Moneyball (2011)

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Nobody reinvents this game. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season was initially adapted by Stan Chervin for Sony who dropped the project after going through a couple of directors. It was brought to the screen with Bennett Miller helming, and draft screenplays by Steven Zaillian then Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, the team’s general manager who decides to adopt a radical approach:  sabermetrics, as promulgated by super-smart Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character based on the real-life assistants. Billy trades and sacks players with impunity, ending and starting careers, buying in flawed sportsmen at low prices, confounding conventional wisdom. Against all the usual odds, the team is winning but Billy is literally Billy No Mates with his policy, killing off the scouting process as he pursues victory. He tries to maintain a good relationship with his daughter, who spends most of the time with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), and finds comfort in listening to the pre-teen who composes songs on the guitar he buys her. What a clever, well written drama this is:  the idea is, play the same game but with a different strategy; make a winning team out of a losing team;  make statistics real by visualising them. It uses Billy’s own backstory – with visual, narrative and musical cues – to illustrate his rationale and keep the narrative moving forward. The ongoing narration by TV baseball commentators serves both to distance us from Billy (Pitt plays an essentially unknowable, unpredictable character); and as Greek chorus, to pace the story, justify Billy’s choices (or not) and to let us know how he is succeeding with this innovative player approach. It’s a very shrewd narrative choice. And in the midst of it are Billy and Pete, a rhyming couple, teaching each other lessons. Pitt and Hill are absolutely superb in an absorbing, brilliantly constructed drama.

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Central Intelligence (2016)

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Bob (Dwayne Johnson) is the fat kid bullied at high school and Calvin(Kevin Hart) is the kid who saves what’s left of his dignity in the gym by giving him his jacket:  years later gym bunny Bob Facebooks him on the eve of their reunion and insinuates his way into Calvin’s accounting firm and gets him to look up some numbers. They’re bids on US satellites.  A knock on the door by the CIA reveals Bob is a rogue agent selling satellite codes to terrorists – allegedly. A cat and mouse chase in Massachusetts ensues with Calvin unwillingly involved as a pawn. There are a lot of bright moments mostly concerning Bob’s winning personality – he’s obsessed with Molly Ringwald and unicorns.  The big joke is all that:  the difference in size between him and the diminutive Calvin as the predictable intra-agency high jinks ensue and a dangerous transaction ultimately sorts out the real baddies. There’s buckets of charm between a few ill-chosen jokes and predictable action sequences and it’s no surprise at all to see Jason Bateman turning up as the adult bully. There’s a sweet kicker though when we meet Bob’s high school crush. You’ll have to watch it to find out! Undemanding fun. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber from a screenplay by Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen.

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

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I can’t beat it. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston, permanently hunched and haunted and beset by half-dressed female tenants who want to have sex with him and complain to his boss when he evinces no interest whatsoever and just fixes their toilets. He barely speaks. When he gets a call that older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died suddenly he is forced back to his titular hometown where people refer to him as ‘the Lee Chandler’ and he finds out from his brother’s lawyer he’s been named guardian to his irritating, underage, sexually voracious nephew Patrick (goofy ginger Lucas Hedges). It takes us a long time and a lot of repetitive scenes to get to the reason for his devastation:  the death of his young family for which he feels incalculable guilt. Patrick has no reaction to his father’s demise and just gets on with getting it on with whatever nasty teenage girls have sex with him, plays hockey and generally acts like dumb teenagers do when confronted with intimations of mortality (I was recently at a funeral when the teenage son of the woman whose death was being commemorated left midway to smoke cigarettes with several girls. This shit happens.) So much  of this is low-key and true that when these guys eventually drop their protective masks it is both surprising and shocking and explosive in terms of the situations  in which they finally let loose as much as anything else. Michelle Williams has one wonderful scene as Lee’s ex-wife (pictured in the poster) and it is of such delicacy that it elicits pure emotions not just from Affleck but the audience, otherwise her role is mainly confined to flashbacks of their marriage and its unfortunate and tragicomic ending (that ambulance scene is literally killer). So paradoxically despite its overlength the unsentimental narrative focus is somewhat diverted to the wrong situations and some scenes are consigned to montage underscored by rather obvious and ill-chosen music when we would prefer to hear the dialogue.  The flashback structure works brilliantly however. The rarely seen Gretchen Mol (the Next Big Thing, according to Vanity Fair circa 1998  when she co-starred with this film’s producer and intended star Matt Damon in Rounders) shows up as Patrick’s alkie mom, long estranged from the family. Affleck is simply masterful as this man who desires punishment but nobody wants him to suffer any more, except for a few women who believe he killed his kids. However it’s a long time getting to the point about how people deal differently with bereavement and even if we agree, such is real life, a playwright, screenwriter (and director) as smart as Kenneth Lonergan should and could have got there quicker.

Now, Voyager (1942)

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All I have is a faded corsage and an empty bottle of perfume … Sob! Most people’s favourite Bette Davis picture, this tale of a bullied daughter of Boston brahmin stock, sent away to recover from a mother-induced nervous breakdown only to return a woman of the world with a married man, is pure classical Hollywood. Olive Higgins Prouty’s bestseller of an ugly thirtysomething duckling who turns into a mature and lovely swan is the stuff of Cinderella transformations and all the stops were pulled out to ensure its success. Casey Robinson was the steady hand deployed to manage the emotions and tap all the appropriate responses in what would have been censor-baiting material. He was the greatest screenwriter at Warners’ disposal, starting his career with Captain Blood (1935) which made Errol Flynn a star and created a tone for all action-adventure films to follow. He started writing films for Bette Davis two years later with It’s Love I’m After and followed it with the great Dark Victory, the film which properly turned Davis into a feminine star. He said it helped to know which actor he was writing for because then everything was in their voice “and Bette Davis, how I heard her voice!”  Irving Rapper directed,Gladys Cooper is Mommie Dearest,  Claude Rains is the suave and suaver psychiatrist and Paul Henreid does the two-cigarette act with aplomb. Golly this is great.