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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 79

Part 79: 2010


MOVIES:

  • Inglourious Basterds

  • Precious

  • Up in the Air

  • An Education

  • District 9

  • A Serious Man

  • The Hurt Locker (winner)

  • Avatar

  • The Blind Side

  • Up (hidden gem)

Inglourious Basterds

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger, B.J. Novak, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, Omar Doom, Samm Levine, August Diehl, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke, Mike Myers, Julie Dreyfus, Richard Sammel, Alexander Fehling, Rod Taylor, Sonke Mohring, Paul Rust, Michael Bacall, Carlos Fidel, Kevin Duken, Christian Berkel, Anne-Sophie Franck, Lea Seydoux, Tina Rodriguez, Lena Friedrich, Jana Pallaske, Rainer Bock, Michael Scheel, Buddy Joe Hooker, Christian Bruckner, Hilmar Eichhorn, Patrick Elias, Eva Lobau, Salvadore Brandt, Jasper Linnewedel, Volker Michalowski, Enzo G. Castellari, Bo Svenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, Bela B, Quentin Tarantino

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz)

Other Nominations: Best Sound Mixing, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Sound Editing, Best Picture

 

Once Upon a Time…in Nazi-Occupied France…

 

From the very beginning of Inglourious Basterds, director Quentin Tarantino sets us up for fantasy. There’s no reverence in this World War II film. This is a fairy tale, a “what if…?” story that takes place in a world that offers us a much-needed alternative ending: for once, the basterds get what’s coming to them.

 

If you’re a fan of Tarantino, you know this isn’t new territory for him. Djano Unchained was a ‘what if’ slave fantasy; Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood was a ‘what if’ about the murders that shook up LA in the 1970s; and Inglorious Basterds is the ‘what if’ revenge film for every Jew or gentile who ever wanted to punch Hitler in the face and shoot some Naaht-zees. It’s brimming with all of Tarantino’s trademarks: gore, cheese, snappy dialog, and yes, even feet.

Like the best, most fantastic villains, SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is charming on the outside and Machiavellian on the inside. A Nazi officer with the nickname of “Jew Hunter”, Landa arrives at an isolated dairy farm, where he believes the farmer (Denis Menochet) is hiding Jews. Landa’s game is deliciously slow and steady, carefully building trust and tension as he questions the farmer about the Jews he knows are hiding in the floorboards.

 

Landa, of course, is correct. An explosion of gunfire kills most of them – save a young girl named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), who makes a mad run for her life. She eventually lands in Paris, where she reinvents herself as a theater owner, going by the name Emmanuele. A German soldier takes a shine to her and convinces Nazi leadership to select her cinema as host for the latest Nazi propaganda piece. Knowing the men who killed her family will likely be there, Shoshanna agrees – scheming a plan to draw all the Nazis into one place, then burn the whole thing down.

Meanwhile, the Americans have created an elite team of commandos known as the “Inglourious Basterds” who get their jollies by collecting Nazi scalps. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds have a “no nonsense” approach that’s sure to appease anyone who daydreams about shedding Nazi blood. Those they don’t kill get a big ol’ swastika carved into their forehead, then are set free to warn their brothers about the Basterds.

 

Back at the theater, Shoshanna’s plan to blow up her theater is made even better when the Brits and the Basterds join forces to help her. With the help of a German defection (Diane Kruger), the Basterds are snuck into the premier, with the sole purpose of blowing the ever-living crap out of the Nazi leadership. Now it’s up to a young survivor, her black boyfriend, and Brad Pitt to make sure Hitler’s blood paints the walls of that theater.

Like most of Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds is packed with great characters and dialogue. Brad Pitt attacks all his witty one-liners with a thick-as-molasses Kentucky accent, even when trying to speak Eye-talian.

 

But the real star of the show is Christoph Waltz, who uses charm and wit to mask his sinister intent, all while speaking an astonishing four different languages fluently. He is in full control of every single interaction, not because of a violent appearance or temper, but because he has an acute sense of the anxiety of those sitting across from him. He is able to capitalize on insecurities and lies by teasing certain matters to drag out conversations. Like the best villains, he’s always five steps ahead of you.

 

It's a hard role to play – so hard, in fact, that Tarantino was about to abandon the whole production had Christoph not Waltzed through the door. Not only is Landa multilingual, he also has to be feared and likeable. Cruel, confident, calculating, and – honestly – pretty funny, Landa carries the film with most of its best lines and moments – quite the heavy load to carry...but Waltz does is effortlessly.

Though it’s set during World War II, Inglourious Basterds is no more about war than Pulp Fiction is about…whatever the hell it’s about. This is a movie that speaks to the primary purpose of cinema: entertainment. As a true cinephile, Tarantino knows that movies can’t change the past, but they can alter how we see it. Even set in a movie theater, this film is about the appeal and power of cinema to do good, to shape history, to change things for the better.

 

Even after obliterating hundreds of Nazis, Tarantino still isn’t quite done. At the end, Raine has one more swastika to carve…as he looks down at his work, he proudly claims, “You know something? I think this just might be my masterpiece.” Could that be the director commenting on his own work? I’d say that’s a bingo!

 

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire

Director: Lee Daniels

Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Nealla Gordon, Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore, Aunt Dot, Angelic Zambrana, Quishay Powell, Grace Hightower, Kimberly Russell, Bill Sage, Romona "Sapphire"Lofton, Rodney "Bear" Jackson

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Mo'Nique), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Gabourey Sidibe), Best Film Editing, Best Director, Best Picture

 

Well, I think this might be the worst-feeling feel-good story ever made.

 

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s one that will test your tolerance for despicable behavior, breaking your heart with each passing scene. Yet this film also has great heart, crafting a story, and a hero, that rise from the ashes.

Set in the streets of Harlem, Precious tells the story of an overweight black teenager named Precious (Gabourey Sidibe). Even though she has high aspirations, she lives a horrifically depressing life. Academically, she’s struggling. She avoids looking at people, hardly ever speaks, and is nearly illiterate. For her, school is an ordeal of mocking cruelty.

 

For as bad as that is, home is worse. She has child with Down’s syndrome with another one on the way. Both are the result of her being raped by her father (oh, she’s 16, by the way). Her mother Mary (Mo’Nique) is far from a saint. She has nothing but jealousy and spite in her heart. She hates that her man prefers forcing himself on Precious than being with her and she takes all her anger out on her daughter. To call her a viper would be disrespectful to vipers. She subjects her daughter to near constant physical, verbal, and emotional assaults. “You’re a dummy, bitch!” she says to Precious. “You will never know shit, don’t nobody want you, don’t nobody need you! You done fucked around and fucked my mother-fuckin’ man and had two motherfuckin’ children…I shoulda aborted your ass!”

Though Precious may sometimes be down, she is never out. Beneath her impassive expression is a watchful, curious young woman who dreams of better possibilities. After being kicked out of school, she receives a recommendation from her principal to enter an alternative program geared towards troubled youths. There, she befriends the teacher, Blu Rain (Paula Patton), who is clearly the first adult who seems genuinely concerned about her future.

 

We, too, have sympathy for her. Her aggression is almost always justified, like when she lashes out at two boys for disrespecting a teacher she admires. She also has an inner life in which she imagines herself a star. Worthy of a love she cannot find, she struggles to find meaning in her life. It’s heartbreakingly relatable. It seems every step forward for this girl is two steps back.

But through it all, she continues to push. Push, push, push. She pushes herself. She pushes her boundaries. And when other people try to stop her, she pushes them out of the way. By the end, Precious may not have it all together, but she has enough to get her life started. It’s a moment both honest and heartbreaking in its reality.

 

Gabourey Sidibe, who made her debut performance as Precious, is tour de force here. When the film was released, she was very honest about how real this part felt for her. “I know this girl,” she said of her character. “I know her in my family, I know her in my friends, I’ve seen her, I’ve lived beside this girl.”

We’ve probably seen her, too, if we looked. But people don’t often look. We see, evaluate, and dismiss. Streets and schools alike are filled with lost souls searching for a way to assuage the pain in their lives. And for every person who’s open about it, there are surely 100 that don’t talk about it…that bottle it up, push it down, and ultimately just accept their lot in life as fate. For Precious, her stars aligned in all the worst ways, but nothing was gonna stand in her way once she made her decision to actually stop dreaming and start doing. And while it’s never easy to make the best out of shitty deal, sometimes it’s all we can do to keep ourselves afloat, to motivate ourselves to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes, even if that means we get a little burned along the way.

 

Up in the Air

Director: Jason Reitman

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Chris Lowell, Tamala Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Cut Chemist

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Kendrick), Best Supporting Actress (Vera Farmiga), Best Director, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Picture

 

Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) job is to relieve people of theirs. He spends 322 days on the road, living out of a carry-on bag, firing employees for corporate honchos who are too gutless to do it themselves. The worst economic times in corporate America are the best times for him.

 

To know him is to fly with him. Everything about his life is precise, down to the second. His clothes are packed just so to fit in his tiny suitcase. He doesn’t carry anything with him that he can’t get on the plane or at his hotel. His wallet is weighed down with gold and platinum cards from all the millions of frequent flyer miles he’s racked up over the years. His door-to-door transit through airports is all class. He waves loyalty cards at every entry and exit; and the entire airport staff know him by name. His elite traveler status is sexy, and he knows it.

Every firing he does uses the same script: “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now,” he begins, “and it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.” His delivery has such conviction that it’s hard to tell if he actually buys into what he’s saying or has simply been doing it for so long that his bullshit detector needs new batteries.

 

Those on Bingham’s receiving end – many of whom are played by actual laid-off workers cast via classified ads – are less than persuaded. Making lemonade out of lemons is one thing, but how do you do that when there are bills to be paid, mortgages to be kept up, mouths to feed? When those uncomfortable questions come up, he refers them to the packet – filled with brochures and flyers that will surely go unread. And before the first tear is shed, Bingham is off again, hopping on another plane to his next destination, taking refuge in the skies.

This solitary life is the only thing Bingham loves. It’s devoid of commitment, affection and all the other messy complexities of life. With no wife, no kids and a studio apartment he visits maybe 50 times a year, Bingham delights in being on the road, never weighed down by obligation or responsibility. He even moonlights as a motivational speaker, giving self-help lectures on how to simplify life by avoiding relational interaction.

 

But everything is thrown for a loop when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), his female shark-like equivalent. She’s looking for a situationship that can keep her entertained on business trips…but their episodic cross-country hotel sex-capades gradually leave Bingham wanting more…

And there are more hurdles at work. An eager newcomer named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has taken a job with Bingham’s firm and brings with her the idea of firing people remotely over the Internet. Naturally higher-ups are intrigued. This could save the company millions in travel expenses – but simultaneously, perhaps ironically, also threatens Bingham’s job.

 

For as accustomed as he’s become to firing people for a living, Bingham is not without compassion. He knows the weight of what he does and is a firm believer that employees deserve a personal touch when being let go. He demands the inexperienced Natalie learn the old ways before insisting on the new ones. Together, the two embark on a cross-country firing spree, all the while challenging each other’s core beliefs. What’s the value, the power, the need, for human connection? Can Natalie live with the fact that she’s actively destroying people’s lives? Can Bingham face having an authentic grown-up connection?

 

There were moments in Up in the Air that felt heartbreaking in their realness. As a fellow victim of economic layoffs, I had a lump in my throat each time I watched a father on screen cry over how he was going to provide for his family or heard an elderly person sob, wondering how they will find new employment at their age. These conversations have only become more realistic as the years have gone on. The fear of losing a job has forced us to work below our pay grade, take on additional tasks outside our job responsibilities, and burn ourselves out working 2 or 3 temp jobs until something, anything, better comes along.

These moments in the movie are certainly depressing, but they’re also weirdly cathartic. There’s a sort of comfort in knowing you’re not alone in your fear and misery about a new beginning. Indeed, for a select few, Bingham’s words do ring true – something better is right around the corner. But for the majority of us, hearing we’ve been let go is a devastating blow. It’s a kick down the latter, where you’re left battered and bruised to slowly stand up and climb back up again…only to learn someone younger and better has taken your place.

 

The irony, of course, is that Bingham has been slowly losing his job throughout the entire film. With Natalie’s iChat technology, the days of flying coast to coast are obsolete…in no time, Natalie’s technology will be calling in him for a meeting. And when he finally realizes it, all the miles, all the perks, all the points, they mean nothing. “We are here to make limbo more tolerable,” he tells Natalie during their trip. In reality, though, he’s the one treading water. The movie knows it. And we know it. What on earth will keep him grounded when everything he knows is, well, up in the air?

 

An Education

Director: Lone Scherfig

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Matthew Beard, Ellie Kendrick, Ashley Rice

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Picture

 

Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a schoolgirl in the drab London suburb of Twickenham in 1961. As an only child, and a bright one at that, Jenny is being molded by her parents, Majorie and Jack (Cara Seymour and Alfred Molina), for an Oxford education. Everything she does, from studying Latin to playing the cello, is done to maximize her chances of getting into Oxford.

But Jenny is bored with her life. She knows she’s meant for something more. So, it’s like a bolt of lightning when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man at least twice her age who dazzles her with all the things she wants out of life. He’s a man of the world. He knows all about art and music, he loves Paris, he savors every moment, doing whatever he pleases. He also has a sixth sense for finding other people’s weaknesses…and he instantly picks up on Jenny’s need to be taken seriously – and to escape her cage.

 

The smooth-talking David also insinuates himself into the affections of Jenny’s parents with surprising (disturbing?) ease, and soon they agree to let him whisk her away into a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle, including weekends at Oxford and Paris with his best bud, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike). Meanwhile, everyone in the audience has spotted David as a creep from the beginning and we’re just waiting for the moment when Jenny finally figures it out, too.

But it takes a while. An Education slowly unfolds this relationship at a deliberate pace. David is intelligent and careful. It’s clearly not his first time. His charm hides a calculating man who knows exactly what he’s doing and, to some degree, Jenny almost welcomes being deceived by him.

 

Though their sexual relationship is consensual, that doesn’t really mean much when she’s 16 and he’s a 30-something. David is a creepster, but ultimately it seems we’re supposed to file this affair under “youthful mistakes we’re glad we made”. Jenny blossoms so visibly when she’s with him that you can’t help but root for her as their connection grows.

As Jenny’s personal life becomes more and more glamourous, her grades begin to plummet. Like David, it seems Jenny would rather attend the “University of Life”, much to the chagrin of her teachers. But when the other shoe finally drops and David is revealed for the smug POS that he is, Jenny is forced to re-examine what kind of education she really wants.

 

When all’s said and done, An Education isn’t so much a romance between Jenny and David as it is between a girl and the possibilities within her, the future before her, and discovering the joy of being alive. Based on the bestselling memoir by Lynn Barber, this semi-true tale is a timeless love story – one that young people find themselves replaying again and again (Call Me By Your Name is another recent example). When asked about the experience that inspired her book, Barber said: “What did I get from Simon? An education – the thing my parents always wanted me to have…I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel. I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. 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.”

Does this justify Jenny’s affair with David? Did he really take advantage of her or did he open her eyes to possibility? I think you can argue it both ways. As one who has had very educational relationships, I will at least say this: when a man seems too good to be true, he probably isn’t…good or true. We all make mistakes growing up – sometimes the lessons are obvious, sometimes they’re not. And sometimes those lessons destroy us. But other times, if we’re really lucky, they help us discover who we really are and what we really want. While these lessons may break us in the moment, in the long run, they help us build character, confidence, and teach us not only how to love others, but how to love ourselves first. Take that, Oxford.

 

District 9

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Eugene Wanangwa Khumbanyiwa, Louis Minnaar, Kenneth Nkosi, William Allen Young, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike, John Sumner, Nick Blake, Jed Brophy, Vittorio Leonardi, Johan van Schoor, Marian Hooman, Jonathan Taylor, Stella Steenkamp, Tim Gordon, Nick Boraine, Robert Hobbs, Trevor Coppola, Morne Erasmus

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Picture

 

Aliens. We’ve had cute ones, scary ones, nasty ones, and friendly ones. We’ve had fast ones, slow ones, those that like to eat time and those that like to eat Reese’s Pieces. In fact, we’ve had so many extra-terrestrial beings that putting a fresh spin on the movie alien is proving difficult…but, as District 9 shows us, not impossible.

 

On the surface, the components of District 9 are pretty familiar. Films like The Fly and RoboCop are referenced here, as are popular books like World War Z. But District 9 is far from a nudge-nudge tribute to popular sci-fi media. It’s a genuinely exciting and surprisingly emotional thriller that feels fresh and original, mainly thanks to its faux-documentary style. The special effects aren’t dwelled upon or drooled over. They are just there to enhance the story. From the very beginning, we get the feeling that whatever is happening is real…and it’s terrifying.

It's been 25 years since an alien mothership settled over Johannesburg. Mankind eventually learned how to board the spacecraft, discovering a slew of malnourished aliens in need of care. They transferred them to a ghetto of sorts labeled District 9. Over time, scientists learned the alien language and figured out how to communicate with them. However, they are by no means welcome.

 

Fearing alien attacks, the people of South Africa demand these “prawns” be resettled far from town, especially since their camp has attracted Nigerian gangs, who use it to commit various crimes against humanity.

And this is where the film begins. A nerdy, kind-of-adorable bureaucrat named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been placed in charge of exporting the aliens elsewhere. He brings with him a film crew to document the eviction, which doesn’t go as well as he planned. The first hour or so of this film is set up like a documentary, switching between Wikus’s camera crew and talking head interviews with people discussing how these actions affected the future.

 

Wearing a sweater vest over a short-sleeved shirt, Wikus isn’t the brightest in his class. He has little sense of caution and a fatal mistake ends up changing his life forever.

 

Who are these aliens? Where did they come from? How is their ship (which apparently has no power) still levitating over Johannesburg after almost 30 years? We’re never told any of that. All we’re told is that these creatures are evil monsters…but are they?

One of the aliens we get to know well, named Christopher Johnson by Wikus, has a very distinct personality…there’s almost a humanity about him. He has a son with big, wet, curious eyes…and he even has a sense of body language. He’s also hugely empathetic, working tirelessly to save his ship so he can return his people to wherever they’re from. I’ve met worse humans.

 

If you’re wondering if this movie is an allegory for how non-citizens are exploited, abused, and treated like pieces of meat by a corrupt government, you’d be correct. It’s a parallel so thinly veiled that it might as well be wrapped in plastic wrap. But it’s still a powerful message, nonetheless. District 9 is one of the first sci-fi movies in recent years that takes a look at social situations and comments on them, rather than just blowing stuff up for the sake of a cool scene. By the end, we’ve grown so close to Christopher and his plight to save his race that we want him to succeed at all costs, even if that means a few humans need to be destroyed along the way.

Though this film had a small budget, it didn’t skimp on the appearance in any way. The setting of Johannesburg is an interesting choice, for example. It’s one that many movie-goers aren’t used to seeing, which provides for an almost alien setting in itself. The aliens each have unique identities and move in ways that seem realistic to that species. And any gaps in the visuals are made up for with the dull color palette. The muted colors of, well, everything, put our focus on the emotional aspect of the story, rather than on noticing any lack in computer graphics. And, frankly, anything is better than what we had 25 years ago…aka the horror that was Jar Jar Binks. Now that’s one alien I could be prejudiced against.

 

A Serious Man

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, Adam Arkin, George Wyner, Amy Landecker, Peter Breitmayer, Brent Braunschweig, Katherine Borowitz, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, Fyvush Finkel, Simon Helberg, Raye Birk, Michael Lerner, David Kang, Steve Park, Ari Hoptman, Amanda Day, Landyn Banx

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Picture

 

Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.

-Job 14:1–15

 

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one such man. As A Serious Man begins, Larry appears to be a relatively successful physics professor waiting to be tenured. He’s married with two children and lives in a modest house in the suburbs. On the surface, looks like a pretty good life.

But appearances can be deceiving. Slowly the film breaks down how one man’s life can be turned upside down by events out of his control. His wife Judith (Sari Lennik) asks for a divorce because she’s in love with Larry’s best friend, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). Larry can do nothing but shrug, unable to express anger or anything beyond general confusion. She adds that Sy is more of the “serious” man that she wants. Larry is such a sap that his own movie is named after someone else.

 

From here, it’s just a domino effect of misery. His son, who is studying for his Bar Mitzvah, is smoking pot and listening to rock n’ roll during Hebrew lessons. His daughter is stealing money for a nose job. His brother Arthur (a very underused Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch and lurking in unsavory bars. One of his students is bribing and blackmailing him at the same time. And the tenure committee is getting unsigned libelous letters about him. Oy vey.

This string of unfortunate events has Larry looking to cast judgment on God and questioning his faith in Judaism. He seeks counsel from three different rabbis, one of whom tells him that God can only provide the questions, you must find your own answers. He suggests Larry start helping himself by helping others.

 

And he certainly tries. Larry performs any mitzvah (good deed) he can where his family’s concerned, doing his best to get his brother back on his feet, granting his wife the divorce, tring to connect with his kids, and maintaining good relationships with his work colleagues. He wants to be taken seriously, but the cracks in his life cause some bad events to happen, including events for which there is no logical explanation. Though Larry does his best to be a good person in the eyes of God, bad things still happen to him.

The test throughout this film is how one claws back from adversity and tries to give it the best shot at having good things happen in life…even if your family is cursed because of something that dates back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Is it possible to turn the hands of fate so your children don’t deal with the same tragedies and setbacks?

 

The fact that Larry is a physics professor is no coincidence. His special interest is demonstrating the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox, a theory that states if a cat is put in a box with a flask of poison, the cat can – at any time – be either alive or dead. You won’t know until you open the box. So, until that time, the cat is to all intents and purposes both alive and dead. The theory is put into play later in the movie when Larry and someone close to him both get in a car accident at the same time in different locations. One survives, one does not. A traumatizing Schrodinger moment.

Okay time for the opinions now. I will warn you, I think I’m in the minority here. So many people loved this movie, loved the dark humor in it and the “why me?” Seinfeld¬-ness of the whole thing. A few critics of the Jewish faith claimed it was the most Jewish film they’ve ever seen.

 

Well, I disagree…with everything.

 

First off, this movie was extremely depressing – and not in a funny way. I’m Jewish. I get the dark humor thing. But I don’t think I laughed once during this entire movie – even in the uncomfortable parts which is usually when I laugh because I don’t know what else to do with myself. There was just no reprieve from the shitstorm that plagued this movie – so the only comical aspect was the adage of “how could this get any worse?” and God being like, “hold my beer.” Even Richard Kind, who is usually the comic relief of every Jewish movie ever made, was a complete downer.

 

As for the Jewishness of it, yes, this was a very Jewy movie…but honestly, I related more to the Jewish stereotypes in Adam Sandler’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah than I did here.

Finally, let’s discuss the ending. No spoilers, but if you hate cliffhanger endings or endings that are on some other level of consciousness, you may not like how this film ends. As we’ve learned, God doesn’t answer questions, he just provides the questions…and this movie ends with a LOT of questions left unanswered.

 

Ok, I’m done kvetching. I will say this, though. As a Coen Brothers fan, I can see how A Serious Man may be one of their most important films. I say important, not best. None of their movies quite grip the jugular of our existence like this one…and there is some weird comfort in knowing that we all are, to one extent or another, doomed. For years, we’ve asked God “why” – even Tevye tried in Fiddler on the Roof with his comical line: “I know we are your Chosen People but, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” But this film appears to be telling us to embrace the mystery of life. As Larry says in one of his lectures, “The uncertainty principle proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” Probably the most memorable moment from a movie that’s otherwise just as forgettable as its lead.

 

The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Christian Camargo, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christopher Sayegh, Malcolm Barrett, Sam Spruell, Suhail Dabbach

Oscar Wins: Best Film Editing, Best Director, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Jeremy Renner), Best Cinematography, Best Music (Original Score)

 

Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) might be a talented bomb technician, but he’s also a cocky, showboating cowboy who literally laughs in the face of danger. As he approaches a complicated car bomb in the hot Iraqi desert, he shucks his protective gear, claiming “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die comfortable.”

 

His cavalier attitude is both what you want and what you don’t want in a bomb technician. He’s bold, but he’s reckless. He’s so obsessed with his near-escapes that he keeps a box of bomb parts under his bed, a sentimental collection of things that almost killed him (there’s also a wedding ring in that box, so that should give you an idea of the type of guy we’re dealing with here).

Unsurprisingly, James cares little about protocol, which upsets his team of men, including Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Sanborn is a man of protocol and does things by the book because by the book works. As head of James’ support team, Sanborn is always scanning rooftops for snipers or suicide bombers, providing as much safety to James as he can. But James doesn’t work well with others. He seems to almost deliberately invite trouble, just to get a rise out of his men.

 

James finds his own cocky behavior funny, but Sanborn does not. He plans on returning home once his rotation in Iraq is complete. James, on the other hand, feels alive out here in the desert. Though he has a wife and baby at home, it’s defusing bombs that brings this man joy. Like a surgeon, he has a psychic understanding of how bombs work, and his brash attitude is no doubt thanks to his many successes in defusing complicated explosives.

Though set during The Iraq War, The Hurt Locker doesn’t explore the reasons for the American presence in the Middle East. The focus here is on this one bomb squad and how the work they do affects them mentally and emotionally. By the end, we’re left wondering if James is becoming more and more unhinged, driven over the edge by the life-threatening danger that tests his sanity; or if the danger of war itself is what’s exciting to him. Is war – as the film warns us in the beginning – a drug?

 

While reading about The Hurt Locker, I came upon an interview with Kollin Knight, an Afghanistan War veteran and former Army explosive ordnance disposal technician. When asked how he would describe Will James, he responded: “a toolbag idiot”.

 

He goes on to explain, point by point, what makes The Hurt Locker not only a false movie, but a bad one – one that gives wanna-be soldiers and technicians the wrong impression of what these brave men and women actually do. For example, there’s a scene in the film when James picks up a daisy-chain of 155s bombs. Not only would a technician NEVER do this, each one of those bombs easily weighs 100 pounds – nearly impossible to pick up by hand, let alone one-handed as James does.

Furthermore, throughout the film, James has no regard for his own life, let alone the life of his team and would likely never be a team leader. “He wouldn’t even be team leader certified anymore, at that point,” Knight says. “For the shit that he does he could easily lose his certification, end up in prison, or get completely removed from EOD.”

 

Just like James, The Hurt Locker plays fast and loose with the rules and regulations of being a bomb technician and almost makes a fool of the men and women who do this professionally. While the nature of the job means that sometimes you have to go against regulations, these soldiers are professionals when and where it counts…and James is anything but.

Maybe the only cool thing about The Hurt Locker was that it helped director Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar. Not only did that help her break one of Hollywood’s most notorious glass ceilings, she did it with a film that almost exclusively featured men.

 

War is a drug. A statement certainly true for some, but not all. For most troops, the desire to return home far outweighs the desire to die in a car bomb on the side of the road. But for some soldiers, war offers a thrill unlike anything else, an explosion of adrenalin that is virtually injected right into their veins. For those people, war is not only a drug, it’s a fuse.

 

Avatar

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, C.C.H. Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Sigourney Weaver, Dileep Rao, Matt Gerald

Oscar Wins: Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction

Other Nominations: Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Director, Best Music (Original Score), Best Film Editing, Best Picture

 

The state of the US was, shall we say – turbulent – in 2009. More than 10% of the population was unemployed. Hundreds of businesses went belly-up, including Circuit City, West Coast Video, F.A.O. Schwarz, and KB Toys. Wars were still raging in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Swine Flu was running rampant in the US and Mexico. And, on top of all that, we also lost Natasha Richardson, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays, Patrick Swayze, Brittany Murphy, and Michael Jackson.

 

Yet, people still found time to go to the movies. Despite the economic downturn, 2009 was one of the top 10 financially successful years for films, sitting at the no. 8 slot as of today. Though there were more than 600 films released that year, and though seven of those films brought in more than $200 million at the box office, there was one film in particular that changed the game forever.

To this day, Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time, with $2.9 billion in lifetime gross sales. It’s been called everything from “Pocahontas in Space” to “a modern-day Furn Gully”. When it hit theaters, it offered the world a technical marvel that, at the time, encapsulated all that was grand about blockbuster spectacle filmmaking. Released before Marvel took over Hollywood, no one had even come close to what James Cameron was able to do here.

 

Yet, the pendulum eventually swings. Since Avatar was clearly designed to be seen on the largest screen possible, a lot of people didn’t opt for a rewatch once it hit the home market, causing it to fade from memory. The critics of the film grew louder, eventually causing some to develop an almost embarrassed reaction to ever liking the movie in the first place. I even got swept up in the beauty of Pandora in 2009, saving up my dolla bills to see this epic in 3-D (which was amazing, by the way). But a second or third viewing has you noticing things like how flat these characters are and how scrappy the plot is. When the beauty of Pandora fades to the background, the bones of Avatar reveal a story that’s not quite strong enough to stand on its own.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has been asleep for six years.

 

More accurately, he’s been in cryogenic statis for five years, nine months, and 22 days – the time needed to shuttle him and a crew of scientists and ex-Marine mercenaries to a forest-covered moon called Pandora.

 

This new world contains a rich source of a mineral called Unobtainium, which Earth desperately needs. Pandora is already filled with botanists and engineers, trying to figure out how to obtain the unobtainable, but Jake is there for an entirely different reason. His career was cut short by injuries that left him a paraplegic. He has arrived in place of his brother (who died unexpectedly) to help infiltrate the indigenous people of Pandora, called the Na’vi.

As a member of the Avatar Project, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Jake is there to learn more about the Na’vi people. He is assigned a Na’vi avatar, which is linked to him through immersive virtual reality. While acting as avatars, they see, fear, taste and feel like Na’vi, and have all the same physical adeptness. As a Na’vi avatar, Jake also has the ability to walk and run again, which he takes full advantage of as he explores the beauty of Pandora.

 

On one exploration of Pandora, Jake meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who takes an interest in him. She teaches him the ways of her people, their language, how they live in harmony with nature, and how they are guided constantly by the spirits of their ancestors. It’s inevitable that they fall in love, but they still have many obstacles to overcome – the biggest being that Jake is actually human.

 

As Jake learns more about the Na’vi, he discovers that the biggest source of Unobtanium is under the Na’vi’s holy tree, where tribal memories and the wisdom of their ancestors is theirs for the asking. As a spy, he provides solid intelligence to Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the ramrod head of security for the mining project (and the movie’s villain, obviously). But as Jake comes to see things through Neytiri’s eyes, his outlook begins to change. And as he joins forces with the Na’vi against the humans in the war to save Pandora, his actions have life-changing consequences.

As we’ve learned with many recent “blockbusters”, revenue does not mean quality…and Avatar is not a perfect movie. The characters are largely uninteresting, particularly Jake, who has nothing emotional to grab onto with his arc. Besides his obvious amazement with Pandora, we learn next to nothing about his human side. Why would we care about him being torn between two worlds when there’s no interest in telling us more about his human side in the film?

 

Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. The trademark “villains” are all one-note. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is the greedy one, Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) is the bad-ass bitch, and Col. Quaritch is the racist colonizer. There’s really not much more to them than that. But, as you might have guessed, the characters and plot were never really the selling point of the film.

What Avatar lacks in originality and character development it makes up for in world building. Pandora, along with its creatures and environment, is one of the most beautiful places you can find in any film to date. Flying dragons, magical plants, weirdly hypnotic creepy crawlies and alien-like creatures present us with a world unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The Na’vi have their own language, their own culture, their own religion. James Cameron has clearly out-Lucased Star Wars creator George Lucas when it comes to imagining and rendering a stunning world in a galaxy far, far away.

 

Avatar is not even close to Cameron’s best film, but it doesn’t have to be. Its message isn’t new, its storyline isn’t unique, its characters aren’t that interesting, but it’s perhaps the most imaginative and stunning visual experience in recent years. Made up from the dream of a single filmmaker who thought up this world when he was 19, Avatar invites wonder and imagination, offering us an escape from the mundane – which, at the very least, is what any movie should do.

 

The Blind Side

Director: John Lee Hancock

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens, Adriane Lenox, IronE Singleton, Sharon Conley, Phillip Fulmer, Lou Holtz, Tom Lemming, Houston Nutt, Ed Orgeron, Pepper Rodgers, Nick Saban, Tommy Tuberville

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Sandra Bullock)

Other Nominations: Best Picture

 

Two weeks after Precious hit theaters, another story of a uncommunicative, smart but stunted, 300-pound Black teenager who overcomes enormous familial and social problems with the help of outsiders came charging into cinemas all over the world. Like Precious, The Blind Side also features a domineering matriarch, a well-known singer in a supporting role, a concerned teacher going beyond the call of duty and a couple of supportive comic-relief characters. And, up until recently, the only thing that separated the two was that The Blind Side was a true story; however, recent events have proven that this movie was far from Michael Oher’s real-life experience with the Tuohy family.

From the moment Leigh Anne Touhy (Sandra Bullock) first sees “Big Mike” (Quinton Aaron) walking in the cold rain wearing shorts and a tee-shirt, she is determined to nurture him. At 17 years old, Michael “Big Mike” Oher has been in foster care, due to his biological mother’s drug addiction. Though he’s homeless with no money to his name, he’s been accepted into Wingate Christian School after the football coach realized his potential to become a star. However, Michael’s academic performance is so poor that he is ineligible to play.

 

At school, Michael is befriended by a younger student named Sean “SJ” Tuohy, Jr. (Jae Head), who easily makes friends with everyone. In the evening, Michael looks for warm places to spend the night. He’s on his way to the school gymnasium when the Tuohy family drive past him on the road, shivering in the cold. Ever the kind Conservative (see, Republicans can be nice!), Leigh Anne and her husband (Tim McGraw) bring Mike into their home for the night.

It becomes one night of many and Michael soon becomes a part of the Touhy family. This good, Christian family gives him things he never had, like new clothes and a bed. Eventually, with the help of a tutor (Kathy Bates), his grades steadily improve and Michael is finally able to show what he can do on a football field.

 

Mike’s size and power make him a natural tackle and, thanks to SJ’s clever video work, he’s recruited by many prestigious schools, most notably the alma mater of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, University of Mississippi. This sends up several red flags, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association begins an investigation to determine if the Tuohy’s took Mike in and influenced him to play for their alma mater.

However, during the interview, Mike claims he made the decision all on his own, saying he chose “Ol’ Miss” because “it’s where my family goes to school.”

 

In reality, Michael Oher did indeed go to the University of Mississippi, where he was drafted during his senior year to play for the Baltimore Ravens. In 2012, he took the field when the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers at Super Bowl XLVII and continued to play for the Ravens until 2014.

In the big, blue shadow of Avatar, The Blind Side enjoyed quite the touchdown. It pulled in $309 million on a $29 million budget and gave Sandra Bullock her first Oscar win. It was just the sugar-coated, it’s-hard-out-there-on-the-streets, crusading-woman-takes-on-the-system, entertaining mix of sports movie cliches that audiences wanted at the time. But it never really offered any compelling, believable drama.

 

Though The Blind Side is based on Michael Oher’s autobiography, the film is much more a vehicle for Sandra Bullock. She’s the one who gets to switch between those big, crowd-pleasing moments and those quick one-liners that help make her seem like a Liberal on the inside (“I, too, am relatable!”). She’s the one who bosses around burly football players. She’s the one who tells rednecks to leave her son alone. She’s the one who gets to say that she’s not changing Michael’s life, he’s changing hers. She’s a feisty force of nature in classic couture. It’s a performance (and a film) built on simplicity, single-mindedness and an unswerving sense of good…no wonder it did so well.

Even I was swept up in the goodness of The Blind Side. I’m such a sucker for an underdog story. But all that changed last year, when it came to light that the Touhy’s allegedly tricked Michael into signing a conservatorship agreement instead of legally adopting him.

 

In 2023, Michael filed a lawsuit alleging that the Tuohy’s used their power as conservators to strike a deal that paid them and their children millions of dollars in royalties from The Blind Side movie while Michael received nothing. His legal action asked the court to end the Touhy’s conservatorship and issue an injunction barring them from using his name and likeness or referring to themselves as his adopted family. Yikes.

 

Ultimately the conservatorship did end, but there’s no denying Michael Oher suffered at least some emotional damage during this entire process. His life was forever changed by a family that saw an opportunity to cash in on his talent, to take advantage of a boy who had nothing, but could give them everything. Now, Leigh Anne, is that what Jesus would do?

 

Up

Director: Pete Docter

Starring: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary, Mickie T. McGowan, Danny Mann, Don Fullilove, Jess Harnell, Josh Cooley

Oscar Wins: Best Music (Original Score), Best Animated Feature Film

Other Nominations: Best Sound Editing, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Picture

 

The first time I saw Toy Story, I remember thinking it was a masterpiece. Then I saw Finding Nemo…and WALL-E…and Coco. ‘Masterpiece’ is such an over-used word when it comes to PIXAR – because almost every one of their films is either masterful in its simplicity or so heartbreakingly brilliant that you can’t help but bequeath it with that honor. Eventually the meaning of the word is drained, and the only descriptor you’re left with to describe one of their films is to simply say it’s a PIXAR movie – which carries enough weight in and of itself.

Up deserves all those accolades and more. It’s a PIXAR movie. It’s a masterpiece. It’s easily one of their best films, if not THE best. Not only does it address very real and raw emotions, it does so in a way that’s relatable to creatures of all ages, races, genders, and breeds. It speaks of dreams long cherished and long deferred, the heartbreaking compromise of a realistic life. It’s a story about loving, grieving and finding the strength and the courage to move on. But, most importantly, it’s a movie about adventures – those we plan, those we don’t, those we fear, and those that somehow land us, serendipitously, exactly where we need to be.

Carl Frederickson (Edward Asner) longs to be an explorer. On one excursion past an abandoned house, he meets a fellow young adventurer named Ellie. They hit it off instantly, bonding over their shared love of adventure-scientist Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who uses his gigantic airship to gather information about the flora and fauna of South America.

 

In a 5-minute montage free of dialogue (but not tears – PREPARE TO CRY…A LOT), we see Carl and Ellie fall in love and get married. They experience many of the highs and lows young couples do, buying a house, starting a family, sacrificing their dreams to travel abroad so they can make something of their lives back home. They seem content with their everyday life, saving up money for a tropical trip to South America. However, life has other plans.

Ellie’s death leaves Carl devastated. With heavy-rimmed black glasses, thick white hair and eyebrows, a bulbous nose, square jaw and a scrunched body that looks like it’s been through a compactor, old Carl resembles a cross between Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau. He wants no company, content to live out the rest of his days in the house he shared with Ellie, even as the city builds up around him.

 

Finally faced with eviction, this retired balloon salesman concocts a plan. Armed with what has to be thousands of helium tanks, he blows up hundreds of thousands of balloons, which effortlessly pry his house from its foundation and carry it skyward. His destination: South America, fulfilling the dream he had with Ellie.

What Carl wasn’t counting on was an inadvertent stowaway. Russell (Jordan Nagai), a dutiful Wilderness Explorer Scout, just happened to be on Carl’s porch at the time, hoping to get his “Helping the Elderly” badge by assisting Carl with his daily routine. A surprised Carl has no choice but to bring him inside as they carry on towards Venezuela.

 

Upon landing, Carl and Russell come upon an assortment of crazy creatures, including a 13-foot bird they name Kevin, as well as a herd of talking dogs. Their adventures take several wild turns, leading to an action-packed climax where Carl must make the ultimate decision: carry on with his original adventure or create a new one of his own.

 

Throughout the movie, Carl’s house is strapped to his back, a weight of the guilt and sadness he feels over losing Ellie. By the end of the movie, it threatens to become something worse: a death trap. It is something Carl must release. The whole story-arc of the house is a beautiful metaphor for bereavement, grief, and loyalty to departed loved ones. And it’s only when Carl is finally able to let go of it that it ends up exactly where it was meant to be the whole time.

Though Up has a reputation of being a total tear-jerker (and it is, indeed, that), it’s also hilariously funny. Though I certainly did cry at least thrice in this short 90-minute film, I laughed even more…and honestly, isn’t that how life should be? For me, Up soars in every way…but, ultimately, it’s the message that is the best part: In the great adventure that is life, it’s not about where you’re going, it’s about who you’re with.

 


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