Moneyball (2011)

2016 #163
Bennett Miller | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

MoneyballBased on a true story, Moneyball concerns the management of baseball team Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season. General manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) struggles to put a squad together due to a comparatively low budget for players, which has seen all his best ones drift off to richer contracts elsewhere. Fed up with the traditional scouting system, he recruits Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to use statistical analysis to select a cheap team of quality players. The rest of his staff despair, including coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to play the team as Beane and Brand suggest, which unsurprisingly leads to self-vindicating failure — until they force his hand…

So Moneyball is a movie about sports and statistics — a pair of topics that will bore some people to tears, while still others will enjoy one but not the other. Generally, I couldn’t care less about sport, but statistics? Well, maybe.

Unfortunately, despite what you might’ve heard, Moneyball is more about sport than statistics. Worse, it makes too few concessions to people who know fuck all about baseball. You can follow the general arc, but it’s like turning on a real game of any sport you know nothing about: you can discern some stuff, but the coverage is not being produced for you. At one point it cuts to a match and a caption informs us it’s the “bottom of the 9th”. I’m sure that means something to baseball fans, but I can tell you the rest of us haven’t got the foggiest. Is the “bottom” at the beginning or the end? Or somewhere in the middle? Or is it something to do with score rather than time? The 9th what? And is it the 9th of 9 or the 9th of 10? Or 12? Or 15? Or 18, or 25, or…? Or is it the fact it’s the 9th that’s significant here? Maybe there’s normally only 3 or 4 of whatever it is? For Moneyball as a movie in its own right, rather than some niche special interest thing, this attitude is a drawback.

Brad to batProblems extend beyond the sporting specifics. It’s quite some way into the movie before it gets stuck into the meat of the plan working, and before that it often throws in asides that meander around through Beane’s earlier playing career and current family life. The former has some bearing on the plot, though feels inadequately integrated — as one flashback it might work, but as a series of them it’s not enough to constitute a parallel story. The latter, his family life, provides character texture, but it’s slight, uninformative, and ultimately unnecessary. You could cut it and the film would lose nothing.

Moneyball was going to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who apparently had some interesting ideas about how to present the wealth of statistical material — ideas that were too interesting for Sony, as it turned out, because they shut down production days before shooting was due to start and kicked Soderbergh out. He was replaced with Bennett Miller, who previously directed Capote, which was fine, and later did Foxcatcher, which I didn’t really like (I gave it 4 stars, but my review reads more like 3 and that’s how I remember it). I’m beginning to dislike the guy. According to IMDb his next project is A Christmas Carol, because we really need another version of that.

On the bright side, Soderbergh’s departure was when Aaron Sorkin came on to write a new version of the screenplay. Swings and roundabouts, eh? But this does not feel like a film written by Aaron Sorkin. Where’s the sparkling dialogue? Where’s the impressive structure? The former is perfunctory and functional; the latter is, if not a mess, then certainly lacking the rigour of his other work. Apparently Sorkin only agreed to do a re-write if previous screenwriter Steven Zaillian kept a credit, because Sorkin felt the script was great “This screenplay's shit.” “Well I didn't write it.”and didn’t need any work, which probably explains why it’s not so Sorkin-y. Zaillian is not a bad writer — his credits include Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York, both of which are in my 100 Favourites, and the US remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I gave full marks — but I wouldn’t say he has a unique voice. Moneyball’s screenplay is fine for what it is, but it doesn’t have that frisson that Sorkin brings.

Baseball doesn’t interest me in the slightest, partly because I’m not interested in much sport, partly because I’m not American. So I watched Moneyball for three reasons: one, because it seemed like it might be more about the stats than a traditional sports movie. It’s not. Second, because it was written by Aaron Sorkin. But the screenplay displays little of his usual verve. And third, because it’s a Best Picture nominee from this millennium and I’m intending to tick all of those off eventually. In that respect, at least, it was a success — of course, it couldn’t fail to be.

3 out of 5

The Past Month on TV #7

Oh sure, some people can run and jump and swim and stuff really, really well — but can they sit on the sofa and watch TV as well as me, hm?

The Americans (Season 4)
The AmericansAs much as I love Game of Thrones, and think season six’s final two instalments were some of the best TV episodes of this or any other year, I think the people who say The Americans is currently the best drama on TV may well be right. Even the Emmys have got on board, giving it some long-overdue nods in big categories.

I’m not sure season four contains a single hour I can point at to say “here is where it beats Thrones”, but then that exemplifies The Americans: it’s all about how things build over time; the eventual consequences of long-term events, and the consequences of those consequences, and the consequences of… you get the idea. That was how I first got into the show: watching the first season, I thought it was good, an entertaining spy thriller, watchable enough. It was only after the finale that I realised how great it had all been and that I actually loved it. Season two is even more of a case of this: at times it feels like the show has lost its way, and then the finale comes along and shows you the endgame and suddenly the whole year makes sense. And seasons three and four have only upped the ante from there.

This season really nails all the things the show does best. The central espionage storyline about chemical weapons could be a painfully obvious metaphor for the whole premise of the show, but that element isn’t overplayed. Themes of home and family, and the ever-present issues of loyalty, are examined from every angle and in every storyline. There are huge (huge) twists and changes to the series’ status quo, which is a bold move in a fourth season when there are two still to go — to leave behind characters and storylines that have helped fuel the series for so long, when there’s an endgame in sight (and it’s not that close) is kinda bold. And the season finale is a real kicker, with powerful performances and drama, and an ending which is strikingly unresolved… though, at the same time, if the show had been cancelled it’d be pretty resolved (that’s a bizarre, Schrödinger-y thing unto itself).

With the end now in sight, I don’t have the foggiest how the creators are going to choose to wrap things up (in two years and 23 episodes’ time), which is exciting in itself — how many shows genuinely feel like they could go for any option from a number of different endings, assuming they even get to end on their own terms in the first place?

Speaking of which…

Person of Interest (Season 5 Episodes 5-13)
Person of InterestWatching this, it’s difficult to imagine anyone involved really believed they would get a sixth season — which is good, because (a) they stood very little chance, and (b) that means it wraps everything up to a nice, proper ending. My feelings on Jonah “brother of Christopher” Nolan’s cyber-thriller have oscillated over the years, and I’m a long way from agreeing with those who assert it’s actually one of the best sci-fi series ever; but for a show that started out as a fairly standard CBS procedural thriller, it did ultimately manage to play with and work around the network’s expectations to produce something superior. It’s a shame they clearly had to rush the final arc (marred further by having to hit a quota of ‘case of the week’ episodes, for some reason), but it still got to a good place. If you’ve not watched it but are interested, consider finding one of those “episodes you should definitely watch” guides (like this one) rather than committing to all 103 filler-riddled instalments.

Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 6-10)
PreacherIn the end, this turned out to be less of a TV prequel to the comic book series than an expanded and rejigged adaptation of the comic’s opening four-issue story arc (with some stuff from later thrown in for added fuel). As Seth Rogen explained on the post-finale chat show Talking Preacher, the books throw an awful lot of quite comic-book-y ideas at you very quickly, and TV viewers maybe needed a little longer to digest all of that. Plus extra space to develop and examine the characters, of course. It’ll be interesting to see how future seasons handle the issue of adaptation. By the end of season one, the characters are in a place to launch into something closer to the rest of the comic; but, at the same time, budget issues have already forced some reimagining, so what else will it be forced to compromise or reinvent? I think the bold, fearless barminess of the TV series has earned it the right to our attention, whether it goes further off piste or hews closer still to its roots.

Also watched…
  • Cowboy Bebop Episodes 19-20 — slowly slowly reachy movie
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 4 Episodes 1-3 — an underrated gem of British comedy. Each episode is a perfectly-crafted little farce performed by a stellar cast.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 21-22 — after a mostly lacklustre season, it wasn’t a bad finale all told. Still, November’s revival will hopefully be even better.
  • Miranda Series 1 Episode 1-Series 3 Episode 2 — starting (and almost finishing) a completeroni what I call re-watch. Such fun!
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 1-3 — if you like swashbuckling drama (and I do), this is a real gem. Shame on me for being so tardy about keeping up with it.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Max WhitlockThis month, I have mostly been missing… not that much, really. With the Olympics dominating the good TV channels and much of US drama on its summer hols, there doesn’t seem to have been much on. I haven’t gone crazy for Rio 2016 like I did for London 2012 (much to my surprise at the time, that was), though we’ve caught bits and pieces, not least Max Whitlock’s double gold (along with 10.4 million other people) and Andy Murray’s gruelling final. The drama of the next few days, when we’ll see if Britain can become the first host country ever to increase its tally at the next summer games, is sure to hold my attention.

    Next month… with its spin-off on the horizon, I’m finally getting round to 24: Live Another Day. Also, Bake Off’s back! Who doesn’t love Bake Off?

  • The Fighter (2010)

    2016 #80
    David O. Russell | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Oscar-winning true-story drama that relates the early career of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a coulda-been-a-contender type held back by the training of his half-brother, ex-boxer turned drug addict Dicky (Christian Bale), and the management of his controlling mother (Melissa Leo), not to mention the cadre of harpy-ish sisters. Micky gains some confidence after entering a relationship with barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), who’s prepared to stand up to his family. He breaks away from them and gets better opportunities, but soon realises that to win he’ll need to combine the best of both worlds.

    I swear, written like that it sounds much cheesier than it plays.

    I don’t normally care for boxing movies (I even gave the sainted Raging Bull just 3 stars), but I rather enjoyed this. Perhaps that’s because it’s about the familial drama as much as it is pugilism, but then the same could be said of Bull, so who knows — maybe I’m just becoming inured to the sport. Heck, I even found myself invested in the outcome during the climactic bout.

    Nonetheless, the film’s real meat lies in the dysfunctional family drama that informs events in the ring. Kudos to whoever had the cojones to focus on the story of Micky Ward establishing himself as a world-class boxer, leaving out the three later fights that really made his name (talk of a sequel covering those seems to have died down, I guess because this film wasn’t a blockbuster so presumably didn’t do sequel-justifying box office numbers). Maybe the story behind those fights forms a good narrative too, but there’s plenty enough here to merit the focus and form a neat narrative — it doesn’t need a fourth act covering three more fights.

    Although this is technically Ward’s story, it’s as much about his older half-brother, washed-up fighter turned part-time trainer and full-time crack addict Dicky Eklund. It’s another of Christian Bale’s extreme weight gain/loss roles (in this case, loss), but there’s more to it than such physical exertion. Bale inhabits the character, and a brief clip of the real Dicky during the credits suggests he’s done so very accurately. His performance is mesmeric and definitely worthy of that Oscar. For the rest of the cast, Amy Adams holds attention equally in a less showy role, and even Marky Mark isn’t half bad. Melissa Leo also won an Oscar for her performance, which I forgot until I read so after — it was the one she controversially funded her own ad campaign for. I guess that paid off.

    David O. Russell stages things with a kind of documentary-esque realism, down to capturing the fights on period-authentic SD video (according to IMDb, they used actual HBO cameras from the time, No-style, rather than just degrading the footage). In trying to figure out why The Fighter worked better for me than Raging Bull, I was left wondering if this was part of it… until I re-read my Bull review, which specifically noted that the “camerawork […] seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism”. There I called it “boring”; here, I felt that gritty, almost happened-upon rather than performed style seemed to suit the seedy world of boxing and the rundown lives of these people. Clearly I’m clutching at straws — my distaste for Bull does not boil down to “I thought it was shot wrong”.

    The Fighter isn’t without its faults, though. There’s a certain element of cliché to the story arc — whether that’s just fact emulating fiction, or the screenwriters imposing familiar shapes on to what really happened, I don’t know. It could also stand to lose a few minutes here and there, especially when it goes round in circles about whether Micky should be trusting his family or not. And talking of movie clichés and comparisons to other films about fighting, watching it in close proximity to Warrior just highlights the other film’s outright manipulation and definite use of cliché, especially in its climax. I’d say this is the better film, with a more interesting, plausible depiction of fractured family dynamics, and a climactic result that didn’t feel telegraphed from act one.

    It’s fair to say that I primarily chose to watch The Fighter so I could tick it off lists of “films directed by David O. Russell” and “Best Picture nominees”, and wound up rather liking it. If they ever get the sequel off the ground, I’d certainly be up for it.

    4 out of 5

    Warrior (2011)

    2016 #71
    Gavin O’Connor | 140 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Two estranged brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton), who’ve taken very different paths in life to escape their alcoholic and abusive father (Nick Nolte), wind up entering the mixed martial arts tournament to end all mixed martial arts tournaments, their eyes on the unprecedentedly massive cash prize — one to save his house and family, the other to help the widow of his Army chum. As they separately go up against an array of more experienced opponents, who could possibly end up in the final bout? Hm, I wonder…

    It’s a constant surprise to me that Warrior is on the IMDb Top 250 — and in a very secure 146th place, too — for two reasons: firstly because I’m not sure I’d ever heard anyone actually talk about it, except in passing as part of “the rise of Tom Hardy”-type passages; and secondly because, from the outside, it doesn’t look like a very Top 250-y kind of film. Maybe that’s silly, because there are several other boxing-related films on that hallowed list, but they seem to come from a different pedigree. I guess I’m trying to rationalise a feeling: from the little I’d seen or (not) heard, Warrior just doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would garner enduring acclaim from a wide enough audience to maintain such a position. Having chosen to watch it in part to assuage that confusion, I still find its placement just as baffling.

    Trying to find some explanation, I turned to reviews and comments on film-focused social media sites. It quickly becomes apparent that the love for Warrior doesn’t just come from some silent majority of non-film-fan film viewers. Indeed, it’s amazing how many people of usually sound taste are suckered in by this movie — and how many of them know they’re being suckered in but let it happen anyway. The weirdest thing for me is that this is the kind of film I regularly award 4 stars even while loads of other people are giving it 3 and I think they’re being a bit harsh but I can see where they’re coming from. Now, I’m almost loath to give it 4 because I don’t agree with the consensus. And it’s a particularly strange consensus: everyone seems to acknowledge it’s terribly clichéd, but then give it a pass on that. Why? Why don’t you show the same leniency to the tonnes of other movies you rip to shreds for their clichés?

    As I implied in my opening paragraph, you can tell how the climactic tournament is going to pan out before the film even begins. In a movie rife with cliché, the shape of that contest — who beats who and when — is the most clichéd part… and yet it also forms the climax. Surely the ending being the most rote bit should leave audiences with a sour taste? Yet they seem to become totally enraptured by it. “I knew I was being shamelessly manipulated by an overfamiliar story, but I loved it! Don’t worry, next week I’ll go back to completely slagging off every other movie that even tries to slightly manipulate me and has even the tiniest vaguely familiar aspect to it.” Presumably these people are even giving a pass to the film’s laughable training montage — I guess no one involved in Warrior has seen Team America.

    Still, you could argue the film isn’t about the tournament — it’s about a broken family healing. But if you’re looking for exceptional quality in the dramatic stakes or performances, you’re still left wanting. The family drama is rendered in frequently familiar beats, and when it’s not dealing in clichés it’s dealing in cheap sentiment. Hardy’s character is a war-hero marine — for the American male audience Warrior is clearly aimed at, that’s basically hanging a sign around his neck that says “awesome guy” and letting it suffice for characterisation and backstory. Hardy is a good actor, but he’s not called on to do much more than glower. Oscar-nominated Nick Nolte gives an affecting performance, though I’m not sure his character arc actually reaches any kind of ending. The rest of the cast are adequate: Joel Edgerton is decent as an upstanding family man; Jennifer Morrison has little to do as his wife; Frank Grillo is convincing as a trainer who bases his philosophy on classical music; Kevin Dunn gets some amusing moments as Edgerton’s school principal. Other people sometimes say words.

    Warrior is decent enough for a cliché-driven sports movie, and it certainly has all the attendant ‘victorious’ moments that make such movies feel good without having to try very hard, and at least the fight choreography is decent (I’ve no idea how faithful it is to real MMA, but it seems reasonably plausible to me), and there’s one pretty good performance… but Top 250? I remain baffled.

    4 out of 5

    The Wrestler (2008)

    2015 #143
    Darren Aronofsky | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-robbed performance is the primary draw of this drama about a washed-up pro wrestler struggling to make ends meet. As ill health threatens his ability to continue performing on the miserable, brutal ex-pro circuit, he ties to connect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and woo a kindly stripper with personal issues of her own (Marisa Tomei, in another Oscar-worthy turn).

    Unsurprisingly, the director of Requiem for a Dream doesn’t dole out easy happy endings, but does bring a note of ambiguity that is especially effective at the end of a tale which finds mundanity in a strange world and generates unexpected respect for the ‘art’ of wrestling.

    5 out of 5

    This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Rush (2013)

    2015 #83
    Ron Howard | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English & German | 15 / R

    Screenwriter Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and director Ron Howard (of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as the trailer is keen to remind us, rather than, say, The Da Vinci Code) tell the story of the rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they vie for the 1976 Formula 1 championship, a true story so full of twists and turns that (as Howard seems fond of saying in the special features) you wouldn’t accept it if it were fiction.

    Appropriately, the racing sequences are the best part. Those were the days when F1 was a little wild and uncontrolled, which the film does a good job of conveying, and also of using to its advantage to create tense and exciting set pieces. Kudos to every element of production here, not only the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the array of special effects required to tie it together, but also the production design that makes the one or two tracks they filmed on look like circuits all around the world.

    Unfortunately, the film stalls in the personal relationship scenes, an equally-weighted part of the narrative. They’re an undercooked mess of clunky dialogue and characters so sketchily drawn they barely resemble stick figures. Lauda’s story is the less objectionable of the two primary threads, because his lack of skill at social engagement at least makes it moderately unusual, and it goes somewhere when he has the accident. Hunt’s stuff is just noise. And he learns nothing from it — he doesn’t change — so there’s no arc. I presume the point of engaging with their personal lives away from the track was to add depth; to make sure it was a two-hander, rather than just about one or other of the drivers, and to ensure Hunt wasn’t just two-dimensional. However, without any growth on his part, or even some kind of active change, he’s just as flat, only now the star of some pointless scenes.

    Considering the amount of unwarranted time spent on Hunt, it’s as if Morgan and Howard feel they have to lure us in by making the film about the English guy, then once they’ve got us it can transition to being about the real story, which is the Austrian fella. A “Lauda edit” would make for a better movie: strip out all the BS about Hunt’s personal life; focus right in on the 1976 season, including losing a good chunk of the first 45 minutes, which is so much preamble. The movie would focus more on what it’s really about, not have such a slow start, and feel all the better for it. Interestingly, of the ten-or-so minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, many are Lauda-focused and from early in the film. Would it have been more balanced to include them? However, a quick scan suggests they weren’t bad deletions, so maybe Hunt’s scenes should’ve been cut back in a similar fashion. Considering his general acclaim as a writer, it’s a little surprising that Morgan’s screenplay is so frequently the weak link.

    Similarly, some have criticised Rush for being a bit of a rote, clichéd sports movie. That’s a slightly tricky one to address. I mean, it’s a true story; it happened. If that narrative fits snuggly into familiar plot beats, what are you meant to do? Change the truth to make it less like fiction? That’d be a first. Saying that, I’m taking it on faith (based on comments in the making-of) that the true story was so perfect you wouldn’t believe it if it had been fiction. Maybe they did streamline it. But assuming it’s real… well, it’s not the filmmakers’ fault if life imitates art.

    One thing the film doesn’t do, to everyone’s credit, is fall into the stereotypical good guy/bad guy rivalry story. Each of the pair has his pros and his cons, and during the final race it’s genuinely hard to call who you want to win (I guess some will have their favourites regardless, but I know I’m not the only person who didn’t know who to root for). I’d argue that, when it comes to sports movies, you don’t get much less rote-genre-cliché than that.

    The two leads give strong performances, particularly Brühl, because he has so much more to work with. Others are less well served. Olivia Wilde’s English accent is faultless, not glaringly over-egged like most yanks playing Brits, and that’s about the most I can say of her. Her mirror image, Alexandra Maria Lara, gets to inject some humanity into the Lauda story, and is pretty much the best supporting actor in a film full of roles but with few of significance. For example, for some reason Natalie Dormer has been shafted with a teeny tiny part. Were her scenes cut? Is it just because she’s mostly a TV actress? Surely she deserves better roles than this. And I didn’t even see Tom Wlaschiha, who is apparently in it too.

    All in all, I’m a little surprised how well-liked Rush is. I mean, as of posting it’s at #162 on the IMDb Top 250. That’s a pretty solid placement for the kind of film I’d expect to have a score in the mid- to high 7s on IMDb, enjoyed by some but dismissed by others, not be an 8.2 Top 250er. It is a good film with much going for it, the action scenes in particular, but there also plenty of times when I felt it dropped the ball — I didn’t buy Hunt’s storyline as good moviemaking at all. One of the 250 best movies ever made? No, probably not. There’s a lot to like, but don’t get carried away by the hype.

    4 out of 5

    I’ve just noticed that three of my last four reviews have been sport-related true stories. Weird, random coincidence.

    Foxcatcher (2014)

    2015 #136
    Bennett Miller | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The director of Capote returns with another true-crime tale. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) feels overshadowed professionally by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), so when John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir of the richest family in America, offers his support in the run up to the 1988 Olympic Games, Mark eagerly accepts. Moving to special facilities constructed on the Du Ponts’ Foxcatcher estate, Mark soon finds himself in an odd symbiotic relationship with John, which turns increasingly sour when Dave is finally persuaded to join their team.

    I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I was too young to be cognisant of events surrounding an Olympic Games held 27 years ago (the story’s climactic events actually occurred a few years later, but still), but I didn’t know what striking event happened at the end of Foxcatcher, just that something did. That tension — knowing something significant happens, but not what it is — lends the film a little air of the thriller. However, that angle is something entirely brought by myself (and anyone else who doesn’t know the story). The film itself is ‘just’ a character drama.

    Fortunately, it has three leads who are up to carrying a narrative of that nature. In a rare dramatic role, and lumbered with a hefty prosthetic noise, Carrell’s John Du Pont almost feels like a caricature rather than a plausible human being… but apparently the film has actually toned down how odd the man was, so what are you gonna do? It’s a memorable performance none the less. Tatum is an understated lead, demonstrating he’s a better actor than you might expect as he displays emotional complexities in a man who doesn’t seem especially emotionally complex. Showing a character struggling with feelings he probably doesn’t quite understand is quite a feat, especially when it’s not explicitly conveyed in dialogue, so applause for Tatum there. Ruffalo, meanwhile, provides typically strong support, embodying a wrestler — right down to a very specific, unusual way of carrying himself — from the guy who plays Bruce Banner rather than the Hulk.

    Unfortunately, for all their effort, the film is a little lacking in insight. Reading up some afterwards, it seems no one knows the true motivations behind the aforementioned surprising events, so it’s left to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and director Bennett Miller (for whom this story was something of a passion project), to posit any explanations. They do this subtly, leaving it up to the viewer to read what they want — or can — into everyone’s actions. However, it’s an issue that some facts have been bent to make for a more succinct narrative, making one wonder if anything the film may suggest is consequently wide of the mark.

    As it finally shakes out, Foxcatcher is a solid movie, and certainly worth a look, but only really for the performances and the passing interest of finding out what happened, if you don’t already know.

    4 out of 5

    Raging Bull (1980)

    2015 #88
    Martin Scorsese | 124 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    It would be boring if we all liked the same stuff, wouldn’t it? I’m sure there’s at least one ‘universally’-loved classic that we each dislike. Heck, tends to be every ‘universally’-loved classic has at least one Proper Critic that dislikes it. The flip side of this is that, in my opinion, if you don’t like something that everyone else does, there’s a fair chance it’s you who’s missing something. That’s a rule I apply to others, naturally, but I also try to bear it in mind myself (and, at the risk of sounding terribly arrogant, I think a few more people could do with thinking the same).

    Given that introduction, I guess it’ll come as no surprise that I didn’t get on very well with Raging Bull. We’ve established before that I don’t like boxing (see: Million Dollar Baby, which (I’ll say now) I didn’t like more than Raging Bull, but has a higher score because I was softer back then), but I don’t think that precludes me from enjoying a film set in that world. Anyhow, I wouldn’t say Scorsese’s biopic pitches the sport as an aspirational one full of honour and wonder or something. And indeed, the boxing scenes were some of the bits I liked the most — they’re very well done; immensely effective. Unfortunately, they make up barely ten minutes of the running time, and it was the rest I didn’t care for.

    Robert De Niro stars as wannabe-a-contender boxer Jake LaMotta, as he grows in stature — both his reputation and physically — and also grows ridiculously paranoid, which is probably the kind of thing that happens when you spend years being repeatedly punched in the head. This arc seems to unfold through interminable scenes of people mumbling semi-unintelligibly at each other, realised with a style of camerawork, editing, and acting that seems to be aiming for documentary-like realism, which has both pros (realism) and cons (s’boring).

    The aforementioned fights, on the other hand, are full-on Cinema, and glorious for it. The make-up is also very good. Relatedly, De Niro’s physical transformation, from lithe boxer to washed-up fatso, is remarkable. Decades before the likes of Christian Bale and his Machinist/Batman Begins flip-flop, De Niro gained a then-record-setting 60lbs.

    Mixed technical success aside, I was never sure what the film was really meant to be about. Things turn up and go nowhere — like, what happened with that 14-year-old girl in his club? One second he’s been arrested, then it’s a couple of years later and he’s slumming it as a stand-up in New York; then, just as fast, he’s doing some kind of literature recital to a packed house. I mean, what? I would say that this is a film only of interest to people who are already fans of LaMotta and want to see some of his life on screen, but clearly that’s not the case. That’s certainly how it felt to me, though; and it’s what I would believe too, were it not for 35 years of widespread appreciation that demonstrates I’d be wrong.

    Based on where we find him at the end, I guess LaMotta would appreciate a Shakespeare quotation. For all the film’s “greatest of all time” acclaimedness, this is the one that came to my mind:

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.

    You can’t win ’em all, right?

    3 out of 5

    Raging Bull was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, but I missed it. I’ve righted that as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

    Real Steel (2011)

    2013 #78
    Shawn Levy | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & India / English | 12 / PG-13

    Real SteelOnce upon a time, Real Steel would have been rated PG, been aimed at 7- to 10-year-old boys, and would probably have been quite the success. In the current Hollywood moviemaking climate, however, it’s rated PG-13, consequently aimed at teenage boys and grown men who still have the tastes of teenage boys, and seems to be regularly slated in online comment sections.

    That’s a shame because, despite some corny and cheesy bits, it generally works. It begins by setting out some apparently predictable plots, but then several didn’t play out entirely as I expected (I mean, it’s hardly revolutionary, but it wasn’t quite as blatant as I was expecting it to be when it came to certain resolutions). The fights aren’t the most exciting robot action sequences ever put on film (or digital file), but are suitably punchy for their purpose. The final duel is perhaps not as triumphant as the filmmakers think it is, but I’ve seen worse.

    Other bits falter more obviously: there’s some horrendously clunky exposition, and it’s so desperate to be set in the near future that its future-history is practically our present already, which undermines it to an extent. OK, it’s not high on realism, but when someone says, “ah, that’s a Generation 2 robot from 2014,” you just think, “well, this isn’t going to really happen, is it?”

    Really steelySome things are also distinctly unresolved: just why was Evil Lady prepared to pay $200,000 for a no-hope junkyard robot? I figured there was going to be some Nasty Secret to come out, especially as there’d been hints of the robot having extra abilities… but no. And what was up with the kid being 11 but Jackman always thinking he was 9? Figured that was going somewhere too. There’s talk now of a sequel — I hope such random bits weren’t intended as elaborate seeding for a follow-up, because that’s just irritating. That said, it would be nice if whoever’s in charge spotted those things and built on them in the sequel’s story.

    For all that online moaning I mentioned, to my surprise I haven’t seen anyone complaining about that oft-cited bugbear, product placement. It’s glaringly obvious at frequent intervals… but it’s also pretty well integrated into the world — no “mm, Converse All Stars, vintage 2004!” moments here. (Funnily enough, Dr. Pepper — which is fairly prominent, though not so much as other things — was used with permission, but wasn’t paid for by… whoever makes it. So it’s not product placement. So if you do ever see someone moaning about the product placement of Dr Pepper in Real Steel, you can tell them they’re a moron, or something.)

    Feel the steelReal Steel is a good family movie, masquerading as a teenage-focused robot action blockbuster thanks to its 12 and PG-13 certificates. The true best audience for it will be those around the same age as the central kid: they won’t find him as annoying as older viewers will, and the whole robot fighting thing will just seem exciting.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.

    Animalympics (1980)

    2013 #16
    Steven Lisberger | 75 mins | TV | 16:9* | USA / English | U

    AnimalympicsOriginally commissioned as a pair of specials for US TV, Animalympics was dropped by the network when the US pulled out of the Moscow Olympics, then repurposed by its makers as a feature film. You might be able to guess the plot from the title: various animals compete in an Animal Olympics. It’s a series of sketches, essentially, although arranged to provide some narratives throughout.

    I’ll confess I’d not heard of this before it turned up on Virgin Media’s PictureBox during their free month earlier this year, but apparently it has a cult following. When you look a the behind-the-scenes line-up, it becomes easy to see how: the small voice cast is led by Billy Crystal and also features Harry Shearer; the music is by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman; and most of the crew went on to create TRON — for those (like me) who don’t immediately spot the connection, Animalympics’ co-writer/director also wrote and directed said Disney computer adventure. Plus one of the animators was a certain Brad Bird, and slightly higher up the chain of command was Roger Allers, who later co-directed The Lion King. (There’s more interesting behind-the-scenes info on Wikipedia.)

    But what of this effort? Well, it’s entertaining, holds up pretty well over 30 years on, and at 75 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s easy to see how it was intended for TV, and where the split was (a Summer Olympics special and a Winter Olympics special, though some judicious editing mixes them together a little), but it’s more than serviceable as a feature. Animal loveAs per anything which is made up of sketches, some bits are funnier than others; and, as American animation, it is primarily aimed at kids, though I thought it was enjoyable enough for grown-ups too. Gouldman’s score is catchy in places, but nothing to rival The Things We Do For Love or Dreadlock Holiday or… I could go on for a few, actually. I’m just going to go listen to some 10cc…

    Animalympics isn’t the kind of picture that’s going to break free of its cult status and achieve a widespread popularity, but for fans of those involved, or of a certain era of US animation, it’s good fun. Best watched around the Olympics for full satirical effect, at which times I imagine it could gain an even broader audience. Like me.

    4 out of 5

    * Made at 1.37:1 (because it was for telly), intended for 1.66:1 (because it was a film by then), the version I saw was either cropped or stretched to a full 16:9. ^