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Hoop Dreams: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Hoop Dreams (1994) movie poster Hoop Dreams

Theatrical Release: October 14, 1994 / Running Time: 173 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Directors: Steve James / Producers: Frederick Marx, Steve James, Peter Gilbert

Tagline: An Extraordinary True Story / Narrator: Steve James

Featured Subjects: Arthur "Man" Agee Jr., William Gates, Emma Gates, Curtis Gates, Sheila Agee, Arthur "Bo" Agee Sr., Joe "Sweetie" Agee, Tomika "Tony" Agee, Earl Smith, Gene Pingatore, Sister Marilyn Hopewell, Luther Bedford, Marjorie Heard, Patricia Wier, Isiah Thomas, Catherine Mines, Alicia Mines, Willie Gates, Dick Vitale, Kevin O'Neill, Bobby Knight, Spike Lee

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According to both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the best film of 1994 was not Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, or The Shawshank Redemption. It was Hoop Dreams,
the documentary that spent four years following two inner Chicago youths who saw basketball as their most promising escape from poverty.

The film opens with both Arthur Agee and William Gates watching the 1988 NBA All-Star Game in their respective homes in the Cabrini-Green projects. Pictures of superstars Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas decorate their walls, with good reason. Like them, Thomas grew up in a low-income family in the Windy City's unforgiving neighborhoods. Jordan, meanwhile, though still a few years away from his greatest success, was already the most famous and talented professional athlete around. The two are role models to these two acquainted black teenagers, who each dream of defying the long odds and making it big in the NBA.

Even in middle school, Agee and Gates attracted attention from talent scouts and the local high schools they represent. Fast and agile, the two boys would be an asset to any high school sports team and with the right instruction, their raw skill could easily produce major success. Both Arthur and William enroll at St. Joseph High School, Thomas' alma mater, each entering at a fourth or fifth grade academic level. The Westchester, Illinois institution requires a 3-hour daily round trip commute for the native Chicagoans. The suburban, predominantly white Catholic institution has awarded each a partial scholarship. For William, the remainder of tuition is covered by benefactors from Encyclopedia Britannica. Arthur has no such generous donor and shortly into his sophomore year, his family owing $1,500 in back payments, he is asked to leave. He transfers to Marshall High School, a predominantly black public school located on Chicago's West Side.

A 14-year-old Arthur Agee gets to briefly guard his idol Isiah Thomas at a St. Joseph basketball camp. William Gates, meanwhile, gets to play for Gene Pingatore, Thomas' high school coach.

William instantly makes an impact at St. Joseph's, where he starts on the varsity team as a freshman, an honor his hard-nosed coach Gene Pingatore didn't even extend to Thomas, a future Basketball Hall of Famer. After two years of getting St. Joseph's close to the state title he so desires, in his junior year, Gates tears cartilage in his knee. Already being recruited by basically every Division I college around, Gates returns in the final regular season game, but he can't achieve the storybook finish, as the effects of his injury linger. His senior year is also rockier than expected.

Arthur does not initially develop as expected, something that appears to have been a factor for St. Joseph's, where he played on the freshman team, letting him go. The basketball program at Marshall isn't nearly as competitive, but in his senior year, Agee leads the team to unexpected success, getting them well into a hunt for the city championship.

The specifics of these two boys' high school basketball careers are not the extent of Hoop Dreams' interests. The film fully invests in these young men and their families, profiling the challenges and hardships they face. Arthur's father, for instance, has a drug problem, leaves Arthur's mother after twenty years of marriage, serves a few months in jail for burglary, and then returns. Looming over Gates' promising prospects is the specter of his older brother Curtis. Just a few years earlier, Curtis attracted national attention for his hardwood heroics. Now, he's a prison security guard and then unemployed for months.

Everyone wants the fame and fortune that come from being a professional athlete. No matter how much these two athletes stand out for their prowess and no matter how hard they want this, the odds remain against them. The two persevere. William, who has a daughter his sophomore year, needs to get his ACT score up to be able to claim a full scholarship offer from his most active recruiter, Marquette University. The Agees go on welfare and have their power turned off.

These dreams are not delusional; a Nike camp William attends includes sightings not just of numerous iconic Division I coaches, but of three successful contemporaries (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard) who would go on to be a part of the University of Michigan's much-hyped Fab Five team before enjoying long, prosperous NBA careers. It's hardly a spoiler at this juncture, over 20 years after the film's release, to reveal that things do not turn out as well for either Gates or Agee. That's the humbling reality that non-fiction gives us.

Flourishing at St. Joseph, invited to prestigious camps, and recruited by Division I colleges, William Gates appears to be the more promising of the film's two prospects. But in a twist, Arthur "Tuss" Agee leads Marshall High School to city championships in his senior year.

Director Steve James and his fellow producers Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert (who also handled the camera) remain impressively invisible. Gilbert shows up in just one reflection and a boom mic in another. James also provides regular narration, making sense of game footage that demands some context. Otherwise, these filmmakers let their images do the talking and they have plenty to say.
The film's three principal creators do not seem to have had a clear narrative journey in mind. They simply followed and filmed these boys and their families from 8th grade to the start of their college tenures. Largely unproven before, the trio proved their worth as documentarians here. Garnering some of the strongest reviews imaginable, their little film also struck a chord with the public, selling around two million theatrical tickets domestically. That might not sound like much, but according to Box Office Mojo only one modern documentary had done better up to that point: Madonna: Truth or Dare, a $4.5 million movie centering on one of the biggest pop stars around.

Hoop Dreams proves that with the right foundation, the right commitment, and the right creativity, any human life can sustain interest as well as scripted fiction. Here is a nearly three-hour movie about two boys whose basketball careers do not end up being tremendously more significant than any of the million or so American students who play high school basketball every year. And yet, as presented through intimate looks at their home and academic lives, their journeys make for riveting entertainment that ultimately did more for many who watch film professionally than the finest forays in narrative cinema.

Twenty-one years after the film opened at the Sundance Film Festival to raves, nothing about Hoop Dreams rings false. In that time, there have been many talented boys like William and Arthur who dream of leaving the ghetto and enjoying a better life. With merely 450 available player slots on NBA rosters, very few of those boys have seen those dreams pan out. And still, they try, navigating a very lucrative system that only ends up rewarding a select few.

My impression of Hoop Dreams has changed in some ways since I first saw it on VHS nearly twenty years ago. Back then, I was young, actively playing basketball, and still seeing that as the ideal career. I enjoyed the movie, though I can't remember watching it more than once, its considerable length perhaps discouraging a revisit. The film made a big impression on me; twenty years later, I still vividly remember much of it in detail. I find it even easier to appreciate now, having become much more familiar with film and documentaries. There's some benefit to the perspective that comes from the passage of time. Furthermore, Hoop Dreams now exists as kind of a time capsule: a reminder of what adolescent athletics were like in the 1990s. It is interesting to be reminded of home life before computers and cell phones became ubiquitous. There is something timeless and pure about the pursuits documented and at the same time trivial and fickle. You can make the same argument regarding all sports, both professional and amateur. But if sports are one's only possible ticket to higher education, who can discourage the passion and pride they inspire?

Hoop Dreams did not turn up on DVD until May of 2005. It did so from The Criterion Collection, the film buff-adored boutique line that seemed the perfect fit for it. Ten years later, Criterion recently treated the film to a new two-disc DVD and a single-disc Blu-ray, its first release on that format.

Hoop Dreams: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
4.0 Surround DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Extras Not Subtitled; Not Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-disc DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as 1-Disc Criterion DVD (May 10, 2005)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Hoop Dreams was shot on video, which explains its use of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio long after that was replaced as film's standard. It also explains why the movie looks as it does, more akin to nonfiction television than cinematic documentaries. Nonetheless, Criterion ensures that the movie looks as good as it possibly can here. The element is thankfully sharp and detailed, much more so than it is in blurry, ancient-looking bonus features. There doesn't appear to be any room for improvement left on the Blu-ray format.

Sound is offered in 4.0 surround DTS-HD master audio. It may not provide a dynamic experience like its narrative contemporaries, but music is distributed nicely without stepping on the toes of dialogue, which is crisply recorded despite the presumably thin budget.

William Gates discusses his 2001 training with Michael Jordan nearly sparked a serious attempt to make the NBA at age 29. Curtis Gates, William's older brother, compares his high school basketball success to his brother's in this deleted scene.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The bonus features for Hoop Dreams, all encoded in HD, begin with "Life After Hoop Dreams" (39:50), one of the best bonus features I have ever encountered. Produced by Criterion, this valuable follow-up documentary was largely shot from 2004 to 2005 but oddly did not make it to Criterion's first DVD. It catches up with Arthur Agee and William Gates, as they discuss the pluses and minuses of being featured in such a heralded and widely-seen film. It is very rewarding to see the two boys doing well, even if neither gained financial security from the film. Sadly, two of the more compelling and pivotal family members depicted in the film were murdered around the time this 10th anniversary catch-up was being produced. Gates, who is now active as a church pastor, reveals that he played with Michael Jordan as Jordan geared up to return to the NBA in 2001 and had serious thoughts about trying to make it himself the same time at age 29.
The Agees are shown to have left the ghetto and settled in Berwyn, Illinois, while Arthur markets a clothing line based on the movie and works as a motivational speaker. The three principal filmmakers, who did the 2004-05 interviewing, are themselves interviewed in 2014, remaining humble and candid. There's even footage of a 2014 20th anniversary Hoop Dreams panel at Indie Memphis. The only thing that would have made this valuable inclusion even better would have been new 2014 interviews with the subjects and families.

Next up comes a reel of "Additional Scenes" that runs 20 minutes and 52 seconds. Though exhibiting blurry picture, this material has dramatic value, if not enough to extend the film past three hours. Deletions include Arthur's chore talk; a press announcement, Arthur's audition, and some behind-the-scenes footage for the Disney television movie The Mary Thomas Story about Isiah Thomas' mother; more with Curtis Gates, who compares his experiences to his younger brother's; the two boys preparing for their respective senior proms; and Arthur's parents remarrying in church.

Roger Ebert was one of the film's most ardent fans, raving about it before its Sundance premiere and then choosing it as his best film of 1994 and of the entire 1990s. Rapper Tony M, a former Prince band member, performs the film's titular song "Hoop Dreams" in this Chicago-set music video.

"Siskel & Ebert" (15:18) strings together valuable clips from six episodes of the long-running, widely syndicated film criticism TV series. First, the two oft-at-odds Chicago critics rave about the film ahead of its January '94 Sundance debut. Then, both name it in their Best Film of 1994 in a December '94 clip (which takes amusing swipes at The Air Up There and Richie Rich). "Memo to the Academy" from January '95 sees each pushing for a Best Picture nomination, which would have made it the first documentary to earn such a nod. Their fears of it not getting a Best Documentary nomination come true and are lamented in a February '95 clip in which the critics bemoan the documentary committee being out of touch and fishy. A July '95 clip finds the hosts happily reporting on the Academy's documentary category reform, which they attribute to Hoop Dreams' blackballing. (Reform that wasn't enough to have James' glowingly-reviewed 2014 documentary on Ebert Life Itself make the cut.) Finally, a February 2000 clip sees Ebert naming it the best film of the entire 1990s, high praise that guest anchor Martin Scorsese echoes.

A rarely seen music video is supplied for rapper and former Prince band member Tony M's "Hoop Dreams" (3:18), the film's oft-instrumentally-reprised title theme. The '90s-styled video is shot around Chicago; parts from the movie are projected onto the long-since demolished Chicago Stadium.

The first of Hoop Dreams' two trailers opens with this Roger Ebert quote, high praise from one of America's most famous and trusted film critics. Arthur Agee performs the spider drill on the Hoop Dreams Blu-ray menu.

Two rough-looking Hoop Dreams trailers (3:01) are preserved. The narrated first one is designed to inspire;
the other matted widescreen one opts to show rather than tell and excite with the theme song and more basketball action visuals.

Finally, we get not one but two audio commentaries recorded in 2005. Appropriately enough, one of those commentaries is provided by the subjects, Arthur Agee and William Gates. They provide apt perspective on being asked to be in a film and on their immortalized basketball experiences. Gates reveals he faked a knee injury to get out of the Nike camp (an incident captured on film) and confesses that at Marquette he no longer hoped to play in the NBA, while Agee recalls being mad about some of his family's embarrassing moments that were recorded. Both also talk about the subsequent phenomenon of going direct from high school to the NBA, a leap both would have considered attempting had they realized it was an option. Despite the similarities of their shared experiences, the two men oddly do not interact with each other very much. Still, it is a good track with obvious value.

The other commentary is offered by the three producers, Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert. They provide the filmmakers' perspective, discussing the project's evolution from a potential half-hour PBS special, being turned down by other potential subjects, their investment in the subjects, their limitations and influence on reality, the impact of Siskel & Ebert's rave review (their first to predate a film securing distribution) and the circumstances behind certain depictions. They also comment on their footage, giving you opinions the movie itself avoids.

Between the subject and filmmaker commentaries, we come away with a deeper understanding of this film's undertakings.

The menu plays rhythmic music over predominantly playground basketball clips. As always, Criterion kindly authors the disc to allow you to resume playback and to set bookmarks on the film.

The final extra joins the full-color disc inside one of the company's standard clear keepcases: it is a booklet, which folds out to something of a poster, which features scrapbook clippings of the two youths, film and disc credits and acknowledgments, and two essays. Written for the 2005 DVD and reprinted here, "Serious Game" by scholar, novelist, and former basketballer John Edgar Wideman offers reflections on his two viewings of the film ten years removed. The brand new "The Real Thing" by documentary filmmaker Robert Greene, celebrates Hoop Dreams for its achievements as a documentary, noting its effect on him back in the '90s and now.

William Gates discusses his hoop dreams while Michael Jordan looks on from a poster on his bedroom wall.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Often hailed as one of the best films of the 1990s and one of the best documentaries ever made, Hoop Dreams remains a fascinating and captivating look at high school athletics as both a calling and a fragile plan on which to pin hopes for all-around betterment.
This epic undertaking does not pull any punches or manufacture any drama. It has no need to, for the images it captures are intimate, genuine, and more riveting than any narrative filmmaker could conceive.

Criterion treats this epochal film to the fine Blu-ray it deserves, one that boasts a splendid feature presentation as well as an abundance of substantial extras, the best of which is a follow-up documentary ten years in the making. While the film may not be something you're compelled to watch with any regularity, it is both rewarding and important enough to highly recommend and this edition undoubtedly emerges as its finest home video release to date.

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Reviewed April 6, 2015.



Text copyright 2015 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1994 Fine Line Features, Kartemquin Films, KCTA-TV, and 2015 Janus Films and The Criterion Collection.
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