Thursday, May 29, 2014

‘Million Dollar Arm’: Reality, inspiration, and storytelling


Million Dollar Arm
2014, 120 min.
Dir: Craig Gillespie
Scr: Tom McCarthy
Phot: Gyula Pados

Feel-good story. Triumph over the odds. Underdog wins it all. Bitter central character learns about what’s important in life in the process. Fishes-out-of-water make it in the Big Time. Redemption.

The inspirational sports film of the summer, “Million Dollar Arm,” is out, and it is sappy. And predictable. So what. I like that.

Tom Russo of the Boston Globe points out in a May 24 story, accurately, that facts were altered in some of these “based on a true story” scenarios in order to make with the happy ending.

This formulaic approach has been practically patented by Disney producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, who to date have turned out “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” “Invincible,” and “Secretariat.” Hey, do you notice a pattern here?

In “Million Dollar Arm,” the central character is not either of the struggling hopefuls (amateur athletes from India, completely unfamiliar with baseball, who seek to become Major League pitchers and win big money), but a canny spots agent – the kind we have been culturally trained to boo. The likeable John Hamm, the only figure on the film’s poster undoubtedly due to his testing well with potential audiences due to his visibility as the central figure of the hit TV series “Mad Men,” is plays the real-life J.B. Bernstein, who created “Million Dollar Arm” as a far-fetched promotional scheme to right his small struggling sports-promotion company’s fortunes.

He goes hunting for candidates across the Subcontinent, with cranky but lovable baseball scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin) in tow. He comes up with Ringku Singh (Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal, “Slumdog Millionaire”). His relentless drive alienates not only his charges, but their trainer Tom House (Bill Paxton), translator Amit (Pitobash, who teeters on the edge of Indian stereotype but pulls himself back), and potential humanizing agent and love interest (Lake Bell). Of course, Bernstein pulls his head out of his ass, becomes a good guy, learns to care, redeems himself and his two players, and secures a chance for a future for them. And gets the woman.

Craig Gillespie’s direction is efficient, and that’s all it needs to be. We are working with a template here, so all we need to do is to stay close to our characters and develop emotional connections to them. It works; I cried several times -- as I always have and will during a Ciardi/Gray production (in fact, a scene of Hamm and Bell tearing up while watching Gary Cooper deliver Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech in “Pride of the Yankees” points to the ubiquity of the choke-up moment in films such as this).

Those who stick around for the credits will see a wealth of still and film footage of Bernstein and his protégés taken at the time of the original events. It almost seems that “Million Dollar Arm” was conceived with an eye to the post-event creation of a based-on-a-true-story Disney sports film, preferably produced by Ciardi and Gray.

This putative, blatant sculpting and control of a real-time endeavor to serve the marketing scheme of its creator does raise the question of ethics. Did the “real” Bernstein think of this project in terms of Inciting Incident, First Act Break, Midpoint, Point of Commitment, the “All is Lost” Moment,  Climax, and Resolution? Did he sincerely undergo a transformation of character? If he didn’t, is “Million Dollar Arm” a failure? (Bernstein, in fact, didn’t hatch the contest – venture capitalist Will Chang – played by Tzi Ma in the film -- did. Read the complete rundownhere at the excellent ‘History vs. Hollywood’ site.)

I say no. Certain storytelling techniques work because they touch us. They speak some kind of truth about us to ourselves, even if they are fantasies. As Russo points out, the “real” Dinesh Patel has spent his career in Class A ball, and Ringku Singh left the game altogether. Anyone who has survived to child-rearing age knows that there are no fairy-tale endings.

Still, we read our kids fairy tales. Why? Well – who wouldn’t have opted for that big break, or just the experience of giving it your best shot? How is that not an essential virtue to learn, even if it’s retailed to us by the none-too-altruistic? Who doesn’t enjoy feeling that feeling vicariously in the darkened auditorium? We leave the film pumping our fists and feeling triumphant, just as our protagonists do. True, in real life, these perfect moments of redemption don’t last long, and are usually succeeded by difficulty, complexity, loss, regret, and the sheer everydayness of human life.

It doesn’t mean that it’s not a good dream to dream, or a good goal for which to strive. We go to movies like this to remind ourselves that this is so. And I will be watching it and the other inspirational sports films of Ciardi and Gray for some time to come.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla: The (Successful) Resurrection

2014, 123 mins.
Dir: Gareth Edwards
Scr: Max Borenstein
Phot: Seamus McGarvey


First of all, I’ve got to say that, in the new Godzilla movie, many of my favorite vacation spots are destroyed. Nonetheless, the new “Godzilla” film is a lot of fun.

It’s a reboot of the classic series, launched in 1954 by Japan’s Toho Studios, featuring the King of the Monsters, that daikaiju with a difference, the radioactive, prehistoric, nuclear-powered menace/savior of the title. The nearly three dozen titles that followed have ranged from thrillingly ridiculous to cutesy-ridiculous to boringly ridiculous, but something about the big green guy appeals to audiences down the decades. The Godzilla oeuvre (‘scuse me) satisfies something in our collective reptile brains. My first kindergarten drawings, lovingly preserved, are a sequential rendering of the original monster’s Tokyo rampage. What raging 5-year-old doesn’t want to level a city?

It’s a winning blend of cautionary fable (Godzilla can be seen as the first really effective nuclear-arms protester), tearjerker (rest assured, families are torn apart, children are threatened, and even the trope of the annoyingly cute Japanese boy in a baseball cap is crowbarred into the new film), disaster film, and all-star wrestling match. Director Edwards and screenwriter Borenstein have obvious soaked up all the past resonances, and the result is something that works for first-timers and old hands as well.

Rather than retail the details, let me establish that the new ‘Zilla is given a credible backstory, and the main action is set up with a sequence that does credit to our paranoia about science run amok. Married scientists Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche (why is Binoche rocking an American accent? Discuss) The established undercurrent of unhealed regrets and lost opportunities gives this version a solid, dark feel that is mirrored in McGarvey’s shadowy cinematography and Owen Paterson’s dense, dusty production design.

Fortunately, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, like all the cast of the new "Godzilla," is a past master of the eye-line matching, gape-mouthed stare up into the Effect to be Added in Post.
The scientists’ child, providentially, grows up to be Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a studly Navy lieutenant who can defuse atomic bombs and skydive from 30,000 feet, and happens to be married to Elizabeth Olson. Nice. He’s our surrogate as he’s tossed from Japan across the Pacific to San Francisco, following the radiation-seeking trail of some M.U.T.O.s – massive unknown terrestrial organisms – crazy, evil-looking bat/spider/mantis critters that are solidly in the Toho tradition, complete with EMP-producing tap-dancing power.

Taylor-Johnson is abetted by the always-awesome Ken Watanbe, who plays the Tragic Scientist with a Conscience; Sally Hawkins, pretty much wasted as his Sidekick Scientist Who Helps Explain Stuff; and the massively talented David Strathairn, who never blinks as the Admiral Who Must Make Decisions that Will Impact Millions of Lives. Of course, our foolish armed forces think that nuclear weapons are the answer, not realizing that M.U.T.O.s just LOVE them, wolfing them down like misplaced bikers gobbling canapés at a fancy gallery opening. It’s up to Godzilla to, as Ken tells us, “restore nature’s balance.” Let the battle begin!

Ken Watanbe as Dr. Serizawa -- well, we got trouble, right here in River City!
There’s nothing worse than bad CGI, but it’s artfully imposed here. Enormous pans and crane shots emphasize scale and enhance the gleeful destruction of all we hold dear, including Mission Bay, South Beach, parts of Portoia . . . you can pretty much forget taking the Embarcadero. Ever again. Style-wise, the film owes much to the “Alien” sensibilities of the late R.H. Giger. This is the only other movie I can think of in which an atomic explosion is used as a decorative background effect, “True Lies” being the other.

So go, if you are a monster junkie like me.

One more thought – Cranston, former star of TV’s “Breaking Bad,” risks a quick fade from fame, as do so many who try to make the leap from the small to the big screen. He makes a perfect They-All-Think-Me-Mad Harbinger of Doom, and may have a strong future as an apocalyptic archetype actor. The Charlton Heston vibe is strong in this one. I can almost see him crying out, “IT’S PEEPUL! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEEEE-PULLLL!”