Hooray for Holly-Łódź: Cinema 2 – Cinema City, Movie 2 – Moneyball (3/6)

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12:00pm Cinema City, Manufaktura Drewnowska 58

The entranceway to Cinema City is an impressive site, as it comprises some of the original red-brick structure of Poznański's textile factory.

About five years ago Łódź completed an ambitious overhaul of the old Poznański factory complex off of Al. Kościuszki. These dilapidated red brick buildings had been pretty much disused, apart from occasional film shoots or festival usage, since the mid-nineties, making them a rather unfortunate eyesore, particularly as they were situated behind one of Łódź’s most iconic buildings Poznański’s Palace. The factory had been at the centre of Łódź’s booming textile industries since it was opened in the mid 19th century by Polish-Jewish entrepreneur and industrialist Izrael Poznański. During the early part of the 20th century it was one of the most significant employers in Łódź, but post-war it was nationalised and after the fall of Communism in the early nineties fell into rapid decline. Now the factory complex is emblematic of Poland’s rapid conversion to North American and Western European consumer Capitalist models of city development. Whereas once the red brick buildings were the focal point and hub of heavy industry, now they have been lovingly restored and modernised, housing the massive two-tier Manufaktura shopping complex, as well as multiple boutique stores and restaurants, a modern art gallery, a historical factory museum and the large scale Cinema City complex, that I was next to visit.

Manufaktura is spread out around a central square, or concourse, that has spouting fountains, outdoor seating, beer halls, external television screens (for major sporting events) and a beach volleyball sand court. The Cinema City complex takes up one half of the building which also houses the museum and exhibition centre. The popular multiplex chain has utilised the high-ceilinged interiors of the old factory buildings incredibly well, giving the foyer an almost space-age feel. At least three of the fifteen cinema screens can hold 300+ viewers, with one of those screens being a purpose-built IMAX 3D auditorium. Of the smaller screens the standard is around the 120 seat mark. As with many other cinema complexes in the chain, most of the screens are sponsored by a business such as Orange, or SONY. Cinema City has a specific brand identity which means that its concessions tend to be uniform, serving up pic’n’mix sweets, a small selection of alcohol, soft drinks, Mars and Nestle chocolates, ice cream, hot snacks (such as chilli nachos) and popcorn.

Movie marathon days such as this require a bit of logistical planning. With Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol having finished at 11:50am, I had to jog the 1km from Bałtyk, down Piotrkowska, to the Manafaktura complex in ten minutes. My partner Marta, had thankfully got to Cinema City in advance and purchased our tickets for the film Moneyball. The tickets had cost 16 zł with our teacher discount, but normally they would cost 19zł, which rises to 21zł for weekend screenings after 17:00 on a Friday.

Cinema City supposedly prides itself on providing the most comfortable and reliable cinematic experience, but I was somewhat disappointed with the way in which they had decided to treat Moneyball. As a sports drama it had been booked onto one of the smaller screens, screen number ten. This wasn’t a problem in terms of physical comfort, as the well-cushioned, spacious and ergonomically designed seats are exemplary throughout the complex. However, the projection of the film was a source of considerable embarrassment. First of all the movie was absurdly cropped on both the right and left of the screen, so that the image lost about a third of the peripheral frame action. This essentially converted the film into a pan and scan television projection, which was deeply unsatisfying. Furthermore, for about the first twenty minutes of the film the sound was so muffled and low as to make the dialogue almost indecipherable. To make matters worse the sound resolved itself around twenty minutes in, thus demonstrating a problem with the screen settings, rather than the quality of the digital print. If this wasn’t bad enough, at intermittent points during the film significant background noise could be heard seeping in from surrounding auditoria, given Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s solemn discussions on baseball stats the unwanted bombast of a series of shuddering explosions. I couldn’t help but think that Cinema City had perhaps attempted to maximise their screen output at the expense of some of the basic requirements of the cinematic experience. One of the few things that I will commend the chain on, however,  was the perfect saltiness of their popcorn. All in all a disappointing experience, although I have had far better from Cinema City in the past.

Cinema Experience: 5/10

 

A film about baseball didn’t particularly jump of the screen and demand my attention. Loving writers like Paul Auster, I appreciate that North American’s have a strong and passionate relationship with the sport, but it’s one that a football loving European like myself is unlikely to understand quite so thoroughly. Hanging around in my limited baseball imagination were movies like Bull Durham, Eight Men Out and Major League. Moneyball is vastly different from all of those, although it attempts to draw similar cultural and political connections to the sport as John Sayles historical drama.

Written by two of the premier screenwriters around at the moment in Steve Zaillian (American Gangster, Gangs of New York) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing), a certain quality was always guaranteed when it came to this film. What is so surprising is the way in which the movie manages to make something ‘universally’ significant, and at the same time specifically emblematic, out of the curious incursion of mathematical analysis into the realm of professional sports. In much the same way as Sorkin examined the Facebook phenomenon in The Social Network, the film strives for, and achieves, a deeper cultural significance outside of its niche concerns, demonstrating how technology is rapidly changing old paradigms of operation in multiple industries. Early on in the film Brad Pitt’s character comes out with the oft-used gobbet of wisdom “adapt or die”. His character, the Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, is talking with an experienced member of his scouting network and is essentially laying out the cold, modern reality of many working environments, change is inevitable and you either get with the programme, or you end up on the scrapheap. What makes Moneyball such a fascinating film is the fact that the writers and the director (Bennett Miller) are working with material that ultimately describes that brief moment when an old order, or hierarchy, is desperately trying to fend off the inevitable future.

Billy Beane stumbles upon a Bill James obsessed economics graduate, Peter Brand (an excellent and delightfully understated Jonah Hill), whilst out scouting Cleveland for players for the coming season. Brand has developed a complex statistical model that re-evaluates player worth, based around their effectiveness at doing the scoring basics on the diamond. This detached mathematical approach to the sport ignores all of the ‘human’ eccentricities and intuitions that the scouting industry relies upon, whilst also puncturing much of the pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo around the idea of innate talent and skill. In Brand’s analysis a player is only as good as what he statistically brings to each and every on-the-park display. This radical approach to player evaluation enabled Beane to assemble a World Series competing, record-breaking baseball team on a relative shoestring. Although it didn’t transform the face of baseball, Sorkin and Zaillian do point up the ‘silent’ legacy that it put in place that was adopted by John W. Henry (the new Liverpool owner) at Boston, enabling them to win a World Series. The idea of maths as a means of ‘neutral’ assessment is a sensible and logical one, yet none of those within the game at the time seemed willing to embrace it, perhaps because they could foresee the long term consequences it may have upon their careers. What is most effectively realised in the script is the subtle transitions that occur in the characters, with both Beane and Brand gradually acknowledging that the mathematical system must still be supplemented by the human instincts of skilled coaches and talent scouts, in the same way that some of the players gradually grasp how the system is helping them maximise their talents.

Moneyball was a surprisingly funny movie and enabled a non-Baseball loving individual like myself to engage with the drama of the situation immediately. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill were both on top form, as was an almost unrecognisable Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the role of the stubborn and beleaguered head coach. The final sequences involving Brad Pitt and Arliss Howard’s John Henry, as well as Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, add texture to the story in the way that it seeks to formulate a value, or meaning, that is devoid of the market-driven imperatives of money. It is these little moments that make Brad Pitt’s final sequence all alone in his car with his daughters recording, as he drives past the decaying industries of America, all the more poignant.

Film Rating: 8/10

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Film Review:- Tree of Life, The (2011)

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Dir:- Terrence Malick

Starr:- Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Fiona Shaw

 

I’ve been a staunch advocate of Terrence Malick’s particular brand of idiosyncratic cinematic poetry ever since I first saw the spellbinding Badlands on a Moviedrome screening, aged barely twelve. Even the voiceover overkill on Days of Heaven could not dull the exquisite nature of his visuals. After all isn’t that visual language what cinema is really all about? Well, to some degree I would have to answer in the affirmative, but there is however the small matter of narrative, or story, that needs to be taken into consideration. In The Thin Red Line, Malick’s return to cinema after a near two decade hiatus, Malick seemed to meld his preference for expressionistic use of voiceover, to elliptical, almost poetic turns of phrase, which when married to the sumptuous beauty of his visuals, gave the movie an almost hypnotic quality, allowing the viewer to ruminate over the various strands of Malick’s war/pacifism, action/inaction meditation. Having not seen the intervening movie, The New World, I cannot comment on a continuum in Malick’s work, but what is striking, with the arrival of this Palme d’Or winning fifth film, is just how incapable (or perhaps unconcerned) Malick seems to be with telling a story. This has in turn begun to manifest itself in a series of technical tropes that reoccur in evermore clichéd form in this ‘meditation’ on the very meaning (or experience) of life itself.

 

Malick has overladen The Tree of Life with pathos, to the point where the bough is ready to break with the load weight of its ‘meaning’. This kind of ballast was sorely lacking from Mike Mills’ recent fluffy confection Beginners. However that movie had something that Malick’s struggles to locate, character(s) an audience can bond with, relate to and eventually care about. With The Tree of Life Malick seems to have set himself the task of describing the experiences of a life visually, whilst showing how insignificant such a life is when seen from the long perspective of an interrelated universe. It makes for some spectacular visual juxtapositions (the veins and cells of a living body, against the spindly branches and falling leaves of a tree) and some truly awful metaphorical sequences (the dinosaur encounter, the sunflower ending), that in the end offer up some food for thought, but very little in the way of substantial emotional connection. Perhaps the movies biggest failing is that its apparent ‘big-hearted’ objective, does not extend to the chilly and distant family it portrays.

 

The opening of the film comes up on a striking and unsettling reoccurring visual motif that seems like the prismatic forms sunlight might take, gradually morphing into shapes with other import, such as the initial birthing canal outlines and the closing avian ones. What I found so unsettling about these motifs was there location within the fixed parameters of an otherwise blackened frame, thus placing these thin slithers of light, of seeing, in the vast expanses of darkness, or blindness. Throughout the first half hour of the film Malick is consistently dwelling on images within nature and the universe, that induce a vertiginous feeling of ‘smallness’ in the viewer. There is something genuinely fearful about the journey of life as outlined by Malick, with images that seem culled from the Hubble Space Telescope, exploring the moments our solar system, our universe, first came into being.

 

In many ways the family that we are then introduced to – the O’Brien’s – are suffering from their own moment of Hubble Space Telescope reality, or more to the point one of them, Jack, is. Jack is wonderfully portrayed by the newcomer Hunter McCracken (all gawky awkwardness, razor-edged cheekbones and jutting earlobes), but aside from Pitt’s matter-of-fact father figure, his is the only character worth a mention in the movie. The ‘Hubble’ effect then, could be seen as Jack O’Brien’s recovery of memories forgotten, or memories disowned, the moments of his life that have made that life what it is. The older Jack is played by a leaden and lacklustre Sean Penn, who in all fairness has very little to work with, yet still delivers an absurdly feckless, openmouthed performance. It is here, bookended between the inception of ‘life’ and its impending extinction, that Penn’s Jack finds himself lost in these deathly rememberances of things past, surrounded by desert desolation, a weary wilderness, or, more often, the enclosed, and encasing, glass structures that constitute modern workplace conditions in the affluent, white collar world.

 

As much as Malick is a master of the visually profound, on a par with Wong Kar-Wai or Werner Herzog (only without the latters dogged insistence to personal doctrine), I found myself longing for some greater sense of Jack’s life rather than these fractured and fixated memories. Jack’s mother seemed at times almost cipher-like, being the seeming embodiment of the natural in Malick’s questionable nature vs. grace dichotomy. Jessica Chastain, was beguiling in this role, but you are left with little conception of who her character is/was. This is perhaps one of the key details of Malick’s film, that if the locus of the hazy narrative is to be found in Jack’s memories (which are in turn located in a tiny nether realm within the cosmic massiveness of our universe), then Jack has no access to his mother’s tiny nether realm and his experience of her is defined by the kinship he feels to the patriarch he witnesses engaging with the minutiae of practical human existence. Details run away from this memorialisation, but isolated moments of experience, back before the death of a brother and the grief of the family unit, are what constitute the grits and grains, particles and cells of this particular life.

 

Unforgivably Malick’s hymnal tone swells into all out prayer in the closing half an hour of exultant orchestral music and various overtly-religious ecstatic poses. In this conclusion it seems as if Jack finds himself upon a shared beach in which he can commune with the various different memories of persons that have meant something in his life. This is curious, as it doesn’t appear to be a simple detailing of an afterlife, but rather a space in which the living person touches base with the many realisations of others that would otherwise be locked away in separate memories. There is a sense that life is born out of a love, which quickly infuses the living with a fear, a fear of what could be lost and moreover a fear of what may never be. The adolescence of Jack is then seen as a testing of the limits of love, where does an embrace fall into a choke hold, where do games become something more deadly and dangerous, where does fellow-feeling eventually disappear into loneliness. What I found most effective in the film was its depiction of simple physical contact between humans. In a particularly beautiful sequence Brad Pitt’s Mr O’Brien realises that McCracken’s Young Jack is a chip of the old block and offers the kid a reassuring embrace, pressing the young boy’s head between his arm and his side. The look on Jack’s young face at this moment is the look of a person anchored and safe at home. It is all the more profoundly moving as it comes just moments after Pitt’s realisation that he may have sold his sons an ‘uncorrectable’ lie of success, just as he himself was once sold.