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Friday
Oct142011

Film Reviews: Mozart's Sister and Moneyball

Mozart’s Sister

Written and directed by Réne Féret.  Starring Marie Féret, Marc Barbé. Delphine Chuillot, David Moreau. Music Box Films, in French, with English subtitles.

The child prodigy Wolfgang Mozart was paraded through the European courts in the late 18th century by an ambitious father, Leopold Mozart.  “Wolfe’s” older sister  Marie-Anne, nicknamed “Nannerl,” accompanied his performance by voice and keyboard.  She is the subject of this captivating film, played by the director’s daughter, the beautiful Marie Féret. 

Nannerl had a musical talent that may have matched or exceeded her younger brother.  However, her father forbade her performing the violin or learning even the elements of composition as unsuitable or beyond the capacity of women.   Unbeknownst to Leopold, she is privately commissioned by the future Louis XVI, the Dauphin, to compose a sonata for him.  The Dauphin reports mastering his formal education, but is mystified by the ways of men.  He is also disgusted by his debauched father and frightened by his own feelings of sexuality.  These feelings are evoked by the talented but innocent Nannerl.   Both are prisoners of their fates, but there is no cruelty in Nannerl.   The resulting tragedy leads to one of the saddest scenes in my personal film history as we watch the enchanting young woman age before our eyes. 

 Broke my bloody heart.

This is a film not to be missed, if only for the music, the powdered wigs, the novelty of indoor plumbing and five fabulous harpsichords. The interior shots are illuminated by candlelight.  The original Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart, was released in 2010. 

 

Lawrence Howard

Lawrence Howard is a graduate of the University of California,  Irvine, from which he received a Ph.D. and where he has taught cognitive science and lectured on politics and society. He is the author of Terrorism: Roots, Impacts, Responses (Praeger, 1992).

 

 

Moneyball

Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Brad Pitt, Robin Wright, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sony Pictures.

Moneyball is a riveting, true life drama for more than just baseball fans

Moneyball not only chronicles a major innovation in Major League Baseball, but as a film, it also breaks a few barriers  itself, at least regarding baseball films produced by Hollywood. Unlike almost all of its predecessors, Moneyball does not use the grand old game as a backdrop for humor, a boy-meets-girl love story – or boy-rediscovers-girl love story – or the chronicling of personal redemption or the massive underdog slaying the gigantic favorite. Rather, Moneyball is a movie about baseball and the way a general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), is forced to reinvent the game when faced with the impervious obstacle of working for a financially strapped team.

Director, Bennett Miller, does a masterful job of taking the viewer through Beane’s complete paradigm shift, allowing even the most casual sports fan to understand the enormous risk Beane and his side-kick, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are taking, and the severe break they are making from baseball’s beloved ideologies. Although no one would dare compare Beane to Howard Hughes, like the “Aviator” this is a movie about a visionary and the story could involve any industry; it just so happens that this intriguing occurrence happened in professional baseball with the 2002 Oakland Athletics.

Miller, along with screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, craft a compelling story that tastefully weaves in Beane’s personal battle with striking out in the big leagues after being the number one pick of the New York Mets at the precocious age of 18. Not only is this event historically accurate, but it adds a human element to the movie that Miller skillfully does not allow to ruin the bigger story – the development of Moneyball and its direct slap in the face of long held, never challenged maxims of baseball.

The movie opens with the Oakland Athletics, for whom Beane is the GM, losing the deciding game of a postseason series against baseball’s citadel, the New York Yankees. Immediately after the season ends, large market teams raid Oakland’s line-up, whisking away the team’s three biggest stars with large free agent contract offers. Beane is staggered; for the cash strapped A’s cannot even muster competitive counter offers, and he is left with a gutted team. A despondent Beane travels personally to Cleveland to meet with the Indian’s front office, trying to find a diamond in the rough to replace his erstwhile star reliever.

Beane gets his first sniff of Moneyball at this meeting when the Cleveland GM pulls back his offer of a relief pitcher based on the whispering advice of a callow, bespectacled, tie and coat adorned chubby kid (Brand). After the failed meeting, Beane hunts down Brand in his cubicle and queries the bookish Brand as to why he convinced Cleveland’s top brass not to give up a pedestrian reliever. Brand offers merely, “because I believe he is valuable.” A parking garage conversation ensues, wherein Brand espouses his theory on baseball and how “baseball people” gauge players on the wrong characteristics. A Yale graduate with a degree in economics, Brand (in real life Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate who actually played college baseball) explains how statistics prove that scouts and management “undervalue” players who actually can help teams win, just as much as can highly paid, glamour superstars.

Brand’s mantras when rating a player favorably are “He gets on base” and “He scores runs.”

The desperate Beane is sold on the idea and buys Brand from the Indians, instantly making him his Assistant General Manager. The two spend the off-season evaluating talent based on Brand’s theories, but it is Beane’s decision to “buy in” that puts the wheels in motion. The scene in which Beane and Brand meet with the scouting staff to go over the possible roster for the next season is classic. And the showdown between Beane and head scout, Grady Fuson, is entertaining as well as riveting.

Fuson proves to be only the first major “in house” challenger to this new way of approaching baseball. Manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) staunchly opposes Beane, even when the Moneyball theory begins to work. Howe refuses to play Scott Hatteburg at first base.  Hatteburg serves as the poster child for Moneyball – a disabled catcher with nerve damage in his arm whom the A’s want to start at first base. When Beane visits the disconsolate Hatteburg (who’s been out of baseball for a season) at his home and makes the offer, Hatteburg replies skeptically “But I have never played first.” Beane explains to him that the A’s want him not for his field but because he “gets on base.”

Hatteburg becomes the pawn in Howe’s and Beane’s battle, with Howe repeatedly rebuffing Beane’s direct orders to play Hatteburg, instead opting to start the team’s highly heralded rookie, Carlos Pena. Since the film’s release, Art Howe has claimed the movie unfairly portrays him as contentious. Indeed it does. Only Beane and others within the A’s organization know if the screenplay took some liberties with Howe’s character. It should be noted, though, that Howe did oppose Moneyball all the way to the end. Even after the A’s reached historic heights in 2002 with Howe at the helm, he left the team as soon as possible to manage the New York Mets (a big market team) with old school values where he foundered and was fired after 2 seasons.

If the film’s portrayal of Howe’s demeanor is mostly accurate, its characterization of his appearance is not. Seymour Hoffman’s Howe character is a baseball movie cliché – the doughy and laconic figure who waddles from place to place. This is maybe the movies weakest element, for in real life, Howe, as a player and as a manager, was always thin and in shape. The fact that the producers decided to go with a well-worn caricature does the viewer a disservice.

Although playing Beane may not be Pitt’s most challenging role, he brings his likeable style to the character, fully using his repertoire of gifts for sarcasm, emoting and justified cockiness. The casting crew hit a home run with Hill. Although he, too, does not physically resemble DePodesta, his bloated face with the coke rim glasses and his nerdy smartness coupled with his meekness and naiveté, provide a terrific dramatic contrast to the macho, tobacco chewing, crotch grabbing environment of professional baseball.

Seymour Hoffman’s performance is disappointing only in that he is asked to do too little. He does a serviceable job of being droll, which could be ascribed to Howe also, but outside of that, he’s pretty much a cliché. Not his fault – it’s just you usually see Seymour Hoffman dazzling you with incredible characters, leaving you to believe the movie could have done more dynamic things with his role.

Moneyball is a must see for any baseball fan and for those who are intrigued by compelling stories of hallmark moments in real life, brought about by people who took enormous personal risk in following their accurate convictions. There have been criticisms about the film from those who claim it possesses too many inaccuracies for the sake of drama. But as a huge baseball fan who remembers the 2002 Oakland Athletics, I’d say Moneyball gets it right. The value of Moneyball is in the guts of the story – how Beane and his side-kick revolutionized a game that bristles against even the slightest change.

Moneyball receives an A-. Worth paying to see in the theater.

Andrew Holt

 

Andrew Holt Graduated from UCLA with a degree in English Literature. He spent over 18 years in small to medium market radio broadcasting as a News/Sports Director and interview host. He hosts his own blog, “The Holt Story” at www.theholtstory.com . He is the Film Review Editor for Lost Coast Review.

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