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HTF Blu-ray Review: PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE



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#1 of 4 Michael Reuben

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Posted March 29 2010 - 06:20 PM

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 Precious (Blu-ray)
Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
 
Studio: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Film Length: 109 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; French DD 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
MSRP: $39.99
Disc Format: 1 50 GB
Package: Keepcase
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 6, 2009
Blu-ray Release Date: Mar. 9, 2010
 
 
 
Introduction:
 
Nominated for six Oscars and winner of two, Lee Daniels’ controversial drama gets a first-class Blu-ray release. But at this point, anyone who hasn’t already seen it might be better off waiting a year or two until the awards season hoopla has faded. Precious is hard enough to watch as it is, because that’s the kind of film Daniels makes. Add the layers of chattering and hype that a film picks up on the awards circuit, and it becomes almost impossible to experience the thing itself.
 
 
The Feature:
 
If you’re reading this, you probably already know the basic plot of Precious. In 1987, a plus-size sixteen-year-old girl named Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), lives in Harlem with her monster of a mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), who collects welfare, watches TV and mercilessly bullies her daughter. Mary’s boyfriend, Precious’ father, has left, but while he was there, he raped Precious from the time she was a little girl. She’s already had one child by her father, a daughter with Downs syndrome, whom Mary uses as a prop during monthly visits by a social worker and otherwise consigns to Precious’ grandmother. Now Precious is pregnant again, and when her school discovers her condition, she is expelled.
 
A sympathetic principal refers Precious to an alternative school, where she comes under the tutelage of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). There she finally begins to acquire enough confidence to express the native intelligence that’s been bottled up inside and allowed her to survive. As the audience knows, because she narrates the film, Precious uses her imagination as a survival mechanism, fleeing into a fantasy world constructed of popular culture flotsam and jetsam – a world in which Precious is the star and everyone loves her. The main arc of the film is Precious’ dawning ability to find in real life some of the joy she imagines in her invented world. You can trace her progress by the film’s color palette. Happier times are richer and more saturated – and watch for the burst of light when Precious first enters her new classroom.
 
But the film’s true conclusion is the reckoning with Mary. Like many classic villains, Mary brings about her own downfall. She insists that Precious sign on for welfare, and the interview with a welfare case worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey, deglammed almost beyond recognition), begins the process that will finally set Precious free (as much as she ever can be).
 
Every film is something of a Rorschach test, because the viewer fills in the picture with his or her own experience and emotions. A film like Precious risks provoking wildly varying reactions, many of them negative. First and foremost, its protagonist is an unlikely one. Despite the epidemic of obesity in America, a hugely overweight teenager is a tricky main character for gaining an audience’s sympathy (which makes Sidibe’s performance all that more impressive). And the film’s story exists at a conjunction of race, sex, class and politics that potentially reaches into intimate places in the viewer’s psyche, with results that are unpredictable. No doubt that accounts for the film’s modest box office ($47.6 million domestic), despite its many accolades. I suspect the trailer alone was enough to scare off viewers.
 
One way to get a sense of how complex the reactions to this film can be is to skip the 91% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and look at the pans. (I’m sticking with self-professed professionals who have deliberately put their views out there, because it would be both unfair and too easy to cherry-pick random comments from online forums or IMDb.) Consider the following:
 
 
Quote:
Instead of a fairy godmother, Precious gets initial help from a white schoolteacher and social worker to help deliver her from a living hell. She starts attending an “alternative” school in Harlem and eventually moves out of her mother’s apartment. The moral of the story is that Black family life, especially in conditions of poverty, is dysfunctional to the core and in desperate need of outside intervention.
 
Louis Proyect, rec.arts.movies.reviews 
 
Quote:
From one social institution to the next, Precious is helped only by non-whites (including Mariah Carey's racially-unidentifiable welfare agent Mrs. Weiss), but Daniels never grapples with how these institutions were built, and as such misses the chance to deliver a useful point about the ties between white guilt and black power. Rather than dissect how whites assume responsibility for black people's social welfare, he writes them out of this story completely, simply asking those who may be sitting in the crowd to feel aghast, even titillated.
 
Ed Gonzalez, Slant
 
Quote:
[P]retty much all the good ethnics in this film — Mariah Carey (don’t laugh!) as a counsellor, Lenny Kravitz (okay, laugh!) as a male nurse — are less than dark-skinned. Blackness is ugliness, a social pathology. Hmm, hardly an ‘empowering’ vision, is it?
 
Sukhdev Sandhu, Daily Telegraph
 
OK, so are the people who help Precious white, black or somewhere in between? I guess that truly is in the eye of the beholder.
 
A different kind of revealing observation comes from Stephen Whitty, film critic for the Newark Star-Ledger:
 
Quote:
The story, by the one-named novelist Sapphire, translates as a long women’s-power rallying cry, in which males are monsters, females are victims, and lesbians are the coolest of all.
 
Yes, of course, Precious’ father is a devil. But does he have to be the only significant male character in the film? Do all the supportive students at Precious’ new school have to be girls? Does the nice social worker have to be a woman? Does the one teacher who believes in her have to be a sweetly hip homosexual?
 
Wait – Precious’ father is “the only significant male character in the film”? Did Whitty sleep through the scenes featuring John (Lenny Kravitz), the male nurse who helps deliver Precious’ second child, then sits in her hospital room lecturing her on the advantages of a healthy diet while her visiting classmates swoon over his handsome looks, then reappears periodically as an example of what a good man looks like? And while Precious’ father, who appears in brief flashbacks, is certainly a monster, he isn’t the film’s villain. That would be Mary, the mother who lets him abuse Precious, then blames her for it. Anyone who can watch the film without grasping that essential point has (and this is putting it mildly) issues. There is such a thing as Too Much Information, and Whitty’s review gives it – but not about the film Precious.
 
Finally, consider these remarks by David Edelstein of New York Magazine, especially the lead-in, which is like saying “Excuse me” before you slap someone:
  
Quote:
I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one. It’s only in a couple of heavy-handed fantasy sequences (she emerges from a theater in a bright-red gown to popping flashbulbs) that her eyes are windows to the soul.
  
Not judging someone like Precious in life, eh? If Edelstein finds her face “unreadable” in a film close-up, one can only imagine his attitude in the flesh. In fact, Sidibe’s performance is remarkably nuanced and expressive, and if Edelstein weren’t so repulsed by her “transgressive” bulk (here, again, the critic says more about himself than the film), he might notice the range of emotion she conveys during the course of Precious. For myself, I’ll go with A.O. Scott, now finishing out the final season of At the Movies, whose review for The New York Times aptly captured what I think makes Precious worth seeing:
 
Quote:
“Precious” is, in any case, less the examination of a social problem than the illumination of an individual’s painful and partial self-realization. Inarticulate and emotionally shut down, her massive body at once a prison and a hiding place, Precious is also perceptive and shrewd, possessed of talents visible only to those who bother to look. . . .
 
And Ms. Sidibe, perhaps the least-known member of this movie’s unusual cast, is also the glue that holds it together. Nimble and self-assured as Mr. Daniels’s direction may be, he could not make you believe in “Precious” unless you were able to believe in Precious herself. You will.
 
 
 
Video:
 
Precious was shot with a harsh, contrasty, hard-edged look that is well-reproduced on this Blu-ray. In Precious’ everyday life, colors tend to be washed out when there’s light and darkened when there isn’t. But in Precious’ fantasy life, colors become warm and deeply saturated. The Blu-ray handles these shifts effectively. Detail is excellent, except in occasional interior scenes in the Jones apartment, where it tends to fade away in murky shadows. This appears to be intentional and not the fault of the transfer, as detail is otherwise excellent throughout; you get every blemish and imperfection on Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey (these are not vanity roles). Black levels and contrast are generally well-balanced and solid.
 
 
 
Audio:
 
The DTS lossless track isn’t fancy. It’s a dialogue-heavy track with occasional ambiant city and apartment sounds. During fantasy sequences, and also during key transitions (e.g., when Precious first approaches her new school), the track opens up with musical selections, and it always sounds great.
 
 
 
Special Features:
 
Commentary with Director Lee Daniels. Daniels provides interesting anecdotes about the shoot and points out details about the production design, makeup and costumes, but he shies away from the film’s larger themes. He acknowledges at the outset that he finds it hard to talk about the film. One interesting detail is that, throughout the shoot, Daniels, Sidibe and Mo’Nique found themselves laughing uncontrollably between takes, often while shooting the film’s darkest scenes.
 
From Push to Precious. (HD) (15:22). Through interviews with author Sapphire, director Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, this featurette traces the history of the novel from its inspiration in Sapphire’s experiences as a teacher through her efforts to write the story, first as a series of poems, then in the third person (she mocks herself for piling a lot of “politics” onto the narrative), and finally allowing the character of Precious to emerge as the story’s true center. As with many adaptations from page to screen, the path took unexpected turns. Sapphire was wary of filmmakers, and even when she began to consider a movie adaptation, she initially rejected Daniels’ offer. (She changed her mind after seeing Monster’s Ball.) Fletcher, who would ultimately win an Oscar for adapting the novel, had never read the book before he met Daniels; they met by chance when Daniels approached the Fletcher family as potential investors.
 
A Precious Ensemble. (HD) (18:32). How the film was cast, with emphasis on the lengthy search that led to the casting of Gabourey Sidibe for the title role. One interesting bit of trivia is that Helen Mirren was originally set to portray Ms. Weiss, the welfare case worker ultimately played by Mariah Carey after Mirren dropped out due to a scheduling conflict. Daniels is probably right that it worked out better not having a recognizable movie star in the part, but just imagine the ideological grist that Mirren’s casting could have provided for certain mills!
 
Oprah and Tyler: A Project of Passion. Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey did not sign on as executive producers until after the film was completed. In these interviews they recall how Daniels approached them and why they signed on as promoters. Perry was chiefly concerned that his core audience consists of “church-going folk”, who might be put off by the film’s language and subject matter, but he was persuaded by the power of the story (he says that the character of Mary is his father). Winfrey was struck by the obvious parallels to the The Color Purple, which has played a major role in her life (she co-starred in the film and produced the Broadway musical).
 
A Conversation with Author Sapphire and Director Lee Daniels (HD) (8:27). Recorded in August 2009, before general release but after favorable reception on the festival circuit, the underlying sensation that seems to run through this informal chat is one of relief that the film turned out so well.
 
Audition: Gabourey Sidibe. The audition that got her the role. As Daniels says in “A Precious Ensemble”, Sidibe is nothing like Precious, and when you see her speak as herself, the contrast is startling. This tape demonstrates how she inhabited the character from the outset.
 
Deleted Scene: The Incest Survivor Meeting (HD) (1:45). Reference to this scene remains within the finished film, and it’s interesting in its own right, but omitting it was the right decision.
 
Reflections on Precious (HD) (0:52). Final thoughts from Daniels, Sidibe and Patton.
 
Trailers (HD). The film’s theatrical trailer is included. Also available both at startup and from the special features menu are trailers for Brothers, Monster’s Ball, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls and the Epix HD service; these can be skipped at startup with the chapter forward button.
 
Disc Production Credits.
 
 
 
In Conclusion:
                                               
Let me quote one last critic, one who illustrates what could be called the “Too Cool for School” approach to a film like Precious:
 
Quote:
Given the months-long hype, what’s most bewildering about Sundance sensation Precious is its overall shrug-worthiness. You’d think the litany of horrors that befall Harlem teenager Clareece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe)—illiteracy, rape, domestic abuse, Mariah Carey—would register with some piercing and perceptive effect. Instead, they pass by with the glazed-over, lookie-lookie luridness of a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode.
 
Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
 
It’s almost a T-shirt slogan: “I watched Precious and shrugged.” Isn’t it interesting what some people choose to brag about?
 
 
 
 
 
 
Equipment used for this review:
 
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)                                                  
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub

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#2 of 4 Parker Clack

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Posted March 29 2010 - 07:54 PM

Great review Michael. It is one of your best ever.

Bravo.

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#3 of 4 Mike Frezon

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Posted March 30 2010 - 02:27 AM

Wow.  You have, indeed, done it again, Michael.

I may need to read this a few more times before viewing. 

Word of mouth had me heading to the theater during it's run to see what all the noise was about.  Then, I saw the TV trailer.

Quote:
I suspect the trailer alone was enough to scare off viewers.
And it did.  It just didn't strike me as a film that would interest me.  I put it in my list of films to see when the disc is released. 

Then, I heard more and more about the film as the Oscars approached and I saw more clips on the TV talk shows.  I became even further distanced from the subject material. 

My interest is now renewed.  Your review makes me want to see for myself if I will find the direction nimble, the performances compelling, the story interesting...the subject moving, and if it will touch that "place in my psyche" where race, sex, class and politics meet. 

Or, will I just shrug?  /img/vbsmilies/htf/biggrin.gif


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#4 of 4 WillG

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Posted March 30 2010 - 03:26 AM

Uh, you did not consistently refer to the title of the film in your review as "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" What the F**K!?


STOP HIM! He's supposed to die!