‘Moneyball’ Wins, ‘Dee,’ ‘Dolphin’ Score, but ‘Elite,’ ‘Abduction’ Foul Out

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Contributing Writer

“Moneyball”

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill play Billy Beane and Peter Brand, a baseball coach and a statistician who work together in “Moneyball”.

A movie about baseball that treats the game not as wish-fulfillment fantasy but as nuts-and-bolts business, “Moneyball” (wide release) is Bennett Miller’s skillful if overlong adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the 2002 Oakland As and their unconventional general manager Billy Beane.

It benefits from a smart, sharp script by Steve Zaillian and Adam Sorkin that makes the potentially dreary subject almost as fascinating as Sorkin made the world of computer programming in “The Social Network.”

It also boasts a vivid lead performance by Brad Pitt, who fully inhabits the role of the erstwhile player-turned-executive who, faced with the task of rebuilding his cash-strapped franchise, elects to use a mathematical scheme devised by a nerdy statistician (Jonah Hill, subduing his usual robust persona) to choose players rather than depending on old-style scouting techniques.

Smoothly blending drama and archival footage (as well as poignancy and humor) to cover the arcs of both the team’s roller-coaster season and Beane’s personal journey, “Moneyball” may not hit a home run but is at least a solid triple.
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“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”

Andy Lau is Detective Dee in “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”.

A goofy blend of mystery and martial arts, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” (Inwood) is both spectacular and spectacularly silly.  But if not exactly inspired lunacy, it’s an awful lot of fun.

The opulent, complicated period piece is set in the seventh century around the coronation of China’s first female emperor.  Unfortunately the ceremony is interrupted by the murder of high officials who begin spontaneously combusting.

Detective Dee (Andy Lau) is put on the case and encounters lethal insects, shape-shifters and an assassination plot on the way to uncovering the culprit.

Tsui Hark’s film is utterly over-the-top in both visual and narrative terms.  But its eye-popping mayhem is very enjoyable, a feast for the eye if not the mind.
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“Dolphin Tale”

Nathan Gamble plays a young boy who befriends an injured dolphin in need of a prosthetic tail in “Dolphin Tale.”

If you’re in the mood for a modern version of a comforting live-action 1950s Disney movie, “Dolphin Tale” (wide release) will fill the bill.

Based loosely on the real-life story of a dolphin that lost its tail and was fitted with a prosthetic one that allowed it to survive, the script focuses on a lonely young boy who bonds with the animal and is himself transformed by the experience.  It also adds an Afghan War veteran, formerly a champion swimmer, with an amputated leg; a bromide-spouting doctor (a perfect role for Morgan Freeman); a financial crisis for the animal hospital where the dolphin is nursed; and even a hurricane.

If rather overstuffed with plot, “Dolphin Tale” nonetheless proves a likable, well acted and predictably uplifting family film marred only by the unnecessary 3-D format.
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“Killer Elite”

Jason Statham and Clive Owen face off in “Killer Elite” (wide release), a dumb but action-packed flick about a retired agent who’s forced to terminate some ex-special forces operatives in order to prevent his old partner’s being killed.

The book on which the movie’s based claims to be based on a real incident, but the tale isn’t at all credible. And in any event it serves as nothing more than a framework for an avalanche of violent set-pieces – long fights, longer chases on foot and by car, explosions, grisly murders, bullet-riddled escapes and double-and triple-crosses.

Statham strides through the movie stone-faced, as usual, and Owen, a much better actor, merely scowls and growls threateningly.  Slumming along for the ride is Robert De Niro as the hero’s grizzled ex-partner.

Despite the title, there’s nothing remotely classy about this noisy but rather ugly “Elite.”
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“Abduction”

Lily Collins and Taylor Lautner star in the action movie “Abduction.”

Still sillier is “Abduction” (wide release), an action movie for adolescents (especially girls) starring Taylor Lautner, the highly-muscled werewolf of the “Twilight” series.

He plays a high school student who discovers his picture on a missing-children website and is soon fleeing an army of dastardly villains as well as CIA agents after his “parents” have been killed.  Naturally he has a pretty neighborhood girl in tow who helps him not only survive but uncover the truth about his past.

Lautner seems up to the physical demands of the part, but not even Olivier could have made the ludicrous script and clunky dialogue anything other than absurd.  And he seems incapable of the tongue-in-cheek approach that the old pros in the cast, like Alfred Molina and Sigourney Weaver, adopt to save themselves from ridicule.

As for the action scenes – mostly chases (the last in the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium) and fights (with martial-arts moves) – they’re too clumsily staged and edited to be very exciting.

But what will be most thrilling for the target audience, anyway, are the innumerable scenes in which Lautner takes off whatever shirt he’s wearing at the moment and exhibits his bronzed torso.  In fact, they seem to be the raison d’etre for this unintentionally laughable exercise in kiddie noir.

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