Brad Pitt Scores with Moneyball, while Dream House is Anything But

Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill contribute sterling work in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, an intelligent, engrossing drama about taking risks and using the odds to succeed–by going against the accepted wisdom.

It’s the end of the 2001 baseball season, and the Oakland Athletics not only lose to the New York Yankees in post-season play, but face the defection of several key players to teams with deeper pockets.  General Manager (and former glowing prospect) Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) hires Peter Brand  (Jonah Hill) away from the Cleveland Indians because of Beane’s belief in Brand’s radical ideas about assessing players’ true value through their on-base percentage.  This puts Beane in conflict with his players, scouts, and most of all, scowling veteran manager Art Howe (Hoffman)— and for a while, it looks as if this strategy will not yield the desired results, until…well, if you’ve seen enough—or any–sports films, you know what kind of turn the film will take—and this movie earns that turn. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball manages to convert the marriage of baseball and statistics into compelling film fare, much like The Social Network succeeded in finding the drama in people at keyboards staring into computer screens. There are several reasons for this, one which I’ve alluded to: a very strong script, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin (of Social Network) and Steven Zaillan from Michael Lewis’ book. Scenes with Beane taking on his scouts, who are insulted because they’re not being consulted, build slowly and surely, aided by Miller’s assured direction; Beane’s confrontations with his resentful manager achieve a high level of quiet intensity; the relationship between Beane and his young protégé Brand is also nicely developed, as both prod and encourage the other to take some leaps of faith. Another reason is some very fine work from all the players—major and minor.  Hoffman plays Howe as a knowledgeable veteran who is embittered because of his lack of job security and Beane’s cavalier treatment of his expertise; Hill is spot-on as the quiet, nebbish-like statistics expert who slowly grows a backbone.  Above all, Pitt creates a finely etched portrait of an intense, calculating-and likable individual haunted by past failures and driven to do whatever it takes to make his team-and himself-a winner.

I guess a review of the would-be horror thriller Dream House invites some inclusion of the word nightmare, such as “Dream House is a nightmare to visit…” and so on and so forth—but I will not be party to that. Suffice it to say, in this malodorous mélange of elements pilfered from Shutter Island, A Beautiful Mind and In Cold Blood (to name but a few),  Daniel Craig (lost without his Bond) leaves his job to stay with his lovely family (including real-life lovely wife Rachel Weisz) in their new home so he can work on his book   And then the hits start happening: comely next door neighbor (a wasted Naomi Watts) eyes Craig with suspicion; belligerent neighbors threaten harm—while the police supply no assistance; and neighborhood kids set up a shrine in the cellar—to the murdered family (supposedly by the father) that occupied the house previously.  If you’ve seen the ads, you know the plot twist that comes halfway through—and which only leads to several illogical scenes, wildly improbable plot developments and a climax which is jaw-dropping on several levels—you can’t believe it as you’re watching it—you can only wonder if the actors believed it as they were playing it.  The film was directed by Jim Sheridan and written by David Loucka—since there is enough blame to throw around, why leave them out.