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Column Fri Feb 20 2015

McFarland USA, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, The DUFF, The Last Five Years & Song of the Sea

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McFarland USA

This is actually not a bad film, but if you're someone who finds themselves offended by stories about minorities told through the filter of a white leading character, you better run in the other direction. The sad truth of the movie industry is that many such stories would never get told without higher-profile white actors at the center of them, and it just so happens that a white man named Jim White (played here by Kevin Costner) was at the heart of this particular true-life story of a group of Latino high school students who become contenders in the California's cross country championship.

There's something about the way Disney does sports films (Remember the Titans, The Rookie, Secretariat, Invincible, Miracle) that almost always seems to work. I'm talking about the ones that aren't made for children, so sorry Mighty Ducks and Air Bud franchises. Granted, the titles aren't especially inspired, but they find these true stories and breathe some life into them with top-notch actors and reliable directors. In the case of McFarland USA, the unusual choice to direct is New Zealand native Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), who has shown a real talent for capturing the way Americans often unfairly pre-judge and treat each other in small communities — a perfect trait for a story like this.

White was a winning high school football coach in an affluent California community, but after getting into a skirmish with a player that turned physical, he was unceremoniously let go and forced to take a job as an assistant coach in the smaller, mostly Hispanic community of McFarland. True to form, White gets into it with the lazy head coach and is booted from coaching football, so he comes up with the idea of forming a cross country team, and using his impressive coaching talents in this new competitive arena. Since many students at the school split their time between education and picking fruit with their families at nearby orchards, they have developed a tolerance and stamina for running long distances in extreme heat with inadequate footwear — all of which works to White's advantage. 
McFarland USA's message are worthy ones, even if the filmmakers feel the need to spell them out every 15 minutes or so. These young men are underestimated by every team they race against. That doesn't mean the McFarland team always wins, but it does mean they don't make it easy for their opponents to do so. The boys are reluctant participants at first, but as you'd expect, once they start doing better in their races, their confidence and dedication to the team increases, and the community falls in line and begins to support their team with a ferocious dedication.

But the film is also about White and his family accepting, and being accepted by, the McFarland community. When they first roll into town, White and his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two kids (Morgan Saylor as Julie and Elsie Fisher as Jamie) are terrified. And the fact that the new coach's name is "White" means that people don't even have to think of a nickname for him. But as the film goes on, everybody gets to know everybody else, and racism goes away forever. Okay, maybe not, but certain layers of distrust do get pushed aside, Meanwhile, each cross country team the McFarland runners go against seems more racist than the last, so it balances out.

When the film isn't spoon feeding us civics lessons, it concentrates on the unconventional tactics that Coach White used to whip his team into shape, and therein lies the most interesting part of McFarland USA. As far as the students go, the story focuses primarily on Carlos Pratts as Thomas, the fastest of the group, and the Diaz brothers (Michael Aguero, Rafael Martinez, and Ramiro Rodriguez), who seem to inspire each other into doing better. Most of the runners are given a cursory backstory and some iota of drama to make their struggle seem more interesting, but mostly these details do little more than add minutes to the running time.

As she has shown in her previous works, director Caro has a real gift for finding the beauty in working-class environments, and in this part of California that isn't too difficult. And while the story of these young men is genuinely curious and fascinating, I wish we could have spend more than an obligatory amount of time with them and less with White and his brood. There's no debating whether this is story worth telling — it absolutely is. And all it would have taken is a slight shift away from that which is familiar and toward something less so to make McFarland USA stronger. Still, as it exists, it's utterly watchable and, at times, worthy of cheering on as it struggles to make its uphill climb.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

There's dumb, and then there's ignorant. Welcome to ignorant. You might presume that with the same writer (Josh Heald) and director (Steve Pink) as the original Hot Tub Time Machine, the odds of the makers of Hot Tub Time Machine 2 landing a healthy percentage of the jokes would be in their favor. Nope. Nope nope nope nope. I had something of a fondness for the first film, because it focused on central characters who just wanted a second chance to correct small wrongs in their teenage years, while still making sure that not too much changed, for fear that they may severely impact the future. These were lovable losers trying to do something right, and it was all very funny.

With Hot Tub 2, the losers aren't losers any longer. Lou (Rob Corddry) has become a tech genius, or at least a guy who spouts great ideas he learned from his time travel and lets his subordinates (including one played by "Silicon Valley's" Kumail Nanjiani) invent them; his son Jacob (Clark Duke) has done a great job just being the son of a wealthy dude; and Nick (Craig Robinson) has been writing songs actually written by other people and making them his own. His version of Lisa Loeb's "Stay" is particularly moving. As for Adam (played by John Cusack in the first film), well, he seems to have vanished because even Cusack smelled trouble on this one. And let's not forget Chevy Chase's hot tub repairman/time travel guru... yeah, he shows up for one useless scene and then goes to meet Cusack for a drink, presumably.

This time around, the boys must unlock the secret to Lou's murder (cause of death: shotgun blast to the dick). To find out who killed Lou, who has become the biggest, broadest douchebag on the planet, the time machine actually sends them into the future, where they meet Adam Jr. (Adam Scott, who really shouldn't let us know he's this desperate) and his bride to be (Gillian Jacobs) on the eve of their wedding. They follow clues, meet future versions of various suspects in Lou's murder in the past, and anytime they get too off track, Lou begins to flicker as if there's a risk the murder will still happen and he'll be wiped from existence in the future.

Hot Tub 2 has a lot of running gags about mucking with the future by going back in time and screwing things up, and almost none of them will even tempt you to crack a smile. But the biggest mistake the film makes is making everyone so incredibly unlikable, either because power and fame has made them intolerable or because they'd rather knock a friend down than have them do better than them. Every scene feels like the characters are grasping for laughs that just aren't there most of the time, and it gets old unbelievably fast. Robinson fares better than his co-stars — probably because of the musical numbers he's a part of — but even he seem to suffer at the hands of this ugly screenplay.

And I'll just tell you now: no, John Cusack does not show up for a cameo; neither does Lizzy Kaplan, who added such a necessary spark to the first film. As for the new cast members, it's always incredible to me (because it seems to happen a lot) that filmmakers would hire proven comedy voices and then give them nothing funny to say. I'm not saying the jokes are bad; I mean the characters are effectively made straight men/women and literally given no funny lines. It physically hurts to watch Scott in this movie, as one joke after another, delivered by other people, fails to land.

And you don't have to look too far below the surface of Hot Tub Time Machine 2 to notice it's repulsively homophobic, sexist and vulgar with no real reason for it other than the actors are capable of saying bad words. It's as if filmmakers Heald and Pink looked at everything that made the first movie funny and charming, and they decided to murder it. So I guess my point is, if you support murder, go see Hot Tub Time Machine 2. Otherwise, I'm sure there are still a couple of Oscar-nominated films you still need to catch up on.

The DUFF

I'm sure it will be mentioned in nearly every review of the new teen comedy The DUFF, but I need to go on record as well. Under no definition of any of the words in the phase "Designated Ugly Fat Friend" is the film's star Mae Whitman ("Parenthood," Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) ugly or fat. In fact, the 26-year-old actress is rather adorable and unique and spirited in a completely infectious way that makes her easy to like in any role. And as much back-peddling as the film does in defining and then re-defining what a "DUFF" truly is, Whitman doesn't quite fit the bill. This is one of many inherent flaws in this weirdly dated work.

If I'm not mistaken, The DUFF is attempting to be something of a throwback to teen films of the '80s and '90s, in which the outcast is king/queen and the popular kids are the judgmental villains. Except that according to the logic of the script from Josh A. Cagan (based on the Kody Keplinger novel), these third stringers in life now serve a purpose for the first stringers — they become the friends of the pretty people to make the pretties look even prettier. Get it? They also serve as a conduit to and/or buffer between the pretty ones and the common folks who might want to get near them. It's a curious, somewhat sinister system that I'm not sure makes complete sense, but the purposes of this film, let's assume it's true in the universe of this high school.

Once Whitman's character Bianca realizes that she serves this purpose among her two best friends Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), she does the most logical thing, which is to distance herself from them and see if she can stand on her own. She takes advice on being her own person from her charming next-door neighbor and jock among jocks Wesley (Robbie Amell of "The Flash"), much to the chagrin of Wesley's on-again/off-again girlfriend and designated mean girl Madison (Bella Thorne).

The thing I noticed immediately about pretty much every character on The DUFF is that they know nothing about how computers, social media, viral videos, high school or anything related to teenagers actually works. I spent most of the film thinking, "People don't do that or think like that or act like that." And I realize there's a level of suspension of disbelief with every film, but I got the feeling this one was trying to capture something of the teenage zeitgeist, and it just wasn't clicking even on a farcical level.

Director Ari Sandel (Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show) takes us through Bianca's disaster of a senior year with the grace of a buffalo on ice skates, and I think we pretty much know from the beginning that someone as singular and smart as Bianca is going to decide in the end that being her own unique brand of cool is the best path for her. The problem is, we're then forced to endure 100 minutes of movie to get to that point. When Whitman and Amell are alone and talking, there's a chemistry there that is absolutely captivating and charming. They aren't actually meant to be love interests for most of the film, but their pairing is a portrait of a friendship that is easy to enjoy and settle into. It's only when the most two-dimensional, colorless supporting team comes it that everything becomes muddled.

The adults in The DUFF are meant to be the comic relief, but they provide neither comedy nor relief. Actors like Romany Malco, Ken Jeong and the almost always reliable Allison Janney (as Bianca's motivational speaker mother) swoop in from time to time, do or say something idiotic, and exit having had little to no impact on the plot. It's sad at best, embarrassing at worst. Somewhere in an alternate universe, there's a better, more thoughtful version of this movie — a version where the kids are treated with respect, like flesh and blood human beings and not cliches with legs. There are just enough moments that capture the awkward relationships and feelings of high school to prove to me that someone involved in its making knew what they were doing and writing about. This could have been a stand-out piece about being and embracing who you are, instead of this fluffy attempt at a quirky humor. The film is more frustrating than terrible, because there is potential written all over it. I can't recommend it, but there are things about it worth mentioning.

The Last Five Years

I suspect you'll know within the first five minutes of The Last Five Years whether it's something you'll enjoy and embrace. Because by the time the first five minutes are done, you'll have heard Anna Kendrick sing the gut-wrenching first number "Still Hurting" though tears (yours and hers), and you'll just know. I'll admit, sitting down to watch this film, I didn't know it was a 2001 musical (which originally opened at the Northlight Theater in Skokie) or that it had been an acclaimed off-Broadway "musical play" in 2002 from the award-winning Jason Robert Brown. But I'd heard "Still Hurting" before; it's become one of those go-to audition songs, and I have no idea where I first heard it, but it still moves me deeply.

The original production was a simple, two-character show with the male and female roles alternating songs that chronicle their five-year courtship-marriage-breakup. Using only song, she chronicles their time from the end to the beginning; he remembers it from the happy beginning to the crushing end. And the only time they appear on stage together is in the middle of the show, when their timelines intersect, when he proposes to her. Set in New York City, the film follows the same dual timelines, but allows the couple — struggling actress Cathy (Kendrick) and rising-star novelist Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) — more time on screen together. And while still only one sings at a time, we actually get to see reactions to their words from the other person, which we didn't get in the stage version.

From the barely containable energy of new love to the emotional crippling of a love gone sour, The Last Five Years captures it all so beautifully, thanks in large part to some creative and ambitious staging by director-adaptor Richard LaGravenese, who has added small bits of dialogue that truly enhance the piece without altering the impact of the songs. The story captures not only a romance in all of its trials and tribulations, but also gives us quite specific issues between the couple having to do with his success versus her frustrating life as an auditioning actress forced to do summer stock in her Ohio home town just to keep working. She resents him to a degree; but he's also insensitive to her frustration. He makes it very clear that he will not resign himself to failure just because she is losing in her chosen life. It's a blunt but necessarily honest line he must draw, and it plants seeds of doubt and resentment from that point forward.

The juxtaposition of their best moments and their worst is deliberately jarring, and Kendrick plays both sides of Cathy so convincingly as an actor that you almost forget that she's also a damn fine singer. As much as you might have enjoyed her pipes in Pitch Perfect or Into the Woods, The Last Five Years is an exquisite showcase for what is undoubtedly the best singing work she's ever done on film. To my knowledge, I've never been exposed to Jordan's work anywhere before this, and his delivery is a bit more broadly theatrical, which under any other circumstances would work just fine, but next to Kendrick, he looks like he's overdoing pretty much every aspect of his performance. But it all somehow still works, if only because the character of Jamie has more in his life to be excited about. In the context of their story, Jordan's mannerisms make sense.

I've seen The Last Five Years a couple of times now, and I'm desperate to drag a couple of friends with me so I have an excuse to go see it again. It's really quite good, if you're prepared to have your heart ripped out several times over during the course of the film. You're ready to burst with excitement when things are going well because two people have never been this in love (they literally have to sing about it); and when they start to act like jerks to each other about petty things, you want to throttle one or both of them. Emotions will run high on both sides of the screen. Any small misgivings I might have about the film — and even a couple of the songs (I will never like "The Schmuel Song") — are erased when Kendrick sings, without a doubt. But even some of the small choices she makes in her acting make all the difference to telling us so much about Cathy and her flaws.

As with the stage version, the film doesn't choose sides, but I'm guessing that won't stop audience members from bringing in their emotion baggage and picking one side over the other. And any choice you might make with regards to that may change over the course of the film. That's not only a sign of a great work, but it also means you've become invested in this small but wonderful story of love and loss. The Last Five Years is about the person we fell in love with right before we became the person we are today, but the only way we could have gotten there is by losing them. It's a great experience that is unlike most musicals you'll see on the big screen. Seek it out. The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the Logan Theater.

To read my exclusive interview with The Last Five Years screenwriter-director Richard LaGravenese, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Song of the Sea

From director Tomm Moore, maker of the Oscar-nominated animated work The Secret of the Kells, comes his next distinctly Irish fare based on legend and mythology, Song of the Sea. Using a more modern-art visual style, Moore gives us the story of young Ben and his little sister Saoirse, whose mother died when Saoirse was born, but under very unusual circumstances. Since this brother and sister live in a lighthouse with their father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), much of their lives and legends revolve around the sea, including the eventual discovery that the non-speaking Saoirse is actually a Selky — a part human, part seal creature — much like their mother.

When the children are eventually taken away from the sea by their crotchety grandmother, they immediately begin a journey to get back to their father by the sea, where Saoirse has a coat that makes it possible for her to finally transform into her Selky form and finally talk. Song of the Sea is loaded with tall tales that it mixes and matches to make a fairly delightful film. It's as much a tribute to the dying belief in these ancient myths as it is a showcase for many of the creatures that spring forth from those stories. There are fairies who have been turned to stone by marauding owls who suck out their souls; there's a magical, musical conch shell given to Ben by his mother. But when Saorise plays it, all sorts of great things happen.

You may not be aware, but Song of the Sea is one of the films nominated for Best Animated Feature this year (you know, that category that doesn't feature The Lego Movie), and it absolutely earns its place among the other nominees. With music by Irish band Kíla and composer Bruno Coulais (who are reunited after working together on The Secret of the Kells), this new film keeps things simple but doesn't forget to unleash its darker, more dramatic side every so often. It's a film younger kids will enjoy, but there is plenty of complexity and artistry to draw in older ones and adults. It's a melancholy story peppered with magic, thrills, mysticism and a whole lot of Irish accents. A must see for Oscar completists, but even if you're not, I think you'll still find Song of the Sea rather enchanting. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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