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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Basketball Diaries

April 18th, 2010

The Basketball Diaries - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

The Basketball Diaries came out 15 years ago and created quite a controversy when it did, controversy that came from the sexual content, the drug use, the images of violence, etc. It is also known for its star, a young, pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, who just a couple years before had a breakout year with a stellar performance in This Boy's Life and an Oscar nominated performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Despite the controversy, the film wasn't able to find an audience theatrically, while its reviews are surprisingly weak. Perhaps the controversy turned off critics and it is a mostly undiscovered gem. Or perhaps it is rightfully ignored. Or perhaps its something in-between.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in this autobiographical adaptation as Jim Carroll. Jim Carroll is one of the star players on the best high school basketball team in the city. He's even being scouted by universities. However, while he and his friends are unstoppable on the court, the rest of their lives are not quite as rock solid. The film starts with Jim being paddled by one of the priests / teachers at his Catholic private school, while we see them skip class and sniff glue to get high, steal from visiting teams, get into fights, and worse. Unlike his friends, Jim has a more creative outlet and he spends his spare time writing poety. So he not only has the athleticism, he has the intellect to make something of his life. However, as they start turning to harder and harder drugs, their lives spiral out of control, first getting kicked out of school, and then thrown out into the streets and we watch as they descend to the inevitable rock bottom.

For all of the praise given to some of the performances in this movie, the film itself is rather generic. It's the story of a talented youth who wasted his potential on a life of drugs and crime, only to eventually find redemption through his art, in this case writing. It seems practically every biography made follows that similar pattern: Rise, Fall, and Redemption. We see it in Ray, Walk the Line, and plenty of other films. However, here the redemption takes place in narration only. After Jim descends all the way down to doing tricks for drug money, he gets busted and sent to prison for a six-month stint and during the one scene we see of him in his prison cell, the voiceover tells us he cleaned up in that time. It's like the screenwriter didn't know how to organically incorporate part of the story. This is typical of a problematic script that doesn't quite know how to turn the very episodic book into a clear narrative.

On a side note, when does this movie take place? I know the book was set in the 1960s, but I'm not sure that's true of the movie. There are a lot of references in the movie that make it feel like it is from the 1960s, including the uniforms worn by the basketball players and the corporal punishment in the Catholic School. On the other hand, there's no attempt to make the streets of New York look like they looked in the 1960s. Perhaps that's just because of the movie's low production budget prevented the filmmakers from creating a period piece. Perhaps it was supposed to be set in the 1960s, but they couldn't afford to have nothing but period cars in the movie, for instance. On the other hand, in the movie there's a reference to Terminator 2, or Sperminator 2, to be more precise, which suggests it is meant to be contemporary, or at least contemporary when it was made in 1995. If it were a 100% successful film, I probably would not have even noticed this, but as it is, it's one more issue holding it back.

The only extras on the Blu-ray are some short interviews with the cast and crew (nine participants and about ten minutes in total length) as well as an interview with Jim Carroll, who also does a poetry reading (just over 6 minutes). This is the same small set of extras that is found on the DVD. The video transfer is good, if you take into account the film's small production budget, but it is nothing special. Likewise, the audio has a few issues, but is mostly a clear, if unchallenging mix. Finally, it is a little on the pricey side for shovelware.

The Verdict

The Basketball Diaries features an impressive cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio; however, it is pretty much only the cast that makes the film worth watching. The lack of replay value is compounding by the slim selection of extras on the Blu-ray, while the technical specs are only acceptable for High Definition and nothing more. Add it all up and you get a rental.

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