Movie Reviews - 2009 postsTuesday March 02, 2010
Review: “The White Ribbon” (2009)
WARNING: ARE THERE SPOILERS IN A MICHAEL HANEKE FILM?
I should’ve known.
I saw the trailer with its exquisite black-and-white photography, beautiful, rising choir music, and the faces of serious children saying, in German, “Forgive us, father,” “Please forgive us,” all of it interspersed with Palme D’or awards and quotes from critics (“It feels like a classic even as you’re watching it for the first time.” — Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY), and I thought: “I gotta see this.”
Last Friday I finally got the chance. Five minutes in, I realized, “Oh, wait. This is a Michael Haneke film, isn’t it? Fuck.”
The choir music may rise, in other words, but nothing is uplifting.
Haneke’s films (“Cache,” “La pianiste,” “Le temps du loup,” “Funny Games”) don’t really educate so much as remind. They remind us of two things in particular: “People are brutal” and “You don’t know why.”
Those who agree with that first sentiment often make exceptions. They’ll say, “Well, people may be brutal but children aren’t.” They’ll say, “People are brutal now, but in the past, in a simpler time, we were better.”
To which Haneke replies, “Let them come to ‘Das weisse Bande: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’” (“The White Ribbon: A German children’s story”).
The film is set in a German village in the year before the Great War. The villagers are known by their occupations (The Farmer) or their relationship to someone with that occupation (The Farmer’s Wife). Only the children have names.
It’s basically a crime mystery in which we guess the criminals at the outset, have that guess strengthened throughout, then leave the theater without an answer. It’s wholly atmospheric, and the atmosphere is one of dread barely held in check. It’s one of tight-assed propriety masking something monstrous.
Our narrator is the School Teacher, voiced as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) but viewed as a young one (Christian Friedel). “It all began, I think,” he says, “with the Doctor’s accident.” He’s still using the language of the village, since the “accident” occurs when the Doctor (Rainer Bock), returning from an afternoon horseride, is cut down by a wire strung across the gate at knee length. The horse is killed, the Doctor goes to the hospital, the wire goes missing.
Village life centers around the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who owns more than 50 percent of the land and for whom many in the village work, but our village centers around the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and his family, particularly his children, particularly the eldest two: Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragas), an upright, handsome girl, with something like defiance in her seemingly respectful stance, and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), a striking boy with bags under his eyes and something like shame oozing from every pore. We first see them together the evening of the doctor’s accident when they face their father’s quiet wrath for being late for dinner. They ask for forgiveness, as in the trailer, and don’t get it. “I don’t know what’s worse: your absence or your coming back,” the Pastor says. He passes sentence—10 strokes of the cane the next evening—and they are made complicit in their punishment. “Do you agree?” the Pastor says. When the punishment comes, the boy is made to get the cane and the whipping occurs behind closed doors. This is a village where things occur behind closed doors.
As the summer progresses, things get worse. The Farmer’s wife dies, a victim of an accident at the Baron’s factory, and when we finally arrive we hear one man counsel another: “Careful, it’s all rotten.” What’s all rotten? Our mind is filled with the worst possible images until Haneke, taking his sweet time, pans over to the rotten wooden floorboards that gave way and ended a life.
But it is all rotten. Things are whispered and people’s minds are filled with the worst possible images. It’s said that the Baron is to blame for the accident, and during harvest celebration one of the Farmer’s sons takes revenge by destroying the Baron’s cabbage patch. It’s a clumsy, known event that shames the Farmer. Later that night, the Baron’s curly-headed son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), goes missing, and is found at 2:30 a.m., hanging upside-down in the barn, whipped and in a state of shock. Later still the barn is burned. What undercurrent, whose undercurrent, is controlling events in this village?
The following year, the Steward’s daughter confesses to the Teacher that she dreamed something horrible will happen to Karli, the mentally disabled son of the Midwife. Has she dreamed it? Or has she been told it? And why? Why would someone do such a thing to Karli? The Midwife, we know, has been having an affair with the Doctor—we see him schtupping her without pleasure upon his return from the hospital—but he ends their relationship brutally, telling her she’s ugly, old, flabby, has bad breath, and when she doesn’t get it, declares, “My God, why don’t you just die?” Shortly after, his son, Gustav (Thibault Sérié), four or five years old, wakens one evening to find his older, teenaged sister, Anna (Roxane Duran), gone from their bedroom. He goes downstairs, scared, calling her name. He opens doors. Behind one of them he finds his father and sister. Her nightgown is pushed up, exposing her thighs. She’s getting her ears pieced, she says. She doesn’t seem scared. Haneke is putting us in the position of the villagers. We just get glimpses behind closed doors. Our minds are filled with the worst possible images.
Eventually something horrible does happen to Karli. He’s tortured, blinded, tied to a tree, and a note is left behind quoting Biblical text about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children, even unto the third or fourth generation. One assumes the Pastor’s children are responsible, as one assumed from the beginning, with Klara the ringleader and Martin the reluctant participant. But why the Midwife’s son? Because of the Midwife’s affair with the Doctor? Because of the rumors that she and the Doctor killed the Doctor’s Wife five years earlier?
The Pastor keeps punishing his children by making them wear ribbons of white, the color of innocence, to remind them of the purity from which they came, but it hardly helps. We see Klara killing the Pastor’s favorite bird and leaving the evidence on his desk. He knows she did it. Or: We suspect greatly that he suspects greatly that she did it. But when the School Teacher comes to him with accusations of their crimes, the Pastor protects what’s his and threatens the School Teacher. By this point, the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated and the Great War begun. You could say we are unto the third or fourth generation still suffering from those 1914 sins.
Is there any innocence in Haneke’s vision? Any beauty beyond the cinematography? The School Teacher begins a relationship with Eva (Leonie Benesch), who’s working as a nanny, and they have a kind of halting, stammering sweetness together. But the relationship is mostly marked by its difficulties. This is a world where kindness is difficult, brutality easy and total.
Perhaps the most instructive scene occurs between Gustav and Anna at the breakfast nook after the death of the Farmer’s wife. Earlier Gustav had worried about their father’s absence and Anna had assured him he would return. Remember when you got sick last winter? Then you got better? It’s like that. But now he asks about death. She tries to explain it. “Does everyone die?” he asks. Yes. “Everyone really? But not you, Anni?” Me, too. “But not Dad.” Yes, Papa. Then he makes the big leap. “Me, too? It has to happen? ... And Mom? Is she dead, too?” Anna couches her answers with the comfort of time, which is actually the enemy. Mom died a long time ago, she says. He, Gustav, won’t die for a long time. But Gustav is making the connection all of us make, and that may mark the true end of innocence and the true beginning of brutality: the knowledge, which we carry all of our lives, that everyone and everything, including us, dies. And he angrily sweeps the dishes onto the floor. It’s a great scene.
If “The White Ribbon” sounds like an interesting film, it is. It’s interesting to write about, interesting to talk about, but less interesting to watch. It’s not that I disagree with Haneke’s vision, I merely think it’s devoid of light. He’s incomplete. What he's missing is a glimmer of anything that makes life worth living. He’s a child angrily sweeping the dishes onto the floor.
“Bitte verzeihen Sie.”
Review: “The Last Station” (2009)
WARNING: WAR AND SPOILERS
It’s odd scribbling critics’ notes while watching Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” which is based upon Jay Pirini’s novel on the last days of Leo Tolstoy, since several characters on screen are also taking notes and it’s not exactly positive. More like the scuttling of rats. You want to apologize to other audience members for doing what you’re doing. I’m not a bad person; I’m just a critic.
I was never a Tolstoyan in believing exactly what he believed, or going through the crises he went through, but for a time, in my early twenties, I read him thoroughly and wholeheartedly. Not only was he one of the great 19th century writers but his writing gave birth to the better part of the 20th century: the non-violent movements of Gandhi and King. He’s so identified with the 19th century, in fact, that it’s startling to see the date at the beginning of the movie: 1910. Did Tolstoy really live that long? He did. Long enough to be filmed at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where he was born, lived and was buried. He died elsewhere. But I’m getting ahead.
The movie opens with that most awful of 20th-century encounters: the job interview. Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is being interviewed by Vladimir Chertkov (a perhaps-too-smarmy Paul Giamatti) about becoming private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Valentin is a Tolstoyan through and through. He’s both vegetarian and celibate, he says. He’s read Tolstoy’s philosophy and wants to live it completely—which is to say: narrowly. He’s been shown the path and wants to stay on that path, and no other, and when he gets the job he tears up from joy, and afterwards continually breathes out from repressed joy, scarcely believing his luck, even though Chertkov makes it apparent that he’s hiring not just a secretary but a spy. He warns Valentin that the Tolstoyan movement has many, many enemies and lists them off: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Tsar’s police, and the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s wife. This last one is key. He gives Valentin a diary. “Write. Everything. Down,” he says.
Valentin has the peculiar (and dramatically facile) habit of sneezing whenever he’s nervous, and at Yasnaya, which is divided between a commune of workers and the estate of the Tolstoys, he sneezes a lot. At the commune, where he sleeps, he meets a 20th century girl chopping wood, Masha (Kerry Condon), who stares at him boldly, amusedly, and not without interest, and encourages him to speak his mind, despite Sergeyenko (Patrick Kennedy), the tight-assed man running the place. “This is a place of freedom,” Sergeyenko says after listing the rules. “We are all equals here,” he says without joy.
At the estate, where Valentin works, he’s greeted by another woman, yelling down at him from the second floor. “You!” she says. So much for equality. This is Tolstoy’s daughter, Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff), who, after he apologizes and sneezes his way into an explanation for his being, tells him to wait in the library. Nothing, of course, could make him happier. Tolstoy’s library! Tolstoy’s books and papers! Then Tolstoy himself arrives, welcomes him, engages him, causes him to cry with happiness. “I am no one and you are Lev Tolstoy,“ Valentin says. ”And you ask me about my work.“ As do all great men. It may be the definition of great men.
Yasnaya is not only divided between workers’ estate and the Tolstoy's estate but between those who believe in the movement (and see Tolstoy as a prophet), and those who are less enamored of equality and fraternity (and see him as a man). The former group includes daughter Sasha; Dushan the doctor (John Sessions), forever scribbling in his notebook; and the initially absent Chertkov, under house arrest elsewhere. The latter group includes, well, the Countess. Tolstoy is caught between groups. Our man, our eyes, Valentin, intellectually sides with the movement but has an open heart. It’s what saves him from the absolutism of the others.
Mirren, by the way, is amazing: annoying yet sympathetic, haughty yet fragile, comic yet tragic. She’s afraid her husband will sign away the copyrights to his work (which he does); she’s afraid that he’s moving away from her (which he is), so she clings, cajoles, seduces. She upbraids him for dressing like a man who tends sheep, then calls herself “his little chicken” and calls him “her big cock” and gets him to crow happily in bed. She reminds him that she bore him 13 children and wrote out “War and Peace” six times and how could he betray her like this? With Valentin she’s equally blunt, telling him he’s “rather handsome in a sort of peculiar way.”. She asks him, while they walk, if he’s a virgin, and when he stutters and sneezes and begins to quote Tolstoy to her, she says breezily, “You know, when he was your age he was whoring in the Caucasus.” Then she gives him a diary and tells him to write down what he sees. “What. You. See,” she says.
Valentin goes for walks with Tolstoy, too, and when Tolstoy asks him the deep questions of life, Valentin quotes Tolstoy to Tolstoy, which is the last thing Tolstoy wants. “I know what I say,” he says pleasantly, “but what do you say?” Valentin admits he doesn’t know. Tolstoy replies, with a touch of helplessness, “Neither do I.” It’s a poignant scene.
Things come to a head (a headier head) when Chertkov is released from house arrest and arrives at Yasnaya. From outside he greets his nemesis, the Countess, who’s on the second-floor balcony:
Chertkov: I’m happy to see you.
Countess: And I’m happy to make you happy.
Chertkov (wearing the tightest of smiles): Ha ha ha ha.
But the tighter she tries to hold onto Tolstoy the more he slips away from her. Meanwhile Valentin is the passive and nervous and then joyful recipient of the advances of Masha, who, like in an adolescent male fantasy, comes to his room at night, silently climbs atop him, and removes her gown. Basically she knocks him off his narrow path and widens his world. Condon, mousy in the HBO series “Rome,” where she played Octavia, the innocent daughter of the villainess, Atia, is stunningly sexy here. Bravo for boldness. McAvoy is also a surprise. He was forgettable to me in “Last King” and “Atonement,” for which he won raves (and BAFTA nominations), and unforgettable here, where every emotion reads visibly, humanly on his face. (Put it this way: He didn’t need the sneeze—except for comic effect.) Yet no one’s mentioning him and the awards season has already passed him by. So it goes.
“The Last Station” is straightforward, enjoyable storytelling, with great performances, that is, on a personal level, whollly evocative. I kept thinking of the last chapter of Philip Roth's near-perfect novella “The Ghost Writer,” entitled Married to Tolstoy," on the difficulties of living with a writer. As Tolstoy gets more and more fed up with his wife, threatening to leave her and Yasnaya Polyana, I also flashed back to my college roommate, Brian M., reading about this incident and laughing uproariously at the image of Tolstoy basically running away from home at the age of 82. It’s less funny here. He only makes it as far as Astopovo, the last station of the title. One feels, as the world gathers to hear of his death, that he’s simply an old man being used.
All of this takes place exactly 100 years ago. As the 20th century progressed, Tolstoy’s views, via Gandhi and King, became more and more important, even as his station in life, the writer’s station, became less and less so. He was born the year after the French government patented the fountain pen, he was 45 years old when the first typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard became commercially successful, and by the time he died, well, he was one of the most famous men in the world. Writers mattered. As the century progressed it became easier to write, and easier to publish, and so more people did, and so it mattered less. And now we’ve got what we’ve got. The egalitarianism Tolstoy sought has played out in the craft he perfected—to the craft’s detriment. We're all equals here.
Review: “Crazy Heart” (2009)
WARNING: UNBUTTONED SPOILERS
Generally in stories about a down-on-his-luck artist attempting redemption through a woman and a comeback through his art, the work of art in question, which everyone in the movie says is great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, is actually fairly ordinary. In “Crazy Heart,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, the work of art is a country song, “The Weary Kind,” written by Ryan Bingham and produced by T. Bone Burnett. Two things: 1) it’s great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, and 2) it only turns around the life of the artist, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), so much. It indicates a direction but it doesn’t necessarily get him home.
Blake, 58, is overweight and a drinker. As the movie begins, the country legend is driving the American Southwest in his ’78 Suburban, Bessie, and playing in dives. Because the first place we see him play is a bowling alley, and he arrives long-haired, dissheveled, bearded and unbuttoned, ordering a drink at the bowling-alley bar, one can’t help but think of Bridge’s most famous character, the Dude from “The Big Lebowski”; but that’s where the similarity ends. The Dude was happy in bowling alleys but Blake takes one look and says aloud to his absent manager, “Jack, you bastard.” He doesn’t get a bar tab (his reputation has preceded him), isn’t interested in rehearsing with his star-struck back-up band (including Ryan Bingham as Tony), and near the end of his set flees the stage to throw up in a back-alley garbage can. That night he sleeps with an aging groupie, one of 20 or so fans who bothered to show up, then he sneaks out of Pueblo, New Mexico. The question for the viewer: Is this bottom?
We find out he hasn’t written a song in three years. He also has a former partner, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who’s a big star, but with whom Blake refuses to play anymore. One assumes bad blood and betrayal.
The next gig is a little better, a real bar, and he arrives mid-afternoon to hear a man playing the piano and playing it well. Blake gives him a nod of compliment and the man returns the favor and then asks for another. His niece is a reporter with the Santa Fe paper. Would he give her an interview?
The niece is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and they meet cute. For the interview she gives a quick rap on his motel room door and opens it... to find him sitting in a towel and watching chicas on his motel-room TV.
It’s meeting cute but it’s meeting false. Who barges into a stranger’s motel room with hardly a knock? For a journalist, too, her questions are fairly generic, as if she’d done no research at all. Who were your influences? Did you ever want to be anything else? In today’s world of artificial country music, who’s real country? His answers are good, particularly on wanting to be a baseball player until someone threw him a curve ball (“Figured I’d stay with the guitar. Sonuvabitch stayed where it’s supposed to”), but that doesn’t excuse the questions. She also sleeps with her subject, which is a whole other matter.
She becomes, of course, the love interest, and one of the sources of Blake’s redemption, but I was rarely interested in their relationship. It felt icky. Because of the age difference? Because I didn’t quite get what she saw in him or he in her? Because her journalism is questionable? Because I knew he would let her down in some awful way?
His relationship with other people, meanwhile, always intrigued me. He finally lets his manager book him as the opening act for Tommy Sweet, who used to open for him, and one expects an egotistsical, grandstanding upstart. Instead Tommy’s appreciative and admiring of his former mentor. All this time, the problem had been Blake and his pride, his old lion’s pride, which is still on display when Tommy sneaks onstage, to squeals from the crowd, 12,000-strong, during Blake’s opening number to sing a duet with the legend. There’s a frozen disapproval in Blake’s face and body language, and there are subtle tensions when the two talk backstage, and all of that is a joy to watch because it feels real; because it makes you wonder about both men. Hell, I liked the back-and-forth Blake has with the sound-man, Bear, during the sound check:
Blake: Bear, Bear, Bear! I need kick and snare, turn down the damn guitar, you’re drowning out the lyrics.
Bear: Mix is good, man. You can’t hear what I’m hearing out here.
Blake: Bear, I’m an old man, I get grumpy. Humor me.
Tommy wants a longer tour, and songs, from his former partner, and after Blake gets into a car accident and winds up recuperating at Jean’s place, he begins to write the one that will become “The Weary Kind.” In lesser films he’d realize what he has and keep it and record it for himself and become a star again (that, in fact, is the story the trailer implies). In this film, he realizes what he has and mails it off to Tommy anyway, who, down the road, will make it a hit, which will make Blake a little sum of money. There’s a matter-of-factness to all this. It’s how life is.
Pride, though, was only one thing holding Blake back. The other was drink. Artistically he may have hit bottom at that bowling alley in Pueblo, but alcoholics have deeper, harder bottoms. In Santa Fe, Blake takes Jean’s four-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), to the park for the day, and Jean returns to a darkened home. No Buddy. No Bad. She panics for five seconds until they walk in the door, Buddy with stories already spilling out of his mouth, Blake, looking a wreck, assuring her, “Nobody died.” This prefigures a later scene in Houston when Blake loses Buddy in a mall. Blake had a son from a previous relationship, a grown man now and understandably uninterested in his father’s attempts to reconnect with him, whom Blake last saw when he was four. The man has a bad habit of losing four-year-old boys.
Buddy’s found in the mall but Jean is unforgiving and cuts things off with Blake for good. And that, after another bender, is Blake’s bottom.
“Crazy Heart” could be subtitled “The Partial Redemption of a Country Legend.” That’s really all it is. Its appeal lies in the peformances—particularly Bridges, who is both monumental and as ordinary as any day in our lives—and in the details. I like the size of Bridge’s mangled fingers next to Buddy’s. I like how, saying good-bye in Santa Fe, Jean grimaces away from Blake’s alcoholic breath. (“Mustard gas and roses,” Kurt Vonnegut used to call it.) I like the small scene, after he sobers up and after Jean still rejects him, where he’s cleaning his place and finds Buddy’s Superman t-shirt under the bed. He picks up the phone. Then he pauses, sets the phone back down, folds the little boys’ t-shirt in his lap. It’s such a small shirt and that emblem is so big and says so much. Will he mail it back? Will he keep it? We don’t know. We just know he won’t use it as an excuse to inject himself into her life again. It wasn’t easy being Bad, but it’s even harder being decent.
The movie has some false notes but the music doesn’t. The songs this country legend sings are actually good songs:
I used to be somebody
Now I am somebody else
Who I’ll be tomorrow
Is anybody’s guess
They’re as matter-of-fact and down-to-earth as the movie, which almost didn’t get distribution. Now it’s out in a handful of theaters making a little sum of money. It’s how life is.
Review: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
WARNING: CUSSIN' SPOILERS
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a joy to watch because it’s both a Wes Anderson movie and a George Clooney vehicle.
Its Wes Andersonness is obvious. It gives us deadpan humor, father-son conflict, characters associated with one absurd and outdated mode of dress. It tosses up chapter titles (“The Go-For-Broke Mission”) and tosses in a tinkly soundtrack and bouncy-but-obscure, British-invasion-era music (“Let Her Dance” by Bobby Fuller Four). In 2007 I wrote the following about the essential Wes Anderson lesson: Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution. That’s still true for his films—whether we’re talking Fischers, Tenenbaums and Zissous or foxes, badgers and weasels.
Where “Fox” differs from a typical Wes Anderson movie is in its hero. Anderson’s protagonists generally pretend to be something they’re not: great playwrights, great oceanographers, caring patriarchs. Eventually their true nature is revealed and they’re excluded from where they want to be. Only in returning, chastened and wiser, do they become the very thing they were pretending to be.
The movement for Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is the opposite. His persona is basically the George Clooney persona—the hyper-articulate, know-it-all whose charm resides in not always knowing it all but mustering through with grace and style anyway—and this persona, Mr. Fox’s persona, hardly changes during the course of the movie. For a time he denies his true nature, but he does so for others, not himself, and it’s a mere blip of screentime. It’s not the Anderson cycle of pretense/exclusion/genuineness. It’s the Clooney promise: Get on board, boys, we’re going for a ride!
The reason Mr. Fox is forced to deny his true nature is the reason many of us are forced to deny our true natures: he starts a family. One moment he and his wife are stealing squabs from a nearby farm, the next they’re trapped by a cage. Before they can escape, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) announces she’s pregnant, and elicits a promise from Mr. Fox that he’ll settle down and never steal squabs and chickens and the like again.
Out of one trap and into another.
For two years (12 fox years, we’re told), Mr. Fox works as a newspaperman and lives with Mrs. Fox and their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), in a comfortable hole, until one day he says he’s tired of living in their comfortable hole. He’s got his eye on a tree that they can’t afford. Except he really wants the tree because of it overlooks Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three farms producing, in order, chickens, turkey and cider, and run by “three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers in the valley,” according to Fox’s lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), who counsels against purchase. Fox ignores him. He tells himself he’s after one last job, by which he means three last jobs, one for each farm. For the first two he drags along Kylie, the passive, not-bright, handyman opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), who is essentially the Pagoda of this film, and both jobs go off, give or take an electric fence, without a hitch.
For the final job, at Bean’s cider farm, Ash tries to tag along but is sent home; instead Fox relies on Ash’s cousin and rival, Kristofferson Silverfox (Eric Anderson), a meditating, martial-arts-training natural athlete who is staying with the family. Again, give or take a rat guard (Willem Dafoe), and the appearance of the very masculine-looking Mrs. Bean (Helen McCrory), the job goes off without a hitch. The problem: of the three nasty farmers, Bean (Michael Gambon, brilliant here) is the nastiest of the bunch. Also the smartest. And he organizes Boggis and Bunce into bringing the fight to Mr. Fox.
Thus begins a war of escalation. First they attempt to shoot Mr. Fox but succeed only in blowing off his tail (which Bean wears as a tie); then they destroy the Fox’s tree home with bulldozers (shades of “Avatar”!), but discover the Foxes have dug down to safety. When they try to dig them out, the Foxes simply dig deeper, and further, and eventually back into the Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms, from which they steal everything. By this time, other animals have been swept up in the war, and they all gather at a large underground dining table to celebrate. But just as Mr. Fox is delivering his toast of triumph, a rumble is heard. The rumble of cider. They’re being flooded out of their homes and into a sewer, from which there appears no escape.
But there is an escape. Earlier, when Mrs. Fox learned of her husband’s treachery, we got the following dialogue:
Mrs. Fox: Why did you lie to me?
Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.
Meanwhile, Ash, who likes to wear a cape, and who doesn’t even have a proper bandit mask but uses a reconstituted tube sock, is dealing with others’ perceptions, and his own perception, of his difference.
And that’s their salvation. They’re all wild animals and they’re all different. Mr. Fox, calling everyone by their Latin names (Oryctolagus Cuniculus! Talpa Europea!), uses the talents of each species for their final plan of attack, their final salvation. Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is delightful on many levels—it’s funny, quirky, tender, adventurous—but it resonates long after you leave the theater for the following reason. The convention of children’s stories is to have wild animals talk, wear clothes, and engage in human professions, and “Mr. Fox” certainly adopts those conventions. Then it upends them by having the wild animals realize the absurdity of not being what they are: wild animals. Wes Anderson, in other words, dresses up his animals as people so the people watching can realize that they, all the lawyers and high school coaches and newspapermen in the audience, are animals. All of us, in small ways, in the clothes we wear or the jobs we have, are denying our true natures. The joy of “Mr. Fox” is that Vulpes Volpes gets to reveal his true nature. The bittersweetness of Homo Sapiens is that, generally, we don’t.
Review: “Precious” (2009)
WARNING: GIFT-OF-THE-UNIVERSE SPOILERS
“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is set in Harlem in the 1980s, a hopeless period for both race relations and social progress in America. If the 1960s was the two steps forward, the 1980s was the one step back. One image from the period, and the film, is particularly weighted with hopelessness to me. With all of the crime in the streets, with all of the crime in the homes, there in the classroom is a poster of McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon hound in a trenchcoat, urging kids to “Take a bite out of crime.” How exactly? By speaking up? By getting an adult? And if the adult is the crime? McGruff is a harbinger of the very thing he fights. He shows up only where crime is rampant and offers nothing. He’s a symbol of impotence.
He’s also a symbol of one of the three universes of “Precious.” All of them are depressing.
The first and worst universe is the brutal, everyday world that Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in. She’s 16, fat, black, illiterate. Sexually abused by her absentee father since age 3, she’s now pregnant with his second child. The first child, who has developmental problems, is being raised by her grandmother, while her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), lives off welfare, watches TV all day, and is emotionally and physically abusive to Precious. She tears down Precious every day with a stream of verbal abuse; if Precious is unresponsive she resorts to the physical kind. Precious is also attacked in the streets and ignored in the schools. There is nowhere she is safe.
Except in the second universe, her fantasy universe, where she often goes after being physically abused. Here she wears feather boas and is photographed on red carpets. She’s on BET and magazine covers. She’s beautiful, important, and loved by a light-skinned boyfriend, but the universe is depressing for being so distant from her reality, and for being a slightly more glamorous version of the empty, cheesy shows her mother watches. Who would even want to live in this universe? Only someone whose reality is the first universe.
The third universe is the solution. When administrators at her public high school discover she’s pregnant with her second child, most likely sexually and physically abused, and virtually illiterate, they release her to a special program in an alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” which is run out of the 11th floor of the Hotel Theresa. Her intro there is inauspicious. The receptionist puts personal phone calls ahead of administrative duties, doesn’t even expect Precious (though there’s hardly a clog of humanity at the place), and needs copies of a phone bill and her mother’s budget to complete the bureaucratic process. Precious’ second day begins even worse. She needs money for food but her mother is masturbating in bed and ignores her. So Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and eats most of it on the way to school, before throwing it back up in a school garbage can beneath a sign reading: “Try for a better future.” There are such self-esteem signs all over the school. One reads: “Determination.” In another, the following words form a circle: “feeling good about yourself will lead to more reasons for” and back to the first word. Plus there’s McGruff. That harbinger of good times.
When Precious finally enters the classroom (via white light?), the feeling-good-about-yourself times continue. The students, five or six girls, are asked by their teacher, who goes by the name Blu Rain (Paula Patton), to talk about something they’re good at. After the movie, walking down Broadway on Capitol Hill, my girlfriend Patricia commented with amazement on how “all of those girls were so different.” One’s a tough Chicana, one’s a lesbian, one’s from Jamaica, etc. “That’s the point,” I replied flatly. “I know,” she responded, “But...” She liked it. She was caught up in it. I wasn’t. I also wondered about casting. If the classroom was supposed to be feel-good, how did Paula Patton wind up as Ms. Rain? She’s pretty enough to make Halle Berry feel like something the cat dragged in.
And so our first and third universes battle for the soul of Precious. The caring teacher vs. the uncaring mother. One props up, one drags down. “You’re special, Precious.” “You think you’re special, Precious?” Ms. Rain has the students write every day, and the book, “Push,” by Sapphire, is in the first-person, so you get a sense of the progress Precious makes through the writing itself. That might be interesting. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of “The Color Purple,” which was a best-seller, and then a hit movie, a few years before the time “Precious” is set in. Aspects of “Precious” also reminded me of “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s first novel, which was published in 1970, and which I read around the time Precious was first walking into that classroom, when Sapphire herself was a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and dealing with girls like Precious every day. I guess every generation needs their version of this story; I guess it’s why it felt old to me.
No, it’s worse. Parts of it feel like a lie. Even as Ms. Rain tells Precious it’s OK to be fat and black (but not illiterate), the good people in the film—Ms. Rain, Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz), and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey)—are thin, good-looking, light-skinned. That’s what good is in this universe. “But you’re still beautiful, Precious.”
The movie’s villain, meanwhile, is fat and black. Mary allows her child to be sexually abused and then blames the child for taking away her man. She’s also an argument against welfare—wasting her life in a small cluttered apartment and watching the worst TV has to offer. There are few cinematic moments more depressing than Mary doing a bump-and-grind while smoking and watching Florence Henderson give clues on “$100,000 Pyramid.” The horror of our culture is in that moment. The waste... The waste...
Mo’Nique is smart enough to play Mary as the victim—that’s how she sees herself. It’s a great performance and Mo’Nique deserves her accolades. Put it this way: I believed Mary. I believed Ms. Weiss, too. She’s fighting the good fight but she also has the tired, thousand-yard stare of the career bureaucrat. With the world the way it is, you can only care so much. After her appointment with Precious, she has one with, say, Angela, and another with Bettina, and Clarice, and on and on until five o’clock, at which point she gets to punch out and grab a drink, and then do it all again tomorrow. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year. With that schedule, how much emotion do you put into your 10:15? Carey plays her right. But Ms. Rain? She cares. Deeply. Particularly about Precious. Because Precious is precious? No, because we’re watching Precious’ story rather than Rita’s story, or Rhonda’s or Jermaine’s or Joann’s or Consuelo’s. Ms. Rain has to care more about her because we care more about her. “Your baby loves you,” she tells Precious. “I love you.” In a gritty, horrific story, Ms. Rain is wish-fulfillment. That’s why I didn’t believe her. Or the movie.