Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Swinging deals with the clock running out

I knew I was in the market for at least one 2014 sports movie. I don't love fictional incarnations of sporting events like I love actual sporting events, but my 2014 viewing schedule would not be complete without at least one of the two prominent sports movies released mid-year. (And no, I don't count a movie like Foxcatcher, because to call that a sports movie is to consider it too narrowly.)

Both of these movies were staring at me from my Letterboxd watchlist, appearing right next to each other and with similar posters. On each, a solo man in a suit looked at me imploringly, asking me why I had not yet watched his movie.

Million Dollar Arm seemed more likely to be my pick, as it's about baseball, and baseball is my favorite sport. But then Draft Day swung in with an offer I couldn't refuse.

See, Draft Day was the 99-cent rental on iTunes last week, timed to the start of the NFL playoffs. And this time of year, with little more than a week until my ranking deadline, the cost to acquire a movie is one of my biggest considerations on how I use my precious remaining time.

It's one of the reasons some more expensive rentals on iTunes -- like Nacho Vigalondo's latest, Open Windows, currently renting at $6.99 -- figure to lose out. However, I won't take just anything. The documentary Fed Up -- which I'd never heard of it, and is this week's 99-cent offering -- is getting a pass from me.

But I'm glad Kevin Costner was able to implore me into a viewing, because watching him swing deals as the clock ran out was sort of enthralling. In fact, the whole movie was a lot more of a rush than I was expecting, if I was expecting anything at all.

It's familiar turf, so to speak, for Costner. He has now been in 28 different sports movies, in everything from golf to baseball to football. The most structurally similar to this one may be Tin Cup, in the sense of how his character really goes for it, with arguably reckless results, in the third act. However, Tin Cup didn't work for me, and I found this one to be a gas.

Beyond Costner's solid central performance and the perfect casting of the Cleveland Browns' owner (Frank Langella), coach (Denis Leary) and favored prospect (Chadwick Boseman), not to mention a ton of other bits of delightful casting in smaller roles (P. Diddy as a superagent?), the thing I might have enjoyed most about this movie was its look. And only part of that was the crisp camerawork and the thrilling helicopter shots of various NFL stadiums -- real NFL stadiums, but more on that in a minute -- around the country.

Actually, it was that director Ivan Reitman -- caught in a bit of a late-career slump -- employed a truly invigorating split screen concept. I had long since stopped think of Reitman as any kind of visual innovator, if he ever was, but this made me reconsider that.

Like Moneyball, an obvious inspiration for this movie, Draft Day rolls along on a steady succession of high-powered phone calls between general managers talking trade. In order to capture both sides of the conversation at once, Reitman makes regular use of split screen. Never before had I realized how interesting it would be to see both ends of every conversation in a film, which also alleviates the script from having to waste a lot of precious dialogue on repeating back what the other person is saying. ("What did you say? You want to trade me the #2 pick for my #4 pick next year and my slowest running back?")

However, Reitman takes it one step further by freeing characters from the restrictions of their own screens. Costner's shoulder, for example, might insinuate its way into the screen of the Seattle Seahawks general manager. Or when Boseman is walking and talking, he might move through the other split screen and into a new screen on the other side. These screens also tend to wander sideways out of the frame, appearing on the other side of the frame, as if someone had swiped them like you'd swipe an android screen, or as if they were a sideways slot machine coming to rest. If this sounds gimmicky, it kind of is -- but it also totally works. The movie is pulsing with visual life.

It also made me think of one of my favorite sports movies, Major League, because Draft Day also deals with the plight of down-on-their-luck Cleveland sports fans. That city has famously gone decades without a championship in any sport -- in fact, I can't even tell you which was its last team to win it all. Even though this theme is only on the very periphery of this story, it does give you some sense of what is at stake for Costner's character as he ponders the draft day decision that could either deliver his city a championship, or set it back another decade and lose him his job.

And thank goodness we actually got the real Cleveland team. The NFL has rarely given its blessing to use its logos and teams in the movies, the most glaring example being in Oliver Stone's dreadful Any Given Sunday, featuring such teams as the Miami Sharks with their puke-colored uniforms. Some have argued that the price Reitman and company paid to use real NFL stuff was the NFL's script approval, and yes indeed, it does sometimes play like an advertisement for the NFL. But it's not like anyone set out to make some expose on football's greatest ills. This was intended as a breezy movie about executives making decisions under pressure, and the real-world consequences of those decisions. For what it is, it's a ton of fun.

Anyway, I'm glad Draft Day sold me on the value it could deliver me this late in the game. As I grow exhausted from averaging eight to ten new viewings a week, something that goes down this easy is nearly priceless.

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