Gleason: Movie Man Jackson

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Live with purpose. Love with purpose. Football player Steve Gleason has always played the game of football with determination and purpose, an overachiever in all aspects as an undersized-yet-tenacious linebacker and eventual safety. During the New Orleans Saints’ return to the Superdome after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, Gleason became a symbol of rebirth for the city, state, and region, blocking a punt on Monday Night Football that was returned for a touchdown.

Five years later, Steve is diagnosed with ALS, a disease in which life expectancy doesn’t often exceed three years after diagnosis. Though debilitating in physical condition, Gleason refuses to stop fighting, and intends to leave his incoming young one with memories about who his father was.

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From electronic commerce to legitimate media production studio, Amazon.com has quite the features to hang its hat onto, from original streaming programming to well-received and noteworthy films. In the span of 18 months, the studio has distributed Chi-raq, The Neon Demon, Manchester by the Sea, and Gleason, a moving documentary about continuing the fight, no matter what it may be.

At the end of Gleason, Steve Gleason states “Unfortunately, this is real life. It’s not a movie…” On one hand in the obvious sense, the latter is incorrect as this has made the rounds in film festivals, awards talk, etc. It is clearly a movie in the basic sense. On the other hand, one sees rather quickly that Gleason’s end statement hold a ton a weight. He and director Clay Tweel made this with the clear intent: To be a video diary for his son whom he may not be around to see.

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I feel like Captain Obvious here saying this, but Gleason is real, more real than most documentaries if that can be believed. No frills or gimmicks whatsoever. It is fascinating and saddening to see a strong, fit young man reduced to an unfortunate soft shell of what he once was, a reminder that the human body is only flesh and bone and some things regarding how it functions just are out of our control. This would be still be a good documentary if it solely focused on Steve. A particular moment in a church is heart-wrenching to witness.

But, the feature goes deep into those around him and how they are affected with Steve’s declining health. His wife, Michel, struggles with being pregnant and simultaneously having to take care of her husband. The stress is evident, and it culminates in a powerful scene that brings up the importance of each other in their respective lives, and the toll it takes on each of them; Steve for being unable to improve his condition and help his wife through her pregnancy, and Michel for struggling to remain upbeat. An early scene shows Michel being emotionally hit with a freight train of emotion, realizing that what is affecting her husband is only the beginning.

Additionally, the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between Steve and his father, Mike, is examined, and the aspects it covers from religion and faith to the cyclical nature of parenthood. As much as the physical is looked at in this movie, seeing father and son address and accept their shortcomings in their relationship that have little to do with Steve’s current condition proves to be rewarding. Steve’s status as a national symbol is brought up, and as such, the question about how one draws meaning from life when what they are known for, or have done for a lifetime, becomes stripped away from them is posed.

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No stone appears to be unturned, but if there were one item that could have possibly been addressed, it’s the change in directors from Sean Pamphilon to Clay Tweel, due to Pamphilon releasing audio of then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that implicated the coach and the football team in a scandal that promoted injuring opposing players for monetary reward (Bountygate). Hearing Gleason give his detailed thoughts as to why he removed Pamphilon from directing duties would have been appreciated, but including this into the film wouldn’t exactly fit in with everything else, so it is understood why this is left out.

As heartbreaking as Gleason can be to view, it is uplifting. Takes a while to experience the feeling, sure, but one can see why this needed to be widely distributed by the end credits as it brings massive awareness to ALS. No matter the affliction, to paraphrase a great speech delivered by legendary coach Jim Valvano: “It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.” No white flag.

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Photo credits go to mmqb.si.com, abcnews.go.com, and wgno.com.

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Any Given Sunday: Movie Man Jackson

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On Any Given Sunday, a hero can fall, and a hero can rise. The Miami Sharks, once one of the best franchises in their football league, have fallen on hard times. They aren’t a profitable franchise anymore, and owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) is contemplating moving the team. They’ve lost four straight, and Coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) has just lost his 38 year old quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) to a debilitating injury.

In relief of Cap comes Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), a talented-yet-inexperienced young quarterback. Beamen begins to lead the team to success, but also clashes with D’Amato and his no-nonsense approach. If that weren’t enough, owner Pagniacci may have had enough of the coach’s refusal to adapt to the new age. There’s an unforgiving game played on the gridiron, but the game played outside of it can be just as unforgiving, if not more so.

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When it comes to football movies, there are generally a few classics that are at the top or near the top of every list. Rudy, Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard. One that doesn’t get mentioned as often but in the opinion of yours truly is just as fulfilling, if not more than those aforementioned movies, is the Oliver Stone-directed Any Given Sunday. It’s a movie I loved when I was young, and one I believe gets better and better with age.

Stylistically, like many of Stone’s movies, Any Given Sunday can be very hyperactive, full of cuts, splices, and the like. It is annoying in some movies, but in AGS, the style works wonderfully, in particular, the football scenes. They are so frenetic and fast paced to show that American football, in spite of all of its downtime between plays, is a manic couple of seconds when those plays are going on. Specifically, Stone captures what playing quarterback would be like stepping into a pressure cooker for the first time at the highest level of football. For my money, the opening scene when Foxx’s Beamen arrives to the line of scrimmage for the first time set to Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now is one of my favorites opening scenes of cinema ever, regardless of genre.

Stone doesn’t only focus on the football, though. Any Given Sunday is just as interested in the stuff that occurs outside of the hashmarks as it is inside of them. The business side of football, the locker room side of football, and the personal side of football are all analyzed. In many ways, the issues and ideological clashes Stone brings attention to such as team doctor ethics, old-school pocket quarterbacking v.s. dual-threat quarterbacking, and whether players are nothing more than new slaves for ownership foreshadowed many hot-topic conversations that exist today in football.

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These stories are very compelling. But still, a major issue of the film is its runtime. Not so much due to bloating or information overload, but the random scenes Stone throws in here and there that just feel overindulgent. Spending roughly one full minute seeing players snort cocaine off of escorts, seeing a player lose an eye, and witnessing an offensive lineman having to go to the bathroom urgently make little sense as to why they had to be included.

Everyone does their jobs cast-wise with what their roles ask of them. Coach D’Amato is one of Pacino’s best recent performances, which says a lot about his recent roles when one considers this was released in 1999. Despite the odd wardrobe for a coach, Pacino feels like a guy who has been around the game for a while, seen a lot of things, and is unsure about his place in the game as it becomes more modernized. Of course, his inches monologue is legendary and galvanizing. I’d say, however, that he is equaled or even upstaged by Jamie Foxx, taking on his first real dramatic role as “Steamin” Willie Beamen. Looking the part of the respective athletic position is important for any football movie, and it is easy to see Foxx’s natural athletic ability. But he’s so good next to Pacino, as a good amount of the film is the two characters coming at each other from different viewpoints. Beamen has layers; dynamic yet traditional, arrogant yet rightfully convicted in his skills. Willie Beamen is one of my personal favorite characters in any film, period.

Notable actors include Dennis Quaid as the grizzled quarterback who knows about leading a locker room, LL Cool J as a selfish running back only looking after himself (his character’s clashes with Beamen feel all the more real as Foxx/LL had real issues with one another), James Woods as a questionable-at-best team doctor, Aaron Eckhart as an up-and-coming coordinator, and Cameron Diaz who really impresses as a female owner/general manager who is very much hands-on. Non-actors such as Lawrence Taylor and Jim Brown, while not exactly being stretched and for good reason, add to the proceedings and actually give the production an air of legitimacy.

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Any Given Sunday still serves as the truest movie representation of pro football and all of its issues that aren’t confined to the field. It might not be at the consensus very top of the draft board for football movies, but it hits just as hard in the entertainment department, if not harder than, those oft-mentioned movies at the top.

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Photo credits go to footballsfuture.com, esquire.com, and bluray.highdefdigest.com.

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Draft Day: Movie Man Jackson

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“Every year, someone comes out of this looking like a donkey.”

Being an Ohio resident since mid-2008 now, I have more or less adopted the hard luck Cleveland Browns as my second football team. So, seeing Draft Day not only accomplished my review mission, but also served as a potential feel good moment to Brownies fans, who have not had a lot of them in the franchise’s history. Draft Day is a fictional sports film detailing the 12-14 hours before and shortly during the NFL Draft, an event where the nation’s top players get selected by some combination of 32 teams in seven rounds over a three day period.

Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver Jr., a much beleaguered general manager for the Cleveland Browns. He has been on the job for two seasons, and each has not inspired a lot of confidence in the team’s owner or its fanbase. Even worse, Sonny fired the team’s coach who just so happened to be his father, who has passed away a week or so after the move. He is feeling the heat from his superior to “make a splash.” Luckily, an offer from the Seattle Seahawks gives him that opportunity.

By trading his first round pick in three consecutive seasons (including this one), Sonny and his team obtain the rights to the number one selection. This is important, because prognosticators like Todd McShay and Mel Kiper project the pick to be a can’t-miss, franchise changing quarterback in Bo Callahan. Easy decision right? As most general managers would tell you, hitting on a draft pick, even a high one, is never a walk in the park.

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I love football, especially the NFL. But seeing the television spots for Draft Day did not set my expectations high. Consequently, while this film is nothing special and problematic, it worked enough for me and I was not particularly disappointed. As outlined, the film centers around a draft. Fairly original premise, but like the real thing, it too feels elongated and stretched out at places. It does the best it possibly can to appeal to those uninterested in football and forced to tag along with a significant other by reiterating why so much value is placed on certain things. It even lets the uninitiated viewer know where certain teams are located in a oft-used “Home of the” sequence! Still, those with little or no interest in the sport may struggle to find value or entertainment.

On the other hand, while this is a sports film, it does possess enough solid dramatic and occasional comedic elements to stand alone as a drama/dramedy. The role of a general manager has always been an intriguing one. I get a chance to play it out on a fairly small and heavily stripped away scale in Madden, but this movie does a great job of submerging the viewer into the life of a general manager. It is not easy, and one that is filled with stress, personal agendas, and false bravado, especially during draft time.

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Costner is good here in the GM role, and looks and acts the part. The character is a bit hard to pull for though; at times he seems like a jerk who only wants his way and behaves as if his job title, while a powerful one, makes him impervious to questioning by those on his staff. So, I found myself often connecting with the coach played by Denis Leary. He wants his players and Sonny wants to do things his way, and they naturally clash. Both have valid reasons, but his reasoning came across as more sound. Jennifer Garner is fine here, but she is ultimately present for romantic reasons in the film, which largely comes across as forced. The chemistry on display with Costner is iffy at best. But Chadwick Boseman of 42 fame displays his natural charisma and still untapped talent as Vontae Mack, a linebacker who is vying to be the first overall pick.

There are some issues with the plot. The draft is obviously serious business, but it is shocking and a little unbelievable to find out that no one in the organization has tape of the projected first overall pick with eight hours before the draft! I could see if it was months before, but even then, information travels and can be captured so fast in this day and age. There is really no excuse for anyone in the organization to be that clueless on a potential game changer.  In addition, the plot is predictable about 20 minutes in with regards to who will be the number 1 pick. As long as the viewer follows the real NFL draft on a somewhat consistent basis, it can become quite clear who the team should take based on issues and flaws certain characters have.

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Director Ivan Reitman uses an interesting, 24-like technique with this film to inject light tension in certain places. Makes sense, as many of the scenes are phone calls by Sonny either talking to rival general managers, or potential prospects. However, the transitions and framing come across as amateur at times and takes the focus off of the conversation and onto the fact that part of a character’s body is crossing the imaginary split line. This was probably intentional as this was visible many times, but I rack my brain as to why. Nothing from this editing technique added any substance or context. Apart from this, a by the books directing take can be expected, with tons of orange and brown backgrounds.

In all honestly, Draft Day could be worse. An quietly impressive cast takes it higher than it probably should be, and the premise will appeal to diehard football fans but may have enough flaws for them to be disappointed. Very interested to see how it does on a national scale outside of Ohio & the Midwest, especially with Captain America 2 likely not slowing down, and the arrivals of a well received Oculus and family fare Rio 2.

Grade: C+

Photo credits go to http://www.tribute.ca & movies.msn.com

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