An All-Rounder

Craig Gillespie’s sports flick is the pinnacle of “not bad”

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

million

movie-millionMillion Dollar Arm
Galaxy Cinemas (Opens Friday)
3 out of 5

If there’s one film subgenre that Americans absolutely dominate, it’s the sports drama. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; underdogs facing insurmountable odds, and pulling victory from the jaws of defeat just as the clock runs out, have been an obsession of U. S.movie-makers ever since Knute Rockne, All American in 1940.

Million Dollar Arm is closer to Jerry Maguire than Ronald Reagan’s so-called classic, but the gist remains the same: a narrative arc defined by personal growth, featuring characters with few distinctive features. This is a fairly simple film that takes very few risks, but it’s impeccably made.

Based on real events, the film follows desperate sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm). After botching the signing of a baseball superstar, Bernstein has to look for untapped talent outside the U.S. His search takes him to India, because he assumes that good cricket bowlers must make for excellent baseball pitchers.

In order to find a couple of talented prospects, Bernstein comes up with a reality TV show that rewards the two fastest throwers with $100,000 and 10 months of training in America, with a major league tryout as the ultimate goal. But Bernstein fails to consider the human factor, and the prospects, at least initially, fail to adapt to their new circumstances.

Million Dollar Arm surrounds Hamm with an overqualified cast playing one-dimensional characters: Oscar-winner Alan Arkin is a grizzled scout, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi is Bernstein’s business associate, and Indian up-and-comers Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) are the would-be baseball prodigies.

The only real chance the movie takes is making Hamm’s character borderline-unlikeable for a good chunk of the film. Blinded by ambition, Bernstein doesn’t notice that his potential meal tickets are severely homesick — and it’s affecting their performance on the field.

One concern is just how little range Hamm shows here: his J.B. Bernstein is basically Don Draper minus the massive chip on his shoulder, turning on the charm at will but always with an undercurrent of ego. But it’s not all Hamm’s fault: director Craig Gillespie (Fright Night) fails to take advantage of Hamm’s comedic chops (see Bridesmaids)— and doesn’t bring much to the table at all other than earnestness, really. Luckily, the story is compelling enough to unfold on its own.

In spite of its minor shortcomings, Million Dollar Arm succeeds where dozens of Western-made films about India have failed miserably (most recently The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). It depicts the country in a matter-of-fact way and successfully avoids condescension, and the Indian characters have voices that are as strong as the lead’s.

It’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, but if sports movies are your thing you could do far worse.


 Trading Babies

movie-fatherLike Father, Like Son
May 15-18, RPL Film Theatre
4 out of 5

Considering all the movies about babies switched at birth (there’s one a day on Lifetime), it’s surprising how alike they are. Normally, one of the families in the conflict gets the short shift as the infant they receive has a serious condition or dies shortly after the exchange.

But, what happens in cases of even swap if one of the kids is not too bright, or unpleasant?

The efficient Japanese drama Like Father, Like Son deals with the matter seriously, by allowing the inherent emotionality of the situation to flow freely, without forcing it (as in the made-for-TV weepers). The well-off Nonomiya family is informed their kid, Keita is not actually their biological son. An impoverished but loving clan has their boy, the brighter Ryusei.

Here is where things get interesting. Papa Nonomiya is not crazy about Keita’s intellectual development, and has already pegged him as an underachiever (the boy is six). Because of all the hours he puts in at work, he hasn’t bonded as much with the kid anyway and sees Ryusei as an opportunity for a fresh start. Doctors recommend to trade back as soon as possible, before deeper affections develop. Not shockingly, the exchange is far from clean-cut and it’s likely to traumatize the children for life.

While never openly stated, the patriarchal dominance in modern Japan is a decisive factor in this drama. While the wives’ opinions are stated and the kids are obviously hurting from the swap, one man’s stubbornness is enough to steal the deal.

An impeccable conclusion delivers an affecting payoff while opening new opportunities for conflict. There is a fade to black, but no end in sight.


Depression Express

movie-railwayThe Railway Man
Coming Soon
3.5 out of 5

Very few WWII veterans were ever treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, many of them suffered from emotional breakdown, turned to self-medication and withdrew from society.

The Railway Man — based on an award-winning memoir by Eric Lomax, who was a British Army officer during WWII — was savaged by critics when it was released in Britain. Many thought the adaptation was excessively tidy, and not at all an accurate portrait of mental unbalance or the messiness of reconciliation.

The criticism is mostly unjustified. The Railway Man is a powerful (if low-key) film with go-for-broke performances by a rugged Colin Firth as the older Lomax and Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) as his younger self during WWII. It’s a very rough ride: little blood is spilled on screen, but the suggested violence is harrowing.

And yet, The Railway Man starts as a very charming romantic drama. Eric Lomax (Firth), an introverted veteran, falls for a beautiful tourist (Nicole Kidman) named Patti, using his encyclopedic knowledge of train schedules to find her — and they fall in love. But their happiness comes to an abrupt end when Lomax’s panic attacks become crippling. Patti begs her husband’s best friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), to save him.

Flashback to Singapore, 1942: on instruction from British high command, Lomax and his company surrender to the Japanese, and are forced to work on the Thailand-Burma railway. The task is inhuman, and the only relief comes from a radio Lomax smuggles in — but he gets caught, and tortured.

Decades later, Lomax has an opportunity to get even with one of his tormentors. His choice will directly affect his sanity.

The resolution is too clean and simplistic (especially compared to the rest of the film), and it undermines the power of the message: forgiveness is harder than revenge, but more worthwhile. There are a few other holes as well.

Still, The Railway Man’s achievements surpass its shortcomings. Just be sure you go to see a comedy next: you’ll need it. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

2014-05-15