“Moneyball” underwhelming entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless

Pitt and Hill, partners in crime rebelling against baseball conventions in "MONEYBALL".

“Moneyball” lives in the shadow of the Facebook movie. It’s an unfortunate comparison, given my absurdly high regard for “The Social Network”, but it’s one that must be made. Both Columbia Pictures-backed, modestly budgeted adult fare slid into a near-identical fall release with a specific vernacular pertaining to a cultural revolution — in “The Social Network”s case, communication, in “Moneyball”s case, baseball. I suppose the most obvious parallel is their scribe, Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin’s dialogue often takes a sardonic, biting rhythm, as if each word stings as it rolls off the tongue. He dials that back for this Brad Pitt vehicle, taking a smooth, relaxed pace. The plot, adapted from one of Michael Lewis’s endless bestsellers, revolves around Oakland Athletics owner Billy Beane. Given a budget around a third of the major-league teams, Beane, along with a young statistician, Peter, devises a radical new method of compiling a successful team — one driven purely by statistics and calculations, not old adages or gut-instinct. The fact that the reserved, hyper-intelligent Peter is played by the guy who drew lots of penises in “Superbad” is totally irrelevant.

“Moneyball” moves at a measured pace, one that I’m not entirely sure was appropriate. Here, we have the story of two men betting their reputations and livelihoods on changing an American tradition. Director Bennett Miller certainly conveys the opposition to Beane’s theory, but never the rebellious, driven spirit that fueled him.

Beane’s struggle at home is certainly humanized well, in a moving subplot with his young daughter. But we get a little too much of the ‘Brad Pitt, meaningfully staring into distance’ stuff and not enough of the ‘Brad Pitt flying in the face of societal convention’ stuff.

This marks Miller’s sophomore effort as a director, after his 2005 work “Capote” which won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar. Hoffman collaborates with Miller again here, playing the team’s coach, Art, who represents a direct contrast to Beane’s theory. A running joke is how the press glorifies Beane’s accomplishments as Art’s own, but otherwise, Hoffman is definitely a side player.

Jonah Hill is the real revelation here, and it’s not because of any grand entrance or dramatic outburst — it’s because of his silence. The normally comic actor is totally dead-pan here, something that, ironically, can work to great comedic effect during his discourses with Pitt.

Chris Nolan’s go-to cinematographer Wally Pfister shoots offices and baseball stadiums with the same grandeur and intensity that he applies in Nolan’s works. “Moneyball”s structure imitates its storyline, in that it never quite offers a clear, triumphant victory that one would expect from a film of this genre.

The fact of the matter is, “Moneyball” is not a sports movie, nor is it an economics one. It’s about how one man’s personal philosophy, if championed just enough, can change the way traditions are carried. On one hand, it’s the story of one great American tradition, baseball, but on the other hand, it’s the story of an even greater one: Revolution. Who can root against that? B

“Drive” the film of the year.

No caption needed. Driver drives.

As long as the cinema has been around, a prominent fixture in its works have been guns. More specifically, the little metal cylinders that empty out of them, who it goes into, and why. Somewhere along the way, however, the visceral impact of guns have been watered down. You don’t really feel the bullets anymore, to be honest. One of the many distinctive things about Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” — every bullet goes off like a bomb. This is partly due to the booming sound choices Refn takes. However, it’s mostly because “Drive” has a pervasive silence — dialogue is fairly rare, and when it is, it’s absolutely vital. Refn structures “Drive” almost like a game of Jenga — taking a fully developed, built tower (or in this case, film) and seeing how many elements he can remove without it falling apart. “Drive” is a film with all the fat trimmed — every beat, pause, line, gun-shot, and glance is vital. Everything – forgive the pun – drives the film forward.

Ryan Gosling is the star, as tends to be the case with most quality American cinema in recent months. Gosling is the lead character in a film called “Drive”, and so it is appropriate that in the film he, yes, drives. He has no name, nor a backstory. All we know is that he’s a stunt driver by day and criminal-getaway driver by night. After becoming involved with a woman from his apartment block, he becomes involved in a heist. Like all movie heists must, this goes very wrong. To reveal more, as the marketing campaign apparently did (I made it a point to avoid trailers for this film), would be a total injustice. Just know that some very bad things happen and a very interesting side of our Driver is revealed.

Gosling plays Driver with a slippery cool; always hinting at emotions and reactions but never betraying them until very late into the film. What leads Driver to let down his cool is actress Carey Mulligan, whose talent and unbelievable cuteness seemingly feed off one another with each subsequent film she makes. The two have a refreshing lack of verbal interplay explaining how much they love each other — Gosling and Mulligan do something much more rare. They glance. They act. Stars should try it sometime.

“Drive” may play mainly off these two, but it sports an impeccable supporting cast that add flair and personality to the proceedings. “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston is great as Driver’s mentor, and Ron Perlman as well, as Cranston’s parallel to the main villain — Albert Brooks. Brooks pulls a 180 on his traditional persona, playing a wonderfully evil, hilariously venomous man. I can’t quite spoil how he relates to Driver, aside from the obvious point that the two come into very direct, volatile conflict. Christina Hendricks is nice here. Her brains make for a unique sight.

“Drive” is not so much an action picture as it is a funky little art-house concoction, that happens to have A-list stars, gunfights and some incredible car-chases. Seriously, the opening sequence of this film is a complete nail-biter — Driver navigates two passengers/wanted thieves through a web of cop-cars and helicopters in downtown Los Angeles. “Drive” seems to be full of these brilliant little moments of either unbelievable tension, or ones of almost cartoonishly grotesque violence. Forks, boots, and window-panes are utilized in the process.

Propelled by Cliff Martinez’s atmospheric, synth-driven score, “Drive”s denim jackets, tooth-picks and hot-pink title-sequence all carry a distinctively ’80’s style, one not really used for more than atmosphere. But still — what atmosphere!

All of this font and all of these words (assuming this review reaches your hands unedited, thus far I count 611) describe what “Drive” is like, but what convinces me this film is a masterpiece is that I can’t really articulate the instinct that I get, that I KNOW it’s special. “Drive” is a film that on script, was a pure genre exercise. On screen, it’s rollicking, hypnotic entertainment. A

“Contagion” daring, clinical look at societal meltdown

Matt Damon trying to escape newly-quarantined Minnesota in "Contagion".

In my time as amateur film-critic/connoisseur, I have to use the bathroom really quite often. This seems a really bizarre place to start a movie review, but then, do you really expect anything too traditional from my end? I say this not to shock or elicit a giggle, but because I had to go really freaking bad during the entirety of Steven Soderbergh’s 105-minute disaster epic “Contagion”. And you know what? I sat there the entire time, not really caring one way or another whether I was in fairly intense abdominal pain. So gripping is his vision of society’s meltdown, I felt to miss a frame would be a disservice. You tell me the last movie that pinned you to your seat like that.

“Contagion” is helmed by the man I believe to be American cinema’s most exciting filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh. Over the years the man’s cranked out star-studded extravaganzas, documentaries, five-hour epics, explorations of eroticism, Julia Roberts vehicles, and, I kid you not, an experimental drama with porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role.

The fact that his quality can be inconsistent misses the point. The man will do anything and everything, putting a distinctive stamp on anything he touches. With “Contagion” Soderbergh adds another notch to his belt: master of terror. Yeah, “Contagion” is the most terrifying movie of the year and pulls this off without so much as a jump-scare.

Watching people chased with knifes and chainsaws can be scary, but considering that most level-headed individuals have not had such an experience, there’s a degree of distance to the proceedings. What if something so simple as a touch or a cough could have you contract a virus, putting you and anyone you contact six feet under? And furthermore, what happens when it spreads all over the world until there isn’t any more room six feet under?

These are only some of the questions “Contagion” answers, with a very deliberate, realistic style courtesy of “Bourne Ultimatum” scribe Scott Burns. Burns extensively researched his material for the film, even working with the CDC to create an authentic virus. Although occasionally at the expense of organically developed dialogue, authenticity pays off handsomely, never calling to attention its status as a multimillion-dollar blockbuster with an Oscar winner in almost every frame.

Among them are Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould, John Hawkes, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. (Because what’s a tentpole blockbuster without a famed neurosurgeon playing himself?) Damon aside, who sinks himself into the role of a pudgy, unassuming newly-single father, none of them carry particularly deep, memorable roles, but then again, such is not the point. They are essentially inserts for the audience to hook their emotions in, and with their characters including bloggers, specialists, doctors and janitors, I’m sure at least one will do the trick.

We are intended to care for their plight, but Soderbergh always reminds of the grander scale of things — he’s not afraid to kill off Gwyneth Paltrow in the first ten minutes of the film, and he’s not really afraid to remind us that it doesn’t matter too much, either. Why mourn the passing of one when billions more tiptoe death’s door? And why not throw boatloads of praise onto a studio-backed film that will so fearlessly pose such a question? A-