Spare Parts

Posted on January 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Copyright Lionsgate 2014
Copyright Lionsgate 2014

It really happened. Four undocumented high school kids from the poorest of communities took on the most brilliant engineering students from the country’s top colleges in a robotics competition and won. The contest results were one in a million, but once it happened, the movie version was inevitable. George Lopez produced the film and stars as the students’ reluctant coach and teacher, Fredi Cameron (based on the two real-life teacher/coaches, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi).

Unlike its robotic superstar, there is not much ingenuity in the storyline. Everything added on, especially the fictionalized backstory for Cameron, is predictable and superfluous and distracting. Lopez is an amiable presence, but these detours reveal his limits as an actor. We want to focus on the students and their robot, to see them solve problems in engineering and teamwork (which is a form of engineering, too). But too much of the running time is devoted to Cameron’s past and his possible romance with a fellow teacher, played by the always-wonderful Marisa Tomei. If she played the coach, this would have been a much better movie. Still, with a storyline like this one, it cannot help being fun to watch.

Cameron is an engineer with a PhD who tells the school’s principal (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a performance of great warmth and wit) he wants a temporary job as a substitute teacher. She notes that he has moved around a lot, but she does not have any alternatives. He agrees to coach the school’s engineering club because he is assured no one will want to join.

Oscar (Carlos PenaVega) shows up with a flier. He is an outstanding JROTC cadet and was crushed to learn that he cannot join the US Military without proof of citizenship. He thinks participating in a NASA-sponsored robotics competition will make it harder to be turned down. Cameron reluctantly agrees to help.

They assemble a team that includes the brain (David Del Rio), the kid who always gets into trouble but is a whiz at mechanics (José Julián), and the muscle (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II) — one problem they cannot engineer around is that someone has to be strong enough to lift their robot. Each has his own challenges. The brain is bullied at school. The troublemaker is under a lot of pressure to take care of his brother. The muscle has to be able to pass a tough oral exam at the competition to show that every member of the team understands the details of the robot. Oscar falls in love with a pretty classmate named Karla (sweetly played by PenaVega’s real-life wife, Alexa), but worries that his illegal status puts her at risk. All of the students are hiding from the ICE, which has already sent one of their mothers back to Mexico.

And then there is the challenge of the competition itself. Not only does this robot have to operate underwater, it has to execute an immensely complicated series of tasks in a limited time period. When the team shows up, they are so certain they will lose anyway that they decide they might as well compete with the college teams instead of the other high school teams. The night before they have to compete the robot has a disastrous leak. Their very creative and inexpensive (and hilarious) solution is one of the film’s high points.

The film’s name refers to more than the repurposed junk used to assemble the robot. Their triumph is bittersweet because their undocumented status prevents them from taking the opportunities available to those who are citizens. This film makes it clear that it is our loss, as it prevents our country from benefiting from the perseverance and skill that made an $800 robot created by kids kick the robotic butt of the $18,000 robot from MIT.

Parents should know that this film includes some teen crime including armed robbery, violence including bullying, some strong language and tense family confrontations and teen kissing.

Family discussion: What was the team’s most difficult challenge? Who was the teacher who inspired you the most and why?

If you like this, try: the book by Joshua Davis, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream, and films like “October Sky” and “Stand and Deliver”

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Based on a true story Drama High School School Stories about Teens

23 Blast

Posted on October 23, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some teen drinking
Profanity: Mild schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, drinking game
Violence/ Scariness: Character becomes blind, scenes in hospital, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 24, 2014

23 Blast is the name of a football play, and “23 Blast” is based on the real story of Travis Freeman, a high school football star who lost his sight, but, with the help of a courageous coach and committed teammates, was able to keep playing.

The real hero of the movie is the coach, played by “Avatar” villain Stephen Lang, with a touch of dry with along with his determination and sense of honor. The film’s very first scene, with the coach working with a group of young boys as he learns he will be getting a job with the high school team, introduces us to him as a man of character who understands that the win that counts is the integrity and teamwork he instills in his players. And it introduces us to the tone of the film, honest, unvarnished, and real. You may think you know where a fact-based story about a blind player on a high school football team is going, but this film will surprise you.23blast

That first scene also introduces us to the boys who will become the stars of the team, Travis (a very likeable Mark Hapka) and Jerry (Bram Hoover, as the bad boy with a good heart but a weak will). They are very different people. Travis plays by the rules. He is respectful, reliable, and grounded in his faith. Bram cannot resist a party, and as for rules, they are for ignoring or for breaking. But on the football field, they have a bond. Their passion for football, and their deep understanding of its options, demands, and strategies connects them. Travis is devoted to football because it is his nature to give himself fully to whatever he takes on. Bram is devoted to football because it is the only place where he feels at home.*

One night following a game, Travis becomes ill at a party. The next day he wakes up with severe swelling on his face. His parents take him to the hospital and the doctor tells them he needs immediate surgery. “You’re going to have to take the cross off,” the nurse says as he is wheeled into the operating room. He survives the surgery, but he is blind.

At first, Travis is devastated. He will not leave his room. He refuses to cooperate with the occupational therapist (a warm and spirited Becky Ann Baker). But a dream of a sermon seemingly directed to him and a visit from the coach opens up possibilities he thought were foreclosed. “I’m going to need you to step up,” the coach tells him. “The team needs a leader. Are you that guy?”

It seems impossible. How will he run, tackle, catch? The coach makes him the center and he has to learn a whole new set of skills. But learning that he can learn is revelatory. Some of his teammates are not on board. His ties with Jerry are tested by Jerry’s irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. But the coach understands that the most important thing he can teach these players is not the techniques or strategy but the meaning of being a part of something bigger than each of them.

This is quiet, even modest storytelling, with a surprising final punch, an inspirational tale that never becomes sugary or preachy.

Parents should know that this film includes teen drinking and a drinking game. A character becomes blind and there is a sad offscreen death.

Family discussion: What do we learn from Travis’ dream about the sermon directed at him? Why was Patty able to help him? Would you be willing to have a disabled player on your team?

If you like this, try: “Brian’s Song” and “Remember the Titans”

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Based on a true story Disabilities and Different Abilities High School Movies -- format Spiritual films Sports

When the Game Stands Tall — The Real Story

Posted on August 23, 2014 at 3:47 pm

“When the Game Stands Tall” is based on the real-life story of the De La Salle High School Spartans football team, which had the longest winning streak of any team in any sport at any level 151 games in a row over twelve years. The movie is based on what happened at the end of the streak, when one of their star players was killed and their coach, Bob Ladouceur (played by Jim Caviezel in the film) has to bring them back together. Ladouceur said that their first bus ride of the season was to their teammate’s funeral. They lost the next game.

The film is based on the book by Neil Hayes, with a foreword by John Madden about Coach Ladouceur and his team.  When people asked the coach how he was able to produce these results, game after game, year after year, he would say, “Spend a year with us.”  Hayes took him up on it, and that is what produced the book and then the film. Another book, One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams, in the First Ever National Championship High School Football Game, by Don Wallace, tells the story of the championship game between the Catholic private school De La Salle and public school Long Beach Poly, .

Here is the real Bob Ladouceur.

And here are the Spartans.

Spartans who later became professional athletes:

T.J. Ward, safety for the Denver Broncos
Maurice Jones-Drew, halfback for Oakland Raiders.
Amani Toomer, wide receiver for New York Giants
Kevin Simon, linebacker for Washington D.C. football team
Matt Gutierrez, former quarterback in the National Football League
D. J. Williams, outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears
Doug Brien, kicker with San Francisco 49ers
David Loverne, guard with New York Jets
Derek Landri, defensive tackle with Philadelphia Eagles
Stephen Wondolowski, pro soccer player
Chris Wondolowski, pro soccer player
Stefan Frei, pro soccer player
John David Baker, pro baseball player
Chris Carter, pro baseball player
Jon Barry, pro basketball player
Brent Barry, pro basketball player
Kristian Ipsen, Olympic diver, bronze medalist
Aaron Taylor, former offensive lineman for Green Bay Packers

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High School Sports Stories about Teens The Real Story

If I Stay

Posted on August 21, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: The film's themes include a tragic accident, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 22, 2014
Date Released to DVD: November 17, 2014 ASIN: B00NT964VS
Copyright 2014 Warner Brothers Studio
Copyright 2014 Warner Brothers Studio

Hamlet asked it best. “To be, or not to be: That is the question.” We struggle through, worrying about whether someone likes us or whether we will be accepted at the school of our choice. Those seem like serious problems. And then something really huge shows us how small those problems are, and forces us to confront the only question that matters: will we continue to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or will we obliterate ourselves, and everything we can perceive?

That is the question faced by a young cellist named Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz, in one of her first roles as a normal girl).  She has a wonderful family, loving, supportive, understanding and remarkably hip and gorgeous parents (Mireille Enos as Kat and Joshua Leonard as Denny) and a not-too-pesky kid brother named Teddy (Jakob Davies).  She has the kind of kindred spirit best friend who is always vitally interested in every detail and always on her side (“Trust’s” terrific Liana Liberato). And they are a part of a warm, loving community in Portland, Oregon that seems like an endless pot luck dinner party, seamlessly blending from one time and place to another, always filled with laughter and music.

And there is Adam (Jamie Blackley).  He is the perfect combination of untamed/angsty and utterly devoted swain. He is supposedly a punk musician, though his performances are disconcertingly pop-ish with even a bit of emo. And he says swoon-worthy things like, “You can’t hide in that rehearsal room forever. It’s too late. I see you.” Mia feels like an outsider as a classical cellist in a family of rock musicians. And, of course, she attends high school with teenagers who have no interest in orchestral music. “Right on, I love classic rock,” one of them responds when Mia tries to explain the kind of music she plays.

Adam watches Mia rehearse and instantly sees that in the most important way she is just like him. She is someone who is not just moved by music, but saved by it. She says, “I loved the order, the structure, that feeling in my chest. Like my heart is beating with the cello.” The “whole messy live for the moment punk rocker thing” does not feel right to her.

Soon Adam and Mia are a couple. But then his group becomes successful and he starts to tour. And she may have a chance to go to Juilliard, on the other side of the country.

And then there is the accident. Mia’s family takes advantage of a snow day to go off on an excursion together, but a car slips on the ice and there is a very bad crash.  The entire story is told as Mia’s spirit, alone in the limbo between life and death, able to see and hear everyone around her but not able to be seen or heard, is remembering her life, beginning to understand what has happened, and recognizing that it is up to her to decide whether to re-enter her body and fight to stay alive.

Gayle Forman‘s book is thoughtfully adapted by Shauna Cross (“Whip It”), who has a good sense of the inner lives of teenage girls. While Adam and Mia have their struggles, they are thankfully a step above the typical teenage drama (on and off-screen), and almost always respectfully handled and based in character and context and not the usual sitcom-ish miscommunication.  Moritz takes on a tough challenge in playing a character who has to express so much anxiety with so little interaction with other actors, except in flashbacks.  She does well, as does director R.J. Cutler in keeping an internal story visually engaging.  If it doesn’t have the emotional impact of recent YA weepies like “The Spectacular Now” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” it is a touching story about an appealing young couple.

Parents should know that this film has literal life-and-death situations, with a serious accident, and characters injured and killed. It also includes strong language, teen drinking, and non-explicit sexual references and situations.

Family discussion: How did their families influence the different ways Adam and Mia saw their options? Why did Mia’s grandfather tell her she could go? What would you decide and why?

If you like this, try: “The Spectacular Now,” “Save the Last Dance,” and “Bandslam” as well as the book by Gayle Forman and its sequel, told from Adam’s perspective, Where She Went

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Based on a book Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week High School Romance Stories about Teens Teenagers

When the Game Stands Tall

Posted on August 21, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Shooting, very sad death, serious illness, parental abuse, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 22, 2014

Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures
This dreary assemblage of every possible sports cliché has one thing in common with the game it portrays. Every time it seems to be going somewhere, it stops.

More frustratingly, it wastes the opportunity to tell a good story by trying to squeeze in too many great ones. There are too many crises, too many story arcs, too few resolutions, too few reasons for us to invest in the outcome. When a movie is based on (or even “inspired by”) something that really happened, the first step has to be deciding what the theme is and streamlining all of the real-life details that are not central to that theme. Or, as a coach might say, “Don’t lose focus.”

The real-life high school football team that inspired this story is Concord, California’s De La Salle Spartans, from a small, all-boys Catholic school. They hold the all-time winning streak record for any sport in any category and at any level. We meet the team just as the streak is about to end. The last game of the season is the 151st win in a row. But then Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) has a heart attack.  A player is killed in a drive-by shooting.  Another one becomes an orphan, responsible for his younger brother.  The other teams do not want to play the Spartans anymore, so they take on the number one team in the state (in a game that is the subject of a book. The winning streak that went from 1992-2004 came to an end.

That’s an interesting place for a sports movie to begin, a refreshing change from the over-familiar sports movie storyline of a scrappy group of underdogs who have to learn to work together.  And the film is sincere and good-hearted, though not much we haven’t learned from reading Kipling’s If, especially the part about understanding that winning and losing are both imposters.  But the dramatic force of the narrative keeps being mowed down by so many over-familiar sports movie lines that the film’s greatest appeal may be as a drinking game.  How many times do we have to hear about how the teammates are family, especially when we hear it more than we see it?  (Though I did enjoy seeing the team come on the field holding hands like a kindergarten field trip.)

There is a lot to explore here about what we learn from winning and how much more we learn from losing.  Ladouceur’s techniques include “commitment cards” with training goals, practice goals, and game goals, each one written by a player and shared with a teammate to help them understand they are responsible for each other’s performance as well as their own.  It is good to hear a coach say that end zone antics are inappropriate and that the purpose of the training is not to produce great high school football players but responsible men.

A number of issues are set up or glancingly referred to without any real connection or follow-through, including some of the coach’s lessons about what matters more than winning.  The coach’s son says that when he needed a dad he got a coach and when he needed a coach all he got was a “lame dad.”  The coach’s wife (a criminally under-used Laura Dern) says he does not share himself with her or their children.  Ladouceur acknowledges that he has been “a bad husband and a worse dad.”  But all we see as a response is Ladouceur burning some burgers when he tries to grill.

We do not get enough of the history between the two players who struggle over whether they will stay together through college for it to be meaningful.  A brutish father (Clancy Brown) pushes his quarterback son to break the state record in scoring, but the resolution is not set up in a way that makes it a triumph for anyone.  Intrusive product placement from a sporting goods store is a distraction as well.  As though to keep us on track, equally intrusive sports announcers keep reminding us what the stakes are.  Even more intrusive is a musical score that is ploddingly obvious, with hip-hop in a black player’s home and syrupy pop over the white characters. Meanwhile, over on the sidelines (literally), Michael Chiklis as the assistant coach turns in the film’s most intriguing performance.

“It’s no longer about who the bigger, stronger, faster players are,”  the coach who has the bigger, stronger, faster players says about playing against the Spartans.  (You can tell what’s coming next, right?) “It’s about who plays with more heart.”   The heart in this film is mostly over the end credits, where we see the truly inspirational Ladouceur and wish we had just seen a documentary about him instead.

Parents should know that this film includes the tragic murder of a teenager, serious illness of a parent, death of a parent, parental abuse of a teenager, scenes of wounded warriors in rehab, smoking, and brief crude sexual references

Family discussion: What goals will you put on your commitment card? Why didn’t the coach want his players to pay attention to the streak? What was his most important lesson?

If you like this, try: “Friday Night Lights” (the movie and the television series) and “Remember the Titans,” as well as the books about the Spartans: When the Game Stands Tall: The Story of the De La Salle Spartans and Football’s Longest Winning Streak and One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams, in the First Ever National Championship High School Football Game

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama High School Movies -- format Sports
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