Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Case for Academic Choices

In honour of tomorrow's Academy Awards:

My picks:

1. Best Picture: The Artist
2. Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
3. Best Female Actor (or whatever they call it these days): Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady.

Verdict: Whoever wins, movies will be the victor on the day.  Well, unless Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wins anything - hated the incredibly manipulative book, and I doubt the movie will be much better.  84 out of 84 Ceremonies.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Case for the I in Team

Moneyball was recommended to me by someone who was initially very keen, but then, on hearing that the film revolved around baseball, got cold feet.  That was a shame, as Moneyball is actually a pretty good film.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, a baseball star that never was, managing a small scale team in a major league game, and in the process of losing his best stars to the teams with the bigger wallets.

The film charts the way Beane took to mathematics (in particular, statistics) to put together a team of people that no one else would take and playing them in a way that would ensure runs on the board, if not necessarily victory. 

The science around this has been discussed all over the place, most recently with regards to Rugby in New Zealand.

But there is a science to movies too, and this one puts together the charms of Pitt, an underdog story, a nerd with an idea (the mythical mathematical genius Peter Brandt, played with wide mouthed geekiness by Jonah Hill), and a cute girl in an attempt to get box office gold.  And in the US at least, it has worked.

However, there was a certain ingredient in this recipe that I found sickening, and that was Beane's daughter, played with nauseating precociousness by an actress whom I hope never to see again, except perhaps in an Indie film swearing her head off.  The character is obviously created to "ground" Beane and show a human side that doesn't come out in the machinations of his dream team plan, but how she is put together, especially with her song (SHE HAS A SONG!) is enough to make anyone violently ill, and I would plan any toilet stop during this film for any scene where she might appear - otherwise you might end up in the lavatory vomiting instead.

As irritating as she was, the character is a very, very small part of the film.  Because Pitt is everything else.  He is supported by Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who mainly sits around in dugouts a lot, looking sullen), and a lot of other characters who you could miss if you blinked as they really act purely to give someone for Pitt to talk to (only occasionally, with).  

There may be no I in team, but in Beane's world, there are barely any people in the team either.  This is not an inspirational story of a team of underdogs overcoming the odds, drawing strength from each other and learning life lessons in the process.  No, this is a very cut throat story of getting the (statistically) best team together, cutting dead wood in the process, rolling over opposition, and delivering a result.  Beane is the driver - everyone else is a passenger in the back, who you can only see peering around the seats every once in a while.

It's lucky then that Pitt provides such a great performance.  He is everything one would expect from Pitt: charismatic, likeable, driven and determined.  It would be interesting to know if Beane was this likeable while at the same time being fairly inhuman to his players. 

But Pitt carries it all through to the very end, getting me past the stomach churning laxative that is his daughter's CD (no attempts at subtlety at all there), over the criminal underuse of Hoffman (though I was never sure why his character was allowed to stay on considering Beane's slash and burn policy with everyone else), and takes Hill under his wing in a patron/patronising kind of way. 

This film did not convince me that baseball was interesting.  This film did not convince me that Beane was a genius, though he definitely came across as an innovator, inspired as he was by desperation to take a risk; but the model used was someone else's.  The film did not convince me that he was a leader, as, for the most part, he changed the team one step removed.

But the film did convince me that the science of sport is a cruel and cutthroat business.  It did convince me that what happens in the back offices has a huge impact on what happens at the front.  And it showed that winning might not necessarily be about getting the best players on the field, but rather getting a combination that works.  Sport is completely a business, as the All Blacks in 2011 definitely showed.

Verdict:  Moneyball is all about Brad Pitt in the way that the Descendants was all about George Clooney, and that is a very good thing indeed.  Not as accessibly or likeable as Descendants, Moneyball is definitely more of a feel good film, rising to a challenge and meeting adversity with a fresh perspective.  Only the cloying bag of sickening treacle that is Beane's daughter weighs the rating down.  7 pitches our of 10.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Case for Tinkering with the 70s

As I have mentioned many times, I love the Embassy Cinema.  And seeing long, slow and classically-styled movies there always feels to me so... right.

Such was the case with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the book of the same name.  The book is a cold war spy novel classic, and is based on a lot of behind closed doors cloak and dagger dealings rather than the frenetic pacing of one man taking on the bad guys.

As such, it is slow.  As the opening credits rolled, and rolled, and rolled, I was a bit concerned that the pace would be geologic, but once the scene of bleak 1970s Britain is set, and the ever awesome John Hurt is dispatched in a non-chest-bursting way, Gary Oldman takes over (with his very Queen's accented English) and things get underway, albeit slowly - just not as slowly as before.

It's a fairly straight forward story, told in an understated beige way that feels very bleak.  London is made to look more cold and concrete than Communist Budapest, a deliberate attempt perhaps to make both sides of the Iron Curtain look equally as attractive, or unattractive as the case may be.

The understated performances are all brilliant though.  Of course, Oldman is magnificent, and he is supported by a long list of top British thesping talent, including the well recognised Colin Firth, the in-almost-everything-these-days Mark Strong, punching bag Tom Hardy (where is Warrior by the way?), potty mouthed Kathy Burke, and new boy TV Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch, who gets to do all the "fun spying" stuff and drive everyone around in his classic gold Citroen.

I can't really say too much about the story as it would risk ruining it, but it is told well and without too much hurry.  It makes the spy business look almost ordinary, a paper pushing exercise but one that can have deadly real world results.  And MI5 do seem to have awesome Christmas Parties too.

Verdict:  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was another film from a different age.  A spy movie that is low tech, light on action, but heavy on politics and human frailties, it is a really good film that deserves the big audience it got that night.  8.5 spies out of 10.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Case for Golden Silence

First off, the only talking that happens in The Artist occurs in the final 5 minutes of this nigh 2 hour long film.  The rest of the time, its just music, body language, facial expression and the odd "word card" that describe what is going on.  How very silent era.  And how very awesome.

I knew this was going to be an awesome movie for several reasons, not the least of which was the hype and the numerous awards the film had already bagged by the time I went to see it.  The atmosphere as well added to the black and white silent movie occasion, as I was sitting in the main theatre of the Embassy cinema with its very grandiose interior decoration, lounging in the leather chair once reserved for Liv Tyler.  And then the credits rolled, and the list of the supporting cast, including Missy Pyle (!!! That alone had me thrilled - where have you been, oh crazy eyed beauty?), John Goodman and James Cromwell, blew me away.

The leads though are two people unknown to me.  Jean Dujardin is George, the silent era leading man with the Clark Gable look and the winning smile, and Bérénice Bejo is Peppy (very 1920s name), the youngster trying to break into Hollywood just as the industry is about to be revolutionized forever by the advent of talking movies.  Both of these actors are incredible, displaying an amazing ability to slip into the acting "style" of that era, and both appear accomplished (or at least competent) dancers as well.  Making the exaggerated gestures (or "mugging") seem almost normal, these two really are incredibly engaging, especially considering the distraction supplied by all the more familiar faces around them.

But the star has to be George's dog.  How can it not be?  Smart, witty, charming - the dog is a pint sized canine superstar. 

The film does seem a little long at times.  It sticks to a tried and true formula (at one point I thought that it would go down a Psycho/horror route, but that was wishful thinking), but the formula is winning and the ingredients are in perfect proportion.  It's such a profoundly early Hollywood film that it is easy to forget that it is actually a French production, but perhaps it is so much the better for that outside perspective.

In the end, this film is great and I can see why it has earned the praise it has.  Those leads really are incredibly gifted, and we can only hope that this is just the start of their international renown.

Verdict: The Artist is definitely a work of art, taking the best from the silent era in a movie for modern audiences.  Dujardin's smile seems almost computer generated in its wholesomely charming winningness, Bejo looks great in all those flapper dresses, and the whole thing looks and (in the score) sounds like a winner, even if it drags a little now and then.  8 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame out of 10. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Case for Joining the Joyride

Still, a lovely trip.

Verdict:  Many fadings out of many flowers. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Case for Descending

The Descendants is about George Clooney's character, Matt, grappling with the decision to sell some prime real estate in Hawaii for several hundred million dollars versus the sentimental attachment that he and his family (well, some of them) have for the place. Except it isn't.

The Descendants is about George Clooney's character, Matt, finding out, as his wife lies terminally injured in a hospital bed, that she has been cheating on him, and follows his journey as grief mixes with anger and how the quantities of both elements change. Except it isn't.

The Descendants is about George Clooney's character, Matt, struggling to reconnect with his wayward daughters, the family crisis of his wife's accident threatening to tear them apart but, as with most heart-warming stories of this ilk, bringing them closer together.

Yes, there is a lot going on in the Descendants, and it plays out slowly, with an occasionally irritating ukulele soundtrack, and in some incredibly beautiful tropical surroundings. It is therefore not that surprising that Clooney has been up for a few award nominations, as he has a lot to do, and there aren't any other major characters to compete with for screen time.

That said, the brief appearance of Robert Forster, as Matt's father in law, is a scene stealing one, especially in his interactions with youngster Sid. And seeing Mathew Lillard in a serious role (and doing pretty well in it too) was a bit jarring considering I always seem him as a fairly Shaggy kind of guy.

Things we learn in this film: planes run to a bus-like timetable around the different islands of the group; if you have wayward kids and you live in Honolulu, it is possible to get them out of your hair by putting them on a different land mass; most locals do wear Hawaiian shirts; George Clooney can run - kind of.

Overall, it is a really engaging film. I read a review afterwards which did question what the "lesson" was that this was meant to impart, and I had to agree that I wasn't entirely sure what it was. But that didn't really matter - the film has a lot of heart even if it doesn't have a huge amount going on upstairs. A bit like Sid really.

Verdict: The Descendants is a talky film made to Pacific time, and Clooney's performance carries the film through to its slow, relaxed and not altogether resolved conclusion. 8 Leis out of 10.