Tag Archives: football movies

Faith. Family. Football.

Under the Stadium Lights

by George Wolf

Which is more likely to embrace the cliches inherent in sports: interviews or movies?

The sheer number of daily opportunities pushes the scale toward the Q&A, but while we’re waiting on the next superstar baller to “take it one game at a time,” Under the Stadium Lights scores one for the big screen.

Based on the book “Brother’s Keeper” (also the movie’s original title) by Al Pickett and Chad Mitchel, the film takes us inside the 2009 high school football season with the Abilene Eagles. The bitter taste of their playoff defeat the year before fueled the players and coaches as they made another run for the Texas state playoffs.

Mitchel (played by Milo Gibson, 6th son of Mel) was not only an Abilene police officer that year, he was also the Eagles team Chaplin. Through his “safe space” program, the players were encouraged to share the tough times they were going through off the field, and to lean on their football brothers for the strength to persevere.

That’s a commendable story. But director Todd Randall and screenwriters John Collins and Hamid Torabpour tell it with no regard for human shades of grey, which is a problem.

No doubt these mostly black and brown players did have troubling patches in their young lives, but the film paints the young men as one dimensional vessels strengthened by the good word of this white man. These are high school seniors, and there’s nary a word or thought about girls, sex or anything other than remaining vigilant in their virtue.

Don’t expect even a whisper about any systemic causes for the problems at home, either. While no one would argue the value in making good life choices, this is a bootstrap fantasy, where what isn’t talked about amounts to tacit approval of blaming the needy for just not working hard enough.

Often hamstrung by preachy and obvious dialog, the the cast does very little to elevate it. Save for the welcome presence of veterans Laurence Fishburne, Noel Gugliemi and Glen Morshower in small roles, performances alternate between hyperbolic over-emoting and emotionless cardboard.

Early on, though, the football scenes are a surprise bright spot. It’s actually charming that Randall forgoes cheesy reenactments for the real game films, but when he reverses that decision in the third act, the resulting clash gives the new footage an even more sterile and pretend quality.

A big congrats to the 2009 Abilene Eagles on what must have been a great season. But with Texas high school football on its mind, “lights” in its new title and no roster spot for nuance, the movie version will have you longing for Friday Night.

Inspiring Sports Movie: the Movie!

My All American

by George Wolf

My All American is the story of an underdog college football player who became an inspiration. It was written and directed by the same guy who wrote Hoosiers, which begs the question: did the guy who wrote Hoosiers get hit in the head or something?

Angelo Pizzo also penned the script for Rudy, so this true life story finds him in a familiar neighborhood.

In the 1960s, Freddie Steinmark was an undersized Colorado high school standout who found himself passed over by most college football programs due to his stature. Legendary coach Darrell Royal gave Steinmark a chance with a full scholarship to the University of Texas, and Steinmark worked his way to team leader before chronic pain led to a cancer diagnosis.

Sports movies often come pre-loaded with inherent cliches, but Hoosiers and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rudy, overcame them by avoiding sweeping generalities to embrace smaller moments with finely drawn characters. My All American takes the opposite approach.

You’d be tempted to pin the anomaly on this being Rizzo’s first try at directing, if the script itself wasn’t equally culpable.

There’s no depth at all here, just one-note characters, swelling music and soaring shots of football stadiums.

Finn Wittrock (Unbroken, American Horror Story) is passable as Steinmark, but he’s saddled with a role that is more saint than flesh and blood. We learn in the introduction that Steinmark was never named an All American at Texas, yet the film paints him as perhaps the greatest player to ever suit up. Rizzo gives Wittrock no edges to make Steinmark’s influence resonate, and the multiple times other players tell Freddie “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” carry zero weight.

As Coach Royal, Aaron Eckhart proves adept at walking into a room, putting his hands on his hips, and exclaiming, “Men…”

Subtlety takes a beating on the field as well. As Coach Royal debuts the innovative triple option (aka “wishbone”) offense in 1968, his starting quarterback struggles with the unusual formation. Royal makes a QB change and the offense instantly takes off, prompting the game announcer to explain, “I guess they just needed the right quarterback to make the triple option work!”

That’s right, Jim, and that water they have on the sideline sure looks wet.

No doubt Steinmark’s is a story worth telling, but My All American needs more from Jimmy Chitwood’s playbook.






The Passion of The Streak

When the Game Stands Tall

by Hope Madden

The last time director Thomas Carter made a feature film, it was the inspiring true story of high school coach Ken Carter who, though leading an undefeated team, believed there was something more important to the future of his players than winning.

The filmmaker’s next effort really shows his range – because that movie was about basketball.

When the Game Stands Tall is the true story of Bob Ladouceur, probably the greatest high school football coach in history. He led his La De Salle Spartans to an unprecedented, quite likely unbreakable 151 game winning streak.

Carter is not known for his light hand at the helm. Indeed, this film has as manipulative and leading a score as anything since Remember the Titans, and the similarities don’t begin or end there. But he deserves credit for situating his story where he does, not focusing on the obvious victories, but mining the team’s more challenging, less glamorous time for the values that transcend the sport.

Jim Caviezel plays Ladouceur as a stoic, noble, righteous soul – because that is all Jim Caviezel is capable of. Luckily enough, it generally suits the role and he has other actors to appear humanlike around him.

The performances skirt cliché but are handled admirably. Laura Dern is the loving, ignored and concerned wife. Matthew Daddario is the coach’s son who just wants his dad’s approval, while Alexander Ludwig is the teammate whose volatile father only loves his son for the vicarious glory and accolades. It all sounds eerily familiar.

Carter also provides plenty of on-field play, and does a fine job of lensing it, though cinematic gridiron action may never look better than it did in Friday Night Lights. But that’s an altogether superior film. By comparison, When the Game Stands Tall looks downright naïve in its portrayal of athlete lives off the field, where they drink soda from bottles and make promise pledges with their chaste girlfriends in a town where fans are exclusively positive.

It’s an exceedingly passable product of a threadbare formula. It might even be enjoyable if Caviezel could muster the charisma necessary to carry the film. Unfortunately, Caviezel is no Sam Jackson or Billy Bob Thornton – and he sure as hell is no Denzel Washington- so his film feels more junior varsity than it might.