Skip to main content

Hey, how fast do they pitch in cricket?

Million Dollar Arm
(2014)

Aspirational sports movies tend to have additional cachet when they are based on true stories (The Blind Side). If you can also incorporate an always-popular fish-out-of-water element, so much the better (Cool Runnings). Thomas McCarthy’s screenplay for Million Dollar Arm chronicles how two Indian baseball pitchers were brought to the major leagues (albeit omitting that their success hasn’t been of legendary proportions), but is much more interested in the guy who found them. The result is an overlong feature that hits agreeable notes during its first half, before succumbing to listless montages and forced drama to pad out its running time.


Baseball movies tend to be the most reliable ones in the sport genre. It’s a genre where the formula of the game, or trying and winning, or losing with dignity, is built into storytelling structure. As such, it’s difficult to strike new ground here, and easy to succumb to predictability. The best one can usually hope for is that a familiar ride is reliably fashioned.


The kernel of Million Dollar Arm finds sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm, a down-at-heel Don Draper) struggling to go it alone (“No, I don’t want to work at the Death Star. I hate the Death Star” his partner Aasif Mandvi comments of the prospect of returning to one of the big agencies). He hits upon the idea (during a channel-hopping mix tape of Susan Boyle and a test match) of inviting Indian bowlers to try their arms at baseball, setting up the search as a talent contest (the Million Dollar Arm of the title). There’s the publicity value, of course, but mainly it’s about the not-inconsiderable sweetener for investors of the profits to be tapped from the Indian market, if there are actual players for the cricket-loving populace to get behind.


Inevitably, the movie concentrates on the white guy who found the players rather than the players themselves. Perhaps also inevitably (this being Hollywood) the moviemakers (I’m not necessarily suggesting McCarthy put this in his screenplay) indulge in some lazy cultural stereotyping (the two pitchers are all at sea with magical inventions such as escalators and elevators). Hamm deserves some credit, though, for taking a less-than-noble big screen lead role and playing grouchy and self-centred for much of the proceedings. All Bernstein is interested in is the deal, until he inevitably has his perspective corrected. This encompasses a rather contrived romance with his tenant (Lake Bell; the end titles suggest this element is factual, but their skyping across continents is no less phoney for that) and standing up to the moneyman (Tzi Ma).


While Bernstein’s unreconstituted demeanour is refreshing at first, it’s the only part that is. Million Dollar Arm is likeable, but it manages to be determinedly pedestrian. Craig Gillespie, who, judging by his filmography, is the epitome of a journeyman (his last cinematic outing was Fright Night), only manages to snap into a much-needed rhythm during the first leg. The scenes in India, playing off Bernstein’s culture shock, the excitement of the trials, and the irresistible Alan Arkin’s grumpy talent scout, are well paced and enjoyable. Pitobash’s over-excitable guide Amit provides added comic relief. However, while Suraj Sharma (as the javelin throwing Rinku) and Madhur Mittal (as the runner Dinesh; neither of them turn out to be cricketers, undermining Bernstein’s bowler/pitcher theory) are winning performers, they have the most perfunctory of character beats (homesickness, existing to react to Bernstein’s mistreatment).


The second half of the movie, as Bernstein pursues a big value client and reluctantly allows the players to live with him yet neglects their well-being, runs out of steam. Gillespie goes through the motions with such elements as the party scene (comedy vomiting!), the dashing of dreams, and the second chance/mending of ways. There’s even a toe curling (it’s supposed to be heart-warming, I know) “welcome to India” sequence, in which J.B.’s back garden is turned into an exotic restaurant. Bill Paxton also makes a showing (not one of his memorable) as the idiosyncratic trainer who knows how to treat the lads as human beings, in contrast to grumpy J B.


As I said, it’s the clichés, more than in any other genre, that underpin sports movies. It doesn’t take too much to make a passable one, as long as the basic structure is in place, but it’s contrastingly much more difficult to make a great one. Tom McCarthy has written and directed several fine films (The Station Agent, The Visitor), and his next (Spotlight) sounds promising, yet he comes a bit unstuck here. In the end it’s only A R Rahman’s lively soundtrack that keeps Million Dollar Arm swinging.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite