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Archive for June, 2010

I wonder if George Osborne watched the film Precious before deciding to slash the welfare budget. If there is a better illustration of benefits abuse I haven’t seen it.

The setting is Harlem, New York; the year is 1987. Precious is an illiterate, obese, pregnant, 16-year-old, with one child already by her rapist father. She is also verbally abused by her equally fat but terrifyingly cruel mother, Mary, who yells at her in a jealous rage: “You’re a dummy, bitch. You’ll never know shit. Don’t nobody want you, don’t nobody need you. You f***ed around, f***ed my mother-f***in man and had two mother-f***in children… I shouda aborted your ass.” Meanwhile, Mary sits glued to the sofa, smoking fag after fag and doing everything she can – including pretending her grandchild “Lil Mongo” (short for Mongoloid) still lives with them – to sponge off the state.

Of course, Precious herself is in desperate need of state support – just not in the form of another welfare cheque. She finally gets it when she switches to the “Each one, teach one” alternative school, a programme for troubled young women, where the glamorous Ms Rain teaches her to read, write and, well, Believe In Herself.

There are elements here that are a tad shmaltzy – in particular, the politically correct rainbow nation in Precious’s new class, who transform from hostile young troublemakers with nothing in common to cheery best buds who visit Precious in hospital. In reality, they would probably still loathe each other beyond the school gates. The issue of race is also weirdly side-stepped; the film was widely praised for putting a fat, black girl at its centre,  but everyone else in it is noticeably fairer-skinned.

But what keeps the film likeable – and believable – is its reasonable expectations. It’s not a “believe in yourself and you can do anything” tale, but more of a “believe in yourself, find a good mentor and you can have a life that’s a bit nicer and not completely hate yourself” tale. Precious starts off being hopelessly unengaged, disappearing into a colourful fantasy world she has constructed in order to escape the worst moments such as the rapes. She does improve her social skills, talking in class more, learning to read, and,  encouraged by Ms Rain, writing daily journal entries. But she’s not about to become Oprah Winfrey (who is, surprise, surprise, an executive producer). She has a heart of gold, but she’s still not exactly the most exciting person in the room.

The acting throughout is terrific. Gabourey Sidibe is largely monosyllabic, her pain kept closely guarded behind a defensive resignation. Mariah Carey (whose lack of make-up alone is reason enough to see this film) also gives a wonderful performance as the weary social worker, who draws out a long-awaited explanation for the abuse from Mary in a powerfully crescendoed scene (and stand-out performance from Monique) that almost makes us feel sorry for her. It’s too late for apologies really, but it does leave us wondering if perhaps under other circumstances Precious herself could have ended up like this: jealous, bitter and alone.

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A very different look at race and survival, in a more concrete sort of prison, is at play in Un Prophète. Jaques Audiard’s Oscar-nominated film about a naïve Arab inmate who learns to play the system is a sort of anti-Shawshank Redemption. Audiard is a master at uncertain morality: his last film, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, featured a piano-playing ganster dripping with menace – and self-doubt.

Here his protagonist, Malik El Djebena (the newcomer Tahar Rahim), is a less accomplished sort of criminal. At the start of a six-year prison stretch for an unexplained offence, he seems to be an unfortunate product of  the kind of banlieue background seen in La Haine: a simple and petty criminal whose only visible misconduct is when he tries unsuccessfully to sneak in a few Euros in his shoe.

But the prison system is cruel, corrupt. Is Malik innocent? If we thought so at the start, the question becomes a lot harder 20 minutes in, when he murders a fellow inmate, Reyeb, in an inflinchingly gruesome scene, albeit to avoid being killed himself. César Luciani, a Corsican gangster in league with corrupt guards and against whom Reyeb was due to testify, threatens death if Malik does not kill him. Luciani then adopts Malik as a kind of servant, calling him “dirty Arab” but offering him protection.

As time goes by, Malik learns the Italian dialect of his masters. When most of the Corsicans are released, he steps up to take their place, taking leave days to run errands for Luciani instead of just sweeping his floor. He also begins to amass his own network of corrupt guards and loyal inmates.

Audiard’s pace is controlled but never slow, tracking Malik’s transformation with steady, calculated scenes. How long will it be before Malik is the kingpin? “What are you, some kind of prophet?” asks one of Luciani’s henchmen. The joke is, of course, that Malik seems to have had no idea at all where his collaborative efforts would lead.

Rahim’s performance is remarkable, retaining an endearing vulnerability even as his criminal shell hardens. He has some success, but one always imagines, as perhaps he does, that he will be caught out at the next turn.

More an examination of the fruitless battle for one man’s soul than a social commentary, this is masterful  film-making from a director who consistently challenges the French tradition of narrative whimsy.

Wonderful, gritty stuff.

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Did you enjoy Sex and the City 2? Vote in the poll below to see if others agree

Some people can’t imagine anything worse than an evening in the company of drunk women watching four middle-aged has-beens get laid and talk about their neuroses.

Well, try doing that on your own. This is what happened to me on Monday evening after I discovered that I had absent-mindedly bought tickets for me and three friends for the 5.30pm showing of Sex and the City 2 instead of the 7.30pm showing. Luckily, a kind usher nabbed us the last seats in the house, but they were all in different places. So we each sat alone, paper cups of prosecco in hand, sandwiched between groups of girls getting hammered and talking loudly about ex-boyfriends’ bedroom habits, which of Carrie’s clothes they liked best and whether Samantha is past it. Not quite the evening with the girls I had planned.

The problem is, SATC is really only fun these days if you have companions to mock it with. What used to be a fresh take on feminism, singledom and, yes, clothes, is now an absurd pastiche of its former self, where women’s lib is represented by Dior and where not eating out two nights a week equals social death.

Here is the basic plot: two years have passed since the last film, when Carrie Bradshaw, relationship guru and shoe obsessive, finally married Mr Big after a decade of chasing. Charlotte, the “nice” one, has her bald but loveable husband Harry and two children, fiery Miranda is still a lawyer, reunited with Steve and mother to Brady, and Samantha, who broke up with Absolut Hunk, Smith Jared, in SATC 1, is back to her old tricks as a cougar extraordinaire.

Hurrah, viewers may think – a happy ending for all. Not so much. All the girls are worried about something: Carrie about the dull domesticity of life with a Big who actually wants her, Miranda about her work/life balance and Samantha about her ageing body and diminished libido. (Incidentally, Samantha’s cancer in Series Six already kicked her into early menopause, so unless it’s been going on for seven years, the writers have missed a trick here.) Charlotte is nervous about Harry’s attitude to the hot, bra-less nanny, played by Brit actress, Alice Eve, with whom I actually went to school. There she was, rather fittingly, known as “big-boob Alice”. 

It’s not a bad plan, tackling the minor issues that women obsess about. So what if they are all happy – does that mean they can’t complain about anything? And it’s enormously enjoyable to see what the girls are up to. If, like me, you’ve watched every episode in the original series dozens of times, a chance to see them again is like catching up with old friends. My favourite moment was without a doubt the eighties flashback. Cue bad perms, sheer leggings and the answer to one of things I had always wondered about – how the four met.

The problem is that the four women we used to love – precisely because they were flawed, lonely and a touch neurotic – are now just obscenely materialistic, incredibly selfish and really, really boring. The writers themselves have clearly realised this, which is why they pack them off on a glitzy PR trip to Abu Dhabi – “the new Middle East”. They could not have made a worse decision. Abu Dhabi (which incidentally refused to have the movie filmed  there – it is actually shot in Marrakech) is, as far as SATC is concerned, as consumerist, vapid and absurd as the girls themselves. The four ooh and ah, mesmerised, it seems, by this mystical, foreign land – except that all they are looking at is a modern hotel shaped like an Arabian Palace, with lots of pools and the Australian rugby team.

They discuss the merits of the veil (“How does she eat her french fries with that on?”) and Samantha tries hard to respect local culture by touching a man indecently in a crowded restaurant, showing off her oral skills on a shisha pipe and standing in a male-dominated souk and shouting “Yes I’m a woman, I have sex!”.  The crowning moment of cultural integration is when the Emirati women remove their veils to show off hideous (and probably hideously expensive) designer gear underneath. Just like us, see.

As someone who categorically thinks the veil is wrong, I usually think it’s great to see the subject tackled on screen. What is not great is seeing it done so crudely – so outrageously and disrepectfully – that it undoes all the hard work writers, politicians and diplomats have done to improve relations with the Middle East and our own understanding of it. What on earth possessed the writer and director, Michael Patrick King, to think this elsewhere light-hearted film was a good platform for mocking Islamic values? Who were the test audiences that laughed at the really rather racist jokes?

It’s true, largely speaking, that trendy city-dwellers in modern Islamic countries like to don high fashion under their hijabs. But actually theirs is the worst example of consumerism because it is so accelerated in countries like this that it is all about bling and not a bit about style. Money is the point, not some kind of sisterhood. Isn’t there a better example of shared values, like when Carrie meets the French fan of her book in the final series?

There are ghosts of the old SATC lurking here. Critics have panned the scene where Carrie gets upset because Big buys her a giant flatscreen TV for their bedroom on their anniversary. Poor her, they joke – a really expensive gift, how awful! But this is just the kind of embarrassing female confession that SATC used to be so good at. Women do want men to buy them personal gifts, things that  prove they really understand them. And keeping the remote under your pillow is definitely a bit of a passion-killer.  The message here is valid, it is just somewhat diluted because the messenger has become such a whiny brat.

While the first film was fun but a bit flat in places, its sequel is shamelessly inane and vulgar.  Its basic premise, whittled down from all the shoes, gay jokes and bigoted travel advice, is that some women are just never happy. Which may well be true, in a way. But it sure ain’t pretty to watch.

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