random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

REEL REVIEW: Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (2009) ****

Precious (2009) poster  2

written by: Geoffrey Fletcher
produced by: Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey & Tyler Perry
directed by: Lee Daniels

rated R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.

109 minutes

She sits silently in the back of her class and dreams.She picture a life with her nice Math teacher, living together in Westchester. After all, he always smiles at her. She would love to have a light-skinned boyfriend with nice hair. Her dreams of Hollywood stardom and the adoration of cute boys take her away from the reality that's hardened her into a prison of numbness. She is Claireece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) and although she goes by Precious, no one sees her that way. They see an obese, illiterate sixteen year-old who mumbles her words and avoids eye contact. She has been mentally, verbally, physically and sexually abused all her life. She is pregnant with her second child from her father. That's only a glimpse at this girl's harrowing life and the most incredible element that chips away at the despair is that Precious has hope.

By all rights, she should be as down and out as everyone she has encountered. Living at home with her welfare mother in Harlem circa 1987 is hell. Precious is beaten, told she should have been aborted and is treated like a slave. She had her first child on her kitchen floor as her mother kicked her in the head. That child, named Mongol because she was born with Down Syndrome, is under the care of her mother, Mary (an amazing Mo'Nique) but lives with her grandmother which keeps the welfare checks coming in. Despite this horrific environment, Precious manages to have a vivid imagination which helps her escape and a spark of resilience that can be seen every so often.
It is only when a couple unforgettable women come into her life that she is able to see a way toward normalcy. She may not know what normal is but it has to be better than where she's at. Precious is sent to the "Each One, Teach One" GED education center, where she meets sympathetic teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), after being expelled from junior high. In a small class setting of similar girls and a teacher who is actually giving Precious the attention she needs, she tried to break out of her coma and deal with the daily punishments and humiliations. She is on the frustrating path of learning to read and write while trying to deal with issues like starvation. Another source of help is welfare counselor Ms. Weiss ( an effectively unglammed Mariah Carey), who attempts to reaffirm Precious' self-worth. While both these women are empathetic toward Precious' situation, neither of them go easy on her. Both integral characters expect her to push herself and fight the forces in her life that kick her down. And despite how hard it is to watch Precious endure such pain and affliction, it is inspriring to see her take one day at a time.
Lee Daniels knows a few things about strong women and difficult subjects, having produced films like "Monster's Ball" and "The Woodsman." This is a bold and confident sophomore effort as a director (I haven't seen "The Shadowboxer" with Cuba Gooding, Jr. & Helen Mirren) instead of a cautious, safe or stereotypical approach. Daniels knows that he has to take us way down into the lacerating depths before he can bring about any levity, and he does so by providing some lighter moments. In fantasy sequences where we retreat into Precious' day-dreaming imagination and from the antics of her GED classmates, we're able to come up for air before the choke-hold of reality tightens on us once again. Yes, as I anticipated, it is a difficult film to watch but these moments make it possible to go on.
If Daniels makes it easier for us to watch the film by mixing up the tone, it is Sidibe that will mesmerize. Don't get me wrong, without a doubt Mo'Nique deserves all the Oscar buzz she's getting. In fact, her monologue toward the end, seals the deal. She plays one of the most vile characters I've seen in any recent film. The most difficult thing to come to terms with is that her character actually exists. Just as there are kids out there like Precious, who hardly have any hope, there are also parents/guardians out there like Mo'Nique's Mary. Sidibe is the one who has to take all the blows though. She gives life and character to Precious through her expressions (or at times, lack thereof) and in her narrating voice overs we hear her resilient attitude, "The other day, I cried. I felt stupid. But you know what? F*** that day." Regardless of her lack of self-esteem, she carries on and takes you on her journey and you want to fight with her.
Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher aren't providing any remedy for the devastating lives we see here. While the story strikes several staggering low points, hope is never far from view. Without a doubt, the film is harrowing to process at times but it retains an undeniable emotional grip through unbelievable horror.
Saphirre, the author of the book (hence the lenghty title), has said that the character of Precious is a composite of teens she had come across while working and living in New York City. That's the most sobering reminder to me. These people are real. They're out there. There are viewers who might even see themselves in the roles portrayed here and as hard as that is to see, I'm glad it's out there. You probably know someone like Precious without even knowing it.

Precious (2009) poster  3
Precious (2009) poster 4
The Skinny:
  • The film was originally titled, 'Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire', but the change was announced in February 2009, by Tyler Perry. It was confirmed soon afterwards by the film's distributor Lionsgate. The change was made to avoid confusion with the 2009 action film "Push".
  • Helen Mirren was originally cast as Mrs. Weiss.
  • The film was shot in five weeks.
  • Over 400 girls were interviewed from across the country for the part of Precious. Sidibe was cast a mere six weeks before the start of shooting after being forced to the audition by friends.
  • Sidibe read the novel Push years before when her mother, singer Alice Tan Ridley, was approached to play the role of Mary in an earlier production that never came to fruition.
  • Over the course of the shoot the production lost an editor, a cinematographer, three continuity people, three locations managers, two producers, two assistant directors, two sound people, two video playback people, and two caterers.
  • Mo'Nique played a character by the name of Precious in director Lee Daniels's previous film 2005's "Shadowboxer."
  • The film premiered in January 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival as Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire, where it won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for best drama, as well as a Special Jury Prize for supporting actress Mo'Nique.
  • musician Lenny Kravitz, in his acting debut, was cast as John McFadden; a nurse who shows kindness to Precious.
  • The theme song for the film, titled "Push," was written and produced by Robin Thicke.

Interview with director Lee Daniels

Precious (2009) poster 1

Friday, November 6, 2009

REEL REVIEW: The Box (2009) **1/2

The Box (2009) poster 2

written by: Richard Kelly (story by: Richard Matheson)
produced by: Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick & Kelly McKittrick
directed by: Richard Kelly
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.
115 min.
Writer-director Richard Kelly's new film is being described by some as psychological horror while others are seeing it as a science fiction thriller. This shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his films (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) since it's so obvious he defies those genres and how we've come to know them while incorporated them into one absurd film. That's not an insult. An original, well-made film that hooks you despite it's absurdity can still be intriguing when it's not boring, maybe even entertaining. It's not hard to get lost in this film's tone and atmosphere but it's also easy to get frustrated at how convaluted and overambicious it gets. That may wind up pushing your buttons which could be exactly what Kelly is aiming for.
The film starts out like an episode of The Twilight Zone and sure enough, it was made into one back in the mid 80's. Kelly adapts the short story "Button, Button" by the great Richard Matheson into the first 15 minutes of the story. But then he jettisons it into an assortment of confounded directions.
First, we read an internal CIA memo typed across the screen. It states that a severe burn victim named Arlington Steward has recovered and is delivering units related to the Mars project.
We are then introduced to Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) Lewis, a loving married couple living in Richmond, Virginia circa 1976. They live in a nice brick home in a the seemingly idyllic suburbs where a school bus picks their son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone) right at their front step. Arthur works at NASA Langley doing research for the Viking mission to Mars and Norma teaches high school literature, specifically Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. When Arthur doesn't get the job he was hoping for and Norma is told that she will no longer get a discounted on Walter's tuition, they start to realize that they will soon no longer be able to afford the life they wish to maintain.

Enter the mysterious Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), a polite, well-dressed older man with a grotesquely disfigured face offering them a life-changing opportunity. He presents them with a box that has a unit inside containing a button. He gives them an envelope with a key to unlock the bubble dome housing the button. Steward tells them if they press the button two things will happen. First, someone, somewhere in the world whom they do not know, will die. Second, they will receive one million dollars in cash. If they do nothing with it, Steward returns and takes the box back, never to be seen again. The box will then be reset and giving to someone else whom they do not know. However they choose, Steward will return the next day at 5pm.
Kelly presents viewers with the required "what would you do?" as the couple deal with their moral struggle both together and individually. At first, logic is at play as they both wonder how any of it could be real. How can they even know that this button will kill anyone? Is it an impossible choice? Is the decision obvious? Norma and Arthur then must decide if they could handle being responsible for someone's death. Since Kelly doesn't portray this couple as destitute, it's hard to truly feel compassion for two people who already admit they live beyond their means and want to keep it that way. What remains on their mind is that money would help them with the life they desire. Not the life they need, mind you.
That's where Matheson's script ends and we enter The Richard Kelly Zone. It's a dimension with that 70's glow, a sharp HD visual delight and a compelling score by Arcade Fire. Where nose bleeds are at every turn, zombie-like people talk in catatonic mantras, and hotel swimming pools become portals to the afterlife. Admittance into such a world need only require a push of a red button. No, that's not a spoiler since it wouldn't be a feature-length film if the button wasn't pushed. Unfortunately, the film is thrust the into the same sci-fi silliness that director Alex Proyas dropped on us earlier this year with the incomprehensible Knowing.
That's too bad since Kelly opens up with such promise and suspense only to push you through several trippy Kubrickian sequences that distract us with more questions. There could very well be the work of aliens here, or divine intervention, maybe a top-secret government agency....it's anyone's guess really and clearly that's the way Kelly wants it.
This is a film where the plot and far-reaching concepts take the spotlight over the acting. That wouldn't be so bad if there was a growing strength in the story or if the acting had felt real. Langella does stand out by bringing some class to his ominous bad guy that could have veered toward camp. It's ironic that the guy who played Skeletor at one time is now playing the bad guy with half his face off. Too often though the emotions of the two leads felt forced and their behavior unrealistic. It was difficult to detect the needed chemistry between Diaz and Marsden which is problemic since it was already hard to feel sorry for these two. Plus, both of their southern accents seemed unnecesary and distracting since they were inconsistent at best. I wound up feeling worse for their son, who always seemed to get brushed off to the wayside. No surprise really, since children are too often treated like a device in these stories.
While Kelly's feverish imagination tends to swallow this movie whole, it really is quite involving while you're watching it. During reflection and post-viewing discussion is where all the plotholes and flaws become clear. But, who knows, this may become one of those midnight favorites at the local art house. Like the titular box, it's hard to take your eyes off the film and decipher what it's all about when you're sitting there staring at it. Only when you spend time away from it do you start to questions its real function. It may be missing the quirk and twisted charm of Donnie Darko but neveretheless fans of that cult classic will still want to check this out.

The Skinny:
  • Veteran character actor, Basil Hoffman, was also in the original version of this story when "Button, Button" aired on "The Twilight Zone: Profile in Silver/Button, Button (#1.20)" (1986).
  • This marks the first feature-length film scored by members of the Canadian band Arcade Fire (Win Butler, R�gine Chassagne and Owen Pallett)
  • It also marks the first PG-13 film to be directed by Richard Kelly.
  • Charlie Clouser's score from 2004's Saw was used for the trailer.
  • On the commentary of Tony Scott's "Domino",Richard Kelly outright dismissed shooting a 1970's period piece with a digital camera. But after seeing David Fincher's
    "Zodiac", Kelly's position quickly changed and he was quoted saying, "It can be done."
  • Production began in November 2007 and concluded in February 2008.
  • Most of the filming took place in the Boston, Massachusetts area, with scenes shot in downtown Boston, South Boston, Waltham, Ipswich, Winthrop, Milton, Medfield, Quincy, Kingston, and North Andover, as well as other localities.
  • Some filming took place on the Milton Academy campus, and a large indoor set was built inside a former Lucent Technologies building in North Andover to recreate a NASA laboratory.
  • The production crew also journeyed to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to shoot a number of scenes for the film.
  • Kelly's father had worked at NASA Langley in the 1970s and 80s.
  • Many background extras were reused in different scenes, and people with period correct 60s and 70s cars were encouraged to participate.
  • The film was originally scheduled for release on October 30, 2009, but on July 31, 2009, it was announced the release date was to be delayed to November 6, 2009.

The Box (2009) poster 1


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