Friday, September 30, 2011


Spoiler alert-o-meter: No worries!

Moneyball is a movie directed by Bennett Miller based on the 2004 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. It’s the end of the season in 2001, and the A’s had a decent run but didn’t make it to the playoffs. Again. Not only that, the team loses three of its best players to other teams. You see, Billy’s main problem is that his team only has about 38 million to spend in a season. Compare that with teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox who can spend 135-140 million a season. All the best, big name players go to those teams because they can afford to pay top dollar. Billy needs to change things up, to rethink the way his team acquires players.

On paper Moneyball sounds like a yawn, and in the theaters it has the potential to live up to that promise, yet somehow the movie mostly works due to a emotionally resonant script (by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian) and a filmmaking style that doesn’t overwhelm the story. The great cast embodies the key players both on the field and in the clubhouse and help breath life into what is essentially a movie about statistics.

Brad Pitt plays Billy. When he was younger, Billy was courted by the majors right out of high school because he was a talented player with amazing potential. Cut to twenty-five years later, and now he’s the guy that goes to the prospective player’s houses to meet and sign them.

Billy’s in great shape, although he scarfs junk food and his job would give anybody anxiety attacks. He’s an athlete who no longer plays the game. He hates losing even more than he loves winning. And he’s tired of his team losing. Pitt’s still vital physique belies his characters’ sense of yearning, loss, and need for redemption. Billy’s sad, tired eyes tell the story of his also-ran life in pro sports. He’s divorced (his wife is played by Robin Wright), and when it’s his turn with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), she can’t help but worry about him.

Billy meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, going effectively understated here), a business major just out of Yale who is a whiz with statistics. Peter tells Billy of his belief in the ideas set forth by analyst Bill James decades earlier but never embraced, including how winning in baseball is a percentage game and that teams are throwing big money at all the wrong players. Peter’s idea is to acquire players based on how often they get on base. Because players that get on base win games. This makes so much sense to Billy that he hires Peter and embraces this new single-minded philosophy when he starts recruiting players for the next season.

The arc of this story concerns Billy recruiting new players, and seeing how this ragtag team plays out their 2002 season. It’s fun watching Billy break the news to his seasoned scouts that they will not be hiring pitchers with the fastest arm and young hitters with a lot of potential (not unlike Billy when he was younger). Their new season starts with a losing whimper, with a team that includes a pitcher who throws sidearm, a former catcher with a bum elbow on first base, aging star hitter David Justice, and various other motley players all cheap enough for the A’s budget.

When it’s clear to everyone that Billy’s new philosophy isn’t working out, he and the team, not to mention coach Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a seasoned vet whose contract may or may not get picked up), become the brunt of announcer’s jokes and fan’s fury (oh those fans). When the team finally hits on a winning streak, everyone’s amazed.

Moneyball is a heartfelt look at not just the game of baseball, but how the players are pawns in a game where moves are made far above their heads and how they can be traded with a well-timed phone call and a look at the money in the bank. It avoids being a big league Bad News Bears, or a Major League played mostly straight.

I’m fascinated by movies that showcase jobs I don’t know about. I don’t follow baseball, but even if I did, Moneyball shows the inside scoop on how the gears grind behind major league teams and pro sports in America. The movie runs about 10-15 minutes long, as if director Miller didn’t want to disturb his characters, wanting their emotions (mostly Pitt’s Beane) to play out in almost real time. The ending is obvious and redundant, but it doesn’t detract from what came before. Days after viewing, the movie has stuck with me.

Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, September 25th, pm matinee. Viewed with Liz. Snack: licorice from the Chocolate Sparrow!

Coming Attractions

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Completely superfluous version of the original. Looks about the same: story, look, characters, even accents. Why bother? I'm surprised such a visionary director as David Fincher took this on. Plus, the original wasn't that hot either. I chock it up to a lame, average story.

Immortals. Looks like a bunch of other movies where warriors during a distant past (or future?) era stormed the castle. Bonus: Mickey Rourke!

J. Edgar. Clint Eastwood is still churning out movies. This one stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular character. His aging makeup looks like a triumph, if incredibly creepy and disconcerting.

Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. A jazzed up version of the John le Carré novel. All star cast includes Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Tom Hardy.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Spoiler alert-o-meter: Some thematic spoilers, but the trailer probably gives more away.

The first ten minutes of Drive are mesmerizing. In them we follow Driver, a stunt driver and mechanic by day, while he goes about his moonlighting job: driver for heists. He picks up the shady characters doing the job, drops them off at their location, waits at the wheel while watching his watch and listening to the Lakers game and the police scanner both. After his clients get back in the car he drives them away through the Los Angeles streets.

He follows the speed limit and stops at red lights. At one point he’s made but he out maneuvers the police copter. He’s still listening to the game, and makes it over to Inglewood as the game lets out. He parks in the underground lot just as thousands of fans leak out of the stadium. He walks away, wearing a Lakers cap, his clients free to mingle into the crowd. 

It’s a bravura sequence, a daring move after another long summer of digitized aliens, wizards, and robots. What fourteen-year-old boy would sit still for this? Well, this fourteen-year-old boy-in-his-heart for one, who remembers the movies of Michael Mann from the eighties and nineties. Thief springs to mind, or Heat, as Driver explains to his prospective clients that he will give them a five minute window in which he is unconditionally theirs. But they are on their own in the minutes leading up to and following those five. This guy is good. This guy knows when to walk away, like any good Mann character. Like Frank, the James Caan character in Thief. Like Neil McCauley, the Robert DeNiro character in Heat

If the thematic and stylistic elements of Drive’s opening scenes aren’t enough to persuade you that we’re watching a movie from another era, a time where the anti-hero had a code, then just wait for the titles and music. The typeface is hot pink and cursive in a way that recall many eighties movies. And the soundtrack. Contemporary pop songs that sound like refabrications of any number of pop songs that trailed through the Top Guns and Flashdances.

And that’s not all. Michael Mann, for those who might have forgotten, invented the musical montage for Miami Vice, where Crocket and/or Tubbs would cruise Miami looking fashionable and moody. Well, director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Bronson) working from a novel by James Sallis, pulls out the stops of his Mann fetish here. There are beautiful shots of the Los Angeles skyline, understated wide-frame compositions that understand aspect ratio, and character placement that all but mimic some of Mann’s framing.

Driver meets his neighbor, Irene (the eternally sixteen-looking Carey Mulligan), and her little boy, Benecio (a natural Kaden Leos). The boy is brown, the girl is white. The husband is in prison. Irene brings her car to the car repair place where Driver works. The owner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), Driver’s boss and partner in the rest of his driving work, sees their potential and sends Driver to take the lady and her kid home. A gentle, chaste relationship develops, and Benecio falls for Driver as a surrogate dad.

Meanwhile, Shannon goes into business with two aging gangsters, Bernie Rose and Nino, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman respectively, both having a damn good time playing bad. Bernie fronts money to Shannon for a car that Driver will drive on the stock car circuit.

Irene’s husband, Standard (ha), is released from prison. Standard is weary of his wife befriending the beau hunk from next door while he was incarcerated, but soon Driver is caught up helping him pull off a pawn shop heist to pay off an old debt.

The movie is, in its way, quiet up until the moment the husband walks out of the pawn shop, heading toward Driver’s getaway car. The gunfire that erupts in this scene is shocking. Not visually necessarily, but as a new loud effect on the soundtrack. From here the movie shifts from a purely Michael Mann fantasy, into a more 1990s violent revenge drama. There’s still some of that Mann brute nihilism, but the violence onscreen makes your average Mann production seem like a Disney movie.

At moments it seems Tarantino-derivative, except Drive is devoid of humor. I hate characters in movies like this that don’t carry or use a gun for ethical reasons. Here Driver refuses to use a gun. Which means what? Which means he’ll use a knife or anything else he gets his hands on. That seems to go for the aging gangsters as well. I hate knives, but here much of the violence comes at the hands of knives, boots, straight razors, hammers, and a fork. Ouch, that smarts.

The blood starts flowing moments after Driver escapes the botched heist and holes up in a motel room. Two thugs with shotguns ambush the room, and the shots ring out with a thunderous clarity. Again, shocking. And now the visuals catch up to the soundtrack. The bad guys do not make it out alive. Thankfully their deaths come hot and fast, in hairy sticky glee, via angles showing carnage from above and through doorways. I didn’t understand its purpose. Maybe to bring home to Driver just the kind of stuff he has been perpetuating but always somehow avoiding.

There’s no dwelling on the blood in Drive. But there’s plenty of it to look at, so by the time I was registering, say an impaling on the left somebody would get shot on the right. It’s a trick of seeing a movie projected on a screen; your eyes have to search out the action. Different from watching TV where you’re looking straight ahead and everything scopes out within a radius that your eyes don’t need to adjust to.

Driver has a code, and while all breaks up around him, he sticks to it. So do the aging gangsters, who are weaved into the plot in a surprising way (don’t stop to consider these plot points because they easily can become plot holes). The ending is ambiguous, and brings us back around to a Michael Mann ending. It’s on par more with Thief than Heat or Manhunter.

Ryan Gosling’s lunkhead accent, Yonkers by way of Palookaville has served him well in recent movies like Crazy, Stupid, Love and Blue Valentine, fits in well with Drive’s quiet, blue collar loner. This may be the first time Gosling’s taken a role that adds action to the mix, and he handles it well, hinting that with every move Driver makes there’s a rationale behind it. Carey Mulligan plays it quiet as well, as a woman who cannot act on her feelings, caged as she is by a situation beyond her control. She still looks about sixteen, but here it doesn’t take away from story.

Driver is a well-made and enjoyable action flick, if you don’t mind a bit of the old ultra violence.

Red band trailer:


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, September 18th, 11:50 am. Viewed with Amanda. Snack: Half a peanut butter Builder's Bar - the half that didn't FALL ON THE FLOOR!

Coming Attractions:

50/50. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has cancer. His buddy Seth Rogen is there to support him, and try to get him laid. Hilarity ensues. It looks funny, and heartfelt. Based on the true-life story of the movie's writer, Will Reiser, and his real-life buddy, Seth Rogen.

Abduction. Out this weekend. The actor from Twilight finds his face on a milk carton (bummer) and goes on an action packed trip to figure out who he really is. John Singleton directs this dazzling actioner.

Dream House. Freaky story of a family that moves into a new house. Soon they discover the family that lived there before was murdered. Soon Danial Craig as the father and husband starts to have visions suggesting he is the murderer and his family is actually the originally murdered family. Damn! This is full of atmosphere and dread and could either be laughable or shocking. Co-starring Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts.

Killer Elite. Also out this weekend. Lame Jason Statham actioner co-starring Robert DeNiro and Clive Owen (how far the mighty have fallen). Not a remake of the Sam Peckinpah 70s flick.

Like Crazy. College-aged love affair between an American and a Brit. Starring Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence.

Rum Diary. Ah, this is a movie I can get behind. Johnny Depp stars in the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's first novel. It has a playful vibe, a beautiful look, Johnny looks swell, and so do the ladies. Something to do with a journalist covering a story on a Caribbean island. Although that plot seems secondary to the drinking and various other Hunteresque shenanigans. Luckily it does not offer the same vibe as Gilliam's misfire Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few, but you're not really gonna see this movie in the theater, are you?

In the past few years Paul Rudd has acted in movies large and small, in parts dramatic and comedic. Although he is known mostly for doing his comedic roles both dopey and endearing in Anchorman, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Dinner for Schmucks, I Love You, Man, and Role Models, he’s also made smaller, quieter movies like The Château, P.S, and Diggers. He’s played minor and major characters both, although with Our Idiot Brother he, for the first time in a major studio movie, comes out from behind the higher wattage stars to become one himself by playing the lead. A lead he shares with a plethora of actors, many comedians, mostly women.

Rudd pulls off a role that at first blush looks like a variation on the pothead surfer character he walked through in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But Rudd infuses all his roles with an inherent niceness. So for the idiot brother here, Ned, he’s more than just a clueless goof with a Grateful Dead beard and an attitude forged from Birkenstocks, he’s a sweet guy who really just wants to get along with everybody although everybody makes it hard for him to achieve this goal.

Case in point; while set up at a farmer’s market selling organic veggies grown on the farm where he room and boards, Ned sells a baggie of pot to a small town cop in uniform who just wants to relax after a bad day. For his dimwitted kindness, Ned gets arrested. After he spends 8 months in the slammer, he returns to the organic farm, beard and ‘tude intact, to find that his dim-witted girlfriend has taken up with an equally dimwitted dude. Ned, always wanting to find the good in people, has a difficult time wrapping his mind around this. She won’t even let him take his dog, Willie Nelson.

Next stop, Ned heads home to stay with his mom while he figures things out. Mom’s a gentle dimwitted soul who always has a drink in her hand and wants to take Ned button buying. “Do you need one? We should leave early to beat the crowds.” Nearby live his three sisters, all very set in their ways with their own lives. Not much room for Ned.


His sister Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a dour stay-at-home mom to her dour little son, fathered by a documentary filmmaker, Dylan (Steve Coogan—excellent here in a supporting role). In return for a pittance and a place to crash, Ned helps out around Liz’s household and with her son.

She also gets Dylan to let Ned crew on his documentary. Which means carrying equipment bags and watching the car while he goes and films his subject, a Russian dancer, naked as she “bares her soul to the camera.” Ned bonds instantly with the son, and he introduces him the original Pink Panther movies, which the boy loves. Especially the nutty and playfully violent Kato scenes, much to the chagrin of his parents who smother the kid with PC parenting practices.

Poor Ned has no capacity to lie. His guileless ways end him up in trouble with all his sisters at one point or another. He finds a way to screw up a big interview his sister Miranda (dark hair-dyed Elizabeth Banks, doing her best Parker Posey—although I longed for Ms. Posey to bust on through), a journalist, lines up with the girlfriend of an international white collar criminal. He also opens his mouth at the wrong time with Miranda’s best friend, Jeremy. It’s obvious Miranda and Jeremy should be together, but not when Ned’s finished trying to help. 

Zooey Deschanel plays Ned’s third sister, Natalie, a gay aspiring comedienne (a quirky type, which Ms. Deschanel seems to have cornered). Ned manages to spill the beans about a secret Natalie is keeping from her lover, Cindy (Rashda Jones). Soon enough everyone—sisters, brother-in-law, ex-girlfriend, friends of friends, even his parole officer—is pissed off at him. Where’s the love for Ned? Only a dog named Willie Nelson knows for sure.

On the page this sounds odious, dubious, silly, sloppy, hit-or-miss. On the screen it’s actually pretty funny: a shambling, well-meaning if at times obvious movie whose story shows its graying sit-com roots in every scene but whose sweet intentions leave you smiling as you file out and wonder who names a dog Willie Nelson? Paul Rudd’s Ned, Our Idiot Brother, that’s who.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, September 13th, 7:05 pm. Viewed with Liz! Snack: Licorice!

Coming Attractions:

50/50. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has cancer. His buddy Seth Rogen is there to support him, and try to get him laid. Hilarity ensues. It looks funny, and heartfelt. Based on the true-life story of the movie's writer, Will Reiser, and his real-life buddy, Seth Rogen.

Dirty Girl. Let's see what IMDB says about this one, "It's 1987 and Danielle, the high school 'Dirty Girl', is running away. With her is chubby, gay Clarke, a bag of flour called Joan and a Walkman full of glorious 80's tunes." Hmm, there's more than that to this story of a girl who flees her current family situation to find her real parents. Or something. With Juno Temple, Milla Jovovich, Mary Steenburgen, William H. Macy, and Tim McGraw.

I Don't Know How She Does It. Sarah Jessica Parker overcomes Sex And the City 2 to make another movie. This one, about a woman trying to balance career, kids, loving husband, could have starred Diane Keaton in another decade. With Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Christina Hendricks, Seth Meyers, Olivia Munn, and Kelsey Grammer, as another horrible boss.

Like Crazy. College-aged love affair between an American and a Brit. Starring Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence.

Tower Heist. A movie with a name like that can only be about one thing. A heist. In a tower. A high rise apartment to be exact. It's 48 Hours revisted, with con Eddie Murphy getting sprung from prison by Ben Stiller. Also starring Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, and Gabourey Sidibe.