Movie Review: “Get On Up” (Tate Taylor, USA/UK 2014)

Musician biopics are all the same movie: Person with troubled childhood seeks refuge in music and discovers rare talent, becoming very successful. Then, the person sows the seeds of his/her own downfall with a mixture of drugs, sex, and ego, and loses everything that once made them great. Then, there is a final begging for grace and we fade out to their greatest musical achievement. They’re great fodder for Oscars, because the actors get to mimic someone who has been seen by the entire audience before and the Academy has shown a very, very strong preference for that type of mimicry over more traditional acting. They also come with a built-in audience that wouldn’t always go to films: the musician’s fans.

Those films are often fun to watch, but not often good films. To me, Great Balls of Fire! (Jim McBride, USA 1989) has always been the quintessential musician biopic, and it’s a pretty awful film. But Jerry Lee Lewis set the blueprint for rock musicians in the latter half of the 20th century, his music is awesome, and he is the source of some of the greatest anecdotes in rock history. (Seriously, setting fire to the piano and saying, “Follow that!” because he wasn’t closing is an incredible story.)

When Get on Up was released, I assumed it was exactly that same film. I took it to be a film being made in order to get Chadwick Boseman the Oscar he nearly got for 42 (Brian Helgeland, USA 2013). However, in reality, the film is something else: it’s a disaster. It’s a mess that doesn’t even meet the standards expected of that sort of film.

One reason that same musician biopic keeps getting made is that there is such a nice, simple, understandable dramatic structure to the story. It has three clear acts that have a clear sense of cause and effect and an obvious source of dramatic power. Get on Up doesn’t really change the plot (though drugs only make a very brief appearance), but it does change up the narrative, cutting that plot up into a series of vignettes, shaking them up, and then pasting them together with no real reason. And then to help us keep straight where we are, Taylor inserts silly little vignette titles based on Brown’s self-appointed nicknames with the year next to them. It’s a heavy-handed device being used to clear up confusion that can be caused by the awful mess of the narrative.

And of course that mess of a narrative is more difficult to forgive because Taylor and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth have constructed a film with no unifying point. If there is a point to the film, it’s that James Brown was a great singer, which is really a terrible point to spend nearly 2.5 hours making. As a result, there’s nothing to focus on but that awful mess of a narrative.

However, what got this film attention was the acting, especially Chadwick Boseman. And the performances were almost universally good. Boseman didn’t really have the opportunity to show much, as he was mostly relegated to impersonating Brown’s stage persona, but he did an excellent job with what he was given. Quietly, Nelsan Ellis was excellent in a supporting role as the always-overlooked Bobby Byrd, and his part was considerably more challenging and nuanced than Boseman’s. He had to show conflicting emotions of love and respect for Brown as well as hatred for his selfish ridiculousness non-stop, and they were easy to read on his face in scene after scene. He didn’t have much else to do, but that was more than most had. Dan Aykroyd was the other standout, but not in a good way. His character is largely used as comic relief and so Aykroyd plays him as something of a Jewish music mogul stereotype, but he seems so clipped out of some sort of comic book that he’s distracting. His mugging for laughs and consistently unnatural performance may have made sense had he broken the fourth wall on occasion like Brown did, but he did not and so instead he just came across as a silly failed attempt at comic relief.

Taylor and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt created a single look for the entire film that only really deviates for a few stage scenes where the lighting becomes more dramatic simply because of the setting. They could have used visual cues to make the bizarre narrative structure easier to follow, but they didn’t, and that’s a shame. The film overall really doesn’t look any better than a typical made-for-television movie and has no strong sense of itself being anything unique or different. It shows a lack of imagination.

Overall, there just isn’t much redeeming about this film. It doesn’t look great, the plot is okay but is ruined by a bizarre narrative structure, and I’ll admit that I felt like I heard the same song for the entire running time of the film. It felt as much as anything like Taylor tried to make a few dramatic scenes and several music videos and then stitch them together rather than making anything cohesive, and some excellent performances were not enough to save it.

Thoughts from the Previews: June 5, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, USA 2014)

  • I’ve seen this trailer several times now, and the movie just looks like a total mess. It looks like it’s telling a seven-act story with no overarching point. It really bears the marks of a film being run by the novelist or people who don’t have the courage of conviction to be adapting the novel, which is a shame, because the novel certainly gets plenty of praise. (Sorry if it stinks, H.)
  • Credit to the hair and makeup folks for the job they did on Shailene Woodley–she still looks pretty, but decidedly un-sexy, and with her, that takes some work.
  • I swear this trailer is 15 minutes long.

Hercules (Brett Ratner, USA 2014)

  • I still think this looks like a serious contender for worst movie of all time.
  • This version of the trailer starts off with Dwayne Johnson pretentiously explaining the “importance” of the story of Hercules. And he’s being totally serious. He really is trying to win an Oscar.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, USA 2014)

  • I had seen a shorter, more effective trailer before. This one just makes the movie look like an overlong, over-serious set of action set-pieces with half the cast dressed as apes.
  • I looked this up–this is actually the eighth Planet of the Apes film. Scary, isn’t it?

Deliver Us from Evil (Scott Derrickson, USA 2014)

  • Just what we needed–another exorcism movie. I want to throw up just from the fact that another one of these is being made.
  • And again, it starts with a claim that it is a true story. Humanity has no hope.
  • Even in the trailer, Eric Bana’s accent kept slipping.

Get on Up (Tate Taylor, USA 2014)

  • If this were being released in December, I would say Chadwick Boseman is guaranteed to win the Best Actor Oscar. Is it coming out earlier because there is some reason that they think it’s got a chance as a summer movie or because Boseman’s performance isn’t good enough? I’m hoping it’s the former, because Boseman has been impressive in his career so far.
  • Tate Taylor has a reputation as a director who gets Academy Award consideration for his actors (though I don’t know that it takes much work to get that from Jessica Chastain). His presence is yet another sign that this film exists only to get Boseman an award.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014)

  • Different trailer this time–it includes “Spirit in the Sky,” which is a truly awesome song. Yeah, I sound old when I talk about music.
  • I’m pretty sure Karen Gillan was on screen this time, so I’m going to go ahead and mention it, because, well, Karen Gillan. If you’ve been reading this blog and don’t know that I’m sort of obsessed with Karen Gillan, you may have some issues with reading comprehension.

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, USA 2014)

  • There was no trailer for this, but why have I still not seen one? There is one out, and it can be seen on the IMDb, but I haven’t seen it in the theaters. I’m afraid that’s a bad sign. If I end up having to wait for DVD on two consecutive Woody Allen films, I’m moving.
  • Recently, Allen has been at his best in non-comedies, so I’m a bit trepidatious for this one. However, he also hasn’t made a truly poor film for five years, so I’m not outright worried.

Movie Review: “Draft Day” (Ivan Reitman, USA 2014)

Ivan Reitman is still around 30 years after directing Ghostbusters (USA 1984). In that time, he has directed such other classics as . . . okay, so he’s directed nothing else that anyone should see.

When I first saw a trailer for Draft Day, I really did laugh out loud. I could not believe that someone was actually making this movie that seemed to be a movie about an NFL general manager on draft day and nothing else. Kevin Costner was making the media rounds talking about how his other sports movies were all actually love stories (Which is true of just about all sports movies.), but that didn’t make me feel like it was any more likely to be any good. I thought it might be the sort of laughably stupid, bad film that Trouble with the Curve (Robert Lorenz, USA 2012) was. That sort of horribleness is almost fun, because one can start laughing about all of the obvious beats coming and pure idiocy while cataloging the baseball mistakes. Having Kevin Costner around made it seem less likely to be fun, because his awfulness is so boring and wooden (even compared to Clint Eastwood, and that’s saying something), but I still planned to go watch it to laugh at it.

Then, a weird thing happened: the reviews that came back were, while not great, decent. Costner was getting his usual (and never deserved) praise and critics were discussing the film as a fascinating window into the world of the NFL. No one was even remarking on the borderline-absurd 17-year age difference between Costner and his love interest, which would seem ripe for jokes!

So, now I was going into the film expecting it to be a treacly little family-friendly affair like the mediocre-at-best Moneyball (Bennett Miller, USA 2011) that would similarly get praise for its star for doing nothing at all. It turns out that I was closer to right the first time in expecting the film to be an outright disaster.

The film is the story of a day in the life of Sonny Weaver, Jr., the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, as he makes a series of bizarre moves on the day of the NFL draft to build the team he wants to build while getting the coach and owner off his back. The owner wants Weaver to “make a splash.” The coach wants a running back. He pulls off a series of moves that manage to placate both while reshaping the team as he wants it. Meanwhile, he of course puts his shattered love life in order and makes his mother happy. I’m sure he did something kind to a puppy that we didn’t see, too.

This film defines the word pointless. It’s a film about a guy who supposedly just needs to trust himself but then undermines that point entirely by using a folded piece of yellow paper as a plot point that turns out to say who he wants to and does eventually draft. Clearly he already did trust himself or he wouldn’t have written the note. So, instead it’s really just a story about how Sonny Weaver Jr. is the smartest GM in football . . . proving that a fictional character is the smartest person in a fictional world is not a point strong enough to carry a movie. And that’s where it starts to fall apart.

Then, the story that the film tells is absolutely silly–it’s just a series of football trades to end up trading three second-round picks for the first overall draft pick and taking a guy who apparently might not even go in the first round otherwise. Meanwhile, he’s trying to put together the shattered remnants of a relationship with the team capologist, who is apparently pregnant with his child. Of course, there is never any explanation of how or why their relationship is broken and apparently all he has to do to fix it is want it to be fixed, because he’s Costner the Almighty.

And the film can’t even stay on point with the stories it is telling, because it’s so excited to show us the amazing cameos by Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, Chris Berman, Mel Kiper Jr., and others, many of which are shoehorned into the film with no concern about how they fit the overall story. (“When did you get drafted, Ray?” . . . I nearly left the theater at that.)

As if to add insult to injury, the acting in the film is a mess. Kevin Costner is one of the worst actors in the world, and he doesn’t redeem himself here even though the part is quite simple. The moments in the film that count on him, like his statement to the Seahawks about how he wants their punt returner just because he feels like it, fall flat because of his woodenness. Mercifully, the film mostly has Weaver keep his feelings to himself, which keeps Costner’s weaknesses from being on display too often. Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman plays a talkative, arrogant linebacker whose character is such an extreme example of every stereotype of african-american athletes that it’s at best borderline offensive, and he plays those stereotypes to the hilt, overacting to the point of being painful. Jennifer Garner and Griffin Newman share comic relief duty, and neither gets the opportunity to to do much else. Denis Leary is also way over-the-top as a neanderthal coach who is apparently based on Barry Switzer, but that’s reasonably appropriate for the role.

Visually, the film was a much bigger effects-fest than it should have been. There was no reason to make such constant use of split-screens and CGI for this film, but that doesn’t stop Reitman and cinematographer Eric Steelberg–they turn the entire film into a bad television segment, and it is not a welcome development.

Draft Day is an abomination. I know I’ve said that a few times lately, but this might really be the film that takes the cake.

Football Minutiae

  • Denver won’t take Bo because they have an “all-pro” QB even though they’re picking fifth in the draft. There are apparently four teams in the top five who don’t need QBs at all. I guess that’s not impossible, but it sure is weird.
  • The $100 bill story is presumably based on an old story (whether true or not) about Randall Cunningham. Supposedly, one of his coaches stuck a $100 bill halfway through Cunningham’s Eagles playbook when he checked it out. When it came back, the $100 bill was still in it.
  • The Seahawks drew boos from the crowd in the theater. That’s what happens in Colorado.
  • A running back is never worth the seventh overall pick. Perhaps in 1960, but not in modern times.
  • One of the many Cleveland Browns to appear as himself is T.J. Ward, who now plays for the Denver Broncos. Another, Alex Mack, came very close to leaving town for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Funny.
  • Obviously, the entire selection process shown is ridiculous. They didn’t notice that Vontae got kicked out of that game before? They didn’t bother to research the top QB in the draft because he wouldn’t be there for their pick? There was no consideration of cap ramifications until after trades? I’m not really upset at those, because they’re adjustments made to reality for dramatic reasons.