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Precious (2009)


Starring : Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey
Director : Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher (based on a novel by Sapphire)
Rating: R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language

Anyone who follows the award season closely has probably already heard about, learned about, even seen “Precious”, or as it’s officialy titled by the distributor, “Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire”. Why such a painfully long title ? Marketing strategies so that everyone knows it’s based on THAT novel, and to avoid confusion with that awfull sci-fi thriller “Push”, though I personally like to be given more credit as a moviegoer.

The movie centers on familiar themes like abuse and dysfunctional family environment, but gives us a memorable and unique story that refreshes these themes, just in case we’ve forgotten what they’re about (and I’m not being ironic). In fact, I can safely say that cinema is in need of more stories like Precious’ sad one. Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a broken soul. An obese, illiterate 16-year-old black girl living in Harlem with her oppresive mother Mary (Mo’Nique), abused by her father, twice impregnated by him, living her daily life split between dark reality and glamorous fantasies. Her only escape from the nightmare of reality is through her imagination which transforms her into anything other than who she really is. In her imagination, she becomes a singer, model, actress, even an ordinary pretty white blonde girl. She fantasises about love and dreams of having a loving family. She’s suspended from high-school when the principal finds out she’s pregnant for the second time, but is offered the chance to continue her studies in an alternative school program led by Ms. Raine (Paula Patton). Here she will find the suitable environment to learn not just to read and write, but also to sustain hope, dare to achieve more and eventually free herself from the suffering she’s endured. That is not to say everything will be all right, far from it, as life still has plenty of punches to pull, but Precious will find friendship and love she never thought actually existed, little things that will open up a whole new world for her.

Now, down to specifics. You have probably learned by now that “Precious” is a solid contender for Best Picture, Leading and Supporting Actress, and you’re probably wondering, is it really that good, or is it just that the critics are suckers for social awareness underdog stories. Well, it’s really that good, actually, although it has its own problems which make it fall short of perfection. Director Lee Daniels has great instinct when it comes to his cast. Even Mariah Carey is unrecognisable in this film, and fairly efficient. The cast is perfect in unexpected ways. In fact, that is probably the prevailing aspect of this film.

Sidibe, a first timer, through her balanced performance inspires not pity for Precious, but respect and compassion. The girl is damaged beyond hope, but she finds a way to get by, hiding her frailty under a layer of anger and stubborness. She hopes to save her children from ever going through what she did, and so she fights to escape her broken home. The scene in which she tearfully confesses to Ms Rain that the only thing love has done for her is hurt her, is an emotional powerhouse because Sidilbe’s performance is heartfelt, so we witness a real person’s confession, not an actress emoting.

Mo’Nique is particularly effective. She portrays nothing less than a monster, yet allows some streams of humanity pour through her at a crucial moment towards the end. We can’t possibly relate to her or even fully understand her in terms of humanity, but at that moment we get to see more of her inner-workings. Mo’Nique could have easily gone the other way and portray her as simply “evil”, but this way we deal with something a lot more complicated, another damaged human being, broken and hateful. This is even more of a triumph for her as an actress, considering her acting experience is concentrated in the comedy genre. There is nothing comical about Mary. She has tolerated the raping of her own daughter in her home, and continued to abuse Precious, blaming her for “stealing her man”, beating and degrading her because of the life she herself never had.

What Daniels handles badly are the fantasy scenes. The scenes where Precious imagines an alternate glittery life are intrusive and break the emotional connection with the character rather than help establish it. The contrast with the gritty style is necessary and serves to remind us how different the two versions of her life are, I understand that, but they feel like we’re being slapped over the head with that particular message. I don’t even think they were absolutely necessary, since the story is already strong enough to keep us engaged. It’s as if the director felt we could not understand what Precious feels and thinks, unless he employed some CGI and stylish cinematography. I personally couldn’t wait for the fantasy scenes to end and allow the film to move on. The voice-over narration was sufficient to help us create a mental image of her fantasies. I was dissapointed that the director doesn’t credit us with a little more imagination.

So, bottom-line, the film benefits greatly from an excellent cast and powerfull story but is somewhat hindered by the director’s heavy-handed use of pointless storytelling artifices. Even so, it’s still a relevant, brutally honest cinematic achievement and will definetly garner plenty of attention during this award season for its Sidibe and Mo’Nique.

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Wanted (2008)


jolie-wanted

85

Starring : James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Angelina Jolie.
Director Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay: Michael Brandt, Derek Haas
Rating : R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality.

Hands up if you’ve heard this setup before : leading man, common person, quite boring, dissapointed with life, unable to change, with a job he hates, deeply depressed, finds himself thrown into a world of fantasy, beyond known reality, where he learns to use super-human abilities to defeat the forces of evil, thus improving his quality of life and inspire a series of pointless sequels. Sounds familiar doesn’t it ?

Inspired by the graphic novel of the same name, „Wanted” tells the tale of Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), a nobody who can’t even find any hits regarding his name on Google, which is silly, because it should have at least returned some kind of name coincidence, but I guess reality can be tweaked here and there to serve the purpose of the plot. I’ll give it that, it’s depressingly funny. He work as an accountant (job he hates), has an annoying boss who uses a stapler as a form of non-verbal threat, and his best friend is messing around with his girlfriend. Life is bad for Wesley. That’s until he encounters Fox (Angelina Jolie) who saves him from some kind of super-assassin. That’s the part of the story where he finds himself drawn into a world beyond his imagination, a world of super-human hitmen at war with each other. The good guys are led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) who receives orders on who to kill next from a supernatural loom. Yes, you heard me right, a loom, or better yet, The Loom of Destiny, as they call it. Wesley learns that his father, who he thought left him when he was little, was also an assassin, the best in the world, and was killed by the second best assassin in the world. So, Wesley undergoes harsh training to be able to join the ranks and avenge the death of his father. During these exercises he learns he has a special ability, which accelerates his heartbeat to aprox. 400 beats per minute, thus releasing obscene amounts of adrenaline which enables him to move very „Matrix”-like. Oh, and did I mention that he can also bend bullet trajectories, resulting in an awesome gun-fighting coreography. It will however be dismissed as ridiculous by anyone who will argue why they didn’t like the film. But it’s exactly what makes this an excellent action film, the fact that it has the courage to be unusual and freaky and just run with it. Further down the road, Wesley will realise that nothing is what it seems, that loialties are easily missplaced and that destiny a straight path never is.

As a cinematic achievement it’s alot like „The Matrix”. As a matter of fact, the comics themselves were probably inspired by the Wachowski’s legacy. The question is : does it try and/or succeed at surpassing its predecessor ? The answer is : yes. It’s not even that hard since „The Matrix” has lost some of its influence since the world has been flooded with copycats. Bekmambetov though is not jsut a copycat. His „Nightwatch” films, clearly influnced by a lot of Hollywood’s trend-setters, are trademarked in their own way, and so is „Wanted”. His style is over the top and cool. He has the audacity to fill the screen with a scene where rats are used as time bombs. It’s also infused with some very hardcore violence. Squeamish persons beware, gore runs aplenty. I personally think it’s a very hard R, especially since it’s ideas regarding assassinations being a form of balancing the universe are iffy. Of course it’s all so outrageous that it’s hard to take it seriously, but still, the film manages to squeeze in some twisted philosophy along the way. It almost makes „Fight Club” seem mild and harmless by comparisson.

No matter what your opinions are on this kind of outrageous entertainment, this is still a worthy entry in the genre. It’s dark, ambitious in scope, tightly focused, artisticaly shot, high-octane sci-fi action with plenty of humour and drama to go along. It’s also as original as it can be considering its influences, and even surprising. It’s in a league of its own, and it will probably repulse some and leave others wanting more. But no matter where you fit, this is still pop culture cinema at its best.