Archive for September, 2011

Moneyball

Monday, September 26th, 2011

moneyball

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In the sixth chapter of Michael Lewis’s bestseller “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane likens the demeanor of his ball club to the comedy “Major League.” The direct comparison fails to make it into Bennet Miller’s handsome, understated, and fictionalized movie version of the book, but the parallel is apt – because the underdog battling against all odds is almost certainly the most employed trope in sports movies. Baseball fanatics will debate the movie’s accuracy in numbing detail, but Miller is less concerned with the specific history of the A’s 2002 season than with the compelling tale of an iconoclast determined to test conventional wisdom.

“Moneyball” floats several David and Goliath scenarios central to Lewis’s original thesis, but the principal conflict, predicated on the huge gulf between the biggest and smallest payrolls in Major League Baseball, sets up statistic-rich sabermetrics decision-making against the romantically inclined traditions of individual player assessment. With Beane as protagonist, it is no surprise that Miller paints the roomful of jargon-spewing Oakland scouts as buffoonish dinosaurs whose shocking inability to recognize markers of legitimate accomplishment over hopeful expectations of future potential provides the simplified conflict demanded by big-budget moviemaking.

There’s more to it than that, and “Moneyball” fleetingly pays tribute to modern stats godfather Bill James, the man whose wit, philosophy and curiosity made mincemeat of many traditional beliefs about crunching big league numbers. Beane discovers his own magician and James disciple in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character primarily representing Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow the use of his name and likeness to the filmmakers. Beane takes the green Brand under his wing, and the unlikely partnership, comically punctuated by the physical discrepancy between Pitt and Hill, develops into the movie’s fundamental relationship.

Miller, who directed Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar in “Capote,” boldly and surprisingly diminishes the actor’s role as A’s manager Art Howe, undervaluing Hoffman like so many of the players alluded to in “Moneyball.” Despite the actor’s fame, Howe fades into the background following a testy power struggle between front office and dugout, and the movie is made poorer by his absence. While “Moneyball” focuses on Beane, a handful of the players originally highlighted by Lewis, including David Justice, Chad Bradford, Jeremy Giambi, and especially Scott Hatteberg, contribute to the telling of the story.

The “Moneyball” script, credited to Academy Award-winning writers Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, punches up the relationship between Beane and his daughter Casey and the scenes between Pitt and Kerris Dorsey underscore Beane’s down-to-earth decency as a man whose unhealthy devotion to competition is outweighed by an underlying commitment to “not-baseball.” Despite Lewis’s original characterization of Beane as something of a maniac – and his apology in the afterword for doing so – Beane’s quirky habit of avoiding the stands, fans, and luxury boxes of the Coliseum during games humanizes him. “Moneyball” contemplates Beane’s failures as much as his successes, and the A’s record-setting twenty game winning streak means nothing when the team doesn’t make it to the World Series.

Drive

Monday, September 19th, 2011

drive

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A stylish noir based on the novel by James Sallis, “Drive” instantly commands the attention of the design-conscious, thrill-seeking moviegoer. Despite its explosive violence and the sweaty embrace of young male fans ready to anoint Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn the next “auteur du jour,” “Drive” takes turns summoning our excitement and repelling it, asking us to believe that a man who wears a satiny, quilted silver racing jacket emblazoned with a large and ominous scorpion on the back doesn’t want to draw attention to himself.

Carried over from the book, that man is identified only as Driver, and Ryan Gosling plays him with an inscrutable smirk interrupted often by a protruding toothpick and rarely with conversation. As we draw closer to the taciturn wheelman, his day job performing automotive stunts in the make-believe world of the movies announces a confusion of fantasy and reality that facilitates the astonishingly immediate outbursts of violence that float in the liminal space carved out by only a certain kind of crime movie. Refn never identifies any of the film industry projects involving Driver, but the novel’s remake of “Thunder Road” might have been nice to keep.

In-demand talents like Gosling and Carey Mulligan might attract more attention, but “Drive” belongs to its most seasoned veterans. Albert Brooks plays a pragmatic but deadly mobster whose lacerating straight razor is given a run for its money by the old criminal’s equally sharp mouth. Every time he turns up, Brooks runs away with the film. Mulligan is given too little to do, but the doomed, forbidden romance – which culminates in a surreal, tour de force elevator car liebestod – cements Driver’s fate in the fraternity of God’s Lonely Men.

There is some question regarding Refn’s ability or interest in navigating away from ridiculousness and parody when it threatens to get too close. Certainly, Driver’s debt to the Man with No Name extends to the mayhem he doles out to the scumbags who are presented to us as if they deserve hammered knuckles and steel-toed stomps to the crania. Refn uses Driver’s twisted chivalry as one of several barriers to the peace and happiness he might otherwise find with Mulligan’s Irene (whose parallel Irina barely registers in the book), but the movie seems to tacitly endorse Driver’s bestial and barbaric modus operandi simply because he has been crossed by more gruesome monsters.

Even so, screenwriter Hossein Amini completely overhauls the terse, poetic voice of the novel, and the changes utterly transform Sallis’ cryptic prose and add flesh to the skeletal characters. On the big screen, “Drive” moves like a shark, gliding forward with singular purpose toward what might be the fundamental impulse to survive in the face of encroaching death. Sallis fractured the chronology, jumping forward and backward, but the movie smartly lights a slow-burning linear fuse that mimics the loud-quiet-loud Pixies dynamic so valued by Nirvana. Refn’s affinity for the head and the heady, a motif ideally expressed by the emotionless latex mask Driver occasionally dons, honors inspirations from David Lynch to Jean-Pierre Melville (although Refn singles out Alejandro Jodorowksy in the end credits). “Drive” is far from perfect, but its existential curiosity gives it a sizable lead over its competition.

Contagion

Monday, September 12th, 2011

contagion

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like several of Steven Soderbergh’s large canvas features – and even a few of his smaller ones – “Contagion” paints a grim scenario of human fragility, frailty, and fear. Workable as a metaphor for the post-9/11 world as readily as the economically depressed slow-motion global financial catastrophe (already explored in its early stages in “The Girlfriend Experience”), “Contagion” perhaps most closely resembles the director’s drug war/trade ensemble “Traffic.” Darting like a hummingbird among several interconnected storylines unfolding simultaneously in locations around the world, Soderbergh swiftly connects the dots of a mounting health calamity. Sales of hand sanitizer stand to spike in the next few weeks.

It might be convenient to cast Soderbergh as a pessimist, but for all the scenes of looted grocery stores, empty airports, and the hauntingly familiar sight of missing person flyers, “Contagion” embraces the tried and true structure of the procedural, linking together the cumulative efforts of bug-hunting brainiacs in laboratories and on the front lines. The specter of terrorism permeates the movie’s imagery, and even though the notion of the virus as a bio-weapon is quickly dismissed, the ranting of a conspiracy-minded crank blogger played by Jude Law buoys the hopes of skeptics.

Naysayers attack Soderbergh’s icy fatalism as the Achilles’ Heel of “Contagion,” but despite the movie’s macrocosmic hive view, each of the principal characters, and several of the supporting ones, makes a convincing case for the director’s speculative gut-check response to the widespread panic and subsequent lawlessness that blossoms as the epidemic worsens. Matt Damon’s grieving husband and father is the film’s representative Average Joe, and even though his immunity to the disease affords the audience a wide latitude of relief, an old-fashioned can-do spirit accompanies the stories concerning the trained professionals in or near harm’s way – particularly the indefatigable doctor played by Jennifer Ehle.

Like the disaster thrillers produced by Irwin Allen, “Contagion” applies the “Anyone Can Die” trope, but does so sparingly. The movie’s trailer sold “Contagion” on the premise that Gwyneth Paltrow’s international business traveler doesn’t make it, but somewhat surprisingly, only one other major player expires during the course of the action, and that death is treated with an almost ruthless lack of drama. Superior to the similarly themed “Outbreak,” but more aligned with horror/sci-fi material including “28 Days Later,” “I Am Legend,” and even “Children of Men,” Forrest Wickman has already pointed out that “Contagion” can be added to the roster of strong network narratives or, as Alissa Quart calls them, “hyperlink movies.”

Soderbergh’s scientific process affirmation positions the film’s several epidemiologists as nerd superstar heroes, but the role of the U.S. government, both in terms of crisis response – handled with a perpetually cool head by Laurence Fishburne’s CDC official – and in the potential for unfair treatment of American citizens, is deliberately murkier. “Contagion” might well have been subtitled “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and in the end, the dedicated civil servants industriously, and a little comically, banish the fictional germ to the deep-freeze dustbin alongside SARS and H1N1. Soderbergh cannot, however, resist a spine-tingling coda imagining the unholy, human-caused association of “the wrong bat” and “the wrong pig” that spawned the trouble in the first place.

The Debt

Monday, September 5th, 2011

debtmovie

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Based on a 2007 Israeli movie with the same title, John Madden’s remake of “The Debt” dramatizes Cold War-era Nazi hunting in East Berlin and a cloudy love triangle involving the Mossad agents sent to capture a villain known as the Surgeon of Birkenau. Cutting between the 1965 kidnapping assignment and 1997 events commemorating the presumably heroic actions of the operatives, “The Debt” pivots on a major plot twist linking past and present. Despite the movie’s underutilization of Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson, “The Debt” manages to revisit a number of long-echoing questions of good, evil, and human nature raised by the grim events of the Holocaust.

The moviemaking technique employing two sets of actors to embody characters who have aged across decades requires a nimble director, a competent editor, and a group of performers committed to developing some sense of consistency. In “The Debt,” both Jessica Chastain and Mirren play Rachel Singer, an intensely dedicated government agent who endures a series of grim tests of psychological commitment to a presumably greater cause. “The Debt” implies that Singer’s selection to the East Berlin team hinged on her gender and her willingness to pose as a pregnancy-minded young patient to infiltrate the clinic run by Nazi-in-hiding Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).

Singer’s devotion to Israel and the pursuit of justice places her in an unenviable position of incredible vulnerability, as the undercover officer tolerates a series of vaginal exams given by the target of the undertaking. The potentially exploitative circumstances of the unorthodox methods used on the assignment are rife with subtext pairing Singer’s risk of identity exposure to the literal uncovering of her body. That Vogel once participated in medical atrocities committed against Jews but later assumed the role of life-affirming obstetrics and gynecology professional adds another layer of complexity to the proceedings.

Madden squeezes a maximum of squirm-inducing tension from the exam room scenes, and Singer’s relationship to Vogel develops with greater specificity than the muddier romantic feelings she expresses toward her fellow team members. That Rachel Singer’s point of view is privileged and centralized in a genre heavily oriented toward masculinity distinguishes “The Debt” from the majority of its peers, but the staging of several physical altercations involving Singer (including a locked-thighs choke-out evocative of vagina dentata) strongly suggests that any consideration of gender issues will favor action over introspection.

Madden bookends the film with the more recent storyline, placing the 1965 caper at the heart of the narrative in a whopping flashback triggered by the release of a non-fiction account of the episode written by Rachel’s daughter three decades later. Despite the 1997 Rachel’s desire to protect her daughter’s reputation, “The Debt” somewhat inexplicably steers clear of some much-needed exploration of the consequences of the political conspiracy that has remained a secret for so long. Mirren and Wilkinson play a few small scenes that hint at a finer account of long-bottled guilt, remorse, and frustration, but the last act of “The Debt” depends on a wildly improbable scenario that sends Rachel into a creepy sanitarium on one final do-or-die mission.