Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Films of 2009: "Precious"


Clarice “Precious” Jones is a quiet, illiterate, and overweight sixteen-year-old African-American girl from the streets of Harlem. Although present in her classes, her education scores are very low (she tested with a 2.0 in junior high). But that’s not the worst of it. She comes from a very physically- and sexually-abusive family. And she is expecting a second child. One day, Precious is given an opportunity by an alternative school teacher, and soon embarks on a journey that not only tests her own personal boundaries, but also challenges and encourages her to fight for what is right for herself and for her children. As the slogan for the alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” says, “The longest journey begins with a single step.”

Author Sapphire wrote the novel “Push” in 1996. A performance poet and teacher, she based the novel off of her own experiences with students she taught in Harlem. She was also inspired by the fact that this type of world is not expressed in literature very often. Set in the 1980s, the story brings to light issues of teenage psychology, politics, racism, the HIV epidemic, and education. In the film, Precious’s teacher Ms. Rain challenges her to “push” herself in making academic accomplishments (which is probably where the novel gets its original title.) Director Lee Daniels, in fact, compares Sapphire to the character of Ms. Rain, in how they are both “school teacher[s] with an eye for a student’s potential.”

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mary (Mo'Nique)
Daniels (who produced 2001’s Monster’s Ball and directed 2005’s Shadowboxer) and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher brilliantly (and brutally) illustrate the conditions of low-income African American citizens, particularly in the characters and conditions of Precious (first-timer Gabourey Sidibe) and her abusive mother, Mary (a phenomenal Oscar-winning performance by Mo’Nique). Precious is told repeatedly by her mother that she is worthless, that she’ll never mean anything, and that all she’ll ever be is “black grease to be wiped away.” The way that Precious fantasizes during these and other harsh moments are her initial means of escapism and solitude.

At the same time (and alternatively), the importance of an education is stressed, exemplified and valued. As classes progress, journaling becomes a strong tool for Precious. In time, she believes she’s actually learning something and becomes more involved in the process. During a field trip to a museum, for instance, Precious and her classmates learn about history (e.g., Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech). This inspires Precious to teach her children as they get older. Ms. Rain reassures her, “I think your first responsibility needs to be yourself.” In addition, Precious and Ms. Rain’s communication through letters signifies the importance of holding others accountable and being a light for others in dark times or environments. “What is going to be the best thing for you in this situation,” asks Ms. Rain. She later adds, “If you get your GED, you can do anything, Precious.”

Precious and Ms. Rain (Paula Patton)
She doesn’t know it yet, but Precious, in time, proves her mother wrong. This is one of the many aspects in the character relationships and conflicts that help give the story power, drama, and heartache.

The performances are impeccable and perfect. For instance, you’re not watching Mariah Carey as Mariah Carey. You’re watching Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss, Precious’s welfare social worker. She is so convincing and almost unrecognizable (ditto for musician-singer Lenny Kravitz, in his first film role as a compassionate male nurse). Paula Patton brings a level of power, experience, and understanding as Ms. Rain, who could represent a surrogate mother figure for Precious. In contrast (and like Carey), Mo’Nique is not Mo’Nique. She is Mary. She is dark, she is a monster, and she is unpredictable. She is full of unexpected tendencies, as well as surprising resonant aspects (which may be why she won the Oscar for her radical performance). In fact, during the film’s hardest, most excruciating scene (when Precious and her baby boy barely escape her mother’s violent rage, which nearly kills them both), Mary’s actions are clearly unpredictable and frightening. Later, in a more pivotal scene . . . let’s just say her character sneaks up on you and expresses herself in a way you never thought she would. As for Gabourey Sidibe’s debut, she nails it with rawness, heartbreak, and incredible growth and empathy. These actors immerse their heart and soul into these characters and truly deliver something unique, relevant, and engrossing.

Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey (who served as executive producers) became involved with the film because of the way it spoke to each of them after it played at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For Perry, he knew that the story was profane (which he had objections about). But he also knew that it was honest and couldn’t be told any other way. For Winfrey, it reminded her of her experience working on The Color Purple film adaptation in 1985. (She received an Oscar nomination for her debut role as Sofia in that film.) Winfrey adds that, like Celie in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Precious is a character who becomes empowered by other women and by an education. Both Perry and Winfrey also saw the story as a celebration—despite the harshness of the world it’s set against—as well as a reminder that out of darkness, there is perseverance, there is hope, and there is life.


PluggedIn writer/editor Adam R. Holz summed it up best when he said in 2010, “[It’s] a hard movie to watch, but I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that it’s inspiring.”

Indeed, despite the film’s mature and excruciating subject matter (the MPAA gave it an R-rating for “child abuse involving sexual assault, and pervasive language”), including numerous f-words, sexual references/content, and references to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, Precious proves a worthwhile and inspiring film about inner-city life and the opportunities that help people become better than they thought they could be. With distant echoes to Walker’s Purple, it is also a film that offers the promise and reminder, “You mean something. You are loved.”

Notice how the opening and closing credits contrast Precious’ writing skills tremendously. At first, she’s very quiet and shy in class. But when she transfers to an alternative education program, she becomes more outspoken and gradually free. (She accepted the opportunity to learn and to “push” herself.) Yes, the story is predictable in many ways, but the development and character growth is almost like nothing you’ve ever seen before in the movies.

***
I highly recommend checking out the following link and audio from NPR, titled “Sapphire’s Story: How ‘Push’ Became ‘Precious’”:

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Five Favorite Films with B.E.

Every week, Rotten Tomatoes will do an article featuring a celebrity's list of their five favorite films, respectfully. Let me say that my list always changes, as is expected with all the new releases and lists of favorites that come out every year. Plus my list overwhelms me everytime I look at it. Looking at my choices recently, however, I've been able to narrow down and start small by focusing on a top five list of favorites a la Rotten Tomaotes. (Who knows, I may have an absolute ten list in a few months, but we'll save that for later.) Anyway, here's my list, for your consideration and enjoyment.

Number 5: It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic remains timeless and significant, not just as a perennial holiday favorite, but also as a reminder of the extraordinary lives of ordinary American citizens. Jimmy Stewart’s most memorable film. “That a boy, Clarence!”
Number 4: Up. Pixar reached a high point in terms of emotional resonance and depth (and not just in CGI). They even managed to make the most oddball cast of onscreen characters into something meaningful. This is animated poignancy at its best.
Number 3: Fantasia. Walt Disney’s magnum opus memorably combines classical music and animated images into an unprecedented and breathtaking achievement. My candidate for the greatest animated feature of all time.
Number 2: Chariots of Fire. Based on the true story of runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire chronicles these men’s motivations, their struggles, and their strengths and weaknesses as they compete in the 1920s Olympic Games. The ending almost moves me to tears every time. A great film.

 
And my number one favorite:

The Shawshank Redemption. Based on Stephen King’s novella “Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” writer-director Frank Darabont’s two-and-a-half-hour film adaptation assembles a great cast, an excellent script, and a message that transcends the human spirit: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are perfect, as is Thomas Newman’s bittersweet and hopeful score.




***
I’m happy with these choices overall. Again, it’s overwhelming for me every time I come back to and update these lists, especially when ranking them (which I find very, very, very hard to do). The alphabetical approach is less stressful, but condensing the list down (as above), depending on the state of mind, is helpful, too.

Sincerely yours,
B.E.
(10/08/2011)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Must-See Movies This Fall

The following is an alphabetical list of some (er, many) of the films coming out (or already released) I am interested in seeing this fall. Many of them look to be promising Oscar contenders. I apologize for the delay in this list, but better late than never.

The Artist (Nov. 23)
Director Michel Hazanavicius's Cannes-winning romance is basically--you won't believe this--a silent film (shot in black and white) made in the twenty-first century! The story involves a romance between a silent film star and a young up-and-coming dancer, set against the transition from silent films to "talkies". Some elements seem to have distant echoes of such classics as Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard. But with a cast that includes John Goodman and James Cromwell, and a filmmaking style that's been in oblivian for so long, it should take moviegoers back to an era of sight, nostalgia, and wonder. How many films like this do we see nowadays?

Dolphin Tale (now playing)
Already a generally successful family hit, made by the producers of The Blind Side, Dolphin Tale tells the touching true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter (who plays himself in the movie), who lost his tail in a crab trap, and is given a prosthetic tail (as well as love and careness) from doctors and family members at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the Florida Coast. A promising cast includes Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd, and Morgan Freeman. This family drama currently holds an 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad. The consensus describes it as "earnest, sweet, and well-told, [as well as] a rare family film that both kids and parents can enjoy."

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (opens Dec. 25)
Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks headline this powerful and touching drama, directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader), about a boy who searches for a lock that matches a key his father left him after he was killed on 9/11. The trailer suggests this will be a very unified-type of story, in how it encircles the city of New York and develops a sense of community and identity among its characters. Can't wait.

50/50 (now playing)
Loosely based on the life of Will Reiser (who wrote the screenplay), 50/50 tells the story of a 27-year-old man who learns he is diagnosed with cancer, and is supported by family, colleagues, and friends in the process. Featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, and Bryce Dallas Howard, this film is already a hit with critics, regarding it as one of the year's best, with a unique blend of comedy, drama, and reality. Warning: rated R for "language throughout, sexual content, and some drug use."

Higher Ground (now playing in select theaters)
Vera Farmiga (who was terrific in such films as Up in the Air and The Departed) stars, and makes makes her directorial debut, in a story of an evangelical woman who begins to question her faith. Should open the doors for discussions on religion, spirituality, faith, and doubt.

Hugo (opens Nov. 28)
Martin Scorcese directs his first family film, about an orphan boy in 1930s Paris, who discovers a key to an automaton made by his late inventor-father. Based on Brian Selznick's novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," and shot in 3-D, this adventure-drama promises to be one of the most anticipated family offerings this holiday season. Stars Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, and Jude Law.

The Ides of March (opens Oct. 7)
George Clooney co-stars in his first directorial feature since 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck. This time, the story is a political thriller about a candidate's press secretary (Ryan Gosling) who stumbles upon a scandal that could affect said candidate's (Clooney) run for presidency. Gosling has been having quite a year, having already starred in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, and Marisa Tomei co-star.

The Iron Lady (opens Dec. 16)
The always incredible Meryl Streep takes on the role of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in this biopic from director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!). Streep should likely get her umpteenth nomination for Best Actress this coming Oscar season. Enough said.

J. Edgar (opens Nov. 9)
Clint Eastwood's biopic on the powerful and provocative life of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover, with Leonardo DiCaprio at the centerpiece. Co-starring Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, and written by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winner for Milk).

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (opens Dec. 21)
Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in his latest big screen mission. From the trailer, it should be an awesome thrill ride this holiday season. Even more anticipating, it's the first live-action feature for animation director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). Co-starring Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames.

Moneyball (now playing)
Brad Pitt plays Oakland A's general manager Billy Beanes in this latest sports movie about the drafting of baseball players based on statistical analysis for the 2002 season. Jonah Hill plays Beane's assistant analyst Peter Brande. Co-starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, co-written by Aaron Sorkin (Oscar-winner for The Social Network), and directed by Bennett Miller (Capote). Thus far regarded as one of the year's best, Rotten Tomatoes states that the filmmakers and actors "take a niche subject and turn it into a sharp, funny, and touching portrait worthy of baseball lore."

The Muppets (opens Nov. 23)
Probably the most anticipated movie of the holiday season, everyone's favorite puppet characters are return to the big-screen (please excuse the cliche) in an all-new adventure. Written by (you won't believe this, either!) Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (the team behind the raunchy Forgetting Sarah Marshall), this should, nevertheless, be an entertaining and nostalgic trip down memory lane with Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, and the whole gang. Co-starring Amy Adams (as Segel's love interest), Chris Cooper (as the bad guy), and lots and lots of cameo appearances by famous stars.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (opens Dec. 9)
Based on the 1974 British spy novel by John le Carre, this espionage thriller focuses on intelligence veteran George Smiley (Gary Oldman), an expert in forced retirement, who is called to uncover a Soviet mole in the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service. A powerhouse cast includes Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt.

Tower Heist (Nov. 4)
The plot is basically a heist comedy involving high-rise staff members (as well as a petty crook) who plan to rob the penthouse of one of their tendants, a Wall Street businessman, after they fall victim to his most recent scheme. It's been a long time since I've seen a good action-comedy, let alone a good comedy. With Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy (in somewhat of a return to the big screen), along with a supporting cast that includes Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, and Alan Alda, as well as director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), it looks promising. We'll see.

War Horse (opens Dec. 28)
Coming out the same month as his motion-capture pic The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg also serves as director of this period drama set in World War II. It may echo elements of recent horse dramas like Seabiscuit and Secretariat, but it should be just as evocative and moving. Stars Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, and Tom Hiddleston. Spielberg regulars Michael Kahn (editor), Kathleen Kennedy (producer), and the always-great John Williams (composer) take part as well.

We Bought a Zoo (opens Dec. 23)
Matt Damon plays a father who moves his children to the countryside in Southern California and eventually renovates and reopens a zoo. Director Cameron Crowe's (Jerry McGuire) first film in six years. Co-starring Scarlet Johannson and Thomas Haden Church.

Young Adult (opens Dec. 16)
Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (the team behind Juno) reunite for Cody's story of a divorced fiction writer (Charlize Theron) who returns to her hometown to rekindle a romance between her old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), now married with kids. Patton Oswalt plays one of Theron's old friends.

[Trailer at http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3380715033/]

Other movies now playing or (coming out) on DVD and Blu-ray I want to or am interested in seeing:

Another Earth (Nov. 29)
The Beaver (now available)
Beginners (Nov. 15)
A Better Life (Oct. 18)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Nov. 29)
Everything Must Go (now available)
If a Tree Falls (still in select theaters)
The Interruptors (still in select theaters)
Jane Eyre (now available)
Life in a Day (Nov. 8)
Midnight in Paris (still in theaters)
Our Idiot Brother (Nov. 29)
Project Nim (still in theaters)
Terri (Oct. 11)
The Tree of Life (Oct. 11)
Winnie the Pooh (Oct. 25)
Win Win (now avalaible)

What fall films are you interested in? Do you believe these films (many, if not all) have the power to generate discussion among audiences? Why or why not? Regardless, it should be another incredible season for movies.

B.E.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Disney and Pixar Re-releases in the Next Two Years

With the surprising success of the re-release of Disney's The Lion King in 3D the last two weekends (it grossed an estimated $72 million within that time, according to boxoffice.com), the Disney and Pixar stduios, respectfully, have decided to re-release other classic films within the next two years. Their line-up includes 1991's Beauty and the Beast on January 18, 2012; 2003's Finding Nemo on September 14, 2012; 2001's Monsters Inc. on January 18, 2013; and 1989's The Little Mermaid on September 13, 2013.

 

The Disney studio is no stranger to this routine, as they've traditionally re-released classic films every seven years since they first re-released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the 1940s. (For those of you who never knew, Snow White was first released in 1937!)

As I've posted in my last blog on this subject, I'm wondering if the recent success of King (as well as the upcoming re-releases of the aforementioned films) may help remind audiences that hand-drawn animation is still alive and well, and that it still means something in our culture and in our world. (Never mind that these films are taken to the next technological level, regarding depth and perception.) The important thing is, how do the films themselves make you feel? What do they mean to you? One thing is for certain: they are definite classics that we adults (once kids, who grew up with them) will share with our kids in this generation.