Thursday, December 10, 2009

‘Precious’ Full of Pain, Hope and Incredible Performances

The unreal reality and disparaging tale of Clareece Precious Jones begins with an affliction of Precious’ diluted view of life. “I want to be on the cover of a magazine,” says the 16-year-old girl. “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with good hair. But first I want to be in one of those BET videos.”

New talent Gabourey Sidibe plays the obese and illiterate Precious in the Oscar-buzzing film directed by Lee Daniels. Saddling up alongside Sidibe to make for one impressive female-led cast are Mo’Nique, Paula Patton and Mariah Carey.

It’s hard to recall a film carried by its acting as much as Precious is. Sure, the story, based on a novel by Sapphire, is dark and unrelenting and that alone makes for an effective drama, but the performances turned in by likes of Sidibe and Mo’Nique carries the film to a whole different quadrant of impactful storytelling. The extreme pain of the characters is felt alongside an unmistakable sense of reality, which is a combination proven time and time again to hit audiences the hardest.

And while Precious might end up as one of the toughest films to watch all year long because of the emotional performances coupled with content such as sexual, physical and mental abuse, there is a somewhat deeply-rooted sense of hope that exudes out of the tale of the struggling 16-year-old girl named Precious. Her admittance to an alternative school and the role that institution plays as a gleaming beam of hope gives the film a slight feel-good vibe you absolutely wouldn’t expect after the film’s opening sequences.

It’s easy to see why Precious has been stunning audiences at the various film festivals it has been shown at. The jarringly painful and intimate performances, especially Sidibe’s lead performance and the rather surprising and Oscar-deserving turn from Mo’Nique as Precious’ abusive mother, are all jaw droppers. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think Mo’Nique had this kind of performance in her. With a round-up of acting credits that includes Phat Girlz and Soul Plane, you can’t blame me, but I’m glad to be proven wrong.

Even Mariah Carey adds to the dramatic mix with her solid performance as welfare worker Mrs. Weiss, a key character in the discovery of the revelations of Precious’ painful life. Paula Patton, as Ms. Blu Rain, Precious’ new teacher at her alternative school, gives the most inspiring and hopeful performance as Precious’ ticket out of her personal hell.

And as you study these characters a little more deeply, you find that each adds its own purpose to the story and to Precious herself. They’re more than simple characters with a name and a face. Precious herself is a puzzling character, she often sees herself living a different life, perhaps one of a slender white woman, and even though she might want change, shows a fear to engaging it. Her mother is her hindrance, Ms. Rain is her gateway to salvation and Mrs. Weiss is her personal diary. The final two characters are the undeniable sense of hope I make reference to.

Precious won’t win awards for cinematography, as the jerky handheld cam is unbalanced at times, but it should take home something for its acting. A female-led film such as this doesn’t come around that often and the achievements should be recognized.

Precious is a must-see film. While it is a bit of a tear-inducing film typical of the Oscar season, it leaves you feeling an overall sense of optimism and does so remarkably with its realistic grasp on life boosted by a round of great performances.

Monday, December 7, 2009

'Swimming with Sharks' A Dark, Absurd Journey

Remember that job you once had with the unrelenting and insulting boss? Well, Guy (Frank Whaley) does, and it’s why he’s decided to take Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) hostage.

Swimming with Sharks is the unforgiving, unapologetic, aggressive and darkest of dark comedies that tells the story of how Guy got to be throwing hot sauce in Ackerman’s open wounds.

This rather bleak look at the studio system in Hollywood is a scalding hot piece of comedy, a deeply hysterical albeit sad piece of social commentary on the business behind the pretty facade.

What makes this foul-mouthed film work so well is Spacey’s comically brilliant performance as true asshole Buddy Ackerman. A man who’s on the top of it all at Keystone Pictures, Ackerman uses and abuses Guy on all fronts, from stealing credit of his work to yelling at him in front of the entire office over a packet of Sweet‘N Low.

And on the other side, Whaley plays two versions of Guy. The more quiet and timid youngster looking to make a name for himself in the world of film and the berserk, near-psychotic man that storms into Ackerman’s house to hold his boss hostage and torture him with salt and paper cuts.

The film’s narrative is one of the huge keys to the film, as it supplements the present day events of Guy torturing Ackerman in his own home with the abuse and hostility Ackerman sprayed towards Guy during his time as his assistant. Jumping back and forth from past to present really allows the viewer to get a different sense of the events. It’s certainly an experimental way to tell a film of this kind, but I think it works much better than the straightforward start to finish narrative that could have been used.

And when I say that Swimming with Sharks is the darkest of dark comedies, I truly mean it. There might be films darker than this that dash comedy in here and there, but I have to admit that I didn’t get the film I expected when I read the critic comments of “Hysterical!” on the back of the DVD case. Writer and director George Huang offers so much bleak light into the life of Guy and the Hollywood system it’s unbelievable. The outcome of the situation is even more disparaging. If not for the humorous approach, Ackerman’s snide and ruthless bouts of yelling and the all-around foul-mouthed nature of the film, I’d have a hard time calling it a comedy.

But now that I’ve seen Swimming with Sharks I have a problem wondering why this film isn’t more beloved. It’s certainly not far from a brilliant total package, a working together of comic mischief and unabashed ruthlessness. The film isn’t afraid to point at dark, touchy subjects while maintaining a light sense of humor on the side. Think Glengarry Glen Ross had it been about holding your boss hostage.

Wrap Up of Films Watched in November 2009

Nope, I didn't forget this feature, I'm just late. November was a pretty weak month from my part. The year is drawing to a close and the energy is growing low. I only watched 13 films this month. Here's the tally and awards.

256. 11/3 – Easy Rider*
257. 11/6 – The Men Who Stare at Goats*
258. 11/6 – (500) Days of Summer*
259. 11/6 – Whatever Works*
260. 11/14 – The Boat That Rocked*
261. 11/14 – The Limits of Control*
262. 11/14 – Swimming with Sharks*
263. 11/17 – Moon*
264. 11/20 – Naked Lunch
265. 11/20 – In the Loop
266. 11/21 – The Hangover
267. 11/25 – Wise Blood
268. 11/29 – Thirst*

Best Film (New Viewing): Moon
I loved absolutely everything about Duncan Jones' isolated science fiction thriller, from the extraordinary visuals to the stellar acting from Sam Rockwell. This is one of 2009's best films and a must-see film.
Runners-up: Easy Rider, Thirst, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Best Film (Repeated Viewing): In the Loop
The best film of the year (so far)! Watch this, dam you. And then watch The Thick of It from start to where it's at right now. You won't be sorry. I just wish the Oscar buzz train was rolling for Peter Capaldi.
Runners-up: Wise Blood, Naked Lunch.

Worst Film (Any Viewing): None.
Sorry, but I enjoyed it all this month. So don't tell me "Oh, something has to be the worst!" That isn't the intention of this slot.

Most Surprising Film and Most Underrated Film: Swimming with Sharks
Yeah, it wins both of these, so to save space and time I'll condense it to one slot. Swimming with Sharks was a $2 blind buy for me at Big Lots and I couldn't have been happier with the outcome. I'll be posting my "Netflix It" piece I wrote on the film for The Recorder shortly.