Unedited, correction appended version of the review printed in iMAGES on the 7th of March 2010
The Big Ones Aren’t Really that Big. It’s the Small Ones that Really Count.
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid and Farheen Jawaid
In this week’s Animadversion, we review the 82th Academy Awards ten best picture nominees. Starting in alphabetical order, they are:
Everything in Avatar is big. Big foreign worlds (Pandora, which is actually a moon). Big exotic – and almost too earth-like – flora. Big yellow-eyed, blue-skinned, well-built aliens (the Na’vi, they’re called). Big six-legged cats, monkey-lemurs and multi-colored Pterosaurs. Big corporate mining. Big battle sequences. Big running time. Big messages (cultural heritage, biodiversity, green-peace, recent American invasions). And big box-office.
Webbed within the big is a small inter-species love story (Zoe Saldana is the main alien squeeze) and a smaller plot.
Avatar is an engaging bright star that transcends its complexity and settles for cushy, unanimous storytelling. It is about a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake Skully (Sam Worthington) who by sheer twist of fate (a brother’s death and matching genetic codes) becomes a pilot of an aliens bio-replica and like every cocky underdog ascends to the level of kings (or was it tribal leader).
James Cameron, returning from a 12 year lull, commandeers the sanity with attention-grabbing photo-realistic visuals. Yet, for all the technical and arty pizzazz, Avatar lacks that genuine emotional connection. It’s like connecting to one of the big red Leonopteryx in the film (the Na’vi link-up with alien animals via a cerebral bond through their hair-like extensions). You log-in. You pilot. You understand. You like it enough to go to the cinemas, once, twice, maybe thrice. You buy the DVD. But you do not fall in love with it, unconditionally.
The Blind Side
By its précis, The Blind Side is about fighting adversity with a gesture of kindness. It is also a sports movie (somewhere). Sandra Bullock, who rides into Julia Roberts territory, outshines most of her previous, serious, portfolio and delivers a personal best as a suburban mom who shelters and ultimately welcomes into her family, a lone-wandering teenager, Michael Oher.
The Blind Side is based on Oher’s true life story, and that credence coupled with the cliché–less, easily accessible, storytelling of director John Hancock (Remember the Titans, The Rookie), makes it something close to a classic golden age Hollywood movie; One where adversity is easier to handle than real-life.
District 9 is an alien ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg where not-too-smart, prawn-looking, aliens live in closed-quartered sheds. In one of the film’s wide aerial shot, District 9 looks like a garbage disposal.
At the beginning of District 9, one of the narrators ponders the strangeness of an alien-mother ship hovering over Johannesburg. If it was a typical Hollywood movie, he thinks, the giant alien vessel would be suspended over New York. If District 9 was typically Hollywood, the aliens would be out for world domination. Here, the aliens just want to get home. But with failing technology they’re left to the kindness of strangers – us humans. That spells trouble.
Expanding on the short-film Alive in Joburg, also directed by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 roughs it out as a realistic sci-fi fable about marooned aliens and corporate agendas. Its grip on the human-angle of the story, its half-documentary, Cinéma vérité styled filmmaking and break-neck pace blankets its vulnerabilities (there are many) like a see-through cloth. District 9 is a raw, unglamorous departure from the usual sci-fi/alien genre that excels in telling a story with above–par visual effects; but it is nowhere near a Best Picture nomination.
David is a multifaceted complexity: he is at times a smooth operator, a love-struck dupe, a shifty predator, and a shady businessman; and he lives a self-made man’s extravagant lifestyle. On the other hand, Jenny, will be 17 soon.
For now, she is a 16 year old, blossoming young woman in pre-Beatles 1961 England. Jenny, played by a captivating Carey Mulligan, is sharp and educated – she is at the top of her class, though her Latin needs a bit of a push – and she’s amenable to real-world influence (her clothes and hair-style oft reflect Audrey Hepburn’s from A Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was a ‘61 release).
Jenny’s first influence is a young-woman’s fascination with everything French; her second is David (a deceptive and charming Peter Sarsgaard), a man little over twice her age. Aptly titled, one can’t help but get hooked by the grace of Lone Scherfig’s direction and the sheer electricity of Nick Hornby’s dialogues and screenplays (there is no senseless paining, so popular in recent blockbusters like Twilight).
The Hurt Locker
Explosive. Tense. Blunt. Raw. Adrenaline-pumping. Action-packed: These aren’t just words in a movie review.
In The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, K-19 Widowmaker) and screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah), let go of routine war-movie material and formulaic screen-story makeup (the movie is written and photographed in a non-documentary fashion), and skip to strings of standalone situations faced by a bomb-specialist Army unit in Baghdad. The unit is first led by Guy Pierce, in a tense, unpredictable, opening act, and then by a rough, reckless and cocky non-team player Jeremy Renner (justly deserving his Oscar nomination).
The movie bends enough filmmaking conventionalities to warrant its own sub-genre. There are no political ambiguities in this movie. No hidden agendas, crafty congressmen, or MIA soldiers.
There is no fantasy in The Hurt Locker, only a serious, blindingly brilliant daze of spectacular, contagious, entertainment, with enough unconventional narrative and emotional chops to make it a serious entry in any university’s cinema-study curriculum.
To quote our own review from iMAGES:
“Inglourious Basterds is sort of spaghetti western draped in a once-popular World War II movie formula about a group of gung-ho soldiers infiltrating Nazi territory on a critical, and most of the times fatal, mission. It is pretty much ‘The Dirty Dozen’ turned impudent and imprudent, as it eschews known history and jumps into an alternate reality bandwagon by its climax.
“One specific narrative strand has Christoph Waltz, in a ripping tri-lingual performance, as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa (labeled as the Jew Hunter, for his unusual methods of tracking secreted Jews). Dexterous and uncanny Mr. Watlz is a powerhouse icon in ‘Basterds’, who at times severely head-butts Mr. Tarantino’s skill as a writer and director. Basterds is a blistering showcase about the power of idiosyncratic cinema.
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Set in late 80’s Harlem, Precious is an all-too-conscious misfire about a sixteen year old African-American girl Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), twice impregnated by her father, who lives an impoverished existence with an imperious, fuming mother (Mo’Nique, in what will be her Oscar winning performance).
Precious is a typical Oscar contender that’s too aware of the sensitivity of its underlying story. But this knowledge comes at the cost of telling that story. Precious is ineffectively told. Its writing is without emotion; its cinematography, bleak and misplaced; its editing is nothing more than standard-cuts. Lee Daniels, the director, should go to a decent film school.
A Serious Man
And so, A Serious Man (written and directed by the Cohen Brothers) begins with a short story about a Russian man, his wife and an elderly man who could be a wandering spirit.
This unique ten-minute opening leads to one of the best – if inconsequential and discomforting –films about a very serious man, Larry Gopnik (a marvelous Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor and a fraction of his soon to be turbulent life: his wife is leaving him, his daughter is pinching money to get a nose job, his unemployed brother might be a threat to national security, and he has a failing Korean student who wants to buy a passing grade. Filled with uncanny wit and beau ideal dark comedy A Serious Man is the stuff Oscars are made for – though it won’t get anything this year.
Like all Pixar’s movies Up is more than its premise. A 78 year old man rigs his house with gazillion balloons to fulfill his dead-wife’s wish. On his porch is a stowaway kid. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Petersen (Petersen also wrote the screenplay), it is an odd-couple adventure with a genuine heart beating in its center. Ok, so Up isn’t as significant as Wall-E. Well I ask you, what movie is? It is a pleasure seeing Up, an animated movie, up for a Best Picture nom (No, Avatar is a live–action–animated movie).
Up in the Air
In the age of corporate downsizing, being a lay-off specialist is good business. Ryan Bingham (a deviously cool George Clooney) is a downsizing professional and his life is the road – or to be exact, airport hotels and frequent flier miles, which he collects (everyone needs a hobby).
Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno and Thank You for Smoking), who writes with Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air is a prime example of unfussy storytelling that’s brisk, stark and so very beguiling, that you end up liking George Clooney even as he is laying people off. But more than that, it is a character piece about real-people (as real as they can be in movies, anyway). Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are first-rate because Reitman and Turner write them as screen-equals and not supporting characters. Kendrick is a neophyte radical who proposes an internet-based system for firing people. Farmiga, in her career best, is another frequent flyer sets-up a well-timed, (casual) affair with Clooney’s Bingham. Up in the Air is classic Golden Age Hollywood stuff. Or maybe it’s even better. I haven’t decided.
The printed version of the article can be found at: