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Films I Neglected To Review: Road To Nowhere
by Peter Sobczynski

In this round-up of films that I didn’t get a chance to examine at length, Sandra Bullock gets brassy and sassy, Woody Harrelson bears bad news, John Woo gives us an epic and, appropriately enough, Viggo Mortensen helps serve up an enormous turkey.

Based largely on the cringe-inducing trailer that has seemingly been running in front of every film to come out in the last few months, I went into “The Blind Side” expecting to see a sanctimonious melodrama about a poor African-American kid who manages to pull himself out of his situation with the help of his innate athletic ability and the largesse of a noble white woman who takes him under his wing--something along the lines of “Precious” with linebackers. For the most part, that is exactly what the film, which tells the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a homeless kid from a broken home in Tennessee whose life is changed forever when he is taken in by a rich, white family, led by flamboyant matriarch Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock), who help him develop both academically and athletically, is and while it may not be the most outstanding example of the true-life sports story subgenre, it is nowhere near as bad as the previews suggest. The basic story is a little more interesting than most films of this type--the climax is blessedly not centered around the result of a big game--and it has a strong and affecting performance from newcomer Aaron as Oher that is convincing both on and off the gridiron. Unfortunately, writer-director John Lee Hancock has a tendency to let things get a little too melodramatic at some times--the sequence in which Michael plays his first game against what appears to be the high school where the hillbillies from “Deliverance” dropped out of is a definite low point--and his decision to tell this story largely through the viewpoint of Leigh Anne instead of Michael seems both odd and a little condescending to boot. Matters aren’t helped by Bullock’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard performance--her attempts to be colorful are so cringe-inducing that she overwhelms virtually every scene she is in--and a turn by Jae Head as her allegedly adorable young son that may be the most repulsive performance by a kid actor to come along in a long time. Despite these flaws, “The Blind Side” is surprisingly not-entirely-unbearable and if you are in the mood for a safe and non-threatening inspirational drama about overcoming adversity, you could do a lot worse than this.

“The Messenger” stars Ben Foster as a tightly wound soldier who has just returned from Iraq as a hero and has been tagged to serve his last three months of active duty performing the wrenching job of informing families that their loved ones have been killed in action. To learn the ropes, he is teamed up with an older soldier (Woody Harrelson) who advises him to do everything by the book and under no circumstances become involved in the affairs of the vulnerable people whose lives they have just torn apart, a rule he almost immediately violates when he takes an interest in war widow Samantha Morton. Debuting director Oren Moverman handles the central narrative material in a quiet and even-handed manner that treats people on both sides of the issue of the Iraq war with intelligence and respect while giving us an eye-opening look at a part of warfare that most people generally don’t think about. However, the second half of the story begins to drift away to concentrate more on the growing relationship between Foster and Morton (a problem since this material is pretty familiar and the usually reliable Morton is oddly miscast here) and his lingering problems with old flame Jena Malone (whose wedding he and Harrelson drunkenly crash in the film’s lowest point) and it never quite manages to regain its focus. What does work well here, so much that it pretty much single-handedly makes the film worth watching, is the impressive performance from Woody Harrelson; while he may not be anyone’s ideal image of an Army lifer, he is so convincing in the role that it is impossible to think of anyone else who could have possibly done it better. Harrelson has become one of those rare performers who can make virtually any film more interesting with his mere presence (he even managed to briefly perk up the otherwise unbearable “2012”) and he certainly does that here--even as the film threatens to bog down into a morass of soap opera clichés, he single-handedly keeps it afloat.

After spending more than a decade working in the American film industry with gradually diminishing results, John Woo, the man behind such cult classics as “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled” returned home to his native Hong Kong to direct “Red Cliff,” an epic-length film (running nearly five hours and spread over the course of two separate features) about the legendary third-century Battle of Red Cliffs that helped bring an end to the Han Dynasty while ushering in the period of the Three Kingdoms. Although highly regarded in Asia, where it quickly became one of its most popular films of all time, such a thing was deemed to be commercially unacceptable outside of its homeland and as a result, the rest of the world is getting a 146-minute mash-up of the two films that devotes most of its time to the action set pieces while either greatly reducing or outright eliminating much of the historical or character-related elements of the narrative. Unfortunately, the end result of this decision is that unless you walk into the film as an expert of this particular period of time, it is virtually impossible to puzzle out what is going on in the brief interludes between the extended and lavishly-detailed action sequences because all of that material hasn’t made it into this edition. The result is fairly frustrating because while the battle scenes are pretty much all awe-inspiring--especially the extended climactic attack sequence--the lack of any emotional investment in what is going on ends up blunting their impact to a certain degree. That said, those battle scenes are so impressive that they almost make this abbreviated version of “Red Cliff” worth checking out--especially if you get a chance to see it on a big screen--but I suspect that this will be the rare time when most people emerge from a film wishing that it were a lot longer instead of a lot shorter.

At least once a year, usually around Oscar time, a highly anticipated adaptation of a well-known literary property hits the theaters and turns out to be an enormous disappointment both as a translation of a beloved book and as a film in its own right. This year, that dubious distinction falls upon “The Road,” the long-delayed and wildly misbegotten adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic best-seller. Set years after an unexplained event has left much of the world in ruins, the story follows a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they trudge the bombed-out Eastern seaboard towards the south in the hopes of escaping the increasingly cold weather while avoiding the roving packs of people who will do (or eat) anything in order to survive. The trouble here is that the novel worked not because of the story that was being told but because of the way that McCarthy told it and in bringing it to the screen, neither director John Hillcoat nor screenwriter Joe Penhall have figured out how to successfully translate his particular brand of prose into cinematic terms in the way that the Coen Brothers did with their adaptation of “No Country for Old Men” and as a result, all we are left with is a bleak, unpleasant and utterly familiar story that offers viewers nothing that they haven’t seen before and its attempts to make things a little more palatable (such as an expansion of the role of Mortensen’s wife to accommodate an appearance by Charlize Theron) never ring true. Mortensen tries his hardest but he is stuck playing a character who, in this version of the tale, never quite rings true--his hair-trigger willingness to shoot his own son at the moment he suspects something bad may happen is so overplayed that it becomes a running joke and his decision to abandon a fully stocked and well-hidden bomb shelter for the sketchiest of reasons makes him come across as an idiot here. Actually, everyone involved has clearly tried to make something powerful and important here--this isn’t the kind of material that one just coasts through as a goof--but no matter how noble their intentions may have been, it doesn’t change the fact that--and I apologize for the lameness of this comment ahead of time--this is a “Road” that is best left untaken.

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originally posted: 11/26/09 01:09:57
last updated: 11/26/09 01:15:53
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