DVD/Stream of the Week: UNDEFEATED – an Oscar winner you haven’t seen

UNDEFEATED

With football season (finally) approaching, it’s time for a Feel Good, Oscar-winning story set on the gridiron. The extraordinary documentary Undefeated begins with a high school football coach addressing his team:

Let’s see now. Starting right guard shot and no longer in school. Starting middle linebacker shot and no longer in school. Two players fighting right in front of the coach. Starting center arrested. Most coaches – that would be pretty much a career’s worth of crap to deal with. Well, I think that sums up the last two weeks for me.

Undefeated is the story of this coach, Bill Courtney, leading his team through a season. The kids live in crushing poverty and attend a haplessly under-resourced high school in North Memphis.

Undefeated may be about a football team, but isn’t that much about football. Instead of the Xs and Os, it shows the emotional energy required of Courtney to keep each kid coming to school, coming to practice and on task. He gets many of the kids to think about goals for the first time in their lives. He is tireless, dogged and often frustrated and emotionally spent.

The film wisely focuses on three players, and we get to know them. Like the rest of the team, all three are from extremely disadvantaged homes. One is an overachiever both on the field and in the classroom, but surprisingly emotionally vulnerable. Another has college-level football talent but very little academic preparation. The third, recently back from youth prison, is impulsive, immature, selfish and extremely volatile.

Undefeated won the 2012 Oscar for Best Documentary for filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin – but it didn’t get a wide theatrical release. It’s available now on DVD and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

DVD/Stream of the Week: hang ten this summer!

Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on and safari with me

It’s a great time for the two most awesome and gnarly surfing movies, the documentaries Step Into Liquid and Riding Giants.

Step Into Liquid (2003): We see the world’s best pro surfers in the most extreme locations. We also see devoted amateurs in the tiny ripples of Lake Michigan and surfing evangelists teaching Irish school children. The cinematography is remarkable – critic Elvis Mitchell called the film “insanely gorgeous”. The filmmaker is Dana Brown, son of Bruce Brown, who made The Endless Summer (1966) and The Endless Summer II (1994).

Step Into Liquid is available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Riding Giants (2004): This film focuses on the obsessive search for the best wave by some of the greatest surfers in history. We see “the biggest wave ever ridden” and then a monster that could be bigger. The movie traces the discovery of the Half Moon Bay surf spot Mavericks. And more and more, all wonderfully shot.

The filmmaker is Stacy Peralta, a surfer and one the pioneers of modern skateboarding (and a founder of the Powell Peralta skateboard product company). Peralta also made Dogtown and Z-boys (2001), the great documentary about the roots of skateboarding, and wrote the 2005 Lords of Dogtown.

Riding Giants is also available on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

coming up on TV: DOWNHILL RACER

DOWNHILL RACER
DOWNHILL RACER

On September 2, Turner Classic Movies is airing 1970’s Downhill Racer, set in the world of competitive Alpine skiing. Robert Redford plays a handsome and talented, but insolent, ski star with daddy issues and a tendency to self-sabotage. As he strives to make the US team, he clashes with the no-nonsense coach (Gene Hackman). Downhill Racer came at a pivotal point in the careers of Redford, Hackman and the director Michael Ritchie.

As a filmmaker, Ritchie was comfortable telling a story without much dialogue – very spare, Hackman’s character is terse, and Redford’s is a sphinx. Redford’s character, especially, is often quietly observed as he goes about his business, emphasizing his self-isolation. The ski races are classic, with soundtrack adorned only with the swishing of the skis and the crunching of the snow.

Downhill Racer remains at the top of the ski movie genre. The great sound is matched by beautiful mountain visuals and groundbreaking camerawork.

To most Americans, alpine skiing was pretty new and sexy in 1970. We had become familiar with the sport through ABC’s Wild World of Sports and the 1968 Olympics, dominated by the handsome Jean-Claude Killy. The sport’s American stars were not from the among the affluent Americans who took ski vacations, but from workaday kids who grew up in the Rockies – just like Redford’s character.

When they made Downhill Racer, the three principals were each at the cusp of stardom. Ritchie had directed lots of TV, but this was his first theatrical feature. He followed it with his masterpiece The Candidate, still the best film ever about American politics. He followed that with work that included The Bad News Bears, Semi-tough, Fletch, The Scout and The Positively True Adventures of the Cheerleader-Murdering Mom; note that, except for Fletch, those films centered on competition in sports and politics.

Redford became well-known for Barefoot in the Park in 1967 and then a huge star with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). In 1970, he was poised for an amazing run with The Candidate, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, The Sting, The Great Gatsby, The Great Waldo Pepper, Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men – all made in the FIVE years 1972-1976

Gene Hackman had a memorable supporting turn in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and then starred in The Gypsy Moths (1969). He made Downhill Racer just before his career exploded with I Never Sang for My Father, The French Connection, The Conversation and his two Oscars.

Robert Redford and Gene Hackman in DOWNHILL RACER
Robert Redford and Gene Hackman in DOWNHILL RACER

DVD/Stream of the Week: hang ten this summer!

Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on and safari with me

It’s a great time for the two most awesome and gnarly surfing movies, the documentaries Step Into Liquid and Riding Giants.

Step Into Liquid (2003): We see the world’s best pro surfers in the most extreme locations. We also see devoted amateurs in the tiny ripples of Lake Michigan and surfing evangelists teaching Irish school children. The cinematography is remarkable – critic Elvis Mitchell called the film “insanely gorgeous”. The filmmaker is Dana Brown, son of Bruce Brown, who made The Endless Summer (1966) and The Endless Summer II (1994).

 

Riding Giants (2004): This film focuses on the obsessive search for the best wave by some of the greatest surfers in history. We see “the biggest wave ever ridden” and then a monster that could be bigger. The movie traces the discovery of the Half Moon Bay surf spot Mavericks. And more and more, all wonderfully shot.

The filmmaker is Stacy Peralta, a surfer and one the pioneers of modern skateboarding (and a founder of the Powell Peralta skateboard product company). Peralta also made Dogtown and Z-boys (2001), the great documentary about the roots of skateboarding, and wrote the 2005 Lords of Dogtown.

DVD/Stream of the Week: Undefeated – an Oscar winner you haven’t seen

The extraordinary documentary Undefeated begins with a high school football coach addressing his team:

Let’s see now. Starting right guard shot and no longer in school.  Starting middle linebacker shot and no longer in school. Two players fighting right in front of the coach. Starting center arrested.  Most coaches – that would be pretty much a career’s worth of crap to deal with.  Well, I think that sums up the last two weeks for me.

Undefeated is the story of this coach, Bill Courtney, leading his team through a season.  The kids live in crushing poverty and attend a haplessly under-resourced high school in North Memphis.

Undefeated may be about a football team, but isn’t that much about football.  Instead of the Xs and Os, it shows the emotional energy required of Courtney to keep each kid coming to school, coming to practice and on task.  He gets many of the kids to think about goals for the first time in their lives.  He is tireless, dogged and often frustrated and emotionally spent.

The film wisely focuses on three players, and we get to know them.  Like the rest of the team, all three are from extremely disadvantaged homes.  One is an overachiever both on the field and in the classroom, but surprisingly emotionally vulnerable.   Another has college-level football talent but very little academic preparation.   The third,  recently back from youth prison, is impulsive, immature, selfish and extremely volatile.

Undefeated won the 2012 Oscar for Best Documentary for filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin – but it didn’t get a wide theatrical release.  It’s available now on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon VOD and others.

Chasing Mavericks: awesome waves, OK movie

Chasing Mavericks is the true story of Santa Cruz teen surfing prodigy Jay Moriarty being mentored by a veteran surfer so he can challenge Mavericks, the mythic surf spot near Half Moon Bay, California.  Moriarty was a kid left with just one unreliable parent who developed his passion with the help of a surrogate father, himself a damaged soul.  It’s a good story and heartwarming, if predictable – but exceptional in two respects.

First, the scenes of Mavericks are awe-inspiring.  Michael Apted took over when director Curtis Hanson became ill.  Whichever one of them shot the scenes at Mavericks deserves significant recognition.  As anyone has taken an amateur snapshot of the Grand Canyon knows, it’s tough to convey colossal scale in a photograph without a person or familiar object for comparison.  In Chasing Mavericks, we do see the surfers, tiny against the 30 foot faces of the waves.  But we also see the massive swells alone, erasing the coastline as they rise – and it is an unforgettable experience.  My one criticism of the surfing scenes is that almost every shot is less than 4 seconds, which doesn’t allow for full appreciation of long rides.

Second, the movie was shot on location at Mavericks and at many Santa Cruz locations, including Lighthouse Point, Steamer Lane and Seacliff.  The depiction of the locale and the local surfing culture will especially resonate with anyone familiar with the area.

Surfing is a sport that has inspired superb documentaries (Riding Giants, Step into Liquid, and the Endless Summer films) and generally putrid life action fictional films (Blue Crush and the Beach Party drek).  For all of its limitations, Chasing Mavericks may be the best ever non-documentary surfing feature.

Chasing Mavericks is just OK for most movie-goers , but if you’re into surfing and/or have an interest in the Santa Cruz and San Mateo coast, it’s a Must See.

Coming up on TV: Night and the City

Richard Widmark running out of luck in THE NIGHT AND THE CITY

On July 15, Turner Classic Movies is showing the under appreciated film noir classic Night in the City (1950). Richard Widmark is superb as a loser who tries to corner the pro wrestling business in post-war London – and, as in any noir classic, it doesn’t end well for the sap.

The American director Jules Dassin had just made the noir classics The Naked City and Thieves’ Highway when he shot Night and the City in the UK. He was blackballed in the McCarthy Era and never moved back to the US.

At the request of a studio exec, Dassin created a role in Night and the City for the stunningly beautiful but emotionally fragile Gene Tierney. The cast also includes real life wrestlers Stanislaus Zbyszko and Mike Mazurki.

Night in the City (along with The Wrestler) represents wrestling on my list of Best Sports Movies, and there’s a clip of an extended wrestling scene from the movie on that page. (Also, Dassin’s Brute Force makes my list of Best Prison Movies.)

Coming up on TV: Fat City

Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges in FAT CITY

Turner Classic Movies is broadcasting the under appreciated Fat City (1972) on June 18.  Stacy Keach plays a boxer on the slide, his skills unraveled by his alcoholism. He inspires a kid (a very young Jeff Bridges), who becomes a boxer on the rise.  Keach and Susan Tyrrell give dead-on performances as pathetic sad sack barflies.  Tyrrell was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

The great director John Huston shot the film in Stockton, and Fat City is a time capsule for the Central Valley in the early 70s.

Fat City has made two of my lists: Best Boxing Movies and Best Drug Movies.

Susan Tyrrell in FAT CITY

Coming Up on TV: Pigskin Parade

Football fans may be interested in the silly comedy Pigskin Parade because it shows how college football was played in 1936.  It airs on Turner Classic Movies on April 22.

Like many sports movies, Pigskin Parade ends with a climactic game – and there’s footage of real football being played in a snowstorm (in long shot) interspersed with the comic movie football (in medium shot).  You can see the formations, men in motion and punt formation.  I knew about the leather helmets for the players, but I didn’t know that the referees wore unstriped white Knickerbockers and baker boy caps or that the coaches sent in  substitutions by written note.

Jack Haley plays a dim football coach hired at the fictional Texas State.  His spark plug wife (the very funny Patsy Kelly) is the real football brain.  Out in the countryside, they find a hayseed QB who can throw the ball out of the stadium and outrun a deer when he is barefoot; he is played by Stuart Erwin (who garnered a Supporting Actor Oscar nod).

In the final game, Texas State, referred to as “Texas” by the radio broadcaster, is a big underdog to Yale.  Yale was indeed a power at the time.  Yale players won the Heisman in both 1936 and 1937.

Pigskin Parade was the first feature film for Judy Garland and the second acting credit of over 200 for Elisha Cook Jr.  Betty Grable appears before she became a star.  Judy, Betty and Elisha are all billed below the comic quartet The Yacht Club Boys.  (Creepiness alert:  all but one of The Yacht Club Boys were way too old to be hanging around a college campus acting zany and wearing varsity gear.)

Coming up on TV: Night and the City

Richard Widmark running out of luck in THE NIGHT AND THE CITY

On March 25, Turner Classic Movies is showing the under appreciated film noir classic Night in the City (1950).  Richard Widmark is superb as a  loser who tries to corner the pro wrestling business in post-war London – and, as in any noir classic, it doesn’t end well for the sap.

The American director Jules Dassin had just made the noir classics The Naked City and Thieves’ Highway when he shot Night and the City in the UK.  He was blackballed in the McCarthy Era and never moved back to the US.

At the request of a studio exec, Dassin created a role in Night and the City for the stunningly beautiful but emotionally fragile Gene Tierney.  The cast also includes real life wrestlers Stanislaus Zbyszko and Mike Mazurki.

Night in the City (along with The Wrestler) represents wrestling on my list of Best Sports Movies., and there’s a clip of an extended wrestling scene from the movie on that page.  (Also, Dassin’s Brute Force makes my list of Best Prison Movies.)