30 January 2012

MONEYBALL, and Other Awards Season Beasts

I've spent much of the last few months writing 6,000 words about Doctor Who and political satire, in partial fulfilment of my university degree, so that's why posts have been a little more infrequent than some of you might have grown to expect. I'm still seeing plenty of movies, I've just had less time to write about them afterwards. But enough of my busy schedule, cos it's time to catch up and talk about some films I haven't yet mentioned.

When the Oscar nominations were announced last Tuesday, there was quite a bit of love for Moneyball, which received six nods, including acting nominations for its stars Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and one of the nine Best Picture slots. I'll be reviewing that first, but I'm also going to look over a couple of overlooked films from this year's awards scramble- Take Shelter and J. Edgar- and spend a minimal amount of time grousing about how the subjectivity of the Academy doesn't match with my own.

Moneyball is a movie about baseball, and very determinedly not a baseball movie. On the surface of it, this true story essentially takes all of the excitement out of the sport, by chronicling the collaboration between Billy Beane and Peter Brand, during their time working behind the scenes for the Oakland Athletics team. It owes more to The Social Network, which Aaron Sorkin also wrote, in privileging the intellectual attitude to progress over the emotional or irrational norms. Sorkin does this better than any American screenwriter, but he also does it more frequently. Happily, Steven Zaillan's co-writing credit seems to temper the more familiar aspects of Sorkin's writing, and the script as a whole is much better than Zaillan's recent tangle with Swedish who-dunnits.

The acting nominations don't come as too much of a surprise- Brad Pitt is the kind of smart, witty hero that we like to see in Sorkin's works, while Jonah Hill takes precisely the kind of apt supporting role for which supporting nods are wholly intended. For Hill, it's a departure that's worthy of notice, but I'm not sure that Pitt was really better than Michael Fassbender in Shame, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50, or Michael Shannon in Take Shelter (see below). It takes no trouble to explain baseball for the uninitiated, but its sports procedural elements are as easy to understand as all that nerdy stuff in The Social Network. Moneyball is the kind of solidly written, male-driven drama that is lapped up around this time of year, and for a film that shouldn't really have much of "the magic of baseball", I was surprised that it still got away with having it both ways.

It's unfortunate, but not unfair, that Clint Eastwood's biopic of J. Edgar Hoover was more easily forgotten in the nominations. J. Edgar, in telling the story of a divisive political figure's storming career and enfeebled dotage, falls into some of the same traps as The Iron Lady. On the plus side, Eastwood is neither as spineless, nor as vague as Phyllida Lloyd- he's not afraid to show us a protagonist that we won't like, and luckily, the framing device of Hoover in his later years does not overshadow the rest of the film, in the way that The Iron Lady became a melodramatic and sentimental ghost story, starring an affably sinister Jim Broadbent.

Eastwood is more historically informed, refusing to sit on the fence. Hoover may have been behind for inexpressibly important developments in law enforcement technology, but Eastwood, and Leonardo DiCaprio, stress how his ego made him envious of the men who actually strode into action before him. Much has been made of the aging make-up effects, which weren't nominated for an Oscar in the end. I feel that this is because the work on Hoover, elevated by DiCaprio's excellent performance, is leaps and bounds ahead of the Halloween mask they got for the aged version of poor Armie Hammer, who struggles a lot more. J. Edgar is an average film by a great director, and as biopics go, it's worth a watch, warts and all.

Also overlooked, perhaps more surprisingly, was another of last year's apocalyptic indie movies, Take Shelter, in which Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a young husband and father whose visions of Armageddon have him racing around, trying to build a shelter for his family. Shannon is on blistering form here, tortured by his potentially prophetic nightmares, and trying to convince his disbelieving family and neighbours that he's not going crazy. Jessica Chastain is also superb, as usual- only she and Fassbender are this prolific without ever wearing thin- and she plays Curtis' confused and frightened wife, Samantha, with great courage and presence.

Curtis and Samantha have a deaf daughter, which feeds into the film's primacy of the senses. To that end, the sound design and sound editing are also superb, but it's the nightmare sequences that really stand out. They're relentlessly trippy and creepy, and the use of special effects is tasteful and clever. Last year really proved once and for all that you can do the apocalypse on a budget, nullifying brainlessly expensive schlock like 2012 and giving way to consistent, ideas-led dramas like this one. Take Shelter takes its sweet time, but accelerates into 5-star brilliance in the last half hour. It's hugely atmospheric, and definitely worth seeking out.

J. Edgar is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide. Moneyball and Take Shelter are both released on DVD and Blu-ray on 19th March 2012
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If you've seen any of these films, or want to chime in with your awards season thoughts, why not share your comments below? I'm going to review The Descendants on Wednesday, by the way.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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