New films: Godzilla, Million Dollar Arm, Belle

godzilla

Godzilla
Directed by Gareth Edwards

“Godzilla” is one of those flawed movies where the flaws don’t really matter. After all, with that title, most audience members probably haven’t shown up looking for great character development and arcs. Which is good, because there aren’t any.

What there is, instead, is plenty of good creature feature action, with more ancient kaiju than either the title or the previews might suggest. Indeed, with hindsight, the preview for “Godzilla” feels like it was made for a different movie. But it’s a slow build up, in that regard, with little of the big guy himself until the second half of the film – and while it’s unlikely anybody will go home feeling short-changed, they might have felt a little impatient at times along the way.

We’re given a storyline that ties things like past nuclear testing and power station failures with appearances of giant creatures that feed on radiation, with prior occurrences shrouded in secrecy and cover ups. Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are American scientists working at a Japanese nuclear facility when weird seismic patterns are discovered immediately prior to the destruction of the plant. Years later, Joe is still trying to find answers as their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) gets dragged into his world of apparent paranoia and conspiracy theories. Of course, he’s not crazy at all, as another pair of scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) who are studying the creatures (apparently quite incompetently) realize a little too late.

Much of these developments seems geared towards doing little more than putting Ford into the middle of the action, where he would otherwise have no place being. And the film walks that fine line, plotwise, of always having certain characters coincidentally in the right (or wrong) place at the right time. If the hero gets sent away from the action, you can feel pretty confidant that the action will conveniently follow him.

As the cited cast members might suggest, this is a film that has tried to add some quality acting and even a dash of gravitas to the proceedings, along with additional cast members David Strathairn and Elizabeth Olsen. But, with the exception of Taylor-Johnson in the lead (human) role, none are given much to do. Cranston is the setup guy, launching the film on its way from under a couple of awful looking wigs (or a really bad haircut that looks like a couple of awful wigs) and Watanabe seems present only so that at least one person in the film can repeatedly say “Godzilla” with a Japanese accent. But the three female actors have it worse, with Binoche, Hawkins, and Olsen doing little more than reacting to the male characters around them.

None of which matters, as stated earlier, because the audience isn’t present to see Academy Award winning acting, they’re here to see Academy Award caliber special effects and CGI – and they get plenty of those things in both Godzilla and a couple of other Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or MUTOs. One of the neat things about the film is how unimportant the people are – not just the acting performances but humanity in the story. This is about an ancient rivalry playing itself out that we just happen to be witnessing (and inadvertently affecting with our nuclear arms and power stations) – it’s not about us as being the dominant species as so many stories are.

If you go into “Godzilla” with a love of monster movie and at least a little patience, it shouldn’t disappoint. And it looks set to leave a suitably large footprint on the weekend, having grossed more in late Thursday screenings than the most recent Spider-Man episode managed.

 

Million Dollar Arm
Directed by Craig Gillespie

In another modestly fun movie, opening this week, Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein (or just J.B.), a struggling sports agent who comes up with a seemingly crazy idea to save his failing business. Based on a true story, the film depicts J.B. flipping through the TV channels and seeing both Indian cricket and “Britain’s Got Talent” and coming up with the idea of scouting India for prospective baseball talent, using a talent search format, assuming that there must be at least some young cricketers who could be taught to play baseball.

One of the funny circumstances depicted is that, unbeknownst to J.B., neither of the two primary candidates he finds even enjoy cricket, let alone play it. One had previously played field hockey, a sport almost equally unknown among U.S. males, and the other was training as a javelin thrower.

But much of the enjoyment here, as well as much of the spirit of the film, comes from the clash of cultures and values. For J.B., this starts out simply as a money-making venture to save him from his underwater business, house, etc. But it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, or several lifetimes, for the young Indian men he finds – for whom his house and lifestyle were previously beyond even the realm of dreams. In this regard, it’s an interesting reminder of the enormous wealth gap between countries as depicted by J.B.’s “first world problems.” And these are young men who come from a culture with strong religious ties and family structures who find J.B.’s secular, single life difficult to appreciate.

There’s also inherent humor in the transition from sport to sport. My own professional background included many years working in sports camps and a brief scene in which the two players put on a baseball glove for the first time is something I’ve seen countless times with non-U.S. athletes who grew up playing cricket, or other sports, and catching balls bare handed. This isn’t just about familiarity with equipment, there’s a muscle memory and psychological aspect to catching with and without a glove – and if you’ve grown up not using them, you tend not to even have your hand in the right place in relation to the ball when attempting to use a mitt. That said, one of the odd things about the premise of the real-life story is that it would probably be easier to convert a star cricket fielder into a star baseball fielder, than to convert a star cricket bowler into a star baseball pitcher.

In addition to Hamm, who is barely (and not always) out of Don Draper (“Mad Men”) guise here, the film includes Aasif Mandvi as his cricket-loving business partner, Lake Bell as his guest house tenant (who provides a much needed opportunity for J.B. to vent about his experiences in India over Skype – much needed for J.B. and also much needed as a narrative device), Alan Arkin as a retired baseball scout who’s low on both energy and price, and Bill Paxton as the coach who’s given little time to retrain muscles and brains. Additionally, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal are solid as the two players, and comic relief is provided by Pitobash who plays their minder and translator.

“Million Dollar Arm” would probably be a tougher sell as a concept if it wasn’t actually a true story. And the extensive collection of photographs that appear over the end credits suggest that many of the circumstances depicted in the film are very closely recreated from reality. It’s a neat story and a neat film that survives the Disneyesque formula feeling by actually matching that formula head on, for real.

 

Belle
Directed by Amma Asante

“Belle” is another film based on a true story. The actual person represented in the film, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the illegitimate daughter of a British naval officer and a slave of African descent. She lived during the late 18th Century, during a period marked by court proceedings and changes in the law regarding slavery in Britain.

Her father came from a distinguished family and was the nephew of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Britain’s Lord Chief Justice (or highest ranking judge). This meant that after her mother’s death and given her father’s absence at sea, Dido was raised by Murray and his wife at their country estate.

During this same period of time, Murray was presiding over the appeal of a case that involved the slave ship Zong and he had previously ruled slavery illegal within Britain in Somerset v Stewart (1772). In the Zong case, the ship’s crew had thrown many of their human cargo overboard, and later claimed that this was necessary as there was too little water on board to sustain all those on board. However, those claimed circumstances were challenged in court when the ship’s insurers refused to reimburse the owners for the loss of life.

It’s hard to determine just how accurate the story in the film is, as other accounts suggest that the actual circumstances of Dido’s life and that of her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, who was also being raised by William Murray and his wife despite not being their child, were quite different and to some extent reversed. Similarly, the film appears to stray from certain historical details regarding marriages and later positions in life. The film also seems to take some liberties with the details of the Zong case, perhaps to simplify the circumstances and make things appear a little less legally ambiguous. It also seems to combine the moral arguments and some of the language of the Somerset and Zong cases and the film’s narrative exists as though the Somerset case hadn’t previously occurred.

So if it’s taken as a historical account, the film would probably fall woefully short. If taken, instead, as a true-ish story of the unlikely life of a young woman of mixed race in British upper class society, against the backdrop of social change and legal turmoil in Britain at that time, it fares much better. In that context, the narrative is strong (even if inaccurate) and the historic significance of the events being (somewhat inaccurately) depicted remains profound. But even if it’s enjoyed in that way, it’s worth a little further investigation into the actual circumstances of those being depicted.

The film is well acted, with several notable actors delivering solid if not outstanding work. These include Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, Emily Watson as his wife, Penelope Wilton as another Murray family member, Miranda Richardson as the mother of two potential suitors, and Tom Felton as her more odious son (complete with full Draco Malfoy levels of unpleasantness). The less well known Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon are also good in the roles of Dido and Elizabeth Murray respectively.

So perhaps not a good pick for historians or legal scholars, but a decent pick for audiences looking for an uplifting story, with a female lead, and (along with “Million Dollar Arm”) seeking counter-programming for monsters and superheroes.

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May 16, 2014 | 2:56 PM

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