I know nothing at all about baseball and even less about statistics but I was enthralled by Bennett Miller’s stirring adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 non-fiction book Moneyball; a film about how America’s national sport was transformed not by a talented new player or an inspirational manager but by a guy with a spreadsheet.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, a retired baseball player who, after failing to fulfil his promise on the field, became the general manager of the impoverished Oakland Athletics, who are struggling in the Major League. Beane’s already desperate situation becomes even more hopeless when, just before the start of the 2002 season, the owner of the club sells three of his star players. After a fruitless search for replacements, hampered by a dwindling salary budget, Beane meets and is impressed by a pudgy Yale economics graduate named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who proposes a new formula for sporting success.

With his thick glasses and sheen of sweat, even when sat at his computer, Brand is nobody’s idea of an athlete but he has developed a statistical analysis that values players based on their core competencies. In short, Brand argues, an ordinary player who can be relied on to do what is required a certain percentage of the time is worth more than a naturally skilful player who will do something extraordinary once in a while. Brand hasn’t reached his conclusions by watching a lot of baseball; he absorbs reams of statistics that tell him what combination of players will produce the most runs and stop the other team from scoring. The Corinthian spirit of sport doesn’t enter into the equation; success is all about the data. It sounds simple, but Brand’s theories are revolutionary in a sport that still clings to heart-warming notions of soul and tradition. Burrowing into the depths of his computer, Brand emerges with a ragtag squad of seemingly washed-up players that can fit in the new system and, more importantly, the team can afford to buy. Beane has tried it the old way and it hasn’t worked. He’s ready to try anything.

Despite vehement objections from his backroom staff, Beane hires the players the computer has selected, including a pitcher with an unorthodox throw Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) and Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), whose injuries have left him with no feeling in his left arm. Beane’s taciturn team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is baffled into near silence but sure enough, the team starts to win. And then they can’t stop winning.

Director Bennett Miller and his screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian cut through the complications of the sport itself, and Brand’s mathematical formulas, to tell a sharp, simple story about a mismatched pair of underdogs, the gung-ho jock and the deadpan boffin, who beat an unfair game. Beane is the former baseball prodigy still frustrated by never quite making it as a star while Brand is the smartest kid in the room, whose genius with numbers goes unappreciated. The chemistry between this decidedly odd couple carries the film as they struggle to form a working language somewhere between macho maxims and mind-bending mathematics. It’s a fine comedy double act, perfectly pitched. As the season is played out in a combination of archive television footage and convincing reconstructions, we learn more about Pitt’s Beane. A maverick loner, divorced from his wife (Robin Wright) and seemingly friendless, Miller’s attempts to give Beane a fully rounded character fall prey to sentimentalism at times but even a couple of dewy-eyed songs from his guitar-strumming daughter (Kerris Dorsey), can’t dent Pitt’s fine performance.

Like last year’s The Social Network, also written by Sorkin, Moneyball turns an unlikely subject into something fascinating; an All-American fable about the value of innovation, trusting in instinct and beating the odds.

Wuthering Heights

An audacious but ultimately inert attempt to revitalise Emily Brontë’s much-adapted 1847 Gothic novel Wuthering Heights for a new generation, Andrea Arnold’s gritty film shares strands of DNA with Cary Fukunaga’s recent Jane Eyre in framing a historical fiction in an ultra-realistic physical and emotional landscape.

Forget notions of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon striding across a sound-stage moor. This is not your grandfather’s Wuthering Heights. Opening with images of a rain-soaked, wind-swept Yorkshire, Arnold takes us inside the drab eponymous farmhouse where young teenager Cathy Earnshaw (played first by newcomer Shannon Beer and later by Kaya Scodelario) lives with her stern father (Paul Hinton) and cruel older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw). One night, the father returns from town with a stranger, a young black escaped slave who he takes into the house as an act of charity. Although her first reaction is to spit on the bedraggled young man, Cathy and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave, and later, newcomer James Howson) soon become friends. 

She teaches him to speak English, sitting patiently with him as he struggles to speak or wandering the muddy hills, watching the birds. Heathcliff is treated as a member of the family, but when Mr Earnshaw dies and Hindley inherits the farm, the youngster is reduced to the level of a servant and sent to live in an outhouse, where a hatred for the people who once praised themselves for their good work festers. Heathcliff continues to feel close to Cathy, a free-spirited, bright girl, even when she is encouraged to spend time with their wealthy neighbours the Lintons, forming a bond with their eldest son that might result in a beneficial marriage. Years later, the connection that formed between the young teenagers will return to damage both of them in tragic ways.

Working from a script by Olivia Hetreed (who previously adapted Tracy Chevalier's Girl With A Pearl Earring), Arnold deserves respect for radically reinterpreting a classic novel, coming at the familiar story from a new perspective of gender, race and class division. Taking her lead from Brontë’s description of Heathcliff as “a dark-skinned gypsy”, the director has, for the first time, cast a black actor as the anti-hero, a novel touch that quickly becomes irrelevant; Glave and later, Howson, give performances that are far deeper than the colour of their skin. But the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast who, typically for Arnold, are made up of a combination of professional and non-professional actors. 

The film’s greatest weakness lies in the fact that the story does not survive the mid-way switch between younger and older characters, the later players being unable to match the emotional honesty of the first half, despite the story’s intricate complications being laid out in an unerringly straight line. There is little dialogue, with the characters speaking in an odd blend of archaic and modern language, a distracting touch that sits uneasily with the director’s carefully crafted naturalism and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s tactile and immediate images. Nimbly photographed in a free-form hand-held style, interspersed with tightly framed images of decomposing nature, dead animals and rotting fruit, Wuthering Heights is a chilly, curiously lifeless film; over-considered, over-extended and ultimately, underwhelming.


Writer and director Tom Hall’s droll and daring Irish sex comedy Sensation is the coming of age story of a timid Limerick farmer who meets a New Zealand call girl, falls in love for the first time and learns something about how the world works.

Opening with a scene where lonely, mid-twenties Donal (Domhnall Gleeson) masturbates in a field while his flock of sheep look on, bemused, Hall sets a confidently complicated tone pitched somewhere between comedy and tragedy. Returning to the farmhouse, Donal finds his widowed father dead on the stair-lift and, having buried the old man with due reverence, immediately sets about spending his inheritance on sex. Using the internet handle "sweetdick", virginal Donal books an appointment with Courtney (Luanne Gordon), a call girl in the city, who arrives on a house-call to the farm and stays the night. Smitten and sated, Donal makes breakfast the next morning as Courtney explains that she is in fact Kim, a wandering Kiwi who fell into sex work during her time in London and now works independently from an apartment in Limerick city.

Soon, Donal and Kim's relationship has moved from strictly service-client into something more enduring, and endearing. Too long living under the strict gaze of his father, whose notions of sexual relationships are medieval at best, Donal is ready to experience something of life. Flush with cash, he sees the potential when Kim explains her long-held ambition to open her own escort service. The two join forces. He sells his flock of sheep and makes plans with the local property developer Liam (Owen Roe) to unload the land while Kim goes about recruiting some young women. With Kim providing the know-how and Donal putting up the money, they rent an apartment, launch a website and wait for the customers to arrive. Donal’s only friend, the otherwise idle Karl (newcomer Patrick Ryan) volunteers to work the door, providing both the apartment and Donal with the illusion of security.
Operating as discreetly as is possible in a small community, they start receiving clients and making money but emotions soon get in the way. Having gained some gumption by his exposure to the worldly Kim, Donal is transformed into a better groomed, sharper dressed and more confident young man, no longer tongue-tied around pretty shop-assistant Melanie (Kelly Campbell) and able to stand up to Roe’s sleazy huckster as he tries to hustle him into a bad deal for the farm. But Donal’s late-arriving loss of innocence doesn’t include any instruction on how to deal with relationships and as quickly as they came together, Donal and Kim find themselves drifting apart.

“This isn’t Pretty Woman”, Kim says in a heated moment, and she’s right. Sensation isn’t a glamorised story of outlaw entrepreneurship or a how-to-guide for budding sex-workers, but rather a faintly desperate story of rural isolation and social unease, where the overriding emotion is repression and shame. What prevents the straightforward story from slipping into simplicity interesting are the superb performances from the entire cast, with Gleeson proving he can carry a movie on his own and Gordon providing a convincing mix of brittleness and sensitivity. Credibly played and intelligently scripted, Sensation is a curious film (not least because Irish cinema rarely addresses sex as a theme), but one that will reward a enquiring audience.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of The Unicorn

The life’s work of Belgian illustrator Georges Remi (whose nom de plume was Hergé), the Tintin comic series – originally published in French between 1929 and 1976 – has evolved in the intervening decades into a multi-billion euro business that includes dozens of international translations and more than 200 million sales, animated television series and films, two live action movies and even a dedicated museum in a Brussels suburb. A mysteriously youthful journalist with an even more inexplicable tuft of ginger hair, together with his devoted dog Snowy, Tintin resolutely follows his nose for a story as it takes him around the world, solving mysteries, exposing villains and engaging in swashbuckling adventures.

Now, thirty years after he first secured the film rights, Steven Spielberg has joined forces with fellow producer and director Peter Jackson to add a new chapter to Tintin’s tales, grafting state of the art 3D performance-capture technologies onto a characteristically fast-paced, globe-trotting treasure hunt, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of The Unicorn. After a sweetly animated opening credits sequence, which outlines the story to follow in abstract vignettes, we first meet baby-faced Tintin (Jamie Bell) as he is getting his caricature painted in a Brussels street market. As he pockets the artist’s familiar line-drawing, Tintin’s attention is drawn to a complex model of a 17th century sailing ship called The Unicorn. Having bought the model for a couple of pounds, Tintin is buttonholed by the sinister Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who offers to buy the ship from him, at any price. Despite being warned of dire consequences if the model is not restored to the original owners, Tintin declines to sell it on and is quickly drawn into an intrigue involving a vast treasure lost at sea centuries before, when a certain Captain Haddock’s ship was sacked by the dread pirate Red Rackham (also played by Craig).

With the only clue to the origins of the treasure stolen by a pick-pocket, who is in turn pursued by bumbling detectives Thompson & Thompson (Simon Pegg & Nick Frost), Tintin is kidnapped by Sakharine’s goons and thrown in the hold of a steam ship, hijacked from the grizzled Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the only surviving descendant of the doubloon-losing original. Teaming up with the whiskey-soaked skipper, Tintin undertakes a daring mission to solve the mystery, taking in shipwrecks, plane-crashes, swashbuckling duels and dangerous feats of derring-do.

Spielberg’s first animated feature film is, essentially, a throwback to his original Indiana Jones trilogy, a slapdash, rip-roaring adventure that balances the stirring romance of old-fashioned serial adventures with the limitless toy-box of slick modern computer-generated imagery. In a succession of dazzling set-pieces, the director takes full advantage of the total freedom offered by the computerised medium but the script from British talents Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, values complicated action and a breakneck pace above the solid basics of character, wit and progress. The big set-pieces are exquisitely handled but the human details are found wanting. Tintin, in short, remains a rather dull fellow (even for a Belgian), dependant on the supporting cast of colourful caricatures and the curiously weightless stunt sequences to give him life.

Even with his bank of computers and an army of highly-skilled technicians (the end credits run a full eight minutes) Spielberg doesn’t quite match what Hergé managed with pen and ink. The first in a proposed trilogy, a cliff hanger ending sets up the next installment, to be directed by Jackson.