Saturday, June 9, 2012


Year 4, Day 161 - 6/9/12 - Movie #1,158

BEFORE: Well, sometimes the universe doesn't live up to my expectations.  I'd programmed this film on the day of the Belmont Stakes, in anticipation of a potential Triple Crown winner, only to hear on Friday that I'll Have Another had bowed out of the race due to injury.  Haven't the owners of that horse ever seen a Hollywood sports film?  Don't they know that the jockey has to tell us what the horse is thinking, the owner has to gently nurse the horse back to health, and the trainer has to devise an unorthodox strategy to re-train the horse at the last minute, with a plan that's so crazy that it JUST might work?

Worse yet, it seems like the horse's trainers don't care about MY needs - don't they care that I've got a movie blog to run, that I like to tie it in to current events?  Jeez, some people are so inconsiderate.  But I do applaud someone for putting a horse's needs first - kudos for that.  Linking from "Seabiscuit", Chris Cooper was also in "Adaptation" with John Malkovich (last seen in "Red") in an uncredited role.

THE PLOT: Penny Chenery Tweedy and colleagues guide her long-shot but precocious stallion to set, in 1973, the unbeaten record for winning the Triple Crown.

AFTER: Whoops, I suppose I should have said "Spoiler Alert" - Secretariat wins the Triple Crown.  But you knew that, right?  I mean, why else make a film about a horse?  Nobody makes a movie about a horse that ALMOST wins the Triple Crown.  Truth be told, there are 21 horses that won the first two races (Kentucky Derby + Preakness) but did not win at Belmont.  (12 since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed).   By contrast, there are only 11 horses that won Races 1 + 3 - mathematically, that seems a little odd.  If I were a cynical man, I'd take that as evidence that horse racing is fixed - a win in the first 2 races would maximize the betting on that horse, and if that horse were then to lose Belmont, the bookmakers and betting parlors would be able to retain the most money.

However, the stats don't tell the whole story.  All things are not equal, since the Belmont is a longer race than the other two, so a horse that wins the shorter Derby + Preakness might not have the endurance to win the third leg.  Plus, the three races take place over a short 5-week period, so injuries over that time have knocked out a few contenders, which is what happened today.

Tonight's film presents us with Secretariat, who's portrayed as a fast horse with endurance, in potentially the best combination.  It's also the story of a Denver housewife in the 1970's who succeeded in the male-dominated world of horse racing, and an oddball trainer (Malkovich!) who finally succeeded after a long career of losses.

As with last night's film, there's plenty of melodrama, starting with the death of Ms. Tweedy's mother, her father's declining health, the strain of a long-distance relationship as Tweedy manages a horse farm, as well as her missing key moments in her children's lives.  But success requires sacrifice, right?  I mean, you can always just give up and go home - but no, it's about perseverance, and a belief in, well, believing that things are going to turn out for the best somehow.

I wish there'd been a little (OK, a lot) more emphasis on the mechanics of horse racing - but this is a Disney film, not an ESPN documentary.  For every Secretariat, there have to be a dozen or even a hundred horses whose owners believed in them too - so how, exactly, did the pieces come together to produce a win?  Besides the owner's faith in the horse, we're led to believe that Secretariat succeeded because people danced to soul music classics while giving him a bath?  The main race strategy seemed to be "Let the horse run fast."  Gee, I hope none of the other horse trainers think of that one.  That's not a strategy, that's the lack of strategy.

I allowed the tie-in between Seabiscuit's win and the need for hope during the Depression, but this film's tie-in with Vietnam-era politics is just confusing.  Are we supposed to side with the protesters, symbolized by the teenage daughter's radical high-school play?  And if so, how the heck does that relate to the horse?  It's very muddled. 

Please stick with me, my sports chain is kicking into gear, and next week I'll hit basketball, just in time for the NBA Finals to be cancelled (I'm guessing...).

Also starring Diane Lane (last seen in "The Cotton Club"), Dylan Walsh (last seen in "Blood Work"), Margo Martindale (last seen in "Days of Thunder"), Scott Glenn (last seen in "W."), Dylan Baker (last seen in "The Cell"), Fred Dalton Thompson (also last seen in "Days of Thunder"), James Cromwell (also last seen in "W.").

RATING: 6 out of 10 bags of oats

Friday, June 8, 2012


Year 4, Day 160 - 6/8/12 - Movie #1,157

BEFORE: From boxing over to horse racing - hey, if I see an opportunity to link my schedule to current events, I'm going to take it.  The sports world is abuzz right now with a Triple Crown contender, and the Belmont Stakes are tomorrow, so I'm perfectly positioned.  Anyway, seeing Mickey Rooney last night made me think of the film "The Black Stallion", so it put me in a horse-racing mood - for the actual acting link, though, it's good to note that Rooney was in this year's film "The Muppets", co-starring with Chris Cooper (last heard in "Where the Wild Things Are"), who plays Seabiscuit's trainer in tonight's film.

THE PLOT: True story of the undersized Depression-era racehorse whose victories lifted not only the spirits of the team behind it but also those of their nation.

AFTER: I've heard good things about this film over the last few years, and for the most part it did deliver.  Maybe the metaphors were a bit heavy-handed, but how else do you tell a story about the Great Depression?  (Or any giant topic, such as World War II)  You do it by focusing on a small number of individuals, and you let the audience extrapolate from their experiences.  (Another story-telling problem - how do you get inside the mind of a horse?  You can't, so the next best thing is to get inside the heads of the people around him.)

Here we have three men (oh, yeah, and a horse) at different stages in life, who had financial or personal setbacks (or both) and needed a second chance.  The implication is that their problems were everyone's problems, even if that isn't technically true.  The country was hurting, and everyone was looking for a way out, some kind of redemption, and the metaphors here (and there's no shortage of them) suggest that Seabiscuit and the men around him were seen as a symbol of hope and rebirth.

Take one wealthy car-dealer/horse owner who's mourning the death of his son, a crusty unorthodox horse trainer who rescues unwanted racehorses, and a reckless jockey abandoned by his parents who's got anger issues, and link them to an undersized horse who's been mistreated and injured but still has the competitive spirit, if someone can just take the time to learn how he thinks and treat him the right way.  You can almost see in advance the way the pieces are going to fit together - the voids in each character's life that need to be filled, and the way the other characters might be able to do just that.

Maybe it's because I approach these things from a filmmaker's point of view - but I sometimes say that the seams of a film are showing, I can see the way that the pieces were stitched together.  Certain things that happen because the screenplay NEEDED them to happen.  This film is a whole bunch of seams, as you might expect when you stitch together the life-stories of three men (oh, yeah, and a horse).  The opening half-hour is a study in parallel editing as the three men's experiences are shown - the rules of parallel editing demand that their stories are going to intersect and influence each other, so by the time it does, it's almost a fait accompli.

As with auto racing and boxing, I admit that I know jack squat about horse racing, outside of what I've seen in the movies.  But at least this film gives us a good deal of race footage, and a fair amount of racing strategy.  That's good, I'm here to learn - why else am I still watching movies every night - but the question with any historical drama then becomes, did it happen exactly this way?  The first thing I learned was that Seabiscuit never ran in a Triple Crown race.  Before this film, I thought he was a Triple Crown winner, but nope - he was a West Coast horse, mostly racing at Santa Anita, and he was the leading money-winner in the U.S. 

I did some research on Seabiscuit and his owner, Charles Howard, and found out a few things that the movie left out.  First off, Howard had 4 sons - not just the one depicted in this film.  I understand why the film left out the other three, to heighten the tragedy of the youngest one's death, but it still seems like an odd omission.  Especially when his oldest son, Lindsay, was also in horse racing, and co-owned a stable with Bing Crosby, with horses that often competed against Seabiscuit.  Why was this left out?  A father vs. son rivalry seems tailor-made for a movie, though obviously it would have made the film longer and possibly too complex.

Secondly, Howard is seen meeting his second wife, Marcella Zabala, behind the scenes at a racetrack.  Wait, his son Lindsay was married to someone named Anita Zabala - any connection?  Yep, Charles Howard married his daughter-in-law's older sister.  Nothing wrong with that, but again it seems like an odd bit of information to leave out, and it means he probably didn't just meet her randomly in the bleachers.

For that matter, Seabiscuit's grandfather, Man o' War, was also the father of War Admiral.  So in the famous match between the two horses, Seabiscuit was racing against his uncle.  I'm sure this kind of thing goes on all the time, and Man o' War sired a large number of championship horses, but I'm wondering why it wasn't mentioned.  It would have heightened the rivalry, but might also have confused viewers.  Plus, it shoots down the argument that War Admiral's owner had about "superior breeding" - if the two horses shared a common lineage, how could one have been perceived as bred better?

The metaphors of the film are made more powerful by these omissions, however, so in a way they're justified.  But obvious powerful metaphors are still obvious metaphors - and then the film makes them even more obvious by repeating them in the dialogue.  Pointing out that the three men sort of fixed each other, and in helping the horse, the horse helped them.  Yeah, thanks for that, but I was already there.  I guess in a way I beat the film to the ending by a couple of lengths.

My other problem concerns the character of the radio guy who comments on the world of horse-racing, complete with all kinds of old-timey phrases like "the cat's pajamas" and "the bees' knees" and a bunch of wacky sound effects.  He's like a one-man morning zoo crew before there was a need for such things.  Yeah, maybe some people used to talk that way - but the film's setting shouldn't excuse it.  Corny dialogue is still corny, and advancing the film's plot through "tell" rather than "show" is still a cop-out, even if it's slightly goofy.

If you're playing along at home, you can probably guess what movie is next in the chain...
Also starring Jeff Bridges (last seen in "Tron: Legacy"), Tobey Maguire (last heard in "Cats & Dogs"), Elizabeth Banks (last seen in "W."), William H. Macy (last seen in "Marmaduke"), with a cameo from my buddy Peter Jason (last seen in "Red Heat"), playing (what else?) a reporter.

RATING: 7 out of 10 slide-whistles

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Year 4, Day 159 - 6/7/12 - Movie #1,156

BEFORE: One day with the new chain, and already I'm messing with it.  I was going to watch this boxing in about two weeks, after karate and wrestling films, but then two things changed my mind - first, "Pat and Mike" featured Spencer Tracy as a boxing manager, and another character who was a boxer (and I'd thought it was just a movie about golf and tennis).  Plus, seeing Spencer Tracy, along with Jim "Mr. Howell" Backus, made me think about one of my all-time fave films, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", which starred both of those men, along with Mickey Rooney, who's featured in this film (and somehow, improbably, making his first appearance in this project).

It also gives me an opportunity to give a shout out to the late Ray Bradbury - this film was written by Rod Serling, host/creator of "The Twilight Zone", and some of Bradbury's best adapted work appeared on that show.  I realize it's a tenuous connection, but it's timely - though I'm planning a chain of Mars-themed films in about three months, and considering Bradbury's famous work "The Martian Chronicles", perhaps that would be a more fitting tribute.

THE PLOT: "Mountain" Rivera, a once-promising but now washed-up boxer faces the end of his career after he is savagely defeated by a younger boxer.

AFTER: The original version of this story appeared in half-hour form on the TV show "Playhouse 90", with Jack Palance in the lead role.  Rod Serling then wanted to adapt it into a Broadway play, but then was convinced it would work better in a longer film version.  And it mostly does, but some problems are to be expected when a tight half-hour teleplay gets stretched out to a 90-minute feature.  You can call them dramatic pauses, or time-killers, depending on your point of view.  A couple of conversations between the manager and the cut-man (like the card-playing scene) had a tendency to go around in circles.

But the portrait of the aging, punch-drunk boxer carries more weight - what people used to call "punch-drunk" is now referred to as "brain-damaged", just as the war-related affliction "shell shock" has been re-termed as "post-traumatic stress disorder".   Rivera has slurred speech (though that may just be Anthony Quinn's accent), damage to his eye, and he starts throwing punches whenever he hears a bell ring - trust me, you don't want to be standing next to this guy in a building lobby when the elevator arrives.

After the doctor declares him unfit to fight, he's got a pipe dream of working with kids at an athletic camp.  Because it's always a good idea to allow people who aren't right in the head to work with kids.  More troubles abound as Rivera's manager seems to be acting squirrelly and hiding from some shady characters - Rivera says he's never taken a dive, but you start to get the feeling that maybe he was supposed to, and forgot.  Or maybe his manager never clued him in on the deal.  When you see a fat guy running like that, you know he's got to be in trouble.

I was reminded of the story about Jackie Gleason making a bet with famed restaurateur Toots Shor - after a long night of drinking (presumably), Gleason bet Shor $1,000 that he could run around the block faster.  They started out in different directions, and Toots huffed and puffed around the block to find Gleason waiting for him.  Yet he hadn't passed him at any point along the way - it turned out that Gleason had turned the corner and hailed a cab.

I kind of wish there had been more boxing in this boxing movie.  The opening fight is shot from Rivera's point of view, as he's getting beat up pretty good, which means we never get to see him throw a punch.  Whether this was done as a stylistic choice or as a cost-cutting measure is a debatable point.  And then after that, it's mostly talky-talky as people discuss Rivera's status and he decides how he's going to spend his days after boxing.

I found it a little stereotypical - boxing's got a reputation for being shady, so after watching quite a few boxing films, it might be more ground-breaking to see an honest manager featured on film.  Maybe that's just me, though...

I'd hoped that by now some channel would have aired "The Fighter", and also "Rocky Balboa" so I can complete the boxing topic.  But, the movie programming gods have not cooperated, so I will have to revisit the subject at least one more time.  On to the next sport.

Starring Anthony Quinn (last seen in "The Guns of Navarone"), Jackie Gleason (last seen in "Smokey and the Bandit II"), Julie Harris, with cameos from Jack Dempsey and Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali). 

RATING: 4 out of 10 uppercuts

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pat and Mike

Year 4, Day 158 - 6/6/12 - Movie #1,155

BEFORE: From auto racing to golf - yes, it's a bit of a jump.  But it helps if you look at it as going from one classic on-screen (and off-screen) romantic pair to another - from Cruise/Kidman to Tracy/Hepburn.  And I've got a mini-theme going, with three films that mix sports and romance.

Linking from "Days of Thunder", Robert Duvall was in "Open Range" with Annette Bening, who was also in "Love Affair" with Katharine Hepburn (last seen in "Desk Set").

THE PLOT: Pat's a brilliant athlete, except when her domineering fiance is around. The lady's golf championship is in her reach until she gets flustered by his presence at the final holes, so she enlists the help of Mike, a slightly shady sports promoter.

AFTER: As with "Desk Set", I expect two things from a Tracy/Hepburn comedy - a healthy dose of feminism, and the ultimate romantic pairing of the two leads.  The first is a bit of a given here, as Hepburn does progressive things like entering golf tournaments, and wearing pants.  Though her boyfriend forces her to change into a skirt when they play against the college trustees, and also put up with the pompous college trustees.

As for the romantic pairing, it's an echo of my problem with "Desk Set" - they really should make Hepburn's boyfriend more of an obvious bad fit for her.  In "Desk Set" her boyfriend never had time for her - hey, lots of guys were busy back then, it's called "working" - and here her boyfriend wants to get married and settle down, which is not an uncommon attitude for the early 1950's.  Would he have been a better catch if he DIDN'T want to get married?

The other problem is, she can't seem to win a golf (or tennis) tournament when he's in the audience.  How is that his fault?  Maybe she's just not good enough to win!  Look, there's 30 or 40 people in the tournament, someone's got to come in second, right?  Seeing Hepburn choke in the finals is another bit of lazy movie shorthand.  Symbolically, something's wrong with her game, because there's something wrong with the relationship, even if she can't quite realize it.  No, no, don't bother getting into the mechanics of the game, or what might be wrong with her swing, because that would just bore people.

Really, the main problem with the boyfriend is that he's NOT Spencer Tracy.  As with "Desk Set", the pairing is inevitable - it's why this actor and actress were cast in the film.  It's what the audience came to the picture show to see, so it's got to happen, as contrived as it seems in retrospect.  But on that level, it's no different than "For the Love of the Game", or "Rocky", or a bunch of other sports movies I can't think of right now.  The athlete is not complete without the relationship, and the relationship works better when the athlete is performing well.  Look at the slump Tiger Woods got into after his affairs were made public and he got divorced.

It's not really the filmmaker's fault that he doesn't truly get inside Hepburn's head, and uses cinematic short-cuts.  You have to realize that this film was released in 1952, and women hadn't been playing sports for very long - so, really, that whole process was something of a mystery.  A shady boxing promoter, that we understand.  Though I have a feeling that more boxing matches have been thrown over the years in movies than ever have been in real life.  That's another lazy way filmmakers determined the outcome of a fight, without getting into the mechanics of boxing.  I also didn't know that a golf tournament could be rigged like a boxing match - go figure.

Also starring Aldo Ray, Babe Didrikson Zaharias (a major Olympic + golf star, her presence adds some validity to the proceedings, like the real NASCAR drivers last night) with cameos from Jim Backus, Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors, and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (that's a rather odd bunch).

RATING: 3 out of 10 glasses of milk

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Days of Thunder

Year 4, Day 157 - 6/5/12 - Movie #1,154

BEFORE: I've done baseball chains before, and a football chain, even a boxing chain.  But this time subjects are going to be more of a free-for-all, bouncing from one sport to another.  First I figured I'd go from baseball to football to basketball and then catch the rest, but that didn't really work.  I wanted to hit some key calendar events coming up.  Then I figured the most logical choice after "For Love of the Game" would be "Tin Cup", another Costner film, but I don't have a copy of that.  AMC is running it this week, but with commercials, and I've taken a stand against that.  So today I tore the chain apart and rebuilt it, with an eye on linking actors between films.  It's still organized by sport, and I'll still hit some benchmarks, so that all will work for me.  As a result, John C. Reilly carries over from last night's film.

THE PLOT: A young hot-shot stock car driver gets his chance to compete at the top level.

AFTER: For my job, I record a lot of sports that I fast-forward through, especially key events like the U.S. Opens (golf and tennis), NBA playoffs, Stanley Cup, etc.  I track the commercials, so the Super Bowl is kind of like my Super Bowl, but in a different way.  I don't tape a lot of auto racing, because they tend to run commercials in a split-screen with the race, which is fine by be, because if I had to watch a whole NASCAR race, I'd probably want to shoot myself.

But no worries here, this movie edits the races down to their key moments, keeping only the most exciting bits, including the crashes, but still the actions are hyper-realized, the rivalries are forced.  Two cars "trading paint" is ALWAYS seen here as a personal vendetta, but I have a feeling that such things tend to happen on the track in a more accidental way.  Bumping another racecar is probably like throwing a baseball at a batter's head - sure it happens, but the league probably frowns on it, and it only leads to worse things.

Crashes are WHY people watch NASCAR, right?  George Carlin famously called auto racing "almost a sport", because there is the chance of serious injury.  (But ultimately he ruled against it, because the only three real sports are baseball, basketball and football.  Everything else is a game or activity, like darts, or driving a car).  To quote the man: "Hey, where else besides auto racing am I going to see a 23-car collision and not be IN the son of a bitch?"  No one wants to see anyone die, but everyone still wants to see crashes.  So the movie delivers, by putting Cruise's character in jeopardy, but allowing him to recover in true Hollywood fashion.

What better way to introduce the love interest, Nicole Kidman, as a brain surgeon. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  She's an American brain surgeon with an Australian accent and a Polish last name, go figure.  And she ignores every rule about doctor-patient relationships by getting into bed with Cruise's character - well, she does need to judge his motor skills to see if he can race again.  But, once he invites her to watch him race, we never see her back in a hospital.  I mean, come on, what's more important, performing life-saving brain operations or satisfying the sexual needs of an egotistical racecar driver?  Wait a minute...

And I know it's hard to come up with fictional character names, but the main character is named Cole Trickle?  It sounds like run-off from the processing plant.  It also sounds weak when compared to real driver names - manly-man names like Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya.  It just doesn't hold up.

There are a lot of things I don't understand about auto racing (and sports in general, for that matter), for example, how do they know which car is in first place, when they're constantly taking those pit stops?  If the car in first place goes into the pit, doesn't it get passed by other cars while it's there?  I've had people try to explain this to me before, and it just makes my eyes glaze over and my head hurt.  I assume they use computers now to track each car's position and number of laps, but how the heck did they do it back in the old days?  

The bottom line - occasionally exciting, but mostly ridiculous.  Just like NASCAR itself.

Starring Tom Cruise (last seen in "The Color of Money"), Nicole Kidman (last seen in "The Hours"), Randy Quaid (last seen in "Freaked"), Cary Elwes (last seen in "Liar Liar"), Michael Rooker (last seen in "Super"), Fred Dalton Thompson (last seen in "Thunderheart").

RATING: 4 out of 10 checkered flags

Monday, June 4, 2012

For Love of the Game

Year 4, Day 156 - 6/4/12 - Movie #1,153

BEFORE: No movie yesterday, since I was riding back on Amtrak and then competing in the 10-hour trivia marathon.  My team tied for third, so no big cash prize - but at least we were competitive and made it into the finale.  And I hear you have to be in it in order to win it, so say the sports movies.  I can still skip a day and not worry about the effect on my schedule - so here's Monday's film, another baseball flick.

And I'm lucky again, Robin Wright from "Moneyball" co-starred in "Message in a Bottle" with Kevin Costner (last seen in "3,000 Miles to Graceland").

THE PLOT: A washed up pitcher flashes through his career.

AFTER: There's even more time-jumping and cross-cutting in this film than in "Moneyball", but unfortunately there's no rhyme or reason to it - in other words, the flashbacks don't influence the current events, so why cut them together this way?  I get that it's supposed to be what a major-league pitcher is thinking about while working on a no-hitter - but shouldn't he be concentrating more on his pitching, and less on the history of his relationship?

It seems from the flashbacks that Costner's character, Billy Chapel, is against commitment for exactly this reason - he's worried about the effect that marriage would have on his baseball career.  Well, here he is, not married, and focusing on the relationship anyway during what could be the biggest game of his life, so how's that working out?

It's interesting to hear a pitcher psyching himself up for a few more pitches, or to hear his thought process about what pitch to throw next - but does he really have time to review his entire adult life between pitches?  These flashback sequences are really long and detailed - maybe this is why baseball games run so long these days?

So, even though this pitcher tries to keep his baseball life and his dating life separate, it's all for naught, because the stress of the game and the pain in his shoulder seems to cause stress in his relationship - is it really not possible to keep them separate?

Speaking of separation, I feel I have to treat this like a blending of two genres - the sports film and the romance film.  Sure, that combination worked in "Bull Durham", making for a great date night film - something for the men, something for the ladies.  But setting one genre in the present and the other in the past makes for an odd blend - like oil and vinegar.  If you're quick, you can have a good salad dressing, but invariably the two elements are going to want to spread apart, just because chemically they are very, very different. 

NITPICK POINT: Doesn't everyone associated with the game of baseball, know NOT to talk about a potential perfect game?  These people are usually superstitious, believing that mentioning it alone is enough to spoit it.

Also starring Kelly Preston (last seen in "Christine"), Jena Malone (last seen in "Sucker Punch"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "The Hours"), Brian Cox (last seen in "Red"), J.K. Simmons (last heard in "Megamind") and Carmine Giovinazzo (now seen on "CSI: NY").

RATING: 5 out of 10 batting helmets

EDIT: I forgot to mention the connection to my other favorite team, the perennial underdog New York Mets.  Just a few days before watching this, Johan Santana pitched the first no-hitter in Mets franchise history.  (Yes, I realize there is a difference between a no-hitter and a perfect game.  Of course, everyone knows that - just give me a minute to look up what the difference is...)  Duh, all perfect games are no-hitters, but not all no-hitters are perfect games.  Still, congrats to the Mets, maybe I should start watching games again, but who has that kind of time.

Anyway, it's about synchronicity and concordance, and I'll point it out when I see it.  More on that later in the chain.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Year 4, Day 154 - 6/2/12 - Movie #1,152

BEFORE: Up in New England, hanging out with my BFF Andy.  He and I drove to the Newport Chowder Cook-off, an annual tradition for us, then afterwards we relaxed with some beers and watched the sports.  Cause that's what guys do together, right?  OK, so it was a movie about sports, that still counts.  I did read the book this film was based on, plus I've heard good things...

It's an easy link from Robert De Niro through "Sleepers" to Brad Pitt (last heard in "Megamind").   

THE PLOT: Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's attempts to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.

AFTER: They faced an uphill battle, turning a factual book about baseball statistics and analysis into a compelling narrative.  For a while, it seemed like this film was going to be a retread of "Major League", since there is an attempt to assemble a bunch of has-beens, coulda-beens and never-weres into a coherent team, and to have that team win against all conventional wisdom.

But really, the film documents a sea change in the way that baseball was played, or at least managed.  What you had in baseball was a decades-old system, where a bunch of senior scouts recruited strong players based on their eyewitness accounts, relying on their gut instincts about which players had the winning spirit, or at least the winning look.  Even in the late 1990's, this system prevailed over computer analysis and mathematical projections.  One team, with the right stats guy, turned the system on its head and found a bunch of players that were undervalued by the other teams.

This eventually worked out for the Oakland A's, once the general manager was finally able to work around their reluctant manager, who persisted in playing according to tired rules, like automatically bringing in a right-handed pitcher to face a strong left-handed batter.  Here's the problem - back in the day, stats-friendly managers like Earl Weaver determined that righties did have a slightly better pitching record against lefty batter, so when a strong left-handed batter came up, and he had a choice between two relief pitchers, he'd choose a righty.  Now, if you do that too many times, you start to skew the results, and the ERAs going forward do not reflect a genuine righty-vs.-lefty account.  It becomes a habit, and a stats-driven self-fulfilling prophecy - and before long, every other manager is doing it too, and expecting to improve their pitchers' averages.

What Billy Beane did with his "Billyball" (named after statistician Bill James, not himself) worked for the A's primarily because no other team was doing it - adding up the runs on paper and picking players based on simple stats like walks, because walks get people on base, and if you improve your on-base percentage, you (theoretically) increase your team's runs.  But if all the other teams were to adopt the same concepts and seek out those same players, the strategy would have lost its effectiveness.

Usually, I'm against a film jumping around in time to tell a story, but here is one of the rare cases where that technique works.  The story of the Oakland A's in 2002 is intertwined with the history of Billy Beane as a promising but under-performing baseball player.  The lessons he learned as a player have a direct effect on how he manages the team, so it makes sense to cut to flashbacks, as we try to get inside his head.

Brad Pitt plays Beane as a tortured soul who feels every loss, even if his players don't, and a losing season is like a knife in his gut.  Of course, no one can predict the future, so when he's offered a chance to work for a big-budget team, he's torn once again - should he take the big-money offer while he can, or turn it down and hold fast to his principles?

Baseball here is a metaphor for life - is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?  I often equate my work in independent animation with minor-league baseball.  I feel like I'm playing a good game, but I know there are bigger companies I could be working for - I just don't know if I've got what it takes to do so.  So I felt Billy Bean's struggle.

The film is actually a little short on game footage, which is a minor drawback, but it supplies enough drama between the GM, manager, and players to compensate.  (The scenes between Beane and his daughter were also a mix of heart-warming and heart-breaking)  The gameplay mainly centers on the winning streak that the A's did have in 2002, and depicts the glorious feeling of hitting the game-winning run.  I'm going to be trying for that same feeling tomorrow, as I participate in a 10-hour trivia marathon.

Also starring Jonah Hill (also last heard in "Megamind"), Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), Robin Wright (last seen in "New York, I Love You"), Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, with cameos from Jack McGee, Arliss Howard, and Joe Satriani.

RATING: 7 out of 10 line-up cards

EDIT: Forgot to mention the Red Sox connection - a couple years after the events depicted in this film, the Sox decided to follow similar "Billyball" tactics, and you could say that, when combined with their larger payroll, this resulted in their World Series victory in 2004, their first since 1918.  So, while on one level this is a story of the success of the Oakland A's in 2002, I view it as a precursor to the breaking of the Curse of the Bambino.  Movies are mirrors sometimes, and we see what we want.