Sunday, September 25, 2011

"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" - Moneyball

“How can you not be romantic about baseball?” This is what discouraged GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) of the Oakland A’s says when his unlikely assistant manager, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who uses statistics and calculations to find capable undervalued players at the lowest cost, shows him an endearing video in which an overweight player hits a high ball, gets to first base, falls in an attempt to round first, and ends up scrabbling for the base on hands and knees, only to learn that he has hit a homer. Brad Pitt's Beane seems to send the question in three directions: toward his tubby, socially taciturn assistant manager who seems too immersed in numbers to have a passion for the game (even though he watches the games and Beane doesn’t); toward Beane himself, who may have lost a lot of that passion after being drafted as a promising star, only to reveal that he didn’t have the right stuff; and toward the audience, which might include a viewer like me who doesn’t share that passion at all and doesn’t follow baseball to the extent that I had no idea who Billy Beane was or what the Oakland A’s achieved in their 2002 season.

Indeed, it would be very hard not to be romantic about baseball, watching Bennett Miller’s meticulously made Moneyball, which includes memorable writing, solid performances, and striking cinematography that breaks out of the claustrophobia of the Oakland A’s cramped, austere offices and locker room to frame long shots of Beane in isolation or the infield lights of the ballpark fading to mist. From opening shots to the final poignant extreme close-up, Moneyball never hits a false note for me. Scene after carefully staged scene makes you feel emotion for a game played with a bat and a ball by players who don’t need to have the agility of basketball players or the strength of football players but who must have that elusive knack and built-in confidence that ensure they can make the ball go somewhere, anywhere, and get on base.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not Catchy Enough: Soderbergh's Contagion

(To avoid spoilers, jump to second paragraph.)

A contagious virus, spread by human breath or touch, infects individuals in Macau, and they take the disease all over the world. Their contact with other humans spreads the disease exponentially. Researchers race to identify the malignancy. Once it is identified, doctors endeavor to develop a vaccine. Victims die in droves. People panic and riot for food. A paranoid conspiracy theorist uses his blog to raise suspicions about incompetent government handling of the crisis. The blogger also says that he has discovered a homeopathic cure. A disease investigator is kidnapped; the ransom price is a supply of vaccinations. Fear escalates. More riots. Rage. Chaos.

It’s all possible, and at its best, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion vividly charts the escalation of panic and chaos, with tensely staged vignettes set in Macau, Hong Kong, Chicago, London, D.C., and San Francisco. In addition, a star-heavy cast, that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and an as-himself cameo by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, helps establish our sympathies when wooden acting and the film’s distancing matter-of-fact tone fail to win them.

After a poorly written couple of speeches in which Matt Damon’s mild-mannered father, Mitch Emhoff, uses the word “sweetie” at least six times as he watches his wife (Paltrow) go into convulsions on the kitchen floor and as he warns his step-son to stand back, Damon grounds the film and provides its emotional core with his performance as a loving father determined to help his daughter survive the epidemic. As Erin Mears, a doctor in charge of the overwhelming task of containing the disease, Kate Winslet is totally invested, as Kate Winslet always is. Meanwhile, Marion Cotillard’s appearance as the kidnapped doctor is an afterthought; Fishburne’s performance is painfully bland; and Elliot Gould is downright dreadful.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Not Swiss Cheese: Apollo 18

Borrowing the style of the “actual footage” genre, Apollo 18 adopts science fiction trappings and takes us to the moon where it builds more suspense and delivers more satisfying chills than all the thumps in the night of the Paranormal Activity movies.

Purporting to be the found footage of the top secret, forgotten Apollo 18 Mission, the movie sets out to reveal why NASA has stayed away from the moon since the 70s. Needless to say, crew members Ben (Warren Christie), Nate (Lloyd Owen), and John (Ryan Robbins) encounter more than just lifeless moonscapes, but I shall reveal no details here. As Ben, Warren Christie is especially intense and convincing as his blandly technical astronaut's tone turns to panic.

Since the story takes place in 1974, the crew members employ fixed 16 mm cameras (no camcorders here), and we get some stark black and white shots of the astronauts isolated in a barren terrain, an atmosphere which sets an eerie tone. Meanwhile, the claustrophobic lunar landing module, along with the delicate limits of the protection it offers, intensifies the urgency of the danger. If a demon haunts your house, you can leave the room or go stay with a friend, but on the moon there are no neighbors.

As a big-budget, color film enhanced with elaborate CGI, Apollo 18 could have been a major sci-fi epic, but what the filmmakers achieve here with three actors, a couple of tight interior sets, and murky shots of the lunar wasteland is quite impressive. This is an enjoyable little movie.