February 7, 2010

Sacked from The Blind Side, Forcing a Fumble

Hmm, it's not my eyes playing tricks on me - that is a Best Picture nomination... 

I've made the joke before that the best part of some bad movies is when the end credits begin scrolling, representing the end of the torturous affair. While this was certainly true for The Blind Side, what made matters much worse was the fact that the end credits went on to suggest what the movie should have been in the first place: a documentary. I actually became emotional viewing the photos of Michael Oher's real-life family because I finally experienced the true weight of the story. It was not the heavy-handed afterschool special it resembled during the whole running time, but actually someone's life - and it deserved a much better treatment.

Critics of The Blind Side have accused it of falling prey to the "white guilt" label it so winkingly acknowledges in the context of the story, but that wasn't my problem with it. What offended me the most about this film was the horrible filmmaking on nearly every level. The strongest acting came from Tim McGraw and Adriane Lenox (as Michael's negligent mother), which is all that needs to be said about Sandra Bullock's imminent Best Actress win. The screenplay was full of plot holes (where/when/how did Michael learn to drive?; what happened to his long-lost brother?), the music was manipulatively overbearing, and the football practice scenes (particularly "the funny one") were among the worst on-screen moments of 2009, right alongside the storybook-reading scene.

Am I really supposed to believe that Michael Oher, who obsessively watches football on TV and plays football video games with "SJ", and who was recently seen dribbling between his legs and performing 360 dunks, and whose uncle says he excels at any game involving a "ball" - does not understand the basic rules regulating an offensive play? I mean, I've never played rugby but if I were to play in a pick-up game I would know that at no time am I allowed to sling the other player over my shoulder and carelessly parade around the field with him (not to be confused with Oher's legal block in the first game of the season).

Oher might not have been NFL-ready when he first stepped onto the field, but I submit that in real life he had some awareness of how the game was played - in fact he played freshman football at another high school prior to enrolling at Briarcrest! But there is no room for subtlety, nuance, or in some cases even reality in John Lee Hancock's overly dramatic depiction of Oher's experience, making The Blind Side now the second true story in a row that he has bungled on film. (The richly ironic tagline for his disastrous remake of The Alamo provided its own punchline: "You Will Never Forget". Oh yeah?)

And how could everything I have just mentioned been avoided? A documentary. The film suggests there are some very interesting and accessible real-life characters involved who would have been willing to tell their stories, and if you're going to go to the trouble of getting a half dozen Top 25 NCAA football coaches on set to "act" as themselves, why not instead simply sit down and formally interview them? Would this not have been a perfect one-hour entry into ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series?

One other interesting personal note about The Blind Side. As we walked out of the theater, but before I was able to unleash a tirade against what I'd just seen, my fiancee commented that she remembered when I sent her an article about Oher's story. "What are you talking about?," I replied, impatient to begin lambasting the movie. "That article - you sent me that article when I was in Costa Rica." (She served in the Peace Corps there.) I grew irritated: "What article? I didn't send you anything about this. I didn't even know anything about the story before the movie was released." 

She went on to describe the article and the comments I sent along with it it in the mail, then immediately looked it up on her BlackBerry. Guess who was eating their words? Of course, me: "The Ballad of Big Mike", New York Times Magazine, September 24, 2006 (the article was a preview from Michael Lewis' book, on which the film was adapted). In my own defense, the melodramatics and Disney caricatures of The Blind Side don't resemble anything from that article I read in 2006.


  1. Yes indeed Dan, the banal filmmaking here was just as insulting as the racial stereotyping. The nomination of this multiplex trash in the Best Picture category is truly on of Oscar's lowest moments. STAR TREK should have gotten in, although the yesr's bets film for me, BRIGHT STAR would have been the best choice of all.
    As far as THE BLIND SIDE, Ms. Bullock's nomination would have sufficed. I think it's clear now that she will win, especially with her film in the Big Race.

  2. This is another entry in a niche market I call contemporary Christian. The stories are simple and reinforce the family values of their Christian audience. Children need to be loved. Michael's mother loved him because she said she didn't want him to see her "like this" (never mind that he grew up seeing her like that) and graciously stepped out of the way, like good mothers do. The complete positives of living one's Christian values are emphasized by avoiding any disharmony. Success comes easily. There are no problems, or none that can't be solved fairly easily, as long as you profess the right values.

  3. You've summed it all up perfectly Sam, though here I almost found the banal filmmaking more insulting than the racial stereotyping (only because my expectations are so low as far as that goes anyway). I think Bullock has to be the odds-on favorite to win, and while I've never actually had any problem with her as an actress, I'm just shocked at how this performance (let alone the movie) could have resonated with so many voters. It baffles me.

    Marilyn, while I would agree that the film presents the stories in terms as simplistic as you describe, I felt the Christian aspect of things was relatively toned down, particularly from how present the Tuohy's religion was in the real-life story - from what I remember in the article. In any event I still actually have fewer qualms with the "lessons" presented in this story (you'd never convince me anyone would change their perspective on race and/or class after seeing this film anyway) as I do with the poor manner in which they were presented. On almost every level it fails to deliver at "Oscar-caliber"; that it received no nominations for directing or writing (in any award round-up from 2009, not just the Oscars) speaks volumes.

  4. Continuing to comment on the issues with the likely Bullock win...

    The Academy is notorious for giving "career" Oscars, such as the ones Jeff Bridges will get this year. While Bullock is still too young for her potential win to be considered a "career" win, it still has the same sort of feel to it, and I'm not sure why. It feels like the Academy is rewarding her as an actress, because in reality, the film itself had no critical buzz.

    My main question is, what has Bullock done to deserve so much respect from the Academy? Last year, Kate Winslet won for the wrong film, but I was fine with it simply because she's had so many great performances in the past, and she deserves to be labeled an "Oscar winner". I don't have the same feelings for Bullock, and I don't know why AMPAS members apparently do.

    Even though I would hate to see Meryl Streep win the Oscar, that's still a completely different thing than giving it to Bullock. It's been so long since Meryl has won, and she's given so many great performances, that I could suck it up and say, "Well, she wasn't memorable in Julie & Julia, but I guess she deserves one more Oscar." With Bullock, I see an average, watchable performance in a forgettable film, and I think to myself, "What films has she acted in that make awards voters feel so obligated to give her an Oscar for?

  5. Danny King is 100% right. Bullock has virtually done nothing career-wise to merit this adulation. Of the five nominated performers, Mulligan and Mirren are best.

  6. Daniel - Christian cinema is also characterized by underplaying the religious aspects. I saw what was clearly a recruitment film (distributed by Sam Goldwyn Inc.!) in which the head of the church youth group said "I'm not religious," though clearly that was a lie. The idea is to persuade through example (though let's be sure not to leave Christianity out of it altogether, of course) not through doctrine. This IS an inspiring story, and I agree that a documentary would have been the most forceful way to go. But that is not as controlled a formula.

    As for Bullock, I have always liked her, but she is not an elite actress. I consider a win for her would be another mainstream victory in terms of ideology. Just remember how much the film industry bent over and said "may I have another" during the 30s and the 50s.

  7. Just curious. Assuming you saw the trailer, what exactly where you expecting Blind Side to be other than exactly what it was?

  8. Yeah, I have no idea where the career love is coming from for Bullock; the only thing I can think of is that they loved her in Crash (considering it's the same group of voters that bestowed Best Picture on that film). That she is nominated for a Razzie this year only underscores the question about a career-achievementish Oscar. Incidentally I'm at peace with those silly things, or rather, I gave up complaining after Scorsese was given his for something as lackluster as The Departed. Were it someone else winning this award I might be a little more annoyed, and to Bullock's credit, she hasn't been receiving the accolades with an air of pompous expectation or entitlement.

    Marilyn, interesting point about adapting the story into a feature film in order to control its themes. Were that the case I'd hope for a stronger go at it, though. Like I said I don't think it's a "successful" film in the way it was meant to be; no one will see race, class, or religion in a new light after this.

    Also, I can be manipulated fairly easily (heck, I loved Slumdog Millionaire and I even liked Crash), but The Blind Side didn't even come close in getting any emotion from me until it was over. I just haven't understood yet the meaning that people have derived from the film. All anyone can talk about is it being a "nice story" with a "nice performance" by Bullock. Well that's fine, but it's still a poorly made film, right?

    And I think that's kind of what I'm getting at, Craig. Regardless of how well received her performance has been and how much middle America loved seeing themselves in a positive light, it seems no one has been able to defend its merits as a film. So whatever the trailer shows, based on the positive buzz alone all winter I was expecting something at least above average.

    Here is a nice blurb I read from Mick LaSalle that sums it up for me:

    "If someone were telling you this story, you might say, "Wow. That's something." Even so, the narrative is not quite big enough to bear the weight and significance that writer-director John Lee Hancock tries to attach to it."

  9. It's really hard to think of the Tuohys as middle America. They were stinking rich! And off a chain restaurant that is contributing to childhood and adult obesity. Save one black kid, ruin the health of the rest? Hmmmm.

  10. I liked how you pointed out the plot holes in the film like I would have (even ones I didn't see) and that you felt compelled to write this review. I get the same compulsion sometimes.

    There were far worst films in 2009 than The Blind Side: http://film-book.com/the-top-films-of-2009-that-were-without/

    The Alamo. LOL. I forgot too...that the film even existed.

    What if Michael Moore did a doc on Oher? Now that would be a doc to watch.

    Its funny. Oher doesn't like being called Big Mike and they name the article about him in the times that.

    Nice observation about Oher's offensive malfience.

  11. I will now expose myself by admitting I liked "The Alamo". Better than John Wayne's, at least.

  12. Ha, Marilyn, that restaurant/wellness connection really is a rich irony. I don't imagine that would have been chosen as Tuohy's occupation were this a fictional story.

    ProMovieBlogger - a Michael Moore doc on Oher? I shudder to think. Actually I just shudder in general when it comes to Moore because the inflection of his voiceover/narrations gets under my skin. Hehe, and nice call about the title of the article. I totally missed that fact.

    Impossible, Roderick! Though I will say, I went to see that movie almost exclusively because of how Dennis Quaid growled, "Remember the Alamo!" at the end of the awful trailer. Wow, watching that again I remembered how cliched the whole affair was.

  13. I'm kind of argued out on The Blind Side, but I will jump in and say this ...

    If you read the book, you'll find that it sounds like it has the makings for a great "30 for 30" piece, as you suggested. And yet the thing about the movie is ... it's a lot like the book. So figure that one out.

    Yes, the movie trims elements that would be better for a doc, and it adds moments of sappy fabrication. Still, the base of the story is the same.

    The film is hammy, tacky, awful in spots. (The kid who over-plays SJ should never be allowed around a camera again.) But most people haven't objected to The Blind Side on its artistic ineptitude. Instead, they've objected because it's a story about a white family who saves a black kid. But, see, that's what happened. And if it was done as a "30 for 30" doc, that's still what would have happened.

  14. Very true, but I believe I've rather brilliantly placed my own opinion is in the safe zone: critical of the film, but not the subject matter. I personally think the story is actually much more fascinating from a sports development perspective (particularly the college recruiting madness) than from a cross-cultural perspective, but any way you slice it a documentary would have made for a more compelling film.

  15. Agreed. Then again, the description of Michael's lack of football instinct/understanding was certainly mentioned in the book. That doesn't forgive the tacky portrayal of the movie. But my point is that it's possible to watch a lot of the offensive scenes in this film and say, "I read that in the book." So maybe a documentary would have been more convincing and less offensive, but it probably also says something about the way we inherently trust documentaries (even if we're getting info from interviewee testimonials) over dramatization. Sometimes the stuff that seems like fantasy isn't.

    I'm not entirely disagreeing with you by any stretch, but it's been interesting to see the responses to this film (much more interesting than watching the film).

  16. I have not and do not plan on reviewing it, but finally someone is able to encapsulate my thoughts. Your review is excellent (although Kathy Bates phoned in cameo was my favourite performance). But I'm ignoring the Oscars this year.

  17. "Sometimes the stuff that seems like fantasy isn't." Well said, Jason - truth is often stranger than fiction, but that's exactly why with most stories (this one, the upcoming Man on Wire and King of Kong feature adaptations) I still prefer the first- or second-person account over the version some screenwriter produces to grab an audience.

    Thanks for stopping by, Andrew. We must have had a similar reaction to this film but for some reason I felt compelled to get my thoughts down soon after seeing it. And while I'm more disappointed with the Oscar fallout this year than I have since any year since about 2001, I'll still be watching intently on March 7. For me it's much more about the ceremony of celebrating the last year in film. It's almost a personal milestone, an annual reset for me, regardless of who ends up winning.

    Oh, and yes, Kathy Bates was a highlight here playing very much to her strengths.

  18. I didn't care for Bates in this very much. I think she needed a paycheck, and yes, it was a phoned-in performance. She's a good enough actress to bring a little more to this character than she did. I think she just didn't give a rat's ass.

    The only thing that really worked in this film for me was Quinton Aaron, and that's a pretty important plus. He really made me feel Michael's pain and sweetness. He singlehandedly kept me in the film; a truly memorable performance from a relatively untested actor.

  19. In Bates' defense I don't think her character was given enough substance in the screenplay. Again, another person with probably a much more interesting story to tell had this been a documentary.

    I was mostly indifferent toward Aaron and had a hard time reading him. I guess that was the point in playing Oher, though, so he was probably much more effective than I originally realized.

  20. I'm very attuned to the way actors use their bodies. I saw Alan Bates do nothing more than shrug with his back to the camera in a film in which he learns his beloved wife was killed in a skiing accident, and it tore my heart out. Nancy Kwan could command the camera just by walking. I felt that with Aaron, too. His posture, his walk, the antithesis of his moves on the basketball court. His movements seemed honest, not exaggerated, and they affected me quite a bit.

  21. That's true - though I wasn't moved in the same way you were, I certainly think he was cast well as a natural fit for the role. Of course, the question will be if there are other roles available to him going forward.

  22. This wasn't his first film; it was his sixth or seventh. Who knows, maybe we have a budding Forest Whitaker here.

  23. That would be terrific if so - I was concerned he was possibly a budding Michael Clarke Duncan.

  24. Ha ha! I think we have enough "magic negroes" in Hollywood. It's time they started writing parts for real people of color.

  25. Or writing entire movies about real people of color.


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