Background: Modern cinema is often railed at for putting profit over well written scripts, essentially pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to sell more theatre tickets, DVD's, and get better ratings on television. Certain genres are more susceptible to this than others, movies using sports as the theme being the worst offender outside of cop dramas and perhaps westerns (science fiction coming in close behind though). Whatever psychological aspect we have that drives so many to love sports, it's tough to argue that the appeal runs across all major demographics, rich and old, white and black, young and old; so using sports in a movie may well be cliché but understandable too. After all, we all love routing for the underdog opposing tremendous odds and emerging victorious. One of my favorite such movies in recent years was Rudy, a hapless loser who fought to be part of a world famous team of athletes, but you could talk for days about the angles employed by Hollywood to bring sport driven titles to the big screen that boil down to the simplest of plots, albeit with markedly differing results. With that, I turn my gaze to a flick coming out on HD DVD soon, We Are Marshall HD DVD, a movie about all the usual cinematic elements for the popcorn crowd (emphasis on corn, of course) that I'm sure many of you will love.
Matthew McConaughey as the Coach.
Movie: We Are Marshall HD DVD is the story of a phoenix arising from the ashes and the dramatic struggle that ensues as a result of some people that simply won't quit. Marshall University in West Virginia has long been one of those blue collar universities that people from the rural areas have gone to in order to fulfill their dreams, the school often providing families with their first higher educational experience. Established in the 1800's, the college grew into a university as a place for regular folks to get a quality education over time, maintaining the small town atmosphere lacking in many other schools. Having been there myself (passing through), I can say that the people were extremely gracious and kind, making it a great place to get a degree though a bit bigger in real life than portrayed in the movie (striking me as a city years ago in the late 1970's). Okay, back in 1970, their football team, the Thundering Herd, was flying home after losing a game. The plane crashed and all aboard it died. The movie spent no time dealing with the investigation of the crash, little establishing the original team's importance to the town, university, or such beforehand; opting instead to deal primarily with the aftermath of the crash. In small town West Virginia, football teams are an important part of life for many people who otherwise have little drama in their lives. The recruiting scandals the team had been going through were quickly washed away from memory after the crash, leaving the town feeling a tremendous loss. They lost more than their team, which had in large part become something many identified with as representative of their entire community; they lost their friends, families, and loved ones in such a quick manner that it almost seemed surreal.
Ian McShane as the grieving dad.
This is the part the director got right, in providing the kind of sentimental drama surrounding the death toll. Focusing largely on the quarterback's dad Paul Griffen (Ian McShane) and finance Annie Cantrell (hotty Kate Mara), the immediate loss is portrayed in a touching, if sappy manner. The majority of the movie though was a mixed blessing that was primarily an ensemble effort with new coach Jack Lengyel played in an over the top manner by Matthew McConaughey and University president Don Dedmon with the far more reserved David Strathairn serving as perhaps the best actor in the movie with his almost deadpan manner of internalizing the grief and difficulties ahead. Jack's mission is to ramp up the football program and overcome the hurdles of essentially building the program from scratch; not an easy task considering the aforementioned recruiting scandals of the previous years (which were not mentioned in the feel good movie). The challenges faced by the few surviving members, the township, and all those they touched served to provide the needed meat of the flick, punctuated by some obligatory game footage where the rookie team is typically trounced for all the right reasons (they're younger, weaker, and less experienced than their conference rivals). I give credit to the director for balancing out the movie so that it wasn't just a "game" movie, just a sappy "lost love" story, or the clichéd "beat all odds" release some would have you believe it was. That credit aside though, the movie tried to do too much and routinely suffered as a result. Perhaps a future version with lots of restored footage will bridge the gaps better than this cut, at least I hope so, because it bounced around a bit too much for me to get a feel of the elements as thoroughly as I wanted.
School Spirit at the big meeting.
The quality of the acting was mixed too, with the side dramas of the remaining players showing some survivor's guilt handled ham handedly, the teammate rivalries forced, and Kate's wrestling with the loss of her boyfriend weighing in as a bit much at times. Paul's stoic acceptance was a nice change of pace from the usual path and David's president role just the right mix of conflict to get my nod though. I went into the movie knowing enough about the school and crash to make sense of the movie; combined with a working knowledge of how important football is to many people so I enjoyed the movie but really think the effort as it stands warranted a rating of Rent It (for higher nods, feel free to read up on my fellow reviewer's takes including Brian Orndorf and Preston Jones who thought it was worthy of being recommended; I just thought it lacked replay value but the movie was okay).
Kate Mara looked sweet as cherry pie.
Picture: We Are Marshall HD DVD was presented in the original aspect ratio as shot by director McQ, listed as 2.4:1, in the 1080p I expected it in. This being another of those problematic Combo discs, I found myself needing to download the latest firmware for my HD DVD player when the HD version locked up several times but it played well after that issue was resolved. I spot checked the two versions and saw that the HD DVD version did not really make as solid use of the format's enhanced resolution as I would have hoped but it did look marginally better at all times. The SD version was in anamorphic widescreen using 480p as the resolution for those who care. The whiskers on the unkempt faces of the cast when dealing with the tragedy (Ian's being the most prominent since he had several moments of looking out as the camera held tightly on his face), the tackles during the game, and the quieter moments when the cast discussed the finer points of the game also looked pretty good. I wouldn't jump up and cheer for the look of the game footage (much of which looked like it was done in a single take) but the minor video noise and other issues were not too distracting for me as the movie kept up a reasonable pace most of the time.
Sound: The HD version of the movie was presented with a choice of a 5.1 Dolby Digital True, Dolby Digital+ (both in English), or a 5.1 French track (dubbed in Quebec) with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. The action sequences on the field were all aggressive and loud, sounding as though they were amplified a bit too much to make dramatic points. The score was never too abrasive, except perhaps in the maudlin moments where tears were expected to be free flowing, and the period music played sounded like it came from AM radio (which was appropriate given the sources of the music were car radios and the like). The vocals never showed much separation, certainly not as much as the action and music, but placement as noticed was well done; almost allowing me to visualize where the characters were supposed to be on screen (though my notes mentioned a couple spots where something here was slightly amiss-feel free to email me if you noticed it too). In short, the audio had some flaws but held up fairly well to serve the visuals and story.
If you like good extras, wait for the next version of the movie to be released.
Extras: As a new release on DVD, I knew that the extras would either be really cool and full of great stuff or really lame in preparation of the inevitable double and triple dip special editions we will certainly see coming out in the near future. Sadly, this was a case of the former with only a couple extras worth mentioning. The DVD starts off with a commercial for Marshall University that uses the cast to talk about what a great place it is. While I agree with them (based on my limited experience) and acknowledge that it was probably part of the deal to get the cooperation of the school, it still seemed a bit weird. There was another commercial for the university lasting about a minute on both versions too, as well as a trailer. The lengthiest extra was a ~37 minute featurette called Legendary Coaches: How Coaches Overcome Adversity that spent some time with the real coach Jack Lengyel as well as a number of other coaches that are well known; each of them talking about major setbacks, though not generally on the same scale as Marshall University dealt with. It was pretty interesting but only marginally dealing with the movie itself so not as appealing as I would have liked. I'm sure the inevitable special edition will offer a lot more for those of you with patience but nothing has been announced at this writing.
Final Thoughts: We Are Marshall HD DVD had a fair amount of likable footage in a busy screenplay that tried to be too many things to too many people, marginally succeeding as a result. For every aspect it got correct, there was another aspect handled kind of wrong but if you're looking for a feel good popcorn movie that doesn't play too fast and too loose with the facts of what took place, We Are Marshall HD DVD should offer you up a decent buffet to enjoy for the type of movie it was designed to be. It wasn't made to be all things to all people and if you enjoy this kind of movie, you'd be hard pressed to find another coming out next week that presses all the buttons quite so well as this modest hit did so give it a look. Oh, and the pictures are from the standard definition version, the HD would not be noticeable even if I had the ability to capture and post them since they are compressed and small.