Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dexter & Marty

Cinematic maestro Martin Scorsese provides a highly entertaining cameo late in Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 ROUND MIDNIGHT. You can access my review under December 2009 entries (attempts to insert a link to this have proven unsuccessful).

ROUND MIDNIGHT is a fictionalized bio, a distillation of those great jazzmen of the 40s and 50s like Bud Powell and Lester Young into the character of Dale Turner, played by real-life saxophonist/jazz great Dexter Gordon. Marty plays his handler/agent.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Just Tell Me What You Want


"I wouldn't call that bitch a taxi to take her to hell!"

It's not what you'd expect to hear from someone who is madly in love. Max Herschel (Alan King) has very strong feelings for Bones, his long time mistress (Ali McGraw). You could call it love, or obsession, or addiction, or co-dependence. Whatever it is, it drives him to some pretty curious measures when she flees his overbearing, conniving ways and weds a young writer, Steven (Peter Weller). Max will rescind all of Bones' assets (to whom he endowed her in the first place) and even ally with his enemies to formulate a strategy to get her back.

It's not pretty. Jay Presson Allen adapts her drenched in acid novel with wicked wit and rather dense plotting. This is not a simple scenario. 1980's JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT is a very frustrating experience, an uncommonly intelligent, very well acted NYC comedy drama that simply just doesn't know how to connect its disparate elements. Who can we blame? Allen? Director Sidney Lumet?

To say the plot thickens really is an understatement. "Congeals" is more accurate. The screenplay goes into fine detail to show the mechanics of Max, what makes him tick, how he runs his businesses and life (his women, mainly). He is an enigma to the world, never allowing interviews of himself or past and present employees (they sign a clause when they're hired). We learn of his associations and rivalry with Seymour Berger (Keenan Wynn, most excellent) and Berger's crafty, duplicitous grandson Mike (Tony Roberts), all movie studio moguls in Hollywood. Lumet and Allen stage several scenes of corporate intrigue that really educate us on who these vipers are. That is a plus.

But it is also a minus. This movie spends so much time with other characters besides Bones and Max that the main idea is missplaced for reels at a time. The movie seems distracted and pleased with its cleverness. This is especially true in the L.A. scenes. I thoroughly enjoyed and was impressed with the dialogue among the characters, rife with allusion and wit (especially between Bones and Steven, a playwright) and was fascinated with the mechanics of Max's revenge, but it made JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT feel like a screenwriter's tough assignment. This should have been a balls-to-the-wall (I don't mean over the top) character study that cut squarely, primarily to relational dynamics rather than just merely business.

It's so puzzling. How I admire so much about this movie and how it still fails. Lumet directs in his usual unobstrusive, almost theatrical style. This film is far less accomplished than his THE VERDICT or PRINCE OF THE CITY from around the same time period but still well mounted. The performances are probably career best for all concerned. King is just sensational as the egotistical blowhard who always gets his way and will connive any method to ensure that. Sometimes he's vulgar and brash, other times a charmer, but always with an ace up his sleeve. McGraw rarely showed such acting chops in her earlier films, always seeming childlike but here quite the modern, headstrong woman. She deserved more notice for this role. The script is a marvel of invention, with some rich characterizations, but it's still maddeningly disorganized.

Probably the best known scene in JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT involves Bones whacking the living you know what out of Max when she happens upon him in Bergdoff Goodman. She continues to beat him senseless as he stumbles toward his limousine. It is a small masterpiece of slapstick, a scene that is very inspired in its comedic violence. It's also the most obvious sequence, but it (and the bravura final conversation between the principals) has the sort of energy and focus that the remainder of the film lacks.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Meanwhile, Back in the Intercessory Room

If you were reading this blog a few years back you might recall that I began volunteering in an intercessory prayer circle at church. During each service, a small group meets behind the stage in a tiny dressing room. The church is actually an historic building that, the other 6 days of the week, is a venue for concerts and even the occasional wrestling match. From 1929-1989, it was a Presbyterian church. It sat empty for over a decade before it was restored as The Harriet Himmel Gilman Theater. The neighborhood around it, which had fallen on some serious hard times, was razed in the late 90s and a new outdoor shopping plaza (also with condos around and atop the business tenants) was built. Christ Fellowship uses the Harriet as a worship center every Sunday. Its placement among a consumer paradise and constant foot traffic is ideal.

My wife and I have attended this campus since 2005. The services are geared mainly to younger folk, with a contemporary band and some well produced (if often too produced) videos preceding an always insightful message from the pastor, John Poitevent, who is around my age. His preaching is unpretentious and free of the sort of slick and polished styles I grew up with in a Baptist church. He cuts to the marrow with relatable examples, all backed up biblically. His messages are not some shallow feel-good pap designed to let congregants off the hook. Any believer listening to John will be challenged and squirm more than once. As it should be.

The remainder of the services sometimes get a bit flashier (and louder) than I would prefer, but the meat is there.

I have spent one Sunday a month for the last 4 years joining 1-4 others praying over the service, the church staff, congregations, missionaries, local missions, and also for those who submitted prayer requests. My first week, I was stunned at how open people were with their problems. The things people wrote were honest, painful truths that we often shy away from. Four years later, this has not changed.

This past Sunday was a first - I was the only person who came to pray (2 others were scheduled to join me). It was not odd to me. After a few minutes, I dug right in. I even spoke aloud a few times. There on the familiar table was a stack of requests from the last month - most asking for prayers for ill family members, bruised marriages, employment. Some were very specific, including one for a young man who was considering a sex change operation.

That last one got me to thinking - if he went through with it, would he be welcome at our church? Would security try (politely) to escort him away? Our services are filled with folks of all ages in all manner of dress; some are homeless. But I still wonder. I grew up in a church where those who didn't look or smell right were asked to leave; don't want to offend the big tithers! It was always convicting (and remains so) when someone who is loud, inappropriate, or unkempt shows up. We espouse agape love yet still put unspoken conditions upon it.

As I prayed I was also convicted of my attitudes toward other Christians who I feel are close minded and bigoted. Nothing like staring into the face of your own prejudices while calling out others on theirs. It was a good thing for me to pray solo this past week. I was amazed I was able to do this for nearly an hour without much pause. At times, I did not use words. I aspire to the model of prayer in Daniel Chapter 9. So should any believer.

I am a far from perfect Christian, and I feel more and more isolated from others who share my faith as I get older (and hopefully wiser) for reasons I've covered here before. I'm having trouble relating to most of them, usually in our incompatibility of political and social views. Plus, sometimes hard, deductive, evidence-based thinking seems incompatible with faith, and many Christians are unwilling to go beyond a bumper sticker slogan like "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." in their paradigms.

I cringe at the behavior of many Christians; it leaves little doubt as to why faith is so often ridiculed. If "we're the only Jesus" others see, there's little hope. I am reminded of that line in the Godley & Creme song, "Punch Bag":

To Jesus I pray

For strength to survive

Your Christian soldiers


Ouch.

But what did I say about judging? I am just as guilty.

Back to the dressing room: to sit and "hear" the still small voice was some of the most powerful worship I've experienced lately. And it was a solitary action. Prayer is as necessary as breathing for me. I look forward to others praying with me, for more intercession, the next time.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

-Romans 8:26

Monday, March 19, 2012

Withnail & I

Lots of Spoilers!
All right, this is the plan. We get in there and get wrecked, then we'll eat a pork pie, then we'll drop a couple of Surmontil-50's each. That means we'll miss out Monday but come up smiling Tuesday morning.
You find yourself with your uncle's wad of currency to buy some much needed boots to manage the uncultivated countryside and instead you blow it on ale? You sit and bitch about fellow thespians who've received parts for which they're so richly undeserving? Your flat's kitchen sink is a cesspool?

Camden, London. 1969. Withnail and "I" (Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) are unemployed actors with concerns that barely reach past how they will stay warm that afternoon. Alcohol fuels Withnail's loathing of the entire human race, and how convenient is it that the local pubs have heating!

"I", the film's narrator, is never given a name onscreen (the film's screenplay identifies him as Marwood). He is the more passive of the pair, resigned to listen and tag along with any of Withnail's pursuits. The first half hour of the endlessly quotable 1986 cult classic WITHNAIL AND I rather splendidly inhabits their downtrodden existence of filth and defeat. They're almost like distant cousins of the GREY GARDENS mother and daughter.

As the pair steal away and meet Withnail's eccentric and flamingly gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), they decide some time away from London is what the doctor ordered. Roughing it in the country requires strangling your own chickens and other earthy skills if one must eat - completely lost on our boys. They also have no money until Monty arrives unexpectedly. Things do not improve with his visit, as he has designs on Marwood, leading to more than one awkward moment. This holiday is anything but.

Their trip back to London is eventful, with Withnail's attempts at driving (he's intoxicated, of course, and has no license). His efforts to give the police someone else's urine in a test ends in arrest. Things do not improve for Withnail when they return to the flat, with squatting drug dealers in the bathtub and a letter that will cause Marwood to leave for a plum audition greeting him. Withnail, now alone, in the final scene, will be quoting Hamlet to animals at the zoo.

WITHNAIL AND I understands habitual drinking better than most works of fiction I've seen or read. When a bad habit becomes a lifestyle, something as natural as breathing. I spent my 20s flailing many a night among bars, my very schedule worked around opportunities for inbibing and the necessary recovery time. I was not quite the sot as is Withnail, but I recognized the mindset.

You might rightly argue that "mindset" is the wrong word choice. The times I've watched this movie, I was reminded of an insightful article I had once read, from Movieline magazine I believe: "Why Actors Drink". Like fish to water. Who would choose a life of certain rejection, constant self-esteem erosion? Just for brief periods of applause? Alcohol is the lubricant of healing, the assuager of the bruised ego. But also, the worst enemy of the sort who aspires to stir the hearts of the Great Unwashed public who sometimes part with their money to see them. Could Withnail live with or without the sauce?

Writer/director Bruce Robinson based his screenplay on his own experiences in the late 1960s and his telling is indeed quite telling. He's created a classic comedy of errors that is just as interested in the melancholy of the scenario, perhaps even moreso. His film is riotously funny but is primarily a wounded love poem to the poisons of ferment.

Oddly, I was also reminded of a quote from Van Halen past and current frontman David Lee Roth, who stated that he doesn't much like jogging "because the ice cubes keep bouncing out of my glass". That does get a bit to the essence of these characters, but there is redemption in this story, for one of them.

Marwood, in the final scenes, will cut his hair and exit the haze to move on, to perhaps find a more mature environment, a new stage of life. But not before the druggies and rumheads in his apartment offer commentary on the 1960s, the "greatest decade in the history of mankind". It seems to be a fitting goodbye in many ways. Withnail in say, by 1971 may be a tragic sight, indeed.

What a piece of work is this man!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wait Until Dark

1967's WAIT UNTIL DARK has apparently inspired many to call it "one of the best Hitchcockian films Alfred Hitchcock never made." I suppose it is because of the great trouble it goes through to try to intrigue, thrill, and scare us. It placing an innocent, vulnerable protagonist amidst some peril and all. I can see it, and having done so, let me spout another oft used phrase: "What Hitchcock could've done with this!"

An attractive young woman hurries an elderly man as he meticulously sews packets of heroin into an innocent looking doll. She convinces a stranger at the airport to hide the doll in his apartment for later retrieval. The man complies, unaware of its contents. The woman then meets up with a shady looking guy who is not pleased with her. Later, the woman calls for her doll but the first man cannot locate it. The man also has a wife who is blind. Two hoods, who were working with the woman, attempt to meet her at said apartment. Instead, they find the shady looking guy who will blackmail them into helping him find the doll. The woman is found dead in the bedroom closet. The 3 criminals will go to incredible lengths to get the doll back from Susy, the blind woman.

And there, invisible audience, is your cold plot recount, a starting point to discussing WAIT UNTIL DARK. Sounds like good raw materials for a Hitchcock movie, yes? Possibly. The difference is that director Terence Young's (known for helming James Bond pictures) film embraces gimmickry a bit too willingly. I spoke of the three men's elaborate plot. Mike (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) are the two small time criminals who have the misfortune of meeting Roat (Alan Arkin), a truly evil dude. The lengths to which they go to infiltrate Susy's (Audrey Hepburn) apartment may tax your suspension of disbelief a bit more than you're willing. You could always examine a piece of fiction and say, "If they only did A, B-Z would've been unnecessary!" But often, the movie would be over in 5 minutes.

WAIT UNTIL DARK, designed as a film to make you jump out of your skin, will quite willingly have its characters pretend to be police officers, old men, old men's offspring, etc. to tell its tale. It certainly gives the trio of men (mainly Arkin, in a "Look at me" performance) ample opportunity to exploit different personas. They really want that damned doll. Rather, Roat, all cool and dark and full of menace, will do anything for its retrieval.

Ms. Hepburn does some nice work as the delicate, trusting, but also strong and clever heroine (hee hee) whose performance is careful not to lapse into contrivance or cliche. She never milks Susy's handicap for sympathy or bids for awards (though she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar). I believed her, even in the midst of some unlikely scenes, such as those with a bratty child neighbor (Julie Herrod), and an edge-of-your-seat but a bit overdone climax. I think Hitchcock might've cresecendoed the intensity with the bashed lightbulbs. WAIT UNTIL DARK, however, takes it much further.

The film is an adaptation of a 1966 stage play (later revived in the 90s with Quentin Tarantino), and the theatrical origins are always evident in Young's film. This is mainly because almost all of the action occurs on one set. WAIT UNTIL DARK is brisk and enjoyable, with at least one "gotcha" moment that would become a staple in suspense films. It succeeds primarily in its charcterizations: rooting for Susy, disdain and then maybe more conflicting views for Mike, and hissibility for Roat.

The character I most wanted to deck, however, was Susy's husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist). He's a one-dimensional ass. You well could make the argument that his lack of empathy and assistance to his wife is his method of making her stronger (and ready for the 3 intruders), but still. I wanted to deck him.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Town

Director/star Ben Affleck's 2010 THE TOWN is a respectable, at times impressive Boston-based crime drama that most impressed me with a printed statement preceding the end credits:

Charlestown's reputation as a breeding ground for armed robbers
is authentic. However, this film all but ignores the great majority
of the residents of Charlestown, past and present, who are the
same good and true people found most anywhere. This film is dedicated to them.
Such an acknowledgment reveals Affleck's appreciation to a specific section of his hometown and his desire to be accurate yet fair in his art. Many have attested to this film's authenticity. THE TOWN is not a nuts and bolts classic like an earlier Beantown saga, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, but it is no less urgent in its ultimate Greek Tragedy.

Doug (Affleck), "Jem" (Jeremy Renner, Oscar nominated), and 2 other childhood pals work for local crime lord "Fergie" (Pete Postlewaite), pulling increasingly treacherous bank robberies around Boston. THE TOWN opens with the quartet clad in skeleton masks, grabbing and blindfolding a bank manager, Claire (Rebbeca Hall) as hostage, but not before she sees a tattoo on "Jem's" neck. She is pushed into a getaway van and eventually told to keep walking until her toes hit water. She relays later, in a nicely effective scene, that it was the longest walk she ever took.

While the criminals did heist another considerable sum of cash, in the aftermath everyone is at each other's throats over the way it went down; hostages are not part of the usual blueprint. It is a loose end, and Doug (the only one of the robbers who was kind to their victim) volunteers to correct the situation by befriending and eventually eliminating Claire. If you've seen more than 3 movies, you can guess what happens next. Those movies, by the way, need not be HEAT or THE DEPARTED, both of which obviously heavily influenced THE TOWN.

Meanwhile, Federal Agents led by Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) interrogate the hell out of the four gang members and Claire at various times. All are tight lipped, even after Frawley delivers a frightening prediction to Doug of his certain jailhouse future (and for his currently incarcerated, career criminal father played by Chris Cooper). This speech reminded me of Robert Prosky's nasty dressdown of James Caan in THIEF, another film evoked by Affleck's. Frawley soon figures out Doug's plan but gets to Claire first. A climatic job attempted in the bowels of Fenway Park seals the fate of every character.

The plotline of THE TOWN may be familiar, but the vivid local color and strength of the performances make this film a worthwhile few hours. Affleck's and Renner's scenes together are almost as kinetic as the exciting and brutal action sequences. Attention is paid to the sort of unspoken cues and codes among criminals, friends, the law. Postlewaite, in his final screen appearance, is intuitive and solid as always in his kingpin role, a neighborhood tough who's owned these kids since they could crawl. His performance is seemingly effortless and perfect as the ice cold OG who masterminds each heist while running an innocuous flower shop. This idea dates back to an episode of Dragnet where a narcotics dealer is just as meticulous with his greenhouse orchids as he is with his heroin factory.

This is the first of Affleck's directorial efforts I've seen. His style is direct and unpretentious. Maybe not as inspired as the other films I referenced, but THE TOWN is solid entertainment. I'm just still wondering though why everyone in movies like this wants to escape to Florida, for Pete's sake. Maybe I need to survive a Massachusetts winter to get my answer.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Big Wednesday


Warning: Run-on sentences!

Writer/director John Milius' BIG WEDNESDAY is yet another coming of age drama where actors play themselves at various ages, each segment a passage of time gradually or abruptly weathering down on formerly carefree souls until the stark realities of life form a hard crust upon them. It's a premise that even in 1978 seemed old hat. Here, a trio of Southern California surfers named Jack (William Katt), Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Leroy, nicknamed "The Masochist" (Gary Busey), spend nearly half the movie cruising girls, partying, and getting into fistfights before Vietnam changes everything. But no matter what life has in store for them, from opening scene to fade out, they surf.

I expected BIG WEDNESDAY to be about maturity, moving on, putting away childish things. And yes, it is about all of that. But surfing is the constant - from the time these guys wake up drunk in Mexico as teens to when they deliver sililoquies in a cemetary after the War takes one of their buds until one marries the girl he knocked up and realizes there are bills to pay. The film is divided into chapters covering 1962 to 1974. Each section considers the conditions of the Pacific Ocean along with what year it is. Real-life surfers would do much the same if they were keeping a diary. I work with at least 2 of them and I can report that they check tide conditions every few hours in between appointments.

The act of surfing is never one of those "childish things" moved away from. More even than a refuge. It's a way of life, a religion, emblematic of perhaps what makes life worth living. But such a beautiful thing may not always be attainable. A boardbuilder named Bear (Sam Melville), states that "no one surfs forever." Bear's been around awhile, acquired a certain wisdom that he may not always follow himself. He tries and fails to make the transition to traditional adulthood by getting married and living somewhere else besides right on the beach. Ah, but he's happiest on the sand, carving fiberglass and uttering philosophy, even when the years get crueler. There's nowhere else to go.

Our heroes are also unwilling to leave the easy living behind, fighting the draft boards by faking physical and mental illness, even pretending to be homosexual (this is the 1960s). Jack, however, willingly enlists and heads to the Cong. Unlike some of his compadres, he returns to once again stride his stick and carve out faces on the morning glass. Vernacular such as this is authentic and used throughout BIG WEDNESDAY. Other than surf documentaries the only time I've heard such language was in Kem Nunn's surf noir Tapping the Source, which seems to have been at least partly inspired by this movie.

I was also expecting Milius' script to delve into Jack's postwar psyche, to show how the horrors of battle had changed him. Instead, BIG WEDNESDAY forgets about Jack for long stretches, leaving him an enigma. There is one scene where he knocks on his old girlfriend's door to find her husband answering (a cliche of such stories), but otherwise he just, disappears. He disappears from his family and friends, but also from the movie. But people do that. Just vanish. If it wasn't for Facebook I would've thought many of my old friends had been teleported somewhere or simply disintegrated. I wanted to know more about Jack, the most mature and level-headed of the trio. But you never know.

We do spend a bit of time with Matt, a local hot-shot who stops all action cold when he enters a room or saunters through a parking lot. He's a natural, intuitive surfer who manages to get rides on chest high waves even when he's hung over. Barely thinks about what he does. All the young groms want to be like him. This role is overwhelming and reatreating to the bottle occurs early for Matt. His journey to adulthood is the clearest, the most painful, but he does find his way. Perhaps watching the stunted growth of his peers is inspiration to evolve in a healthy direction?

BIG WEDNESDAY is a very watchable but uneven and undisciplined film. To Milius' credit, the tone shift midway through is not so jarring as the lightness of the earlier scenes had always been interrupted with doses of reality. The script maintains a thematic focus but loses the characters in the process. I wanted to know far more of Jack and Leroy's later life, but again perhaps this was the film's way of elucidating the point that some people just drop out, man. Can't quite roll with the changes. Milius, a creative force who hung with Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, and others of that generation never achieved the fame of his peers (he later made RED DAWN). He does create thrilling surf sequences, some of the best in any Hollywood flick. You could watch this movie just for that and be satisfied.

But Milius has much more on his mind, even if BIG WEDNESDAY doesn't quite know how to juggle it all. It would be easy to conclude that surfing is a metaphor for life itself in this film: sometimes you get a thrilling ride, sometimes a less exciting but consistent ride, and other times you wipe out and get clocked in the skull with your board. Maybe even drown or meet a shark. I'm shrugging. But, tide's dropping, gotta run.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Moneyball

I am not the inveterate sports fan I once was, not even close. I grew up cheering for college and pro baseball and football teams along with my buddies, usually spouting ERAs and RBIs for the Yankees or how many fumbles or yards rushed for the Redskins or Dolphins. I had the trading cards and the flat bubblegum (that tasted like the cards themselves). My obsessiveness lasted well into my 20s. But somewhere along the way, my enthusiasm waned. Was I becoming jaded by stories of drug abuse among the players? Free agency? Lockouts? Strikes? Asshole fans? A little of all. Mainly though, it just became an exercise in masochism. "Wait'll next year" was got wearying a bit more each year. I stopped watching games with any regularity. This is something for which my wife is I'm sure very happy.

But I still root for the Chicago Cubs, speaking of masochism. Baseball remains the most interesting game to me as it is like nothing else. If you examine and distill most of the sports that get airtime down to their bare essences: you'll find a goal at either end of a playing field with players trying to get that ball (or puck) to their opponents' side. Yes, that's a gross oversimplification. Baseball is a totally different animal, and I love it for that. I also love that it is so uniquely American, much like another of my favorite pasttimes, jazz appreciation.

I do follow the scores and League standings, if not every minute of every play. But I'll be darned if I shell out $15 for the MLB iPhone app! I don't memorize statistics anymore. Certainly not like director Barrett Miller's MONEYBALL's Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). These guys absorb stats as fervently as would many fans and scouts, but then base their entire team roster on strictly the numbers, part of a study called sabermetrics, though I don't recall hearing it called that in this film. Such a method utilizes purely objective methodology. How many times did Jody Reed make it to second base?, etc.

Beane is the Oakland A's General Manager. As we see in snippets of flashback throughout the movie, he was once a promising player who suffered a few lackluster seasons before hanging up his glove and joining management. As MONEYBALL (based on Michael Lewis' excellent 2003 book of the same name) opens, he watches the New York Yankees hand his team a World Series loss at the end of the 2001 season. The immediate future looks grim, what with the departure of star players like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon and a limited payroll, especially compared to a club like the Yankees. The lack of funds for player salaries drives Beane's reasoning in embracing sabermetrics. He is further inspired by Brand, a Yale economics grad who has never even swung a bat. Beane hires him as assistant GM.

MONEYBALL then puts us in the backroom with all the old school scouts, who kibbitz around a table and select athletes based on (the scouts') experience and intuition, how ugly the player's girlfriend is, and so on. Beane finds unwillingness on their part to select players based on things like On Base Percentage.

Eventually, some of the old guys quit/get fired. The A's manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is skeptical of the assembled roster (which will include Dave Justice, considered past his prime by the early 00s) of mostly little knowns and the methods of their recruitment. The 2002 season starts badly. Beane is forced to make some trades, but he convinces everyone to stay the course. Things eventually turn around dramatically and American League history is made when the A's win 20 consecutive games. That's not the end of the story.

It all sounds so academic and dry, and yes, we see a few graphs and charts. But in addition to some fascinating explanations of sabermetrics, MONEYBALL takes time to draw solid characterizations. Pitt, in one of his best ever performances, plays Beane with a healthy dose of enigma and introspection. Every third shot is of him staring out over an empty field or bowing his head (as if in prayer) in his office. He chooses to keep an arm's length from the players and never attends the games (susperstition?). This behavior only makes a volatile situation even more uncomfortable. But he's not entirely ice cold; a subplot follows the divorced Beane's relationship with his daughter, who he adores. Miller handles these scenes with a sweetness that leavens the overall temperament of the movie. They do not feel tacked on or added merely to appeal to the softhearted in the audience.

Jonah Hill is also quite good as the green college grad who represents a growing generation of virtual geniuses who never really get their hands dirty, don't make decisions on hunches. Therefore, he's not quite as comfortable with unavoidable aspects of the job, like having to tell a player that he's just been traded, or worse, sent down to the Minors. Those scenes are brief but effective, reminding me of Ron Shelton's BULL DURHAM at times.

But a majority of the drama in MONEYBALL (adapted by star screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) is of the conflict between the Old and New Ways of thinking. Seasoned baseball fans will either wince or be inspired (perhaps both) by this true story. The film is not slanted one way or the other, but the prologue does state that The Boston Red Sox finally reversed their curse by winning the 2004 World Series against the Yankees. That team was recruited via sabermetrics.....