COACH CARTER – Blu-ray review

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” –Marianne Williamson

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, John and Justin provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
I am generally immune to real-life, inspirational sports stories, having seen so many of them now, but 2005’s “Coach Carter” was a little easier than most for me to swallow. Maybe the fact that the story took place in a city not too far from me and that the movie offers an excellent high-definition Blu-ray transfer helped propel my interest. That and Samuel L. Jackson in the title role. He owns the picture.

Like most inspirational sports stories, “Coach Carter” is a Cinderella tale, the story of a losing high school basketball team in a low-income community, a team that finds hope under a new head coach. Richmond, California, is a tough city, as one of the characters in the movie mentions early on. It’s so tough that its young people, the majority of whom are poor and black, have a hard time taking advantage of the world’s opportunities. By the mid 1990s at Richmond High School, students were 80% more likely to go on to prison than to higher education. The school graduated only 50% of its student body, and only 6% went to college. The old basketball coach could hardly get his players to go to class, let alone play good ball, at which point he pretty much begged Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a local businessman and former Richmond High All-American, to try his hand at guiding the team. He did, with controversial success, coaching at Richmond from 1997 to 2002.

A prefacing remark says that the life of Ken Carter inspired the filmmakers, and a closing disclaimer tells us that some of the events and characters are ficticious, so we do have to give the film a little slack. Still, it’s close enough, and the major circumstances it portrays did really happen, making it all the more uplifting.

Although “Coach Carter” contains all of the usual trappings of an inspirational sports movie–the stereotypical characters like the hard-ass kid and the one who hates class and the one who can’t read who all come around, and clichéd experiences, like the social and family problems they have outside school–the film succeeds on other levels. Most important, it has Samuel L. Jackson. He’s a commanding performer, and when other cast members are on screen, you hardly notice them. It’s his dominating yet enlightened performance that infuses the film with much of its vigor.

Of course, it helped that Jackson had an inspiring character to play. The real Ken Carter wanted to do more than win basketball games. He wanted his players to be genuine “student athletes,” with an emphasis on the “student.” Unlike the rest of the school and most of the community, Carter saw athletics as a way to help students raise their self-esteem and better their personal lives. To that end he made every member of the team sign a contract stating that they would maintain a 2.3 GPA, attend their classes regularly, sit in the front row, and wear a tie to school on game day. He wanted to teach them to respect others and respect themselves.

When the team could not honor their contracts, he cancelled practices, locked the gym, and forfeited the team’s next game. This infuriated the rest of the school and the local community, who wanted Carter’s head on a platter, and his actions gained him national press attention. But he stuck to his guns. More recently, the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Mike Singletary, took a similar action, with similar results. He was the first NFL coach in anyone’s memory to kick one of this own players, tight end Vernon Davis, out of a game. Like coach Carter, Singletary sent a message to the team and to the fans: There are rules in sports and there are rules in life; you agree to follow them, or you pay the consequences. Carter and Singletary: Tough love from tough leaders.

Third, there’s Thomas Carter’s direction. Director Carter, known mainly for his TV work and movies like “Metro” and “Save the Last Dance,” creates a good deal of energy in the game sequences without resorting to any kind of frenetic editing. While the basketball games in the movie are exciting, there aren’t that many of them, and Carter shows them to us in relatively brief, precisely choreographed bits. Carter creates the bulk of his movie’s energy among the characters and their relationships with one another.

Fourth, there’s the film’s generally realistic feeling. Sure, most of the actors playing the high school kids are in their early-to-mid twenties–people like Rob Brown, Robert Ri’chard, Rick Gonzalez, Channing Tatum, and Ashanti–and they are all movie-star attractive, but we expect that from Hollywood. No, what I’m talking about is filming on location in southern California areas that greatly resemble the real Richmond and having the kids talk and dress like real teenagers. Even the school looks like a real school and not some Disneyland set that you see in so many other “real-life” teen movies. I appreciated that.

If there is any single aspect of the film I didn’t care for, though, it’s the length. It appears to be a rule of thumb in Hollywood these days that unless a movie is over two hours long, audiences either will not accept it as a serious film or they won’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth. I wonder if DVD Director’s Cuts and Extended Editions have anything to do with the latter reasoning? In any case, “Coach Carter” is 136 minutes long and could have been edited by a good half an hour.

That said, there were probably two or three moments in “Coach Carter” when I began choking up, getting a lump in my throat, and several more moments when I wanted to stand up and cheer. That’s three or four more times than I’ve experienced in most such films, and, believe me, that’s a very good thing, indeed.

John’s film rating: 7/10

The Film According to Justin:
The story of the down-and-out individual or team that finds redemption through discipline is a familiar one. It is amazing, to me, just how often these fairy-tale themes present themselves in real life. “Coach Carter” is one such story. The film recounts the roller-coaster ride of the Richmond High School basketball team at the end of the last century.

Richmond is a troubled area. The high school dropout rate is fifty percent… and residents are more likely to go to prison than to college. Teenage pregnancy is as common as the flu, which puts added pressures on an already strained economy. The stories you hear about the dangers the ghetto plays in the lives of the youth that grow up there speak directly to the problems at Richmond.

Basketball is one of the few things the young men have that can take them away from the pains of reality. It stands as the highlight of a life that will likely lead to, at best, a life in poverty and at worst gangs, drugs, and an early death. So when Ken Carter, a former All-American basketball player and now small business owner in the city takes over the team, he looks not only to lead a revolution on the court, but change the lives of the men who play for him.

Carter, a former military man, institutes a rigid routine that not only molds these boys into intense physical specimens but gives them a reason to be more. He gives them a sense of self respect. What before was a motley rabble of ego and rebellion that resulted in conflict and failure becomes a cohesive team that finds success both on and off the court.

The movie itself is structured in such a way as to focus on the infamous lockout of 1999. In that year, as the players failed in the classroom, Carter took the plan to the next level. He declared that the team would forfeit their next games, an amazing feat during a season that had been, until then, perfect. The backlash from the community, who saw only the failure of the basketball team and not the successes of its players, was immense. The players, on the other hand, seeing their progress and buying in to the coach’s plan, stuck by his side. In the end, the young men who were written off before they were born were suddenly something more. They were students, they were athletes, and they were men.

The story is perfect for the cinema. When compressed, the narrative loses little of its potency. “Coach Carter” does have a staggered climactic narrative structure, with crescendos peaking with big wins and successes off the court, only to be met with significant adversity through failures in grades, moral lapses, or conflicts within the team or community. Fortunately, the shunting doesn’t take away from the growth of the characters, their development through the film, or the dramatic tension.

Director Thomas Carter does an admirable job of mixing the action on the court and the world that exists outside off its polished surface. About the only major problem I had with the movie was some of the dialogue and its recitation. It felt forced and completely unnatural, which did distract from the early establishment of the characters. As the film progressed I was able to put aside my issues. Samuel L. Jackson does an admirable job playing a hard-line man who isn’t as sure of his methodology as it would seem to the public. The rest of the cast, as an ensemble, works relatively well. While they seem stereotypical, each is able to draw a sense of individual identity. They are good, if shallow, characters that do mature noticeably through the film.

Visually the movie isn’t of great diversity of camera work, but the style is well-balanced with practical need to tell the story. Nothing groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be.

Interestingly, the movie’s coda tells the story of what happened to the players on the court… but doesn’t touch on what happened to them as people which, to my mind, misses the point of the film. But that’s a minor quibble.

Much like the recent “Friday Night Lights,” “Coach Carter” tells a story that we have perhaps heard but aren’t completely familiar with. They say there are no good new stories, and maybe that is true. In fact, the inescapability of one’s social situation and the role of a rebellious coach may seem familiar to anyone familiar with “Hoosiers,” but this is a story for a new generation. But the fact that “Carter” is based in reality makes it that much more touching. A roller-coaster of emotions, “Coach Carter” may not have the most arresting plot twists, but it is a pleasant portrait and a wonderful story that paints a picture of a place and time that we will now forever remember.

Justin’s film rating: 7/10

Paramount present the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to excellent effect using an MPEG-4/AVC codec on a dual-layer BD50. Definition is solid, colors are truthful, strong black levels deliver deep, rich, but never bright or gaudy hues, and a light film grain produces a realistic texture. The images are not quite as sharply delineated as Paramount’s “Into the Wild,” but they’re close and very fine, indeed. The filmmakers shot most of the film either indoors or at night, so don’t expect any fancy, eye-popping images, just reasonably natural-looking video.

As most of the soundtrack is made up of dialogue, there isn’t always a lot for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio to do beyond reproducing it cleanly, which it does with ease. Occasionally, we get environmental noises like rain, thunder, cars, and helicopters, which the surround speakers pick up nicely. You’ll find a wide front-channel spread, too, some booming bass appropriate to the hip-hop musical score, and a generally smooth overall response.

The disc has no audio commentary involved, but it does have a goodly collection of other items. First up, there’s the featurette “Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Movie,” about twenty minutes with the real Ken Carter, his family, and players. Second, there’s “Fast Break at Richmond High,” about twelve minutes of background on how the young actors learned to play the game better and how the filmmakers shot action in the games. After that are six deleted scenes totaling about twelve minutes. Then, there are two more featurettes: “Writing Coach Carter: The Two Man Game,” about eight minutes with the screenwriter; and “Coach Carter: Making the Cut,” eighteen minutes of background material on the film.

Things wrap up with a music video, “Hope” by Twista, featuring Faith Evans; twenty-three scene selections, with bookmarks; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
If you think that it helps to like basketball in order to enjoy “Coach Carter,” you might be wrong. Basketball is one of my least-favorite spectator sports (I enjoy football and boxing much more), yet I liked “Coach Carter” immensely. I suppose it’s because the movie is more concerned with the characters than with the sport. So it’s a movie for anyone to enjoy.