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“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.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

Mike Mills’ SXSW Video Diary

Mike Mills’ SXSW Video Diary (photo)

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When Mike Mills arrived at the IFC Crossroads House at SXSW 2011 he was holding a little camera. He was filming me, actually, as we shook hands and started going over the format of the interview. I think his direction to me was “Just be natural” which, of course, made me incredibly self-conscious.

Keeping tabs with Mills’ awesome blog on Focus Features’ website, I see now what all the taping was for. He assembled a video diary of his time in Austin, Texas, which plays like a deleted scene from “Beginners.” “I’m going to try to do some video diaries and some photo diaries [during the film’s press tour],” Mills says by way of explanation. “It actually keeps me sane, and much less passive, to find something creative to do along the way.”

Very creative. And absolutely beautiful. I guess I was one of the 43 people who asked questions, though I didn’t make the final cut; damn you Chase Whale! Here’s Mills’ diary — and if you want watch our “Beginners” interview, you can find that here.

“Turkey Bowl,” Reviewed

“Turkey Bowl,” Reviewed (photo)

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It’s hard to make a movie as good as “Turkey Bowl” precisely because it looks so easy. It’s just a 65 minute film told in real time about the annual football game between a bunch of old college buddies, right? Wrong. Think of all the nearly invisible elements that had to go right. The continuity in every shot has to match, from the quality and color of the lighting to the spreading sweat stains on the player’s shirts. Each play had to be diagramed and executed, and re-executed from every necessary angle, and then edited together to tell the story not only of the game but of all the rivalries, friendships, and feuds playing out on its sidelines. The only reason “Turkey Bowl” looks easy is because director Kyle Smith executed it with the skill and finesse of a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Smith — who, full disclosure, went to school with my brother (we’ve never met) — wrote the film and cast many of his friends to play fictionalized versions of themselves. Mostly they’re buddies from college, though Kerry (Kerry Bishé from the final season of “Scrubs”) recruits two strangers she meets in the park to join the squad. As they’re welcomed into the group, we meet the rest of the guys, like meathead Bob (Bob Turton), wiseass Morgan (Morgan Beck), and (my favorite) droll Tom (Tom DiMenna). They make a believable group of college friends: the sort thrown together by random chance and proximity and then united by shared experience and intense living arrangements. Like true old friends, they don’t spend much time voicing their feelings; part of the fun of “Turkey Bowl” is intuiting the histories between these characters from the dirty looks they exchange, or bitter jokes they make.

Like true old friends, some of them are closer than others. Without the intense living arrangements, others have started to drift apart. Again, little of that is said, but all of it is present in the way they play this game. It’s a small, compact film, but it feels like it’s been drawn from a bigger, expansive world. The film is just 65 minutes, short for a feature, but the right length for “Turkey Day,” even if it diminishes its chances of finding national distribution. 65 minutes is just enough time to get invested in the characters and the game and not enough time to get bored with the fairly repetitive nature of its structure.

As funny as “Turkey Bowl” often is, its melancholy ending underscores just how sad such annual rituals like this are. Even as they give us an opportunity to reconnect with friends, they remind us that we’re getting older and growing apart from the people we love. “Turkey Bowl”‘s single location and real-time structure (it begins with the arrival of the first players and ends with the departure of the last) isn’t just a low-budget trick or a narrative gimmick. Emphasizing the passage of time in the story forces us to consider the passage of time in our own lives, to realize how fleeting those happy moments are and how they matter so much more than the score of a football game. Yes, the film’s short. So is life.

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