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LOVE AND BASKETBALL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: New Line Cinema
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: October 10, 2000

Film ***

Love & Basketball is fairly unique in the fact that it's a sports movie that was written and directed by a woman, first timer Gina Prince-Bythewood. She instinctively discovered with her work that there can be more to a sports film than just the sports...a LOT more.

Her picture follows the young lives of two aspiring basketball players. When Quincy and Monica first meet, they're about eleven years old. Monica has just moved in next door, and is ready to shoot some hoops with the neighborhood kids. Needless to say, they are less than thrilled by her gender, but she proves a formidable match for them on the court. So much so, in fact, that Quincy seems to forget himself, shoving off on her so hard that she hits the pavement and cuts her cheek; a scar that will be there for life.

Flash forward to high school (in this film, "Second Quarter"). Both are following their dreams, but it seems to be much harder for Monica (Lathan). The problem? She plays like the boys play: hard, physical, and aggressive. And while men are applauded for that kind of play, women are frowned upon. She only has a couple of games left in her season, and is desperate to be recruited by a college, but spends a lot of her time on the bench because of her 'attitude'.

Meanwhile, both struggle to relate to their parents. Quincy's father (Haysbert), a one-time NBA pro, wants his son to get a good education and not follow in his footsteps. His parents often fight over the father's long hours away from home, leading Quincy (Epps) to sneak across to Monica's house and sleep on her floor. Monica's mother (Woodard) likewise doesn't understand her love for the game or her tendency towards tomboyish things. And Monica isn't able to appreciate her mother's decision to live life as a simple wife and mother.

Come "Third Quarter", both kids are playing ball for USC. Quincy starts out as a freshman star, but his game soon becomes affected by horrible news from his parents. Monica, on the other hand, struggles out of the gate to the rage and condemnations of both her coach and fellow players, but finally gets her chance to stand up and prove herself. One of the nice aspects of the film structurally is how Quincy's games and Monica's games rarely take place at the same time, until it becomes necessary for juxtaposition.

Oh, and did I forget to mention the blossoming on-again, off-again romance between the two lead stars? Well, the film ain't called Love & Basketball for nothing. It starts when they're just kids and Quincy asks Monica to be his girl, though neither really understands what that means. Later, at their school prom, both are with other dates, but stare at each other during the slow dances. In college, they play a rather fast and funny game of strip basketball in a dorm room.

All of this leads, naturally, to "Fourth Quarter". Decisions will have to made that will greatly effect the outcome of both of their lives, and whether or not their lives will continue to include each other. Much of this film takes place pre-WNBA, which meant that for a girl like Monica who had dedicated her entire life to being the best she could be on the court, there wasn't much hope of taking her talents beyond college.

Overall, I found this a very satisfying, though occasionally slow moving film. It thankfully avoids most of the sports movie cliché's (the big game finale, the buzzer beaters--we can't always be sure we know what the outcome of their games will be) and focuses very strongly on the two lead characters, who are both very appealing and brought to life by two terrific young actors in Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan. The script is very good with terrific direction by Prince-Bythewood. There's no reason to think she won't evolve into a major player in Hollywood. The film was co-produced by Spike Lee, who thankfully didn't show up in the movie sitting on the bleachers and heckling the opposing teams. :-)

In short, Love & Basketball is a different kind of sports movie because it subtly sneaks in a woman's point of view about life, love, and competing on an equal court with the opposite sex, and is all the better for it.

Video ***1/2

New Line, as usual, doesn't disappoint with their disc quality. This is a terrific looking anamorphic transfer, with excellent coloring throughout and good, sharp imaging. There are no instances of grain, shimmer, or distortions associated with compression, even in darker scenes. Occasionally, mid-level lighting scenes look just a tad soft around the edges and defining lines, but it's barely noticeable and FAR from a distraction. Indoor and outdoor shots look equally crisp and natural, without a hint of color bleeding, even in the shots with a wide chromatic scheme.

Audio **

I'm a little confused in this department...my player and receiver registered this disc as having both a 5.1 soundtrack and a 2 channel surround. I listened with the 5.1 audio activated, and though it was a perfectly decent listening experience, at no time did I hear anything from the surrounds! There were plenty of scenes that could have utilized them easily, from the basketball games to the terrific song and music score, but I never heard a peep. I even reached behind me to put my hand over the speaker cone during a game to see if I felt any tell-tale vibrations--none. I also checked the 2 channel surround, which was a little thinner sounding up front and sparse rear-channel use. The copy I reviewed is a test copy, however, and there's a possibility that the 5.1 problem might just be a glitch that will be repaired in time for the disc's release. The front stage was well spread, and offered clear dialogue and plenty of direction action, and the subwoofer came into place nicely for some of the songs and louder game moments. As it is, this is a perfectly good soundtrack, but if those rears end up kicking in on release day, it'll be even better.

Features ****

Four words: New Line Platinum Series. This studio continues to set the standard for well packaged, quality discs at good prices, and Love & Basketball is sure to delight DVD fans with its extras. For starters, you get nice animated menus with sound, including a bouncing basketball that takes you from screen to screen. There is a 30+ minute documentary on the "glass ceiling", and it features interviews with the director and other women who have earned success in traditionally male-oriented areas, like politics, law and sports. There are two full length commentary tracks: one by director Prince-Bythewood and star Sanaa Lathan. It starts out sounding like two separate tracks edited together, but soon the two join forces. The track is entertaining, and lively, to say the least. They often raise their voices in excitement and laugh spontaneously, and even argue a little bit. I would have like a LITTLE more serious information, especially with Prince-Bythewood being a first time director, but still, no real complaints. The second track features an isolated score with comments from the director and the composer, Terence Blanchard.

Also included on the disc are the trailer, animated storyboards, deleted scenes, a blooper real, a music video (artist unspecified), and most interesting of all: screen tests for newcomer Lathan. All in all, a typically terrific New Line package.

Summary:

Love & Basketball is not quite a perfect film, but is both engrossing and entertaining, thanks to two appealing lead actors, well defined characters, a good script and a good sense of breaking through the typical sports film traps by first time director Prince-Bythewood. If you want a good basketball movie, a coming of age story, a romance, a family drama, or any combinations of the above, you should treat yourself to a look at this fine offering from the New Line Platinum Series.