April 2010


Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men  •  Up in the Air
The Gospel According to St. Matthew  • 

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

Many people think of Precious as cinematic spinach. It might be good for you, but it’s too unpleasant to actually consume.

Critics don’t have much choice, though, especially when a film is surrounded by Oscar buzz.  I’m happy to report that, although Precious is indeed harrowing, its ultimate message is one of hope and strength.

Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe plays the title character, Clarice “Precious” Jones, a Harlem teenager facing troubles that would make Job feel lucky. Her mother (Oscar winner Mo’Nique) is an abusive nightmare, her father has raped her for years (and caused two pregnancies), and a judgmental principal just expelled her. Through the efforts of an alternative-school teacher (Paula Patton) and a caring social worker (Mariah Carey), Precious gets a chance to imagine a better life for herself and her children.

That last part is essential, as it offers some uplift in the midst of so much suffering. Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (another Oscar winner) is careful not to let Precious be a passive victim, and Sidibe brings intelligence and a spark of defiance to the character. All she
needs is someone to show her a way out, and when that door is finally opened, you know she’ll be OK.

There’s an occasionally preachy tone to Precious that threatens to undermine the gritty verisimilitude director Lee Daniels works so hard to achieve. Daniels always pulls back before the melodrama gets too intense, and the performances are simply breathtaking. Thanks to
Precious, Sidibe is a star, Mo’Nique is a serious actress, and no one is making Glitter jokes about Carey anymore. Those are all pretty remarkable accomplishments for one little movie.

Extras: Commentary by Daniels; features on adapting the novel, the casting process, and the involvement of producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry; Sidibe’s audition footage; a discussion between Daniels and Sapphire; a deleted scene; brief interviews. (R) Rating: 4 —LL

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Having proven himself to be a first-rate comic actor in The Office and Away We Go, John Krasinski toils valiantly behind the camera with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. While the late novelist David Foster Wallace could fill a page with lively and occasionally insightful prose, Krasinski’s reverent adaptation and direction result in a film that is full of long, artificial-sounding monologues that seem better suited for print or stage presentations.

The film deals with a young graduate student named Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson) whose thesis concerns why men frequently act contemptibly. Her subjects include a fellow (Ben Shenkman) who yells bizarre phrases during sex, her professor (Timothy Hutton), her ex-boyfriend (Krasinski) and an African-American man (Frankie Faison) recalling his ambivalence about how his father (Malcolm Goodwin) worked as a bathroom attendant and an opulent hotel.

Faison’s sequence is genuinely moving, but many of the other tales of debauchery callousness don’t come off as witty or as shocking as they might have seemed on paper. An interview featuring Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte, for example, seems more like a time killer than an integral part of the story. To his credit, Krasinski has assembled a formidable cast (Dominic Cooper, Bobby Cannavale) and knows how to get the most out of his fellow thespians.

While the film is slickly shot and edited, the overlapping soliloquies and warped chronologies only serve to remind viewers how stilted the material really is. During an interview with Krasinski that’s included as an extra with the DVD, he enthusiastically describes taking part in a live reading of the book. From watching the film, it’s easy to believe that Wallace’s material might be better delivered in person.

Extras: The aforementioned interview with Krasinski, a dull “behind the scenes” featurette and two trailers. (N/R) Rating 3 —DL

Up in the Air

George Clooney gets criticized sometimes for always playing George Clooney. But when you’ve got that much old-Hollywood charisma, why bother stretching?

Besides, it’s not a fair accusation. Clooney may not be a chameleon, but he has a terrific instinct for what makes each of his characters unique, and is never afraid to dig into them until it hurts. In the case of Ryan Bingham, the central figure of Up in the Air, Clooney zeroes in on the smug detachment of a man whose life is all about avoiding commitment. Even his job — flying around the country to fire downsized employees — is essentially about cutting ties. He doesn’t understand people who can’t deal with losing their jobs, any more than he understands why they would get married or live full-time in one place.

Ryan’s own life gets a jolt when a newcomer to his company (Anna Kendrick) recommends a plan to fire people via videoconferencing. Ryan takes this upstart on the road with him to show her the necessity of face-to-face meetings, and the flaws in his slick exterior begin to emerge when they meet Alex (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flyer who develops an extremely casual relationship with Ryan. Or so she thinks.

Up in the Air and its three leads received Oscar nods, as did director Jason Reitman (Juno) and screenwriter Sheldon Turner (adapting Walter Kim’s novel). They all went home empty-handed, perhaps because the film is so low-key and emotionally ambiguous. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. Sort of like George Clooney’s acting.

Extras: Commentary by Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld; a profile of the company that did the credit sequence; storyboards; deleted scenes; a music video; a short “American Airlines” prank segment. (R) Rating: 4.5 —LL

The Gospel According to St. Matthew

In honor of Holy Week, I thought it might be worth revisiting one of the most engrossing and creative takes on the life of Jesus. Made around the same time that Hollywood was using the Bible as an excuse for overwhelming spectacles such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, Italian writer-director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 take on The Gospel According to St. Matthew is something of a guerilla film. And yet it’s also one of the most scripturally accurate adaptations ever made.

Shot in black-and-white with a microscopic budget and a cast of non-professionals (including Pasolini’s own mother Susanna as the adult Virgin Mary), Pasolini’s film has an intimate, almost documentary-like style. As a result, the often-told story has a new urgency.

When Pasolini depicts Herod the Great’s murder of the firstborn, it looks as if a CNN crew happened to be in first century Judea capturing the event. The attack unfolds more like something from Rwanda or Bosnia than a Biblical epic.

Pasolini’s casting picks are downright inspired. Enrique Irazoqui, who plays Jesus with a charismatic swagger, was actually a Spanish economics student (Christ’s voice is actually Enrico Maria Salerno). From watching the film and its anti-establishment attitude, it’s no surprise that Pasolini was a Marxist. His Jesus has no hesitation condemning earthy authorities for their hypocrisies. Because the real Prince of Piece didn’t politely ask the moneychangers to leave the Temple, this is hardly sacrilege.

The score, which received an Oscar-nomination, is also unique. It may be the only film I’ve ever seen that combines the songs of Bach, Mozart and American gospel singer Odetta. Pasolini was not a believer, and some of his other efforts earned the ire of the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, when it comes to chronicling Jesus, he knows better than to desecrate the greatest story.

Extras: Because of confusion over the rights, there are at least a half-dozen DVD editions of the film. Some are colorized (now, that’s blasphemy!) or feature English dubs. I own the Wellspring edition, which features a short but intriguing documentary on Pasolini. (PG) Rating: 5 —DL

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.