“McFarland, USA” a feel-good story about achieving great heights

Movies about athletes who are victorious despite overwhelming odds are always infectious and teeter precariously on the edge of being cliched. And even if they do become a little corny, there is no harm in them and the overall effect is that they are pleasing.

“McFarland, USA,” based upon a true story, is one such movie. In fact it could be described as the cross-country-running version of “Hoosiers.”

In this case it’s Kevin Costner playing the pivotal role of the high school teacher/coach on the brink of a career implosion who gets one last chance and is lucky enough to have the right mix of circumstances and people to pull off a life-changing event.

Much like Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” a college basketball coach who after a violent encounter with one of his players can only get a job coaching at a small high school in Indiana, Costner’s Jim White finds himself in a similar situation after an unfortunate locker room incident with a disrespectful player during the half-time of a football game in which the team is getting blown out. This set-to is another breakdown of control by White, and as a result the only job offer he gets is as a science teacher and assistant football coach at the high school in McFarland, an impoverished Central California town.

McFarland’s population is primarily Latino, people who labor long hours picking crops. The family is the backbone of the community and generation after generation assumes the mantel of working long hours to provide for their families.

White, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor), 15, and Jamie (Elsie Fisher), 10, arrive in McFarland in the fall of 1987 full of apprehension. But despite their preconceived notions they are not met with hostility.

At the high school, things go bad for White immediately with an on-field disagreement between the coaches during a 63-0 blowout suffered by their team. White is soon demoted to science teacher/PE coach.

It is during the PE classes, and before and after school, that White notices that a handful of boys seem to run great distances effortlessly, so he proposes starting a cross-country team.

He manages to get seven boys to join the team, scoring a superb runner, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), and although the team finishes last in its first competitive effort, a four-school invitational, the McFarland runners on their next outing just barely lose to a top caliber team.

“McFarland” follows the blueprint of such sports stories, showing White, who is basically learning on his own while he coaches, as he gets the boys to sharpen their running skills. He knows he has a strong foundation — these boys are tough. They have to be.

There are the usual setbacks. Top-runner Thomas has family issues with a workaholic father and a younger sister who has become pregnant. Three of the team members are the Diaz brothers, Damasio (Michael Aguero), David (Rafael Martinez) and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), the latter being the least gifted but with a lot of desire, who have to balance their cross-country efforts while also working for their father in the fields.

As the team’s surprising successes mount, it proves a boost to the community, and led by Senora Diaz (a scene-stealing Diana Maria Diva), money is raised for uniforms and running shoes.

“McFarland” is a story about fortitude that leads to achievement, but also a study of growing respect and how a family can assimilate in an unfamiliar setting and learn lessons about life — like friendship and security — that cannot be bought.

Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), “McFarland” was the product of three screenwriters — Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson — a collaboration that might raise red flags about massive rewrites. But the story moves smoothly. Costner is at ease here with his work as White, a man who is blessed with instincts but who also threatens to derail things with his impetuous behavior. Bello has a few moments as the firm foundation in the household, the person with the best family perspective.

The young actors playing the runners — also included were Johnny Ortiz as Jose Cardenas and Sergio Avelar as Victor Puentes — do a credible job of portraying teens who are not accustomed to being told they can accomplish something special.

“McFarland, USA” is the type of feel-good movie that can be refreshing alternative amid the action movies and intense dramas.




Oscars 2015: Funny guys get serious and Streep closes in on 20

Truth be told, the Academy Awards is an extravagant exercise in self-congratulations, totally subjective with no hard data to back up why one choice is made above others. It’s all a matter of personal preference. But it is difficult to resist getting caught up in the speculation and glitz of the proceedings.

This year there seems to be more intense controversy over the nominations, particularly surrounding “American Sniper” — dismissed by detractors as a glorification of what they see as a sneaky and dishonorable way of waging war — and “Selma” — a film nominated for Best Picture while its director, Ava DuVernay, and lead actor, David Oyelowo, were not among the nominees in those categories. But let’s take a look at those who were nominated:


Three of the actors in this category found their initial fame as comedic performers who have proven they can handle drama as well. Bradley Cooper is a finalist for the third straight year, showing that his nominated work in “Silver Linings Playbook” two years ago was no fluke. Cooper’s turn as Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal sharpshooter credited with the most kills in the Iraq conflict, has been knocked for being an inaccurate portrayal of the late Kyle, showing him as a patriot and loving husband and father with no flaws. That aside, one cannot deny Cooper’s incredible depiction of a man ultimately affected by what he experiences in Iraq and how he manages to recover before it destroys himself and his family.

Another actor known for his funny work is Steve Carell, earning his first nomination as the tragic John du Pont in “Foxcatcher.” Carell is almost unrecognizable as du Pont, using a prosthetic nose to match du Pont’s, as well as the physical mannerisms of this wealthy man who believed that founding a wrestling school that would turn out Olympic-caliber competitors might exorcise the emotional demons of his financially well-to-do but otherwise empty existence.

And the third nominee who made an impression for laugh-inducing roles, Michael Keaton, is a favorite to win the Oscar for his role in “Birdman” as Riggan, a former action hero star who tries to resurrect his sagging career and recapture meaning in his life via a stage play he has put his money and soul into. This one-track shot movie comes off as a live play and focuses on this flawed, self-indulgent man who despite his shortcomings develops a self-awareness that has the audience rooting for him.

Another favorite in this category is Eddie Redmayne, playing the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne had to really get into the physical aspects of the role, showing the increasingly debilitating decay of his body as a result of ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Confined to a wheelchair for most of the movie, Redmayne delivers a performance that Oscar voters generally love — emotionally complex and honest in showing the courage and the less than honorable parts of the man.

The most tragic performance is presented by first-time nominee Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” as master decoder Alan Turing. Socially inept but brilliant and not afraid to point out his brilliance, Turing was an unsung hero of World War II, breaking the Nazi radio communications code that enabled the Allies to counteract planned attacks. Turing was the right man at the right time, one who could overstep emotional reactions and apply logic and common sense that sometimes led to heart-wrenching decisions. Then, for all his work, Turing became an outcast for his homosexuality and was only appreciated for his contributions to the war effort long after he died.

Who will win: A real toss-up between Keaton and Redmayne. Keaton’s film was one all performers could identify with, but Redmayne’s total immersion into the character of Hawking likely will get him the Oscar.

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Redmayne.


Julianne Moore may finally claim an Oscar for this, her fifth nomination, for her wrenching work in “Still Alice.” Playing Alice Rowland, a linguist professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an age when one would not expect to get such a horrible disease, Moore has earned praise from just about every faction of the entertainment industry.

Of the other four nominees, Rosamund Pike is a standout as Amy Elliott Dunne in “Gone Girl.” A first-time nominee, Pike is mesmerizing as Amy, whose disappearance and possible murder, with her husband being a prime suspect, ignites a media frenzy. Then there is the startling revelation that totally changes the perception of Amy as a supposed victim. The brilliance of what she pulls off is stunning and frightening.

Marion Cotillard, an Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose” in 2007, is a surprise nominee for “Two Days, One Night,” playing Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. As a surprise nominee, it is unlikely she garnered enough votes to overtake Moore.

Felicity Jones is fine as Jane Hawking, the steadfast wife of Stephen Hawking, staying with her husband through all the tribulations of the man’s disease, but her performance lacks any memorable moments that would put her over the top.

The same applies to Reese Witherspoon — also a previous Oscar winner —  in her role as Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” It’s a physically challenging performance, portraying this woman who went on a 1,000-mile hike in an effort to discover herself after being lost for a few years following the death of her mother and crumbling of her marriage. Witherspoon is strapped with a character that comes off as irresponsible and self-indulgent, who may have gotten back on track but offers little else to share.

Who will win: Moore.

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Pike. She is absolutely chilling as a supposedly sweet but unappreciated wife who launches a fiendish plan of revenge. It’s scary and haunting.


This one appears to be a slam dunk. There are tragic figures, like Robert Duvall’s Joseph Palmer, a longtime magistrate accused of murder in “The Judge” and whose alienated son Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) must defend him in court. Also there is Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz, the Olympic wrestler in “Foxcatcher” whose work relationship with John du Pont goes horribly awry for no apparent reason. Ethan Hawke has earned his second nomination portraying Dad in “Boyhood,” and Edward Norton has some great moments as the arrogant stage actor Mike in “Birdman,” a person who can function only while in a role while stumbling in his real-life encounters.

But the standout here is longtime character actor J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” As the intimidating perfectionist instructor Fletcher at a prestigious music conservatory, Simmons is positively riveting, completely unpredictable. Every moment he is on screen, his presence commands your attention. He has succeeded in having the three words, “not my tempo,” a trigger for panic attacks among musicians.

Who will win: Simmons

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Simmons


It looks like Patricia Arquette, as the mother in “Boyhood,” is the favorite to win in this category, although Emma Stone, as Riggan’s embittered daughter Sam, takes what could have been a cliched role of the alienated offspring and adds some surprising depth and perceptiveness. She could be a dark horse here.

Laura Dern also cannot be counted out, playing Cheryl Strayed’s mother Bobbi in “Wild.” As Dern portrays Bobbi, it shows why Cheryl became so lost when her mother passed away. Dealt a bad hand in life, Bobbi refuses to wallow in self-pity, saying that for all the problems, it is her life and she is not backing away. She proves to be a pillar of emotional strength for Cheryl and a great loss when she dies.

Keira Knightley is exceptional as Joan Clarke in “The Imitation Game,” a brilliant woman who not only breaks through in a man’s world as one of the vital code breakers in World War II but also serves as a bridge between the socially clumsy Alan Turing and his colleagues. She also develops a close bond with Turing, emotionally strong but, because of his homosexuality, not physical.

And then there’s Meryl Streep, picking up an unprecedented 19th nomination for her work as the witch in the musical “Into the Woods.” A winner in three of her previous 18 nominations, Streep, who never seems to give a bad performance, nevertheless may be overshadowed in this category this time out.

Who will win: Arquette

Vernor’s Ticket choice(s) : A tie between Stone and Dern (Hey, it has happened before, when Katharine Hepburn for “The Lion in Winter” and Barbra Streisand for “Funny Girl” both took home Best Actress Oscars for 1968).


Although a maximum of 10 movies can be nominated, only eight got the nod this year. Unfortunately, two nominees have sparked controversy because of their political aspects. “American Sniper” and “Selma” both have been criticized for inaccuracies, and sadly, the snubs of DuVernay as director as Oyelowo have some people claiming racism.

Among the other nominees, “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash,” “Birdman” seems to be the favorite, a movie about acting that actors can identity with. “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash” are great character studies and likely will cancel each other out. “Boyhood,” which was filmed over the course of several years, presents an interesting concept in film making, but some critics have said that other than that it really has nothing more to offer.

The most fun movie among these is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a quirky movie by Wes Anderson, whose films are an acquired taste. Those who love his movies really love them. Others find them just too strange. But only Anderson could make a movie about a hotel concierge actually engaging.

What will win: “Birdman”

Vernor’s Ticket choice: “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I know of at least one Academy voter who expressed to me her enthusiasm for this movie as Best Picture.

Some tidbits:

For Bradley Cooper, this is his second nomination in a movie with “American” in the title (“American Sniper”),  having been nominated last year for “American Hustle.”

The age range in the Best Actor group of nominees is 32 (Redmayne) and 63 (Keaton).

Julianne Moore has been nominated in three different decades: twice in the 1990s, twice in the 2000-aughts and once in this decade.

Although Laura Dern plays the mother of Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Wild,” the two actresses are only nine years apart in age. Dern is 48 and Witherspoon will be 39 in March.

Robert Duvall’s seven nominations have been spread out over 42 years, with his first nod, as Best Supporting Actor, taking place in 1972 for “The Godfather.” The longest time span between nominations for him was 16 years, between his 1998 supporting role nomination for “A Civil Action” and 2014 for “The Judge.” And by the way, Duvall’s first significant movie role was as Boo Radley in the highly acclaimed (and Best Picture nominated) “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962. His one Oscar was in 1983 for “Tender Mercies.”

At age 83, Duvall is the oldest among the acting nominees. Emma Stone at 26 is the youngest.

In looking at Meryl Streep’s unprecedented 19 nominations, 7 more than the two second-most nominated stars, Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson with 12 apiece, her Oscar nods have taken place in five consecutive decades: two in the 1970s, six in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, four in the 2000-aughts and three in this decade.

She has had nominations in consecutive years six times: 1978-79, 1981-83, 1987-88, 1998-99, 2008-09 and 2013-14. While she won her first two Oscars within three years of each other — the Best Supporting Actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979 and Best Actress for “Sophie’s Choice” in 1982, her third Academy Award did not come until 29 years later in 2011, Best Actress for “The Iron Lady.” In that 29-year period, she was a nominee 12 times.

Nine actors are experiencing their first nominations: Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike, J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone. The “late bloomers” in this group are Simmons at age 60 and Keaton at age 63.

Patricia Arquette is the only Arquette with a nomination, as brother David and sister Rosanna never have been nominated.



In ‘The Loft,’ cheating leads to trouble

“The Loft” is a prime example of the type of movies that are put into theaters during the down months leading up to the summer blockbuster season. These films, usually with modest box-office expectations, are released quietly in the spring  in hopes of making some money before heading off to pay TV, DVD/Blu-Ray land.

As such, “The Loft” is a decent effort, a mystery that effectively keeps the audience guessing while the story overwhelms the thin characters.

Erik Van Looy, who directed the original Belgium-made version of this film in 2008, titled simple “Loft,” gets another crack at this very adult thriller that is based on a screenplay by Bart De Pauw and Wesley Strick, the latter who among his 17 writing credits include “Wolf” in 1994 and “Arachnophobia” in 1990.

Karl Urban, who plays the current Doc “Bones” McCoy in the rebooted “Star Trek” series of movies, leads the cast as Vincent Stevens, an architect whose latest high-rise penthouse project includes a loft he has reserved for himself and four other friends. This loft is designed to be a place where these men can carry out their extramarital affairs and whatever other fantasies in which they might indulge.

This arrangement becomes a nightmare when a young woman is found dead on the bed, handcuffed to the bed post with her other free wrist slashed in an apparent suicide, or a murder made to look like a suicide. Since only five keys to the loft were issued — and the burglar alarm was shut off — only the five men had access to the place.

The men gather at the loft to try to solve the mystery and figure a way out of this mess. In addition to Vincent there are Chris Vanowen (James Marsden), a psychiatrist; Philip Trauner (Matthias Schoenaerts, reprising his role from the 2008 original film), half-brother of Chris and who has just recently married the daughter of a wealthy building contractor; Luke Secord (Wentworth Miller) and Marty Landry (Eric Stonestreet).

“The Loft” is non-linear, as it uses flashbacks to build the story and present possible suspects and motives in the woman’s death. In between the flashbacks are current-day scenes of each man being interrogated by a pair of police detectives, Huggins (Kristin Lehman) and Cohagen (Robert Wisdom).

While the script adeptly offers bits of the mystery puzzle, forcing the audience to pay attention, it provides little in presenting characters that are worth caring about. Urban’s Vincent clearly is a bad influence on his friends, a man who has no qualms about cheating on his wife Barbara (Valerie Cruz) and cynically issuing the keys to the loft during the reception following Philip’s wedding.

Of the four friends, Philip, who has a drug habit and seems nowhere near ready to settle down, is at first the only willing recipient of the key and use of the loft. Marty is the man who expresses crude and sexist views, especially when drunk, but seems to be just all talk.

Chris and Luke just go along with all this, trying to resist temptation. Of the men, Chris is the most sympathetic, striving to stay faithful to wife Allison (Rhona Mitra) despite a growing estrangement. His resolve is tested when he meets Anne Morris (Rachael Taylor), an assistant to a congressman and the sister of a former patient of Chris who committed suicide.

As a mystery, “The Loft” unfolds at a brisk and challenging pace, although once all is unraveled there are some plot holes. The result is a mildly entertaining movie that could have been masterful had the main characters not been so shady and unworthy of compassion.