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Moneyball hits a home run

MONEYBALL Sports drama. Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright. Directed by Bennett Miller. Cert PG

Because it's America's national game, baseball provides a broad backdrop for film-makers to examine different aspects of American life, and movies as diverse as Pride of the Yankees, Eight Men Out, The Natural and Field of Dreams have drawn on it for inspiration. Moneyball joins that list.

Based on a true story, Moneyball stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, a former pro who's general manager of perennial also-rans the Oakland A's, a squad who routinely have their best players snapped up for big bucks by the financial behemoths of the game.

Beane becomes interested in the work of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Harvard economics graduate and baseball nerd who suggests a radical approach to signing unlikely players based on their statistics. Naturally, this new way doesn't sit well with the old-school staff at Oakland.

But Beane and Brand go ahead, giving the film the feel of a caper movie as they haggle over players as a transfer deadline looms.

Pitt is excellent as Beane, exuding frustration and the alpha-male aura of a former sportsman, while it makes a change to see Hill out of the hysterical mode we're used to from those appalling Judd Apatow films.

You don't need to know anything about baseball to appreciate Moneyball as a sharply written study of the psychological battles which have to be fought to effect change to the established order. A wee diamond of a film. HHHHI

TAKE SHELTER Drama. Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Cert 15A

If Michael Shannon doesn't get a nod for an Oscar following this stunning performance then there is no justice. As Curtis, Shannon gives us a scarily believable portrayal of a man going to pieces. Devoted to his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their young, deaf daughter, Curtis has visions of an impending storm, and disturbing dreams in which he's unable to protect his family.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols leads the viewer a not quite merry psychological dance as we wonder whether Curtis's fears are real or a manifestation of paranoid schizophrenia. As his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, you wonder if we're lurching into The Shining territory before you're led down another rabbit hole in which the storm could be a metaphor for the end of a way of working-class life. It's a fine balancing act and Shannon never loses his grip on the character or the audience. A magnificent movie. HHHHI

DREAM HOUSE Psychological horror. Starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts. Directed by Jim Sheridan. Cert 15A

It's no wonder Jim Sheridan wanted his name taken off this mess of a movie, a disastrously edited piece of psychotrash in which an aspiring novelist (Daniel Craig) and his wife (Rachel Weisz) move into a new house with their two young daughters only to discover that horrific murders had taken place there five years previously -- and the killer has just been released from a psychiatric hospital! HIIII

WELCOME TO THE RILEYS Drama Starring James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, Kristen Stewart. Directed by Jake Scott. Cert 15A

Twilight's Kristen Stewart plays a teenage hooker but once you get past her potty-mouthed pronouncements what we discover here is a rather unlikely but predictable family drama. Good central performances make for an entertaining slice of Indie-lite. HHHII

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN Drama/comedy/romance. Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh. Director: Simon Curtis. Cert 15A

My Week With Marilyn distills the turbulent summer of 1959 into a bittersweet drama, laden with the cream of British acting talent.

HHHII >Jane Cash