Friday, November 27, 2009

Feature: Big Freeze Movie Club

We're going to take a short reprieve from the "If They Played..." feature to take an opportunity for some cinema talk.

Last Friday saw the release of a movie called "The Blind Side," based on a book of the same name which was written by Michael Lewis who has written a number of sports-themed books. It stars Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw and tells the story of Michael Oher, currently a starting offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

If you haven't seen the movie, or don't already know the story, feel free to skip until after the /SPOILER ALERT tag.

As a synopsis, Michael Oher was born to a drug-addicted mother and grew up in the project of Memphis, TN without any kind of father. He was separated from his mother by order of the state as a child, and bounced from foster home to foster home. He was never forced to go to school, so he seldom did. Given grades just good enough to get rid of him, Oher reached high-school-age barely able to read.

In the film, we meet Michael Oher in the back of "Big Tony's" car on his way to a Christian private school. "Big Mike" stayed on Tony's couch from time to time, so he was brought with Tony's son to seek admission to the school for a proper education. Astounded by his athletic ability, the school's coach pleads Michael's case to the admissions department, and they admit him to the school out of Christian charity.

The movie calls the school Wingate Academy, but the actual name is Briarcrest, which is what I'll call it (because I'll slip up and call it that anyway). At Briarcrest, Michael is thought to have no intelligence at all, but his teachers quickly discover that he knows the material, he simply has no idea how to learn and respond in a real classroom. They give him his tests orally while working on his reading, slowly raising his GPA to something that doesn't begin with a zero.

Though he is now getting an education, Michael is still homeless. While watching a volleyball match in the gym to keep warm, Michael catches the attention of local fast food tycoon Sean Tuohy. Sean's wife, Leigh Anne, convinces "Big Mike" to spend a few nights in their home, and quickly becomes very attached to him. Big Mike isn't so forthcoming, as they know very little about him. Leigh Anne is able to discover the troubled, gang-controlled neighborhood where Michael grew up while trying to clothe him.

Eventually, Michael Oher's grades improve enough so that he can begin participating in sports, most notably football. Initially pegged as a defensive lineman, the coaches realized that Michael Oher was not a mean, angry kid from the projects, but something of a gentle giant with no desire to hit or hurt anyone. Understanding his protective instincts, they find him a natural fit at left tackle where he can protect his quarterback's blind side. An athletic pass protector, Oher is a monstrous run blocker which is highlighted in a scene in which he blocks a mouthy defender off the field and attempts to put him back on the team bus. It was this instinct and talent that caught the eye of recruiting guru Tom Lemming and, by extension, most major SEC college coaches.

A recruiting frenzy ensues over a backdrop of Michael fast becoming a part of the Tuohy family and forming a strong bond with their youngest child, SJ (Sean Jr). The highlight of that relationship comes after Michael has gotten his drivers license and takes SJ for a drive. A utility truck backs into them as Michael is driving, causing a bad accident. SJ is sitting in the front seat, and as the air bag deploys at deadly speed, Michael throws a massive arm in front of it, shielding SJ from the potentially sever injuries that could have resulted.

After hearing increasingly grand overtures from some major college coaches, Oher has narrowed his choices down to Ole Miss, which his adopted family attended, and arch-rival Tennessee. When he chooses Ole Miss, an NCAA investigator rumbles into town to determine whether or not the Tuohy's sought legal guardianship over Michael just to draw him to their alma mater. Distressed at the suggestion, Michael runs back to his old neighborhood. When the slum lord in charge begins making lewd comments about Michael's mother and sister, his protective instincts kick in and he roughs up the whole gang. When Leigh Anne finds him the next morning, they have a big heart-to-heart and Michael goes back to talk to the NCAA investigator. He tells her that he wasn't forced to go to Ole Miss, but that he wants to go because it's the family school.

The movie ends with Michael going to Ole Miss, and the family saying their goodbyes. It then follows with some additional biographical snippets, such as Oher's status as an All-American left tackle at Mississippi. It closes with actual footage from the 2009 NFL draft, where Oher was drafted 23rd overall by the Baltimore Ravens.

Despite the football premise, "The Blind Side" actually draws an audience that is 60% female, and 70% over 25. Guys looking for a big time football movie won't find one, though there is some pretty entertaining game footage. Though somewhat brief, the football action is generally well-done and fun to watch. The film also opens with a sort of lesson on the left tackle position and its rise to prominence resulting from Lawrence Taylor's career-ending hit on Joe Theismann. Rabid football fans need no such primer, but it does help make the film significantly more accessible to the non-fan crowd.

I'll come short of calling "The Blind Side" a chick flick, and say it's probably a very good date movie. The sentimental story line of Leigh Anne's attachment to Michael, and the generally touching family dynamic, makes it very appealing to a female audience. Guys can comfortably settle in to the football action and occasionally very funny Coach Cotton. The recruiting montage is also a treat for sports fans as the college coaches are played by themselves, most notably Nick Saban, Phil Fullmer, and Lou Holtz. This is a rare movie where there actually is a little something for everyone.

If all you're looking for is a lot of football on a big screen, you probably won't be real into "The Blind Side." But if you're into more of a human drama, an engaging story of the power of human potential and compassion, it's a fantastic film that is already generating Oscar buzz for Sandra Bullock. I highly recommend it, as it is an inspiring true story that keeps very close to the book.


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