Friday 25 November 2011

American madness: "Take Shelter" and "Moneyball" (ST 27/11/11)

Take Shelter (15) 120 mins *****
Moneyball (12A) 133 mins ****

The tall, wiry, reliably compelling actor Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) lands a breakthrough role in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter as Curtis LaForche, an Ohioan construction worker suddenly plagued by apocalyptic visions. A practical man, Curtis’s instinct is not to reach out – his loving wife (Jessica Chastain) remains a helpless onlooker – but to retreat, first into himself, then into an abandoned storm shelter. Crucially, Curtis is no loon: even as he obsessively refashions the shelter, we gather he’s still well-adjusted enough to question why he’s been led to these extremes. Latent schizophrenia? Or is it out of some vague primal duty, as his family’s protector?

Part CGI-enhanced horror pic, part American art movie, the film displays fascinatingly diverse influences. Nichols, a graduate of the Terrence Malick school, gives stupendous sky, but he’s also spotted those niggling quotidian concerns – reddening budget sheets, layoffs – presently driving many on the ground to derangement. There’s a clear metaphorical value in Curtis’s predicament, and the film hardly reassures us in forecasting worse weather to come. Nichols and Shannon burrow further into the darkness, leading us to wonder how we’re ever going to emerge; that Take Shelter eventually finds an exit without shortchanging its scenario or its audience makes it one of the year’s foremost cinematic achievements.

Moneyball’s subject is – no ducking it – baseball, but its real drama lies beyond the outfield, in corridors and backrooms: it may be the most engrossing movie yet made about sports management. In a spot of casting cannily intended to halt those female viewers already fleeing for the hills, Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland As, a team that slashed its budget in 2002, and promptly went on baseball’s longest ever winning streak. The gamechanger? Analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), bringing mathematics to bear on player selection.

Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin provided the smart script, but it’s Capote director Bennett Miller who grants the film its resonant breathing space, allowing himself time to explore Oakland minutiae, and the rhythms of a long, up-down season. He’s aided by one of the best performances of Pitt’s career, the actor demonstrating major-league charisma amid a repertory of tough, funny, often expectorating co-stars. Teamwork is everything here: Moneyball takes a hefty swing at material that might have been arcane or formulaic, and knocks it right out of the park.

Take Shelter opens in selected cinemas from today; Moneyball opens nationwide.

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