Monday, September 26, 2011


Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13 

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

What struck me most while watching Moneyball was how little I knew about the events that occurred, and whatever I did know, I had problems remembering.  That's sure to be the reaction of anyone watching who's only a casual baseball fan and that's exactly the point. History is written by the winners and the Oakland Athletics didn't win the 2002 World Series despite setting a new Major League record with their 20 game winning streak. In fact, they didn't even make it there. Those aren't spoilers, just statistics in a film that's all about statistics. At one point A's GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) says that people only ever remember your last game and he'd be proven right since what happened that year feels like fresh news to anyone who didn't follow the sport closely or read Michael Lewis' 2003 book that provides the film's basis.

Strapped for cash and unable to compete with other teams, Beane improvised and challenged the way those inside baseball thought about and evaluated the sport, even if many didn't feel like admitting it. Interesting and analytical rather than emotional, it's an incredibly welcome change in a genre prone to sentimental grandstanding where it all comes down to the "big game." There's none of that here. Crisply told and featuring two outstanding  performances, this is rousing entertainment at its best. While it'll probably still play best for fans of the sport, it's everybody else who needs to see it and experience the joy of a story told well enough to convert them.

After having star players Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi snatched from the deep pocketed Red Sox and Yankees, Beane is faced with the daunting task of assembling a competitive team despite being the poorest in the league. In a clubhouse full of old school scouts, he's told the answer's what it's always been: Evaluate talent based on their strengths and weaknesses, while factoring in some other intangibles like "look"and "marketability" to obtain the best talent within their price range. It isn't until a trip to Cleveland and an encounter with Yale economics grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) that Beane's introduced to a sabermetric method of scouting created by former factory worker Bill James that relies on objective statistics and data rather than a subjective evaluation of a player's perceived strengths and weaknesses. Objectively, only numbers matter. After hiring Brand away from the Indians as his new assistant GM, Beane devises a plan to recruit players based on their on-base percentage and the radical idea causes an uproar amongst his seasoned scouts and enrages manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Creating an "island of misfit toys" with players no one wants or would take a chance on, Beane and Brand must overcome a rough start and harsh criticism to turn the Athletics into a winning team again.

The film was co-written by Oscar winning Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and you can tell. He seems to be on a role lately with adapting non-fiction material and making it crackle on screen, injecting excitement and suspense into conversations about baseball strategy and statistics just as he did for computer programming and courtroom depositions. He does this by not only letting us know the people having the conversations, but conveys what's at stake for them. Billy Beane's own disappointing Major League playing career informs the story through flashbacks since the scouting system he's pushing almost seems to be a bittersweet retaliation at the one that failed him. Pegged as a can't miss prospect he missed big when the Mets drafted him in 1980 management looking at perceived intangibles instead of numbers.

The idea that Beane's ultimate destiny was never to be a player but do this informs every scene, particularly his interaction with the players. There's one involving his attempts to get through to a 37-year-old David Justice (played memorably by Stephen Bishop) that epitomizes the uphill battle he has and the honesty with which he approaches the challenge. Who knows if the conversation even took place but the magic in their exchange is in wondering how great it would be if it went down just like that. Art Howe comes across as the fool of the picture to the point that even calling him the team's manager is a stretch since all he cares about is a contract renewal as Beane handles much of the coaching. You can't watch without wondering how pissed the real Howe must be about this portrayal. On one hand you sympathize with him being undermined at every turn, yet there's no denying it's hilarious, more so with an angry, deadpan Hoffman playing him. The media attributing the A's remarkable turnaround to his brilliant managerial mind provides the biggest laugh of the movie.

This is Brad Pitt's show, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, he gives one of his best performances and is pretty much a lock for a Best actor nomination. While his role earlier in the year in The Tree of Life may have technically been more challenging from a craft perspective, this is the kind of big movie star turn Academy members will be foaming at the mouth to nominate and there's even a good chance he'll win. Charismatic, likable, sympathetic, funny and carrying the entire film with seemingly effortless charm, the full scope of Brad Pitt has never been as prominently displayed as it is here, and in a big studio picture to boot. The level of difficulty hardly matters since it's a virtual highlight reel of all the talents that make him a star, much like Clooney in Michael Clayton, Cruise in Jerry Maguire or Redford in anything during the '70's. The role seems tailor made for him and and watching how everything turned out it's clear he deserves a lot of credit for trusting his instincts and sticking with a project lingering in development hell for years that many didn't think would see the light of day.

While you can use a permanent marker to write in Pitt for a nomination, it wouldn't surprise me if Jonah Hill goes along for the ride in the supporting category as Paul Brand (who's based on real life A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta). After only testing the dramatic waters a little in smaller films, this is Hill's first full plunge into a serious role and it's a pleasant surprise how excellent he is in it and what an oddly effective pair he and Pitt make. Entering a lion's den of locker room traditionalists, Hill plays Brand as extremely knowledgeable, yet overwhelmed and intimidated by the experience. What's neat is how it does contain some of the comic moments you'd expect from him, but restrained in a completely different context. It's easily the best work he's ever done and the true definition of a supporting performance, anchoring the film and Pitt the whole way through as his right-hand man..

In the far smaller but still fairly important role of A's 1st baseman Scott Hatteberg, Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as the shocked and scared premiere pick of Beane and Brand's who has to step up and become the on-field poster boy of their statistical experiment. The little time spent on Beane's personal life is there to advance the sports story that's unfolding and get to know him, which is how it should be. There's just the right amount of emphasis on that and his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and daughter (Kerris Dorsey) that it doesn't feel like an intrusion meant to soften the character or show how his life is in shambles as a lesser script might.

Director Bennett Millers' handling of the material is tremendous in how he visually simplifies what could have been a dense watch for non-sports fans, with the playing scenes only bolstered by Mychael Danna's anthemic score. At 2 hours and 13 minutes the film arguably could have used a snip or a trim, but it's difficult to feel that way watching it. If anything, it's so level-headed and straightforward it's biggest problem may be that it's the type of film easier to respect than love, but time will tell.  When Beane says "it's easy to be romantic about baseball" we expect nothing less than an easy, inspirational conclusion. Instead we get one that leaves you to consider what constitutes "winning" and wondering whether Beane could have been toppled by the very approach he helped popularize. When the title card appeared on screen revealing what became of him since that '02 season, I heard audible gasps of shock from the audience, perhaps a testament to how few still know what he accomplished in a sport primarily concerned with who won the last game.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Your Highness

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, Toby Jones, Justin Theroux, Damian Lewis, Rasmus Hardiker
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Your Highness is a colossal misfire made with somewhat admirable intentions. How disappointing it is would largely depend on your perspective going in. Looking at the cast and director it's difficult to imagine this failing but given this approach to the material I'm starting to wonder how it could have worked with ANY cast or director. It at least appears David Gordon Green set out to make a medieval impossible quest action adventure stoner comedy and that seven words are needed to describe the genre to which it belongs was probably the first sign of trouble. The real problem is the comedy. If this had just been a throwback fantasy along the lines of Willow or even The Princess Bride it would have worked and for a while it looks like that's the vibe Green's going for. Unfortunately, that's trumped by his insistence that juvenile sex jokes and profanity you'd overhear in a grade school cafeteria are hilarious because they're taking place within a medieval context. They're not, and it detracts from what little does work, resulting in a mostly unfunny mess. And that you can actually tell talented people were involved in the making of it just oddly makes it worse.

Thadeous (Danny McBride) and Fabious (James Franco) are sons of King Tallious, with Fabious having proven himself the more valiant and successful, earning his title as the rightful heir to the throne. Thadeous, on the other hand, is a lazy screw-up who spends most of his days womanizing, drinking and getting high as he watches in envy his brother claim all the glory. Fabious returns from his latest successful quest with the beautiful Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), whom he rescued from the clutches of the evil Leezar (Justin Theroux) and plans to marry. Crashing the wedding, Leezar steals he back planning to impregnate her with a dragon so he can finally take over the kingdom. With the help of his brother Fabious mounts a quest to get her back and take possession of a magic compass that will lead them to the fabled Sword of Unicorn, the only weapon capable slaying Leezar. Along the way they encounter Isabel (Natalie Portman), a warrior princess also seeking revenge against the wizard for her own reasons, but they'll have no choice but to trust her if they want any chance at successfully completing this quest.  

This should have just been a straightforward fantasy with some light comedy. Hardly any of the crude jokes supply laughs and seem to come at the worst moments, completely taking you out of a story, which in truth, had some potential. The special effects are surprising impressive, some action sequences are good, Steve Jablonsky's score is perfect and it's hard to find fault in the plot which pays homage to the type of fantasy quest movies you'd see in the 1980's. Had Green copied that approach, he wouldn't have had anything terribly original, but at least it would have been welcome entertainment in a forgotten, under-appreciated genre . Throw on top of that a few actors any director would dream to have at their disposal and it becomes even more puzzling he squanders it all for the sake of having them curse and make lewd sex and masturbation jokes that aren't only unfunny and ruin the well choreographed action sequences, but about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head. Pineapple Express and it definitely isn't Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which seems to have had some kind of twisted influence on this project, though I'm still trying to figure out exactly how since it lacks even a fraction of that film's clever, subversive humor. Everything is broad and juvenile.

Some of the actors fare better than others, but they're all victims of material that does them few favors. James Franco looks like he'd rather be hosting the Oscars and given what he has to work with here I can't say I blame him. Danny McBride does exactly what's asked of him and what few do better in acting like a boarish, profanity spewing loser and while I can't say the performance is at all to blame for any the film's faults, I still wish he had a better outlet for his comedic talent than this. It's almost hard to believe Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel's paths have never crossed on screen until now and it should feel like a big deal. Instead, Zooey's an afterthought, looking bored and lifeless, not aided by the fact her character's barely given a line of dialogue. Portman makes much more of an impression and it wouldn't be off base to say she gives the film's most entertaining performance, as faint as that praise seems. At least she gets a few laughs and is right at home as a kick-ass warrior princess but unfortunately she doesn't show up until nearly an hour in and at times the wait feels excruciating.

The scariest thought rushing through my head while watching Your Highness was that there would have been a time where I would have laughed uncontrollably and forgiven all its flaws. While that time has clearly passed it would still be unfair of me to criticize anyone else who found enjoyment in it since there's a great deal of potential in the idea, even if Green abandons it in favor of aiming dirty jokes at an audience too young to see it anyway. But I don't think he "sold out," A film this bad could only be made by someone who believed completely in what they were doing. It just came out all wrong. A better idea might be to get the entire cast back together in a couple of years and re-shoot this as the epic dramatic fantasy it's crying out to be. It's nearly a guarantee that version would come out better, or at least supply more laughs.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Beaver

Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence 
Running Time: 91 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Attribute its lack of commercial success to its controversial star or the fact its story centers around a man who communicates with his beaver hand puppet, but you couldn't pay audiences to turn out for Jodie Foster's high-concept dramedy The Beaver when it was released in May. With a studio seemingly ashamed to have it on their release slate and understandably unsure how to market it, the film came and went in the blink of an eye with some reviewers openly expressing their disgust in even having to discuss it. And that's the biggest shame because there is actually a lot to talk about and if it didn't star who it stars and it wasn't about what it's about, Mel Gibson wouldn't just be receiving high praise for his performance, we might have been be talking about his Oscar chances. He's that good. While the film isn't as effective on the whole as his work in it, there are very few problems and it's equally funny and dramatic, with Foster somehow keeping tight control of tone under some challenging circumstances. The only drawback is once you take away its central gimmick, you're left with another suburban family drama, but at least it's a smart one that doesn't pull any punches and takes an original approach that's both oddly moving and believable. In other words, it's much better than you'd expect.

Walter Black (Gibson) is the manically depressed CEO of nearly bankrupt toy company Jerry Co. whose wife Meredith (Foster) has just kicked him out of the house, much to the delight of their eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) who compulsively writes post-it notes describing all his similarities to his father. After moving into a motel and twice unsuccessfully attempting to kill himself, Walter uses a beaver hand puppet he found in the trash to communicate, creating what seems to be an alternate personality with a fake British accent and a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor. Coming up with the lie of this being a form of treatment from his psychiatrist, Walter uses the Beaver to become the outgoing, confident person he couldn't, leading to enormous success at work and a second chance with Meredith and young son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). But it's clear he's not healthy and as the Beaver starts to become more of a harmful crutch, the harsh reality sets in that he has to get rid of this puppet and get some actual help, or risk losing his family again. Meanwhile, as Porter becomes increasingly mortified by his father's behavior and struggles with a complicated relationship at school, it's clear Walter isn't the only one in the house with issues.

Foster's film is unusual for how it puts the audience in an awkward position. On one hand, we we want this guy to get better, but on the other, it's so entertaining and funny watching Walter talk through The Beaver it's tough to root for a full recovery knowing it could possibly result in the the puppet's extinction. Gibson is sensational not just in his mastery of ventriloquism and puppetry, but how he can seemingly flip the emotional switch at will between the somber, dull, depressed Walter and his happy-go-lucky beaver persona. The word "crazy" is thrown around a lot in the film, but what's interesting is how we're presented with the possibility that such a description is unfair, even when we realize the extent of Walter's problems were far worse than initially suspected. He seems almost acutely aware of his actions, even coming up with a reasonable lie that this is all part of a treatment recommended by his psychiatrist. The brilliance in Gibson's performance and the script is how it briefly creates this world where we really want to believe Walter's form of coping is okay since some of the early results at work and at home falsely indicate that it is. He makes us want to get on board and support the barrier Walter puts between himself and everyone else, but only when his mask is taken away (briefly, in an electrifying restaurant scene opposite Foster) does it becomes completely clear how incapable the character is of functioning in everyday life without the aid of this puppet. When it starts becoming a crutch things aren't so funny anymore. But the movie wisely doesn't judge him. And since so little time is spent on the background of Walter Black or exploring why exactly Meredith kicked out it becomes impossible for us to either, which is probably for the best since Gibson carries with him enough personal baggage and preconceived notions that an excessive backstory would only serve as a hindrance.

The teen sub-plot has been cited by many as the weak link when it's actually one of the film's stronger aspects. It could have easily come off as a throwaway but doesn't and much of that has to do with how the actors playing them refuse to let their high school-age characters fit into a box, making them both more and less than they appear. You expect Anton's Yelchin's Porter to be some kind of a geek or misfit which isn't necessarily any more true than Jennifer Lawrence's Norah is the hot, popular cheerleader and both bring more to their roles than what's on the page, especially Lawrence. After her gritty turn in last year's Winter's Bone made her an Oscar nominee, seeing her as a regular teen takes some getting used to, but she still displays a mix of toughness and vulnerability that proves why she was one. All these characters are pretending to be someone they're not. Walter pretending he's a beaver. Meredith pretending he's getting better. Porter and Norah pretending they're okay when they really have no clue what they are. The idea that everyone uses a mask of some sort in their life is a fascinating one, but Walter's mental illness has literally taken control of his. It's clear Foster did actual research for this (whereas Gibson has probably lived it) and when things go from funny to dark the transition is seamless, making some interesting directorial choices as to when it's appropriate to show close-ups of the beaver or Gibson. All those creative decisions matter and quite a few of them are so subtle they're hard to catch on an initial viewing, even if it's tough to imagine watching this repeatedly. And anyone who's ever wondered who would win a fight between Mel Gibson and a beaver hand puppet will finally get their answer.

As much that goes right, something does seem to be holding the film back. Whether it's the relatively brief running time or the inescapable feeling we're watching another take on a familiar genre, this time with a hand puppet as a stand-in, it isn't the kind of movie you can't wait to watch again and recommend to all your friends. Toy beaver puppets won't be flying off the shelves this holiday season but that's fine. With or without Gibson as the lead this kind of material is a tough sell, and with a lot of obstacles in its path it came out as good as possible, deserving of a better chance at finding an audience. It's okay to hate the person but praise the performance and it seems the studio was unwilling to take a gamble that audiences would be willing to separate the two, or felt guilty capitalizing on its star's issues. That's understandable, but they can't change the results on screen, reminding us Gibson was an actor first, and still remains a very good one when he wants to be. If anything, those who really hate the guy and refuse to see anything he's in will get the biggest kick out of watching this, given the nature of the story. The Beaver is a thoughtful, funny examination of mental illness that's sometimes gimmicky, but at least Foster skillfully uses that gimmick to deliver something of substance.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Source Code

Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Scott Bakula 
Running Time: 94 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Well, it took twenty years but I finally got my Quantum Leap movie. There's nothing quite like watching your favorite television series of all-time provide the inspiration for what turns out to be your favorite film of the year. Frustrated as I was that I couldn't catch Source Code in theaters, I was reassured by those who knew me that when I eventually did see it, I'd flip out. Good call. Director Duncan Jones has already proven himself an expert at intelligent science fiction storytelling with his 2009 masterpiece Moon and this just might be even better than that, despite advance buzz shoehorning it as some kind of mainstream action thriller. The ideas this contains are as huge as in that smaller-scale film and that it's so skillfully disguised amidst a 94-minute lean, mean pulse-pounding thriller is not only a credit to Jones' direction, but a multi-layered, Rubik's Cube of a script by Ben Ripley that deserves placement alongside the greats in the time travel genre. And as someone who's seen just about every time travel movie made and every scenario presented ad nauseum, that isn't faint praise. Make no mistake that this probably couldn't have been made had there been no Quantum Leap, but also don't underestimate how much Jones adds, and how well it'll play for those who have never even seen an episode of the cult 80's series starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell. This takes an already perfect premise and updates it, adding twists and turns, as well as timely elements of tragedy and human interest that make for an unforgettable viewing experience.

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a American soldier returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan who suddenly awakes to find himself on a commuter train traveling to Chicago, not as himself, but school teacher Sean Fentress, a man whose body he's "leaped" into and is occupying. That morning the train will explode, killing everyone on board and Colter is told via Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that he's been recruited as part of an experimental computer program created by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) called the "Source Code," which enables the user full access to the last eight minutes of a person's life. Not exactly time travel, but "time re-assignment" since the big catch is that there's nothing Colter (as Sean) can do to prevent the catastrophe in what's essentially a computer generated alternate timeline. His mission is solely to gain information on the identity of the bomber to prevent a larger future attack and he's being sent back as many times as is necessary to do it. With each eight-minute trip he learns more about the passengers and with the help of Sean's girlfriend Christina (Michelle Monaghan, comes closer to solving the crime, even as he's continually kept in the dark as to Goodwin and Rutledge's true motivations, as well as his own personal history.

Given that Colter must repeatedly re-live and re-play the same scenario over the course of the film, there's that temptation to compare this to Groundhog Day, which milked a somewhat similar premise for comedic effect. You could, but it would be inaccurate since it never once feels like we're watching the same scenes over and over again, nor is there anything the protagonist can do to actually alter history, one of two huge deviations the script makes from the Quantum Leap template. Jones doesn't spoon feed us any information and trust viewers' intelligence enough to dive right into the scenario from the very first frame, spilling out the revelations at a perfectly timed pace. There's a lot we don't know for a good stretch of time and occasionally Colter knows even less. Between trips, he's hauled up in a cockpit interrogated by these military bureaucrats who offer few answers, no leads and give little explanation of anything that's happened, yet coldly expect everything possible from him in return. The look and feel of these scenes are eerily reminiscent of 1995's sci-fi mind-bender 12 Monkeys, in which an unwilling time travel participant is also cruelly taken advantage of and at risk of being sacrificed for a greater good.

The events on the train never feel like a repeats but rather different sides of an expertly crafted Hithcockian puzzle in which the audience must pay attention to each subtle detail with the possibility they could come into play later, and a few do. Nearly the entire film takes place in a single location and Jones squeezes an unbearable amount of tension out of each passing moment, taking full advantage of every corner of the frame, each passenger and every one of their tiniest actions. There's a darkly brilliant twist that comes into play at almost the half-way mark that I can't reveal, but it changes the game completely, yet somehow still feels organic to the story and raises the stakes higher. Jones' deft handling of the material sends it over-the-top but if Ben Ripley's ingenious spec script (justifiably ranked as one of Hollywood's top unproduced screenplays), which offers up impossible questions, then somehow manages to logically answer all of them concisely, isn't Award-worthy, I don't know what is. The terrorism and thriller aspects also interweave seamlessly with the more sci-fi driven elements, giving the story the same timely, human interest undercurrent that became the hallmark of Quantum Leap during its run. When we finally do meet the bomber he doesn't disappoint, more than exceeding all expectations of frightening everyday creepiness.

While watching it's almost impossible to stop and consider performances are being given as the action moves at such a brisk clip it feels as if you're on a ride with the characters, rather than a witness to great acting, but we are. Gyllenhaal has to play crucial scenes out of order more numerously and differently that in any other kind of film because of the complicated narrative framework. Because this is an action thriller and the story and direction seem to be the stars, it's easy to overlook just how much work he has to do in what's at its core a character driven piece that rests on his authenticity in the role. He's a worthy successor to Scott Bakula and fills his shoes, which just might be the highest compliment I'm capable of giving anyone. At first, Farmiga and Wright seem like they'll just be playing talking heads but the info that comes out, the deeper and more complex their characters and performances as them become, especially Farmiga's toward the third act. As for Wright, he's got this crazy mad scientist thing down pat and it's fun watching some of the campy choices he makes with his vocal delivery and mannerisms, while still maintaining a dark, twisted edge. Monaghan delivers as Christina, the only part that seems like it could be filled by anyone else, but that doesn't mean another actress would necessarily click as well with Gyllenhaaal, with whom she shares every scene.

Going in, I was aware of the Scott Bakula cameo, but even knowing a little about the nature of it couldn't prepare me for how awesome a moment it was to hear the voice and have him and the show acknowledged in such a meaningful way at the most crucial point in the film. I can probably speak for most hardcore Quantum Leap fans in saying I was pinching myself that Jones openly acknowledged the influence, inducing that feeling of excitement absent since the show left the air in 1993. And wait until you see what happens in the final eight minutes. Too many promising thrillers are victims of silly studio-driven concessions to send audiences home happy and rake in more cash, but this isn't afraid to go dark and leave you thinking hard. Supposedly, there's an alternate ending floating around somewhere but I have little desire to see it since this one is perfect, providing just enough closure, but leaving more than enough to ponder and debate afterward. I'm still not sure I even completely understood it, which is a good thing, as its structure definitely lends itself to repeated viewings.

It seems at every year at about this time I throw my arms up in the air complaining about the lack of quality films, until something comes a long and kicks me in the face, reminding me why I still bother. This kicked me hard. As someone who's always had a sneaking suspicion Quantum Leap could serve as the perfect jumping-off point for a feature if the right creative choices were made, it's great to finally see it happen, adapted and tweaked to embellish the original conceit and open it up cinematically. While Jones proudly wears those influences on his sleeve, what's most impressive is how it still remains completely fresh and original, far smarter than audiences and critics have given it credit for. Rich in ideas and brilliant in construction, Source Code easily ranks among the most ambitious  science fiction efforts in years and is one I can't wait to revisit soon. Rather than a review, it feels like I should instead be writing Jones a "thank you" note for briefly resuscitating my favorite show and letting its ideas realize their full potential on the big screen.