The Reel Deal
MONEYBALL, DRIVE & STRAW DOGS
Quick Takes on Three Films
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Moneyball is a true David and Goliath story, where David doesn’t exactly win (in the conventional sense) as much as he manages to change the dynamics of Goliath’s game. It’s a story of resourcefulness against resources, of math against money, of science against superstition. The David in this story is Billy Bean, manager of the Oakland Athletics, who, with only a shoestring budget and some statistics, managed to “play in the big leagues,” as they say. This is a true story about sabermetrics, a word that even sounds uninteresting. And yet, the movie manages to be completely captivating from start to finish.
The script is phenomenal, one of the best sports movie scripts I’ve ever seen. And while I don’t doubt that the screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) both contributed equally to the script, there’s no denying that it feels more “Sorkinesque.” The fast-paced dialogue filled with witty repartee and tangential seemingly-trivial statements that carry preternatural weight is trademark Sorkin. And just as last year’s The Social Network managed to make kids at computers writing code compelling, Moneyball does the same with sabermetric sports statistics. Not many people have that kind of ability, but Sorkin certainly does. But this isn’t just Sorkin’s movie–along with the contributions of Zaillian to the writing, one can’t deny that the movie could have easily fallen apart without Bennett Miller’s masterful direction, Wally Pfister’s artful cinematography, and the incredible acting of the entire cast. This is much more than a sports movie–it transcends the genre.
All sports movies generally end in one of two ways: so-and-so wins or so-and-so loses. It doesn’t matter what sport, or what team, or what individual, the story arc almost always culminates in triumph or defeat (and more often, obviously, the former–success sells tickets). Though Moneyball does in some way follow this pattern, it weirdly manages to sidestep it as well. Sure, from one point of view it ends in a win, and from another it ends in a loss–but really it’s not a movie about winning or losing, even if it pretends to be. It’s not even about resourcefulness trouncing resources, or the math outdoing the money, or science beating superstition into submission (or the vice versa of any of those). It’s just about playing the game (of baseball, of life, of whatever…).
Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Drive is a great example of B-movie substance overlaid with A-list style, a stunning fusion of exploitation story with art house sensibilities and Hollywood personnel. It’s a film that–like the films of Quentin Tarantino, albeit in a completely different way–catalogues its influences (i.e. Michael Mann, Sergio Leone, Jean-Pierre Melville, Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky), but doesn’t copy them. Director Nicolas Winding Refn takes a million disparate elements and reimagines them, creating something greater than the sum of the parts.
Drive is about a stunt driver who, on paper, could easily seem like a paper-thin character, but who gets a rather intriguing portrayal by Hollywood it-boy Ryan Gosling–a portrayal that gives the character an uncanny depth. Like Andy Serkis’ motion capture performance as the chimp Caesar in this year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Gosling’s character–named simply the Driver–is one whose face tells the majority of the story. He rarely speaks unless spoken to. It is only through his expressions that we understand the man. He’s a modern version of Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name from Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Even if the movie’s theme song (which is amazing by the way) is called “A Real Hero,” the Driver is more of a real anti-hero. He is certainly fascinating, and Gosling finds layers in the character that would have been hard for a lesser actor to tease out. Carey Mulligan as his barely-there love interest manages to do even more with even less. Though both are great, the only actor in the film who I think will be up for an Academy Award (I’m calling it now) is Albert Brooks, whose against-type turn as Bernie Rose is revelatory.
Whether or not the film is the timeless masterpiece that many came out of Cannes promising it would be is still up for debate–give it a few years and we’ll see how it ages. But whether flawed or flawless, masterpiece or mere attempt at one, this is a brilliant and enjoyable arty film. Go see this for its hipster coolness, its sleek style, its remodeling of old tropes–think of it as an old classic car that’s been suped-up.
Reel Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs is not as terrible a movie as some reviewers are making it out to be. The problem is it’s nowhere near as good as Sam Peckinpah’s original. This new version tries to say more–by taking on more direct targets, and surrendering the story’s fascinating ambiguities–and in doing so it ends up saying much less. Peckinpah’s great irony, what I think crystallizes the original’s thematic core, is almost entirely extinguished from this shabby recreation.
Of course, politically I like the pot shots this new one takes at the South, at religion, at football, at patriarchy, at anti-intellectualism, at the American obsession with violence–and I take guilty pleasure in it’s attempts at drawing connections between them all. I don’t think it’s that difficult: they ARE connected. We ARE a violent people. I don’t think I have to mention that I got beaten up and robbed at knifepoint last week by unknown assailants to prove my point, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to drive the point home by mentioning it. And there was one line that particularly stood out to me in the new film because I’ve said something similar myself: one character says that “God works in mysterious ways,” and another responds that that is “the most dangerous line ever uttered.” Boy, do I agree! So my gut reaction is to like the film on some level.
That said, while I do in a way like some of what the film is doing, it fails to crawl out from under the shadow of it’s predecessor (which is undeniably more intelligent, more thematically interesting and more pregnant with questions, rather than smattered with half-baked answers). If Lurie had wanted to make a film filled with liberal anxiety of Tea Party tomfoolery about America’s obsession with violence and ignorance, I’d have been fine with that. It could have even turned out decent. But Straw Dogs isn’t that movie–and to remake it only reminds the viewer how weakly constructed your argument is (even if it is a position I tend to in some way agree with). Lurie’s Straw Dogs forces the viewer to ask: “Why?” Why remake a film that is perfect enough? What’s next? A remake of Citizen Kane? Okay, the original Straw Dogs may not be Citizen Kane, but you get the point. Peckinpah’s version will be remembered forever, this new one will be forgotten by Christmas.
Moneyball is a film directed by Barrett Miller, written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, and based on the book by Michael Lewis. It stars Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright. The story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players.
Drive is a film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, written by Hossein Amini, based on the book by James Sallis. It stars Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong.
Straw Dogs is a film written and directed by Rod Lurie, based on the screenplay of the original Straw Dogs movie by Sam Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman, which in turn was based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams. It stars James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarssgard and James Woods. L.A. screenwriter David Sumner relocates with his wife to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Design by Jillian Mercado
Press Photo from Moneyball, Photography Courtesy of Colombia Pictures