Movie Review: “Moneyball,” “Tree of Life”

“Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” have a new friend joining their ranks of Oscar-approved baseball films. I say “films” because calling them “flicks” would be an insult.

Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” could be this year’s dark horse, already winning AFI’s Film of the Year. With a screenplay co-penned by my man Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “A Few Good Men,” and last year’s favorite “Social Network”),  it already had my interest. My dad instilled a love of baseball movies in me early on, so the fact that “Moneyball” focuses on a sport I’ve always been interested in also helped the interest level.

“Moneyball” is about much more than baseball, however. It’s the typical underdog story, telling the tale of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he redevelops a failing team using statistics and computer-generated analysis rather than the expertise of his scouts. Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, the fresh-out-of-Yale assistant-GM who pioneers the process. Several things stand in their way to Beane’s goal — winning the last game of the season — however, like a stubborn manager (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) and nay-saying sports columnists. The story also touches on Beane’s past as one of the most promising high-school baseball players, as well as a tastefully-portrayed relationship with his daughter, which extends the story from computer stats and batting averages to a more human story of family and missed opportunities.

This is one of my favorite Pitt performances apart from “Fight Club,” mostly because he not only acts the part but looks it. I have no problem believing he’s a dad and general manager, or that he knows what he’s talking about. His nomination for Best Actor is definitely deserved. Seymour Hoffman plays a fairly minor role, but does so well as the team’s manager that it’s hard to tell its him. Seymour-Hoffman is such a chameleon, he even sports the typical beer-belly gut most dug-out managers carry with them in their uniform.

Pitt and Seymour Hoffman aside, the real breakout performance of the film was that of Jonah Hill. We know him as the pudgy guy from “Superbad,” but with this film he proved himself to have a far greater capacity for acting, for once playing a believable straight-guy surrounded by the Sorkin-esque hijinks of the other characters. If Pitt deserved his Oscar nomination, there is no way Hill could go without a nod for best supporting actor.

Other aspects of the film: the cinematography is phenomenal for a sports movie that’s not about the players on the field. The score is understated and appropriate (though nothing to write home about), but the beauty of the film is that it extends past the baseball fans in the audience and touches the hearts of those who simply love movies that instill hope and empowerment.

Those enamored by Pitt’s performance in “Moneyball” shouldn’t let it get to them. Dubbing Saturday as “Brad-Pitt-Best-Picture Night,” we attempted to watch arthouse film “The Tree of Life.”

I have a feeling that those who liked “Tree of Life” may have just been saying so because they thought they would look uncultured if they didn’t. After 10 minutes of “artistic” film, we turned off the DVD player, unafraid of looking mainstream. As Hannah put it:

This isn’t an artistic film. It’s an arrogant film.

And this is the perfect way to put it. I consider myself a trooper when it comes to movies — after all, I sat all the way through 2008’s Hancock” and “Watchmen” when they first came out in theaters — but “The Tree of Life” was too hard to follow with nothing to grasp onto other than an ebbing blob of light accompanied by whispered Bible verses.

I can’t go into much more detail than that other than the fact the story changes from shots of Sean Penn (the grown-up son in the family) to shots of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (his parents) after losing their 19-year-old son. Fiona Shaw, best known as Aunt Petunia, makes a brief appearance as a consoling neighbor.

That’s all I can really write about “The Tree of Life.” I leave it to stronger-minds than mine to get through the whole thing and decipher the message and meaning of it. Meanwhile, the producers still haven’t figured out whose name to put on it if it wins Best Picture. I wouldn’t stress over it if I were them.

The Brad-Pitt-Best-Picture-Night verdict: “Moneyball” is fantastic and a must-see before the Oscars, but “The Tree of Life” should be left in the proverbial forest, unwatched as it falls.


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