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Movie Reviews

Reviewed by chaz-28 7 / 10

An above average sports documentary about real kids with real issues; see this instead of the latest Hollywood make believe team

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.

Reviewed by Jason Berkley ([email protected]) 9 / 10

The best football movie I've ever seen...

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 cliche. 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.

Reviewed by blake_hodges 10 / 10

Best Film of 2011 - Why the low rating?

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.

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