Moneyball

Columbia Pictures

Rated PG-13 for profanity.

Brad Pitt Delivers Oscar-Quality Performance In Baseball Biopic

Despite this delightful biopic’s arriving in theaters prior to the onset of Oscar season, you can already pencil in Brad Pitt as a serious contender for an Academy Award. For he is simply sensational as Billy Beane in this emotionally-uplifting, David vs. Goliath saga revolving around the amazing run of the Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season.

The iconoclastic, A’s General Manager revolutionized baseball that year by fielding a team of lowly touted underdogs who somehow managed to beat the odds by overachieving and reaching the playoffs. But Billy knew their feat was no fluke since there had been a mathematical method to his madness.

Based on Michael Lewis’ best-seller of the same name, Moneyball chronicles how Beane came to make roster moves relying on statistics alone in lieu of listening to scouts like the other major league franchises. Truth be told, the beleaguered GM had adopted the unorthodox approach almost out of desperation because he’d just lost three of his best players to free agency: Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen.

And as a small market team with modest revenues, the A’s simply couldn’t afford to match the mega-salaries being offered by perennial World Series contenders like the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox. So, on the advice of his nerdy, young assistant, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Ivy-educated economist he’d hired away from the Cleveland Indians, Beane began to employ a state-of-the-art system of computer analysis known as sabermetrics.

That highly-quantitative theory ignores conventional baseball wisdom, scouting reports and popular stats like batting averages and RBIs in favor of lesser-appreciated indicators like slugging and on-base percentages, which apparently have a higher correlation to wins and losses. Beane strictly followed the computer’s rating of players, stocking up on underrated castoffs from other clubs nobody wanted.

However, he still had a hard time selling the strategy to his skeptical, hard-boiled manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who initially refused to cooperate with what he considered a patently ridiculous innovation. But he would eventually embrace the rag-tag assortment of misfits he was handed, and lead the team to victory.

Directed by Bennett Miller, Moneyball was adapted by Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin (for The Social Network), a gifted storyteller with a knack for both inspired dialogue and compelling character development. Here, he deserves accolades for the way in which he humanizes his protagonist by having Billy exhibit a sincere regret over his failed marriage and the toll the divorce is taking on his emotionally-distant, 12-year-old daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey).

Consequently, the audience comes to care as much about the resolution of the strained father-daughter relationship as about the outcome of Oakland’s historic baseball season. How long can the A’s computer-assisted miracle season last? Will Billy and Casey ever reconcile?

A tender reminder that the heart sometimes still matters even if we now live in a technology-driven, digital age where machines lead and humans follow.

Excellent (4 stars).

Running time: 133 minutes.

 

Thunder Soul

Roadside Attractions

Rated PG for smoking and mild epithets

Reverential Biopic Pays Tribute To Legendary H.S. Bandleader

After graduating from Wiley College (of The Great Debaters fame) back in the ‘30s, Conrad “Prof” Johnson (1915-2008) briefly embarked on a promising career as a jazz musician, joining big band orchestras led by the likes of Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins. However, he decided to come off the road in 1940, right after meeting the love of his life, Birdie.

The couple soon married and decided to settle down in his native Texas, where for the next 37 years, Prof would teach music at Kashmere High in Houston. There, he formed a stage band to compete in tournaments against other schools, and as conductor taught his students how to achieve a professional quality sound on their instruments.

By the late ‘60s, Kashmere had developed an enviable reputation as a world-class powerhouse, courtesy of a funky brand of music dubbed thunder soul. But perhaps more important than forging youngsters into a competitive, top-flight band capable of winning national championships was the fact that Prof simultaneously served as a father figure to so many who were being raised without a male role model.

Although he retired in 1978, Conrad Johnson had made such a lasting impression on his Kashmere kids that numerous band alumni decided to pay tribute to him 30 years later by reuniting to do a show when they learned their hero was in failing health. That Herculean effort is the subject of Thunder Soul, a reverential biopic directed by Mark Landsman.

Produced by fellow Texan Jamie Foxx, the picture features file footage of the group performing in the ‘70s when they were mostly sporting big afros and wearing bell bottom pants and platform shoes. That retro reminder is deftly juxtaposed against the same individuals, now middle-aged yet somehow still summoning up the funkified fire of old as they “practice, practice, practice” just to please their former mentor in one glorious, toe-tapping last hurrah.

Mixed in with those preparations are a host of heartfelt reminiscences about how much Prof meant to each of them. And if you aren’t moved by those teary-eyed testimonials, then the floodgates will certainly open on reunion night when their 92-year-old mentor is wheeled up the aisle from a hospital bed to attend the magnificent concert in his honor.

They don’t make ‘em like Prof anymore!

Excellent (4 stars).

Running time: 83 minutes.

 

OPENING THIS WEEK

Kam’s Kapsules:

Weekly Previews That Make Choosing Film Fun

For movies opening September 30, 2011

 

50/50 (R for sexuality, drug use and pervasive profanity). Bittersweet dramedy about a 27-year-old writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who learns what’s most important in life after being given a 50/50 chance of beating a rare form of spinal cancer. With Anjelica Huston, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Philip Baker Hall.

 

Courageous (PG-13 for violence and drug use). Alex Kendrick wrote, directed and co-stars in this faith-based parable about the trials and tribulations of four colleagues facing different ethical dilemmas while serving on the Albany, Georgia, police force. Cast includes Ken Bevel, Ben Davies and Kevin Downes.

 

Dream House (PG-13 for violence, terror, sexuality and brief profanity). Psychological thriller about a married couple (Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz) whose relocation from NYC to a quaint New England town leaves their family the target of the same sadistic killer who had brutally murdered the previous owners of their new home. With Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas and Jane Alexander.

 

What’s Your Number? (R for sexuality and profanity). Screen adaptation of Karyn Bosnak’s best-seller 20 Times A Lady, a romantic romp revolving around a marriage-minded young woman (Anna Faris) who decides to track down all of her former boyfriends to determine whether one of her exes might be her one true love. With Chris Evans, Blythe Danner, Andy Samberg and Ed Begley, Jr.

 

American Teacher (Unrated). Matt Damon narrates this reverential documentary that pays tribute to the country’s 3.2 million teachers by profiling the careers of a quartet of dedicated educators.

 

Bunraku (Unrated). Revenge saga about a drifter (Josh Hartnett), a bartender (Woody Harrelson) and a samurai (Gackt) who join forces to take on a ruthless mobster (Ron Perlman) with an army of 9 assassins. With Demi Moore, Shun Sugata and Kevin McKidd. (In English and Japanese with subtitles.)

 

Connected (Unrated). Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain is the subject of this cinematic autobiography exploring such themes as love, death and technology.

 

Margaret (R for profanity, sexuality, drug use and disturbing images). Serendipitous drama about a 17-year-old high school student (Anna Paquin) who convinces herself that she inadvertently played a role in a woman’s death after witnessing a horrific bus accident in Manhattan. Ensemble cast includes Matt Damon, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Jean Reno, Olivia Thirlby and Kieran Culkin.

 

Sarah Palin: You Betcha (Unrated). Unauthorized biopic features Brit muckraker Nick Broomfield taking a tongue-in-cheek look at the life of the Alaskan governor-turned-conservative cultural icon.

 

Take Shelter (R for profanity). Paranoia drama about a working-class family man (Michael Shannon) plagued by apocalyptic visions who finds himself struggling with whether or not to have his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart) hide in a backyard bunker he’s built as protection from the conflagration he believes is imminent.

 

Tucker & Dale Vs. The Devil (R for profanity, graphic violence and brief nudity). Horror comedy about a couple of West Virginia hillbillies (Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) who are mistaken for chainsaw killers by a group of vacationing college kids after saving one of them (Katrina Bowden) from drowning. With Jesse Moss, Philip Granger and Brandon Jay McLaren.

 

You Don’t Like The Truth (Unrated). War on Terror documentary culled from surveillance tapes from at Guantanamo during the four days of the interrogation of a Canadian teenager named Omar Khadr who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

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