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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Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)

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The post-feminist take on Cinderella, or how you can get your man and still retain your dignity and read Utopia without feeling guilty. Susannah Grant is a sassy screenwriter and this fairytale is plonked right into history as the Queen of France (Jeanne Moreau) regales the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle, the unfortunate girl whose father has married a right cow (Anjelica Huston) with two daughters (Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey) and then he goes and dies and leaves her in their terrible hands. Drew Barrymore is the girl who loses her shoe after making it to the ball, Dougray Scott is the well-read but out of control prince who doesn’t want to settle down in organised matrimony to the dismay of his parents. This is smart and witty without the pantomime that usually accompanies the story and Barrymore is just about perfect as you’d expect in a gorgeous looking outing shot on location in France.  The final twist is but well deserved! Great fun. Directed by Andy Tennant.

Inferno (2016)

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Humanity is the disease, inferno is the cure. The second sequel to The Da Vinci Code begins horribly. By which I mean it looks like one of those cheapo knockoffs you see on The Horror Channel in the wee small hours (and otherwise). A lecturer (Ben Foster) throws himself off a tower after being chased. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, returning for the third entry in the series) wakes up in a hospital being tended by a doctor with an enormous overbite (Felicity Jones) – frightening in itself. She tells him he’s been shot while he has terrible hallucinations with blood pouring in torrents and people with faces back to front (you can see how that might happen given the company and a presumed brain injury). He’s lost his memory and has no idea how he’s wound up in Italy. Then some woman pretending to be police murders another doctor and the pair make away from the gunfire with some difficulty given he’s hooked up to IVs all over the shop. He’s been given a painting that depicts The Inferno but his copy contains elements that don’t belong in the original. And so we set off on a chase around the Uffizi and then we’re off to Istanbul and a rather interesting ending in a cave with shades of The Man Who Knew Too Much with some visits to the World Health Organisation in between. The visual palette is awful. It looks just like a brown below-par giallo. There is nothing to indicate that this is any good but its place in the Dan Brown symbology behemoth is typically humourless (despite the presence of the hilarious Paul Ritter) and unimaginative – let’s face it, we’re in Florence with a doctor called Sienna, which would indicate a left/right brain issue and not just Langdon’s. And so it goes. The lecturer though is revealed to be a billionaire keen to solve a global issue. We can all read the legal judgments on where Mr Brown got his stories:  I’ve read Lewis Perdue’s novels so I’ve a pretty good idea. However this is tampering with Dante. I know David Koepp is the rather gifted screenwriter entrusted with the book (and I must put my cards on the table and admit I’ve not read this one) and he’s not responsible for the choices of director Ron Howard (him again) or any aesthetic decisions. Hey – it’s an action thriller with Tom Hanks (paired again with Sidse Babett Knudsen after their desert romp …) and the world overpopulation problem. If you can find those old rose-tinted spectacles (literally) you might quite enjoy some of the incendiary scenes and a somewhat tantalising villain. And some running. Ho. Hum.

Tarka the Otter (1979)

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Henry Williamson resisted Walt Disney for years and eventually succumbed to having his nature classic adapted by wildlife documentary maker David Cobham when he was persuaded by his son Harry, a musician. Narrated by Peter Ustinov from a script co-written by Gerald Durrell we are presented with the life cycle of an otter:  from his birth, through the death of his father, separation from his mother, the gruesome death of his sibling in a trap, mating with White Tip who is the mother of his pups, to an epic conclusion against the otter hound bent on his death. We see Tarka through the seasons and experience the world from his perspective, a kind of anthropomorphism that Williamson resisted. As my own little Tarka (named after this wonderful hero) slept on the couch throughout, I wept.

The Lawless Breed (1953)

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I love you the way you are. The way you really are. Legend has it that gunslinger, card sharp and outlaw John Wesley Hardin once shot a man because he was snoring. In this Universal-Technicolor version of a story he wrote about himself – his real life, as it were – we get the fast-moving, adventurous western that veteran director Raoul Walsh favoured, with a luminous performance by Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star. It starts with a beautiful framing device:  freed after 16 years from a prison sentence, the aged Hardin (and Hudson looks just like he would twenty years later in MacMillan and Wife!) leaves those portals and the first beings he touches in many years are a donkey and a dog. He has us at hello. Then he walks into a print shop and hands over a manuscript – his autobiography. It’s a great opening. Then we relive his life from his point of view in one long flashback:  as a young man he’s whupped by his strict preacher father (John McIntire) and launched into a life of crime following a card game. “It was self-defence,” becomes his mantra. He’s followed through Texas by Union soldiers, takes refuge with his sympathetic uncle (also played by McIntire), continues his relationship with the most beautiful girl in the State, Jane (Mary Castle) and eventually takes refuge with the saloon girl who understands him, Rosie (Julie aka Julia Adams). It’s a fatalistic tale which became a Bob Dylan song but this being Hollywood we don’t see the sordid ending that actually befell the man and Hudson imbues his character with wonderful gentleness.  When he returns home to save his grown son (Race Gentry) from his destiny the reason for writing his memoirs becomes clarified. Great, rousing tale, brilliantly handled by Walsh with his usual terrific staging and pace and doesn’t it look beautiful, like all movies should. Very loosely adapted from Hardin’s book by the great (and blacklisted) screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Never mind the facts – print the legend!

The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I see dead people. How extraordinary is this film? A truly scary ghost story – even all these years later when you know the amazing twist at its centre. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is the child psychologist treating troubled Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). The son of a single mother (Toni Collette), he’s a kid whose weirdness marks him out amongst his schoolfriends leading to bullying and strange injuries. Halfway through the story he tells the extremely sympathetic Malcolm his dark secret – and he knows that Malcolm just doesn’t get it. A stunning exposition of death, bereavement, grief, sorrow, the problem with acceptance and some punishing home truths, this is augmented by totally believable, realistic performances. A really audacious and cunning piece of work by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

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Ask an actor a question you get his credits. A confection so tonally sublime it’s ridiculous. Neil Simon wrote a screenplay about Dustin Hoffman’s early days starring Robert De Niro and directed by Mike Nichols. De Niro was all wrong – comedy not quite being his thing – and Nichols quit and Simon went back to the drawing board and came up with this and a far more simpatico cast several months later with a new director, Herbert Ross. Paula (Marsha Mason, ie Mrs Simon) is the former Broadway dancer who finds out her married lover has abandoned her and daughter Lucy (the brilliantly smart-assed Quinn Cummings) to do a movie in Italy (with Bertolucci!) and without her knowledge has sublet his apartment where they live to a colleague straight in from Chicago. Actor Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss) is self-conscious, neurotic and driven and fussy and moves in to Lucy’s bedroom as Paula realises she has nowhere else and won’t move out and needs someone to pay the rent. Elliot is preparing to give his off-off-off-off-Off Broadway Richard III for director Mark (Paul Benedict) who wants him to play it as ‘the queen who wants to be King.’ Elliot succumbs. As Paula tries to get fit and lose flab to return to the stage, Elliot’s camp-as-a-caravan site Richard flops terribly and her sympathy for him becomes something else. Their living arrangements are suddenly rendered more complicated … The humour, the performances and the text are tightrope-worthy:  Paula could be a shrew in the wrong hands (Simon famously declared he hated actresses…); Elliot could be plain irritating (Dreyfuss is simply perfect in an Oscar-winning role); and the screamingly funny queer reading of Richard III just couldn’t be done nowadays (unless a woman were playing it….) because the millennials/snowflakes/whatever identity politics you’re having yourselves would be crucifying everyone concerned. And Quinn Cummings, who later became a part of the wonderful TV show Family, is simply brilliant as the snarky daughter whose man crush is taken away from her. All of the performances were recognised in this perfectly handled backstage comedy but these are roles that couldn’t even be conceived nowadays. The Seventies. Love them. Love this.

Wonder Woman (2017)

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Diana (Gal Gadot) is the stroppy kid brought up in an Amazonian matriarchy by mom Connie Nielsen and tough as hell trainer aunt Robin Wright. She cannot be told of her godlike origins in this society of strong women. Then WW1 crashes into their ancient Greek Island world in the form of airman Chris Pine, a double agent for the allies, kitted out in German uniform with their army hot on his tail as Diana drags him out of his plane. There’s fighting on the beach of a kind you don’t often see – bows and arrows against German gunfire. And when her aunt dies saving her, it’s up to Wonder Woman to take serious action against the god Aries whom she deems responsible for the global conflict. She heads to London with her newfound companion, there’s some very amusing and sexy byplay, a departure to the Front with an unpromising crew, some displays of camaraderie and great costume changes, excellent combat and truly evil Germans. And Aries is not who you think he is after all…. After years of snarky annoying movies about silly superheroes all shot in greyscale this is actually a colourful and proper good-versus-evil plot about gods and monsters that threatens but never actually tips into full camp (those first scenes gave me the wobbles but right prevailed), the humour is spot-on, the performances tonally perfect and I am pleased to agree with many others that this is really terrific. Well done director Patty (Monster) Jenkins and the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, working from a story by himself, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs. Miraculously it all seems to make sense. Based  – of course – on the comic book by William Moulton Marston. The soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams is fabulous – but what I really wanted to hear was …. you know!!