Monday, November 23, 2009

Film Review #215: Precious
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz

Several weeks ago an irate letter-writer worried in The Post-Standard that Syracuse might miss Precious altogether. Although that letter actually appeared the morning after Nat Tobin announced on his weekly e-list that he was bringing Precious to Manlius Art Cinema, there was a lag before Regal Theaters booked the film into Carousel. It took breaking all sorts of attendance records in the very limited initial theatrical release that Precious got from Lionsgate Films for the mall chains – here and in 100 markets nationwide – to get wind of its profitability. Precious – based, as its longer official title tells us, on the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire – opened last Friday at both Manlius and Carousel Mall, and it was satisfying to see some weekend showings sold out.

The first film ever to win the Audience Award at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, Precious is the second feature film directed by Lee Daniels, who has mainly worked as a producer on edgy films like Monster’s Ball. Set in 1987, the film tells the story of teen-aged Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), her sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both her father and her mother Mary (Mo’Nique), and how a teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), and a social services worker, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), intervene. Let me say early on that if Lee Daniels and Mo’Nique don’t get Oscar nominations, there is no justice.

As the film opens, Precious is pregnant with her second child and has been suspended from her public school in Harlem. She’s referred to Each One Teach One, an alternative pre-GED program (if that sounds familiar to you, yes, the film uses a program of the Syracuse-based ProLiteracy, an item way at the tail end of the credits). Despite her own nearly paralyzing fears and her mother’s vigorous encouragement to get on welfare and stay home with her instead, Precious goes to school and, little by little, she and her classmates grow and bond. She also applies for her own welfare, which in this case would open the door to independence from her mother, who’s already running a scam involving Precious’ first child. Precious has her baby and decides to keep him, which provokes a brutal explosion when she tries to take the infant home. Coatless, Precious lands on the nighttime winter streets, narrowly avoiding the television thrown down the stairwell after her. Thanks to Ms. Rain, who pulls in all the chips on her considerable Rolodex file, there’s housing out there for Precious and little Abdul, and – I’m leaving out a lot here – Precious has a chance to decisively reject ever going home again.

Like Steven Spielberg’s 1985 screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, Precious has generated emotional and defensive controversy. Both films contain fathers who rape their daughters, and Precious adds a mother who continues to sexually abuse her daughter after that father has left (besides a dizzying range of other abuses). The harshest criticism so far has come from Armond White of The New York Press weekly in Manhattan. White accuses Daniels and executive co-producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry – all three have spoken publically about their own childhood abuse – of “pandering and opportunism,” creating a “sociological horror show,” and the most racist depiction of African Americans since Birth of a Nation. On the other hand, commentators like NYU-based journalist Cindy Rodriguez (who wrote for The Post-Standard some years ago), have written astutely and persuasively about how Precious lays out the persistent legacy of slavery and racism that surfaces in the self-worth of many of these characters. Lest we imagine that the 1987 setting safely distances this story, a host of commentary has focused on the present-day plight of similar girls. In the current issue of O Magazine, Winfrey remarks, “I see this girl every day, and I never saw her.”

There’s no doubt the story’s volatile, and even The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who admires this film, calls it “florid” – which isn’t all that far from “lurid.” But while the subject matter is certainly florid, I want to distinguish that from the way the movie itself is made and talk instead about the film’s restraint. Because in fact Daniels and his cast and crew have refrained from many easy, slapdash things that ruin countless movies by shoving our emotions around. I noticed this first fairly early in the movie – steeling myself at a dramatic moment when I half-expected the music to swell manipulatively and, miraculously, it didn’t. Precious does have a lively soundtrack that’s already out on CD, but Daniels lets his actors do their work.

And what work they do! Besides the principal performances, this makes room for some fine ensemble acting – talk-show host Sherry Shepherd as Cornrows, the school’s receptionist, always on the phone over some boyfriend problem; singer Lenny Kravitz as the vegetarian male nurse whom Precious fixes up with her in one deft comical scene; singer Mariah Carey as the social services worker who anchors the final harrowing scene toward which the movie builds.

In particular, the middle section of the film comprises a series of brief, cleanly written and edited vignettes about Ms. Rain’s classroom itself. These depict time passing as these young women grow and learn and bond in a group setting that is as much therapeutic as educational. Ms. Rain’s interventions can be decisive and dramatic. She stops a fight after a girl sneers at Precious that “F is for fat” (dispensing a lesson in justice about which infraction is really more injurious, she throws the other girl out). But they’re also frequently delicate and nuanced, supremely appreciative of the smallest of victories. Girls who begin the class in stylized poses of indifference and surly defiance gradually discover their own curiosity and even affection for one another. Their participation becomes actively supportive, despite lapses and outbursts, even on the day when Ms. Rain tells them that “the oldest is in charge” and thus the Bahamian immigrant Ramona (a wonderful Chynna Laine) teaches the class.

So when Precious blurts out that she’s just learned she’s HIV+, the group has so progressed that the others can be still and listen – even the jittery girl who started out greeting every remotely serious topic with wild, derisive laughter. It’s worth noting that Daniels and his screenwriter have placed this dramatic development structurally so that it serves a purpose other than stereotyping. In a 1987 classroom, announcing an HIV+ diagnosis would be far more unsettling than today, and how the film handles that might serve as a clue to those who are so jittery about what Precious says out loud.

Perhaps the most telling restraint of all is that addiction – the usual kind anyway – is absent from this story. (The most we get is Ms. Rain having a decorous glass or two of holiday wine.) Now this is almost too good to pass up for any pandering filmmaker who’s into easy short-cuts and sensational stereotypes. Leaving out the booze and dope accomplishes several things, however. What intoxicated characters see is exaggerated, and allows audiences to view the way circumstances are portrayed as distorted. Instead, the film regards the landscape of Precious’ world – well, soberly, without any mind-altering chemical boost. Without that distraction, we see what else is really there. Paradoxically, this makes way to see the full range and force of the fantasies that both Precious and her mother engage in. These include dissociative moments common among those surviving and escaping trauma, fierce schoolgirl daydreams about fitting in and being popular and “looking right,” one intriguingly droll scene in which Precious imagines herself inside a TV screening of the Sophia Loren World War II epic Two Women (which I think precludes the quick, wry sense of humor she starts to display later), and her mother’s more extreme habit of zoning out before the TV that probably verges on the psychotic.

Her mother’s path is, after all, one that Precious could have taken. We see how this all could have happened, and where it might've wound up, most vividly in that final scene in Mrs. Weiss’ cubicle during Mary’s last bid to get Precious back. She’s lucky and so are we. And Mo’Nique has a whole lot more under her hat than “Skinny Women Are Evil.”

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This review is part of the November 25, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. “Precious” is playing at both Manlius Art Cinema and Carousel Mall Regal Theaters, and Lee Daniels’ first film, “Shadowboxer” (2005) is available for Instant Viewing or regular rental at Netflix. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film review column. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Film Review #214: Pirate Radio
Director: Richard Curtis
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Emma Thompson

Maybe the surprise engagement softened us up, but I prefer to see it as further evidence of the enduring power of rock’n’roll. Local music fans will remember when WAER’s deejay Eric Cohen used the main stage at Jazz Fest to go down on one knee. Last Friday night another enterprising young man engineered the same thing during the closing credits at the early screening of Pirate Radio in Albany’s Spectrum Theatre. As snapshots of the couple flashed onscreen and the live Black gospel choir planted in the audience burst into the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” he popped the question. Coming up the aisle as the crowd for the next showing filtered in, their giant images still looming on the screen behind them, they looked pretty happy, and way too young to have been alive in 1966, when Pirate Radio takes place.

Pirate Radio opened nationwide last Friday with little advance notice. Except for the face of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in the newspaper ads and a Friday afternoon feature on NPR about the history of 1960s-era offshore pirate radio stations that I caught on the drive to Albany, it wasn’t on my radar at all. My sister and I were thinking of Lorna’s Silence, the new one by the Belgian filmmaker Dardenne brothers, or maybe Paris, which we went back to see Saturday night. Pirate Radio was pretty much a Plan B. But – still softened up with lingering good cheer from that engagement or not – we cheered and clapped right along with everybody else when the end credits rolled.

About 20 minutes longer and titled The Boat that Rocked before its U.S. makeover, Pirate Radio hadn’t done all that well overseas. Many reviews here have been luke-warm too – grumpily calling it a “mess” and a “hodgepodge,” a poor imitation of Richard Lester’s madcap Beatles films (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, 1964 and ‘65) and – ironically, considering the movie’s own personification of upper crust British culture police, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), who vows to crush the outlaw radio stations and the “sewer” they represent – nowhere near the in-depth treatment the subject or the era deserve. Excuse me, but this movie is a musical. How much “character development” does even The Sound of Music really have, folks? Pirate Radio was written and directed by Richard Curtis, from whom we’ve had Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually – affectionate entertainments, really, as this film is.

The year is 1966, when the UK’s state-owned BBC aired about two hours of rock music a week, compared to the United States’ 571 music-and-news format privately-owned commercial radio stations that provided Top 40 rock music 24 hours a day. State-owned radio monopolies actually pervaded most European broadcasting since the 1920s and, in England’s case, agreements with the musicians’ unions prevented more than minimal on-air “needle-time” as a way of tightly controlling competition with live performers. As the opening montage shows, about half of Britain’s population – 20 million people – listened to rock on U.S.-style pirate stations. That is, stations financed by advertizing (often U.S.-based) that aired commercials on shows run by popular deejays with nicknames, jingles, station ID’s and their own steadfast, infatuated fans. The first offshore pirate stations broadcast from ships in the 1950s off Denmark, Holland and Sweden. A London-based agent, Rohan O’Rahilly, launched Radio Caroline in March 1964, with another eight or nine stations following. Parliament did pass the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, as the film depicts.

Pirate Radio only loosely adheres to this history, it’s true, leaving out many nuances of that day’s culture wars – save joyous resistance to authority – or our own day’s political correctness, and cobbling together a tale of the decrepit fictional ex-tanker Radio Rock anchored in the North Sea, with an assortment of odd birds and motley crew – including Hoffman as the American, Rhys Ifans as the Brit megastar deejay Gavin Cavanaugh, Bill Nighy as the ship’s captain Quentin, and the lone woman Felicity (Katherine Parker), allowed on board to cook only because she’s a lesbian. Into this comes Quentin’s godson Carl (Tom Sturridge), sent for some manning-up by his mother Charlotte (Emma Thompson), whom Quentin calls a “sexual legend.” Plot twists abound, including visits from giddy fans, games of chicken, finding Carl's long-lost father and a sudden swerve into Titanic-as-rock-opera midway through, with a box of beloved albums standing in for that sapphire necklace. And the soundtrack – close to 40 songs – well, it is glorious. No matter what age you are, you’re likely to know them all.

This review appeared in the 11/19/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find Simon Frith’s fascinating and more complete history of the British pirate stations at the film’s official website. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column reviewing DVDs, special screenings and films of enduring worth. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.
Film Review #213: Tattooed Under Fire
Director: Nancy Schiesari

“The Vikings wore their shields on their backs when they went into battle, so it should be on the back,” says Josh, 22, a soft-faced boy with wide eyes and still a bit of baby fat around his middle. It’s April 2005, 1500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, and Josh is deploying there in two months. In Nancy Schiesari’s documentary Tattooed Under Fire, Josh is explaining why the Viking shield tattoo he has worked to design with the artists at River City Tattoo in Killeen, Texas, incorporates the Norse “tree of life” into its design and will cover most of his back.

“I’m Norwegian on my mother’s side, so as a warrior, this is another link to my heritage,” he adds, his upper lip beaded with sweat as the needle bites into his back. I have a bit of ink, so I know this peculiar sensation. It doesn’t exactly hurt, because the needle’s never in one spot long enough, but it’s always just about to, so you can reach your limit for a session.

Diamond Glen, the senior tattoo artist in the shop, is familiar with tattoo’s rituals and lore. He elaborates that ancient warriors painted and tattooed themselves to intimidate the enemy, part and parcel with the fearsome pounding on shields and bellowing that we all know in movies from Stagecoach to Braveheart to Steve McQueen’s Hunger. “Tattoos are like permanent war-paint,” says Glen, who says he has two sons himself, that these Fort Hood soldiers are “good kids – babies, most of ‘em.”

Roxanne, who owns River City Tattoo and could easily pass for any of her soldier clientele’s mothers, says she grew up around the military and she respects their desire to do their duty.

“But I don’t like the duty this time,” she says. “These kids put their heart and soul into these designs. They’re saying, it’s my body, it’s my life, and I want to design it.”

Fort Hood, Texas, scene of last week’s horrific mass shooting and this week’s somber observances, is the largest U.S. military facility in the world. A major center for deployment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, Fort Hood also houses the Army’s Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program for the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Increasingly, many U.S. men and women in uniform – one estimate, according to the film, is that 95% of those deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan – choose tattoo and other body art to express their complex reactions to combat both survived and anticipated.

This week, Schiesari’s documentary about the use of tattoo among U.S. troops begins airing across the nation on PBS stations. Its first Central New York airing was Monday night on WCNY Channel 24. Initially scheduled in honor of Veterans’ Day, the timing takes on added urgency after the Fort Hood tragedy. Tattooed Under Fire was filmed in Killeen, Texas, just outside Fort Hood, over about a three-year period. Schiesari is a native Brit who’s made documentaries about the photographer Hansel Mieth and filmmaker Martin Scorsese for the BBC, along with work for England’s Channel 4, ABC, National Geographic and PBS, and she’s served as cinematographer on films like Alice Walker’s 1993 Warrior Marks. Now she teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas/Austin, where Tattooed Under Fire premiered in September 2008. Before the awful coincidence of last week’s Fort Hood shootings, the film had already gained increased attention on this year’s festival circuit - deservedly so, for it leans in close with a group of young soldiers, mostly men but including three women, decent, sometimes unknowing, as they talk about their hopes and fears and anger and sometimes grief, make jokes, try to get ready.

In just 56 compact minutes, Schiesari profiles nearly a dozen of them, sometimes including reprise interviews when they return. A medic has an hour glass with wings flying through a thunderstorm across his upper chest – carefully below the collar line of his dress uniform. A soft-voiced young Latina says she’ll maybe buy her mother a house if she survives; an African American woman has grown increasingly bitter about the armed services. One rookie pushes a few envelopes when he designs a fetus in a blender design for his bicep and poses “making a muscle” with it before he ships out – he says any one of them could wind up “mush” – and then Schiesari catches him when he’s back from his hitch, chastened by real war’s proximity and amazed no one shot him for the excess of such an image.

Of course it’s really the war itself that has got under all our skins, marking the rest of us indelibly as these young soldiers.

This review was part of the 11/12/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. Look for additional screenings of “Tattooed Under Fire” on your local PBS station. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.