Wednesday, November 18, 2009

With "Precious," believe all the hype

I suppose if I wanted a few people to actually read this I'd have something to say about "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," but beyond my thoroughly inappropriate crush on Anna Kendrick I really don't, so let's just move on.

Instead, I do have a few words to say about a truly great - though by no means perfect - movie that's opening in Macon this weekend, "Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire," which shall from here on out be referred to only by the much less unwieldy name "Precious." (Oddly enough, both of these flicks are somehow getting midnight screenings very early here Friday morning, though I really can't see many from the Tyler Perry/Oprah set turning out at that hour - but even so, it should make for a fun mix.)

And be warned going into "Precious," which I certainly hope you will - it's every bit as bleak as you may have heard, but also every bit as entertaining. I've heard that director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher have toned things down more than a bit from the original novel, but watching this one you'll find that hard to believe.

As the movie opens we meet our titular heroine, played with quiet dignity but also indignation by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, in just about the worst circumstances imaginable. Fifteen and pregnant for the second time by her own father (yes, really), she now lives with her monster of a mother, played by Mo'Nique, who heaps so much abuse on poor Precious that it often becomes almost unbearable to watch.

So, what in any of that would make this entertaining? Well, Daniels does two things very well, both of which will draw inevitable comparisons to Perry (who along with Oprah is an executive producer of this flick.)

What they have in common (beyond skin color, which really has nothing to do with this at all) is that they just have a knack for - even in the most dire of circumstances - getting the most naturally compelling performances from their actresses. It all starts with Sidibe here, and watching how she is slowly drawn out of her shell in an "alternative school" that finally gets her to pay attention rather than just coast by is a true marvel to behold.

The best scenes in "Precious" take place in this classroom of sorts, where Paula Patton - surely modeled at least slightly on Sapphire, herself a teacher as well - leads a group of wounded but still brash young ladies. Their organic give and take is as good as anything in Laurent Cantet's "The Class" ("Entre Les Murs"), one of my favorite movies of 2008.

To be honest, though, as I was watching "Precious" unfold, I wasn't sure at first why Mo'Nique was getting so much Oscar buzz for her performance. Sure, she is truly demonic as Precious' mother, but the magic of what she accomplishes here hits you like a punch to the gut in a monologue at the end in which she attempts to explain herself to a social worker (Mariah Carey, believe it or not, and surprisingly good as well.) That she even comes close to invoking something approaching sympathy after all we've seen her do is nothing short of amazing, and it's what will surely earn her the supporting actress statue.

And it's this rather remarkable scene and one other that also made me think a lot of Tyler Perry, but this time of how different a work Daniels has created here, and in that way a much more powerful one. Though they each deal a lot with hope, Daniels' movie has as much to do with its limitations as its power to uplift, and for that reason will make you think a lot more than Perry's movies, as much as I usually love them, ever do.

The difference between them is captured in one perfect moment in which Precious looks into the windows of a church. I don't want to spoil it for you, but whereas in Perry's movies religion is almost always the (many would say way too easy) answer, it just drives Precious to one of the flights of fancy that leaven Daniels' movie even at its bleakest points. It's this combination of hope in just how much Precious has accomplished countered with little sentiment by just how much more is still stacked up against her that gives "Precious" its greatest strength, and makes it easily one of the best movies I've seen this year.

Which makes it a great pleasure to share that Daniels is in advanced talks to take on his next project, "Selma," which would of course be about that historic 1965 march and its effect on the sleepy Southern town it took place in and the rest of world. Here's hoping he signs on for that, because Mr. Daniels is definitely a talent to keep your eyes on. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the gym for a swim and a steam, just about the best possible way to start the day (after writing this, of course) in my book. Peace out.


jeremy said...

I don't know if I can bring myself to watch Precious. I read the novel about the same time as JT Leroy's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. I thought both were very dark comedies. The authors clearly look down on their protagonists and the amount of woe piled on them was clearly laughable (and not just my own twisted sense of humor.) So I'm reluctant to see the material handled so matter-of-factly and humorlessly.
Asia Argento adapted, starred in, and directed The Heart is Deceitful. It was a bleak and humorless affair and I don't think I can sit through something similar.

Reel Fanatic said...

I haven't read the source material, Jeremy, but from the way you describe it, the movie is indeed quite different ... I probably didn't make quite clear in my review, however, that Daniels really does add some humor to the proceedings and he directs with a very visually appealing style that keeps things lively despite its very heavy subject matter .. All that said, you may be right that you should avoid this one