful mayhem galore. There was more CGI blood in this film than I have ever encountered before and it actually looked pretty good. I went cheap and skipped the 3D version and I’m a little sad for that because I could see the manipulative uses of swords and blood splatter and spears and arrows, and it made me want to see that coming off the screen into my lap. Where “300” focused on the Spartans, this film takes in all of Greece and manages to make the Athenians look pretty bad ass on their own. Most of the battles fought in this film take place on sea going vessels laden with slaves and fighting men. The cleverness of the Greeks in war strategy is emphasized and there are some smart tactics similar to the lesson that  King Leonidas learned and used in the original story. There was plenty here to exploit for random violence and chaotic throat slitting. The political intrigue is told in an aggrandized style that echos from the previous film as well. Never speak when you can shout, all speeches must be aggravatingly inspiring and when visual story telling can’t fill in the blanks, rely on breathy narration from secondary characters.

None of this is to suggest that the movie is not worthwhile. It is in fact a swell piece of pulp entertainment that plays to the blood-lust of the audience. Some story points make seem repetitive but how many times can you watch a dismemberment and not begin to think this looks familiar?  If that is the kind of thing that brings you to a movie like this, then you will be very satisfied because all of it is staged well and easy to see and enjoy. Instead of the hyperkenetic, shakycam shooting you see in most action films, the visual images here are carefully planned and shot with an eye for lingering death and anticipatory swordplay. You can follow what is happening and enjoy it in slow motion on a regular basis. I had my doubts about the viability of a sequel but clearly there is plenty of historical story to share and another hero envisioned on screen is fine. Actor Sullivan Stapleton is fine but he lacks the charisma of Gerard Butler. After getting an elaborate backstory, Xerxes is placed on the sidelines for most of the tale, and his godlike pontification is not really likely to elevate the movie the same way Butler’s ferocity did.

So in summary, it is a worthy followup to “300”. There is nothing that will harm the memory of the original film and the addition of Green makes the movie more appealing than I originally thought it would be. Anyone who is interested at all in the movie will find something to meet their expectations, but if your only expectation is battle, blood, and bromance, then this is a movie that you can fully embrace.

Her

This was the last of this years Best Picture nominees that I needed to catch up with. I saw it yesterday at the AMC Best Picture Showcase along with four of the other nominees. It has an amazing original take on technology and humanity and the vision of the future is realistic enough to take seriously some of the concepts that are presented here. Joaquin Phoenix stars in a meditative and sad performance that was surprisingly un-nomiminated this year.There may have been some talk of Scarlett Johansen being included for her voice work, but that technological breakthrough will not be coming to the Academy Awards first. Someone else is going to need to push that part of the envelope.

In the not too distant future, humans become so dependent on technology to connect with each other that they begin to fray at the edges. Theodore is a writer of letters that are personal expressions of deep emotions, the only thing is they are not letters written for him but by him. He works for a company that is paid by others to express their ideas in more poetic and eloquent ways. He is a ghostwriter for the daily emotions that people wish to convey to one another. He himself is something of a ghost. His marriage has broken up and while he has friends, he is intensely lonely. He expresses others feelings in amazing letters, but appears to have a block on connecting with others at more than a superficial level. He is not a hermit but he does have trouble maintaining relationships.

A new operating system for his electronic life begins to take over his emotional core. “Samantha” is a great fictional character that is never visualized on screen, she is a voice in his earpiece that means more to him than the once precious marriage that he is in the process of dissolving. As an artificial intelligence, Samantha is not ominous in the way HAL turned out to be, but the impact on human life may be devastating in completely different ways. I was impressed with the story arc and development of the relationship between Theodore and Samantha. There were several odd moments where the issiue of sex comes up and if you are at all squeamish about those issues, let’s be frank, it is not nudity that is discomforting it is the imagination.

I don’t like to put anything into these posts that could spoil the movie for an audience. There are some things here that will be a bit surprising and some that are a little too precious. I thought the ease with which his dating relationship was accepted by his coworker was an interesting take on tolerance but also a potential condemnation of our unwillingness to judge others. The society of the future might sound silly to begin with but it does not seem that far fetched when you see how people currently interact with their phones. I also would have to imagine it is the far future when L.A. has become as elevated an compacted as NYC and as dependent on public transportation. It was nicely visualized and the CG modifications to Disney Concert hall and the city scape are pretty inventive. The beach scene is funny because the crowds and the way Theodore enjoys the sand in his street clothes. Taking a nap in the sun like that on the beach would result in a nasty sunburn, but that part of the technology is not really shown.

I would not be at all surprised if the next generation of phones work in a way very similar to those shown in this film. There are some nice practical advantages to the bi-fold design and the multiple lens access. The blue tooth earpiece is already ubiquitous so it is a short step to the interactive nature of the tech seen in this movie. Years ago I read a science fiction story called “Meathouse Man”, about a guy who misunderstands the way in which human bodies are being used as sex partners. He falls in love with the unseen operator of the “sex equipment” and the revelation at the end of the story reminds me a little bit of what happens in this movie. In the end, we are our own best measure of what love really is.