Moneyball – Movie Review

Moneyball, based on the book of the same title, is a movie about a baseball team manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), in his quest to build a formidable team that can go through the year long tournament. To do so, he enlists the help of Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who has a theory that building a team not based on a player’s reputation but based on his statistical averages is the way to go. The idea proves tantalizing for Beane seeing as his team, the Oakland Athletics, has a very dismal budget to begin with. As he put it, “There are the rich teams, then there are the poor teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.”

So instead of splurging on A-list players, Beane hunts down players whose days are apparently behind them. Some have nerve injuries to their elbows, some are too old to play and others have a bad reputation behind them. The critics will rise against Beane and his experiment but he perseveres in an attempt to prove everyone wrong. Moneyball is based on a true story.

To say Brad Pitt delivers a tour de force performance as Billy Beane would be an understatement. I have not watched all the Oscar nominated actors yet but I can safely say that among all the actors who have gotten and are getting award-hype this season, Brad Pitt is without a doubt my favorite so far. He’s being pitted against George Clooney in The Descendants (check my review) as the frontrunners. No offense to George Clooney but Pitt’s performance is lightyears better. It is more engaging, more thrilling, more interesting, more nuanced. It is exquisite. He portrays his character with the exact amount of strength and emotion that it needs. At times, he shows Beane’s fragile side as he faces the looming fear of failure and at other times, as he sits in the changing rooms behind the stadium, he shows undeniable resolve. Sometimes he shows both in one frame. You can actually say that Moneyball is Billy Beane and Billy Beane is Moneyball. The symbiosis between this character and the movie is that strong. Brad Pitt embodies Billy Beane perfectly.

Jonah Hill is very interesting as well as Beane’s assistant. His performance has been rightfully nominated for many awards, including an Oscar. In fact, one of the driving forces for Moneyball is the chemistry exhibited on screen by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the Athletics’ manager, is great as always in a more silent yet comical performance.

Moneyball has a great screenplay as well, as only can be expected from The Social Network‘s Aaron Sorkin (check my review of The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian, responsible for this year’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (check my review), to accompany the all star cast it enlists. The movie flows smoothly, never feels slow. And for a movie about baseball, a sport that I don’t particularly understand, it rises above the toughness of the game and turns this movie into one that is truly heartfelt, comical at times and entertaining throughout.

At the end of the day, Moneyball isn’t a movie about baseball as it is about changing the game, defying the system and breaking the boundaries imposed by other people on you. It is a movie that defies the baseball genre in which many people categorize it and rises above every single other baseball movie ever made. In fact, Moneyball might even be the best sports-related movie ever made because it doesn’t dwell on the technicalities of the sports it portrays, it rises above it to show a humanitarian aspect that everyone can relate to.



The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Movie Review

Based on the bestselling book by Stieg Larsson, which I reviewed last summer (read my review), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the second movie based on the aforementioned novel, the first being a critically acclaimed Swedish drama.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a top Swedish journalist whose world is crashing around him. He just lost a court battle during which he was accused of libel against a top Swedish businessman, his credibility is in ruins and his magazine is struggling. Amid all the chaos, he gets a peculiar job offer from Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the head of Vanger corporations, to write a biography about his family as a cover to a journalistic investigation into the disappearance of Vanger’s niece some forty years prior.

As Blomkvist begins to make advances in the case the likes of which he didn’t think he would be able to do, he is faced with the possibility of a Swedish serial killer of women being on the loose. The killings are biblical, based on Leviticus verses. But he needs help, which comes in the form of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an emotionally reclusive, mentally challenging and emotionally unstable hacker.

One cannot talk about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as a movie without talking about the reason it has such a title: the character of Lisbeth Salander. To say that girl is one of the most interesting characters to recently grace literature and now cinema would be a gross understatement. There’s just something about the fire in Lisbeth’s eyes, whether you’re reading her off a page or watching her on screen, covering a dark emptiness inside that is very unraveling, very dark and very fascinating. Therefore, the need of great acting skills to be able to interprete such a multi-layered character is in need. To be blunt, Rooney Mara excels.

Not only does she get you to feel compassion with her character’s moments of weakness, she also gets you to root for her in her moments of triumph. Rooney Mara is fascinating, down to the very basic articulations of the Meryl Streep-esque accent she has formulated for her character. She literally doesn’t shy away from giving the viewers of the movie everything she has to offer and she shines doing so.

Daniel Craig is great as Mikael Blomkvist. As I read the book, I didn’t really picture a character in my head for Blomkvist. But Craig manages to fill in the “blanks” I had after three books of reading Blomkvist’s pursuits. His performance is nuanced and is beautifully complemented and elevated by the previously mentioned stellar performance by Rooney Mara. However, what works against Craig in this movie is the fact that his character is nowhere near as interesting as Mara’s Lisbeth. But the biggest evidence to how greatly these two actors’ performances complement each other is the fact that the movie doesn’t really take off until you get both Lisbeth and Mikael in the same frame.

Another brilliant part of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the superb electronic music present in it, which has sort of become correlated in my head with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose previous works include last year’s The Social Network (My review). The darkest scenes in the movie are taken a step further in darkness by the score that Reznor and Ross envisioned for the movie.  Moreover, the cinematography in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is top-notch as well. On top of being very pleasing to listen to, it is a beautiful movie to look at – despite its very violent moments, some of which are among the most brutal I have watched on screen yet.

David Fincher, who also directed on last year’s The Social Network, manages to craft this Swedish noir novel into a movie that is very pleasing to the fans of the book. He manages to preserve the dark essence of the book and transfer it on screen with minimal changes to the material presented in the novel. Stieg Larsson would have been, in my humble opinion, very pleased to see his work presented this way on screen.

On the overall, the crew that worked on this movie managed to a dark and mysterious world full of family secrets, corruption, sexual perversity and redemption. The beautiful thing about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is that all the pieces fall together in a synchronized manner to deliver a truly brilliant cinematic experience, albeit being a movie of extensive duration, due to the book’s thick spine. At the end of the day, however, this is simply Rooney Mara’s movie. And with books two and three of The Millenium trilogy featuring Salander more and more in the spotlight, I can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve. But let me tell you, this is epic and the next two will be epic, indeed.


Top 13 Movies of 2011

Note: This list is tentative and will be constantly updated to be hopefully finalized by March at the latest due to the unavailability of many movies that are garnering critical acclaim and award traction, be it on DVD or in local theaters.

After checking my first “Top of 2011” list which dealt with music, it is time for the second one about another thing that I’m interested in and which I’ve discussed many times throughout this past year: movies.

So without further ado, let us begin.

13 – X-Men: First Class

This reboot of the franchise of which I am a fan was a very needed approach in order to keep these X-Men relevant. Showing how Dr. Xavier became as such and Magneto became, well, Magneto, the movie was really a breath of fresh air for action movies that became more reliant on screen explosions and aerobics than on a decent story to which those special effects come as a complement. (My review of X-Men: First Class)

12 – Stray Bullet

This Lebanese movie may be too short and not a very accurate reflection on the war it is supposedly set in but the acting performances in this are so gut-wrenchingly real, it can’t but be on my list. (My review of Rsasa Tayshe/Stray Bullet)

11 – The Ides of March

This political drama is my favorite of its genre this year. I may not agree with the accolades it’s getting everywhere over more deserving movies but it’s still a great movie in its own merits. It’s riveting, engaging, highly reflective and real. It can happen anytime in any political campaign. The performances are top notch as well. (My review of The Ides of March).

10 – Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s back to basics is definitely one of the better movies of the year. This Parisian comedy will make you dream. It will take you beyond the confines of whatever room you’re watching the movie in and take you aboard its own fantastical world in a trip back in time. Marion Cotillard is more than brilliant in this. The plot is very original and the movie is very enjoyable. (My review of Midnight in Paris).

9 – One Day

Many didn’t like this movie. I found it enthralling and enchanting. Telling the story of a couple revisiting each other on the day they met every year over the course of 23 years. The premise is intriguing and while I’m sure it flows more smoothly in the book upon which this is based, the movie doesn’t botch it. In fact, the transitions are very smart at times. (My review of One Day).

8 – A Separation

This Iranian movie is simply stunning. It’s a cross examination of Iranian society through the lives of  a couple getting a divorce. The emotions in this run high, they never relent. The hurt in the characters is examined and not feared. Taboos are approached and at the end of the day, it leaves you with a stereotype-breaking view of Iranian society. (My review of A Separation).

7 – War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s WWI epic is, well, an epic movie as well. Based on the children’s book of the same name, War Horse is emotional and phenomenal. It’s stunning to look at and boasts one of the most pleasurable scores I have heard this year in a movie. It is a sentimental movie that transcends age lines and turns into a story for the ages. A must watch. (My review of War Horse)

6 – Moneyball

Brad Pitt shines as Billy Beane, manager of a struggling baseball team, as he tries to get his team to survive a grueling league with a dismal budget. So he enlists Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand to help him change the whole baseball game and turn it head on heels. Moneyball might be the best sports movie made. (My review of Moneyball)

5 – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher’s take on this Swedish noir novel preserves the book’s essence and turns it into a stellar movie, fueled by a top notch performance by Rooney Mara who embodies the novel’s heroin Lisbeth Salander in spellbinding manner. I loved the book and the movie. (My review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)

4 – The Artist

The Artist is a black and white movie which relies on the symphony playing throughout its run for its only auditory input. And it just works. It asks nothing of you as a viewer but to simply watch, not even listen. It relies on the strength of the performances by its cast to communicate the emotions it tries to convey. (My review of The Artist).

 3 – The Help

Based on the book of the same titleThe Help is easily one of the best movies this year as well. It is the tale of the quest of three Southern women in a 1960s racially segregated America for racial equality. The movie may be a work of fiction but it feels so real when you watch it, you can’t but be amazed. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” – that’s a sentence for the ages. (My review of The Help).

2 – Where Do We Go Now? (W Halla2 La Wein?)

The Lebanese movie that could. Nadine Labaki’s latest movie is without a doubt one of the best movies this year. After being robbed of a Golden Globes nomination (Angelina Jolie, I’m looking at you), we find solace in this movie winning at the Toronto International Film Festival. Telling the tale of women who go beyond their means to get the men of their religiously-divided hometown to ease the tension, the movie tugs at your heartstring, activates your tear ducts and makes you laugh uncontrollably – all at the same time, sometimes. (My review of Where Do We Go Now?)

1 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Because there’s no other movie that deserves to be here. Because there’s no other franchise that has had such a thrillingly brilliant finale. Because no other movie has ever gotten me this close to tears and because every single award show is hell-bent on shunning this from the awards it most definitely deserves. Yes, this may be predictable to many but there’s just something about the final installment in the story of Harry Potter that transcends it being just a movie and turns into a cinematic experience that we, as the Harry Potter generation, are very lucky to have experienced. (My review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2).

– – – – – — – – – – — – – – – –

Notable mentions:

Puss in Boots, previous #13 on the list’s initial version. 

Soul Surfer (check my review) previous #12 on the list’s initial version.

Source Code (check my review) previous #11 on the list’s initial version.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Book Review) – Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the third and final installment in the Millennium trilogy, currently the best selling books worldwide.

The final installment picks up where the second one left off: Lisbeth Salander has been shot, Zala is wounded and Niedermann is tied to a sign post. And so both Salander and Zala are taken to the hospital to fix up their wounds, with Lisbeth barely making it through. However, the revelations that started with the second installment, about Lisbeth’s deep involvement with a section of the Swedish secret police, continue to work in the third book. Never before has the Zalachenko club in Sapo (the Secret Police) been revealed to this extent and they must do their best to clean up.

Little do they know, however, is that this time around Lisbeth Salander has decided to fight back – and similarly to them, her fight will not be clean. Unlike them, however, she will always be one step ahead, even when Sapo believe they’ve got it all in the bag.

Lisbeth Salander has to seek the help of Mikael Blomkvit, who’s now under strict Sapo surveillance. And he’s willing to help. He will harness the power of his magazine and investigative journalism to bring justice to Salander, a woman who has had her most basic of rights violated.

Erika Berger has a stalker as well. Someone who wants her to fail at her new job, as editor in chief. But the collective effort of all people who are involved, in one way or another, with Millenium – as well as Milton Security, Lisbeth’s former employer, is needed to bring the Zalachenko group of the Secret Police down.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is a very riveting book, especially when it comes down to the trial during which Lisbeth speaks up and surprises everyone. The cross-examination of Dr. Teleborian, the psychiatrist who decided Lisbeth needed to be locked up when she was twelve, is probably one of the most exciting passages to read in the whole series.

However, unlike the previous two books in the trilogy, there isn’t a mystery in this one. There isn’t a killer to be identified like in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or The Girl Who Played With Fire. All the cards are laid out on the table for you to see. You know what each side is capable of and you know the material they both have.

In books like this, it is up to the author’s talent and expertise to deliver a book that is captivating and still wholly engrossing for you to read. And Stieg Larsson delivers. The author’s approach towards this book is not different from the previous ones but there’s an undeniable sense of urgency in the way he laid his words on paper. The monologue italic thoughts are still scattered out throughout and they serve as a strong catalyst for the advancement of the plot.

There are moments however where Larsson abandons his novelist self and goes into a pamphlet-like writer, giving you what I believe is pages and pages of credible history about the workings and logistics of the Swedish Secret Police. The fact that I skimmed through those pages and still understood the whole book is testimony to how useless they are. Perhaps he wanted to use his books for some sort of activism, but it just doesn’t work. Or it could be that I have nothing to do with Sweden.

However, at the end of the day, even though the ending of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is quite expected, it still brings you a sense of relief to see Lisbeth walk out free. The girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire all her life dared to kick the hornet’s nest and live to tell the tale. And it is a great tale.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Book Review) – Stieg Larsson

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first book in The Millenium Trilogy by late Swedish author Stieg Larson.

Mikael Blomkvist is a man of many things but liar isn’t one of them. He wasn’t exactly being framed. His predicament was totally his fault but he should have known better. Sitting in court, receiving a three month sentence for libel against a Swedish business giant, he thought he had hit rock-bottom both financially and career-wise.

Soon after, Mikael receives the strangest job offer from the head of one of Sweden’s leading businesses, albeit being on its way down. Henrik Vagner, aged 82, wants Mikael to spend a year writing the history of the Vagner family in an attempt to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his niece: Harriet Vagner, some 40 years prior.

As they say, you can’t get a colder case than this. Harriet disappeared on Children’s day on the fictional Swedish island of Hedestad and even though an extensive search was made following her disappearance, a body was never found. So Vagner asks Mikael to attempt to find answers, as a way of closure for a man whose days are nearing their end.

But soon enough, Mikael needs help as he starts uncovering chilling new evidence that were overlooked in the original investigation. And that help comes in the form of Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth Salander is a 26 year old woman who has been under the auspices of the Swedish state since she was thirteen after being deemed unfit to look after herself. She’s 4’11”, flat-chested, has more piercings than places to put them and more tattoos than real skin. One of those tattoos is a dragon on her left shoulder blade.

Lisbeth also happens to be a world class computer hacker, able to go into any program or computer known to man and make it look as easy as counting from one to ten. She’s also excellent at investigating people and coming up with extensive reports detailing things they never told anyone.

Together, Lisbeth and Mikael start unearthing detail after detail about a chilling series of murders with a biblical element, all taking place in scattered parts around Sweden, in relation with the Vagner corporation. Who could the killer be? And how does Harriet fit in all of this? these are some of the questions they will try to answer in the book, even if their lives depend on it.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a top-notch thriller. It doesn’t have any dull moments and it engages you with the complexity of its characters. You get immersed in the detail that Stieg Larson provides in his description of the inner workings of Salander’s mind, who happens to have some form of asperger syndrome, or Blomkvist’s sense of guilt after his sentence, which nearly got his magazine “Millenium” to go under.

The author writes down many of the main characters’ thoughts, in italics, throughout the book. These thoughts, along with the impeccable dialogue in which they are immersed, serve as a backdrop that enriches the story and breathes new life into it. Sure, many authors have used thoughts in italics in their texts before but those thoughts have never been as important to the development of the story as they were in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”

Larson doesn’t shy away from being explicit in the book as well. There are scenes which are depicted with exquisite detail that they will shake you. The book’s original Swedish title was, after all, Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), which means the book has many physical, mental and sexual abuse scenes. They are depicted to the letter.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a must read to anyone who enjoys an immersing novel to entertain their days (and nights). It is a book that you won’t be able to let down. It is a serious page turner that is more a character study of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist than a cynical approach by the author to his country, Sweden. It is a book where little is at is seems. But one thing is most definitely clear: you do not want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.