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Cannes '09 Day 3: Up with people

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 15, 2009 11:56 PM

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My favorite thing about Ang Lee is that he'll try anything: besotted Victorians, repressed suburbanites, the Civil War, freakishly huge green monsters, closeted gay ranch hands, horny Chinese spies. He gets around. And now he's gotten around to that epic concert on a New York diary farm. "Taking Woodstock" (forgive that punning title) is about as square a movie as you could hope to get about America's druggiest, randiest, hippiest one-time-only music festival. But Lee’s purposefully rigid filmmaking relaxes a bit. Maybe he had a couple of the movie’s “very special brownies.” I laughed more than I ever have during a Lee film.

In the film’s lack of cool there is a kind of subversion. Rather than restage the concert (an undertaking I don’t think Lee has in him), he and his longtime producer and screenwriter, James Schamus, have focused on the family, namely the Tibers, whose son young, drifting son, Elliot (Demetri Martin) decides to bring a homeless rock concert to his small upstate town in New York. Imagine the selective classic-rock memories of “Almost Famous,” only cuter. It’s “Muppets Take Yasgur’s Farm.” Elliot is mutedly gay. Hippies are mutedly stoned. And the music is mostly on mute.

But Lee is so attuned to the rhythms of human interaction and Schamus, adapting Elliot’s book, so good at writing scenarios for characters to interact that building the entire film around Elliot and his parents, two Holocaust survivors (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) running a struggling motel, isn’t as lame as it sounds. And Staunton turns up the volume on her parsimonious character’s stridency to 11. With her around, who needs the actual concert? She’s the Janis Joplin of Jewish mothers.

There’s something interesting in the way the movie connects two wars (Vietnam is in the background here; and Emile Hirsch – of course, Emile Hirsch – plays a loony vet). You get a sense of how atrocity tears at a person’s rationality. Yet, once Staunton is caught sleeping on a pile of cash, the movie seems grotesquely irrational itself. Though making a macho transvestite of Liev Schreiber atones for the his giving the same performance – sans blonde wig – in “Wolverine.” Speaking of crass franchises, Lee and Schamus even hint at a sequel: Altamont.

A few hours before that I settled a annoying quandary about whether to see Michel Gondy’s documentary about his aunt or the movie Tyler Perry and Oprah won’t shut about. Even though it opens later this year, already played at Sundance (Ty wrote about it in January), and was bound to be exactly what I expected, I took Oprah’s endorsement. Lee Daniels’s “Precious” probably works well anywhere on earth - it’s the story of an obese black teen from Harlem and her triumph over a terrible life. But I suspect that the South of France is where you really want to see how it plays.

First: I was wrong. I really liked “Precious.” I must have. Because even though it’s only moderately well made, too long, and, um, heavy on the Mo’Nique (sorry), I teared up more than once. The movie’s force is hard to argue with. And yet I suspect when it comes out in the fall, people will try to argue with it, anyway. (We call them “haters”; although hating any movie with this much Patti LaBelle should be against the law). “Precious” isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be since it’s real. Watching it, I thought a lot about Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which showed here on Thursday and is the white, English version of this movie, and how inauthentic it feels. The difference is simple: Somebody involved with Daniels’s has been poor.

The characters are capable of the personal joy and self-belief that eludes the average disenfranchised movie character. Not only that, the main character, brought alive by Gabourey Sibide, survives incest, two pregnancies, illiteracy, and a vulgar, abusive mother who makes Joan Crawford look like “Little House on the Prairie.” She goes through this and still manages to think she’s worth something. As Momzilla, Mo’Nique brings down the house – the backyard, front porch, and whole city, too. She needs an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Razzy, and a People’s Choice Award. She needs to go 10 rounds with Staunton in a (s)mother-off. You, meanwhile, need to call your old lady and thank her for not being this woman.

“Precious” has its self-help digressions – wait, can a movie’s entire purpose be called a digression? But it’s psychologically complex in a way I was unprepared for. Precious, whose given name is Clareece Jones, has self-awareness. When she gazes in the mirror a thin white girl stares back, and Clareece’s success fantasies star the same adoring light-skinned dude. Her coping mechanism is tragic. It’s sadly, resonantly understandable, too: She’s not alone. She also distrusts people who don’t look like her – the white, the thin, the educated. This is a woman who can’t even fully embrace her fantasy selves. But she perseveres.

Needless to say, the overwhelmingly non-American audience loved it. The biggest applause so far. I saw Sidine here on the red carpet, beside her co-stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, and the press was more interested in speaking French to her. “Gabby, vous êtes formidable.” It’s true.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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