Sunday, May 06, 2012

[Movies] Flick Check: Pittfest

Flick Check: Pittfest:  Three movies, all of which starred Brad Pitt, and all of which were enormously well received.  I'm at odds with some of the general assessments, but I was impressed by Pitt in all three.  The guy really is one of the best actors working.  To me his career brings to mind Paul Newman, someone who was more famed for his looks early on but turned out to be a quality artist. 
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - A very sweet film.  Beautifully shot -- every scene looked flawlessly composed.  I'm not entirely sure what the film meant, if there was any intended meaning other than a Gumpian “life is like a box of chocolates..."  It was just a nicely done, if a little slow, documentation of the bell curve of our lives, all brought into clearer focus by F. Scott Fitzgerald's gimick of someone who ages backwards -- born a child in an old man's body and ending a demented old man in a child's body.  As you can guess some serious makeup work was needed, but not just to make Pitt look old, there are a number of sequences later on where they make Pitt look 20 (he must be pushing 50), which was a bit mind-blowing and made me wonder whether it wasn't done digitally after the fact.    Anyway, decent flick.  Sentimental without being cloying.  I  wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again, but I wouldn't go out of my way to turn it off either.

The Tree of Life - There are a number of religious and philosophical ideas floating around in this film, the main one being almost cliche: How can God let bad things happen to good people?  I always found this question silly.  Do people really adopt a religion and honestly believe their faith will somehow insulate them from tragedy?  The Tree of Life explores this, interwoven with the question of grace versus nature -- the notion that when we pursue pleasures (ambitions and delusions of happiness) beyond an appreciation of our role in God's creation, we face disappointment and risk harming ourselves and others.

This is accomplished through the portrayal of a suburban family in the fifties with a tyrannical father (Pitt) that eventually falls to grief when one of the children is killed in Vietnam as a series of half dream-like flashbacks from the present day.  Intermingled is a contrasting 2001-ish sequence summarizing the story creation from big bang, through star formation, through dinosaurs -- all in the hope of putting the individual drama in a universal perspective.  Very experimental.  It's quite admirable really.  Rarely does a film attempt something out of the ordinary and even more rarely do you see a blatantly pro-religion film.  And it's almost impossible to name another thoughtful pro-Christian, or at least pro-Judeo/Christian film (a fact that was missed in most reviews I have read). 

Not surprisingly, Pitt nailed the portrayal of the father-bully.  Overall, it was visually hypnotic at times but still, I found myself wishing they would get to the damn point.  I think I'd pass on watching again.  Films like this, and 2001 seem so overwhelmed by their own aesthetic that they believe it's their duty to offer grand insights, when they would be better off with a simple story.

[Addendum: After I wrote this, I discovered Roger Ebert has named it one of the ten best movies of all time.  Um, no.  Not even close.]

Moneyball - I am pompous enough to tell you that I read Bill James before you did, but never would I have guessed they could have made of movie about baseball stats. OK, the movie isn't really about baseball stats.  It's about redemption.  The larger philosophical plot is the triumph of the rational over the mythic.  Sort of like Galileo versus the Church writ small.  In this case the Church is the old boy network of baseball -- as hidebound and closed minded as the most fervent fundamentalists you could find.  Galileo is played by Billy Beane who, when charged with building a winning team without money embraces reasoned statistical analysis to gain an edge.

From a personal standpoint this story had enormous appeal to me.  I'm the guy who uses spreadsheets to make football bets in Vegas and just spent weeks pouring though the quantitative aspects of betting on thoroughbred racing even though I will not likely get much of a chance to do so.  I don't wear a bike helmet because the statistical chances of it benefitting me are so small they don't outweigh the cost of looking like a dork. I think a Caribbean vacation in October is a good idea because the chances of actually getting hit by a hurricane aren't great enough to counter the discounted prices.  I often wonder how much of my Diet Coke is statistically missing at the quantum level. 

So you see, this is right in my wheelhouse.  Especially, the part where the priests of the traditional myths smugly sneer about how wrong you are if things don't work out.  Makes me wanna slap some heads.

Wisely, Moneyball is not about that conflict in a vacuum.  It's about how it affected Billy Beane (Pitt) who stuck to his guns and brought quantitative analysis in sports into the mainstream.  Beane was one of the most highly touted baseball prospects in history.  He gave up a Stanford scholarship because the old-school scouts convinced him that he couldn't miss in the Bigs. He ended up never reaching his imagined potential, and living in years of frustration because of it.  Had someone taken a more quantitative look at him, he wouldn't have had such crushing expectations placed on him.  He would have gone to Stanford and possibly developed into a decent player with a satisfying, if unspectacular career.  Instead, he had to cope day to day with being the guy who never lived up to expectations.  Now a general manager, he was able to change the way things are done in baseball, through which he achieves a certain redemption, and a bit of proof that he wasn't a failure, he was just wronged.

If anything, he changed baseball too well.  Now pretty much all teams use quantitative methods of player evaluation, so his edge is gone.  The rich rule once more.

Despite its dry sounding topics, Moneyball is full of energy and wit.  It not about the great mysteries of the life, just a good story told with good humor from start to finish.  Pitt gets the chance to show his comic chops and does so extremely well.  Not everyone can hang with Jonah Hill or Philip Seymour Hoffman in humorous crosstalk.  Pitt does, while never leaving any doubt that he's the lead.  I'd watch Moneyball again, for sure, and nod knowingly throughout.