Sunday 11 April 2010

Blind undertaking (ST 28/03/10)

The Blind Side (12A) 128 mins **
Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang (U) 110 mins ***
Lion’s Den (15) 113 mins ****

And to think there were those who grumbled Crazy Heart was an unexceptional film to win Jeff Bridges an acting Oscar. This may well have been Sandra Bullock’s year - marital troubles aside - but the galling thing about her triumph in the arrant hicksploitation of The Blind Side is that it’s not meant to be her character’s moment. John Lee Hancock’s true-life drama notionally concerns Michael “Big Mike” Oher (Quinton Aaron), a hulking black teen from the Memphis projects. Left homeless after his father’s death, Oher was adopted by brash, bottle-blonde soccer mom Leigh Anne Tuohy - enter Bullock - who taught him shopping and self-esteem, and transformed him into one of gridiron’s most valuable defensive players.

Judging by its huge commercial success in the States, the film clearly pushes a lot of the right Obama-era buttons. It’s racial, obviously, but religious, too: Oher is enrolled at a good Christian school where the football team goes under the divinely inspired nickname “the Crusaders”. Yet from its blithely sunny evocation of the projects to its last-reel gloss on The Charge of the Light Brigade as a sports coaching manual, The Blind Side is horribly, persistently simplistic. At its most patronising, we could be watching Precious translated from the original black, which perhaps explains why Hancock’s movie has taken five times as much at the box office.

Where Precious positioned its multiply challenged heroine at the centre of its universe, Hancock films Oher as the Tuohys’ latest pet, tagging mutely along behind more immediately readable white folks: not just Leigh Anne, but her down-home husband (country star Tim McGraw, canny casting for the flyover crowd), a kid so brattily precocious you ache for Big Mike to fall on him, and Kathy Bates as a tutor with - oh my lawd - Democratic tendencies. The lowpoint arrives when Mr. Tuohy wonders where Leigh Anne sourced a baby photo for Michael’s graduation festivities. “I scanned it off an Internet site for toddlerwear,” she responds, to audience guffaws; who knew all African-Americans looked alike?

In The Blind Side’s prologue, we’re informed that Oher’s duty as an offensive tackle is to protect his quarterback, the team’s star player and chief wage-earner. Observing what unfolds, it’s hard not to feel the thoughtful, likable newcomer Aaron has been recruited to do much the same thing for Bullock here: provide the semblance of weight that might allow his dainty Caucasian co-star to elude her competition and run all the way to the awards-season endzone. Taken in isolation, Bullock’s performance is ballsy enough; yet it speaks volumes for the parlous state of this actress’s career that a film this retrogressive could be considered in any way a comeback.

2005’s Nanny McPhee was a jolly holiday romp that saw the Hampstead set doing Mary Poppins, giving Emma Thompson an unlikely signature role as the unkempt housekeeper with magical tidying properties. Sequel The Big Bang - which finds the supernatural supernanny refereeing tweenies on soldier’s wife Maggie Gyllenhaal’s farm - applies gooey substances (jam, treacle, pigswill) to the screen with a liberal hand; it’s seemingly hellbent on reproducing the textures of the cinema floor after a matinee screening. Once more, supporting players sign up at their own risk: Maggie Smith mistakes a cowpat for a cushion, while chauffeur Daniel Mays tumbles backwards into a duckpond.

Beneath the gunge, there’s a very English fantasy about the need for order in uncertain times: the WW2 setting cues a Chelsea Pensioners cameo, and some light quivering from the upper lip of Ralph Fiennes as a War Office bigwig. We could quibble about an excess of CG gimmickry - burping jackdaws and flying pigs - but any film that casts Bill Bailey as an amenable farmer must be doing something right, the design work is smashing, while the bomb-disposal finale suggests nothing less than a Lionel Jeffries remake of The Hurt Locker.

If there’s one release this weekend that truly merits Mother and Baby screenings, however, it’s Lion’s Den, the latest from young Argentinian master Pablo Trapero, which sees pregnant heroine Julia (Martina Gusman) sequestered to a prison wing reserved for mothers and mothers-to-be following her abusive boyfriend’s death. Breastfeeding cinemagoers will surely conclude that the considerable task of getting a nipper to sleep in a childproofed suburban semi is as nothing compared to accomplishing same under the institutional lighting of a Buenos Aires jail cell.

Cooler-headed than the recent A Prophet, Lion’s Den operates comfortably within the babes-behind-bars genre - there are, of course, shower-block catfights - but centralising these madonnas allows the film to chart genuinely novel territory: even the resident bad girl has to halt her threats to tend to her wailing newborn. As Julia comes to embrace the possibility of a new beginning, Trapero leaves us with indelible and cheering images: cellblock corridors scattered with Lego bricks and tricycles, snipers clad as Santa Claus, tiny feet converting prison doors into makeshift climbing frames.

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