Quick Hits on: Moneyball – Bennett Miller (2011)

-Admittedly, this film has some of the most awkward pacing I’ve ever seen, but I don’t feel that it detracts from the story in any way. It manages to stay lively and vital even when the pace drags its ass along the floor a little. The slow feel is felt most during the passages told through news and radio reports and call-in shows, which detract from the “insider” status the film grants. But it’s important stuff, sadly. A lot of times it’s fan ire that gets coaches and managers the boot, and also it’s a deep part of the story that all of the fan frustration fell to Billy Beane for his odd strategy and all of the praise to Art Howe for somehow managing his way around Beane’s weird statistic-driven nonsense.

-I don’t have a lot of patience for the baseball people who thought this was shoddily made just because some of it didn’t happen. It’s a movie. Look “movie” up in the dictionary. It should say, “noun, not real life”. But I love that two of the baseball guys who were portrayed in the film, then A’s coach Ron Washington and Indian’s GM Mark Shapiro, thought the film was good.

-And that’s the bottom line: the film is good. Damn good. Pitt plays the role of Beane nicely, and I really think Jonah Hill is going to get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of the fictional Peter Brand. He’ll deserve it if he gets it. Director Bennett Miller could have gone a little deeper I felt, especially with the Billy Beane back story. It did lack a little bit of a connection to the main story, especially since its blows its load so early when Beane calls Brand up in the middle of the night to find out where Brand would have drafted him. The flashbacks read a lot sharper in Aaron Sorkin’s draft of the screenplay. Sorkin’s screenplays are a must read for me. Whether it is beg, borrow or steal, they are always worth the trouble it takes to track them down.

The Taste of Tea – Katsuhito Ishii (2004)


One could attempt to describe Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea, but one would fail at doing so. Modest and understated, yet with much depth of spirit, it’s the kind of live action film that only an animator could direct, and, really, only a Japanese animator could direct.

It is the story of a family, but not of their hardships or burdens, dark secrets, infidelities. We see them move through their daily lives, making incremental progress (or not), much like ourselves.

Point a gun at my head and I suppose I’d have to call it a slice of life, but it is one of the most delicious, charming slices I’ve ever encountered, a joyful experience that isn’t cynically engineered to be joyful. Ishii doesn’t bother with manipulations to squeeze the joy out of us. Instead, the characters are left alone and observed, and it is fully an extension of the clear, straightforward humanity they possess that makes this such an exciting film to lie back and disappear into.

As the film opens, we find young Hajime (Takahiro Sato) running after a train to try and scream a last goodbye to his crush as she exits his life. Hajime has never talked to this girl, afraid of what might or might not happen if he did. Not able to outrun the train to get a word in, he watches the train speed away from him. A shape starts to form on his forehead, and, slowly, the train he was chasing down emerges from his head, floating away into the clouds, the girl waving goodbye to him.

On first viewing, it’s a shocking departure from reality that takes a while to come to terms with. But it’s the perfect way to set the film up, because this is the sort of thing that you need to expect from it. Anything can happen at any time. The film is not grounded in any kind of Earth-based reality, but is all the better for it.

The Taste of Tea takes place in the sprawling countryside just outside of Tokyo, where much of the family commutes to by train to the city for school or work. The small, typical Japanese-style house serves as a central checkpoint for each family member along the way, but aside from Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka), the mother, who spends all of her free time at her kitchen table animating, trying to get back into the game now that she has time again, most of the film takes place in school rooms, offices and recording studios, on trains and casual strolls, where a gust of wind is as important as a gunshot in the scheme of things.

Strange things are occurring to Hajime’s younger sister, Sachiko (Maya Banno), too. Apparently suffering from an early onset existential crisis, she is being shadowed throughout the day by a big version of herself. It sits and watches her at home and at school, curious and half bored like staring into a fish tank for too long. Sachiko is bothered at her core about this, but keeps it to herself.

Ishii is possibly more well known for his “wacky-Japan” type films, like Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip GirlParty 7 and Funky Forrest, all starring the somewhat enigmatic Tadanobu Asano, but he finds his real calling here, I feel. It’s an incredible accomplishment to direct something so subtle, especially when your instinct seems to tell you to go big to get the laugh. But there are just as many laughs here in the quiet movements of The Taste of Tea, which features Asano as well, but in the smaller role of Uncle Ayano, a sound mixer from Tokyo whose existential crisis takes on a different shape than Sachiko’s.

Like I said in the open, one could try and explain this film and easily fail at doing so. And I have, I know. It’s almost pointless to keep trying, because I keep getting further from the point the more I write. There is no explaining Grandpa (Tatsuya Gashuin), who is the force behind the film in many ways, for instance, nor the path Hajime decides on taking when he falls in love with Aoi, played by the lovely half-Japanese, half-Russian Anna Tsuchiya. It’s an elusive film that exists entirely in its sense and feel. To put it in sports terms, The Taste of Tea is all intangibles, delivering exactly what is needed when the time comes. Absurd and lovely in equal lengths, beautifully photographed and acted (and animated at times), there is a great and gentle beauty to it, a drifting, gauzy summer lushness that will take you away from yourself for a little while if only you’ll let it. A little bit of faith in the film brings with it a deep reward. It might not help you shake any demons off of your back permanently, but it might put a smile on your face and scare them away for a while.

The Whistleblower – Larysa Kondraki (2011)


The term “whistleblower” generally conjures the image of a white-collar guy turned state’s evidence to blow the lid off of some form of corporate malfeasance. But in Larysa Kondracki’s film, based on the true story of sex trafficking in war-torn Bosnia, it takes on an entirely different meaning.

Rachel Weisz plays Kathryn Bolkovac, an American cop who joins a civilian police force to help keep the peace in post-war Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Because of her devotion to her job, the film tells us, Kathryn loses custody of her child in a divorce and is moving the remnants of her family to Georgia. Denied a transfer to another department, she’s desperate for cash. Soon, she’s told of an opportunity to earn $200,000 for a six-month tour; it’s too good to pass up.

Upon arriving in Sarajevo, however, she immediately finds herself unprepared for the day-to-day realities of policing a recovering war zone. Like the rest of her civilian troop, Kathryn is uninformed about local politics and the racial and religious strife that still rules the neighborhoods they patrol. She finds few friends, save Nick (Benedict Cumberbatch), a good-guy member of the Dutch unit who is dealing with similar domestic issues back home.

Beyond the regional state of affairs, she’s equally ill-prepared for the internal politics at Democra, the multibillion-dollar private security company she now works for. (The company’s real-life model, DynCorp, has been a target of WikiLeaks.) Bars around the Democra base camp are filled with trafficked sex slaves from Eastern Europe, and, more often than not, it’s the Democra workers who pay for their services.

Don’t let the impressive cast list, which includes Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci and David Strathairn, fool you: This is the Rachel Weisz show. Weisz is given almost every important scene, and she comes through mostly unscathed. Tough and outwardly guarded, her Kathryn is beaten down by the horrors she comes to find, and Weisz’s empathetic vulnerability is nicely understated. This job could kill her, both emotionally and physically, and she conveys that with a subtlety that’s nudged along from time to time by Strathairn’s Internal Affairs chief. Weisz’s dominance too often gets in the way of the story’s flow, drifting too far off into self-important territory that first-time director Kondracki seems unable to navigate.

As Kathryn peels back the layers of the trafficking cases she investigates, they invariably lead back to American corruption of the local authorities, who flex their strength in this largely ungoverned part of the world much like the mafia did in the 1930s – you talk, you die. In the end, we’re left with a helpless twinge in our gut that won’t go away because these companies still operate in our country’s name to this day.

The Pixar Story – Leslie Iwerks (2008)


Most of tributes that are pouring in for Steve Jobs are focusing on Apple, but I think Pixar is just as an important legacy for Jobs.

Even though his involvement was more in the role of Godfather than creator, Pixar would have been little more than a footnote in the story of Lucasfilm — the story of an unprofitable subsidiary that creating the digital tools that eventually made The Special Editions possible — if not for the long distance vision that Jobs possessed.

You can love or hate Apple, but there is no denying whatsoever that Pixar has enriched all of our lives, and it’s just as much about Steve Jobs as it is John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton or Pete Docter.

“The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.”

Ever since the first time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a kid, I’ve been in love with the idea of cartoons. I’d always loved cartoons. What kid doesn’t? But the idea that they are made, that there is a “behind the scenes” to them became intoxicating for me. Like the young John Lasseter, I became obsessed with Disney and Warner cartoons and was astounded that people did this for a living. I wanted to do it to.  Well, it worked out a little bit better for him than it did for me.

Along with Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and a handful of other visionaries, Lasseter changed the world of animation, and even — thanks to their state-of-the-art computer Renderman — feature motion pictures forever.

Pixar started out as a faint, impossible idea rattling around the heads of a few scattered idealists: to create a feature length computer animation. Not only had it not been done yet, but the tools were not even invented. But this random collection of PHds and would-be artists eventually settled in together as an unprofitable arm of Lucasfilm that was just too far ahead of its time. So how did it come to be the animation juggernaut that eventually took over Disney Animation Studios? The beginning is not all that different from Disney, really.

Before making a name on Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney began to eek out a living with the Alice comedies, a series of short subjects wherein the live action Alice (played by Virginia Davis) was inserted into a cartoon wonderland by Ub Iwerks, the “man behind the mouse”. The Pixar gang inverted that beginning, taking their first steps before Woody and Buzz by inserting a CGI stainglass Knight into the live action Young Sherlock Holmes when Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic couldn’t achieve the shot. It was from there that they grew and never looked back.

The Pixar Story was directed by Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of the innovative genius Ub Iwerks. Ub has a unique place in the world of film, first as the head animator of the Disney Animation Studio, the heart and soul guy who made the place tick, and later as a special effects wizard who, amongst other things, made the birds attack in Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Disney runs deep in Leslie Iwerks’s blood, and it shows. The film is a delicate, loving story about the birth and adolescence of insane greatness, tracing the story back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success.

It is a one sided love affair, yes, but honest in it’s approach nonetheless. Hand-in-hand with the love-in, the original version of Toy Story 2 is thrown under the bus, though the creative team is not. As a Walt Disney Studios production, the film makes the pre-Iger Disney its main villain. The bumbling heavy, Disney is the company that could not see the talent in John Lasseter or the rich future of digital animation, and when it finally did, it wrongly axed the entire hand drawn animation division.

Iwerks starts out with a quick trip through the history of animation, starting out at the dawn of animation, from the mechanical zoetrope and Muybridge’s horse photos on through the computer graphics in Tron. Tracing the story of Pixar back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success, Iwerks interviews all of the important players, from the animators and designers, to Lucas and Jobs and even the star voice talents, like Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal. The love affair with this company seems to be ubiquitous with everyone who comes in contact with it (less Michael Eisner, who is upset when they won’t let themselves be ripped off for short-term profit).

Leslie Iwerks is a fantastic filmmaker, very much in the Disney storytelling mold. Both The Pixar Story and The Hand Behind the Mouse are timeless creations of both fact and fancy. They make you wish you were there at the same time as making you feel as if you were. She simultaneously creates an immersive experience and causes a great swell of emotion through music cues and knowing exactly what shot to cut to at the right moment.

It’s a special talent — more of a filmmaker’s talent than a documentarian’s talent — that few have. She doesn’t just deliver the stories but the feelings behind the stories: the sadness of Ub and Walt parting ways, the “oh, shit” moment when Pixar realized they had to do it again after Toy Story and that none of their old tricks would work a second time. She makes you feel what it was like in that small computer lab, with John Lassiter’s futon stuffed under his desk, working for three days straight to help make the company what it is today.

It’s a remarkably exciting and insightful film, and shows Pixar to be the kind of fun filled place to work we wish we could work at, while also giving us a glimpse of the pressure to perform on the entire staff. Once success is achieved it has to be maintained, and that’s a tough bit in their business. But they deserve every scrap of it they’ve gotten.