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McFarland, USA Blu-ray + Digital HD Review

McFarland, USA (2015) movie poster McFarland, USA

Theatrical Release: February 20, 2015 / Running Time: 129 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Niki Caro / Writers: Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois (story & screenplay), Grant Thompson (screenplay)

Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim White), Maria Bello (Cheryl White), Morgan Saylor (Julie White), Martha Higareda (Lupe), Michael Aguero (Damacio Diaz), Sergio Avelar (Victor Puentes), Hector Duran (Johnny Sameniego), Rafael Martinez (David Diaz), Johnny Ortiz (Jose Cardenas), Carlos Pratts (Thomas Valles), Ramiro Rodriguez (Danny Diaz), Danny Mora (Sammy Rosaldo), Valente Rodriguez (Principal Alfred Camillo), Vanessa Martinez (Maria Marisol), Chris Ellis, Jr. (Coach Jenks), Diana Maria Riva (Señora Diaz), Omar Leyva (Señor Diaz), Elsie Fisher (Jamie White)

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In the past few years, we've seen the true sports drama evolve from an occasional attraction to a regular staple of Walt Disney Studios output. Within Studio Entertainment, a rather minor division compared to Disney's media networks and parks & resorts, the sports dramas are of modest significance to the bottom line.
Their commercial importance is a far cry from Marvel's superhero movies, Lucasfilm's Star Wars projects, Pixar and Disney animated features, and the suddenly flourishing live-action remake/reimagining of cartoon classics. On the Disney totem pole, the sports films may only rank above Disneynature and whatever trickles out from Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures these days.

Still, the sports movies have their place. They are almost always well-received by critics, the 4-10 million moviegoers who see them theatrically, and the millions more who wait to catch them at home. They employ accomplished actors, from Jon Hamm to Diane Lane, who might not otherwise find work at Disney. They take advantage of Disney's ownership of ESPN, the ridiculously lucrative sports network last valued at $50 billion. And they are almost single-handedly keeping the mid-range movie alive at Disney. This class, which is probably not far from being branded "Disney Sports", is one of the few remaining sources of Disney films for whom merchandising and franchises are of no concern.

Considering all the sports movies he's done, it is astonishing that Kevin Costner is only now getting to make one of those for Disney, for whom he made three Touchstone films in the early 2000s. Though he hasn't lived up to movie star status in over a decade, Costner still gets above-the-title billing in a typeface nearly as big as the Disney logo and bigger than anything else but the title McFarland, USA. Who or what is McFarland, you ask? It's a small, impoverished, predominantly Mexican-American city in Southern California, whose high school's cross country team won a state title in 1987. Is that a spoiler alert? I don't think so, though chances are you're less familiar with this story than some of the other true ones producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray have told for Disney like Miracle, Invincible, and Secretariat.

"McFarland, USA" tells the story of Jim White (Kevin Costner) and the cross country team of Mexican-Americans he coached to the 1987 California state title.

The film opens in August 1987 in Boise, Idaho. There, Jim White (Costner) is the short-tempered coach of a terrible high school football team. He throws a cleat that bounces off a locker and hits a student athlete in the face. White's next stop on the American high school coaching circuit is McFarland. He, his wife (the noticeably younger Maria Bello), and their two daughters know little about their new home. The movie conveys that in a none too promising fashion. The girls ask "Are we in Mexico?" as they take in the sights from the car. Jim asks "Do you got burgers?" at a little joint that clearly only serves Mexican food (never mind that the next scene shows a pizza restaurant right across the street). Then, leaving the establishment, the Whites are scared by slow-driving steely young Mexican men in long-sleeved flannel shirts with only the top button buttoned. Gangbangers, you presume? Nope, just the local car club, esé.

Gladly and perhaps inevitably, this inauspicious start does not pave the way for a bad movie. White becomes assistant coach for McFarland's football team, losing the job in his first week. Then, after noticing the quickness of some of his Phys Ed students and using his car's speedometer to clock one boy running home from school at 12 miles per hour, White pitches to the principal they form a cross country team. White has no experience or expertise in the art of running. But he gets one boy to assemble a team of seven.

Naturally, the team starts in last place, getting laughed at by the competition: preppy white achievers. But, wouldn't you know, they persevere, overcoming adversity to succeed. Along the way, White develops an appreciation for these boys, who join their hard-working families in the fields before and after school and/or practice. White even joins these pickers for one day of back-breaking manual labor.

Coach White (Kevin Costner) develops a further appreciation for his boys after joining them for a typical day of back-breaking field labor. White's daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) celebrates her Quinceañera in one of the forced and probably fictionalized subplots.

McFarland, USA is very predictable but enjoyable nonetheless. There is almost no room for surprise or disappointment in this genre. If I told you the premise and setting,
you could probably conceive the scene of the white man getting served an endless meal of Mexican delights and not realizing a man speaks English. You could foresee the humor and the music, the car wash fundraiser, the motivational speech, and even the tough boy with family issues. Disney Sports is almost exactly like Disneynature in that you're not going to get a bad movie, but you're also not going to get something exceptional. You'll get something good. Familiar and probably not something you're compelled to see more than once, but definitely good and life-affirming.

Some of the conflict feels manufactured: the ominous aftermath of White's daughter's Quinceañera party. Other conflict feels fictionalized: White is entertaining a job offer from nearby Palo Alto. On the plus side, the film doesn't drag out the big race (which doesn't begin until around 110 minutes in) and even though it runs a little over 2 hours, it moves quickly. In the end, even though you know just what will happen, you can't help but be glad to watch it play out and see these poor children from undereducated families succeeding at something.

Any competent director could make this movie satisfactorily. New Zealand's Niki Caro clearly fits the bill, even if she has been curiously unproductive since her critically acclaimed Noughties dramas Whale Rider and North Country. Costner has always been a one-dimensional actor and obviously a Disney sports movie isn't going to change that. Set in his ways or not, he serves this material fine. The young men playing his runners do a good job. Mostly novices, they sell their parts without doing much to stand out on an individual basis. They all appear to be authentic Mexican-Americans, which is good since Hollywood has so few roles for this substantial and growing population.

Opening theatrically in February, McFarland, USA performed right in line with expectations, grossing a decent $44 million on a reported production budget of just $17 M. It recently reached home video on DVD and in the Blu-ray + Digital HD edition reviewed here.

McFarland, USA: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish, Portuguese), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English DVS, Thai)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese Simplified, Chinese Traditional, Indonesian, Malay
Not Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: June 2, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($29.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

You can also count on Disney sports movies to look good. The 2.40:1 picture shows off the film's warm, sunny photography with nary a concern. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is also effective, with automatic subtitles translating a little bit of the film's surprisingly sparse Spanish dialogue.

Members of the actual 1987 McFarland cross country team sit down for a scenic outdoor chat with Coach White and Kevin Costner in "McFarland Reflections." You may not understand what Juanes is singing in their "Juntos" music video, but the people of McFarland seem to like it.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

McFarland, USA's Blu-ray
includes four HD video bonus features.

First up, "McFarland Reflections" (8:29) gathers Kevin Costner with the real Jim White and runners for a discussion of their story and this filming of it.

Next, comes Juanes' music video for "Juntos (Together)" (3:25), which plays movie clips in between shots of the band performing in McFarland locations to a passionate audience. Never has Disney's curious no subtitles on music videos policy been more problematic than on this Spanish song.

The real Coach White and six of his state title-winning runners appear in this 1987 photo from "Inspiring McFarland." Coach White puts a little culture in his runners' lockers in this deleted scene.

"Inspiring McFarland" (2:02) is basically a glorified trailer, dishing out some sound bites from the real people and a brief glimpse of director Niki Caro.

Finally and perhaps most significant is a section of six deleted and extended scenes (8:10). These include a confrontation between White and McFarland's head football coach,
a peek at the garage where Victor works, and scenes painting White as a cultural motivator and father figure to the boys.

The disc opens with promos for Disney Movies Anywhere, Inside Out, and Aladdin: Diamond Edition. The Sneak Peeks listing doesn't replay any of those, instead running ads for Disney Movie Rewards, Fusion, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and "Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Lost Missions." McFarland's trailer is, of course, sadly not included.

The menu offers an unremarkable scored montage. The Blu-ray doesn't resume playback, support bookmarks, or even remember where you left off in the film should you not have finished it in one sitting. With Blu-ray turning nine this year, the studio seems to have zero interest in bringing it up to DVD's level in this regard.

The plain blue disc is housed in a side-snapped, slipcovered keepcase, which also holds a Disney Movie Club ad and a booklet with your Disney Movie Rewards/Anywhere code.

Coach White (Kevin Costner) is proud of his anchor Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriguez).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You don't need me to tell you that McFarland, USA is a good movie, but a familiar, formulaic, and predictable one. The Disney true sports drama remains a spectacularly consistent class, which means though this isn't likely to become your new favorite film, it's also not something that could annoy or frustrate you, the way that bolder and more creative new movies might. If like Disney, you haven't tired of this genre, then make sure to give this latest entry a look.

Disney's Blu-ray delivers a great feature presentation and an okay sitcom episode's worth of bonus features. Unless you have a specific fondness for the sport or this particular story, you'll probably deem this a one-time viewing, but a moderately enjoyable one at that.

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Reviewed June 9, 2015.



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