No Concessions: Happy Goddamn Thanksgiving — “Precious,” “The Road,” and More Feel-Bad Holiday Movies

Written by Film, Film Reviews, No Concessions

Thanksgiving: For some, that time of the year to reconnect with friends and family, to eat plenty of turkey and trimmings, and figure out what to gift Aunt Ida with this Christmas. For filmgoers, a big fat plate of depression, as the movies grim up, some chasing Oscars and prestige, others going for our wallets, and all of them leaving us in serious need of candy canes and eggnog.

This season’s champ is clearly the feel-good urban horror movie Precious. It leaves no stone unturned to flatten us. A partial checklist of miseries: Poverty. Illiteracy. Morbid obesity. Incest and rape with dad. Two-time teenage pregnancy, the first resulting in a Down’s syndrome child matter-of-factly named “Mongo.” Oh, and it’s 1987, as AIDS did its worst to decimate whole communities. The movie is based, as the subtitle tells us, on the novel Push by Sapphire, and it pushes hard, squashing our tearducts. I smell a musical.

But wait, it gets worse. Poor Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), the punching bag of the title, is stuck in a festering, shades-drawn-tight Harlem apartment with her monster mother, played, in a performance of epic degeneracy, by Mo’Nique. Director Lee Daniels has conceived the film as a kind of fairy tale, with the big-boned actress as an unstoppable seven-headed dragon. From her sweaty couch she smokes incessantly, drinks buckets of Sunkist orange soda, defrauds the welfare authorities, and treats her daughter as her personal slave, hurling everything including the TV at her and poor Mongo—and she uses Precious for sexual gratification, too. Come awards time Mo’Nique should be whisked from the red carpet and transferred to the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

With only a good right hook at her disposal Precious lumbers on, finding allies in a lesbian schoolteacher (Paula Patton), a no-nonsense welfare worker (Mariah Carey, completely scrubbed of glamour), a male nurse (Lenny Kravitz, ditto), and a gaggle of fellow special ed kids. Daniels films all of this from the perspective of Precious’ limited consciousness, with dream sequences that show her imaginary life as a plus-sized supermodel, or a skinny white girl. The movie is co-presented by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and bears their earmarks—abuse stories, echoes of The Color Purple, and the weird shifts in tone that make Perry’s hits so jarring. And it has some of the neon flamboyance of Daniels’ unclassifiable feature debut, Shadowboxer (2006), which cast Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as mother-and-stepson assassins and lovers. Social realism goes down the stairwell along with that TV as Precious ducks the usual uplift and empowerment treatment.

I’ll give it that, and add that a motley cast acts persuasively. Good intentions, however, are scrambled together with the overripe awfulness of Precious’ degradation; it’s not enough for her to be greasily raped, the act has to be intercut with shots of pigs’ feet boiling nauseatingly on the stove. Precious wounds. But it’s also shameless, and a shambles.

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You leave The Road thinking it’s at least ten degrees colder outside the theater than it actually is. Javier Aguirresarobe’s desaturated brown-gray cinematography perfectly captures the feeling you get from Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winner, of a dying, sun-deprived planet where night and day are all but interchangeable, and the only season is a chilly late fall. I was shivering when it ended.

And also mighty sleepy—that aesthetic is hard on the eyes. Director John Hillcoat has made an apocalyptic prison picture, Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1988), and an apocalyptic Western, The Proposition (2005). Here he takes on the whole enchilada, and he does it very conscientiously, following the story of a father and son trapped in this wasteland practically to the letter. That fidelity, though, is a problem. If you’ve read the book, you really have seen this movie. It doesn’t give you anything more than McCarthy’s scorched earth prose did.

If you haven’t, well, as usual when blockbuster books don’t come across on screen, you’re likely to be left scratching your head. Like last year’s Blindness, the movie is a surface in search of a soul. The novel communicates a great deal by saying very little. The father is tormented by dreams of the world before the catastrophe, one only barely remembered, while the son knows only the world after. The rest is sort of a zombie movie waiting to happen—marauding cannibal gangs roam the roads, looking for two-legged meals, and the few other survivors encountered are suspect. (Like George A. Romero’s living dead movies, most of the film was grimily shot in Pittsburgh, and the association with the end of the world must thrill the town fathers no end.)

McCarthy doesn’t often foreground the horror (save for one terrifying incident early on). The focus is on the transcendent bond, which given the spare use of dialogue, and despite a good but overcompensating score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is tougher to communicate. Caked in mud and filth, a look he seems to prefer, Viggo Mortensen is bedraggled and determined—but The Man, as he’s called, is let down by The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who gives a whiny, less dimensional performance. The movie perks up a bit when that sly fox, Robert Duvall, turns up as a philosophical Old Man, then it’s back to muttering, and collecting cans, and trying to stay warm. As a film, The Road leads nowhere.

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The world ends not with a bang, but with an Adam Lambert power ballad. That’s the takeaway from 2012, the flip side of The Road. Most filmmakers want to stretch, to grow, but Roland Emmerich is happy to kill off multitudes. This is the third time he’s gone after our big blue marble, after Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and when big arks slosh around the terrestrial bathtub that the Himalayas have become following a rash of Mayan-foretold earthquakes, volcanoes, and “super tsunamis,” I think it’s 99% safe to say he’s finished the job. (Maybe 95%.)

But just because your graphics engine gives you the power to drop the U.S.S. John Kennedy on an ash-covered black president or ravage Los Angeles with Playstation-ish temblors for queasy laughs doesn’t mean you should. Cecil B. DeMille and Irwin Allen showed a modicum of restraint in their spectacles, and peopled them from the top ranks. Emmerich is of the money shot-is-everything school, lavishing $200 million on a B-list cast and a jerry-built C-script that gets an affable John Cusack and his estranged family from one hot spot to another over the eventful if fatiguing course of two-and-a-half hours. (Along for the ride is actor/director Tom McCarthy, of last year’s mortal-sized Oscar nominee The Visitor—I shudder to think what he learned from Emmerich.)

For all the world-splitting antics, however, the only really memorable image is of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue crumbling, which we glimpse on a hazy TV screen. Everything else has a been there-done that quality—Emmerich has trouble topping himself, with the spaceship attack on the White House in Independence Day and the tidal wave sluicing through the Manhattan canyons in Tomorrow (a truly arresting sequence in a truly awful movie) setting the bar high for this sort of thing. We’ve seen worlds destroyed plenty of times now. It’s more satisfying to see them built up.

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At his best, Nicolas Cage is an A-list special effect, throwing off all kinds of sparks. But outside of the occasional Adaptation his post-Oscar career has pretty much been one big La-Z-Boy, as he goes from one high-salaried, low-impact gig to another. (The name of a recent dud says it all: Next.) There was reason, then, to hope that the no-budget Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a collaboration with Werner Herzog, might shake him up—“snap out of it!” as Cher once advised him in Moonstruck. But the film is as clumsy as its title.

Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) was a geekshow, and a good excuse for Harvey Keitel to rip into his psyche and, figuratively and literally, expose himself. It’s a stunningly unkempt performance. This in-name-only followup (the sort of thing that usually goes straight to video) isn’t at all harrowing, partly because Cage doesn’t have much to share other than a bunch of tics and drug-addled shtick. His bad lieutenant, a pill-popper investigating the murder of Senegalese immigrants while ripping off dealers, users, and the police department evidence room for their stashes, has three moods: coke (frantic), heroin (slowed-down, hallucinating), and crack (over the top, somewhere near Pluto).

Cage’s performance might have made sense if Herzog had committed to it, and gave it the sort of context that allowed Klaus Kinski to rivet audiences. But the director’s recent documentaries have far outranked his recent features, and the two-hour movie just sort of sits there, inert, neither crime movie nor camp. (Ferrara had the good sense to end his bath of depravity at about 90 minutes.) Seemingly written in a fit of ADD, William M. Finkelstein’s screenplay introduces new characters in every scene, losing track of ones we might be interested in, like Val Kilmer as Cage’s hard-nosed partner or Michael Shannon as the guard unwisely entrusted with the department’s drug seizures. Herzog has never been strong on plot, and he’s clueless as to how to move this one along.

Disappointingly, Herzog’s weak on images, too: New Orleans post-Katrina would appear to be a natural fit for him, yet his typically excellent DP, Peter Zeitlinger, stuck indoors for most of the duration, has contributed shockingly shabby cinematography. The movie could have been set in Scranton or Des Moines for all it matters. (If you were hoping, at the very least, for hambone accents, forget it; no one has one, surely a deliberate, and peculiar, touch. Only Mark Isham’s score has a twang to it.)

From time to time the movie bumbles into something worthwhile—the frowsy comedienne Jennifer Coolidge is surprisingly touching as Cage’s beleaguered stepmother. It’s a mystifying flop, as if Herzog were under the influence of gonzo cop melodramas like Year of the Dragon (1985), 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987). But those 80s failures had a ridiculous conviction to them. This one, entirely reliant on Cage’s mannerisms, reeks of contempt.

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This little clip is a litmus test for much you might get out of the movie. Imagine 20 minutes more of this and perhaps instead of seeing the film just wait for the most outlandish of it (the hallucinatory iguanas, the “gator cam”) to wash up on YouTube as well:

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Magnet Releasing did a good job handling horror fave Let the Right One In last year so I’m confident its two-and-a-half-hour distillation of John Woo’s two-part, five-hour epic Red Cliff is in good hands, and I’m glad to see it getting some sort of theatrical release. Not having seen the U.S. version yet I can’t really comment on it, but I have seen the full-strength epic (which is available on DVD from Asia-based vendors) and can recommend this cut based on what I know will be retained—namely, its titanic battle scenes. The money’s clearly on the screen, and not, as with 2012, in the workstation, with digital effects complementing but not defining the complicated clash of ancient warlords. You sense Woo’s guiding hand throughout.

Hollywood appropriated Woo’s run-and-gun action stylistics, then the filmmaker himself, for about a decade. By the end of the era, and the appropriately titled Paycheck (2003), both were exhausted. With Red Cliff, Woo has joined the trend among Hong Kong and mainland filmmakers (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, etc.) to mount elaborate historical pageants and, given his chops in the field (The Killer, Hard-Boiled, and Face/Off, an astute use of Cage, are favorites), he blows the lid off the genre. That said, it’s impersonal—the whirling dervish gunfights and their noir-ish underpinnings have no place in the Han Dynasty, and the sociopolitical resonance of Yimou’s Hero is absent. But what Woo does with ships, and swords, and masses of armies is hugely impressive. And the excellent Tony Leung (from Hero and In the Mood for Love, among other contemporary Asian classics) holds all the intrigue together by quietly flexing star power. With China absorbing everything else in the U.S., I’m glad the country has imported the grand old traditions of Hollywood, just in time for the dreariest moviegoing Thanksgiving on record.

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