Saturday, July 18, 2015

Draft Day

Clearly, we've entered the realm of science fiction. I mean really, a Cleveland Browns general manager ... giving thought to his draft picks? This is truly speculative fiction.

I can only wonder what someone who isn't a Cleveland Browns fan would think when they watch Draft Day (2014). I'm from Cleveland, I was born the season of Earnest Byner's fumble, my first sports idol was Bernie Kosar, I remember the uproar over The Move, and the last game I ever attended, Tim Couch was quarterback. After that, I kind stopped following them (do you blame me?) and only started paying attention again the last couple of years. So even though I'm not really a huge fan of sports movies, Draft Day is a movie I can't pass by.

Draft Day, directed by Ivan Reitman, stars Kevin Costner as Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the Browns. It's Draft Day, and his boss, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) wants him to "make a splash," but his girlfriend, Aly (Jennifer Garner), who's in charge of the salary cap, just told him she's pregnant, and it's only been a week since the death of his father, Sonny Weaver Sr., a legendary Browns coach whom Sonny fired. Meanwhile, the new coach, Penn (Denis Leary), likes to flash his Super Bowl ring and has little respect for his general manager.

Sonny, who has the number seven pick, is weighing between linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) and running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), whose father Earl (Terry Crews) played for the Browns. That's all thrown in the air when the general manager of the Seattle Seahawks offers Sonny a deal: the number one pick for the next three year's worth of first round picks. If he takes it, Sonny can draft top quarterback prospect, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), even though Cleveland's current quarterback, Brian Drew (Tom Welling), is back from knee surgery and said to be stronger than ever.

Fundamentally, Draft Day tries to be two things: an insider look at a football team's organization on one of the most trying and important days of the season and a character drama about a man under pressure on all personal and professional fronts. Unfortunately, the two directions don't mesh very well. Football fans interested in strategy, statistics, and the game itself probably won't care too much for all the personal melodrama and character subplots, most of which feel off the shelf, especially the relationship between Sonny and Aly and his living in the shadow of his old man. Particularly schmaltzy and contrived is when Ellen Burstyn shows up as Sonny's mother, carrying his father's ashes and demanding her son drop everything he's doing on the most important day of the year to accompany her to the practice field for an ad-hoc ceremony. No explanation is offered as to why a football coach's widow wouldn't realize that waiting one day when things are a little less hectic would probably be more fair to her son, especially when she's the one who prodded him to fire his father for the sake of his health (a lot of good that did).

Because so much time is spent on this Hollywood material, the Moneyball aspects of the movie get reduced to mostly surface level observations - is this player of higher moral character, etc. - and you don't come away feeling you've gotten any great insight into how a team selects its draft choices. The climax comes to life as Sonny wheels and deals under the clock, but it seems really unlikely he would get the results he gets here. It seems too happy and perfect, especially since the movie ends with the start of the season, and the Browns look ready to dominate.

That's the real problem of the movie. The actual NFL draft is more of a prelude than the main attraction. Sure, to long-suffering Browns fans, the draft is when the hope and optimism for a season are at their highest, but all that goes out the window once the games actually begin. Look at the history of the Browns since 1999: how many supposed saviors of the franchise have been selected in the draft, and how many of them amounted to dick?  In fact, the year this movie came out, the Browns in real life did essentially what Kevin Costner tries to avoid in the story: draft highly and at great cost for a quarterback who looks more like a bust than the future. The real-life Browns have often been much more baffling and dysfunctional than anything dreamed up by Hollywood.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (2012) is Quentin Tarantino's Spaghetti Western, set in the Antebellum South, and centered on a freed slave as he searches for his wife. But unlike the gritty work of a Sergio Leone, whose Westerns were practically cinematic operas, Tarantino's film is much more polished, ironic work and at times almost a dark comedy. It's also overlong, repetitious, and filled with some of Tarantino's more indulgent tendencies.

Three things happen in the opening moments of the film that alerted me that this would not be one of Tarantino's finer pictures. A subtitle tells us the year is 1858, which the film tells us is two years before the Civil War started; the Civil War didn't begin until 1861, so we're still three years out. (although this inaccuracy is benign compared to the suggestion that Hitler was blown away in a French movie theater by Eli Roth). Soon after, two slave traders moving a group of slaves, among them Django (Jamie Fox), halt when a mysterious wagon approaches.

"Who's that stumblin' around in the dark? State your business or prepare to get winged," says one of the traders. I winced when I heard that line; it just sounded so phony. It would have been more to the point to just have him say, "Who goes there?" but I guess that's not quirky enough for Tarantino, so he overwrote a line that does nothing but draw attention to itself.

The third sign comes at the end of this scene, after the slaves are freed by the man driving the approaching wagon, Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), a German dentist and bounty hunter. He's killed one of the traders and left the other trapped underneath a dead horse, helpless. He tells the slaves their options and leaves with one of them, Django (Jamie Fox). Rather than ending the scene there, Tarantino shows the slaves graphically murdering the trapped the man. Since we could already figure out they were going to do that without it being shown, it plays as unnecessary and gratuitous. I'm not trying to preach a moral high ground, but in a bloated movie, fat needs to be trimmed.

On with the plot. Schultz needs Django because he has a warrant for the Brittle brothers, and Django knows what they look like. If Django will help him identify his targets, Schultz will free him. Eventually, Django joins the bounty hunter's life, and with Schultz's help, he searches for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was purchased by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio).

The Spaghetti Westerns from such directors as Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci were gritty, violent, rough movies, huge departures from most American ones starring the likes of John Wayne. They were raw, the characters didn't look like actors playing a role but real people who lived in a harsh environment, both physically and morally. The desert was grim and dirty, the roads were muddy, and flies crawled over everything. The line between good and bad wasn't always so clearly defined. Sure, the technical details - i.e. the dubbing of non-English-speaking performers - wasn't always so hot, but these movies conveyed a rugged reality.

By contrast, Django Unchained is just too clean, too polished, and too gimmicky. Sure, it's just as violent and definitely bloodier, but the violence is more along the lines of a splatter horror movie, not realistic and more there for show than to create any kind of impact. Tarantino uses the classic theme from the original Django (and in fact, original star Franco Nero turns up in a cameo) as well as music by Ennio Morricone, but he also inserts hip hop songs, and the result is rather jarring. One gets the sense Taratino is straining to make his movie seem cool, but go back and watch these original Spaghetti Westerns: they just naturally are.

The film also a weird sense of pacing. There's a scene in which a plantation owner played by Don Johnson leads a group of hooded horsemen to attack Schultz's wagon. The raid begins, they ride for the wagon, and then the movie cuts to before the raid to when the horsemen discuss whether they can see well enough through the slits of their mask. This comic vignette goes on so long, by the time we return to the attack on the wagon, the momentum's gone. The movie's biggest pacing sin occurs at the end, when after the confrontation we've been building to occurs and is resolved, the movie continues for another half hour.

For a two-and-half hour movie, Django Unchained feels underwritten. Kerry Washington is given next to nothing to do; the movie builds up like she and Django are going to have this great reunion, and then she faints and remains just the object of his mission. Calvin's sister is also introduced and set up like she's going to be important, but nothing is ever done with her. The movie also repeats scenarios and character types: twice Schultz shoots a man and uses his warrant to get out of trouble with a crowd after the fact, and the two plantation owners, Don Johnson and Leonard DiCaprio, are so similar in presentation and character, I don't know why Tarantino didn't just combine them and streamline the movie's narrative.

Django Unchained needed to be lean and mean; it feels padded. I don't entirely dislike it. Waltz is wonderful as the dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and Fox brings the appropriate intensity and focus. Other performers aren't as good. DiCaprio is not menacing or slimy enough for this kind of villain role, and Samuel L. Jackson as his loyal house slave is just impossible to take seriously with the distracting old age makeup and cartoonish performance.

I laughed some times (when some people unexpectedly get shot) and was shocked at other times (a runaway slave is torn apart by dogs). The look of the movie is wonderful, great costumes and settings that range from wintry mountains, shanty saloons, and bright plantations, but the movie is overall lugubrious.