Thursday, September 29, 2011
Bennett Miller’s first feature since the superlative CAPOTE looks and feels like a great game of baseball: elegant, leisurely paced, with flashes of excitement and splashes of nostalgia. How apt that the film’s subject is America’s favorite pastime, specifically General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his Oakland Athletics’ rebuilding season of 2002 after their top players depart for richer free agent pastures. As team scouts bandy about names for replacements, Beane questions their approach, arguing that the A’s meager budget can’t compete with that of large-market teams like the Yankees. He discovers his muse in competing consultant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major who champions a statistical formula to help determine a player’s value. Beane promptly hires him. They implement this new system for recruiting, derisively dubbed “moneyball”, and meet stiff resistance from their scouts and Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin based their richly observed screenplay on the book by Michael Lewis (who also wrote the book upon which THE BLIND SIDE was based) and a story by Stan Chervin. The dialogue snaps, and the actors savor each word. Pitt has rarely appeared so comfortable in a character’s skin, with an easy grace reminiscent of vintage Redford or Newman. After establishing himself as the amusing oddball kid in crass comedies, Hill matures his stock character before our very eyes, revealing warmth and humanity behind the numbers cruncher. Hoffman provides solid support, as does Robin Wright as Beane’s estranged wife, while Kerris Dorsey has an unaffected charm as Beane's 12-year-old daughter. With only three films to his credit (the documentary THE CRUISE being the other) director Miller has reached the first ranks of filmmakers. He understands the romance of baseball and of film and fuses them gorgeously here (with the help of unfussy cinematography by Wally Pfister). The end result is the baseball movie equivalent of nirvana, and I, for one, never wanted to leave.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns transform the infectious disease thriller from overwrought melodrama (see 1995’s OUTBREAK as an egregious example) into a tense kaleidoscope of the global society’s reaction to a pandemic, focusing primarily on the CDC’s efforts to find and implement a vaccine and the emotional fallout in patient zero’s immediate family. Shortly before Thanksgiving Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a Hong Kong business trip via Chicago (and a brief affair with an old flame) to husband Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis, while carrying a deadly virus along with her baggage. After Beth collapses in seizures, dying shortly thereafter, head of CDC Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sends colleague Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to the scene to contain the virus’ spread. But people start dropping in Hong Kong, Chicago and across the northern hemisphere at an alarming rate, and panic soon begins to spread, thanks in no small part to paranoid, muckraking blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). While WHO agent Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) searches for the pandemic’s source in Hong Kong and CDC’s Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) works tirelessly on a vaccine, the military and the Department of Homeland Security entertain the notion that this may be a terrorist attack. In contrast to the film’s large scale, both in geography and character, Burns’ script remains economical and controlled. Soderbergh mutes the hysterics throughout, finding small, quiet moments that hit hard despite (perhaps because of) this restraint. His frequent collaborator, editor Stephen Mirrione, maintains a relentless pace but never sacrifices speed for clarity. The assembled all-star cast is a true ensemble and hit their physical and emotional marks with precision, but Winslet, Damon, Fishburne and Ehle are standouts. Soderbergh has been categorized, sometimes justifiably, as a cool, detached filmmaker. But here his objective tone works, and the film insidiously gets under the skin. Those hoping for a hyperbolic entertainment may be disappointed, but the rest of us will likely be washing our hands obsessively for days afterward.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
If you were left dispirited (as I was) by the cynically sentimental SUPER 8, you will find reason to rejoice in this lean, nifty “B” horror movie from writer/director Joe Cornish. Set in present day South London, the film introduces a gang of teen hooligans led by Moses (John Boyega) as they rob nursing graduate Sam (Jodie Whittaker) of her purse and jewelry. A crashing meteorite that contains an outer space alien interrupts the robbery. Armed with knives and bats the boys attack and kill the creature (it’s the size of a large chimpanzee) and carry the corpse back to Wyndham Towers, a large tenement building where they each reside (along with, as we soon find out, Sam). In the penthouse flat of local weed-grower Ron (Nick Frost) the gang discusses where to sell their trophy. The reverie is interrupted by a shower of meteorites around the block, portending a fresh batch of invaders. Emboldened, the boys storm down but discover instead a pack of black-furred aliens the size of Saint Bernards with sharp, glowing teeth and bad tempers. Cowed, they retreat to the Towers, doggedly pursued by the monsters. Director Cornish playfully toys with genre conventions -- at times honoring them, at other times turning them slyly on their head -- while writer Cornish shows genuine affection for his not-so-wholesome teen characters. His clever script acknowledges their faults without judging or absolving and provides subtle social commentary that could have been written by George Romero in a more lighthearted mood. Thanks to an engaging cast, we, too, become fond of this ragtag band of underage thugs, which raises the emotional stakes once the monsters start biting. Resembling a teenage Denzel Washington, Boyega has a soulful gravitas that commands attention. He, along with the appealing Whittaker, ground the often-chaotic proceedings. Meanwhile Alex Esmail, as the aptly named Pest, and Luke Treadaway, as perpetually stoned amateur zoologist Brewis, provide the film’s largest helpings of comic relief, a task normally delegated to Frost (whose performance here is subdued). In his promising first feature Cornish ably delivers ample scares and generous laughs. I look forward to his next film.