Moneyball

September 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Out of all of the sports in America, baseball has the most mystique. That’s always been the pull, I think, in its history. Funny game. Can’t figure it out. We try. We’ve been trying for over a century to put a finger on the pulse of the game. But really, with all of its tradition, its pattern behavior, its rock steady consistency, baseball can be all over the place. We try to normalize it by using statistics to define it. Is this guy a good player, or just a good hitter? We use terms like “5-tool” to quantify how good a player can be. Is there any other sport that we do this for? There are specialists in baseball, but they’re not every day players, like in another sport. In basketball, a scoring specialist can still be in your starting five. In football, a guy with velcro hands will most likely be among your starting wide receivers. In baseball, a guy who just steals bases will be a pinch runner. A guy who can hit in a tight spot is your pinch hitter. If you’ve got a guy with a killer curveball, he’s your 8th inning set up guy–or just someone to bring in to get one guy out. Maybe it’s a lefty-lefty matchup.

In “Moneyball”, the GM of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), along with his numbers-crunching economist, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are faced with a very common problem among any team that isn’t the New York Yankees. Beane is given a very small payroll, and his team’s been gutted. It’s 2003, following a disappointing 2002 post season series loss to the Yankees. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen, all blue chip players, are gone. So he’s left to replace these players, which he knows, of course, is impossible. After a dubious meeting with the general manager of the Cleveland Indians to try and re-build his team, he takes notice of a kid that nixes a deal that would send a good prospect to the Oakland A’s. Beane is taken by the kid, a recent Yale grad, who is good with numbers, but isn’t very respected by his bosses. Peter Brand thinks there’s a better way of looking at players–their value, rather than just their name or their hitting ability.

Beane assembles a team of players who don’t even know the position they’re supposed to play (one player is a former catcher who can’t throw anymore, and is expected to play first base). Beane faces opposition from not only his team of scouts, but of his team’s manager as well (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). He’s taking a big risk by doing something this unconventional, and his team starts off extremely poorly, leading to more criticism from the world of baseball.

He’s also haunted by his own past as a can’t-miss prospect baseball player who was actually considered a “5-tool” player by scouts. He was offered a full scholarship to Stanford, but turns it down in favor of playing in the big leagues for the New York Mets at the young age of 18. What happens in his career isn’t uncommon–he can’t keep up with the game. He eventually is out of the game, and returns as a scout. What’s interesting about Beane is that he’ll look at players the same way he looked at himself. He’s a general manager who was also a former player. He has more of a stake in evaluating the talent of a player, in theory.

Not every move Beane makes works out, and what is very obvious throughout this story is that it’s not all about the wins and losses, although Beane can’t stand to lose. He says nothing matters until you “win the last game of the series”. But what he does is put together a team that finds ways to win because they play a very fundamental game. Nobody steals; everybody is supposed to get on base. It’s small-ball.

Eventually, Beane’s approach does start to work out, though, and even leads to an historic 20-game winning streak by the A’s that puts them in front of the American League West division. There’s a great sequence in which the clinching game starts off as an 11-0 laugher in the 4th inning that convinces Beane to, for once, actually watch the game. He is never seen watching a game prior to this. What he sees in front of his eyes, though, is what every fan goes through when it comes to jinxes. He watches as the 11-0 lead is bled to the point where the opposing team actually ties the game at 11 all. The manager, who had been opposed to Beane’s approach for most of the season, finally puts in a player that Beane had selected. This is the guy who can’t play first base. All he’s brought in to do is get on base. What he does, however, is hit a home run that wins the game.

In that whole sequence, we see what baseball is, and what effect it has on people like Beane. Everything from curses, miracles, redemption, and just the oddball nature of baseball, is illustrated in that scene. It defines what the movie is about. You can’t control baseball–but you can enjoy the ride, sometimes.

Some criticism of the film’s portrayal of the events may be directed at the fact the A’s did not “win anything” while this philosophy was implemented. While Beane himself wants to win, the movie’s agenda and Beane’s isn’t exactly one in the same. What you see are the good little stories that come out of a team that was predicted to be laughing stock of the league. And who says there can’t be great teams that didn’t win a championship? How about the Bills teams of the early 90’s? The 2001 Seattle Mariners that won 116 games. The ’85 Boston Celtics. Sure, a lot of it comes down to your own perspective. But the point of this movie isn’t about winning; it’s about innovating. It’s about striving to change. Baseball is always going to remain the same; but that doesn’t mean you have to go through the motions. And eventually, change works, as illustrated in the last line of the film displayed on the screen about the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004.

As much as this movie involves baseball, those who don’t follow the game or care about it could still enjoy this film. There’s a universal human element to it that can be appreciated by anyone who’s had to face adversity in their life…so pretty much anybody could relate to some of the themes. The performances are strong, and the film has some really big laughs that you don’t necessarily have to understand baseball in order to get. It’s a feel-good type of movie but it isn’t manipulative or patronizing. It’s about as natural flowing as a good, clean, non-Joe West umpired game of baseball.

My rating: :D

The Social Network

October 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

I guess you could pinpoint 2003 as the turning point in American mainstream internet usage to include “social networking”, even though it has been a part of computer usage since as early as the 1980’s and probably earlier than that. But the explosion of sites like MySpace and the lesser known Friendster brought it to the forefront and meanwhile in that snooty little college establishment known as Harvard, sniveling jerks were hard at work at revolutionizing easily the most prominent and vibrant internet social community we now know as Facebook.

Millions of people around the world use this site as a way of connecting, and reconnecting, with friends and family. It’s gotten to the point where you could very well see your own grandmother or great aunt “poking” you or “tagging” you in a photo. It’s kind of awkward and sick, but it’s the way things are now. So get used to it?

I suppose it’s apt, then, that we find out the story behind the making of Facebook since it is so popular and mainstream now. And Hollywood spared no expense. David Fincher, who has made himself a household name with films like “Fight Club”, “Se7en”, and the recent Oscar nominated “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, brings us this story that was already adapted as a book in “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich who came to fame with “Bringing Down the House”, the story of MIT grads who took down Las Vegas casinos with their Blackjack skills. Just like that book, the story is stylized and sensationalized so that we skip all the geeky intricacies of how things like this can be developed and get right to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that people clamor for.

Well, just like in the film adaptation of “Bringing Down the House” which was the surprisingly drab and banal “21”, “The Social Network” fails on every level it’s trying to succeed on. Not only boasting the Oscar nominated David Fincher, but they also brought in Aaron Sorkin to write the script, Trent Reznor to co-write the score, and got some hot rising stars like Jesse Eisenberg (“Adventureland”, “Zombieland”), Andrew Garfield (“The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”), and the already famous Justin Timberlake.

But these elements don’t come together as a slam dunk as it should have. Sorkin’s tired act of making every character sound like they have an IQ of 160 grows weary within the first 15 minutes, and he doesn’t develop the characters at all. We’re supposed to understand that Mark Zuckerberg, the “inventor” of Facebook, is cold, calculating and backstabbing. But he’s also somewhat misunderstood. Unfortunately, through Zuckerberg’s cold gaze, we never really get to know him at all. Even if that’s Sorkin’s point–why make this movie in the first place?

The film begins auspiciously enough with Zuckerberg and his girlfriend having a far more intelligent conversation than they probably should which involves him saying he wants to join a “Final Club” after getting a perfect 1600 on his SAT’s which got him into Harvard in the first place. He says you have to do something special to be in a Final Club. His girlfriend doesn’t get it. And he writes her off, and she gets mad. Later, when he’s somewhat drunk, he blogs about her publicly and then designs a web site comparing different female co-eds from different campuses. His site is a big hit, but he also further damages his relationship with the girl that he kind of wants back.

Now here you have a promising premise…that never goes anywhere. And that’s because the film jumps from that right into the law suits that Zuckerberg (played by Eisenberg to the best of his ability) is having with his former associate, Eduardo Saverin (played by Garfield in another strong role). He’s also involved with a law suit from twin Harvard students named Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (try saying that name 5 times fast) that claim he stole their idea for Facebook. The story from there is an overblown and curiously undramatic study in betrayal and backstabbing that leads to the demise of the friendship between Eduardo and Zuckerberg.

The problem is that the friendship itself isn’t well established, and Zuckerberg is so hard to read that you never know what his motivations are or why he does any of the things he ends up doing. The other problem is that the real story isn’t even close to what this sensationalized adaptation is, and if you’re going to get it wrong, get it wrong the way they did in “Braveheart” at least. Make it interesting! There’s absolutely nothing interesting about these characters, and you couldn’t care less what happens to them because you know in the end they all become multi millionaires anyway. There’s no sense of loss, no sense of real calamity–and worst, there’s no conflict. There’s no explanation on why Zuckerberg turns to Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake playing Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker) except that maybe it’s because he’s Justin Timberlake, and how can you turn down an offer from Justin Timberlake? The guy’s so cool.

There are moments where the story could develop but Sorkin manages to dismantle his own story by his dialog getting in the way of actual plot development. What works so well in “The West Wing” or “Sports Night” is that the story is told through the characters, and the dialog is a rhythmic progression that is like music that moves the story along. Here, it’s used as a device to simply boast how smart Sorkin is as a dialog writer. It serves no purpose and winds up coming off as smug and aloof to what the audience wants to see–which is drama.

Nothing’s really at stake for these characters and so they come off as just spoiled rich kids–which is exactly what they are. Yes, they’re smart. Zuckerberg deserves the credit he gets for being innovative. However, not only did he have a lot of help–but it’s not like Facebook was the first social network that was popular. It’s just that it’s the most popular *now*. MySpace was all the rage in 2006, and back in the mid 90’s, BBS’s were the way to go for social networking.

But the movie never delves into the actual development of Facebook, what makes it so easy and accessible and why people are addicted to it. Instead the film boasts a lot of attractive people drinking Appletinis and loud thumping club scenes that not only probably didn’t happen in real life, but aren’t interesting to watch either.

What I would’ve liked to have seen, and what this movie totally lacks, is a clear perspective. We’re never sure why Zuckerberg needs to create this social network–is it because he’s lonely because it’s so hard for him to make friends with someone because he’s so insufferable as a person? Sure that’s touched upon, but it’s never really paid off. Make this into a story about Zuckerberg’s personal toil with his own introverted nature and anti-socialism and what he lacks with people…and then ironically creates the most popular social networking site, possibly of all time. The film nicks and nibbles at this theme but it never fully explores it. It leaves it hanging in dead air.

While Facebook may have brought to light something that many were unaware of and revolutionized something in our culture, “The Social Network” did not.

My rating: :(