Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Movies

Since I am neither a film nor movie critic (there is a difference, I’m told), I am not required to screen every single film that appears at my local multiplex or art house. I do love movies, but, honestly, the ten-film package at TIFF was more than enough to satisfy my need to stand alone in long lineups for hours to catch a glimpse of Oprah or George, and sit through movies that will soon be in a theatre near you or will never again see the light of a projector. Chatting with people during the endless waits satisfied me that if you cram too much of anything into a short period of time, things become indistinguishable from one another, and I like my entertainment to be memorable, if nothing else.

So I am going to restrict my ‘movie reviews’ leading up to the Oscars to just a few observations. I’m definitely quality over quantity. Besides, haven’t we all read everything we need to about how what a pro old Jeff Bridges is and it’s about time he got his turn and how ‘The Hurt Locker’ is going to be the surprise upsetter and isn’t it ironic that the woman director was married to James Cameron? I know I have.

I will run into some trouble with this one, but, I, for one, found this movie incredibly boring. If you’ve ever read a book, which I acknowledge, is becoming an increasingly rare past time, or even seen another action/adventure movie, I bet you could tell exactly what was going to happen at any moment during the entire movie. If you couldn’t, then you simply haven’t been paying attention or have some kind of memory retention problem. I’m not the only person to wonder why, with all the money spent on this extravaganza; Cameron couldn’t have forked over a few shekels for a decent script.

As a former English teacher (with an admittedly loosening grip on English grammar and punctuation), I can’t help but notice the over-emphasis of exotic settings and preachy themes at the total expense of those other important components of a good story: character and plot. There is never any suspense in a Cameron movie. When the good ship Titanic finally smacked into the iceberg half way through the last blockbuster and the Captain mentioned to the crew that the ship could only stay afloat for about two hours, my husband was heard to groan, “Oh, no!” (He was more concerned about having to sit through two more hours of the film than the sad fate of the passengers, believe me!)
None of the characters in ‘Avatar’ are remotely fresh. If they aren’t actually played by actors who played the originals in other movies, like Sigourney, then they remind us of someone we’ve definitely seen before, like Audrey Hepburn, in ‘Green Mansions’ (with a much better nose).

I’m not denying that the movie is pretty and the ‘effects’ are stunning, but, in the end, they seem gratuitous, because there’s no one to care about and nothing much to remember. I can't even recall who won, although I do remember a lot of tedious battle scenes resembling video games and the boys' section at Toys 'R Us.

I think ‘Avatar’ is this generation’s ‘2001- A Space Odyssey’, terrific visuals, pretentious story, best viewed while under some influence or other so you can think there’s more to it than meets the glazed eyes.

I avoided this movie at the Toronto Film Festival. The Oprah-hype, the predictions of sordid violence and the depressing storyline put me right off. I didn’t really know any of the actors in it very well. When I stand in line in the hot sun for hours, I want to be cheered up or at least, refreshed, when I finally flash my ticket and fight for a seat in the back row. I have no desperate need to actually see Oprah with my very own eyes in order to get on with my humdrum life. So I took a pass and went to a delightful interview with Michael Caine, instead.

Well, ‘Precious’ (I refuse to type out the long name) won the Audience Favorite Award, which is saying something, I suppose, considering the many excellent films that were exhibited during the festival. So I resolved to see it when it was released to the public and see what the fuss was about for myself. By myself, too, it turned out, since there was no way I could drag my husband or any of my friends along.

I am here to tell you that it is one hell of a movie. For me, it excels for exactly the reasons ‘Avatar’ fails. It is an original and compelling story about fresh and dynamic new characters. The effects are definitely special, here, too, although not done with CGI, but with raw emotions and dramatic interactions. This is a movie full of plot, too, not to mention everything else that makes an original work of art, which enlightens and moves the masses. It left me breathless.

And then, to see the youthful and chipper Gabourey Sidibe chattering amiably on the talk show circuit as if she were an entirely different person than that sullen, tragic child in the movie…..what a shock! How could anyone that charming summon up that devastated character and her demons? Could it be that she was pretending to be Precious? Was she acting? Like Meryl or Sandra or even Sarah Bernhardt? Is that kind of acting different, or say, better than the acting of a seasoned pro? Is she talented or instinctive? What’s the difference? If you can figure this out, qualify and rate it, you can decide if she is worthy of that award. For my part, I don’t care how she did it, but this was the most amazing performance I’ve seen this, or any year.

Yes, we all know that professional actresses can strip off the pretty makeup and dress down for their ‘art’, especially if it means a possible nomination. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Remember how shocked everyone was at Meryl’s Polish accent in ‘Sophie’s Choice’? She got a lot of kudos for sounding just like my grandmother. I have had a bone to pick with Meryl, who, for years, affected throat clearing and distracting hand gestures, like rubbing the sides of her nose, to establish ‘character’. In every role until recently. I thought she was pretty good in 'The Devil Wears Prada' but then she went and ruined it by jumping up and down and squealing like a Valleygirl in this year's Nancy Meyer's chick flick, the name of which, I am relieved to realize, I have managed to repress.

I admit that not everyone feels as I do. Men, for example, seem to like the constant ‘ahems’ that preceed extended sessions of lip pursing and licking that Melanie Griffin imposes on every part, be it working girl or yiddische maidle, although it drives me crazy. She is not nominated this year, but I wanted to emphasize the point that many actresses, both great and not-so-much, have their gimmicks, and they are very distracting.

I loved Meryl in her half of ‘Julie and Julia’, but, then, I love Paris and food, too, so I may have been biased. And no matter what she does, everyone still thinks of her as Meryl playing a part, not being the character. She ‘did’ an excellent Julia Child, no argument, but so did Danny Ackroyd, in his day.

As much as I find her likeable, Sandra Bullock always seems to be the same person whether she is driving a bus, sticking up for beauty queens everywhere or yelling at football players in a southern accent. I was dragged to see ‘The Blind Side’ by my sister, who would never buy a ticket to see people like Precious, suffer, and while she found the film enjoyable, I squirmed all the way through its clichés and corn. Sandra streaked her hair and worked up a full steam of righteous indignation in this one, but ultimately, she was still cute and perky. She had ‘spunk’ but I don’t think awards like this should go for spunk.
Sorry, Sandra.

I liked ‘An Education’ very much, but, although she gave an excellent imitation of me as a frustrated and confused young woman in the early 60’s, Carey Mulligan impressed me as one of those actresses who still has a lot of better roles ahead of her. In spite of her recent gamine haircut and the efforts of the studio public relations machine to market her as the reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn, this film was not her ‘Roman Holiday’ even though, come to think of it, she did get to go to Paris, which is even better.

Helen Mirren was wonderful, as always, but I expect her kind of competence and it doesn’t surprise me anymore. In this role she got to toss away the repression and pursed lips she adopted for her royal roles and used her ranting techniques to excellent effect. (I must interject that Paul Giamatti, gave me the creeps, as always and I can’t wait to see Christopher Plummer in ‘The Tempest’ this summer at Stratford. But these things shouldn’t cross my mind during a movie if I am involved, should they?)

The thing is, everyone in ‘Precious’ was a real person. Authenticity was the word. As far away from those lives in the movie as I am or ever have been, thank God, I was there for a few hours, getting it. No distractions. I know, in my head, that M’onique, Mariah and Paula are attractive, capable women, who will go on to play other parts, sing songs and dress up pretty for the red carpet, but, in my heart, they were those characters who, in turns, hate and love this child who so desperately wants to survive. I felt their frustrations, their despair, and the exhaustion of their lives. If there were accents or makeup and wigs, they went unnoticed, which is how it should be. I didn’t comment to myself how amazing the effects were or ask myself, “How did they do that?” There was no ‘they’…..those people who stand outside the frame holding things and staring at the actors. This world was real. Or so it seemed.

One of the tag lines for the movie is the most ridiculous one ever dreamed up by a group of people who ever totally missed the point:

“Precious may sometimes be down, but she is never out…”

Good God! She is always out and is always down….that is the problem. Her situation is terrible, hopeless and crushing, but she still survives and keeps trying because a light has beckoned to her. She has looked up and seen the light of education shined in her eyes by a few people who care about her and teach her to love life. She begins to understand that she can improve herself. She achieves dignity. This is a good message for everyone. That is why this movie, as dark and scratchy and as full of real-life horror and sadness as it is, can still uplift an audience by its end. It leaves you breathless.

In other words, it has great characters and a good story. I like a good story even better than CGI.

PS. I have been terribly bothered by the schizophrenic attention being given to Gabourey in the media. It shows how ridiculously conflicted our society has become about talent and race and especially, body image. There is absolutely no good reason to exclude her from that stupid Vanity Fair cover if ‘rising young actresses’ was the criterion for the invitation. The cruel editorial and artistic dispute over whether she was either too big or too black to recline on the green grass with the paler frails would have been interesting to hear. I am very disappointed in Annie Leibowitz and I can’t help but wonder if Tina Brown would have chickened out. Somehow, I doubt it.

In any case, I would advise Gabourey not to worry, since, if you take a look back at Vanity Fair over the years, gracing its cover has been the kiss of death to the careers many young actresses.


  1. Of course, it's always possible that the "amiable Gabourey Sidibe on Oprah's couch" is actually the performance.

  2. Beautiful, Ms. Canada. Puts the Americans to shame.