Movie Project #6: Catch Me If You Can [2002]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

Catch Me If You Can [2002]
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Jeff Nathanson (screenplay), Stan Redding (book), Frank Abagnale (book)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams
Running Time: 141 minutes

I’m always a sucker for “truth is stranger than fiction” narratives, which is why I made Catch Me If You Can one of my first selections from this year’s project. An imposter movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, a possibly rejuvenated Steven Spielberg… it has all the ingredients for a fun, memorable adventure. For the most part it works, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels it could have.

The story, set in the 1960s, is certainly interesting enough. DiCaprio plays a fresh-faced teen named Frank Abagnale, a con man who manages to pose as a pilot, doctor and lawyer all while earning himself millions of dollars by the age of 19. Tom Hanks is Carl Hanratty, an FBI bank fraud agent who catches onto Frank’s scheme and pursues him endlessly throughout the decade. Both are broken, lonely men who have pushed themselves beyond the point of exhaustion with their cat-and-mouse game. No matter what Hanratty does, Abagnale seems to be one step ahead of him.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

It’s doubtful that Frank envisioned life as a con man, but his first taste of success pushes him farther and farther down the rabbit hole. If he could impersonate an airline pilot, gain access to their payroll system and even get invited into the cockpit on several flights — with minimal effort, mind you — why stop there? When Hanratty gets hot on his tail, Frank just shifts gears and becomes a doctor, somehow getting himself a supervisor gig at a hospital. At one point, Frank even pulls a fast one over Hanratty, escaping arrest by claiming to be a member of the Secret Service.

Watching Abagnale finagle his way out of tricky situations is always entertaining, though there are several moments that raise questions about just how true his claims really are. In particular, there is a scene near the end of the film in which he somehow manages to escape an airplane as it is landing — it’s as dubious as it sounds. As the film is based mostly on Abagnale’s own stories, it’s reasonable to assume he took some liberties in telling them. Perhaps in the end, he is still conning all of us watching his tale unfold on film.

Catch Me If You Can [2002]

And yet as wild and crazy as this story is, Spielberg never quite lets it reach the next level. The film overall feels safe and never really finds its footing. At times, it comes across as a comical, light-hearted adventure, while other times it gets bogged down by the drama surrounding the two leads. It’s still a fun watch, to be sure, but I can’t help but imagine how this would play out with an edgier filmmaker.

At the very least, the film does have a stellar cast to fall back on. DiCaprio and Hanks, though neither are at their best, are both effortlessly compelling, and they make for a memorable duo. Amy Adams, in one of her earliest roles, is a real highlight, playing the sweet and naive love interest of Abagnale. Christopher Walken is also terrific as Frank’s father who has issues of his own with the IRS.

Even with its flaws, Catch Me If You Can is a likable film that manages to make its extended running time feel shorter than it truly is. It’s not the best film from anyone involved, but it’s fine for what it is.

7/10

Movie Project #5: The King of Comedy [1982]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

The King of Comedy [1982]

The King of Comedy [1982]
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul D. Zimmerman
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard
Running Time: 109 minutes

(This post contains possible spoilers.)

“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.”

So says Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in his fame-making monologue near the end of The King of Comedy. In many ways, Pupkin is right. Many people would likely trade a life of unimportance for one night of fame and possible fortune. Rupert’s problem, however, is that he goes about his night as a “king” in about the most ridiculous way imaginable.

The 34-year-old Pupkin is a fame-seeking, wannabe comedian who worships the late night talk shows. His dream is to be the next Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the successful host of one such show. Rupert is determined to get his “big break” into showbiz, but he is completely devoid of a portfolio or any sort of real experience. He stays at home, seemingly in his mother’s basement, studies the talk shows and acts as if he is already a famous comedian.

The King of Comedy [1982]

Rather than start off doing small gigs while working his way up like a normal comedian, Pupkin decides he’s going to talk to Langford directly. While waiting outside of the TV studio, he manages to finagle his way into Jerry’s car and even get a ride from him. It’s an incredibly awkward encounter — Rupert just doesn’t know how to end a conversation — but Jerry is surprisingly tolerant. Their encounter ends with the talk show host vaguely suggesting he would check out Pupkin’s tape at a later point.

That’s all the incentive Rupert needs to keep bugging Jerry. He shows up at the TV studio, refusing to leave the waiting room until he gets to talk to Jerry. He shows up over and over again, as annoying as a mosquito that just won’t buzz off. Eventually, when Jerry’s secretary turns him down after finally listening to his recording, Rupert gets the hint. He’s not wanted there, so he’s going to have to take matters into his own hands. Together with the help of his friend, the equally deranged Masha (Sandra Bernhard, playing another celebrity-obsessed fan), the two of them kidnap Jerry and hold him hostage until Rupert gets to be on the talk show.

The King of Comedy [1982]

As Pupkin continues to grow more and more desperate to get his big break, the film often verges into uncomfortable territory. Pupkin is just such a gauche individual (perfectly played by De Niro, by the way), and some of his interactions are just unbearable. There were times where I wished I could just reach in and pull him away before he could embarrass himself even more. The problem there, however, is that he simply has no shame. He is determined to the point of exasperation. Perhaps most amazing is that Rupert’s obnoxious behavior makes it easy to empathize with Jerry Langford, even though the host is pretty much a smug asshole.

It’s clear that Rupert is delusional and suffers from some type of mental illness (in addition to his extravagant narcissism). He is constantly drifting in and out of daydreams; some are obvious fantasies, whereas others could go either way. If taken in its literal form, The King of Comedy appears to be well ahead of its time. The film shows the depths that someone will go to get famous, and it offers an equally important glimpse at how our society is apt to reward criminal behavior. In the end, Pupkin got the fame he wanted, much like Jordan Belfort in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. And we, as a society, are eagerly there to soak it all up.

9/10

Movie Project #4: Fast Times at Ridgemont High [1982]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High [1982]

Fast Times at Ridgemont High [1982]
Director: Amy Heckerling
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Brian Backer, Phoebe Cates
Running Time: 90 minutes

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a fun movie. It’s a bit strange saying that about a film involving statutory rape and an abortion, but there’s something to be said about its assortment of entertaining characters and future movie stars.

Based on Cameron Crowe’s novel in which he went undercover at a California high school, Fast Times covers the whole spectrum of student types. Jocks, stoners, nerds, middle-class kids and sexual deviants all have an equal amount of time to show us a glimpse into their worlds.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High [1982]

There’s Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold), a fast food manager who hates wearing their awful uniforms. Nevertheless, he is a strong older brother to Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a 15-year-old virgin who becomes obsessed with sex thanks to her best friend Linda’s (Phoebe Cates) constant praise of it. Stacy has a budding relationship with nice guy Mark Ratner (Brian Backner), though he may be too shy for his own good. Mark’s buddy, Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), a ticket-scalping slacker, tries to help him with the ladies.

At the center of it all is Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), a surfer dude who has been “stoned since the third grade.” He is the best character in the film, hands down, mostly due to Penn’s hilarious performance. Spicoli is the kind of guy who just goes with the flow, getting high with his buds while showing up to class whenever he gets around to it. His constant truancy is the cause of a feud between him and his history teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston), leading to some of the film’s most amusing moments.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High [1982]

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and many of the random subplots are left unresolved, but the film never fails to be engaging. Much of this can be attributed to the screenplay, as well as its impressive cast of young actors. Fast Times served as a bit of a launching pad for so many careers. Aside from those listed earlier, others with memorable parts include the likes of Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and James Russo. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role from Nicolas Cage (then Nicolas Coppola).

Although Cameron Crowe did not direct the film, his musical fingerprints are all over it. The music — which includes the likes of Jackson Browne, Don Henley and Billy Squier — is spot-on for its time period. There is a satisfactory amount of raunchiness, a seemingly obligatory part of any good teen film, with the highlight being one of the most paused scenes in movie history: Phoebe Cates emerging from the water and deciding her bikini top was no longer necessary. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is very much an 80s film and very much a teen film, but it earns high marks as both.

8/10

Fun fact: three actors in this film would go on to win an Oscar for Best Actor: Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker and Sean Penn.

Movie Project #2: Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/History
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, Ray Wise
Running Time: 93 minutes

Good Night, and Good Luck takes us back to darker times in the United States, specifically the 1950s when the fear of Communism was running wild. The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy only added to the hysteria by claiming that large numbers of Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. Government. This led to anyone with any connection to Communism, no matter how minute (or even non-existant), getting shunned by those in charge. Who knows what would have happened if CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow didn’t call him out on his bullshit?

George Clooney’s second directorial effort tells the story of this very public feud between Murrow (David Strathairn) and McCarthy. Murrow first targets the senator’s unlawful attack against Milo Radulovich, a Michigan man who was forced to resign from the US Air Force merely because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as the trial of Annie Lee Moss, an alleged spy inside the Pentagon, makes the news. Soon McCarthy is attacking Murrow directly, making false accusations about the newscaster being a past member of a communist organization.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

To Murrow’s credit, he is able to remain calm and level-headed even as he is knee-deep in McCarthy’s pile of lies. He is especially impressive in how he is able to convince his superiors — those who risk damaging certain professional relationships — to stick with him as he fights back against the delusional anti-Communism parade. His rational and sensible demeanor is expertly portrayed by David Strathairn, who got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance.

While much of the focus is on Murrow and McCarthy (the latter of whom is only seen in archival footage), there are two other subplots involving those within CBS. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a married couple who are forced to keep their relationship secret due to laws within the company. Also, Ray Wise plays Don Hollenbeck, the host of the CBS News show that follows Murrow, as he struggles to deal with an often slanderous press. The latter storyline fits in perfectly with the overarching theme of the film, but the RDJ/Clarkson subplot received perhaps a bit too much attention. The film is relatively short — just 93 minutes — and it almost feels like their story arc was included to pad things out a bit. The rest of the newsroom is fleshed out with small, but crucial performances from the likes of Clooney himself, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

The film is authentic in its approach, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography interspersed with actual news footage from the era. This provides an almost documentary-like feel to the proceedings, adding even more to the immersion into that era. You can almost smell the smoke-tinged air as everyone puffs away at their Kent-branded cigarettes. For the realism alone, the film succeeds.

It’s said that history repeats itself. Perhaps in 40-50 years, we’ll get another film of a similar nature, this time documenting the frenzy caused by the National Security Agency’s breach of privacy that is happening today. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need an Edward R. Murrow.

8/10

Movie Project #39: Life is Beautiful [1997]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Life is Beautiful [1997]
Director: Roberto Benigni
Writers: Vincenzo Cerami (story), Roberto Benigni (story)
Country: Italy
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Running Time: 116 minutes

Life is Beautiful is a brave film in many ways. It starts off as a comedy about a man, Guido (Robert Benigni), who is so desperately trying to win the love of a beautiful school teacher, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni’s real-life wife). He drums up a series of “coincidences” that leads him to falling off his bike into her arms, and he even infiltrates her school just to see her by posing as an Italian fascist inspector. His big speech to the students praises the superiority of the Italian race and their perfect earlobes and navels, all in jest, of course.

To Guido, everything is a joke. His sense of humor and comedic timing are what gets him through an increasingly hostile Italy in 1939. See, Guido is a Jewish man, and he is becoming a more and more frequent target of hate by the locals. His uncle, Eliseo (Giustino Durano), is already dealing with the newfound animosity, as his storefront is wrecked by some fascist vandals.

Yet Guido perseveres, putting on a smiling front and taking it all in stride. Eventually, he gets his girl (in the most epic fashion, riding a white horse spray painted in racial epithets), and things seem to be looking up.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Fast forward five years later. Guido and Dora are now married with a young child, Joshua (Giorgio Cantarini). They own a book store, and despite a crude sign announcing the owner is a Jew, they make the best of it. That is until the Nazis come into town, rounding up every Jew in the area, Guido and young Joshua included. Dora, after learning of their seizure, runs to the local train station, demanding to be brought on board with them. After some deliberation, she is allowed to board the packed train, which has the most horrific destination imaginable: a concentration camp.

Guido, bless his heart, continues to try to make the best of the situation. He spins this trip into a game for his young son, telling him that he will get a tank if he wins the game. Surely Guido knows the chances of this ending well are slim, but his outgoing demeanor tries to cheer up the spirits of those around him, especially his son.

Life is Beautiful [1997]

Now, this is where the film grows bold in its delivery, and it has received a great deal of criticism for its approach. Guido is constantly cracking jokes (“Buttons and soap out of people? That’ll be the day!”) about a very sensitive and very real atrocity. Sometimes his attempts to be funny are just flat out obnoxious and inconsiderate, such as when he pretends to speak German just so he can jokingly translate orders from a Nazi officer. I get that Guido (and Benigni himself) is just trying to make the best of a horrible situation, but he really should know his limits.

Still, even with these potentially inappropriate moments, there is a great story underneath it all. This is a tale of the strength of a family, and the bond of love between father and son, and husband and wife. This is about a man who can find the beauty in life, even in the most dire situations. While Benigni can overstep the line past obnoxiousness, his Chaplin-esque antics are visually appealing. There is a certain type of charm to his character, and we could all learn something from his optimistic views.

8/10

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Movie Project #32: The Blues Brothers [1980]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Blues Brothers [1980]

The Blues Brothers [1980]
Director: John Landis
Genre: Comedy/Crime/Music
Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Carrie Fisher
Runtime: 133 minutes (extended: 147 minutes)

“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

As a Chicago resident, it’s almost blasphemous that I just now saw The Blues Brothers for the first time. This much-loved 1980 musical/comedy/action/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it is pretty much the quintessential Chicago movie, and it has a bit of a legendary status around here. Hell, last month Wrigley Field held a screening of the film (though the $20 bleacher and $40 lawn seats were too pricey for me). To say it was due time for me to familiarize myself with this is an understatement.

The Blues Brothers [1980]

The eponymous brothers are, of course, “Joliet” Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd). The film begins with Jake being released from Joliet Prison, making sure to grab his retained items on the way out (including “one unused prophylactic” and “one soiled”). Elwood picks him up in what they call the Bluesmobile — a beat-up 1974 Dodge Monaco patrol car. Before being incarcarated, Jake had promised the nun at their childhood orphanage that she would be the first person he would visit after being released. Upon arriving, the brothers are hit with the news that the orphanage will be forced to close unless $5,000 in property taxes are collected. Some financial brainstorming, aided by a trip to a wildly entertaining gospel church service, leads Jake and Elwood to discover a way to help come up with the money. Their plan? Re-form the Blues Brothers rhythm & blues band.

In order to do so, the siblings drive around the Chicagoland suburbs, making stops to attempt to lure their old bandmates back for their fundraiser gig. This hilariously leads to random musical encounters in which they run into legit musicians, all playing minor characters. The aforementioned church service is led by James Brown, who may be the coolest reverend I have ever seen. Other noteworthy appearances include Aretha Franklin running a soul food restaurant, Ray Charles owning a music shop, and John Lee Hooker jamming on a South Side street. Not knowing much about the film, these musical interludes were a pleasant surprise, and many of them were absolute highlights.

The Blues Brothers [1980]

There are two extended scenes in the film that I loved the hell out of. One is when the band, in their first gig in years, masquerades as “The Good Ol’ Boys”, a country group in a divey hick bar way outside of the city. The bartender reassures the guys that they have “both kinds of music here, Country AND Western“. With little choice, the band hops on stage. Their opening blues jam doesn’t go over well with the local folk, so they improvise by playing — what else? — the “Rawhide” theme song. Throw in a cover of “Stand By Your Man” and slowly they start to win over the increasingly drunker patrons. And with this scene, I fell in love with the movie.

Later, the big Chicago moments arrive. Watching the brothers drive their Bluesmobile through all sorts of familiar locations — lower Wacker Drive, Lake Street and the Daley Center, to name a few — was a lot of fun. Even more entertaining was watching them destroy damn near everything in their path, Daley Center included. As the cop cars continued to pile up, I just couldn’t believe how much damage was being done. This would have been crazy as hell to see being filmed, that’s for sure.

The Blues Brothers [1980]

While the stars of the film are undoubtedly Aykroyd and Belushi, it was Aykroyd who nailed it with his famous remark, “Chicago is one of the stars of the movie. We wrote it as a tribute.

I’m not sure what the differences are between the theatrical cut and extended version, but I watched the latter. I feel there were probably two or three unnecessary scenes included, as the nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime was a little exhausting. Regardless, I can’t say I have seen another film like The Blues Brothers, a rambunctious ode to my favorite city.

8/10

Hoop Dreams [1994]

Hoop Dreams [1994]

Hoop Dreams [1994]
Directors: Steve James
Genre: Documentary/Drama/Sports
Language: English
Country: USA

People always say to me, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me.” Well, I should’ve said back, “if I don’t make it to the NBA, don’t you forget about me.”
– William Gates

Hoop Dreams is a documentary about two Chicago inner-city African-American kids, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who eat, breathe and sleep basketball, and aspire someday to play in the NBA. The movie follows them through their high school years as they attempt to lead their teams to the championship all while keeping their heads above water academically.

Both students are recruited to the famous St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, Illinois. These guys make the rough 90-minute commute every day because of the school’s reputation; after all, this is where Isiah Thomas played during his youth. An early scene shows Thomas visiting his alma mater, and it is fun to watch the kids sitting there in awe while listening to their hero. Both teens struggle with their new school at first — it takes some time to adjust to a racially diverse school considering their home neighborhoods (Cabrini-Green and West Garfield Park). When Agee struggles to play up to his potential at the school, he is dropped from the program without so much of a blink of an eye. All of a sudden Agee’s family is left with a large tuition bill that they cannot afford. This doesn’t happen to Gates. He becomes the star of his team and gets financial support from a wealthy old white lady, simply because he has been able to better utilize his talent on the court. These types of discrepancies are all too common, and Hoop Dreams brings attention to this light.

Perhaps what I loved most about this documentary is that it is wildly unpredictable. I didn’t know anything about either kid beforehand, so I had no idea what to expect. It’s easy to see in the beginning stages of the movie who is more likely to succeed, but there are always twists that can hamper anyone’s path to their dreams. Both teenagers have immense basketball talent, yet both fight hardships along their way.

Make no mistake: even though this movie is about basketball, it is so much more than that. This is a film that tackles important issues in American life, problems with racial and economic divisions, class and our educational system, not to mention the pursuit of the American Dream. This is a movie about families, and how important it is to stick together.

It should be noted that Hoop Dreams is a three hour film. There aren’t many movies of this length that have kept my interest throughout, but this is one of them. There is a lot of story to tell here, and it’s amazing that the filmmakers were able to cut down over 250 hours of footage into this picture. The extended length is never a burden, and it allows us to learn more about the families of both children. It is hard not to be interested in Curtis Gates, William’s older brother who was also a basketball stud but let his bad attitude and temperament ruin his once-promising career. It’s hard not to feel for the Agee family, as Arthur’s dad fights a difficult battle with drug addiction.

Hoop Dreams is a movie that I will soon not forget. Don’t let its extended running time and it’s blatant 90’s look scare you — this is a masterpiece of a documentary that still resonates today.

10/10

Hoop Dreams Trailer from Kartemquin Films on Vimeo.