21 November 2009

Reviews: 2012 and Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

With two of the currently most hyped films in theaters having been viewed by me in a short timeframe, I thought it best, due to their natures, for me to link them in one post on this blog: as a single review of popular filmmaking now.

Genre: Action/Adventure (Apocalyptic)

Roland Emmerich, man behind the failed ambitions that were films like 10,000 B. C. (2008) and The Patriot (2000) as well as behind the box-office smash that was the film Independence Day (1996), takes a stride in his familiar shoes down his familiar path of visual-effects driven, global struggle with his latest film 2012. Captured in its first instances for all that it means to be and all that it ever could be by the leading words of its protagonist (played by the always adequate John Cusack), "I'm a dead man. I'm a dead man," the film makes it obvious that the entire pivot of the film will be in making the fixed content of that hyperbolic line as ironic and thus non-depressing for the audience as possible. Several times narrowly escaping death by means all (including lava, drowning, and flying debris), the protagonist skips his way through the film's all-too-manicured screenplay as though through a stream: stone by stone, over-dramatizing each tiny hop as though a giant leap for man and - not unironically - mankind itself as he goes. The plot casts aside obstacles for him as flippantly as it casts faux obstacles at him, and in the end he was never supposed to really have struggled at all, for being the eager-eyed optimist that he quite cognizantly albeit slightly misanthropically is. He is of course, as any reasonably observant spectator could tell you, the audience's filmic dopplegänger, never seriously in peril but dangled excitedly enough over the edge that the heart beats a bit faster and the lungs breath a bit deeper whenever he finds himself in flagrante apocalypto (if you will). This entire is both the film's strength and its weakness; though Mr. Emmerich rashly yet competently carves his way (with humor and aplomb, to boot) through a plot that on paper was no doubt the most banal of recreations, he still only carves himself a way through a plot that on paper is no doubt the most banal of recreations. As he urges Mr. Cusack to trip and slide and bring the audience to the edge (often literally) where it by buying its ticket implicitly avows it wants to (safely) go, he subsumes as most such "disaster films" do the meager kernel of true urgency in impact that the film as a work may have underneath the dramatic rise-and-fall (albeit well orchestrated) of flaccid-to-full-tilt audience-stimulation; instead of more fully exploring the interesting argument within the film (that identifies the present as the turning point of the Zeitgeist from that of a majorly faith-based society to that of a majorly humanistic society), he relegates that argument to the necessary interstices between the panderingly catastrophic and maudlin "main events" that want for no depths beyond the superficial. So, while as a filmmaker he may be in his element displaying his mastery of the fickle operations that supply popular titillation, unless he allows for the growth of more than the less-than-substantive quick thrill he (Mr. Emmerich) will never allow his films to find a safe ledge upon which to stand than the mere visually-effectually smashing consommé that they, 2012 well included, continue to be.

Grade: B-/C+

Genre: Drama

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire suffers from a complementary problem, though more grievously if possible. A film that I was sure from its previews could have been this year's Rachel Getting Married (2008; if such an expression in fact mean anything), it instead has turned out to be just a similarly popular titillation to Mr. Emmerich's 2012, though sappy where 2012 was snappy. Instead of tracking the world through the fate of one life, Precious (heretofore abbreviated as such) tracks a life through the fate of the world: the grimy effected dregs of urban life, where the bereavements of education, financing, and nutrition have left people to allay their fears and hungers by the most facile and available means possible: cruel perseverations of affected dominance, physical, mental, and sexual, and raw and gritty ethoi to match. And, though it is clear in abundance to anyone who may see the film that such a lifestyle upon any soul is perhaps the weightiest of burdens to bear, supersizing such a burden as director Lee Daniels and writers Geoffrey Fletcher and Sapphire do, to wring every last morbidly excitable drop from every member of their viewing public, does not a fair film suffice to make. Manipulative as, though in a far less skillful way than, 2012 or the ideologically comparable Crash (2006) and conditioned as any wannabe-indie-success (e. g., Where the Wild Things Are [2009]) may be nowadays, Precious is the stuttery trailing gasp of overly ambitious "message cinema." Given its subject matter, its tone too often jerked inappropriately toward cheap humor; its acting too often played ingratiatingly toward the awards; its editing too often left ends unacknowledged, unresolved, and untied; and its art direction too often stole into the sexy rather than keeping to the accurate. It wobbled when confronted with the extreme episodes of aggression, tension, and oppression that it was designed to convey, and it favored stinty cinematography for the "beautiful" rather than the coherent. It just rolled on, perpetually making the protagonist's situation worse and worse with sparse instances of respite, until at last end, when it seemed undeniable to anyone that the protagonist had made her major self-actualization and major turn toward the forever better in her life, Precious in her reality only bore so much cumulative hardship and burden both physically and psychically, that it would have been impossible for any rational viewer to think that she still had any real chance at manifesting anything close to her sparest dreams in her actual projected lifetime. So, instead, we as the rational audience were left to only anticipate her demise and/or the sorrowful reinduction of her children into the foul world and its corrosive habits under which she herself had somehow "grown." In short, the film at its end undid itself entirely; it brought itself so low that, like a particularly dangerous limbo-dancer, it had no choice but to fall to the ground after so barely making it underneath the bar and to the other side, to the completion of the game. It became a travesty double-over: a sour fairy-tale made sourer tragedy by sheer bleak-proclivity - a harsh description which I feel confident calling not the filmmaker's ultimate goal. The film's few redeeming qualities (i. e., a solid supporting performance by Mariah Carey[?!], a finally moving though somewhat unsurprising performance by Mo'Nique, and a potentially not terrible source-material) could scarcely redeem anything. As a result, calling Precious the film McDonald's made is for me hardly an equivocal statement: Sallow, ostensibly nutritious, cheap, and hyperstylized, the grubby product may titillate the masses upon initial consumption but will sit low and fatty in their guts upon inevitable future retrospection.

Grade: D+ - do yourself a favor and spend your time consuming the much more organic An Education instead.

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