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On the Thanksgiving menu: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, which I was horrified to see is the verbatim title on screen and not just promotional overkill, would qualify as the year’s worst title — a title within a self-referential title, a switch from italic to roman and back again, or from double quotes to single quotes as your stylebook dictates, plus a pseudonymous auctorial credit — if not for the mitigating circumstance that its original title, Push, the title under which it was shown in January at the Sundance Film Festival, was co-opted a month later by a cheesy science-fiction thriller. (We can have in the same year two films called 9 and Nine, but Push came to shove.) Unevenly photographed, alternately oversaturated and washed-out and glossy and grainy, the film itself is a bit of well-meaning manipulation about a Harlem African-American illiterate obese unwed teenage mother of a Down’s daughter, now pregnant again, expelled from school, abused and battered at home by her welfare mother, an incestuous rape victim of her absentee father, and oh, HIV-positive. We don’t find out all of that at once. It piles up.

Newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, who fills to overflowing the plus-size dimensions of the lead role, is so realistic you cannot even understand her half the time. With better enunciation, the single-named comedienne Mo’Nique, cast against type as the terrorizing mother, represents as nasty a piece of work as you could find outside of Grand Guignol: “I should have aborted your motherfuckin’ ass!” No less single-note, the dedicated teacher at an alternative school called Each One Teach One and the caring social worker are reduced to ideals, notwithstanding the irrelevant lesbianism of the lovely first one (Paula Patton) and the Bronx honk of the homely second one (Mariah Carey in a deglamorized makeup-free makeover). Some interesting effects are gotten from the heroine’s first-person voice-over, interwoven at competitive volume with the dialogue, such that it plays as interior monologue rather than expository narration. The fantasy scenes almost attain a similar musing quality, triggered as they are by the heroine’s urgent desire to escape, but the actual content of these fantasies — a red-carpet Hollywood premiere, a mirror reflection of a slender beautiful blonde in place of a fat black, a subtitled black-and-white takeoff on a telecast of De Sica’s Two Women, etc. — exhibit a consistent inanity which works to rob sympathy from either the film’s heroine or its director, Lee Daniels. One or the other. You choose.

Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: New Orleans has a problematic title as well. The promotional literature, and journalists seem to be falling in line with it, places the colon after the second word, but the title on screen plainly places it after the fifth, and separates the second and third words by vertical position instead of by punctuation. The provenance of the film is likewise problematic. It is nearly but not quite a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant of 1992, at the very least a relocation of it from the Big Apple to the Big Easy, perhaps simply a variation on a theme — all the same kinds of badness, drugs, gambling, prostitutes, a blind eye to crime under his nose — but hardly a viable franchise, a continuing series, even assuming there’s no shortage of bad lieutenants around the country. (Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: Duluth.) If the film doesn’t match the hellish hyperbole of its namesake, that’s not at all a bad thing, a kind of badness that we don’t want matched. And yet, not so good if not all the way to downright bad, the German director Werner Herzog now seems more fully assimilated into Hollywood than in his previous commercial venture, Rescue Dawn, more fully erased as a nutball personality, despite some genuinely odd reptile footage: a twitching road-killed alligator and an interested alligator onlooker into whose skin or eyeball the camera earnestly tries to crawl, and later, equally close-up, a couple of hallucinatory iguanas. Not remotely competent as a well-knit policier, and with a final stretch that feels like an extended dream scene from which we keep expecting to wake up, the film holds our interest, scene by scene, through its vivid characters acted with an edge, and particularly through two tense sequences around a low-level Mafioso and his pair of muscle-bound minions. Nicolas Cage, who more than once goes over the top in his psychosis, at all times does painfully well at miming the symptoms of a bad back (tilted shoulders, bent body, a forward lean as if withstanding a gale-force tailwind), the best kind of badness in the film.

Red Cliff, a 3rd-century Chinese war story, is a two-and-a-half-hour reduction of what I understand was twice that long in its native land, released in two parts. Two and a half hours seem more than too much, although any complaints about the mess of it, the incoherent jumble, might invite a challenge from its partisans to sit through the unabridged version before rendering judgment. John Woo, who certainly has his partisans, owns a to me incomprehensible reputation as a “master” (a messer, yes), and it appears doubtful that double the length would do much to redeem the melodramatic performances, the dissolve-happy coy love scene, the infrequent interjection of martial-arts superpowers, or the wildly energetic gear-grinding visual technique of short punchy zooms, hither-and-thither moving cameras, slow-motion, whatnot. It’s just possible that in the full cut his characteristic balance of gore and schmaltz, or rather his imbalance favoring gore, might be affected a few degrees in the other direction. Only the fiercest partisan will want to know. There’s one absurd yet amusing ploy to deplete the enemy’s arrow supply, sending out straw-padded boats in a fog to be transformed into floating pincushions, and there are impressive arrays of flags, ships, geometric masses of men. In spite of the cast of thousands, the climactic battle comes down to that signature Woo moment when, having found each other amid the chaos, the two principal antagonists hold their weapons to one another’s heads.

The Road, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is a post-apocalyptic road movie of a man, a boy, a gray wasteland, and roving bands of ragtag cannibals whom Mad Max would have blown away with a sneeze. Naturalistic science fiction, it amounts to an anti-2012 (careful what you wish for) from the maker of the Australian anti-Western, The Proposition, John Hillcoat, a small-scale spectacle of unrelieved grimness and gloom, short on characters, thin in incident, thick with sallow grimy hairy closeups (Viggo Mortensen and a barely recognizable Robert Duvall among them), a spitting-up of blood here and an upchuck there, a gun held repeatedly to the head of a child. The boy’s cultivation of morality and charity, in defiance of his father’s stony-hearted defenses, offers a hint of dramatic interest.

New Moon, a vampire movie sprinkled with pop songs, long and slow and slack, is the second installment in “The Twilight Saga” from the best-selling books of Stephenie Meyer. (New director: Chris Weitz.) Whatever may be the attributes that make this franchise a “phenomenon,” they seem to ensure that it will also have a significant silly factor: e.g., the extracurricular alignment of Team Edward against Team Jacob. Hardly has the lipsticked bloodsucker (a narcotized Robert Pattinson as Edward) given his human girlfriend the kiss-off for her own good — “Leaving you,” he will later allow, “was the hardest thing I’ve done in a hundred years” — than his only romantic rival (a bulked-up Taylor Lautner as Jacob) turns into a werewolf and, again for her own good, gives her another kiss-off. (Further silliness: he and his bare-chested pack are good werewolves, preying only on bad vampires and leaving humans as well as good vampires untouched.) Kristen Stewart, who looks to my eye a little different, as if possibly she spent summer vacation getting an advanced degree at cosmetology school, makes something palpable of the adolescent tragedy of rejection, quite an achievement in the circumstances.

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Josh Board Dec. 2, 2009 @ 4:08 p.m.

You nailed it with the Cage movie. You're entertained, but it's really just a mess.

Loved the line in Precious review, where you mention the title and "push comes to shove."

But please, someone explain critics to me. Why in the world did it need to be mentioned in your review, that she gets HIV from her dad? This comes as a shocker in the movie, when her life finally seems to be going in a more positive direction. And including it in your write-up, adds nothing. It could've easily been left out.


shizzyfinn Dec. 12, 2009 @ 10:35 a.m.

That's why it's a dangerous game to read reviews before seeing movies. Not only do you go into the movie with the expectations created by someone else's opinion, but very often some key plot twists are spoiled. In this case, it seems like Duncan sets out to steal Precious's thunder: "We don’t find out all of that at once. It piles up."

Personally, if I'm thinking of seeing a movie, I try to take a peek at the aggregate rating on rottentomatoes, but I save the actual reviews for afterward, when I compare my take with the reviewers', and maybe pick up on something I missed.

Though I must say rottentomatoes steered me wrong on Bad Lieutenant...it's got an 86% approval rating, with several reviewers gushing over it, while Duncan was right all along: outside of Cage's enjoyable performance, the movie sucks.


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