McFarland, USA


Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

(2015) True Sports Drama (Disney) Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Diana Maria Riva, Omar Leyva, Valente Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher, Martha Higareda, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Ben Bray, Vanessa Martinez, Adriana Diaz Chapa. Directed by Niki Caro

The American dream is a finicky thing. We all want to achieve it, but there are places in this country where just surviving day to day is about all anyone can hope for. When that happens, we must learn to rely on each other to be our own safety net.

McFarland in California’s San Joaquin Valley is such a place. Made up mostly of farm workers (mostly of Mexican descent) on nearby agribusiness, the town touts itself as America’s Fruit Basket. The reality however is that there are few services and almost no money for what they do have.

Jim White (Costner) is coaching football at a suburban high school when he gets into an altercation with a spoiled brat of a player which ends up with a frustrated White throwing a shoe at the locker which then takes an unintended ricochet and hitting the player. Adios, tony suburban high school job and bienvenidos best job that he can get, in the middle of nowhere where the only restaurant in town has a six item menu and none of them are burgers.

White feels like a fish out of water and his family are also feeling like aliens. They are awakened every morning by a rooster crowing and none of them speak any amount of Spanish. He’s the new P.E. coach at McFarland high, as well as the assistant football coach and he’s not even that when he refuses to put a player in who is exhibiting signs of a concussion and the head coach demands that Principal Camillo (V. Rodriguez) remove the prickly assistant coach, which Camillo does although he can’t really afford to fire him, since they have no substitutes or back-ups. So White continues as the P.E. teacher as well as a life sciences teacher.

One of the things that White notices is that some of his kids – most of whom get up at 4 AM to go out and work in the fields before coming to school for 8 hours and then returning to the fields until dark – are incredibly fast and durable owing to that many of them run from school to the fields miles away every day and have been since they were ten or twelve years old. With the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body of high school athletics in the Golden State, initiating a statewide cross country championship (this takes place in 1987 just for the record) White has a brilliant idea; establish a cross country team, do well enough to get some attention and then get a job offer in some civilized suburban community where he and his long-suffering wife (Bello) and kids, young Jamie (Fisher) and soon-to-graduate Julie (Saylor) belong.

He recruits a team by hook or by crook and ends up with mercurial Thomas Valles (Pratts), the swiftest of the bunch; Johnny Sameniego (Duran), an easygoing sort; David (R. Martinez) and Damacio (Aguero) Diaz as well as their chunky but all-heart brother Danny Diaz (R. Rodriguez) and lady’s man Jose Cardenas (Ortiz). They have raw talent but not a lot of technique or discipline – nor a lot of desire in what they consider to be a foolish pursuit. Cross country is, after all, a sport for prep schools and rarefied air.

What they do have however is a solid work ethic, ingrained in them by their hours in the fields, and a sense of family and community. In fact the latter is central to the existence of McFarland – everybody in McFarland is family, to the point that Jim’s wife is moved to say “No place has ever felt like home to me as much as this one.”

Still, as the team begins to get some success, White begins to attract the attention of schools like Palo Alto High, who have a large budget and a history of winning. With the state championships within reach, will Jim commit to his runners the same way they’ve committed to him or will he move on and get the kind of lifestyle he always dreamed of?

This could easily have been just another sports underdog movie and there are always a few of them every year. Disney seems to be the most active purveyor of them, and in all fairness they have brought it down to a science. There are some formulaic aspects to most of these movies – the introduction, the first failed attempts, the coming together, the falling apart, the reuniting and the triumph – and some of those are present here. When you’re watching one, you know intellectually that the team/individual is going to triumph. Nobody, after all, wants to go to a movie to see someone fail.

Therefore it’s the journey to that triumph that makes these sorts of movies successful and the reason McFarland USA succeeds is that the filmmakers in the person of director Niki (Whale Rider) Caro from New Zealand who shows a surprising empathy for the Mexican-American culture. We are shown how they support one another and the innate friendliness and warmth of the people. Sure, there’s crime (there is a scene where White mistakes a car club for a Latino gang and later a real gang takes on the car club) but there always is where there is poverty and there’s plenty of that to go around in McFarland.

Although the racial aspect is played up, the filmmakers surprisingly kind of gloss over the racism directed to the McFarland team (one elitist runner makes a few cracks but is shut down by one of the runners for McFarland early in the movie) and towards the McFarland community in general; I would have liked to have seen that avenue explored a little more but I’m not surprised that it wasn’t; Disney is sensitive about such things and tend to turn a blind eye even in films in which those elements are a central feature. The Mouse, after all, prefers a world where such ugliness doesn’t exist.

But exist it does, so you’ll have to just assume that the team endured rougher treatment than is shown here. Generally speaking, the film isn’t about that in any case – the movie celebrates the sense of community that the Mexican-Americans of McFarland have created.

Costner tends to thrive on these sorts of roles and he does so here, giving White a kind of craggy resourcefulness and a willingness to learn about the culture into which he’s been thrust (he goes out on a Saturday morning to pick cabbage with his students in order to experience what they’re going through). The more he bonds with his team, the more about the culture he becomes involved with.  After missing his daughter’s birthday dinner, he throws her a quinceanera, a Mexican celebration of a young girl’s 15th birthday which is a really big deal in that culture. It’s one of the movie’s most charming scenes.

Most of the Hispanic cast is solid, with Mora getting plaudits as a friendly store owner and Leyva as a skeptical dad who wants to pull his sons from the team – every moment they’re practicing with the team they’re not working in the fields and that means money not going into the family’s pocket or more to the point, food not going onto their table. Riva plays his wife, one of those no-nonsense practical Mexican wives that in Southern California are as common as palm trees and as beautiful in their own way as the Pacific.

Some critics have accused the movie about being patronizing towards Hispanics in that the movie portrays White as the unifying force that brings the team together and inspires them to win, sort of a “they couldn’t have done it without him great white hope” sort of thing. I didn’t see it that way; for one thing, the reality of the situation is that this predominantly Hispanic high school did have a white cross country coach and he did lead them to an amazing run of success, but the movie isn’t about a white guy showing the Hispanics how to do it – if anything, he learns more from them than they do from him.

 

I found myself drawn in by the film. Sure it has all the cliches of a typical underdog true life sports movie, but then again I’m a sucker for those cliches so it doesn’t bother me quite so much. What I really liked was the sense of family and community spirit that the movie celebrates. While I can’t say for certain that every Hispanic community is like that, I know that they do continue to exist and I, for one, wouldn’t mind living in that sort of community myself.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely promotes a sense of family and community. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit formulaic. Could have tackled racism aspect harder.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language, brief violence and some thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner attended high school for one year in Visalia, only 40 miles north of McFarland.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Maps to the Stars

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Need for Speed


Let's race bitches!

Let’s race bitches!

(2014) Action (DreamWorks) Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson, Steve Ray Dallimore, Alan Pflueger, Brian L. Keaulana, Logan Holliday, Carmela Zumbado, Jalil Jay Lynch, Nick Chinlund, Chad Randall, Buddy Joe Hooker, Rich Rutherford, Tara Jones. Directed by Scott Waugh

Video games are fun. At least, that’s the general point of them. What could be more fun than playing a racing game, driving expensive cars you could never afford in cross country races and causing motorcar chaos in the form of multiple crashes? Why, doing it for real of course.

Tobey Marshall (Paul) is a brooding young man grieving for the recent passing of his dad. Dear old dad owned a high-end auto shop in bucolic Mt. Kisco, New York where Tobey makes a reputation for being a crackerjack racer. He and his crew – tech-savvy Finn (Malek), boyish daredevil and hero-worshipper of Tobey (not to mention occasional psychic) Little Pete (Gilbertson), worldly Joe (Rodriguez) and high flying Benny (Mescudi) – fix cars, hang out and watch the shop slowly wither away.

In comes Dino Brewster (Cooper), a rival of Tobey’s once upon a time who stole Tobey’s girl Anita (Johnson) who also happens to be Little Pete’s sister and went on to leave Mt. Kisco to drive for NASCAR. He’s since left the NASCAR circuit for reasons never fully explained and has gotten hold of a Mustang that legendary car customizer Carroll Shelby was working on prior to his death in 2012. If Tobey can finish the car, he’ll get a 25% split of the sale which Dino thinks will be in the $2 million range. Although Tobey doesn’t trust Dino as far as he could use him as a wrench, he needs the money so he and his crew get busy.

The car turns out to be more than anyone expected and Dino easily finds a buyer, wealthy Bill Ingram (Dallimore) whose representative, Julia Maddon (Poots) turns out to be a cheeky blonde Brit with a preference for Gucci boots. They agree to pay $2.7 million for the car. Everyone’s happy, right?

Wrong. Dino and Tobey are still bickering and decide to settle it behind the wheel. Little Pete wants in on the action. The three go street racing in identical Koenigsegg Ageras that Dino happens to have. During the ensuing race which Tobey looks to win, Dino purposely bumps into Little Pete’s car, sending it flying through the air and off a bridge, sending Little Pete off to a fiery grave.

Dino manages to convince the cops that he wasn’t there and of course the dozens of motorists who nearly or actually get into crashes because of the racers don’t notice the flaming red sports car so Tobey is sent to jail on a vehicular manslaughter charge for two years. When he gets out of jail two years after the fact, he’s lost everything. All he has left is vengeance masquerading as justice and the only way to do it is the De Leon, an underground street race run by an eccentric billionaire (Keaton) in which he can prove he’s the better driver once and for all.

To do that he’ll need a car and he gets one – the Mustang. However, Ingram insists that Julia accompany the car. After all, what billionaire wants to risk putting a car worth $2.7 million into the hands of an ex-con so he can run an illegal street race, right?

Look, this is based on a videogame, not an Oprah Book Club selection. Logic was never going to be the strong suit here, but  even so this movie is riddled with holes that even the least sensible of viewers is going to scratch their heads and say “But..but…” over. All I ask for in a movie is at least a little bit of common sense. There are so many elephants in the movie that are ignored that you can’t help but question how much respect the filmmakers had for their intended audience. Gamers aren’t idiots after all.

There are some saving graces to the film though. Paul, for one. While Tobey is a brooding, taciturn hero who doesn’t have a whole lot to say, Paul has all the charisma you would want a big screen leading man to have. He has the cred of his Breaking Bad work to keep the target audience from rejecting the film version out of hand.  Poots is a terrific actress still searching for a role deserving of her talents and once again she is wasted here. Someone needs to find the woman a better agent.

Likewise the movie gets points for doing their car stunts with practical effects rather than through CGI. Cars fly through the air, speed through city streets and country roads and crash into each other willy-nilly. Some of the stunts are pretty spectacular although there are only so many things you can do with a car that haven’t been done before. It sure is fun watching the filmmakers turn multi-million dollar cars that thee and me could never possibly afford to drive into oversized paperweights which seems to be the main attraction to this movie. Sadly, it doesn’t break the streak of really bad videogame adaptations from Hollywood. You’d think that someone somewhere could make a decent movie out of a videogame that isn’t a horror franchise. Just sayin’.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty racing sequences. Great cars. Paul shows he has what it takes to be a lead actor on the big screen.

REASONS TO STAY: Lackluster logic-challenged plot. Overly long and repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language, some disturbing car crash scenes, nudity and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul was originally being considered to play Dino Brewster but after executive producer Steven Spielberg and Waugh binge watched Breaking Bad they both decided he would be more suitable as the lead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fast and the Furious

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Tim’s Vermeer