Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

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Offshoring 2015


Offshoring

Every year at about this time, shortly after the Florida Film Festival has ended, we like to present a collection of reviews for films that come to us from beyond America. We call it Offshoring and it’s one of our favorite mini-festivals of the year.

The variety and quality of films that come from around the world is improving rapidly with the cost of good quality equipment also coming down in price, becoming more affordable. These days you can see films that are absolutely riveting from every continent on Earth save Antarctica.

This year we have one of the movies that played this year’s Florida Film Festival among the five that we’re presenting. The movies that we’re reviewing come from Israel, Spain, France, Australia and Japan. The diversity of viewpoints that these films give us enriches us and helps us see things with a different perspective. Things including ourselves.

A lot of people dislike foreign movies because of subtitles and, in the case of English language films from foreign countries, accents that can be hard for Americans to decipher. That being the case, you should really rethink your prejudices because you’re cheating yourself out of some of the best movies you’re likely to see in your life. One of the films we’re reviewing this time out is one of the best animated features ever made and quite frankly one of the best movies ever made period.

So if you’re in an adventurous mood, you might give these movies a try. Not all of them are instant classics; some of them may have to grow on you a little. But I think that each of these movies gives you a glimpse not only of different ways of thinking, but at all the things that unite us as well. So hope to see you right here tomorrow when our mini-festival begins.

Trade


Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

(2010) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Kline, Cesar Ramos, Alicja Bachleda, Paulina Gaitan, Kate del Castillo, Marco Perez, Linda Emond, Zack Ward, Tim Reid, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Natalia Traven, Guillermo Ivan, Christian Vazquez, Jose Sefami, Leland Pascual, Jorge Angel Toriello, Luz Itzel, Eren Zumaya, Norma Angelica, Kathleen Gati. Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner

Like most things, human trafficking to a large extent has much to do about sex. Most human trafficking is for sex slaves and most of the victims are women. It is at epidemic proportions and is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

In Mexico City young Adriana (Gaitan) has been given a bicycle as a gift from her brother Jorge (Ramos) and despite warnings not to ride it because it is too dangerous, Adriana decides to do so anyway and of course manages to run into members of the Russian Mafia who kidnap her off her bike. Jorge, feeling responsible, does some digging and discovers that she’s about to be shipped off to New Jersey and arrives at the house where she’s being held moments too late, witnessing her being loaded into a truck along with several other girls.

He manages to follow them to a border town where he hooks up with Ray (Kline), a Texas Ranger who has been searching for his own daughter for a decade who has been similarly kidnapped. He agrees to help Jorge and drives him to New Jersey, the last stop for Adriana before being put up for auction on the Internet. Is rescue in the cards for Adriana? Is redemption in the cards for Ray?

Human trafficking is a major law enforcement issue worldwide and has become a billion dollar industry for organized crime. There is certainly a good movie to be made on the subject. The issue is that the filmmakers who tackle it tend to go for titillation ahead of content and that is the case here. There are plenty of scenes of sexuality and rape but very little that looks at the impact on families of losing loved ones, or the challenges of law enforcement in tackling this epidemic.

Kline can always capture the decency of a character but while this particular character is a Texas Ranger, Kline doesn’t really radiate the toughness that those law enforcement officials seem to be infused with on a cellular level. While Ray’s strong force of will is in evidence, you never get the sense that he’d be capable of kicking anyone’s ass. Still, Kline makes the character sufficiently compelling that he’s worth watching. His chemistry with Ramos seems pretty genuine.

Cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk offers some magnificent views of rural Mexico as well as urban Mexico City scenes as well as bucolic suburban New Jersey shots. There is definitely some interesting procedural suppositions about how the human trafficking industry works and it is handled in a very un-sentimental way, despite the prurient content. Some of the scenes engender legitimate suspense.

That is undercut by the overuse of shaky hand-held cameras which have become epidemic in cinema, sadly. As someone who has issues with vertigo to begin with, I am extra-susceptible to the nausea that comes with the use of that technique so I might be forgiven if I’m a little overly sensitive about the subject. Even if you don’t mind that so much, you’re bound to notice the plot points that strain credibility and the way the movie meanders from time to time and loses plot focus.

Affection for Kevin Kline can only  take you so far and sadly the flaws outweigh the strengths in this particular film. That’s a shame because the subject matter deserves a really good movie; this just isn’t it.

WHY RENT THIS: Kline is always reliable. Some nice cinematography. Un-sentimental and occasionally gripping.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much shaky-cam. Plot proceeds with impossible coincidences. Loses narrative structure at points. Too titillating for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, much of it involving minors as well as a fairly graphic rape. There is also lots of violence and foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the original news article that inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Dracula Untold

22 Jump Street


The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it's strictly business.

The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it’s strictly business.

(2014) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Ice Cube, The Lucas Brothers, Nick Offerman, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron, Craig Roberts, Mark Evan Jackson, Joe Chrest, Eddie J. Fernandez, Rye Rye, Johnny Pemberton, Stanley Wong, Dax Flame, Diplo, Richard Grieco, Dustin Nguyen, Kate Adair. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

The thing about sequels is that they tend to be bigger, more expensive and more over the top of the original. The trick about them is that the filmmakers need to retain as much of the original film that audiences connected with without remaking the film verbatim, which is a certain kiss of death and franchise killer.

After their successful bust in 21 Jump Street, detectives Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) have moved on to other undercover operations with less success. After a botched operation causes a drug smuggler known only as The Ghost (Stormare) to escape, harried Deputy Chief Hardy (Offerman) busts them back to the Jump Street team. Except that now the Jump Street crew has moved across the street to 22 Jump Street where their success has bought them a near unlimited budget and an impressive headquarters where Captain Dickson (Cube) has an office in the center of the former Vietnamese church in a clear plastic office (which prompts Schmidt to say “His office looks like a cube…of ice!” in one of many, many instances of self-aware gags).

This time, the two detectives are sent to investigate Metro City State University – yes, the cops are going to college even though they look old enough to be professors. They are sent in as freshmen however and while their age is a source of constant japes, they nonetheless infiltrate the school with Jenko getting into a jock fraternity and becoming a football star, developing a bromance with Zook (Russell), the quarterback. This makes Schmidt a little bit jealous.

However Schmidt has made some inroads of his own, hooking up with Maya (Stevens), an art student who was close to a student who had died in a suicide after taking WhyFhy, a new party drug and the reason that Schmidt and Jenko are there. Surveillance footage implicates Zook as the supplier, which Jenko has a hard time believing. The friction between Schmidt and Jenko threatens to split up the two former BFFs, which would be disastrous considering that the unit is counting on them to solve the case (which might mean their careers if they don’t) and the real supplier behind WhyFhy is looking to take these two pesky cops out…permanently.

 

I will give the filmmakers props for making a much different movie than 21 Jump Street. This one is a bit self-referential, constantly referring to the increased budget and how important it is to follow up success by doing the exact same thing. The self-aware stuff is a hoot, but this feels more of a lark than a film. There is a parade of celebrity cameos, including Queen Latifah as Captain Dickson’s wife (who proclaims that she’s “Straight Outta Compton” while her husband is from Northridge, a reference to Ice Cube’s time in NWA) and appearances by Rob Riggle and Dave Franco from the first film although the best parts of that scene are in the trailer.

The chemistry between Hill and Tatum remains stellar; one of the best scenes of the movie has a school counselor mistaking them for a gay couple in his office for a therapy session, to which they are forced to play along to mask the fact that they were searching his office for evidence. However, there is a feeling that the writers have already kind of worn out their welcome. The end credits sequence, in which the trailers of future sequels are shown is maybe worth the price of admission all by itself.

The plot is way too cliche, the gags too hit and miss and the action too underwhelming to recommend this. I know a lot of critics have been kind to this movie but I just don’t see it; I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled, like eating a meal and walking away hungry. This movie may be less filling, but it sure doesn’t taste great.

 

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments (detailed above). Hill and Tatum have great chemistry. In-jokes up the wazoo.

REASONS TO STAY: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Lots of gags fall flat. Too many cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  You can expect a goodly amount of foul language, some drug content, bit of sexuality and brief nudity and finally some (mostly) comedic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Original Jump Street television actors Richard Grieco and Dustin Nguyen make cameo appearances.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starsky and Hutch

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Purge: Anarchy

The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

We’re the Millers


The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms, Molly Quinn, Tomer Sisley, Matthew Willig, Luis Guzman, Thomas Lennon, Mark L. Young, Ken Marino, Laura-Leigh, Crystal Nichol, Dickson Obahor, Brett Gentile, Kelly Lintz, J. Lynn Talley, Deborah Chavez. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

What could be more middle America than a road trip vacation with the whole fam damily in the ol’ RV? Nobody is going to take a second look at one of those, not even George Zimmerman even if the entire family is wearing hoodies and munching on Skittles.

David Clark (Sudeikis) is a low level drug dealer; he has a certain moral compass (he doesn’t ever deal to kids, even 18-year-olds) and is part of the neighborhood fabric, making deliveries like the milk man used to. He lives in an apartment building where his neighbors include the dorky latchkey kid Kenny (Poulter) and the grouchy stripper Rose (Aniston).

When David gets robbed of all his cash, he knows he’s in deep to his supplier, Brad (Helms). However, Brad gives David an assignment; go to Mexico, pick up “a smidge and a half” of weed, and bring it back to Denver and not only will the debt be forgiven but he’ll get the standard courier rate of $100K. David isn’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to be a drug smuggler with potential federal ramifications but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

He’s a bit worried on how exactly to go about it when he hits the idea of the family RV road trip. Nobody at the border will give him a second look, particularly if he clean up and shaves. However, David is single so he’ll have to rent a family. Kenny is all in, and David convinces a street urchin named Casey (Roberts) to be the daughter. That leaves mom.

David approaches Rose but she – having an ingrained distrust of drug dealers to begin with – isn’t having it. However her finances are, shall we say, in crisis so reluctantly she agrees to get on board. And of course, we know this isn’t going to be a trip one is going to show home movies of afterwards.

As with most R-rated comedies these days there’s a fair amount of raunchiness although surprisingly less than you might expect. There’s plenty of drug humor although not so much of the Cheech and Chong variety; this is a stoner film where nobody gets stoned. Then again, it really isn’t about the marijuana.

Aniston plays very much against type; ever the girl next door, she does one scene where she delivers a pretty hot strip tease (down to her undies – sorry pervs) and she’s not so much brassy as she is grumpy, but she is definitely the star attraction here. Sudeikis meshes well with her, maybe as well as any actor since David Schwimmer, and plays against his usual nice guy type as well.

Hahn and Offerman are hysterical as a straight-laced couple also on an RV adventure who aren’t as straight-laced as they might lead you to believe; Offerman’s career in particular is really taking off and I suspect it won’t be long before he’s headlining some big flicks of his own.

There are some really wicked bits here, including a girl-on-girl action scene, one in which Kenny is taught how to properly kiss a girl, and an adverse reaction to a spider bite. A lot of the humor has to do with taboo sex and those whose values are a bit straight-laced might be offended – of course not many of those will be lining up to see a comedy about drug smuggling I would think

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the film – the comedies this summer have been a pretty dismal lot in general and I suspected that the funniest bits of the movie might well be in the trailer but that doesn’t turn out to be the case (although the trailer hints at them). While the ending is a bit predictable, the cast – particularly the core family cast – get on so well that you feel a genuine affection for the lot of them by the film’s end and do stay for the credit roll outtakes; one of the funniest moments in a movie I’ve seen all summer can be found there.

We’re the Millers is one of those summer movies that the expectations are pretty low for and manages to exceed them. In a summer where most movies haven’t met the expectations set for them, mild or not, it’s a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe Detroit-smelling air. Not really fresh mountain air. You smell what I’m cooking.

REASONS TO GO: Laugh out loud funny. Nice chemistry between Sudeikis and Aniston. Offerman and Hahn nearly steal the show.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like drug humor might take offense. Pushes the taboo sex angle a bit hard.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh, where to begin? A ton of foul language, plenty of drug humor, a ton of sexual references and one scene of brief but unforgettable nudity (as in you can’t un-see it once you’ve seen it).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter stayed up all night listening to TLC’s ”Waterfalls” in order to learn the rap portion properly for shooting the following day.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Life, Above All

The Perfect Game


Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

(2010) Sports Drama (Image) Clifton Collins Jr., Cheech Marin, Louis Gossett Jr., Emilie de Ravin, Bruce McGill, Patricia Manterola, David Koechner, Frances Fisher, Tracey Walter, Jansen Panettiere, Jake Austin, Moises Arias, Ryan Ochoa, Julieta Ortiz. Directed by William Dear

The mightiest heroes can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places. You never know where inspiration is going to come from. You never know how.

Monterrey, Mexico is as impoverished as it gets in 1957. It’s an industrial community, dirt-poor and with few amenities. The kids of Monterrey don’t have a lot to do, so local priest Padre Estaban (Marin) encourages them to start playing baseball. When he discovers former major league prospect Cesar Faz (Collins) has returned home after leaving the St. Louis Cardinals organization, he enlists him to be their coach.

In fact, the only job Cesar could get with the Cardinals was  as a janitor but still he hoped he could get into their organization but soon it became clear that the ghost of Babe Ruth himself could have proclaimed him a surefire star and the Cardinals still would have turned the other way. Maybe he should have swept the floor for the Dodgers instead.

In any case, he soon realizes that Angel Macias (Austin) has an enormous amount of potential as a pitcher and he takes him under his wing. Under Cesar’s hard but compassionate coaching the Monterrey youngsters soon learn to play as a team and they begin winning. And winning. And winning some more. Soon, they qualify for the Little League World Series.

But the obstacles are many. To get to Williamsport they will need money and there isn’t a lot of that in Monterrey. Besides that even if they get there no team outside the United States had ever won the Little League World Series. How could they even hope to compete with America in their own national pastime?

Because you’ve seen this kind of movie many times before and once you figure out that this is based on a true story (more on that later), you know that Monterrey is going to overcome all those obstacles. Even though you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat for a foregone conclusion, still you will catch plenty of that feel-good effect that so many sports underdog films bring out in you.

This is based on a true story – not the actual story itself. It is fiction, based on fact. That’s something to keep in mind. Those who want to know the real story behind the team will need to look up Los pequenos gigantes, a 1960 documentary made about that team. It’s in English, but it is extremely hard to find.

There is a bit of Bad News Bears here as well as a bit of Miracle. I don’t think there is anything here that really sets this apart from other similarly-themed movies other than that the heroes are Mexican and much of the movie is set there, and shows some of the poverty that was and continues to be an everyday reality there.

The actors playing the kids on the team do all right but they are basically given one-note characters who exist to fulfill a function either within the plot or on the field. Austin’s Angel Macias is at the heart of the film from the kid’s aspect and he does pretty well. Macias is coping with a father who is disinterested in baseball and whose harsh, critical eye drive the young boy to tears sometimes. Fathers can do that when they see their children only as they want them to be rather than as they are.

Collins does a pretty good job as Cesar who has secrets of his own to hide. Marin, who those who loved him in his heyday will have a hard time seeing him as a priest, makes for a decent one. De Ravin plays a cub reporter looking for a big story and finds one, gets a part that seems to have been lifted from a screwball comedy and transplanted here. She’s pretty and sexy in the role, but that doesn’t go well with the rest of the movie – which is a problem with the script more than with her.

Those who love those sports underdog movies will like this a lot. Those who are sick of them should probably steer clear. This is inspiring sure but not as much as the real Monterrey team whose story is Hollywoodized here.

WHY RENT THIS: Has plenty of heart.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can be overbearing with its message in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements might be a bit over the head of the younger crowd.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real members of both the Monterrey and La Mesa little league teams who played in that championship game can be seen in the stands as fans during the championship game sequence.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a kind of music video (really just a montage of clips from the movie set to music) in both Spanish and English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.9M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the production made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Miracle Match

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Shrink