Friday, May 16, 2014


Opening this weekend…

GodzillaThere’s a fine melodramatic flourish near the beginning of this second American-made movie about the great beast. It involves Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston, and allows them both, but especially Cranston, to let it rip with some old school emoting. It gets the picture off to a promising start.

This doesn’t last, I’m disappointed to say. Though certainly an improvement on the 1998 U.S. version, the new movie plods. Binoche and Cranston are two of the best things it, and one of the movie’s troubles is that there isn’t nearly enough of them onscreen. Nor is there enough of Ken Watanabe, of Sally Hawkins, of David Strathairn, or of Elizabeth Olsen. The focus is on the Navy man hero, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is passably stalwart but not remotely as interesting as his costars.

More problematic still...there wasn’t enough of the title character here, for my taste. King Kong obviously excepted, no giant movie monster has as distinctive and oddly lovable a personality as Godzilla. The filmmakers give him quite a buildup here before his entrance, and unlike Roland Emmerich’s ‘98 Yankzilla, this one really does feel like an authentic incarnation of beast, with his blunt muzzle, his nettled expression and his squeaky-hinge roar.

The monster scenes are good—directed with an almost maddening sense of deliberation by Gareth Edwards, they have an uneasy ponderousness, a low-angle sense of peril, that many other films in this genre miss. But only at the end do we get a heavy dose of rampaging creature action, and by that time I was worn out by the banality of the plot and the dialogue. This Godzilla has many strong moments, but to assemble a fine cast around an iconic central presence and then not give any of them enough to do? That’s monstrous.

Million Dollar ArmAmerican sports agent J. B. Bernstein hits upon an idea to open India to baseball fandom: a reality TV show in which cricket “bowlers” compete to see who can throw fast enough, and accurately enough, that they might be a prospect as an MLB pitcher. Neither of the first year’s winners turns out to be a bowler; one specializes in the javelin. But both end up in Los Angeles, trying out for the Majors.

At least in its broad outlines, it’s a true story, though this sweet Disney movie doubtless makes it a little taller. Bernstein, played by Jon Hamm, is depicted as a desperate, scheming hustler who starts by exploiting the two homesick boys, both of whom come from poor provincial backgrounds, and gradually finds his soul by becoming a surrogate father to them. He’s also a ladies’ man who likes young models, and the boys see that his scrub-wearing, nurturing neighbor (the charming Lake Bell) is the better choice for him.

It isn’t as corny as it sounds. The screenwriter is Thomas McCarthy of The Station Agent and The Visitor, that master of unlikely ad hoc families, and he wrings most of the potential condescension out of the dialogue. Aided by a driving score by A. R. Rahman, the director, Craig Gillespie, keeps things crisp, as do the actors—Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal as the arms, Pitobash as an aspiring manager, and Bill Paxton as the earnest pitching coach Tom House. There’s also Alan Arkin as a curmudgeonly scout who keeps his eyes closed throughout the tryouts, because he can judge the speed of a pitch by the sound it makes in the catcher’s mitt.

And then there’s Hamm. He shows a scarily flawless surface in his Mad Men role, but as soon as he steps out of that character he becomes strangely disheveled and nerdy. This isn’t always a bad thing—he used this quality to excellent effect, for instance, in his supporting role in Ben Affleck’s The Town. It works for him in Million Dollar Arm, too—he comes across believably as a nice guy trying hard to be a heartless shark, and happily failing.

SkinlessPlaying for one show only, at 11:55 tonight at FilmBar Phoenix, this splatter parody concerns Dr. Peter Peel (Brandon Salkil), a brilliant young oncology researcher working, like many brilliant young oncology researchers, out of his basement. He has a malignancy on his shoulder, so despite countless examples of this proving a poor idea, he skips straight to human trials on a possible skin cancer cure, with himself as the guinea pig. Regret ensues.

Originally known under the (better, if less commercial) title The Ballad of Skinless Pete, this no-budgeter is the work of a young Cleveland-based writer-director named Dustin Wayde Mills. He’s by no means lacking in talent—he writes speakable, lucid dialogue, he obtains serviceable performances from his actors, and he structures the story coherently. It’s outrageously gruesome and deliberately sick, very definitely not for the squeamish, but it’s played with a deadpan wit that keeps it, overall, from seeming mean-spirited.

I just wish that young horror film makers could find a way to tell a gripping tale without reflexively turning to the trope of the young woman tied up, pleading and whimpering for her life. Skinless escapes contemptibility because, like Cronenberg’s The Fly (to which it pays homage) it has a heart. But I can’t say that I enjoyed the unsavory final act.

Still, Mills could quite conceivably make a classic horror film. Unlike the many modern-era movie horrors that are motivated by hatred of women, Skinless Pete, you see, is motivated by unrequited love—like the Phantom of the Opera, like King Kong, like the Creature of the Black Lagoon. I’m not placing Pete in their league, certainly, but neither am I suggesting that Mills could never create a movie monster that was.