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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005 10:00 am

movie review

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Coach Carter

Jackson shines as Coach Carter

If good intentions equal great success at the box office, Coach Carter will end up being one of the runaway hits of the winter film season. Ironically, the film's positive message nearly proves its undoing, thanks to a touch of heavy-handedness and melodrama. And though the film is based on fact, there's such a familiar air to this underdog story that it comes off as clichéd. And yet Coach Carter works because of the sheer force of Samuel L. Jackson's performance in the title role. The film may be obvious in its intentions; the actor isn't. Jackson brings subtlety and grace to a part that could have gone wrong in the hands of a less skilled performer.

The film is set in 1999 at a rough-and-tumble high school in Los Angeles. The dropout rate at Richmond High School is through the roof, and an air of failure permeates the place. The basketball team, coming off of a sorry four-win season, reflects this sense of doom. Then the team gets a new coach, Ken Carter (Jackson), a former all-state player who graduated from Richmond many years ago. Carter is that rare coach who actually believes that academics are more important than sports, and he sets up stringent requirements for his players. Teachers view Carter's expectations as a joke; parents see them as unfair, but his team racks up a 16-0 record and wins a significant tournament. When Carter discovers that key players have been screwing around in the classroom, though, he cancels the team's games -- and all hell breaks loose.

The film does a fine job of re-creating the backlash the coach endured while underscoring the importance of extracurricular school programs. But director Thomas Carter seems compelled to make his points repeatedly, a tactic that may be needed to reach a teen audience but may prove insulting to others. As a result, the film runs well over two hours when it would have benefited from some serious trimming and tighter construction. Despite these flaws, Jackson is a marvel, bringing sincerity to a role that has become a stereotype.

Also in theaters this week . . .

The Aviator [PG-13] Bio-pic of billionaire Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), tracking his early career, his romances with Hollywood actresses, and growing power. Parkway Pointe

Christmas with the Kranks [PG] Luther Krank (TimAllen) is fed up with Christmas commercialism and decides to skip the holiday and go on a vacation with his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). When his daughter comes home, he's forced to celebrate the holidays. White Oaks

Fat Albert [PG] Girl is amazed when cartoon characters, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, step out of her TV and into her world. Hey, hey, hey. Parkway Pointe, ShowPlace East

Finding Neverland [PG] A fictionalized story about author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), who wrote Peter Pan. Parkway Pointe

The Incredibles [PG] A family of superheroes lives quietly in the burbs until they're called into action to save the world. ShowPlace West

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events [PG] Three kids are sent to live with a distant relative (Jim Carrey). Trouble is, he's a greedy guy intent on getting their family's fortune. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [R] Bumbling oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) sets out to destroy the shark that killed his partner. He rallies a crew that includes his estranged wife, a journalist, and a man who may or may not be his son.ShowPlace West

Meet the Fockers [PG-13] Things get hairy for Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) when his future in-laws, Jack and Dina Byrnes (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner), meet his weird parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

National Treasure [PG] Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) hunts for treasure hidden by the Founding Fathers prior to the Revolutionary War. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

Ocean's Twelve [PG-13] Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) must find one more conspirator before he can pull off heists in Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam. Sequel to 2001's Ocean's Eleven. ShowPlace West

The Phantom of the Opera [PG-13] Andrew Lloyd Webber's take on the story of a disfigured musical genius who hides in the Paris Opera House. Parkway Pointe

Shark Tale [PG] The son of the shark mob boss is found dead and a fish named Oscar is at the scene of the crime. Voices by Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Renée Zellweger, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, and others. White Oaks

Spanglish [PG-13] Flor (Paz Vega) knows no English, moves to L.A. with her daughter, and gets hired as a housekeeper by an eccentric couple. Parkway Pointe

White Noise [PG-13] A man (Michael Keaton) is contacted from beyond the grave by his murdered wife. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

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