Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?: The Tree of Life (2011)*****

Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life is a film with the courage to reach for the sublime, and for the bulk of its 139 minutes achieves it. Set in a leafy suburb of Waco, Texas, the film combines scenes of family life in the 1950s with spectacular imagery from the dawn of time, creating a mosaic of emotions, childhood memories and primordial ooze. This palette allows for exciting and jarring juxtapositions, as Malick exploits the scale differences of the awesome power to create worlds with the frail humans who attempt to impose their will on that power.

This impressionistic patchwork is driven by the present day mental reveries of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), a successful middle-aged architect who roams a steel and glass skyscraper jungle. Jack is filled with questions, doubts and regrets, and over the course of the film we will learn all about his loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and his frustrated father (Brad Pitt). But Malick shifts points-of-view frequently, and at times his audience is wired into the thoughts of both parents as well. This device keeps viewers slightly off balance, and keenly aware that The Tree of Life is an accounting beyond the standard, expected level of human experience.

Chastain’s character supplies the connective tissue for The Tree of Life’s disparate elements. As a velociraptor shows surprising mercy to an injured creature in a prehistoric rain forest, the hot Texas wind of the Eisenhower years buffet Chastain's ginger tresses as she receives news of a death in the family. Chastain’s whispered questioning of God draws us into the film’s complex web, and she aimlessly walks the tidy neighborhood in a trance of extreme despair. Later, when young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is haunted by the confusing impulses of puberty, Chastain becomes combination mother-confessor and Can-can girl.

Malick’s tread into the darkly forbidden is thankfully cautious and careful, and in keeping with the film’s elegant style of visual shorthand. The story is told through sweeping snippets of scenes, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s steadicam swirling and circling like the harried gatekeeper of a dream. This technique cleverly evokes the subjective, fragmented nature of distant memories and, as Nestor Almendros did for Days of Heaven, Lubezki’s work elevates this film into the range of myth. The often heard criticism that The Tree of Life is a slow paced film is belied by the enormous swaths of ground Malick’s story covers. In a pivotal moment, Jack becomes aware of mortality after an accident at a municipal swimming pool, and the film proceeds from trauma to burial in just a few quick transitions. But none of scene’s power is lost; as Pitt and his sons trudge away from the cemetery their stunned, chastened silence the film’s most powerful interaction.

Malick uses edit points as brush strokes, layering tension and mystery. The Tree of Life has been described as cinematic impressionism, but pointillism is a more accurate comparison. Each truncated moment serves as a pinpoint, eventually forming a representation of a much larger reality. When the director occasionally strays from this approach, it seems like a misstep. Pitt’s Mad Scene, where he applies a brutal, and seemingly uncalled for, discipline, follows a literal timeline that feels like a discard from some other movie. Yet, at other times, the story grants too little information. Pitt apparently becomes a pilot at some point in his life, which seems a strange transition for a chemical plant manager. But Malick has a habit of defiling his best work with odd, presumably intentional, eccentricities; in Days of Heaven, a steel mill boss killed by Richard Gere in the opening scene comes back to life as a background extra, while modern Civics and Corollas adorn WWII era American roads in The Thin Red Line.

Yet, The Tree of Life’s recreation of small town life in the 1950s is exceptional. Jack Fisk’s production design is comprised of a million near perfect details, even down to dish towels and jewel toned metal tumblers. Malick cleverly motivates the film’s classical score by establishing Pitt as a frustrated musician, and some of the film’s most majestic moments involve simple scenes of family accompanied by the grandeur of Mahler and Brahms. But the film ventures onto shaky ground with a coda that forges a makeshift catharsis. For a film that so clearly contrasts religion and science, Penn’s ultimate transition is staged with surprisingly orthodox iconography, and feels like a cop-out. The Tree of Life poses the questions of Existence with steely valor, then answers them with trite mush.

If the film had ended after its first hour, it could rightly be called a masterpiece. And, all things considered, time may still render a highly favorable judgment. Despite deep flaws, The Tree of Life ranks among the best films this reviewer has ever seen, although its proximity to perfection only makes its idiosyncrasies all the more vexing. But to a North American film audience obsessed with 3-D zombies and superheroes, this film is infinitely better than we deserve.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Un coeur en hiver (1992)****

 Reviewed by Shu Zin

UN COEUR EN HIVER is a strange little film written and directed by Claude Sautet. It is about as French as it gets. Daniel Auteuil is the guy with the heart in hibernation, and he assumes this role with subtlety and finesse. As a gifted maker of violins, he drives just about everybody in his life a little crazy with his detached silence, his passive aggression. It is easy to find him detestable. This story takes place over about a year, when he becomes involved with a beautiful young violinist, Camille Kessler, played by the lovely and vulnerable Emmanuelle Beart. 

There is a great deal of emotional and sexual tension in this quiet, odd film, but somehow, everyone seems real and credible. And utterly French in sensibility, right down to the foppish, uneasy, self-conscious discussion of aesthetics we are privileged to see and snicker at. One of the greatest aspects of this puzzling, disquieting film is the lovely score, brimming with violin sonatas and trios by Debussey. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Come.... post on Game Day Chili has provoked all these weight loss ads??---------------------->

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Criterion Collection: Kuroneko (1968)****

Within its delicate folds, Kuroneko presents a romantic ghost story of bloodlust, revenge and karmic justice, driven by solemn bargains between tortured souls and ancient malevolence. A stalwart hero will bravely battle the specters of evil, and be rewarded for his efforts with unimaginable heartbreak and crushing despair. And viewers able to overlook those moments when Shindô’s imagination exceeded his technical grasp, will be rewarded with an unforgettable journey into a seductive but forbidden realm.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Game Day Chili

Being Arizona Cardinals’ fans, game day is usually pretty depressing around here. But this delicious, low-fat chili makes it all worthwhile. Well, sort of…


1 lb. ground turkey, browned and drained
1 onion, chopped
1 15 oz. can kidney beans, drained
1 15 oz. can chili beans, with juice
2 15 oz. oz. cans diced tomatoes
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tbspn. ground cumin
1 handful baby carrots
½ cup ketchup
Salt, pepper to taste
Yield: 4 servings

Add above ingredients to Crockpot. Cook for 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high.
Serve with sour cream, grated cheese, chopped scallions, chips or crackers.

If you’re nostalgic for Cincinnati, serve over cooked spaghetti

 Pic courtesy Sweet Pea's Kitchen, a great blog full of yummyness...

HEY *$#*^%.....THROW IT TO LARRY!!!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Red Chapel (2009)***1/2

The film chronicles a Danish comedy/performance art group’s trip to North Korea under the guise of “cultural exchange”. But upon arrival it becomes clear that the entire effort is on a par with carrying coal to Newcastle, as no stage act could ever compete with the tightly controlled and highly polished fictions that comprise everyday life in Pyongyang.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nigella Talks Dirty

Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Boxed Set (2011)*****

Nestled roughly between his Proletariat and Finland trilogies, eclectic minimalist Aki Kaurismaki created a series of delightfully goofy films about a fictional rock and roll band from an exceptionally isolated part of Siberia. These profoundly rural, and quite possibly inbred, rockers shared not only a drive for musical success, but a genetic disposition towards outrageous, rhinoceros horn pompadours and a passion for long, pointy, black leather brogues...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Black Swan (2010)*

 Reviewed by Shu Zin

BLACK SWAN is my idea of a really bad movie. The story, such as it is, concerns a few infantile, self-absorbed ballerini, a sort of understated Barbara Hershey as psycho mom Erika, and Vincent Cassel, inappropriately cast as Thomas Leroy (!), a most inelegant and unlovable dance master. His name is pronounced Toe MAH, in the French way, and all the little ballerini are hilarious to watch, choking self-consciously on the name when they try to say it as though it were second nature. 

Especially as Vincent Cassel seems like a thug who came up from the projects in South Toronto. He decides he wants one dancer to be both the white and the black swan. Natalie Portman has been cast as the innocent, emotionally stunted Nina, the perfect white swan, with the jealous psycho mom. Mila Kunis is Lily, the treacherous black swan wannabe. Winona Ryder and Ksenia Solo, too, have revisited their childhood ballet lessons in order to successfully land roles as incidental ballerini. 

I think director Darren Aronofsky, perfectly happy to let the ballerini act like empty-headed dancing junior high school girls, thought that making us watch a bit of Swan Lake repeatedly, punctuated with pointless touches of horror, would carry the movie. They did not. Most of the movie is burned up with practices or performances of the same dance, over and over, from the finale of Swan Lake.

When we are off stage, it is usually to oversee petty but ruthless competition between two vacant ballerini jockeying for the position of Black and White Swan, or sex scenes that fail to be engaging. I thought the whole thing badly acted and written and, frankly, it bored me stiff. Your call.

 Reviewed by Shu Zin

Friday, October 14, 2011

Harakiri (1963)****

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is an elegantly told, parabolic tale of hypocrisy, class struggle and revenge. In fact, the film will likely remind today’s viewers of the work of Quentin Tarantino, as Harakiri is filled with nail biting tension, sudden, shocking violence and a richly layered narrative that slowly, at times painfully, peels down to its bare, heartbreaking substrate. The film transports its audience into a swirling dream that combines the meditative with the nightmarish, profound love with immeasurable hatred, and confuses perversion with sacrament. Along the way a new, flexible definition of honor will be devised to justify the application of a new, overwhelming force. And the death rattles of a proud, ancient martial culture will be silenced by the situational ethics of a new, expedient age.

Set in Japan in the early 17th century, Harakiri is the story of wandering ronin – unemployed samurai – rendered redundant by the emergence of a nascent national government. In the interest of peace, many local warlords have been stripped of their holdings, and are now unable to support the large private armies that secured their lives of opulent privilege. These once revered, highly trained warriors now face obsolescence and starvation, and attempt to provide for their families by menial labor and outright scavenging. But for some samurai the frustration of penury is intolerable, and they combat it by a clever method of extortion: showing up at a rich man’s estate requesting permission to commit seppuku - ritualized suicide by disembowelment – in the courtyard. Rather than endure a bloody spectacle, the landowner would often pay the starving samurai a few pieces of silver to simply move on to the next mansion. 

On a fine May afternoon, a samurai named Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) attempts such a gambit at the estate of the Iyi Clan. Clan elder Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) questions Tsugumo’s sincerity, and illustrates his skepticism by telling the ronin about an unfortunate recent event. A few days prior, a lost samurai named Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) appeared at his gate requesting similar permission, but when Chijiiwa’s treachery was revealed, Saito’s top lieutenants Omodaka (Tetsuro Tamba), Yazaki (Ichirô Nakaya) and Kawabe (Yoshio Aoki) decide to make an example out of Chijiiwa and sadistically compel him to complete the horrific ritual, with only a dull knife to ensure maximum suffering. 

Kobayashi presents the gruesome story of Chijiiwa in flashback, with a level of detail not for the squeamish. But his aim is not merely grim prurience, but a careful setting of the table for this tale’s surprising narrative twists. The “story within a story” format was popular with Japan’s scriptwriters of the post-WWII period, drawing an effective cognate between cinema and the oral history tradition. When Tsugumo commences his own suicide ritual, Kobayashi repeats stagings and compositions from the Chijiiwa sequence, creating an eerie sense of dreaded déjà-vu. But in this go around the Iyi courtyard will be a setting for much more than bloodletting, as one scruffy, grief stricken samurai will champion an entire society, while extracting a measure of revenge from a brutal oligarchy that thrives on intimidation and hypocrisy. 

Harakiri is awash in clever visual symbols. An empty suit of armor stands as a totem to the rationalization of evil, and evokes the violent impulses inherent in religious zealotry. An epic swordfight takes place near a crowded cemetery, as howling winds, storm clouds and ornate headstones bespeak the futility and suffering wrought by centuries of human conflict. Kobayashi equates innocence and tranquility with gently falling snow and breeze-tossed cherry blossoms, but these peaceful moments exist only in the memories of his characters, as a darkening world of codified Social Darwinism offers only humiliation and slow death to those on the losing side of history. The Iyi Palace features long hallways that seem to recede to infinity, yet its secret rooms and rice paper walls are insufficient to fully conceal its foul abominations, and Tsugumo’s desperate struggle will ultimately reveal every layer of hidden rot. But the purest motives are not enough to prevent a rewrite of history. And 400 years ago, just like today, historical revisions always serve the interests of the well connected. 

Disc Review

The transfer is in the original 2.34:1 ratio, giving Kobayashi and DP Yoshio Miyajima an exceptionally wide cinematic canvas. The film appears to have a very fine overall layer of grain, but it’s not excessively distracting for a b/w production of this vintage. The transfer is remarkably clean and sharp; perhaps too sharp as the edges of the skullcap appliances on Kobayashi’s actors are clearly visible in several close ups. The black levels are nicely packed and the gamma is shifted slightly dark of center - highly appropriate for this subject matter. The principle lens appears to be an anamorphic zoom, as there’s some noticeable barrel distortion when panning on the wide end. In all though, the disc is a pleasure to look at, and a worthy vehicle for Harikiri’s exquisite compositions. 

The audio is in LPCM mono and it’s quite crisp and clear. The unusual instrumentation employed by composer Toru Takemitsu will give you goosebumps, and Tatsuya Nakadai’s deep, guttural line readings resonate with power. 

Video introduction by Japanese-film historian Donald Richie
Here, Richie adds a valuable historical context that will greatly enhance one’s understanding of the complex social dynamics at play in Harakiri. He also offers a wealth of possible interpretations of the film’s symbols and subtext. This segment is an indispensible 12 minutes, but be advised that Richie’s commentary contains significant spoilers. 

Excerpt from a rare Directors Guild of Japan video interview with director Masaki Kobayashi, moderated by filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda
Disappointingly, Shinoda does most of the talking here, while Kobayashi just nods in approval. There are a few interesting gems, as Kobayashi describes his relationship with art director Shingemasa Toda and composer Takemitsu. The film’s reception at Cannes is discussed as well as the director’s Human Condition trilogy. Overall, it’s a rather skippable 10 minutes. 

Video interviews with star Tatsuya Nakadai and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto
This supplement is broken up into two segments. The first, entitled A Golden Age, features the recollections of leading actor Tatsuya Nakadai on the making of Harakiri. Nakadai discusses his intimidation at tackling a role that seemed tailor-made for his idol Toshiro Mifune. The physical rigors of the shoot are examined, including the choreography of the combat scenes (using real swords and spears!) and the stress of having to kneel in the formal seiza position for weeks on end.

Masterless Samurai completes the supplement, and is an extensive and quite humorous interview with writer Hashimoto. He describes how the idea for Harakiri had haunted him for sometime, and he was finally inspired to write the script from a movie poster he saw at Cannes. Originally intended as a project for Kurosawa, Hashimoto’s relationship with Kobayashi was contentious at best. In fact, the tension between the men was mirrored in the performances of the actors, giving the film additional emotional depth. At a total running time of 28 minutes, these interviews will be of interest mainly to scholars of Japanese cinema. 

The original trailer from 1962 is included, but it’s from an unrestored print so you’ll have to weather a few scratches. The teaser is well edited, and does a reasonably accurate job of presenting the film’s central conflicts. It leans a bit too much on the film’s relatively brief swordplay, and theater-goers who were expecting an action extravaganza were likely disappointed.

A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Joan Mellen and a reprint of Mellen’s 1972 interview with Kobayashi
This 32 page edition contains film stills, production credits and two interesting articles by Joan Mellen, a renowned expert on the cinema of Japan. Her interview with Kobayashi offers many reflections on his long career, including his struggles with censorship and his affection for Charlie Chaplin. The booklet is attractively designed and of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Criterion.

Final Thoughts

In these days of citizen protest and Wall Street occupation, this film from 50 years ago rings with the frustrated, desperate vibrations of the downtrodden and forgotten; oddly in sympathy with the current zeitgeist. As Kobayashi makes abundantly clear, the greatest enemy of the ruling elite is not a phalanx of sword wielding samurai, but a working class unwilling to submit to false notions of honor. In this strange new world of ideas, the true power of a warlord - or a corporate CEO - is not measured in land and riches, but by his ability to suppress the truth. Harakiri teaches a valuable and haunting lesson to corrupt souls who prey upon the powerless: those with nothing to lose also have nothing to fear. 

Reviewed by David Anderson


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Terri (2011)****

Terri is a low-key American indie all about the struggles of an obese high schooler (Jacob Wysocki) in the thoroughly funkifed outskirts of Pasadena. The film has the cloy, ironic ponderous that inflicts so many smaller productions these days - the smug superiority of the tightly budgeted – yet manages to retain a winning measure of intriguing charm. As Terri galumphs his way down locker-lined hallways clad in baggy pajamas, his school uni of choice, his glassy gaze seems like much more than a bemused outsider’s affectation. For just as Terri’s body is layered with flab, his gentle soul is layered with a burnished wisdom beyond his year.

Director Azazel Jacobs strikes a delicate balance between mumbly bleakness and adolescent goofiness, rendering a tonality akin to Carlos Reygadas meets John Hughes. Terri, abandoned by his parents, lives with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), in a dark old house so cluttered with dusty hippie bric-a-brac the structure could serve as a museum of Baby Boom America. Not even sunlight can infiltrate its protective mustiness, as Terri and Uncle James quietly munch on their beloved dinners of beans on toast, safe from the world’s criticisms and judgments. Uncle James suffers from early onset dementia – if there was ever an actor meant to convey senility, it’s Creed Bratton – and Terri is often compelled to keep his uncle’s wandering mind grounded in reality. When Bratton orders Wysocki to set mouse traps in the attic, Terri takes the dead vermin into the woods to feed a nesting falcon – not the film’s only reference to Ken Loach’s Kes – but Uncle James has forgotten his earlier commands, and painfully berates Terri for animal cruelty.

But for a few hours each day, Terri must leave his floundering uncle and traipse down a weedy, overgrown path to the local high school; a rather chaotic institution Jacobs has populated with some superb casting choices. The lumbering Terri suffers his classmates’ cruelty much to the indifference of his home room teacher Mrs. Davidson (Tara Karsian); a woman so burnt out and over it she could serve as a poster child for haters of teacher’s unions. His amusingly aggressive gym teacher (Tim Heidecker) is predictably disgusted by the rotund Terri, and accuses the boy of having “contempt for wellness”.

Terri appears to have one champion in the school, the eccentric Vice-Principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly); a man who hides his disciplinarian instincts under a passive aggressive veneer of cool. Fitzgerald has obviously been charged with the school’s “problem kids” and finds Terri’s gentle nature a refreshing break from the tattooed hoodlums that regularly appear at his door. Reilly approaches the film as a personal canvas, and while his riffs are unfailingly entertaining, at times he pushes the film to the brink of comic abstraction. But Jacob has provided a powerful counterbalance, thanks to an amazing performance by Bridger Zadina as Chad, a self destructive, rich kid quasi-Goth. Over the course of the film, Zadina will steal scenes from both Reilly and Bratton; an achievement this reviewer previously thought impossible. Chad’s outrages expose the weaknesses in Reilly’s calm, hipster façade, and this skinny, energetic kid slowly develops an unlikely friendship with the metabolically challenged Terri, who is at least quadruple his size.

Fitzgerald, Terri and Chad leave school one day to attend a funeral, and viewers are treated to some superb ensemble acting in the process. During a lunch stop at a diner, the trio engages in a conversation that appears at first to be the most miniscule of small talk. But Reilly and Zadina, through non-sequiters and pregnant pauses, deliver a scene with the icily exquisite timing of a Miles Davis trumpet solo. The viewer’s empathy for Terri is deepened as well; compared to the raging internal insecurities of Chad and Fitzgerald, his caring and serene nature seems heroic.

Unfortunately, that heroism may lead to Terri’s undoing, as the film moves toward its main event: a quirkily modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast. When Heather (Olivia Crochiccia), one of the school’s chief hotties, gets in trouble with Fitzgerald for her sexual explorations, Terri gallantly rushes to her defense. But his motives are not as pure as advertised, for Terri has spent many wistful hours in Home Economics class staring at Heather’s legs and, as an added benefit, the situation affords him the opportunity to get even with one of his main tormentors. Soon, Terri finds Heather’s gratitude building to unmanageable proportions, and in a masterfully directed party scene, the Beast will learn if Beauty is truly worthy of his attentions. Crochiccia’s garbled line readings have an arresting ring of authenticity, and this climactic scene ranks as another superb set piece engineered by Jacobs.

Disc Review

Presented in 1:85:1, the blu-ray is sharp and clean and delivers the film’s sunny California cool with pristine conviction. DP Tobias Datum works visual magic with scant elements, and creates looks that are attractive, yet impeccably right for the tenor of each scene. His brave celebration of the ordinary is one of the key reasons Terri’s meager narrative is never overwhelmed by its inherent angst. Datum manages to find deep and meaningful textures within the simple motivations he is given. The crucial basement party scene, in theory lit by one 60 watt bulb, crackles with the murky depth of soul wrenching dilemma, while the film’s denouement sparkles with the sunny promise of a new day, as Terri and Fitzgerald share the joys of wounded male commiseration.

The 5.1 track is well balanced and allows the film’s thoughtful pauses to shine. The dialogue is meticulously mixed, keeping it critically forward despite the naturalistic, thrown away quality of the readings. Terri is a basically a simple film, but the characters’ complexities are revealed more through timing and intonation than the actual words on the page, and the mix is highly effective at capturing those nuances.

A Look Inside Terri

This 10 minute featurette offers interviews and reflections from some of the principles. Jacobs goes into some depth on the practical concerns of filming on location at a high school, and his collaborative background with cinematographer Datum. Wysocki discusses his mentoring relationship with Reilly, and it seems to have mirrored their on screen personas. In all, it’s fairly conventional behind-the-scenes stuff, but the lack of information on Zadina and Crochiccia is a glaring omission.

Deleted Scenes

This sequence contains 3 discarded segments, but to describe them as “Deleted Scenes” is a little deceptive. The first is a reblocking of the gym teacher scene that was included in the film. This version is a little coarse and grim, lacking a humorous background element that appeared in the final assembly.

The other two snippits are merely extensions of included scenes, with additional dialogue that really doesn’t go anywhere. At the very least, these sequences will give viewers a deeper appreciation of the fine work done by editor Darrin Navarro, along with the instinctual revisions Jacobs made, apparently on the fly.

Final Thoughts

Cineastes often wonder why American directors can’t make small, compelling films like the Europeans. And looking at the record, it’s a fair question. Many American indies, despite their noble intentions, ultimately seemed saddled with an unshakeable patina of shallowness; a facile artifice that prevents true hypnotic immersion. While Terri is guilty of occasional glibness - at times it seems like an adman’s idea of an art film – it manages to overcome its faults through special moments of unique chemistry and starkly organic performances. The film flirts with the cutes, but never succumbs thanks to Azazel Jacobs’ relentless attention to detail. His fascinating film gets viewers deeply into the mind of a big, lonely kid and, surprisingly, it’s a wonderful place to be.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fear Me Not (2008)****

Reviewed by Shu Zin 

The first remarkable aspect of this chilling Danish film is the visual production values. Vibrant colors and beautiful settings, landscapes, clouds, interiors, weather, beautifully composed shots, jump right off the page. FEAR ME NOT is a disturbing story of the complete mental disintegration of Mikael, a successful businessman who appears to have it all. His decision to participate in a drug trial being run by his wife’s brother for a Swedish company who manufacture anti-depressants first strikes us as odd, and when he hides his participation from his wife, we begin to assume, rightly, the worst.

With a month’s supply of the experimental drugs in his briefcase, he takes off to hang out, alone, in the modest house he grew up in, somewhere in the north. Both his wife and his 13-yr old daughter are concerned and a little suspicious when he tells them he is going to visit his aging mother in a nursing home. He drops out of sight and stops, for the most part, answering his cell phone, as he keeps a journal of the exhilarating effects of the drug he is taking and mulls over his life situation. It would be a classic midlife meltdown, except that this man is becoming truly unzipped. He begins to act on very dark impulses, all the while analyzing his new self-awareness.

There are some mind-boggling twists in this dark story. It kept me riveted and was thrillingly lovely to look at, but it was a little hokey to have this guy share his insights in a spooky, echo chamber voice as he self-destructs, and the ending is less than 100% satisfying. First rate acting by Ulrich Thomsen as Mikael, and top shelf direction by Kristian Levring. The plot will swing your brain around more than once! Recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Moneyball (2011)****

Moneyball is a tightly woven sports drama that focuses more on the art and science of team building than the heroics of individual athletes. Based on a true story, the movie concerns a year in the life of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who in 2002 utilized unconventional methods of player evaluation to construct a winning team despite one of the lowest payrolls in major league baseball. Thanks to brisk writing by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, and no frills direction from Bennett Miller, Moneyball navigates a complex narrative with nary a false step. And while the story presents a sprawling cast and assorted fateful twists, the filmmakers have picked their battles so carefully and correctly that Moneyball never loses its clarity or good natured momentum.

At a meeting in Cleveland, Beane encounters a nebbishy fellow named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate who spends his days evaluating players based purely on statistical models. Brand has little use for traditional scouting reports, which are often subjective and based on inaccurate assumptions. Beane, a former bonus baby who washed out in the big leagues, knows first hand how much damage poor scouting can do, both to teams and individual players. The men strike up an unlikely partnership, as Beane realizes the only way Oakland can compete with the big market teams is to build a roster with low cost unknowns and discards, much to the dismay of his scouting staff and crusty manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The A’s begin the 2002 season with a motley line up culled from Brand’s analysis, and the rest of the baseball world can only shake their collective heads and wonder just what the hell is going on out there in Oakland.

Pitt is terrific as Billy Beane, a role ideally suited to his physicality. As he roams Oakland’s shabby offices in stained workout gear, he strikes the perfect balance of muscular intensity and roguish charm. When his ramshackle A’s go into a death spiral early in the season, Beane must rethink his calibrations and, baseball bat in hand, he goes about a dramatic form of housecleaning. Pitt is given several of these mad scenes during the course of the film, and he clearly conveys a dual purpose; to shake up his complacent ball players and express his own disappointment over his life choices. Beane’s relationship with his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and his tweener daughter (Kerris Dorsey) is explored at length - no doubt in order to establish Beane’s motivation for a critical decision he will make later in the film – but Zaillian and Sorkin create dialogue that makes these scenes effortlessly glide, cleverly avoiding any sense of narrative distraction. 

In Act 3, Moneyball briefly takes on the contours of a more traditional sports movie, as the determined A’s go on a long winning streak that threatens to rewrite the record books. While the rendering of these scenes owes much to Barry Levinson’s The Natural, director Miller successfully folds in a personal catharsis for Beane amid the tense heroics. Hoffman, while on paper is not given much to do, proves once again his gravitas by dominating his few scenes with the minimalism of the deep thinker; the Bergman-esque loneliness of the pudgy, middle-aged manager who can only hope and pray that his charges execute on the diamond. 

The film can rightfully be accused of fudging for dramatic effect. Not all of Oakland’s success that season can be attributed to Beane’s rehabilitated cast-offs, as the roster also featured future all stars like Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito. But much like Sorkin did with the TV series The West Wing, here he takes the seed of reality and germinates it into a compelling and absorbing entertainment. And while Beane and Brand’s baseballers, despite their personal issues, are ultimately judged by what they do between the lines, Moneyball must be judged by what ends up on the screen. The results will please fans of baseball, Brad Pitt and graceful, highly skilled storytelling. And that should cover just about everybody.