Coach Carter

(2005) *** Pg-13
136 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Thomas Carter. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Ashanti, Rob Brown, Robert Ri'chard, Nana Gbewonyo.

Many are rushing to classify Coach Carter as a "basketball movie" or a "teacher movie," and to some degree, they're right. But I would argue that Coach Carter is a rather exceptionally counter-cultural "teen movie." Most teen movies celebrate sloth and sex, money and merchandise. Though Coach Carter occasionally spills over into melodrama, lusty misbehavior, and effusive sentiment, so too does life at Richmond High School and scores of schools like it across the country. Thomas Carter's film speaks a more authentic language than, say, a potboiler like Dangerous Minds; rather, Coach Carter raises authentic youth concerns and answers them with convincing integrity.

The film is "inspired by the life of" Ken Carter, alumnus and former basketball coach of Richmond High School. Carter reportedly shadowed the production for the entire shoot; like Friday Night Lights, Coach Carter makes characters of a real coach and real student-athletes (albeit with a certain amount of dramatic license). Samuel L. Jackson plays Carter as an imposing figure with a strong sense of humor underlying an uncompromising insistence on respect. He calls everyone "Sir" or "Ma'am" and expects the courtesy returned. Most importantly, Carter gives the undisciplined team he inherits an ultimatum: sign a contract or walk out the door.

As in real life, Carter's contract requires that each player maintain, at minimum, a 2.3 grade point average, enough to qualify for college scholarships. "The losing stops now," he announces. Carter builds a well-conditioned team with tenacious man-to-man defensive capability, and the Richmond Oilers become an undefeated phenom. Even after numerous big-picture speeches ("Winning in here is the key to winning out there"), Jackson's Carter gets swept up in the excitement of the winning streak, but when he finally gets his hands on the academic reports, he swiftly returns to earth. Carter chains up the gym and pledges to cancel all practices and games until the entire team's grades pass muster.

Mark Schwahn and John Gatins' script effectively communicates the odds facing the students: with a 50% graduation rate, the Richmond High described in the film (a "1" on the Academic Performance Index, and that ain't good) only sees 6% of those students go to college. Carter raises the spectre of prison as more likely, but gives a level alternative: "You have to have a vision." Self-worth is half the battle, and Carter instructs his charges to value "that ever-elusive victory within." That Schwahn's credits include the polar-opposite The Perfect Score and Gatins' credits include Summer Catch explain the slutty girls in a party-escapade sequence, but I'll credit director Carter and coach Carter for the film's mostly even keel.

The archetypes of a coach regarded suspiciously by his community and a rag-tag team climbing to glory are tried and true, but Carter doesn't telegraph every endgame. Even at a serious-minded 136 minutes, Coach Carter can't fill out all aspects of its story, which includes student subplots of an unwed soon-to-be father (Rob Brown), a burgeoning drug dealer living on the razor's edge (Rick Gonzalez), and Carter's own son Damien (Robert Ri'chard), who repudiates private school to play on his father's team. As a result, the film can, at times, be superficial or hackneyed (as in a jaw-dropping "slam" tribute delivered by Gonzalez); nevertheless, each storyline serves as an essentially true object lesson in self-respect that supports the movie's righteous bottom line.

Though neither as triumphant a manipulation as Hoosiers nor as artful and sophisticated as He Got Game, Coach Carter plays it appealingly straight. When a wise-ass student claims to be untouchable by Carter, the coach responds, "I'm not a teacher," but of course, it's a disingenuous barb from a committed educator. Coach Carter is, then, a "teacher movie" and a rousing "basketball movie," as well. But put it this way: have you ever seen a movie whose central idea is that the "student" in "student-athlete" comes first? Cinematically speaking, it's an idea whose time has come.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 12/16/2008

Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment

Paramount's Blu-ray upgrade to Coach Carter looks pretty darn good: light grain gives the film a natural look, and you'll find true hues as well as strong shadow detail in usually troublesome nighttime scenes. One could quibble over apparent DNR and edge enhancement in spots, but the clear improvement in detail over an already solid DVD transfer makes this disc quite satisfying. The lossless hi-def audio, presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround, gives the original sound mix every opportunity to shine.

The Blu-ray also throws in all of the DVD's features and then some, adding twenty-eight minutes of bonus material not found on the previous edition. First up is "Coach Carter: The Man Behind the Movie" (19:41, SD), which profiles Ken Carter, with Carter, Carter's family, Samuel L. Jackson, producer Mike Tollin, and many former student-athletes adding their thoughts.

"Fast Break at Richmond High" (11:40, SD) explores the actors' basketball training and what was required to effectively capture the sport on film. Participants include Robert Ri'chard, Rob Brown, Texas Battle, Nana Gbewonyo, Tollin, basketball coordinator Mark Ellis, Carter, producer Brian Robbins, Rick Gonzalez, Jackson, and Channing Tatum.

The disc includes 6 "Deleted Scenes" (12:10 with "Play All" option, SD) and the "'Hope' Music Video by Twista Featuring Faith Evans" (4:26, SD).

The terrific new featurette "Writing Coach Carter: The Two Man Game" (8:25, SD) interviews screenwriters Mark Schwahn and John Gatins, Robbins, Tollin, and Carter as we learn the story of the script's development. We also get to see substantial portions of transcripts of Schwahn's research interviews.

The newly offered making-of "Coach Carter: Making the Cut" (18:22, SD) explores the project's development, production, and characters, with Tollin, Robbins, Carter, Denise Dowse, Gatins, Jackson, Schwahn, Battle, Antwon Tanner, Brown, Ashanti, Tatum, Gonzalez, Gbewonyo, and Ri'chard. We also see, for the only time on the disc, director Thomas Carter at work (in a conspicuous and suspicious oversight, he is not interviewed).

Lastly, we get the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:32, HD). This underrated teen movie deserves another look on Blu-ray.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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