Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (US, 2009)

Are we talkin' body, class or race?

I think this is a difficult film to deal with as racists will find their prejudices (African-American depravity) confirmed but the story of American underclass – of whatever race – is certainly worth telling. In a sense race is less important than class, though Precious’ mother (pictured right above) does have a ‘racial’ chip on her shoulder, as it is a story of a person who is probably at the bottom of the heap in the western world. And as a melodrama we shouldn’t expect the film to offer much social context (though I wish it would).

The film’s mostly shot in a realist style, with effective fantasy sequences as Precious attempts to escape abuse. I was discomforted by some of the audience laughter during these sequences where Precious imagines herself as the object of male desire; it was, I felt, laughing at the very idea that a fat woman could be desirable. I don’t think the film is inviting this reaction.

The redemption storyline relies upon an inspirational teacher who, whilst ‘black’, is relatively light skinned – see below. How necessary was this casting? If the teacher had been white then we would have been in very dodgy territory but Paula Patton’s  appearance – including her beauty – struck me as working against the grain of the film.

I'm lighter skinned and more beautiful than you are

I don’t wish to overly critical of the film, which is worth seeing, and recognise the ‘burden of representation’ that falls upon movies that deal with groups who are virtually invisible in the media. In a sense, the problem is with the media industries’ ignore-ance of such groups so that when they do appear, they take on an enormous significance.

The film was a major success in American and it would be fascinating to know audience’s responses: middle class voyeurism to enjoyment of seeing unseen groups on screen?

Mariah Carey, virtually unrecognisably normal looking without the glamour normally associated with her, is excellent as the social worker and I found the film’s most convincing scene was when Precious’ mother ineffectually explains her treatment of her daughter to Carey’s character; Mo’Nique is terrific in the part.

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Treeless Mountain (US/South Korea 2008)

Dragging yourself up

This slice of director So Yung Kim’s life is blessed by wonderful performances by the leads (above) and cursed by the constant use of a long lens that renders the mise en scene flat and the compositions dominated by claustrophobic close ups. Whilst the handheld camera and location shooting signifies realism the flat depth of field negates their effect; for example, when the sisters are at a bus stop hoping their mum is returning it appears that the bus, once it leaves, will run them down so flat is the shot; it is distracting and ugly.

I imagine Kim had to do this so the camera was as far away as possible from the children making it easier for her to coax out engaging performances. However, the film’s slight narrative needs more.

Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo, Japan 2008)

Japanese Cute

Critics have compared this film to Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (Japan, 1988) as it will also appeal to very young children. Of course his films appeal to all ages such is their artistry, however I was slightly disappointed in Ponyo though I can’t exactly pinpoint why. When Ponyo, a fish wanting to be human, is running on waves chasing a car, we are regaled by typically brilliant animation so, maybe, it’s the slightly confusing, simple narrative that doesn’t engage me.

Miyazaki’s recent films have all had darker aspects to them as does Totoro; in Ponyo – other than references to the polluted sea and an absent father – the film’s world is fairly sunny and there is very little narrative tension; I was never convinced that Ponyo had unbalanced the world and that it going to end. Of course, the narrative isn’t really that important. Part of the problem was I saw it in the dubbed version which risks Disneyfying the film though the lack of clear good-bad is very unHollywood.

Up in the Air (US, 2009)

What goes up...

It’s certainly going beyond stretching a point to say this movie is about unemployment but at least the reality for many people, after the bankers have blown the money, is alluded to in this film. And even if the ‘great unwashed’ are used, at the end, to verify the authenticity of family life, at least the film peeks into the horror of losing your job. However as it’s – in essence – a romantic comedy, we shouldn’t expect too much subversion; it’s certainly not screwball. That said, it does retain its indie status by refusing too gushing an ending, though many commentators have been critical of the last 15 minutes.

I don’t understand why Clooney’s up for an Oscar for this, excellent as he is particularly in the scene when his would-be lover describes him as a parenthesis. The role’s  written for his particular ooze of charm. We need to see more of Vera Farmiga, who describes herself as the same as Clooney’s character (Ryan Bingham) except ‘with a vagina’, and Anna Kendrick’s gauche knowitall is pitch perfect. Particularly affecting is the scene where the older couple offer advice to the disappointed in love Kendrick.

Reitman uses locations well, with some terrific overhead shots, and the editing of case packing is as incisive as Bingham’s efficiency. Great soundtrack too.