Sunday, September 25, 2011

Off the Field (Moneyball)

Several years ago, a member of the Oakland A's front-office revolutionized baseball by applying statistical analysis in game scenarios. But enough about Tony LaRussa. Moneyball, the new sports flick directed by Bennett Miller, stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the A's general manager who, a decade after LaRussa's tenure, whisked away computer wiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) from the hapless Cleveland Indians and took the concept a step further: The Athletics hired players based on a combination of their underpaid salaries and overlooked potential -- bringing in three utility men, for example, to replace the departing high-priced free agent Jason Giambi. Brand's argument -- based on his computer algorithm -- is that you don't need stars to win, you just need runs; and you get runs, Brand explains, by getting players who can get on base.

Moneyball makes it clear from the start that, for Beane, necessity is the mother of invention. Losing to the Yankees in the playoffs, followed by the Giambi/Damon exodus during the offseason, opens his eyes to the reality that his team won't win by playing the same game of other teams with higher payrolls. Yet Pitt's performance hints at reserves of stubbornness and wounded pride. Flashbacks reveal that Billy Beane was once a promising baseball prospect himself, and rejected a scholarship at Stanford for a disappointing pro career. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin's script very cleverly makes Beane an underdog, no small feat for a character who is essentially a suit. Over the decades, sports movies have gone from athlete protagonists to coaches and now finally GMs; I'm not sure what it says about our era, but at some point, a film with an owner as hero seems inevitable.

Yet part of the problem I had with Moneyball is how it plays fast and loose with its own convictions in exchange for our sympathies. Early on, Brand claims (and Jonah Hill's softspokenness sells it) that his system, far from being impersonal, recognizes the value of players who aren't being given any. Then the movie goes on to suggest that managers, like the A's own Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), bring nothing to the table except their own egos and old school misconceptions on how the game should be played. The movie is grotesquely unfair to Howe, emphasizing that Beane used to be a player -- and is therefore different from standard front-office types -- yet careful not to mention that Howe used to play too. But even if you only focus on what's onscreen, Moneyball doesn't track. In his first scene, the Howe in the movie argues (persuasively) that he deserves a better contract for his accomplishments the previous season. Beane promises to look into it, and then other than a passing mention that Howe didn't get a new deal, the subject is dropped. We don't learn the reason behind Beane's decision, or whether he might have been unfair, because Zaillian and Sorkin's script is eager to paint Howe as the bad guy in the piece, and in their world being a bad guy is synonymous with being a bad manager.

Or, worse, an irrelevant one. Moneyball has to have the first ever go-for-it sports-movie montage where the GM trains the players how to win. Howe is depicted as an obstacle in their path to success, refusing to start new first baseman Scott Hatteberg (a charming Chris Pratt from Parks & Recreation) until Beane trades away all of Howe's other options. But the most dubious scene is one where Howe is shown walking away from the locker room, where the A's, following another loss, are partying with loud music. (Well, really just one player: Jeremy Giambi, Jason's kid brother.) Beane enters the locker room and breaks up the celebration by yelling at everyone and throwing a baseball bat. No doubt some will wonder why Beane didn't hit an innocent person with that bat, and kill that individual, and how he has never seen a scene like that in a sports movie, and how a scene like that would be really interesting -- whereas I was merely left not buying the implication that the GM was doing the manager's job for him.

There are other problems at the script level. A key subplot involving Hatteberg's struggle to play first-base (having spent his career as a catcher) leads to a dead end; we never learn if he masters the position. And a scene where Howe, in a belated pique of good will, brings in Hatteberg to pinch-hit at a crucial moment, makes no sense: Isn't he a starter and already in the lineup? Arguably there are even bigger problems at the direction level, with Miller taking a story that should have a sunny disposition and screwball-comedy tempo and applying the same bleak gray color scheme and molasses pacing that he did with Capote. It's amazing that despite these things Moneyball remains moderately entertaining. Credit Pitt for continuing to come into his own as a movie star (and for a light touch that takes some of the heaviness off the inexplicably portentous music), and Hill, whom I have previously despised, for taking a page from his character's philosophy and discovering his potential within his own limited range. As a movie, with tough-to-dramatize material, Moneyball works reasonably well enough within the current Hollywood system. But it's no game-changer.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Revved Up (Drive)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

Out of the many startling elements in Drive -- the new Nicolas Winding Refn action-thriller about to startle audiences everywhere -- the most astonishing may be the movie's utterly invested effort to turn its leading man into a star. There are no real movie stars anymore, we've been told, only blockbuster spectacles that sell themselves, so it's elating to watch what Ryan Gosling does in this picture through the filter of Refn's awestruck lens. Gosling's coiled, laconic, unnamed "Driver" has antecedents stretching back to Sergio Leone spaghetti landscapes and wending through the urban thoroughfares of Walter Hill and Michael Mann: it's a hilariously pared-down performance, the funniest interpretation of macho-bullshit mystique I've ever seen, and the perfect antidote to every arm-flapping, brow-furrowing Leonardo DiCaprio performance of the last ten years. It's an extravagant joke, a magnetic man of few words in an age where everyone can't stop talking, and both Gosling and his director are in on it. All the same, there's something mythic and magical about this performance, this movie too.

Pauline Kael once compared the acting styles of Anthony Quinn and Cary Grant thusly: If you asked Quinn if he knew how to dance, he'd immediately jump up and prance around until you were sorry you asked; if you asked Grant, he'd merely smile and playfully drum his fingers on the table. That's similar to the economy of movement that Gosling achieves here -- whether he's courting his next-door-neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) or threatening local mob heavies Nino and Bernie (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks) -- with nothing more than a toothpick for a prop. (Okay, once a hammer.) A slightly more socially adjusted Travis Bickle, Driver's anger is roused only after a heist -- in which he is in the getaway car behind the wheel -- goes horribly wrong, Irene's paroled husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) ends up dead, and the new widow and her young son Benicio are next on the hit list. The two sides of the main character, lover and killer, are never convincingly reconciled; yet Refn achieves this union visually in one breathtaking scene in an elevator, where Gosling tenderly plants one on Mulligan in one moment and kicks an assassin to death in the next. Kiss, Kiss, Stomp, Stomp: Kael might have appreciated the duality.

The split personality of the movie itself -- from sweet character study to shocking bloodbath -- is problematic in a larger sense, by turns absorbing and alienating. From the quietly gripping prologue where Driver shows his knowledge of L.A. geography, Refn makes it clear that he knows how to stage an action scene; later on, he makes it more than clear that he knows how to stage a killing scene, and while the tonal shift is deliberate (like his protagonist, Refn never loses control) I'm not convinced that straight-razors, heads ripped off by shotgun blasts, and forks to the eye are playing to his strengths. Far more effective is a murder framed at a distance from the ocean surf, as well as a knife fight between a pair of shadows cast on concrete. The violence will be one of the selling points of Drive, and while I wouldn't say it's staged by a filmmaker who takes it lightly, it does come uncomfortably close to Tarantino's worst instincts to lure yahoos into the theater to get off on something they don't fully comprehend.

What other moviegoers will appreciate (other than Newton Thomas Sigel's stunning cinematography, the most shimmeringly beautiful depiction of Los Angeles since the Mann trifecta of Thief, Heat, and Collateral) is the movie's expansive regard for a stable of wonderful character actors. Besides Gosling's star-power and Mulligan's aching vulnerability, there is a deft comic turn from Bryan Cranston as Driver's shambling gimp mechanic and a diabolical one from Albert Brooks about which I'll say no more. I also liked how Oscar Isaac's ex-con hubby is initially set up as a hotheaded rival of Driver's, only to be revealed as a decent guy genuinely trying to go straight. Drive is at its best in scenes like the one where Standard tells the story of how he and Irene met, and at its worst in its shameful waste of Christina Hendricks as a blue-jeansed moll named Blanche. Anyone who's seen Hendricks on Mad Men knows that she's game for anything, so it's disappointing that her role is miniscule (however memorable her exit).

This is, as you may have ascertained, a polarizing movie, and it will be interesting to see whether the commercial, inviting aspects of the film draw a larger audience than the arty, off-putting elements repel. I'm sensing enough of the ground shifting beneath my feet to predict that Drive is going to make a profound impact on movie culture, be argued over into perpetuity, and start a fad for scorpion jackets. (I can't wait for scholars to dissect the outlandish, unsettling sequence where Gosling stalks a bad guy like a 1980s slasher in a stunt man's facial prosthetic to Riz Ortolani's florid "Oh My Love.") I'm not without reservations myself, yet a film with this much affection for actors and cinematic lore is hard to resist. And I was won over by the ending, as ambiguous as the fate of Travis Bickle, with a wounded Driver back in his car, seemingly disinterested in seeking medical attention, or perhaps already dead, destined to cruise the streets for infinity, his own gleaming Valhalla.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Love Conquers All (Tabloid and Jane Eyre)

In Tabloid, the new documentary from the greatest of contemporary documentary filmmakers, Errol Morris reveals that celebrity culture has infested itself in our society, making stars out of unremarkable individuals, handing out microphones instead of meds to the mentally unstable. Stop the presses. Since, approximately, A Face in the Crowd (1957), there have been a plethora of examinations on this topic in the realms of fiction and nonfiction alike: Quiz Show, Robert Redford's brilliant 1994 drama on the "21" game show scandal, remaining for me the most incisive. Tabloid offers nothing new beyond a story that many of us may not know or remember -- a story which, after 80-some-odd minutes, I couldn't fathom why Morris wasted his time telling.

On second thought, it's pretty clear: After pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), the criminal justice system (The Thin Blue Line), Holocaust denial (Dr. Death), Vietnam (The Fog of War), and Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), Morris wanted to tackle something more frivolous. He found frivolity du jour in Joyce McKinney, a beauty pageant queen who, in the 1970s, fell in love with a Mormon missionary, who fled to England with McKinney and a band of accomplices in hot pursuit. It was in the U.K. where she tracked down her would-be paramour, kidnapped him at gunpoint, then held him hostage for (in her words) "three days of fun, food, and sex" before he escaped again and she was arrested, tried and imprisoned. Juicy stuff, at least for a half-hour or so, when Morris's clever visuals (scandal sheet headlines blaring across the screen as his interviewee's reminisce) and breakneck editing keep things lively. McKinney herself is the primary subject, and for a while her loopy conviction stares down the unnerving gaze of Morris's notorious Interrotron to a draw.

Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent that we are listening to a madwoman, and as McKinney prattles on endlessly, watching the movie starts to feel like being trapped at the edge of a dinner table with a companion whose clutches you can't escape. For squirm humor to work, it helps to have a normalizing presence to balance things out, and the surprisingly few accompanying interviewees that Morris offers -- a pair of sleazy British tabloid reporters, a Korean scientist out of The Manchurian Candidate -- provide no respite. Everyone (i.e., six interviewees total) is a loon in Tabloid, which may be Morris's idea of a universal indictment but instead magnifies his subject's own instability. "The man has to be dragged from the spotlight with his teeth marks still on it," one of the most memorable lines from Paul Attanasio's highly memorable Quiz Show script, applies to Joyce McKinney as well. Making a movie about her life is the kind of help she doesn't need.

It may just be that I'm the wrong audience for tales of obsessive love. Years of rejection and restraining orders tend to dull one's emotional responses, to where the novels of Jane Austen always drove me a little nuts, and I veered widely around the Bronte sisters, including Jane Eyre and all of its cinematic adaptations til now. (Their American counterpart, Edith Wharton, explored similar themes with a coiled anger and sharp thrust that was always more my speed.) As a non-reader of the book I found Cary Fukunaga's film mildly engaging, though after only a few weeks I can barely remember a single scene. His previous film, the overpraised Sin Nombre (2009), had a similar effect, illustrating the fine line between craftsmanship that's invisible and the kind that's forgettable.

What I recall most from Jane Eyre are the expressions of Mia Wasikowska, who has four or five more things going on across her face than Fukanaga manages for the entire movie. Faithful readers of this blog already know that I think Wasikowska is one of the best young actresses around, something that's been obvious since she burst out of the TV screen in season one of HBO's In Treatment. She makes a perfectly capable Jane, yet her more natural presence in In Treatment and The Kids Are All Right suggests that her strengths lie in contemporary portraits. She's as modern an actress as Keira Knightley and shows more range, yet Knightley's star turn in Pride & Prejudice had more impact because she had a director, Joe Wright, who developed his entire modernized approach to the material around her performance (to mostly successful results).

Wasikowska blends in to Jane Eyre when she should be standing out, and she has disappointingly little chemistry with Michael Fassbender, whose brooding, haunted Rochester -- while passable -- hasn't even half the magnetism that this terrific actor is capable of. Fassbender fared better with the prickly newcomer Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, whereas Wasikowska's best (if Platonic) pairing to date has been Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment, who couldn't get anything going with Winona Ryder way back in Little Women, who bewitched Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible, who had previously, unsuccessfully rejected her for Michelle Pfeiffer in Scorsese's Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence. Matchmaking in movies may be even more unpredictable than in real life.