When the Game Stands Tall


Success breeds cool sunglasses.

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Tri-Star) Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie Usher, Matthew Frias, LaJessie Smith, Richard Kohnke, Chase Boltin, Gavin Cassalegno, Adella Gautier, Terence Rosemore, Deneen Tyler, Anna Margaret.. Directed by Thomas Carter

Football is truly a metaphor for America, or at least America’s ideal image of itself. Individual achievement is admired and encouraged, but it is teamwork that eventually wins games.

De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is the most dominant high school football program in the nation in 2003. They have won 151 straight games – a decade without a loss – the longest streak in any sport at any level in history.  Coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has just won yet another state title. Offers to coach for NCAA Division 1 college teams are coming in by the bucket load but he has no interest in moving up to the next level. He tells his wife Bev (Dern) that he can do more good for the young men at this age than he can for college-age kids.

The stress though is getting to Ladouceur although only his wife and his best friend and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Chiklis) seem to notice. Pretty soon though Coach Ladouceur notices big time – a major heart attack lands him in the hospital where his no-nonsense cardiologist tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to take it easy for awhile – no spring football.

The senior class is already looking ahead, with star running back Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (James) urging his best friend Cam Colvin (Blain) to come up with him to the University of Oregon like they always had planned, although Colvin is devastated by his mom’s illness and death. The junior class is getting ready to take the reins of the next De La Salle team, with tailback Chris Ryan (Ludwig) gunning for a state scoring record and the coach’s son Danny (Daddario) finally getting a chance to shine as a starter at wide receiver, although the talented and arrogant Tayshon Lanear (Usher) derides him as getting an opportunity only because of who his father is.

A body blow is dealt to the team when Kelly is senseless murdered the day before he is to drive up to Oregon to start summer practice. Ladouceur, speaking at the young man’s funeral, admits to being lost.

He’s not the only one. The team isn’t practicing with the same purpose that they did, and that had been going on even before Kelly’s murder. The program is being accused of cherry-picking players (an accusation that has dogged De La Salle even before the film takes place) and some schools refuse to play De La Salle, so for their first game of the 2004 season they travel to Bellevue, Washington to take on Bellevue High School, the Washington State champions the previous seasons. The team loses and the streak, a big part of De La Salle’s identity, is over.

The devastation of their coach’s illness, the death of a teammate and the loss of the streak threatens to overwhelm the team. Ryan, who is playing well, is driven by his overbearing dad (Brown) to achieve the scoring record no matter how it affects the team. There is bickering and doubt. Suddenly, Ladouceur understands that this isn’t about a game anymore.

One of the most cliche-ridden genres in the movies, perhaps second only to romantic comedies, is the true sports drama. When the Game Stands Tall is not immune to those cliches and that hurts the movie overall. Certainly it has led to critics to savage the movie (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating below) and the criticism hasn’t been entirely undeserved.

Caviezel is a soft-spoken actor who rarely seems to raise his voice in any film or TV show he’s ever done. He plays Ladouceur as an even-keel sort who rather than chew out his players a la Herb Brooks in Miracle and Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday instead gives them disappointed looks which seem to affect them more deeply than physical blows. Chiklis is delightful as Eidson, more of a rah-rah sort and a great yang to Caviezel’s yin.

One of the things I object to most in this movie is the addition of the Chris Ryan character who is a complete fabrication. He is there essentially to add a subplot with a sideline dad who is borderline abusive, pushing his son to break a state record not for his son’s benefit but so he can play out his own vicarious fantasies through his son. The real Ladouceur would have never tolerated that sort of behavior and the characters are overbearing cliches that add a jarring note to the film, which could have done better without them, even though Brown and Ludwig do fine jobs in their respective roles.

The football sequences are pretty nicely done, although there are a couple of individual moves that look patently phony. There is also a really good sequence set at the Veterans Hospital where the athletes are introduced to wounded warriors back from the Middle East who are trying to overcome lost limbs and other devastating injuries. That sequence is maybe the most inspiring in the film.

I do applaud the filmmakers for taking a decidedly not underdog team and making them sympathetic. It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a team that had known that much success, but sometimes it’s how adversity is dealt with rather than success that is the true measure of a person – or a team. I liked the concept, but perhaps I’ve just seen too many true sports stories in the last several years. In any case, it’s a likable enough film but certainly one that doesn’t need to be on the top of your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Restrained work from Caviezel and Chiklis.
REASONS TO STAY: Ryan invented from whole cloth and exists only to add false dramatic tension. A few too many sports film cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a scene of violence plus the violence that is inherent in football, a little bit of mild swearing and – horrors! – smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De La Salle is a private high school and costs as of this year $16,000 per year to attend although it was considerably less when this film took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Marshall
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: As Above, So Below

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Love, Wedding, Marriage


Love, Wedding, Marriage

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Mandy Moore, Kellan Lutz, James Brolin, Jane Seymour, Jessica Szohr, Michael Weston, Marta Zmuda Trzebiatowska, Richard Reid, Christopher Lloyd, Alexis Denisof, Alyson Hannigan, Colleen Camp, Andrew Keegan, Joe Chrest. Directed by Dermot Mulroney

There is a Biblical quotation that before you take the mote out of someone else’s eye, first remove the beam out of your own. In other words, before you start fixing someone else’s problem, be sure your own house is in order. Wise words that aren’t always followed.

Ava (Moore) is newly married to Charlie (Lutz), a vintner and a successful one. She herself is a marriage counselor newly minted with a PhD from Berkeley. She is busy planning her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary celebration and she is content with the way her life is going.

That is, until her parents Betty (Seymour) and Bradley (Brolin) storm into her office. Apparently Betty has discovered that her husband cheated on her 25 years ago (the statute of limitations for cheating being indefinite) while they were separated and she wants him gone. Ava offers to avail them of her services but they decline; she has all of six weeks of marital experience and they need an expert.

Ava refers them to a colleague but decides that her help is going to be needed nonetheless behind the scenes. She becomes more and more obsessive with preventing that divorce, going to great lengths. She is also ignoring her own marriage and marital bed, frustrating her husband on every count. She invites her father to live with them without consulting Charlie (a big no-no) and allows Bradley to act out around the house (an even bigger no-no).

Ava goes to all sorts of lengths to manipulate her parents back together again but soon it becomes clear her efforts are not only failing, they are driving her parents further apart. Not only that, but her own marriage is in jeopardy as Charlie begins to wonder why she married him in the first place.

Actor Dermot Mulroney, the veteran of quite a few rom-coms, goes behind the cameras for this one and his inexperience shows. The direction is a bit flat and static; the camera rarely moves much and it makes the movie feel more like a stage play or a sitcom. I wish he’d gotten a little more mentoring before attempting to direct; to be honest, I admire him as an actor but I haven’t seen any sort of inventiveness in him as a director thus far. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any in him, though.

The writing here…well, let’s just say that I’m surprised in a negative way. The logic behind the movie just doesn’t work. Here we have an ostensibly bright and learned woman (they don’t just give out PhDs in cereal boxes at Berkeley, despite what Stanford grads would have you think) who is trained as a marriage counselor violating nearly every tenet of her own profession – not only in dealing with her parents but in her own marriage as well.

Now, I get that smart people sometimes do dumb things and that people can be hypocritical – and that emotional involvement can sometimes lead to us doing things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. That doesn’t mean that smart people act like buffoons, or that our parents’ divorce turns us into lunatics. There are things that Ava does that are actually painful to watch.

Brolin and Seymour, seasoned pros as they are, actually give it a good go. Sometimes Seymour is a bit shrill with her character (who is undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis that is causing her to give in to hysteria) and Brolin’s character shows signs of some sort of way-out dementia that has caused him to become ultra-Jewish (which is apparently something new, as Ava asserts that she isn’t Jewish) and something of a putz. He is apparently easily manipulated, which makes him less interesting of a character.

The sad thing here is that there are the prospects of a good movie deep in the DNA of this film which, unfortunately, aren’t allowed to develop. If the writers had given a little more thought to this movie instead of trying to produce a big screen sitcom rom-com this might have turned out a lot better. While I like the idea of a marriage counselor trying to save her parents’ marriage at the expense of her own, I would have liked a little bit less pratfalls and broad humor and a little more subtlety.

WHY RENT THIS: Brolin and Seymour have some nice chemistry together. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ava’s obsessive behavior strains credibility

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of Ava’s therapist whom Ava only speaks to on the phone is supplied by Julia Roberts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Hurricane