Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Based on a True Story at the Capitol: The Railway Man and Million Dollar Arm

Two nights, two movies probably closer to the end of their runs at the Capitol than the beginnings. Both of them made sure the audience knew that they were based on true stories, and I always wonder how different filmmakers feel about that. Do they look at it as a crutch, like the producers hedged their bets on whether the filmmakers could get the feeling they were looking for to fully come across without telling the audience that this was Real Stuff that had happened to Real People, or is it freeing? Leaps of God fortune that may have seemed unlikely or lazy on the part of writers creating them from whole cloth are okay if they really happened, right?

I certainly felt a little uncomfortable pointing out that bits of these two movies really weren't structured well, with The Railway Man in particular going for a motivational trick I didn't much like. But if it happened, can I really fault the movie for including it, even if it would be ugly writing in something entirely fictional? I tend to think you can, especially in a case like The Railway Man where they have already compressed events fairly severely (or at least given the appearance of doing so, since it's not like dates appear on screen after establishing that Eric and Patti meet in 1980; it taking place over years might explain why the amount of gray in Eric's hair seems to fluctuate with his state of mind). If the story doesn't make a good movie, either don't make the movie or take the liberties necessary.

On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining being a writer and consciously deciding to change some documented fact for the script. Creating dialog is one thing, but inserting something you know to be untrue would seem like crossing a line that has creation, interpretation, and extrapolation on one side and lying on the other. It's got to be a really weird feeling, and I almost wonder if you have to practice it as an exercise before being comfortable doing it in a script or book that others will see and use.

Ah, well, I'll worry about it more when it applies to more interesting movies. For now, I think tomorrow is The Railway Man's last night at the Capitol, while Million Dollar Arm will be hanging around there and maybe a few other theaters for another week or so.

The Railway Man

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2014 in Arlington Capitol #2 (first-run, DCP)

This is a movie seemingly designed for awards consideration that the Weinstein Company released in April, and while that may just be an example of them deciding another horse was a safer bet... Well, Philomena was the safer bet for a reason. The Railway Man has all the right intentions but little more, winding up as blandly by-the-numbers a take on this sort of story as you can imagine.

The story is that of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a railway enthusiast of about sixty when the audience meets him in 1980, which is when he meets newly-single Patti (Nicole Kidman) - on a train, of course. They are soon married, and Patti learns that Eric's PTSD can sometimes be crippling. She eventually gets his platoon-mate Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaard) to tell the story of how they were taken prisoner in Singapore during World War II, with Eric (Jeremy Irvine) in particular tortured at the hands of the Japanese, in particular translator Takeshi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) - who, out turns out, is still alive and conducting tours of the old prison camp.

This leads to the pair having an enjoyably confrontational sit-down, and it's at that point that the movie really crackles for the first time, as it's just Colin Firth, Hiroyuki Sanada, and an implied threat in a room. Part of that implied threat is sort of directed at the movie itself, as many in the audience will find themselves cringing at the prospect of this fine cast being put together just to lead up to an extended sequence of grim and bloody revenge. It absolutely needs to be a possibility in order to keep the tension in that room high, but it starts to seem like a much stronger possibility than it might otherwise be when the audience realizes that there is nothing particularly holding things back.

Full review at EFC

Million Dollar Arm

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 June 2014 in Arlington Capitol #5 (first-run, DCP)

When the events that inspired Million Dollar Arm were playing out... Well, they mostly flew under the radar of all but the most maniacal baseball fans, but when they did finally start to capture the imagination, it was more for the fish-out-of-water story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel than how a sports agent took a big risk in setting it up. And while J.B. Bernstein certainly has an interesting story to tell, whether this movie is best served by making it the primary focus is a fair question.

J.B. (Jon Hamm) and his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) started their own sports agency a while back, but with new clients hard to come by, they are desperate to find new talent, coming up with the novel plan of running a televised contest in India to find young cricket bowlers who could become major league pitchers. With the help of local fixer Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), intern Amit (Pitobash), and former big-league scout Ray (Alan Arkin), J.B. eventually unearths Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), bringing them back to train with former big-league pitcher Tom House (Bill Paxton). Circumstances have the visitors staying with J.B. in his house, although his other tenant (Lake Bell) does better reaching them than he does.

Despite a release timed to the start of the MLB season, there actually isn't much baseball in Million Dollar Arm at all. That makes sense within the context of the story at first - it is focused on just finding raw talent - but as the film goes on, this seems to become a set of missed opportunities, and not just because I and others who might buy tickets like watching baseball. Sports is a natural way to tell a story about refining that raw talent and passion into something more focused (even if it's about a hustling agent becoming more of a family man), but you've go it to get into the game to draw those lines. Instead, the baseball in this movie is just throwing at a target, which makes one wonder how compelling a TV show the contest was, and a couple of supporting actor are underused: Alan Arkin cruises through as the cranky old scout while Bill Paxton improves every scene he's in as unconventional coach Tom House enough that it's a shame we don't get to see him actually teaching Rinku & Dinesh much at all.

Full review at EFC

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