The Movie Report
May 2014
Volume 2

#768 - 770
May 16, 2014 - May 30, 2014

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

#770 May 30, 2014 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Maleficent poster Maleficent (PG) ** 1/2
The evil fairy Maleficent often ranks near the top of many a poll of favorite Disney animated villains, and early indications of the live action starring vehicle for Sleeping Beauty's nefarious nemesis held much potential. The casting of Angelina Jolie in the title role proved especially inspired upon viewing the first still images of her in full character makeup and costume, for they revealed her to be the very flesh-and-blood spitting image of her ink-and-paint predecessor. But most promising of all was the film's most recent trailer, with a lot of lushly gothic imagery set to Lana Del Rey's darkly spare and altogether haunting cover of the 1959 animated feature's signature tune "Once Upon a Dream"--the track suggesting a film that was recognizable but with its own uniquely captivating undercurrent of menace.

How ironic--and disappointing--it is, then, that a film focused on one of the big bads for the ages is, aside from that tune that plays over the end credits, just about completely drained of menace or palpable danger. This isn't Jolie's fault, for her embodiment of all of Maleficent's malevolent magificence goes beyond the surface. She--and the audience--relishes every moment she gets to dive completely into gleefully cackling villainy, and the film feels like it truly begins some twenty minutes in, when director Robert Stromberg does a letter-perfect recreation of the scene where she places the spinning wheel/finger prick/sleeping curse on an infant Princess Aurora. But that proves to be one of the shockingly few moments Jolie gets to cut completely loose, for contrary to what that trailer and the very title implies, Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton ultimately serve up a considerably softened and thus considerably less fun and satisfying take on the character. It's one thing to go into the backstory of how and why a typically bright and cheery fairy can be horribly hardened by heartbreak at the hands of the duplicitous love of her life (the king/Aurora's father, played as an adult by Sharlto Copley), but it's quite another to completely softpedal any sinister sentiment, which is more or less what occurs as Maleficent warms up to Aurora as she grows up into a perky and pure hearted teen (Elle Fanning, sleepwalking when not sleeping) who believes the mysterious, ever-lurking figure to be her fairy godmother. This wrinkle could have been mined for some involving dramatic conflict that would have given the story some needed heft, but Maleficent's change of heart plays incredibly abruptly, all possibility of some compelling shades of grey thus rendered completely black and white--mostly white, as in vanilla.

Not surprisingly, given first-time director Stromberg's background in visual effects, the only other aspect of the film that comes close to being as vivid as Jolie is the elaborately detailed design of the world, from the costumes to production design, to the elaborate visual effects that bring all the flora and fauna to life. From Maleficent's original winged form to the greenery of the forests to giant woodland creatures to Aurora's trio of fairy caretakers (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, all hamming it up to be noticed) to one giant fire-breathing dragon, clearly no expense was spared to make the film outwardly look every inch the fairy tale. But looking inward, one crucial aspect is missing, what with its Wicked-esque revisionist angle of a "misunderstood" antiheroine, the "this is the true story of the familiar tale" framing narration borrowed from Ever After, and a climactic plot point lifted wholesale from the Mouse's own Frozen: true imagination.

A Million Ways to Die in the West poster A Million Ways to Die in the West (R) ***
A Million Ways to Die in the West proves, if nothing else, that Seth MacFarlane is nothing if not a smart guy. After all, he has parlayed the box office dollars he earned for Universal with his blockbuster boorish bear comedy Ted as well as the healthy ratings for his stint hosting the Academy Awards a couple of years back into a studio greenlight for (1) a comedy in the not exactly commercial-friendly genre of western, with (2) a completely untested actor--himself--in the lead. As far as the second point goes, the jury is still out on MacFarlane's on-camera future as a lead, for nothing about his individual performance screams out as anything more than functional. But his on-camera performance clicks as part of what his off-camera director does for the greater picture, his outclassed-by-the-presence-of-seasoned-perfomers quality in its odd way working for his character, a cowardly sheep farmer in the Old West whose mindset and sensibility are distinctly, anachronistically, inexplicably modern. More importantly, however, MacFarlane strikes a surprising screen chemistry with leading lady Charlize Theron, playing the wife of a legendary gunslinger (a scarcely seen Liam Neeson), who is lying low incognito in MacFarlane's humble town until her husband returns. Theron, who has spent well over a decade toiling in rather dour roles and/or projects, makes a most welcome return to lighter fare here, displaying an effortless, effervescent comic charm she hasn't allowed herself to show off since early career roles such as that in 1997's largely (and understandably) forgotten Trial and Error. Her endearing rapport with MacFarlane the actor helps smooth over whenever MacFarlane the co-writer (with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild)/director goes a little overboard with his penchant for toilet humor, and thankfully his gags and dialogue overall hit more than miss over the admittedly overlong (just shy of two hours) run time. Certainly helping the laugh quotient are MacFarlane's co-stars; in addition to Theron and Neeson, Amanda Seyfried (as MacFarlane's snooty ex), Neil Patrick Harris (as her vain, moustachioed new beau), Giovanni Ribisi (as MacFarlane's best friend), and Sarah Silverman (as his literal whore of a girlfriend) deliver inspired work, as does composer Joel McNeely, whose retro-majestic score lends the whole package a gloss of genre authenticity.

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#769 May 23, 2014 by Michael Dequina


Kochadaiiyaan poster Kochadaiiyaan: The Legend *** blog articles on Kochadaiiyaan
The main selling point the marketers are using for the years-in-the-making, years-delayed Tamil language animated action epic Kochadaiiyan: The Legend is that it is "India's first ever photorealistic motion capture film"--an angle that invites inevitable self-defeating comparisons but also wildly shortchanges its own uniquely appealing visual qualities. As the prolonged pre-release hype has always been quick to point out, director Soundarya Rajinikanth Ashwin has employed the same performance capture technology that James Cameron used for his groundbreaking, and equally budget-busting, blockbuster Avatar. However, using that same technology doesn't necessarily mean having the same financial means to then produce equivalent animation and image rendering, and so in terms of "photorealism," Ashwin and Kochadaiiyaan can only fall short--and far at that, for the film is plagued with the "dead eye" syndrome that only Avatar (or, more specifically, Cameron's deep pockets) was able to cure.

But if the visuals never reach the realm of realism, much less that of a photograph, that shortcoming ultimately and ironically works to the film's favor. Whether by somewhat intentional design or fortuitous accident, the overall aesthetic, from the scenery to the human figures, recalls paintings one would find in storybooks, which altogether feels more of a piece with the mythical story centering around warring kingdoms and personal vendettas spanning generations. Most mythical of all, of course, is the film's star, or, rather, superstar (and the director's father): South Indian screen icon Rajinikanth, who befitting the "Superstar" (as he is routinely billed in the credits) that he undeniably is, plays not one, but two larger than life heroes. For the first half, he's Rana, brilliant military general whose cunning as a strategist hides his true, more personal, mission in life--which comes to light post-intermission, with an extended flashback into the life and tragic fate of Rana's father, the tough yet nobly compassionate warrior of the title, played by the 60-something Superstar with a digitally enhanced, buff Beowulf-esque build.

Rajinikanth's sleeker, slicker second act avatar is emblematic of how and why Ashwin and the film completely find their footing in the back half of the film. In the first half, while Rana engages in all sorts of heroic derring-do (and Rajinikanth indeed gets a Superstar-appropriate entrance), the vibe is distinctly grounded, even as writer K.S. Ravikumar's script trafficks heavily in Indian cinematic conventions, from Rana's cutesy courtship with Princess Vadhana (Deepika Padukone, enjoying one hell of a (well deserved) career hot streak right now) to a forbidden love track involving Rana's sister (Rukmini Vijayakumar) and Vadhana's brother (R. Sarathkumar) to moustache-twirling, scheming villainy to big musical numbers. Even the art style for the most part chases the ever-elusive photoreality, with Rajinikanth-as-Rana closely (as possible) resembling his modern day flesh-and-blood appearance, and the grandiose settings aping what the likes of Cecil B. DeMille achieved practically in the Hollywood historical epics of yesteryear. But there's a curious quirk in the animation, with the movement in the large scale battle sequences, action beats, and dance numbers being more fluid and convincing than in the simpler and more mundane acts such as walking.

The intermission marks more than just a shift in narrative focus from Rana to Kochadaiiyan but in Ashwin, who then takes what works best to the next level by completely embracing both the story's inherently exaggerated nature as a "legend" and, more importantly, the fantastical unreality of and the unbridled creative freedom granted by her chosen filmmaking approach. This confidence and clarity is announced first by a terrific song number for Vadhana, which makes full use of animation's ability to imaginatively vary and expand the cinematic space while still effectively showcasing the intricacy of Saroj Khan's choreography. (Lipsynching during the songs, however, remains inconsistent at best throughout the 124-minute run time.) Full liberation comes when Kochadaiiyaan makes his proper entry into the film, showing just why the film is named after him with a startling athletic display that Ashwin not only animates but shoots and cuts with fluid finesse as well as a refreshing feeling of freedom. Finally the film becomes what one would imagine from the idea of a "3D performance capture animated Superstar Rajini adventure epic," with the big action coming faster and more furiously. Ashwin, her camera unmoored from real world physical restraints, accordingly stages, shoots, and edits in creative but always coherent ways--all the better to capture Rajinikanth's uniquely charismatic screen persona, which completely shines through all the flashy techno-digital trappings. Need one say more than that one major action set pieces culminates with Kochadaiiyaan riding dolphins?

Beyond the mayhem, though, the backstory of Kochadaiiyaan, with its more pronounced archetypal broad strokes of heroism, evil, and operatic tragedy, lends needed emotional weight and palpable dramatic stakes to the story of Rana. By the time of its enormous, and enormously impressive, no-holds-barred climax of combat carnage, the whole of Ashwin's film matches the majesty and sweep of A.R. Rahman's spectacular song and background score (as usual, his Tamil/Kollywood film work trumps both his Hindi/Bollywood and Hollywood work by a wide margin). Even if Kochadaiiyaan: The Legend's visuals never come within reach of the state-of-the-art cutting edge of its Hollywood counterparts, the virtues and achievement of Ashwin's sincere, go-for-broke ambition manifests in other, not easily discounted, ways--not least of which is the fail safe fallback of the ever-commanding presence and conviction of South Indian cinema's singular Superstar.

X-Men: Days of Future Past poster X-Men: Days of Future Past (PG-13) *** 1/2
Days of Future Past is based on, but fairly liberally adapts, one of the (justly) most famous and beloved of storylines on the X-Men comics pages--an idea that may strike fear into the hearts of many an X fanboy and fangirl, and not without good reason. After all, arguably the most famous and beloved X-Men comics story of all time, "The Dark Phoenix Saga," was sloppily and offensively reduced to a subplot in the altogether botched third installment of the film series, The Last Stand. But that film and this one provide a classic compare-and-contrast case study in how one can effectively take necessary liberties with the source material while still respecting and retaining the core arcs and themes--and Bryan Singer, returning to the X director's chair after a decade-plus absence, not only gets the balance right but also further enriches the material and the ongoing film franchise with his own unique spin.

As an old school X fanboy myself, the more obvious surface deviations rankle a bit at first. The basic scenario remains the same. Sometime in the future, humanity's prejudices against superpowered mutants have escalated not only to outright war but genocide, with mutants being hunted down and exterminated by giant robot executioners known as Sentinels. With the free mutant population, much less the X-Men team, reduced a rapidly dwindling few, a desperate, last-minute plan to save the race is enacted: send the consciousness of one remaining X-Man back in time to prevent an assassination that serves as the literal and figurative trigger point for the chain of events directly leading up to that point. Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (with story credit also going to Jane Goldman and X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn) then adjust the details, both to keep in line with the films' own unique continuity and, to be frank, satisfy certain commercial interests. Here, instead of that of a fear-mongering senator, the assassination that must be thwarted is that of the very creator of the Sentinels themselves, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage); but the biggest change is that the X-Man being sent back in time is, of course, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) rather than the comics' Kitty Pryde. Kitty (Ellen Page) still plays a prominent role in this version of the story, however, taking the place of Rachel Summers (a terrific character from the comics who will, sadly, probably never appear in the films, due to her rather--to put it mildly--complex backstory) as the one whose powers make time travel possible. (Just exactly how they do, though, is a bit of an unexplained mystery I am willing to handwave and forgive.)

Cynical purists could scoff that once again the X filmmakers have twisted a legendary story in order to pump up the most popular character's prominence (love the wily, clawed Canadian though I do, that he was entrusted with a critical decision in The Last Stand's Dark Phoenix desecration was all sorts of wrong on too many levels), but it turns out to be a rather sly way of drawing in even the most casual viewer not only into high concept time-jumping premise, but also Singer and Kinberg's most radical adjustment to the story. With the fate of the very world, much less the entirety of mutantkind, at stake, this is one of the most epically scaled of X-Men comics stories, and the film version reflects that size and ambition in its large ensemble encompassing actors from both the First Class prequel and the original three films in the franchise. But even with an even larger cast than usual, this turns out to be the most intimately focused of the series to date, zeroing in not on Logan but rather Professor Charles Xavier. While Kitty and the future Professor X (Patrick Stewart) send Logan back to the First Class era of 1973, the Charles he finds there is far from the battered-yet-not-broken one we last saw at the end of that film. Unkempt and living in near-seclusion, his vast telepathic powers suppressed by drugs that enable him to walk (developed by his one remaining young charge, Hank McCoy/Beast, again played by Nicholas Hoult), the 1973 Charles (James McAvoy) is broken, and rather bitterly so. A confluence of events and circumstances have drained all hope for and belief in his idealistic dream of mutant and human harmony: ever-increasing paranoia about mutants after the closing events of First Class; in a nice use of the real world historical context, his now-shuttered school did not go untouched by the Vietnam War and its attendant draft, which stole away many of his young mutant students; not to mention the still-lingering sting of the betrayal by his once closest friends Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). And so beyond the concrete physical particulars of reaching Mystique before she can fire her fateful bullet, the greatest task in Logan's mission to save Xavier's dream is resurrect the dream within the dreamer himself.

And so unlike both the previous films and the source story, Days of Future Past rather boldly plays strongest not as a typical superhero action extravaganza but a truly character-driven drama. The great irony in pushing Wolverine to the forefront in this version is that he doesn't have a lot of big fight scenes, which, while possibly disappointing to fans of his trademark berserker rages, effectively reinforces that this is an older, wiser, and (slightly) more mature version of Logan than we've seen before. Jackman does a terrific job conveying the subtler, differing nuances while still maintaining the familiar, devil-may-care core personality, and he and McAvoy have a great rapport with the Logan/Charles role reversal relationship here. But while Logan is the entry point into the story and concept, the heart is lies with Charles, Erik, and Raven, and Singer takes advantage of the embarrassment of acting riches that is the central trio of McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence. All three are at their most movie star charismatic here, with their formidable dramatic chops lending real gravitas and palpable emotional stakes as they continue their struggles and conflicts with each other and within in order to act for the greater benefit of their kind.

This isn't to say, however, there isn't action nor a sense of fun in Days of Future Past. In the case of the latter, certain lighter, broad strokes don't work too well, namely the depiction of President Richard Nixon, which skirts silly sketch comedy. But the fun more effectively and sufficiently manifests elsewhere: Wolvie being Wolvie, he's never above tossing off a well-timed wisecrack here and there, and the introduction of the heretofore unseen-on-the-big-screen Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is one of film's biggest and most unexpected delights, his super-speed abilities making for one showstopping action sequence that is certain to be a huge, word-of-mouth-driving crowd pleaser. (All due respect to the great Joss Whedon, but he has his work cut out for him in introducing the official Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the character in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron--especially with ever-bland Godzilla star Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the role.) But Singer and Kinberg smartly use the momentum built by the mostly drama-focused two-thirds to amplify the impact of the film's dual-pronged action climax, with Magneto showing his magnetic might in 1973 while his future incarnation (Ian McKellen) fights side by side with Charles, Kitty, Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), and Sunspot (Adam Canto) against an army of Sentinels. While the film could have used more glimpses of the post-apocalyptic future world (and, indeed, there was more originally filmed, featuring Anna Paquin's now very barely seen Rogue), Singer makes the scenes set there count as both action beats and solid support for the main story thread in set in the past.

But the biggest support Days of Future Past gives is to the X-film franchise's future, building on and advancing the renewed fan and general audience goodwill generated by First Class and last summer's The Wolverine. Singer and company leave this film with a myriad of promising plot possibilities and directions on where to go next, but what most intrigues is how and where the characters progress from this point--a reflection of how well the film captures the true essence of what has made and will make the X-Men's uncanny popularity survive and thrive in days of future and past.

In Brief

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn poster The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (R) **
The title character, a grumpy old lawyer (Robin Williams), is told by a stressed out doctor (Mila Kunis) that he has a brain aneurysm that leaves him with only 90 minutes to live, setting him off on a mad dash to atone for his many wrongs. From that premise, one then expects the sappy schmaltz to flow heavily, especially with Williams in the lead. To screenwriter Daniel Taplitz and director Phil Alden Robinson's (adapting the Israeli film The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum) credit, the balance is tilted less toward sentimentality and more toward pitch black comedy. Unfortunately, the film then isn't very funny, largely because the cast (which also includes an incredibly wasted Peter Dinklage, Melissa Leo, and James Earl Jones) is directed by Robinson to often scream at each other at the top of their lungs, making the would-be comic material all bark with little-to-no bite; similarly pitched way too strongly is the would-be emotional material, whose treacle fails to convince in such an outrageous context.

Blended poster Blended (PG-13) **
It's been over two years since Drew Barrymore was last seen on the big screen, and Blended reminds one of her special gifts: her down-to-earth likability and relatability, the approachable warmth of beauty, her effortless comic timing and abandon, her conviction in even the most contrived of cinematic scenarios... and her truly extraordinary ability to somehow make Adam Sandler somewhat tolerable. Somewhat, for however relaxed their rapport may be in this and their previous two collaborations, The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, whatever cozy charm they're able to generate is ultimately negated and overwhelmed by the lazy Sandler brand of sophomoric silliness. After a Meet Hate on a disastrous blind date and ensuing only-in-the-movies plot contortions, single parents Barrymore, a divorcée, and Sandler, a widower, are forced to endure a vacation in South Africa together with their respective children. Could this bickering twosome somehow find their way to twue wuv and become a makeshift (yes) "blended" family by the time their trip is over? That, of course, goes without saying, but the very long journey (did this film need to be just a few minutes shy of two hours?) to that point is made all the more of a chore by the barrage of largely half-assed gags throughout. Granted, there are a few that actually do elicit a chuckle, but true to Sandler form those bits end up getting run into the ground through numbing repetition. Case in point, an ever-game Terry Crews plays the leader of a singing group that serves as a Greek chorus of sorts, but instead of having him and the group actually make some running comical musical commentary on the events as they progress, he's simply made to sing and dance and mug countless variations on how the two are "blending." Crews's talents are far above such a thing, as are Barrymore's, who as usual lends some recognizable humanity into the proceedings; in so doing, she also sporadically softens and prods awake a largely autopilot Sandler, who thankfully does not use a funny voice here. But director/regular Sandler collaborator/conspirator Frank Coraci's movie doesn't feel so much blended than most crudely and sloppily thrown together with minimal exertion and even less thought.

Words and Pictures poster Words and Pictures (PG-13) **
Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen are two terrific actors usually seen in more dour dramatic films, so the notion of the charismatic duo being paired in a light romance is as promising as it is intriguing. Alas, the resulting film turns out to be as flat and prosaic as its title. This is through no fault of Binoche and Owen, who indeed fizz, sparkle, and charm together as two prep school instructors: he an outspoken, hard drinking English teacher; she a curt, condescending art teacher with a debilitating physical condition. It would be enough to pit these two very smart, very prickly characters against one another and watch the sparks fly as they both overcome their respective creative roadblocks--he's a once-promising poet who's lost all inspiration; she's a world-renowned artist whose rheumatoid arthritis has stolen away her gift--but more importantly get over their damn selves and learn to listen to each other and their hearts. That last bit may sound corny, but far cornier is what writer Gerald DiPego and director Fred Schepisi do once Binoche and Owen's characters meet and strike palpable opposites-attract magnetism and electricity: have the pair and their respective students engage in an utterly contrived, utterly pointless "war" to determine which are better, words or pictures. This remarkably unconvincing framework makes the expected rom-com bickering feel all the more artificial and forced, which is a shame when Binoche and Owen's chemistry is anything but.

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#768 May 16, 2014 by Michael Dequina


Godzilla poster Godzilla (PG-13) ***
"Low key" is probably the last thing one would expect or want to hear when describing a Godzilla movie, but for about the first third of Hollywood's latest attempt at putting its own spin on the long-running Japanese creature feature franchise, the term applies. But there's a method to director Gareth Edwards's apparent movie madness, and it soon becomes clear that his spin on the enduring property is to spin it back to its time-proven Toho roots after the misbegotten Roland Emmerich "reinvention" (desecration?) in 1998. This means an overall very serious and even somber tone, and--to the possible disappointment of attention-deficit-afflicted audiences--a very patient early pace. But this is all the better to relate a fairly thought-through and topical scientific origin, for not only our famous giant amphibious reptile but also an even deadlier threat to humanity that was borne out of the lingering radioactive residue of man's reckless nuclear experimentation. Adding other creatures, known as "MUTOs" (standing for "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism"), into the mix proves to be a rather canny move by Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein. Beyond the obvious benefit of adding some big (literally and figuratively) brawling to go with the requisite building toppling, the conflict between different, equally uncontrollable forces of nature also does a lot to build Godzilla as a full-blown character.

But a more fully developed Godzilla makes the requisite "human element" to the film come off that much more undernourished, especially when Edwards and Borenstein do take their sweet time to not only set up the whole scenario but the big guy's first full appearance, which occurs at around the film's midpoint. Holding the audience over before then an eclectic array of actors such as Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, and Juliette Binoche. While this wide variety of talent does manage to keep the proceedings reasonably diverting, it's not because of their roles or storylines, for they generally have little to nothing to work with. Worse still, the one member of the cast who receives the most attention is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who here proves why the character of Kick-Ass was such an utterly forgettable non-entity in his self-named superhero franchise. He's capable enough, but nothing (at least, to be fair, not yet) screams out about him that remotely reads as summer tentpole-carrying "star." (Random/better thought/idea: what if the charismatic and largely underused Rasuk were cast in the lead instead...?)

But then one doesn't really need a formidable flesh-and-blood star when the digitally created title character appropriately inspires such awe--and he makes quite the entrance with classic movie star style and swag While a CG creation, Godzilla looks, sounds, and feels a very tactile and tangible screen presence, and the delayed gratification frustration that comes with the teasing initial glimpses of not only Godzilla, but of any MUTO fighting he engages in and destruction he causes, only adds to the impact when he fully enters the picture. The design of Godzilla and the MUTOs is impressive in detail and appropriately massive in scale, and Edwards creatively figures out to prevent the novelty of the latter from ever wearing off by constantly shooting them from a distinctly human perspective, on the ground looking up or on distant perches or on television screens. It's a smart touch that makes the big MUTO attacks all the more impressive, and the much-anticipated monster-vs.-monsters showdown that much more intense and exciting, reducing humans to the almost inconsequential presence that they should be.

One could then possibly argue that the familial dramas of the human characters (for the record, the main "emotional" thread centers on--clutch your pearls--if Taylor-Johnson will be reunited with wife Olsen and their young son) are trite by design, but I don't think Edwards and Borenstein were quite that smart. Still, it takes a lot of genuine thought to come up with a satisfying popcorn entertainer, and even if this Godzilla doesn't work on every level, it at least suggests that these filmmakers and this new series are well on their way to getting it completely right.

In Brief

Million Dollar Arm poster Million Dollar Arm (PG) ***
The poster for Million Dollar Arm notes that the film is from the producers of Invincible and Miracle, but the previous Disney inspirational sports movie this latest one most recalls is Cool Runnings, what with its fact-based underdog story and good-natured humor largely stemming from a clash of cultures. Here, the sport is baseball, and the country to whom the game is largely foreign is India, where baseball's forerunner, cricket, rules all--which gives a slick but struggling sports agent (Jon Hamm) the idea for the titular contest, where the best pair of pitching prospects from India will win a cash prize plus a chance to try out for the American major leagues. Just about any cynical complaint one would think of based on the premise alone would certainly apply to the film proper. Hamm learns that there's more to life than just business through his relationship with and the innocent spirits of the two winning youths (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mitthal) and his loyal new assistant (Pitobash). He also sees the error of his rootless womanizing ways through his friendship and possibly more with the spunky med student (Lake Bell) who rents his guesthouse. The naive teens from modest backgrounds get a crash course in high-stakes American pro sports and the Western world in general while still never losing their committed work ethic nor core dignity. But despite the predictable paces and heart-on-sleeve sentimentality, the whole package works, and that's due in large part to the gentle touch of director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy. As they have previously shown in their previous individual works such as Lars and the Real Girl (Gillespie) and Win Win (McCarthy), this scenario that could be easily milked for maximum maudlin manipulation is handled with unadorned, naturalistic grace that achieves a certain emotional authenticity even as the viewer anticipates exactly which heart string will be plucked and how. The performances further lend to the grounded relatability as well as lend the proceedings some distinct personality--even if in not in exactly the most surprising ways, from Bell's trademark quirky timing to Alan Arkin's cantankerous old coot schtick as a baseball scout. Calculated crowdpleaser the film may be, but those calculations to end up adding to exactly what the film wanted to and should be.

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