Oscar Talk: 127 Hours, Biutiful, and Rabbit Hole

E: At the very last second, let me just cram in my thoughts on the last of the acting nominees (with a few extra nods between them). They all deal in darkness.  Two of them are worth your time.  One is utterly fantastic. Follow after the jump to see which is which!

I’m going to gon in alphabetical/cataloging  order, which means you get the best first.  I’d forgotten how visceral a film maker Danny Boyle is, how he can make the world beautiful even when he’s looking at a slum or a toilet, that he can make you feel the rough stone of a canyon wall, or the ecstatic free fall of a plunge off a cliff.  There’s joy even in his darkness, there’s humor, there’s grace.  In 127 Hours, he speaks particularly one man’s painful story, but through it calls out to our own balance of connection and independence.   How is it possible that to take the story of a man trapped alone for nearly a week – a man with his hand pinned to the wall of a crevice by a large rock- a man who in the end has no choice but to amputate his own arm to survive – not a claustrophobic nightmare?  But it isn’t.  Instead it’s a glorious triumph of the human spirit.

I think the truth is this.  There’s really no way that I can tell you that basic story without you recoiling in horror.  You really have to know that going into it.  And it’s based a true story, one that was highly publicized at the time, so chances are you know basic storyline anyway.  (The whole “true story” aspect is fascinating; I’m thinking of reading the book just to see how accurate the movie is and how much artistic license they took, a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.  I have the impression that they did try to be very faithful to Aron Ralston’s experience.)  It’s funny, because here’s a truly unusual plot, and yet it has to be spoiled, so to speak, before anyone enters the theater.  But this movie isn’t really about the plot points; as cliche as it may sound, it’s about the journey, the mental and emotional and even spiritual journey.   And despite the gore, this one is gorgeous.

Then, on the other hand, there’s Biutiful.  Which is not.

I can’t imagine how they made Barcelona so ugly, but everything in Biutiful is ugly, every shot filled with grime, with gristle, with lumpy textures and clashing patterns that hurt your eyes.  The squalor is just unreal.  There are hideous corpses and bloody urine and fizzy hair, everything torn and sliced and dripping with snot.  Even the good looking people, even the naked ones, are ugly here. Somewhere around the middle, I started feeling brainwashed, like there was salvation and beauty in the ugliness.  And then I just wanted it to be over.  God, how I wanted it to be over.

Biutiful is largely the story of Uxbal, a man desperately trying to get his affairs in order (and, most importantly, find someone to take care of his two sweet kids) before he dies.  Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu kind of specializes in these sucky, brutal situations, and he has a marvelous gift for making his fiction so real as to feel more like a documentary than a feature film.  That said, the story is just such crap.  I’m usually not this flat about it, but I feel a bit like I’ve walked through the valley this Oscar season, and I question the assumption that a film needs to be tragic in order to be meaningful.   And worse, I’m just not sure what the point of this all was.  Sure, it feels real, but there are long stretches where it feels as boring as real life – the narrative structure is seriously unbalanced.  Considering the documentary style, Uxbal’s ability to speak with the dead (no, I’m not kidding) seems like it comes from a different (and possibly much more interesting) movie than the one about the Barcelona underground and human trafficking.  Too much, too many ideas, too much mold and grime and scum.  There are a few moments where the structure does work really really well, and that made it even more frustrating that the rest of it didn’t come together.  I can’t help feeling there’s a better movie in there somewhere, if you could only figure out how to find it.

Finally, for the slightly better news. Rabbit Hole feels a little bit like a made for tv movie, and a lot like a stage play (which is exactly what it is).  The devastating subject matter is held at a strange reserve (which, actually, made it quite refreshing to see after the raw and overwrought nerve that is Biutiful.)  Even still, it was a nicely acted story.  Sure, they live in an improbably enormous and stunning old Victorian, and Becca has a weirdly trashy family, but stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart are emotional powerhouses.  I thought that as the mother of young children – not to mention being the type of person who cries during that trailer of the new Winnie the Pooh movie, because “Somewhere Only We Know” is such a nostalgic song – I would not be able to handle seeing a movie about a couple grieving the loss of their young son.  But their tragedy isn’t fresh, and their agony is scabbing over.  I was prepared, and they had some distance.  Really, the movie isn’t so much about loss as it is about moving forward from the unimaginable, about making a life anew, and the halts and starts of that process are really interesting.

Howie and Becca deal with the loss of their son in entirely different ways, and the people who matter to them deal differently, too.  Becca’s been called an ice queen, and there’s truth to that, but the triumph of Kidman’s performance is that she’s the hot white burning center encased in a column of ice.  She’s trying so hard to keep it together for herself that she’s beastly to the people she trusts and cares for most; she hasn’t lost her compassion or decency, but she can’t seem to direct it toward her husband or family.  Kidman makes Becca’s actions understandable as a difficult, less sympathetic reaction to the destruction of her life.   And Howie mismatches her in his need for connection.  Becca is haunted by Danny and needs to hide;  Howie desperately craves the contact he feels slipping away.  How can you possibly know, when you marry someone, that you would grieve the most terrible loss so differently?  Sometimes you might wonder why Howie loves Becca – their personalities are so different – but you never doubt that he does.

127 Hours actually has 6 nominations; it gathered these up quietly, without as much notice as Black Swan (for example) did with it’s 5.  That’s probably because 127 Hours won’t win a big award, and is mostly nominated for the less sexy ones, though it’s possible it could pick up Best Song for Dido’s spare and passionate “I Rise” if the Disney tunes cancel each other out.  James Franco is unlikely to take down all around champion of the world Colin Firth – especially since Franco is hosting the gig.  I’m sure that hurt his candidacy, such as it is, but even if there wasn’t that awkward idea of the host walking off with an award, Firth’s theatrics are likely to take the day.  Franco was pretty genius, though.   The film will definitely lose Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and will probably lose Best Editing and Best Score.

Javier Bardem can thank Julia Roberts for his nomination; as My Movie Going Friend says, we owe her a strongly worded letter for forcing us to see that stupendously depressing and, what’s worse, overly long and utterly boring film.  Biutiful’s other nomination is in the Foreign Film category.  Though it was set in Barcelona, it’s the official entry of Mexico.  It could actually take this award, but people in the know seem to think that once they’ve seen all five nominees, voters will prefer the more uplifting entry from Denmark, In A Better World.  Of course, to call something more uplifting than Biutiful could still mean it was made of lead.   Rabbit Hole‘s only nomination is for Nicole Kidman as Best Actress (though I’ll tell you right now, Aaron Eckhart did award-worthy work and in my estimation more impressive work than Javier Bardem).  She won’t win.  Everyone knows this.   But that’s not what matters.  Only twenty percent of the nominees will win (duh).  No, it’s just nice that she’s nominated.  I can say the same for all these nominees; it probably isn’t your time, but enjoy the party.  Enjoy the rewards of a job (mostly) well done.

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