A big slate this weekend. The movie of the moment that everyone’s raving about, me included, is Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. It’s a must-see, and Anne Hathaway is Oscar’s first It Girl. Then there’s a deck of jokers to choose from—Canada’s Michael Cera, America’s Bill Maher and Britain’s Simon Pegg—in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Religulous and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People respectively. But if you’re in the mood for a thought-provoking drama to accompany world economic collapse, the movie of choice is Blindness. This elegant disaster movie—a Canadian co-production blessed with an unusually wide North American release—is no walk in the park. But with the world as we know it going down the tubes, it has a timely resonance and gives you something to talk about after the final credits.
Blindness premiered as the opening night gala of the Cannes Film Festival, where I talked to director Fernando Meirelles and three of its stars, Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal and Alice Braga:
Blindness: I can see clearly now, not!
Between its world premiere in Cannes and its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Blindness was recut—in response to the painfully mixed reviews it received in Cannes. I’ve n saw the original version of the film last May and the revised version a few days ago, and now I don’t what to think. I liked Blindness when I first saw it, with some reservations. Obviously a movie in which all the characters are nameless and all but one (Julianne Moore’s) are blind presents point-of-view problem. The original version tried to circumvent it with an omniscient narration by Man with the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover), which annoyed a lot of critics, myself included. Now that I’ve seen the new cut, the most obvious change is that most of Glover’s voice-over has been stripped away. But what’s left of it, near the end, now comes out of nowhere and seems gratuitous. I can’t really tell what else has changed in the movie. Even if you revisit an identical film after an interval of four months, it’s not the same experience: you notice different things and have a different response. On a second viewing, the new and improved Blindness somehow struck me as seemed less visceral and less harrowing. But perhaps that’s just because I could see what was coming.
Either way, Blindness is a compelling and faithful adaptation of the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramango. Scripted by Canada’s Don McKellar, who is also a cast as Thief, the story takes place in a large, nameless city that’s ravaged by a sudden and mysterious contagion, a disease that bleaches vision into a sea of white light. We follow group of early victims as they are herded up and quarantined in the wards of an abandoned mental hospital. There, in what amounts to a concentration camp, civilization gives way to filth, chaos and brutality: it’s not unlike Lord of the Flies, but played indoors with adults who should know better.
A blinded ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) serves as a peacekeeping diplomat, guided by his wife (Julianne Moore), whose secret is that she still has her vision. An uncharacteristically creepy Gael García Bernal plays the self-appointed King of Ward Three, a megalomaniac who hoards rations and subjects the other wards to a reign of terror, with Canada’s Maury Chaykin playing his twisted henchman.
Although Saramago’s novel was written 13 years ago, pre-9/11, it remains prescient, foreshadowing the SARS crisis and a new millennium of fear. Essentially, it’s an allegory, and the movie seems more sound conceptually than dramatically. Some jumps of narrative logic beg disbelief. And with pluralistic neutrality, the narrative is rationed among an ensemble cast, and it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in any one character. Inverting Hollywood cliche, the good guy (Ruffalo) is ineffectual, almost paralyzed by his virtue, and the putative heroine (Moore), who’s in a position to pick up a weapon and take charge hesitates to do so.
There’s a collection of fine performances here. Playing the nuanced frustration of a woman who becomes the seeing-eye housewife in hell, Julianne Moore is impeccable, as always. But in his compact role as the thief, McKellar gives the movie’s most arresting performance, throwing the story into gear and propelling it forward with a sense of real menace.
What’s maddening, yet ultimately fascinating about all Blindness is that its characters don’t act the way characters are supposed to act in a disaster movie. It’s about a collection of strangers who are thrown together and somehow muddle through. And in that respect, despite the novel’s Portuguese author, the film’s Brazilian director and its international cast, Blindness—which was shot in Guelph, Ont. and San Paulo, Brazil—feels profoundly Canadian.
Rachel Getting Married
Between TIFF blogs and last week’s magazine, I already feel I’ve been writing about this movie forever. And there will be more to come at Oscar time. For my thoughts on Rachel, and interviews with director Jonathan Demme and Anne Hathaway, go to: Finally, a bridesmaid gets her due.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist: Guppy Love
Romantic comedy, like rock’n’roll just keeps reinventing itself with each generation. Here’s one that plays like a slice of sweet serendipity on an iPod Shuffle. Nick (Michael Cera) is an charming nerd who’s the only hetero member of an gay punk band. Ditched by his stuck-up princess girlfriend, he keeps sending her mix CDs, artfully crafted gems that that she doesn’t deserve and doesn’t appreciate. Norah (Kat Dennings), the ex’s friend, falls in love with Nick’s playlist, and inevitably with Nick, although he’s an acquired taste. Over the course of one crazy Before Sunrise night in Manhattan, as they search for a drunken friend, and for a secret concert by a cult band called Where’s Fluffy, Nick and Norah gradually edge their way into romance.
Let me just replay my blogged impressions of this enjoyable, if forgettable, bubblegum romance after screening it at the Toronto festival. . .
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is like Juno without all the bother of a plot, never mind an issue—two barely legal characters amiably drifting through an indie-rock soundtrack and the Crayola cityscape of a benign New York nightlife. It’s romantic comedy unplugged. There’s not much to it, but its shy, minimalist vibe seems derived the music, as if the real script is the playlist of the score, colouring emotion and nuance between the faux-naive narrative lines. The leads, Cera and Dennings, have a disarming, offhand chemistry, an easy-going charm that is somehow juvenile and sophisticated all at once. Even if the bare-bones story strums at cliche like a three-chord riff, these two innocent old souls seem utterly original. It’s like watching the young indie rock generation reinvent romantic comedy in their own image, and for their peers. I have to admit, I felt I was watching it from a parental remove. My first comment to a fellow critic as I left the theatre was: “I feel so old.” On the other hand, I think even my 25-year-old son would feel old watching this film.
This satirical documentary that sends up religious faith is funny . . . for a while. But as Bill Maher demolishes one soft target after another, his smugness wears thin. And even with director Larry Charles at the helm, Religulous is no Borat. For more on the movie and my interview with Bill Maher, go to this week’s story in the magazine: Preaching to the Unconverted.
‘How to Lose Friends & Alienate People’
If you didn’t know this movie was based on a real-life memoir, you might never guess; much of it plays like a broad goofball farce, with the satire so exaggerated its subject gets lost. The movie is, in fact, based on a non-fiction book by Toby Young, a rascally Brit journalist who carved out a niche for himself on the celebrity beat at Vanity Fair. Simon Pegg (Land of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) brings his zany signature to the role of Sydney Young, the author’s surrogate—an iconoclastic boor who lands as a fish-out-of-water at a Vanity Fair-like celebrity magazine in New York called Sharps. But the movie’s chief pleasure is Jeff Bridges, who devours his role as the magazine’s bucanneer editor, Clayton Harding, a thinly-veiled version of VF‘s Graydon Carter. But with a script that veers between antic farce and romantic comedy—Kirstin Dunst plays the colleague who ripens into a love interest—the story’s veracity is warped beyond recognition as memoir is molded into Hollywood formula. At least The Devil Wears Prada was smart enough to appeal to the readers of the magazine it satirized.
You’d expect something better from Robert B. Weide, who directed How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. He’s the Emmy-winning director of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. This transition to the big screen only reinforces the prevailing wisdom that television is more hospitable to intelligence and wit than the big screen.