“Undefeated,” Reviewed

“Undefeated,” Reviewed (photo)

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Coach Bill Courtney calls his Manassas Tigers a second-half team. It’s an accurate description for many reasons beyond the football squad’s trouble scoring early in the game, but one that specifically applies to the film made about them by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin for it is in the second half that “Undefeated” transcends the traditional sports doc.

Of course, documentaries always require a bit of luck no matter how skilled the filmmakers are and in the case of “Undefeated,” it’s actually the bad luck of Montrail “Money” Brown, an undersized right tackle who suffers a torn ACL midway through his senior season, which sets off a series of alternately heartbreaking and inspiring moments during a year of football no one could’ve expected.

Ironically, it’s expectations that held me back from immediately embracing “Undefeated” as something special. In reports that the film had been sold at SXSW to the Weinstein Company, a common refrain was a comparison to “The Blind Side” due to one of its storylines and it bears a strong resemblance to “Friday Night Lights” in its aesthetic and, to some degree, its structure before the exceptionally compelling story of the lower-class North Memphis squad takes over.

Lindsay and Martin’s film is full of the extreme close-ups and impressionistic editing that Peter Berg employed for the gritty style that has become code in contemporary cinematic terms for any sports film these days being about “more than just a game,” which poses the intriguing if problematic conceit in a documentary that faux reality has replaced the actual thing in order to be engaging. However, “Undefeated” has no shortcomings in the charm department thanks to the other way the film is like “Lights,” as it’s told primarily from the perspective of its coach, Courtney, the owner of a hardwood lumber company who volunteers at a local high school because football is his true passion.

Undeniably charismatic with a tough love approach towards his players, Courtney has spent six years changing the culture at Manassas from a program that could barely afford uniforms and rarely won games to a competitive team that still doesn’t exactly have the respect of its more affluent rivals in the area, but clearly has a fire that comes directly from its coach. Manassas also has benefitted from the decision of three of the area’s most talented athletes to attend the school despite the fact the Tigers have never won a playoff game.

As Courtney preaches, “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character,” something that guides “Undefeated” away from scrutinizing the Tigers’ offensive schemes or even spending time with its quarterback in favor of the stories of what have to be its three most interesting players: Brown, the aforementioned right tackle whose playing days will end with high school since he’s too small for a college program and has worked hard both on the field and off to still get accepted somewhere; Chavis Daniels, a junior who didn’t play his sophomore year since he was in a youth detention facility as a result of his serious anger issues; and O.C. Brown, a ridiculous physical specimen at left tackle who has the best chance at a post-high school playing career if only he could pass his college entrance exam.

With just an hour-and-a-half, Lindsay and Martin, who last directed “Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong,” follow a traditional game-by-game chronicle of the season, which contrary to its title begins with a loss and heightens the stakes on every game after, and the time crunch doesn’t really allow for as rich a portrait of its subjects and their community as something like “Hoop Dreams,” but may be nearly as rewarding.

Lindsay and Martin shot over 500 hours of footage in the course of the year and it’s obvious they understand the amount of set-up required to make all their storylines come together in the end. While saving their bullets for “Undefeated”‘s final act means some patience is required as they go through the motions of a small-town underdog story like so many others, the payoff is a series of piercing, direct hits to the heart when the three players and their coach start making decisions about their future and you’re able to appreciate the full gravity of each moment as the person onscreen experiences it. It would be a shame to ruin any of these moments here, but you might need some tissues nearby as Courtney weighs the importance of the family he’s built at Manassas with the one he has at home, Montrail struggles to keep up with school and get back on the field after his debilitating injury, Chavis undergoes an unlikely transformation from a troublemaker to team leader, and O.C. is taken in by an assistant coach’s family to help him prepare for his ACT test (a la “The Blind Side”).

By the time “Undefeated” is over, winning the district title seems as if it’s an afterthought for the Manassas Tigers at the end of the season since they’ve achieved so much else, and likewise the film is a triumph not because Lindsay and Martin document the rise of a winning program, but because they’ve captured something far more winning about the goodness of people and a strength that isn’t limited to physical prowess.

“Undefeated” will be released by the Weinstein Company.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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