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Bright ‘Lights’

High school football as seen by Hollywood; you can enjoy British comedy.


One of the last lines of the credits of "Friday Night Lights," based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger’s acclaimed book, is a sentence that should be placed at the start, along with "based on a true story": "Although the movie was based on a true story, some incidents have been fictionalized and some characterizations have been condensed." The disclaimer could also read: "Some of the football scenes you’re about to see would normally happen over the course of five NFL seasons, but we’ve condensed them all to fit one high school championship game, which in reality wasn’t the state title game but really a semifinal game, but we really didn’t think you’d care about the 1988 Odessa Permian season if it wasn’t at least for a title …" There I go again, expecting movies to ever give us the facts. It’s a movie. They could have fictionalized all the names and schools, but somebody already did that in 1999 with the lame "Varsity Blues." What’s good about "Friday Night Lights" is that, for all practical purposes, there is an actual basis of fact behind most of this, and it tells several good stories within this main story of a football team in a rundown town trying to live up to its school’s past glory. The Hollywood-ized version of football, dating at least back to "The Longest Yard," is that every big game must feature outright maiming on almost every snap, the game must be decided on the last play, and by some kind of heroic play that last 30 seconds in real time and two minutes in slo-mo, Understanding all that, the action, acting and storyline in "Friday Night Lights" is better than any football movie to date. Billy Bob Thornton, the son of a basketball coach, is maybe the best coach we’ve seen on screen next to one-time drunk Gene Hackman in "Hoosiers." Thornton plays Gary Gaines not as a one-shot, yell-all-the-time coach but a man with compassion at the right moments, uneasiness at others. Three scenes in this movie hit home: o A player is going nuts with enthusiasm on the sidelines, and a mild-mannered Thornton shakes his head at the nonsense and urges him to take things more calmly. o James "Boobie" Miles (Derek Luke), the team’s star who has hurt his knee and maybe ended his playing career, breaks down in the car with his uncle over what he will do with his life without football. o Country singer Tim McGraw, making a terrific turn as Charles Billingsley, the drunk and seemingly worthless dad whose own Permian team earned a state championship ring, tells his son (Garrett Hedlund) that he has just this one chance, between age 17 and 18, to make something of his life. How sad to know there are fathers out in the world very much like that. We’ve seen them. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler takes a page out of "Traffic" with a mix of grainy, washed-out scenes blended with almost-normal shots, yet always reminding us that this is 16 years ago in a town where the oil derricks pump up mostly dust. Though taking liberties with the facts of the ’88 season, co-writer and director Peter Berg still deftly brings it all to a crescendo at the state title game in the Astrodome, where Permian meets the bigger and faster Dallas Carter. With the music building, Berg stages the moment in a way one might expect of a D-Day battle scene, the young Allies knowingly going into the gauntlet against the Nazi bullets. It’s stirring, even through we knew it didn’t really happen that way. If it’s not an A in terms of overall filmmaking, it gets an A in the sports film category. As for Thornton’s Gaines, we’d let our kid play for him. — By Jim Harris It takes a certain kind of person to be a fan of 20th-century British anything: British drama, British novels, and — especially — British comedy. People who love it love it, and people who don’t wouldn’t urinate on the combined works of P.G. Wodehouse if they were on fire. Not to perpetuate a stereotype, but the Brits are as restrained in their art as they seem to be in their lives; a bit too much stiff-upper-lip and not enough stiffness of spine. In British cinema set between the Wars, every man is a duke or a lord, and smokes a pipe held between the teeth at a rakish angle, while every woman is about to be married to someone she doesn’t love for the good of the family. From the second I plugged in the screener for "Bright Young Things" and heard the cast chirping away in what as a kid I called "England English," I was prepared for the worst. Based on the 1930 novel "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh, "Bright Young Things" starts off in full-on ’30s British novel mode, complete with an earnest young man trying to make his fortune so he can finally marry his long-suffering fiancee. In this case, the EYM is Adam Symes (Stephen Moore), who, after years of artistic struggle and spending an advance from his publisher, has finally finished his first novel. His fortune assured, Symes is on his way to marry his LSF, Nina (Emily Mortimer, an Irish actress who wowed this reviewer a few months back as a mother who deceives her son for his own good in "Dear Frankie"), when his only manuscript is seized as pornography by customs officers, who promise to consign it to the flames. Symes’ book, we learn, is called "Bright Young Things," which is the same title the British press has given to a band of decadent young partiers who spend their lives drinking, going to only the best parties, and ending up in the papers. In the best traditions of the pre-war novel, Symes soon finds himself comically entwined with these poster children for the Lost Generation, going to soirees and country homes, spending hours listening to them complain about their boredom, losing and regaining (and losing, and regaining) his fortune, and dueling with Nina’s old boyfriend for her affections. It’s funny stuff, sometimes riotously so. But somewhere along the way, the tracks swerve into dark territory, so quickly that you really don’t see it coming until it does. While "Bright Young Things" isn’t for everyone, for those willing to feel out the edges of its subtlety, it is funny and infinitely fascinating. — By David Koon

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