Moneyball

You can always tell a sports movie. They have a certain kind of mindset, and a checklist of problems, solutions, struggles, and successes. A lot of these items are a matter of heart, injected into the film to give it a personal perspective that purely watching sports doesn’t provide. In Moneyball, these are stories of struggles between David and Goliath, between wealth and family, between a man and himself. Despite the familiar, humanistic approach, Moneyball isn’t about the heart. It’s about money, business, and the inevitable struggle of a new idea. That’s what’s interesting about the film; in addition to the usual sports cliches, it adds a layer of urgency and interest through the business of baseball. Director Bennett Miller also uses his resources well, allowing Brad Pitt to take command and Jonah Hill to amuse.

First and foremost, Moneyball is a film about business. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the embattled General Manager of the Oakland A’s, upset and trapped by the loss of three of his star players. How can Oakland compete in the Major Leagues, with a tiny budget and teams like the Boston Red Sox poaching their best players? Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale economics graduate and baseball fanatic. He’s devised a way, based on statistical analysis alone, to buy cheap, effective players, ones rejected by other teams for one reason or another. For example, the new A’s pitcher went unsigned because he “threw funny.” The building of this new team turns out to be quite a fascinating process. Obscure statistics and baseball terms are constantly referenced, but Moneyball does a good job of keeping us in the loop. We see Beane make tough decisions and upset people, notably the coach of the A’s, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the scouts, all traditionalists of baseball and highly skeptical of this new and largely lifeless way of fielding a team. They seem to be threatened, but rightfully so, given that their jobs are being replaced by equations. In addition, the players are reduced down to numbers on a page, decimals and percentages. Everyone is affected by this change, and consequently swept up in the momentum of the idea, whether they like it or not. The urgency of the film isn’t caught up in personal relationships; rather, it’s determined by the question of whether or not this radical plan will work. When Moneyball defaults to personal relationships, as between Beane and his daughter, it comes off as ancillary to what’s really at stake. This reliance on old sports cliches muddles the vision of the film, and adds little more than a slight three-dimensionality to Brad Pitt’s character.

Despite the missteps, Brad Pitt is still the anchor of the film. He seems extremely at ease in the role of Billy Beane, the quick-talking General Manager of the Oakland A’s. Beane was a Major League flop, as we learn in flashbacks throughout the course of the film, and Pitt portrays this burden well. We see that both his business decisions and relationships are affected by ghosts of his past. It’s nuances such as this that make Beane interesting. Pitt embodies the role, and gives his character the depth it needs to drive the film forward.

Jonah Hill brings a needed charm and warmth to the film in the form of the young assistant Peter Brand. He’s often the source for laughs, of which there are plenty. Usually accustomed to playing comedic roles, Hill successfully adapts his talents to the more dramatic Moneyball. He doesn’t lose his sarcastic edge, but rather adds to it; Peter Brand is a naive youngster, in his “first job anywhere,” and this adds to his appeal, and the charisma of the film in general.

And what an agreeable film Moneyball is. There are no lives or miracles at stake. It’s simply the defense of an idea, of a business and a new way of doing things. Lives won’t be ruined by the outcome, at least not that we can see. It’s easy to root for Billy Beane and his radical methods, because even if he fails there’s not far to fall. Although the film plays it safe and falls prey to some typical sports movie characteristics, Moneyball does well in making the portrayal of new ideas the driving force of the movie. It invests us in an idea rather than a person, and this, along with a pair of enjoyable leading roles by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, give the film a heart, allowing Moneyball to break free from genre standards and successfully stand on its own two legs.

Grade: B

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Published in: on September 26, 2011 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Drive

What makes a hero? If comic books are to be believed, a hero is someone who can fly, someone to fight evil wherever it exists. If we listen to the news, heroes are soldiers, policemen, and firefighters, men who risk their lives for the common good. We never hear, though, about the heroes that slip through the cracks. The men without clear motivations. The ones that aren’t battling nefarious criminals or working towards a better society. It’s in this gray area that Drive and its nameless hero, the Driver, exist. We don’t know who he is or where he came from, and he doesn’t care to tell us; we only see what he does over the course of 100 minutes. He never tells us why he’s doing what he’s doing, but somehow, in the end, we understand why. Ryan Gosling’s subtle performance as the Driver gives the film, and director Nicholas Winding Refn, the power to be fearless.

The story seems simple enough: the Driver falls for his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and must protect her from the gangsters whom her husband once worked with. It’s an ultra-violent tale, as most films including gangsters seem to be, but it doesn’t revel in its viciousness. Nor does it make any apologies; characters are beaten, stabbed, and shot with regularity. It doesn’t matter who they are, or how important they are to the story. There are no lingering, dramatic deaths or second chances. Director Refn dives straight into the action, and straight out again, treating important moments in the film as minor detours along the way. The film itself is cruising, speeding from beginning to end. Seemingly unimportant moments, such as the Driver seeing Irene in a grocery store, take up as much screen time as the death of a major character. Refn’s decision to keep the film moving is among his most important. It gives the film a momentum that few recent films have enjoyed, creating a magnetism that keeps eyes glued to the screen.

Ryan Gosling is the other reason you can’t look away. His character, the Driver, is a definite departure from the emotional, indie-friendly roles he’s played in the past. His dialogue is sparse, and when he speaks it’s usually in the sort of terse, short sentences found in early film noir. Sometimes he answers questions with only a nod or a blank stare. It’s brave of the director to center a story around such an ambiguous character, but Gosling delivers a powerful performance.

It’s unclear throughout most of the film what the Driver’s motivation for helping Irene actually is. Does he love her? Perhaps, but that begs the question of why. He’s only known her for a few days, and she’s married. Is it for Irene’s kid, Benicio? Again, it’s hard to say. The Driver spends time with Benicio, but never seems overly concerned with him emotionally. The mystery of why the Driver assists Irene isn’t one that can be solved using logic. It’s a connection that exists through emotion. We’re never told why the Driver is helping Irene, but it’s something we gradually begin to understand.

This visceral quality is what really makes Drive work. The film isn’t something you can work out in your head; it’s all internalized. It’s like that mysterious feeling you sometimes get when driving your car, when the weather and the music and the mood all seem to click. The feeling is nothing you can plan or explain, but it’s something we all can relate to. Drive isn’t a film that gives you the answers or tells you how to feel. You’re presented only with the concept of the Driver; it’s up to you to do the rest.

Grade: A-

Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Help

There’s something about The Help that seems too clean, too perfectly shaped and trimmed along the edges. The film, adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is, among other things, about racism and inequality in the Deep South. These heavy themes of racial injustice have a long history of invoking the wrath of pontificating critics, especially when the issues are skirted over or given an outside voice, as Kathryn Stockett did in her novel. But, as far as I’m aware, authors are allowed to project whatever voice they wish, and while perhaps there are flaws in the vision and message of The Help, this doesn’t make it a bad film. Rather, The Help is a film full of interesting characters and a driving plot, a movie that takes controversial themes and packages them into a neat, shiny package with a ribbon on top.

The Help is set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. This is a time when segregation was in full swing, and where the Jim Crow laws were the law of the land. The South, and Mississippi in particular, were seen in terms of black and white. African-Americans, and African-American women in particular, were faced with very limited opportunities. Aibileen Clark, in a sublime performance from Viola Davis, is hired help for a family of Southern genteel. She takes care of the cooking, cleaning, and upbringing of the family’s young daughter. We learn that this young girl is the seventeenth white baby she has taken care of, and although her tired voice and weathered demeanor may suggest otherwise, Aibileen clearly cares for the young child. Therein lies the unfortunate circumstance in the lives of these lifelong maids; they nurture these young children until they’re old enough to realize the difference between being black and white, at which point the relationship abruptly turns from one of mutual care to one of master and servant. These complicated relationships between the maids and their employers forms the backbone of The Help.

Kathryn Stockett, the author of the 2009 novel this film was based on, received a lot of criticism for The Help’s portrayal of life from a black maid’s point of view. The dialogue, critics pointed out, was especially incriminating: the maids used an exaggerated Southern dialect, and the white characters did not. Thankfully, this criticism falls flat in the film, as the venerable talent of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (who plays the spunky Minny Jackson) provide a burst of charisma to the screen. The film shines when the spotlight is trained on the subtle eye movements of Davis, or the impeccable comic timing of Spencer. The cast is what makes the film enjoyable, and alongside Davis and Spencer lie more noteworthy performances from Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Jessica Chastain.

Although the film is entertaining, it seems to lack a little depth. The complicated issue of racial inequality is made as neat and unoffensive as the Southern Belles that populate the screen. The Help politely takes the stand of detached-yet-concerned observer, hoping to avoid controversy by sacrificing its voice. This, however, is exactly why the film so controversial. Using a sensitive issue such as race to drive a movie which, at its core, is not about race is a risky move. The film takes place in a bubble of its own niceness, and is watered down as a result.

The Help is a good film, a fun film, and a safe film. It’s a movie that is carried by its cast, with especially solid performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Director Tate Taylor chooses to play it safe here, and brings his audience a view of 1960s Mississippi that is careful not to tread on any toes. The characters in The Help may have opinions about what is happening in the film, but the film itself does not. For the feel-good movie of the summer, look no further.

Grade: B

Published in: on August 31, 2011 at 4:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

30 Minutes or Less

There’s something about comedies that changes immensely when you’re in a room full of other people. Jokes seem funnier, amplified by the laughter of those around you. That laughter is contagious, but when it’s lacking, the silence is contagious too. In the case of 30 Minutes or Less, the new film from Ruben Fleischer (who also directed Zombieland), the silence of the theater was a too often a indication that the movie didn’t work. It’s too bad the film is only a small step up from the type of crude, low-brow humor usually reserved for the annual “comedic satire” movie (Date Movie, Epic Movie, etc.), because the talented cast of stalwart comedians promised a film that could have been so much more.

The plot is a clever one. Two bumbling buddies coerce a pizza delivery guy into robbing a bank by strapping a bomb to his chest. He has ten hours to come up with the cash they need, or else the bomb will explode. It’s an interesting idea with a lot of comic potential, but it’s also placed under a heavy burden: most of the jokes in the film are a direct riff off of the sheer incredulity of the plot. “Oh no, there’s a bomb on my chest! How crazy and dangerous!” is most often the joke of choice. They include bringing a bomb to a school, bringing a bomb to see a girlfriend, bringing a bomb to a gun fight, bringing a bomb too close to your friend, etc. I could go on. The variety of comedy is tragically small, given the immense talent and range of the cast. The jokes become less funny over the course of the film, and, at times, 30 Minutes or Less just tries too hard to make us laugh.

The actors in the movie, while entertaining, seem to be playing less interesting versions of characters they’ve played before. Take Danny McBride, for example. His character in 30 Minutes of Less, Dwayne, is a beer drinking, stripper loving, naive, selfish burnout. He’s played this role before,  as Kenny Powers in the HBO show Eastbound and Down, so you know he’s capable. As Dwayne, however, he falls flat. He’s playing a parody of another character, and it’s obvious that the writers have fallen into the common fallacy of getting their ideas from a secondhand source. A caricature of a caricature, if you will. Many of the characters in the film seem to be working this way, and, as a result, don’t seem as accessible or genuine as they should be.

One of the funniest moments in the film occurs near the very end. The audience was still laughing as the credits started to roll, and, as a result, were tricked into believing the movie was better than it is. The positive buzz generated by the ending, however, is not enough to dispel the obvious lack of laughter that occurred in too many moments throughout the film. The best comedies seem effortless, and 30 Minutes or Less is a movie that tries too hard, too often.

Grade: C+

Published in: on August 16, 2011 at 3:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It’s a rare film that’s marketed to look dumber than it actually is. This is the case with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie whose trailer contained nothing more than James Franco and riotous monkeys, a grievous understatement of what the film is actually about. Perhaps Hollywood deemed the material too heavy-handed, or decided that a film starring human-like animals wouldn’t perform well at the box office. Either way, the posters and trailers for this movie do little to emphasize its intelligent relationships, emotional resonance, and smart use of technology. As hard as the Hollywood tries to convince you, this is no Transformers; it’s much, much better.

Throughout much of the film, we follow Caesar (Andy Serkis), an ape rescued as a baby from a testing lab and raised by Will Rodman (James Franco). Caesar has, as a result of genetically engineered virus, vastly increased intelligence. We see him growing in the Rodman household, solving puzzles, communicating with Will, and joyously swinging around the household. There’s no doubt that Caesar is the focus here, despite big names such as Franco and John Lithgow appearing in the film. Much of the time onscreen is spent exploring the emotions of this ape. Yes, an ape is the star of this movie, and his story rings surprisingly true. It’s one of the outsider, the loner who never found, or was denied, a place in society. The archetype has been explored many times, but never has an animal, much less a digitally created one, been so intriguing and accessible to audiences. In fact, the last digitally created creature that was as interesting as Caesar was Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, also played by Serkis. He’s truly a master of the motion capture, a man whose face is rarely seen in films, but whose performances are enjoyed by millions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Serkis steals the show here. His portrayal of Caesar contains more depth and emotion than any of the other actors in the film, and he does all of this without any verbal communication. The spoken word is a powerful medium, but, even without this, Serkis creates a powerful performance through subtle gestures, such as a furrowed eyebrow or a delicate touch.

The ability to truly capture Andy Serkis’ performance is a testament to the advancement of technology within the last decade. Weta Digital, the team behind The Lord of the Rings and Avatar, struck digital gold once again. I’ve read that the motion capture technology has evolved to the point that they can do all of the shooting on location, whereas before, every motion capture shot was done in a studio in front of a green screen. This allows for more accurate filmmaking, and that difference is apparent in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The apes look spectacular, yet they sometimes cross over into the uncanny valley, a place where non-quite-human replicas cause discomfort among viewers. Some of the digitally created apes can look too realistic, taking on an unnatural state to the audience. This isn’t always the case, and with the genuinely believable performance by Serkis, is rarely so. It’s refreshing to see visual effects used for more than brainless entertainment, as has been the case with many of the movies released this summer. Special effects were created as a way to draw the reader into the story, not alienate him with emotionless action. Besides from a few unnecessary scenes near the end of the film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets this just right.

I walked into Rise of the Planet of the Apes feeling a little apprehensive and skeptical, but I left feeling entertained. The film has the right blend of storytelling and technology, which they use to compliment and challenge each other. The film would fall apart without either, but with both becomes one of the better movies I’ve seen this summer.

Grade: B+

Published in: on August 8, 2011 at 6:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cowboys & Aliens

The title says it all. In Cowboys & Aliens, there are cowboys, and there are aliens. I haven’t seen such a revealing title in years, probably since 2006 and Snakes On A Plane. Perhaps it was a marketing ploy, although I’m not sure what kind of film they were trying to portray to potential movie-goers. Was it supposed to be an edgy genre-mashup? A goofy grindhouse flick? Maybe a heady drama involving intense cross-species relationships? As it turns out, Cowboys & Aliens is none of these. It’s purely an action movie, standard summer fare full of explosions and effects. Sure, there are elements of a Western and some sci-fi in there. These pieces are what save the movie from becoming monotonous through and through. They’re enough to salvage some of the predictable plot and two-dimensional characters, but ultimately fail to bring the film past forgettable.

As I was watching the film, there were two boys, around 12 years old, whispering to each other. The noise was loud enough to be bothersome, and I couldn’t keep from eavesdropping. Listening closer, I figured out that they were trying to predict plot points before they occurred on screen, and the results were embarrassingly accurate. Sample prediction: “I bet the alien will jump out of the water and attack them.” On screen, five seconds later, the prophesy is fulfilled. This happened a number of times throughout the movie, and each correct conjecture made me a little sadder than the last. An intriguing premise was slowly being dismantled, one cliche at a time. It’s the same song, only played with different instruments. The kids knew the tune. I knew it too. The difference was that I was hoping for something new. It’s far too often that story and plot are reduced to a reason for showing off special effects, and Cowboys & Aliens is unfortunately another film in that long tradition.

That isn’t to say that nothing is interesting here, though. Matching up a true Western with a sci-fi movie isn’t something you see very often in Hollywood. The Cowboy portion of the film works well, providing an entertaining introduction to the story and characters as well as fresh respite from the tedious action sequences later on. The film could have remained as purely a Western and worked, if only the second half of the title didn’t exist. I was jarred out of my pleasant, Western bubble every time the aliens were mentioned or referenced onscreen. They’re not mysterious enough to be interesting, nor are they engaging enough to hold appeal. The aliens are simply there for a fight, as many extra-terrestrial beings seem to have been doing in the movies lately.

The characters in Cowboys & Aliens are an interesting bunch. The three main characters, played by Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde, are efficient and serve their purpose as audience-drawing names, but it’s the side characters that make the movie interesting. Standouts here are Paul Dano, who plays the cowardly bully Percy and Sam Rockwell as Doc. Both characters are unnecessary to the plot, yet necessary to the overall enjoyment of the film. They provide much needed life and comic relief to a movie that sometimes takes itself much too seriously. Like their costars, these characters are tragically shallow, despite the film’s attempts to portray them as otherwise. Craig’s character, Jake Lonergan, starts the movie as a stoic man with amnesia and ends the movie a stoic man without amnesia. Harrison Ford is a hard-ass with a soft spot the whole way through. I attribute much of this two-dimensionality to the sheer quantity of characters portrayed in the film. Cowboys & Aliens introduces and spotlights entirely too many characters, and as a result, the dialogue is spread too thin to really develop or advance any of the roles.

Cowboys & Aliens genuinely tries to present something interesting, but, shackled by the financial pressure of Hollywood and the shallow expectation of summer audiences, it fails to really bloom into anything more than average. The sci-fi/Western crossover is an intriguing idea which creates some memorable moments, yet after all is said and done, Cowboys & Aliens contains all the ingredients for your popular-yet-lacking blockbuster, and, as a result, is a fiercely mediocre film.

Grade: B-

Published in: on August 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Captain America: The First Avenger

Back in 2002, Marvel Entertainment released the movie Spiderman. It was a huge critical and commercial hit, wowing critics and pulling in audiences nationwide. Its popularity was due to the fresh and humanizing take on the superhero genre, one that hadn’t enjoyed much success since Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. The genre was reborn, and Marvel was quick to build an empire around it. Nine years and around 15 films later, we have Captain America: The First Avenger. Although the movie retains the Marvel superhero formula established by Spiderman all those years ago, it still manages to stay relevant through its stylish, vintage feel and light-hearted adventures.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a film that never really takes itself too seriously, and it’s right to do so. In the beginning, an energy source of immense power is stolen from a church in Norway by our obvious baddie, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). We’re never really told why Schmidt is seeking this object, or where it came from (only that it was the “jewel of Odin’s treasure room”), but do we really need to know? The pressures of being realistic are quickly thrown out the window, much to the audiences’ relief. The line between superheroes and realism is often crossed, but with Captain America it’s apparent that we are on the side of good ‘ole fashioned fantasy.

The story follows a fairly generic path. We follow Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he is transformed from a masochistic weakling into the buff warrior we always knew he could be. Bad guys are slain, villains are chased, and a romantic fling with the beautiful-yet-dangerous Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is eminent. There’s not much new here. If you look through the cloud of typical Marvel fanfare, the movie seems rushed and insincere. It’s unfortunate that the film must be a necessary stepping stone to the upcoming Avengers movie, because it holds back what could have been a solid and fun stand-alone original. Captain America is unique in the fact that it takes place in the 1940’s, and that alone could have propelled the movie to a higher standard than the ones set in place by Iron Man 2 and Thor. The film is delightfully retro, and it’s nice to see the hero driving around in a jeep and firing a pistol rather than flying through the sky shooting rockets. Following the vintage look, the colors in the film are subtle and muted for the most part, a welcome change in a summer full of flashing neons.

Chris Evans is capable but not extraordinary in his portrayal of Steve Rogers/Captain America. He’s more intriguing playing Rogers before his transformation, a small guy with a big heart. It’s here that Evans can actually bring his character to life, giving him an earnestness and emotion that can’t be displayed when he is turned into another muscular action-hero. It seems that character connection is important, as the film makes it a point to show that Steve Rogers is as human and empathic after becoming Captain America as he was before. This is a tired retread of most other superhero movies, where naive youngsters must harness their newfound powers while maintaining their integrity. It’s a struggle we’ve seen before, but, along with many other superheroes, we’ll lose our empathy as soon as the hero realizes what power he or she holds.

Captain America: The First Avenger is good but not great, a fun summer movie held back by the shackles of genre and the future film plans of Marvel. The plot is sometimes nonsensical, but thankfully the movie never takes itself too seriously in its reality or emotional tones. It’s another entertaining film in a long line of comic-to-movie adaptations, better than some and worse than others.

Grade: B-

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment