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I should probably begin by apologizing-- calling this a "football
movie" is a bit demeaning. Superficially, it's accurate, but the true
subject of "Undefeated" is the education of inner-city kids through the
competition of sports. If you value the lessons team sports can teach,
or if you care about kids trying to pull themselves up from desperate
circumstances, then I have to believe this is a film you want to see.
I had the privilege of seeing it a couple of months ago at the Chicago International Film Festival, with an audience that I'd wager was comprised mostly of people who didn't grow up in violent inner-city neighborhoods, and there were scenes in this film that reduced many of us in that audience to tears. These weren't tears of self-serving pity, either, but of admiration at what the Manassas Tigers accomplished in this wonder of a season. The film follows the storytelling tradition of the championship season, for the most part, but it's tough to criticize a documentary film for adherence to cliché. In fact, there are scenes in this that you'd dismiss as improbable in a fiction film, and scenes of such close personal observation that you wonder how the filmmakers got them on camera. These filmmakers had astonishing access to coach Bill Courtney and his players O.C. Brown, Montrail "Money" Brown, and the remarkable Chavis Daniels. You will get to know them so well over the course of the film that you might hope for a sequel. I know I do.
My only criticism of the film may not strike you as criticism at all-- in the Q&A session I attended with the filmmakers, they said they cut over an hour of footage to get the film's running time down for the theatrical market. As enthralled as I was with this film, I gladly would have watched another hour-- I wanted to meet more of these players and learn more about their lives. As such, at this length, the film doesn't quite rise to the level of "Hoop Dreams," as that film masterfully integrated its focus on sports into a larger narrative of inner-city life. But "Undefeated" comes awfully close, especially in one of the most moving scenes I've ever seen in a documentary, when a kid gets a piece of news that will change his life forever. You want to see this scene. You want to see this film.
I don't write too many reviews on here, but I felt I had to after
seeing the "5.5" rating (03-13- 2012) on IMDb. What the hell is up with
this? In my view, "Undefeated" deserves an easy 10 out of 10. I believe
'Undefeated' could easily have been the best picture of 2011. Period.
I just saw the film a few days ago. Disclaimer: I HATE football movies. I couldn't care less. Until I saw 'Undefeated.' Yes, it got my attention after winning Best Documentary after the Oscars. I was almost reluctant to go see it (I work in documentary filmmaking), but when I did, I was absolutely floored. Like, tears in my eyes as I exited the theater floored.
'Undefeated' isn't really a football movie. It's a documentary about an impoverished community that rallies around their highschool football team to try and turn things around, to try and lift their hopes, spirits and dreams. It's a film that shows the real struggles of real people that you care about. It's about young men redefining their lives after spending years in prison. It's about young men fighting to escape the abject poverty they were born into. It's about young men trying to prove that they can find success if they try hard enough. And of course, you have the Coach who pursues his impossibly vision of turning this failed football team around, by becoming a father figure and using inspiration as his primary tool.
The thing that makes all of this truly special, is that these are REAL PEOPLE. This is not some scripted Hollywood blockbuster starting the latest pop-culture stars. 'Undefeated' cuts deep into real emotions and isn't afraid to expose us for who we are, for better or worse. This is stuff of high-drama that tops even the best of scripted films.
'Undefeated' makes 'The Artist,' look like a Coke commercial. It makes 'Midnight in Paris' look like a Saturday morning cartoon. 'Undefeated' is true drama. True emotion. Real life. It pulls you in with charming fascinating 'characters', and it pulls you along, feeling every rise, every fall, every victory, every setback. If you have a heart, you will cry. For sadness, and for joy. This film has it all. Of all the movies released in 2011, this is the one that counts.
Undefeated which premiered at Austin's SXSW Film Festival this week
fits into a long line of inspiring sports films. It is very much in the
tradition of Steve James's Hoop Dreams in its exploration of the
struggles of inner city African-American youths to overcome great odds
using athletics as a means to escape poverty and deprivation. The
filmmaker tells the story of Memphis's Manassas Tigers focusing in on
the coach and three of his players as they attempt to produce a special
season at a school that has had a long history of football futility.
Coach Bill Courtney is an inspiring coach who devotes himself to this
football team, even at a cost to the time he can spend with his own
family. He makes the team into a family and focuses on character. He
and his coaches go above-and-beyond the call of duty raising money for
the team and making sure the students also focus on their academics.
Despite the reality that the coaches are white and their students are
black, issues of race seem to play very little role in their story.
The filmmakers tell the story in mostly chronological with no narration and only very limited input from outside observers. Perhaps the most remarkable element of the film is that the filmmakers were with the team for the entire season and were able to disappear into the background and become part of the team. In so doing, they were often able to capture real emotion and conflict that participants are often afraid to put on film. The honesty of the film is powerful. The music is excellent and complements the storytelling nicely. While Undefeated is powerful and inspiring, it is probably a little too long and could use some more editing.
North Memphis looks rough. Its houses are collapsing, its public
infrastructure is crumbling, and its prospects on the horizon look like
its bringing more of the same. Undefeated says life in North Memphis
was not always like this, but once the Firestone plant closed and took
the jobs away, this part of the city was forgotten. The residents feel
they are not only second class citizens in Tennessee, which focuses
more on Nashville in the center and Knoxville in the east, but second
class in their own city.
One bright spot is a brand new, state of the art high school; the new home of the Manassas Tigers. Entering Manassas High School, however, is more akin to going through airport security than going to a place to learn. During his first football meeting of the year with his team, Coach Bill Courtney mentions starting players getting shot, jail sentences, and academic suspensions, issues a coach may encounter throughout their entire career, but these are issues he has dealt with in the past two weeks. North Memphis is definitely not Dillon, Texas and Manassas High School resembles nothing of the Friday Night Lights Dillon Panthers; this is real life.
Coach Courtney spends the vast majority of his time preaching character, discipline, and respect to a crowd of high school kids who do not seem very interested in receiving those messages. They are more concerned with fighting amongst themselves than focusing on beating the other team on the football field. Instead of studying plays in film sessions or running through football fundamentals, Coach constantly has to break up fights, convince the kids not to drop out of school, and remind them that a man's character is revealed on the football field.
Incredibly, Coach is a volunteer. He does not get paid to spend grueling hours every day trying to teach football and life lessons to a bunch of kids who usually seem to be tuning him out. He sees something more in them though, much more than they see in themselves. He feels it in his bones that if these kids learn to focus on the team instead of themselves; they will not only win on the football field, but in the classroom, and later on in life. This sounds like a scripted TV show, but it is very real and Coach Courtney is dead serious about it.
One player who visibly understands the Coach's vision is also the team's best player, left tackle O.C. Brown. O.C. reminds you of Michael Oher from The Blind Side. He is a huge human being but has a quiet, almost meek, personality. He is not strong academically though and is having trouble getting the minimum score for college scholarship eligibility on the ACT. In one of the stronger episodes of the film, O.C. gets a one-on-one tutor and stays three to four nights a week at a coach's house because no tutors would ever go see O.C. in his home neighborhood. The filmmaker wisely includes social commentary about why it is always the gifted athletic star that gets so much specific help and never just a regular kid.
There are only two other members of the football team who get noticeable screen time and they are right tackle Montrail 'Money' Brown and team troublemaker Chavis Daniels. Money is under-sized for his position but plays with so much intensity that he is a very strong member of the offensive line. He has a 3.8 GPA and has his sights set on becoming a football manager or lawyer because he knows he is far too small for college ball. Chavis has just returned from school from a 15 month leave of absence because he was in juvenile detention. He has an incredibly short fuse and will instigate a fight in a moment's notice. The back and forth comparisons between Money and Chavis work to the film's credit. Money gets injured and wonders why he can barely get a second chance on the football field when he sees Chavis still causing trouble on the team even though he is on his 50th chance.
Through the unending and amazingly persistent efforts of Coach Courtney, the Manassas Tigers start winning games and the kids' conduct both on and off the field are noticeably improved from the film's opening scenes. I do not know why it is called Undefeated because the Tigers lose their first game of the season before they start their run for the playoffs. There are some very strong scenes though, especially one with Money and some news he receives about his future and a scene between Coach and O.C. as they say goodbye to each other at the end of the season.
Undefeated is a very effective sports documentary but I am surprised it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Its nomination was deserved but it is not consistently strong and felt throughout its entire length. However, I encourage you sports fans out there to go see a real football team instead of one created for you with a Hollywood cast; these kids are much more worth your time.
I saw this the first time it was available in LA during the Oscar
qualifying period. This film is a true accomplishment and one of the
strongest contenders in the field. I was moved to tears on a number of
occasions. The struggles of the players and coach Bill resonated with
Some people could compare it to THE BLIND SIDE, which I also enjoyed. I feel as though this film tells an even larger story in the same amount of time -- something you can get away with more often in documentary, I suppose. However, I often forgot that I was watching a documentary, because the things these filmmakers were able to capture created a remarkable sense of flow.
This is one of those films I recommend to everyone.
Most of us like an underdog story, and this 2012 Academy Awards Best
Documentary feature has all the standard elements that make up an award
winning one. Directed and photographed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J.
Martin, Undefeated follows a season of high school football team in
their quest to secure a berth in the playoffs, being led by volunteer
coach Bill Courtney, who has given up tremendous time over the last six
seasons to follow his passion, and becoming a much lauded figure in the
school for his tough love ways to turn around wayward boys, and boys
with potential, into team players.
"Football doesn't build character. Football reveals character" is Courtney's philosophical take- away, and much of this documentary is a testament to that. In following this particular season as produced for the film, the filmmakers probably didn't know how it would have turned out, and it's very much contrary to the title of the movie. Then again, we may not be referring to the scoreline and results of the season, but to the spirit of the team that Courtney had developed this particular system that's under the filmmaker's lens and scrutiny, and the drilling down to the more micro, and personal level, amongst a select group of players that were paid a special focus.
One of the arcs may seem a little bit like The Blind Side, where a giant of a player got to stay with one of the coaches for a little while, in order to get his academic grades back on track in order to qualify for college. A college sports career is almost a given for O.C. Brown, but to get there meant a decent academic score. With players who come from troubled backgrounds, there are no lack of contenders making up the subjects for the documentary, especially amongst a large football team, and it goes to show how challenging a coach's job is in order to keep track of the team's progress in the game, the training, and the managing of plenty of egos, especially that of a hot head who just got released from junior penitentiary, and looks set to disrupt team dynamics.
And precisely why this documentary turned out a winner, is the very presence of Bill Courtney, and his story. Owner of a lumber business, he had sacrificed family time for game time to pursue his passion for coaching in a school that doesn't have a remarkable history in the game, and it is his unrelenting belief, and methods, that really made Undefeated engaging, rich, and moving, especially when doing so without much concrete rewards for six years. It is the crossroads he is in now, having to measure time spent with the school players, and that of his own children, that is niggling at the back of his mind, especially so when the team he has at his disposal this year has shown some remarkable progress. It's real family versus adopted family, and it's indeed cruel, yet inevitable in having presented no real choice where one's priorities should reside in.
Told in chronological order with plenty of games highlighted, each that will make you continuously root for the players and coaches we've grown accustomed to, this sports documentary covers a broad spectrum of the game, and the people behind the game. Yet it has plenty of soul in tackling the different story arcs amongst the people, that makes it a lot more powerful, rather than being just another sports movie that countless of Hollywood products have been produced, that tells of similarly inspiring, or heartwarming stories about superb coaches, and underdog teams making it good.
At the end of the day, what matters are the relationships that we forge, and probably the value and legacy we leave behind, that matters more than fleeting results. As Bill Courtney puts it, the measure of a man is not when he wins, but when he is defeated, and his reaction to that defeat, that matters the most. Recommended!
Great movie worth seeing. The overall rating is far too low for this
movie- don't be discouraged from seeing it.
Life isn't easy and some kids learn this from their earliest days. 'Undefeated' gives us heart that some will escape the hard life of poverty they have been dealt. One coach steps in to try his best to do his part to help but the job is tough and full of harsh realities... not everything has a storybook ending in this movie or in real life. Still the movie has plenty of feel good moments, moments when you hope the kids are starting to see the light of their own potential both on and off the field.
Have your teenagers and college kids see this movie. They'll appreciate you and what they have been blessed with a little more because of what they see others go through in this documentary.
Sometimes you start a project with a different goal than it eventually
ends up to. The filmmakers hit the Jackpot in more than one sense here.
On the other hand winning the Oscar might have raised the
bar/expectations from people who might have watched this as a normal
documentary and therefor might have liked it more.
This documentary sometimes might feel like it lacks the drive Hollywood movies have. But that is because it is real and because everything you see in here is what happened. It still is dramatized, but not to the extent you see in the movies. You also shouldn't forget, that those are not actors, but real people (and please don't confuse real people with "reality TV") doing their thing. The camera is not distracting and the tension is felt throughout.
One really good sport documentary
It has become a new thing of amusement for sports fans to research old
rants of coaches, particularly football coaches, that they gave in a
live press conference while currently in the heat of the moment. Quite
possibly the most iconic was the professional and motivating Herm
Edwards sending a message to his players saying, "you play to win the
game" after Herm's New York Jets lost to the Cleveland Browns in 2002.
The rant I thought of during Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's
documentary Undefeated was Jim Mora's "Playoffs?!" remake when asked
about the Colts' future after a devastating loss. "I just hope we can
win a game!" he stated shortly after.
It's that kind of mentality I feel that the Manassas High School football team and their long-suffering coach, Bill Courtney occupied for a long, long time, as the school's team, which existed for 110 years, never won a playoff game and have become the devastating team that you look on the schedule and cite as an easy win if you play them. The school is located in Manassas, Virginia, and is grossly underfunded, along with possessing an athletic program unfit for even a third-rate school. The kids need to get by with what they have, and that's not much. Coming from a prestigious and often highly-regarded public high school, I look on with great sympathy and possess deep gratefulness in what I was born into.
Undefeated primarily focuses on Manassas High School football team's 2009 year, where they plan to turn things around for the better (not like they could get any worse). They figure that since they're at rock bottom, they can only go up from there, and Bill Courtney plans to turn the team around, putting heavy emphasis on character and frequently telling them, "character is not how you handle successes, because anyone can bask in the glory of a win, but how you handle failures," and that is a bold and admirable message for an unpaid coach to tell his players. He believes in them, even when their previous record was 0-10. You won't find too many high school coaches who take the game as seriously as Courtney, or are prepared to give them advice they can use off the field or when they hang up their jerseys and helmets to pursue other things.
Courtney explains that the school is so underfunded athletically that they considered taking part in "pay games," which involves the team traveling miles across the state to face a team they have no chance in beating and accepting a $3,000 - $4,000 in exchange for brutal humiliation. When your only option to get money is to belittle your self-esteem, you really need help in some way, shape, or form. He even goes on to say that the reputation the football team gets is so putrid, ugly, and dehumanizing that athletes that come to Manassas High from eight grade don't even consider playing for the team. Can you blame them? Yet not only are they out of an extra-curricular activity in their high school career, they're almost completely out of a future career with football.
Thankfully, Courtney has a reliable lineup, involving O.C. Brown, a senior whose passion is more suited for the field than the classroom, the quick and dependable Montrail "Money" Brown, and a man by the name of Chavis Daniels, who is the team goon, often causing trouble and possessing a very suspicious anger problem. Courtney accepts the challenge with no regret at all, and often connects personally with many of his players. There's a touching scene in the latter half when O.C. and Courtney are traveling somewhere in a car together when O.C. tells the coach that he is attracted to another girl. As a result, Courtney hands over a small bottle of cologne telling him to use it conservatively and he will get all the ladies he wants. The warm, innocuous, yet comforting feeling of bonding goes right to the viewer's heart in just a wonderful scene.
The film chronicles the 2009 season, showing modest beginnings, but a wonderfully unbelievable conclusion with opportunities soaring for the team, players, and school. We also see how the players not only adapt to the new opportunities, but also the inevitable ones, like college approaching their line of vision and high school entering their rear-view mirror. Courtney devastatingly explains that once the football season ends, some kids recognize that they have a 2.0 grade point average, a 14 on their ACT, and no scholarship, resulting in almost nowhere to go. It's a depressing state of affairs, especially for kids who have no other experience other than the kind they obtained on the field.
Undefeated is a nicely made documentary that had the honor of beating Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory at the 2012 Oscars for Best Documentary Feature. The film will without a doubt will strike an emotional chord for some audiences, yet despite being a true story, there's something about hearing the perfunctory tale of a coach turning a ragtag bunch of half-wits into a winning team, real or not, that feels sort of artificial. Yet there is a divine humanity in this story that isn't ignored, and the result, in the long run, was a long-overdue one Manassas will cherish for another 110 years. It's light years more efficient than a cliché-ridden tale like Rudy, I suppose.
NOTE: Undefeated will see a DVD/Blu-Ray release on February 19, 2013, but is currently on several video on demand outlets and on DirecTV's Pay-Per View feature.
Starring: Bill Courtney, O.C. Brown, Montrail "Money" Brown, and Chavis Daniels. Directed by: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's uncanny how neatly the tried and true conventions of the
inspirational sports drama fit into "Undefeated," a documentary about
an underdog high school football team. This would be the Tigers of
North Memphis' Manassas High School, which, by 2009, had not won a
single playoff game in any of the school's 110 years. Although the
subject matter and the people interviewed are quite real, directors
Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin assembled nine months worth of footage
into a film that works in exactly the same way as "Miracle,"
"Hoosiers," "Rudy," "The Longshots," or "The Blind Side" or a
thousand other Hollywood dramatizations in which we actively root for
athletic and/or personal victories. I honestly don't know if this helps
the film or hurts it. What I do know is that it will have audiences
North Memphis was a thriving industrial community until the 1980s, at which point the Firestone tire plant was forced to shut its doors. A series of other factory closures would soon follow; many were demolished, leaving large open fields between smaller buildings that soon fell into disrepair. The once prosperous community became an inner-city slum, rampant with crime and in the depths of poverty. As one Manassas High School teacher says, "North Memphis looks likes New Orleans after the flood. We just never had a flood." The school itself, which has a predominantly African American student body, is home to a football team that was at one time the worst in the entire state. They generated no income from ticket sales due to a lack in both a booster club and a home field. To earn cash each season, they resorted to charging more experienced county school teams for games. Manassas would earn $3,000 to $4,000 per game at the expense of being beaten by embarrassingly uneven spreads.
That changed in 2004, when a wealthy white lumber tycoon named Bill Courtney stepped in and volunteered to be the Tigers' coach. Courtney is a take-charge, no-nonsense type of guy who has loved football ever since he was young. His tough-love approach, which stems from his willingness to step out of his comfort zone and give back to his community, stresses the importance of commitment and character building. At the same time, he makes it a point to assure the players that each and every one of them has value as a player and as a person. The five years he volunteered represented a challenge the likes of which he had never taken on. Many of the players he lost became the victims of their own rotten circumstances. "Starting right guard shot no longer in school," he says early in the film. "Starting linebacker shot no longer in school. Starting center arrested for shooting someone in the face with a BB gun. Most coaches ... that would be pretty much a career's worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me."
The film closely follows the lives of three Tigers. One is the thoughtful yet physically imposing O.C. Brown, who needed tutoring in order to get his grades up; since no tutor was likely to enter O.C.'s North Memphis neighborhood, he was sent to live part time with a volunteer coach named Mike Ray in an affluent part of town. Another is Montrail "Money" Brown (no relation to O.C.), whose dreams of making something of himself are nearly shattered when he injures his knee and is forced to miss weeks of playing time. The thought of losing football sends him into a depression, at which point he stops coming to school. And then there's Chavis Davis, who, despite just being released from a juvenile detention center, continues to have issues managing his anger. There are several instances in which he butts heads with Courtney and with his fellow players.
To a lesser degree than I would have preferred, the film also follows Courtney as he tries to balance coaching the Tigers, managing his lumber business, and spending time with his wife and children. He admits that he hasn't been as attentive to his family as he probably should be, nor has he been as patient with them. The fact of the matter is, he has spent more time with the Tigers than he has with his own children. He then reflects on the fact that he grew up without a father, and bemoans the irony that he's teaching his team the very life lessons his kids should be taught. One of his sons is on his school's football team, which gets both him and the audience to wondering.
Mike Flemming from Deadline.com reports that The Weinstein Company, which closed a seven-figure deal for the distribution rights to "Undefeated," also won the right to remake it as a studio film. I'm not in the least bit surprised. Here's one true story that's practically screaming to be made into a Hollywood sports drama. There's more to it than the dramatic yet compelling circumstances of the people involved; the featured football games are in and of themselves quite exciting, as are the inspirational postgame speeches. All eventually leads up to the climactic playoff game, although for me, the most satisfying scene of "Undefeated" is an intimate moment between Courtney and Money during the final practice. To tell you what happens would only ruin its power to register emotionally.
-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)
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