Thanks to my fellow blogger, Andrew Pankin, for guest-reviewing The Blind Side and Precious, which I didn't have time to see before this post. The ProgOSCARcators, if you're wondering, are still authored by yours truly. Unfortunately, I don't need to actually see the movies to predict whether they'll win.
PANKIN, DO YO THANG.
The Blind Side, dir. John Lee Hancock
The Blind Side is based on Michael Lewis’s 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. We follow our hero, real-life Baltimore Ravens star Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) through every step of his football-playing career, starting his introduction to the game in high school and ending with his 1st round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. (This last part is archival footage, naturally.) During his journey, he overcomes such hurdles as a violent upbringing, utter destitution, and racial prejudice (some of those referees were just plain unfair to him!).
Our hero’s main advocate is real-life philanthropist/interior decorator Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), whose infinite store of kindness and generosity is exceeded only by her undepletable checkbook. In a heartwarming display of "Christian Values", she takes Oher into her lavishly impressive home, legally adopts him since his real family is out of the picture, and sets him up to play football for her alma mater, Ole Miss. Oher gains a family, a career, and economic stability, while the Tuohys (and the viewers) all learn a valuable lesson about the power of love.
In addition to chronicling Michael Oher’s personal and professional trials and tribulations, the film addresses the issue of “boosters” – rich alumni of prestigious athletic-centered colleges who adopt talented yet underprivileged youths, then use their connections and influence to fast-track them into their alma maters. As far as real life issues, though, it’s pretty light weight, and it doesn’t help that they portrayed the woman investigating Oher’s case as a bit of a moustache-twirling villain.
All those warmed hearts and tear-soaked hankys aside, the main buzz around this film is and always has been Sandra Bullock’s performance, the only other Oscar for which the film was nom’d. She pulled out all the stops in a pretty convincing attempt to show that she’s aged gracefully (at least talent-wise) and that she’s ready to take the next step in her already successful career. But while Bullock putting her surprising level of acting chops on display might make for a fun story and perhaps a lower-tier award (if she can beat out the old favorites), one decent performance does not a Best Picture make.
This is a prole-ish selection, even for the Academy. I see this nod as a cynical move to attract a larger audience for the telecast and perhaps the clearest example of why the field was widened to 10. But populist nominations do not automatically indicate populist winners. This ain't gon' happen. 0%.
AIGHT PANKIN, KEEP IT GOIN'.
Precious: Based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire, dir. Lee Daniels
Nothing seems to go right for Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) in this brutal tale of adversity. The movie starts with her hazy recollection of getting raped by her own father. Her mother (Mo’Nique) constantly hurls physical and emotional abuse at her. She can barely read, write, or do ‘rithmetic, and at age 16, she’s pregnant with her second incest-baby without having yet graduated from junior high school.
Shortly into the film, to the relief of the audience, Precious (the character) starts connecting with some positive influences. She finds compassion in Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), a benevolent and committed social worker. She enrolls in a special school, called “Each One Teach One” (try to say that one five times fast), where she makes friends and receives guidance from her lesbian teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). And she gets advice from an enigmatically wise and attractive hospital nurse (Lenny Kravitz).
But just when she finally gets herself and her two kids (one of whom has Down Syndrome) away from her horrific mother and into a halfway house, it’s revealed that Precious has HIV. Man, she just can’t catch a break! Then, out of nowhere, her mother shows up for an emotional attempt to reconcile with Precious, in a tour de force this-will-instantly-make-my-
What an encouraging story of overcoming… what, exactly? It seems to me that she’s out of the frying pan and into another larger, slightly less hot frying pan. But the Academy thought it was well acted (two acting noms), well organized (Best Director), well written (Best Adapted Screenplay) and well put together (Best Editing), handing the film six nominations in all. To me, though, it was just a rags-to-also-rags story punctuated by some weird fantasy sequences with absolutely no moral at the end.
In some ways, even a five-nominee Best Picture category was too much: there were always one or two movies that had no chance of winning. So widening the field to ten only increases the number of movies that it's not going to happen for.
Early on, though, Precious seemed to have the same kind of multicultural cachet that propelled Crash and Slumdog Millionaire to the top honors. But somehow, the buzz behind everything except for Mo'Nique's performance died down considerably over the course of the year. Producers Tyler Perry and Oprah should be happy they got a nod, but they shouldn't be waiting on a winner. Survey says: 2%.
YO THANKS PANKIN, IMMA TAKE IT FROM HERE
District 9, dir. Neil Blomkamp
Gah, this movie made me uncomfortable. Fellow Charge-Shooter Alex Boivin once referred to District 9 as "genre," and, ostensibly, he meant "sci-fi." But, for the first half of this thing, I couldn't figure out what the hell he was talking about. Unless of course by genre he meant "body horror" (a genre pioneered by David Cronenberg in movies like The Fly), which I could understand completely.
The premise is patently "sci-fi," though: an alien ship has been stalled over Johannesburg, South Africa for twenty years. But when cowardly bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley, magnificent in his first role) gets sprayed with an unidentified liquid that begins to transform him into one of the aliens he's trying to evict from their refugee camp, I started to get "body horror" sick to my stomach. The thing he (spoiler alert) eventually transforms into is hideous (the humans accurately refer to the aliens as "prawns", after the giant crickets that roam the South African plains), as is his transformation (vomiting black blood, various suppurating alien orifices). And the metamorphosis is made all the more unnerving by director Neil Blomkamp's effective use of documentary technique: Wikus really does seem like a normal (if detestably simple-minded) dude. So the "this could happen to me" feeling becomes all the more palpable. That's what "body horror" is all about: the real terror is inside you. Commence feeling of willies.
But the second half of District 9, alas, evinced my colleague's generic dismissal. The movie degenerates into an admittedly entertaining series of chases and mech battles (Pankin pointed out that two of the ten Best Picture nominees actually end with mech battles), and Blomkamp largely tosses aside the documentary trappings. So if the director came up with an inventive premise, he couldn't quite come through with an inventive movie. Oh well. The bits about xenophobia and racism (the title is a nod to Johannesburg's infamous Apartheid-era District 6), along with the aforementioned creepy-crawlies were intriguing enough to elevate the movie to "very good," if not quite "great."
I admire the Academy for striking out in new directions. Sci-fi (and, in the end, this is decidedly sci-fi) is not typically a genre that gets much love from Oscar (even Steven Spielberg wasn't enough to get Minority Report a nod), and this is definitely a movie that wouldn't have gotten a nod in a five-high category. But progressive nominations precede progressive winners, and it'll be a few more years before sci-fi takes the prize. Plus (and this has nothing to do with the film's chances), it doesn't deserve to win. 0%.
An Education, dir. Lone Scherfig
When I mentioned to a friend that An Education had an unsatisfying third act, he replied simply, "Yeah, third acts are hard." Simply put, but totally on-point: the vast majority of films falter when they need to wrap things up: Office Space was pretty wonderful, but you could tell Mike Judge was more interested in his premse than resolving his story. Ditto for Wet Hot American Summer and about a billion other movies.
Ditto for An Education. The premise, the mood, the performances? All wonderful. Carey Mulligan truly earns her Oscar nomination (and would earn her victory if she could take it away from Miss Congeniality) as impressionistic British schoolgirl Jenny Miller. Her penchant for dropping bits of French into conversation is charming, yes, but also slightly obnoxious. Everyone's praised Mulligan's Audrey Hepburn-esque charm, but her ability to come off as a self-conscious clone of her is perhaps more impressive.
And the story has the anthemic sweep that every good bildungsroman needs: director Lone Scherfig most certainly makes us feel the nauseous excitement of growing up fast, of being put in situations you've never seen before and going for it. His shots of 1960's London and Paris are certainly evocative.
The one who takes her into this new world (an excellent Peter Sarsgaard) also walks a fine line between two contradictory personality traits. This time, though, it's charming and creepy. Art thief and blockbuster David Goldman says all the right things, goes to all the right places, and manages to charm Jenny out of her knickers against her better judgment. So when Jenny (spoiler alert) discovers that Goldman actually has a wife and child, her outrage stems more from disappointment than surprise. He's still a con artist; she's just a bigger target.
Don't worry: it all works out for Jenny. She manages to go back to her all girls' secondary school, despite skipping her A-levels (some weird British test that probably inspired OWLs from Harry Potter), and she eventually ends up at Oxford. The ugly Jewish stereotype has had no significant effect on this girl's life, and everything ends up neat and tidy.
You can tell I'm slightly frustrated. I just wanted more. More angst, more unhealthy relationship recidivism, more indication that this young girl has gone through a seriously traumatic experience. Maybe Scherfig didn't want to punish the girl for her transgressions. Or maybe he didn't want to entirely sacrifice the breezy air of the first part of the film. Either way, I wanted more. A Scorsese-esque (not including all the coke 'n guns, of course) shift from fun to menacing would have been nice. Because, as it is, the film didn't stick with me.
Definitely more likely than District 9, but nobody has really considered this thing seriously other than in the context of Carey Mulligan's performance. I'll say 3%.
Avatar, dir. James Cameron
I'll be brief on this one, considering that I've already spoken at length about the HMFIC's record-breaking opus.
The film has its haters, and though I wouldn't call myself one of them, I'm certainly willing to concede its weaknesses. The plot's a Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves rip, the male lead is none too memorable, and I don't remember being wowed by the Coen-esque wit of the dialogue.
But it's so pretty! Honestly, two months after seeing the movie, I still remember my trip to Pandora fondly. And the whole thing really did feel more like a safari than a regular ol' trip to the movies.
A safari's not actually a bad way to think about Avatar: you see some pretty fantastic stuff while you're there, but it all feels a bit shallow. You wish you could see how the place really worked, rather than the just the carefully-planned show your tour guide reveals. But it was a pretty show.
I'm probably just being contrarian, but I've got a bad feeling about Avatar's chances. Yeah, it won a Golden Globe, but flippin' Bobby got a nomination from those jokers.
What I think is going to keep Avatar from taking top honors: there are just too many actors in the Academy, and actors don't seem to like their computer-generated counterparts. Plus, nominees that don't get Screenplay nods are unlikely to take Best Picture. The last one to do it? Titanic. Nevertheless, I'm gonna give Avatar a mere 22% chance of taking the prize. Which means the last one has gotta be my pick...
The Hurt Locker, dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow's two-hour-knee-to-the-ribs instantly entered my canon of "most unsettling films I've ever seen" when I saw it at a Manhattan theater in July. I was visiting a friend in the East Village, and rain forced our plans indoors. I, being an indoor kid anyway, didn't really mind this. We decided that we'd see a movie, and the choice ended up being, hilariously enough, between The Hurt Locker and Ponyo. Oh, if only I'd picked Ponyo.
The Hurt Locker follows Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), the head of a bomb disposal group in Iraq, as he is sent from place to place in Baghdad and the surrounding area to disarm IEDs (improvised explosive devices). And that's about it. Bigelow gives us no larger plot arc to follow: it's just Sergeant James, again and again, trying not to die. He makes a brief sidetrip to look for a missing Iraqi youth, but even that ends up being subsumed by his job description.
And that lack of anything overarching fucks with you in ways you wouldn't expect. We can't even key into the hero's larger quest if the tension threatens to overwhelm us. We just bite our nails until he disarms the bomb, let out a sigh of relief, and do it again. And again.
It's exhausting and absurd, and, at least from a filmmaking perspective, magnificent. This is one of those rare films that is so effective that you'll never want to see it again. It is truly without precedent in the history of war films. Even Apocalypse Now, a film that I'll probably never see again by choice, had a purpose. This didn't have shit. And, worst of all, it's probably a cake walk compared to the real thing. Gah.
This is my pick. It'd be the first ever win for a film directed by a woman* (and, if she took Best Director, she'd be the first woman to win that trophy), and it's the only nominee that has drawn truly universal praise (a staggering 94 on Metacritic). And, happily enough, it's also the best film of the year. I'll give it the edge and a 30%.
Thanks for reading, and I'll see you (in spirit) on Sunday night!
*And yes, I know Best Picture goes to producers. But it's still a triumph. Plus, she's a producer!
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Posted by Jordasch at 3:00 PM