Precious – 7

A Rorschach blot of a movie: Is the depiction of Precious’s life courageous or demeaning? Is she a winner, for overcoming obstacles, or still a loser, facing life as a grotesquely overweight HIV-positive unwed mother of two (one with Down’s Syndrome)? Is her rescue by a special-ed teacher thrilling because it is so unique, or depressing, because it is so unique? Does the welfare system foster successes, like Precious, or utterly dependent failures, like her mother? The ambiguity it creates is a mark of how well-made the movie is. It wasn’t all that fun to watch, but I detected no false notes, and the acting was superb. Paula Patton was too good to be true, but the visual relief she provided was certainly welcome.

Sin Nombre – 7.5

A harrowing portrait of a poor Mexican girl who happens to be an illegal-immigrant-to-be. The story doesn’t emerge as hers until after a first half that is caught up in gang violence and initiation. Echoes of other Latin American stories – Amores Perros and Maria Full of Grace in particular – are unavoidable, with Gomorrah in mind, too, as much for the grittiness and air of hopelessness that coats the unwashed bodies as for any plot similarities. At the end, you feel you have witnessed a slice of life, as it is desperately lived in poorer societies. Maybe we are too jaded or removed to draw any conclusions, but not to feel.

This Is It – 7

You don’t have to be an admirer of Michael Jackson or his music – and I am neither – to be awed and amazed at the level of professionalism that was going into his comeback concert, and has now been preserved in this skillful film by concert director Kenny Ortega. If you thought MJ weird before you saw this – and I did – nothing here will change your opinion, and that is one of the film’s strengths. It doesn’t appear to sugarcoat, or go out of its way to humanize Michael, whose vocabulary seems limited to “God bless you.” Still, the brilliance of the background dancers, backup singers, musicians, choreographer, lighting director, costume designer, filmmakers who wend their talents in support of Michael’s trademark robotic dance moves, more craft than art, is blinding. Thinking only of Prince, for one, Michael’s “King of Pop” moniker seems wildly hyperbolic, but this would have been one awesome concert experience, and seeing it backstage, like this, probably gives it an approachability that makes it more endearing than the finished product we will, sadly, never see.

Damn United – 7

Timothy Spall is not your normal love interest, in a buddy pic no less; nor is it usual to find a biopic about a soccer coach failing big-time, although the film adds a true-life documentary PS that shows everything coming out right. After portraying Tony Blair and David Frost in somewhat similar equivocal roles, Michael Sheen goes all out as Brian Clough, an ambitious, conceited jerk, really, whom we have to root for – partly because everyone else in the story, Spall excepted, is worse. One thing I missed was any sense of why Clough was such a successful coach (“the best manager the national team never had”), especially when he spent the games in the stands or, in one case, in the locker room. An English moviegoer would undoubtedly have known more than me and presumably had quite a different take.

An Education – 6

Carey Mulligan was charming and believable (cf. Ellen Page in Whip It) as a 17-year-old who is wise beyond her years, but still a few years short of what is needed. The older man who picks her up, played by Peter Sarsgaard, had a corresponding charm, but there was a hole in the character’s credibility. When the plot twist hits at the 7/8 pole, the story before suddenly made no sense.  I was okay if it was all a game, and the roué  didn’t mind ruining a young thing, but (“spoiler alert”) if he was in fact a married man, why bother proposing to her and giving her a ring, why did his friends accept her so warmly, and why leave letters addressed to “Mr. and Mrs.” in his car’s glove compartment? I was expecting tragedy, but was then given a quick, more-questions-raising coda in which everything worked out just fine; and our starlet, instead of being ruined, profited in every way from her indiscretions. The ride to that point – with fine secondary sets of school chums, family and boyfriend’s companions – was more than agreeable in the wonderful English way, which made the film’s collapse in the stretch all the sadder.