Being from New York I'm used to Yankee hate. How many times have the Bronx Bombers gone all the way? Far too many, for some. When I'd hear people grumble about the Yanks going home with yet another championship under their belt, they'd complain about the money. I'd assumed it was really just jealousy.
Despite having my first impressions of baseball made as a New Yorker during the record-making year of 1977 -- when Reggie Jackson knocked four consecutive home runs out of Yankee stadium during the fifth and sixth games of the World Series -- it didn't really turn me into a baseball nut. I love the Yankees because of those years but the inner workings of the team, the byzantine import of seemingly crucial stats and the politics of the major leagues were nothing I became diverted by or versed in.
Out of the Park.
Based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball tells the true-life tale of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland Athletics -- the team with which Reggie Jackson, ironically, began his professional career -- a tale which manages to take those esoteric elements of the sport and turn them into an entertaining, thoughtful and absorbing film. One that renders the inner workings of player scouting and league politics as interestingly as any casual fan of America's favorite pastime would believe possible.
Opening in 2001 with a championship loss to the Yankees, and the sundering of the A's three top players to free agency, Moneyball chronicles baseball's economics.
Due to the revenues generated by the A's their budget for recruiting star players amounts to a paltry $41 million (compared to the Yanks $125 million). Despite fine management, the financial disparity acts as a sort of caste system, shutting the A's out of the opportunity to hire star players or even trade out the team's dead weight. Beane, faced with gearing up for another season of so-close-yet-so-far disappointment, decides there has to be a different way.
He meets it in the form of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a freshly-minted Yale grad and economics wonk who has a different metric for measuring a winning team. Brand uses a player's on-base percentages as the sole barometer for potential recruits, as opposed to the intuition of scouts and their traditional methods, to decide which players can make up a winning roster.
The upside to this approach is that it saves money, since the choices revealed by Brand's analyses tend to be players on the fringes, or the outs, of the league. The downside is that it pretty much enrages scouts, coaches and team owners, all while calling Beane's sanity into question.
But, in 2002 the Oakland A's broke a league record for 20 consecutive wins in one season and sabermetrics, as Brand's method became known, gained legitimacy -- irrevocably changing baseball from its 19th Century roots.
Directed with confidence and preternatural skill by Bennett Miller (Capote), from a script worked over by heavyweights Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) Moneyball is layered in far more than traditional sports movie clichés.
The economics of major league ball mirror what has befallen America in 2011: a shrinking middle class of players vying for work in an environment dominated by pure capitalism and profit. While some teams benefit from the uncapped wealth of their owners, ruthless efficiency is forced upon other teams whose means are more tied to their communities. Wall Street gets more. Main Street sees less.
It's a theme prescient to the point of allegory. A game as populist as small-town America gets, baseball, one which defined the level playing field, is ruled by the same economic conditions and disparities that afflict communities of varying and lesser means since the Great Recession, disparities fomented by unfettered free markets and conglomeration of wealth within a hierarchy. While Beane and Brand's contribution to the sport was a business-minded, cost cutting measure it also destroyed inherent groupthink and was itself a populist move, opening the market for less likely players.
Beyond the fine writing and adept direction -- let's put it this way, I couldn't have given less of a shit about baseball recruitment politics last week -- Moneyball looks great. Cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception) renders the proceedings in sun-dappled warmth and refined compositions that are appropriately grand on the flood lit diamonds while being compellingly intimate in the back offices, where the real game is being played.
Brad Pitt turns in an amiably confident performance as Billy Beane, a no nonsense manager and former player seduced by the dream, who took a huge professional risk to reinvent a status quo. Pitt, an underrated comedic talent, imbues Beane with the expected seriousness of a man whose entire job depends on getting any nine of twenty-five players to work together and win games. But Pitt's easy humor -- and his maturation as an actor -- add likeable depth to Beane.
Jonah Hill's subdued comedic sense, which the actor dials back, brings to life a different kind of character than he's known for. Hill plays Brand's cautiously budding confidence with skill and refreshing nuance, in a welcome departure from his typically acerbic and funny, but one-note roles.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A's coach (reuniting with his Capote director) hits all the marks of a hardass doing his job, oozing his usual on-screen gravity.
Moneyball is a sports movie that eschews most of the genre's tropes, or at least turns them on their ear. Even though it's ostensibly more about the mechanics of the game than the glories of it, Moneyball tells that side of the story with the compelling assurance of a great team.
Miranda July has a nice name and she's an artist. That is abundantly clear with The Future, a film so loaded with arty pretension (narrated by a dead, talking cat!) that one practically drowns in its pseudo-profound sense of self-importance.
Written and directed by July, The Future follows a mid-30's, Los Angeles couple, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) who don't appear to be good at much of anything on top of being boring, annoying and pointless people. They adopt a cat named Paw-Paw that enables Jason to stop time. Or something like that.
Jason, inspired by a near mid-life epiphany quits his job as a phone tech support guy to listen for his calling, which turns out to involve becoming the sole door-to-door solicitor for an organization selling trees in the hopes of planting a million saplings across L.A.
Sophie, meanwhile, has cut off the internet for a month in order to try and reconnect while indulging her whim to create a dance video for every day of her internet-free experiment. They both quickly acquiesce to the realization they suck at life.
Better in the Past.
When, Jason buys a portrait of a little girl, Gabriella (Isabella Acres), Sophie, during a pique of malaise about her inability and worthlessness, discovers the artist's phone number on the back of the drawing. The artist, Gabriella's father, Marshall, (David Warshofsky) is immediately taken by the odd Sophie and before long they begin an affair as mismatched and awkward as any other component of Sophie's existence. Meanwhile, the clueless Jason begins absorbing life and love lessons from Joe, (Joe Putterlick) a dirty limerick-writing old man who may or may not be God.
Miranda July began The Future as a performance piece, something you might see at some hole in the wall Greenwich Village theater, which explains why the film feels like a pretentious, self-satisfied bore best reserved for hipster intellectual types that like to be seen at hole-in-the-wall Village theaters and who think Laurie Anderson is exciting.
That its weak narrative, esoteric quirk, and pseudo-profundity don't translate into a particularly funny, engaging or good film isn't much of a surprise. July's tepid direction and mumblecore sensibilities doom any real chance to take the story or its characters all that seriously. First world problem people are hard enough to generate sympathy for, a problem exacerbated by the performances July elicits from herself and her cast, all of whom seem like aliens approximating the way real people actually behave and only getting it 97 percent right.
The Future is a good looking film, at least, as lensed by Nikolai von Graevenitz (Hotel Very Welcome) who frames the grating proceedings rather beautifully. Joe Putterlick, as the old man who may or may not be a deity, turns in an utterly un-self-aware performance that's like a welcome splash of cold water in all the self-seriousness and awful stylistic narrative choices (every time the cat interjects I wanted to laugh till I hated).
Other than that though, The Future is not so bright.
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