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

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Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

2016 #135
Mike Nichols | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Germany / English & Russian | 15 / R

Charlie Wilson's WarUnlikely stories can make great movies, or at least fun ones, and if this isn’t the former then it’s largely the latter.

It’s about a hard-partying US congressman (Tom Hanks) who suddenly becomes interested in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, so increases support for the rebels by calling in the many favours he’s collected.

Boasting a typically witty script from Aaron Sorkin, and a cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) capable of delivering it, it makes a potentially grim topic surprisingly entertaining — which is presumably why acknowledgement of the aftereffects is reduced to one subtle, but chilling, nod to 9/11.

4 out of 5

Steve Jobs (2015)

2016 #109
Danny Boyle | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Steve JobsWritten by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, with a name cast and plenty of awards buzz, this biopic of the eponymous tech genius was an inexplicable box office flop on its release last year — proof if proof were needed that box office does not equal quality, because I thought it was thoroughly excellent.

Rather than taking the usual route of telling a whole life story, Sorkin’s screenplay drops in on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three key product launches: the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. At each one he battles personal and professional issues while surrounded by the same group of people, including marketing exec and Jobs’ right-hand-woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); sidelined Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); Jobs’ mentor turned friend turned nemesis, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and the mother of Jobs’ alleged child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

First off, I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Some say it demonises Jobs; some say it lets Sculley off for his crimes. Whatever the truth, this presentation makes for a damn good story. It’s both inherently cinematic and easy to imagine as a stageplay — quite some feat! In the latter camp, it takes place in a handful of locations with a limited, recurring cast. A few costume and make-up changes and you feel most of it could be reconfigured for the stage relatively easily. However, in favour of the former camp, the way Boyle has mounted the production is filmic to the hilt. This is especially discernible in the montages that help guide us from one time period to the next, or the cleverly-edited flashback-strewn confrontation between Jobs and Sculley at the end of act two. Sequences like that help define Steve Jobs’ greatness — it is a hair-raisingly good scene, with the writing, acting, directing, editing, score, everything, coming to a magnificent crescendo of sheer cinema.

Boyle’s decision to use different film formats for each section — 16mm, then 35mm, then digital HD — helps delineate the eras and, in a way, reflect the products being launched (though I’ll instantly concede that last point may be a bit of a stretch). I imagine it’s too technical a concern to be noticed by your average filmgoer, but I’m sure it must have a subtle effect; and for those of us who are so minded to spot the change, it’s kinda fun and effective. Shot by Alwin H. Küchler, each section has its own charm, from the warm fuzziness of 16mm, to the gloss of 35mm, to the precision of digital. This is a mighty fine looking film, and while modern tech meant the 1080p Amazon Video stream I was watching looked darn near Blu-ray quality, I’m still miffed I didn’t just go straight for the disc, because now I’m going to have to pay for it again at some point.

Throughout, Sorkin’s writing is awe-inducing, especially to anyone who’s ever dabbled in or dreamed of being a writer. The construction of it all, at every level — from line to line, from scene to scene, from act to act, across the whole piece… And this is a particularly magnificent construction, so precisely structured, rife with mirroring and repetition, and yet done so well that it doesn’t feel locked in to or constrained by an unwavering structure. I’d wager some viewers might not even notice how precise it is — I’m thinking, for example, of the order Steve has his primary meeting with each major supporting character in each of the three acts. There is an order, but it doesn’t feel like the film is bending over backwards to slavishly adhere to it — as I said, I’d wager many wouldn’t even notice.

The dialogue they’re delivering is so Sorkin. Rearrange character names and you could drop this into The West Wing or The Newsroom without batting an eyelid. That’s not to say Sorkin’s writing is samey, but he has a very specific style. I guess if you don’t like it then it must make his works a chore, but if you do, it can help elevate things that are in other ways wobbly (by which I mean swathes of The Newsroom, not Steve Jobs). It requires a cast that are up to the task, too, and he certainly has that here. Fassbender is the obvious stand-out, and Winslet is too often overshadowed by her variable accent, but even Rogen holds his own against the heavyweights around him. Daniels and Waterston may seem to have comparatively small roles, but they help carry much of the true dramatic weight opposite Fassbender.

It did cross my mind that perhaps I liked the film more than average because I’m a little bit of an Apple fan. I mean, I’m not a proper hardcore Apple fanboy, although my household does have in regular usage an iMac, a Macbook Air, an iPhone, two iPads, and two iPods… but the iPads are hand-me-downs, and I discarded a similarly-acquired Apple TV in favour of an Amazon Fire stick, and I certainly don’t upgrade that iPhone every year (in the device’s entire lifespan I’ve owned two). My point is: yes, I like Apple stuff, but I concluded that had no bearing on my opinion of the film. It’s not good because it’s about The God Of Apple or something; it’s good because the people who made it made a good film. It could be about Jeeve Sobs, co-founder of Banana and inventor of the Banana Wellington and the iWelly, and it would be… well, it would be silly if it used those names, but hopefully you get my point.

In a similar vein, I suspect it would make a great companion piece to The Social Network. I guess that’s an obvious point — they’re both biographical dramas written by Aaron Sorkin about tech geniuses with social problems who end up in legal disputes with former friends about their companies — but sometimes obvious companion pieces are obvious for a reason. What deeper things do they say about each other, or the wider world, especially our modern tech-obsessed age, when paired up? I don’t know; watch them back to back and find out.

Steve Jobs may fit the Sorkin template of “people stood in rooms and walking down corridors talking to each other very quickly and cleverly”, but when he’s firing on all cylinders it doesn’t matter that you can pigeonhole it if you must. Besides, with Danny Boyle’s hand on the directorial tiller and a quality cast to bring out the dramatic arcs between the posturing, the whole may not have added up to box office gold, but it is worth even more than the considerable sum of its parts.

5 out of 5

Steve Jobs premieres on Sky Cinema tonight and is available on demand now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

A Few Good Men (1992)

2009 #38
Rob Reiner | 138 mins | download | 15 / R

A Few Good MenSometimes you have to wonder where it all went wrong. I can only imagine how good things looked for Rob Reiner at the start of the ’90s, when he’d had an almost-interrupted near-decade-long run of acclaimed movies in the director’s chair: This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and finally this. ‘Finally’ being the operative word however, as it all seems to have gone down hill from there, to the extent that I actually felt the need to look him up on IMDb to check if he was still working/alive. (He’s both, having recently directed The Bucket List, a bit of a hit if I recall correctly.) Reiner is a recognisable name, and if he’d stopped making films after A Few Good Men perhaps he’d find himself bandied about on lists of Great Directors (at least in certain circles/magazines), but the fact I had to check what he’s been up to (and had forgotten how many acclaimed films he’d made in the first place) shows what a 15-year run of nothingy films can do for your reputation. Even the career of Spinal Tap themselves seems to be in better condition.

All that said, A Few Good Men isn’t really Reiner’s show. It’s not that he does a bad job — far from it — but courtroom dramas primarily depend on two things, even more so than most films: the quality of the writing and the quality of the performances. When you have scene after scene in which a handful of people battle with words alone, often in one-on-one confrontations, then those two elements are virtually all you’ve got. Of course camerawork, editing, music and the rest still have their part to play, but without the underpinning of good writing and good performances the technical attributes are merely fighting to cover for significant shortcomings. Fortunately, A Few Good Men has those underpinnings.

In this case the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, adapting from his own play, who would go on to create and write a great deal of The West Wing (which, incidentally, was inspired by leftover ideas from a later Sorkin/Reiner collaboration, The American President). The seeds of that show’s influential style are in evidence here, although the sheer pace and famous ‘Walk and Talk’ scenes aren’t yet part of the formula. As in The West Wing, Sorkin’s writing is both intelligent and witty, a hallmark of high-quality writing that’s able to rise above the shackles of “it’s not real drama unless it’s all grimly serious”. His characters and their personal story arcs may be straight from the stock pile — Tom Cruise is the hot-shot young lawyer who’s actually trying to live up to his daddy (and comes through in the end); Demi Moore is the goody-two-shoes woman trying to make it in a man’s world (who learns to work with her colleagues); and so on — but the plotting of the central case remains undiminished, and Sorkin thankfully avoids such obvious subplots as a romance between Cruise and Moore’s initially-mismatched-but-ultimately-mutually-respectful good guys. Nonetheless, the occasional lapses into extreme, often patriotic, sentiment that would later mar the odd episode of The West Wing are also on show here, most notably at the climax, though they fail to do any serious damage.

It’s in the all-important court scenes that Sorkin’s writing really shines. Dialogue flies back and forth like bullets, full of protocol and technical jargon — like in The West Wing — that we either understand or, when we don’t, get enough of the gist to follow the key plot points — like in The West Wing. The biggie is the final confrontation between Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep, an interview that’s the courtroom equivalent of a high noon showdown. It’s true that Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson, just as they almost always do, but it makes for a grand act-off. It’s fair to say that Nicholson comes out the victor, gifted with material that guides him from cocksure commanding officer to angry thug in just a few minutes, but it’s the bravado of Cruise’s questioning — undercut with uncertainty and genuine surprise when he pulls it off — that pushes Jessep there.

There are plenty of other good performances — typically competent work from Kevin Pollak doing the best friend thing and Kevin Bacon doing the friend-turned-rival thing, while Kiefer Sutherland’s ‘head bully’ role is memorable and Demi Moore holds her own better than the rest of her career might suggest — but this is undoubtedly a showcase for Nicholson and Cruise, and through them Sorkin’s writing. Not to mention that there are some nice directorial flourishes from Reiner. I wonder what happened to him?

4 out of 5

A Few Good Men is showing on Five tonight at 10pm.