Kevin Coster and Ramiro Rodriguez in McFarland USAMCFARLAND USA

God, I hate Disney. Not all the time, of course, and in any case, "hate" is probably a strong word. But why does the studio have to keep releasing live-action movies that are inseparable from cartoons, with all of the potentially legitimate conflict inevitably dulled down and scrubbed squeaky-clean? And why does its succession of inspirational sports dramas never feature any actual coaching beyond bland and clichéd motivational speeches? And why do these damned things keep making me weep like a baby?

I have no answers for any of that, and can only say that Disney's latest, director Niki Caro's McFarland USA, did the trick for me, too, much as I frequently loathed the film for doing it. In this latest true-story twist on the conventional Disney formula, Kevin Costner plays a former Idaho football coach who, after relocating to California's Central Valley, forms the first cross-country team at a local high school whose runners are all Mexican teens forced to work as day-laborers both before and after school. In other words, it's another tale of a privileged white man - and this one's name is actually (Jim) White - who makes the world a little bit better for underprivileged not-white men, and I won't insult you with its particulars. But Disney sure will, and anyone not expecting the following will no doubt have a terrific time: (a) White's and his family's initial fear of their new Chicano neighbors, (b) their eventual bonding with the residents who they learn are just like them, (c) racist "But those kids can't compete!" sentiments expressed by every on-screen white who's not a White, and (d) lump-in-the-throat shamelessness as our Mexican heroes prove the racists wrong.

Personally, I didn't, yet that also didn't keep me from being affected on a pretty regular basis. While the film's screenplay-by-committee is weak, Caro's direction, happily, isn't. As in 2003's wonderful Whale Rider, Caro gives her performers plenty of breathing room and demonstrates a lovely gift for visual expression of her film's region and economics; McFarland USA is the rare, generically triumphant underdog tale that can actually boast a true directorial presence. And although there's no end to the stereotypes on display - the grim-faced papa who wants his sons out of competition and in the fields, the no-nonsense mama forcing enchiladas down Costner's throat - they're at least played with vigor and emotionalism, with White's seven cross-country charges, collectively, forming a touching and enthusiastic antidote to the star's overly practiced earnestness. I didn't believe the movie for a second but was reasonably content to let its well-meaning obviousness work on me, and, as usual, found myself wiping away tears at the most manipulative moments imaginable. God, I hate/love Disney.

 

Mae Whitman and Bella Thorne in The DUFFTHE DUFF

Every once in a while, you'll stumble upon a movie starring someone you never imagined scoring a lead role in Hollywood, and the confluence of performer and character feels so magically right that you immediately ask, "What the hell took so long?!" Exhibit A: Director Ari Sandel's The DUFF. In outline, and mostly in practice, it's a fairly standard teen comedy about a funky, friendly high-schooler named Bianca who discovers, to her horror, that she's been tagged as the DUFF - Designated Ugly Fat Friend - of her more conventionally attractive pals. (That Bianca is neither ugly nor fat makes no difference; as is helpfully explained in Josh A. Cagan's moderately witty screenplay, a DUFF can be anyone, of any gender or body type, who acts as the approachable mediator between hotties and the rest of the world.) Consequently, Bianca spends most of the movie attempting to un-DUFF-ify herself, and I probably don't have to tell you that all manner of high jinks ensue, most involving her hunky and doltish next-door-neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell), her bitchy nemesis (the hilarious Bella Thorne), and her mom (the unavoidable Allison Janney). What I do need to tell you, however, is that Bianca is played by Mae Whitman, and if you're familiar with her résumé, that might be all it takes to make you want to see this charming, funny, surprising little winner. I'm talking about the film, but that description's an apt one for its star, as well.

The 26-year-old Whitman has been doing quietly wonderful work for years: in movies such as Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower; as a recurring cast member on Parenthood and In Treatment. (She's apparently also a regular on TV's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but you'll have to get someone else's confirmation on just how wonderful she might be there.) But for some of us, perhaps to Whitman's irritation, she will always be Arrested Development's Ann Veal (her?), and I'm sorry, but until I saw The DUFF, I had no idea it was the movie I'd spent a decade waiting for. Sardonic without being off-putting, fearless without being embarrassing, and clearly equally at home with both verbal and slapstick comedy, Whitman is a glorious, goofy delight here - almost Emma-Stone-in-Easy-A good. And partnered alongside Amell's wonderfully sincere and frequently hysterical Wesley, a charming dim bulb who's all too happy to show off his rock-hard abs and fondness for the non-word "irregardless," Whitman even gets to be the heroine of her own romantic comedy, one that's just about as silly and sweet as you could hope for. Many of the gags are stale and there's too much "Losers unite!" schmaltz in the final third, but The DUFF remains a satisfyingly lightweight good time, and hopefully not the last time Mae Whitman is granted the comedic lead she's long deserved. Her? Hell yeah her.

 

Clark Duke, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson in Hot Tub Time Machine 2HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2

In Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke hop in the hot tub without John Cusack, and never in my life have I so missed John Cusack. There are randomly amusing bits in this time-travel gross-out that finds the uncouth trio traveling to 2025 to find out who shot (and presumably killed) Corddry with a bullet to the crotch, with some especially not-bad ones involving futuristic game-show challenges hosted by Christian Slater and driver-less smart cars that carry grudges. But for every joke that's borderline-inspired, we're forced to sit through at least four scenes of depressingly smug and juvenile crudity, nearly all of them involving the guys' junk (or euphemisms for their junk), and none of them as hysterical as Steve Pink's oppressive direction insists they are. Without Cusack's straight man (or Lizzy Caplan's romantic interest, who's missed just as much) to keep events modestly human, there's nothing happening here but HTTM2's three stars and Adam Scott's nebbishy bridegroom attempting to out-ham and out-deadpan one another, and I grew exhausted with it all long before the climax that, maddeningly, promised a second sequel way more entertaining than this one. I'd say it's time to drain this particular Tub, but the experience of it is draining enough.

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