And the Oscar goes to . . .
Many moons ago on the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live, Bill Murray did run-downs of Oscar-nominated films — never mind that he hadn’t watched them all. Here to perform a latter-day version of that dubious service is your very own Cliff Thompson. Avatar? The Hurt Locker? Haven’t seen ‘em! But here are thoughts on three movies I did manage to catch, in the order I saw them:
Inglourious Basterds. There is an odd emotional imbalance to this film. In the first segment Christoph Waltz gives a surpassingly good performance as evil on two legs, a Nazi officer who pays of visit to the home of a farmer with three daughters. The farmer is hiding Jews in his cellar; the Nazi knows it full well, and the farmer knows he knows it. Like a cat who has cornered a family of mice, the Nazi proceeds to play a game whose horror lies in the certainty of the outcome.
Cut to the American officer Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his Basterds, a squad of Jewish soldiers whose uncomplicated delight in slaughtering Nazis brings to mind football players dancing in the end zone. It’s as if we’ve been watching Schindler’s List and then Bugs Bunny shows up to save the day.
And yet it worked for me. The closest analogy I can think of is that of a parent whose child falls and skins her knee; the worst thing the parent can do is make a face that mirrors the child’s — if the child gets the message that things are as bad as she thinks, you can count on some crying. Better, much better, to be matter-of-fact, even upbeat. That seems to be Quentin Tarantino‘s guiding principle here. You don’t dwell on the power of evil in the world; rather, you acknowledge it just long enough to wipe it out, preferably with a smile on your face. I don’t know what I’d think of this message if I were a Holocaust survivor. As an audience member, I was riveted, entertained, satisfied.
Up in the Air. (SPOILER ALERT.) It’s a sign of how good this movie is that its few flaws stand out like chocolate chips in pancake batter. George Clooney is a professional fire-er and proud commit-o-phobe who is happy to spend most of his life on airplanes or in hotels. In a hotel bar he meets a woman (Vera Farmiga) who travels nearly as much as he does — who appears, indeed, to be a female version of Clooney himself, as they make a game of getting laid in the cities where their paths intersect.
Now for those chocolate chips. How could Farmiga spend so much time with Clooney without once, at any moment, giving even a hint about the other areas of her life? And if we accept that degree of secrecy and compartmentalization and the delicate balancing act they suggest, then how — and why — would she accept a spur-of-the-moment invitation to Clooney’s sister’s wedding?
These are minor quibbles. This is a thoughtful, graceful, bittersweet film that sidesteps cliché and hits you harder than you may realize at first. Clooney manages to turn on star power while fully immersing himself in the cad he plays — and making you care about him.
Precious. Speaking of sidestepping, that is what I am going to do with the controversy surrounding this movie. Ishmael Reed wrote a New York Times piece saying that Precious makes black people look bad. He’s right. Sapphire, on whose novel the movie is based, responded that she is a creative writer, not a sociologist. She’s right. Let’s call it a draw.
Onto the movie itself, then. I’m still not sure what I think of its narrative arc, but its power is undeniable. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is, of course, a startlingly overweight sixteen-year-old who is pregnant for the second time by her father and lives with her mother (Mo’Nique) — a woman who can be called “abusive” the way Einstein could be called “bright.”
The performances are uniformly good (Mo’Nique’s is damn frightening), but to my mind it is Mariah Carey ‘s carefully shaded turn as a social worker, Ms. Weiss, that gives the film a dimension if might otherwise lack. In contrast to the other major figures in Precious’s life, Ms. Weiss is neither a human disaster nor an angel with her heart on her sleeve; she has her own motivations, but it is unclear what they are, beyond a weary commitment to her work. In her one-on-one sessions with Precious, the air of mystery about Ms. Weiss works like a magnet for the intriguing bits of Precious’s own personality, drawing them to the surface, leading this girl to say things that hint at depths unrevealed as she struggles to read in her GED class or gets abuse heaped on her at home.
And the Oscar goes to . . . I don’t know, what do you think?