Call me movie crazy. Whenever I find myself feeling grim about exclusive releases that don’t reach my area; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November on Cape Cod; whenever I find myself involuntarily checking the same Yahoo movie listings I checked a couple of minutes ago; and especially when I’m so desperate that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from seeing 2012 a third time – then I account it high time to get up to the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge to see three movies in one day as soon as I can – which I did yesterday.
1. “Where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing stretched across the waste.” – From The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
John Hillcoat’s film The Road, based on the grim Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a man and a boy barely surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, certainly captures the “grayness like a charcoal drawing” described by McCarthy, and the cinematography and art direction that depict this hellish world are the film’s strengths. Telephone poles stand canted as if by a hurricane. Fields suddenly burst into flames. Trees (filmed near Mount St. Helens) have been blasted into charred sticks. A pervading grayness hangs over every scene like a leaden weight. Meanwhile, juxtaposed flashback images show blossoming oleanders and the man’s wife (Charlize Theron) dressed in clean clothing, lying on the grass, in sharp contrast with the image of the man (Viggo Mortensen) and the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) clad in damp, greasy coats and sweatshirts, hair matted, faces smeared with grime.
The father, as played by Mortensen, is a determined survivor in a land too horrid for his wife (Theron) to endure. Some unmentioned calamity has caused an extinction level event, blotting out the sun and destroying vegetation. Food is very scarce and degenerate bands roam the land, rounding up human food. In this hell, the only good that the father can find is keeping his son alive at all costs. This obsessive crusade turns him monomaniacal to the extent that he refuses to follow a lost boy seen by his son; he is unwilling to help an old man (Robert Duvall); and when a stranger steals their cart of possessions, he chases the man down and leaves him naked by the roadside. That Mortensen portrays this determined father with convincing zeal is a strength that drives the minimal plot. His voice has just the right tone, deep and matter of fact, as he gears the boy for survival without him.
Mortensen and Smit-McPhee’s performances; the masterful cinematography; and the music of Nick Cave, with brooding themes reminiscent of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, work together to pull the viewer into this bleak world, to feel the cold and damp and hunger, so that a little reprieve like a can of Coke is dramatically felt, so that the discovery of a stash of canned food is a blessing to rejoice.
But with the reprieves few and far between, the story is unrelentingly grim - and this is how it should be. The film never makes a discordant misstep; it refrains from inserting unrealistic niceties or comic relief. Man and boy can only hope to enjoy the minimal pleasures of bathing in a waterfall or washing their hair with hot water and shampoo. Mortensen’s voiceover narrative, however, feels like a weakness in that it doesn’t add anything that could not be inserted in dialogue or anything that the film’s vivid imagery hasn’t already made clear. It’s a disappointment to me that the narrative is original material written for the screenplay instead of excerpts from McCarthy’s exquisitely vivid, sometimes elusively poetic prose. With the performances, the imagery, and the music, McCarthy’s own words could have turned this excellent movie into a profoundly memorable experience.
2. The Tortoise Formation
Ten minutes into John Woo’s Red Cliff, a Chinese historical epic about warlord Cao Cao’s campaign to squelch all opposition, I thought I had made a bad choice for my second viewing and it looked like I had a slow 148 minutes ahead of me. Very quickly the story mounts up a cast of so many lords, viceroys, prime ministers, advisors, and generals you have little hope of keeping them straight and distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys. Even the name-tag superscript Woo tacks onto each character provides little help. Thankfully, the first battle comes quickly, but the combat is standard for Chinese epics: showers of arrows; charging cavalry; slow-motion, close-up contests pitting heroes (we haven’t had time to identify) against multiple foes they have no trouble cutting down with martial arts moves we’ve seen countless times.
But the film is soon saved. First, the plot becomes clear and simple: warlord Sun Quan has agreed to ally himself with warlord Lui Bei, and Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) has decided to take his vast fleet downriver, accompanied by ground troops marching along the bank, to defeat Sun Quan at Red Cliff – a Chinese version of Helm’s Deep.
Then, as preparations for battle build tension, Lui Bei’s viceroy/military strategist Zhuge Liang (Takashi Kaneshiro) joins wits with Sun Quan’s Grand Viceroy Zhou Yu (Toney Leung) to defeat the enemy. When the engaging Zhuge Liang, calm, philosophical, and knowledgeable about the art of war and the workings of nature, suggests they use the Tortoise Formation to squash Cao Cao’s ground forces, you think, “Oh, boy, the Tortoise Formation!” and you are soon treated to something you’ve never seen before.
Avoiding spoilers here, I will simply say that you’ve just got to see the Tortoise Formation! Visualize the British Squares receiving the charge of the French cuirassiers at Waterloo, add some complex geometry, and you have the clever tactic that makes the film’s middle battle such a fun, eye-filling treat full of clever surprises; indeed, it is a battle you’ve never seen before.
But Woo doesn’t let this set piece stand alone. What follows is a story of grim warfare mixed with elements of whimsical legend. The sly Liang provides drama merely by planning stratagems. He can read the clouds and predict a fog that will conceal his ships. He devises a fanciful maneuver to “steal” a hundred thousand arrows from the enemy. He knows that the winds, favoring Cao Cao’s fire ships, will shift in their favor. It’s all a matter of buying time. This might be the time for a diversionary commando raid, but Zhou Yu’s charming and radiantly beautiful wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin), assumes the challenge and stalls the attack by making tea for the enemy lord.
The final battle is expansive, inventive, and suspenseful. As should be the case when watching a big battle movie involving heroes pitted against uneven odds, I found myself uttering an audible “All right!” or an “Oh, yeah!” when individual characters we care about do their heroic thing.
Big battles, a cast of thousands, and colorful cinematography are standards of the Chinese historical epic. Red Cliff has all that, but its clever, often whimsical approach to the battles and its engaging central characters, the ones that eventually distinguish themselves from all the others you can't keep straight, make John Woo’s epic a distinctive, highly enjoyable experience.
3. Bucket of Fried Chicken
In Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Lee Daniels’s well-intended film about a nearly illiterate, obese, sixteen-year-old girl who has been raped by her father and has two children by him, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) doesn’t have money for breakfast one morning. On her way to school, she stops at a fried chicken joint, orders a bucket and then absconds with it, gobbling the chicken as she runs down the street. Arriving at school, stuffed, her face smeared with grease, she promptly pukes in a trash bin in the waiting room. Then her teacher comes in, scolds her for being late, and tells her to get into the classroom (strangely, the teacher doesn’t smell the puke).
Precious piles up quite a number of luridly pathetic scenes like this to catalogue how tragic this girl’s life is. Her mother (Mo’Nique) throws a frying pan at her, forces her to eat a heaping plate of macaroni and cheese and pigs’ feet, throws her newborn baby on the floor, throws a television down the stairwell at her. In a flashback, we see her sweat-covered father rape her. On top of all that, Precious is HIV positive; her first child has Down syndrome; and her father first molested her when she was three.
Unfortunately, these abuses overshadow the touching story at the film’s core: the transformation of a virtually illiterate, obese, abused African-American girl from scowling, inarticulate bitterness and ignorance to emerging dignity and self-respect. Sidibe’s naturalistic performance provides the strength for this core. In her daydreams of being a popular singer, actress, or model, we see her innocent attempts to escape from her plight. In her care for her second baby, we see her attempt to be good at something: giving her child the tender attention she was never given. Gradually, Precious transforms, and this is her triumph. She scowls less, raises her downcast eyes, dresses better, and has the intelligence to dismiss her mother’s myth about how HIV is contracted and exhort her mother to get tested.
Allowed to linger on Precious’s transformation, on the realistic tone of documentary-like scenes involving her teacher and her social worker, the film could have been a more affecting one. But the bathos of the pathetic abuses misdirects the focus. An additional weakness stems from elements that are stock trappings of a LIFETIME Channel victim-of-the-week movie: the bright-eyed, dedicated teacher (Paula Patton), the haggard but empathetic social worker (Mariah Carey), and the sassy, skanky classmates who quickly become Precious’s faithful, tender-hearted friends. These elements detract from the realism of Sidibie’s portrayal of a girl rising up from hellish ignorance and abuse. With my attention straying when the film is merely lurid, I found myself only sporadically touched by Precious’s rise from ignorance.