Archive for September 2011


September 25, 2011

What wins baseball games? According to Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction bestseller, it’s whoever can get onto first base. That’s it. Looking for expensive star players — men with athletic flash and power — won’t cut it for a team like the Oakland Athletics, which doesn’t have the budget to compete with iconic outfits like the Yankees or the Red Sox. As the film starts, the A’s are about to lose three major players to New York and Boston. The team’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) listens to his scouts talk about possible replacements — this guy’s “tools,” that guy’s arm. Beane thinks this is beside the point, but he doesn’t quite know how, yet. A chance meeting with Cleveland Indians bean-counter (and composite character) Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) lifts the veil from Beane’s eyes. He becomes obsessed with going after cheaper players who can get onto first base. That’s it.

This is all laid out simply enough for us sports illiterates to understand and appreciate. Moneyball is, in part, a David and Goliath story: the scrabbling A’s against the teams with fat checkbooks for shiny players. As it happens, a winning team needs neither — just good craft backed by science, the number-crunching of sabermetric analysis. I have a friend who’s both an accountant and a baseball fan, and Moneyball would probably be his new all-time favorite movie if it showed a little more of the statistical elbow grease involved in actually sussing out what a player can offer a team. The movie glides over it, focusing on the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza team of Beane and Brand. The windmill Beane tilts at is the institutionalized, hidebound methods that have “always worked,” except for when they don’t. Sabermetrics might not work all the time either, but at least they veer closer to the goal of winning a game than to star-fucking.

Director Bennett Miller has a flat, journalistic approach, which didn’t work at all for me in his previous film, Capote, which deserved more style. But not only does it work for this material, it’s true to it. It’s meat and potatoes, no flash, and the 47-year-old Brad Pitt is photographed to bring out the sags and wrinkles in that former baby face. There’s no romance to the movie, no fantasy, just men in smelly drab rooms worrying about losing both the game and their jobs. The game itself is shown glancingly or in pixellated video footage — there’s no big win that everything hinges on; the closest we get is the suspense (for those who weren’t paying attention back in 2002) over whether the A’s will break the record of nineteen consecutive wins. But even this doesn’t matter: as Beane says, the game that matters is the last one. Nobody but baseball wonks remembers the rest.

Moneyball is a fine, strong, adult movie, and its theme can easily apply to any number of other walks of life. Essentially, it’s about the friction between the monks slouching over calculators and the generous bellies (like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s manager Art Howe) full of instinct and intuition. In the end, as in life, neither comes out definitively on top. The dialogue (by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) is fast, cynical, but workmanlike — this is a culture of men who don’t talk to hear themselves talk. (Women barely exist here, though Beane’s musically gifted daughter, played by the appealing Kerris Dorsey, indicates why Beane isn’t in a rush to leave Oakland.) For a movie about literal game-changers, Moneyball doesn’t have the cold dazzle of something like The Social Network (to which it has been compared), but it doesn’t need it; indeed, I enjoyed Moneyball more. It’s not clever, it doesn’t traffic in literary symbols. It’s about grown-ups and what they do for a living. This sort of thing is not currently in abundance at the multiplex.


September 17, 2011

If you liked Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 study of cops and robbers, you’ll probably like Drive. If, like me, you found Heat an overrated, lethargic piece of shit, that may dictate how you feel about Drive, which at least is shorter. Ryan Gosling is an unnamed driver, who performs auto stunts for movies (the film is set in Los Angeles). On the side, he’s a getaway driver for robbers. Gosling, a fine actor, goes minimalist here; he stares, occasionally smiles (closer to a mild smirk, really), says very little. When the driver has to be menacing, he locks eyes with someone and says “How about this,” follows with some threat of violence, and seals it with “Do you understand?” We understand. But there’s not much else to understand about him. He drives. He does bad things. Love makes him want to do good things. He’s so far into dead-cool archetype he’s practically comatose.

Drive is the sort of artsy non-thriller that inspires many critics, largely male, to throw around words like “existential” and drop references to the film’s closest ancestors, Bullitt and The Driver, both of which actually thrilled. For a while, we take some pleasure, as always, in watching someone do something well. The first getaway is immaculately staged, depending less on speed than on sly circumvention. At the end of it, the driver stops in the car park of a sports arena, with the robbers still in the back seat, and gets out and vanishes into the night, walking nimbly around a cop or two. He doesn’t seem to care how the robbers are going to get home with the cops around, and neither does the movie; we assume it’s part of the plan, but the plan is never imparted to us. Later, the driver notices that a neighbor woman he has his eye on (Carey Mulligan) is having car trouble in a supermarket parking lot. We cut to the driver helping her and her young son carry her groceries into her apartment. Did he fix the car? Did he give them a lift home? Later we learn that the car, unfixed, winds up at the same garage he works at, but this sort of confusing transition is typical of this stoic movie.

The driver — to gloss over some plot to avoid spoilers — encounters a serious amount of money. Albert Brooks, playing a former movie producer turned mobster, wants it back. This casting seems terrific, and Brooks’ decision to play the villain more as a former movie producer than as a mobster is sound, but his performance yields neither laughs (which aren’t intended here anyway) nor menace. His gory use of sharp objects at several points in the film lacks credibility; it’s stunt casting, more enjoyable in theory than in practice. This is also true of Christina Hendricks as a heist accomplice, who does as little as the driver speaks. Meanwhile, what passes for the plot is shakily propelled by the driver’s fondness for the neighbor woman and her son. When her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison, the driver’s fondness extends to him, too, with less than salutary results.

Drive tries very hard to be cool, but undermines this goal regularly with songs on the soundtrack that seem to have escaped from some I Love the ’80s hell. One of them, at the end, repeats over and over, “A real hero, and a real human being. A real hero, and a real human being,” which is either ironic or a rather desperate way of telling us how to feel about the man we’ve spent 100 minutes staring at while he stares at everyone else. And they stare back. Occasionally a few words are said, and then disappear into the stylish L.A. malaise. A man is threatened with a hammer and bullet in a room full of strippers, who meet the spectacle with glazed, frozen expressions. Another man’s head is stomped to pulp on an elevator floor, to the natural shock and revulsion of nobody else in the elevator, not even an onlooker who isn’t all that conversant with brain-spattering violence. A young boy has little or no reaction to his father being beaten up. Drive is full of this sort of hip emptiness, this void of emotion onto which many critics seem ready to project all manners of depth and meaning. It is the autumn’s first golden boy after a summer of lightweight superhero fare, but is truly no richer in thought or spirit than the shallowest comic-book flick.


September 11, 2011

Before Contagion is anything else, it’s a master class in filmmaking — shooting, editing, making a movie move. On the surface, it’s a disaster film of the sort we’ve seen before — a viral-epidemic thriller — but you could conceivably not care about anything that happens in the movie and still find yourself jazzed by its rhythms, its ambiance of high intelligence. In just over 100 minutes it takes us from the first, mystifying contact with a deadly virus to a satisfying resolution, spanning the better part of a year. And here, the scariest thing isn’t the virus itself, but the widespread reaction to it. People panic; they loot and commit murder. Contagion argues for the importance of cooler heads prevailing, but it acknowledges that cool heads are in short supply in America.

Conspiracy theorists will likely hate Contagion, because it tells us that government agencies have our best interests at heart, and it puts any dissent into the mouth of a rather sleazy blogger (Jude Law) who, it seems, may be stirring up skepticism for his own gain. Let’s allow that government people are as corruptible and flawed as anyone else, that bureaucracies often obstruct, and that complex systems dealing with large populations don’t and can’t have the personal touch we so often demand in times of crisis. By and large, the people in Contagion trying to deal with the outbreak do the best they can, sometimes throwing their own bodies into the breach, their own health on the line. They may be motivated as much because their professional asses are at stake as because they care for their fellow man. It’s a comforting narrative, ultimately, because it reminds us that even those who are protected, whose families are protected, are in human contact with those who are vulnerable. The unstressed irony of the movie is that this same contact is what is killing people.

Contagion was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who studs the movie with stars (Matt Damon as a grieving widower, Kate Winslet as an epidemic investigator, Laurence Fishburne as at doctor at the CDC, Marion Cotillard as a doctor with the World Health Organization) but gives none of them any big moments. The story skips from continent to continent, but Soderbergh always keeps us comfortably oriented. It’s a highly compact and factual movie: no shot calls attention to itself (Soderbergh photographed it himself), the editing (by Stephen Mirrione) moves at a healthy jog, not a frantic sprint. Contagion goes fast but takes its time when the audience needs to understand something. I was so absorbed that I forgot entirely about an entire character and her storyline, although this narrative thread, with Marion Cotillard kidnapped and held in a Hong Kong village until a vaccine is found, feels a bit out of step with the rest of the film.

Aided by a heartbeat-elevating score by Cliff Martinez, Soderbergh keeps the tension up while avoiding any obvious turning of the screws. Contagion is more frightening for being rather matter-of-fact. It pits rationalism against randomness — the scientists trying to figure out the virus, which is mutating. It’s also realistic about how long it would take before order would be restored — people are dying everywhere, society is breaking down, and we’re repeatedly told what the timetable would be on finding a cure, developing it, testing it, getting it approved, mass-manufacturing it: weeks, months. Hurry up and wait, indeed. In the end, Contagion is not quite as credulous about government aid as it first appears: there is still and will always be fraud, corruption, preferential treatment. But there will also always be good people everywhere who step up and do what’s needed despite official regulations. We saw it on and directly after 9/11, and we’ve all seen it personally on a regular basis, people who don’t have to help you and might get in trouble for it but do anyway. For all the crap we deal with and can put each other through, Contagion ends up saying that maybe we’re worth saving after all.

Red State

September 4, 2011

Someday, Kevin Smith’s Red State will form a natural double feature with his 1999 religious farce Dogma. The earlier film, shaggy and undisciplined, was Smith’s profanity-laced conversation with himself about his Catholicism; Red State is equally scattershot but has far darker things to say about religion, or at least the ways in which it can be perverted. Smith had long talked up Red State as his “horror movie,” but it really isn’t one, not at first glance; it’s more of an ideological drama in which two parties face off, taking orders from a higher power, or what they believe to be a higher power. Smith doesn’t trust people who claim to know the will of God; he also doesn’t trust people who carry guns for the government. Bill Hicks, if he were still with us, might raise a beer bottle in tribute to the film.

Red State does begin something like Hostel — a trio of teenagers head out to a trailer in the boonies in search of sex and wind up kidnapped by religious extremists. This clan, known as the Five Points Church, is headed by the hate-spewing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who brings his flock to protest at funerals with appallingly homophobic placards. Sound familiar? This aspect of the clan is obviously inspired by Fred Phelps and his wacko brigade, though Phelps’ group is mentioned in the script as being “suers, not doers.” Cooper’s clan are doers, all right: they live on a walled-off compound, fortified with military ordnance. They use the internet to lure and execute sinners. Laboring under a gargantuan monologue delivered to Cooper’s tiny congregation, the always-compelling Michael Parks manages to sell it, and many other small, subtle moments as well. He’s certainly more fun to watch than many actual fundamentalist loudmouths.

When the local police learn there’s a hostage situation at Five Points, and the matter is kicked upstairs to the ATF, Red State takes a hard left into ethical drama. John Goodman takes over the movie as Keenan, an ATF agent painfully aware of the legacy of the Waco siege at the Branch Davidian compound. Smith is aware of it, too. Cooper and the adult members of his cult are murderers, but there are also children there. Keenan’s orders are to kill everyone, leaving no one alive to testify against the government. He wrestles intensely with this, while his men, young and panicky, unload indiscriminately in the direction of whatever’s shooting at them. The firefights are sharply edited (by Smith himself); the sound design is realistic and punishing. People die randomly all over the place. Cooper believes God is telling him to kill sinners. Keenan is told straight-up to kill the killers and innocents alike. Who are the bad guys here?

Red State feels cynical and unresolved, and that’s about right, given the thorny areas Smith is wading into. In the end, it could be defined as a political horror film, of the sort that’s cruelly plausible in real life. Smith conflates Fred Phelps and David Koresh, suggesting a toxic stew of southern-fried religious hatred stirred up by happy triggers on both sides. It’s a flawed, unfocused movie, just as Dogma was, but they both come from the honest place of a filmmaker with something on his mind. That narrative hard left so many people have complained about lifts Red State above the Wicker Man rip-off it might’ve been. As always, Smith counsels us, “Question authority. Question yourselves, too, while you’re at it.”