The TIFF Spew: Melancholia and Moneyball

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Melancholia

Director: Lars Von Trier

Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland

No film festival experience is complete without sampling Danish director Lars Von Trier’s latest exercise in misery and this year the man gets fully apocalyptic with Melancholia. It’s an odd duck of a movie that weirdly splits into two halves and feels like two completely different films.

The first movie is almost a black comedy about a wedding that initially seems content and then causes a family to snap and lay all of their awkward secrets bare kind of like a wedding video variation on the other Danish Dogme creator Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen.

The second movie cuts the sprawling cast down to four and focuses on a few days spent anticipating a possible apocalypse caused by the planet Melancholia crashing into earth (hmmm…I wonder if there is a symbol there).

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The first film is excellent with Von Trier gleefully dismantling a pleasant wedding ceremony with sadistic comic glee and a large ensemble including the likes of Dunst, Gainsbourg, Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stella Skarsgard, and Udo Kier all delivering devilishly funny and pained performances.

If the film had ended there, it would have been one of Von Trier’s best. Unfortunately it keeps going and the second movie is a relentlessly depressing and brooding apocalyptic fantasy that’s interesting, but not as compelling as what came before and feels a little easy for Von Trier.

The director is very good at metaphysical misery as he proved in Antichrist, but has done it so often now that the second half of Melancholia feels like he’s just going through the motions rather than building on the incendiary family drama he slowly heat up to a boil in the first half.

Melancholia is definitely an intriguing movie worth seeing for the performances alone, but sadly it’s a schizophrenic project that I can’t help but feel would have been better if he’d focused on one of the two threads rather than trying to cram both into the same epically depressing tale.

Moneyball

Director: Bennett Miller

Stars: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman

It’s difficult to say why baseball has gotten all of the best sports movies like Bull Durham and Eight Men Out. Maybe it’s because that “baseball as life” metaphor that gets thrown around so much is true, maybe baseball has the most compelling behind-the-scenes world, maybe the stat-heavy sport draws the most intellectual fans, or maybe it’s just dumb luck like a bloop single falling into play to win a playoff game.

Who knows, but the point of all of that rambling is that baseball just got another great little movie to add to its playoff roster. Moneyball is based on the popular baseball book of the same name about Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane who lost all of his star players following a playoff run in 2001 due to having such a restrictive budget, but who managed to piece together a bargain basement winning team the following year by using complex stat analysis to create a championship team out of cheap and undervalued players.

It worked and within a year changed the way players are valued in baseball.

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Now, for baseball geeks that’s an intriguing and game-changing story, but can stat analysis and smart spending really be turned into a movie? Surprisingly the answer is “yes,” though it took two Oscar-winning screenwriters in Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin to get there.

What they managed to do was piece together an underdog story with Brad Pitt as the movie star version of Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as his awkward, stats-loving right hand man.

The movie does simplify Beane’s techniques (you can’t really show years of careful player drafting and development in a two-hour film) and gives some players an inflated sense of importance (Scott Hatteberg was a smart signing, just not a game changing player as the film suggests), but honestly, that’s geeky nitpicking.

The fact that the writers and Capote director Bennett Miller managed to take a story of creative management and turn it into a shaggy dog comedy and inspirational sports story is impressive.

The script is better than anyone would have predicted and the cast is sound from top to bottom (look out for an amusing cameo from director Spike Jonze). Some of the drippy sentimentality surrounding Beane’s relationship with his father may add a little unnecessary heart-string pulling that should have been cut, but overall this is another solid entry into the surprisingly strong baseball movie cannon.

I don’t think it’s going to make the non-baseball loving world become obsessed with on-base percentage over home runs, but it should convince a general audience that they understand what it means for two hours. That’s an impressive achievement in and of itself.

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