Knight at the Movies Archives
Lee Daniels brings forth a soul shattering movie, Robert Zemeckis stays true (for the most part) to Dickens with mixed results
The critical buzz, word of mouth and heavyweight names (Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, etc.) racing to attach themselves to the indie
drama Precious are so overwhelming that it’s become a movie that arrives – as did Brokeback Mountain, Slumdog Millionaire, and Pulp
Fiction – with enormous expectations. You sit there in a bit of a “show me the money” mood but boy, does this movie live up to its
hype. Director Lee Daniels who describes himself as “a little homo, a little Euro and a little ghetto,” working with a script adaptation
by Geoffrey Fletcher of the book by bisexual author Sapphire (the official title of the movie is Precious Based on the Novel Push by
Sapphire), has wrought an intensely moving underdog story that hits all its melodramatic marks and shoots over those, too. It’s one
of those movies you can’t wait to talk about afterwards.
This tale of an unloved, 350 pound, illiterate Black high school teen in Harlem raped and pregnant for the second time by her
abusive father is unbearably bleak but the movie has given its title character the gift of optimism. There’s a ray of hope at the end
of this hideous journey for both Precious and the film audience. The film is set in 1987 and when we first see Precious (played with
great intuitiveness by Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe in her acting debut) she is walking down the street with her mouth set in a closed in
pout, staring out at the hostile world with watchful eyes. This is not the kind of physicality the movies have often chosen for
audiences to identify with. We are usually cued to see such characters as pathetic losers and instinctively we may do that upon first
glance at Precious with her hardened scowl.
But then she speaks to us in voice over saying, “Everything in the universe is a gift” and we see the defiant, vivid red scarf – a
symbol of her hopes to “break through,” as she puts in – and we ascertain the optimistic spark inside. Within seconds, we’re caught
up in her outcome, rooting for this dour 16 year-old to overcome her unbelievable odds or at least find peace within them. In
addition to economic and cultural restraints Precious also has a contentious relationship with her horrendous mother Mary (Mo’Nique
in a career altering performance) to deal with – her biggest obstacle.
To escape these travails Precious has developed a huge fantasy life – she imagines herself performing “Come Into My House” by
Queen Latifah, walking the red carpet, etc. – a behavior that will be instantly recognizable for the disenfranchised and especially the
queer community (I’m guessing our closeted, minority members will strongly identify with this). When a tough but determined
teacher intuits there’s more to Precious than meets the eye and gets her enrolled in an alternative school our hopes rise. And
cautiously Precious comes into her own, blossoming under the care of her patient instructor Ms. Rain (a luminous Paula Patton)
whom Precious soon learns is a lesbian (“They talk like TV channels I don’t watch,” Precious says with a touch of awe, listening to her
learned teacher and her lover when they meet).
Daniels is known for making daring casting choices in his movies (whether he’s producing or directing) and they have paid off in
spades – an Oscar for Halle Berry, a wondrous character performance by Heath Ledger both in Monster’s Ball, the audacity of
Shadowboxer with the romance between Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren. And he does so again by casting comic Mo‘Nique as the
viscous mother Mary and Mariah Carey as a tough but caring social worker. Carey appears sans makeup and her music diva drag
and makes the most of her screen time while Mo’Nique is simply a force to be reckoned with. She’s right up there in the hall of fame
of rotten mothers.
But for each small triumph Precious achieves there is a setback – always thanks to the vile mother. The scenes between mother and
daughter – the epicenter of the movie – are like great operatic arias and recall other cinematic contests of will between mother and
daughter – Shelley Winters and Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue, Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek in Carrie and even Faye Dunaway
and Diana Scarwid in Mommie Dearest (though there isn’t a whiff of camp here). Daniels includes an inspired moment that particularly
resonates in which Precious and her mother sit silently, side by side, emotionally a million miles apart, watching Sophia Loren and
Eleanora Brown on TV in DeSica’s Italian classic Two Women, a movie in which a mother sacrifices everything for her daughter.
We’re deep into a matriarchal society and men are on the periphery – glimpsed in gangs, as shadowy figures or as figures to be
objectified (Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse) – all the students in Precious’s class are female as well and Daniels captures this closed
off, female driven world. (Some of the school scenes, however, lose a bit of their punch as we repeatedly return to the classroom
where the teenage girls kvetch at each other with little variation but that’s a quibble). Daniels also brings an innate gay sensibility to
the material that queer audiences will instantly recognize and embrace.
Precious is certainly one of the heaviest going movies of the year but audiences ready to be challenged by deeper fare will be amply
rewarded with an emotionally cathartic experience rare in cinema.
Director Robert Zemeckis is not giving up on motion capture, the animation process he pioneered in The Polar Express, used for the
distinctly homoerotic Beowulf and now, working again with Disney studios, utilizes to put his stamp on his adaptation of the Charles
Dickens holiday classic. The result, titled Disney’s A Christmas Carol, is a mixed one. The movie takes to heart a little too
literally the ghostly goings on that pervade the familiar story of friendless skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge who is given one last chance –
thanks to visitations by three ghostly spirits – to redeem himself and keep Christmas in a joyous manner. And this fealty to the
more frightening aspects of the source material proves to be a mixed blessing. What we have here is the real nightmare before
Christmas but in relishing the spooky goings on Zemeckis’s movie skims on the heart of the story and this approach – while visually
enthralling – will prove to be way too scary for the kiddies and not nearly warm enough for audiences of all ages.
Another problem: Dickens’s story is so overly familiar that we are miles ahead of Zemeckis’s movie which takes a long time to get
going. We know what’s coming and quickly brush aside all the work expended on the motion capture process. This is a desiccated
London alright, the streets packed and dark and quintessentially Victorian. But all this comes across very quickly and we want to
hurry along and get past the tacked on opening and prologue and right to the good stuff. Zemeckis addresses this familiarity
somewhat by pointing out little character and visual details that help add dashes of freshness to the story – Scrooge carefully locking
three sets of locks at Scrooge & Marley, the put upon Bob Cratchit (voiced by Gary Oldman) handing him his walking cane in
ritualized fashion, the Ghost of Christmas past resembling a flaming candle, etc.
But the addition of the little details in the plus column is quickly dissipated by several of those damned Zemeckis action sequences.
He just can’t seem to resist this impulse (in Polar Express, the victim was the poor train ticket flapping just out of reach of the little
boy hero). It’s not enough in a Zemeckis film for the lead character to fly through the air – he must zoom into the stratosphere, zip
through the narrow streets, darting in and out of buildings, etc. – before crash landing with a comedic thud to earth. And later in the
movie Zemeckis adds an extended chase sequence in which a horse from Hell (complete with red eyes) attached to a black hearse
chases poor Scrooge for what seems an interminable length of time. This ratcheting up of the material distances the audience (and
in the case of the scary hearse and horse, probably will terrify the small fry in attendance).
Disney’s A Christmas Carol does get many things right – the story itself still holds thrall and the mise en scène, as noted, is a thing of
beauty. London, as envisioned with motion capture (and helped with some nifty 3D effects) hasn’t looked this dark, ominous and
yet magical since Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd while Alan Silvestri, a longtime Zemeckis collaborator, artfully blends a batch of familiar
Christmas songs on the soundtrack (and we are spared a new, over the top holiday concoction voiced with typical gut busting ersatz
delivery by Andre Bocelli until the credits roll) and many of the voice talents (Cary Elwes, Colin Firth, Oldman, Robin Penn Wright, Bob
Hoskins) make their mark with one or two scenes.
Aside from the motion capture and the film’s being projected in 3D, the other drawing card would seem to be Jim Carrey as the voice
of Scrooge and several of the other characters. This is a good but not particularly winning choice. Though Carrey is much more
versatile in the vocal department when it comes to characterization than Tom Hanks was in The Polar Express nothing about Carrey’s
Scrooge particularly resonates (and “bah humbug” is delivered as a throwaway – sacrilege!) and his last minute emotional
transformation doesn’t have much zing either. One longs for the elucidation of the late vocal technicians John Gielgud, Ralph
Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Boris Karloff, or even Alastair Sim (not my favorite Scrooge) to luxuriate in. Or what about someone
like Judi Dench (now that’s someone who would voice a smashing, unforgettable Scrooge – female or not). Carrey makes a good
attempt (and does a far sight better than he did in that execrable Grinch Who Stole Christmas fiasco) but it’s not a performance one
will return to lovingly year in and year out.
As for the movie – perhaps, perhaps. This still isn’t the big screen Christmas Carol I’ve always dreamed of but to be fair, when I look
over the many, many attempts at the story throughout cinema history none of them has completely competed with what I imagined
after first reading the book. None of them, that is except the 1971 Chuck Jones animation version. This little seen edition was
done for television and was judged so critically enthralling it was released in theatres and won an Oscar for short subject in 1972.
Though not available on DVD it’s easy viewed online – and at only 25 minutes, ironically, remains the essential screen version of this
The Dark Night of the Soul:
Precious-Disney's A Christmas Carol
Expanded Edition of 11-4-09 Windy City Times KATM Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.
CHECK OUT OTHER KATM FILM REVIEWS IN THE ARCHIVES
*Disney's A Christmas Carol screened after my WCT deadline but in time for me to include my review here