The Criterion Collection upgrades their previous DVD edition of Hoop Dreams to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its open aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc (the film was released theatrically at 1.85:1, but judging by comments in the commentary the filmmakers prefer the open-matte ratio). The new 1080i/60hz presentation comes from (as suggested by the notes) the finished D1 digital videotape.
I admittedly had my doubts about how this would look on Blu-ray. The entire film was shot on video and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. Since Blu-ray offers a better resolution than anything video tape has to offer I wasn’t expecting a drastic improvement over the previous DVD edition. Yet even though the presentation won’t deliver a true high-definition presentation I have to admit that I was more than shocked at just how nice this has turned out.
Like the DVD the transfer this presentation is interlaced, though this isn’t too big of a surprise: the original materials are interlaced and I suspect converting it to a 24fps progressive image would have been difficult and probably pointless (and I can imagine would have just been a mess). Still, the format seems to help as the interlacing doesn’t create too much of a problem this time around. Jagged edges and shimmering were a constant nuisance with the DVD’s presentation but it’s not so big of a concern here. That’s not to say it doesn’t occur, because it does, but it just didn’t seem to be as big a distraction here. Some of it comes down to the quality of video tape in how bad it can get (most of it appears to have been shot with a high quality digital tape, while other shots look like a lower grade VHS) but there are still moments where diagonal lines will look jagged, and some tight patterns create shimmering effects. But the actual footage of the basketball games has improved vastly and is not as big of a blurry mess in comparison to the DVD.
Since the source materials are restrictive detail is limited but it’s far better than I would have expected. Edges are nicely defined and clean for the most part, more blurry during some of the more off-the-cuff shots and when a lower quality tape is used, but nothing ever seems to get lost. Except in lower lit sequences, where blacks and video noise can severely crush out details, but again this is a limitation of the source materials. There can also be a fuzzy haze, a sort of static, that can be layered over the image, again a byproduct of shooting with video, but it’s not disrupting.
Blacks are a bit weak and crushing can occur, especially in low lit scenes as I mentioned before, but this isn’t too surprising. What is surprising is just how great colours look in the film. These have obviously been adjusted and repaired a bit since video would never have looked this good. Reds, oranges, yellows, even blues, all of them are vibrant with excellent saturation. I’ve never seen video look this good, and it’s almost wrong that colours look this good.
Damage isn’t present in the usual sense, “damage” is limited to typical compression and resolution issues of video tape, all of which I think I covered above. And though my grade may not suggest it the presentation does look really good for what it is, far better than I would have thought possible. It looks far better than the other video sourced film Criterion released, Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything is Going Fine (which is admittedly an unfair comparison since that film was made up of archival video footage) and it also greatly improves upon the previous DVD edition. And though I haven’t seen the new DVD edition (which uses the same transfer) I actually feel this Blu-ray would still show obvious improvements over it. It’s quite impressive for what it is, and I’d say it’s even worth the upgrade from the old DVD to the Blu-ray just for the image improvement. 6/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion’s previous DVD was a decent special edition, especially for the price (it was surprisingly released with the lower MSRP of $29.95). Criterion carries all of the disc material over to this edition, plus adds a few very welcome features.
Carried over of course are the two audio commentaries, the first featuring the filmmakers, Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx, and then the second featuring the film’s stars, Arthur Agee and William Gates. In my coverage of the original DVD (which I originally wrote in 2005) I admitted to the fact I didn’t listen to the entirety of either commentary, though based on what I heard (about an hours’ worth of material for each) I felt they both had a lot to offer.
This time I did listen to each one in its entirety and am almost (almost) ashamed I didn’t listen to them fully before. Of the two I really do prefer the one from Agee and Gates, but the filmmakers one is certainly no dud, either. The filmmakers’ track of course focuses most on the making of and release of the film, starting out with the original intentions of the piece: a 30-minute film for PBS on the importance of basketball to inner city children. They got the help of Earl Smith, who moonlighted as a recruiter for local high schools, to show them a good court to find a worthwhile subject and just happened upon Agee. Agee was then recruited to St. Joe’s high school where the filmmakers then came across William Gates. After following the two young men for a while the whole idea behind the film changed.
What’s surprising about the track (or maybe not) is just how lucky these guys were: the stars seemed to have just aligned just right for them because they just happened in on some great material. They share the many surprises and revelations along the way, like Curtis’ history of also trying to go for (and almost making) the pros and William’s daughter (and the backstory to why William wanted a child, is rather shocking, at least for me who would have never thought that way at his age), as well as the various issues that arise in the Agee family. They also talk about their subjects and what it was like dealing with them over the long period of shooting, even defending coach Pingatore, stating they wish they got less of his harsher side and more of his “nicer” side, blaming themselves for that.
They also have interesting conversations throughout about the responsibility of the filmmaker and their regret in how they handled certain things. When the Agee’s power was cut, for example, there was debate on whether they should help the family or not. By the sounds of it they did actually help them, but not before actually filming the situation. This of course opens up a conversation about “staging” or setting up scenes (even though their power was cut they made a conscious decision to just film the Agees before doing anything for them), which would go against the nature of what they were trying to do, but at the same time they still need to capture material and still make it narratively interesting, or easier to edit by creating cutaways. There was also the issue on how to deal with touchy subjects and getting the participation of everyone, especially when Arthur’s parents go to St. Joe’s to get his transcripts after settling a debt (sorta), and the school of course feared looking to be in the wrong.
It’s a strong track, mostly because the three talk about the learning process they went through while making the film, and there are a few surprises (especially the fact the film, before the editing process began, didn’t cost much money because they we’re loaned the equipment and really just had to buy video tape) and they do also talk about the technical aspects, especially the trouble in framing the film for widescreen distribution.
That track (which manages to stay engaging the full 172-minutes) is great, but it’s still eclipsed over by the track featuring Gates and Agee. This track is especially wonderful because it ends up adding a whole other layer to the film. One thing that is especially surprising is how close the two are: the film doesn’t give the idea the two really knew each other all that well. Though they run into each other and do talk about one another, they feel separated from one another. Here we learn that they were (and are) much closer than that, and William admits here that Arthur getting kicked out of St. Joe’s was incredibly rough on him, too, since Arthur was really the only other kid he could relate to there.
The two talk about how they came to be involved with the film and what it was like having the three filmmakers follow them around, as well as the period during the film’s hyped release and life afterwards. Where their track is best, though, is when they talk about the events in the film, mentioning their thoughts, feelings, stories surrounding them, and even going into more detail about people that show up even in passing in the film. Agee talks a lot about his dad and their complicated (to say the least) relationship, but I loved a moment where he watches, in absolute awe, as his dad cons the administration at St. Joe’s into supplying Arthur’s grades as long as he paid the debt owed (he of course only made one payment, got the grades, and then never made another payment). Gates, who was easily the shyer and more reserved in the film, is also surprisingly open about everything. He talks a little about his dad (who apparently tried to give him someone else’s car as a gift) and his brother, who was murdered a few years before the commentary was recorded (Arthur’s dad, Bo, was sadly also murdered just before the commentary was recorded) but he also talks more about the stress and pressure he was feeling. Interestingly he admits here that he had pretty much given up on his basketball dreams early on and only kept on pushing just so he could get a basketball scholarship for college.
There are plenty of surprises in the track, particularly the two’s fondness for Pingatore despite everything, and there are some hilarious moments (like the two’s reaction to the scene where the one teacher asks Gate’s if he’s talked to the school’s other “black leaders”, though Gates does defend the poor guy). There are also some maddening moments, like when the two talk about how other students in college were mad at them because they were getting a “free ride” and in Agee’s case, free housing (they obviously didn’t see the home in question). It’s such a rich and entertaining track, adding so much more to the film. Both tracks are great but if you only have time for one this is the one to listen to.
After that Criterion then adds a new feature, Life After Hoop Dreams. Around the time Criterion released their original DVD edition for Hoop Dreams there was word that Gilbert, James, and March were filming a “sequel” of sorts, revisiting the participants of the film. I don’t recall anything coming of that, but it appears some of the footage has been incorporated into this 40-minute feature. It features the three filmmakers in newly recorded material from 2014 talking about the after math of the film and then they give updates on everyone. It is then edited in with footage of Arthur Agee and William Gates recorded between 2004 and 2005, with some newer footage taken from conferences or screenings. Surprisingly this footage expands on the already packed audio commentary, with Gates talking about the ups and downs since, including his attempted comeback, and Agee talking about his clothing line and his other enterprises. We also get interviews with the other family members, with Bo and Sheila even appearing. Bo’s participation is probably the most upsetting aspect because of how everything turned out. Though he admits they’re still living paycheck to paycheck, he seemed to have finally stabilized his life, owning a house and even running his own business. Unfortunately during this period he was murdered by an acquaintance from his old neighbourhood. This of course came as a huge shock to the family, especially Arthur, and this is all caught, primarily found in footage taken at the funeral. I’m disappointed the material wasn’t used for the possible sequel that was floated around for a time but then I am definitely glad this material has made it somewhere, even if it’s simply as a special feature.
The next supplement, carried over from the old DVD, is a 15-minute compilation of the segments from episodes of "Siskel & Ebert" where the two heaped praise upon the film and actually helped in building up word around that. The segments start with the initial reaction to it after seeing it at Sundance (when the festival actually meant something), moving on next to its actual release, to video, to the Oscars, to its snub, the controversy around its snub, and then to a special (after Gene died) where Ebert and Scorsese go over their favourite films from the 90's. This is an excellent compilation (especially good since it covers the controversy around its Oscar snub) and it was a trip to see again all these years later: it was these segments that got a friend and I in high school excited to see it.
Also new to this addition is 21-minutes worth of additional scenes. There’s some great material here, but I can see why it was cut, particularly one long sequence involving a Disney TV movie being filmed at St. Joseph’s, The Mary Thomas Story. This is particularly great as we get to see footage of Arthur trying out for the part of Isiah, and then footage of filming at St. Joe’s. There’s also an alternate sequence going over Curtis’ basketball days and a nice extended bit involving William’s prom. The footage is very rough video but still watchable.
Criterion then carries over the same 3-minute music video made for the film’s title track (apparently created to promote the film’s soundtrack) and then the two theatrical trailers created by New Line, who were unsure how to promote the film and the trailers, which are polar opposites, show this. The first trailer is aimed towards the Awards crowds and is looking to tug heart strings, while the second trailer (labeled the “African American Trailer” on the old DVD, but not so here) is obviously going for a hipper vibe with a quickly edited trailer.
In all it’s a solid edition so far, beating out the old DVD, but unfortunately Criterion cuts back on what was one of the stronger aspects of the old release: the booklet. The thick booklet that came with the DVD was jam packed with material. Instead Criterion uses one of their new, large “road map” foldouts. It carries over John Edgar Wideman’s essay on the film and its undeniable impact, and then adds a new essay by filmmaker Robert Greene, who covers its impact on documentary filmmaking. Unfortunately a lot is missing: it doesn’t carry over Alexander Wolff’s essay on the recruiting process (which I though was a solid read that expanded on what we see in the film), is missing a great dedication to Bo Agee and Curtis Gates (though we get a short blurb here as well), and then loses the biographies on the filmmakers. It also drops a great Washington Post article from 2004 by Michael Wise, which gave updates on Gates and Agee (though I guess the new on-disc material does more or less cover this). This was a great booklet and it’s sad that Criterion has cut it down so much.
Overall, though, it’s still a solid set of material, nicely covering the film’s fascinating production and its release, while also giving us a great update on everyone now. Everything is worth going through. 9/10