Thursday, March 11, 2010

DVD review - Up in the Air, Precious

Hot in the heels of the Academy Awards ceremony, two of the Best Picture nominees are now available on DVD. Up in the Air and Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire were not considered realistic possibilities for Best Picture, but each was expected to win an award, Best Supporting Actress for Mo'Nique in Precious, and Best Adapted screenplay for Up in the Air. In one of the night's biggest surprises Precious won the Adapted Screenplay award too, sending Up in the Air home empty-handed.

As you may know, I feel this is a terrible injustice. I've already explained why Mo'nique's performance was not even good, let alone great. Up in the Air was the unfortunate victim of a smear campaign that falsely accused Jason Reitman of stealing a writing credit. If Up in the Air had to lose, I would have preferred to see that category go to the brilliantly funny In The Loop.

But Up in the Air is an essentially perfect movie. Not only is it painfully relevant in our tough economic times, but it treads a fine line with unerring balance. There are so many ways it could have gone wrong. George Clooney's character Ryan Bingham is a man who fires people for a living. He could have come across as heartless, unconcerned or distasteful. The movie gives Bingham a sense of dignity and depth, without making his journey predictable, silly, cheap or falsely uplifting. If it was too serious, it would have been heavy-handed; too funny, it would have been insensitive. Perhaps that worked against it, because some people were expecting an all-out comedy. It's more of a drama with delicate humour and light moments throughout. I can't imagine it being done any better as any changes would upset the fragile balance that Reitman achieves.

Not only is the writing and the directing of Reitman exceptional, but he assembled a top-notch cast and crew. Clooney shines as a likable man doing difficult and despicable work. He displays a wide emotional range without apparent effort. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick were worthy Supporting Actress nominees.  Farmiga would have been my choice, if I had a vote.  Kendrick had a couple of moments where she pushed a little too much, but would also have been a better choice than Mo'Nique.

I'm not alone in my dislike for Precious. It's a love-it-or-hate it movie. Normally, those are the kinds of films that I like because they tend to be challenging and interesting. But I don't believe that Precious is truly challenging. Put aside all the controversy about whether it is racist or not (listen to this debate between TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey and Ishmael Reed - I think Reed goes too far), my objections to it are aesthetic and cinematic.

Rather than being genuinely challenging, it appeals to the Oprah crowd with sentimental melodrama. It pretends to be uplifting when it isn't anything of the sort. *SPOILER ALERT* When Precious finally has an opportunity to reconcile, she opts for vengefulness. Her mother shows genuine vulnerability, yet Precious hurts her back as much as she can. Nevermind that Precious has AIDS and has also passed it on to her kids.

In terms of the filmmaking style, the director Lee Daniels and writer Geoffrey Fletcher make all manner of poor decisions. Fletcher didn't give Precious any goals or personality. She is thoroughly passive until the very end of the movie, when she finally makes a choice on her own - and it's the wrong one. Completely at odds with this passive protagonist is a jittery hand-held camera style. It isn't subtle either, as on many indie dramas. The camera movement is very in-your-face, as if they're trying to cover up Precious' lack of motivation.

It's one terrible thing after another for Precious. We're meant to feel sorry for her until the sudden "uplifting" ending which isn't earned. One Montreal critic rightly described it as “victim porn.” I won't deny that I got choked up when I first saw it. But it's one of those movies that the more you think about it, the more you realize you were duped. It's highly manipulative. So if you must watch this, I would have to suggest that you don't think about it much if at all. It just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

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