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July 26, 2014

Movie reviews: ‘Godzilla,’ ‘Million Dollar Arm’

“Godzilla” (PG-13) *** (out of 4)

The King of All Monsters is back and bigger than ever with “Godzilla,” a thrilling action adventure that stomps out all memories of Hollywood’s disastrous remake of the famed Japanese cinematic creation in 1998.

The movie is unique in that it creates somewhat a new mythology for Godzilla, in that we find out through a brilliant opening sequence that all the nuclear tests the U.S. was conducting in the Pacific in the 1950s weren’t tests after all, but attempts to keep the amphibious monster at bay. It turns out to be an ill-advised plan, because Godzilla and other unknown creatures effectively feed on nuclear energy, and it’s only a matter of time before they rear their ugly heads.

The key to “Godzilla’s” success is that the filmmakers make a concerted effort to tell a compelling story with great actors (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are among them), a plan that works well until about an hour in, when Godzilla and an enemy that looks like a cross between a praying mantis and the “Cloverfield” monster finally show up in earnest. No amount of dialogue can match the sheer awesomeness of these creatures going at each other, and the attempt to make any story plausible after that is all but thrown out the window.

Cranston fans should know that “Godzilla” does pull somewhat of a bait-and-switch move, especially since the “Breaking Bad” star is all over the promos but really ends up being a supporting player at best. “Godzilla” is Taylor-Johnson’s movie, and he’s well capable of the lead – at least until the monsters come along. Fans of the classic Godzilla (aka the guy in the rubber suit stomping on toy trains) will revel in the look of the new, 325-foot-tall monster, which definitely pays homage to the original. Plus, he roars like the Godzilla we all know and love. Despite its flaws, “Godzilla” is ultimately a great nostalgia trip that’s smartly infused with modern sensibilities.

“Million Dollar Arm” (PG) *** (out of four)

A dozen years after the success of the baseball-themed Dennis Quaid hit “The Rookie,” Disney is going back to the dugout for inspiration with “Million Dollar Arm,” a unique true story of how a down-on-his-luck sports agent (Jon Hamm) attempts to mine talent in the most unlikely of places.

Hamm stars as J.B. Bernstein, who travels to India to find a pair of would-be pitchers that he can bring back to the U.S. in hopes to solicit interest from Major League Baseball clubs. After successfully staging an Indian reality competition called “Million Dollar Arm,” J.B. soon finds out getting his prospects to the next level – complicated by an abrupt change in the players’ cultures and his own, complicated life – is not as easy as it seems.

Disney is clearly targeting the family audience here, and to that end succeeds in crafting a feel-good tale that’s amplified by footage of the real people at the conclusion of the movie. From a cinematic standpoint, “Million Dollar Arm” is borderline sappy, but fine performances by Hamm, and supporting players Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin (as a veteran pitching coach and scout, respectively), keep the movie grounded. Surah Sharma (Pi in “Life of Pi”) and Madhur Mittal (“Slumdog Millionaire”) bring a perfect amount of innocence to the pair of Indian pitching prospects, making “Million Dollar Arm” all the more engaging.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Twin Cities radio stations.