Saturday, November 21, 2009

List #20: 5 Films I Saw in November

Between a couple of trips to the movie theater and a subscription to Netflix, here are five movies I watched this month:

1) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
This Spanish-language film had been on my list of films to see since it was released. Set in a village in the Spanish countryside during the Spanish Civil War, this experimental film follows two divergent narratives. In one Franco’s army wages a brutal war against the resistance. In the other, the young step-daughter of an army commander enters the fantasy world of Pan’s labyrinth where she confronts a series of tests. I found myself disappointed with the way the two narratives fail to cohere.
Grade: B-

2) A Serious Man (2009)
This Coen brothers film follows a man whose world is imploding. The movie is perfectly set in a Jewish community in a Midwest college town in the late 60s where nothing is going right in the life of the protagonist, a college physics professor. His wife is leaving him for another man. His son is on drugs. His neighbor bullies him. The Columbia Record Club is sending their collections department after him. His brother has legal troubles. His struggle to receive tenure is going off the track. And, nobody pays him any respect. He goes looking for answers from the three rabbis at his synagogue. The movie is a brilliant adaptation of the story of Job.
Grade: A

3) Wholphin Volume 9 (2009)
Wholphin is a quarterly DVD of short films from the great folks at McSweeney’s. Unfortunately, this was the weakest release in the series thus far. This volume lacked the handful of simply stunning films that can be found in each of the eight previous volumes. The highlights of volume 9 include a film adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story and a short animated film called “Skhizein” about a man who is hit by a meteorite and winds up 91 centimeters away from himself. (It sounds confusing but it really is quite clever.)
Grade: C+

4) The Proposal (2009)
I ordered this movie from Netflix in order to prepare for the film (#5) I went to see last night. In this romantic comedy misfire Sandra Bullock plays a Canadian citizen working as a high powered literary editor for a New York publishing house. Facing deportation she blackmails her secretary, played by the irritating Ryan Reynolds, into agreeing to marry her so she can avoid losing her position and having to return to Canada. With immigration officials breathing down their necks, the two head to Alaska for a long weekend where Reynolds’ grandmother is having her 90th birthday. Comedy ensues. Their relationship, based on contempt and mutual exploitation, is yet another reason why arguments against same-sex marriage don’t have a leg to stand on.
Grade: C-

Let me pause for one moment to make an observation. If you follow movies you are probably aware that Sandra Bullock gets cast in the same role over and over again. Bullock’s characters are always graceless, awkward, and insecure. Casting her this way is odd because Bullock conforms to the Hollywood stereotypes of beauty. Yet, her roles have included playing a lonely subway token taker (While You Were Sleeping) and a socially unrefined police officer (Miss Congeniality) among so many other unflattering roles. So, it was a bit of a revelation when I saw the previews for the movie The Blind Side

5) The Blind Side (2009)
I read Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side last December. The Blind Side tells the unbelievable yet true story of a young man named Michael Oher who grows up extremely underprivileged in the Memphis ghetto. Oher never knows who his father is and is removed from the custody of his crack-addicted mother. He bounces from couch to couch and from school to school. And then he winds up at an entirely white elite Christian prep school in Memphis where he is admitted in order to boost the fortunes of the school’s football team. Oher enters the school illiterate, homeless, and carrying a GPA that starts with zero. Oher is also a high school student who stands 6 foot 6, weighs over 300 pounds, has the agility of a ballet dancer, and carries his size in muscle, not fat.

The movie version is a semi-faithful adaptation of Lewis’ book. Oher is taken in by a super-wealthy, evangelical Christian family. Sean Tuohy played college basketball at the University of Mississippi, married a cheerleader, owns close to 100 Taco Bell franchises, and is an announcer for the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. He and his wife Leigh Anne are also big donors to the Christian prep school their children attend and Ole Miss. Living with the Tuohy’s, Oher finds a new life. He gets more than regular meals, a wardrobe, a car, and a personal tutor. He gets a family. It is the meeting of the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. After starting out sleeping on the couch Leigh Anne remarks that she’ll have to get Oher a bed or else he’ll “ruin a $10,000 couch.”

The movie oddly takes the focus off of Oher, played by 6’ 10” actor Quinton Aaron. Instead, the focus falls on Sandra Bullock who is a revelation playing Leigh Anne Tuohy. For the first time in my memory Bullock plays a role that calls on her to be graceful, composed, and confident. Bullock is barely recognizable playing the Southern Belle interior decorator.

On the whole, the movie is more good than bad, although it has a little bit of both. The film comes across as preachy at times and takes the low road in overplaying stereotypes of the Memphis ghetto. Also, the movie chooses to present a watered-down version of the Tuohy’s evangelical Christian faith. However, despite these flaws the story is just too good. The story withstands the movie’s attempts to undercut it.

Both Lewis’ book and the film adaptation touch on a part of the Michael Oher story that needs to be asked. By taking Michael Oher in were the Tuohy’s living out their faith or were they “investing” in the life of a potential star football player for the University of Mississippi and a future NFL first round draft pick? (Oher went on to be picked 23rd in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL draft and signed his first contract for a little under $14 million.) The answer to this question might be found in the credits to the film, where real life photographs of Oher and the Tuohy’s are flashed on the screen.
Grade: B+