Moneyball is a movie about baseball...but it's not a sports movie.
Grouping the latest film from star Brad Pitt with heartwarming Americana it-all-comes-down-to-the-big-game films doesn't quite make sense—no matter how much Pitt looks like Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Moneyball is an underdog tale of a different kind one that questions the enchantment of the game rather than embraces it. While a film driven by sports statistics and business may sound drab Moneyball manages to discover its own unique sentimentality thanks to strong performances and a restrained style.
We pick up with Billy Beane (Pitt) GM for the Oakland A's after yet another disastrous season. Surrounded by aging scouts convinced of their ability to hone in on a player's intangible skills the keen manager grapples with the loss of his best players a recruiting budget dwarfed by his competitors and no solution in sight. After all baseball is a game of the coin—buy the talent buy the wins buy the championship. Wheeling and dealing across the country Beane realizes the A's need a new strategy or they'll be forever at the bottom. He finds that innovation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistics wiz who introduces Beane to the baseball equivalent of counting cards: the theory of sabermetrics.
Thankfully watching and enjoying Moneyball doesn't require an extensive background in math as Beane allows the stuffy subdued Brand do the number-crunching. Much like writer Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning The Social Network the script (co-written with Schindler's List and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Steve Zallian) pulls back the curtain on a complicated process but makes it easily digestible and more importantly emotional. Beane puts his job and reputation on the line for Brand's theory which boils down to the idea that all you need to win a baseball game is runs. Who needs star players when MLB rejects can make it to home base?
Pitt's depiction of the real life Beane isn't a showy star performance—but it's one of his best to date. The character is reserved and hushed; he explodes when the gravity of his situation hits a boiling point but quickly pulls himself back into professional mode. In order for Beane to enact Brand's plan he has to de-romanticize a game that means everything to him. Beane goes to great lengths to remind himself that baseball can't be fun—he doesn't watch the games he commands his team to hear the sorrow-filled silence of a loss and he emphasizes that no matter how many games he wins the only one that matters is the last. Beane keeps this light and cool with his co-workers but underneath—where Pitt shines—he struggles.
While Moneyball is Pitt's show his ensemble of co-stars deliver equally impressive work. Hill plays against type keeping his usual fast-talking humor in his back pocket and letting the larger-than-life Pitt properly wow him. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears briefly as the A's manager Art Howe who butts heads with Beane over the direction of the team. What could have been a surface-level villainous role is elevated by Hoffman who makes the old school way of thinking sound perfectly reasonable.
The film directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote) is slow and methodical paving the way for exhilarating moments between Pitt and Hill as they juggle phone calls fire off statistics educate their players and compile the misfit team. Miller intertwines flashbacks of Beane's early career and real life footage into the main narrative capitalizing on a variety of filmmaking techniques that organically stem from Beane's perspectives. This isn't squeaky clean Hollywood filmmaking but it's slick. Mychael Danna's score stands out as a thrilling companion to the visuals ethereal tunes that add a touch of humanity to a bookish drama.
Moneyball isn't this year's Field of Dreams or The Natural or Little Big League but it is great drama. Compelling and sweet the film takes a relatively unknown aspect of a well-known sport and turns it into something grand. Baseball's always made for a great life metaphor but Moneyball shows us one we've never seen before.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
When we last saw the armed-to-the-teeth vigilante Frank Castle he was fleeing Tampa after exacting his revenge upon the money launderer responsible for murdering his son wife parents aunts and uncles third cousin twice removed … But that was the old Punisher. Meet the new Punisher. Like Incredible Hulk Punisher: War Zone reboots a franchise by assuming we know enough about the Punisher without having go into excruciating detail about why he became judge jury and executioner. Another good sign: Ray Stevenson’s Punisher is back where he belongs in a dirty grimy New York not sun-kissed Florida. And he’s got his sights set on comic-book nemesis Jigsaw the alias of mobster Billy “the Beaut” Russoti (The Wire’s Dominic West). While trying to assassinate Russoti the Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent compelling him to hang up his guns. Russoti escapes but his face is torn to shreds by glass. With his once-handsome face stitched up like a 12-piece puzzle the rechristened Jigsaw springs his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) from -- of course -- a loony bin to help him punish the Punisher. So much for the Punisher locking up his war journal for good … No disrespect but Jane’s too much of a pretty boy to pass himself off as the Punisher. The big burly Ray Stevenson (HBO’s Rome) looks every bit the cold-blooded dispenser of justice fanboys know and adore. And the Northern Irish hard man possesses an intimidating physical presence something Jane inherently lacks. Jane though received significant leeway to explore the anguish resulting from the loss of Castle’s family. Stevenson wears nothing but a scowl as the taciturn and psychologically scarred human weapon which admittedly is in keeping with the comic-book character’s stony disposition. Then again the out-of-control West does enough emoting for an army of Punishers. With his exaggerated gestures dancing eyebrows and thicker-than-Italian-cheesecake Noo Yawk accent the Brit blasts through War Zone with the destructive force of a rocket-propelled grenade. This is a money gig for West and damnit if he isn’t going to have fun earning his paycheck. The Green Mile’s Hutchinson as Jigsaw’s organ-chewing sibling almost keeps pace with West. Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight does his usual shtick as weapons supplier Microchip. Colin Salmon fills space as a by-the-book lawman pursuing the Punisher. Rambo and Saw V’s Julie Benz -- who obviously can’t say to any sequel or reboot she’s offered -- is wasted as the FBI agent’s widow and the voice of Castle’s conscience. Try counting the ways the Punisher dispatches of his foes. He hangs from a spinning chandelier and sprays a roomful of mobsters with bullets blows up a man leaping between buildings punches his fist through a bad guy’s face sets another on fire and … well we could be here all day. Fair to say director Lexi Alexander’s blood lust drives her to come up with one grisly laugh-inducing death after another. With its Empire State Building-high body count Alexander’s does the impossible and out-Rambos Rambo. And quite frankly it’s everything a Punisher quest for vengeance should be. The 2004 Punisher seemed too disconnected from its source material. Why relocate from New York to Tampa? Or pit the Punisher against a villain from not from the comic book? Or have the Punisher setup Travolta for his fall when he lives by the gun? Jane’s departure paved the way for a reboot that’s closer to the spirit of the comic book and wants nothing more than to be an old-school shoot ’em up like Commando or Lethal Weapon. There isn’t a moment that goes by when you’re not howling at the disgracefully bad dialogue gasping in shock at each and every execution or wondering at just how much more dumb and fun things can get. Alexander the German director who turned sweet little Elijah Wood into a soccer thug in Green Street Hooligans isn’t trying to transcend the comic-book genre á la The Dark Knight. Instead she’s just wants to give us one hell of an adrenaline rush. “This is just the beginning ” Stevenson growls after taking care of business. Let the bodies continue to hit the floor.
Promising journalism student Matt Buckner (Wood) gets tossed out of Harvard for taking a drug rap for his highly privileged roommate the son of a governor. He knows he can't fight the charges so he heads to London to visit his sister (Claire Forlani) who's married and has a child. Their absentee father (Henry Goodman) is a foreign correspondent and Matt can't reach him to tell him of his expulsion. Meanwhile he meets Pete (Hunnam) the crass and unsophisticated brother of his new brother-in-law Steve (Marc Warren). Steve sends Matt off with his brother Pete with a bribe to show him one of England's best cultural event--a football match (that's soccer to us Yanks). That trip results in Matt's involvement in the Green Street Hooligans a gang or "firm " as they're called that supports the local team and pounds each other in violent street battles. Matt learns about camaraderie loyalty machismo and street fighting as well as realizing he can pack a wallop when called upon. He's getting a reputation for being tough but things get more complicated as Matt becomes the sole American in the Hooligans as well as the fact he's hiding that he's a journalist. The firms don't take kindly to the tabloid types.
We know Wood as Frodo Baggins the hobbit of the Lord of the Rings movies and Hunnam is known as the pretty boy from the British version of Queer as Folk and Nicholas Nickleby. But in Green Street Hooligans both of them dirty themselves up a bit. Hunnam is the standout showing his true acting chops with his close-shorn hair and spontaneous mean streak. He's smart and multi-dimensional alternately showing his rough side as a gang fighter and then his sensitive side as a schoolteacher and football coach. Wood isn't nearly as believable as a street thug but he's adept at playing the fish-out-of-water roles. Warren is noteworthy as the brother-in-law with a secret and Leo Gregory puts on quite a performance as a police lieutenant suspicious of Pete. The supporting cast looks like they were taken right off the streets of West Ham.
Director and co-writer Lexi Alexander does a nice job showing the British versions of gangs and their bloody street fights. Americans may be shocked by the senseless violence surrounding a sports franchise (or maybe not) but it's realistic. The British press however are vilifying this film because it's too cleaned up and doesn't accurately show the "yob" subculture. But if Hooligans is viewed for its brutal but effective fight scenes as well as a window into machismo then its not disappointing. It gets a bit corny at times and heads in a predictable direction but it remains captivating partially because of the handheld cinematography by Alexander Buono. The film shows how the sense of belonging and desire to bash heads can become addictive among the guys in the pubs who don't have much to lose.
A truck carrying hazardous materials accidentally drops one of its containers into a small lake contaminating it and its delicate ecosystem. Trouble arises when the wacky town entomologist feeds his collection of exotic spiders contaminated crickets which act as a sort of spider "steroid." The result is a horde of giant hairy spiders that prey on the town's unsuspecting inhabitants. Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) doesn't believe her son Mike (Scott Terra) when he tries to warn her about what's going on but blames his "media-induced paranoid delusional nightmare" on too much boob-tube watching. Then when mining engineer Chris McCormick's (David Arquette) aunt gets spun--literally--into one of the spider's webs he enlists the help of Sheriff Parker and paranoid radio announcer Harlan Griffin (Doug E. Doug) to fight off the eight-legged freaks. Armed only with rakes ski poles and chainsaws the townspeople fight off the spiders in a losing battle before Chris comes up with a master plan that will blow the arachnids to smithereens.
Prankster Arquette (See Spot Run) tones down his funnyman routine in Eight Legged Freaks and takes on the role of the humble hero. It's refreshing to see Arquette playing a more subdued character with less of a slapstick edge although I half expected him to start yelling at people to "dial straight down the center." As the sheriff Wuhrer (Berserker) plays her dual role well as a headstrong single mother of two and the town leader. Sure she looks a little too hot to be a chief law enforcement officer but maybe some sheriffs really do look like that in small-town America. While the laughs may not have been coming from Arquette there were enough to be had thanks to Doug whose most memorable role to date has to be Sanka Coffie from the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings. His radio announcer in this film believes the government is conspiratorial and that the spiders are the alien invasion he has been warning people about for decades. Doug delivers some of the movie's funniest lines.
New Zealander Ellory Elkayem (Larger Than Life) wrote and directed Eight Legged Freaks a sort of homage to mid-1950s B-movie sci-fi thrillers like Tarantula or Earth vs. the Spider. But while these cult films were funny merely by accident--Tarantula director Jack Arnold probably wasn't being intentionally campy--Eight Legged Freaks at times seems to try too hard. Packing in one joke after another takes away from the spiders' scariness making them seem more like a practical joke than a potentially annihilating threat. The special effects are extremely slick however and the spiders are well done with techniques approaching those in the 1997 sci-fi actioner Starship Troopers (but none of the gigantic CGI spiders are as scary as the real-life tarantulas caged up in terrariums at the start of the movie). Although at 99 minutes the film moves quickly the final scene in which the townspeople are being chased through a labyrinth of mining tunnels drags on a bit too long.