Questions, Decisions, Fear, Failure and Moneyball A film review and a review about a long, long year.

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Deciding what film to watch at the cinema in December is next to impossible. For one thing, most of them are 3D wallet-breaking extravaganzas – R70 for a movie? Blasphemy! – and the remaining films are an assortment of the junk Hollywood churns out at this time of the year: Christmas films (the scourge of the film universe), cheap animations (how Happy Feet has a sequel I will never know) and worst of all, the one film that has every shopping mall filled with those pimply things we call teenagers:  Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1.

The fact that there is a second part is what makes me believe that there is no God.

Going to the movies nowadays is less of a leisurely activity and more like a business decision. Every film is analysed according to an economic theory – utility (what will I enjoy most?); maximisation (which film is the most value for money?); diminishing marginal returns (do I really want to watch the Happy Feet sequel? Breaking Dawn? – as an aside, the answer to these two questions is always a robust “No”); solvency (If you’ve forgotten your 3D glasses, you’re screwed – R75 for a 3D rip-off, buddy!).  Honestly, I think it’s easier to choose a name for a new-born.

Each decision is dangerous, there is no safe route. That is what movie-going has become today since movie ticket prices went up, popcorn portions became smaller and they started diluting your drinks with ridiculous amounts of ice.

The sneaky bastards.

And the problem does not start with what film to watch even, it starts earlier with a more fundamental question:  where to watch the film.

In Cape Town, this leaves you with one of two options: Nu Metro or Ster Kinekor film theatres. Each movie house has an advantage and a devastatingly crippling disadvantage. Nu Metro has semi-affordable films, more cinema screens – and therefore a larger variety of films per given complex, but the service delivery of a blind tattooist; the cinemas are small and cramped (the Canal Walk cinemas are less of a cinema and more of a large television lounge) and their seats were designed by the same person who designed the electric chair.

This is why when I watch a film at a Nu Metro I feel like a dead man walking.

Ster Kinekor is pricier, shinier. Their seats are more comfortable. The service is average – but the number of toddlers running around and potentially fucking up your film by either crying or asking questions through it could give you a heart attack. The number of teenagers is also discouraging. I cannot tell you how many times I have felt like strangling these Converse sneaker wearing organisms when they talk throughout whatever film I have had the unfortunate luck of watching with them.

And now with the holiday season upon us, school has ended and every shopping mall is crawling with them, every cinema has an infestation.

Teenager extermination…there’s a good idea for a small start-up.

With these problems and decisions to wade through, it is a miracle I even made it to watch Moneyball.

Of course, with me as the main star of this adventure, going to the movies was not that easy. Firstly I had to fight my way through three layers of teenagers in Cape Town’s Cavendish Square. Three! Then I had to burn two rude cashiers with my heat vision. Then I had to hastily send up prayers to the powers that be to ensure that the cinema was not filled with people who did not have cinema etiquette – with the rotten luck that I have had with films this year, I was not that optimistic.

Nonetheless, after my pre-movie procedure which mainly involves mentally swearing at everyone in the popcorn queue, I squeezed my way into the cinema and prayed that my  filmonomics – I am patenting that word – was on point.

(As an aside, I have to mention that the cinema was full of old people – a sign than I was on to something good. No teenagers. No toddlers.)

In case you don’t know, Moneyball stars Brad Pitt (Troy, Fight Club, Snatch), Jonah Hill (Superbad and every other stupid teen flick ever made) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Synecdoche: New York). It is based on Billy Beane’s managerial career as the general manager of the Oakland Athletics (a baseball team from the US) and from the trailers, it’s just another sports comeback film, a more grown up version of  The Mighty Ducks or  Remember the Titans.

But it is not. The trailers lie.

True, it is a sports drama and as such has the staples of the genre: failure, failure, more heaps of failure, new strategies, losing, internal division, external ridicule, slow motion moments where the sound vanishes and you know the underdog is about to come back and of course, the thing that makes sports dramas what they are: the underdog victory despite the odds.

Moneyball has all of these, but it uses them more cleverly than the average sports film.

The storyline is pretty simple: general manager of the Oakland Athletics (if you are not a sports junkie, a general manager is the person who gets fired when the team starts losing) has an average team – star players leave – manager must rebuild – general manager has no funds – general manager employs a new sidekick with a new theory of baseball – shit goes wrong.

It seems like a ridiculously simple plot when you are standing outside of the cinema, deciding whether Real Steel (starring Hugh Jackman) might not be a better option, but you would be fooled into thinking  Moneyball is a simple run-of-the-mill sports drama.

First of all, my description of the film as a sports drama is slightly misleading – there actually is not that much baseball in it. The film focuses more on the story behind baseball – the politics, the bargaining, the sales, the financial fears, job security, hiring and firing, the fans. Baseball, at least the total time that swinging bats and pitching balls occupy the screen, is kept to a minimum. And with good reason too: baseball is boring.

I don’t care what anyone says but baseball, cricket, golf and any other “sport” that requires more than simple mathematics – like the 6-1 or 8-2 that Manchester United and Arsenal fans can use without overheating their brains – is not a sport. It is more of an  extreme hobby, a Sunday pastime that has been given an ESPN slot and a couple of sponsors. I will not be budged on this. Baseball is boring. And horribly complex. This is why Moneyball does an excellent job of keeping the total turf time to a minimum.

With all the batting averages, pitching percentages, statistics, ins, outs, strikes, and of course, those awkward fitting trousers that make your junk look weird, it is important that a film like Moneyball which hopes to compete on the global market distils all the boring shit that sensible people from Africa, Europe and Asia can understand. All good sporting films do this: remember how you did not know what the heck a hockey puck was until The Mighty Ducks? Or how  Remember the Titans taught you all you need to know about American Football? Yeah, that is what I am talking about.

A good sports drama makes sure that people who don’t know what a strike or a right-handed reliever is jump out of their seats when said right-handed reliever does not strike out. Moneyball does that by keeping the baseball storyline (which is really boring) to just what is needed: the extreme close-ups, the roaring of the crowd, the late game winning home run and the sweaty, nervous slow motion shots that sports dramas feed off.

Since baseball is alien to all right-thinking humans, Moneyball had to come up with a better way to sell itself. It might not come through in the trailers, but what makes Moneyball worth watching are the storyline and the actors that carry it.

Like many good films, it is hard to write an in-depth review about Moneyball without giving away the whole plot. It is a miracle I even managed to write about The Help without telling you where all the full stops and commas were. Thankfully, with Moneyball it is easy to talk about the storyline without being a spoiler for one reason: you can read all about Billy Beane on Wikipedia.

Before the real review – can you believe the review has not even started yet? – can begin, it is important to get some grip of baseball’s history; it’ll just make my ensuing arguments more cohesive to understand.

Billy Beane (portrayed by Brad Pitt), an ex-Major League Baseball dropout became the general manger of the Oakland Athletics, a struggling baseball team in California. Like all small teams, the A’s (as they are referred to in Obamaland) were a talent breeding ground for bigger teams – each season, their best players would be poached by the bigger and wealthier teams. In 2001, after taking the A’s to (what I assume is the quarterfinal stage of the baseball season) the elimination round, the team failed to progress and consequently lost its three best players.

Anyone who watches soccer, basketball or any other real sport – remember that golf, baseball and cricket do not count – is familiar with this situation: when star players leave, things start to go downhill. Fans get angry, teams start losing, heart attack cases increase, men lose their libido and divorce rates go up. Just ask Liverpool and Arsenal fans.

Naturally, the same thing happened to Billy Beane – shit got very real.

That was until he met Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate who had a theory that went against the general philosophy of baseball (and most other sports in general): you don’t need to spend the equivalent of a third world country’s GDP to have a winning team.

Of course, anyone who follows sport can clearly see that this kind of theory would not hold water with Manchester City, Barcelona and Real Madrid about to become members of the United Nations.

Back then, just as it is today, it was unanimously agreed that the only winning formula was money – millions and millions of it.

Beane and Brand challenged this theory by advocating for a statistic based recruitment policy which favoured players with individual characteristics that were shunned by the mainstream world of baseball. They came up with a complex formula for finding such players, but all you need to know for the purposes of this review is that what they were doing essentially was looking for performance bargains – players who did what they were required to do, for a low  and sustainable price. This was important because the A’s were not exactly the most famous or the richest team around (oil sheikhs had not been invented by then, you see).

Again, if you follow sports, you will know how Beane and Brand’s theory was received by the club and the fans. They were…not impressed.

This is where the real film (and the real review) begins. This is where Moneyball blows all other sports dramas out of the water.

Baseball, as has been mentioned before is peripheral to the story. At least I think so. What makes Moneyball incredibly watchable is Brad Pitt in the role of his life. For a long time, Brad Pitt has been Achilles, a role he has not been able to shake off since he donned that leather miniskirt. After that it was Mr Smith alongside Angelina Jolie and after that, Lt Aldo Raine in Quinton Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Brad Pitt has played a series of characters one after the other – and he has played them well – but this is the first time I have seen him portray what I call a “real person.” When it comes to actors of Brad Pitt’s stature, it is hard to watch a film and turn of the This-is-Brad-Pitt-on-the-screen switch; they seep into everything, sometimes to the detriment of the film.

Moneyball separates the two beautifully – there is Brad Pitt who will be on the covers of magazine tomorrow (with any number of children with him – how many does the man have?) and there is Billy Beane, a man who has had to make some really tough choices in his life, a man who has tasted failure one too many times, a man who cannot storm every baseball stadium after giving the “Immortality, take it it’s yours” speech.

No, on the cinema screen, it is not Brad Pitt – it is Billy Beane. And Billy Beane is a divorced, Major League Baseball dropout. With a kid. And a losing team. And possibly no job if he carries on with his crackpot scheme. It is really good stuff. Billy Beane should be nominated for the best actor Oscar. Brad Pitt would be my second choice.

Not to be outshone, there is Jonah Hill who – if you have not seen the kind of junk he usually acts in – is possibly the best supporting actor of the year. I was dubious when I heard Jonah Hill was being cast along Pitt in this film, if there was a better Batman and Robin casting in history, I had yet to hear of it. But if Moneyball  is Gotham, Batman is not having all the limelight to himself – Robin is kicking some serious ass.

Instead of the usual foulmouthed idiots that he portrays, poorly if I might add, Hill switches up his game and plays a quiet, shy nerd, who is possibly out of his depth but also quite possibly the biggest thing to happen to baseball.

He is impeccable. When he is nervous, you believe it. When he is forceful the inner underdog lover inside you starts screaming, “Go nerd, Go!” Jonah Hill’s performance in Moneyball is unbelievably perfect – it is as though they didn’t cast a seasoned actor but rather went to an economics class at a university and picked up the genius who has never been laid – his acting in Moneyball is  that good. I would easily have Hill nominated for best supporting but we know how conservative those blue bloods at the Academy Awards are, when they cannot find a good film to award an Oscar to, they will award it to  No Country For Old Men… or the latest sleeping pill starring George Clooney.

Brad and Jonah feed off each other well – together they are one of the best tag team film partners ever. They make you sad, they make you hopeful and surprisingly, they make you laugh. Not the kind of laugh that can be translated to that most unholy of acronyms “LOL” but the genuine laugh that only happens when something so simple tickles you inside.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman puts in a cameo appearance as Art Howe, the dour-faced coach of the A’s – he is his usual serious self, slightly grating on the nerves, but impeccable. Not much can be said about Hoffman’s performance though – Pitt and Hill are too busy stealing the show.

The acting is one reason to watch Moneyball – the other reason is the way that it is told. It is narrated in a way that everyone can understand (remember, baseball is a heathen sport – it needs to be broken down so that normal God-fearing people can get it), the story progresses logically from point A to point B – there are almost no gaps in the storyline – and the way the final product plays out on screen is film editing and cinematography at its best.

Flashbacks are less of the “Pause! Let’s rewind a bit and explain this bit that we did not explain earlier” and more of a necessary ingredient for the forward momentum of the film, the close-ups are intensely emotional, camera angles are not always conventional (which at times adds a slight documentary feel to it) and best of all, the director and producers seem to have gotten off the CGI drug that the rest of Hollywood is overdosing on.

The film feels…real.

The characters, the acting, the progression of the story are all commendable reasons to watch the film – rarely are these elements found in one film on today’s cinema circuit. However, it is not these three things that have warranted such a long review. Anyone could write any of the above better than I have. But there is a fourth element that makes Moneyball particularly resonant with me – or rather, my situation – at the moment. The film is all about one thing that I fear doing most at this particular point: making decisions and living with them.

2011 (so far) has been what can only be described as a “fucking long year.” Things did not knit together in the way that I planned in late 2010. Law School went off on a tangent and did its own thing, leaving me with a win-loss record only seen among third tier soccer teams facing relegation.

It has been horrible. Many decisions were taken during the course of the year, some of them worked out, most did not.

Fear, failure and anxiety, these are not words to me anymore, they have been and still are the ever-present punctuation marks of my year so far – they have been the commas, full stops and exclamation marks. Unlike punctuation used by a master of prose – which is how most people think my life plays out – they have been haphazardly used without restraint or direction. My year, to sum up, has been a series of incomplete and poorly punctuated sentences. If I were to literally explain my year to you using the above metaphor, it would look like this:

!!!!!!!!!!…………!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…………………………………………………….!!!,,,,,!!!!!!

That is what 2011 has been. So it is not completely surprising that I would enjoy a film like Moneyball at a time like this. It speaks to me (he says hoping he does not sound like a barefoot hippie). It has been a Billy Beane year and as it ends, it is time to plan and make some really tough decisions.

Continue as is? Change and restart? Stop? Fight or retreat? These are all the things that haunt Billy Beane in Moneyball.

They haunt me too.

I think they haunt everybody at some point in their life, which is why I think everyone will be able to relate to the film on some level. Regardless of the person or the circumstance, at some point, a decision will have to be made, consequences will follow from that decision and for good or ill, decision makers have to see them out, whatever the ending.

That is what I like about Moneyball. It is gritty, a happy ending is not guaranteed, things go wrong, people suffer. But throughout the film, it is real people facing real problems. With normal sports dramas you know that sooner or later, some underdog will score a goal in the last minute of the last game of the season and vindicate every underdog in the world. Moneyball doesn’t guarantee any of this.

I only write reviews about films that have had an impact on me for any number of reasons; they can be so boring that I feel the urge – nay, I am  compelled to warn the public about their soporific powers (Drive, Friends With Benefits – shocking), they may be the coolest thing on the cinema screen ever (Transformers III) or they could have left me with a lot to think about (The Help). Either way, I only write reviews about films that I feel have gone beyond the cinema screen, films that will have you silent on the way home, thinking. Moneyball is such a film. If for no other reason, watch this film to prove me wrong.

A last note on Moneyball is the underlying philosophy that Billy Beane tried to introduce to baseball – a philosophy that could be used in almost every single sporting industry, actually, a philosophy that could be used in any aspect of life where economic decisions have to be made: what are you (or anything for that matter) worth? Are the prices we pay for things really worth it or are we just paying to follow the market? Do we pay higher prices, take on more risk, use more, spend more, discriminate against people and things for a good logical reason – a reason that that is supported by the numbers and the intuition – or do we merely respond and follow established patterns for fear of changing or trying something new, fearing failure all the while?

An interesting question. Watch Moneyball.

Author’s note: This review was written while listening to Bon Iver. Why has no one told me about this band before!?

  • textual

    Another cracker of a review. Well done, Mr Quill.

  • filmreview

    I am impressed. Quite a thorough review. I will definitely go and see this film.

  • moviecritic

    Brad Pitt is an absolute boss in that film. Oscar material…

    • I agree… but I have a sneaky suspicion they will not give it to him…

  • indefinitelyours

    This a pretty long review. But I prefer it to the usual five-liner nonsense that you find in magazines. Really cool…

  • sisa

    Impressive review.

  • watcher

    I like the ending. A very interesting question…

  • Amélie

    Excellent review. Heard too much about “Ides of March” rather than this. Brad Pitt for the win!

    • “The Ides of March” looks like a sleeping pill to me. There is always one at this time of the year. The trailer looked weak and George Clooney is not exactly the most exciting person in the world.

  • mirfaan

    you forget the Labia (crappy seats, but fantastically intimate), and the drive-in at Stellenbosch as cinemas

    • Alas, I have not been to the Labia or the Stellies’ drive-in, so I decided to reserve judgment.