Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Draft Day

 Draft Day
Grade: D
Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Ellen Burstyn
Director: Ivan Reitman
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With two first-round picks in the 2012 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns were considered favorites to trade up to the No. 2 overall pick and land the rights to Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. They were outbid by the Washington Redskins, whom Griffin would lead to the playoffs. The Browns kept their picks and chose running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden. Two short years later, neither player is still a Cleveland Brown.

So when the Seattle Seahawks go looking for a sucker to trade the No. 1 pick in Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day, it won’t surprise beleaguered Browns fans (of which there are no other kind) where the bull’s eye lands – squarely on the back of Browns General Manager Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner). To the Cleveland faithful, even the looniest of the loony things that follow might seem plausible. It’s one thing for a GM to pay a ransom of future draft picks to move up from No. 7 to the top pick. But then to use that top pick on the same player he would have chosen at No. 7? Oooookay. To pass on a golden-arm quarterback prospect because of something that might have happened at a birthday party? Madness! Football nuts will see Draft Day as a cartoon. Browns fans might suspect it’s a docudrama.

That’s just the football side of the equation for Costner’s character. His father just died. He just knocked up a team executive (Jennifer Garner). And his mother wants to spread his father’s ashes on a practice field RIGHT THIS MINUTE! To make matters worse, the planet must be on an asteroid collision course for Draft Night, because none of these people can put off any of these distractions until the next day.

Draft Day takes inspiration from the baseball front office drama of Brad Pitt and Moneyball. While that film has its flaws, it knows baseball and presents Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane as a sharp innovator. By contrast, Draft Day makes you think Weaver and the Browns’ scouts spent all offseason throwing paper airplanes at each other. With the draft hours away, they appear to be looking at these players for the first time. Weaver has never spoken to the quarterback on whom he’s risking his job.  Departures from reality are acceptable, but why depart when the reality would be intense? Research counts.  It doesn’t come across here.

Everyone would like to see Kevin Costner go on a late career run. His breezy essence and core of decency dominates the film like a good star should, but Draft Day isn’t much of a prize for the effort. Director Ivan Reitman’s main flourish is to split-screen telephone calls between the general managers, as if Rock Hudson and Doris Day were discussing players-to-be-named-later (although I like the way he personalizes the offices – a problem with Moneyball). Somewhere along the line, Rajiv Joseph (a Pullitzer Prize nominee) and Scott Rothman’s script might have been a good at one time. But you can see the lumps where producers, market analysts, script doctors, and Hollywood convention stuck their knives.

Despite the fact it would inevitably turn into a commercial for a billion-dollar sports enterprise, a film about the NFL draft should have plenty of good material – money, family, hopes, dreams, sins, deception, obsession, isolation, and a ticking clock. That film is still on the clock.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Grade: A
Cast : Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Wilkinson, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson.
Director: Wes Anderson
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Can we just sweep words like “quirky” and “whimsy” under the bed? I’m thinking “dollhouse” could also burn to the ground, or get tossed out the window like Jeff Goldblum’s unlucky cat.  It’s like Wes Anderson committed a crime for having an imagination. Are these words descriptive, or backhanded punishments that reduce a great director to a cinematic sideshow? 

The pleasant acceptance of The Grand Budapest Hotel marks the end of the annoying-but-predictable revelation-backlash-“return-to form”-celebration cycle that serves as drama for film critics. Budapest reveals Anderson to be what he has always been – one of American cinema’s five or so best comedy writers (along with Sturges, Wilder, Allen, etc.) and the best filmmaker among them.

Anderson described the childhood love story of 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom as “a memory of a fantasy.” The Grand Budapest Hotel is the opposite, a fantasy borne out of memory.  It moves backwards in time (1985, 1968, 1932), as it widens and thins in aspect ratio (1.85, 2.35, the boxy 1.37). Over a long, brilliant dinner in 1968, a young author (Jude Law) listens to Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham)tell the story of how he came to own the fading gem, starting from his time as a penniless bellboy known as Zero.

It was in 1932 that he first came to the plump pink palace, built into a hillside in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka.  Once a postcard of pretty snow and skyscraping pastries, Zubrowka stands on the edge of fascism and war. Upholding the values of a gentler time is the hotel’s four-star concierge Gustave H. Immersed in a purple waistcoat, with lungs that pump romantic poetry, Gustave believes in discreet customer service (sometimes of the naked variety) as a sacred virtue and – in the face of looming barbarity – a code for living. Gustave is what many Anderson heroes are – a well-dressed man (or fox) at war with his times.

The death of an octogenarian conquest (Tilda Swinton, making the most of a few moments) leads to a battle over her will and a priceless Flemish painting, Boy with Apple. Framed for murder by relatives, Gustave and Zero give the ol’ 1-2-3 skidoo to the authorities, leaving a trail of perfume and civility along their travels. The film springs forward with madcap doings for Gustave and Zero, with a secret monastery, a bobsled chase, a prison moat of crocodiles, and a birthmark the shape of Mexico.  

For traditionally solemn Ralph Fiennes, Gustave H is the sort of bright comedic role that points an actor in new, unrealized directions.  Anderson regular Willem Dafoe nearly steals the show as a leather-clad henchman with no regard for the sanctity of human life or human fingers. The film’s real star is the hotel itself – the lavish crimson carpets, symmetrical dining tables, towering  murals – a spacious resurrection of European bourgeois luxury (imagined and realized in an abandoned German department store).  Anderson’s art direction and set design (brought to life by production designer Adam Stockausen and cinematographer Robert Yeoman) have become such a critical battlefield that sometimes we forget to marvel at them.

As inspiration Anderson has been referencing Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer of the thirties whose writings suggested the decline of Western civility during the rise of fascism.   While I take his word, such a source clearly complements themes from 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. As proposed inspirations go, Blimp has the not-entirely-inconsequential benefit of having been named by Anderson as one of his favorite films. He goes so far as to import its most famous line (“The war starts at midnight!”).

The Archers’ aging British colonel starts his film as an outdated fool, but a review of his past reveals a man motivated by chivalrous and humane values of another age. When the film slowly returns to the war years, the satire becomes a lament for lost civility.  Like Anderson, the Archers invented their worlds with a handmade quality – emotionally expressive color schemes, hand-drawn mountains and valleys, English sets and models that could become Germany, France or a mountainside palace in India.

For Anderson, Gustave and his era are outlets for his romantic idealism, even while his plight suggests darker layers to the past.  Scrambling to put the world back together again is both an angelic longing and a tragic waste. Ultimately our encounters with the past are only the way to define the present. If Anderson is fascinated by disappearing grandeur, it’s because we sense its lack in modernity.  

I wouldn’t say The Grand Budapest Hotel reaches the first rank of Anderson’s films (in which I would list Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Moonrise Kingdom). But it isn’t far off, either.  While the dialogue could sharpen its step, it makes up by being tons of fun. Most of all it’s an indication of the middle-age mastery of his notable style – an artist of originality and vision at his point of greatest command.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Grade: D
Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Kenneth Branagh
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The shadows for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit fall over the movie and the actors themselves.  When did Kevin Costner become an old man? What happened to Keira Knightley’s rise to stardom? Why has a relaunch of Tom Clancy’s heroic CIA analyst fallen into the January dump period, especially when it, at least, is not a disaster?

There’s certainly nothing shadowy about the chosen story for this intended reboot. This isn’t the first time that the elements of the plot have seen the broad daylight. The Russians are ready to crash the American economy. To do so, they plan to stage a terrorist attack somewhere in America. The mastermind of the plot is a Russian businessman (Kenneth Branagh, who directs), a nation where nice guys finish not only last but dead. Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), new CIA recruit, discovers something shady while pondering a set of data. He journeys to Moscow to uncover the plot, where he dodges shootouts, car chases, and a suspicious girlfriend.  

Shadows from the past stretch from the toes of the Jack Ryan predecessors – The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, A Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears. They are not quite great films, but sturdy, lasting entertainments.  They are helped by Clancy’s detailed knowledge of spycraft and his ability to convey it first in print and then celluloid. There are neat, smart twists and touches to Shadow Recruit – like the way that a little fresh paint gives away the plan – But on the whole, it feels like a step down in quality from the ones before it. 

Shadows of Harrison Ford, the best known Jack Ryan of the past, also linger. That’s a long unfair shadow, but it’s there nonetheless. There’s always something about Pine that makes him seem like a junior member. That works for a young Captain Kirk or the rookie train man in Unstoppable, but it doesn’t really work with a CIA agent, even a newcomer. On the other hand Shadow Recruit has a pair of likable performances from familiar faces. As a CIA veteran, Costner cooks in a comfort food presence. I’m always pleased to see Knightley when she’s sharp, although I would be more pleased to see her in something more meaty.

There’s something familiar about Shadow Recruit. It’s a trip back to the time of spy vs. spy movies and rote Russian baddies. For most viewers, that will seem either comfortable or boring. While sitting, typing, and thinking about it, it seems to have had the weight of a shadow and lasted about as long.