Movie Project #24: Mystic River [2003]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Mystic River [2003]

Mystic River [2003] 
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Country: USA
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery
Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne
Running Time: 138 minutes

In Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated drama, Mystic River, the gut-wrenching feeling of guilt hangs over the head of every major character, all because of one fateful day in Boston in the summer of 1975.

Three boys, no more than ten years old each, are playing street hockey when one of them notices a fresh batch of cement on the sidewalk. Naturally, they grab a stick and take turns writing their names in it. A man driving by notices this, stops his car and scolds the three boys. He flashes a badge and demands to give one of them a ride home to tell his mother what he was doing. Unfortunately, this man is no cop, and he abducts the poor boy as his friends watch him ride away. It isn’t until days later that the boy escapes his captors, his life forever scarred.

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Moneyball [Michael Lewis, 2003]

Moneyball [Michael Lewis, 2003]

Moneyball
Author: Michael Lewis
Original Release: 2003

Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane, back in the early 2000’s when they were winning games left and right despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league. While there have been a number of small market teams in recent years to have found success (the Twins and Rays, to name a couple), the story of the A’s is novel because of Beane’s approach to building a team. Beane and his trusting group of assistants threw traditional viewpoints out the window and focused on cold, hard statistics to lead the way. In lieu of paying much attention to standard stats such as RBIs, steals and batting average, the A’s front office focused on OBP (on base percentage) and slugging percentage. Beane, his top assistant Paul DePodesta and others were avid fans of Bill James and his followers of Sabermetrics. These guys wanted players who would take pitches and get on base, not guys who would swing for the fences all of the time or took “unnecessary risks” by attempting to steal a base. This strategy produced outstanding results. In 2001 and 2002, the A’s won 102 and 103 games respectively, and they made the playoffs every year from 2000-03. With their $41 million payroll, they were putting up comparable results to the Yankees, who were spending in excess of $125 million.

The fact that Oakland was able to compete at all with that budget is just outstanding, and reading about the methodology and the management’s thought processes behind their moves is fascinating. Michael Lewis really excels with Moneyball, as he makes baseball statistics seem as exciting as an action thriller. There are so many great stories intertwined in the book that provide even more insight into the team. We learn about Billy Beane’s failures as a baseball player and what ultimately made him pursue a job in the front office. We read about Scott Hatteberg, a former Red Sox catcher who was unable to play behind the plate anymore due to injuries and therefore lost any appeal to 95% of baseball’s teams. Beane coveted Hatteberg since he was a guy who got on base a lot, signed him to a paltry deal and then stuck him at first base where he had no experience playing (every ground ball hit his way gave him a “mini panic attack”). Hatteberg proceeded to put up some impressively consistent numbers and grew confidence on the field. There’s also a chapter about Chad Bradford, an unorthodox relief pitcher stuck in AAA hell with the White Sox, who Beane savvily acquires for practically a bag of peanuts, and then goes on to become one of the key components in the team’s bullpen. Perhaps most intriguing are the moments where we get to listen in on Beane trying to pull a fast one on other general managers, essentially working his ass off to find trades that benefit him yet make the other GMs feel like they got a “fucking A” trade. Never mind the fact that certain teams refuse to even talk to Beane since they got swindled one too many times before. The man has a gift, and he sure knows it.

There’s also a large portion of the book dedicated to the now-infamous 2002 MLB draft in which the A’s selected a bunch of guys in the first round who weren’t even on other teams’ draft boards. Although they did get some players who have had lasting success in the big leagues (albeit to varying degrees) such as Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen and Joe Blanton, they also had their fair share of busts like the “fat-bodied catcher” Jeremy Brown, Ben Fritz and Stephen Obenchain. Still, it was very interesting to look into Beane’s mind and experience his wide range of emotions when he realized he was going to be able to get all of the players he wanted.

Since Moneyball was published in 2003, other teams have adapted to Oakland’s strategy, and many have incorporated the theories into their own systems. There are still critics of Beane’s ideas, especially since the A’s never found much success in the postseason despite winning so many games in the regular season. The aforementioned playoff run from 2000-03 had the same result every year — a heartbreaking game five loss in the first round. Still, you can’t deny that the team really had something special going on during that time. It’s always fun to see David stand up to Goliath, isn’t it? Moneyball is an excellent read from beginning to end, providing insight into a creative front office while delivering entertaining side stories along the way. This is one of the best baseball books available, and I highly recommend it if you are into the sport at all.

9/10

– Also, it should be noted that Moneyball is currently being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and it is coming out in September of this year. Could it turn out as well as The Social Network? One can only hope…

Owning Mahowny [2003]

Owning Mahowny [2003]

Owning Mahowny [2003]
Director: Richard Kwietniowski
Genre: Crime/Drama
Language: English
Country: USA

Owning Mahowny is the tale of Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Canadian bank manager who has a serious gambling problem. To support his bad habit, Mahowny begins embezzling money from his bank. At first, he embezzles “just” $10,300 to pay off his current debt to his bookie (Maury Chaykin). However, this begins to spiral out of control and soon he finds himself in well over his head, to the tune of millions of dollars. Eventually he is caught, obviously, but it is fascinating to watch his dissent toward absolute rock bottom. This is all based on the true story of Brian Molony, who embezzled more than $10 million from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in the 1980’s.

This movie’s greatest strength is its lead, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who does an unbelievable job portraying a gambling addict. He shows no emotion at all, and outside of his normal 9-to-5 banking job the only thing he cares about is gambling. Hoffman shows that Mahowny lives in his world, and that world only. A strong supporting cast is present as well, mainly in the form of John Hurt as the Atlantic City casino boss who does everything he can to make Mahowny comfortable while he loses his millions, and Minnie Driver as Dan’s girlfriend who can’t give him up no matter how caught up in gambling he is.

As a character study, Owning Mahowny is fascinating, yet incredibly depressing. There is one scene in particular that is hard to watch: Mahowny is finally beating the Atlantic City casino and is up by millions of dollars. Rather than stopping while he is ahead for once, and despite the beggings of his personal assisant (provided by the casino), Dan proceeds to blow everything he has earned, right down to the last dollar. It is sad to watch him continue to partake in his vices, especially when the only way for him to get out of it is by getting caught. One of the casino workers made a comment similar to “You know why he’s happy when wins? He has more money to lose.” So sad, yet so true.

Owning Mahowny is a slow, brooding film that has nothing resembling happiness in it. As a dark portrait of gambling addiction, this movie succeeds. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

7/10

The Room [2003]

The Room [2003]

The Room [2003]
Director: Tommy Wiseau
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Language: English
Country: USA

“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”

Words cannot do The Room justice, but I will do my best to describe what it is. A cult classic akin to terrible movies like Troll 2 and Samurai Cop, The Room has been described by many as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” That is perhaps an apt comparison since writer/director/lead actor Tommy Wiseau claims to have drawn inspiration from Orson Welles (and Tennessee Williams, among others). There are no noticeable traits that Wiseau borrowed from any of his alleged idols — this movie is something that can only come from the depths of Wiseau’s bizzare little mind.

Somehow filmed on a $6 million budget, The Room is a terribly acted, poorly shot, and just plain bad “black comedy.” The actors have little actual talent, and their delivery is usually way off. The movie uses obvious stock footage of San Francisco in between actual scenes. There are countless plot holes, and normally groundbreaking revelations are casually dismissed. There is one scene involving a mother telling her daughter that she has breast cancer, but this is never brought up again. The Room is all over the place, but that’s what makes it so great.

So what the hell is the movie even about? Well, it is a love triangle of sorts. Tommy Wiseau plays Johnny, a banker who is all set to marry his “future wife” Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Unfortunately for him, Lisa has fallen out of love without him knowing, and she is instead into his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero), who eventually succumbs to her wishes. This is the basic plotline for the movie, but it is rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The Room is something that needs to be experienced in a theater, and I had the privilege of seeing it for the first time at a midnight showing in Chicago. This is an interactive experience similar to the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s late night screenings. Here are some things I witnessed during the movie:

– Plastic spoons are thrown at the screen every time one is shown in the movie. For some reason, there are framed pictures of silverware in the background of many scenes. People would yell “SPOON!” then throw their plastic utensils. Sitting in the front row, I got pelted with spoons A LOT.
– There are a number of scenes in the movie where characters randomly throw footballs to each other, despite standing just a few feet apart. There were a few groups of people at the theater who brought their own footballs to toss around as well.
– Every time the character Denny appeared on screen, everyone would yell “HI DENNY!” and then “BYE DENNY!” when he left
– Every time the Golden Gate Bridge was randomly shown via stock footage, people would chant “GO! GO! GO!” until that shot ended
– My personal favorite, the chanting of “BEST FRIENDS!” every time Johnny and Mark were hanging out together.

As stated before, words cannot do The Room justice. This is a movie made to be seen with a group of friends, preferably with plenty of booze. The Room is unlike anything I have ever seen, and seeing it in a theater was unbelievably entertaining. I cannot possibly rate this movie on a proper scale of 1-10, but for entertainment value it is as good as it gets.

Check out these great scenes from THE ROOM: