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Film Review

New films: Draft Day and Oculus

Draft_Day_poster

Draft Day
Directed by Ivan Reitman

OK, I’ll admit it again – I have a soft spot for Kevin Costner. Despite one or two stinkers on his resume (don’t we all?), he’s been delivering solid performances for decades and on the one occasion I interviewed him, he couldn’t have been nicer. I’m predisposed, not to like his films, but to want to like them. So it was with some trepidation that I attended “Draft Day” because Costner’s been making a bit of a comeback of late, but his last film “3 Days to Kill” was pretty awful (albeit not because of him).

“Draft Day” starts a little slowly and I wasn’t quite feeling it at first, as Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr. has an awkward morning encounter with his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), as they walk outside into what felt like a low budget General Motors commercial. But the movie picks up pretty nicely after that and kept me both entertained and absorbed throughout. It’s fair to say this is probably the movie that has left me with the biggest positive buzz of the year so far – which surprised me given its subject matter and style.

Sonny is the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns and he’s trying to secure the team’s future on the National Football League’s draft day – the day that teams pick new players coming into the league. But as well as picking, and trading, players, teams can also trade their right to pick players in specific rounds of the draft – which can significantly complicate the process.

The film introduces us to the organization around Sonny and to several incoming, hopeful new players who are on Sonny’s radar. It’s a film that does a good job of walking the line between boring the audience members who know the game and the process, at the same time as not losing those who know little about either. It helps to have enough of a clue about football to understand some basic positions and the importance, for example, of the quarterback – but one doesn’t have to be a fan of the game to appreciate this story.

However, outside of the importance of this particular day in Sonny’s professional life, all is not great in his personal life – as evidenced by the opening sequence with Ali. And if the movie has a flaw, it’s the tendency of writers to not just throw one problem at a character when there’s a chance to throw five or six. It’s another example of a story that seems at times to be written as though we, the audience, can’t appreciate stress levels unless they’re oozing out of the screen at us.

And yet it actually serves this film well. Throughout the story we get snippets of Sonny’s view of the world and his perspective on character – what makes a person a good person and what makes a player a good player. He’s looking for players who can play through an error and not dwell on it – he’s looking for players and colleagues who can stare down stressful situations and rise to the occasion. What we get are a series of surprisingly well matched circumstances that provide Sonny the opportunity to perform in the same way he’s demanding of others.

What’s neat about all of this is that it’s a film about sports that’s not about game action itself, and yet is structured like an action sports film. This is draft day as though the draft is the game itself. It’s bureaucracy and process portrayed as a battle and if you take a hit early you’ve still got to throw a winning pass later in the action. It’s not coincidental that Sonny has a Sun Tsu quote framed on his wall.

At the same time it’s also a film that, perhaps, is trying a little too hard to please everybody. It’s a sports film that’s also trying to be a relationship film – it’s like a formula conceived by a marketing committee to appeal to date night moviegoers. So some will likely feel as though it’s not quite enough of one or the other, depending on their respective tastes – but I personally found the balance very satisfying. It’s edgy and suspenseful when it needs to be, touching at times, and sometimes simply very funny. For example, this is the worst possible day for Sonny to have a new intern and Griffin Newman is wonderful as this particular deer caught in Sonny’s headlights.

Garner is solid as Ali, supported by Dennis Leary as a coach with opinions of his own and questionable past performance, Ellen Burstyn as Sonny’s demanding mother, and Frank Langella as the ambitious team owner. It’s also a film that benefits from multiple football personalities playing themselves and adding an air of authenticity to the proceedings. But this is clearly Costner’s film and it’s classic Costner – as though 25 years just fell off the clock. It’s hard to imagine this role being played better by anybody else.

“Draft Day” is a neat film that had me walking out on a high. It’s drawing mixed reviews in early publications but it was a clear winner for me.

 

Moviebrief

Oculus” opens this week and on its face is a fairly generic horror/thriller about a family who has the misfortune to acquire an antique mirror that’s harboring an evil presence. That sentence alone is probably enough to tell you  whether or not you’re likely to enjoy the film based on past experiences with ghosts, demons, and other spooky characters that have a tendency to show up suddenly in one camera angle and disappear just as suddenly in the next. But what it doesn’t tell you is quite how neatly assembled this generic story is. It’s a film that bounces between present scenes in which the children of the troubled family are attempting to destroy the mirror, with past scenes of the family’s tragedy. But as the film progresses, these timelines start to blur as scenes from the past blend into scenes in the present during which characters remember or see into the past. I’m not recommending it as a story (and fans of this genre aren’t generally swayed by critical recommendations for or against films anyway), but it is an interesting project to watch for the storytelling structure.  If a group of film students watch this one, the dinner conversation is more likely to be about the narrative transitions than about what actually happens. And for those who track careers, it’s one of the first major big screen roles for Brenton Thwaites who has a busy year ahead, including “Maleficent” and the lead role in “The Giver.”

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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