MARY AND MAX (Australia, 2009)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Stop Motion Film”

PLOT: A tale of friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and Max, a forty-four-year-old severely obese man living in New York.

“Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the color of poo.”

Thus begins the narration of one of the most poignant movies I’ve ever seen, Mary and Max, a 2009 stop-motion animated film made in Australia.  It never got a wide release in America; were it not for the fact it appeared on the IMDb list of the top 250 favorite films worldwide, I might never have heard of it.  Thank goodness I found a copy online and bought it…one my best “blind-buy” purchases ever.

At this point in an earlier draft of this review, I launched into a plot description which veered into a discussion about the movie’s color palette, its tone, its agenda, etcetera.  But that somehow didn’t feel right, and I got bogged down.  What I really want to impart upon you, the reader, is how it made me feel.

It’s a drama about mental illness wrapped in the trappings of a Tim Burton-esque dark comedy.  What this means is, some of the visuals are right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas: oversized flies with googly eyes, suicidal goldfish, main characters whose body shapes resemble vegetables more than people.  But the story and emotional beats rival any Merchant Ivory film or James L. Brooks weepie.

Eight-year-old Mary Dinkle, who lives in Australia, starts up a pen-pal correspondence with Max Horovitz, a 44-year-old obese single man with undiagnosed (at least initially) Asperger syndrome.  After his initial panic attack at receiving a letter from a complete stranger, which throws his carefully controlled equilibrium out of whack, he writes her back, and they wind up having a decades-long correspondence.  She has no friends due to her prominent forehead birthmark.  He has no friends because he can’t relate to people.

The movie is mostly an unseen narrator bridging gaps between their letters, while the letters are read as they’re being written/typed by Mary and Max.  The relationship between the two is as touching as anything I’ve ever seen on film.  She sends him a hand-drawn picture of herself, which he keeps in his mirror to remind himself how people are supposed to look when they’re happy.  He sends her his recipe for chocolate hot dogs (a chocolate bar in a hot dog bun).  She asks him all the important questions, like: if a taxi drives backwards, does the driver owe YOU money?  He explains a long gap in their correspondence: “I was hospitalized, won the lottery, and my next-door neighbor died.”

These two lonely souls reaching out to each other just made me feel sunny inside, even amid the small tragedies they each faced.  Mary’s father dies.  Max keeps having to buy goldfish.  Mary falls in love with the Greek boy across the street, a boy who stutters, wants to be an actor, and, when they become engaged, makes her wedding dress for her.  Uh, huh.

The way in which the stories of these two people were written to complement each other without being identical is a delicate balancing act that threatens to veer into farce, then rights itself at the last second.  As I say, it’s hard to describe.

A turning point occurs when Mary gets a bit older, goes to school, studies mental disorders, and writes a book about her American pen-friend with Asperger’s.  She sends him the very first copy…but Max’s reaction is not what she anticipated.  She falls into a depression…

And here the movie takes a brilliantly dark turn.  I remember watching it for the very first time thinking, “Are they really telling THIS kind of story in a stop-motion film?”  Yep, they are.  There is a key scene where Mary has a kind of fever-dream hallucination choreographed to a haunting version of “Que Sera, Sera”, and my jaw dropped.  I cannot claim to have intimate knowledge of mental illnesses, but this scene just feels right.  This is a great representation of what someone’s mind might look and sound like on the brink of a terrible decision.

I realize I’m not making this movie sound like a lot of fun.  I can assure you that it is entertaining and fun, with a nasty (in a good way) habit of getting a chuckle while juxtaposing it against a scene of subtle awfulness.  The way Mary’s mother dies gets a laugh…but only as you’re listening to her death throes in the background.  The way Max’s various goldfish die is alternately funny and gruesome, or both at the same time.

And the REAL kicker is the final sequence, where Mary finally discovers where Max has kept all her letters through the years.  This moment is one of the greatest revelations I’ve ever seen, and I nearly shed a tear when she did.

Portrayals of mental illness in films have had varying degrees of success.  For every Rain Man, there’s an I Am Sam.  With Mary and Max, the filmmakers used the stop-motion medium to present hard-hitting material without totally getting bogged down in the inherent trauma or pathos of the illness being portrayed.  It’s an ingenious combination, but I’ll be damned if I can explain exactly WHY it works.  It just does.  Mary and Max remains one of the most unique animated films I’ve ever seen.  Seek this one out if you can.


Were you surprised by the ending? What would you do differently?
I was bamboozled by the ending. I do sort of wish we had some idea of what happened to Mary after her trip, but I guess that’s okay. I wish her well in her future endeavors, wherever she may be.

Why do you think stop-motion was chosen for this film rather than animation?
As I mentioned, I believe it was to leaven the deep, potentially dreary material with the inherent oddness of the medium. Even a man in a wheelchair with no legs looks undeniably goofy…but it’s tragic. But he looks kinda funny.


By Marc S. Sanders

Remember that CW TV show called Felicity?  I’ve never seen an episode, but I remember the advertisements.  Beautiful, former child actor, Keri Russell with the golden, curly locks of love, was on her way to college.  Every commercial had that crisp, home like comfort feel voiceover.  It left me with an impression that this was a corny, yet sweeping exploration of coming of age while at college, and gaining independence.  The show came from JJ Abrams.  Abrams is a good director and writer.  He’s now one of the biggest producers in Hollywood.  Back in the early 2000s however, he wanted to nurture his characters.  Protect them.  Make them feel warm and content.  After Felicity, he went on to develop a spy thriller series called Alias with Jennifer Garner.  She was a college student with a lovable roommate by day and was super spy by night, or whenever the moment called for it.  Abrams went on to blending his coziness with that of stunts and explosions that modernized a series like, say…Mission: Impossible.  Naturally, when Tom Cruise recruited him for the third film of the high-octane franchise, we got the “Felicity Finish” applied.  Ethan Hunt is sweet and kind, and he’s ready for married life.  How precious!

Don’t get me wrong.  Mission: Impossible III is likely what kept the still running blockbuster movie series going.  Following a style over substance lackluster entry before, from action director John Woo, this third entry went in a completely different direction.  Ethan Hunt hugs a soon to be sister-in-law. Ethan Hunt cries.  Ethan Hunt has feelings.  Ethan Hunt has to rescue who he regards as his “kid sister,” Felicity…I mean adorable Keri Russell from being held hostage.  Ethan Hunt belongs on the cover of a Hallmark card with actress Michelle Monaghan.

I imagine JJ Abrams is not fond of the early James Bond movies.  I’d make a case that he watches them and wishes that someone, anyone would just give 007 a warm and sincere hug after he saves the world, and hold him close.  Superspies have emotions too, ya know?

The story of this third M:I chapter focuses on the pursuit of a MacGuffin known as the rabbit’s foot.  A powerful weapons dealer named Owen Davian (a brutally frightening Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is working to get a hold of it.  Following a first act rescue mission that Ethan and his IMF team (Ving Rhames, Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engage in, the main hero finds reason to capture Davian and intercept the mysterious rabbit’s foot.  Complications get in the way because Ethan has fallen in love with an adorably beautiful doctor named Julia (Monaghan), who is unaware of her fiancé’s exploits.   

The action is superb in Abrams cinematic directorial debut.  Once it gets started after a sweet engagement party scene, it does not let up.  Everything is well edited and choreographed. An essential part of a Mission: Impossible movie.  An unexpected attack on a bridge crossing is spectacular.  The covert tactics are fun to watch as well.  When Ethan and team secretly invade The Vatican, the step-by-step maneuvers are carried out with gleeful ease.

There are twists and double crosses at play as well that you are not even thinking about looking for.  Frankly, they work more effectively here than they did in the original M:I film directed by Brian DePalma.  When the traitor is revealed to deliver a line like “It’s complicated,” it is not unreasonable to gasp.

Hoffman still remains the best of the villains in Cruise’s action franchise.  Maybe that’s by Abrams’ design because this is probably the most personal of all the films to date.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the guy who will be apprehended and braced to a railing on an airplane by the IMF team, and yet will still hold the upper hand.  A question like “Do you have a wife or a girlfriend?” has a much more sinister context when uttered by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

I do recall when I first saw the film that the ending is not original.  It’s an opportunity for Tom Cruise to do another running scene, but it was first used in an episode of Alias where an operative is remotely giving directions to the hero while talking on a cell phone.  Clever the first time.  The second time seeing it, I was just calling it out.  So, Abrams needs to stretch his imagination a little.  No matter.  The pulse of the adventure races at high speed.

Mission: Impossible III might be unabashedly hokey and corny.  Everyone looks like they belong in a JC Penney commercial at Christmas time, or on a CW TV show like Felicity. However, it won’t deny you of what you are looking for which are big stunts in the sky and on the ground, along with the cool gadgets and those signature pull away masks that made the original series so memorable. 

I still realize that by the time film series reached this chapter, the franchise still belonged exclusively to Tom Cruise occupying every frame.  Once again, his team of IMF agents really don’t matter or carry any substance except to wear clothes.  At least this time, Tom Cruise cries over someone else.  So, he’s not as self-involved as the last couple of times, or even the last couple of dozen movies.  That’s a nice change of pace. 


By Marc S. Sanders

So this may be director Brett Ratner’s best film, but that doesn’t make it a great film. Ratner directs Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lechter in this prequel film to The Silence of The Lambs.

Hopkins does his best with a script that lacks the wit of the original Lambs script. The puns are lacking this time as he plays mind games with Edward Norton’s FBI agent who is trying to apprehend “The Tooth Fairy,” a deranged killer of families played by a disturbing Ralph Fiennes.

Red Dragon boasts a who’s who of a great cast; Hopkins, Norton, Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Blunt, Mary Louise Parker and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Yet, every player is incredibly boring. It’s as if they memorized their lines and just recited them at the call of action. There are no nuances. No fear or fascination within their interactions, and thus what’s at stake seems awfully minimal. We get a LOT of Norton just talking to himself or a tape recorder. It’s all very flat.

Ratner’s art director should be commended for effectively duplicating Hannibal’s prison from Lambs. That’s where the eye-popping stops, however. Hannibal’s infamous muzzle mask also makes a return.

I remember loving this book by Thomas Harris. It was so imaginative and descriptive. Very fast reading. Ratner gets all the important scenes in his film as well as some additional fodder for Hopkins but it’s all color by numbers. Nothing is here to carry a swell of emotion. No close ups. No lighting technique.

The best that Ratner comes up with is to chain Hannibal to a steel cable like a wild animal. He lunges for Norton and the chain rattles. Meh. A cat jumping out of nowhere has given me worse nightmares. Ratner forgot to cast the cat, however.


By Marc S. Sanders

Boogie Nights was director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature following a very different and very quiet film debut with the gambling addiction piece Hard Eight.

Heck, it’s fair to say all of Paul’s films are very different; here is the seediness of porn while later in his career he will focus on the ruthlessness of a wealthy and angry oil man and then an obsessed dressmaker devoid of care for the models who parade his accomplishments. (See There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread.). Paul was definitely striving for recognition with his familial depiction of life in the California pornographic film industry.

What I’ve always liked about Boogie Nights was Anderson’s intent to show the naive innocence of this large cast of characters. Filming blatantly oblivious awful porn scenarios can still be regarded as very proud efforts by its talent.

The main character is Eddie Adams (aka the amazing Dirk Diggler) played with macho pathos by Mark Wahlberg. It’ll likely be the best role of Wahlberg’s entire career. Dirk is proud of his natural talent in front of the camera. He’s even more proud of what God has gifted him. Don Cheadle is another porn star named Buck. He’s also proud of his accomplishments and simply a kind fellow looking to make country cowboy a trendy look for a black man while selling the “Hi-est Fidelity” in stereo equipment on the side. Julianne Moore is Amber Waves, the maternal porn mom of the bunch; very affectionate, very comforting and very reassuring when Dirk shoots his first porn scene. The one individual who really holds all of these misfits together is Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, the porn film director. He’s the paternal one who believes in his artistic merits of shooting porn but with a story, and only with the integrity of film, and never the cheapness of videotape. So, Jack is like any artist who insists on a certain type of canvas. It might be smut, but he has principles, and he has pride.

Anderson is wise in how he divides up the developments. The film begins in the late 1970s during evening night life and decadence and everything seems fine and innocent and right despite the endless debauchery of reckless sex and drug use on a Disco backdrop. Wahlberg’s character is welcomed lovingly into this world, and nothing appears wrong. It all seems to stay that way for Dirk until New Year’s Eve, 1979. The 80s begin with a gunshot and then Anderson’s cast must pay for the revelry of their sins. A great moment presented on this night is where Amber Waves introduces Dirk to cocaine. Dirk has been thriving, making money, developing a following and now it is jeopardized in one moment thanks to his naivety. Julianne Moore is superb in this particular scene against Wahlberg. She’s the mentor with the peer pressure to pass on her high and keep it running.

Drug addiction, violence, sexual abuse and even changes in pop culture lead to hard times for these likable people.

It’s a hard life. It’s a complicated life. Yet it’s not all necessarily illegal. Morally, it might appear wrong, but it’s a life nonetheless.

Anderson was wise to use (at the time, relatively new) filming techniques of Martin Scorsese with rocking period music and fast edits along with savored moments of great steady cam work. One long cut especially works when the film first begins on the streets of Reseda and on into a crowded night club. This industry doesn’t sleep. So, neither will the camera that follows it. The music must also be celebrated. I do not listen to Night Ranger’s Sister Christian without thinking of firecrackers and a dangerously drug addled Alfred Molina playing Russian roulette. Though I know which came first, I also wonder if Three Dog Night’s Momma Told Me Not To Come and Spill The Wine by Eric Burton & War was written to enhance the celebratory introduction for Dirk when he attends his first party at Jack’s house. It’s another great steady cam moment from a driveway, followed by steps in and out of Jack’s house to simply a bikinied girl’s dive in the swimming pool. As a viewer I was absorbed in the California haze. Superior camera work here.

The cast of unknowns at the time were a blessing to this film. Anderson writes each person with care and attention and dimension. They have lives outside of this world like Amber’s child that we never get to meet, thanks in part to her lifestyle. She might be maternal but that doesn’t make her a good mother. Julianne Moore should have won the Oscar she was nominated for. Burt Reynolds’ own legacy seems to carry his role. His distinguished silver hair and well trimmed beard earn him the respect of every cast member and he performs with a quiet grace of knowledge, and insight, even if he will inevitably be wrong with how things turn out. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the dumb kid Scotty insecure and unsure of his homosexual attraction to Dirk. It’s not easy to play a dumb character when you are not doing it for laughs. Hoffman makes a huge impact with little dialogue but Anderson is wise enough to capitalize on him.

Boogie Nights offers one of the best cast of characters and assembled talents in any film ever made. An individual movie could be made about each of these people, and it’d be interesting and entertaining.

Try to avoid a blush and mock at the industry depicted because then you’ll see how another walk of life truly lives day to day. It might be porn. It might be smut. Yet, it’s still a thriving industry.


By Marc S. Sanders

Ernie Anderson was the cool voiceover for the ABC television network that would introduce upcoming programs for years. He was a staple of the television industry from the 1970s through the ‘90s. I promise that you or your parents know his sharp, recognizable tempo. So, it makes sense that his son Paul Thomas Anderson would center his multiple story crossover film Magnolia around the television industry, within a 10-block radius in the Hollywood Area. Magnolia presents the off-chance coincidences that somehow happen and the unusual phenomena that can occur when never expected.

Anderson’s three hour epic offers storylines centered around former and present day game show quiz kids (Jeremy Blackmon, William H Macy), the game show host stricken with cancer (Phillip Baker Hall), the drug addicted daughter he’s estranged from (Melora Walters), the dying game show producer (Jason Robards), the producer’s son who is a motivational speaker for men to sexually conquer women (Tom Cruise), and the producer’s gold digging wife (Julianne Moore).

Because the narrative of the film has a biblical theme specifically referencing Exodus 8:2, there are also two good natured guardian angels involved. John C Reilly as a sweet but clumsy police officer proud of his work, and a sentimental hospice nurse played beautifully with bedside sympathy by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Anderson’s film opens with three stories of random coincidence that resulted in the deaths of three different men. More than likely most people would say these tall tales of legend could only occur in a movie. Yet, the voiceover narrator , Ricky Jay, says they did not, and thus begins one specific day with torrential downpours of rain, where all of these random characters will come in contact with a personal experience of monumental impact that will change their individual lives forever. Oddly enough, all these people are somehow connected to one another and are within blocks of each other located near Magnolia Blvd in the Hollywood Hills.

Like Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson directs a film of very weighty emotions that thematically focuses on the sins of fathers that carried over to the futures of their children. The game show is titled “What Do Kids Know?” which likely symbolizes what they didn’t know while at the behest of their parents during their youth. What they know now about their fathers is a burden to bear in insecurities, drug abuse and outright cruelty for the opposite sex. Every character represents some aspect of this ongoing theme during Magnolia. It’s a lot, a whole of information, but fortunately it moves at a very swift pace with an energetic steady cam and dramatic notes of instrumental soundtracks.

Anderson consistently shows different references to Exodus 8:2 by either using the numbers in clocks or decks of cards or temperature readings of the weather or on marquee signs. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt when seeing the film on a multiple viewings.


“But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs.”

Sure. Most recognize the Bible verse as Moses’ decree to Pharaoh to release the Jews from Egypt. I like to think Anderson used Magnolia to release his beloved, but damaged, characters from their own sins or the sins of their fathers. Set them free even if it could be by means of confession, judgment, offering and begging for forgiveness, or journeying towards a personal salvation.

The smart device that Anderson uses is the angelic music of Aimee Mann. Often I talk about how I love when film characters would spontaneously dance. In Magnolia, the cast surprisingly breaks into song with Mann’s confessional number entitled “Wise Up.” It more or less summarizes each individual plight that all the various characters must endure. Magnolia is only an even better film because of Mann’s music.

Magnolia is a beautiful film that I draw many personal parallels from, especially having now lost both of my parents and being by my father’s bedside during his difficult final days of illness.

It is very touching, sometimes funny, and sometimes a difficult film to watch with a belief in random coincidence that is only stronger after watching it.

Like the film insists “we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” After Magnolia finishes, you won’t be through with Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. It’s a film that will stay with you.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Camryn Manheim, Molly Shannon
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 81% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Various characters, some linked, some not, struggle with the search for happiness in their lives.

A little history:

Todd Solondz’s film Happiness was so controversial that the Sundance Film Festival actually refused to screen it.  It was originally financed by October Films, but upon seeing the final product, October’s owner, Seagrams, dropped the film like a hot potato.  Happiness initially received an NC-17 rating, which would have immediately limited distribution opportunities, as well as created advertising difficulties.  Therefore, it was released unrated, uncut, and unaltered.

I remember reading about this movie years ago in Roger Ebert’s four-star review; he eventually labeled it one of the top ten movies of 1998.  I got curious, so, since this was in the days before Netflix – and I’m not sure Netflix would have made it available anyway – I snapped up the first DVD copy I could find and watched it.

And…um…oh my.  There are dark comedies (Pulp Fiction), and there are Dark Comedies (Dr. Strangelove).   And then there are DARK COMEDIES.  Happiness is a DARK COMEDY.

Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when Marvin gets shot in the back of the car?  Remember the blood that covered the rear windshield and the blood and pieces of flesh and skull that were peppered all over John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson?  Horrific, right?  But it was such a shocking moment that I remember laughing hysterically for the first few seconds after the incident, so that I missed the next few lines of dialogue from Vincent and Jules.

Happiness is like that.  You’re watching scenes of emotional devastation, but the circumstances under which they’re happening are…kinda funny.  Or at least funny in that shocked kind of way.  Your brain can’t quite believe what your eyes and ears are feeding it, and so you laugh.  At least, I did when I recently re-watched it with my girlfriend last night.  She didn’t do a lot of laughing, for the record.

The plot: We meet three sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson).  Joy is an aspiring 30-something songwriter who still lives at home and has just broken up with her boyfriend in a scene that’s right at the top of the film and sets the appropriate mood: somewhere between funny and discomfort.  Helen is a moderately successful writer who has written a bestselling collection of poems about childhood rape.  Cynthia is a mother of two boys, married to a successful psychiatrist named Bill (Dylan Baker).  She seems to be the happiest of the three sisters, but she’s that kind of person who says things like, “You know, we all thought you would never amount to much, but NOW look at you!”

Cynthia’s husband, Bill, has a dark secret, one which I will not divulge here, but it’s revealed fairly early in the film.  He is a man so desperately in search of happiness that his efforts to fulfill his desires dance on the edge of farce.  He is so compelled to be happy (or at least what passes for happy in his mind) that he is, at one point, reduced to, um, “interfering with himself” in the backseat of his own car in broad daylight, risking discovery at every second by passers-by.

I haven’t even mentioned the part where he drugs the tuna fish sandwich.  Or ditches the PTA meeting for an impromptu “rendezvous.”  Or has a conversation with his 11-year-old son about why length doesn’t matter.  But enough about Bill for now.

Helen, the author, feels like a faker because she was, in fact, never raped as a child, so her happiness and success is built on lies.  She wishes her work could have more immediacy or legitimacy.  Then she could be REALLY happy.  And she might have a way: Daryl (Philip Seymour Hoffman), her next-door neighbor, is so obsessed with her that he finds it impossible to talk to her in person.  So he starts making obscene phone calls to her while he’s at work.  He gets the shock of his life when, after one call, she star-69s him and says, “I want to see you.”

And Joy…poor, ironically-named Joy.  Her trials and tribulations in the movie are more relatable than the others I’ve mentioned previously, so I’ll leave them alone for now.

Now, the subject matter of the movie has sparked controversy, as I mentioned earlier.  Are we, as an audience, expected to empathize with these characters?  Speaking as a guy who has had his fair share of heartbreaking crushes, I’ve gotta say I did empathize a bit with Daryl, the phone pervert.  I certainly don’t condone his behavior, but I was achingly aware of his thought processes as he stood in the elevator next to the object of his desire, desperate to talk to her, certain that she represents true happiness, but eternally unable to do anything about it.

I also identified a little with Kristina, played by Camryn Manheim.  She lives a couple of doors down from Daryl and is always knocking on his door to deliver tidbits of news.  (“Our doorman was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment this morning…supposedly his penis was missing.”)  She is clearly crushing on Daryl, but Daryl is oblivious in the face of his own crush.  Their relationship, or lack thereof, pays off in a scene set in a diner during which a secret is revealed that sees the Marvin scene from Pulp Fiction and raises.

But what about Bill, Cynthia’s husband with the dark secret?  While I can relate to characters like Kristina and Daryl and Joy, what is this distasteful nonsense doing in this movie?  Let’s make no bones about it: Bill is a monster, enslaved to desires he can’t understand; he can only bend to their will.  Does that make him an object of sympathy?  SHOULD that make him an object of sympathy?  There’s an excruciating scene where Bill’s son asks him very, VERY specific questions about his compulsion, and to our amazement, instead of shying away from them, Bill tearfully answers them honestly and directly, including that last question that I had completely forgotten was in the movie.  Does this honesty make Bill honorable?  Previous scenes have shown that Bill is always honest with his son, and he makes the decision not to break that streak, even when the answers are shameful and, probably for some, gag-inducing.

My take: Bill’s crimes and desires have made him irredeemable, in my book.  But…BUT…he did the right thing by being honest with his son.  In that ONE sense, I have to give the character props.  If I were in his place, I’m not sure I would have done the same thing.

Geez, I just realized I haven’t even mentioned another subplot about the parents of the three sisters who have relocated to Florida and are undergoing a separation (NOT a divorce!), even though they’re still living in the same house.  Eh, I’ll leave that one alone, too.

So anyway.  Whenever I read a review that gets this long-winded, I always find myself asking the question, “Yeah, but is it any GOOD?”

Yes, it is.  It’s literate, compelling, and funny, but you may hate yourself for laughing afterwards.  That’s the genius of the movie.  It creates these situations that you laugh at, but when you try to describe the scene to your friends, they just stare at you in abject horror.

(I give it an 8 instead of a higher score just on the basis of the “icky” feeling I get when watching some of the scenes.  You’ve been warned.)


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The general manager of the Oakland A’s attempts to assemble a winning team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.

On paper, Moneyball should not work as a movie. What have you got?  A feel-good sports story about the 2002 Oakland A’s utilizing the science of statistics to assemble the right combination of players to get them into the playoffs.

I mean, really?  Specifics aside, a Cinderella story about an underdog sports team trying to make it to the big game is one of the oldest, most predictable tropes in film.  Shall I count them off? Major League, The Bad News Bears, Bull Durham, The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants, Cool Runnings, Hoosiers…need I go on?

And in Moneyball, we barely even get to see any baseball action itself.  The movie is more concerned with the behind-the-scenes action, beating the trade deadline, shaking up the scouting crew, trying to get the manager to believe in the new system.  We don’t really see any major baseball action until we get close to the finale.

[SPOILER ALERT…unless you’re a HUGE baseball fan, in which case you were already aware of this.]

And let’s talk about that finale, while we’re at it.  The A’s make it to the 2002 ALDS elimination game, and what happens?  They LOSE.  Say what???

So why, oh why, does Moneyball work the way it does?

…no, really, I’m asking.  Because I’m not 100% sure myself.  Let me just tick off my thoughts as they occur to me here.

  1. There’s the screenplay.  Here’s some good advice: when you want to make a movie about a potentially dry subject, get both Steven Zaillian AND Aaron Sorkin to write your script.  The pace of the movie is stately, even sedate, but the dialogue is crisp, clean, and precise, getting to the point as efficiently as possible without being flashy.  In one memorable scene, someone walks up to the General Manager’s office and says just one word: “Peña,” and then walks away.  The GM takes it in, says, “Okay”, and calmly stands and flips his desk over.  The whole thing is over in 15 seconds.  I can imagine another movie wasting a lot of time with extra words or edits, but not “Moneyball.”  (SPARTAN.  That’s the word I’m thinking of.  The dialogue is spartan.)
  2. There’s the editing.  The dialogue is sleek and uncluttered, but there is a lot of information that has to be conveyed to those audience members who may not know what a box score is, or what a DH is, or why Billy Beane (the GM, played by Brad Pitt) doesn’t CARE whether his new first baseman can even field the ball properly, as long as he gets ON BASE when he’s batting.  Rather than use flashy editing to generate false suspense or excitement, the Oscar-nominated editors use more of that spartan vibe, with occasional jumps to real-world film clips of the actual team or individual players.  This is especially helpful when the film’s middle section details the woeful first half of the season under the new statistics-based system.  Again, not flashy, but effective.  Very hard to pull off, and deservedly recognized.
  3. There’s the structure…which I guess points back to both the screenplay and editing, but I’m just saying.  As I said, it’s a classic, well-worn trope.  Good guys get knocked down for the count – the A’s flat-out suck for the first half of the season – but then they suddenly start winning games and crawling back into contention.  As many of these films that I’ve seen, I still found myself unwittingly getting caught up in the spirit of the comeback.  In actual fact, the 2002 season is the one where the real Oakland A’s threatened to break the American League record for longest winning streak.  And it all comes down to one at-bat in the bottom of the ninth.  Because of COURSE it does.
  4. …and that sort of brings up another point.  Is there another sport that has as much innate mythology as baseball?  Sure, football has its share of comeback stories, and so does hockey and everything else.  But with baseball…lemme tell you.  A few years ago when the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of winning their first World Series in a hundred-and-eight years, I watched Game 7, rooting for the Cubs.  For those Cubs fans who watched as well, you’ll recall: that game was unmerciful.  The Cubs blew a three-run lead, they ended nine innings in a 6-6 tie, and then there was a RAIN DELAY before the 10th inning started.  But I will never forget that moment when the Cubs made the final out, and they wound up winning 8-7.  It was glorious.  …well, watching Moneyball, watching that section when the A’s are creeping up to winning twenty games in a row, I found myself grinning and laughing spontaneously, without even realizing I was doing it, and I remembered what it was like to watch the Cubs win.  And a big part of it has to do with that unexplainable psychic connection we have to the game itself, that sense of the romantic when someone clobbers a game-winning homer, or makes a dramatic catch to save a no-hitter, or when a relief pitcher retires the side with bases loaded.  I’m not a true baseball fan, I’ll admit…but I know good drama when it happens.  Moneyball gets that aspect of the game just right.

(I haven’t even mentioned the sterling performances from the principal actors, particularly Jonah Hill, who nabbed an acting nomination for one of the most underplayed characters in history.)

In the end, Moneyball is exactly like the Oakland A’s in the film.  It’s an unlikely combination of talent that generated surprising results and was critically acclaimed, gathering six Oscar nods.  It failed to win a single Oscar…much like the A’s were eventually eliminated from the playoffs in 2002.

But in the end, it’s not the shutout at the Oscars that I remember.  It’s the fact that this is still one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen, and definitely one of the top 2 or 3 baseball films I’ve ever seen.