McFarland USA – Movie Review

Every year, Walt Disney Studios presents a sport-related movie loaded with hope and inspiration. This year’s sports entry is McFarland U.S.A. and the sport is cross-country. The criteria of a Disney sports-related movies is it has to be loosely based on a true story. It must feature an underdog or a team of underdogs, who overcome personal obstacles to come out on top. We are then treated to a series of sports-related montages leading to a moment of unbearable schmaltz, which ends with victory or something real close to victory.

McFarland U.S.A. fits the mold of Disney sports movie. The film follows the last leg of football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who accepts a job at the last school in California willing to hire him. McFarland High School, located in the middle of Central California, is as stated in the film, the poorest city in the state. White moves into the city with this wife, Cheryl (Mario Bello) and two young daughters, Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher). Already he fears for their safety. It is clear that the White family are the fish out of water in the predominately Mexican-American community.

McFarland03Just as soon as White’s football career starts in McFarland, it quickly ends with White’s demotion to a life science and physical education teacher. The majority of his students are children of farm pickers. The pay of the parents is so low that most children are needed to work as pickers themselves in the mornings before school and on weekends. White soon discovers that this hard work and a carbo diet of rice and beans, not only makes the student good endurance runners, but instills a work ethic that makes them perfect for cross country.

The events of the movie take place in 1987, and the state of California has just made cross-country and state supported sport. The newly sanctioned program means that the California will subsidize cross-country expenses including coaches.

Now the story takes off. White has to recruit a team, get the team to trust him and turn them into winners. Recruiting means that White has to visit the families and understand their culture. Not just the Mexican culture, but the culture of the poor in Central California. This fulfills the cultural lesson we expect from Disney movies.

White’s team may come from the same town, but they have different stories. Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) is McFarland’s best runner. His father is always looking for work and rarely home. He does not believe anyone will leave McFarland. The Diaz brothers, Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), David (Rafael Martinez) and Damacio (Michael Aguero) must quit the team in order to work on the farm and support their family. White tries in vain to win the parents over.

The movie pulls out all the stops to tug at your heart strings. Coach White’s goal is to get his family out of McFarland as soon as he can. In order to build a strong team, White has to understand the culture of McFarland. The White Family has to accept their surroundings and the people around them. The students have to work hard to realize their dreams including being the first of their family to receive a college education.

These themes are not that different from other sports-related movies and especially from Disney movies, in general. What makes McFarland worth watching is the acting and writing. Kevin Costner is at his best as the everyday guy with a little bit of authority. He is as believable as he gets in playing a normal person with dreams and struggles. At no point does his performance feel forced nor the emotional moments feel false. The story also manages to make real the schmaltzy moments like forgetting his daughter’s birthday and whether to take the job in the big city.

There are not a lot of surprises in McFarland USA. The ending where-are-they-now is inspiring and real at the same time. The real question is can Disney produce a sports movie next year that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and drama.

Kingsmen: The Secret Service – Movie Review

Kingsmen: The Secret Service is a throwback to fantasy spy world of the 60’s and 70’s. Ever since King Arthur and the Round Table, England has had a secret spy organization, whose job is to protect England and the world from global threats. Nine of these elite agents come together and form the “Kingsmen;” taking on the codenames of the original knights.

Release Date: February 13, 2015
Rated: R
Running Time: 129 minutes
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill

Lead by its leader, Arthur (Michael Caine) coordinates the activities of the Kingsmen around the world. His lead agent is suave, but deadly hero, Harry Hart a.k.a. Galahad (Colin Firth). The movie begins 17 years ago in the Middle East, when Hart’s trainee, Unwin, sacrifices his life to save Hart and company during a botched interrogation. Feeling great guilt and duty at the loss of this exceptional agent, Hart offers Unwin’s toddler son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a favor from the secretive Kingsmen themselves.

Kingsmen: The Secret ServiceNow in the present, Hart’s partner Lancelot is killed in battle while attempting to rescue kidnaped environmental expert, Professor Arnold (Mark Hamill). Now with a vacancy at the round table, a search of the best and brightest agents is conducted in order to find a suitable replacement. When each Kingsmen submitting a candidate, Hart turns to Eggsy, now a young adult who finds himself always in trouble with the local gangs and law enforcement.

It is here that the secret world of the Kingsmen comes to light. Starting with nine trainees, each potential agent must survive not only brutal Kingsmen training but also make tough choices to keep the existence of the Kingsmen unknown to the world.

Now the fun begins as Kingsmen: The Secret Service brings back the fun of spy movies of old. Let’s start with gadgets. Bulletproof umbrella, cigarette lighter hand-grenades, and shoes with knives in the tips. Those shoes used to have a phone in the heel as an homage to Get Smart.

Then you have Kingsmen training, including sniper skills, creative problem-solving to escape deadly situations and life and death choices.

Finally, there’s the villain. The threat comes from a Steve Jobs-like genius, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Valentine is a hardcore environmentalist, who believe man is the reason the Earth is dying. Armed with a secret army and a deadly sidekick with knives for feet, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), Valentine is going to cause everyone on earth to kill each other thanks to a sim card with the power to heighten levels of rage.

Kingsmen: The Secret Service works because it is cool to be a Kingsmen. They dress in the best suits, they have the best gadgets and they live a fine lifestyle, while protecting the world. Not sure they get as many women as 007, but you want to be one. If you didn’t like Colin Firth in the past, you’ll like him now as the suave fighting machine. Even more enjoyable is the transformation of Egerton’s character, Eggsy, from a street kid into the next Kingsmen.

Every good spy thriller needs a good villain with a globally evil plot. Samuel L. Jackson never takes on a role half-assed. And as the villain Valentine, Jackson plays a formidable intellectual opponent with his almost invincible assistant, Gazelle. The character choices Jackson makes in the way Valentine dresses and speech is inspired and fun to watch.

The action and special effects are cool, especially the opening montage. Also, the violence is quite graphic. It’s a notch or two above cartoon violence and a notch below graphic novel violence. Some scenes may be hard to watch, but cool none-the-less.

Just like graphic novels, the movie is directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Mark Millar. Both are no strangers to creating a fantastic world and a tell a complex story in a simple way.

Kingsmen: The Secret Service is a bright spot of the original action during a snowstorm of bad movies.

Love Me – Movie Review

Finding love is not an easy process. For many, it’s almost an impossible undertaking. When the traditional methods of finding someone within our social circles fails, we turn to untraditional methods. The business of love is certainly non-traditional and takes many forms including online dating, mobile apps, and millionaire matchmakers.

Release Date: February 10 on VOD
Rated: Not Rated
Director: Jonathon Narducci
Running Time: 1:34

Love MeIn his documentary, Love Me, Jonathon Narducci explores the business of mail order bride. The movie follows American customers, international dating businesses (A Foreign Affair and Elena’s Models) and the Ukrainian brides themselves through the process of international matchmaking.

My exposure to the world of “mail order brides” is purely limited to my passive exposure on television and film. I envisioned desperate socially awkward men going to questionably legitimate businesses and introduced to women desperate to leave their third world lives for the hope of legally coming to their dream of heaven, the United States.

Love MeNarducci’s Love Me does what a documentary needs to do, by opening its audience to a world they knew nothing about and gave an honest perspective on the subject. At first, I was concerned that Love Me would become a 90-minute infomercial for the mail order bride business.

Narducci introduces us to a half-a-dozen men at various points in their lives when it comes to love. These men are on the spectrum of love from the socially-awkward who has a hard time socializing with women in general to the newly widowed man unwilling to “play the dating game.”

Two companies highlighted in Love Me are A Foreign Affair and Elena’s Models. The movie follows men who have subscribed to the website and began corresponding with potential brides in the Ukraine. It also follows men to have decided to go on a matchmaking tour of the Ukraine, hoping to find love at various dances and singles events.

Are these services legitimate or a scam? Are the Ukrainian women looking to find the fast track to the United States? Yes, no and probably is how Narducci answers these question. Love Me is an excellent documentary that manages to look at multiple aspects of Mail-Order Bride services. Ultimately, we learn that people are people with real emotions, real desires and a real need to find companionship that is right for them.

American Sniper – Movie Review

Bradley Cooper stars and produces the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle in the controversial film, American Sniper. It is unfair to label American Sniper as a pro-war movie. It is a character study of a man who loves his country, loves his family, will do anything to keep the U.S. safe and is obligated to protect and save his fellow soldiers.

Release Date: January 16, 2015
Rated R
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Jason Hall
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

American Sniper follows the life of Chris Kyle starting with his early days as a competitive cowboy. After the event of the Oklahoma bombing, Kyle joins and becomes a navy seal. Kyle is described as an average sniper but with an innate sense to see things that others don’t see. Upon completing his training with the Seals, Kyle meets and falls in love with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). After 9/11, Kyle knows he’s going to be sent to the Middle East. His skills as not only a sniper, but as a human is immediately challenged when faced with making a potentially deadly decision about a child running with a grenade.

American Sniper - Sienna MillerThis is not a pro-war movie. In no way are battle scenes glorified. Instead, they are played real with its graphic horrors. As Kyle gains notoriety as “The Legend”, with every kill, a small piece of Kyle’s humanity slowly dies. With each return of Kyle’s four tours, Cooper effectively conveys the PTSD with haunting dramatic silence. That is what this movie is about, even the greatest heroes can not come home from war and expect to be the same person who left.

The shining moment of the film is how Kyle faces his trauma and disorder and becomes a different sort of hero at home.

The one major flaw of the movie is the plastic baby. In one scene of the film, Chris and Taya are having an important discussion about the effects of war on Chris. During this discussion, Bradley is a holding and manipulating a plastic baby. I get it, they needed to get through a heavy discussion and a real baby was most likely problematic. It just sticks out.

Fans of military films will love American Sniper. You will certainly feel a new sense of pride for the men and women, who put their lives on the live for our freedom.