Three films for March: A farm tale, a fable, and a photog

McFarland, USA

Directed by Niki Caro

Although a nagging suspicion that this film was released now for a political touchdown at a time of controversy and disagreement over illegals’ “amnesty,” tax “rebates” (for people paying no taxes) and drivers’ licenses dispensed like Pez to those who have no insurance or indeed right to be driving inside the US, “McF/USA” also does what cinema does best: It brings viewers into a world not our own, invites viewers to explore unseen lives in ways more compassionate than pedagogic, and leaves us feeling better informed and more connected to people whose aspirations, unvoiced yearnings and anxieties aren’t so different from those we know.

Amnesty is very much a part of the conversation across the land. The CPAC meeting, in the eyes of enthusiasts and TV viewers after the fact, also adds to the fuel: We listen to Jeb and think back to his take on deportables. We watch Rubio and gauge how his view has shifted to right as he competes among his congressional opponents. Rand gets his base hyped up with his signature isolationism dressed as populism. It all feeds into the debate on Mexican and Other Than Mexican (OTMs) living inside the borders, either assimilating or, more often, not.

But. It’s a truism that sports-based movies are 1. audience pleasers, and 2. feature the addled or straddled team/individual making it in the end. And those are certainly true here.

Thus despite the (obvious) focus on Costner moods and determination to succeed in this last hurrah, the film had us smiling throughout, with a likable, if grousey Kevin Costner as the Homey coach, Jim White, of a tiny school in a no-count town populated by decent people of Mexican extraction in the south. His ‘team’ is a one from column A, one from B, etc. The fat guy. The ladies man. The earnest achiever.

They are, regardless of their speed and running prowess, daily migrant pickers of cabbages and almonds, as the season demands, all Hispanics (with nevertheless excellent and unaccented English, which aspect does not seem accurate considering the parents, also pickers, rarely understand a word of Anglo), and all sweet, winning teens with admirable grit, relentless drive, and strong legs. And perfect teeth.

White starts up a cross-country running team, noting how some of the boys in his phys.ed. class run to and from school, lacking cars or bikes. (One could well make a doc about subtropical African schoolboys who run 20 miles each way to and from their tiny shack schools in Lesotho and Namibia. Except those guys consistently come in #1 and 2 in marathons across the land, so no need to highlight their efforts despite poor footwear.)

We train with them as they radiate suppressed hope that they can escape the life of the field their parents have deeded them. We never quite know if these families and warm-hearted people are Americans, and references to the at-first awkward losing team as “Mexicanos” don’t help decide for us. But Costner pulls them together, we cheer on these taciturn but valiant boys, whose faith is strong enough to evoke a Tebow knees-down prayer huddle after one win. The parents are proud and strong, hard-working and generous with their neighbors and friends.

Coach white is a ne’er-do-well hothead, dismissed from more than a few school teams for unwillingness to tolerate sass or laziness in privileged teens. He’s determined to stick it out at McFarland, though he doesn’t really know much about running, or coaching running.

Maria Bello, White’s tired-looking but supportive wife, ferries their two daughters around, trying to get her coach-hub to notice their progeny once in a while. He spends every minute trying to get his overworked guys into shape for the meets.

What to say? It’s a triumphant Spanish version of Rocky Balboa, with shorter, stockier, tawnier and more hirsute players. But even a die-hard anti-illegal can’t help being charmed by the tough but charming likes of these likable, earnest, laconic icons of field hands in the modern world.

If it were a confection, McFarland would be a three-cavity entertainment. And the amazing thing is: This is a true story; post-script notes tell you what transpired with each of the boys shown in the film.



Directed by Kenneth Branagh

With Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgaard, Holliday Grainger, Sophia McShera, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter  

More engaging, and subtly sexier, than “50 Shades.” Seriously. The evil stepmother, played seductively and with a touch of acidulous irony, is the perfection of Cate Blanchette, marvelous as always. The surprise is Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy Godmother (always a godmother, never a god--), whose choice as cast member is perhaps cheeky: She allegedly broke up Branagh’s first marriage, to Emma Thompson, and cut into Tim Burton’s too. A real Diana, huntress extraordinaire…), a real hoot, albeit nearly unrecognizable. Cinderella is lovely enough, Lily James, a blonde version of the gorgeous Natalie Portman, and the handsome prince is sweet as well as alluring, as played by Richard Madden.

We know the story. Yet it still came out fresh and amusing, touching but not mush.

Of special note are the special effects, which seem integral to the action, are lovely by themselves, and are happily images that kidlets deserve to have in their little head -- magical swirling  gossamer dresses and mice turning into tiny horses, geese transmuting into footmen, and all the little animals gifted with hilarious comic throw-away comments.

The tiny tots in the audience enjoyed it immensely, judging by their giggles and smiles, even at the late 8:30 screening.  More surprising, so did the adults.


The Salt of the Earth

Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado

 [France/Italy/Brazil] [Documentary]

A spectacular meal for eye and mind, a life told in sweeping, oftentimes morally outraged pictorials of cultures, wars, African massacres, jungle peoples, exquisite natural wonders, catastrophes, natural beauties the world over. Elegant and mind-bending in austere and brilliant black and white.

Some critics carped that though this is a documentary of a great photographer, told by his son and great filmmaker Wim Wenders, there was practically nothing in the way of tech talk of cameras, shutter speeds and all the lacunae of the photography dodge. Nor is there experimental angles or unusual cropping, which some viewers complained about. (The same ones.) For the non-pro, the film is a ravishing look into the encompassing lens of a talented, searing artist over a lifetime of awareness.

In Portuguese, Spanish, French, English. Subtitled where needed.

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