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Wilmington on DVD: Moneyball, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, The Ideas of March

Moneyball (A)
U. S.: Bennett Miller, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Baseball is a great American game, and a great American sports myth as well -- and it's also, at times, a business, a gamble, a crud-boatload of media hype, and last, and maybe best of all, a kind of national secular bridge-building semi-religion that binds together all classes and races and sexes and geographical areas and types: the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the left and the right, the rural and the urban, the bad and the good.

Amazingly, Moneyball -- based on a real-life season (2002) with the Oakland Athletics and their real-life general manager, Billy Beane -- hits all those bases and sometimes more. Hyperbole over movies sometimes goes down swinging. But this picture really is one of the best baseball movies ever made, one of the best pictures of the year, and a movie for which Brad Pitt, who plays Billy Beane and helped shepherd the project along for years, deserves an Oscar nomination and maybe even the big prize itself.

On the other hand, Moneyball is also a movie that makes you somewhat suspicious of big prizes and their real value -- as a gauge of talent or a measure of worth. As this picture makes clear, it isn't necessarily the final winner who has the most interesting history, or who changes the game, or whose story will make the best movie. Sometimes the real story doesn't even lie entirely on the playing field, but also in the team offices and meeting rooms where the general managers, executives, scouts and the number crunchers battle it out, deciding who plays and who gets traded or cut -- which is a large part of the area director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (working from a Stan Chervin story, based on Michael Lewis' book Moneyball) examine and bring to life here.

The main story shows how Billy B. and fictional number-cruncher Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) applied the science or pseudo-science of sabermetrics (invented by Bill James) to the Oakland A's. The A's had just been to the American League playoffs in 2001 and not only lost the series, but then lost some of their top players, including sluggers Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, to richer, higher-paying teams like the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Moneyball tells is about how Beane coped with the high-stakes, high-money industry that baseball had become by going scientific: finding better number-crunchers to find him better, cheaper players, players who were overlooked or undervalued under the old system, but whom he could both afford and who could win for him.

It's a classic David-vs.-Goliath yarn, but with a twist: David's weapon is not a slingshot but -- as in co-scenarist Sorkin's last screenplay The Social Network -- a computer.

The major personal draw of Moneyball Beane himself, who had an unusual and dramatic backstory -- especially as Zaillian and Sorkin write it for Pitt. Billy was a two-sport star in youth (baseball and football). Stanford offered him a football scholarship to back up John Elway at quarterback, and the New York Mets offered him a bonus to jump-start his baseball career right out of high school -- and he made the wrong choice, and he made it for money (the Mets). Beane claims he never made a choice based on more dough again.

Superstardom never materialized, and 10 years later Beane was a reserve outfielder and benchwarmer for his fourth team, the A's. So Billy gave up his first dream and moved to the front office.

In the movie, he finds a quiet, sort-of-chubby Yale graduate business guy, Peter Brand, hanging around the Cleveland Indians office during trading talks, and recruits. Then Beane tries to work his little sabermetrics revolution -- alienating some of the old school scouts and personnel guys, including his crusty, dour-faced old-school manager Art Howe -- fabulously played, in a real change of pace, by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose last role for Miller was glib raconteur/novelist Truman Capote in Capote. (Howe himself dislikes this portrayal.)

The rest of the movie shows whether he does it. (Baseball fans will know already, non-fans won't want to, just yet.) But we can say that Beane brings a number of new faces -- notably vets Scott Hatteberg and David Justice (Chris Pratt and Stephen Bishop), plus a great pitching staff -- and eventually gets some remarkable results, despite the old school's exasperation and Howe's quiet disgust.

The writers, director and star Pitt seem to have justly captured Billy Beane as a character -- at least according to Beane himself. The second part of the two-man heart-of-the-lineup is Jonah Hill as Brand, who's almost as responsible for the movie's appeal beyond a sports fan base as Pitt. Brand is loosely based on Paul DePodesta, Beane's actual assistant general manager.

Pitt's Billy Beane is a live-wire, good-hearted, smart but frustrated jock willing to look unconventional and think way outside the box, and Pitt gives him exactly the right mix of half-cocky confidence, nervous intensity and inner warmth. His scenes with Robin Wright as his ex-wife Sharon and with Kerris Dorsey as his musician daughter Casey are wonderful. Pitt makes us feel for this guy even when he has to handle a tough personnel matter, let somebody go. Where another actor might have unintentionally made Beane look callous, or over-sentimentalized him, Pitt plays him with great clarity as a guy who's been on the other side of this kind of scene himself and knows how it feels. And he's wonderful also with Hill as the awkward, brainy, workaholic Brand -- a great foil/sidekick performance, which Hill does about as well as it could be done. (Extras: featurettes; deleted scenes; blooper reel).

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (B)
U.S.: Troy Nixey, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertaiment

At the age of nine, Guillermo Del Toro -- the Mexican chill-maestro who, as an adult, made the horror masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth as well as the good grisly shockers Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and Hellboy I and II -- was scared silly by a 1973 made-for-TV horror movie called Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.

That fear-jolt stayed with him, and Del Toro has spent years trying to get on screen a new version of the 1973 original -- a Gothic, fear-drenched story of a family bedeviled by evil little creatures who live in the walls and fireplace of their creepy Victorian mansion. Here it is.

It's a good, old-fashioned scary show -- old-fashioned in a good way.

The old TV version starred Kim Darby of the 1969 True Grit, as Sally, a wife seemingly losing her mind over those creatures, who were actually real, actually in the fireplace, though only she could see them. Jim Hutton, later TV's Ellery Queen, played her more literal-minded husband -- and the show was directed by John Newland, as director/host of the paranormal series (a contemporary of The Twilight Zone), One Step Beyond.

The new version stars Guy Pearce as an ambitious divorced architect Alex Hurst, who is pursuing fame and architecture magazines by restoring a genteelly dark and spooky old mansion, once owned by a celebrated creepy fantasy writer named Blackwood (Barry McDonald). Alex moves in there with his new mistress, Kim (Katie Holmes) and his little daughter Sally (Bailee Madison), and, in the Del Toro version, it's little Sally who sees the creatures, and is disbelieved by almost everybody, except the crusty old caretaker Harris (Jack Thompson), a part or type played in the first version by William Demarest.

Madison is an unusually empathetic child actress, and she convinces us that Sally is seeing something. But she doesn't have to. The creatures are on the screen, gray-colored special effects jobs, and they have that maniacally amused, cute-and-creepy, fiendish, mad-goblin look of the creatures in the Spielberg-Dante 1984 Gremlins; it might have been better not to show them so much, because they're kind of funny.

As more and more gory things keep happening, and as Alex keeps ignoring or rationalizing them, you get more and more irritated with him -- though Pearce can be such a narcissistic-looking actor, it's easy to accept his obtuseness as something more than a plot device. Holmes' Kim isn't a very good role, a nicey-nice older sis type, but she makes something out of it. Jack Thompson touches us. Madison's Sally on the other hand, helps scare us, because she seems, in a way, more adult than her father, and less vulnerable to fantasies -- and therefore we believe her more.

It's obviously a Del Toro touch to make a child the center of this movie, rather than an adult who seems to be going crazy -- and I'm not sure it's the right choice. Del Toro's youngster/protagonists, in Cronos and The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth as well as here seem to live so firmly in the fantasy worlds that appear around them, that we never doubt that those worlds are actually there. And maybe, for the sake of the shivers, we sometimes should. (Extras: featurettes; conceptual art gallery.)

The Ides of March (B-)
U.S.: George Clooney, 2011, Sony Pictures

Why would George Clooney, a famous Hollywood liberal -- when we're in the midst of all-out dirty-as-hell political warfare between big corporation right-wing Republicans and share-the-wealth left-wing Democrats on Capitol Hill -- give us a show about presidential electoral politics where almost all the Democrats are corrupt or flawed, and where the whole movie is built around the unsentimental education of the one idealistic young liberal character (Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, press secretary for a seeming shining knight liberal candidate Mike Morris, played by Clooney), into how to be a political scumbag, backstab and circumvent the law -- and where all the Republicans are offstage?

Shot like a neo-noir, dropped into pools of ink-black shadow by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, it's a movie that strives hard to be something like a classic social message drama by Rod Serling, Reginald Rose or Gore Vidal, or, to choose later examples, Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. But its aspirations are like the political campaign described here: flawed by cynicism, hamstrung by formula.

It starts well. Clooney's Mike Morris is a Democratic Pennsylvania governor running for president, a dreamboat liberal candidate up against some unnamed, undescribed Republican. He has a more centrist opponent, Senator Pullman (Mike Mantell), of Arkansas yet, plus another opponent dropping out, Jeffrey Wright as North Carolina Senator Thompson. Thompson has some votes and pledges he might trade for a cabinet post, and both Morris and Pullman are jockeying for them.

Morris also has a savvy, scarred campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a rising young star in press secretary Myers. Myers, played by Gosling with his usual held-back inwardess and subtlety, worships and serves Morris in the way Ted Sorenson might have adulated John Kennedy -- when suddenly his world falls apart. Pullman's campaign head, sly Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), offers him a job. Zara finds out and fires him, but not before Myers gets seduced by an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who's also the daughter of the Democratic Party chairman, and who has a red-hot secret that will blow the whole campaign open.

Does all that sound like something you might read in a supermarket tabloid? The Ides of March makes it classier than the tabloid would, but perhaps less credible -- perhaps simply because it seems classier than its material.

Beau Willimon, who wrote the play Farragut North, (the title comes from a Washington Metro stop), the source on which Ides of March is based, is an ex-aide to Democratic presidential candidate (and later party chairman) Howard Dean, and he has both an insider's cynicism, and maybe an insider's tendency to overly inflate or deflate or deglamorize his subjects.

I haven't read or seen Farragut North, but the movie that somehow came out of it is so stuffed with wild melodrama, improbable coincidences, and unlikely plot twists that only the classiness of the cast and direction, and the relative literacy and sobriety of the whole enterprise, keeps it from tipping over into political camp -- which might have been preferable.

Michael Ritchie and star Robert Redford's 1972 The Candidate -- which bears a certain family resemblance to The Ides of March (and was also written by an ex-Democratic campaign staffer, Jeremy Larner) -- is often cited as the exemplary movie about American political campaigns. But I prefer Franklin Schaffner and Vidal's The Best Man (with liberal candidate Henry Fonda sabotaging his conservative opponent, Cliff Robertson, so a compromise candidate will win), which is about as melodramatic as Ides of March, but better written and more enjoyable -- largely because Fonda, whom the movie makes clear is the best man, does prevail, even if he doesn't win.

The tabloid antics of Ides of March aren't as plausible or as much fun. Bill Clinton (and his intern) and John Edwards (and his affair and betrayal) have to some degree blazed a real-life trail here. But this movie trumps them both -- besides giving us a resolution so preposterous that, as some critics have already suggested, The Ides of March might only really work as satire, or dark farce. (Extras: commentary with George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov; featurettes).

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