Movie Reviews - 2009 postsMonday January 18, 2010
Review: “Broken Embraces” (2009)
WARNING: NONE-SO-BLIND SPOILERS
Pedro Almodovar’s “Los abrazos rotos” (“Broken Embraces”) begins with a movie being filmed. We’re seeing through a camera as technicians fuss around the female star, who stands in the center, lost in thought. She might be bored. At one point, she charmingly gives her lips a Chaplinesque back-and-forth waggle. Then she’s replaced by Penelope Cruz. The original girl wasn’t the star but the stand-in. One anticipates doppelganger themes, or themes of perception, for the rest of the film. The person you’re watching isn’t the person you think you’re watching.
Indeed, after the opening credits, we get a close-up of a female eye with the face of a man visible in the pupil. The man who’s being seen can’t see. He’s writer-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), who gave up the name, and the directing half of his profession, when he lost his sight 15 years earlier. Now he goes by the nom de plume Harry Caine.
The owner of the eye (Kira Miro) is reading to Harry at the breakfast table about the death of a businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Is she his nurse? After quizzing her about Martel’s death, he says he’s not interested in the news; he’s interested in her. What’s she like? He asks for her measurements (36-26-36). He asks her to describe her looks. He asks if he can touch her face with his hands. He does. And he works his way down. And her breathing gets heavier. And he lifts the thin straps of her chemise and squeezes her breasts.
Me in the audience: Pedro, you are my favorite gay man.
They have sex on the couch, which Almodovar films discreetly but sensually, as he pans slowly across the back of the couch, revealing a hand there, a foot there. Afterwards, with the woman in the bathroom, another woman, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), arrives and looks disapprovingly at Harry. He senses her disapproval and tells her: “Everything’s already happened to me. All that’s left is to enjoy life.” The reader of the newspaper isn’t his nurse after all; she’s simply somebody who helped him across the street. And Judit? Is she maid to Harry? Assistant? Friend? Ex-wife? One senses a history. And the handsome young man, Diego (Tamar Novas), who shows up a minute later? He’s her son, but what is he to Harry? He almost seems like a son to him, too. Much of the movie is sussing out such relationships. What do these characters mean to each other? You could say that’s the question each of us asks every day. What do we characters mean to each other?
By the way: Harry’s wrong. Everything hasn’t happened to him. And it’s the death of Martel that sets things in motion again.
Harry tells Judit a story he wants to make into a film. The playwright Arthur Miller had a son with Down Syndrome whom he cut out of his life; but the son grew to a man and forgave him, going so far as to tell him, at a fundraiser for people like himself, “I’m proud of you, papa.” It’s a story about an overwhelming act of forgiveness, but soon Harry is visited by a young filmmaker, Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants to make a film about the opposite: filial unforgiveness. A father who couldn’t abide a gay son, who made the son ignore what he was. Bitterness emanates from Ray—it’s obvious he’s talking about himself—but Harry detects even more, and, with Diego’s help, realizes that Ray is the son of Ernesto Martel, and Ernesto Martel is the man who ruined Harry’s life.
Much of the rest of the film is flashback—told by Harry to Diego.
In 1992, Lena (Penelope Cruz), not an actress at all but secretary to Martel, is overwhelmed because her father is dying of stomach cancer and the health-care system is spitting him out. Martel is sympathetic, allowing her the afternoon off to attend to him. But things get worse for the father. He’s in agony. At one time Lena was a budding actress but went nowhere except into the role of sometime, high-class prostitute, and she contacts her former madam to get some quick money to help her father. Except a client phones her at home and that’s not the way it works. The madam admits, with a shrug, that one wealthy client insisted that if Lena ever returned to the business he would get her home phone. The client, by the way, is Martel. Initially we wonder if it’s all a fantastic coincidence. Then we don’t. As solicitous as he initially seemed, he’s always had his eye on her. After he helps her get her father into assisted care, the two walk away together, not touching. One senses debts about to be paid.
Two years later she’s his mistress. Meanwhile director Mateo Blanco is making a comedy, “Chicas y maletas” (“Girls and Suitcases,” recognizable as a spin on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), and Lena wants to try out for a role. She does, and there’s an immediate spark between the two. Judit, who’s around even then, is jealous. Martel is jealous. He gets his son, Ernesto, Jr., the future Ray X, hampered by bad skin, bad hair and big glasses, to film them as they film the movie; then he employs a lip reader to tell him what they’re saying. Initially it’s all work stuff. But behind closed doors, away from Ernesto, Jr.’s camera, we find out it’s more. They’re hot and heavy in love. Martel suspects it and takes Lena away for a weekend.
I’m not a huge Almodovar fan but I love the way he allows us the time and space to figure things out. At this point in the movie, for example, we see two people making love under the sheets. For a second the sheets seem like a shroud. Are they? Is this sex as death? Yet the two seem to be enjoying themselves. Is it Lena and Mateo? No, when the sheets are removed, it’s Lena and Martel, away for the weekend. So maybe she loves both men?
Then she goes into the bathroom and throws up. It was sex as death. The sheets were a shroud.
The following Monday, having spent all weekend acting with Martel, her acting before the camera suffers, and when Mateo questions her she complains about Martel, calling him a monster. Of course it’s all filmed by Ernesto, Jr., and said aloud by the lip-reader. And now Martel knows.
This is where Almodovar loses me. He’s always had a bit of Douglas Sirk in him and I’ve never liked grand-staircase melodrama. But that’s what we get. Lena returns to say her final goodbyes, and, just as she’s heading down the grand staircase, he pushes her, she falls, she can’t get up. Now she’s in a cast. How can they film the rest of her scenes? They improvise. Then she shows up at Mateo’s with bruises on her face, and, with the film in the can, she and Mateo go away for a month and only return to Madrid when their movie opens to critical pans. Mateo must find out what they did to ruin his film in his absence.
During the course of watching this film, Almodovar’s film, we assume Lena’s dead, since she’s not in the present; so we wonder how she died and how Mateo went blind. That’s in the last act. On their way back to Madrid, Ernesto, Jr., looking sinister, is on their trail again, thanks to information he and his father received reluctantly from Judit. He’s filming them as they kiss in their car at an intersection; and he’s filming them as they pull out into the intersection and an SUV slams into the passenger’s side, killing Lena, blinding Mateo.
In other words: Someone meant them harm, harm was done, but the two aren’t related. It was all a horrible accident.
In the end, Harry and Diego—his son, he learns, 90 minutes after the rest of us figure it out—work together to re-make “Chicas y maletas,” which Martel had purposely sabotaged. Ray X is helpful, too. Forgiveness, the point of the Arthur Miller story, abounds.
I’m all for forgiveness but “Broken Embraces” ranges too far with its story and themes and feels weak as a result. I expected, even as I wrote this, for the film to coalesce in some way, but it didn’t, or hasn’t. At the start, the people you’re watching are not the people you think you’re watching: the movie star who’s a stand-in; the nurse who’s a fling. For the rest of the film, everyone is exactly who you think they are. I guess I wanted something a little more melodramatic, or at least surprising, from Mr. Almodovar. I didn’t want twists so obvious even a blind man could see them.
Nurse? Assistant? 36-26-36?
Review: “New Moon” (2009)
WARNING: PENSIVE, TORTURED SPOILERS
Near the end of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” as the Volturi, the council that enforces vampiric law, is arguing over what to do with vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and his human girlfriend Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart), one of the members of the council, Marcus (Christopher Heyerdahl, distantly related to Thor Heyerdahl), stands and declares, “Let us be done with this!”
Me in the audience: Amen, brother.
“New Moon” is painful. It's as painful as listening to a girl lament about some unsolvable problem everyday for a year. Bella and Edward start out tortured together (Bella: “I can’t even think of someone hurting you.” Edward: “Bella, the only thing that can hurt me is you.”), and they soon become tortured separately. She thrashes in bed. She sleepwalks through her day. Basically she’s waiting, which means basically we’re waiting. At one point the kids debate which movie to see at the local theater, “Love Spelled Backwards is Love” or “Face Punch,” and Bella opts for the latter, declaring, “Guns, adrenaline, that’s my thing.”
Me in the audience: Then it’s a good thing you’re not watching your movie.
It begins well enough with the image of a new moon that slowly fades to a half-moon, a quarter, sliver, all the while revealing the title. Then we get a dream/nightmare from Bella. She’s at the edge of the woods looking over an open field toward more woods, where an old woman, her grandmother, stands. She’s with Edward, and, though she warns him, he walks into the sunlight, revealing his vampireness (vampirity?) to her grandmother; so she walks with him into the open field to introduce the two. But when she speaks her grandmother speaks, with the same voice, using the same words. She looks over at Edward, confused. When she looks back, she’s looking into a mirror. Her grandmother is her. She’s aged, Edward hasn’t, and she’s an old woman now. Then she wakes up. A year older. It’s her 18th birthday.
Everyone wants to celebrate it except her, and one gets the feeling it’s not just the nightmare. She’s just built that way. People do shit for her and her response is blank confusion. She’s a bit of a downer.
When she first sees Edward, at school, in the parking lot, he walks toward her in slow motion. That’s how love is revealed these days: via slow-mo. In the old days it was through words, words, words, and in English class we get one such example: “Romeo and Juliet.” Which means after hearing the Bard’s dialogue, and after Bella is nearly attacked by one of Edward’s clan and the Cullens decide to leave Forks, we get Stephenie Meyer’s dialogue:
Edward: You just don’t belong in my world, Bella.
Bella: I belong with you.
Edward: No, you don’t.
Bella: I’m coming with you.
Edward: Bella, I don’t want you to come with me.
Bella: You... You don’t want me...?
He goes, she’s bereft. And bereft and bereft. At one point she realizes that whenever she's in danger she sees Edward's face, so she keeps putting herself in danger. She becomes an adrenaline junkie, and her friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), helps her rebuild some junker motorcycles to help her newfound need for speed. She enjoys his company but he’s got a crush on her. Plus he’s a werewolf—part of that Native American wolf pack that has treaties with vampires. When she learns this she manages to rise above the emotional minutia of her life and wonders whether all of the stories she heard as a child, of fairies and trolls, are true; but then, poof, that moment is gone, and it’s back to Bella Bella Bella. Me, I wondered if this meant there was some Frankensteinian clan living over by Lake Quinault. Fire, bad. Rain, good.
As awful as the dialogue was before the revelation, it gets that much worse after it. Here’s Bella and Jacob walking on the beach:
Bella: So. [Long pause.] You’re a werewolf.
Jacob: Yep. Last time I checked.
Werewolves, we find out, are warm, 108 degrees, which is why these wolf-boys run around shirtless in the Pac Northwest winter. (BTW: Are there girl werewolves? Is there a Title IX issue for them somewhere?) Like the Cullens, this wolf pack leaves humans alone. They prowl after bad vampires. They like cliff diving. They eat muffins. As wolves do.
“Twilight” fans are apparently divided between Team Jacob and Team Edward, and, with no rights in the matter—not having read the books, disliking the movies, and being, you know, a straight guy—I’ll still cast my vote for Edward. Maybe because he’s more learned. Maybe because his powers are tempered by shame. Probably because Pattinson’s the better actor.
Much of the movie is Jacob mooning after Bella, who is mooning after Edward, but in the last act she travels to Rome to save Edward. He thinks Bella’s dead and, like Romeo, he’s thinking of suicide. Which, for a vampire, means revealing himself to humans so the Volturi will kill him. He’s about to do this when Bella arrives in the nick of time and saves him. (Take that, Shakespeare!) But the two are led before the Volturi anyway, and the council debates the whole ugly matter. Should they kill him, whom they can’t trust, or her, who knows too much? Him? Her? Him? Her? She shocks them when she offers her life to save his. A human? Doing this for one of us? Well, to be fair, Aro (Michael Sheen), a good-looking one of you. You might do better with the girls, too, if you dressed snappier and didn’t look so creepily bug-eyed all the time.
By the end we’re back in Forks. All of that turmoil just to get Edward to see the logic of turning Bella into a vampire—which she contemplates the way other girls contemplate losing their virginity: “I was thinking maybe after graduation?” So the movie is less love story than an excruciatingly long and pointless pause in the love story. It sets up the love triangle that really isn’t a love triangle. Poor Jacob. He’s got the bod and the sincerity, but you can gauge each couple by what it watches. Bella and Edward get “Romeo and Juliet.” Bella and Jacob? “Face Punch.”
Review: “A Single Man” (2009)
WARNING: MODEL-HANDSOME SPOILERS
“A Single Man” is a serious film with a one-joke premise. It’s a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor of literature in Los Angeles in October 1962, and he’s spending it planning his suicide. His lover has recently died, he’s alone, he can’t go on. The Falconer cannot hear the falcon. But throughout the day, people keep intruding upon his plans. His divorcee friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), insists he come over for dinner, he runs into a hot Spaniard outside the liquor store, a cute student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), questions him, compliments him, insinuates himself into his life, goes skinny-dipping with him in the surf. By the end of the day George has an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and he’s ready to go on living. Then he has a heart attack and dies. Badda boom.
It’s an atmospheric film. Too atmospheric. It was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford from a Christopher Isherwood novel, and we get a lot of slow-motion shots of people too beautiful to exist against backdrops that feel designery—the Hitchcock “Psycho” painting on the brick wall, for example. George’s squabbling neighbors are beautiful, his students are model-beautiful, the secretaries at the university are done up just so, while Carlos at the liquor store could make even straight men gay. Even Colin Firth, who’s never exactly been Paul Newman, looks great in his designer eyeglasses and Tom Fordish suits. Thank God for the maid: She looks like a maid.
The movie opens with George dreaming he’s drowning. He dreams of a car accident in the snow and crawls up to a sprawled, bloody body and kisses him on the lips. Then he wakes up, and, in voice over, tells us how it hurts to wake up, how long it takes him to become George again, how each day is a haze. How today will be different.
In flashbacks, we get some of his life with Jim (Matthew Goode), starting with the phone call informing him of Jim’s death in a car accident. The caller, Hank, is a sympathetic member of Jim’s family—the other family members voted against even passing along this information to George—but Hank’s sympathies only go so far. When George, distraught, asks about funeral arrangements, he’s told, in effect, Don't bother, the services are for family only. It took a moment to place the voice: Jon Hamm, Don Draper of “Mad Men.” So even the voices are shockingly handsome.
The best-actor talk for Firth begins with this phone conversation, particularly after he hangs up, when his face crumples into a myriad of emotions: horror, fear, pain, disgust, anger, guilt, horror. It’s heartbreaking. The rest of the film seems a disservice to this moment.
Do we know when the car accident happened? How far in the past? The film, like George’s days, is a haze. The film is also like George in that both miss Jim. When we see him in flashbacks, with his amused eyes and love of life, we want to follow him, but we’re stuck with George, who’s cramped and internal and too persnickety even to kill himself properly. There’s certainly humor in the situation. He leaves his financial information in neat piles on his desk (to save someone the trouble) and lays out the suit and tie he wants to be buried in. “Tie in a Windsor knot,” he writes. He’s about to blow his brains out but he wants the Windsor knot. Then he can’t even do this. The pillows aren’t right, he worries about the mess, he tries it within a sleeping bag. Finally, fed up, he heads over to Charley’s for dinner.
Julianne Moore is also getting Oscar buzz, deservedly so. Charley’s still beautiful, but she’s aging and knows it, and she’s alone and feels it, and there’s pain in her smile and laugh. Their dinner together is sad. He counsels against living in the past and she responds, “Living in the past is my future.” His goal, of course, is, as he says earlier, to let go of the past “completely, entirely and forever.” And not in a carpe diem kind of way.
Before he takes another pass at blowing his brains out, though, he needs some Dutch courage and heads down to the local bar. There he runs into Kenny again, the cute student who’s been stalking him, and, with a kind of “fuck it” manner, he loosens up, goes skinnydipping, takes Kenny back to his place, and puts him to bed without bedding him. He has his epiphany staring at the stars. He’s feeling something like happy. And then he has the heart attack. Carpe diem indeed.
I’m curious about Isherwood’s novel now, since “A Single Man” feels like the kind of story that’s so internal it only works as a novel. Tom Ford and Colin Firth give it a go and create a fashionable failure.
Review: “Nine” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS HERE...HERE...AND...(MMM)...HERE
I’m no marketer, so who am I to tell the Weinstein Co. how they should—or should've—marketed “Nine,” the Rob Marshall musical based upon the Broadway musical based upon Federico Fellini’s 1963 classic “8 1/2.” But given the film’s weak opening box office, here’s a thought. Instead of the tagline, “This Holiday Season: Be Italian,” why not plaster the poster with one of those sexy shots of Penelope Cruz and use these lines of hers from the movie?:
I’ll be here.
Waiting for you.
With my legs open.
When I sat down in the theater I knew I’d be seeing a lot of sexy women wearing sexy things and saying sexy lines but that was the jaw-dropper for me. I think I coughed in surprise when she said it. I may have whimpered. Her lines, her presence, complicate the life of film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), but my thought, and probably the thought of every guy in the audience: I should have such problems.
“Nine” looks great but suffers from two problems: 1) Most of the songs are so-so, and 2) the drama is internal and circular. It’s tough enough for movies to dramatize the creative process. How do you dramatize the non-creative process?
Guido Contini is a director whose earlier films redefined Italy for much of the moviegoing world in the early 1960s but whose latest films flopped. Now it’s 1965 and he’s a week away from starting film no. 9, titled “Italia,” but he has no idea what the story will be. He fakes his way through a press conference, he fakes his way through talks with his producer, he ignores calls from his muse and star, Claudia (Nicole Kidman). His costume designer, Lilli (Judi Dench), tells him, as he lays prostrate on her desk, that directing isn’t that tough. “You just have to say yes or no, what else do you do? ‘Maestro, should this be red?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Green?’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no.’” She tosses her hands in the air. “Directing.” Unfortunately Guido has no answers, no yes/ no. Eventually he flees Rome down the coast of Italy in his light blue Alfa Romeo. My thought, and probably the thought of everyone in the audience: I should flee in such style.
Guido flees into the arms of his mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz). He thinks she’ll clear his head but she clutters it. Worse, the production company follows him down. Worse, his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), follows him down. She sees Carla, sparks fly, Carla is banished, Carla tries to kill herself. What’s a man with so many women to do?
As responsibilities and women tug at him in all directions, Guido’s life, certainly his creative life, swirls uselessly away. Nothing gets the attention it needs. He’s not stable husband to Luisa nor steady paramour to Carla; he has no work for Lilli or Claudia. Each woman has her own musical number but most of these are hardly show-stoppers and most don’t move the story further along but simply reiterate what we already know. The one show-stopper, the song you hum coming out of the theater and wish you could sing with the full-throated passion the singer does, is “Be Italian,” sung by Saraghina (Fergie), the whore from Guido’s youth who would show the neighborhood boys this and that for coins. She’s his first lust, the woman who started him on this journey of loving women too much and not enough, and she tells him, she sings to him:
Be Italian, be Italian
Take a chance and try to steal a fiery kiss!
Be Italian, be Italian
When you hold me don’t just hold me
But hold this! (clutches her breasts)
He’s stopped listening to this advice. He takes no chances and steals no kisses. Acclaimed and idolized, he’s the pursued now rather than the pursuer. Even a reporter from Vogue magazine, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), tries to get him into bed. Is the film suggesting a correlation between women and creativity? That when it becomes unnecessary to pursue the former, one is unable to pursue the latter? Fame has made Guido weak in the art of the pursuit.
Fergie, the one true singer in the bunch, belts it out, while the two main women in Guido’s life lock horns memorably. Cruz is pants-wettingly sexy while Cotillard is pained and effective. Her second number, “Take it All,” is staged as a burlesque, a sad striptease in which she gives up everything (the clothes are a metaphor) for this man who gives nothing back. Meanwhile, Dench, in her musical number, “Folies Bergeres,” flashes cleavage and seems completely French (in conversation she’s completely British). She seems to be having a great old time with the role.
The others? Hudson works fine, but the role is meaningless. Sophia Loren, playing Guido’s mother, has nothing to do. Kidman is an afterthought.
And Day-Lewis? It’s critically sacrilegious to write this but he may be wrong for the role. It’s not much fun watching him run circles in his head without having the decency to turn something into butter. Or, as Brando suggested, to get it.
The movie’s definitely missing oomph. Like Guido, it ignores the wisdom of Saraghina. Its British star is surrounded by actresses from France, Spain, Australia and America, leaving no one important to be Italian.
Review: “The Blind Side” (2009)
WARNING: BLITZING, 350-POUND SPOILERS
Nothing about “The Blind Side” pleased me more than its opening shot: grainy footage from a 1985 “Monday Night Football” game in which Lawrence Taylor sacked Joe Theismann, fractured his leg and ended his 11-year career. I was pleased because that’s how Michael Lewis’ book begins. “From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five,” Lewis writes in his opening sentence; and in those five-closer-to-four seconds Lewis sets the scene, pulls back, writes about fear as a factor in the NFL, writes about the fear that Lawrence Taylor created and the fearlessness with which Joe Theismann played, and then circles back to the incident:
Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for the Washington Redskins. He’s led his team to two Super Bowls, and won one. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s certain he still has a few good years left in him. He’s wrong. He has less than half a second.
It’s the most famous injury in football history because the reverse-angle instant replay shows the bottom half of Theismann’s leg, between his knee and ankle, bending and snapping beneath Taylor’s weight, exposing the bone. The player who blocks the Lawrence Taylors of the world, by the way, is the offensive left tackle. He’s the guy who protects the quarterback’s blind side. And since free agency came to the NFL in the early 1990s, the second-highest-paid position in the NFL, after quarterback, is not running back nor wide receiver nor even middle linebacker (Lawrence Taylor’s position), but offensive left tackle. You pay most for the most-important position. You pay second-most for insurance for the most-important position.
Great offensive left tackles are highly paid because they require a set of physical characteristics that almost contradict each other. These guys have to be bigger than big and quicker than quick, and, let’s face it, the bigger-than-big usually aren’t quicker-than-quick.
And all of this leads to the story of Michael Oher—the story we came to see.
So I was pleased seeing the “Monday Night Football” footage, and hearing Sandra Bullock’s faux southern accent reading Lewis’ lines. But then writer-director John Lee Hancock, or Alcon Entertainment, or Warner Bros. Pictures, decided not to show the reverse-angle instant replay. They shied away from that harsh reality. It was a sign of things to come.
Michael Oher, one of 13 children born to a crack-addicted mother, grew up on the west side of Memphis in the projects known as Hurt Village. He drifted from apartment to apartment, school to school, barely getting by, when, at 14 or 15, a friend’s father, Big Tony, made an appeal to a rich, white, Christian private school, Briarcrest, to take both his boy, and his boy’s friend, Big Mike. Big Mike didn’t exactly fit in at Briarcrest—and not just because of his size or the color of his skin. He had a 0.6 GPA, he spoke to no one, he wore the same clothes day after day. Soon, though, he was being helped along, in particular by the Tuohy family, and in particularly by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock). Eventually he came to live with them. Eventually they adopted him. And eventually he became a football star, one of those bigger-than-big, quicker-than-quick athletes who make great offensive left tackles. He starred at Briarcrest, then at Ole Miss, the Tuohys’ alma mater, and just this year he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with the 23rd pick of the first round. He’s now a millionaire.
It’s a feel-good story. So why is Michael Lewis’ book so good and John Lee Hancock’s movie so feely?
Sometimes it’s small differences. Here’s Lewis on a crucial moment in the story:
That day Leigh Anne went out and bought a futon and a dresser. The day the futon arrived, she showed it to Michael and said, “That’s your bed.” And he said, “That’s my bed?” And she said, “That’s your bed.” And he just stared at it a bit and said, “This is the first time I ever had my own bed.”
That’s nice. Poignant without being pitiful. Here’s Hancock’s version:
Michael (running his hand over the futon): This is mine?
Leigh Anne: Yes, sir.
Michael: I never had one before.
Leigh Anne: What—a room to yourself?
Michael: A bed.
The way that Aaron portrays Oher doesn’t help. Reading Lewis’ book, I imagined Michael as a blank, possibly a stoic, not outwardly pathetic, but that’s the way Aaron portrays him. There’s a “woe is me” quality. His eyes are sad, constantly sad, staring-at-the-ground sad. It’s Sad 101.
Basically Hancock takes what is already a sentimental story and sentimentalizes it. In the book it takes the Tuohys months to give Michael a home; in the movie it takes a day. In the movie, Michael is scary to the kids on the playground because he doesn’t smile when he talks to them; in the book, in reality, the kids were actually fascinated with this gentle giant, but were scared because, when they spoke to him, he didn’t talk back; he just stared.
Hancock personifies the dangers of Hurt Village in one gangster and the prejudices of the white community in the ladies-who-lunch, when both the dangers and the prejudices are more diffuse. I understand why Hancock does it. I also understand why it rings hollow—particularly when Leigh Anne shuts this gangster up by mentioning her gun and membership in the NRA.
Bullock’s the star, so much of the story has to be invested in her character at the expense of other characters. As a result, one of my favorite scenes in the book is gone. It’s the scene where the high school football coach’s assistant, Tim Long, who was an offensive lineman in the NFL, finally tells Coach Freeze that, with Michael playing, they don’t need all the fancy plays Freeze likes running. They can win with just one play: “We can run Gap,” he says. Meaning the quarterback hands off to the running back, who runs behind Michael Oher, who clears the field. Two weeks later Freeze adopts it. Lewis writes:
Seven plays into the game the score was 14-0 and they had done nothing but give the ball to their stumpy five three running back...and told him to follow Michael Oher’s right butt cheek. ... By the end of the first half, Briarcrest had scored 40 points.
Wouldn’t that have made a great scene? Instead Leigh Anne tells Michael, who’s not doing so well in practice, to protect the quarterback like he’s family, like he’s her. Then she chastises the coach, the fictional Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon), for not knowing his players better. “Michael scored in the 98th percentile in protective instincts,” she says. Protective instincts? They test on that?
When the movie was first released, right-wing cultural bloggers—surely the whiniest people on the planet—complained about a quick George W. Bush gag and recommended like-minded folks stay away. They haven’t, of course. “The Blind Side” had a production budget of $29 million, expected to make two or three times that, and will soon make over $200 million domestically. It shows no signs of stopping. It’s got legs like Sandra Bullock.
What’s not to like for these folks? It’s a story about a southern Christian family who demonstrate real Christian values, and whose gestures of good will come back to them two-fold. The Tuohy family changes Michael’s life; he changes theirs. If anything, Hancock mutes the Democratic angle. The “Charge of the Light Brigade” scene is a good scene in the movie, but, again, it reads truer in the book. Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw), taking over momentarily from Michael’s tutor, Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), who’s a Democrat, teaches Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem to Michael:
Their’s not to make reply
Their’s not to reason why
Their’s but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
Sean and Michael talk about what this means. They talk about loyalty and courage. And in the book, from the next room, Miss Sue suddenly shouts out, “Michael Oher, if there’s a war broke out, you head straight to Canada! You hear me?” Now don’t tell me Kathy Bates wouldn’t have nailed that line. Instead: nothing. Maybe because it didn’t fit in with the scene as they imagined it. Maybe because they didn’t want to upset folks. Maybe because. But there’s tons of stuff like that. What gives texture to the book is removed from the movie.
I hope a few of the people who love this movie seek out and read the book. I know it’s not revolutionary to say but the book’s better—for the reasons listed above. Maybe for this reason most of all: John Lee Hancock, backed by millions of dollars, major actors and a major studio, isn’t as good a storyteller as Michael Lewis is, backed by a keyboard.