The Express caters to its audience, Blindness is a disturbing, unflinching experience, and Bob Dylan opens up his archives for another strong edition of The Bootleg Series.
Does the world even need a review of The Express? If the commercials appeal to you, you'll want to see it. If you know you've already seen this a thousand times before, then you won't bother. Still, it's my job, so here we go.
The Express (Universal Pictures) Recently I reviewed Nights in Rodantheand concluded that, although I thought it was pretty silly, it’s a movie geared perfectly to its target audience, of which I am not a part. When this happens, you can’t help but feel like you’re studying an alien species that makes utterly no sense to you. (It’s the way Obama voters feel about McCain voters, and vice versa.) But before you get too smug about your opinions, be careful when the tables are turned on you. Take The Express, an inspirational sports drama about Syracuse running back Ernie Davis who at the dawn of the 1960s became the first black athlete to win college football’s Heisman Trophy. It is by no means a good movie – it’s utterly predictable and hits every required beat (training montages, slo-mo sports action, inspirational speeches, unbelievable reversals of fortune). But despite knowing all that, I was able to let it wash over me without objecting too strongly. I like sports, I like football, I like college football – Hey, I guess I’m part of this film’s target audience. So, yeah, I don’t recommend it, and I say in specific that the attempts to merge the civil-rights era with Ernie Davis’s personal story are handled in a truly clumsy way. But The Express taught me a friendly reminder that one shouldn’t be too smug about other people’s comfy-cozy entertainment: Occasionally, something that caters to your own genetic code will come up and bite you on the butt.
Blindness (Miramax) Knowing that critics mostly dismissed Blindness but not wanting to know why until I saw it for myself, I returned to Metacritic and looked at the accumulated blurbs, utterly confused. After giving it some thought, I suggest that there are two requirements necessary to admire Blindness as much as I did: (1) Don't read the book, which is (apparently) so magnificent that you may have a tough time accepting what Fernando Meirelles has achieved here; and (2) Don't try to read too much into the blindness metaphor. This second point is more important, as one of the film's great accomplishments is that it doesn't try too hard to turn the world's grand blindness epidemic into a moralistic parallel for our sinful, awful society that has lost its vision. This is why I tend to ignore filmmakers and cast interviews – I'm assuming this connection is being made ad nauseam in the press notes and sound-bite clips because it's the thing critics are latching on to and ripping to shreds.
Watching the film innocently, I was impressed how restrained that metaphor is – rather, Blindness works in a lot of other metaphors (Guantanamo Bay, treatment of illegal aliens, terror alerts, post-Katrina New Orleans, caring for a spouse with a crippling affliction) that by and large work beautifully. Plus, on a very fundamental level, the movie's just plain gripping – I don't think anyone who's watching the showdown between quarantined blind wards as they fight over the remaining food will really be consumed with what it's all supposed to "mean." After The Constant Gardener portended a career of high-and-mighty social issue films that were well-shot but dull, Meirelles has constructed a deeply disturbing drama that feels like a horror movie.
And that's to say nothing of a very strong cast – except, ironically, for the actor who adapted the novel and turns in the weakest performance. Mark Ruffalo is great as an upstanding doctor whose will is slowly broken down by his inability to bring order to a society that wants to give in to panic and fear. Gael García Bernal reminds us why we thought he was going to be a great actor – he's utterly ruthless and slimy in the role. And then there's Julianne Moore. After being blown away by her in Short Cuts and Safe, I was convinced she had lost her way, going for "actorly" roles that either called for empty hysterics or the sort of artful suffering that suggests great craft. Her character suffers mightily in Blindness, but the emotional journey of this loyal wife forced to take care of all those around her is truly touching. The movie has flaws – big flaws, obvious flaws – but I want to harp on its positives because I think they've been so snidely dismissed up to this point. This is a raw, uncomfortable viewing experience that I don't think I'll want to revisit any time soon – and, good god, we still have The Road this Oscar season. But it got to me. It really, really got to me.
Rachel Getting Married (Sony Pictures Entertainment) Robert Altman is the popular reference point for Jonathan Demme’s handheld ensemble comedy-drama about a wedding that brings together a family. But I couldn’t stop thinking about The Celebration. Like the fantastic Dogme film, Rachel Getting Married uses a large family gathering to examine the fissures within the group, detonating the niceties with a Dark Secret From The Past. But The Celebration had a wonderful mean streak to it – although it was built around a melodramatic reveal, its humor and its understanding of the complex bonds of family made it a bracing work. By contrast, Rachel Getting Married wants it all: It wants to be funny and nasty and emotional and free-spirited and profound and incisive and off-the-cuff. That so much of it works is a testament to the amount of work that must have gone on beforehand – not just with the script (by Sidney Lumet’s daughter Jenny) but also in the rehearsals. Because it’s Jonathan Demme, the movie teems with music, and it’s part of the film’s overflowing appeal – like most people’s wedding, the one at the center of Rachel bounces off the walls with personalities and energy. But I don’t love Rachel as much as many people do. The first reason is that I found the film’s Dark Secret From The Past not entirely compelling – once it’s introduced, you can sorta guess how the revelations will play out from there. The second reason is Anne Hathaway. She’s good as the recovering addict Kym, Rachel’s attention-starved sister, but it’s not a fully confident performance. Put bluntly, I never believed that this woman was a recovering addict, which is a pretty important requirement for the story to move forward. I’ve been impressed with her ever since her brassy, sexy turn in Brokeback Mountain, so it’s not like I don’t think her capable of serious acting. But I think that will come later – this feels like the first baby steps toward something more substantial in the near future.
Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (Sony) The best of Bob Dylan’s bootleg series was its first installment. Spanning about 25 years, Volumes 1-3 offered an alternate history to Dylan’s musical legacy, compiling outtakes alternate versions of classic songs, and a good helping of “Eh, it’s not great, but it’s pretty funny to have.” Subsequent volumes have collected famous concerts or tours, but the sense of rediscovery hasn’t been as strong as on Tell Tale Signs. Essentially following chronologically from Volumes 1-3, the new two-disc collection revisits the last 20 years or so, which is roughly the period of time where he made several albums that somebody or other declared was a return to form. For the diehards, Tell Tale Signs will restart the fights about which late-period release was his best: Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind are both well-represented, but for me the big surprise is how much I prefer this collection’s version of “Someday Baby,” making me wonder if my reservations about Modern Times are based on a dissatisfaction with its one-dimensional juke-joint sound. Over two discs and 27 tracks, Tell Tale Signs is bound to have slow spots, and I find that a few outtakes never made the official album cut because they d-r-a-g. But if bootlegs are about discovery, not definitive overview, then this has all you could ask for. If the price seems too steep, ask for it for the holidays – not having to spend your own money on it won’t make its not-great moments any better, but they’ll be really fun to have.
Water Lilies (Koch Lorber DVD) I have no doubt girls are so much crueler than boys, but in case anyone needs to be reminded, French writer-director Céline Sciamma wants to give you a refresher course. As an antidote to Judd Apatow’s brand of guys-are-dumb-but-you-gotta-love-‘em cinema, the teen girls of Water Lilies are complicated and vulnerable, insecure and interesting. But with that said, the plights of teens (male or female) usually don’t move me in films. I’m not quite sure why – it might be that, like the adults we all know who are still working through their high school miseries through a series of defense mechanisms and over-compensations of all kinds, there’s always a part of me that feels that filmmakers trying to capture the “reality” of teenagers can’t help but show their own biases and buried resentments. Water Lilies largely avoids the sort of cringe-heavy humiliation that indie American directors use to prove they’re hip and over their childhood traumas, but Sciamma’s portrait of three girls dealing with boys, sexuality and friendship, though affecting and modestly played, bears the signs of preciousness that keep it from being really incisive or insightful.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.