Race

'Race' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Joe Shrapnel; Anna Waterhouse

Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

No sports film is strictly a celebration of athleticism. Tethered to that name or group of names is the burden of understanding, not of themselves — the athlete knows specifically what he or she is — but rather that their actions represent a broader community even beyond family. Some names simply become associated with significant social, cultural or political shifts because of who, what and when they are. Timing certainly factors into the story of Jesse Owens.

It took 40 years before the White House officially recognized Owens’ accomplishments, before President Gerald Ford in 1976 bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and another 14 years (and several more presidents) before he earned the Congressional Gold Medal. Just as his accomplishments took far too long to become engrained into American culture, the wait for the definitive movie about the man is going to last a little longer.

The bluntly-titled Race is a film that dutifully serves as a highlight reel of an extraordinary figure, but its movements are a far cry from the elegance and power of this sprinter/long-jumper. As a dramatic reenactment of two key moments on the track — Owens’ record-setting performance at the Big Ten meet during which he broke three world records and tied a fourth and his four-time gold medal appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the film is a decent watch. Even though these insights come so infrequently as to threaten the film’s status as a sports film, at least the action looks good.

Race is thoroughly burdened by the weight of its champion on its back. Unfortunately it couldn’t even make that aspect entirely captivating either. Stephan James is nice enough as the mild-mannered and gifted young track star but this is a forgettable performance. Quiet power is actually a thing, but that’s not what we get with the 22-year-old Canadian actor, whose stoicism often teeters on the edge of being boring. Who knows though; if meeting the icon in real life were still possible perhaps the moment would be surprisingly innocuous. But boring?

The film opens as a baby-faced Owens is preparing to leave behind the grayish-blue of his Cleveland community, the first in his family to board the bus to college. The scene is as expected: mother hurries through a few last-minute words of wisdom while father, who has been out of work for some time, sits silent. The burden’s on us to interpret what he’s feeling. The departure happens with little fanfare. So far, so good. Race is clearly born out of a deep respect for the athlete’s humble beginnings. It’s unfortunately once he steps foot on Ohio State campus where the film starts stumbling over its feet uncontrollably.

Owens finds himself immediately embroiled in the racial tensions of the day, a major state university seemingly serving as the epicenter for hatred. (“But just you wait,” the film seems to caution us. “Wait until you get to Germany . . .”) Not even the locker room is safe. It’s not long before he’s summoned by Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), and the ensuing Obligatory Scene In A Coach’s Office deals with business as matter-of-factly as possible: “Your life is now mine. I don’t care about the girl you have back home, you have to prove to me how serious you are about winning. Blah, blah, blah.”

Sudeikis’ first lines are a literal check list of sports coaching clichés. Like a timid Owens we kind of just sit there, accepting them as they’re forced upon us. Sudeikis, typically a source of hilarity, takes on a seriousness that’s hard to take seriously. Lines that are meant to resonate prophetically, such as his dreaming of becoming an Olympic-bound coach once more, fall surprisingly flat. As it turns out, his hard-ass demeanor is just a front for a much more amenable, softer personality, one that’s even easier to access than the end of the 100 meter dash.

Less difficult to believe is Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage, President of the United States Olympic Committee. Irons exudes the kind of intensity suited to a role of this magnitude, as a man who finds himself in an uncomfortable position negotiating with Hitler’s close associate and Olympic overseer Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), telling him America is prepared to withdraw their competitors given the ongoing persecution of the Jews and the German government’s exclusive list of who they want competing in the Games. Brundage may have to sell his soul if he is to get what he wants out of these talks.

Irons may stand out as the only Olympic Committee member worth talking about — heck, one of the only characters in the film worth talking about — but not even he is immune to awkwardness in a story that’s written with such a sense of conformity. Race is a passionless affair, so obliging to the typical structure it’s hard to reconcile the unique brilliance of Owens the racer with Owens the cinematically bland inspiration.

At least the moral conundrum is presented clearly. In that way, it’s even more frustrating that it’s the less tangible stuff that the film actually juggles better than anything. There are a few scenes where hostility is truly palpable and the way the political climate is taken into consideration is well-handled. The Americans believed withdrawing would show solidarity with the oppressed while participating would carry with it the burden of winning, for the alternative would mean allowing the Nazis to keep thinking their Aryan competitors — their RACE — are superior. In big open rooms surrounded by his stuffy-looking peers Irons commands attention. And he must, because this is by design.

As is everything else here, including our desire to connect with Owens on a personal level. Nothing is executed with emotion, it’s all mechanical. Hagiographic may be one word to describe Stephen Hopkins’ big screen treatment of an American icon, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, but definitive it definitely is not. It’s more of a burden to have to watch it.

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Recommendation: Utterly mechanical, obligatory, routine, predictable and any other adjective you might necessarily associate with a sports film, Race falls well short of the potential it had to tell the definitive story about Jesse Owens not just as a competitor but as a member of Ohio State’s elite team and as a citizen of the United States. Only those with almost no knowledge of Owens at all might stand to benefit from this thoroughly uninspired telling. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins. 

Quoted: “You can run. And boy, can you jump. What I want to know is — can you win?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

McFarland USA

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Release: Friday, February 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Cleveland; Bettina Gilois; Grant Thompson

Directed by: Niki Caro

Is this the part where I openly admit to becoming teary-eyed watching a Disney film? Or is that just way too honest?

. . . . . hello . . . ? Guys . . . . . . ?

Ah well, whatever. Good chance I’m just talking to myself now, but nonetheless it’s nice being reminded of how many ways movies can offer surprises. Family-friendly McFarland USA is the most recent example, transcending mediocrity while still relying on shopworn techniques to construct its story, one that is as wholesome as it is sensational given its drawing upon real life events.

Kevin Costner is a disgraced high school football coach named Jim White who finds himself having to relocate his family to Nowheresville — er, excuse me, that’s McFarland, a tiny Californian town few maps have ever bothered mentioning — as he seeks another coaching job at a high school that’s predominantly Hispanic. Although hired because of his football résumé Jim suggests to the school’s principal, much to the chagrin of Assistant Coach Jenks (Chris Ellis), that McFarland High start up a cross country running team. He sees in several members of the squad some serious talent, but talent that’s more useful off the gridiron. Having no experience coaching track or cross country before Jim’s chances of finding success are pretty apparent from the get-go, but it’s not until he manages to corral seven young boys, including the unstoppable Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) that a real opportunity begins to present itself.

McFarland USA begs comparisons to the inferiorly budgeted and marketed Spare Parts, a production featuring George Lopez that shines a light upon four young Latino high school students possessing brilliant minds but lacking the financial and societal support needed for their potential to be fully realized. Trade intellect for athleticism, Arizona for California and a talk-show host for a seasoned action star and you get the latest effort from director Niki Caro. The drama at times mirrors that of the kids of Carl Hayden High, in particular a scene in which Jim White drives his rapidly rising young star athletes to the beach so they can have their first glimpse of the ocean. It should be said that this sequence is handled with much more grace and passion but it’s difficult shaking that feeling of déjà vu if you’ve sat through both films.

But where Spare Parts had the difficult task of selling audiences on the magnitude of the motivation required for these immigrant youths to compete in something as obscure as an underwater robotics competition, McFarland USA embraces its broader audience appeal by crafting a sense of warm community and fictionalizing a rallying cry behind an upstart sports team. Cross country running makes for an interesting twist on an all-too-eager-to-inspire genre. At the risk of scribbling out yet another cliché, we’ve been beaten over the head more than enough times with the pressures, heartbreaks and pitfalls of football stardom. As an avid sports fan, I say this not because my goal is to mislead anyone but because it’s simply true: football dramas are far too easy to find.

It’s also no secret Disney prefers creating cinema that values community-building rather than the destruction thereof, and McFarland USA continues in that tradition. As the Whites transition from minority status in a town where no one’s a stranger to another, to becoming the reason McFarland begins receiving recognition amongst the more affluent surrounding suburbs there is a surprising amount of satisfaction gained in experiencing the growth, both personal and communal. Jim goes from being jokingly nick-named ‘Blanco’ to being revered as Coach as a series of growing pains galvanizes the group over the fall of 1987.

Added to this, Caro’s ability to homogenize these two cultures cohabiting within the Californian border. We see Jim’s eldest daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) entering into young womanhood upon her 15th birthday during an extended vignette that serves as a highlight of the film when her father throws her a “quinceañera,” and her burgeoning romance with Thomas (arguably the best runner) furthers the notion that this family is not likely to abandon McFarland, even if Jim may have better job prospects on the horizon given his remarkable achievements. The respect between both groups is something that helps to balance out the film’s fixation on competition during the race day events.

There’s nothing truly original about McFarland USA, and yet the film excels in delivering entertainment and packaging an inspirational true story unlike many mainstream sports dramas have in recent memory. Anchored by wonderful performances from Costner and Bello in tandem and visually enhanced by a vibrant Disney color palette — this is a beautifully shot film, with particular emphasis on the landscapes during the races as well as the costume design — you might find yourself every now and then counting cliches but at the end you shouldn’t be too surprised to find yourself secretly cheering.

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3-0Recommendation: McFarland USA relies on some old-hat filmmaking techniques but that doesn’t distract from the pure enjoyment of watching this town come together. There is so much to like about this one that anything less than a solid recommendation just wouldn’t be fair. Any fan of Kevin Costner shouldn’t pass this one up, either.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not Danny Diaz. . !”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Runner Runner

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Release: Friday, October 4, 2013

[Theater]

WRITTEN BY KEVIN HITE

Runner Runner is a film that was meant for gambling enthusiasts and ultimately appeals to. . .well, just about no one. The film, in fairness, was probably a good idea. The standard gambling film of the past few decades has concerned either basement-style high stakes poker (as in Rounders) or the glitzy scenes of Las Vegas card tables (as in 21). However, gambling in everyday life has shifted enormously in this span, and now concerns a consumer audience focused largely on Internet gaming.

Internet poker has been a major industry for well over a decade at this point, but the online gambling industry has shifted enormously in recent years, to the point at which online casinos now offer, in a sense, the fully experience. For example, the industry has progressed from crude online poker environments to the Intercasino format, which essentially consists of a full range of arcade and slot machine games, in addition to standard card options. These days, when we visit an Internet casino, we aren’t just looking for simulated poker — we’re looking for the full experience of Las Vegas, from the comforts of our own home. 

It’s this idea that Runner Runner attempts to play off of, not only via the scope of its fictional Internet casino, but through the weighty significance attached to its gambling risks. Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) is not just an Ivy League online poker genius – he’s one who’s so thoroughly engaged with his hobby that he earns the attention of the scheming masterminds behind the websites. And when Furst feels that those same masterminds have ripped him off, he demands a meeting. 

From there, Runner Runner is essentially a slippery slope, from a gambling film looking to capture the modern culture of gaming, to a sort of crime thriller you don’t really see coming until it’s upon you. Furst burrows his way into trouble until he secures a meeting with Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the yacht-toting criminal genius behind a sketchy online gaming empire who, you know, feeds his enemies to ravenous crocodiles and whatnot. 

Here the film makes a turn that’s actually somewhat interesting. Instead of fully denying that his site cheated Furst, Block invites a partnership, suggesting that Furst is too smart to walk away from the opportunity, and tempting him with the riches and glamorous lifestyle associated with running a crooked online gaming empire. This is where the real dilemma ensues: will Furst, a needy student in over his head but incredibly adept with numbers, strike it rich helping Block run his empire? Or will he ultimately cooperate with the FBI unit attempting to bring Block down? This is the question viewers are meant to ask throughout the second half of the film, and frankly it’s all abrupt and convoluted enough that we don’t really care what the answer is. 

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1-5Recommendation: There’s one, and only one reason to check out Runner Runner: if you’re buying into Ben Affleck’s career evolution over the better part of the last decade, go ahead and give it a look. The film is poorly conceived, devoid of substance in its attempt to be sexy, and ultimately just a bit dull. Furthermore, Timberlake delivers a disappointingly stale (for those who enjoyed him in The Social Network) performance that sort of sours the film, though it’s really more the script’s fault than his. But Affleck is a bright spot in the film, establishing himself delightfully as a dick-ish gaming titan who somehow manages to be exuberant and bored at once. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 minutes

Quoted: “Everyone gambles. They may call it something else, like the stock market, or real estate. But make no mistake, if you’re risking something, you’re gambling. And if you’re gambling, then I’m the guy you want to see.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com