God is in the house this week. He turns up in the values of a wealthy Tennessee family who adopt a poor black kid and turn him into a champion, He features in a big leather book carried across a post-apocalyptic America by enigmatic Denzel Washington, and He is notable for His absence in a Lars von Trier shocker that is unlike anything you will have seen before or see since.
First, the good version. Based on a best selling book by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side would not have made it New Zealand screens if it wasn’t for Sandra Bullock’s surprise Oscar win earlier this year and it’s easy to see why distributors might have left it on the shelf. Personally, I’m glad they didn’t. My companion had no knowledge of, or affinity for, American Football or the complex and baffling college sports structure and was, therefore, a bit left out of a story that managed to push all my buttons fairly effortlessly.
Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy interior designer in Memphis much of whose wealth derives from nearly a hundred fast food restaurants owned and operated by her husband Sean (country star Tim McGraw). Driving her kids home from school one night she sees the massive silhouette of “Big Mike” Oher, a fellow student at their Christian school and a product of the most broken of homes. Michael is shuffling quietly towards the school gym, the warmest place he can find, as he is almost homeless and Leigh Anne instinctively reaches out to offer him shelter. One night turns into a month which turns into a lifetime as Michael literally becomes one of the family.
Why does this story of Christian charity and rescue stand out? Because Michael turned out to have a talent for football, a very specific (and very valuable talent) for defending the quarterback. Mike Oher has since gone on the fame and fortune with the NFL team the Baltimore Ravens but his (and Leigh Anne’s) story is old-fashioned inspirational and I was often genuinely moved. Similar in theme to Precious earlier this year, but without the cinematic fireworks, I found The Blind Side to be a most satisfying evening at the pictures.
A baffling afternoon at the pictures is what you’ll probably get if you venture in to The Book of Eli, starring a very cool Denzel Washington. Wandering the same barren, broken landscape that Viggo wandered in The Road earlier this year (Viggo had rain to deal with, Denzel’s world has a notable absence of water), our hero is heading West with a very important book and a mission. He can look after himself, as various bandits discover to their cost, and he really doesn’t want to give up this book even though town chieftain Gary Oldman recognises the power of the world’s only surviving Bible and is determined to get it. Stylish and often quite potent, I must have dozed off or closed my eyes at some inopportune point as I couldn’t for the life of me work out what the ending meant.
I’m not going to recommend von Trier’s Antichrist, despite it being the most impressive, thoughtful, demented, debilitating drama in any recent year. I can’t recommend it because audience members need to seek it out and be reasonably prepared for what it contains. Unsuspecting viewers will almost certainly be traumatised by the content but when you are braced the horror loses some of it’s power which I think is a good and necessary thing.
Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg lose their young son to an awful accident that might have been preventable but probably wasn’t. Gainsbourg loses the plot in a way that at first seems completely over the top but is slowly revealed to be something more than just grief. Dafoe is a therapist and counsellor who makes the tragic mistake of trying to treat his own family. They head to their remote cabin in the woods to heal but instead tear each other apart in the most brutal and demonic way possible. Like Gaspar Noé’s masterpiece Irréversible from 2002, Antichrist is going to have a reputation for the boundaries it shatters rather than the intellectual and emotional bravery it displays and that’s a shame. Talking of bravery, Gainsbourg and Dafoe deserve awards (and a cup of tea) for their astonishing work.
English actor Vanessa Redgrave needs our sympathy too, at the moment. She’s lost both her siblings (sister Lynn and brother Corin) within a month, her daughter Natasha Richardson died just over a year ago, and now she returns to the screen in a leading role in a film so beneath her commanding talents that one is simply embarrassed for her. In Letters to Juliet she plays a doughty grandmother whose handwritten confession to Juliet (Capulet, of Verona and Shakespeare fame) is discovered 50 years later hidden in a wall at Juliet’s house. Budding New Yorker journalist Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia and last week’s Dear John) is the discoverer and, with the help of Juliet’s secretaries (like Father Christmas Juliet answers all her mail) she replies. This prompts Redgrave to head to Italy to find the love of her life who she jilted all those years ago.
Luckily, after many false starts, she finds the right one and he turns out to be played by her real-life husband Franco Nero, the Italian actor who was once the most handsome man in cinema (check out the spaghetti western Django from 1966) and based on his cameo in this film may still be.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 12 May, 2010.