The week in film: ‘Million $ Arm,’ ‘A Short History of Decay,’ and more

May 13, 2014

milliondollar

Even as the plodding “Godzilla” is somehow getting a pass in its early reviews, you can bet that “Million Dollar Arm” is going to get savaged by the same critics, who are uncomfortable with movies that deal, ultimately, with feelings instead of ideas (or, in the case of “Godzilla,” ideas that critics imagine the movie is about).

But “Million Dollar Arm,” while not perfect, is more than just a feel-good sports movie about overcoming obstacles (though it is, in fact, that). Thanks to a script by Tom McCarthy and restrained direction by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), “Million Dollar Arm” is less a movie about sports (in this case, baseball) than a film about one man’s transformation from sports agent to human being.

Which is quite a leap, given the state of J.B. Bernstein’s soul at the film’s start. As played by Jon Hamm (based on a real person), Bernstein is a fast-talking agent whose career has plateaued and whose future looks dim if he can’t sign a big client soon. He handled athletes like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders in their prime – but hasn’t attracted a new superstar in years.

So he hits on an idea: He’ll go to India and find a cricket player who can pitch in the major leagues of American baseball. He’ll conduct the search via an Indian reality show and bring the winners back to the U.S. to get them a major-league audition.

The two athletes he winds up with, Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”) are athletes who can throw the ball consistently at 80 mph or more. But, as Bernstein discovers later, neither are cricket players. And, because baseball wasn’t played in India (at least not in 2008, when this took place), they possess none of the fundamental baseball skills that most American kids have by the age of 8.

But Gillespie’s film isn’t about the players’ baseball education; it’s about Bernstein growing a soul and learning to see his clients as people – rather than walking paychecks. McCarthy’s script has an emotional honesty and a spareness to its expression that make it seem sincere rather than schmaltzy. And while some will undoubtedly criticize the film for focusing on Bernstein’s story instead of the two young players, it is in fact a movie about Bernstein, played with a blend of humor and surprising vulnerability by Hamm.

He has a great supporting cast to play off his slow-burn, including Alan Arkin as an aged baseball scout and the delightful Lake Bell, as a neighbor who becomes a (not unexpected) love interest. Throw in Aasif Mandvi (as Bernstein’s partner) and Bill Paxton (as the visionary baseball coach who works with the newcomers) and that’s a formidable lineup.

If Gillespie overplays the music and the suspense-film editing when the film reaches its climax, well, it’s the climax. What did you expect? Count on this: “Million Dollar Arm” will lift your spirits and choke you up at the same time.

decay

It’s wrong to describe “A Short History of Decay” as an Alzheimer’s comedy, but writer-director Michael Maren manages the nifty tonal trick of telling a tragic tale and somehow making you feel hopeful about its characters. There is humor, to be sure, in this assured feature debut, but the material isn’t kidding around about the inevitable facts about aging that we all must face – first with our parents, then with ourselves.

Bryan Greenberg, an underrated young actor, plays Nathan, a writer struggling to start his career in Brooklyn when he gets two pieces of bad news in one day. First, his girlfriend (Emmanuelle Chriqui) announces that she’s breaking up with him and wants him to move out. Then his brother calls from Florida to tell him that his father has had a stroke, brought on by his stress at dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s for Nathan’s mother.

So Nathan heads for Florida, where he learns first-hand how lucid his mother (a marvelous Linda Lavin) can and can’t be, even as he tries to wrangle his curmudgeonly father (Harris Yulin, equally good) to keep him on the rest-and-recuperation track. For Nathan, that means staying with them and shifting his focus from being their offspring to assuming the role of caregiver.

Yet Maren does this without hammering the point. Even the arrival of Nathan’s older brother (a very funny Benjamin King) is played lightly; yes, it turns out that older brother, a lobbyist in Washington for the banking industry, doesn’t have it all together, the way everyone assumes. He and Nathan fall back into old roles with a natural wit and the sense of discovery that siblings can have about each other, even at that advanced age.

“A Short History of Decay” has the potential to be one of those break-out sleepers that finds its audience, the way Raymond de Felitta’s “City Island” did a couple of years ago. It’s a satisfying little film that keeps surprising you with its ability to tell recognizable truths in an original and human way.

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And a couple more:

“The Discoverers”: Justin Schwarz’s debut film is a bright comedy that finds thoughtful laughs in pitting the trivia of everyday life against the live-or-die existence of America’s earliest explorers. Griffin Dunne, an underappreciated actor, hasn’t had a role this good in ages – and he makes the most of it. He plays Lewis Birch, a sinking college history professor on his way to present findings from a new book at a conference, which he hopes will resuscitate his academic standing. And he’s combining that trip with the two weeks he gets each year with his teen-age kids (Madeleine Martin, Devon Graye) from his broken marriage. But life intervenes and he winds up in Idaho at his mother’s funeral. Then his father (Stuart Margolin) suffers a kind of break – and thinks he’s Meriwether Lewis, teaming with William Clark to find the Pacific Ocean. It’s not a great leap; he’s long been a member of a group of Lewis & Clark reenactors, whose annual recreation of that trek is just starting. So, along with his two unhappy kids, Lewis must join the “Corps of Discovery” on its mission in the woods, discarding the present to live in the past. Schwarz’ film is not a jokey, stops-out comedy, tending toward the humor of small indignations and tongues being bitten, as well as the occasional wisecracks from the delicious Madeleine Martin as Lewis’ acerbic daughter. Dunne is particularly good as a man whose focus on his work has helped him avoid dealing with the personal catastrophe that is his life, until finally forced to do so.

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“Chinese Puzzle”: Cedric Klapisch’s family comedy is a ramshackle affair. It’s episodic to be sure, but full of episodes that layer on the details of one man’s life as he tries to start afresh. Luckily for Klapisch, that man, Xavier, is played by Romain Duris – who handles Xavier’s various tangles with both aplomb and wit. Xavier is a writer struggling with his new novel, when his wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), announces that she’s leaving him and taking their kids to live in New York, where she’s found a new man. Rather than be separated from his kids, Xavier moves there, too. And that is the sum of the plot. Instead of a story, it’s about impressions of a foreigner making his way in the cultural sprawl of Manhattan. It’s enjoyable but slight, with few observations that seem fresh or new about a fish out of water in New York. Still, Duris and costars Reilly, Audrey Tautou and Cecile De France seem to be having a good time. It’s diverting, but insubstantial.

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“The Immigrant”: There are few directors working today who find ways to express seething emotions in a more subtle fashion than James Gray. His films are about people who struggle with – but can’t express – their feelings, even as those feelings take them over, consume them and drive them to desperate acts. So it is in this film, set on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s: Marion Cotillard is an arriving Polish immigrant, separated from her consumptive sister at Ellis Island and faced with deportation herself – until an angel appears in the form of the well-dressed Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who finds her a place to live and a job. Except that, as she quickly learns, while part of the work involves being a burlesque performer, that’s actually the advertising for her other role – as a prostitute. Phoenix makes a complex villain, a middle-man juggling debt, lust and ambition as he tries to move up. Cotillard has eyes that reveal deep sadness, even as she uses them to project death rays at Bruno. Jeremy Renner, as the stage magician who is her potential savior, brings an open-faced sincerity to the role. This fascinating look inside a specific demimonde roils with passion, but does it with a quiet intensity that is startlingly effective.

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