It's only the middle of April, but it's never too early to begin analyzing this year's Awards Season. As Summer rolls in, studios will be unveiling trailers for anticipated contenders. Some, however, have jumped the gun with early marketing campaigns - hoping for some lasting promotional success. So far these films have made good first impressions:
"Get On Up" - Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in "42") plays the iconic James Brown in this biopic life story. The musical drama re-teams "The Help" director Tate Taylor with stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Looks like a major hit. Aug. 1
"The Boxtrolls" - The latest stop-motion animated collaboration from Focus Features and Laika (who've scored Oscar nominations with "Coraline" and "ParaNorman") is practically a lock for a nod, off of its funny, inventive and quite memorable teaser trailers. Sept. 26
"Gone Girl" - The just-released debut preview of "The Social Network" director David Fincher's drama is incredibly intriguing. Based on the book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), Ben Affleck stars as a man on a desperate search for his missing wife. But did he actually kill her? Oct. 3
"Interstellar" - So far, only a brief teaser has been released for Christopher Nolan's space mystery. But we do know that recent Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway will be looking for seconds, and they're joined by Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon. Plus, there are limitless possibilities for stunning, Nolan-esque visual effects. Nov. 7
"Unbroken" - Angelina Jolie goes back behind the camera for the true story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who was captured by the Japanese during WWII. An inside look aired on NBC during February's Winter Games. I'm sure Jolie is thinking Gold. Dec. 25
"Heaven is for Real" is based on the best-selling book of a boy's near-death, life-changing experience. Director Randall Wallace follows-up his 2010 horse-racing drama, "Secretariat", with another inspiring true story.
Greg Kinnear is excellent as Todd Burpo, a loving husband to wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly from "Flight") and father to daughter Cassie and fun-loving four-year-old son Colton (played by first-time actor Connor Corum). Todd works several jobs in order to support his family, but is primarily a minister for a small-town Nebraska parish.
A few days after Todd is forced to deal with a few painful medical issues, Colton, out of the blue, comes down with a dangerously high temperature. Todd and Sonja take him to the local medical center, where he is forced to undergo emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. The doctors don't think Colton is going to survive the operation, but he miraculously does.
Soon, Colton begins to reveal to Todd that during the procedure, he went to Heaven, where he met Jesus, among others, and discovered just how beautiful Heaven is. Todd now must struggle to determine if and how he can believe what his son is telling him, whether these experiences actually happened. All the while Colton continues to amaze Todd and others with revelations about his incredible journey.
"Heaven is for Real" does take a little while to get going. The first half-hour is upbeat, setting a positive tone for how Colton sees his life. When the near-tragedy strikes, the film shifts focus to balance serious themes and spiritual messages. But the execution is handled so well that the story never gets preachy and will likely bring many to tears by the end.
There are hardly any moments in "Heaven is for Real" that come-off as cheesy or forced. Wallace does include a few scenes of Colton's description of Heaven. Thankfully, the media aspect takes a back-seat to the more crucial problems of the family - both financial and spiritual. And all the performances are quite believable. Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale shine as parishioners who are having an uneasy time accepting Todd's stance on Colton's beliefs.
"Heaven is for Real" is rated PG for language and some heavy material. It's suitable for kids 10 and up. Whether or not you believe that Heaven exists, it's impossible to overlook the emotional impact this film provides. It's powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly moving.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Heaven is for Real" gets a B+.
Kevin Costner has a long history with sports movies. He made "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" back-to-back in the late 80s, took a swing at golf with "Tin Cup" in the mid-90s, and returned to baseball "For the Love of the Game" at the end of that decade. 2014 marks Costner's return to the sports drama genre. He'll play a track coach in "McFarland" (out Nov. 21). And currently, as Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver, Jr., Costner takes part in the most outrageous "Draft Day" in NFL history.
Diehard football fans are likely going to blast "Draft Day" for its mostly unrealistic interpretation of the Draft Day process. There are several situations over the course of the film that would never happen in real life. These include last minute revelations about players that would've been discovered months before and the incredible chaos on the actual day, including the wheeling and dealing of draft picks.
However, as someone who's not obsessed with this annual NFL event, the lack of authenticity didn't bother me. "Draft Day" isn't a touchdown by any means (and nowhere close to the level of "Field of Dreams", which other critics have suggested), but it works as a relationship drama with some effective twists, solid performances, and sprinkles of humor.
Costner's Sonny Weaver, Jr. is beginning his third year as the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, who are coming-off yet another losing season. When we first meet Sonny, he's not exactly having the greatest draft day of his life. His father, a legendary coach of the Browns for years, has recently died. The Browns' owner (Frank Langella) is pressuring Sonny to "make a splash" with their 1st pick in the draft day (#7 overall) or he'll likely be fired. And team attorney Ali (played by Jennifer Garner) has just told him they're expecting a child.
So Sonny tries to change his luck by swinging a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for the #1 overall Draft Pick. All the analysts, and the Browns' outspoken head coach (Denis Leary) think it's now obvious that they'll take the top prospect to come out of college ball, Heisman Trophy-winning QB Bo Calahan. But Sonny's not completely convinced. There are other possible choices, or maybe another trade or two. And the clock is ticking.
"Draft Day" starts-out very slow and doesn't pick-up momentum until about a half-hour in. Director Ivan Reitman (coming-up on 30 years since "Ghostbusters") showcases strategy scenes (both in person and over the phone) in an effort to pull-in the diehard football fans. He also uses NFL graphics, logos and actual locations, along with commentary from real-life NFL TV analysts, to explain the basics of the draft to those who aren't as knowledgeable of the process. One oddity that Reitman uses is a split-screen graphic in which characters over-lap each other, walking into the others' half of the screen. It's as bizarre and distracting as it sounds.
However, and this is rarely the case, it's the subplots of "Draft Day" that make the movie a success. 81-year-old Ellen Burstyn is very good in a small role as Sonny's mother, grieving over the loss of her husband. Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in "42") stands-out as a hot-shot potential draft pick. And the scenes between Costner and Garner, who are struggling to figure-out where to take their relationship, work as well.
"Draft Day" is rated PG-13 for some brief strong language. There are moments when this film scores with its "inside football" look and feel, while other times it fumbles badly. And it's much tamer in tone than it could have been (a somewhat watered-down, football version of "Moneyball"). But overall, it's entertaining, honest, and quite likeable within its "What if" premise.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Draft Day" gets a B-.
"Rio 2" is the sequel to 2011's animated musical hit from Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the "Ice Age" series. "Rio" had a very average story, eye-popping, candy-colored characters and over-the-top musical numbers. The same can be said for this sequel, which is unfortunately unlikable.
Blu and Jewel (again voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway) now have three young, energetic kids (who thankfully aren't the main focus). The family still believes they're the last Blue Macaws on the planet, until they learn that their wacky scientist owners ventured to the Amazon and found proof that other members of their species exist. So the family of five decides to journey from Rio de Janeiro to the rainforest to see these other Blue Macaws for themselves. It turns out that hundreds exist, led by Jewel's own tough father (Andy Garcia).
The plot expands to include the supporting trio of Nico, Pedro, and Rafael (Jamie Foxx, will.i.am., and George Lopez) looking for talent for an upcoming festival, Jewel's own showy childhood friend Roberto (pop singer Bruno Mars), old nemesis Nigel and his new companion venomous frog (Jemaine Clement and Kristen Chenoweth), and the forced environmental issues.
"Rio 2" is as typical as a trip to the pet store: this film goes in way too many directions searching for just the right story, tone, feel - and ultimately finds the perfect match, but only for five and six-year-olds. Anyone older than that will likely be bored. The jokes and situations aren't clever (the GPS gag gets old fast), and coming off of Disney's animated phenomenon "Frozen", the musical numbers are rather goofy (and there are way too many of them).
On the positive side, the voice cast works (though it's a little too star-studded for my liking) and the animation is simply gorgeous. If only the story was stronger. Blue Sky hasn't shown the ability to deliver great storytelling since 2009's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs". Maybe next year's eagerly anticipated "Peanuts" will change this streak.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Rio 2" gets a C.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has raised the bar yet again with the return of The Star Spangled Man with a Plan. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the sequel to 2011's highly entertaining "The First Avenger". In that film we were introduced to a scrawny Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) who was asked to serve his country during WWII in a unique way - by becoming a beefed-up symbol for the people, and eventually a crime-fighting hero.
In 2012's "The Avengers" Rogers teamed-up with the other established Marvel superheroes: Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury to defeat Thor's evil brother Loki. Thankfully in "CA2" there is no sign of Asgard.
Nick (the always great Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) join forces with Rogers once again, this time in an effort to combat the reemergence of the evil forces of HYDRA, whose secret weapon is the infamous "Winter Soldier", a trained killer with a metal arm. His identity is hidden by a mask, though, in one of the movie's many revelations, we do get to learn who he actually is.
But the trio of Avengers are not alone. Anthony Mackie ("The Hurt Locker") fits-in seamlessly as a modern-day war veteran who joins the good guys as The Falcon. He's involved in several aerial sequences that are impressively staged and shot. Also new to the series is Alexander Pierce (Oscar winner Robert Redford), who represents S.H.I.E.L.D. in the World Council.
That's all you need and want to know about "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" going in. Any more details would give away too much of the complex and sophisticated plot, which includes more twists than any Marvel Studios installment to date. This is not your typical "superhero" movie, but an action-packed political thriller, with a serious tone that elevates it to a level way above most of the efforts in this series, putting last year's mediocre "Thor: The Dark World" to shame.
And yet, "The Winter Soldier" is also a whole lot of fun. The action scenes, which range from nicely choreographed hand-to-hand combat to all-out gun battles, are long but rewarding. There are a few bits of humor sprinkled-in, many Marvel references, and one of the better Stan Lee cameos. Evans and Johansson have an authentic chemistry, and Redford, at 77, still has a commanding screen presence, even in this supporting role (and it's good to see him back on dry land).
The most impressive triumph of "The Winter Soldier" is the use of the score, montages, and unexpected flashbacks to capture our emotions, and make us care about these characters like never before. Kudos to the directors - brothers Anthony and Joe Russo - for making the Captain America universe Marvel's most human and believable. There are some pacing issues, with periods of extended dialogue leading up to an explosive, 10-minute action scene. But that's a minor complaint for what is an exciting and extremely impressive film.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is rated PG-13 for all the action/violence and some language. It's appropriate for teens and up. As always, stick through the credits for a few teasers of other Marvel films coming-up, including next year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron". But before looking ahead, take the opportunity to enjoy the smartest Marvel movie yet, and one of 2014's standouts.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" gets an A-.