When Oscar decided to open the best picture category to 10 from five, it was obvious that some films would be afterthoughts. “Up in the Air” and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” though, are two that would have made the list.
Neither film is without its detractors, and for good reasons, but both of them have a lot to offer.
In Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” George Clooney’s corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham for the most part soars in the air above the hurt and woes he causes when he lands and tells people that they are losing their jobs. Smart, likable and not completely uncompassionate, he just doesn’t want to be involved. Ryan’s biggest dream is to make the million-mile club in flying as if that will magically mean something.
And we meet him while he is doing what he does best, which is trying to convince the downsized that the glass is half full even as he’s taking the rest of the water and dousing the flames on their hopes as he tries to achieve the one goal he’s really there for – to get them quietly out the door.
So it is with mixed feelings that we view Ryan’s coming woes. After many of us have seen the real pain from the many layoffs in this economy, it’s pretty hard to root for the guy with the ax, no matter how adroit. Then, again, he is George Clooney, one of Hollywood’s most charming guys since Cary Grant.
Into his life come two women. Vera Farmiga, with the hips and curves of a ’50s star, is Alex, a businesswoman who mirrors Ryan’s own life – always on the go but happy to touch down long enough for some sexy banter in and out of the hotel room.
Meanwhile, his boss, Craig (Jason Bateman), looking to save a buck, has hired Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an inexperienced efficiency “expert” with a tight ponytail who has proposed firing people by video conference – a threat to Ryan’s rootless life. Her lack of caring in the quest to save time makes Ryan and his approach seem almost saintly – except of course he’s not a saint. (It’s a little like rooting for one executioner over another.)
Ryan, however, convinces Craig that he should take Natalie on the road to get a closer look at what’s going on before implementing the new process. Meanwhile, we find Ryan isn’t completely rootless. He has two sisters, and one of them (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married and wants him to attend the wedding.
“Up in the Air,” sort of true to its title, never really touches down long enough to become one thing. In some ways it’s a look at an America in uncertain times. It’s part weird romantic comedy, part existential parable. It’s certainly well-acted, with Oscar nominations for Clooney, Vermiga and Kendrick. The script by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, is smart and funny and the direction by Reitman (“Juno”) doesn’t glamorize Ryan’s life despite his high-flying style.
Despite almost liking Clooney’s Ryan in the end, what we’re left with is all those images of people and their shocked looks as they are being fired. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Lee Daniel’s “Precious,” on the other hand, drops us into a hard-edged world. The title character is a Harlem teenager who is overweight and illiterate. Already with one daughter, she has a second child on the way. The father, who is not around, is her own father, giving her the added stigma of incest.
Her mother, Mary, played ferociously by Oscar winner Mo’Nique, verbally and physically abuses her. So Precious, a nickname for Claireece, sounds like some pitiless joke.
Daniels, directing his second feature after “Shadowboxer,” lays out the story without falling into pathos. On one level it’s somewhat Dickensian, with cruelty upon cruelty heaped on Precious, played with poise and grace by first-time actress Gabourey Sidibe, an Oscar nominee. One difference is that the hero in those Victorian novels always had a spark at the beginning. When we first meet Precious, life has already beaten her down at a young age. Helped by mostly women (including Mariah Carey as a caring but tough social worker), Precious begins to see that there is more in life.
Daniels’ strong direction makes Precious’ pain vivid but also makes her ultimate resilience seem all the more likely and believable. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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