Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moneyball (2011)


Directed by Bennett Miller
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin
Based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”) by Michael Lewis
Billy Beane – Brad Pitt
Peter Brand – Jonah Hill
Art Howe – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Scott Hatteberg – Chris Pratt
Robin Wright – Sharon

When you keep losing, you can’t really enjoy the game. In the face of defeat, frustration, fury, and even self-loathing come naturally. That’s exactly how Billy Bean, General Manager of the Oakland “the A’s” Athletics, feels. As a grainy montage sequence of a 2001 MLB postseason game reveals yet another loss for the A’s, shadows of disappointment and fatigue descend on Billy’s face in close-up. The camera then cuts to him stomping in toward his office. Seeing a scout listening to the post-game analysis on radio, Billy manages to keep his emotions in check. And in a minute or two, sitting in his car alone, he finally loses it.

The more desperately he reaches for that last-game victory he obsesses over, the further wins slip away from him. Without some kind of change that could turn the whole ballpark upside down, Billy would forever remain a loser. Not a beautiful one, although it’s easy to be romantic about baseball, but a big-time sore loser, which he actually has been since he gave up a Stanford scholarship over 20 years ago. Billy’s tired of losing; something needs to be done.

Then, on his visit to the Cleveland Indians, Billy discovers and hires as his assistant Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate and a firm believer in sabermetrics. With the new assistant comes a revelation: discard the old way of thinking; experience and instinct don’t matter, numbers do. From then on, the story seems all about a revolutionary idea shaking things up, faced with considerable opposition, from within and without, but eventually proving itself legitimate. Interwoven with the underdogs’ last-ditch turnaround effort is the subplot featuring Billy’s daughter, who worries that her dad might lose his job and who’s instrumental in enlightening him about what’s really important. So apparently, the movie can be easily summed up as the establishment versus game-changing minds, with a warm, familial touch.

There’s more to the story, however. It’s also about Billy’s obsession with winning the last game, like a World Series championship. That’s probably nothing to sweat over for the New York Yankees. Not so for the A’s. Additionally, intermittent flashbacks show that Billy’s haunted by the memories of his miserable failure in the Major Leagues years ago, which is one of the reasons (besides the superstitious fear that he'd jinx it) he can’t watch his own team play. The GM’s expectations for the team, therefore, mirror his desire to vicariously fulfill his lifelong ambition. The goal seems too lofty, but giving up isn’t in Billy’s plans. Such unattainability, which connects the two ends of a narrative knot, furnishes motivation, and, despite some rewarding achievement and success, leaves the protagonist feeling dissatisfied, is reminiscent of The Social Network, a film also written by Aaron Sorkin, telling the creation myth of an unlikable antihero’s Internet revolution with the underlying theme of an unattainable object, i.e. Erica’s approval.

Except those thematic parallels between the two movies, there’s not much to compare. While as restrained in directing as David Fincher in The Social, Bennett Miller is generous with his use of a variety of techniques to allow for Billy’s subjectivity and convey the thrill and liveliness of games. Examples are: when Billy has a meeting with old scouts, the camera shifts sharply and fast from scout to scout in medium close-up, suggesting from Billy’s POV that all this talk leads nowhere. Meanwhile, the games’ dramatic effects are achieved by mixing actual footage and staged scenes.

But it’s Brad Pitt’s turn as a short-tempered, obsessed, dedicated GM, and his interaction with Jonah Hill’s Peter, that make the drama more fun to watch. Pitt cultivated a set of mannerisms that provide the role with credibility, and Hill turned hamming down a notch. Their camaraderie is evidently felt in a rapid-fire-dialog scene where they trade players over the phone. Then there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman convincingly sporting a skeptical and sullen look as manager Art Howe, and Chris Pratt’s Scott Hatteberg produces the most magical moment in the movie.  

Moneyball isn’t without flawsthough the subplot about Billy’s daughter articulates the film’s message, it feels a little superfluous. Still, this Pitt-led baseball flick is realistic and relatable, in that it acknowledges success doesn’t come easy, even with the establishment-shattering idea based on a scientific method rather than instincts. Indeed, those statistical gimmicks can only deliver the magic that Billy has longed for with that “luck factor” at play. Deep down, Billy Beane probably knows that. Once again, though, he resorts to those gimmicks because he hates losing—well, everybody does—and desperately wants to win the last game. It’s just damn hard to enjoy the show.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

50/50 (2011)


Directed by Jonathan Levine
Written by Will Reiser
Adam Lerner – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Kyle – Seth Rogen
Katherine McKay – Anna Kendrick
Rachel – Bryce Dallas Howard
Diane – Aneglica Huston
Richard – Serge Houde

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Adam is out for a jog as 50/50 opens with morning briskness. At a traffic light, Adam comes to a halt and waits. Just then, a girl runs past him through the light, leaving him dumbfounded. It’s easily noticeable he’s a good guy, who tries to stay in shape and obeys the rules, which actually exacerbates the deafening bang on his head landed by cancer diagnosis. His initial reaction is nothing less than anyone would have expected in the face of this sort of shit life dishes out. Blindsided by the spinal tumor, good citizen Adam feels cheated. Indeed, life is such a bitc… Tragic farce.

50/50 refuses to be a mere anecdote about a cancer patient’s excruciating journey. Nor does it beg for an audience’s manipulated sympathy. Instead of only focusing on Adam’s coping and treatment, the film highlights the changes that cancerous adversity brings into his relationships with the people he holds so dear. Kyle, Adam’s best friend, uses all his wits to feign cheer but seems to capitalize on his friend’s misfortune just to get laid; Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel, promises support but fails to deliver; and his mother, Diane, is self-centered and overly concerned to the point of annoyance.

Adam learns life lessons the extraordinarily hard way, but not all of them are as painful and bitter as the consecutive attacks of betrayal, both physical and emotional. For starters, 50/50 follows a gradual improvement from awkward to candid conversations between Adam and his young therapist, Katherine, who is, at first, as much of a beginner in therapy as Adam is in cancer but eventually provides the comfort he needs. It also captures Adam connecting with the old dog introduced to him by Rachel, and with fellow chemo patients decades his senior. And the scene where Adam and Diane sit side by side in the doctor’s office is heart-gripping, as he begins to realize his early reservations of his mother’s concerns have been misplaced.

50/50 is as honest and as devoid of cheap melodrama as it wishes to be, and remains cheerful with a dose of mockery of how people respond to the news of Adam’s cancer.  It's also worthy of note that, though Rachel appears a bit caricatured and Seth Rogen’s acting verges a bit on self-parody, the film still presents fairly developed characters, especially in Adam, Katherine, and Diane. While closeups may seem overused at times, it feels as if the camera caresses the characters in a gentle, caring manner. Ultimately, though, it’s Gordon-Levitt’s show; it’s his understated performance that brings genuine laughter and tears.