(On Cable TV, January 2019) The increasingly affordable nature of computer animation means that you now often get small studios taking chances on projects that would have been too odd or niche to accomplish at a higher budget. Hence The Star. A nativity story featuring talking-animal comedy is not exactly the kind of thing that seems obvious—the mixture of the sacred and the, ahem, profane is odd enough, but with a budget set at $20M it became a conceptually profitable endeavour even for a major studio such as Sony (working with Cinesite’s Montréal Studio), distributing a film far more faith-based than most Hollywood releases. The budget most clearly shows in the rather amazing voice cast assembled here, from Oprah to Tyler Perry to Ving Rhames to Zachary Levy to Kristin Chenoweth to Christopher Plummer—with Mariah Carey singing along the way. Still, the strange blend of religious earnestness and talking-animal comedy does works better than expected, and The Star should become a minor holiday reference for a few years to come.
(In theatres, February 2010) There are movies that I see coming with weary resignation. As a confirmed Oscar junkie, I make an effort to see at least the triple-nominees and up, even though I may have no interest whatsoever in the film itself. So it is that heart-warming tales about grossly overweight uneducated Harlem single mom really aren’t the kind of film I would willingly see for myself. But from time to time, I get surprised, as so it is that Precious is a bit better than I expected it to be. The lead character’s rich inner life, competently portrayed by director Lee Daniels, makes this film a bit more spectacular than the usual terrible-life-of-the-week that one could expect. (There’s one “learning” scene, in particular, that features a generous amount of special effects) The film’s main claim to fame, though, is the decidedly unglamorous way it treats its actors, nearly all of whom can be praised for emotionally raw performances. Gabourey Sidibe is a revelation in the lead role, but Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey also earn attention for roles that are as far away from their usual screen personae as could be. (Lenny Kravitz also has a glorified cameo.) We come to expect so little from the circumstances of the film that we’re pleasantly surprised when it ends on the smallest of victories. In some ways, Precious deals with its subject with the knowledge that we have seen (or felt) this story many, many times before, and it’s what it does to distinguish itself from this familiarity (by flights of fancy, by unflinching acknowledgement of reality) that make it worthwhile. It’s still not my kind of film, but it’s about as good as that kind ever gets.