Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Thanks to my membership in D23 I was able to attend a free preview screening of MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014) tonight. What a treat! This excellent sports film, starring Jon Hamm and a terrific cast, opens on May 16th.

MILLION DOLLAR ARM joins an impressive list of successful Disney sports pictures of recent years, which includes THE ROOKIE (2002), MIRACLE (2004), and INVINCIBLE (2006). It's also a great addition to a long line of special films revolving around baseball.

Hamm plays Los Angeles sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who is watching the firm he founded with Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi) slowly circling the drain.

Out of clients and money, J.B. hits on a unique idea, searching among cricket players in India for a potential Major League Baseball pitcher. He sells the idea of sponsoring a "Million Dollar Arm" contest to businessman Chang (Tzi Ma) and heads for India, along with a deceptively sleepy retired baseball scout (Alan Arkin).

Months later J.B. returns to L.A. with two contest winners, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal). The two young men begin to learn the sport of baseball under Coach House (Bill Paxton) at the University of Southern California, but there will be bumps along the way as they adjust to life in the U.S. and learning a challenging sport. That said, it may be J.B. who has the most learning to do.

The filmmakers take the tried and true "feel good" sports film and turn it into something unique, starting with the exotic scenes depicting life in India. The movie is touching without being sappy, working in ample doses of humor. The viewer knows the film is certain to end on a high note, but it's a very interesting, uncliched, and often funny journey before arriving at that place.

The scenes set in India are colorful, fascinating, and yes, a touch sad, as poverty is everywhere. For the two young men, the contest means a chance at a better life, not just for themselves but for their families. What J.B. doesn't know is that in taking responsibility for Rinku and Dinesh, he's going to have a better life as well. Hamm walks the line showing his character as, at times, a thoughtless jerk, while conveying enough of J.B.'s winning side to retain audience sympathy as he struggles to mature.

While in India, J.B. slowly develops a relationship with his tenant Brenda (Lake Bell), thanks to chats on Skype. Brenda, a medical student who rents a cottage in his backyard, is admirably "together" -- other than her deplorable housekeeping -- and serves as a sounding board, friend, and eventually lover. I especially admired the way Brenda handled confrontation, refusing to fly off in a huff and be insulted, but instead calmly calling it like it is.

In one of my favorite scenes, J.B. scans his laptop around so Brenda can see the view of India from his balcony at dusk. It was a very "real" moment for anyone who's chatted with family or friends in faraway places via Skype.

It had previously escaped my notice that Alan Arkin is in the film, and he just about steals the movie, with some of the funniest bits and a priceless scene near the end. I think another Supporting Actor nomination -- his last Oscar nod was for ARGO (2012) -- could be appropriate.

I was delighted that much of the film was set on the campus of USC; in fact, Rinku and Dinesh wear Trojans gear for much of the film. I thought Bill Paxton (APOLLO 13) was another outstanding performance as the low-key, positive USC coach, who reads situations that J.B. initially misses. Like Brenda, Coach House briskly, professionally lets J.B. know when he's wrong, and it eventually sinks in.

MILLION DOLLAR ARM was filmed by Gyula Pados and directed by Craig Gillespie. Gillespie is slated to direct Chris Pine in Disney's THE FINEST HOURS, about a Coast Guard rescue operation in the 1950s.

Parental Advisory: This movie is a mild PG rating for some brief suggestive content and language. For the most part it's a family-friendly film.

The trailer is at IMDb or the film's official website.

For more on this film, Scout Foundas of Daily Variety has written an on-target review.



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