Friday, January 20, 2012

Reviews of Moneyball, The Help, and Margin Call

Just went on a back-to-back-to-back DVD watching binge over the last three nights as I figured out how to reopen my redbox account. All three films were excellent but clearly I had the foresight of all those year-end reviews to steer me in the right direction.


Moneyball is all about Brad Pitt. Because the film ties Billy Beane’s journey of self-discovery to that of his sport, and because there’s a surprising amount of psychological depth to Beane himself, this film transcends the typical sports film. At the same time, it’s a very exciting sports film in and of itself.

The sad thing about professional sports today is that to spectators and players alike are excited by the whole phenomenon up until the point where they lose. This is a film that deals almost exclusively with how to deal with defeat and how victory itself is tenable. That says more about life than much of sports does today.

This is Aaron Sorkin’s third movie (Charlie Wilson’s War and The Social Network) since making the abysmal television show “Studio 60” and committed every sin imaginable in the TV writer’s bible (don’t have all the characters sound alike, don’t use the show to air out your dirty laundry, try to at least pretend to care about where your story is set, etc.) and he’s been using more and more restraint on those Sorkinisms. Occasionally, Sorkin still gets cringe-worthy as in the conversation between scouts about how they shouldn’t put in a pitcher with an ugly girlfriend.

Another weakness of Aaron Sorkin seems pretty subverted in Jonah Hill’s shy and introverted character of Peter Brand. Unfortunately he drifts a little towards Sorkinish territory towards the end.
On my top ten list (which I’m working to rapidly construct a couple weeks later than everyone else), this lands at #2. Not as profound as ambitious as “The Tree of Life” but it’s more intense and kinetic than anything else I’ve seen this year and it marries that intensity to a stronger story than a typical action or sports film

Margin Call:

The film takes place over a condensed 28-hour period as a bright employee (Zach Quinto) a couple levels below management at a multi-billion dollar investment company discovers some kink in the system. It’s 10 pm on the night when the staff is out celebrating because they’ve survived the night of recent layoffs, but gradually everyone up the chain of commands right up to the CEO, stops everything their doing and shows up back to the office, because they come to the realization that they’re company is going to be screwed very soon.

For me, it’s an especially interesting experience to watch because I’ve long relegated economics and finance to the grey areas of my knowledge that I’m too far behind on to have a chance of understanding. I could embarrass myself very quickly with a list of current news events from recent times (Fanny and Freddy, the subprime mortgage crisis) that I didn't understand whatsoever.

So as someone who had no understand of this world these characters inhabited, I can truly say the film did a very good job of not making it exclusively about numbers and graphs. Rather, it was the emotions and consequences behind those numbers  It also helped that (whether it was making some thematic point), some of the higher ups in the company had no idea what those numbers meant either.

The film’s biggest strength is how the ensemble is all on the same page. Zach Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey (hamming it up as the most conflicted character), Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Jeremy Irons all seem to bring a surprising intensity to a movie that’s basically set in the same two or three rooms and features a fair amount of quasi-technobabble.

This film is definitely a keeper for my top ten as well, somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly about more than a film like “Bridesmaids” and I’m not sure where I compare it to “Win Win” which has a little more heart but has a little less solid of a cast.

The Help:

It’s probably safe to assume that the genteel life of bridge games and debutante balls in 1960’s Mississippi with those colored women lurking the background of family photos was probably a morally grayer zone than depicted in “The Help.” In this film, you have heroes and villains with Bryce Dallas Howard playing Cruella de Vil donned in the makings of a society gal. Words that I would associate with Bryce Dallas Howard (someone who I’ve been eagerly following since my older sister randomly became friends with her at summer camp 15 years ago) are enigmatic, quiet, and reserved. This is a major change of pace for her.

The hero is independent gal Eugena “Skeeter” (what a name!) Phalem, who bucks the trend by going to University of Mississippi and majoring in something other than husband-hunting. For a film that would eventually make the short-list for Oscar if all goes according to plan this Tuesday, Emma Stone was a risky choice for the lead. She looks like Lindsay Lohan and her career trajectory up to this point (minus the drugs) has mirrored hers. Stone pulls the leading role off admirably.

Aside from Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard, this film boasts a very strong cast and one of the few films that’s loaded with great female talent without looking like it’s simply an excuse to win someone an Oscar in the ordinarily thin “Best Actress” category. Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janey, and Jessica Chastain (who holds the distinction of being in literally half the films to come out in 2011) have great parts while Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis provide the heart of the film as the two African-American maids who Emma Stone is interviewing to get the maids’ side of the story.

The film still does an excellent job at capturing a place and time, although I do wonder if it’s the most interesting place and time  

This is definitely not a film that reaches for the tragic depths of The Color Purple or Mississippi Burning. The abuse that the maids suffer is relatively mild that maids suffer in comparison to other points or subsets of in the Civil Rights era. Without having a firm working knowledge on 1960’s Mississippi, it’s a little hard for the viewer to decide how badly to feel for the protagonists. They are, after all, getting paid to do a job, and on occasion, they seem to have friendly employers.

It’s through the framing device of Emma’s story and a New York publisher’s (Mary Steenburgen’s) reaction that we learn that race divisions were tense enough that no one would willingly trash their employer. Of course, no one looks good trashing their employer today, but you get the sense that the repercussions might be more dangerous.

If there’s one other slight weakness, I’m not sure if I’m conditioned to expect dramatic films to be devoid of comedy, but some moments in the second half of the film felt more screwball comedy than cathartic. The major plot point revolving around a (without spoiling too much) rather unique slice of pie, seems a little more like a scene from some zany children's flick than a film with the kind of aim this film goes for.

The Help is still a film that swings for the fences.

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