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Monday, November 1, 2010

Reel Madness: 'The Blind Side' and 'Up in the Air'

Before I start this second installment about the 2009 best picture nominations I want to point out that these aren't ranked in any order; I just did 'A Serious Man' and 'An Education' first because I wanted to get them out of the way. So today I've got two movies that surprised me in different ways that are linked by how I intend to watch them in the future.
A lot of hoopla has surrounded Sandra Bullock’s performance in ‘The Blind Side’ and as a result the movie got a huge push when nominations were being announced; the fact that it held its own against the onslaught of ‘New Moon’ definitely didn’t tarnish its reputation. I really didn’t want to like this movie but it’s far too well-made for its own good and therefore owns up to the hype. The only previous movie I’ve seen by director John Lee Hancock was the troubled through production but excellent in final execution ‘The Alamo’ and that was enough to make me want him to have a hit. Here, he’s made a very engaging film here to the point where essentially any question or issue you could have with its premise is firmly answered with no sleight-of-hand at all. The story of Michael Oher and Leigh Anne Tuohy is touching and intelligent in a way that even got good word from my crab-ass of a brother. Everyone does a fine job and none of the drama is oversold so it’s a lot more quaint then you would expect. The thought that it’s very easy for a wealthy white family to change a poor black kid’s life is directly acknowledged in the film and that’s a degree of self-awareness I’ve never seen in a family drama. Every challenge you could put forth in criticizing the nature of the movie is acknowledged and it’s intelligent enough to make those reasons work. 

In that way, it’s a little sad because I don’t think it would have managed a nomination if not for the 10 slots. Without the praise for Bullock’s performance, the movie’s reviews mostly relegate it to average marks while accusing it of embodying a lot of the qualities that it was smart enough to avoid. Yes it can be a little syrupy but this is the kind of material that is going to seem that way at least slightly no matter how well made it is. Besides that, it’s not like that kind of content is foreign to the Oscars; ‘The Hurricane’ while excellent, falls into it and let’s not forget ‘Ordinary People’ no matter how much we want to. Still, no matter how much I liked it, I don’t know if it was worth a best picture nomination. Without the extra slots this year, this probably wouldn’t have rated, which makes it one of the “audience favorite” choices. It’s definitely worth seeing and is better than this kind of movie normally is, so everyone should reward its quality. I don’t know how often I may see it in the future but it’s not something I would mind watching again. Good for Hancock and company for making an interesting, uplifting film that’s smart enough to not fall into the laziness that so many others of its type always do. It’s a difficult movie to write about because it’s good qualities are so rare and fragile you don’t want to spoil them by crushing them under a microscope slide; still it’s worth your time and earned it’s praise no matter how half-hearted it seems outside of Bullock’s performance.

I was looking forward to ‘Up in the Air’ a lot, perhaps the most of any of the acclaimed pictures from 2009. It’s been sometime since then and I’m still not entirely sure what it is I think of the movie. The hook is great: A man who’s never had to hold onto anything in his life learns to appreciate the connections you can make with other people while defending the nature of his job. Clooney’s character is Ryan Bingham a man who fires people for a living as a professional corporate downsizer. His unique philosophies, both about how his job needs to be as well as about how he thinks of personal relationships, are both put to the test by him being assigned to travel with Natalie Keener. Played by Anna Kendrick, she’s attempting to change Clooney’s job forever by making it a process done over the internet rather than in person. This opposes Bingham’s love of flying as part of his job as well as challenging how he interprets his unpopular occupation. 

In order to make the sequences of characters being fired feel more realistic, Jason Reitman sought out people who had gone through the experience; as a result the movie gets a little detached from the main character. After we see the major players for the last time, there’s an extended sequence of real men and women describe how they managed to move on from being “let go”. It’s wonderful that Reitman was so moved by these people’s stories but it seems to cheat the actual film of much its emotional heavy lifting. After all, this is about Bingham and not the people he’s fired, no matter how much they factor into the change in his feelings. These interviews bookend a similar set of scenes where the same people discuss their reactions to having been fired, talking of how their family and friends helped them endure through the troubled times. We see Clooney reach out to both and by the end of the film he’s developed one meaningful friendship after meeting his family for the first time in years. That we only see the beginning of these relationships seems a little strange in light of the character keeping his job; as a result I felt a little more distant from him then where I was at the midway point of the film. Seeing all the documentary footage of the downsized is strange because we see their closure but not Ryan Bingham’s. Perhaps that is the point; without spoiling a major plot point, maybe the thought that we see Bingham start on that journey is meant as a counterpoint to all the trips we’ve seen him go on and discuss beforehand. It’s a weird juxtaposition but it may congeal better for me in future viewings. The initial viewing, those interviews took me a bit out of the movie which was hardly their intent to be sure. 

Despite all that, it’s still an emotionally gratifying experience that encourages us to not blindly hate an occupation that many interpret to exist solely for the suffering of others. That’s definitely something I can get behind and it makes me want to see this again soon so I can better sort out my thoughts on it. There are a lot of them there and I’m not sure how well they’re coming across even now. I can definitely get behind one thing: the person who designed the Cover Art for the DVD/Blu-Ray release should have just used the theatrical poster seen above. Instead they went with an uninspiring shot of Clooney and Vera Farmiga’s character that looks like generic 90’s Indie Romcom #27C.  
That and I'm not sure how good "The Movie of the Year, the Movie of the Moment" is for praise as it makes the movie sound forgettable whereas I’m sure they were aiming at timeliness when they put it on there.

While 'The Blind Side' is hard for me to write about and 'Up in the Air' still needs some internal processing on my part, they're both definitely worth watching. There's no "Oscar shame" in these two being nominated, as when we look back years from now we won't be wondering just what the hell AMPAS was thinking at the time.

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