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I know that some people crave a sense of realness from their movies.  They want characters to talk and act like real people.  They want actors to portray someone who seems like an actual person.  I’ve long made it clear that such things don’t really influence my opinion of a movie.  Well, if any movie was going to put that maxim to the test, it’d be Moneyball.

I’ll spare you my life’s story, but suffice it to say I’ve been familiar with sabermetric thought for at least a decade (thanks Ian!) and so Moneyball was perhaps the 2011 movie I was most anticipating, even if I wasn’t quite looking forward to it.  After that Soderbergh mess (an animated Bill James?!), how could Zaillan, Sorkin, and Bennett Miller make a coherent film out of the book?  Could Brad Pitt make baseball sexy?  Who on earth was going to see a movie about baseball economics?  Would I be able to handle poetic license in a story I know so well?

As it turn out the answers are: More than expected, Brad Pitt can make anything sexy, plenty of people, and maybe. Zaillan and Sorkin (although, to be honest, I didn’t really hear Sorkin’s voice in the movie, save for a line or two) ended up telling a rather  familiar story: a dashing, tolerably flawed hero teams up with his young sidekick and uses his smarts to (almost) vanquish the richer, more powerful bad guys.  The screenwriters stripped away a lot of the story of course, they had to, but they ended up with a marketable movie that still feels very faithful to the book.  Which is a rather impressive feat.

While the story may have ended up coherent, it felt far from complete.  Part of that stems from the trap into which so many adaptations fall – the compulsive need to name drop bits of the source story without enough explanation.  The well-known jean salesman line felt forced, for example.  But more than that, I’m not sure the characters were given compelling arcs.  The ancillary characters (so everyone who wasn’t Brad Pitt or Jonah Hill) flitted in and out of the film willy-nilly.  All of the players, Brad Pitt’s ex-wife and kid, the old braintrust, the A’s owner, everyone showed up for a scene or two, never to return.  Some have talked about Billy Beane as a father, but I don’t think that subplot is nearly present enough to be worth mentioning.

I suppose I’m partially upset because the film grabbed a lot of actors I like and gave them nothing to do.  Chris Pratt has a dozen lines.  Tammy Blanchard has four seconds of screen time.  I bet you didn’t even realize Nick Searcy (Timothy Olyphant’s boss on Justified) was in the film.  Philip Seymour Hoffman got a couple of scenes, I guess.

But fine, this is Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s story.  Or is it?  Jonah Hill is just there to look out of place and suggest players.  No character development there.  Hill was a savvy casting choice though, I think.  The character isn’t much more than highbrow comic relief.  Look at the nerd be uncomfortable around athletes!  Hill obviously can handle that with ease.

The whole time, it felt to me like Brad Pitt was doing an impression of Kyle Chander’s Coach Taylor from FNL.  A very good one, of course, since Brad Pitt is very talented.  Even if he’s constantly eating on screen.  Which I think is a function of how he tends to act with his hands, but that’s a different post.

I’ve been working on this post, off and on, for a couple of weeks now, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get it to where I want.  Because I did like movie OK, but I keep wanting to be super reactionary to the fact that it is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, which just does not make sense to me.  And so I keep struggling to see the movie that others seem to see, even though I’m not close to finding it.  Sure, I found it a little weird from a baseball perspective that they didn’t mention starting pitching.  And from econ perspective that they don’t really justify the Carlos Pena trade.  And from a modern perspective the comment about how defense doesn’t matter.  And from an Orioles/lover of baseball players as actors that there wasn’t more Royce Clayton as Miguel Tejada.

But I think I can put all that aside and say that I’m pretty convinced critics, generally speaking, are wrong on this one.  I don’t know if they were distracted by Brad Pitt or what, but this film isn’t an extremely well told story.  It is a mostly competently told one.  The team did an admirable job adapting the book, but there’s no way the screenplay should be in line for an Oscar nomination, much less be a front-runner.

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Sometimes I leave a theater and think, “What was the point of that?” It tends mostly to happen with films that dwell in negativity without any obvious message, like There Will Be Blood. That’s a film I still can’t wrap my mind around as far as what it was trying to say.

But I’m not sure wondering about a film’s point is entirely fair. There are plenty of recent movies I’ve loved whose points – or lack thereof – never gave me pause. I can’t say I bothered with wondering about the points of The Bank Job or Zombieland. For these films a good, well-told story is a point unto itself. Heck, straight entertainment is a pretty good point. Maybe expectations are higher for prestige pics and I demand more, but even for these pictures I try to extend the principle that sometimes a story well-told is good enough. Some movies just eschew messages and themes for story, character, style, and atmosphere.

And that takes me to Inglourious Basterds, a film that really seems to eschew message. And if I can pat myself on the back I think I did a good job enjoying it despite it having no point. It’s a good, very enjoyable film with lots of fun, stylistic flourishes. I think what keeps it from being a great film is that it also doesn’t really have a story. There’s an overarching idea of Jewish American soldiers killing Nazis and a French Jew’s revenge plot to take out important Nazis. But instead of telling the whole tale, the film is divided into several vignettes, like Tarantino decided to just skip to the good parts. It seems to me his only real point is to be awesome, which certainly makes for an entertaining film but I think I need a bit more ambition to really love a movie.

The Weinsteins are gearing up for a Best Picture nomination campaign for it. I can’t say I really could get behind the nomination on its merits, but it would be an interesting, outside-the-box type nomination and those are always welcome. With ten nominations it’s hard to imagine a Basterds nod will squeeze out a personal favorite. I’ve also never been a huge Tarantino fan – I like him fine but his films are never a must-watch for me – but he’s undeniably an important and influential modern director with a dearth of Oscar recognition beyond Pulp Fiction (for which he won the Original Screenplay award). I can imagine forty years from now later generations of Oscar watchers wondering how the Academy managed to ignore him so often.

Beyond Best Picture and Tarantino as writer and director, Christoph Waltz seems to be a lock for a Supporting Actor nod for his role as an evil SS commander. That will certainly be well-deserved as Waltz is the primary image that remains in my mind from this film. He’s so deliciously evil, scheming, ad creepy. I’m not sure what else the Weinsteins are aiming for. Melanie Laurent for sure, though who knows whether in Supporting or Lead. Maybe Diane Kruger too? Or Brad Pitt? None would be a bad choice. And along with the film’s intense kick-assery could come some technical recognition (Editing? Score? Art Direction? Costume?).

Anyway, Inglourious Basterds is certainly one of the most distinctive films of the year and an enjoyable and entertaining one at that. I think it’s a testament to Tarantino’s cultural importance (and the Weinsteins’ PR prowess) that it’s even in the discussion for top prizes. But, even if I don’t think it’s in that top echelon of films, it’s hard to argue when something a bit different sneaks into the Academy’s exclusive club.

It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we thought of the Best Actor category:

Read the rest of this entry »

It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we though of the Best Supporting Actor category:

Read the rest of this entry »

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