Oscar Checklist – Part 7: This & That

We now come to the odds and ends part of the checklist. Three films I saw just recently that have very little in common, thematically or in terms of nominations, so I grouped them together here. Shall we?

Waste Land – Nominated for Best Documentary

Huzzah! For the first time ever, I have seen every nominated documentary. Even retroactively I don’t think I’ve ever managed the feat. I already went over the other four nominees, and Waste Land is a worthy contender. It’s not vérité like Restrepo. It’s not experimental like Exit Through the Gift Shop, although they’re both about art. It’s not political like Inside Job or Gasland. It is somewhat environmental like Gasland, but at its core the movie is about the relationship between people and art.

First we learn a little about world-renowned artist Vik Muniz. Vik was raised poor in Rio and after a few unlucky-lucky breaks (he was shot), moved to America and eventually made a name for himself. His art involves using many different non-traditional items (glass, sugar, food, etc.) to create something new and present his subject, as well as the items, in a whole new way. Having attained his own dreams, Vik is now preparing his next much more humanitarian project.

Vik travels back to Rio and begins researching the world’s largest landfill. At the landfill he discovers the “pickers.” These lost souls, for one reason or another, make their daily living digging through tons of trash for recyclable materials. The conditions are unimaginable. The stories behind the faces are devastating. Still, they soldier on with pride and incredible fortitude, many of them preferring to sift through shit than prostitute themselves. (And to think, my wife doesn’t even like to put the trash bag in the dumpster.)

Vik then begins a project to build portraits of these people using the very same trash they toil in. He even hires the pickers to assist in the shaping of the studio-sized works of art. The film begins to flirt with exploitation, but it never succumbs. There are discussions about whether what Vik is doing is positive or not. And in the end, the few Vik plucks from obscurity are compensated handsomely for their efforts. The idea is to showcase their plight while at the same time offering a chance to escape it.

I don’t think it would work as well if the characters weren’t so damn interesting and winning. The personalities are diverse and heartbreaking. The sequences involving the finished art and the subject’s reactions are as uplifting as cinema gets. Director Lucy Walker knows full well how to manipulate our emotions with these images, but I don’t mind being manipulated when presented with such astounding human emotion.

The real achievement is Muniz’s art. He captures rawness in a beautiful manner using the unappealing objects. The pieces definitely inspire double takes. You see one thing, and then you see something different. The film is a comparable accomplishment. By showing how his work is inspired, created, understood, and eventually inspires others, Waste Land proves to be art itself.

Grade: A-

Animal KingdomNominated for Best Supporting Actress

Cut from the same cloth and the same production company as The Square, a scrappy neo-noir I reviewed a few months back; the two films also share actor Joel Edgerton, and a love of violent irony.

Animal Kingdom is the writing/directing debut of David Michod, a promising new talent. There is a lot to like about this Australian crime drama, but like The Square, it’s more of an admirable first step than an outright classic.

The film is narrated by “J,” a blank-faced teenager whose mom overdoses shortly after the opening credits. With nowhere to turn, “J” has no choice but to take up residence with his criminal uncles and his grandmother, “Smurf,” played by the nominated Jacki Weaver. “J” is no angel, but he also doesn’t want any part of the armed robbery spree his uncles take part in, or the low-level drug dealing. When the police decide to take a harder policy and ignite a blood feud, “J” can’t help but get caught in the middle.

For being a low-budget “foreign” film, Kingdom looks great. The film has some great night photography and lots of slow tracking shots to augment the existential anxiety of the picture. The music is also spot on, and not just the chilling use of Air Supply. These technical elements go a long way to impose a specific unnerving mood on an otherwise straightforward cops and robbers story. I might complain about the simplicity of the plot if the movie hadn’t taken as much care as it did in intensifying the atmosphere of everything else.

I cannot say the same about newcomer James Frecheville as “J.” I recognize that he’s our cipher through this unknown world of sin, but he’s a little too detached. I don’t think you need him in order to tell this story, so the fact that I wasn’t enjoying the performance didn’t help. The film also dispenses with two of the more appealing characters early and the movie suffers without them. It’s not the worst thing because the whole cast is strong, except for Frecheville of course. Guy Pearce, Ben Medelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, and Sullivan Stapleton all turn in compelling performances.

This brings us to the veteran Aussie actress Jacki Weaver. She is very good. She’s all smiles and bubbly optimism on the outside, but ice-cold and remorseless underneath. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed her performance, I don’t think there’s enough of it to warrant the nomination. Too much time is spent with the uninteresting “J.” It’s time that could have been used to further explore some of the film’s many fascinating personalities, including Weaver’s.

One poor casting choice aside, this is an impressive first film from Michod. I’m happy to see it get some recognition, even if I don’t wholeheartedly agree with the nomination.

Grade: B

Biutiful – Nominated for Best Actor, Best Foreign Film

I’m a fan of the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. I like his raw stories of interconnectedness, despite their gimmicks (Babel, 21 Grams). I’m a fan of the director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto. His work has been some of the more interesting of the last decade (Brokeback Mountain). I’m also a fan of Javier Bardem, but who isn’t… He always brings great humanity to match his imposing gravitas. My fandom does little to help this desolate and purposeless movie.

Bardem is Uxbal, a single father living in Barcelona. His estranged wife is bi-polar and sleeping with his brother; his job involves shady dealings with Chinese and Senegalese immigrants; and he’s pissing blood (never a good sign). The film immerses you in the reality of Uxbal’s hardships as he navigates the difficult hand he’s been dealt. I’d call it kitchen sink realism except…oh yeah…Uxbal can converse with the dead. From time to time, he’ll exploit his gift for profit and we’ll see the haunting images of ghosts clinging to the ceiling. If these mystic trappings sound out-of-place, it’s because they are.

Inarritu is stretching for big ideas about life and death, but most of it falls flat. Thematically this is similar territory to Noe’s Enter the Void, which was likewise grasping to be profound and way too long. Life is hard, I get it. Cancer sucks, I get it. What else you got?

Bardem is stoic throughout. There are some moments where he let’s all of his pent-up pain out, but for most the film he is quiet and resolved. There is strength in his performance, but in a very crowded year, I would not have nominated him. He is good, but it isn’t his best work or much different from previous films. This is now the third film I’ve watched him slowly die, AIDS – Before Night Falls, assisted suicide – The Sea Inside, and now cancer.

It’s not sunny or as I overheard one patron put it, “If you were depressed before, you’ll want to slit your wrists after.” However, I don’t want to dismiss the film as miserabilist. It held my attention, even with the unnecessary runtime. There are some strong scenes, like the tragedy in the third act, and Bardem commands your attention. But Inarritu, working without writer Guillermo Arriaga for the first time, struggles to focus the thoughts he’s trying to pontificate. Maybe working within the confines of a gimmick helped focus his early work. I don’t know, but bleak does not equal deep.

Grade: C-

The shorts are up next. Excited? I know I am!

4 responses to “Oscar Checklist – Part 7: This & That

  1. It’s hilarious–I watched Animal Kingdom last night and started writing a review this morning, and the first adjective I came up with for J was the same one you used–“blank-faced.” It’s like he was unpacked from a box marked “Teenager–Generic.”

    Loved the movie, though, great atmosphere.

  2. Yeah, I can’t wait to see what the director does next, but I don’t expect him to use that actor again.

  3. Pingback: The Trouble with Quibbles: 2011 Oscars | Shooting the Script

  4. Pingback: Oscar Checklist – Part 8: Salute Your Shorts | Shooting the Script

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