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March 11, 2010

Precious: Base on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

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Lee Daniels - 2009
Lionsgate Region 1 DVD

I will say this for Lee Daniels - he has the courage of his convictions. Unfortunately his convictions are sometimes as outsized and as wrong headed as his title character. I shied away from seeing Precious due the arguments regarding the film's merits. Also, I had seen Daniels' debut film, Shadowboxer. That first film was about a hit man and hit woman doing one last job. Aside from the quasi-incestuous relationship between the older woman and the younger man, there was a mobster who seemed unable to collect too many large, ornate, crucifixes, and a shady doctor with a crack head nurse named Precious. Cuba Gooding, Jr. will appear in just about anything, but how Helen Mirren was convinced to star might better remain a mystery. By the end of Shadowboxer I was convinced that Lee Daniels had watched early Tarantino, and a Guy Ritchie film or two, and said to himself, "I can top that!". Unlike his proclaimed sources of inspiration, John Waters and Pedro Almodovar, Lee Daniels has trouble realizing when he needs to reign in the excess.

Part of my problem with Precious is that Daniels seems to love using technique for no apparent reason. Maybe using an overlapping dissolve shot of Gabourey Sidibe walking down a class room hallway looks arty, but it seemed like a very random choice. The characters have some intense conversations and the camera tentatively zooms in and out as if simply framing the characters and holding the camera still for a few seconds was not an option. There is a pretty shot of the city reflected in a puddle. The scene of Precious and her mother, Mary, watching Vittorio De Sica's Two Women, subtitled on television, was unbelievable, especially as Mary's television diet seemed to consist solely of game shows. The De Sica film Precious reminded me of was After the Fox which includes a film within the film, a parody of neo-realism. Precious frequently seemed like a parody of someone's idea of an art film.

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Just like a poet is hidden inside the inarticulate Precious Jones, there was a potentially better film that could have been made from Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay. The best parts of the film seem like the least forced, especially in the alternative classroom, and the exchanges between the teacher with the unlikely name of Blu Rain, and the other students. Perhaps one reason why the scenes in the classroom work is because Paula Patton's performance as the teacher who coaxes Precious out of her shell is not the stunt casting as is the case for Mariah Carey, Lennie Kravitz or Mo'Nique. Of the young women in Patton's class, Xosha Roquemore as the overly self confident Joann and Amina Robinson as the sexually ambiguous Jermaine might be the ones to watch in the future.

There's a memorable smash cut in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls where the shot of a screaming woman about to have an abortion is followed by the close up of an egg dropping into a frying pan. It's a simultaneously gross and funny moment. Lee Daniels, unlike Meyer, doesn't know when to let up, and is like a child furiously writing in big block letters with lots of underlining to make sure we don't miss his point. We get lots of big close ups of eyes, of pots of some awful stew on a stove, and assorted flotsam and jetsam and body parts that must have looked pleasing to Daniel's eye, but don't add up to anything meaningful either in the narrative or in anything resembling a coherent or cohesive visual style. It's not a good sign when I watch a movie about life in Harlem and start to wish it had been directed by white liberals Martin Ritt or Ralph Nelson. This was not the intention of anyone involved with the film, yet the ultimate effect is a work that can be interpreted as supporting the worst stereotypes of urban African-Americans. Especially after an Academy Award nomination, I doubt that Lee Daniels will restrict himself to the role of producer. But I also believe, Precious could have been a better film had the direction been handed over to someone like Julie Dash or even Angela Robinson. A good filmmaker knows that sometimes a stationary camera and confidence in your material and players is all you really need.

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Posted by peter at March 11, 2010 12:35 AM

Comments

This sounds exactly like my problem with so many modern American films which I expressed at Arbogast on Film a week or so ago on his Whitever post(and schooled everyone on smash cuts). Too many young filmmakers don't have a sufficient background in film history to know where the techniques came from and why they were used in the first place. As a result they just throw together random uses of empty techniques that don't say anything visually.

Posted by: Greg F at March 11, 2010 07:42 AM

Woah, Precious and he mom watch "Two Women" on TV? That's wild; I would never have expected such a scene.

Posted by: Tom at March 11, 2010 10:59 PM

This was exactly my problem with Precious - it was trying too hard to be arty to the point of being annoying. I knew we were in for trouble when the film opens with the red scarf. And, for course, you're also right about Shadowboxer. I'd love to hear how Mirren became involved with that poor project too.

Posted by: Marina Antunes at March 16, 2010 05:40 PM

Marina: According to IMDb, Daniels use to work as a manager and casting director. This might explain how he got some fairly big names in his modestly budgeted films.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at March 16, 2010 07:34 PM

That would definitely explain the casting he's managed to score.

Posted by: Marina Antunes at March 18, 2010 05:05 PM