Reviews

Best Picture Nominees I Haven't Seen Yet, Part 1 Of 2: A Serious Man and The Blind Side

One of these films is very dark and very weird, but also unique. The other has Sandra Bullock in it. Take your pick which one is better.

By Albert DeSantis
Published March 15, 2010

I always try to watch all of the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees every year because...well, just because. Anyway, I've either really liked/flat-out loved the ones that I've seen so far: District 9, Up, The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Inglourious Basterds and Up in the Air (if there's any justice, District 9 would win Best Picture but that has a snowball's chance in hell).

So that leaves Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, An Education, and the two I just watched: A Serious Man and The Blind Side. One is very dark and very weird, but also unique. The other has Sandra Bullock in it. Take your pick which one is better.

A Serious Man

A Serious Man opens with a flashback to a turn-of-the-century (not this last one, the one before that) elderly Jewish couple who get an unexpected visitor, a visitor who the wife thinks is an undead spirit and who she promptly stabs.

I don't think I'm smart enough to understand exactly why this scene was included in the film, and it's never mentioned again, aside from the fact that it could be the reason why the main character, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is apparently cursed throughout his film - maybe these are his grandparents casting an unlucky pal over his existence.

Stuhlbarg is a great tragic hero who has life kick the crap out of him. Repeatedly.
Stuhlbarg is a great tragic hero who has life kick the crap out of him. Repeatedly.

The rest of the movie is set in the 1960s. Larry, a university professor, has his marriage fall apart when his wife (Sari Lennick) reveals she is in love with another man and wants a divorce.

There isn't much of a plot; it's basically a series of scenes of Larry's life crumbling as he deals his berating wife, her creepily close and awkward hug-giving lover Sal (Fred Melamed), his kids, his students who may or may not want to bribe him, a record company that wants to shake him down for cash, lawyers, distant and unhelpful Rabbis, and his possibly dim/possibly brilliant brother (Richard Kind).

Getting hugged by the guy who's screwing around with your wife? Awk-ward!
Getting hugged by the guy who's screwing around with your wife? Awk-ward!

A Serious Man may be shelved in the comedy section of your local video store but it should really be in the drama. This is a bit of a downbeat movie, a 1960s version of the Book of Job with some great performances. Both Lennick and Melamed should have gotten Oscar nominations. Yet the movie is very funny, especially in the dialogue exchanges, which are full of awkward pauses and verbal runarounds.

As always, writer/director pair the Cohen Brothers have a perfect eye for the frame, even through a few inventively strange dream sequences and just random oddities - like when Larry's son goes to his bar mitzvah baked out of his skull and it happens really sloowwwwwwly.

The ending is open-ended and not much is resolved, but it does have a sense of menace and doom to it that kind of fits.

The Blind Side

The other Best Picture nominee was The Blind Side, which turns out to be formulaic pabulum that's hard to hate completely but also really hard to like. It's the story of a rich mom, Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock), who adopts a quiet, academically struggling, isolated inner-city youth, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) and gets him to play high-school football.

Bullock basically plays an overbearing helicopter mom but she has an infectiously endearing southern accent. There isn't anything in her performance that makes her stand out as a best actress nominee.

See Sandra folding her arms and looking uppity? That happens a lot in this movie.
See Sandra folding her arms and looking uppity? That happens a lot in this movie.

There are a few bright spots. Aaron is actually decently understated and has some soulful, sad eyes that make this gentle giant easy to root for, and it's pleasing to see him come out of his shell.

The interplay between Oher and Leigh Anne's son is actually surprisingly funny (the kid makes all these excessive demands to the colleges that try to get Oher to sign up with him) even if it falls under the textbook cliche screenwriter's book of "cute kid says cute things".

The one scene when Leigh Anne drags around kids on the football field to demonstrate the importance of blocking to Oher is pretty amusing. And what few football scenes there are actually bring some momentum.

Aaron is excellent as the emotionally closed-off football-star-to-be
Aaron is excellent as the emotionally closed-off football-star-to-be

But the good is greatly outnumbered by the bad, the lame, and the downright regressive. There's a scene in which Leigh Anne has a chat with her friends about her new adopted son and they insinuate vaguely racist things and the well-off ladies are such broad caricatures it's like watching that "Simpsons" episode when Marge joins the country club.

All the movie's characters are fairly shallow. There's the well-meaning teacher (played by Kim Dickens, who has a recurring role on "Lost" as Sawyer's baby mamma) who finds potential in the mute giant ala every after school special ever made.

However, the gangbangers who live in Oher's former neighborhood really take the cake because they're just stereotypes.

There's nothing wrong with cliche villains, but it depends on the style of film. Deadly bangers in a Stephen Segal movie? Sure, fine, whatever. Deadly bangers in a race relations parable about how we're all the same beautiful people? Completely undercuts any sense of realism. Since it's based on a true story, that's practically deadly.

So to compare both, A Serious Man is sad but full of cinematic skill and definitely unpredictable. It's dark and strange and funny. The Blind Side is fairly simplistic - let's give an underprovided kid some well-off rich people and everything will turn out okay - but it's so simplistic it's hard to get all that bothered by it.

One of these pictures is worth a Best Picture nomination. The other one isn't.

Albert DeSantis watches a lot of movies and TV and has been since childhood. More recently, he has written movie reviews for View Magazine in Hamilton for a few years (This may have warped his mind). The two best flicks ever are The Empire Strikes Back and Aliens. Both are sequels. Go Cats!

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted March 16, 2010 at 09:38:39

I agree that 'The Blind Side' wasn't worthy of being nominated for Best Picture. (At least that's how I'm taking your article's thrust.) But as I've said elsewhere, it did what it was designed to do, it was what it was supposed to be: an uncomplicated tale that pushed certain buttons to accomplish a particular goal.

Not every film can be 'art'. And not every movie should be, either. I've argued that 'The Blind Side' could have been written entirely differently, that the focus could have been completely different, that it might have been filmed more as an 'indie', focusing on character and situation rather than an A+B=C story.

But it wasn't.

It is what it is.

It's a hamburger and fries with a milkshake on the side. It's not a six-course extravaganza, it never set out to be this, it never pretended to be that. It's not a particularly good sports film (in fact, save for Bullock's win, it'll be forgotten quickly); in fact, it's not a particularly good film, period. But it gets the job done that it set out to get done. And in a world of crap movie entertainment, that's actually a nice little accomplishment.

My wish for filmgoers would be that they 'render unto Caesar' a little more. Stop getting all pissy about genre films. Not everyone likes this food or that, but railing about them still being appreciated by others despite you not believing they're worthy of eating is...well...childish.

(My wish for The Academy is that they go back to five nominees for Best Picture. Watering down anything is never a good idea.)

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By AlDeSantis (registered) | Posted March 18, 2010 at 00:52:33

I actually like the 10 nominee system because there are a hellova lot of movies out there and it does give exposure to a wide variety of films. This year we had two sci-fi films nominated, which would have been unheard of in the 5 movie system.

I don't hate Blind Side, I just think it's really bland and, save for the odd decent bit, kinda lame and there are certainly other films that could have been slotted in it's place for a nomination: (500) Days of Summer, the criminally overlooked documentary Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (which is about a metal band from Ontario, whoo!), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, In the Loop, Moon, or heck, even Star Trek if they wanted to go all out and get a mainstream picture that fired of all cylinders. I would have even taken movies that I only have minor quibbles with: The Road or The Informant. As I said, it's hard to get too riled up about Blind Side, but there are a bunch instead that should have gotten in instead.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted March 18, 2010 at 08:23:09

"I actually like the 10 nominee system because there are a hellova lot of movies out there and it does give exposure to a wide variety of films."

Except that...

The Oscars' mandate is not to 'expose' people to more product.

It's an internal, peer recognition event to which the public just happens to have been invited. It's not for us, it never has been for us...so really, the notion that going with a 10-nominee approach for Best Picture is a good marketing ploy just seems lame to me. (There are far better, more savoury ways to 'spread the word' than suddenly pulling a stunt like this.)

(Ask me what I'd to to improve the Oscars broadcast. Go on. Ask me. LOL)

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 19, 2010 at 06:44:58

At first I was all like, "Whoa, a movie reviewer who doesn't bother to see the new Coen brothers movie on opening weekend." (It played at Westdale.) But I did some investimigation and it turns out you're a curious bird. Going by your reportage at viewmag.com, you seem to favour the big opener on any given weekend (proven again by your "best flicks ever"). In other words, stuff that people will find without your help and see regardless of what you have to say about it. You're Michael Medved, in other words.

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By kevin (registered) | Posted March 19, 2010 at 18:55:14

Albert's Awesome. I've long been a fan of his reiviews in View; good writer with honest, thoughtful opinions. It's nice to see his work in RTH.

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By AlbertDeSantis (anonymous) | Posted March 19, 2010 at 20:30:19

Sup, Concession Stand, basically I don't get free access to any movies and have to pay out of my own pocket so whatever opens that weekend in Hamilton I do have to go see, because aside from Westdale (which shows as much mainstream stuff as it does non-mainstream) we simply don't get many non-mainstream releases in Hamilton. And it's good to weigh in on a film that people are actually getting a chance to go see, and I don't think it's helpful to review a movie in a paper that's been out for a very long time. Also, the Cohen Brothers movie has been reviewed. Right here on this site. Thanks for reading!

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By AlbertDeSantis (anonymous) | Posted March 19, 2010 at 20:32:45

Review a movie that's been out for weeks or months, in the case of View, I meant. People pick up the paper, most of the time they want a shot at whatever is available that very weekend. If we could get A Serious Man at Hamilton when it opens, that would be great, but we can't so I don't.

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 21, 2010 at 13:43:09

A Serious Man arrived in the Hamilton market late (typical of secondary markets, as I'm sure you're aware) but screened at Westdale the same weekend that Avatar dropped, if I'm not mistaken. And if you don't think it's helpful to review a movie in a paper that's been out for a very long time, why the Slap Shot review?

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 21, 2010 at 13:47:03

BTW, this isn't a quibble with you in particular, Albert. I'm mostly just sad when we're lucky enough to see less commercial fare screened here, only to have it ignored in favour of the latest and greatest out at the cinematic big box stores.

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By AlbertDeSantis (anonymous) | Posted March 21, 2010 at 14:52:38

The Slap Shot review was for this site, not the paper, here I'm just looking to write something different and not whatever comes out that weekend. View is more deadline driven with whatever the release is that particular weekend to justify new content and for something relevant to the readers. Like whoever wants to go to the movies that weekend, and they read up about something that is newly released. Besides, I got to review each of the last two Cohen Brother's movies the weekend they came out: Burn After Reading & No Country for Old Men (well, the weekend it went into wide release. I did the same thing this weekened with Polanski's The Ghost Writer, it's been out for awhile but it went wide Friday) because we get actually chance to see it. That's just the way it is, especially since Westdale doesn't post it's schedule of whatever it is going to screen in advance. Movie's there just magically appear on any given Friday (Or sometimes they just show Twilight). The majority of what is out there at any weekend is going to be either mainstream or at least something that went to a wider release - in Hamilton, we're at the mercy of studio releases. But that's not to say that automatically that if it's big budget and mainstream it is bad, far from it. It just matters if the movie is good - blue aliens or British love stories - both great in their own way for entirely different reasons.

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2010 at 07:14:19

I see where you're coming from, and it sucks that your hands are tied for money and time. But as an "alternative" reviewer, I still believe that there's limited merit in praising or damning the blockbuster opener from *last weekend* when there are probably lesser-known films that might be worth your readers' time *while they're playing*, not just in the end of the year round-up. I know it ain't easy, but as far as the good/bad ratio of the industry, here's a snapshot: The Movie Palace coverts to 3D this week -- which means even fewer art/foreign/repertory films will show in this market, and fewer films period, which is saying something... leave out the second-run place in Burlington and right now there are 40 local screens showing just 15 films... most less than a month old, few worthy of awards of any kind. Just some thoughts. I know that this isn't the Rant Line. ;) Keep reaching for the stars!

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2010 at 07:28:40

PS: New Polanski? Holy crap! Totally off my radar! Where can I see it?

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2010 at 12:42:17

Found it: AMC Oakville.

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2010 at 07:10:10

Glad I waited! Opening at SilverCity Hamilton Mountain tomorrow!

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By Concession Stand (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2010 at 09:48:38

Since View now covers everything from Burlington to the border, my point about nurturing local independent cinema (the only managers/programmers liable to be swayed by increased attendance into taking risks on booking intrepid film fare) may be kind of moot. If you want to be relevant to your readership, you're probably stuck talking to the lowest common denominator: Omit the second-run place in Burlington and Niagara's Imax and factor in the arrival of drive-in season and you seem to be looking at almost 70 screens that are STILL hosting just 15 movies.

Hope you at least got a raise.

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