DRAFT DAY. I don't particularly care for or about the National Football League. And over the years, I've come to view professional athletic organizations and their sanctioning bodies with an ever more jaundiced eye. Recently, in the middle of some cavernous, anonymous, Midwestern chain restaurant, lamenting my lot, I realized that the many giant flat-screens around me were all broadcasting the NFL Combine. This, of course, is the main event in the run-up to the NFL draft, wherein potential draftees demonstrate their speed, strength and ability to follow orders. It struck me then that the combine feels a lot like a modern-day slave auction, where the athletes are put through their paces under the scrutiny of well-heeled speculators in search of a money-making opportunity. Much higher up the ladder are the real opportunists, the profiteers who own the teams and reap unfathomable profits from the enthusiasm of the ticket-buying public. Then there's the lifetime of hard work, dedication and traumatic brain injury that comprises the experience of the players. So yeah, I'm a little cynical about the NFL; but I've always loved sports movies.
Director/producer/writer Ivan Reitman is one of the most successful movie industry figures of all time: Most directors' whole catalogs won't gross what a couple of Reitman's mega-hits made at the box office, and a few of his movies are undeniable comedy gold. Find me a more perfect Hollywood comedy than Ghostbusters and I would be forced to destroy it (meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha, etc.). But in my youth, I was more interested in angst, challenge and discomfort than in laughter, and so was quick to dismiss the talents of guy like Reitman because his stock in trade is happiness and pleasing his audience.
In Reitman's latest, Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver Jr., the General Manager of the long-suffering Cleveland Browns. We meet Weaver early on the morning of the draft, on the heels of a demoralizing losing season, the injury of his star quarterback and the death of Sonny Sr. He's got twelve hours against a constantly ticking clock to: build himself a competitive football team, placate the team owner (Frank Langella) and keep his job, maintain a working relationship with his opinionated head coach (Denis Leary) and process his grief. And he just found out his girlfriend/co-worker (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant.
The clever script by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph won last year's Blacklist prize for the best unproduced screenplay in Hollywood, and rightfully so. Despite my contempt for the goings-on detailed in their story, they've managed to turn it into compelling suspense, with Weaver shucking and jiving and negotiating right down to the wire. The potential draftees take on full-bodied personalities, giving us a sense of how much it might really mean to a young man to make it into the league.
This isn't the sort of movie that will be considered for awards or discussed in film classes down the decades. But it is satisfying on a different level; it offers engagement and enjoyment that, while not academic or "artistic" in the classical sense, still requires serious talent and expertise to accomplish. It's deceptively simple on the surface, and that's where Ivan Reitman excels. He's a seasoned pro, a guy who knows how to make a Hollywood movie that hits its marks and delivers the goods. In the industry landscape, his breed is quickly going the way of the dinosaurs, but Reitman's still around, and he still knows what he's doing. Draft Day isn't especially stimulating visually, or thematically heady. But it is a solid Hollywood movie of the type we rarely see anymore, and that's more than good enough for me. PG13. 109m.
RIO 2, on the other hand, is as gross an exercise in commercialism as I've seen in a long while. Like the first installment, it is colorful and occasionally compelling, at least visually. But it is also drastically overlong and under-plotted, while somehow also overly complicated, and ultimately pointless.
Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway reprise their roles as Blu and Jewel, a couple of endangered macaws living in captivity in Brazil. When their human companions discover a flock of blue macaws in the depths of the Amazon, Blu and Jewel, with children in tow, head out to find their lost relations. Turns out it's the family from which Jewel was separated as a child. Blu has a hard time fitting in, they're pursued by the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and face the threat of money-hungry loggers out to clear-cut the rainforest.
The smaller kids in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves. G. 101m.
BEARS. John C. Reilly narrates the life and times of a CG bear family. No actual salmon were harmed in the making of this film. G. 78m.
A HAUNTED HOUSE 2. Another Wayans horror spoof with Jaime Pressly and Gabriel Iglesias. R. 86m.
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL. Greg Kinnear plays the father of a boy who has a brush with death and claims to have visited heaven. PG. 99m.
TRANSCENDENCE. When Johnny Depp dies, we will probably preserve his consciousness as an all-knowing digital entity. Until then, he's playing a scientist in a movie about it. PG13. 119m.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. The Avenger next door goes BAMF, this time battling the robo-armed Winter Soldier in a sequel that tops the first installment. PG13. 136m.
DIVERGENT. Veronica Roth's Myers-Briggs dystopia — in which extraordinary teens are targets of state oppression — gets the Hunger Games franchise marketing treatment. PG13. 139m.
GOD'S NOT DEAD. A devout college student debates his philosophy classmates and professor to prove God exists. It's harder to convince us that Kevin Sorbo is a professor. PG. 113m.
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Wes Anderson's Instagram-toned tale of hotel intrigue with concierge-Romeo Ralph Fiennes is his funniest and best written yet. PG13. 138m.
THE LUNCHBOX. A chance encounter leads to strange pen pals in Mumbai. PG. 104m.
MR. PEABODY AND SHERMAN. Charming and fun animated adventure about a brainy cartoon pooch named Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell), his adopted human son and a time rift. PG. 92m.
NOAH. Darren Aronofsky made a CG biblical disaster movie, and lo, it was frustrating and all over the place. With Russell Crowe as the pre-FEMA hero trying to keep heads above water. PG13. 138m.
OCULUS. Karen Gillian tries to prove her parents were killed by a haunted antique mirror and clear her brother's name. Should ruin rummage sales for everyone. R. 105m.
THE RAID 2. Rama returns with a badge and a grudge. People are going to get kicked. R. 149m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill