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Set in Harlem in 1987, it is the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a sixteen-year-old African-American girl born into a life no one would want. She's pregnant for the second time by her absent father; at home, she must wait hand and foot on her mother (Mo'Nique), a poisonously angry woman who abuses her emotionally and physically. School is a place of chaos, and Precious has reached the ninth grade with good marks and an awful secret: she can neither read nor write.
For more about Precious and the Precious Blu-ray release, see Precious Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 28, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz
Director: Lee Daniels
» See full cast & crew
Precious Blu-ray Review
Featuring knockout performances by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and especially by Mo'Nique in her first dramatic role, 'Precious' is troubling and difficult to endure. Is it ultimately worth it?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 28, 2010
Is Precious this year's Slumdog Millionaire? After all, it has the same hardscrabble indy cred that last year's Best Picture Oscar winner did, a sort of grass roots, up from the people success story that defies the big studio system and ultimately garners both critical acclaim and box office receipts galore. Like Slumdog, Precious at least putatively features a sobering story of downtrodden souls who supposedly reach some sort of redemption after scores of trials. My hunch is, though, that Precious won't prevail for the Best Picture honor this year, though it almost undoubtedly will take home the prize for Best Supporting Actress for Mo'Nique, who provides certainly one of the most unexpectedly commanding performances in recent film history. Precious wants to be cathartic, and comes close a lot of the time, but the fact is there's no Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? pot of gold at the end of Precious' rather drab rainbow. The film ends with a curiously anticlimactic scene that only hints at partial resolution while leaving a number of rather troubling questions lingering in the fetid New York City air. Still and all, Precious is one of the grittier portrayals of an inner city youth and her unfortunate travails, and it is highlighted by one of the most impressive pieces of ensemble acting, including newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in the title role.
Precious' set up is simplicity itself: Claireece 'Precious' Jones is a morbidly obese 16 year old who has been repeatedly sexually abused by her father. She has already given birth to a child with Down Syndrome, which she in her rather horrifyingly illiterate way has nicknamed "Mongo" (for mongoloid, the now politically incorrect term for those with this condition), and, as the film starts, it's revealed that she's pregnant again. That leads to her suspension from school, in one of a few rather illogical twists Precious' plot takes. (Why is it a rape victim's fault she's pregnant, and why would that lead to her suspension?) Precious' home life is squalid and terrifying, with a cramped top floor flat lorded over by her verbally and physically abusive mother (Mo'Nique, heretofore known for her comedy acumen, but delivering one of the most incisive and overwhelmingly depressing performances in recent memory). When Precious' high school principal arranges for Precious to attend an alternative school called Each One Teach One, it seems to offer a glimmer of hope for the unfortunate girl, but her mother's jealousy and near bipolar disorder continues to interfere and make things difficult. Precious finds refuge in several interior fantasy sequences, sort of an African American distaff Walter Mitty syndrome, where she's a beautiful star, and in one of the more telling, albeit brief, segments, a Caucasian with blonde hair.
At the alternative school, Precious comes under the tutelage of a loving mentor in the long tradition of caring inner city teachers (think Sidney Poitier's "Sir" from To Sir, With Love or Sandy Dennis' Sylvia Barrett in Up the Down Staircase). Here it's the improbably named Blu Rain (Paula Patton), who teaches Precious how to read, gets her writing daily in a journal, and in that predictably maudlin manner films of this ilk always exploit, at least the germ of self esteem. The film ping pongs between Precious' nascent personal growth at the school, a sort of one step forward as it were, followed by two giant steps backward every time she ventures back to the horror show that is her mother and what qualifies as "home life."
Unfortunately from a dramatic standpoint Precious never really fully gels, though it offers several knockout scenes (both figuratively and, in the case of at least one fist fight between Precious and her mother, literally). This is a film that offers incredible moments, but never manages to weave them together into a completely cohesive and satisfying whole. The film is filled with little nuggets of stunt casting (Lenny Kravitz as the nurse who helps to deliver Precious' second child, Sherri Shepherd as "Cornrows," and Mariah Carey as a social worker), most of which work completely fine, but which point up the film's strange attempts to have it both ways: Precious wants to be a down and dirty exposé of the horrors of incest and uneducated youth, not to mention the problems of the welfare state (in its indictment of Precious' mother's money grubbing, which would certainly delight any number of conservative pundits), and yet the film also tips too often into the standard Hollywood line of big stars "de-glamourizing" themselves in a somewhat pathetic attempt to make themselves "real," not to mention the very typical Hollywood "trauma to triumph" storyline that you've seen a million times before. If Precious' trauma is more hideous than most, its "triumph" is weirdly anemic by contrast.
Even more problematic is Precious' rather haphazard story structure, which has several glaring holes in logic and continuity. In one scene, Precious is a complete illiterate, unable to read even the simplest of words. In the next scene, she's reading easily from her journal. The film obviously has a bit of a problem translating the source novel Push's first person narrative, which begins in misspelled simplicity and, as Precious becomes more educated and self-aware, grows into more fluency (in a sort of parallel to Charly or its source material Flowers for Algernon). What we get here is occasional voice over, but that doesn't really elucidate Precious' evolution in the same visceral manner. The biggest issue I have with Precious from a dramatic standpoint is the final "showdown" between Precious and her mother, overseen by Mariah Carey's Ms. Weiss, which plays like a slightly awkward improvisation exercise. Mo'Nique is as amazing as she consistently is throughout the film, but when she leaves for a moment and then returns with "Mongo," it's a sort of "WTF?" moment, which is only hampered further by a strangely quick and curt reaction from Precious herself. Without posting too many spoilers, there are any number of unanswered questions left as the very brief coda plays out. What of Precious' recently revealed health issues? How indeed will she care for two children, one of whom is a special needs child? What is Precious' mother going to do without her welfare checks or, perhaps a bit more trenchantly, her television which plays reruns of The 100,000 Pyramid day and night? Precious (both the character and the film) is overwhelmed with such a litany of debasement and humiliation throughout the story that this sudden and abrupt ending does not bring a requisite amount of resolution and, frankly, relief to the audience.
All of this said, there is such a wealth of nuanced performance in Precious that I can quite heartily recommend it, at least for those with the stomach to sit through almost two hours of often extremely depressing fare. Sidibe is a wonder in the title role, bringing a tamped down, almost dissociative quality to Precious, tugging at the heartstrings without ever over doing it. Patton is resolute and empathetic as Ms. Rain, Precious' mentor and teacher. The girls who make up the class are your typical assortment of lovable ne'er-do-wells, but they tend to come off as the usual stereotypical suspects in classroom dramas such as these. The force and focus of Precious remains resolutely on Mo'Nique, who is virtually unrecognizable as Mary Lee, Precious' mother. This is an unrelenting and unflinching performance, never easy to watch and yet mesmerizingly powerful at the same time. Mary Lee is certainly one of the most unseemly characters to ever (dis)grace a film, and Mo'Nique wrings every last bit of pathos out of the character. Most audience members probably won't have a bit of sympathy for the character herself, but there has to be uniform admiration for Mo'Nique's truly titanic performance, one of the all time great supporting turns in recent film history.
Director Lee Daniels crafts a well wrought recreation of Harlem's rather ugly underbelly, and he is to be commended for overseeing such an incredible array of fine performances. I had a bit of a problem, as I am wont to have, with the "tarted up" handheld zooms and pans which occasionally permeate the film, and seem especially ill considered as they interrupt the more traditional sweeping steadicam and crane shots which more readily lure the viewer into Precious' fantasy life, if not her day to day existence. There are also some unexpectedly humorous moments Daniel and scenarist Geoffrey Fletcher manage to inject into the otherwise sordid goings-on, as when Precious and her mother suddenly become the characters in the Sophia Loren neo-Realist Two Women, complete with "ghetto" dialogue delivered in Italian.
Precious is a film that harkens back to the "kitchen sink" dramas of the 1940's and 1950's, though with a decidedly more post-modern edge, for better or worse. While it may not be entirely dramatically cogent, it offers so many superb performances that it's easy to see why the film has established such consistent "buzz." Precious is not an easy film to watch, and it certainly does not deliver any big "feel good" moments, despite its faltering attempts to. Nonetheless, it has an array of unforgettable performances, chief among them Mo'Nique's, performances which ultimately lift the film above its fetid setting and storyline.
Precious Blu-ray, Video Quality
Precious sports a naturally lit verite look which may rub some videophiles the wrong way. Its AVC encoded 1080p 1.85:1 image can be crisp and sharp in brightly lit scenes, as in several outdoor moments, or the fluorescent office environment of Ms. Weiss. However, in the drab and dingy confines of Precious' apartment or her high school, darkness is hampered by low contrast to the point where, as politically incorrect as it may be to say this, the dark tones of Sidibe's face simply melt into nothingness. You'll notice this especially in the opening hallway scene in Precious' high school, where Sidibe's face is completely inchoate, as if it had been replaced by a large black dot. That same problem crops up to a lesser extent in the apartment scenes, several of which are shown in screencaptures here. Overall, though, Precious' Blu-ray debut brilliantly captures the literally down and dirty ambience of the original theatrical presentation, with good, if often muted, colors and some excellent detail, especially in the manifold closeups of Sidibe's expressive face. There are some very brief moments of shimmer on such usual suspects as brickwork and some tree leaves, but these are transitory and not very distracting. Grain is perhaps a bit more noticeable due to the low lighting levels and less than robust contrast, but it looks completely natural and is nonintrusive.
Precious Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Aside from the fun fantasy sequences, when some great soul music fills the surround channels like the dreams of a better life which fill Precious' mind, there's not a lot of utilization of channel effects to really exploit a DTS HD-MA 5.1 environment. We do get some ambient city noises in the outdoor scenes, and dialogue is always well positioned directionally in the soundfield, but this is for the most part a small, dialogue driven film without a lot of aural hoopla or bombast. Fidelity is excellent throughout Precious, with Sidibe's frequent narrative voiceover front and center. This is a solid piece of subtle sound mixing, one that certainly won't knock many socks off, but which recreates the claustrophobic environment in which Precious finds herself quite admirably.
Precious Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
A number of really excellent HD supplements augment the main feature:
Precious Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
It's easy to see why incest survivors like Oprah are so passionate about Precious. Rarely has this subject matter been treated with such visceral intensity, something that may in fact turn off as many viewers as it entices. This is a film built around some truly remarkable performances. Sidibe is a marvel as Precious (and you begin to realize what a magnificent performance it is as you see her more natural, incredibly articulate and almost "Valley Girl" persona in some of the extras), but it is Mo'Nique who is quite simply a revelation as Precious' tormented and tormenting mother. Dramatically the film has some flaws, including a climax that seems too perfunctory and nowhere near revelatory enough to help placate most viewers' troubled souls. But Sidibe and Mo'Nique make this one of the most powerful one-two acting punches in recent memory.
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• Lionsgate Announces Precious Blu-ray - January 11, 2010
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