Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Love: Moneyball

“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.”   Or, so says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) at a couple key moments in Moneyball.   Though in context I could see what he was getting at, and for many people this appears to be quite true, I have to admit: it’s damn easy for me not to romanticize baseball.   You may be able to romanticize the players or the fans, the upset of not winning or the pain of coming so close, but that’s not unique to the game.  And, I mean, the game?  Call me un-American or whatever but, oh man, how loudly would you like to hear me snore?  Needless to say: I’m not a sports person.   I've never read Michael Lewis's book, can't fathom a reality in which I'd pick it up, have no recollection of the Oakland A’s 20-game win streak in 2002, didn’t recognize the names of any of the players mentioned in the film, and can only tell you that at some point in the last decade the Boston Red Sox won the World Series.  I remember that.  I remember that because of Fever Pitch, probably.  I’ve tried to find something interesting about baseball.  Really, I have.  One time I went to a game.  Just once.  It was only a couple years ago. The food was good.  I went back for something different during each inning.  I'd say I consumed probably about 30000 calories and four times my body weight.  I could romanticize the processed cheese sauce on my nachos, perhaps, the way it tasted paired with my Coca Cola slushee, but not the game I saw.   It was a White Sox game.  I don’t remember who they played, but they lost I think.  I'm pretty sure.
While I'm not a sports person, I am a movie person.  If you filter something through celluloid, you've got at least a fighting chance at catching my interest.  So, despite my complete lack of interest in athletic achievement (specifically on teams), sometimes I’ll watch a sports-based movie.  Moneyball had me at Aaron Sorkin.  Sorkin, for what it’s worth, has a remarkable knack for writing screenplays capable of making you care about something you possibly didn’t think you cared about before.  He finds the humanity in facts and figures, and can make seemingly anything into a tense, dialogue-heavy, numbers thriller.  So, I figured that if anyone were capable of making me care about baseball accounting, it could be Aaron Sorkin working with Brad Pitt, and Jonah Hill.  I was sort of right, though I can’t say the film managed anything particularly miraculous. Let's put it this way: Moneyball's script is no Social Network.  Its characters have a charm and a sort of good old boy arrogance about them, but they're nowhere near as compelling as the fast talking techies and undergrads of Fincher-lit Harvard.  

For those as out of the loop as I was, Moneyball is the story of  Oakland Athletic's manager Billy Beane and the numbers game that supposedly changed baseball back in 2002.  After yet another losing season and another debilitating trading loss, the A's are left with a minimal budget and no hope.  As they run through the options, going over which potential players will draw the biggest numbers, Beane accidentally uncovers Peter Brand, a recent Yale graduate with a theory that a winning team could be built from cut-rate players no one else would consider taking.  I won't tell you whether or not it works out, but considering it inspired a book and a movie, you can take a stab at how that pans out.  It's part business drama and part inspirational underdog tale.  I'll say this much:  it's paced well, frequently cuts through the baseball aspects, and Brad Pitt is smartly cast.  I say this even though I can't really think of the last time he wasn't perfectly cast.  Was it Troy?  Probably.  Pitt's an actor capable of exuding an irritating confidence in one moment, and undercutting it with a self-loathing uncertainty in the next.  As Beane, he needs all of that.   
Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that Moneyball is an extremely competent film.  From a technical standpoint, in the realm of Oscar concerns, it's a champion. Smart dialogue, sharp performances, a muted Jonah Hill, and a story that appeals to a common societal denominator.  It's good, really just tremendously solid, but it's not the sort of good that incites any sort of genuine enthusiasm from me.  One thing that bothered me, however, was the repeated, thematic use of Australian singer/songwriter Lenka's song "The Show."  The track is from 2008, yet Beane's daughter knows it by heart in 2002.  It's a glaring oversight, in my opinion.  Either that or, you know, someone's hinting at a use of time travel.  Who wants to develop the theory that Jonah Hill's hiding a time machine somewhere?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Love: Drive

By day, he's a stuntman for the movies.  He puts on a heavy latex mask, becomes an optical illusion, and flips cars while the cameras roll.  He's also a mechanic, a car whisperer silently working small miracles as though the only language he really speaks is that of the engine.  By night, he's a getaway driver taking jobs without the mask, stylishly clad in a silver satin jacket, scorpion embroidered on the back, harboring criminals and ferrying them to their destinations.  He's a silent type, a man with no name who rolled into town one day and asked for a job.  His roles are juxtaposed smartly in the opening scenes.  Against the glittering darkness of Los Angeles, he's a fringe criminal.  On set, he wears a police uniform, a costume that makes us think for an instant that he's a rogue agent and solidifies his dual nature in our imaginations.  He's the Driver, good and bad, so-called because that's what he does.  His lack of a name makes him a stock character, an archetype, a western antihero or noir shadow.  He meets a girl named Irene (Carey Mulligan) with a husband named Standard fresh out of prison and a son who The Driver (in his own way) takes a liking to.  Standard wants to be reformed, wants to be forgiven, but his past catches up with him.  He's in trouble, The Driver offers to help because The Driver knows how to disappear.  Things go horribly, horribly wrong in a way that is polarizing and upsetting.  Foreign objects enter human flesh in ways we cannot anticipate.  We realize we don't know The Driver's past.  We don't know why he seems so hesitant to make connections and so calm under pressure.  Perhaps it's because all this has happened before.  Perhaps wherever he goes, trouble finds him.
Such is the nature of Drive, a film many have been quick to affix a grindhouse label to and too willing to equate with the vehicular adrenaline thrillers of the 70's.  But, Gosling is not McQueen, The Driver is not Bullitt, and Drive, while it may indulge in some heavy ultra-violence, seems to me to take many of its central cues from 70's art house, not merely B-grade exploitation.  It's a film paced so beautifully in the first half, so reliant on measured moments and silence that the second half is a sucker punch, a sudden jolt that makes us question everything about our protagonist.  In an early, establishing scene, we're presented with a nearly silent robbery that's executed flawlessly.  The Driver picks up the masked criminals, drops them off, waits.  He does not make small talk.  We do not see what happens in the building they've entered, or what it is they're out to steal.  Like The Driver, we do not care.  We're not there for the literal payoff.  There's tension in these moments, but it's an anxiety built off of the fine line between patience and panic. The Driver doesn't communicate with the thieves listening anxiously to the radio intercepting the police scanners, and thus doesn't communicate with us.  He doesn't offer a back-up plan or clue them in as to what will happen if they make a wrong turn.  His plan is never outlined and our director, Nicolas Winding Refn, doesn't use a bombastic score or fractured shots to make his point.  For The Driver, every moment out of harms way becomes more meaningful and is savored. He moves in slow motion, takes his time, doesn't count the seconds unless he's behind the wheel with a stopwatch. At night, in the silver jacket?  Each second is one of a million outcomes all with the potential to be his last.
While Drive is in many ways an action film built off of muscle cars and mob bosses, its sledgehammer heart is in the construction of its antihero.  I mentioned earlier that Drive felt more art house than "car movie" to me, I meant it.  As I watched, it wasn't Bullitt I was reminded of, or any of the films Tarantino built Death Proof off of.  It was John Cassavetes and early Martin Scorsese.  Specifically some bastard hybrid of Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Taxi Driver, with the vigilante justice amped up to 11.  The opening titles may as well be the Los Angeles, synth pop version of Taxi Driver's neon, saxophone scored glow.  We can draw a million comparisons between the films from there, however shallow: the role as literal driver, the isolation of the characters, the presence of Albert Brooks, the conflicted, violent nature of our hero's savior routine, the names of the women they choose to "save."  In Drive, though, where De Niro's Travis Bickle narrated his psychosis, was fueled into a shell-shocked rage by the sleaze and grime he saw all over those New York streets, The Driver is a character perhaps influenced less by personal beliefs and more by raw, split-second decisions and the myths perpetuated by the city he inhabits.  He's a character in a metropolis built off of fictions and archetypes and like those characters, he's most comfortable speaking when he's staying on script: confidently delivering an exacting speech to each of his clients, cultivating a persona styled and built off of the existence, the presence of characters like Bullitt and Bickle.
Drive is a haunting thriller that refuses to let us look away.  It's stylized and raw, inhabiting the over and the under, the real and the fantasy all at once.  Ryan Gosling's performance here is quiet, understated, and frightening.  Still waters run deep, my friends, and we can't be sure at any moment if The Driver envisions himself as a lover or a fighter.  He's both, surely, and a hero (perhaps a legend) in his own mind.  His actions are brutal, quick, and deliberate.  When the skulls are smashed (and oh, the skulls are smashed), the camera and The Driver overstay their welcome.  We're used to a villain's head getting pounded, we're not used to the dull repetition, or the aftermath.  In my opinion, it's deliberate.  The violence serves its purpose, even as it sickens, and it's not to fill us with the schadenfreude glee of the standard revenge drama.  No, The Driver masquerades as hero, as Halloween costume and symbol of swagger-heavy, cool, silent masculine identity.  Yet, he's not that.  He's an indictment of that macho posturing, an illusion and allusion; a 21st century Travis Bickle, Alex DeLarge, or Tyler Durden for teenagers to find angst-ridden catharsis in before growing up to see the other side.  Drive is complicated and simplistically taut, bloodthirsty and beautiful, smart and mindless, slow even as it rapidly spirals out of control.  It's a contradiction and, in this cinematic landscape, an enigma: the ruthless actioner that does not resort to CGI, does not pander to the lowest common denominator, and which relies on our patience.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Seriously people, this just made my day.  The Muppets take on the killer trailer for Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, um, make it EVEN BETTER.  This is how advertising is done. ALL FUTURE SEASONS OF MAD MEN WILL BE ABOUT HOW WE ARRIVE AT THIS POINT IN HISTORY.  So it is written...

Late Night Trailers: Breaking Dawn pt. I

Oh, that picture still makes me laugh.  But really, are people still interested in Twilight?  I really feel like that trend should have passed us by by now.  No matter, for those still invested in depreciating feminism and following the saga of a no-personality cipher who gets married and knocked up by vampire seed at 19, here comes Breaking Dawn pt. I.  Here our melodramatic heroine marries the only semi-attractive Edward Cullen and the two finally consummate their romance with violent sex and immediate pregnancy.  You know, because it's not an abusive relationship if your husband is a literal monster with supernatural power enough to not be able to bone you without leaving a few bruises.  Also, it's not backwoods if you're a 19-year-old wife and mother with a spawn named "Renesmee" (I kid you not) if you're married to a vampire.  Pfft.  There are no words for how much I loathed this conclusion (which I read because people told me I would hate it).  So, you know, I'll just leave you with a question: aren't those vampires looking cakey?  Did they get a little cheap on the face paint or something?

Late Night Trailers: We Bought a Zoo

When Scarlett Johansson isn't taking nude shots of herself on her phone (BTW: Seriously Scarlett Johansson?  Seriously? No. Just...no.)  she sometimes still does that thing we call acting.  That's a bad way to start this off, but hey guys! Look!  It's a Cameron Crowe trailer for We Bought a Zoo!  One of those potential Oscar films that might make you feel good instead of bad, or something.  Matt Damon stars as a single dad who moves his family into a dilapidated zoo, which might sound as improbably as Mr. Popper's Penguins to you, but which is based on a true story as recounted in the book of the same title by Benjamin Mee.  While the story hints at the saccharine, the six-year-old me is in love with the simple idea of living in a zoo.  So, you know, that works.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Love: Contagion

Open on: a too-convincingly suffering Gwyneth Paltrow.  No makeup, sweat on her brow, hair frazzled, face hollow, coughing and pallid in an airport bar.  This is a film about an epidemic.  We know that she isn’t just sick.  We know this isn’t a common cold or the result of too much time spent flying over the Pacific.  We know that she’s a carrier, that she’s dying, that her death is inevitable.  We think of the human beings herded like cattle into closed cabins alongside her.  Using the same tin can restroom.  The flight attendants picking up the garbage her hands have touched.  The germs tracked everywhere.  Carry-on baggage lifted, tickets exchanged, bacteria like a cloudburst spraying with each poorly covered cough.  These people will all die.  They will get off of the airplane and proliferate.  They will use public toilets, buy food, grab a drink, they will hire limos and climb into cabs, they will go home to houses filled with family members, apartments filled with people, with loved ones, with children.  They will go to work, their children will go to school and travel on buses, on trains, in carpools.  They’ll think it’s “no big deal.”  They’ll load up on vitamin C, cough suppressants, suck on drops.  They will touch their faces.  They will cough in their hands.  They will blow their noses.  They will not wash after each of these incidents, in between all of them.  Later, they will seize.  They will freeze up, their muscles will spasm, they will foam at the mouth and collapse without warning, biting down on tongues before someone even reaches to call 911.   
The cycle continues.  The R0   is too high.  1 enters a space of 50.  50 enter a space of 100.  100 proliferate in different directions.  We enter crisis mode.  Epidemic. Pandemic.  Scrambles for vaccines and government warnings.  Don’t call me a germaphobe, I’m a hypochondriac.  There’s a difference.   I’m also a pragmatic cynic.  I have a practical understanding of how people react in a crisis.  Contagion is my own personal worst case scenario.  It’s global hell, a feasible apocalypse, a pat on the back that said “don’t worry, you’re not crazy, all those things you think could happen totally could.”  It itched.  Oh, it itched.  Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the only film I’ve ever seen in a theater capable of making me feel as though the room were closing in.   In that first 20 minutes, as our ensemble cast climbed ever closer to crisis, as we watched disease transmit without effort and scientists doubt themselves, I sat stock still and crawling out of my skin.  My nose itched, but I couldn’t touch it.  I couldn’t touch my face because Contagion for me was essentially the scariest goddamn movie I’ve ever seen. 
That is, of course, a hearty endorsement.  Contagion is as effectively entertaining as it is terrifying.  Steven Soderbergh has offered us a smart disaster film rooted firmly in the everyday, in the supposedly innocuous exchanges that have the potential to be life altering (or ending).  This is the NPR of disaster cinema; a virtual This American Life episode of “how I survived the outbreak.”  He balances the B-movie outbreak action with a dry dose of sobering science and the sort of governmental exchanges that involve bland teleconferences instead of inappropriately patriotic national addresses.  As a thriller, Contagion is catching.  Perhaps this is because the story seems almost patterned off of the virus itself; beginning intimate and incubated before expanding exponentially.  We ride out the waves and leap from one victim to the next, city, state, country, world.  Soderbergh does for the CDC what he did for the war on drugs in Traffic, only here the results are more immediately plausible.   Doctors become heroes, scientists cope with red tape, bloggers disseminate scare tactics, all in the span of a rapid 100 minutes. 
In many respects, Contagion is really just tremendously taut.  From moment to moment, this is a glossy picture stylish in its warning embrace of chaos.  There’s the suggestion that our editors have worked overtime to cull together the appropriate montage of transmission, to make it so the camera sees all and spares little.  In our early scenes, we catch every possible moment of exchange.  We want to flinch as Gwyneth Paltrow’s adulteress character, Beth Emhoff, greets her young son, as she hugs her husband (Matt Damon).  We track each person she came in contact with at the bacterial ground zero and see them flu-prone, bugged, waning, and we want to yell at them to stop.  What we want them to stop we don’t know, but it grates.  Of course, Contagion is not a perfect specimen.  The film casts an impossibly wide net and we accept that in many ways it would be virtually impossible to do real justice to so many disparate human interest stories.  Still, they give it a good go.  Soderbergh has, as per usual, assembled an insane line-up of talent for this humble little work of political horror.  A-listers run about and drop like flies, often seeming too recognizable for their short lived subplots.  As Beth’s husband Mitch, Matt Damon comes out on top here, though he shares his billing with Laurence Fishburne’s CDC head Dr. Cheever and a sneakily good performance from Jennifer Ehle (notably from the Firthy version of Pride and Prejudice).   More distracting, though, are the subplots that feel like unresolved afterthoughts written to fit in one more big name.  Marion Cotillard’s role here is particularly disposable, and distracts from the general tension by making us wonder if maybe we missed some vital tie-in somewhere along the way.  Imperfections aside, no film has made me want to stock up on canned goods and sanitizer more.   I left that theater with my hoodie sleeves pulled over hands and opened all doors with my back.  As I write this, someone outside is coughing.  I’m going to have to hide. 

Before I do: Steven Soderbergh, please don't quit making movies.  Painting is fun and all, but, maybe you can just devote a few hours a day or something?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mixtape: I Never Take My Skates Off

We're your 17-year-old piece of gold, baby. We never take our skates off, and we're going to be a big, bright, shining star. See this system here? This is hi-fi...high fidelity. A 19 song mixtape inspired by Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #24: Giant (1956) vs. On Golden Pond (1981)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. 

Two films enter, two films leave.  This may make for one of the most anticlimactic cage matches of all time, perhaps because pitting the all-too pointlessly epic Giant against the decidedly epic-proof On Golden Pond is a decision made more as a timesaver than debate.  On the Venn Diagram, the two films would find their overlapping centers in their focus on family.  When it comes to scope and scale, Giant is the heavyweight.  We’re talking 210 minutes of open landscape after open landscape with a trio of deceased, glamorous titans.  George Stevens directed this 3+ hour Texan spectacular, in which Elizabeth Taylor and her violet eyes take on the role of ranching matriarch, marry a gay man playing Southern straight (Rock Hudson), fends off the stealthy advances of James Franco’s squinty predecessor (James Dean), and gives birth to a future Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper).  While I’m not particularly well-versed in the work of George Stevens, it would appear I’m not partial to the content he liked to toy with.  Shane puts me to sleep, Giant made me space out.  If half of the events detailed had actually occurred in the context just mentioned, this movie would have been a postmodern explosion of awesome.  Unfortunately, it’s far more cut and dry a mannered saga than all that.  On this ranch, we concern ourselves with proper marriages, battling with old enemies, and maintaining our respectability at all costs. 

There’s a tedium to the overwrought acting here that comes, I think, from lack of a real plot to rest the Technicolor efforts upon.  Taylor, Hudson, and Dean bicker and boast each other off the screen until their hair is powdered white and we have to marvel at just how far old age make-up has come.  My parents had always told me I didn’t need to see Giant, that it had bored them both to tears when they were younger. Recently, though, they’d changed their tune.  They said “wait, you’ve never seen Giant?” like all these years I’d been remiss.  Mom, Dad, in many ways I believe you were right the first time.   Giant may seem like a heavyweight king, but it’s a reputation largely based off of rumor.   When you gather that many big names (and it’s one of Dean’s only performances) people are blinded by the names in lights.  In memory, we think that it must have been good because it simply couldn’t have been anything else.  In reality, viewing it is a heavy, brain-cell killing affair in which old-Hollywood soap operatics are chronicled at length.

By comparison, On Golden Pond is a distinguished, good-guy prizefighter.  On Golden Pond is a little like throwing Rocky Balboa into the ring.  It’s a nice, quiet affair with actors who have trained hard and are established not only by reaching tabloid levels of glamour, but by acting (on stage and screen) for decades and decades.  Their wrinkles are not the pencil drawn ones of Giant, they’re real and earned.  In many ways, the film is a product I would prefer to avoid.  Its dramas are minimal, its nature too sugary sweet, and it does nothing of any great appeal to a pessimist.  On Golden Pond may claim to be a drama in which a father and daughter attempt to communicate against all odds, but we all know that’s not so.  Jane Fonda tries, here and there, to bait her real life father into a tense scene, but she comes off as an overripe brat too full of her own self-importance to understand that Henry Fonda’s Norman is just a stubborn curmudgeon going about his business.  Truth is, I would hate this movie if it weren’t for the two seasoned veterans at its helm.  I love watching Katharine Hepburn in nearly anything, and there’s a great comedic element to her performance here that gave way to a million late night impersonations.  She runs around the screen just being your batty old relative, repeatedly referring to Norman as an “old poop” and making honest sentiment something we feel like we should maybe care about instead of deride.  Somehow, Hepburn and Fonda can make the Hallmark Special caliber of the material into something special, even when followed around by a cringe-worthy score chock full of cheeseball piano elevator music.

Still, while I didn’t love On Golden Pond and certainly couldn’t find much that didn’t qualify as wholly predictable within it, somehow, it’s difficult to nitpick at and harder to hate.  Sometimes, I suppose, it can be nice to see a film in which the conflicts are minimal and families bounce quickly back from their arguments.  It’s more real, I suppose, than much of the heightened drama surrounding those rip-them-to-shreds tales of suburbia I tend to gravitate towards.   It so happens that in reality we do often have marriages that age gracefully and couples who love each other despite their individual faults.  The actors are strong enough to remind us that this can be so without the film feeling forced or false, though the set pieces and narrative action are so self-contained and humble that they become almost frustratingly wide-eyed.  I can only watch separate generations bond on a fishing boat for so long before becoming weary; which means that though it may technically topple the bland Giant, in terms of rewatchability, On Golden Pond meets it with a draw.

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