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Column Fri Sep 23 2011

Moneyball, Killer Elite, Restless, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame & Dolphin Tale

Moneyball

Perhaps more than any other sport in existence, baseball is the one Americans love to romanticize in film, and hours have been spent analyzing why, so I won't add to the discussion except to say that I think it has something to do with the pace of play. There's a lot of time to think both on the field and in the stands, and with that extra time habits are born, superstitions are invented, and rituals take shape. And although I wouldn't call myself a baseball fan, it is the sport that I attend more than any other in a given year — more a product of living 10 minutes (on foot) from Wrigley Field, one of the oldest ballparks in existence.

And because fans are as attached as players to the ritualistic and meditative ways of baseball, as well as the utterly bizarre methods by which scouts seek out new blood for their teams with a formula of accomplishments and "intangibles" (as they are called in this film), I can clearly understand why anyone coming into the sport with a computer and absolutely no regard for how much personality a player might have could be deemed a threat to everything the game is about. And that's exactly how Oakland A's general manager Bill Beane was perceived when he brought in experts on Sabermetrics to rebuild his team from the ground up.

Although a select few films and performances that have been released in 2011 might get award nominations, Moneyball is the first (to put it in baseball scouting terms) that is the total. From the performances, to the writing — courtesy of Oscar winners Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), based on Michael Lewis' book — to the gorgeous cinematography from Wally Pfister (all three of the Christopher Nolan Batman films), to Bennet (Capote) Miller's flawless directing, Moneyball moves by your eyes at a casual but never boring pace and simply tells us the story of the whisper-quiet dismantling of an institution.

Having a hell of year between this film and The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt plays Beane as a plain-spoken and -thinking leader who sees that the system that is keeping his team at the bottom of the barrel is broken, at least for poorer teams that have comparatively little money to spend against other franchises like the New York Yankees, which can buy the highest-profile players and stack the deck in their favor. On a recruiting trip, Beane meets Peter Brand (a fictional, composite character beautifully realized by Jonah Hill, transitioning nicely to straight drama from last year's darker turn in Cyrus), a number cruncher working for another team who believes that there are dozens of criminally undervalued players in the league who go unrecognized and undervalued for ridiculous reasons. His primary criteria is who gets hits and who gets on base. Superstars are distractions, in his estimation.

Peter doesn't have to do much convincing, to be honest, and before long Beane is practically starting from scratch to build his new A's team. Unfortunately, the new team doesn't get off to a great start, and the film puts a great deal of the blame in the lap of head coach Art Howe (played with supreme stinging cynicism by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to play the newcomers in the way Beane and Brand want them to be. But when his hand is forced, and he does so, the results are... surprising.

What I especially loved about Moneyball are the flashbacks to Beane's own career as a young player, who was literally a perfect player in high school — from hitting to throwing to anticipating — and drafted into the majors without going to college. The reason Beane knows the system is broken is that his career is a shining example of how broken it is. He knows better than most that a great player in one arena doesn't always translate to another, and so he wants to build a better system. There are also some really lovely scenes with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey of "Brothers & Sisters") that probably could have been edited out, and you'd never miss them in terms of the plot, but they reveal a side of Beane's personality that is so critical that I almost wish there were more of them.

With not-so-subtle but still quite clever stylistic nods to All the President's Men and The Natural (hell, there are some shots of Pitt in which he actually looks like Robert Redford), Moneyball reveals a fascinating side to a sport whose coverage on film might have been described as saturation. But the biggest surprise in the movie is that it reminds us that in the end there is something indescribably magical about the game as well. What we quickly learn about the Brand character is that he isn't trying to tear down his beloved game; he wants it to be played better and with a more level playing field, so that second-tier teams can have a fighting chance against major-market titans. In the end, Brand is the biggest baseball fan in the movie, and Hill's portrayal of man who has little else outside of the game is impressive and moving.

Above all else, Moneyball is damn fine storytelling that never forgets that the grace and perfection is in the detail. We get into the role each player has on the team. Particularly strong is Chris Pratt performance as catcher-turned-first base player Scott Hatteberg, whose prematurely dead career is brought back to life by this new system. I also really liked Stephen Bishop as David Justice, a player deemed past his prime, who knows he only has a few years left in the game, and both he and Beane want to "squeeze the last bit of baseball out of him." There's a great scene between the two where Justice has to come to terms with this reality, and Beane tells Justice that he'd be just as useful to the team as both a leader and a hitter.

I firmly believe you don't have to care one iota about baseball to love Moneyball with all your heart, and from this point forward, when the inevitable lists of the greatest baseball or sports movies is compiled for whatever reason, I think this movie will rank right near the top and rightfully so. It's a winner.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Moneyball star Jonah Hill.

Killer Elite

The more I roll this one over in my head, the more I kind of hate it, which is really strange because it stars three actors I truly love, even in their worst work. Daring to say it's based on a true story (adapted from Ranulph Fiennes non-fiction book The Feather Men), Killer Elite shows us the world of spies and assassins and how they are just as often used as pawns in powerful men's games as they are tools to do their dirty work. Jason Statham plays Danny, a special ops agent who has gone into hiding with his girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski) after his last job turned his stomach just enough for him to want to leave the life behind. But when his mentor Hunter (Robert De Niro) is kidnapped, he was come out of exile to do one last job for the kidnappers so his friend can go free.

If you asked me to pass a test on exactly what the plot of Killer Elite is, I couldn't do it, at least not after one viewing. It has something to do with breaking into the most feared British military organization, the British Special Air Service, and eliminating a few of its agents, members of a splinter cell know as the Feather Men, led by Spike (Clive Owen, sporting a very poorly chosen porn mustache). There are a handful of derivative action sequences, a couple of genuinely original ones, and a whole lot of yelling and posturing and puffing out of chests. And after a while, I just got sick of it.

For a film whose plot has us going all over the globe, the entire production feels very low rent, and not in a gritty, interesting way. Statham is used to existing in this environment, so he comes out seeming cooler than everybody else. But I like Statham when he's being more physical, so just having him pointing guns and shooting at people is not as entertaining. The dude is the world's premier action star right now; let him be active.

The other problem with Killer Elite is that the deeper we get into the plot, the more the film goes from action to talk talk talk. If you have to spend huge chunks of your movie explaining the story rather than letting it play out, you may want to consider simplifying things just a wee bit. First-time feature director Gary McKendry has no sense of pacing, the film looks unintentionally messy, and in the end, the entire production feels choppy and senseless. Yeah, in just the time it took me to write the relatively short review, I've grown to hate Killer Elite even more. There are so many better films out there; see one of them instead please.

Restless

God, I love director Gus Van Zant. I even love his failures because behind every one of them, you can sense a passionate heart trying to get a message out there that is so worth releasing into the world. Look behind the great films he's made (To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Elephant, Milk) to less artistically successful ones (Gerry, Last Days, Paranoid Park), and you still get a sense of a great storytelling just missing his mark. I may not always like his films, but I'm glad there's someone out there like him making them.

But his latest work, Restless, is one I know I will never revisit because it's half unwatchable due to a truly miserable performance by Henry Hopper (son of the late Dennis) playing Enoch Brae, an emo shit who is contemplating suicide after the tragic death of his parents. He wanders around in his life of privilege talking to his invisible friend Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a WWII Kamikaze pilot, and crashing the funerals of people he didn't know because he's bored hanging around the living. His eccentricities are as interesting as watching ice cubes melt.

The one interesting thing in his life comes in the form of a young woman named Annabel (Jane Eyre's Mia Wasikowska), who he meets at a funeral and soon discovers she has terminal cancer. Now, when we learn that Annabel has cancer, we pretty much know exactly where the film is going from that point forward, and the problem is, I hate being that right about a film's predictability. But Restless doesn't give us a choice. Enoch adds a dash of rebellious spirit into Annabel's life, and Annabel teaches Enoch how to care about people again. But it's all handled in such a ham-fisted manner, it's almost embarrassing to watch it unfold.

There's nothing more aggravating than watching characters "act deep," but that's exactly what Hopper is attempting here with zero success. The thing he's best at is wearing fashionable scarves. What makes his performance all the more frustrating is that Wasikowska is fantastic in this part. She acts the hell out of this role, and in every scene she's in, she's great. The problem is, she's not in every scene; and when she's not on screen, boy, did I miss her. The film's other minus is in the writing. Jason Lew's screenplay feels like it was written by someone who hasn't been a 20-something in quite some time. It's just passable enough for Wasikowska to pull something out of it and make it great; but it's just bad enough that Hopper actually makes it worse.

I have sometimes been on the brink of being a Van Sant apologist, but I will make no excuses for the mess he's made in Restless, a confounding work from a usually reliable filmmaker. If you want to see a far better movie about being friends with someone with cancer and living life to the fullest in the face of a horrible chronic illness, I'll have something kind of special to talk with you about next week. Restless opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

So it's a mystery set in an ancient Chinese time period on the eve of the coronation of the nation's first female empress. The preparations for the coronation are behind schedule, and when inspectors come to check on the progress of an enormous Buddha statue being constructed near the imperial palace, three people connected with the work catch on fire and burn to ashes. The legendary detective Dee Renjie (Andy Lau) is brought out of exile to work the case. He's at odds with the incoming empress, having spoken out against her many years earlier, but he's also the only man who can solve this case and do enormous amount of gravity-defying kung fu in the process.

Everyone Dee runs into seems to want to stop him from solving the case, so the mystery deepens to figure out how these men suddenly caught fire, and who would benefit most from the case never getting solved. Legendary director Tsui Hark and fight director Sammo Hung join forces to tell this based-in-reality tale of an investigator who must put aside personal politics to solve a crime and make certain the Tang Dynasty does not fall into chaos.

Detective Dee is a lush, epic work with immense production design, gorgeous cinematography, magnificent costuming, and some of the best fight sequences I've seen in quite some time. But I was especially drawn in by the mystery elements of the plot, which are genuinely interesting and somewhat insane. Andy Lau should be a movie star around the world; he's great in both straight-forward dramas and in more physical roles. But in Detective Dee he gets to tap into both types of performing with fantastic results. This is pure escapist fun that also makes you use your brain a little bit, while getting an eyeful of stunning scenery. This movie has it all in varying doses, with a side order of crazy just to keep things interesting. You'll love it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Dolphin Tale

Technically, there's nothing patently offensive about this PG-rated fare from director Charles Martin Smith (Treat or Treat, Air Bud), and if you have or know a kid who loves marine life, they'll probably be in heaven watching this. But, man, did I find this true-life story of a dolphin named Winter that loses its tail after an injury tedious as all hell. While I know there actually was such a dolphin, to whom was attached an artificial tail so it could swim again, the main story is about a boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), whose dad leaves him and his mom (Ashley Judd) and can only find purpose with a porpoise, or something like that. Even if that story is 200 percent true it feels so phony and trite as to be easily dismissed as sentimental garbage.

Sawyer finds the injured dolphin washed up on the shore, its tail caught in a crab trap. He whistles to it a few times, and the dolphin seems to respond to him positively. Gee, I wonder if that will come into play later when the dolphin doctors can't get Winter to eat or swim on her own? The hospital is run by Harry Connick Jr.'s Dr. Clay Haskett (Is there nothing Connick can't do?), and Sawyer becomes good friends with the doctor's daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and her grandfather (Kris Kristofferson), and soon has a regular gig taking care of Winter for the summer.

Too often, Dolphin Tale sidetracks us with stories about Sawyer cutting summer school, and Judd going to the boy's teacher to convince him to let the work at the hospital count for school credit. And even though his presence in the film leads to the idea of giving Winter an artificial tale, the subplot involving Sawyer's Olympics-bound cousin going to fight in the Middle East and coming back with leg injuries seems like pandering.

Finally we get a practically giddy Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, who not only shows us his comedy genius but specializes in creating customized artificial limbs, and makes several up for Winter. Hell, if they hadn't cheezed up the scenes with Freeman, those segments of the movie during which they attempt to fit Winter with her new tail might have been halfway good. Instead, every scene is tailor made to make this as family friendly as possible, much to the detriment of the story.

There are certainly times when I can watch a film geared for children or kids and see the value and enjoyment children might get out of the material. And while I'm sure a select handful of future marine biologists might get a kick out of Winter's tale/tail, I can see kids getting bored to death over the clunky pacing and telescoped turns the plot takes. I enjoyed the footage during the end credits of the real Winter, from being rescued on the beach to her with a new tail. The rest of Dolphin Tale is abysmal and dull.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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