Moneyball

by CosmicTwin3

2011 Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

“It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball,” says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) in this latest sports movie. Really? What’s so romantic about baseball? From my perspective, having enjoyed my fair share of T-ball and Little League seasons, it’s a fairly slow-paced, usually long game that inspires grown men to spout obscure statistics and get practically misty-eyed talking about legendary players. Isn’t it a kids’ game that grown-ups have turned into a multi-billion dollar business? Well… sort of, but maybe it’s also more than that.

Inspired by the book about the real Billy Beane and actual events in 2002-2003, Moneyball tells the story of how one team’s General Manager (the GM for those who are more familiar with professional sports than I am) changed the game of baseball forever by ignoring conventional wisdom about how to choose players to assemble a winning Major League Baseball team. The problem, apparently, has to do with the ability to afford players with the right combinations of certain outstanding skills.  A team such as the Oakland A’s, with a meager budget for player salaries, has practically no hope of competing with a lavishly funded team such as the New York Yankees. Rich teams dominate every season and go to the World Series year after year. Hence the entire title of the book by Michael Lewis: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

In order to level the playing field, so to speak, someone, somehow must start to figure out how to put together a winning team on a tiny budget. Billy Beane stumbles upon fresh-faced, recent Yale graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) with a degree in economics and a deep abiding love of baseball who seems to have the magic formula for just such a predicament. With Peter’s help and computer whiz-kid number crunching abilities, Billy starts acquiring players in a way that antagonizes more than one or two long-time A’s talent scouts, not to mention the team’s coach (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a supporting role).

Will this new method of team-building prove to be the right course, or will Billy be ridiculed out of a job? An added dimension to an already intriguing story is that Billy Beane gave up a full scholarship to Stanford University to play baseball in the Major Leagues. Recruited for his good looks and amazing abilities to hit, throw, run, and whatever else is required to be a baseball superstar, no one can adequately explain why Billy’s career as a professional player never really took off. Still craving the “wins,” Billy as a GM is still devoted to the game and probably has a unique insight into why Peter’s team-building choices could really work.

I’ve seen many sports-themed movies over the years, many about baseball: Mr. Baseball, The Natural, Angels in the Outfield, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham, Major League, The Rookie, and A League of Their Own, to name a few. I remember enjoying Field of Dreams, but not quite understanding the mysticism of it. Some of the better “sports-as-metaphor” non-baseball movies that I’ve enjoyed include The Mighty Ducks, Miracle, Remember the Titans, Bend it Like Beckham, Invictus, The Blind Side, etc. Moneyball is as good as any of these.

I’m not especially keen on any movie just because it involves sports, but I do like really good movies. Moneyball is a really good movie. It forgoes the mysticism of why baseball matters so much to so many fans and gives insight into what it’s really like to be a professional player and how the business side of the game takes a toll on the mind as well as the body. Surprisingly, perhaps, this film deftly gets to the heart of the matter by putting emotions front and center in a story about a subject that is dominated by statistics. At the very least, I’m starting to understand why some people find it “hard not to get romantic about baseball.” Hill was superb as the baseball-loving genius computer geek and (forgive me for using another sports metaphor here, but it actually is appropriate) Pitt hit it out of the park in his performance as athlete turned GM searching for a way to achieve the ultimate goal: winning the last game of the season.

Cosmic Twins Popcorn Rating: Full Bucket

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The Fighter

by CosmicTwin3

2010 Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Directed by David O. Russell

I’m not saying I rush out to see every movie that Christian Bale makes. Far from it. But he is an excellent actor, especially in roles that favor a dark, twisted, psychotic, disturbed persona. I first took notice of him as a kid way back when he was in Empire of the Sun (1987). Excellent movie! I also liked him in the Disney live-action musical Newsies (1992), even though singing isn’t his strong suit. Then he scared the bleep out of me in American Psycho (2000), a very strange movie (based on a pretty strange book, I hear, as I have not read it). Initially I had mixed feelings about his being cast as Batman, but now I think it was perfect casting. Batman has always been known as the “Dark Knight,” and brings a whole suitcase full of psychological issues with him into his vigilante activities that Superman (or any other clean-cut, “all-American” comic book hero) never even thought about.

The Fighter

All of this is to get around to saying that Christian Bale can be very intense in the roles he takes on and it works perfectly in The Fighter. The movie is a pet project of Mark Wahlberg who plays the real-life welterweight boxer Micky Ward and Bale portrays his older brother, former boxer turned trainer Dicky Eklund. Wahlberg’s performance is superb as his character struggles to find the right balance between his own wants, needs, and aspirations and those of his family, friends, and supporters. The contrast between Micky’s quiet persistence and Dicky’s boisterous downhill slide into drugs and crime allow both actors to shine as the central characters in what is essentially a family drama interspersed with wry humor and just a bit of sisterly jealously.

BTW, I am also not a particular fan of Mark Wahlberg, but he earned a second look from me when he starred in the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes. I’m still not sure if I like the ending of that one, but as a reworking of a classic sci-fi masterpiece, it didn’t stink.

A full bucket of popcorn!

Cosmic Twins rating: Full Bucket

Black Swan

by CosmicTwin3

 

2010 Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Black Swan was creepily wonderful. Darren Aronofsky really knows how to make a psychological thriller that will make your flesh crawl and have you squirming in your seat. Natalie Portman is my pick for the best Oscar this year. With all due respect and kudos to the other nominees in that category, Natalie turned in an incredible performance while dancing ballet in this movie and that has to be worth some extra points.

Black Swan

Nina Sayers (Portman) strives for technical perfection in every ballet she dances. Sometimes oddly childlike, dominated by a doting and overbearing mother, ballet is her entire world. Elated to be chosen to dance the lead dual roles in Swan Lake, Nina’s joy slowly turns to apprehension as the new ballerina in town (Kunis) demonstrates the perfect blend of sensuality and skill that just might challenge Nina’s place in the ballet company.

As they are polar opposites who are also rivals for the same role, Nina has trouble accepting Lily’s friendly overtures without suspicion. Urged by the artistic director (Cassel) to loosen up and study Lily’s technique, Nina starts to exhibit increasingly more paranoid behavior. Is Lily her friend? Or is she out to get her? Lily’s determination to dance the most perfect Swan Lake ever seen consumes her psyche and leads to a terrifying descent into madness.

A full bucket of popcorn!Cosmic Twins rating: Full Bucket

True Grit

by CosmicTwin3

2010 Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen.

This version of the story of Mattie, the young girl who goes in search of the man who killed her father to bring him to justice, is more true to the book, more authentic in its depiction of the era in which it is set, and more gritty than the original.

This movie was AWESOME! I had severe doubts about remaking a John Wayne classic, but the Coen brothers actually improved on it. It would not surprise me if Jeff Bridges got a best actor Oscar nom for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, but the standout performance really was the young girl playing Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld). This one is my favorite so far this year in the “best adapted screenplay” category. The Coen brothers were smart enough to stick to not only the story but also the language from the book.

With a superior script, the next big challenge must have been to find the right actor to play Rooster Cogburn. Who would dare to think he could possibly do justice to the role that earned John Wayne his one and only Oscar? Filling the shoes of the larger-than-life, icon among icons in the role of the drunken lawman past his prime who is prone to shooting first and then neglecting to ask questions afterward is Jeff Bridges. Is Mr. Bridges up to the task? Absolutely! He is nothing short of phenomenal in this role. Any Oscar buzz he receives is well deserved.

Bridges’ Cogburn is nicely balanced by Damon’s La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who is searching for the same man as Mattie. In the supporting role, Damon delivers a solid performance that meshes perfectly with both Bridges and Steinfeld. Just like Mattie, Hailee Steinfeld not only holds her own with the two big stars, but requires that they also deliver their best so as not to be upstaged by a little girl.

Actually, it isn’t really fair to compare this one to the 1969 John Wayne version. Movies and how they deliver their stories have evolved since then, and this one proves that, with the right care and attention, they can be infinitely better.

A full bucket of popcorn!

Cosmic Twins rating: Full Bucket