Sunday, October 16, 2011

OSCAR PICK — Best Picture — Moneyball

Don't be fooled by the title. This is not really a story about money or even baseball. Nor is it merely about Brad Pitt being a likable cock (though that type truly belongs to him like it used to belong to Robert Redford.) This is a subtle story about finding out who you really are, along with the battles, losses, humiliations, and ultimately the peace of finally coming to terms with yourself.

Depth: 5
Acting: 4.5
Plot: 5
Originality: 5
Entertainment: 5
Demand on Viewer: Mild-Moderate

Overall: Highly Recommended

A relevant and timely premise: what to do about making due? With little resources, and against the establishment belief that the Oakland Athletics are all but a minor league farm team, General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) is compelled by a passion for baseball and winning to redraw the map. He recruits a shy, pudgy Yale-graduated economist named Peter Brand (played very skillfully by Jonah Hill, whose amusing stoic face is a nice foil for Pitt). Together they pour over the statistical data in hopes of understanding how to maximize his lower-tier recruits. He fields a team of individuals who cannot hit or field as well as any single player recruited by wealthier teams such as New York or Boston. Beane expects that as an aggregate they can beat the odds (a bit like predicting overall traffic patterns in a city without knowing what any individual driver may do.)

So far sounds like a snoozer—something for only "backwards-K" scoring junkies—but be reassured, the film skillfully avoids becoming top-heavy with stats. Indeed, this is one of Moneyball's most remarkable qualities, that it lifts out of this potentially boring subject a deep and lively story about human choices, with plenty of good solid competitive sport sprinkled in for fun. Credit goes to director Bennett Miller and the author of the book on which the movie is based, Michael Lewis.

Start with passion: the gravitational pull of the old way requires a healthy dose of it. Beane has plenty, and it comes out in endearing and idiosyncratic ways: shoving twinkies and popcorn down his throat between phone calls, clicking the game on and off as he pays attention from a distance, wheeling his truck around empty lots trying to clear his head. The most interesting form his passion takes is in the scenes with other people, as he tries to cajole, reason, push, and joke his way around them. A memorable example comes in a locker-room display, when the team, shocked into silence, hears Beane say, "THAT is what losing sounds like."

The opening draft meeting rings true immediately, as a group of seasoned older men tut-tut Beane. Having been in this position myself frequently as a pastor (dreaded "council meetings"), I recognize a universal archetype here: the individual against the (older) institution. There are human tensions created by that relationship that cross all businesses, organizations, and causes. Near the end of the film another team owner expresses this sentiment very powerfully. That dialogue is worth the price of the film, and watching through to that moment promises to be very satisfying.

Against this backdrop and giving the story its profound originality is Beane's relationship to his daughter. He has made choices in his past based on money; now he must come to a different place. The way the film interweaves his own history in baseball with his decisions about his daughter is truly unique. Here is an archetype: a man reflects on past failures and realizes who he is. No tearful scenes, but for those men who recognize their own story, there may be moist eyes.

The performances by Pitt and Hoffman (A's coach Art Howe) are good, though not among their best partly because they have set the bar so high previously. Fortunately they both have the maturity and gravitas to carry off the roles. The movie does suffer a little from their notoriety: one keeps thinking, "That's not Billy Beane, that's Brad Pitt!" However, without their names on the cover, the story might have suffered what the Oakland A's did: de facto relegation to the minors because of lower visibility.

I recommend this film particularly for anyone in a position of leadership or management (the way Beane has to climb all the way down the ladder and understand his players is instructive), and anyone trying to navigate the sometimes impossible straits of family vs. career. Several metaphors, including an especially vivid about one trying to get past first base, highlight these themes in a way everyone can understand and relate to.

Moneyball has moreover something very salient to say to a culture obsessed with both money and sports. As we follow Beane's story, we are led to face several truths about money. It needs to be understood and reckoned with as a controlling force, but ultimately we are free to choose beyond it. Money and sports are only the tip of the iceberg. What does any of this mean? is Billy Beane's question, and one we could benefit from asking more often.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Climbing Down into the Cosmic — Take Shelter

Do dreams predict? Or are they simply the inner workings of our minds? Is there such a thing as prophetic revelation? Or just another name for schizophrenia?

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OVERALL: Recommended

Take Shelter is a well-crafted story about an ordinary man's extraordinary visionsWhat he sees  are storms: grand apocalyptic warnings about some undefined future.

He decides to take odd preparatory measures, such as building an underground storm shelter and protecting his deaf daughter from her dog. At the same time he seeks help from the family doctor and a local counselor, recognizing that he may have something hereditary. To his own dismay, his inner struggle spills out into his family life and even his community. He is forced to reckon with himself and his fears in unexpected ways. By the end we are left with an uncertain conclusion about the nature of his visions, but certain that they have led him to conquer some of his inmost fears.

The cinematography is gorgeous; the film is worth seeing for that alone. See it on the big screen if you can; the images of the storms are shot to invoke an awesome beauty and power, hard to recapture in a smaller format. During one especially vivid moment in the film, the main character Curtis (Michael Shannon) stands watching a lightning storm paint up the whole sky. He asks, "Is anyone else seeing this?" The answer is a paradoxical yes, because we the viewers do see it, but no one else within the story does. We are brought to feel his isolation and frustration of feeling like the only one given to see clearly.

Michael Shannon's expressive, angular face is memorable as he portrays the crabbed, pensive, and wordless struggle many men have. His character traces what seems often to descend at that time of life: the mid-life-crisis. The story as a metaphor about that transition point, what Richard Rohr calls "the second half of life." According to Rohr such transitions always involve descent: a "climbing down" into ourselves, our deepest beliefs and fears, our family influence, and ultimately our identity and place in the universe. The symbolism of Curtis going into the storm cellar, and of being confronted with the decision to leave it, is a powerful archetype and it gives the film an unusual profundity and universality.

The trouble with the mid-life crisis is this: does it cause a radical change of inner visions or is it produced by those visions? Curtis thinks his visions are objective. He sees his friend try to kill him in one dream, and as a result Curtis takes self-protective actions. The friend turns into an enemy. By believing the prophecy, did Curtis make it self-fulfilling? Or did the dream indicate something already present in the friendship, an underlying cold spot that Curtis could not see consciously? Either way, the film does not let him off the hook; he is held responsible, morally and otherwise, for his response to the visions. 

One of the biggest strengths of this film, paradoxically, is its realism. Its most penetrating and disturbing questions happen to be the least supernatural. What would you do, for example, if your trusted neighbors, friends, and relatives abandoned you or attacked you when, in their judgment, you went outside their accepted norms of behavior? Such "friendships of convenience" can easily collapse under the pressure of values conflicts, broken taboos, or sincere attempt to follow one's (idiosyncratic) dreams. What happens if familial, cultural and societal "glue" starts to be undone by a vision? But this undoing is consistent with apocalyptic prophecy—by its very nature it tends to challenge and threaten the status quo.

"One man's vision is another man's nightmare."An illustration of this prophetic threat and resultant cultural divide happens at an awkward Sunday after-church lunch, when a family member brusquely says, "We missed you at church." By this one brief, very convincing scene, the film manages at once to disassociate Curtis's prophetic revelations from traditional religion, and to introduce the idea of a spirituality not explainable either by science or the institutional church. 

One further great aspect of realism in the film is that it never overdoes the dream sequences. In a way that makes them even more disturbing, the visions are brief, understated, and leave most to the imagination. Little details like the expression on someone's face or an off-color drop of water evoke a terrifying sense that everything is off balance. The rest plays out in reality, through spare dialogue and suggestive devices (the rhythmic sound of the dangerous pile driver, the omnipresence of wind in the trees, ghostly light or reflections coming through windows.) 

I have had predictive dreams.  It is sometimes an eerie and other times consoling experience. For years I dreamt of returning to an office where I had formerly worked, and then it came true in a very unexpected way. I once dreamt about lightning, a wide beam altering everything in its path. Very soon afterward my life exploded with a sudden change (not literally involving lightning, of course). How to explain this? Our minds are capable of many more things than we understand, perhaps even including the prophetic and the supernatural. Take Shelter reminds us of the power of our dreams, the need for careful response to them, and that if we are to be led through difficult storms, it may only be through the cosmic, symbolic and (fearfully) divine language of visions.