Saturday, October 1, 2011

September 2011

Adapting a book that primarily deals with the methods utilized by a baseball team to evaluate athletes to fit the needs of a mainstream Hollywood movie is quite an accomplishment. Director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) and two of Hollywood’s busiest screenwriters, Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) have taken Michael Lewis’ best seller, “Moneyball,” and fashioned a story of a complex man determined to revolutionize the business of assembling a baseball team.

More so than in the book, the film puts the focus directly on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the thoughtful, outspoken general manager of the Oakland A’s, a team whose payroll is among the lowest in baseball, and his Yale educated assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill of “Superbad” fame), who convinces Beane that he can use statistics pioneered by writer Bill James to build a cheap, winning team.

On the surface, “Moneyball” is the move I was born to love. But there’s plenty here to bother baseball fans, especially in the manner it telescopes events. Oakland’s emphasis on exotic stats actually began under Beane’s predecessor Sandy Alderson, and the Peter Brand character (in reality, Paul DePodesta, future Dodger GM) started with the A’s three years earlier than depicted in the film.

These aren’t just nitpicks. Fudging the time frame on these events goes to the heart of many of the film’s dramatic scenes. In addition, the script conveniently ignores the on-field contributions of the team’s returning star Miguel Tejada and its trio of pitching aces to give the impression that the collection of unwanted players that Beane adds to the team are the real keys to Oakland’s winning ways in 2002.

The film also has more than a few uncomfortably fake and clunky scenes, including Beane visiting his ex-wife, showing up at a free agent’s home and meeting with the Cleveland GM and his scouts. The first two are just badly stage moments, but the visit to another team’s office to discuss trades is something that would rarely, if ever, happen. In addition, the overall pacing of the picture is ragged and disconcerting; it never feels like a coherent movie flowing toward a conclusion.

Yet I have a soft spot for a script that manages to dramatize debate among scouts on player evaluations and the frantic, phone negotiations that go on at the league’s trading deadline in July. The juggling of calls by Beane in trying to obtain a relief pitcher, playing one GM against the other, is superbly reenacted. I just wish the filmmakers would have also shown his attempt (chronicled in the book) to convince another GM to include him in a trade with Boston so that the A’s could get their favorite player: Kevin Youkilis, whom they’ve labeled “the Greek god of walks.”

The relationship between Pitt’s Beane, a one-time high school phenomenon who turned out to be a bust as a profession player, and Hill’s Brand makes the film worth putting up with its flaws. Both actors turn these very singular men into fascinating characters, quite unlike the usual sports film clichés. Hill, cowered by the scouts, the players and Beane, is the ultimate nerd who has somehow sneaked into the locker room, while Beane is a baseball lifer (he remains the GM of the A’s) who invests his body and soul into their statistical revolution.

Miscast in a supporting role is Philip Seymour Hoffman (who Bennett directed to an Oscar in “Capote”) as the team’s manager Art Howe, an old-school baseball man who fights against Beane’s idea of how to run a ballclub. It’s a case of too much actor in too minor a role.

As much as I enjoyed most of “Moneyball,” I’m not sure why anyone who isn’t a longtime baseball fan would spend their money on this film. Yet it’s doing amazingly well at the box office. I’m hoping it’s a trend: Maybe some smart Hollywood screenwriter will find a way to make a movie about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 19-year losing streak.

If you have a lingering cough or runny nose, I would advise avoiding any screenings of this very realistic, cautionary tale of a virus gone viral. You may send your fellow filmgoers fleeing from the theater.

Steven Soderbergh’s fast-paced, expertly directed movie chronicles a deadly infection that kills a Minnesota businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) after she returns from Hong Kong while quickly spreading across the globe, taking millions of lives before health officials can get a handle on it.

The plot is that simple, with a few personalized stories thrown in to increase the immediacy of the emergency, yet screenwriter Scott Z. Burns invests the actions of workers with the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization with the urgent intensity of a spy thriller or war picture. What makes the film most convincing is the characters’ rapid-fire use of the language of microbiologists and other scientific jargon; at points I felt like the script was channeling the great Paddy Chayefsky’s use of the lingo of professionals in “The Hospital” and “Network.”

Along with the smart script, the film boasts a starry cast, led by three best actress Oscar winners (a rare occurrence), Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Paltrow, along with Matt Damon, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne.

While Winslet and Cotillard, playing government health investigators, race the clock to uncover the source of the easily transmitted virus, CDC lead scientist Dr. Hextall (played by the scene-stealing Jennifer Ehle) attempts to understand its properties.

Ehle, an American actress who I had wrongly assumed was English, is best known for her spunky and touching performance as Elizabeth Bennet opposite Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in the exceptional 1995 British miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice.” Since then she’s mostly appeared in small roles; she played Geoffrey Rush’s wife in “The King’s Speech” and has a supporting role in the upcoming George Clooney’s film “The Ides of March.” Here she rips through Hextall’s lines as if she’s been a researcher all her life, displaying the flat, low-keyed cool of a scientist, yet bringing out the urgency of her assignment in every scene. She outshines the stars.

As with most disaster films—and despite its intellectualism, this is a disaster film—“Contagion” loses some of its steam, growing repetitive and sentimental in the last half.

But Soderbergh’s crisp direction and photography (he does his own under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and the flawless cast keep the film from ever being less than thoroughly entertaining and frightfully believable.

There’s little evidence beyond the opening credits that John Huston directed this slow-moving, uninvolving spy adventure. The great director of “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The Asphalt Jungle” fails to bring much logic or energy to this far-fetched plot populated by an odd collection of Cold War warriors.

The filmmaker’s first mistake was casting Patrick O’Neal, a solid but decidedly uncharismatic television actor, as Charles Rone, chosen to lead a special-forces undercover unit sent into the Soviet Union to retrieve the title missive.

At age 43, O’Neal plays the young buck of a group—which also includes Dean Jagger and George Sanders (first seen dressed in drag, playing piano in a gay bar)—who immediate hooks up the gang’s naïve young safecracker (Barbara Perkins).

Giving a completely inappropriate, nearly comical, performance is Richard Boone as the architect of this plan to recover a foolhardy agreement between the Soviets and the U.S. With his hair dyed blond and scars disfiguring his face, Boone’s Ward barks his lines as if he’s calling out football plays and is oddly amused at the most inappropriate moments, including when most of the team is either killed or capture by the Soviets. The only logical explanation for this performance is that both Boone and Huston were in their cups during the shoot.

Faring better are those playing Russians: Orson Welles as an intimidating, corrupt (is there any other kind?) bureaucrat; Max von Sydow as the spymaster the Americans hope to turn; and Bibi Andersson (Max’s costar in numerous Bergman classics) as his unhappy, vulnerable wife.

Luckily, this turned out to be just a slight blip in Huston’s amazing career; over the next five years, he made his gritty boxing picture “Fat City,” the comic Western “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and the epic buddy adventure “The Man Who Would be King.” He turned 70 in 1976, but some of his greatest accomplishments were still to come.

More than 40 years after his directing debut, Huston helmed three of the best films of the 1980s, “Under the Volcano” (1984), “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) and “The Dead” (1987), which was released a few months after his death.

THE DEBT (2011)
Like any movie that recounts a dangerous undercover operation, this story of Israeli agents attempting to capture a one-time Nazi is filled with edge-of-your-seat dramatics and exciting daring-do. Yet the manner in which the filmmakers integrate the contemporary aspects of the plot with the historic scenes shortchanges both parts of the story and, not unlike “Sarah’s Key,” weakens what could have been a very compelling tale.

As the picture opens, a 1966 Mossad plot to bring an infamously evil concentration camp physician to justice is back in the news, 40 years later, because the daughter of two of the agents involved in the operation has written a book about it. The agents are hailed as heroes, yet are very reluctant to discuss the details. Adding to that mystery, the third person in their group commits suicide. Clearly, the two survivors are harboring secrets about this long-ago mission.

Director John Madden (best known for “Shakespeare in Love”) does his best work on the 1966 scenes, in which these young, dedicated Israelis (played with studied seriousness by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) carry out a slickly designed plan to kidnap Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen)—practicing genecology under an assumed name in East Berlin—and transport him back to Israel for trial. The actors create an involving love-hate triangle that grows more intense as the characters are challenged, morally and physically, when things don’t go as planned.

Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkerson and Ciaron Hinds play much less subtly observed versions of these character 40 years later, acting in ways that are both reckless and thoughtless to preserve their legacy. If there were any doubts about what the film has to say, the unsightly facial scar Mirren’s Rachel still bears from the assignment (did she ever consider cosmetic surgery?) offers a heavy-handed symbol. Unfortunately, the older versions of these characters feel like dim shadows of their younger selves and never engaged my sympathy.

The way these early relationships evolve is the one improvement this U.S. version makes on the original Israeli film (made in 2007 but never released in this country). The earlier version offers a more straightforward, less melodramatic telling of the story, putting its focus on the older Rachel’s attempt to clean up loose ends.

The 2011 script never gets a handle on who exactly these characters have become, instead turning the story into a long-winded, repetitive debate on the value of truth.
Christensen gives the most energetic, memorable performance in the film, painting Dr. Vogel as a vile but cunning anti-Semitic who has no regret for even his most heinous acts. This veteran of the Danish stage and television makes the most of his screen time, turning a Nazi cliché into a very believable, and even more threatening, human.

Chastain, in her third major film of the year, after “Tree of Life” and “The Help,” carries the film, equally charismatic as a romantic interest for her two fellow agents and a daring spy who is the most crucial element of the plot. The most riveting moments of the film are between the young Rachel and Vogel.

This 30-year-old stage actress, who made her film debut just three years ago, is clearly the find of the year. Her upcoming movies include the title role in the Al Pacino’s docudrama “Wild Salome” (from Oscar Wilde’s play) and the untitled Terrence Malick film scheduled for next year.

This attempt to recreate the absurd antics of screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s rarely rises about jaw-dropping stupidity even as star Barbra Streisand huffs and puffs her way through the agonizing plot.

Usually reliable British director Peter Yates is unable to deliver laughs even with such time-honored shtick as the hiding of an unconscious man in a closet and the obnoxious, interfering in-laws.

In the clueless-husband role is Michael Sarrazin, who scored major roles in the late 1960s and early ‘70s in such films as “The Flim-Flam Man” (1967), “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) and “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1971), playing a cabbie determine to get his degree while wife Henrietta (Streisand) works at home as a cold-call telephone salesperson. Though the couple can barely afford groceries, they have a maid clean their apartment every day. Such incongruities, even in a dumb comedy, needed some explanation.

Acting as if he’s Ralph Kramden, Sarrazin’s Pete decides amid this financial crisis that he has to invest $3000 in pork bellies, based on a co-worker’s tip. So, his devoted wife enables his dreams by secretly borrowing the money from a loan shark, who ends up selling her loan to a madam who then sells it to a pair of low-life junkyard owners who then…..well, you get the idea. As the price of the loan escalates so do the crazy, illegal stunts Streisand is required to do (and, inevitably, fails at) by those she owes money to.

Stealing the picture is Molly Picon as Mrs. Cherry, a tiny, impeccable dressed silver-haired woman who contracts housewives to work as call girls. She deals with Streisand’s inability to satisfy her customers, turning both of her “assignments” in major disasters.

Other than Picon’s brief appearance, there’s nothing much to recommend this comedy unless you’re curious as to what passed for comedy 35 years ago.

Yates, who died earlier this year at age 81, was a versatile filmmaker who had hits with “Bullitt” (1968), “The Deep” (1977) and “Breaking Away” (1979), but was capable of handing more subtle, thoughtful material such as “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), “Eyewitness” (1981), “The Dresser” (1983) and Eleni” (1985).

While he’ll primarily be remembered for the tense car chase through San Francisco’s impossibly hilly streets in “Bullitt,” he also elicited first-rate performances in nearly all his films. Robert Mitchum gives his best late-career performance as small-time Boston crook Eddie Coyle for Yates while Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay offer a virtual acting seminar as a needy Shakespearean actor and his valet in “The Dresser.” Little-known actress Kate Nelligan gives a superb performance as the title character in “Eleni” as does Barbara Barrie as the mother in “Breaking Away.”

The director had a knack for shining the camera on smaller roles, with memorable results from James Woods in “Eyewitness,” Paul Dooley in “Breaking Away,” Eli Wallach in “The Deep,” Richard Jordan in “Eddie Coyle,” the previously mentioned Picon in “For Pete’s Sake” and the wonderfully catty Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as a long-dead theatrical couple in Yates’ final feature, “Curtain Call” (1998).

While the idea that a group of well-dressed, fedora-wearing men roam the Earth making sure people’s destinies are fulfilled is beyond ridiculous, this romantic thriller grounds itself with two sincere, emotionally truthful performances.

David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) have an instant attraction for one another after they meet “cute” in the men’s room of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. This causes the boys with the hats to go into action—apparently it’s not in the interest of either that they remain together—to make sure these two never meet again. Unlike most movie couples, David, a New York politician on the rise, and Elise, a ballerina on the rise, really do seems like they’ve found true love, with Damon and Blunt giving heartfelt, charismatic performances that, sadly, are overshadowed by the plot machinations.

John Slattery (from “Mad Men”), Anthony Mackie (from “The Hurt Locker”) and veteran British actor Terrence Stamp play the humorless, angel-like gentlemen who can go from downtown to the Bronx by walking through the right doorway, yet struggle to know exactly what they can and cannot interfere with. The rules in this fantasy world are never clear and way too flexible; the film hedges its bets too often.

Writer-director George Nolfi (adapter of “The Bourne Ultimatum”) working from a story by sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick, exploits many of the same themes he did in “Bourne.” Both films involved a mysterious, very powerful organization that wants to control the main character (Damon, of course) while he just wants to live a normal life with the woman he’s met during a very stressful time. And in both pictures, it is the individual’s moral integrity that wins the day over the machine-like institution.

While “Adjustment Bureau” isn’t in the same league as the “Bourne” pictures, Damon and Blunt turn this outlandish thriller into a satisfying entertainment.

and THE PROWLER (1951)
Believe it or not, movies about corrupt cops didn’t begin with “Serpico.” These minor, but intense and very watchable ‘50s crime films star popular actors Fred MacMurray and Van Heflin as Los Angeles policemen who break more than a few laws under the spell of attractive women.

“Pushover,” directed by Richard Quine, is best known as the debut of Kim Novak, then a 21-year-old model, who plays Leona, the girlfriend of a wanted bank robber. Undercover detective Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) pretends to be a suitor in hopes of trapping her boyfriend, but before the police can establish their surveillance, he’s involved with her well beyond department regulations.

Leona, like so many of Novak’s characters to come (within two years she was one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws), uses her smoldering sexuality to get what she wants. She convinces Paul to kill her boyfriend before the cops get to him and make off with the loot from the robbery.

MacMurray, who always seems like a heart-of-gold type even when playing unsavory characters, makes the transition from smart, respected cop to greedy, ruthless killer believable; you can’t help rooting for him even as he turns into the bad guy.

Officer Webb Garwood, played by Heflin in “The Prowler” is a more disturbed, conniving character who stalks the wife of a radio personality after she reports a prowler. The lonely Susan (played by Evelyn Keyes) sits in her perfectly furnished living room most nights, listening to her husband’s radio show. When Webb comes back to her house to “check” on her, they discover they are both from the same small town in Indiana.

A few weeks later, they’re in each other’s arms and we’re slinking toward “Postman Always Rings Twice” territory. At some points, the film dissolves into a tired story of on-again, off-again infidelity, but the pace picks up in the last half with surprising plot turns and complex character development.

This was the final Hollywood film made by director Joseph Losey before he was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He relocated to England and continued making films, emerging as one of the top British directors of the 1960s and early ‘70s with “The Servant” (1963), “King and Country” (1964), “Accident” (1967) and “The Go-Between” (1971).

The director brings a creepy, repressed atmosphere to the film, especially in the scenes of Webb after he quits the force and holes up in his tiny apartment, playing psychological games with Susan as he plots his next move.

By the end, the pair is living in the desert ghost town of Calico (long before it was re-imagined as a tourist attraction) in a bleak, anti-social existence that reflects the twisted reality of Webb’s mind.

You just can’t beat the 1950s for interesting and entertaining crime pictures, an art sadly lost in the past half century. Every time the cast or the director of a contemporary low-budget crime picture allures me into watching, I feel like a fool before it’s half over. Part of the problem goes back to the manner in which color film turns crime into a painfully real experience and, except in very deft hands (for an example, see below), drains a story of it dark, psychological shadows.

Currently, British filmmakers seem to be more in tune with the B-movie tradition with such films as last year’s “Red Riding” trilogy, “In Bruges” (2008), “The Bank Job” (2008) and this year’s “The Guard.”

If the Coen brothers moved to Copenhagen, this film could easily pass as their latest release. But writer-director Henrik Ruben Genz, best known as the director of the Danish TV series “The Killing” (Americanized for AMC), who also earned an Oscar nomination for his 1999 short film “Theis and Nico,” beat them to it, creating this offbeat crime picture about a deputy sheriff who steps into a very particular small town.

The laconic Robert (Jakob Cedergren), exiled to this tiny burg after getting in trouble in the capital, is immediately urged to stay clear of the town’s tough guy Jørgen (a furiously menacing Kim Bodnia), yet his mentally unstable and very flirtatious wife (Lene Maria Christensen) has other ideas. While Robert deflects her advances and timidly avoids dealing with the seemingly abusive husband, the townfolks prod him toward bad decisions. The motives of the storekeeper, doctor and a gossipy set of barflies is never quite clear, but nothing good will come of it.

I’m a sucker for movies that burst the balloon of all those kinder-and-safer clichés about small towns and “Terribly Happy,” despite its rather bland English-language title, does it in spades. These simple folks are more cunning and deceitful than any Wall Street banker or big city lawyer

For anyone who appreciates the Coens’ eclectic view of the world or the sudden and cruel violence of Jim Thompson’s stories (also filled with small-town evil), this jaundiced tale is worth seeking out.