Moneyball

I don’t like inspirational movies. I don’t like sports movies. And I most certainly do not like inspirational sports movies. But Moneyball isn’t really any of those things. The film isn’t necessarily about any one team going all the way to win the World Series (though you definitely root for the Oakland Athletics). And half the film isn’t spent on the baseball diamond (in fact I think barely 15 minutes of the movie is spent on the diamond). Moneyball is about the leveling the playing field in the world of baseball.

Billy Beane (played by a quiet Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Athletics, is tired of losing to the Yankees on his tiny budget. Since he can’t get more money, Billy hires Peter Brand (a subdued Jonah Hill) as his assistant GM and together they use a statistical approach to hire players. But it’s not as simple as just throwing together a bunch of statistically good nobodies. Billy faces opposition from everyone for his radical dealings and even the coach (Philip Seymour Hoffman) take his advice and use the players the way they were meant to be used.

The first half of the film has a very slow boil. Perhaps, if screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had been in charge of the conversations, a good thirty minutes of the film could be shaved down; but his style is not befitting of these characters and Steven Zaillian keeps Sorkin in check (making the film move about as slowly as an actual baseball game). However, after a serious losing streak, Billy decides to take matters fully into his own hands and the pace of the film picks up greatly as he manipulates everyone into doing what they were supposed to be doing from the start.

The film works as both a commentary on the dynamics of baseball politics and also a history lesson on how the game was affected by this little revolution (the events all took place 10 years ago). For someone who has no interest in baseball, the film grabbed my attention. I was just as nervous as Billy to see how each game would end, and I got emotionally involved in the game montages.

However, I fail to see how this is one of the best pictures of 2011. It’s definitely a good movie, and it deserved the critical acclaim is garnered. But nothing about it was extraordinary. Jonah Hill managed a Best Supporting Actor nod, but all he did in this movie was play a serious part instead of the comedic ones he usually does. I think the nominations for the film are more indicative of a poor movie year than of this film’s true greatness (but that’s an argument for another time).

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Yossi

It’s been 10 years since Eytan Fox’s Yossi & Jagger (a film which I am remiss to say I have not yet seen despite being a big Fox fan), and we find our hero Yossi lost. He’s still grief-stricken from losing his boyfriend (10 years earlier) and has major body image issues (he definitely qualifies as a bear in the gay community). But Yossi is too afraid to come out to anyone at work (he’s a cardiologist) and is thus forced to suffer through awkward heterosexual moments like a flirtatious girl nurse and a weird bar bathroom threeway.

However, when his dead lover’s mother ends up as one of his patients, he seeks her and her husband out and confesses his feelings for their son. It makes for a very awkward scene, but I can see that there is relief in Yossi from getting this off his chest. And, once he’s become somewhat unburdened (lets not forget the body image issue—he’s too afraid to even get a massage), he gives a ride to a group of stranded young soldiers, who no doubt remind him of his past in the army. From there is becomes it an unsteady journey for Yossi who learns to loosen up and love himself (and maybe find love in return).

The acting in the film is terrific, and I could easily relate with Yossi (who hasn’t had body issues?). And when he meets young soldier Tom (who has major Tom-Hardy lips) I couldn’t help but root for them to get together. I’m actually amazed at how much of Yossi’s shit Tom puts up with. But watching actor Ohad Knoller’s journey as Yossi was spectacular. His portrayal of this confused and embarrassed gay man is one that almost any gay man could sympathize with.

Eytan Fox is a superb filmmaker (I love Walk on Water), and this is definitely a film worth checking out (as long as you can handle subtitles) if you’re close to the TriBeCa Film Festival.

Calico Joe

The latest book by Josh Grisham is not a legal thriller but a poignant drama about redemption told through the backdrop of America’s favorite pastime, baseball. Paul Tracey is the son of semi-famous Mets baseball player Warren Tracey. What Warren lacks in actual skill he makes up for by abusing his wife, children, and any player who mildly pisses him off. Paul’s hero is not his dad, but up-and-coming hotshot Cubs star Joe Castle (whom the press later dubs Calico Joe because he’s from Calico Rock, Arkansas).

When the Mets play the Cubs, disaster strikes. Careers are ruined, and even young Paul (who’s only 11 at the time) gives up the game forever. In the present, Paul has learned that his father (whom he’s barely spoken with in the last 30 years) is dying; and there is only thing on his mind. As Paul attempts to resolve a longtime wronging, he manages to salvage more than he bargained for.

Grisham is not an opulent writer, and his very direct storytelling techniques always seem to work in his favor. I, for one, cannot stand baseball and was not looking forward to reading a book about. But just like in Moneyball, the characters in the story win me over and I quickly became engaged in the book. Although it’s a quick read, Calico Joe managed to inspire me (and I even cried a little). I found this book more enjoyable than his football drama Bleachers, but I’ll still always prefer his legal thrillers.