Movie Review: “Million Dollar Arm”

Starring
Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, Aasif Mandvi
Director
Craig Gillespie

For about seven years, Disney cornered the market on ‘true sports’ movies (“Remember the Titans,” “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” etc.). Unfortunately, that seventh year was eight years ago, which makes “Million Dollar Arm” quite the fish out of water. Perhaps Disney thinks that this is the one that will start the next wave of true sports movies. They’d be mistaken, though: the movie is at least 20 minutes too long and spends too much time setting up the redemption of the lead character. It boasts solid performances from the supporting cast, and has heart and smarts to spare, but even this diehard baseball fan was looking at his watch before the credits rolled.

Sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is running out of options. The upstart firm that he started with friend and colleague Aash (Aasif Mandvi) is nearly broke and has no roster to speak of. When his chance at reeling in a big fish goes south, J.B. realizes that he needs an angle, something no one else has considered in terms of global scouting. Inspired by Aash’s love of cricket, J.B. decides to head to India to hold a competition to find the next great baseball pitcher in a country rich with athletic talent. The two finalists are Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, who looks like an Indian Bruno Mars), and J.B. takes these two boys, who have never left the towns in which they were born, to Los Angeles, and expects that they will be fine on their own in a hotel. Hey, he’s a single guy, and he doesn’t have time to be an agent and a role model and a caretaker. He has deals to make and women to bed, people!

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Greg Mottola (“Clear History”)

Greg Mottola first came to prominence as the director of the indie comedy “The Daytrippers,” but he began a much quicker rise in mainstream recognition when he helmed the comedies “Superbad” and “Adventureland.” Currently, Mottola is making the rounds to support his work as the director of Larry David’s new HBO movie, “Clear History,” but he’s not entirely confident if the word “director” really sums up his efforts on the film. Bullz-Eye chatted with Mottola during the TCA press tour, and we talked about how surprisingly easy David is to work with, how he came to appear in a couple of Woody Allen films as an actor, and what a hassle – and what fun – it was to make “Paul.”

GregMottola

Bullz-Eye: So directing Larry David has got to be at least somewhat of a challenge.

Greg Mottola: Um…

BE: I’m not saying good or bad, just…challenging.

GM: It’s… Well, I mean, the process was so specific. I don’t even know if my job title should be called “director” on this movie. [Laughs.] “Associate collaborator” is probably closer to it. But that’s the way it should be. I’m not sure if, in the press notes, they talk so much about how we made it, but essentially it’s the same way Larry does “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with some key differences. But Larry writes a script-ment, they call it, so this was about 35 pages of paragraphs of what happens in this scene, with an occasional line of dialogue or joke that Larry or his co-writers thought, “Oh, we should definitely get that in.” So they write that in, but, really, no other dialogue.

And we get to the set, we walk through the scene, and we’ll just sort of block it very generally. Like, “You’re gonna enter from that door, you’re gonna be sitting here, you’re gonna come over here, talk about this, you’re gonna leave.” Y’know, just sort of walk through all the little bits of blocking, but never rehearse it at all. So the first time anyone is acting, the cameras are rolling. And it’s usually two cameras, sometimes three if we can squeeze another one in there. And Larry by and large never does the same thing twice. [Laughs.] So as a director, you’re constantly strategizing, “Okay, we did that one time, I’d like to try and get something like that line, maybe in a tighter size, so…let’s switch lenses right now while we’re in the zone, and we’ll swap back and do wide shots again.” So you’re constantly just sort of improvising the directing style as everyone’s improvising the lines.

MottolaDavid

So directing Larry is just sort of endless conferences between takes about, “We’d like this from that, we didn’t like that,” just sort of honing in on what worked, sometimes stopping entirely and saying, “This doesn’t work at all, let’s start from scratch and just approach it completely differently and do a different version of the scene.” And that happened a few times. We’d have two completely different versions of the same scene…and usually the one that ends up in the movie is the second one. You know, the one thing about Larry is that he’s an absolute pleasure to work with. Despite his sort of screen persona and his point of view about human nature, which—between “Seinfeld” and “Curb”—is pretty clear… [Laughs.] He’s a really happy guy! He’s a guy who walks around whistling and practicing his golf swing. He’s, like, in a good mood 99% of the time. So it’s great to work with him.

BE: I…can’t really wrap my head around that.

GM: [Laughs.] It is hard to believe.

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Three Days in LA: A 2013 ESPY Awards adventure

LA 106

I knew it was going to be an interesting trip to Los Angeles when I met actor Colin Farrell at LAX baggage claim upon arrival. Minutes later, I bumped my shoulder into Olympic legend Michael Phelps’ tightly toned torso while wildly retrieving my luggage from the baggage carousel.

Here is the actual transcript of our meeting:

“Whoa. Hi Michael, excuse me. That bag kinda got away from me there for a second.”

“No problem, how are you?”

“I am good, nice to see you.”

Turning my attention, and body, towards the exit, I again saw Farrell, this time attempting to lay low in the shadows as people began to recognize him as “that one guy from ‘SWAT.’”

Suddenly, five punky paparazzo exploded off the elevator and surged towards the helpless Farrell, who was now pacing back and forth, alone, waiting for his luggage, while having a conversation on his cell phone that was going nowhere. He was adamant about needing a ride immediately, but his urgency was neither acknowledged nor reciprocated.

A pair of 50-something (but don’t tell them that) Latinas spotted him, exclaiming with glee to everyone within earshot that Farrell was, in fact, “right by them.”

The ladies bum rushed him and made their jerky husband take several pictures while they posed, Farrell maintaining a state of disinterest throughout the experience. 30 people stood around and watched, mouths agape.

Metaphorically, Farrell was naked in front of his high school assembly, with no publicist or agent in sight to deflect or protect, and the verbal potshots began to pile up.

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Weekly Web Series Review: Between Two Ferns

Hosted by Zach Galifianakis at his most awkward, “Between Two Ferns” represents what television talk shows might actually be like in a much more interesting world. Filmed to look like a low-budget public access show, but with big-name celebrity guests, the series mines uncomfortable humor to the fullest. Galifianakis frequently mispronounces the names of his guests and openly insults them, creating an environment of hostility that often feels almost too real. When not blatantly mispronouncing names, he is prone to making intentionally terrible puns out of them, like when he asks Jon Hamm if his middle name is “Honey-Baked,” or if he has considered changing his name to something like “Stewart Turkey-Link.”

The discomfort starts strong right out of the gate in the first episode, in which Galifianakis basically molests Michael Cera. There is a common thread of one-sided sexual tension in many of the episodes, and certainly not just with the female guests, though it may be strongest in the episode featuring Natalie Portman. It is a testament to her skill as an “acteress” that this episode is one of the most authentic, as if she were actually just in the midst of a nightmarish interview set up by the most incompetent agent imaginable. Other episodes are more clearly staged, and perhaps the weakest is the one with Will Ferrell, if only because the two are generally too chummy with each other, at least until the end.

The series is at its best when Galifianakis is openly hostile to his guests, like the episodes featuring Ben Stiller and “Brad Lee Cooper.” Though this hostility is common throughout the series, only “Conan O. Brien” gets an explanation, which is that Galifianakis thought he had a shot at “The Tonight Show.” Another especially convincing episode features Galifianakis’ “twin brother,” Seth, interviewing a wooden-faced Sean Penn, who really seems like he might haul off and punch Galifianakis at any moment. As with Portman, it is Penn’s acting skill that pulls off the joke so well.

A pitch-perfect spoof of bad, desperate public access talk shows, “Between Two Ferns” is easily one of the best offerings from the always enjoyable Funny or Die. Even the opening and closing theme music feels authentic, though it is actually lifted from Bernard Herrmann‘s “Taxi Driver” score, which adds to Galifianakis’ creepy, angry vibe. I’m not sure how well it would work as a full-length show on television, but in the small segments available online, it is hilarious.

  

Weekly Web Series Review: Smart Girls at the Party

Described by host Amy Poehler as “a celebration of real friendship, real fellowship, and a kind of community with other girls,” the web series “Smart Girls at the Party” is a kind-hearted, fun and educational program for kids and their parents alike, but especially for young girls. Often specifically focusing on girls who enjoy activities traditionally thought of as being more for boys, the series enjoyed a significant viewership boost in its first season when it introduced its youngest interviewee, seven-year-old Ruby, who speaks precociously about feminism. Its most-viewed episode to date features a 14-year-old boxer named Precela, and another highlight features a young robotics engineer named Rachel.

These are the “girls who are changing the world by being themselves,” in the words of Poehler, who hosts the show with the tongue-in-cheek seriousness of a news anchor before ending each episode with a dance party. Along with producer Meredith Walker and musical director Amy Miles, Poehler explores the special talents and interests of each girl – or in a few episodes, groups of girls – and interviews them, always ending on a “very serious question,” such as “pizza or cotton candy?” or “which is cuter, a baby panda or a baby monkey?” However, despite poking fun at self-serious interview questions, the series never makes fun of the girls or treats them or their interests with cynicism or irony. Instead, it clearly aims to imbue its young audience with a sense of self-worth and individuality, without being boring or preachy.

Now in its second season, the series has markedly improved from its first few episodes, adding a “World Famous 20 Second Song” segment for Miles and boasting higher production values. There are also some familiar faces in the dance parties that parents will enjoy spotting, including Poehler’s husband Will Arnett (who returns from the first season), as well as her “Parks and Recreation co-stars Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza. Look closely and you’ll also spot folks like Jon Hamm, David Cross and Jack McBrayer in later episodes. With its own new channel on YouTube, “Smart Girls at the Party” is slicker and more fun than ever, and is highly recommended for viewing with children, especially daughters, between the ages of five and fifteen.

  

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