Best Picture Review #10: The Blind Side

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

This concludes my review of all the movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. Click here to view my final ranking.

If I had to sum up my criticism of The Blind Side in one word, it would be this: Caricature. Everything is overdone. Teachers at Michael Oher's teachers dismiss him for no apparent reason, save for one brave soul who dares to do her job. Leigh Anne Tuohy's rich lunch buddies have zero depth. Their racism stops just short of being rally-worthy. The football coach is horribly portrayed as a gutless idiot. Sandra Bullock's Southern accent is atrocious. There's a comically bad recruiting montage, complete with juvenile-level acting from actual college coaches. (By the way, why is Nick Saban shown recruiting Oher to Alabama? He was actually head coach of the Miami Dolphins at the time.) There's a scene (shown in all the previews and on the late night shows) where Mrs. Tuohy interrupts practice to inspire Michael to pretend the quarterback is her and he is to protect him as he would her. The scene is praised because it captures the psyche of the Southern woman so well. It does, but are we really supposed to believe that Michael is so dense that this is what inspires him to play great football?

There were positives. I don't mean to imply that there are not. While I do believe that Sandra Bullock's accent was over the top, she absolutely nailed the mannerisms of a Southern woman, as I noted above. Jae Head was absolutely great as the adoptive little brother SJ. The framing of the story was fine. Overall, though, TBS suffers from campiness.

It's really a shame, because the true story that lies behind the movie is inspiring and deserved better treatment. I heard many people, especially Christians (there are many references to "Christian duty" in the story, and Michael is placed in a Christian high school), lauding The Blind Side as a quality family-friendly movie. I hate the false barrier that many try to place between the "Christian world" and the "secular world," but if it exists, I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors when we try to sell mediocrity to secular society as quality. The main reason The Blind Side fails, in my opinion, is that there is virtually no ambiguity contained in the story. There is a tendency in the mainstream Christian movement to avoid shades of gray, and this is where our credibility is in question, because there is gray everywhere. 2.5/5

Best Picture Review #9: The Hurt Locker

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker is a rare war movie in that it doesn't seem to have an agenda. Its primary message, "War is a drug," is explicitly stated at the beginning and hammered home throughout the entire film.

I see this primarily as a good thing, by the way. Most recent war movies delve too heavily into the "Should we be there?" question, rather than acknowledging that we are there and dealing with the issues at hand. THL wastes no time. One of the bigger name actors in the movie is cast into the role of a soldier that dies in the first 10 minutes. I imagine that some people weren't fazed by this, but it rattled me. From that point on, it seemed that no character was guaranteed to make it to the end of the movie, making the already well-shot and focused bomb-defusing scenes even more tense. There are plenty of memorable scenes, the best one being at the end where the protagonist stands in the grocery store looking at a wall of cereal boxes. How is it possible that this world and the world the rest of the movie is set in are compatible?

I have seen the tight cinematography listed in reviews as the major strength of The Hurt Locker, but to me it is the cat-and-mouse game that is played between the bomb makers and the bomb defusers. Each bomb is more complex than the last, and the interesting thing is the Iraqis will stick around to see whether or not they win. This exploration of the tactical game is rare in war movies.

I think where THL goes awry, though, is when Sgt. James reaches his breaking point. It's hard enough to believe that a three-man explosives team like this exists in the first place, but I was willing to overlook this until James makes his bad decision, and then the whole thing fell apart as unbelievable to me. There is absolutely no way that there is no CO that he reports to. The only consequence of his action was that the affected party cursed at him a little. In the large scheme of things, this inexcusable scene bumps this movie down from an all-time Top 10 war movie to merely an above-average one. It's that big of a deal for me. 4/5

Best Picture Recap: Ranking the Nominees

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I haven't posted my reviews for The Hurt Locker or The Blind Side yet. I have seen them; I just need to write them up. They will be posted later tonight or tomorrow. I wanted to get my rankings up before the actual ceremony, though. This the order that I personally rank them, not a prediction.

1. Inglourious Basterds
2. Up
3. A Serious Man
4. Avatar
5. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
6. The Hurt Locker
7. An Education
8. Up in the Air
9. District 9
10. The Blind Side

Best Picture Review #8: A Serious Man

You should know this up front: I'm a sucker for well-done Biblical allusion. A Serious Man takes the story of Job and applies it to a Jewish man in 1967, and the result is a wonderfully deep tale that questions the role of God in our affairs.

Nothing is going right in the life of Physics professor Larry Gopnik's life. He uses pithy illustrations about cats to teach complicated physics problems, then gets frustrated with a student when he focuses on the illustration rather than the math behind it. When the Junior Rabbi uses a similar hokey analogy to try to explain why everything in his life is going bad, his frustration goes. Larry doesn't "understand the math" behind why Hashem isn't bailing him out of his situation. At one point, he is standing on his roof trying to get better reception on his aerial antenna (brilliant symbolism), when he notices his neighbor sunbathing naked. Sound familiar? There are at least a dozen other allusions, and none of them seem forced or extraneous.

The most poignant is Larry's feeble quest to speak with Rabbi Marshak, the oldest and wisest of the clergymen. Like Job, he is turned away. In A Serious Man, the protagonist can see into Rabbi Marshak's office and tell that he isn't busy, but he is told there is no time for him to be seen. Eventually, Larry's son Danny is the one that is allowed to go in and speak to him, and the Rabbi is surprisingly not as serious as you might think. (The title is also spoken in the film about another character, but it works on many levels.) Marshak finds meaning in a Jefferson Airplane song, but whether or not Danny appreciates the Rabbi's attention or interpretation is in question.

I want to step aside and think about the son for a minute. I think that on one level, he is the key to the entire story. Larry is without a doubt the protagonist, but much of his final acceptance is based on his relationship with Danny. For that, I am very grateful for the way the Coen Brothers treated his part of the story. On the other hand, I absolutely hated the Bar Mitzvah scene. I read somewhere (can't find the link) that the idea of a kid being high at his own Bar Mitzvah was the original idea that the screenplay came from, but it seems like the script evolved enough that this scene came from a completely different movie. I thought it was wholly unnecessary, and so were Danny's friends that ride the bus with him. Maybe there's a way that they fit in that makes sense, but I've been thinking about this movie constantly for three days and it continues to bewilder me. In fact, I don't think I've been so internally conflicted about the quality of a movie before.

My conclusion (subject to change) is that A Serious Man is a brilliant movie that gets bogged down by a couple of extraneous plotlines, but it's still very much worth a viewing. The ending shot alone (a whirlwind, which some people claim whispers right before the credits roll) is worth the experience. 4.5/5

Best Picture Review #7: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I didn't want to give Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire a chance. From what I knew about the plot (a girl with a bad home life is redeemed by education), I had seen this movie before. I was partly right. There's not a whole lot in the story that differentiates it from the crowd of inspirational movies of the same ilk. There's a teacher who goes out of her way to give Precious individual attention, even though she's been left behind by the system. A social worker and a nurse fill the same roles, and because of them Precious gains the confidence she needs to take care of herself. Much of her motivation comes from her new child. It's the same old stuff. And you know what? It's a decent story. Why else would producers green light so many films with that same plot?

There are two things that make Precious stand out from all those other cookie cutter movies: the first is the way director Lee Daniels handles Precious' first person account. Daniels slips in between reality and fantasy throughout the narration and exposition of the film, to great effect. Even during the lowest moments of Precious' life (and boy, are they low), she is daydreaming about how it could be better. The dreams are vivid and somehow both far-fetched and realistic. What this allows Daniels to do is inject hope into an utterly hopeless situation without cheapening or watering down the story. I also appreciated the use of the handheld camera in certain situations to emphasize where Precious' focus was (although it tended to be distracting in parts).

The other distinctive feature of Precious is the realistic depiction of the moral ambiguity of the secondary characters. Daniels chooses not to paint the teacher and the social worker and the nurse as merely perfect selfless robots, but as normal people trapped in the system who happen to be performing extraordinary heroic acts on Precious' behalf. This ambiguity, personified especially by the performances of Paula Patton, Mariah Carey (yes, that Mariah Carey), and Lenny Kravitz (yes, that Lenny Kravitz) is what pushes Precious from good to great. 4.5/5

Best Picture Review #6: An Education

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To say that An Education is a coming of age story almost does it a disservice. Yes, it's primarily about a 16 year-old girl's education (both on the street and in the classroom), but director Lone Scherfig accomplishes so much more than that. Scherfig tells a compelling story about Jenny's ill-advised romance with a much older man, and along the way manages to slip in commentary about the role that education plays in a patriarchal society without being distracting or overbearing.

Mostly, though, the film does examine the education Jenny receives from David. Their on-screen romance is awkward at best, but I think that's what makes the film work. Jenny was never really in love with David himself, but with the idea of being liberated and whisked away to France while her man-friend does his Eddie Haskell routine with her normally overbearing father.

I really enjoyed the treatment that Scherfig gives to Jenny's character. As she gets more and more wrapped up in her "adult" life, Jenny's surroudings, costumes, hair, demeanor, and disposition transform as well. It is clear that this experience has changed her. Is it for the better? The film almost lets you make that decision for yourself, but the ambiguity is lost in the terrible ending.

An Education is based on a true story. The real Jenny, Lynn Barber, wrote a short memoir about it, which can be found here (major spoilers). The film remains very truthful to Barber's account, but the ending takes her conclusions and goes in a completely different direction. Consider the following statement from Barber (spoiler, highlight to read):

What did I get from Simon? An education - the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford - I could read a menu, I could recognise a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.

Why, then, does Jenny narrate that she'll act is if she'd never been to Paris? It seems as if the screenwriters are trying to insert a happy ending into a story that already has one, which to me killed all the emotional momentum the film had going for it. Still, up until that point An Education is a fantastic character study, and for that reason alone I recommend watching it. 4/5

Best Picture Review #5: Inglourious Basterds

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

At the end of Inglourious Basterds, one of the main characters looks at the screen and says, "This just might be my masterpiece." The implication, of course, is that the movie itself is Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece, an assertion that may actually be correct.

Tarantino's quirky fingerprints are all over IB, from the misspelled title (speculated to be accidental in this humorous post) to the film's complete (and obviously purposeful) lack of historical accuracy. These quirks are very off-putting to many, but as a QT apologist, I see the value in many of the oddball things he does. An example: In the very tense 21-minute opening scene, Colonel Hans Landa (superbly portrayed by Christoph Waltz, my pick for Best Actor) and Perrierr LaPadite are speaking in French (they are in France, after all) when Colonel Landa casually suggests that they switch to English. When watching it the first time, I inwardly groaned, thinking this was one of THOSE movies where the foreign characters speak English only so that American audiences won't complain about having to read subtitles. I should have known that this would end up being an important plot point, and it was. (Of course, it opens up a possible plot hole at the end; if you've seen the movie, think about the inserted scene in the theater.)

Overall, I think Tarantino uses his powers for good here. His over-the-top violent style actually seems quite perfect for the subject matter. Likewise, The double Mexican Standoff scene (another Tarantino trademark), while ridiculous, doesn't seem unnecessary and actually serves to move the plot along quite nicely while adding a layer of intrigue to the proceedings when the separate storylines start to intertwine.

This convergence of the seemingly very different stories is nothing short of masterful. The protagonists of each story never even meet, but they are kindred spirits in many ways. One, Shoshanna, is motivated by personal revenge, while the other, Lt. Aldo Raine, seems to be spurred on by a sense of justice (as well as a desire for scalps). Each faces significant obstacle to achieving their purpose, and while it may seem far-fetched that each has to go through Col. Landa to get there, the confrontations don't feel forced at all. In the end, both the effectiveness and futility of each character's actions are represented by the American Jews that stand on a balcony shooting at people who are dying in a theater fire anyway. In Tarantino's world, the final victory is both inevitable and completely dependent on the resolve of the major players. The resulting tension is profound.

I'm not sure that you could have planned for a greater irony than for this film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Holocaust and other World War II flicks are invariably highly favored by the Academy, and Inglourious Basterds is as close to a parody of the genre as you can get while remaining respectful. Even so, it never feels like a parody. It is indeed a masterpiece. 5/5

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