Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by: Bennett Miller (“Capote”)
Written by: Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”)
In a world of competitive sports where a power lifter can basically bench press a bulldozer by sticking a syringe his ass cheek, it’s getting harder to believe any athlete is performing on an even playing field nowadays. Even without the roids, there’s always a company out there manufacturing high tops that add six inches to a basketball player’s vertical leap or polyurethane bodysuits that give swimmers increased speed and make Michael Phelps whine. Whatever the case, having an unfair advantage seems to beAmerica’s new favorite pastime.
When it comes to comparing championship teams with teams whose fans wear paper bags over their heads, however, it’s not all about whether 450-ft. homeruns are crushed off the bats of juicers. Sometimes it helps to have a few dollars stored away in the dugout. The idea that a team’s financial status can affect whether they succeed in their sport is examined in “Moneyball,” an exceptionally entertaining look at the true story behind Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and the unconventional route he takes in 2002 to transform his scrappy, penniless team into a competitive ball club. Call it “Bigger, Stronger, Faster, Richer.”
Based on the 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, the film follows Billy and his brainiac new assistant GM Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) as they work to keep up with the intimidating payrolls of powerhouse teams like the New York Yankees by signing ball players considered undervalued by rarely-recognized analytical statistics.
If “Moneyball” sounds like a baseball movie for nerds, it is. There are no bottom of the 9th, bases loaded clichés and sports heroics. Instead, Academy Award-winning screenwriters Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) dissect the game into an intriguing underdog story about one man’s belief in changing a good ol’ boy system he feels is outdated. Aficionados of the sport should admire the clubhouse access they get, especially during scenes where Billy builds his team as skillfully as a mathematician solving a proof. Pitt proves his big-league worth in this winning combination of thrilling drama and cynical dialogue.
Directed by Bennett Miller, whose previous film “Capote” won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar (he plays grumpy A’s manager Art Howe in this one), “Moneyball” is one of the best baseball movies ever made that’s actually not about baseball at all. With the way the game is played today, it’s nice to get something that feels so natural.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”)
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”)
As Brad Pitt’s character Lt. Aldo Raine retracts his bloody knife after carving a swastika into an enemy’s forehead at the end of “Inglourious Basterds” (misspelling intended), he admires his artistic work and makes a confident statement: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
If that’s any indication of what filmmaker Quentin Tarantino thinks about his new highly stylized World War II flick, he’s sorely mistaken. That doesn’t mean, however, that the director of such films as “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” hasn’t delivered audiences a very entertaining spectacle. Along with Tarantino’s unique directorial approach and take on German history, an undoubtedly remarkable performance by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz makes “Inglourious Basterds” a summer blockbuster must-see.
In the film, Lt. Raine (Pitt) leads a bloodlusting team of Jewish soldiers known as the Basterds through France killing Nazis and collecting their scalps. Tarantino settles on Lt. Raine to be the spokesperson for his “bushwhacking guerilla army” and therefore doesn’t bother much with the stories of the other members of the renegade militia. We do learn a bit about Eli Roth’s character Sgt. Donny Donowitz (AKA the Bear Jew), whose weapon of choice for killing members of the Third Reich is a baseball bat, and the sadistic streak of Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). Other than that, the rest of the Basterds are lost in the gunfire.
Those who think “Inglourious Basterds” is really all about “killin’ Nazis” will be disappointed. This isn’t a story like “Kill Bill” where the Bride is checking off victims from her hit list one by one. It’s interesting that Tarantino went with the title “Inglourious Basterds” in the first place. One of the many working titles, “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” which is used as a chapter title instead, fits the synopsis much better since the Basterds themselves are only a fraction of the action.
The rest of the film follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish movie theater owner who four years prior escaped a massacre involving her entire family. Back to his familiar theme of revenge, Tarantino sets Shosanna on that exact path when she finds out her theater has been chosen to host the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film. With the screening being attended by the most high-ranking Third Reich officers, Shosanna see an opportunity to get her revenge and ultimately end the war in one night.
But with an always-suspicious Col. Hans Landa (Waltz), who is known as “the Jew Hunter,” watching everyone’s every move, pulling off the murders of hundreds of German soldiers might be a bit more difficult than first anticipated. As Landa, Waltz gives us one of the best overall performances of the year; one brimming with tension-building dialogue and just enough humor to keep him from becoming as terrifying as someone like Ralph Fiennes’s Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List.” Alone, Waltz is worth the price of admission ten times over.
As a writer and director, Tarantino is still one of the most creative voices working today, but he allows “Basterds” to get away from him in a few of his chapters. Another story involving actress Diane Kruger (“Troy”) as Bridget von Hammersmark, a German movie star turned spy, seemed like an unnecessary addition to the plot.
Nevertheless, Tarantino has fashioned some flat-out great scenes with some good ones. It all adds up to a manic faux-history lesson only someone like he could conjure up.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson
Directed by: David Fincher (“Fight Club”)
Written by: Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”)
David Fincher’s new fantasy drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” doesn’t exactly mirror 1994’s “Forrest Gump” word for word, but screenwriter Eric Roth, who penned both scripts, uses so many elements from the story that won him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, don’t be caught off guard if during “Button” you start seeing images of Bubba flashing on screen.
The similarities between the two, however, aren’t Fincher’s biggest problem. “Benjamin Button” is a story about death, and a beautiful one to behold from a technical point of view. But with a topic so poignant, Fincher fails to expand on the inner workings of his characters. In a story dealing with so much loss, there is very little life.
“Benjamin Button” begins with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), an old woman dying in a hospital bed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina who asks her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read to her the diary she has secretly kept her entire life. (Think “Big Fish” but without the tall tales and less enchanting moments).
As the story gradually unfolds, we learn of a baby born on the night WWI ended, who’s father abandons it on the porch of a stranger’s house after its mother dies during childbirth. The baby, of course, is Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a peculiar child who seems to be aging backwards. He stars as an elderly infant and slowly becomes younger as his body develops stronger and then younger itself. He’s adopted by Queeny (Taraji P. Henson), the caretaker of a senior’s home who can’t have children of her own and raises Benjamin as her son.
Soon, we see how Benjamin and our storyteller, Daisy, meet each other and form an unusual friendship. Daisy is a seven-year-old little girl while Benjamin is a little boy who looks 67 but has the complexity of a child her age. It gets less creepy as Daisy gets older and Benjamin gets younger and the two go their separate ways. Still, they never really never let go of their special bond.
But characters come in and out of each others lives and Daisy’s flashbacks continue in an uninteresting catalog reminiscent of “This is Your Life” glints. It’s not nearly as memorable or entertaining as Gump’s brush with history and celebrity. “Benjamin Button” may have done some wildly inventive things in the graphics department (molding Pitt’s head on a small body looks amazing especially when compared to things like “Little Man”), but there’s nothing here that makes the film as deeply moving as it should have been.
Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”)
It would only be natural if you flinched a bit when you found out the recently Oscar’ed Coen Brothers would return to the comedy genre after their success with the suspenseful and fascinating “No Country for Old Men.” Not since 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” has the genre been good to them, although some may argue “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a minor triumph.
Still, “Intolerably Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” were not up to form for directors who had helmed one of the best dark comedies of all time in “Fargo.” It’s good to see them slowly finding that niche again in their new film.
In “Burn After Reading,” the nation’s security is in jeopardy (well, sort of) when employees of a local fitness center, including Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), find a disc they think contains top secret CIA information.
With a bitter, recently separated ex-spook named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) on their backs, Chad and Linda decide they are going to milk their discovery as much as possible and see how far blackmailing someone can take them.
Linda, who’s tired of trolling on internet dates sites for the perfect man, has been longing for a few plastic surgery procedures her insurance refuses to cover so she can be more attractive, while peppy Chad is simply excited about being a part of the adventure. Academy Award winner George Clooney (“Syriana”) plays Harry Pfarrer, a delusional governmental employee with food allergies who’s been sleeping around with Osborne’s cold wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). Relationships continue to cross paths in this comedy of errors as the Coens write up a breezy little spoof that pushes the plot in bizarre and sometimes unbelievable ways.
The main problem with “Burn” is that the Coens haven’t developed characters as much as they have created caricatures of real people. It’s different when we’re talking about eccentricities like John Tuturro’s Jesus Quintana in “Lebowski” or even Clooney’s grease-loving Everett in “O Brother” because they seem to be in this completely different world devoid of any sanity. In “Burn,” however, many of the characters feel too manufactured in Anytown, USA. Their exaggerated stupidity can be endearing, but most of the time you’re thinking how no one can possibly be this dumb and needy.
Still, the Coens recipe for humor laden with violence is second to none and all the principal players give enjoyably jovial performances. It really is the Coen’s funniest film since giving us The Dude 10 years ago.