Friday, 13 January 2012

Moneyball

2011, 12, Directed by Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright



If there’s one thing you can count on from a sports movie it’s that if events away from said sport prove lacklustre, there’s always the action of a respective match itself to fall back on… Not in Moneyball, the Brad Pitt starring and produced sports movie for the thinking (wo)man. Adapted from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball provides the story of Billy Beane, a former baseball player turned general manager who attempts to embrace the dire financial situation of his Oaklands Athletics team by moulding a team around players who look far better on paper than on pitch. Pitt takes centre stage as Beane, an assertive, charismatic yet unnatural leader who takes the game maybe that bit too personally, but never lets it get in the way of being a good father to his daughter. Listening to the highlights of matches past as he drives, you can only glimpse just how much the Oaklands mean to Beane. His contention with the old-school crew who believe his somewhat inane tactics to be some sort of baseball sacrilege, pit(t)s his driven determination in such a way that you can’t help but feel the guy is setting himself up for a giant fall. Therein lies where Moneyball compensates – in a gargantuan way – to the uncharacteristic absence of actual sport action. For here we have a character study under the guise of a baseball drama.

 The backstage politics of the sport are where attention is paid, and Capote director Bennett Miller skilfully shows how, every now and then, these moments may just be as tense as a closely-scoring match: a scene where the transfer window is on the verge of closing and Beane, together with assistant general manager Peter Brand - played by Jonah Hill, crucially reserved in what is destined to be his wisest possible career move – barters various other managers in order to draft in a key player; as they wait for a phone call response, clock ticking down, the heart rate will increase.
This emphasis does mean that characterisation of the baseball players we hear so much about are left somewhat unexplored, delegating them screen-time almost as an afterthought. Similarly, the key support – Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Oaklands coach Art Howe– teeter on being underused, however it is compensated by Miller’s direction being cleverly led by the talent on display, elevating Mr Pitt to a standard he has oft reached and has now become comfortable with. He can add yet another marvellous performance to his more increasingly varied filmography – and one that would totally justify awards recognition at that. For a film that places emphasis on statistics and figures as opposed to home runs and countless cliches, it has to be said that Moneyball swings it out of the park.
4/5


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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Bridesmaids

2011, 15, Directed by Paul Feig
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy

With all the hype surrounding Judd Apatow-produced comedy ΓΌber-hit Bridesmaids, it seems a given that it be an enjoyable romp that does for wedding planning what The Hangover did for stag-dos. Right? Well, in a word, yes. Kristen Wiig headlines this female vehicle as the down-to-earth Annie, who is requested by her best friend bride to be chief bridesmaid at her forthcoming wedding. Plain-sailing it is anything but as set-pieces involving a dodgy Mexican coming back to haunt a dress-fitting (‘I just need to get off this white carpet!’), not to mention Annie having to contend with Rose Byrne’s pristine new friend on the block, Helen – are all evidence of the hilarity at bay. Where Bridesmaids works is through the Apatow-applying of witty conversational dialogue that could have easily been improvised by the stars, and on perhaps a less-important gender level, the induction of relatable policeman love-interest Chris O’Dowd (far away from The IT Crowd) to ensure this is as much for males as females (although make no mistake, more for females...). But whilst the supporting cast do their best to shove their comedic chops in the way of the audience, it is Wiig – who has writing credit alongside Annie Mumolo – who really comes through this with a flashing Next Big Thing beacon. Without her, Bridesmaids could have appeared as if it were trying too hard, whereas her presence gives the impression that the comedy provided is effortless. Mention also has to go to Melissa McCarthy’s Megan, the Zach Galiafanakis of the piece; it would have been terribly easy to play this one just for easy laughs, but instead decides to opt for heart also. You’re going to be see more from this one.

With the success and love Bridesmaids has heaped upon it, producers could opt for bigamy; an easy money-spinning venture (unfortunately much like The Hangover is in the process of becoming). The truth is, leaving this as a one-off truly witty dark horse would be the more clever option. There's just no room for other people in this marriage, Hollywood.  
4/5

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Sunday, 8 January 2012

Drive

2011, 18, Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks

2011 saw an inundation of Ryan Gosling starrers, solidifying his presence in the movie kingdom. But for one crowd-pleaser (Crazy, Stupid, Love), there was a darker, more brooding Cannes-pleaser under the bonnet: Drive, which sees Gosling’s Driver with no name embroiled in a criminal underground due to his talents as a cool, calm and skilled getaway driver-by-night. Make that extremely cool. Wearing a scorpion-emblazoned jacket, with toothpick constantly clenched between the gnashers, there is a cross-channel of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood occurring, not least due to the 80s neo-noir aesthetic created by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. The guy who crafted a star-making performance in Tom Hardy’s Bronson goes one step further here, crafting an icon and earning himself a Best Director gong at Cannes for his efforts. Sticking his protagonist into a world where Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman do evil very, very well, in turn endangering the vulnerable (and literal) girl next door Irene (Carey Mulligan) to the backdrop of slow-mo neon nights and vibrant electro synths is where Refn goes from red, amber to green. It all combines to ensure you can bank on Drive emerging a true cult.

The shocking use of extreme violence does not detract from the final product but builds on the sense of ensuing unsafety, heightened by the frankly brilliant way in which Refn provides tender contrasts directly before such actions (a scene in a lift swerves to mind). It may surprise the way in which Drive, amidst the chaotic sounding title, strays from such fracas until quite a length into the film: in an opening sequence, we bear witness to Driver’s getaway driving talents. Unspeaking and unhesitant, he scales the streets like a thief in the night, evading the sights of police as the two criminals in the backseat look on in dumbfounded awe. It may be the tensest opening in recent memory, and whilst Gosling’s performance is a crucial cog, it is Refn’s taut pacing and editing that truly mesmerize. Who needs dialogue?

 In one particular moment, he takes Irene and her son for a spin, and as his hand lies on the gearstick, she places his hand on his. You gather the sense that if there is one thing Driver really wants, it is this moment. In retrospect, Gosling and Mulligan’s on-screen charismatic interactions are built up through silence, Refn opting to place emphasis on elongated stares and facial expressions to indicate feelings for one another. It is the under-reliance of conventional narrative techniques that refreshingly sets Drive apart from the rest. Whether it's Refn's suave filmmaking or the frankly brilliant soundtrack, this one will stay with you for a long time after.
4.5/5


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