Bennett Miller + Moneyball = home run

After only 2 features – both nominated for ‘Best Picture’ Oscars – Bennett Miller is truly a director to watch. And what an extraordinary picture he’s made with Moneyball.

CapoteDirector Bennett Miller blew me away with his first feature – the superb Capote. Examining in beautiful detail, the story behind the creation of the first (and greatest) non-fiction book ever written, In Cold Blood, we witnessed a young director with vision – the opening panoramic shots of the wheatfields brought to mind Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven for me; the plain palette of colour that was used was simple and effective; the way silence and sound were placed throughout the film was artfully chosen; and at its centre, was a seriously great piece of acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman won almost every award going (including the Oscar) for his title performance as the fascinating personality who was Truman Capote – and absolutely rightly so.

Although Toby Jones was also terrific in Douglas McGrath’s rival film Infamous, he didn’t have Dan Futterman’s sharp script or as a good as film as this around him. With its stellar name cast, Infamous was certainly notable for bringing together actors like Daniel Craig, Sandra Bullock and Sigourney Weaver but I think Capote beat it hands down, by populating its cast with a bunch of great character actors – Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, Chris Cooper as Officer Dewey, Amy Ryan as his wife, Bruce Greenwood as Truman’s lover Jack and last but not least, Clifton Collins Jr as the conflicted killer Perry Smith. The result was an understated and deeply affecting gem of a movie.

Moneyball_ Brad Pitt and Jonah HillSo how do you follow that? With another true story but this time about baseball and starring Brad Pitt, that’s how. Moneyball first shone for me with its gorgeously put together trailer (just had to post about that last year) and when I then heard that the script was by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (2 of Hollywood’s finest writers who are on a fabulous high right now with The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network respectively), I thought this could be very good indeed. And indeed it is.

‘What are you really worth’ says the film’s tagline and so we meet Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, at a low ebb in 2002 following the latest stealing of his good players by the premier teams for more money. What can he do with the money he has? How can he create a winning team with almost no budget? What he does is to have faith in an idea.

With the help of a young economics graduate from Yale, Peter Brand, he applies a mathematical theory to the selection of players, that defies the scouts and the way baseball teams had been constructed for 150 years. And the game changes. Sports movies can be difficult beasts to turn into winning films, as they often involve stats and language that people outside of the game don’t understand but what Miller has done so successfully with this, is to tell the story with the same authenticity for period and the same simplicity in composition that he brought to Capote and the result is another film of understated, emotional power.

MoneyballMiller assembles another accomplished creative team behind the camera – this time there’s the superb Wally Pfister as director of photography (the Nolan Batman man), Jess Gonchor as production designer (Coen brothers fave, True Grit being a recent success) and reuniting with him from Capote is Mychael Danna, with another amazing score, a fusion of music and sound that terrifically underpins the drama.

And in front of the camera, he has Brad Pitt in a pitch-perfect performance as Beane – a man trying haunted by the shadow of what he once could have become and realising what he needs to do to change his future. Jonah Hill is a revelation as Brand (and like Pitt, rightly nominated for a Oscar) – a calm, super intelligent guy who finally finds someone who’s on his level. Let’s hope we see more dramatic roles for Hill judging from this performance.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, working again with his old friend Miller, gives a beautifully taciturn, gruff portrayal of the team’s coach Art Howe and I must finally mention Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s almost teenage daughter Casey – she gives a lovely, warm performance (not Hollywood cutesy at all) and her scenes with Pitt have a really natural, easy way about them, with her often worrying about how he’s doing, like she’s the parent; and Arliss Howard turns in a great cameo as the Boston Red Sox owner who believes Beane’s vision is the way forward.

I think it might be in too tough competition this year to walk off with one of the awards come February 26th but its great that the Academy are again recognising Miller for the superb artist he is. I can only look forward in eager anticipation to Foxcatcher, his next film (with Capote writer Dan Futterman), telling the true story of paranoid schizophrenic John du Pont who killed Olympic athlete David Schultz and starring Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo – I see a third home run on its way.

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