Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Moneyball - Bennett Miller (2011)

  1.  Moneyball is a surprisingly engaging film about using statistical analysis, or sabermetrics, to assemble a successful baseball team.
  2. But it’s ok, it was written by Aaron Sorkin who also did The Social Network, the best film about a court case about a website that you are ever likely to see, and it was directed by Bennett Miller, whose last film was Capote.
  3. You have to wonder whether Miller even likes baseball. His depiction of it is bleak – the players are exploited, the scouts are liver-spotted charlatans, the owners are shark-eyed capitalists. Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, is unable to even watch his team play, because he’s terrified he’ll jinx their game, so the game itself features hardly at all. Ok, there are a few graphs and some montages, but that’s more or less it. In fact, Miller seems to have ended up making a sort of anti-sports movie, which is probably good thing, given that the baseball is up there with cricket and kabbadi in the wilful tedium stakes.
  4. Miller took over from Steven Soderberg, who wanted to turn it into one his of his multiple storyline films, following the car journeys of 20,000 individual Oakland As fans on their way to the stadium.
  5. You suspect Brad Pitt is the man who made this film happen, since he’s been allowed to play his favourite version of Brad Pitt. In this sense the film is of a piece with The Ides of March, and The Rum Diary. A major star shooting an eccentric, otherwise virtually un-financeable script. You might see this as A-list males bankrolling their own B-movies. But even if these films aren’t as good as they’re making out, at least they’re way more interesting than studio pictures cobbled together from green paper, CGI and market research.
  6. Aaron Sorkin is a huge Freudian. His stories are all about characters processing trauma. So Zuckerberg becomes the geek who can't relate who creates the ultimate system for mapping social relationships. Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, which, yes Sorkin also wrote when he was about 15) is the lawyer who can't stand up in court because he’s so intimidated by his memory of his father, the star court lawyer, and ends up having to face down the ultimate father figure: a bristling Jack Nicholson. And here Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the baseball player who was overrated by scouts as a young man, brings down the temple of subjective baseball analysis with sabermetrics.
  7. It's a great way of writing satisfying films, but it’s sort of misleading, because it makes it look like a situation has arisen in order that the character can process their stuff. This is an illusion, brought about by the fact that Sorkin has worked backward from the event to the trauma, when in real life the trauma happens first, and there probably isn't any kind of causal relationship anyway. 
  8. Sorkin used to like to freebase cocaine. He said ‘I had found a drug I absolutely love and that gave me a real break from a certain nervous tension that I kind of carry with me moment to moment.’ In a Sorkin film Sorkin would be a writer who learns to process his dissatisfaction with real life by writing screenplays where the dialogue is always perfectly polished and everyone has a sharp comeback ready. Miller allows his actors to hesitate, talk over one another and repeat lines which gives all the smart stuff the patina of realism. It works surprisingly well, even if you can't quite believe that people who work in baseball are anything like this entertaining.
  9. You’ll notice that Beane has a load of pictures of The Clash on the wall in his office. These are from the single date the Clash played at the Oakland  in 1982, supporting the Who - you can tell because Strummer has his 80s wide Mohican going – like in the Rock the Casbah video.
  10. Aaron Sorkin could probably write a script about eastern mysticism, field theory and kabbadi and it might even be interesting, so long as they didn't let Steven Soderberg direct it.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Margaret - Kenneth Lonergan (2011)

  1. Margaret is a flawed, overloaded, but moving film by Kenneth Lonergan.
  2. Who's Kenneth Lonergan? Well, he wrote Analyze This and, yeah, ok, The Gangs of New York. But wait, Margaret is really good, and at no point do gangs of men march on set, armed with a range of cutlery, and introduce themselves. If you're wondering what Lonergan looks like, he plays Anna Paquin's screenwriter dad here.
  3. Don’t Matt Damon and Anna Paquin look terrific? It’s not CGI, it’s just that this movie has been trapped in post-production since 2006. Lonergan shot hundreds of hours of footage but couldn’t arrive at a cut he could live with. Fox Searchlight, to their credit, wouldn’t release the film without his approval – but they did sue him, hard, for not getting his shit together. This explains why, despite having some major stars in it, there was zero publicity, and you can only see it in about two London cinemas.
  4. What you’re watching is a cut by Martin Scorsese, signed off by Lonergan. Things have to get pretty bad before people start saying ‘let’s get Scorsese to do this, at least he’s not such a perfectionist.’
  5. It’s a film about sympathy, and how much we can really be expected to feel for other people.
  6. All modern life depends on apathy. For instance, it’s only possible to inhabit a city like New York or London because, beyond your family and closest acquaintance, you don’t really care what happens to the human beings around you. Imagine the emotional ‘load’ of a single London tube carriage: all the hopes, dreams and fears of all those people sitting in close proximity to you. Compare that with your own deafening sense of isolation when sitting on the tube. The city has turned you into a psychopath. Why, you could probably watch someone being horribly maimed in a traffic accident and have forgotten about it by lunchtime.
  7. Or could you? Are there certain kinds of tragedy that would force you into deep sympathetic contact with the strangers around you. And how would that be? Isn't there something greedy-seeming and, ironically, unsympathetic, about trying to participate in someone else’s emotional life without their permission? And how do we choose who we feel for and who we don’t? These are just a few of the pleasantly un-worked-out questions that the film raises.
  8. There is no one in this film called Margaret – the title comes from a poem, Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s about a little girl crying for the dead leaves in Autumn. Hopkins basically explains to her that she’s crying for her future self who’s bound to end up so weighed down with human misery that things like dead leaves just won’t even touch the sides. Just one good reason for never leaving your child alone with a Jesuit.
  9. You probably noticed that, in the scene in which Joan and Lisa sit down in the New York Opera House, the shot is an extension of your own view of the cinema’s seating. It’s a paradox that if you want to care about people you have to go to the opera. Or the cinema. Another paradox is that the people invested with responsibility for the public expression of emotion are actors, the most narcissistic, emotionally self-involved people there are.
  10. The experience which Lisa is having at the end of the film is catharsis, as described by Aristotle. The drawing out of emotion elicited by drama. The spooky thing is that what she’s watching is Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which has nothing to do with her situation whatever. Which is, realistically speaking, true of any work of art you've ever loved.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Rum Diary - Bruce Robinson (2011)

  1. The Rum Diary is a confused film about boozing in Puerto Rico, based on a novel by Hunter S. Thomson with a screenplay and direction from Bruce Robinson.
  2. Robinson is famous for Withnail and I, but he also made How to Get Ahead in Advertising, a poorly researched but entertaining morality tale about an ad executive (Do you mean executive or do you mean copywriter? Well how about you make up your fucking mind?) who grows a talking boil. He also wrote an autobiographical novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, which the 10-Point Review can't really recommend.
  3. About half-way through this film Johnny Depp's character, Kemp, visits a ghetto where he takes a picturesque photo of a young black girl through the window of an abandoned car. This scene is meant to demonstrate that Kemp is more than a tourist, he's a serious reporter with an axe to grind. Yes, fine, but the majority of the film is about getting drunk and chasing girls on a tropical island, which is more or less the modern definition of tourism. And all the other black people in it are hostile, frightening or sexually threatening. You cannot both have your cake, and also eat your cake.
  4. In fact, if you're scared of gays and black people you'll love this. As in Withnail and I male homosexuals are menacing, but in Puerto Rico it's not just Uncle Monty who wants to bugger you, there are a load of sailors who are just dying to get right into your ass. There's also the scene in which a sweating Chenault (Amber Heard) dances with a young black man whose abs look like they've been carved from an illegally logged Amazonian hardwood while her husband (Aaron Ekchart) is forcibly restrained, powerless to intervene. You probably recognised these scenes as the expressions of sexual neurosis they patently are. If you're this worried about being forced to suck cock, no wonder you have to drink so much.
  5. Speaking of which, there's a lot of cock fighting in this film, a blood sport that's illegal on the US mainland, but not in Puerto Rico. Its inclusion, in unflinching slow-motion, along with the racism and homophobia mentioned above, as well as the boozing, drug-taking, fast cars and the edible female lead, demonstrates the film's unrepentantly retro aesthetic. This is subtly different from the reconstructed retro of, say, Mad Men, which encourages the viewer to see the 60s in a slightly patronising light ('Nice suits, but if only they'd had therapy'). It's a sort of paean to a time when life was less complicated and/because these things were allowed to pass unexamined.
  6. Bruce Robinson is a recovering alcoholic who relapsed to write this screenplay. Maybe that's what gives the movie its holiday feel: an escape from reality and its concomitant moral responsibilities. (Is it ok to have sex with prostitutes if you only do it in Puerto Rico? Just asking.)
  7. You might consider this film as a sort of prequel to Terry Gilliam's, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Depp who at 35, played the 34-year-old Thompson in Fear and Loathing, now at 48 plays the 22-year-old Thompson in The Rum Diary. Basically he's twelve years older where he should be twelve years younger. It's confusing, and all you can take from it is that Jonny Depp looks fantastic for his age.
  8. Aaron Eckhart is forging a career as what William Burroughs called 'The Ugly American'. Which is not to say that he's ugly, but that's there's something about his too-good-to-be-true jawline that means he's inevitably cast as a representative of everything that's cruel in the American dream. A few decades ago he would just have been a leading man, a la Donald Sutherland, but now he appears in order to demonstrate the vulnerability of old America, brought about by its lack sensitivity. His girlfriend is bound to cheat on him.
  9. Hopeless sentimentality is as much a feature of alcoholism as drinking alcohol. And this film has a sentimental streak about a mile wide.
  10. 'Empower the fowl', 'Your tongue is an accusatory giblet! Keep it out!', 'Can you smell that? That's the smell of bastards' - these phrases are characteristic of Hunter S. Thomson's idiosyncratic voice. Yes, well, none of them are in the book - they come from Robinson, who, let us not forget, could write a line for Uncle Monty like ' Come on lads, let's get home, the sky's beginning to bruise, night must fall and we shall be forced to camp.'