Movie Reviews: Three Bio-Pics

NPR's Bob Mondello reviews a true-life triple feature: Machine Gun Preacher, Moneyball and Toast, three unlikely stories based on real people.

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Missionary Sam Childers, baseball manager Billy Beane and food writer, Nigel Slater - they're all guys you could have a cup of coffee with if you were in the right place at the right time. They're also guys who are being impersonated by actors this week in new movies, which gives our film critic, Bob Mondello, a bio-pic triple feature to review.

BOB MONDELLO: One film is affecting, one is effective and one's a little affected. Start with the affecting one, "Machine Gun Preacher," the story of how Sam Childers, a drug dealing biker gang thug got religion and ended up doing charity work in war-torn Sudan. Charity work involving children, once a soldier shows him a stream of what he calls night commuters flowing into towns to sleep on the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MACHINE GUN PREACHER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Soldier) Their parents send them out because it's safer to sleep here than in their own homes.

GERARD BUTLER: (as Sam Childers) Why?

MAN: (as Soldier) Because death comes at night in the villages. These are the lucky ones so far, the ones the rebels haven't found yet.

MONDELLO: Does this sound like a standard heartstring-tugger? Well, it would probably get pretty thick if someone besides Marc Forster were directing. Forster is the guy who made "Monsters Ball," "Stranger Than Fiction" and the most recent James Bond flick. Sentimental isn't really his thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MACHINE GUN PREACHER")

BUTLER: (as Sam Childers) Get your little book there and do whatever it is you got to do to get me that (inaudible).

MAN: (as Unknown Character) Sam, you need to calm down.

BUTLER: (as Sam Childers) Don't tell me to calm down.

MONDELLO: Like its angry, abrasive leading man, "Machine Gun Preacher" is too tough to beg for tears, which may be why they flow so easily in the cineplex.

The folks behind "Moneyball" have no objection to tears if they're of the, oh, my God, we're winning, variety.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

MAN: (as Announcer) What is happening in Oakland?

MAN: (as Announcer) It defies everything we know about baseball.

MONDELLO: In telling the story of the 2002 Oakland A's and Billy Beane's struggle to pull them out of the cellar without a big recruiting budget, the film employs screenwriters who have penned everything from "Schindler's List" to "Social Network." No surprise, then, that its approach is more writerly, spare and efficient.

Take this exchange between manager Brad Pitt and statistics-loving player evaluator Jonah Hill, who comes to his first day on the job with a thick stack of computer printouts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

BRAD PITT: (as Billy Beane) I asked you to do three. How many did you do?

JONAH HILL: (as Peter Brand) Forty-seven.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) Okay.

HILL: (as Peter Brand) Actually, 51. I don't know why I lied just now.

MONDELLO: Do you hear how much character information just got squeezed into 24 words? Tobacco-chewing Pitt, laid back and kind of jokey. Nervous Hill, so eager to please. It's the relationship between these two guys, not what they make happen in the infield, that drives "Moneyball."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

HILL: (as Peter Brand) Hi, Mr. Shot(ph). It's Peter Brand. I apologize for putting you on hold earlier. Billy asked me to call you back. He's on another line.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) Tell him we want $225,000 for Rincon.

HILL: (as Peter Brand) Billy says he needs $225,000 for Ricardo Rincon. Please. Yes, I added the please at the end.

MONDELLO: You needn't know much about America's pastime to understand the inside baseball chatter. "Moneyball" isn't as emotionally affecting as some biographical tales, possibly because its Billy Beane is kind of distant, hard to get to know. But in terms of laying out what the man did and what he meant to the game, it's both entertaining and effective.

Which brings us to "Toast," a film a' clef about a budding chef, Nigel Slater, who grew up in a home where cooking wasn't mom's strong suit. Still, a foodie finds comfort where he can.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOAST")

OSCAR KENNEDY: (as Young Nigel Slater) No matter how bad things get, it's impossible not to love someone who made you toast. Once you've bitten through that crusty surface to the softer underneath and tasted the warm, salty butter, you're lost forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCH)

MONDELLO: Hear that crunch? The food in "Toast" is downright tactile, from the gloppy canned stuff that mom cooks to the mouthwatering pies prepared by a cleaning lady who more or less moves in after mom dies, much to Nigel's annoyance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOAST")

KENNEDY: (as Young Nigel Slater) You're wasting your time. I mean, you're far too common and, anyway, you're married.

HELENA BONHAM CARTER: (as Mrs. Potter) All I'm doing is darning his socks.

MONDELLO: The cleaning lady, Mrs. Potter, is played with delicious crassness by Helena Bonham Carter and, as Nigel grows older, life in the house they share becomes a bake-off for dad's affections.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOAST")

BONHAM CARTER: (as Mrs. Potter) That's the best lemon meringue you've ever tasted. That's the best lemon meringue anybody's ever tasted. If I was you, son, I'd give up. You'll never even be in the vicinity."

FREDDIE HIGHMORE: (as Nigel Slater) What did you put in there to make it so fluffy?

MONDELLO: "Toast" is a fictionalized version of what was apparently a score-settling memoir by Slater and judging from the way it dishes about his dad and Mrs. Potter, he's still feeling bruised.

All three films got input from the men they're based on, but "Toast" is the only one that leaves a bitter aftertaste, as if the filmmakers forgot that even the most savory dish on table or on screen can use a little sugar.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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