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MOVIE REVIEW: WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL and SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR

 

August 18, 2014

WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL

Mixing things up a bit this weekend, film lifts us to the heavens with ideals of ethics, integrity and redemption in WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL, while taking us on a gritty, sin-filled, film noir inducing trip to hell with SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR. Each is powerful. Each is memorable. Each is more than worth the price of admission.

WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL

151. That's the number of games the De La Salle High School Spartan football team won - consecutively. That's right. In a row. Without a loss. A 12-year winning streak. It's a record that will stand for the ages. It's a record that no professional sports team, no college team, no other high school team, no Pop Warner or Little League team, no international team - in any sport - has even come close to touching. And it was all done under the leadership of De La Salle head coach Bob "Coach Lad" Ladouceur and assistant coach/athletic director, Terry Eidson. But before you think this is "just another football or sports movie", think again. WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is the story behind the story. This is a story that is not only a character study of a man, but a character study of men; how a man rises above the challenges of life, rises above adversity, meets life head on and moves on with strength, dignity and even, redemption. In short, character counts. And with WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL there is plenty of character, ethics and integrity to go around.

Based on a the book by sportswriter Neil Hayes who provided up close and personal coverage of the Spartans and Coach Lad for the Contra Costa News, we meet the De La Salle Spartans at the height of their winning streak. As season 12 of the streak ends on a high, the dedicated and proud seniors pass the torch to the younger classmen on the team, the second string who now move up to first string, the young men who now carry the weight of history and high expectations on their shoulders. But, you know from the start, the load is heavy as the mindset of several players looking to be superstars breaks the cohesive "look out for the other guy" design of Coach Lad's philosophy while parental pressure brutalizes the spirit of others. "Arrogance and apathy" become the watchwords of the day and if you haven't already heard about the Spartans tragedies and triumphs through sports coverage over the years, you know the Spartans are in for an uphill battle in the Fall.

During the summer, tragedy strikes the Spartans. Coach Lad is felled by a heart attack and although on the mend post-surgery, is ordered by his physicians not to coach. With tensions already high among the boys, Coach Eidson, now serving as "head coach" during Coach Lad's recovery, is losing faith and has his doubts as to what the new season will bring. The well grounded philosophies that have served as the core of the Lad-Eidson coaching methods aren't working. Chris Ryan, the team's new quarterback and under constant pressure of his die-hard somewhat abusive fanatic of a father, lacks the leadership skills of his predecessors, worrying more about impressing Pops than looking out for the guy next to him on the field. Tayshan Lanear has an ego larger than the Spartan 12-year win streak while poor Beaser is just looking for some guidance and leadership from his teammates, leadership on the field that isn't materializing. Also weighing on Eidson is the Fall Schedule. Ridiculed by many coaches as having their remarkable win streak due to playing "weak teams", Eidson has opened up the field by adding the toughest teams in California - and by extension, the nation - to the roster, with an eye towards a #1 ranking if they can beat Long Beach Poly.

But before the Spartans can even get to SoCal, more tragedy strikes as former Spartan T.K. Kelly is murdered. Days away from heading off to college he is gunned down by a 15-year old while sitting in his car waiting to pick up a friend who had called him for a ride. The entire De La Salle community feels the loss and all eyes turn to Coach Lad for comfort and inspiration. The good news is that the doctor releases Coach Lad from medical leave and allows him to return to coaching. The bad news, the team is still all about the "I" and not the "we" and it doesn't take long for the boys to get their comeuppance. At the hands of a little known team from Bellevue, Washington, the Spartans get their asses handed to them in a 39-20 loss, the most points racked up against De La Salle in Coach Lad's 25+ year coaching history. The streak that stood since December 7, 1991 is gone. Can they redeem themselves and each other? Losing yet another game after Bellevue, the showdown with Long Beach Poly is next.

With the clock ticking, battling brutal 100+ degree heat in the air and 120+ degree heat on the field, out-muscled and out-manned, the De La Salle-Long Beach Poly face-off is a true David versus Goliath battle. It's time for each Spartan to show himself, and the world, what he's truly made of; it's the time WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL.

Having met and interviewed Bob Ladouceur and Terry Eidson themselves, more perfect casting could not have been found than Jim Caviezel and Michael Chiklis, respectively. Ladouceur is a man of few words with a calm and kind reticence about him. Eidson on the other hand, is gregarious, upbeat with a sassiness to him that is fun and light-hearted. Apart, each feels as if half of a whole. Together, the circle is complete. And this is exactly the chemistry and emotion that Caviezel and Chiklis create. Caviezel is tacit strength and calm. And let's face it. Could there be a more perfect casting for a man with the moral code and compass of Ladouceur than Caviezel, the man who played Jesus Christ in "Passion of the Christ"? Chiklis is exuberant fun and just strengthens the foundational guidance of the film and the philosophies of Coach Lad.

And just what are Coach Lad's philosophies? A theology teacher at De La Salle, and as shown in the film, one would expect the script and some intense monologues to be filled with scripture and heavy religious bent. Such is not the case. According to Coach Lad, "[Our school] is good about humility. It's good about [the idea] there's always something bigger than yourselves and the collective spirit of a group is much, much better than one standing alone. We believe that. We try to promote that and live that." Not missing a beat, Eidson points out that even when the duo started coaching at De La Salle back when they were in their 20's, "[W]e started that even though we were hard on them, they knew that we had their best interests in mind and that's always been our philosophy. Lad's always said, 'I'm not your buddy. I'm your coach. But that doesn't mean I don't care about you and I don't love you.' We've always taken that approach with the kids." And that's exactly what comes across in the film.

And as for Caviezel and Chiklis in their character portrayals? For Eidson, "Bob and my wife told me that Michael Chiklis had me spot-on and so they know me the best. I thought he did a great job for me. The sarcastic humor that is me during games and things, and our relationship [Ladouceur & Eidson], I thought they did a great job with that. I thought it was amazing how they picked up on our opposite personalities." Coach Lad felt the same about Caviezel's performance. "I thought Jim did a really good job. I thought our demeanors are very close and our personalities are real close. I kind of approach kids in a very subtle way and one-on-one usually, mostly. . . I thought they did a real good job of portraying us the way we were and the way we are."

Exceptional performance comes from Alexander Ludwig. A composite of several players, as Chris Ryan, Ludwig brings an authenticity to the role that mirrors his own growth on screen as he has gone from "The Hunger Games" to "Vikings". He finds a strong foothold in the emotional arc of Ryan, particularly when going toe-to-toe with Clancy Brown who brings a frenetic ferocity to the role of Ryan's father. According to Ludwig, "we pushed the envelope and went for it. We didn't hold back." Some brutally honest and intensely emotional scenes between the two you may find a bit shocking, but it was important to Ludwig and Brown that "we make it real."

Making it real with palpable emotion are Ser'Darius Blain and Stephan James as best friends and college-bound graduates Cam Colvin and TK Kelly. Dynamic, emotional, their connection resonates and embodies the Ladouceur principles. A personal fave and real breakout is Joe Massingill who steals the game and your heart as Beaser. Although appearing in a few prior films and as a semi-regular on the small screen in "Hart of Dixie", Massingill stands tall here. Be on the lookout for him.

Directed by Thomas Carter and adapted for the screen by Scott Marshall Smith, WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL has it all. As if the 151 game winning streak of the Spartans isn't enough to warrant immortalizing on film, Bob Ladouceur's story most certainly is. For those that don't know, De La Salle High School is a Roman Catholic private school in Concord, California. With its motto "Men of Faith", one would think that WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL would be hammering us over the head with scripture. It doesn't. Where Carter and Smith excel is at capturing the observational aspects of Coach Lad and allowing us to see these young men and life itself through his eyes. It's a delicate balance that sets WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL apart from other films. This isn't to say you won't find religious cliches and sports cliches, because you do, but it's the understated foundation of faith and the over-riding principles of integrity, ethics, the idea there's always something bigger than yourselves, the collective spirit of a group that elevate the story.

Standout is the athletic aspect of the film, starting with the intensive training of not only the actors, but second unit players who all have a football background. Enduring extensive and intensive training under the guise of bootcamp trainer Duke Rousse, actors, stunt doubles and player alike all went through the same training and integrated their play and work among each other. Serving as sports coordinator and working hand in hand with cinematographer Michael Lohmann is Allen Graf. The best in the biz with sports lensing, Graf brought in NFL Films camera operators to capture the action. Scott Richter dazzles with his handling of the insanity of seamless editing of the action on and off field, immersing us in the midst of play, in the middle of the field, on the goal line, in the ebullient and even tear-filled locker rooms. With Thomas Carter's vision and staying true to the story of De La Salle and Bob Ladouceur, the integration of game footage and the synergy of the technical excellence of Graf and his team, Richter and Lohmann is mind-blowing. Key is that Carter keeps his eye - and ours - on the ball, focusing on the players and the coaches. A bit short on goal, however, is the sound design. While appreciated and effective so as to further intensify the "you are there" feeling, some of the Foley with bone crushing sounds on the football field are a bit too intense, leading to distraction.

A true family film founded on principles that can make us all stand tall, WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL is aspiring, inspiring and heartwarming.

SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR

A perfect blend of classic film noir and graphic novel, SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR is deliciously decadent. The sequel to the 2005 "Sin City" by Robert Rodriguez and graphic novelist Frank Miller, the pair reunite nine years later for this action-packed explosion of raw and visceral lust, corruption, vengeance and violence that dazzles, delights, intrigues, and celebrates the noir thrillers of the 30's, 40's and 50's on screen and on the pulp page.

Once again based in Kadie's Club Pecos in the heart of Sin City, Rodriguez and Miller play with the "Sin City" timeline and weave together multiple vignettes with the connective tissue being killer-for-hire Marv, who finds himself in all number of seductively dangerous situations, while tying everyone and everything together for a cohesive textured story that leaps off the screen (literally and figuratively as the best way to see SIN CITY 2 is in 3D). We meet up again with Nancy Callahan who is still deep in mourning for the love of her life, Detective John Hartigan. A gal with a plan, or so she thinks, she's out to get the man who killed Hartigan - Senator Roark. But will she succumb to self-destructive grief, guilt and drunkenness first? Dwight McCarthy is back battling his own demons and backstory while trying to move forward and move on, distancing himself from the sultry and dangerous femme fatale, Ava Lord. Like Nancy, will Dwight fall victim to his own weakness when it comes to Ava? And then there's Johnny. With a youthful look and over-compensating cockiness, Johnny never loses; or so he thinks, until he goes toe-to-toe with the all powerful Roark. Dotting the lush black and white landscape are other characters, like Manute, Ava's bodyguard; a gal named Goldie who catches Johnny's eye; hooker-come-lately Sally and her john Joey; hard-ass and oh-so-sexy Gail; detectives Mort and Bob, one of whom falls prey to Ava's charms; and a back-alley doc named Kroenig who uses popsicle sticks as medical tools.

Casting is impeccable with many returning actors including Powers Boothe as Roark. A much expanded role this time, Boothe commands the screen. From voice to physical presence, he is a force to be reckoned with on all counts. Jessica Alba returns as Nancy as does Rosario Dawson who is more kick-ass than ever as Gail while showing us a softer side in Gail's affections for Dwight. But, every dominatrix in town will be looking for Gail's garb for their own personal wardrobe. Although killed off in the first film, as we all know, there's always a way to bring characters back from the dead and Miller and Rodriguez waste no time in returning Marv, Hartigan and Goldie again played by Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Jaime King, respectively. Josh Brolin captivates as Dwight while Juno Temple delights as Sally.

But the real "stars" here are Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green as Johnny and Ava. A completely new character to the SIN CITY world is Gordon-Levitt's Johnny. Working together with Rodriguez and Miller, the trio collaborated to magnificent result. And talk about a perfect performance! Gordon-Levitt was made for film noir. He has the look, the persona, the cool, slickness. He could step into any noir film from Gordon Wills or Richard Wallis and be welcomed with open arms by TCM fans everywhere. Likewise, Eva Green. The classic noir femme fatale, Green is silken with a languid seductiveness that has you wondering where does the dream end and nightmare begin with Ava Lord. The subject of some of the film's true "money shots", the play of extreme light and dark contrast is used to its best suggestive advantage with the flawless Green. And when it comes to dialogue delivery, Green drips sex with every syllable.

Ultra-violent and action-filled, Rodriguez and Miller go all out this go-round pushing the envelope far beyond what we saw in "Sin City". Capturing the defining essence of hallmark noir - tragic romance, betrayal, darkness, guilt and a femme fatale to die and kill for - SIN CITY 2 is the perfect economy of expression with graphic impact. Rodriguez and Miller truly embrace the noir ideal of a black slate on which we write our ills and then erase, creating a fully self-contained hyper-stylized reflection of cultural predilections.

SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR

To create the visual look and overall tonal bandwidth, Rodriguez "went ahead and pushed it further towards the book, especially with the more abstract drawings and [Miller's] graphic approach to it. It's just eye-popping. . .We did it in 3D because I just thought that would lend so much better to a graphic novel because of the absence of information." Key to the look and feel of SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR is the cinematography and particularly, the lighting which is dynamic and dramatic, celebrating metaphor in almost every shot. According to Rodriguez, who does his own cinematography and does so with efficiency thanks to a green screen set, "The lighting takes time. When we're on the set, fortunately, we can move pretty quickly because I'm lighting just the actors. . . You light them with the set in mind, which is where the graphic novels are so great. You already know where your key is going to be and where there might be a back light. And I know how to manipulate the images quite a bit. If I shoot a certain way, I can add a lot of shadows later. . .[I]t gives you a lot of freedom later, to play with all the lighting and get it right." The visual and emotional result is stunning.

SIN CITY 2: A DAME TO KILL FOR is a killer.

 

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