Friday, September 23, 2011

Pair of Nines

Usually, September is the "dumping ground" month. It's for movies that studios have little-to-no-faith in, they don't want to waste their prime months on these types of movies so they dump them here. Why? Because, they figure movie audiences are too exhausted and worn out after 3-4 months of non-stop brain cell-killing blockbuster films (some of which are enjoyable, I admit), so there's not going to be much of an audience out there in September anyway. Kids are going back to school and it's a bit too far away from Oscar season. Basically, September often gets the shaft.

At the same time, September is also a big festival month. Toronto, Telluride, NYFF, Venice... major film festivals that get to see the big Oscar contending movies before anyone else. For film-lovers and followers of film news, you get to hear about films you want to see later in the year. Still, you have to wait a few weeks, maybe even months, before you even get to see those films.

Luckily, this year, September has had at least one solid-to-great film release each week, except for September 2nd which didn't really have a major release. Other than that, September 9th saw Warrior (84% on rottentomatoes) and Contagion (also 84%). September 16th had Drive (92%). September 23rd has Moneyball (93%) and next weekend, there's 50/50 which so far has a 92% rating on rottentomatoes. I really haven't seen a month like this where each week presented us with critical darling after critical darling. Especially during a month like September. The box office intake still remains about the same, but the good thing about releasing these films in September is that they get the type of attention they may not normally receive had they been released in any other month. October is more-or-less the beginning of the Oscar season. It's the first month where studios start to care more about the Oscar push than anything else. Then, November and December is usually a mix of big budget films and films geared for an Oscar push. This year, it seems, the Oscar season has decided to come a month early. But, let's not think in terms of the Oscars for the rest of this article, the only thing I will say is that I would not be surprised to see either film being a Best Picture nominee. Drive and Moneyball are both fantastic films. Drive may be a bit too dark, but it has the critical backing. Moneyball, however, has the perfect tone, perfect cast, perfect amount of critical praise, and it has box office potential if word-of-mouth is strong enough.

Let's start with Drive.

Nicolas Winding Refn has been making quite a splash this year, even since Cannes. During Cannes, there were two Danish filmmakers making a splash at the festival. One for a positive reason, the other? Not so much. Lars von Trier got in big trouble at this year's Cannes for making insensitive remarks at a press conference, where he compared himself to being a Nazi. Von Trier is a provocateur, it's not surprising that he'd make comments like that, but it seems as if he had gone too far with the press. Refn, however, was able to steal some attention away from him when his film "Drive" was screened and subsequently got everyone at Cannes excited. Really excited.

There is a great reason for this. Drive is one hell of a film. It oozes style. It's drenched in style. It's an action/thriller from outer space. When you look at commercials of Drive, it's sold as your typical action/thriller (in the vein of "Killer Elite"), but you will be pleasantly (or unpleasantly, depending on your POV) surprised when you actually go to see Drive. It's not your typical genre flick. From the opening scene, it's clear that Nicolas Winding Refn is making a statement. What is so fun to watch about this film is that it knows exactly what it wants to be and it succeeds at every single level. From the synth-soaked '80s soundtrack that would want to make the Flock of Seagulls want to come out retirement to the perfect touch of cursive hot pink opening credits. You immediately get the sense of what Drive is all about before you even get to know the main character.

The main character is just the Driver, played with an intriguing minimalist style by Ryan Gosling. Refn and Gosling have carefully constructed this character in such a fashion that reminded me of the way Alain Delon played his character in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. Both play by a specific set of rules, both exude a specific style, they don't say much but their expressions say everything you need to know. Some complained that Refn may have placed too much emphasis on this Driver character with the extreme close-ups and the long takes which would make some believe that the director may have a bit of a crush on Ryan Gosling. I mean, he's portrayed much more romantically than Carey Mulligan's character. But you know what? Refn doesn't care. And it actually is a very effective way of getting sucked into the Driver's world. He's deliberate and direct, which matches this slow-burning style of the movie.

Drive is indeed a slow-burner. It will make you wait, but the payoffs are something else. The last half hour of the movie is so intense and it makes for such a satisfying release from all the built up tension that by the end of the film, I couldn't help but smile. It's almost too much at times, but I loved it. And you know, it treats everything just about right. It treats the romance the right way and it treats the violence the right way. The romance is beautiful, the violence is horrific. The mix of the two is so unsettling that it might make you feel uncomfortable. Normally, violence portrayed on screen does not bother me, but the way Refn combines romance and violence in this film was almost too for me to bear. I understand why he did it and I love the way the film plays out, but it does cause me to have a few reservations. Those scenes stuck with me long after the film was over. I'm not quite sure how to feel about it, but if Refn was trying to get in my head, he did a great job.

But Drive is most definitely, and ultimately, a winner and it has put Nicolas Winding Refn on the map for good. Refn had built himself a good reputation with such films as the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, but Drive will certainly catch the attention of American audiences. It may not make a huge amount of box office money, but he will certainly create a following for himself. He created a movie that is undeniably his, he has that rare auteur quality that you don't see with many filmmakers. What results is a film that has a great combination of the typical American action/thriller genre with a keen European vision. Not only that, but it's a film with loads of great performances from Gosling, Mulligan, Ron Pearlman, and Albert Brooks (yes, that Albert Brooks). The bottom line is that it's also a fun movie. It may not be fun for those looking for a Jason Statham type movie, but for those who enjoy film and enjoy watching films with incredible style, this is for you. It's definitely a film for me. Rating: 9/10


Moneyball is another 9 out of 10, but for different reasons. It's funny, too, because Drive manages to go beyond its genre by having arthouse and European tendencies. Whereas, Moneyball manages to go beyond its genre just because it's a well-made Hollywood film with great writing (an Aaron Sorkin/Steve Zaillian screenplay) and great acting. There also happens to be a really great story here.

Moneyball succeeds because it manages to show the inner workings of baseball without dumbing it down, but somehow also putting it into simple enough terms for everyone to understand. It treats its audience like adults, which is sometimes the only thing you can ask for. Brad Pitt does a really great job portraying Billy Beane. Beane is the Oakland A's general manager, and a former baseball player who can't turn his back on the game, despite knowing that the game had more-or-less turned its back on him. It's an unconditional love for a game that has caused him more heartache than happiness. But that pain and that love for the game is what inspires him to try to make his Oakland A's, a team that had just lost all of its All-Stars in the previous season (film takes place during the 2002 MLB season), into a championship contender this season. Unfortunately, having such a small payroll (one of the lowest in the league) makes it really difficult for the A's to compete. Beane has to find a way and he finds that with Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill).

Peter Brand is a recent Yale graduate with a degree in Economics. He sees what no other person in baseball sees: that you can build a team based purely on statistics. You can tell this film had been co-written by Aaron Sorkin because, just like how he portrayed the creation of facebook with The Social Network, he manages to include the inner-workings of how moneyball works without boring you. Most importantly, there is a great amount of attention paid on Billy Beane's personal struggle of his history with the game which makes you care about the way he builds the 2002 Oakland Athletics. Through persistence and the belief in Peter Brand's system, he turns that team from a laughingstock into one of the best teams in baseball.

What makes Moneyball stay with you is the way it portrays perseverance through constant struggle. It shows how a man can love a game like baseball so much that it can almost destroy him. It is also fascinating just how much statistical analysis can influence how good or bad a team does. By concentrating on producing runs (and ultimately wins), Beane and Brand manage to simplify the game with complicated statistics.

Moneyball also does a great job of portraying all of its characters. There are no good or bad people in this movie, there's people on Billy Beane's side and people that aren't. The director, Bennett Miller, also does a great job of combining real life game footage with more dramatized scenes of the game. The combination of camera angles, lights, and dramatic music makes it very fun to watch.

It's not hard to use hyperbole here: Moneyball is one of the better sports movies that I've seen. It's smart without being exclusive, it's dramatic without being sentimental, and it has actors that really sink their teeth into their roles, even Brad Pitt. This isn't your average feel-good Disney sports movie and yet you still feel good after watching it. More than that, the characters and the story will stick with you even after the film is over. You can't ask for much more than that. Rating: 9/10

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