Movie of the Week: Moneyball (2011)

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Bennett Miller directs Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman in this true story about baseball management where a former player and an economics graduate try to craft a series winning team using player statistics rather than million dollar paychecks.

Anyone who has talked to me about movies of the last decade will at some point heard me say “I watched Moneyball again last night… It is really good.” I watch it. A lot. And I’m now comfortable saying, right here, right now, in this moment it is probably my favourite film. Of all time. The greatest. Ever. Not yours. Mine. Bobby Carroll 2018. It is the combined work of a lot of talented people gelling together to make a perfect product. Brad Pitt, the movie star, finally finding a lead role in his comfort zone. Billy Beane gives his finest qualities a home where his swagger and his goofyness and his cockiness and his looks fit snugly. Watching him calmly bluff his way through negotiations, bite his tongue, circle around a question, speak his mind bluntly… it suits him, tailor made, incorporating his cool. Jonah Hill, Chris Pratt and Philip Seymour Hoffman all have fine moments. Bennett Miller even gets strong acting from baseball stars like Stephen Bishop (when it was Stephen Soderbergh project he wanted nothing but baseball players in key roles). They are given a script by two of Hollywood’s premium wordsmiths; Sorkin and Zallian. It is an erudite, elegant piece of work… statistical theory is guided at us within an unfolding character study. Billy Beane’s game changing attitude and frustrations are unboxed in shimmering flashbacks and boardroom conflicts. His fall from top draft pick to back room has-been speaks to me… the issues of confidence, anger and over expectation resulting in acceptance and knowledge and pragmatic disillusionment match what I went through in my decade in comedy. Talked about open spot who moved swiftly onto paid work only not to have the sea legs or material to work that early in the pro circuit… give me a baseball bat during those first three years of regular death and closed doors and I would smash it against the dug out cages too. Personal aside, Moneyball looks gorgeous too. A love letter to corporate Americana. When people want to know what our era really looked like it will be DoPs Wally Pfister’s concrete parking structures, mahogany waiting areas and PVC banners falling to the floor. It will be the pixels of an Excel sheet being stared into too deeply. Moneyball isn’t really about baseball. We only glimpse gameplay… like Reservoir Dogs we see very little of the heist. Leather meets maplewood only a few fleeting times. We see the planning, the fallout. This is a film about redemption. About finding your niche and your strength and not accepting the status quo. About giving the little guy and yourself a second chance. It is Capra with less cheesy schmaltz, Spielberg without the otherworldly fantasy.  The use of This Will Destroy You’s rousing instrumental track as a cue to echo the nostalgia, hope and doubt our Billy Beane goes through as he reinvents baseball will strum even the hardest hearts. Moneyball is an unspectacular piece of film making really, but that doesn’t stop it from being a harmonious, inspiring and comforting one. The lack of edge or joins or snags is what make it my greatest film. I’ve just never seen something so flawlessly captivating. Keep watching it, learn its lessons. “It’s a process, it’s a process.” Eventually I’ll exhaust its magic. Maybe I’ll go back to Miller’s Crossing or Don’t Look Now or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or True Romance. Maybe by then there’ll be something new.

10

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Dressed to Kill (1980)

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Brian De Palma directs Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson and Michael Caine in this slasher thriller where a bored housewife and a yuppie prostitute find themselves the targets of razor blade wielding lady.

The “mystery” killer sticks out like a sore thumb. There are bravura sequences (art gallery / lift attack / subway stalk) that are dazzlingly suspenseful but they are framed by a dreamlike logic that doesn’t really hold together. Like Frenzy, there isn’t really a protagonist. Angie Dickinson does a lot with a little, the ageing lady looking to be touched. Nancy Allen is the plucky stand out though, especially when she tries to seduce the inscrutable Caine. The closest American cinema gets to giallo and this shares the flaws as well as the triumphs of that subgenre. It is gleefully indulgent but often risibly self serving. The saviour kid, the teenage nude body double for Dickinson, the red herring phone message pollute quite a pure experience. I did notice on this watch Dressed To Kill has a pleasing palindromic structure. We start where we end essentially, in shocking fantasy, waking from a sexy nightmare.

7

July 22 (2018)

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Paul Greengrass directs Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli and Jon Øigarden in this recreation of the Utøya massacre and its aftermath for killer, victims and Norwegian politics.

Once the shock and horror of the actual attack is delivered in the first act (viciously explicit yet restrained in it editing and composition for the normally frenetic Greengrass) we are left with a whole lot of worthy handwringing and dull processing. Frustratingly the madman Breivik is the only character afforded any shading or personality. Everyone else comes across as basic stock and clinical in this lifeless extended epilogue.

4

River of No Return (1954)

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Otto Preminger directs Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe and Tommy Rettig in this western romance where a farmer with a past, his estranged son and a showgirl raft along a dangerous river in chase of the cad who put our hero’s life at risk. 

A bright and incident filled adventure that gets by on the blunt force trauma sexiness of its stellar leads. Preminger is a director whose catalogue is issue fuelled, this feels lighter. A character piece about retribution and forgiveness that finds more room for dynamic entertainment than didacticism.

7

Monsters University (2013)

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Dan Scanlon directs Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Nathan Fillion in this frat house prequel to the Pixar classic about monsters who scare kids for industrial energy.

Colourful but this lacks the wit, peril and emotion of the original. Disappointing.

4

The Breakfast Club (1985)

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John Hughes directs Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson in this kids in detention teen classic.

Hughes’ most beloved work can be a little too bluntly emotional and self involved in some sequences yet still shows a rare genuine sensitivity now not really explored in teen movies today. Yes, The Breakfast Club has itself dated in attitudes and look but that is part of its charm. Hughes captured the brutish, immature cool of being a kid… exploring your personality and style and attitude and the other sex. This has to be clumsy and raw and rude and awkward because of it. Teenagers are. No defence is necessary. The dialogues are spectacular battles, full of Wilder-esque wit and Sorkin-esque escalation. They swipe at each other, wound and counter. And in the hard earned moments of reprieve or common ground the heart of the film emerges.  Let’s look at those iconic performances. Judd Nelson must have sold his soul to the devil. One great showcase and nothing of note ever again. That was his cruel bargain, the monumental John Bender was his prize and his price. Paul Gleason is the perfect villian – the Barry Manilow dressed beta male in authority, who only has his reputation and petty punitive power to hold onto. Molly Ringwald has to play the straightman to all the antics but is a strong foil. Emilio Estevez actually gets the most comedy beats as the jock… the easiest stereotype to satire. His never ending lunch bag is a perfect visual gag, for example. Anthony Michael Hall gets to do all the emotional heavy lifting… in a monologue about an elephant lamp. And Ally Sheedy is uncategorically amazing in this. Sexier as the freak enigma than the made-over princess… but fiddlydee. Some of us prefer a basket case, the Eighties kids needed a Cinderella moment that we no longer value.

10

 

Frenzy (1972)

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Alfred Hitchcock directs Jon Finch, Barry Foster and Barbara Leigh-Hunt in this grisly thriller about a dislikable man framed for a series of necktie murders by his more charming friend. 

One of The Master’s most dismissed later films is in my opinion one of his very best. A grim yet lively chiller that is unconstricted by Hays Code rules or studio morality. Nudity, violence, sex. A frank, unfettered treat then from a director who always took glee in dancing along the unmarked border of good and bad taste. Part of what makes Frenzy work is it has no permanent protagonist. We shift loyalties with a pompous bartender, a leering sexual attacker, a sweet girl and a traditional cop. None really drive the narrative, they just dance into its spotlight have their time to be centre of attention, then relent so the next player can have their turn as our anchor point. If the film has any kind of consistent lead actor it is Seventies London. Hitch captures a city he loves… the bustle of the Covent Garden fruit market, the crowded bars with their optics and salacious gossip, the alleys and park benches, the roadside cafes and hotel receptions. London is always onlooking yet uncaring, a city to get lost in despite the nosy snooping tabloid attitude of its locals. There are a couple dark set pieces that Hitch wouldn’t have been able to commit to celluloid even in his Psycho heyday. A rape / murder (“Luvverly… Luvverly…Luvverly”) where we are trapped intimately between victim and killer. A struggle with a corpse with growing rigor mortis, it gripping onto some tell tale evidence with the clock of discovery ticking. Alfred, dirty old man, deadly prankster, revered auteur finds himself in an new era where he no longer has to draw the line at innuendo and suggestion. He can show boobs and bums and necks being wrung. There’s little finesse to Frenzy but there is lot of freedom being explored. And Barry Foster is a creepy delight as the cheery nutter.

10

 

My Top 10 Alfred Hitchcock Movies

1. Psycho (1960)
2. The 39 Steps (1935)
3. Frenzy (1974)
4. Rebecca (1940)

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5. Strangers On a Train (1951)
6. The Birds (1963)
7. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
8. Rear Window (1954)
9. Notorious (1946)
10. Lifeboat (1944)

First Man (2018)

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Damien Chazelle directs Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and Kyle Chandler in this period recreation of Neil Armstrong’s determination and challenges to become the first man on the moon. 

When you have directed two of the very best films of the past decade there is a certain pressure of expectation. Chazelle can’t really be faulted technically, the production is a classy achievement. Yet for the viewer it is unrelentingly mawkish and distant. The earthside drama is fatalist; housing two very different acting styles… the men (Gosling especially) are internalised frustrations and fears, Foy meanwhile chews scenery as the no-nonsense wife. Add a few more swears and she could be doing a parody of Mark Wahlberg’s abrasive cop in The Departed. Neither the domestic conflicts or the space lab politics chime memorably. Everything seems to be building towards a standout moment that never comes. Stunted and somber … Chazelle has gone for a less-is-more approach but the true adventure of this important chapter in modern history is lost to it. When we get to space I found myself adrift, my attention lost. When I did focus it all felt very accomplished but only the actual moon landing had any heart fluttering grip. An adequate experience from a director who has delivered so much more already, with subject matter that should be an easy score, feels like a fumble. Watch The Right Stuff instead.

6

Hold the Dark (2018)

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Jeremy Saulnier directs Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård and James Badge Dale in this dour thriller where a wolf expert gets drawn into an Alaskan township’s vicious cycle of violence.

Lacking the vice like grip of Green Room or the emotional punch of Blue Ruin this feels like a bit of stumble for Saulnier. The atmosphere is oozing out of every shot and there is a stand out set piece involving a large calibre gun and some overwhelmed cops. The protagonists are too aimless, the storytelling too languid. It often feels like a chore. A shaggy wolf story, all meandering set up with no final act resolution to justify the long path taken.

5

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

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Drew Goddard directs Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson in this jigsaw puzzle crime thriller set around a stateline straddling hotel with some dark secrets and very dangerous occupants. 

It feels like something that would have been greenlit in the ferocious wake of Pulp Fiction, it plays like a nimble homage to The Hateful Eight, and no doubt it will make an excellent Sixties set double bill with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood once Tarantino finishes that. Yet the film shares the most DNA with Goddard’s own The Cabin in the Woods. That was to horror cinema what this is for crime. A drawn out bottle episode that expands out to transcendental levels. While that was a crazier, more satisfying ride… this still, in its most kinetic and playful sequences, is some unpredictable fun. The stellar cast chime nicely off each other. Bridges cashes in his likeability to sell a shaky part, Erivo catches the attention with her amazing singing voice as the one good egg in a rotten basket, while Hemsworth dances in topless and takes over a third act. Dakota Johnson feels more than a little lost in the shuffle and Jon Hamm seems only to come alive in period pieces set in this era. Gambits, gorgeous sets, plot altering flashbacks, conversations that play like duels and excellent use of music. So Bad Times is uncannily like a forgotten Tarantino movie, Tarantino doesn’t work prolifically enough for that to be any kinda issue.

7