Baseball: not a game of which I understand the small print. I’m familiar with the terminology, particularly following Chad Harbach’s elegant and enjoyable ‘The Art of Fielding’, so I wasn’t totally oblivious during Moneyball upon hearing swift reference to ‘bunts’, ‘outs’ and ‘pinch-hitting’. But I’m not entirely sure about what these mean with regard to a game.
This isn’t too much of an issue, thankfully. Moneyball is a film partly concerned with minutiae, but not to the extent that it occludes the unbeknownst. It’s about squeezing the stats until several cheap, journeymen players pop out: unfashionable, awkward guys with peculiar pitching techniques, players that have underperformed or been misused, or that are mercurial or difficult – but may, were they marshalled auspiciously, ‘get to base’ and cumulatively get results.
Brad Pitt is the improbable Oakland ‘A’s ‘general manager’, Billy Beane, who, as flashbacks illustrate, was once a much-touted starlet, eventually signing for the New York Yankees and dropping any ideas of college. We see his younger manifestation choke and mis-hit time and again for a diminishing succession of clubs, the Yankees dream long over, and his luck eventually gives out. Having made a huge life decision ‘based on money’, his ill-fated memories serve as a cautionary provocation towards ‘integrity’, and his latter career on the sidelines is at a pivotal point: his owner has no money, he hasn’t yet made a name for himself and he’s backed into a corner once his best player (followed in short order by two other high-profile stars) is enticed elsewhere by the chance of success (and a big pile of green).
So, we’re privy to curmudgeonly, rankled meetings amongst Pitt and his ‘old-guard’ coaching and scouting staff, some pushing eighty by the looks. They’re not inclined to innovation, of course, and are looking to directly replace the departing talisman and make the best of it. Pitt knows the ace that’s jumped ship can’t (and shouldn’t) be replaced, and the overhaul he clearly has in mind is set in erstwhile motion once a chance meeting with Jonah Hill happens: thereafter Hill is taken on as an ‘advisor’: he will utilise his economic nous to formulate a ‘sybermetric’ mathematical system that pinpoints the aforementioned marginal, affordable players that are in career slide.
Pitt, after much disagreement with his intransigent backroom boys, takes the plunge and drafts in his mooted ragbag assortment of underachievers. Head coach (I think that’s his working title) Philip Seymour Hoffman, very much a Rod Steigerish figure, gum-chewing dyspeptic, mumbling intent and mocking mirthlessness (and contract gripes), is a bit of an obstacle that holds considerable sway (and happily takes credit for Pitt’s eventually fruitful gambit) but even he’s eventually sidelined as the ideology reaps considerable success.
Pitt does a decent job of subduing the elements that might dampen this characterisation, but is still just a little too boyish, innocuous, for the suspension of disbelief necessary. The story and the execution are such that it doesn’t hamper Moneyball too much; that aside, he doesn’t pass muster as a motivator of myriad complex, insecure charges. He’s likable but he’s not particularly well-suited to the rousing demands here: not even as much as, say, Sam Rockwell or Matt Damon would be. (I’d’ve gone for Billy Crudup: probably not a big enough name.) Jonah Hill offers an impressive tranquil-but-nervy geek, enthusiastic but initially at sea, and Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly spot-on in a relatively minor role.
Bennet Miller, who did a very decent job of bringing Capote to life (again with Seymour Hoffman), doesn’t mire you in a stat tsunami, nor play too closely to the baseball-geek crowd. He keeps things going at a clean, unclogged clip and plays to the universal elements of a game, the intrinsics of which are perhaps beyond non-US audiences. The context and the traditional sweep of the film fills in or renders unimportant any troublesome terminology, in any case, and the gist is clear: this is Have Nots v Haves in a time of acute recession and hardship: you get your trad nerve-jangler, moment of truth and precipice-plummet-or-triumph scenes, with more than enough charm, wit and verisimilitude to squeak into the playoffs.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn cleverly opens Drive with a compelling high-octane chase through the streets of nighttime LA, during which Ryan Gosling, baseball game burbling from the radio, stop-start guns a last-gasp getaway into a series of clever, nervy near-misses before eventually slipping the attentions of the law amidst the safety of the post-game crowd. I say ‘cleverly’ but the walk-outs across in UK multiplexes shortly thereafter suggest that many a punter felt mislead: that’s the most ‘in-car’ action you get, other than one other chase involving Christina Hendricks and a car seen flipping through the air through the windscreen over her shoulder (genius shot). This isn’t a chase movie, or an action film: opening in such a way sets the tone. There’s a matter-of-fact compulsion to the prologue that’s a million miles from pulverizing drum-and-bass car pyrotechnics.
By day Gosling’s a mere stunt driver and auto mechanic: throwing himself into the metal-whomp of chassis-totalling peril and tinkering under the bonnet. He’s a central character that clearly struggles to communicate, socially inert, murmur-happy, who is arrested from the automaton danger of his existence by two things: his car and Carey Mulligan. The latter seems to take him by surprise: flipping his stunt car through 180˚ and onto its roof at high speed is nothing. Mulligan, however, awakens something that he can only normally access when gripping the wheel with landscape blurring by. She should represent the opposite of danger, something to ameliorate the precariousness of his existence. But soon enough she’s the reason he’s dodging bullets as well as serious workaday injury.
There have been plenty of inscrutable, unreachable characters down the years, and the play on that trope is normally to wear them down, coax the ‘real’ them out of a cast-iron shell, thaw the ice progressively (until there’s a shallow pool of acquiescence), or have them refuse to budge an iota right through to the end, which normally entails a lot of people taking a beating, as the ‘for real’ protagonist, with glum resolve, walks off beyond a heap of nemeses into a sunset that only means something to the observer.
Ryan Gosling’s driver is a kind of re-animation of the McQueen/Eastwood prototype, a man who believes in doing a job properly within specific parameters, offering nothing beyond efficient resolve other than easy-on-the-eye intransigence. During his violent escapades here (although there’s little in the way of satisfaction involved, more a blank dutiful impassiveness) he’s a little like a child caught up in a motorway pile-up – traumatised somewhere in there but surface numb. He’s not Takashi Miike’s blind samurai, chuckling affably between ruthless limb-lopping before reverting to humble tranquillity. He’s the troubled, monosyllabic offspring of the 80s writ large, stuck behind the wheel: sexless, starved of serotonin and substance from birth, he’s an adrenaline junky, the product of e-numbers, fast food and MTV. The gestalt here is unmistakable: and the Bickle-esque central character that’s negotiating this hazy half-world will clearly face a reckoning of some sort. The backdrop, though, isn’tVietnamnightmares, it’s much more nebulous, and there’s no euphoric bloodshed and catharsis, just the negation of a dream with no resolution.
The thing is (and the film rests almost entirely on this): the protagonist is impossible to dislike and cool. Gosling has the face and demeanour of a manchild, an all-American cereal box kid kept in a vault and unleashed into adulthood, no longer registering on any kind of readable scale. When he moves in on an auto-shunted Ron Perlman, beached and bloodied, he’s wearing a mask and looks like a crash test dummy (which is funny) but he’s inexorable death and vulnerable at the same moment. It’s hard to imagine who else could carry off such a powerful dichotomy. As Perlman (a cackling minor Mob scumbag) flails and splashes before a totally immutable gaze, the expressionless executioner hoves in, playing a non-specific role, metering out unacknowledged punishment, on behalf of a girl and her son, people he hardly knows, an act of murderous faith borne out of a feeling. When Gosling kisses Mulligan for the first time, in a lift that also contains someone arrived in their building to kill them, the kiss, the moment of grace before death is duelled, is prolonged by Refn, a cauterized slow-mo shot that suggests Gosling is preserving a memory and stifling inevitablility. Therin lies the intent of the film, and the scene offers a perfect microcosmic hint at what Refn’s after. Namely, the best of any moment, to sift out all the mundanities and retain only the hard-edged or gratifying elements and string them together.
Director Refn gets it all exactly right. I have yet to read the source novel, although Max Cairnduff’s excellent review –http://tinyurl.com/82y8ens – suggests that it’s well worth checking out. But, in terms of cinema, he has fashioned an extremely interesting concoction that asks swift, serious questions, in passing, about what a modern story can do in terms of contemporary commentary on film heritage without affecting story immersion: how there’s little room for the lone hero amidst the swarming bombardment of information and overkill, and what the 80s have become in our collective consciousness. Here is an alternate 80s: the music could hardly offer more overt cues. Refn suggests: this character and these metonymical elements are best served through the utilisation of an idea of a time. It’s a distancing mechanism that’s as good as a relocation to another, analogous planet.
The film is in many ways an adolescent fantasy, punchy nostalgia rebooted, gleam-waxed, supercharged yearning for an ineffable but unnamed something. Recognition? There’s a scene in the film in which Gosling prises open the lid he’s kept an inarticulate white-knuckled hand over throughout, offering a tribute to Mulligan that seems doom-laden: ‘I just want you to know, the time I’ve spent with you has been the best time of my life.’ As though he understands his fate doesn’t involve hanging around being happy, as hanging around, whoever it’s with, means death: he needs to move to live – because he’s an idea. There exists between Gosling and Mulligan a strange, unspoken accord, surprising but futile. His fate lies elsewhere: he’s a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night: hardly the bedrock of a long-term relationship, nor the professional pursuits of a man likely to be home much.
You have to, I’d say, look at the film as a product of a director born at a certain point who has always trodden a difficult path between substance and visceral immediacy. The emotional affect here doesn’t quite work: it’s basically Eno’s ‘Ascent: An Ending’ as shorthand for the magic of amorous connect. Far less clumsy and sloppily overbearing would’ve been no soundtrack whatsoever during these scenes: but in writing this I realise that it’s part of the whole conflation of an Eighties-feel sensibility taken a little too far, probably deliberately. It’s a suffocating clinch when it might be a casual embrace, and such moments detract in a film where other such examples of soundtrack overkill work perfectly, such as during a montage featuring a day out in the car for Gosling, Mulligan and her son, in which he makes lighthearted concessions to his trade by delighting with some barely-dangerous manoeuvring.
These people are fairly ridiculous. They’re comic-book Mob, pulp miscreants, endangered, helpless damsels and sullen heroes. The whole set-up has been done countless times. But it all unquestionably works: the sum is a glinting, beguiling amalgamation of the parts, and it’s a very strange entity often masquerading as something very different. It’s a film about nostalgia and the impulse that demands the impossible combination of comfort and reassuring recycling with night and uncertainty, which never flinches and never doubts its method.
This isn’t a film about driving, it’s an extrapolation of a feeling prompted by the daydream gleam on a fender, a film about adolescent projections as to what a city might be like (the LA of Drive feels unfinished, a dream reconstruction, smooth-edged and uncluttered), full of elegiac slow-mo interrupts and sudden, unfeasible eruptions of violence, all based upon a singular fount: (80s) cinema, TV and music. As such, it’s clever and endearing: it relentlessly prevails on a surface level that, were it to plunge beneath, it would quickly collapse. It’s an artful, unreal, depthless riff on a collective impression of an era and a naivety, and it works supremely well. Critics that refer to formula ‘plot holes’ are looking for another film that Refn would never make. The kiss between the leads, the avid, unvarnished, staged brutalities, the cars flying onto the beach, the musical interventions: they’re all hallucinatory, boyish invocations of want. Refn’s skill is to transpose that into a vicarious cinematic experience without it becoming a ridiculous exercise in nostalgia porn. A considerable achievement.
Beginners features Ewan McGregor as a thirty-something advertising artist that can’t hold down a relationship. Dad Christopher Plummer announces his homosexuality just in time for a liberated swan song before succumbing to cancer, which forces McGregor into some serious re-appraisal re: his relationship with both his already dead mother (plenty of flashbacks throughout) and father, who now also has a much younger boyfriend, an over-kids-TV Goran Visnjic. And then radiant Melanie Laurent arrives, and she and McGregor initially share the kind of cloyingly indie overtures that prompt thoughts of Miranda July, but this is both less faux-kooky and more affecting than that might suggest, despite a dog that communicates in cuddly subtitles.
Contagion is a tight but swift hurtle into potentially (but not actually that) worrisome global epidemic territory, featuring exponential death rates and lots of opportunities for big-name actors to ‘do’ sick. Gwyneth Paltrow, the first recognisable link in the chain of death through whom we first see the ravaging effects of said virus, offers up a pretty passable rendition of ‘exceedingly ill’ as part of an intermittent cameo. We experience, in Soderbergh’s efficiently and effectively (and starkly colour-coded: the use of filters seems as overt an imprimatur as ever) plotted thriller, an increasingly wrought, ratcheted and gruelling accumulation of dread, corpses, shameless political manoeuvring, selflessness, futile professionalism and a realisation that Jude Law is often very distracting. Of the starry cast, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet (along with the deservedly ubiquitous Bryan Cranston) fare best, not for the first time.
Everything Must Go is a notional adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story: very little of the referred original (Why Don’t We Dance?) survives here, other than a chap (Will Ferrell – good and pleasingly dialled down but you still get the sense that his hangdog equanimity is a serious strain on the leash) unravelled on his pleasant surburban lawn with all his belongings marshalled around him and his beer cluster as part of a pre-eviction/divorce/meltdown yard sale. (Key scene: Ferrell clutches at a cold 8-pack of beer at the local mini-mart, but is clearly in trouble as he instead clink-hauls two 8-packs out of the fridge.) Instead of a young couple rummaging and delving amongst his marital mementos we have instead a marginalised black kid, an apparently kindly cop keeping fellow feds at bay and an abandoned mum-to-be keeping him nicely dovetailed company. In other words, anything potentially troubling has been excised and replaced with the kind of situations and characters that lend themselves pleasingly to feel-good innocuousness. There are good moments and the pacing of the film is surprisingly comatose at times, but you know where it’s going before it begins. And why’s the nowhere-to-be-seen Laura Dern on the poster? Clearly she went as well.
Kill List is exceedingly powerful, almost suffocatingly so, for an hour, before it decides to become an insane Wicker Man/Eyes Wide Shut hybrid, at which point the film deflates with accompanying fart noises. It’s exceptional for a good while, though, and the director (Ben Wheatley) will doubtless produce something great. The level of bristling discomfort Wheatley develops before it all goes awry (and it’ll depend on how you feel about mad plot twists as to your tolerance level as the film veers into a ‘we’ve run out of ideas’ brick wall) is seriously impressive, and the various Yorkshire locations are not places you want to hang about, particularly not with any of the Kill List cast, though reluctantly negotiating them as part of a truly (in the main) disturbing cinematic voyage is a different matter.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol features a fairly nifty prison break, broad comedy courtesy of Simon Pegg, the human Aardman performer, every few minutes to remind you this isn’t Brian De Palma or remotely serious, and stomach-somersault provocations by way of Tom Cruise slapping along the smoked-glass top floors of the world’s tallest building with only one functioning electro-suction glove. There’s also an occasionally confused-looking Jeremy Renner and the excellent Paula Patton. Cruise is clearly trying to find a niche between Bond and Bourne, and he’s decided that playing it all for laughs at the expense of pulsating grit is the safest route to preserving the franchise. It’s an IMAX/Brad Bird film: it’s never particularly suspenseful and it’s even less often dull. For example: the CGI Kremlin gets bombed, totters and teeters before toppling in a glorious billowing barrage of dust and debris. In other words, you get your money’s worth.