Million Dollar Arm Movie Review 0 28

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Although it’s obviously best known for its beloved animated fare, Disney occasionally bestows upon us a live-action film. They’re usually relatively formulaic, but crowd-pleasing and feel-good, appealing to as wide a range of audiences as possible. The studio’s latest film, Million Dollar Arm, fits that exact mould to a tee.

Based on a true story, the film follows J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a baseball agent who finds his business under threat when the bigger players in the industry keep stealing away clients. Doing his best to keep the business afloat, he starts looking at possible untapped markets to find potential new players. One day he has a flash of genius: he will travel to India to search through the players of that country’s most popular sport, cricket, for up-and-coming stars. He sets up the competition Million Dollar Arm, offering two young hopefuls the chance to travel to America and hit the baseball big time.

Million Dollar Arm is almost like a perfect blueprint of how safe and straightforward a film can be, sticking to the typical screenplay formula throughout, without really wavering and falling into clichéd traps and pitfalls of both the sports drama and the against-all-odds inspirational tale so often stamped with the “based on a true story” label. There’s none of the oddness found in director Craig Gillespie’s indie hit Lars And The Real Girl, for instance. However, there’s an undeniable, feel-good, optimistic, wide-eyed charm to it that makes it eminently watchable and pleasingly undemanding.

Described in the advertisement as “Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s a film that marries the atmosphere of that most American of pastimes – baseball – with the world of Indian cricket. In doing so we get this culture clash as J.B. travels from his relatively quiet life in L.A. for the hustle-bustle of India. Everything is painted in broad strokes, even down to its portrayal of the cultural of one of the world’s most populated countries.

A sharper edged movie might have delivered a probing satire of self-absorbed Western consumerism, but – in what feels like an entirely purposeful aim by screenwriter Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) – the rough edges have been smoothed off to make accessible to the widest possible audience. It therefore comes off as charmingly innocent, rather than outwardly offensive, when it comes to the rather simplistic and stereotypical portrayal of small town and big city India alike.

Much of why it functions so well in spite of its predictability and straight-talking simplicity is its easy-going nature and charm, mainly in the form of leading man Jon Hamm. Best known for playing genius ad man Don Draper in TV’s Mad Men, Hamm brings the same sort of effortless charisma and likeability to the role of struggling yet determined sports agent J.B. – who’s like a cross between Tom Cruise in the aforementioned Jerry Maguire and Brad Pitt in Moneyball – conjuring a lot of empathy and surprising depth to a potentially trite and unmemorable character.

The film has a pleasing mix of inspirational drama and warm character-based comedy. In one of the film’s strongest sections, there’s some very funny culture-clash stuff involving J.B. bringing the winners of the titular competition, two talented but underprivileged young men who’ve barely left the village in which they grew up, back to his lavish L.A. home. They’re played by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, who most will know from Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, respectfully, and they’re immediately likeable and easy to root for as they try their best to take advantage of an enormous opportunity.

The comedy is sometimes a little too on-the-nose for its own good, namely when it comes to the character of Amit (Pitobash), the plucky and energetic Indiana gofer/wannabe agent who’s the equivalent of a cartoon sidekick clambering for attention. There’s also Alan Arkin, who sporadically appears as as a legendary sports scout now more content to lounge around than do any actual work, allowing for many-a-scene of Hamm and Co. complaining to him about his lack of contribution. Nevertheless, it never steps over the line into annoying, and always has that good-hearted nature to fall back on.

You’re not going to come away from Million Dollar Arm feeling like you’ve seen the reinvention of cinema or even anything particularly new in the sports drama sub-genre. It’s decisively by-the-numbers filmmaking, ticking just about every box you can think of with this type of film, from its against the odds journey right to its love interest subplot (here played by Lake Bell) to its ending that’s predictable – even if you don’t know the true story on which it’s based. But the film achieves what it sets out to do: that is, to inspire you, charm you, warm your heart and put a smile on your face. And do you know what? Sometimes that’s just the ticket.

This review was previously published on Scotcampus.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 358

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 388

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10