Blundering Blindness, intermittently successful Flashes | Film Review | Indy Week
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Blundering Blindness, intermittently successful Flashes 

One against all

click to enlarge Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore in Blindness - PHOTO BY KEN WORONER/ MIRAMAX FILMS
  • Photo by Ken Woroner/ Miramax Films
  • Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore in Blindness

Blindness opens Friday in select theaters

The movies have a poor track record with filming high-quality literature: More often than not, the screenwriters are so hobbled by the need to pay fealty to their source novels, and the directors are so enamored of their superstar casts, that we get boring, tasteful pictures like Cold Mountain and Atonement. Neither of those films was nearly as much fun as, say, The Devil Wears Prada, which was adapted from a book of non-literature.

The new film Blindness, adapted by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) from the novel by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, suffers from a slightly different problem. His story is that of an unnamed city afflicted with an outbreak of contagious blindness. The city first tries to stanch the problem by quarantining the sick, but there's no containing the virus. Soon, there's a breakdown of the civic—and human—order.

It's not a bad premise for a serious novel. However, this is also the plot of every zombie flick ever made, and of more than a few art films (recently, 28 Days Later, Children of Men). Whether they're pop horror or highbrow horror, the makers of those films had a sense of their audience and the movie vocabulary to reach those viewers. Blindness, on the other hand, is little more than earnest moralizing that asks us to wring our hands as we see how horrid people become in the absence of order.

The bulk of the tale is set in a makeshift ward for the newly blind. Despite the efforts of two married physicians (Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore) to establish calm, conditions deteriorate. It becomes apparent that the patients are actually prisoners, and as their confinement becomes ever more untenable, the inmates split into factions. When food becomes scarce, one group seizes it and begins to demand the valuables, then the sexual services, of the others in exchange for food. Soon the blind are battling the blind.

Saramago's book was published in 1995, but the parallels to recent history—in particular, the drowning of New Orleans—are unmistakable. While the book is an understandably appealing choice for adaptation, Meirelles and screenwriter Don McKellar (who also appears in the film as a thief) show no interest in the pop pleasures of disaster flicks and little instinct for the ethical and artistic agendas of such highbrow cinematic apocalypses as Ingmar Bergman's Shame and Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf.

Instead, we have dull, draggy, conventional filmmaking—and a toast "to the human family" at the end. For those still awake for the final act, there is a vivid sequence of blind citizens in the streets of the city attacking each other for food. Otherwise, this is a wooden ship of a cautionary tale that wants to shock us with its pessimism. But really, we've all read Lord of the Flies, we've all seen zombie movies and, lately, we've all been living in a daily disaster scenario. Blindness shows us little that we haven't seen. —David Fellerath

Flash of Genius opens Friday throughout the Triangle

The typical David-and-Goliath story seldom troubles itself with such pesky questions as "At what price victory?" since the cost of defeat is usually so much higher. Nevertheless, this dilemma lies at the heart of the parable of Robert Kearns, the man at the center of Flash of Genius, a true-life account of his battle against the corporate giant that wronged him.

The narrative is an irresistible piece of low-hanging, Capra-esque fruit: In the early 1960s, Kearns (Greg Kinnear), an engineer and part-time inventor, perfected an electrical process for intermittent windshield wipers. After applying for patents, he demonstrated his invention for the Ford Motor Co., which initially agreed to purchase motors from Kearns. Ford later rebuffed Kearns' offer and instead unveiled its own type of intermittent wipers. Upon inspection, Kearns learned that Ford's design was identical to his.

So began decades of legal wrangling that would consume Kearns for the rest of his life. Philip Railsback's script rides his hero's little-guy appeal all the way through the clichéd courtroom climax. Still, the film gets interesting when Kearns begins to rebuff increasingly lucrative offers to settle his lawsuit. His attorney, Greg Lawson (Alan Alda), explains that "money is how justice is dispensed in this country," and here the sentiment comes across as wisdom rather than cynicism. After all, Kearns' motive for developing and marketing his wiper invention was the potential for profit. When he rejects huge settlement offers, his motives become more ambiguous. While he eventually earns much of the vindication he desires, he also loses his family and, at times, his sanity.

Helmer Marc Abraham seems to recognize this subtext, but the longtime producer—but first-time director—simply seems incapable of amplifying it; his murky, bland presentation gets no help from cinematographer Dante Spinotti's murky, bland visuals. In contrast, Steve Zaillian's A Civil Action—in many ways the fraternal twin of Flash of Genius—is a flawed film that at least had the wisdom to embrace its protagonist's righteous folly. And, one needn't imagine what a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese could forge out of this tragic character arc: Just pop in a DVD of Raging Bull or even The Aviator.

Even the ever-improving Kinnear suffers in an otherwise fine performance. For all his recent success, Kinnear has yet to be pushed outside his comfort zone. Flash of Genius presents his best chance to date to do so, but it, like the film itself, turns out to be a squandered opportunity. —Neil Morris


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