Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel


They keep their heads covered to show their devotion to God.

(2018) Sports Documentary (Menemsha) Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Scott Buchan, Ty Kelly, Cody Baker, Jason Marquis, Jerry Weinstein, Cody Decker, Peter Kurz, Jon Moscot, Jeremy Bleich, Danny Valencia, Jonathan Mayo, Margo Sugarman. Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

 

As underdogs go, there are few more under than the Israeli national baseball team. Even back in the 80s, the spoof Airplane! Joked about handing out a tiny pamphlet sized book called Great Jewish Athletes to passengers looking for a little light reading. Baseball has had a few great Jewish players including Hank Greenberg and most notably, legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Sadly, while Koufax is fawned over in the film, Greenberg who was one of the great sluggers of the game back in the day gets nary a mention.

Most of the players for the Israeli team that was fielded for the 2017 World Baseball Classic – a kind of World Cup for baseball – were American Jews who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent which qualifies them under the Heritage Rule which allows players of a different national descent to play for that team rather than the country they are actually citizens of.

For the most part Team Israel was made up of players who were career minor leaguers or had just a cup of coffee in the majors. One big exception was Ike Davis, a slugger for the New York Mets and later the Pirates, A’s and Yankees. Injuries had shortened his career, but he was hoping to make a comeback when he agreed to play with Team Israel.

The team was ranked 41st in the world and were derided by the press as “has-beens and never-will-bes” but that only served as motivation for the team who beat the heavily favored Great Britain team in Brooklyn to qualify for the 16-team tournament. Placed in Pool A, they would be playing in Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the players weren’t really practicing Jews and almost none of them had been to Israel. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson arranged to fly the team there in his own private jet, beginning a spiritual and personal journey for the team who began to appreciate their Jewishness more. A terrorist attack that occurred while they were touring the country further cemented their connection to their heritage.

Once the tournament starts, the team captures the imagination of the world, becoming the Cinderella story of the tournament. The film doesn’t really cover the individual games in more than a cursory fashion but then again, the movie isn’t about the games themselves.

One of the quirks the team was known for was their mascot, Mensch on the Bench. Sharp Shark Tank viewers may recognize it from an episode of that show, a light-hearted parody of Elf on a Shelf. Well, Team Israel had a life-sized version who accompanied the team to most media events and games. That was indicative of the light-hearted spirit that the team possessed as a whole.

The bonding of the team isn’t particularly unusual; most teams bond in some fashion and Team Israel was no exception. The 2017 team hoped to win the WBC but not for the reasons you might think. They wanted the future of Team Israel to be populated less by American players but with Israeli-born players. A disgruntled Cuban at a press conference excoriated the self-described “Jew Crew” because of this, but that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water – the Cuban team could certainly have recruited players of Cuban descent from other countries had they chosen to.

At the end of the day underdog movies are pretty much a lifeblood for sports documentaries and this one, while occasionally inspiring, really doesn’t add much to the picture except for one item – the awakening of the players to their Jewish heritage. Those scenes in which the players react to Jewish traditions and ceremonies are among the most compelling in the film. Clearly the players grow a connection to Israel and those are the moments that make the movie satisfying. Unfortunately, the standard sports clichés that litter the baseball sequences keep the movie achieving all-star status.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heartwarming and occasionally inspiring documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses some steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three directors are childhood friends and met Mayo through a Jewish summer camp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cecil

Advertisements

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

New Releases for the Week of November 1, 2013


Enders Game

ENDER’S GAME

(Summit) Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Nonso Anozie, Brandon Soo Hoo, Moises Arias. Directed by Gavin Hood

After barely surviving a vicious alien invasion, humanity’s future rests on the shoulders of a little boy named Ender. Alone out of all the candidates for Battle School, he shows the most potential to lead humanity to victory against the Formic. However, the aliens are returning and time is running out. Ready or not, Ender must lead the forces of humanity against a formidable foe and impossible odds. Is he up to the challenge?

See the trailer, promos, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material)

12 Years a Slave

(Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt. This is the true story of an African-American born a free man in New York City. In 1841, Solomon Northup was a respected violinist who traveled around North America performing recitals, but one night he is betrayed, drugged and transported to New Orleans where he is sold as a slave. His struggle to escape and return home to his wife and children became the stuff of legend.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical True Life Drama

Rating: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)

About Time

(Universal) Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan. At first skeptical, a young man discovers that he has indeed inherited the family gift to be able to travel back to any moment in his life and relive it. He uses his gift to woo a comely young woman and to make his life better but eventually learns that time travel cannot cure everything and that there is a price to pay for every gift. This is opening at the Regal Winter Park Village only at present in the Orlando area but will expand to most theaters on November 8.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Fantasy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Free Birds

(Relativity) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei. A somewhat delusional militant turkey recruits the very unwilling Thanksgiving turkey presidential pardon for a mission back in time. Their destination: the very first Thanksgiving. Their mission: to substitute some other meat for turkey. Good luck with that.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some action/peril and rude humor)

Krrish 3

(Filmkraft) Hrithik Roshan, Priyanka Chopra, Vivek Oberoi, Kangna Ranaut. An Indian superhero must battle an evil scientist and the mutant creatures he has created to save the world from a hostile takeover.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Last Vegas

(CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline. Four childhood friends, now edging somewhat reluctantly from middle age to old age, decide to head to Sin City to celebrate the impending wedding of the last hold-out to bachelorhood among them. While they’ve changed, so has Vegas baby and once these four hit the Strip, neither will be the same.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)

Man of Tai Chi

(Radius) Keanu Reeves, Tiger Hu Chen, Karen Mok, Iko Uwais. A young martial artist studies Tai Chi to improve his spiritual self but an unscrupulous promoter on the underground fight circuit in Hong Kong ropes him into that lucrative field. As the matches grow more intense, the young fighter turns his back on the precepts he once held dear and his will to live must carry him through this crisis.

See the trailer and a link to stream the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Martial Arts

Rating: R (for violence) 

Skinwalker Ranch

(Deep Studios) Jon Gries, Kyle Davis, Erin Cahill, Devin McGinn. Strange goings-on at an isolated ranch and the literal disappearance of the ranchers 8-year-old son garner media attention. A year afterwards, a security firm sends an investigative team to look into what really happened. What they discover is much more than anyone could have imagined.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror

Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Underdogs

(Media Services) D.B. Sweeney, William Mapother, Melora Walters, Natalie Imbruglia. A perennially underachieving Ohio high school football team gets a new coach, a new attitude and a new lease on life. However, they still have to play their crosstown rival, a traditional powerhouse, in order to make that move to the next level.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: PG (for some language) 

The Miracle Match (The Game of Their Lives)


The Miracle Match

Zachery Bryan and Wes Bentley are chagrinned to discover that nobody wants to see a movie about soccer.

(2005) True Life Sports (IFC) Gerard Butler, Wes Bentley, Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies, Jay Rodan, Costas Mandylor, Louis Mandylor, Zachery Bryan, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Gavin Rossdale, Terry Kinney, Craig Hawksley, Nelson Vargas, Richard Jenik. Directed by David Anspaugh

The most popular sport in the world is what we call soccer and every other civilized nation on the globe calls football. For some reason, it just doesn’t resonate with the American psyche and for the most part, the popularity of soccer in this country has resided in the immigrant communities, particularly European and Latin American immigrants who grew up with the game in their blood.

In 1950, soccer barely registered at all to the American public but in St. Louis – particularly in the Italian enclave known as “The Hill” – it was more than a passion, it was a pastime. There were many who felt that the best soccer in the nation was being played there, especially to St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Dent McSkimming (Kinney) who covered the soccer beat for the paper. When the U.S. wangled their way into the World Cup (back then, it didn’t have the long and involved qualifying tournament), most Americans reacted with a “what’s that?” – if they reacted at all. However, McSkimming and some of the St. Louis soccer players were excited when Walter Geisling (Hawksley), one of the great promoters of soccer in this country during that era, came to town to announce try-outs for America’s first World Cup team. 

Because it had been pulled together at the last minute, the team would have little time to develop. Laconic coach Bill Jeffrey (Rhys-Davies) has two completely separate schools of play to choose from; the extremely disciplined style of the East Coast, led by Walter Bahr (Bentley) and the freewheeling style of the St. Louis Italian clubs, whose best player is goalie Frank Borghi (Butler). Somehow, the players had to figure out a way to blend their styles into something new, something stronger if they had a chance of competing. Winning a game? Not possible. They would be going up against national teams that had lived together and played together for months, with the best players in the world playing on them. When they went to Brazil, the team was hoping merely not to embarrass themselves.

As luck would have it, they were scheduled to play against the English team, the clear favorites to win the cup and a team led by the greatest player of the time, Stanley Mortensen (Rossdale). They would have to play the game of their lives to pull off the greatest upset in World Cup history, but somehow, you know what the outcome will be.

This movie was released initially as The Game of Their Lives  but when Disney released this on home video, they changed the title to The Miracle Match, possibly to distance themselves from the disastrous theatrical box office numbers. American soccer continues to be in its adolescent stages, but the American sports movie certainly has a bit more maturity to it. Ultimate underdog movies like this have been done before, in Miracle and Hoosiers (which Anspaugh also directed). One of the problems I have with a sports movie like this is that you have to get invested in the players and their off-field dramas in order to gain that rooting interest. Sadly, that never happens here. These are a bunch of cardboard cutout character types that are so blandly played that you can barely tell one from the other. Butler and Bentley gamely try their best, but they are ultimately submarined by a sub-par script. For example, the man who coaches the team, Bill Jeffrey, comes off as someone who essentially just shows up at the games. He has no insight into the game that we’re privvy to, and never seems to make any decisions regarding the team – the players do that. 

Just as bad, the soccer sequences are uniformly bad. It’s obvious the actors can’t play the game very well, and the Bend It Like Beckham sequences – which are performed by adolescent girls – come off far more realistically. While Anspaugh captures the era nicely, in the end, this is an emotionless movie that does not do well by a group of men who deserve better for one of the crowning achievements in all of sports history.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known moment in U.S. Soccer history. Bentley and Butler do fine jobs in their roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lack of character depth and the feeling of “Haven’t we seen this before” pervades the entire film. Soccer sequences are atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and thematic issues.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the scene of Gino and Janet’s wedding reception, the guests are played by members of the St. Louis contingent of the team, their children and grandchildren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $388,998 on a $20m production budget; the film was a major flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Unknown