Reviews

'Moneyball', Like Baseball, is About More than Just Baseball

How could a movie present such dense material and interest general audiences? With the help of a few key players, of course.


Moneyball

Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, and Chris Pratt
Distributor: Sony
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2012-01-10

Adapting Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game for the screen has always seemed like a strange proposition. The 2003 non-fiction book takes a fairly clinical approach to the inventive statistical methods used by Billy Beane as general manager of the Oakland A’s during the 2002 season. It also presents the history of this much-different method for evaluating talent in major league baseball.

This seems like fodder for a great documentary, but awkward material for a dramatic story. How could a movie present this dense material and interest general audiences? Steven Soderbergh was originally attached to the production, but left over creative differences. Bennett Miller (Capote) ended up directing the film, and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Stephen Zallian (Schindler’s List) wrote the script. With this kind of pedigree involved, the movie version ofMoneyball has just the right creative minds needed to bypass those obstacles. Sorkin in particular has shown an ability to translate complex material into a relatable product, so his participation is crucial to its success.

Brad Pitt stars as Beane, who’s recovering from losing his top three players to the big-spending teams. Oakland has a minimal payroll and can’t compete on the free-agent market with the wealthy clubs. Looking for a new way to scout players, he recruits numbers guru Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to devise a new evaluation system. The old-time scouts are skeptical and believe you can’t quantify baseball success, but Beane has personal reasons to think otherwise. His frustrations from decisions he made as a top baseball prospect still haunt him today.

This personal side of the story is the master stroke in Sorkin and Zallian’s screenplay, which shifts the focus to Beane. Instead of providing intricate details on Sabermetrics, they make it a redemptive personal story. Like Mark Zuckerberg, Beane is sticking his neck out and will ride out the string, regardless of the consequences. His approach is much different than the Facebook founder, but their inventive tactics are relatable. Miller’s direction makes the point about Beane’s past without overplaying the connection. Pitt also shines by making his skepticism of the scouts clear in subtle fashion. They craft a mainstream crowd pleaser without catering to the lowest common denominator.

Moneyball is a film about baseball and should please fans interested in the stats, but it never delves too far into the approach. Brand explains the system and touts a few players they should grab, and that’s enough information. Jonah Hill received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for this role as the brains behind the operation. It’s a pretty standard performance that might not deserve this much recognition, but he still does an excellent job.

Pitt and Hill work together really well and find ways to inject a lot of humor into even some mundane moments. When they pull off a complex trade with a series of phone calls, their glee is infectious because we’re on board with the actors. Pitt has rarely looked so effortless on screen and deserves all the recognition. It’s one of his best roles because he doesn’t turn Beane into a saint. He’s a neurotic, superstitious guy who refuses to watch the game and avoids interacting with players. This isn’t the type of role you’d expect Pitt to play, but it works because of his understated approach.

The story focuses on the 2002 season, which begins terribly for the A’s and raises major questions about Beane’s sanity. Manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) isn’t on board with the system and places road blocks at every turn. New players like Jeremy Giambi reveal serious negatives that likely prove the scouts’ assessments about them. It takes some serious commitment for Beane to keep his faith in Sabermetrics.

Knowledgeable viewers today know the end to this story, but there’s still a good deal of tension surrounding the early failures. Hoffman doesn’t get much to do beyond antagonizing Beane, but he sells the role of the grizzled veteran manager. He senses the ship is sinking and is acting for his own personal interests. It’s pretty much a thankless performance for the veteran, but he doesn’t phone in the role. This is Pitt’s movie and Beane is driving the story, so Howe just plays a small part in the main plot. There are recognizable players like David Justice and Scott Hatteberg involved, and the actors playing them are believable. However, these guys are more representative of the types of players valued in this system, not completely original characters.

This Blu-ray release includes a decent amount of extras, though the material barely scratches the surface. Some featurettes waste a lot of time on unnecessary clips we just watched in the movie. The biggest offender is “Drafting the Team”, a 20-minute feature on the movie’s cast. There are a few interesting tidbits mixed in there, including a quick discussion with Ken Medlock, who plays the head scout. He was a major league baseball player and doesn’t like Sabermetrics, so he fit the role perfectly.

A better feature is “Billy Beane – Reinventing the Game”, which provides a quick look at the real person. Beane appears to give worthy information during this 16-minute piece, but he doesn’t talk about what he thinks of the movie. The most intriguing part involves Michael Lewis’ take on the current baseball environment, which he describes as even more uneven today. “Moneyball: Playing the Game” offers good details about shooting the baseball scenes and adjusting the set design to match the period. It runs for 19 minutes and includes minimal clips, which makes it a refreshing inclusion.

The most interesting topic is discussed in “Adapting Moneyball”, a 16-minute feature that includes conversations with the crew who crafted the picture. I would have enjoyed hearing even more from Sorkin and Zallian, but it’s still a solid extra. There are also 12 minutes of deleted scenes, including one that spotlights an interesting story line that was cut from the film. Beane had actually re-married by this point in real life, and his wife appears during a dinner conversation after the season. Her character was cut from the movie, and Brand takes over to cover the same material. Another noteworthy scene expands Beane’s consideration of the Red Sox offer, which offers more plot but isn’t really needed. Miller made the right choice in removing that slow moment.

Moneyball is top-notch commercial filmmaking that doesn’t receive enough credit because of its flawless execution. Pitt makes playing Beane look easy, and his chemistry with Hill also feels effortless. It takes some major creativity from Miller, Sorkin, and Zallian to make the story flow so well. A possibly dull subject is exciting for more than two hours, which is a major achievement.

Another smart move is focusing on Beane’s relationship with his daughter. These scenes reveal a different side of his character, and work because they’re not overly emotional. The final scene of him driving as her song plays in the background is sentimental, but in the best way possible. I was fighting back a few tears at the end. This powerful effect is a testament to my connection with the characters and the underdog story. The result is one of the bigger surprises of the past year.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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