Monday, November 30, 2009

The Road, Red Cliff, and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

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.


Jason Bellamy said...

I'm leaving your thoughts on The Road for later, and I read just enough of your thoughts on Red Cliff to decide I need to try and see it, so thoughts on Precious ...

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.

If anything, that's putting it mildly. Agreed. With a character so abused all she really has to do to transform is avoid the flying frying pan and TV. I'm not denying that the character grows -- just a bit -- but as much as anything she just dodges the bullets that used to hit her. Modest (and cheap) triumphs, to be sure.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment - I'll be interested in your responses to The Road.

I see Precious as doing more than just dodging the bullets at the end. I think, through her education, she has gained some dignity. That is something.


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Thanks again for your plug.



Jason Bellamy said...

I see Precious as doing more than just dodging the bullets at the end. I think, through her education, she has gained some dignity. That is something.

Sort of. Yes. But that's just it. She's gained some dignity. It's a very low bar that Precious sets by using her as nothing but a victim early on. She can't help but clear it.

Daniel said...

Interesting thoughts on The Road. I have to admit, not having read the book, I was a little surprised the ending of the story was as dull as the movie is. I just don't know how well something like this can translate to the screen. It's horrifying and existential and fascinating to consider the end of the world, and I thought this (not surprisingly) did a much better job than 2012 of making it in any way emotionally engaging. Yet I somehow still felt empty while watching it. I think the text of the book, as you describe, might have made for a more enriching cinematic experience. Plus the sound was really low in the theater so I could hardly hear Mortensen's narration...

We're at about the same level on Precious, as you've already shared on my review. I didn't say anything about it, but as you mention the supporting characters, and particularly the casting of the supporting character, really threw me for a loop. I didn't know why someone as beautiful as Paula Patton had to play that role (to make everyone else look worse?), or why Lenny Kravitz was making his acting debut in a story like this, or what Mariah Carey was doing in there at all.

Their acting was actually great across the board in my opinion, but those questions I just posed ending up distracting me a bit within the movie and disconnecting me from it.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason - I guess we disagree on this point in regards to Precious. If she gains some dignity, when she had none, that could be looked upon as a considerable triumph; perhaps what she gains is realistic. Whatever, we agree that it's a problematic film; that's for sure.

Daniel - Thanks for your comments. I agree that the novel The Road is better than the movie, but I enjoyed it. Sorry you found it dull. Visually, it wasn't dull for me, and I found the father's dedication to survival to be inspiring.

As for Precious - I agree. Too many elements distract. I found Carey's performance to be odd - and so it distracted me in that sense. And there was something ill-advised about the casting of Patton; you're right that it is jarring that she is pretty and much more fair-skinned than Precious.

And, as I said, some of the scenes like the fried chicken just didn't ring true. I enjoyed elements of this movie. But now, the more I think about, the more I'm recalling how untouched I was.

Jason Bellamy said...

If she gains some dignity, when she had none, that could be looked upon as a considerable triumph; perhaps what she gains is realistic.

I agree with that in spirit (and in relation to the realism). I think I'm distracted by the fact that the movie's high note is sending this woman into the world with two kids and AIDS (in the 1980s, when AIDS was usually a swift death sentence). Yes, she has gained some kind of dignity, but it's still so low. She's still so lacking in awareness that I don't think she appreciates the gravity of her situation.

So, two points: The first is that a very tragic story could be told using the Precious at the end of this movie as the starting point. As down-and-out origins go, her predicament at the end of the film is right up there. And that leads me to my second point: The only thing that really keeps the conclusion of this film from being another low point in her story, rather than the high point, is the fact that the movie ends here instead of going on.

Yes, yes. I know. She just stood up to her mother. And along the way she comes out of her shell just a bit. I'm not blind to that. I get it. But I believe that part of the reason people are reading triumph into the film's conclusion is that we have become conditioned to looking for triumph there. We believe that's what the filmmakers are trying to show, and so we nod our heads, exclude all that is tragic or contrary, and give the film more credit than it's earned.

Strangely, watching this film reminds me of why I feel uncomfortable at the end of movies like The Day After Tomorrow. I know why you like those disaster flicks -- the spectacles, the survival. Those things have appeal, I agree. But I'm uncomfortable when these films suggest I should cheer for the very few characters who have lived while all those around them have died, particularly in cases when the world left behind is almost completely inhabitable.

So to cheer Precious at the end of this film would have felt heartless to me, though I do think -- in theory -- that there's validity in celebrating even small triumphs. I just think such situations this tragic need to be handled with greater care if triumph is going to be celebrated.

Richard Bellamy said...

This part I totally agree with:
"I just think such situations this tragic need to be handled with greater care..." Yes, and there are many situations in the film that are very problematic and needed to be handled better. As for the ending, I didn't feel the sense of a great triumph there, and I'm not a big fan of this film as I made clear in my post, but I felt this moment - when she stands up to her mother and walks away - is a significant moment. Even if she is going to die, she has gained a modicum of dignity.

As I watched the ending, I thought of an award-winning novel by Ernest Gaines called A Lesson Before Dying. In that novel a teacher is asked to educate a very ignorant black person on death row (who was only a very innocent accomplice to the crime)so that he can at least gain some dignity from learning to read before he dies. Right - learning to read ain't gonna mean much when they execute him, but it means a lot to him in the process. Gaining dignity for a short time is significant for that man. It is a small, pathetic triumph in regards to his previous life and his fate, but it is a gain.

I feel the same way about this movie. Precious has gained something, and I never meant to suggest that I consider that a great triumphant ending. I'm not "cheering" the end of the movie. For the most part, I don't like this movie. We agree there. I guess we just need to agree to disagree about our reactions toward the ending.

Thanks for all your astute comments!

Jason Bellamy said...

So I made my way back to your thoughts on The Road, since I finally wrote my review, and we're very much on the same page ... and not just because we mention how gray the film is.

The film never makes a discordant misstep; it refrains from inserting unrealistic niceties or comic relief.

Indeed. That's something I like about it. I didn't really find much of anything wrong with The Road, but other than a few scenes I didn't feel I was able to get close to it. As I said in my own review, I was preoccupied by their vulnerability. Every time they lit a fire at night I thought, "Gee, you won't be hard to find now, will you?" I was so worried for them. That's the strongest or deepest emotion I felt. It was similar too but not quite the same thing as actually caring for them.

As for Red Cliff ...

For a film that's a lot of action and little more, it's pretty darn fulfilling. I had low expectations, so I was pleased to find myself chuckling aloud during the sequence where they "steal" the arrows. That scene exemplifies what I liked about the film, which is that it doesn't present things as fantasy -- like, say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- but as fun. That's the way to bring me in.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for coming back, Jason. I know what you mean about feeling fearful about the man and boy. I felt that way when they sleep in the semi cab on the bridge. I thought that was a very stupid place to camp; if cannibals came along and saw them, they'd be trapped. The bridge with the semi is in the book, but I need to check to see if they sleep there.

So glad you went to see Red Cliff on my recommendation and that you liked it! You're right. It's a fun, fulfilling entertainment - and it doesn't feel like it's going to be that way in the beginning. A nice surprise for this year.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice review of The Road. We can agree to disagree about the extreme solemnity of the movie and how a little more playfulness might have helped. I see what you mean about trying to bring in more of the words of the book, but wouldn't more narration from the novel make it more like a documentary? Admittedly, Scorsese uses quotes from the novel of The Age of Innocence to good effect in his movie adaptation, but Hillcoat seems intent upon translating Cormac's novel into images on the screen, with mixed results. Weren't you bothered by the use of white and grey filters to connote devasatation? Too often, Hillcoat seems to want to suggest bleakness when I would have preferred that he more exactly laid things out. To me, the film views like mood poem fraught with its own importance instead of resembling an actual experience. It's like an argument in favor of not being too faithful to the source material.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts. I think McCarthy's own language would have given the film more substance - at least for me - because I see what you're saying about Hillcoat focusing on images on the screen and less on experiences. He could have been a little less faithful to the novel and added some experiences that would have moved the film along better.

As for the filters - I see what you're saying. Post-apocalyptic landscapes are starting to look all the same (even though that might be the only way things are gonna look after an apocalypse). As it was, the locations near Mt. St. Helens were bleak enough. I liked the scene when all the trees fall down! The movie definitely needed more episodes like that in which something is happening.