McFarland, USA (PG)

Verdict: Corny but enjoyable

Kevin Costner, king of the big-hearted sports movie, is back in Field Of Dreams, Bull Durham and Tin Cup territory with McFarland, USA, a Disney film based on the true 1987 story of Jim White (Costner), a high school running coach who tries to turn his motley charges into state cross-country champions.

I don’t need to tell you how it ends. Let’s just say that the hick Californian town of McFarland is populated mainly by immigrant Mexican farmworkers and that the boys on the team all toil in the fields for hours even before they start their school day, so this is also a film about the American Dream and how the Land of Opportunity rewards sweat, tears and ambition.

At times that patriotic subtext might try your patience, as it did mine. After one of White’s runners has vomited in apprehension at the prospect of racing up a formidable hill, and the team and their supporters clap hands to hearts to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, I confess to feeling slightly queasy myself.

No lies: McFarland, USA, a Disney film based on the true 1987 story of Jim White (Kevin Costner), a high school running coach who tries to turn his motley charges into state cross-country champions

Even though the film is directed by a New Zealander, Niki Caro, it never undersells America as a place where fantasies come true and where every underdog has its day.

On the other hand, this particular fantasy did come true and Costner gives such a solid, believable performance that it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the story or, at least, just a little bit uplifted. It helps, moreover, to find that his character is not a paragon of decency.

White has a chequered record as a sports coach, having lost one job after another by repeatedly failing to control his temper, so the McFarland appointment leads him to that other all-American institution, the Last Chance Saloon.

Also suffering White’s frequent changes of job are his saintly wife (Maria Bello) and their two girls, (the older of whom is played by Morgan Saylor, who was so excellent as Damian Lewis’s tormented daughter in the TV drama Homeland).

To all four of them, McFarland, with its overwhelmingly Hispanic townsfolk, does not seem likely ever to feel like home; the town’s alpha-male youths look threatening while another alpha-male, a cockerel in next door’s yard, keeps waking them up.

Indeed, there is a further sub-text here about assimilation; a reversal of the more familiar theme of immigrants struggling to fit in. If this were fiction, then the name White would have felt like an irony too far.

Happily, the Whites do gradually start fitting in; they realise that even in poverty, the people of McFarland are rather dignified and, it has to be said, rather Disneyfied.

Nevertheless, it is stirring stuff, as the coach realises that several of these boys, used to running long distances between home, school and fruit-picking duties, have developed uncanny speed and stamina.

He then makes it his mission to mould them into a cross-country team to rival all the privileged, private school outfits, with predictable, Hollywood consequences.

There are more than a few steals from Chariots Of Fire of blessed memory, notably in the use of slow-mo, while a sequence in which White’s ace runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts) falls to the ground, then gets up and overtakes everyone ahead of him, might as well have been accompanied by a Vangelis soundtrack.

Also, like all good cross-country results, the film could have used a 15-minute trim. A running-time of more than two hours feels like an indulgence but it has plenty going for it, above all Costner, doing what he does best.

Life (15)

Verdict: Flawed look at James Dean 


Life is based on another true story; the relationship between actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan), when he was on the cusp of stardom just before East Of Eden came out in March 1955, and Magnum agency photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson).

Stock saw in Dean the moody, smouldering quality that, in harness with his untimely death just a few months after the events depicted here, made him such a pin-up.

Stock duly wants to do a photoshoot with Dean for Life Magazine; Dean is too moody and smouldering to commit. That is the essence of the story and if it does not sound like quite enough to sustain an audience’s interest, that is because it isn’t. But it might have been.

True story: Life is based on the relationship between actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan), and Magnum agency photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson)

As far as I am aware, next week’s 60th anniversary of Dean’s death in a car crash has not exactly ignited masses of new interest in one of those rare movie stars who warrant the adjective ‘iconic’, so maybe this film is trying to cash in on a renewed fascination that simply isn’t there.

On the other hand, a superior film might itself have stimulated interest. There are hints that it has something revealing to say about the birth of modern celebrity but it never quite says it, leaving only a story that generates hardly any dramatic tension or excitement.

Pattinson’s Stock is also a curiously doleful and unsympathetic character, to the extent that we really do not care whether he gets his pictures or not.

Oddly, director Anton Corbijn (who made a much better film, 2007’s Control, about Ian Curtis of Joy Division, another cultural meteor who burned out far too soon) was himself a professional photographer, yet he spends no time showing us why Stock is so good at his job, merely pointing his camera at a man pointing his camera.

In the all-important role of the existentially conflicted Dean, DeHaan looks the part, but in trying to replicate that sleepy, enigmatic drawl, goes through the picture as if sponsored by Mogadon.

When he tells a gathering of high-school students to live life like there’s no time to lose (one of the few moments when Luke Davies’s screenplay makes the mistake of anticipating the future), he frankly sounds as if they need all the time in the world even to hear him out.

The film has its pleasures though. Ben Kingsley hams it up enjoyably as the autocratic studio boss Jack Warner, and mid-Fifties America — from Hollywood to New York, to Dean’s hometown in rural Indiana — are precisely evoked.

However, without wanting to sound like I am on the brink of existential gloom myself, Life is a disappointment.


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