Million Dollar Arm


Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Disney) Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Darlshan Jarlwala, Gregory Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma, Rey Maualuga, Bar Paly, Al Sapienza, Jaspaul Sandhu, Lata Shukla, Harish Shandra, Yashwant Joshi, Mike Pniewski, Suehyla El-Attar, Autumn Dial, Gabriela Lopez. Directed by Craig Gillespie

Baseball, that most American of all sports, has gone global. Asian teams routinely win the Little League World Series and there have been Major League players from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Latin America has long been a pipeline of major league baseball stars. There are even European players in the Majors. One of the places that have gone largely untapped, however, is India.

J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is a sports agent. He’s a pretty good one, good enough to buy himself a good life; a beautiful house, a Porsche, a downtown L.A. office and a steady stream of models to date. He’s also cocky enough to think that he doesn’t need the big agency he works for, so he strikes out on his own with his partner Aash (Mandvi). There he finds out that things aren’t quite so easy.

In fact, they’re near impossible. With his agency nearly bankrupt, they are relying on signing a high-profile NFL linebacker named Popo (Maualuga) to save their bacon. However, when he is swept away by the omnipresent agents from a big corporate agency, they and their receptionist Theresa (Rachel) are left to ponder what to do next.

For J.B., the answer comes at him like a bolt of lightning. He is sitting at home, binge drinking beers and aimlessly switching back and forth on the channels of his satellite TV between Indian cricket and the talent show Britain’s Got Talent when it hits him – India has more than a billion people that don’t follow baseball. If they could find a couple of pitchers from India, guys used to bowling in cricket, it might open up a brand new market much like Fernandomania did in Mexico.

He pitches it to a Chinese-American gazillionaire named Chang (Ma) who likes the concept and decides to invest. JB wants a major league scout to go with him. Aash can’t find one but does find a retired scout named Ray (Arkin) who might just have narcolepsy but who really knows his stuff. Aided by a laid-back Indian handler named Vivek (Jarlwala) and a baseball-obsessed translator who wants to be a coach someday named Amit (Pitobash), he goes on a tour of India, setting up tryouts for the show which proves to be quite popular. Out of the tryouts he finds two prospects – Rinku (Sharma) who is gangly and graceful with an odd ritual before throwing the ball, and Dinesh (Mittal) who is a powerful thrower with control problems. The two winners accompany JB back to America.

There they will be as bewildered and confused by American culture as JB was by theirs. Working with former major league pitcher Tom House (Paxton) who now coaches at the University of Southern California, they know nothing about the game and have to be trained in the basics of fielding and batting, not to mention having their throwing motion worked on (incidentally, neither one of them played critic and both were ambivalent about the game both in the film and real life). JB kind of leaves them to the wolves.

That doesn’t sit well with Brenda (Bell), who rents the back unit of JB’s house and has gotten to know the boys. She knows they need to know he cares about them; that they feel lost and alone and without support. Of course, you know she and JB will develop a relationship but can these two raw talents from India beat the odds and get signed to a major league contract?

This is a Disney true life sports underdog movie so you can probably guess the answer to that question (and if you can’t, you can always Google it). Like a lot of these films that have come from Disney of late, this follows pretty much the same formula. Fortunately, there are some things that set it apart.

The sequences in India are colorful and amazingly shot. You get a sense of the chaotic conditions in that country, from the traffic to the lack of hygiene to the kind of crumbling colonial infrastructure that remains in a titanic bureaucracy. All that’s missing is the distinctive odor that, as Hamm puts it, comes and goes.

Lake Bell, so good in In a World… continues to develop into one of Hollywood’s most distinctive actresses. She’s smart, pretty and can be glamorous when she needs to be but seems much more comfortable in scrubs than in fancy dresses. She makes a fine foil for the likable Hamm who is looking for life after Don Draper. His role is surprisingly complex; he’s been able to get by on his charm and a grin, but that is no longer the case and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it. He also can be a bit of a jerk although he’s basically not a bad guy. In short, like most guys.

They do have Arkin amongst the fine supporting cast but he spends most of the movie literally asleep, which is a waste of the talents of a guy like Arkin. Mandvi, one of the funniest guys on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is utilized mainly as the straight man here and while he gets his share of comedic moments, again this isn’t really what he’s best at. The two young Indian actors garner empathy, but they aren’t developed well enough to go much farther than “fish out of water” status.

This is decently entertaining; you won’t go wrong by spending your ten bucks on it at the multiplex, but it isn’t anything that you’ll go home wanting to see again. While the Indian sequences certainly looked pretty marvelous on the big screen, I wouldn’t blame you for waiting to catch this on home video, but as I said, there are things that elevate it above the sports film cliches that it is desperately trying to cling to. All that’s missing is Hamm screaming “Show me the money!”

REASONS TO GO: Hamm and Bell are endearing. India sequences are quite enjoyable.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Arkin is wasted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few mild swear words and some suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real J.B. Bernstein wasn’t an agent. He was (and is) a sports marketer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Blended

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Non-Stop


Liam Neeson's contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

Liam Neeson’s contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Corey Stoll, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount, Quinn McColgan, Corey Hawkins, Frank Deal, Bar Paly, Edoardo Costa, Jon Abrahams, Amanda Quaid. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Flying is a stressful endeavor. We are crammed like sardines into a tin can and hope that the pilot is sober enough to get us from point A to point B without bringing us down in a flaming Viking funeral. We are surrounded by strangers and we hope against hope that they won’t talk the entire five hour flight, or that the kids behind us won’t kick our chair non-stop. It’s no wonder that alcohol is served aboard air flights. The wonder is that they don’t make tranquilizers available as well.

Bill Marks (Neeson) hates flying. Just to get him on the plane he has to drink half a bottle of whiskey. Once on board, he disables the smoke alarms in the lavatory to smoke a long, calming cigarette. He doesn’t really want to talk to anybody, but he’s a kindly enough sort who takes the time to help a little girl travelling all by herself across the Atlantic ocean to visit her daddy in London conquer her fears and step aboard the big intimidating airplane. Bill sure hates flying but he does a lot of it. After all, he’s a Federal Air Marshal.

It should be a routine flight from New York to London. Next to him is a pleasant if inquisitive middle aged woman named Jen (Moore) who is happy to let him sleep through most of the flight. The pilot (Roache) is an old friend as is the head stewardess Nancy (Dockery). His partner aboard, Jack Hammond (Mount) is a little by-the-book for his tastes but he knows his stuff. However, Bill doesn’t want to be there. He needs to be in New York, taking care of…well, stuff. He gets into a shouting match with his supervisor over the phone about it. The supervisor tells him that he can’t grant Bill’s request for an immediate return flight home; “I have to do what I have to do,” says the supervisor. “Oh yeah?” growls Bill, “Well I’ll do what I’ve gotta do too!” Showed him.

Of course, since this is a movie, the flight is anything but routine. Midway over the Atlantic, Bill gets a text on his secure Blackberry telling him that someone aboard the flight will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a Swiss bank account. Hammond pooh-poohs the threat but Bill is unnerved. When a passenger turns up dead at the specified time, Bill is vindicated. He is also the suspect as the bank account turns out to be in his name. As the body count begins to pile up, Bill begins to believe that the killer has a whole other agenda that has nothing to do with the money. The race against time is to discover what that agenda is, who’s behind it and to save the plane from the previously described Viking funeral.

There are plenty of red herrings in the thriller, some involving drug trafficking and of course the identity of the killer. Nearly everyone comes under suspicion at one point excluding Bill who is only made to look guilty but something told me early on that Neeson wasn’t going to be the killer (although that might have made for an interesting twist). There are so many that it actually becomes a little annoying.

Neeson has become quite a dependable action hero which is a far cry from his days as one of the better serious actors on the planet (Schindler’s List, Michael Collins sniff sniff). He is a large, physically intimidating man and his gruff demeanor makes him a perfect fit for these kinds of roles and again, like Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill is the biggest reason to plunk down your hard-earned cash to see this film.

Moore is likewise an actress who has delivered Oscar-caliber performances in the past. She makes an excellent foil for Neeson, bandying back and forth with him not necessarily in a flirtatious manner. Their chemistry is so strong I wouldn’t mind seeing them as partners in future movies.

The rest of the cast is unusually able for this type of film. Collet-Serra was very fortunate to cast actors who were on the cusp of their big break so he has an Oscar winner (Nyong’o) in an essentially throwaway role, Dockery just now breaking big for Downton Abbey and Stoll getting raves in House of Cards.

Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously teamed with Neeson in Unknown, knows what he’s doing when it comes to action films. Considering nearly all of the action takes place in a commercial airline cabin (excepting the opening and closing scenes), the action is pretty decent when it occurs. Most of the rest of the time, Collet-Serra is content to let the tension and the suspense rule the day. I would have preferred less misdirection – a little bit of that can go a long way – but that’s more of a personal preference. Your mileage may vary.

This is one of those movies that is exactly what you expect it to be – no more, no less. If you’re looking for mindless entertainment it will deliver. If you’re looking for a strong leading man, it delivers that too. If you’re looking for innovation within the genre, keep looking. But a WYSIWYG movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes it’s exactly what you need.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson is always entertaining and this time gets a fine foil in Moore. Some fairly decent white knuckle moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot a bit too far up the ludicrous scale. Too many action film clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some action film violence, at times fairly intense. There’s also a fair amount of foul language, a subplot involving drugs and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Bill Marks, like Neeson himself, was born in Northern Ireland and later emigrated to the United States.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Passenger 47

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Great Beauty