Based on a true story, "The Final Season" is much better with baseball than it is with humans.
In the small farming community of Norway, Iowa, the local high school baseball team has been on an unprecedented run of championships, led by monolithic coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe). When the school board (including Rachael Leigh Cook) seeks to merge Norway with a larger district, the locals revolt, leaving the final season of baseball a potential mess. To help sink morale and ease the school transition, an unproven coach, Kent Stock (Sean Astin), is brought in to lead the team and, along with a troubled teen outsider named Mitch (Michael Angarano), they end up turning the fortunes of Norway around with their winning ways, bringing renewed hope to the town for a 20th consecutive championship title.
Director David Mickey Evans has already demonstrated some aptitude for baseball cinema, having helmed the 1993 cult family hit "The Sandlot" and its 2005 DTV sequel. The game seems second nature to Evans, so it's no surprise to find "Final Season" works much more fluidly as a scrappy underdog baseball story than it does as a motion picture of clumsy emotional manipulation.
Let's be frank here: Evans is a lousy filmmaker who's never met a cliché he didn't cling to like a hungry infant to a bottle of warm milk. Over the length of his career, Evans has established his fear of distinct artistic growth, preferring the safe passage of formula to comfort himself and his audience. "Final Season" is the perfect vehicle for him, since it's nothing but a slow unfurling of familiarity.
The mushy sameness only hurts "Final Season" when the film strolls away from the baseball diamond. Watching the screenplay pass around Midwestern small town caricatures (The "I Ain't Did No Book Learnin'" Farmer, The Priest, The Wise "Take No BS" Grandfather) is demoralizing, not only because we've seen these people a million times before, but it's also disheartening to watch the film view even the slightest morsel of sophistication as poison that will block the picture from reaching the softest minds. Formula can work when brewed correctly, but "Final Season" merely kicks the cauldron over and assumes it's drilling straight to the core of the audiences' heart.
How obvious can the movie get? Evans introduces the character of Mitch, the redemptive bad boy of the story, in a black leather jacket smoking cigarettes. Might as well write "No Good" on his forehead and have him kick a puppy to make sure everyone gets it.
Thankfully, Evans is stronger with his baseball sequences, which ring true to the community spirit of small town ball and the thrill of the game. Bolstered by a winningly confident authoritarian turn by Sean Astin, "Final Season" delivers large on the game sequences. Evans shows a real love for the details, with the rich green of the grass, the constant passage of trains in the outfield, and the comfort of the home field dirt, which the boys end up carrying with them to the final championship game in a divine tribute sequence.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio), the "Final Season" DVD captures the summer glow of baseball, boosting the colors and retaining sharp detail. Black levels are good, but the beauty of the image is best served by the lush baseball sequences.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation of "Final Season" is an intimate aural experience, doing a fine job bringing the listener to the playing field. The crowd sequences have a pleasant depth, while the rest of the track is free of distortion and assorted audio hiccups.
Two audio commentaries accompany the "Final Season" DVD release, the first provided by director David Mickey Evans, star Sean Astin, and producers Michael Wasserman and Carl Borack. Evans and Astin dominate the discussion, explaining how they worked with the heavenly Iowa locales, hounded co-star James Gammon to recreate his "Major League" scenes off the set, state how much they love their movie (yeesh), deconstruct the participation of the players that inspired the film, and reiterate the feeling of Americana that runs throughout the film.
The second audio commentary includes producer Tony Wilson, and the real life Kent Stock and Jim Van Scoyoc. Because the three men assembled are of the monotone, quiet-talker variety, the track is for Norway baseball enthusiasts only. Expectedly, the men discuss the history and dramatic liberties taken with their story - a tale that took 15 years to reach the big screen. Eventually, the coaches discuss the physical demands of the shoot, and how they helped prepare cast and crew for the long hours of filming, and politely discuss the death of small-town baseball.
"The Making of 'The Final Season'" (20 minutes) is a fluff piece aimed to celebrate the production, Norway, and the talent involved. Oddly, the quality of the video looks remarkably like something from 1991, so I'm having trouble understanding if the EPK crew didn't have access to the finest equipment around or this was an artistic choice. Either way, there's little critical information to be harvested here, only nauseating fawning and spoiler-laden film clips.
"The Real Season: The Spirit of Norway" (12 minutes) simply recaps the film, placing emphasis on the purity of baseball soul found in Iowa. Not a drop of substance to be found here, just irritating genuflecting.
No theatrical trailer is included, but peeks at "The Water Horse" and "Daddy Day Camp" are offered.
It's easy to see "Final Season" has a huge heart, and the story of Norway is ripe for dramatic adaptation. Yet, by making the film so obvious, in an attempt to violently extract the elementary points of joy out of the story, "Final Season" stumbles aimlessly instead of storming the emotional receptors like its great baseball cinema brethren.
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