After watching about 6,000 films on video and DVD since this column began in April 1983, I thought I had seen it all.
But then along comes a movie that combines baseball, cricket,singer Susan Boyle and a former Dunstable schoolboy.
Based on a true story, MILLION DOLLAR ARM (PG: Walt Disney) follows JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a once-successful sports agent who now finds himself edged out by bigger, slicker competitors. He will have to close the business for good if he doesn’ t come up with something fast.
Then late one night, a fleeting moment of TV channel-hopping inspiration involving a cricket match in India and – no joke – Susan Boyle’s viral performance of I Dreamed A Dream gives him a career-resuscitating idea.
Why not go there and find the next baseball pitching sensation?
Setting off for Mumbai with nothing but a gifted but cantankerous scout (Alan Arkin) in tow, JB stages a televised, nationwide competition called Million Dollar Arm where 40,000 hopefuls compete before two 18-year-old finalists emerge as winners.
JB brings them back to the United States to train with legendary pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). The goal is to get the boys signed to a major league team, but not only is the game itself difficult to master, life in the US with a committed bachelor makes things even more complicated.
While the boys learn the finer points of baseball and American culture, they in turn teach JB the true meaning of teamwork and commitment.
The film aims to be the American national pastime’s Slumdog Millionaire, a First World–meets–Third World melodrama with sport as the grand uniter. Every emotional beat is calculated, not least when the imported fastball slingers watch The Pride Of The Yankees, starring ex-Dunstable Grammar School pupil Gary Cooper, and remark on its tear-jerking effectiveness.
> Written and directed by Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, ARE YOU HERE (15: Lionsgate) is an American comedy with few laughs.
Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis) is a man-child who lives on his friend’s couch getting high. His friend, Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), is a moderately successful weather reporter who is living a superficial life.
When Ben receives word that his father has died, Steve drives him home and they re-connect with Ben’s successful and driven sister Terri and hippie stepmother Angela, who is the same age as they are.
The reading of the will drives Ben to come up with a new purpose in life, but those around him are not supportive.
> GOD’S POCKET (15: Arrow Films), featuring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final performances, is a violent, deadpan drama of wiseguys and stupid guys.
Set in a small east-coast town in the early 1980s, John Turturro and Hoffman play Bird and Mickey, a duo on the fringes of the mob working in meat-packing. Mickey is married to Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), whose obnoxious son from an earlier relationship dies in a mysterious workplace incident. It’s a catastrophe that up-ends everyone’s lives, further complicated when an alcoholic newspaper columnist (Richard Jenkins) gets involved.
The action shunts from melodramatic to bizarre to sentimental, yet it makes a very plausible whole, and Hoffman is great.