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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Friday Night Lights (HD DVD)
Friday Night Lights (HD DVD)
Universal // PG-13 // July 11, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted July 30, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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"You got one year, one stinking year, to make yourself some memories, son. That's all. It's gone after that."

The Movie:
I have to admit that I'm probably not the right guy to review Friday Night Lights. You see, I'm one of those snooty liberal elitists from the Northeast who finds everything about the life and culture of the state of Texas to be as alien and bizarre as anything you could dream up in a science fiction film. I'm also not a sports fan, at all. The two hours I spent watching this movie about high school football amounted to two more hours than I ever spent at a football game while I was actually in high school. What I am, however, is a movie fan, and I'll watch a movie on any subject if it makes for good drama.

Based on the nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights recounts the story of the 1988 Permian Panthers, a hot-ticket high school football team in a part of the country where seemingly every single person lives and breathes high school football as if it were the single shining piece of happiness they will ever experience in their miserable lives. To be a member of a varsity football team, especially a winning team like the Panthers, is to achieve local superstardom. Everyone in the county knows these players by name, knows their stats by heart, wants to get near them, have their picture taken with them, or praise Jesus even touch them and be blessed like the second coming of the Messiah. For the kids, this celebrity status is both a thrill and a crushing responsibility. With the fame comes expectations. They are charged with nothing less than the salvation of their home town, whose entire existence seems to hinge on the team winning a state championship. Victory is also most of these kids' only shot at ever getting out of the town on a college scholarship. Fail to achieve that and it's literally a life of pumping gas at the local convenience market or bagging groceries. The course of their lives will be determined by how well these 17 year-old boys play football this one year, and all of them know it. That's a heavy weight to bear.

Billy Bob Thornton plays the team coach with understated, quiet authority. This is a man who's been browbeaten by the town. Every person he sees delivers him criticism and advice on how to do his job, local talk radio stations are constantly buzzing with analysis of every decision he makes, and when the team loses a game he finds his home's front lawn peppered with "For Sale" signs. What the film does well, perhaps better than most other sports pictures I've seen, is depict the intense preparation needed before every game. Not only the rigorous drills the players must constantly practice (and the movie certainly has no shortage of montages like that), we're also shown the scrutiny of playbooks, the parents quizzing their kids about every potential play over breakfast, and the repeated study of videos from past games to determine weaknesses and develop a strategy. What the movie makes token mention of but doesn't expose as fully as it probably should, unfortunately, is the other side of this dynamic, that the athletes' education is almost completely bypassed so that they can spend more time playing sports, and the effect this treatment has on all of the other students who actually do their homework but are much less likely to get academic scholarships than the players are to be showered by athletic scholarships and extravagant gifts.

Despite my disinterest in its subject matter, I found Friday Night Lights to be for the most part a fascinating, compelling drama with well-drawn characters, yet it sadly falls victim to a number of genre clichés. I have no idea how much of this nonfiction story was spiced up for artistic license, but as soon as the movie starts you know that one of the players will have an abusive father who's a washed up former football hero. You know that the arrogant star player (appropriately named "Boobie") will get injured and ruin the team's chances for victory, not to mention his own chances for ever making anything of his life. You know that the coach is going to give a stirring, emotional locker room speech to inspire the team at their lowest moment. You know that the story is going to come down to the One Big Game where the team has to put everything on the line and fight their hardest to make a stunning last-second play that can wrest glory from the clutches of defeat. And sure enough the movie ticks off these formula moments one by one. True story or not, these scenes feel like they were lifted directly out of a hundred other sports movies.

I'm kind of fascinated with the developing directorial career of Peter Berg, the TV actor from Chicago Hope who created and produced a medical drama called Wonderland that might have grown into one of the most interesting shows on television had the ABC network not yanked it off the air after its second episode. Berg later directed the underrated and misunderstood black comedy Very Bad Things that's a great guilty pleasure. I wasn't a huge fan of The Rundown, a silly action flick starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson that I really wanted to like more than I did, but it had its moments. With Friday Night Lights, Berg makes an effort to mature as a filmmaker, focusing on the characters and drama. I have mixed feelings about the shaky-cam style he employs in the game sequences, which is sometimes effective and sometimes annoying, and as mentioned I'm not entirely sold on all of the dramatic turns, but the film held my interest a lot more than I thought it would. It's a flawed movie, but an intriguing one, and better than average for the sports genre.

The HD DVD:
Friday Night Lights debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

Video:
The Friday Night Lights HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.

I'm rather frustrated with this transfer. It's incredibly beautiful in many parts, but ugly in others. The movie has very stylized cinematography with intentionally blown-out contrasts, and the result is a lot of gleaming whites which lend the film a lovely, heightened feeling. The image is extremely sharp and detailed, so much so that you can often make out individual blades of grass on the football field even in medium and wide shots. Close-ups are nothing short of amazing; you can actually see the makeup powder on the actors' faces. Colors are vivid and strong, especially the uniforms and playing field grass. Black levels are deep and inky, with excellent shadow detail. In a majority of its scenes, I'm tempted to call this disc reference quality.

The problem is that the movie is also frequently grainy. The dynamic of the film is that the drama scenes are meant to look a little drab and rough, while the game scenes are startlingly crisp and clean, because that's where these kids really live their lives. I have no complaints with film grain when properly rendered, but the way the image has been processed here sometimes looks really noisy and electronic, not like natural film grain. I didn't see any telltale signs of edge enhancement ringing at all in the movie, but nevertheless the noisy grain looks like the typical result of artificial sharpening and is very disappointing. If not for that, the disc is otherwise terrific. The big game at the climax is truly beautiful, perhaps some of the best High Definition imagery I've ever seen. I just wish the disc could be more consistent in the way the grain is processed.

The Friday Night Lights HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.

Audio:
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. The master volume level is a little low and will require amplification above normal levels. Once you've done that, it sounds great. Naturally, the drama scenes are meant to be more subdued and dialogue-driven, and the track only becomes aggressive during the football scenes, where the soundtrack comes alive with rocking music and expansive surround dimensionality. The bass really thumps during all those tackles. Dialogue is always clear even during the noisiest of game scenes. This is an excellent mix, well presented.

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French.
Alternate language tracks - Spanish DD+ 5.1 or French DD+ 5.1.

Extras:
All of the video supplements from the DVD edition have been carried over, plus a couple of new ones exclusive to this HD DVD. All features are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression.

Taken from the DVD are:

  • Audio Commentary - Director Peter Berg and author Buzz Bissinger (his cousin) have good interplay and provide a lot of background information about the story and how the film project was developed. Recorded in 2004, the talk does get sidetracked at one point for a diversion about that year's Major League Baseball World Series and their (hilariously misguided) predictions for its outcome.
  • Deleted Scenes (21 min.) – Ten deleted scenes are provided. Some are a bit repetitive or redundant to other scenes that made the cut, but others offer strong character moments that are a little missed. These scenes as presented are not completed, so some have poor or missing audio.
  • Peter Berg Discusses a Scene in the Movie (4 min.) – The director's introduction actually only lasts 1 minute, followed by a 3-minute replay of a scene right from the movie. The intention of this is for Berg to explain that the scene was a reshoot added at the last minute to slow down the pacing of that part of the movie, but given that he explains the same thing in the audio commentary I don't really see the point of it.
  • Player Cam (4 min.) – A fluffy featurette consisting of candid moments with the actors on set.
  • Tim McGraw: Off the Stage (6 min.) – Pure celebrity ass kissing.
  • The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers (23 min.) – A look at the true story behind the movie and where the athletes are now.
Missing from the DVD are some cast and crew text bios, which aren't a significant loss. New to the disc are:

  • Gridiron Grads (14 min.) – Focus on the casting of football player extras and the grueling training they had to endure.
  • Behind the Lights (27 min.) – A good making-of piece that looks at the story, casting, and production.
Easter Eggs:
From the disc's main menu, highlight "Extras" and click Left twice. The football helmet icon that appears will take you to:
  • Tribute to Peter Berg's Assistant (1 min.) - A brief interview in which the director lauds the hard work of his assistant, then punches her in the face.
Final Thoughts:
I didn't love Friday Night Lights, but I'm not a sports or sports-movie fan, so take that for what it's worth. It is nonetheless a fairly compelling drama. The HD DVD has nice picture and sound, and even more bonus features than the DVD (the new features are pretty good, too). I'll recommend it.

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