THE BLIND SIDE (2009). Fellow Academy Award winner Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is different in that it allows an African-American character to tell her own story, never ceding the camera to anyone else and remaining the focal point throughout. The Blind Side is more typical of the sort of racially aware films Hollywood foists upon middle America, purportedly focusing on a black protagonist but really serving as an example of the goodness of white folks; the only reason this young black boy exists, it seems to hint, is so that a Caucasian woman can feel good about herself. (Small wonder, then, that The Blind Side blew away Precious at the box office, $254 million versus $47 million.) The fact that The Blind Side is based on a true story dispels much of this criticism, although it still would have been nice if writer-director John Lee Hancock had thought to include the character of Michael Oher (Quentin Aaron) into more of his game plan. Instead, he's a saintly, one-dimensional figure – although he (like everyone else in the film) seems like the spawn of Satan when compared to Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the feisty Southern belle who decides to feed, shelter and eventually adopt this homeless lad after spotting him one dark and stormy night. Bullock's a lot of fun to watch in this role (though hardly worthy of the Best Actress Oscar that came her way), and the movie itself contains enough humor and heartbreak (though next to no dramatic tension) to make it an engaging if undemanding experience. But its true intentions are revealed in its ample self-congratulatory dialogue. "Leigh Anne, you are changing that boy's life." "No. [insert dramatic, Oscar-clinching pause here] He's changing mine." You can almost see the filmmakers patting themselves on their backs before heading home to their maximum-security Beverly Hills mansions.
DVD extras include four deleted scenes and theatrical trailers.
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937). As brutal in its own way as any gangster or slasher flick, Make Way for Tomorrow is a powerful drama that absolutely refuses to pull its punches or take any prisoners. Adapted from both a novel and a play but bombing with audiences (though not critics) as a film, this is still relevant today, with its piercing look at the manner in which this country handles its elderly population. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi star as Barkley and Lucy Cooper, an aged couple who lose their house because they can't keep up the payments and then discover that their five grown children are all unable or unwilling to allow them to move permanently into their own respective homes. As a temporary solution, Barkley resides with his detestable daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) while Lucy is shuttled off to board with (by default) the most sympathetic offspring, George (Thomas Mitchell), and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter). Barkley can at least enjoy the occasional company of a friendly shopkeeper (Maurice Moscovitch), but Lucy is all alone and quickly gets on the nerves of her host family. The first hour of the picture is raw, realistic and uncompromising, but before the shattering ending (bring a hankie to the couch), there's a wonderful half-hour interlude that's remarkably romantic, with the elderly couple expressing their love and devotion for each other while basking in the kindness of strangers. Moore will prove to be a revelation to anyone who only knows him from his turn as Fred Astaire's whiny sidekick in Swing Time, while Bondi (perhaps most recognizable as James Stewart's mom in It's a Wonderful Life) delivers a tremendous performance as the silently suffering matriarch. Leo McCarey deservedly won the Best Director Oscar for the same year's screwball classic The Awful Truth, although he went on record to declare that Make Way for Tomorrow is his favorite of all his own films.
DVD extras include a 20-minute discussion with director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich about the movie and McCarey's career, and a 20-minute piece in which critic Gary Giddins talks about the picture's sociopolitical context.
UNDEAD: THE VAMPIRE COLLECTION (1922-1988). Bargain hunters might be interested in this 20-movie collection, which retails for a low $14.98. Admittedly, the releasing company's claim of always "adhering to high standards of quality" doesn't come into play here: The featured titles have all fallen into the public domain at one point or another, and these are those same prints that have been circulating for years, as (for example) evidenced by the widescreen Horror Express once again being presented in a scratchy, pan-and-scan print. But with the cost of each movie coming out to 75 cents, who can complain? Besides, there's quite the eclectic mix here: Flicks featuring such genre superstars as Bela Lugosi (The Vampire Bat), Vincent Price (The Last Man on Earth and The Bat), John Carradine (Blood of Dracula's Castle) and the Christopher Lee-Peter Cushing team (Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride and Horror Express); dubbed foreign imports like Atom Age Vampire (Italy), The Vampires' Night Orgy (Spain) and The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (ditto); and one bona fide masterpiece. That would be F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu (unfortunately called Nosferatru on the DVD box), the silent German classic that for my money remains the best vampire movie ever made. Other recommended films in this set include 1972's aforementioned Horror Express, a nifty terror tale with a pair of professors (Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing) searching for a monster aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, and 1964's The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price in a flawed but worthwhile adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (yes, based on the same source material as the Will Smith blockbuster).
There are no extras in the collection.
Movies: Ratings range from * (Blood of Dracula's Castle) to **** (Nosferatu)
UP IN THE AIR (2009). The best picture of 2009 happened to feature the Protagonist Least Likely To Be Embraced By The Nation's Moviegoers. That's because Ryan Bingham works as a downsizing expert, hired to come in and dismiss employees that their own bosses are too gutless to fire face to face. Ryan is excellent at his job, which would make him the antagonist in virtually any other film. But because he's played by charismatic George Clooney, Ryan becomes less a villain and more a representative of the modern American, a tech-age person trying to reconcile his buried humanity with what he or she believes is necessary to survive in this increasingly disconnected world. That's the starting point for this superb adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel, but the film covers a lot more territory – both literally and figuratively – before it reaches the finish line. As Ryan jets all over the country doing his job, he makes the acquaintance of a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga), and they strike up a romance that's among the sexiest and most adult placed on celluloid in some time. Yet Ryan's carefully constructed life threatens to crash and burn when his company's latest hire (Anna Kendrick), a whiz kid just out of college, implements a plan that will require the grounding of all employees, including Ryan. Penning the script with Sheldon Turner, director Jason Reitman (now 3-for-3 following Juno and Thank You for Smoking) has created a timely seriocomic work that manages to be breezy without once diminishing the sobering realities that constantly hover around the picture's edges (for starters, the fired employees interviewed in the film are not actors but real workers who were let go from their jobs). Farmiga and Kendrick are excellent as the two women who unexpectedly alter the direction of Ryan's life, yet it's Clooney, in his best work to date, who's most responsible for earning this magnificent movie its wings.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Reitman; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.