Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Film Review: The Blind Side

This movie is better than it has any right to be. Audiences have seen the same story before and from the same director, John Lee Hancock. The director of such inspiring true football stories as Remember the Titans and We Are Marshall is back at it again, this time with a lot less football.

The Blind Side tells the story of current Baltimore Raven Michael Oher and his rise from the urban slums of Mississippi to the packed stadiums of the National Football League. Sandra Bullock plays the woman who saves Oher from the ghetto.

Bullock has a bad reputation, primarily for not being a very good actress. With films like Miss Congeniality and the recent disaster All About Steve on her resume, it is hard to argue with the circumstantial evidence. See, however, Crash for a demonstration of what Bullock is capable of doing if given the right role. She is not quite as good here, but she is not working with the same caliber of material.

All the same, it is a good looking movie, well made, and well acted enough. It’s better than We Are Marshall but not as good as Remember the Titans. The reason is that Sandra Bullock is a better actor than Matthew McConaughey but not as near as good as Denzel Washington, and the movie rests on her shoulders.

The rest of the cast moves around her and reacts, but more than anything, they stay out of the way. It’s probably just as well. The movie feels long already, and any more character development might have proved unbearable.

One suggestion-- if you do see this movie, don’t go into it with any expectation of real discussion on race relations or inner-city poverty. It’s not about that. In fact, from a social justice perspective, Blind Slide drops the ball. It is, essentially, a more than two-hour movie about some rich, Christian white folk rescuing a poor black kid from…from what? I don’t know.

Like I said, though, it’s not about that, and it doesn’t have to be. The bottom line: if you like Hancock’s other movies or if you like Sandra Bullock, you will probably like this movie.

See it? Yes.

What does the sucess of The Hangover mean?

This has been an issue on my mind for some time now, and the release of Judd Apatow’s Funny People on DVD this week seems like an opportune time for writing.

Apatow’s most recent man-child comedy was an abject failure at the box office. With a production budget of $75 million, the film made just $61 million world wide, posting a $14 million loss that does not take into account the extensive marketing done on the film’s behalf.

With Adam Sandler, who was able to turn the far inferior Click into a $100 million baby, and reigning everyman Seth Rogen in the leads, not to mention a supporting cast of the who’s who of Hollywood comedy, Funny People was a surprising disappointment to say the least.

So, what happened? Yes, the film is long. It’s dark. And, it’s full of the inside-baseball comedy industry references that alienate casual viewers. But, if I may be allowed, I will put forth another theory.

First, though, let’s look at the success of The Hangover. It’s as crude as Funny People and as much, if not more, of a boy’s club. On a budget of $35 million, it has made more than $459 million. It is the third highest grossing R-rated movie of all time behind just The Passion of the Christ and The Matrix Reloaded.

What explains this? I would suggest that The Hangover is a movie about adults in adult situations who react in adult ways. Yes, the situations presented are ludicrous, but the actors play it straight, and the film reflects a certain reality.

This reality has not been present in American comedy for far too long. I am ardent supporter of films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and I liked Funny People. However, the slew of boy-men comedies over the last several years has become tiresome. Theatre-goers were ready to see adults on the big screen again, and they responded in kind.

In no way do I feel that this is the end of Judd Apatow-style comedies, but the door is open for original comic ideas about real adults to grace cinema screens once again.

New Film Review: Precious

Let me say first off that I am recommending that you see this film. I want to say that right from the beginning because I intend to spend the next several paragraphs explaining in some detail why I did not like it.

There are two reasons for which I will recommend this film, directed by Lee Daniels, producer of Monster’s Ball. First, this is a picture you must decide upon yourself. Second, I am saying this at the beginning because there will be spoilers after this point, and if you intend on seeing it, what I next write will ruin whatever mystery exists.

***spoilers after here***

If you don’t know the story, it is about a teenage girl, Precious, played by Gabourey Sidibe, who suffers mental, physical, and sexual abuse almost constantly. There are a male nurse, a social worker, and a lesbian teacher who reach out to Precious and inspire her to rise above her difficulties.

Sounds good on paper, right? When I saw the first trailer, I had heard that the movie was amazing (“inspiring” and “hopeful” were words thrown around in abundance in descriptions of Precious), but I feared it would not rise above the level of so many other “inner-city-youth-meets-inspiring-teacher” stories. After seeing it, I can say that it is so much worse.

This is not for lack of trying. I will say that the acting here is superb. Mo’Nique is as good as you may have heard as the abusive mother. Sidibe is pitch-perfect as the nominal Precious. And, the supporting caricatures (oops, I mean characters) come out as good as can be expected, as Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, and Lenny Kravitz do everything they can to salvage the empty shells they have been given.

This movie really had a chance, and the first half looks to be going places. However, the second half of the film fails to resolve any of the key conflicts in a believable, satisfying, or appropriate way.

At the end, the abusive, sociopath Mary, who has unrelentingly inflicted abuse upon her daughter for nearly two hours on screen, shows compassion and gives Precious her down syndrome afflicted daughter back to her. Does anybody ask why? I know I could not tell you.

For the first few moments of the sequence, I waited for Precious to snap out of one of her many fantasy sequences. It didn’t happen, and mother Mary’s solid character arc quickly became a character plummet. When it crash landed, so did the film.

After this incident, Precious, née Clareece Precious Jones, carries her babies out of the social worker’s office and triumphantly walks on to her new and better life. This is the “hope” of which those other reviews are speaking. Did I mention that minutes before this Precious confirmed that she is HIV positive? What of that? I may be missing the point, but I see no reason to hope for this girl’s future.

Add to all of this the fact that as bad as a movie like The Blind Side is at depicting race relations this film goes above and beyond that (or is it below and beyond?). Allow me to share with you what I learned about African Americans from watching Precious: they are illiterate, animalistic, sexually deviant, HIV carriers who laze about and sponge off of the welfare rolls. As hard as Daniels tries to depict the real world of poverty-stricken African Americans, all I see are harmful, demeaning racial stereotypes paraded around as some sort of grotesque sideshow reality.

The film has divided the critical community and has some high profile supporters and detractors. It is apparent that this is not a case of whether or not this is a good film (I argue that it is not). This is a matter of taste. So, in that spirit, I encourage you to see Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and report back. If it is to your taste, tell me why.

See it? Yes.

The Best Composer Working in Hollywood

One of the best films I saw in 2007 was Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The best film of last year was In Bruges. And, the two best movies I’ve seen so far this year have been A Serious Man, the latest effort from the Coen brothers, and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Disparate movies, all of them, but they have one element in common: the music.

The composer is Carter Burwell, and apart from scoring the best films of the last three years, his music has been unrivaled in its evocation of the proper tone and mood in the pictures for which he writes. Bar none, he is the best working composer in Hollywood right now.

I mention it because the new Sandra Bullock vehicle, Blind Side, arrived in theatres this weekend. It performed quite well. You can find my review of the film elsewhere on this page. As you may have guessed, Burwell wrote the music for this movie as well.

Now, Blind Side is not even Burwell’s best work this year, but Burwell shines through the sentiment, works his way through the sap, and comes out clean on the other end. His work on the movie is a wonderful example of how film music can be perfect but not appropriate. Let me be clear, however, this is not a criticism but a compliment.

Allow me to define my terms. When looking at movie like Blind Side, one expects to find hope, uplift, not but a little bit of tragedy, and in the end, happiness. Also, if you were unaware, it is a sports movie. Given these attributes, one would expect to hear rising, swelling strings, full crescendos and decrescendos. This would be appropriate.

Appropriate music lets the audience know how it should be feeling in a given moment. If the main character is being ripped away from his mother, the music should be in a minor key with low horns and an ominous percussive beat. For the moment when the main character makes the big play in the big game, we should hear the strings of hope and the trumpets of triumph. The Flying High theme from Rocky is the perfect example of this kind of music.

There is nothing wrong with appropriate music. If there were, of course, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But, film music can rise above this level, and Burwell almost always does. Burwell writes perfect music.

While appropriate music guides the audience, perfect music soothes the audience. Perfect music assumes nothing. Perfect music plays to the emotions present on the screen and in the story. It does not add emotion where none is needed or where it is already there.

Burwell’s score for Blind Side shows intuition and restraint, two qualities lacking in so much modern film music. He has written the music for three films that have come out in the last three months. So, here’s hoping he keeps up the pace, and filmgoers get a new Burwell score every month.