Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Recent Movies: 50/50, Moneyball, The Ides of March

An excellent young cast mines comedy and tragedy beautifully in this film about a 27-year-old who gets cancer.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to be one of my favorite current actors, and Seth Rogen is actually quite warm and believable as his best friend trying to help him through his illness (a role he apparently played in real life with the film's screenwriter, Will Reiser).  And I think I'm mildly in love with Anna Kendrick, despite the fact her therapist character does things here that would probably get her fired in the real world.  The movie is obviously funny, but it's also very moving--there are so many little things it gets right, from the shock of learning of illness to the resistance to pity from certain sources to the way nobody ever seems to know how to talk about it to the trepidation before surgery.  The pain and fear is genuine and deep; there is real humanity here.  Basically I just loved this movie.

I will say that looking back on it, it does seem rather limited--apparently such a confrontation with his mortality did not cause the main character to question the purpose of his life that much or wonder about the existence of an afterlife.  He hardly has anyone to reach out to either--just 3 or 4 friends and relatives.  That makes it very small and intimate, but also strangely closed off.  The character's response is depression and apathy, not powerful soul-searching or determined resistance.  I guess I understand that, though.  The prospect of death does not always lead to exciting, movie-movie action and melodrama, nor does illness often open one up to the wider world.  It may accentuate how brief and meaningless your life has really been.  It is only after such an experience, perhaps, that the search for meaning can truly begin, and the movie's last line suggests that:  "What now?"

Rating: 8/10 stars

"Like The Social Network for baseball."  The comparison is trite but apt.  Co-written by Aaron Sorkin, the film has a similar sense of insider's knowledge of back room deals, high-speed business decisions, and brilliant insight being put to forceful use to change the way the world works.  Both are based on true stories, but drop characters and fictionalize things quite a bit in order to explore themes more closely.  The cinematography and color scheme are also similar, with lots of dark greens and deep browns in shadowed rooms (though Wally Pfister's work here lacks the precision and rigor Fincher brought to Network).  The most thrilling scene in the film is distinctly Sorkin-esque (whether he wrote it or not): When Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is attempting to acquire a new player who can sew up his new system and ensure his team's success, but must work three deals at once with other team managers, calling back and forth between them at high speed while he debates his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) on which players to offer in order to make the trade.  There is a palpable excitement here, and a fascinating expose on how these kinds of deals work, despite the fact it's all set in a tiny office with two guys talking on the phone and looking at charts; we never see the other managers, only here their voices.

Moneyball is not the masterpiece Social Network was, but it's still pretty darn good.  I never follow baseball (I'm more of a football/basketball kind of guy), but I was fascinated here by all the ins and outs of the strategy, and thought about it for days afterward, trying to figure out its implications for professional sports in general.  This is a film fascinated by ideas, the way new ones come in, the way they're resisted, the way they eventually cause change.  But it's also grounded in some strong emotional territory, with a wonderful movie star performance by Brad Pitt, who creates in Beane a character we feel for and want to root for, despite the fact he's a baseball manager who's making millions of dollars a year and looks like Brad Pitt.  The movie knows how to play with the sports movie genre, depicting an underdog team that manages to surprise opponents and bring its fanbase to life, but it is not tied to formula and repeatedly upends expectations. Both this and 50/50 are the kind of films Hollywood should be making: smart, moving, movies for adults.

Rating: 8/10 stars

The Ides of March
I had hoped this would be a third straight film I could add to that list of Hollywood-should-be-making, but unfortunately it was not to be.  Ides of March is a well-made film--well-directed by George Clooney, well-acted by a top-notch cast--and it's fairly compelling to watch.  But it has several plot holes, or at least plot weaknesses, and it's insights into politics are the same tired things we've heard so many times before.  It would have been great if this film could have offered the same behind-the-scenes excitement and insider's knowledge that Moneyball offered for baseball, but alas it cannot.  The way political campaigns are run now is a cutthroat, high-stakes game, and while the film knows this, it is disappointingly uninteresting in showing us the ins and outs of how the game is played, instead attempting to teach us the tired lesson that the game is dark and crooked.  I had hoped from the way Clooney's presidential candidate is set up as an Obama figure, the film would have something to say about the dangers of putting too much faith in a politician-as-savior.  (Clooney spends much of his screen time delivering speeches to the audience, espousing ultra-liberal positions on a diverse range of issues--including declaring that within ten years of taking office, no new cars with internal combustion engines would be made in the US, which made me and a couple other people giggle.) The film does touch on this, but really all it has to say is: don't do it, they're all corrupt.

Evan Rachel Wood's character is the weak link, I think, going from seductress to scared little girl in seconds, and acting illogically the whole time.  But the whole film is compromised by its utter cynicism.  Not a single person in this film, for all their political ideals, ever acts ethically.  There is a complete lack of moral compass among these politicos, and that is all the film has to offer.  Fear for your republic, for those who run it are not of the human race.  They have left it long behind them, in the pursuit of power.

Rating: 6/10 stars


  1. We just saw Moneyball last week and enjoyed it a lot, especially the parable at the end about the big guy who thought he was out at first when actually he'd hit it out of the park.

  2. Yeah, I really liked that story, too. "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." I agree with the statement, even though I don't follow it and think all the doping scandals have severely tarnished the sport. But when you look back at the major figures of baseball's past--Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb--they're more than just sports heroes; they've become folk heroes, creatures of legend. Baseball has a beautiful connection with American history and the American soul that no other sport quite has. Football has a connection, too, but it's to a different strand of Americana--the working man in a steel-driving town, the blue collar tough guys, the violent test of manhood, a Vince Lombardi winners never quit ethos, and a later era of greatness in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Baseball is far more romantic --there is a purity to it that football doesn't even aspire to.

  3. I went and saw Moneyball last night and I have to say that it might be the worst movie I have seen in years!!! Pitt's character had no substance, even with the cheesey flashbacks. Don't get me started on the very very very cheesey (and not sappy) scenes with his daughter singing. Jonah Hill has spent his whole acting career playing dopey stupid characters. So, now he shows up in Moneyball and we are to believe that he has graduated from Yale with a degree in econimics... And just because he says he did and they show him sitting in front of a computer 3 times. At no time in the movie do I think he shows even the slightest amount of intellegents. I am not sure his character graduated junior high, much less Yale.

  4. I'm sorry to hear that. As you can see from my post, I pretty much completely disagree with you, but different strokes for different folks I guess.

    Better luck next time and thanks for the comment!