Draft Day


Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

(2014) Sports Drama (Summit) Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary, Chadwick Boseman, Sean Combs, Ellen Burstyn, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Chi McBride, Griffin Newman, Josh Pence, Tom Welling, Sam Elliott, Wallace Langham, Kevin Dunn, Rosanna Arquette, Jim Brown, Patrick St. Esprit, Margot Danis, Jennifer McMahan. Directed by Ivan Reitman

Football isn’t just a sport in the United States; it’s virtually a religion. Fans hang on every little bit of minutiae, from coaching strategies to fantasy leagues to postgame analysis. The NFL Draft has become something of a spectacle in its own right.

Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns who are coming off a disappointing season with a suspect quarterback (Welling) and a new Coach (Leary) hired away from the Dallas Cowboys, has a lot on his mind on the new Draft day. His boss, Browns owner Anthony Molina (Langella), is disturbed by the diminishing returns of his football club and needs Weaver to make a splash at this year’s draft – or else. His girlfriend Ali (Garner) who also happens to be his salary cap specialist, announces that she’s pregnant. His dad, a former Browns coach who Sonny himself had to fire, passed away a week earlier.

He’s been vacillating between two choices in the number seven position; linebacker Vontae Mack (Boseman) from Ohio State who really wants to be a Brown and has the advantage of being a star on the local college team, and running back Ray Jennings (Foster) who is the son of Earl Jennings (Crews), a Cleveland Browns legend. Jennings the younger has the disadvantage of having a recent arrest on his resume.

Then the Seattle Seahawks come calling and they’re interested in dealing. They have the number one pick in the draft overall and there is a can’t-miss quarterback, Bo Callahan (Pence) from the University of Wisconsin up for grabs. If the Browns are willing to give them their next three first round picks, they can get themselves a quarterback being touted as a legitimate franchise player. Knowing that this is the kind of move that can save his job, Weaver pulls the trigger. This pleases his boss but not his coach who has an innate suspicion of rookie quarterbacks, nor his current quarterback who has worked hard since his injury to get into the best shape of his life.

Something about the deal doesn’t feel quite right to Sonny. Why would Seattle want to pass on a sure thing? Unless there’s something that gave them cold feet…and nobody has found anything about Callahan that doesn’t look like he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer. Sonny needs to find out what’s what and maybe do some wheeling and dealing and in the meantime the clock is ticking as the Draft approaches.

The movie was made with the blessing and full co-operation of the NFL with commissioner Roger Goodell making a cameo as himself and the real team names and logos used, not to mention cameos by ESPN analysts and sportscasters. That’s meant to give the film a sheen of legitimacy and it’s quite effective.

Costner’s career resurrection continues as he utilizes his laidback personality and bemused smile to good effect. He’s perfect for this kind of role; canny, a little bit flustered, good-hearted and trying to do the right thing. In years past Costner would have played the athlete so this is a very natural move for him.

Leary, a stand-up comic who has done a lot of dramatic roles on the small screen, does really well here as the arrogant ex-Cowboys coach, constantly flashing his championship ring to remind people that he’s a winner. His back and forth with Costner is among the movie’s high points.

The problem here is that there is too much going on. I could have done with less soap opera and more expose of how things really work in an NFL club’s front office. I suspect a lot of football fans will agree with me on that point. While the plot ends up fairly predictable, I did appreciate the idea of the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the screens. Also a note to Reitman – overuse of graphics and fancy camera dissolves can get pretty distracting. Otherwise this is solid and entertaining spring fare guaranteed to make football fans long for the fall.

REASONS TO GO: Costner is solid as ever and has some terrific scenes with Leary.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Graphics get to be somewhat intrusive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunny Weaver Jr. was originally meant to be the GM of the Buffalo Bills but the team was changed when the producers found that it would be much cheaper to film in Ohio.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Major League

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Joe

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Moneyball


Moneyball

Brad Pitt hopes his latest draws bigger crowds than this.

(2011) True Sports Drama (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Kathryn Morris, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey, Bobby Kotick, Brent Jennings, Nick Porrazzo, Jack McGee, Glenn Morshower, Casey Bond, Tammy Blanchard. Directed by Bennett Miller

In Major League Baseball, as in most anything else, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some ballclubs have enough money to afford anything and anybody, others have to watch their budget carefully.

The Oakland A’s are a have-not ballclub. As General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) puts it, there’s the rich clubs and the poor clubs. Then there’s fifty feet of crap…and then there’s Oakland. Owner Stephen Schott (Kotick) doesn’t have the money to compete with a New York Yankees, for example. After the A’s lose in the divisional championship to the hated Yanks, the A’s are gutted by free agency going into the 2002 season; All-Star First Baseman has been signed by the Yankees, Johnny Damon by the Red Sox and Jason Isringhausen to the Cardinals.

Replacing players of that caliber from established ballclubs is nigh on impossible given the salary limitations that Oakland had. An attempt to get a decent player at a bargain basement price from the Cleveland Indians ends badly, but Beane notices that the Cleveland GM is listening to advice (indirectly) from someone in the room he doesn’t recognize. Beane eventually finds out that the non-entity is Peter Brand (Hill), a Yale economics graduate who has some pretty radical ideas on valuing players, mostly based on ideas from statistician Bill James who is persona non grata in baseball.

Brand gives Beane the idea of bringing ballplayers into the organization based on On-Base Percentage (OBP) as opposed to traditional baseball philosophy which takes into account home runs, fielding, RBIs and hitting. The team’s scouts and baseball brain trust are appalled as Brand seems to be recommending players who under traditional rules of thought are marginalized, players like Scott Hatteberg (Pratt), a catcher whose arm has been blown out and is facing the end of his career until Beane signs him up as a first baseman; Dave Justice (Bishop), a former star in the twilight of his career and Chad Bradford (Bond), a relief pitcher with an unorthodox delivery.

A’s manager Art Howe (Hoffman) also has some severe objections, exacerbated by a contract dispute. Howe and Beane butt heads constantly, Howe playing his line-up according to his point of view and Beane frustrated that the players he’s acquired aren’t being utilized properly. As a result, the A’s begin to lose. Often.

Beane, whose daughter Casey (Dorsey) is hearing rumors of his imminent unemployment, has got to pull things together, but can it be done? Is Brand’s theory simply smoke and mirrors and more than a century worth of wisdom actually the best way possible?

This is a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball movies, a sports underdog movie for those who don’t like sports. The script by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List) is smart and doesn’t talk down to audiences while at the same time explaining some of the concepts being put forth – not the overly complex ones mind you but just enough to make sense to the casual viewer.

Pitt is one of America’s biggest stars and that fact often causes him to be underrated as an actor and yet he has roles like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that are Oscar-nominated, and not because he won the nomination in a cereal box either – it was well earned. There are some whispers going around Hollywood that he might be being considered for another Oscar nomination for this role too.

Beane is a complex man and Pitt captures those complexities, from his kind heart to his competitive fires. He wants very badly to win the last game of the season (which is the World Series-clinching win) partially fueled by his own promising but ultimately disappointing on the field career which he gave up a scholarship to Stanford for.

Hill is somewhat the comic relief but not because he is doing a typical Jonah Hill part. Brand (a fictitious character by the way) is part genius, very shy and quite un-self confident. Brand gets laughs because he’s a bit of a novice at the game of baseball and so he doesn’t fit in very well. He’s a nerd working in a jock factory.

The filmmakers wisely shy away from re-creating baseball scenes, mostly relying on archival footage in which the faces of the actors are digitally inserted. That means the audience isn’t forced to sit through badly staged sports sequences with actors who are obviously not athletic pretending to be professional athletes.

There are a lot of flashbacks to Beane’s baseball career which are I suppose to show his motivation for wanting to win so badly as a General Manager. There are way too many of them and they only serve to slow down the film, which is slow enough at times. Keep in mind that this is a movie about the front office more than it is about the ball field. Much of the action takes place on phone calls and in conference rooms.

This is one of the surprises of the year. It’s a movie that far surpasses expectations and turns out to be a legitimate Oscar contender. Had this been released in November or December, there would be reams of copy praising Pitt as a potential Best Actor and the movie itself a possible Best Picture. I was sold on this movie from the first few minutes and completely locked in for the duration. This gets a very high recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Brilliant performances and an amazing script. Need not be a baseball fan to love this movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The action moves slowly from time to time. Flashback scenes to Beane’s baseball career seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director of Photography Wally Pfister was hired somewhat quickly after the original DP had been arrested on serious charges and was unable to do the film.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d go the home route on this one; nothing here really screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Wanted