"Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come." -- Herman Melville

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November 8, 2004

Friday Night Lights
US 2004, Directed by Peter Berg
Written by David Aaron Cohen and Peter Berg based on the book by H.G. Bissinger
(***) of four

Given the richness of the source material, it's a disappointment that Lights emerges as just another typical sports movie. Well-made, yes, but lacking the spark of originality that could have come through had the writers respected the vivid characterizations of H.G. Bissinger's book. Instead, we are given the laundry list of football movie cliches. There's the reluctant hero quarterback, a brooding, quiet type who seems too sensitive for such a brutish game. The cocky, unbelievably talented star player whose season-ending injury is preordained from the movie's opening moments. The rookie suddenly thrust into the spotlight. The alcoholic father, the intense, but thoughtful head coach, and even one of those great trick plays that only work in movies like this. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for its been-there-done-that nature. Fortunately, on the production side, the movie is a success. The performances are excellent, especially Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gaines and Lucas Black as quarterback Mike Winchell (both have come quite a way from Sling Blade). Director Berg wisely doesn't hyper-caffeinate the football scenes and has a good eye for the small details in Odessa (such as numerous shops and businesses closing for the games). It's a shame, then, that the writers chose to gloss over the undercurrent of racism in these small Southern towns, raising the issue only in a scene where two teams negotiate the racial makeup of the officiating squad. There also is not enough time spent showing the extent of how much football takes over all aspects of these high schools. When the football coach makes more than the principal and more money is poured into the stadium and training equipment than entire academic departments, why not focus more on how even a basic education is subordinate to fielding a competitive team? It's a missed opportunity for Lights to stand apart from its peers. It's still watchable enough and is effective for your typical sports movie, but it's a shame that it couldn't be more.

US 2004, Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Milo Addica, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Jonathan Glazer
(***) of four

Birth opens with a man jogging through a wintry park. The camera hovers behind in an unbroken, languid shot. The music, a cheerfully expressive Victorian overture, overwhelms the visual frame. The shot carries on with no credits and nothing distracting our attention. Soon, the man's pace slows, he stumbles slightly and falls forward, lying motionless on the ground. The camera lingers on his prone body and cuts suddenly to a shot of a newborn baby. The title card appears and the movie jumps ten years ahead. Nicole Kidman plays the widow Anna, who has just gotten engaged to Joseph. Both are upper-class and living in a world of picturesque apartments and ceaseless privilege that recalls the hermetic New York City of Eyes Wide Shut. During the festivities, a young boy arrives and demands to see Anna. He tells her that he is Sean, her dead husband, and that she cannot marry Joseph. Everyone questions the boy, but he answers readily, recalling the most intimate details of Sean and Anna's relationship. What do you do when the lost love of your life returns, but in a form you could never anticipate? How do you keep yourself from falling in love again and what are the consequences if you do?

Birth takes its absurd premise and plays it out without resorting to supernatural cop-outs and without falling back on tongue-in-cheek self-reference. As such, it is certainly one of the most original movies of the year. Written by Glazer, Monster's Ball writer Milo Addica, and former Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, Birth brings to mind Bunuel's Surrealist classics (e.g. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) by chronicling how people (especially members of the elite upper-class) react when faced with the absurd. Nicole Kidman is wonderfully unhinged as she slowly starts to believe Young Sean. Cameron Bright, as Sean, performs far beyond his years (it occurred to me how much fun it would be to see him and Dakota Fanning together in a film) and his scenes with Kidman work because they are played with such maturity. Jonathan Glazer's stylish direction matches perfectly with the fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat. The music has such a hold over the film that it plays more as a Surrealist mood piece than a straight melodrama (the last movie to employ music so effectively was P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love). The only thing that holds the film back is a deliberately slow pace that, while matching the movie's tone, allows the viewer to become disengaged at times. The ending, while adequate, is also not quite as satisfying as it could be. Regardless, as Glazer's follow-up to the equally idiosyncratic Sexy Beast, it's a fascinating film by a director not afraid to try something different. Recommended.