POSTED ON APRIL 4, 2012:
From Courageous to Comatose
America's race crisis examined through football, and America's idiocy crisis displayed through drivel.
The underbelly of America's racial and economic divide is eloquently explored in this unpretentious documentary about a generous Memphis high school football coach and the impoverished young men he attempts to elevate to a better life. Coach Bill Courtney is one of a kind. A successful white businessman with picture-perfect family living in a mansion on the good side of town, Bill Courtney has a gift for coaching football. He also runs a lumber company, although you'd never guess it from the amount of time and energy he dedicates to coaching football. You'd be hard-pressed to imagine a more perfect model of a coach.
With his slight Southern drawl he tells his players, "You think football builds character. It does not; football reveals character."
Indeed, high school football allows the empathetic and fiercely driven Bill Courtney to express his well-placed individuality in the service of helping his players define their potential on and off the field.
Coach Courtney knows how to motivate his Manassas team of African-American players whose at-risk environment threatens to drag any one of them down in a vicious undertow on any given day. A school bell rings at 3:30 pm. The doughy-faced Coach Courtney addresses his team of brooding players with a list of their teammates who have been shot, arrested, or suspended over the past two weeks. Undaunted by the incremental incidents that undermine his team, Courtney knows how to turn adversity into an advantage without batting an eye.
Famous for never having won a playoff game in the school's 110-year history, Manassas High School is the last football team anyone in a 150-mile radius expects to hear anything positive about -- ever. Nonetheless, six years of coaching the same group of boys has put Coach Courtney's squad on the precipice of being able to break that losing streak if only they can focus on the fleeting opportunity before them.
It's tempting to wax poetic about the energetic 2009 season we witness the Manassas Tigers play through, but the meat of the story comes down to three players. Montrail "Money" Brown is a physically undersized offensive lineman with heart and serious goals for college. An injury threatens to keep Money off the field for the entire season. Money's vacillating confidence level jeopardizes the necessary physical therapy sessions that could put him back in the game.
Chavis Daniels is an ex-con from a youth penitentiary whose skill on the football field is overshadowed by his uncontrollable temper off of it. O.C. Brown is a gifted right tackle with the demeanor of a teddy bear and a remedial level of academic comprehension. How each young man matures under Bill Courtney's judicious supervision is as inspirational as it is edifying.
Co-directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin employ a judicious vérité style that brings a social context to their film. An unobtrusive but effective musical score resonates as an aural background. Intimate interview segments with Bill Courtney allows their de facto protagonist to express candid exposition about crucial elements such as the way his team has historically been mistreated as a punching bag by rival teams. Humorous exchanges occur during car rides. An on-field camera pan blurs left to catch the coach taking a call from a wealthy local supporter willing to pay for one player's college education. Tight close-ups heighten the drama of the reactions exchanged in one of the film's most emotionally charged scenes. Tears flow. This is powerful stuff.
The filmmakers' careful editing of exciting football game footage allows for a dynamic contrast between the energizing, almost magical, effect of the games, and the depressing atmosphere of violence, poverty, and loss that the young players contend with in their daily lives.
An aspect of intrinsic dramatic depth comes from Bill Courtney's own family. He and his wife have two girls and two boys -- aged 11 through 14. Concerned that his commitments to the Manassas Tigers are preventing him from giving proper attention to his own children, Courtney struggles with a decision to stop coaching. His own lack of a father growing up has made him keenly aware of his responsibilities to his children. As an audience member, you really feel like you get to know exactly who this man is.
The film's Academy Award nomination has brought it much deserved attention. Undefeated is a brilliant documentary that every teacher in America should see.
Rated PG-13. 110 mins. (A) (Five Stars -- out of five/no halves)
The Plague of Remakes and Updates Drags On
A scattershot hodgepodge of scatological and penile humor, 21 Jump Street owes less to Johnny Depp's 1987 television launch pad series than it does to a mentality of lowest common denominator. Here is a pathetic comedy that rarely evinces even a chuckle.
With a sequel already planned, 21 Jump Street is one more in a long list of open-handed insults from Hollywood presumably aimed at puerile audiences too dumb to know better. Product placement is predictably de rigeur. Giving a character a permanent prop of snack chips is just plain dumb. It doesn't help that Ice Cube delivers a characteristically amateurish performance as Captain Dickson, the anger-prone police chief in charge of an undercover team of "Justin Bieber--Miley Cyrus-looking-mutts" working out of the "Aroma of Jesus Christ" church. A "Korean" Jesus Christ oversees the pews from his life-size crucifix. I suppose the subtext here is, if the comedy stinks, you know who to blame.
Jonah Hill slums it, following his Oscar-nominated turn in "Moneyball," as Schmidt, a smartenheimer police academy embarrassment assigned with his cop pal Jenko (Channing Tatum) to infiltrate a high school pretending to be students. As the story goes, the two guys used to be rivals at opposite ends of the social spectrum when they actually went to high school together a decade or more ago. But now they have discovered an ideal atmosphere to capitalize on one another's strengths. Never mind that Hill and Tatum are closer to 35 than 17. Jenko's academic weaknesses are exposed in his inability to recite the Miranda warning that anyone with a television in the last 50 years knows better than the Lord's Prayer.
Jenko states, "You have the right to remain an attorney." Officer Schmidt sheepishly supports his partner's claim. He tells his chief, "You do have the right to be an attorney if you want to." If this kind of asymmetrical humor sounds funny, know that it represents one of the film's few funny moments.
There's a new -- potentially lethal -- synthetic drug going around the school that Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to track back to its source. James Franco's younger brother Dave has the misfortune of being cast as the school's drug-dealing kingpin. From the looks of it, he won't be giving his older sibling any competition for many years to come.
The closest the comedy gets to topical occurs during Freudian-slip overtures by Jenko's female high school teacher Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper). She wants to examine Jenko's "chest" more than his "test."
The film's primary conceit resides in turning high school student stereotypes upside-down. Eco-friendly, folk music-loving, tolerance-loving nerds are now the "cool" kids, while bullying jocks are pathetic creeps to be humiliated into submission. This turnabout comes more as a shock to Jenko, whose reliance on his once successful old-school ways hit with a resounding thud whenever he tries to rely on old habits. Schmidt, on the other hand, finds that his shy and awkward approach to school life has its rewards. He develops a crush on a girl named Molly (Brie Larson) who is more than responsive to his understated charms.
Hailing from the animation universe, dual-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) don't so much direct as bear witness to a series of pedestrian chase sequences filled with one-dimensional characters. The awful thing about movies like 21 Jump Street is that it has a built-in audience. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill have each made respectable comedies and dramas that lead unsophisticated audiences to follow them wherever they go, even if it's into a miasmic mess such as 21 Jump Street.
Still, a Johnny Depp cameo comes late in the film to remind audiences just how inferior this rendition of 21 Jump Street is to the television show that gave Depp the room to develop as an actor. It goes to show how far Hollywood has regressed. Depp's brief appearance also reminds you of how much better an actor he is, than much of 21 Jump Street's other onscreen talent. Schmidt and Jenko may as well have been sent to investigate drug dealing at an elementary school. Comedies don't get much more remedial than this. I'm already dreading "21 Jump Street 2." Hopefully, they'll change writers, directors, and switch out Ice Cube for someone who can at least act.
Rated R. 109 mins. (D) (One Star -- out of five/no halves)
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