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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Moneyball

'Moneyball:' When is a baseball movie not a baseball movie?

September 24, 2011 |  7:54 pm

One of the great Hollywood story lines in recent years is reaching its climax this weekend as  Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," the drama about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his unorthodox methods, opens around the country. The ending is shaping up as a happy one so far -- the movie grossed nearly $7 million, a strong number, in its first day of release.

Based on Michael Lewis' baseball-heavy book about niche topics like Bill James and slugging percentages, "Moneyball" is very much about baseball. Except when it isn't.

In Sony's view, the movie was a little too much about baseball when Steven Soderbergh was set to direct it in June 2009. Soderbergh wanted to mix a scripted narrative and documentary-style interviews with players like Scott Hatteberg and David Justice. Sony pulled the plug just days before production, and Sony regrouped with Miller and writer Aaron Sorkin.

Now it's a broader story of redemption, but one in which minutiae like on-base-percentage and the futility of the bunt sacrifice are still featured, as is a lot of real-life footage from the A's 2002 season.

Feature writers, reviewers and box-office pundits have referred to it as a baseball movie. But, anxious about the limited audience for baseball movies, Sony has sometimes gone out of its way to de-emphasize the baseball aspects. As my colleagues Ben Fritz and Nicole Sperling wrote this week, even as the company has taken ads in baseball stadiums and on ESPN, it's also bought spots on Lifetime.  The tagline "What are you really worth?" conjures up more thoughts about empowerment than it does earned-run-average.

The baseball verisimilitude takes a further ding with the cast. Although Soderbergh wanted pretty much all the players to play themselves, Sony and Miller eventually decided to go with actors. Hatteberg, for instance, is played by Chris Pratt, the "Parks & Recreation" star who isn't exactly a household name with the sports-bar set.

Pitt hasn't shied away from the sports themes. When 24 Frames spoke to him at the Cannes Film Festival, he stressed the film's America's-pastime bona fides: "We hired real people, real scouts, real ballplayers," he told us. But producers and executives affiliated with the movie have taken pains to note that it's a feel good story about a man's redemption that can appeal to all audiences.

It all adds up to the more schizophrenic presentations in movie-marketing history. Then again, enduring sports movies are never really about sports.  "Rocky" had precious little boxing in it, and "The Natural" could just as easily have been about fly-fishing. "Moneyball" is continuing in that long tradition. It's very much about baseball. Unless you don't like baseball, in which case it's about something else entirely.


Sony pitches Brad Pitt on Moneyball

Moneyball scores big with film critics

Moneyball finally comes to the screen

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball." Credit: Sony Pictures


'Moneyball' scores big with film critics

September 23, 2011 |  1:36 pm

If the new baseball film "Moneyball" offers an unconventional take on the sports movie — America's pastime meets Microsoft Excel, essentially — it does boast a heavy hitter in lead actor Brad Pitt, bestselling source material in the Michael Lewis book of the same name and a script polished by "The Social Network" scribe Aaron Sorkin. The resulting film is a hit with critics — somewhere between a triple and a walk-off home run, for those keeping score.

Times film critic Kenneth Turan calls the film "impressive and surprising." It is, Turan writes, "that rare sports movie that doesn't end with a rousing last-second victory or a come-from-behind celebration." Turan praises Bennett Miller's understated direction, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman's well-tuned supporting roles, and a strong screenplay (co-written by Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, with story by Stan Chervin). Leading the way is Pitt as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane: "This is low-key star power at its best."

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Toronto Film Festival: 'Moneyball' wows women despite scarcity of female roles

September 10, 2011 |  7:43 pm

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the Toronto International Film Festival 
If "Moneyball’s" second public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday afternoon is any indication of the interest in this movie, then Sony shouldn’t be too concerned about its box office prospects. The line to get into the 1,200-seat Elgin Theater stretched for a full city block, with ticket-holding moviegoers waiting in line for more than an hour to be sure they’d secure a decent seat for the Brad Pitt vehicle.

And “Moneyball” is all about Brad Pitt. From the Sony one-sheet to practically every scene in the film, the 47-year-old actor dominates the screen. And while you get a couple of glimpses of Pitt’s daughter, played by 13-year-old Kerris Dorsey, and one scene with Robin Wright Penn who plays his ex-wife, this film is primarily a two-hander with Jonah Hill playing the straight man to Pitt’s off-center role of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. (Hills plays Beane’s statistician, Peter Brand.) In fact, director Bennett Miller axed an entire role from the movie -- that of Kathryn Morris ("Cold Case") as Beane's second ex-wife, Tara Beane. The film doesn't seem to suffer from the lack of female parts -- you don't really notice it until you're playing it over again in your head as you leave the theater.

The other surprising attribute of the film is just how chaste it is. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, the movie features no sex or drugs, and very little of anything else that would keep younger audiences out of the film, except a few curse words and a lack of action sequences.

However, the female-dominated crowd seemed just as engaged in the two-hour film as the men. So while Sony’s two biggest marketing challenges remain how to appeal to women and non-baseball fans with a movie that is solely about baseball, choices and ambition, the crowd at the Toronto Film Festival didn’t seem to have any problems with either constraint.

The movie opens Sept. 23 and will be targeting the adult audience, while teenagers flock to Taylor Lautner’s “Abduction” and families steer toward “Dolphin Tale.” Whether it can come out on top remains to be seen, but with Brad Pitt’s star power clearly on display, it has a good chance of it.

The line monitor at the second screening today probably put it best: “Enjoy the show. Or more specifically, enjoy Brad.”


Brad Pitt's "Moneyball" looks to get on base

Toronto: Film Critic Betsy Sharkey on U2, Clooney and Pitt

Moneyball finally comes to screen after line-up changed mid-game

 -- Nicole Sperling

Photo: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Evan Agostini/AP

Toronto 2011: Brad Pitt's 'Moneyball' looks to get on base

September 10, 2011 |  1:02 am

Pittmone  Last year at roughly this time, "The Social Network," an Aaron Sorkin-penned Sony movie about a lonely iconoclast, was on its way to becoming  the hit of the season.

Whether "Moneyball," another Aaron Sorkin-penned Sony movie about a lonely iconoclast, will replicate the success of that film or simply provide film bloggers with an easy lead-in remains to be seen. But the Toronto audience's reaction to the Brad Pitt baseball dramedy -- which tells of Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane's solitary attempt to upend an entrenched talent-evaluation system -- at the film's world premiere Friday night suggests that it's at least off to a respectable start.

"Moneyball" comes into its Sept. 23 commercial release with a history more indecipherable than a spring-training box score. Directors David Frankel and Steven Soderbergh each came on, then were pushed off, production looked likely until it didn't, and the Michael Lewis book about baseball stats and trades looked for all the world like one more Hollywood cautionary tale.

"Capote" helmer Bennett Miller and late-inning screenwriter Sorkin finally helped get it home, and the result is a movie that's as much about a former jock looking for redemption as it is about a new way of analyzing stats (though that aspect, a major part of Lewis' bestselling book, is surprisingly present too).

It's impossible not to watch Miller's film without letting one's mind wander to how the Soderbegh version would have looked. The "Contagion" director wanted to blend documentary footage -- interviews with the likes of David Justice, part of Beane's '02 team -- with featurized storytelling. Miller's movie doesn't.

But the soul of Lewis' wonky story is still there, as are several player cameos (including Justice) and plenty of Major League Baseball footage. For ardent fans of the book who are wondering how Hollywood would handle it, the film makes the team's improbable summer streak of 20 straight wins the dramatic high point, though, without giving too much away, it also avoids an overly Hollywood ending.

Unlike Lewis' book, there are also a lot of laughs -- the crowd at the Roy Thomson Hall gala conveyed  that numerous times -- particularly in the dynamic between Pitt's ornery cuss and Jonah Hill's tentative, bookish protege and spirit guide (Paul DePodesta in real life, renamed Peter Brand here).

Although Beane is more likable than Mark Zuckerberg, the path for "Moneyball" to a "Social Network"-level success is long, not least because a man changing the way baseball players are judged doesn't quite have the same effect as a man changing how the Internet is used.

And even though "Social Network" was putatively about technology, its concerns were sufficiently human that men and women could relate equally. "Moneyball," despite being a story about a troubled man who seeks to reconnect with his hopes and his family, is still ultimately a movie about a man trying to win baseball games.

Before the screening, Pitt, Miller and Hill took the stage, bringing out Beane and Justice for good measure. The controversy that bedeviled, and headlines that accompanied "The Social Network" when Zuckerberg refused to cooperate with Sony's publicity efforts won't repeat itself here. But it's still far too early in the game to say that the studio will hit back-to-back home runs.


Moneyball finally comes to the plate

Toronto 2011: Shame finds a U.S. buyer

Toronto 2011: 'Friends With Kids' recalls 'Bridesmaids'

-- Steven Zeitchik in Toronto


Photo: Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball." Credit: Sony Pictures

Films big and small head to Toronto festival in search of buzz

September 7, 2011 |  2:41 pm

'50/50' with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon Levitt

Known for crowd-pleasing, commercial Hollywood comedies, Seth Rogen has never been to the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. This week, though, America's stoner-in-chief will be heading to the cinematic gathering in his native Canada and rubbing elbows with Oscar mainstays like George Clooney and Brad Pitt to promote “50/50,” a buddy film he produced and stars in about a young man who's diagnosed with cancer.

If Rogen's first Toronto appearance is evidence of the actor's movement toward somewhat more mature fare, it is also testament to the festival's unique role as a critical platform for introducing somewhat challenging or genre-busting films to a wide, mainstream audience heading into the busy fall movie season.

Photos: 2011 Toronto Film Festival lineup's pluses and minusesAlthough it comes right on the heels of film festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Venice, Italy, Toronto — which kicks off Thursday — is much bigger both in terms of the number of films (about 300) and the media exposure. Reaction from the press, and the public, during the 11-day event goes a long way toward determining many movies' fate in terms of commercial success and critical recognition.

Last year, for instance, “The King's Speech” and “Black Swan” received important boosts at the festival, helping both to achieve Oscar and box-office glory.

“50/50,” which premieres Monday at Toronto and which Summit Entertainment will open in U.S. theaters on Sept. 30, is based on the story of Rogen's friend Will Reiser, who wrote the script. The movie stars Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but Rogen's description of the film in an interview — “a buddy comedy about some young dude who has cancer” — explains perfectly why it needs the good buzz of a festival to have a shot at the box office.

“Will got sick six years ago and initially we started talking about making some kind of movie about it,” Rogen said. “But at that point we didn't have any context on it. It wasn't until he got better that we could see it was a story.”

Of course, veterans like Clooney and Pitt will be at the glitzy festival too. Clooney stars in two films showing at Toronto, the dramatic comedy “The Descendants” and the political drama “The Ides of March” (which he also directed). Pitt takes the wraps off “Moneyball,” the featurized version of Michael Lewis' book about Oakland A's general manager Bill Beane.

Good buzz at Toronto, though, isn't a sure sign of Oscar success. Two years ago, Jason Reitman's “Up in the Air” rode out of town as the unquestionable best-picture favorite but was eventually shut out at the Academy Awards.

Many films that come to Toronto require a more nuanced sell than what can be achieved with a 30-second television commercial. That's the case with “Moneyball.” Despite a predominantly male cast and a plot set in the world of baseball scouting and statistics, the studio is trying aggressively to market the film to women and non-baseball fans.

There are many other such films with big names attached that are looking to break out, including David Cronenberg's “A Dangerous Method,” about the lives of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as well as Madonna's time-jumping romance, “W.E.” Then there are dozens of below-the-radar movies looking to connect, including a feel-good youth-ballet documentary called “First Position” and a horror film inflected with Cuban politics, “Juan of the Dead.”


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Brad Pitt's 'Moneyball' swings for the fences [Trailer]

June 16, 2011 |  9:48 pm

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary sports movie packing in more than the usual cliches about a fighting spirit -- almost as hard as it is to imagine Michael Lewis’ idea-heavy "Moneyball"  becoming a movie in the first place –- but the trailer for Brad Pitt's September film manages to upend both preconceptions.

The piece, which hit the Web on Thursday, begins with a bit of "Bad News Bears" familiarity, as Pitt's Billy Beane, of course the Oakland A's general manager, tries to win by fielding a group of misfits. But once that's out of the way it buckles down to the more interesting dramatic subject of a man trying to change a system while carrying no small amount of doubt himself, rendering visual the story Lewis told in the Beane plot line of his 2003 nonfiction bestseller.

In between, it flashes just enough numbers and spreadsheets to imply that Lewis' ideas about sabermetrics aren't entirely forgotten, while also suggesting that Beane's confidence -- and his clashes with the baseball-scout old guard -- provide some humor.

"If we win with this team, we’ll have changed the game," Pitt’s character says. It's of course far too early to say whether the movie will be a game-changer in the Hollywood sense of the term. It certainly has the team –- which, in addition to Pitt includes writers Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, a (refreshingly less jocular) Jonah Hill and director Bennett Miller, handpicked by Pitt because of his feature debut, "Capote."

And while there's always the question with a movie like this of whether the stakes can match the drama –- it is just about a baseball game, after all -- the trailer contains plenty of hints that Miller reaches base safely, and then some, with his first film in six years.


Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain wonder if hype, squareness are behind Tree of Life divisions

-- Steven Zeitchik




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