Friday, September 23, 2011

Movie Review: “Moneyball”

“Moneyball” scores a home run.

**** ½ out of 5
Rated PG-13 for some strong language.
133 minutes
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Moneyball on Blogcritics.

Ah, the sweet fall season has arrived. While most around the country are gearing up for some football, I am privy to another time honored tradition, Oscar season. Ironically, I don’t care a whole lot for sports in general. I have come to accept the game of football as a way of life for the rest of my life having married into Steeler Nation, but I have always had a sweet spot for baseball. While some may claim this to be one of the more boring sports, maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s the only sport I played when I was a kid. Granted, it was only for one little league season, but there’s no denying this is where that seed had to have been planted.

Growing up I was the brains of three siblings. Academics was where my specialty lied and I did not try to pretend it was on some field. Perhaps this is why a film such as “Moneyball” scores a home run for me. When you have a critically acclaimed filmmaker at the helm, Bennett Miller (“Capote”), backed up by two Oscar-winning screenwriters, Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) adapting the Michael Lewis novel, I’d say the decks are stacked in your favor. Having Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jonah Hill playing on your team only closes the deal.

It’s pretty easy to skimp on synopsis when everyone has known the story for ten years now. Billy Beane (Pitt) is General Manager to the Oakland A’s and has had his team gutted after losing a big elimination game. Budget restrictions keep Beane from being able to afford to replace the trio of Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon. Beane seems to be the only person who realizes that there’s “rich teams, poor teams, fifty feet of crap, and then them,” when it comes to money. Beane enlists the help of Yale Econ wiz kid Peter Brand to build him a winning team – including Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) and David Justice (Stephen Bishop) – with the budget they have based on Bill James’ system of sabermetrics.

Now Beane and Pete are up against the teams own scouts and coach (Art Howe, played by Hoffman) who are up in arms as the team delves into the season with a huge losing streak. Reason being that Art refuses to play their game of statistics. But it doesn’t take long before Beane gets his way, thanks to trading off Art’s starting lineup. Now the A’s are off on their 20-game-winning streak leading them back to another fateful elimination game. On the sidelines we get great moments between Beane and Pete (who gets to learn how to cut players and talk their owner into more money for trades), and Beane with his daughter Casey (the adorably charming Kerris Dorsey).

Director Miller sure makes the 133-minute runtime fly by, in quite the same way that David Fincher pulled off last year with Sorkin’s “Social Network.” He also employs a lot of the same tone which should surely help them come voting time. Same can be said for both Pitt and Hill who have surprisingly amazing chemistry and it’s nice to see Miller keep the tone light and extremely comedic. The film could never be classified as a straight comedy, but you are certainly laughing the whole way through. So over the next few months, while everyone else is sitting around waiting to see if their team makes it to the Super Bowl, I’ll be patiently waiting to see who makes it to a Best Picture nominee. Although “Super 8” still remains my favorite film of the year that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the “best” film of the year. And while I still have yet to see both “Drive” and “50/50,” I’d say “Moneyball” is a pretty good bet.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Movie Review: “Dolphin Tale”

“How to Train Your Dolphin” only results in “Dolphin Fail.”

** out of 5
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements.
113 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Dolphin Tale on Blogcritics.

All throughout the ’80s and possibly into the early ’90s, family films were part of a great onslaught. Most of that could be chalked up to uber-producer Steven Spielberg, naturally. Ranging from “The Goonies” to “An American Tail” to “Free Willy” to “Ferngully,” it seemed like there was another one always right around the corner across two decades. Then something happened along the way. I’m not sure if it’s just that Hollywood has become so void of good ideas (which could be a weekly complaint of any year) or if they’ve just given up, but there’s something truly lacking about family films these days. So it should come as no surprise to hear that the already ludicrous looking “Dolphin Tale” fares no better.

With a resume ranging from R-rated horror and action b-movies (“Trick or Treat,” “Fifty/Fifty”) to the original “Air Bud,” I guess it’s no surprise to get a movie this lackluster from director Charles Martin Smith. Look no further than this still for all you need to know about what could possibly have been running through his mind while sitting in his director’s chair. You could expect a little more from in the screenplay department when it comes from Karen Janszen, someone who actually knows a little something about the genre whose credits consist of “Free Willy 2,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Duma,” and “Gracie.” Honestly, there really isn’t anything too trite in the writing department aside from a few odd character ramblings that make absolutely no sense. I can’t help but wonder if these are left over from Noam Dromi’s first draft. A suspicion reinforced by the use of the word “and” between their names in the writing credits.

“Dolphin Tale” is based on the true tale of a dolphin named Winter who plays herself in the movie. One day the curious dolphin is washed ashore caught in a crab trap. Local boy Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble, one of the worst child actors in recent memory) calls for help after Old Man Weather (Richard Libertini) can’t be bothered by a beached dolphin because he’s too busy being worried about his fishing rod. In comes the Clearwater Marine Hospital rescue squad to save the day after Sawyer cuts the trap off of Winter. Lead by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), Winter is off for some rescuing. After Sawyer skips summer school to check in on Winter, Sawyer meets Clay’s daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and the hospital’s pelican guard Rufus (because he lives on the roof, get it?).

Soon enough, Sawyer’s mom, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), gets a call from his summer school teacher (Ray McKinnon) informing her that he has missed an entire week of school. Sure enough, Sawyer takes his mom to the marine hospital and dazzles her with his excitement and love of all things marine. Lorraine talks the teacher into giving him credit for the class based on his involvement with Winter’s rehabilitation. There’s also side stories involving Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) being shipped off to serve his country and ultimately, Winter losing her tail due to her increasing infection. Eventually Winter learns to swim by slithering through the water like a snake but then we learn that it could damage her spinal cord and lead to her death. This is when Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) finally shows up to enliven the proceedings while he dives into Lucious Fox mode to invent a new fin for Winter.

If the pacing doesn’t kill this at the box office, the unintentional laughter just may. The film’s funniest line surprisingly comes from Ashley Judd while she’s talking to Sawyer’s teacher when she says, “This is what every parent and teacher dreams of seeing, a turned on student.” Not something you want to hear out of anyone’s mouth, especially in a feel-good family feature. But of course the film marches onward with hurricanes (referred to by Lorraine as “just a big ol’ storm”), an out of place action sequence involving a runaway R/C helicopter, and life lessons being learned all around. Thankfully I did not have to suffer through this in the third dimension as I cannot see how any second of this film could possibly benefit from it. And had the film actually been more about Winter and focused less on the family factor it would have worked phenomenally better. As it stands however, it’s just another nail in the coffin of family feature films and unfortunately “Dolphin Tale” simply winds up simply as “Dolphin Fail.”

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Movie Review: “Contagion”

While it's no “Outbreak,” be sure to catch “Contagion.”

**** out of 5
Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.
105 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Contagion (2011) on Blogcritics.

If a movie revolving around a group of doctors from the Centers for Disease Control trying to contain an epidemic sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Virus movies have been around forever and, in all honesty, I think there’s something scarier about a good old fashioned strain (“Outbreak”) versus say, one that turns people into rage-infected “zombies” (“28 Days Later”). I even did a full report on the nasty Ebolavirus back in high school after reading Richard Preston’s “The Hot Zone.” It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling again, and this time Steven Soderbergh is out to set an all time record of Purell sales with his all star cast in “Contagion.”

Spanning across 130 some–odd days, we first find Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) talking on the phone to someone who sounds to be a one night stand while waiting for a flight out of Hong Kong. With a nasty cough on hand she boards her flight and travels home to Minneapolis. Meanwhile, from Kowloon to London and Tokyo to Chicago, various people are all getting sick and eventually dying. Yes, it’s only a matter of days, four actually, for Beth to fall victim as well. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) gets the worst of it as his stepson Clark (Griffin Kane) also falls ill and eventually passes. Mitch seems to be immune. Thankfully, his daughter Jory Emhoff (Anna Jacoby-Heron) was out of town at her mother’s and is now all Mitch has left.

Meanwhile, at the CDC, the deaths and illnesses are brought to the attention of Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who sends Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to investigate. Throughout the ordeal there’s also Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) working for the World Health Organization, sent to Hong Kong to find out where the disease began. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) runs a blog who first spread the viral video of a man (Tien You Chui) in Hong Kong dying on a subway car. Working in Biosafety level 4 back at the CDC is Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and Dr. David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin). They pass the virus along to Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould); Ally believes that if he can’t figure out what it is, so they can grow it and develop an antibody, no one can.

What Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns have come up with here will set hypochondriacs running for the hills. When Mears dives into the explanation of R-Naughts (viral reproduction rates) and fomites, one can’t help but feel their skin really start to crawl.

Soderbergh’s cast brings their A-game, of course, but with this ensemble you would expect nothing less. A few minor quibbles are that Cliff Martinez’ score feels slightly out of place. Although most of the time it is what feeds the film’s pacing so for the most part it does its job well. And Cotillard’s storyline adds nothing to the proceedings aside from getting to look at her, and it seems like they didn’t quite know when to end the film or on what note. It’s nice to see a film not reliant upon nausea inducing shaky-cam. Although maybe Soderbergh figured that would be just a little too much considering the plot. In the end, fall has officially arrived and not a moment too soon before winter brings along its never ending cold and flu season. And if “Contagion” has its way, you’ll think twice before you touch that door handle on your way out of the theater.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures