DVD Review: Getting Around To Some ‘Best Picture’ Nominees
I saw most of last year’s Best Picture nominees, but there were a couple that slipped past me, and I spent the last week doing some catch-up.
Precious is a film that could have very easily failed. “Poverty Porn” is a common term for films dealing with the disaffected underclass that lose their artistic vision while shoving the audience’s face in the muck. Precious avoid this. Oh, it definitely has more than its fare share of muck, perhaps as much as you’ll ever see in a film, but director Lee Daniels and his cast rise above the squalor to deliver a work of real insight and even a little bit of hope in what looks like an utterly hopeless situation.
There is enough misery here to fill a dozen Lifetime dramas. Young protagonist Precious is 17, morbidly obese, illiterate, abused, and about to have her second child by her own father. That’s not even counting the great misfortune that befalls her later in the film, and to top it off, the one child she already has is stricken with Down’s Syndrome. This has all ingredients for some dire exploitation, but the film never goes that far. Daniels cuts up the film with Precious’ vivid fantasies, the girl’s only means of escape, which could have fallen flat if Daniels didn’t make them so affecting and character-specific. Precious doesn’t dream about material wealth or the usual things we fantasize about. She dreams about singing in a church choir with a bunch of nice old people, and in one disturbing yet illuminating scene, about being a skinny blond white girl.
This is an actor’s showcase, first and foremost. Gabourey Sidibe is wonderful as Precious, balancing pain and despair with a very real courage and resistance bubbling beneath the surface. Pop stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz strip themselves of glamor to play a weary social worker and a male nurse. But it’s comedian Mo’Nique who stands above them all. As Precious’ abusive kraken of a mother, she plays one of the most frightening and frighteningly real monsters in recent memory. Her seemingly limitless depravity and self-absorption might seem two-dimensional if the actress didn’t imbue the role with such a powerful sense of damage. This is not simply an evil incarnation of all our “bad mother” fears. It’s the twisted and hopeless wreckage of a truly damaged mind. Mo’Nique’s monologue at the film’s conclusion may be Oscar bait (successful at that), but it’s a towering outpour of sorrow and rage as only a permanently destroyed psyche could render. Terrifying stuff.
Sapphire, author of the book, said that her most important goal in writing it was to “make it so we no longer ignore the Preciouses when they pass us on the street. So that ‘them’ becomes ‘us’.” This film might take us a little further in that direction.
The Blind Side
I actually rather enjoyed this film while watching it. Then, about an hour later, it started to get to me. On its own straightforward terms, The Blind Side is a perfectly reasonable, reasonably affecting story of a poor young man’s adoption by a wealthy family and ascent to football fame and riches. But while I scoffed at the far-left cries of “white savior” insults that followed the film’s original release, after digesting it I found it impossible to ignore the incredibly mawkish nature of the narrative. It doesn’t help that Michael Oher, the young future football star, is pretty much a blank slate onscreen, not doing much other than looking down like a sad puppy and smiling like a goof when white people are nice to him. He’s not much more than cipher for the good will of the charismatic and assertive (and rich) white folks who come to his rescue. Now, this story actually went down like that, so I can’t complain there. But there’s just absolutely no nuance injected into the film to raise it above the trappings the filmmakers had to have known were there from the start. There’s no malice or ill-intentioned racism here, but the views of race relations are incredibly old-fashioned. Poor down-trodden black athlete needs the WASP brigade to bring him in out of the rain and strap on the football pads. It’s all happy and nice, but there’s just something wrong about this that I couldn’t ignore.
The film avoid the doldrums of 2-Star territory because it does hit its emotional beats with enough panache to provoke a genuine response in the audience. Like I said, this story actually happened this way and it’s wonderful that Oher found a family and a career when he could have easily stayed in the sweaty Tennessee slums. Sandra Bullock does attack her role with a zeal and energy few actresses can muster. But I can’t really see how she deserved the Best Actress Oscar for this. And I sure as hell can’t see how this got a Best Picture nomination over much greater films. Of course, that wouldn’t have happened in the old 5-film pool, but this film shouldn’t have gotten in there if the pool were 20 films deep.