Precious (2009, dir. Lee Daniels)
Starring Gabby Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd
I waited a long time to see this film, not because I lacked interest in its subject matter, but, because of my time in inner city schools, I knew it was going to affect me in a rough way. I have worked with primarily African-American students in low income situations and, while many of them come from loving families that give support in the best ways they know how, there are also a fair share that are stuck in multi-generational cycles of destructive parenting.
The story follows Precious, a 16-year old living in 1987 New York City, repeating the 7th grade, and in the middle of her second pregnancy. Her mother, Mary, is incredibly abusive towards Precious which stems from the fact that her husband is the father of Precious’ two children, the first of which was born with Down’s syndrome. After the discovery of her second pregnancy, Precious is moved to a special school for struggling students in an effort to get her a GED. Her mother is threatened by this, believing it will result in her welfare benefits being removed and becomes increasingly more vicious.
This is a hard film to talk about, especially from the perspective of a white American male. I don’t necessarily believe I feel white guilt but I definitely feel a sympathy for the African-American community from my first hand experiences working with their students. For the majority of the film, Mary represents a very extreme type of person, and in reality transcends race. There are plenty of white parents, many of whom I have encountered here in the South who develop a resentment of their offspring as a result of wretched economic circumstances. Mo’Nique delivers a performance I never would have expected out of her, especially during her final monologue where we finally get some solid information about Precious’ upbringing.
A lot of critics are worried that Lee Daniels’ portrayal of African-Americans is helping to feed a terrible stereotype of the community. I completely understand those fears because, seen through the eyes of a filmgoer who does not critically view cinema (and sadly many of them don’t, as evidenced by the success of Avatar), this could reinforce negativity. I like to the view as an piece of honest encouragement to African-American youth. The film doesn’t resolve everything in a pretty bow, but it does show a strong black female character who, with a support system, manages to make things better for herself and is determined to continue to make things better.
Where The Wild Things Are (2009, dir. Spike Jonze)
Starring Katherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker
Taking up only around a dozen pages, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are seemed more appropriate as an animated short, rather than a live action feature. Thanks to the creative genius of Spike Jonze, the story was able to be fleshed out further without losing the themes and tone of the picture book. Instead of opting for the current trend of CG animation, Jonze turned to an older and more conventional method by hiring the Henson Creature Shop to design and construct full body suits of the Wild Things. The result is a film that says as much to adults as it does children.
The story, familiar to most, is very simple: Young Max is stomping around the house in his monster suit, bites his mother and is punished. Instead of Max’s bedroom transforming into the forest, Jonze sends Max into the real woods and to a scenario that causes us to ask whether he actually experienced this or not. Max ends up on an island, populated by giant monsters which Max quickly conquers as their king. In the world of the film, a conflict arises between two Wild Things: KW and Carol. This provides the crux of the drama in the film and parallels the typically volatile relationship Max experiences with his sister.
Jonze creates a tone that very few children’s films possess; a tone of honesty. Max behaves like a real child, not a Disney-fied picture of perfection or precociousness. Max has his own sense of illogical, child-like logic and reacts with violent emotion. Author Sendak has commented, about the original text, that it was meant to speak to children about being angry and not play to the wants of parents. The voices of the Wild Things are also filtered through Max as well and represent both the different sides of his personality as well as the way he sees people in his life.
Many parents complained that the film was too dark but I see it as no darker than the original story. I think many parents fail to realize the honesty of Sendak’s text, which in turn makes it a “dark” story in comparison to the false sunniness of many children’s stories. I also think, unlike films such as Shrek and Madagascar and films of that kind, Where the Wild Things Are has true intellectual “nutritive value”. Jonze has made a film that will provide something new and valuable to audiences as they grow older.
Updates are gonna be few and far between till around Jan. 12th. Will be in the sunny winter sun of San Juan, Puerto Rico for the holidays. I will try to find time to write up and post my 10 favorite films I saw in 2009 (Remember, they can be from any year, simply films I had never seen before 2009). Will also, finish up the three part look back on my “decade in love with movies” in 2010.
As for 2010, I am already thinking about some new things to write up for this that go beyond the standard single movie reviews. You can be looking forward to:
– Director Retrospective – John Sayles (Have never seen a film by this man, but his name comes up often, figured I could take you through my thoughts on his work).
– One new hypothetical film festival every two weeks
– Going to pick a genre of film and do an indepth analysis of it (open to suggestions)
– Three part essay on the Sundance Film Festival
– A look at the James Dean Trilogy (East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Giant)
– And Obscure Classics, beginning with the overlooked sequel to Rocky Horror; Shock Treatment
Hope everyone has a great Xmas and New Year
I have been a film geek since childhood. I was read to from a very early age and I credit that with my love of narrative. Even in given presentations as an adult in my graduate studies, I feel more comfortable presenting representative anecdotes that dry data or broad theory. I am a big believer that all of our lives are parallels to the myriad of master plots presented by Misters Jung and Campbell.
My earliest memories of film are attached to three things: The Wizard of Oz, Superman The Movie, and Ghostbusters. On contemplating my memories of Ghostbusters, I surprised myself, realizing that the film came out in 1984 and my parents rented the VHS tape before 1986 (we were still living in Illinois at the time), making me around four years old when I first encountered the picture. The Ivan Reitman directed film obviously had a profound impact on my early psyche and years later when the sequel was released I remember putting together a makeshift proton pack (backpack + yarn + cardboard paper towel tube) and ghost trap (shoebox + yarn).
For the longest time, my love of film was relegated to the mainstream cinema, and in particular films rated PG-13 or lower. My only exposure to an unedited R-rated film came when my father rented the original Die Hard without checking the box. That stands as my earliest memory of hearing the word “fuck” on film. As a teenager, I could feel my curiosity spurned on by a notion that there were movies out there that was life-altering yet I had not had access to them yet. Large tomes from the public library that outlined cinema from its inception in the late 19th century on through the late 1990s gave me production still glances of films that were like mysteries to me; forbidden but attainable eventually.
My first weekend of college (August 1999) I ended up at the theater with a cluster of people whom I would remain friends with till the end of college, some did of course fall by the wayside. The film we saw was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. For the rest of the decade, I would see each of Mr. Shyamalan’s pictures in the theater, with wavering levels of enjoyment. Months later I would see David Fincher’s Fight Club, a film that while I still appreciate it, has lost its magic for me in the following years.
For the first third of 2000, I can recall only seeing Pitch Black in the theater. It’s a film whose craftsmanship I can still appreciate, but will probably never end up on any favorite lists of mine. The majority of film I was seeing occurred in dorm rooms and dorm lobbies. I remember watching the The Matrix with a group of friends in the lobby of a girls’ dorm and having one young lady, whom I did think was very cute, sidle up closer and lay her head on my shoulder. I distinctively remember looking across to the other couch, to my roommate whom was cracking up at my nervous naïveté. This is another recurring theme in my love of cinema, emotional moments connected to specific films.
My summer between terms in 2000, I saw X-Men in the theaters. And upon returning to college in the fall, I remember a film that stands as the moment where I began to develop a true taste in film. It was a Friday evening and, as most Friday evenings, the debate was underway in the cafeteria on what to do for entertainment. The group settled on movies but that it when the true debate began. Looking back, it seems strange that the majority of girls in our group would lobby to go see the hackneyed Urban Legend slasher flick, while the boys pushed for Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. The middle ground that was decided on was The Watcher, an epically forgettable Keanu Reeves/James Spader flick. As if by fate, the audio in the film was atrocious and the entire audience became very frustrated. Someone complained so, that after the film was over, an employee of the Regal 27 stood at the door handing out apologetic free passes. My friend Brent and I immediately turned to our cohorts and announced we would be going to see Almost Famous, right then and there. I have loved the film ever since.
The next key moment in my growth was to come in November, after returning from Thanksgiving break and seeing Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and being amazed. I literally cried in the final ten minutes of the film, an act I don’t do often now attributable to “overexposure” to cinema, at the beauty of the comic book story being told in such a human and quiet way. I was hooked. During the following spring, I would begin my treks to the nearby theater on Saturdays, seeing movies on my own and theater hopping.
I had a physical thirst for something the films provided, possibly experiences so beyond on my and, most likely, a closer examination of things I felt were somehow true, yet was unable to verbalize or communicate in any tangible way. I would fall in love Amelie, wish to explore the Tenebaums’ home, weep at the pain of David the android, obsess on the mystery of the tragic Darko family, and experience a multitude of emotions. It was first love, new and fresh and exciting, yet also heart wrenching when reality sets in, and a process of learning about myself more than anyone or thing else. As my maturity in understanding love developed, so too did my maturity in understanding film.
Sauna (2008, dir. Antti-Jussi Annila)
During the late 16th century, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire went to war. During this period, Sweden wished to expand its borders and found an enemy with the Russians, whose religious hierarchy clashed with Sweden’s. Eventually King Gustav of Sweden and Russian Emporer Ivan the IVth came to a tenuous peace that hinged on a rewriting of the borders of the two lands. A joint cartography mission was established with one group heading south, the other north, with plans to meet in the middle. The group heading north never made it to the rendezvous and this film speculates as to why.
Knut and Erik Spore are the Swedish half to the Northern bound cartography team, mapping the new boundaries of the two lands through desolate plains and rotting forests. Erik is haunted by his years fighting in the war against Russia and would like to have nothing to do with their partners on this mission. On their journey, a disturbing incident occurs where Erik discovers a family housing them are Russian sympathizers. With the Russian half of the mission camped out of sight, Erik brutally stabs the peasant father to death and Knut, after lusting over the daughter, locks her in a cellar to be abandoned. A few miles down river they come to the swamp, an area no one is anxious to explore. In they go, only to find a village not recorded on any of the previous maps, full of elderly peasants who seem unable to die. Sitting in the midst of the bog, is a plan white sauna house, which seems to beckon young Knut and troubles Erik. It is inevitable that sins will paid out in this barren place.
Sauna is a masterpiece. I am repeatedly amazed at the skill with which small budget, foreign language pictures shame the tripe being cranked out of the Hollywood machine. It is apparent that there is a strong historical spine to this film that I am frustrated to not be fully aware of. It makes sense that our social studies textbooks focus on the key regions and more profound empires, but when seeing films like this it makes me wish I knew more specifics about many of the overlooked societies.
There is a strong division between the religious beliefs of the Russian and Swedes, with Erik discovering Russian Orthodox imagery of the Virgin Mary in a peasant’s house being enough for him to stab the man over seventy time in the face. The Russian military dress is much more regal, in contrast to the plain leather and straps of the Swedish soldiers. It is apparent that these cultural groups find little to agree on. That is until the discovery of this mysterious village in the swamp. What is brought out of all the men is the deeper, ingrained pagan superstitions of the region. Christianity becomes a veneer lain over their peoples, but what they truly fear are the primal evils that have been in the earth for millenia.
Sauna is the story of soldiers burdened by sins, committed without thought. Once removed from their sins, they begin to contemplate them and the guilt devours them in the end. All of this is dressed a pared down supernatural motif that refrains from playing its cards until the final thirty minutes of the film. The horror revealed in the end is magnificent in its bleakness and underscored by a comment made by a young Russian soldier earlier in the film. He posits that fire is a cleansing force, so would it not be more appropriate for Hell to be a place covered in filth.
This is it!
From my review of the film in 2008: “P.T. Anderson feels like a director who should have been working in the 1970s along his artistic soulmates. His films are so distinctly his vision, fighting against the conventions of what we’ve been taught to accept as movie entertainment. He gives us long silences that, while absent of dialogue, are rich with information about our main character. He is a director who knows exactly when to build to a moment of tension and when to give in and let it shatter on the screen. What is great is that the film refrains from becoming didactic. There is no message being telegraphed with big glaring neon signs, as in most Oscar bait films. A story is told and, while am certain Anderson has a very clear idea of what he thinks it is about, he lets us make our own decisions. I’ve found that the great eyes of modern cinema (PT Anderson, Lynch, Kubrick, Malick to name a few) are amazingly gifted at abstaining from overtly teaching lessons. Daniel Day Lewis is at his most brilliant here; he seems to be one of those actors who hits the bullseye every time out. He creates one of those characters that is immediately picked up by and mimicked by the mainstream culture. If Daniel Plainview feels grossly over the top at moments and absurd I think that’s exactly what Lewis is aiming for. The character simmers for most of the film and when it does explode it’s almost laughable. It’s simply one of the best films of the decade and another perfect ten from PT Anderson.”
4) The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine
From my review of the film: “What’s to say about this film that hasn’t been yet? Not much really. It’s the highest grossing film of the decade and deservedly so. It’s one of those times I love when a director with distinct vision is rewarded for his work by the public and critics alike. I have been a big fan of Christopher Nolan since Memento and I have to say, I don’t think he has made a bad film in his career so far. There are some I prefer over others but they are all of a high quality and artistic merit. As the comic book film is concerned I have a little worry about the effect of this film. Warner Bros. has said the next Superman film should have a darker tone in line with this film. I think that would be a huge mistake. The studio executives fail to see why The Dark Knight was so successful and that was because it matched the correct tone with its iconic character. Joel Schumacher’s Batman films failed because the tone was so drastically opposite of what a Batman film feels like it should be. So, if one were to apply this dark tone to a Superman film it would tank. Anyways, I loved Heath Ledger as the Joker but I feel Aaron Eckhart has been overshadowed. He played the consummate Harvey Dent, he had made us sympathize and like the character so that his fall is that much more tragic for us. My one disappointment about the film was that Two Face didn’t get more screen time. The character was interesting enough that I sort of wish it had been carried over into another film. That said, this is hands down the best superhero/comic book film ever made. It takes it source material seriously and shows how the superhero genre is a great platform for big ideas.”
For my views on this film, check out my in-depth review: http://shadowsitcave.blogspot.com/2009/11/film-2009-20-waltz-with-bashir.html
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, City of God transcends the Rio de Janeiro ghetto where it takes places and works as an examination of all societies where the poor are marginalized and pushed out of sight. The story follows Rocket, a youth becoming interested in photography and Lil Ze, a boy who finds his calling in running the gangs of the City of God. The City is a real life slum in Rio,Brazil, planned in 1960 to systematically remove favelas (slums) from the city center. This plan focused on making Rio look like a city made up of the standard metropolitan and suburban areas, while effectively ignoring the poor. The film shows the path most young men commonly choose, joining up with gangs and Rocket’s desperate struggle to get out of the City of God and find a way to report the horror there to others. Instead of presenting a purely issue driven film, Meirelles adds stylistics to the narrative, beginning with a moment from the finale of the film and then tracing backwards to the main characters’ childhoods. The story is also told out of linear sequence, jumping around as new characters are introduced to give us important backstory about them. Meirelles never shies away from the violence that takes place in this world. All of these elements together are what City of God a film impossible to forget.
There are many films that have hopeful endings, and there are plenty of bleak movies, but rarely are they blended in ways that retain the weight of each tone. Children of Men is one of those films that doesn’t hesitate to show a dark vision of the future, yet also holds up the idea that there is hope even the most desolate of situations. Set in the U.K. of 2027, we’re presented with humanity given a death sentence after two decades of global infertility. The sense of hopelessness has pervaded the citizenry and martial law has been declared in a futile attempt to control the chaos about to explode. It’s on the eve of this explosion that Theo Faron (Owen), a former activist is pulled back into the cause by his estranged wife, Julian (Moore). Julian reveals to Theo that a young African woman has been brought into her rebel group and has been found to be pregnant. It’s of utmost importance that the young girl get to The Human Project, a group that many suspect is an urban legend, where she can get the medical attention she needs and birth the first child in twenty years. What follows is a mesmerizing odyssey, documented in cinematic brilliance by one of the finest filmmakers working today. Cuaron has shown his deft skill at tackling small scale character work (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and big budget fantasy franchise (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and this is his most stunning work to date. The film never delves into the maudlin or melodramatic, and fights its damnedest to stay grounded in the gritty nature of its universe. In this single film, I saw the reactions and emotions of myself and those around me post-9/11 reflected. And in turn, I saw the great hope we all desire, that no matter how bleak things become, the infinitesimal chance that we can be a part of the change for the better, whether we live to see it or not, is possible