Doodad Kind of Town

Quick Takes on "Precious" and "Pirate Radio"
November 23, 2009, 3:09 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I suppose you could consider “Precious” a triumph-of-the-human-spirit story – it’s certainly being marketed as such- but it’s a damn bleak one. The title character (played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is an illiterate, morbidly obese sixteen-year-old junior high schooler, pregnant for the second time by her mother’s boyfriend (who is also her father.) Her mother hurls books, ashtrays and other objects at her while telling her how stupid and worthless she is. She escapes into fantasies of herself as a sought-after actress and model, and seizes an opportunity from a kindly teacher to attend an alternative school where she discovers a talent for writing poetry. But for every step Precious takes toward a better life there is least one devastating setback and even as the closing credits roll, her future happiness is by no means assured.

Kudos to director Lee Daniels for allowing “Precious” to neither sentimentalize nor sensationalize its title character’s horrific struggles. Sidibe’s stunning debut performance is everything you’ve heard and more. Her Precious is not just a predictably sad and beaten-down fat girl; from the very beginning, she allows to see glimmers of the cynicism, anger and tenacity that keep Precious going. There’s also an impressive turn from an aggressively de-glammed Mariah Carey as the world-weary social worker who attempts to help. But it’s comedienne Mo’Nique, as the monstrous (and monstrously needy) mother whose performance takes this film in the Oscar-bait stratosphere. Her final scene in the social worker’s office, where she comes clean about her boyfriend’s abuse of Precious while pleading for continuation of her welfare benefits, is a tour de force of desperation, anguish and raw emotional need that will literally take your breath away.

(Warning: a few spoilers)
I’m a sucker for the cheerful, love-is-all-around silliness of Richard Curtis films (his most recent was that overstuffed basket of holiday cheer, “Love, Actually.”) So it’s with great sadness that I tell you the newest Curtis creation, “Pirate Radio,” is a bit of a mess.

Curtis has taken an essentially true story and embellished it wildly for not-always-successful comic effect. There was, in fact, a “pirate radio” rock and roll station in the mid-1960s which broadcast from a boat off the coast of England, but not because rock had been banned from the British airwaves. The BBC was merely caught off guard by the demand for rock and roll, and, not wishing to pre-empt other popular programs in order to play it, took time to create a new station which devoted itself entirely to pop/rock. However, in Curtis’ version, the BBC and the British government were repressive villains trying to shield the entire nation’s youth from the potentially subversive effects of a cool beat, while the guy on the boat were secretly worshipped as cultural revolutionaries by Britain’s young and hip.

It’ll be no surprise to connoisseurs of Curtis that the “pirate radio” ship is filled with sweet, bumbling young DJs who are yearning for true love; they’re headed up by a super-cool producer (Bill Nighy) and an American DJ played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to be channeling his earlier performance as rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous.” The almost non-stop pop-rocky music is a delight, but you can feel Curtis straining to find a visual style and rhythm to match the buoyant good spirits of his soundtrack, and he never manages to achieve it. For all that the music makes you want to get up and move, there’s precious little dancing going on here. Instead, we get repeated montages of avid listeners – schoolgirls, university students, night-shift nurses, even people sitting on the toilet for God’s sake! – huddled around the wireless in rapt attention. Only in one or two brief shots does it occur to any of them to get up and bust a move.

When a new DJ is brought to the boat to attract European advertisers (after the British government has forced domestic advertisers to withdraw), he’s played by the lean and mischievous Rhys Ifans, but Curtis has no idea how to showcase his puported appeal in any way that lets us understand why his joining the station is so crucial. (And, yes I know a DJ’s sex appeal is all in his voice, but this a movie, and when a sex God character enters, we ought to be able to see why he’s a sex God. Here we get Ifans in a ridiculous feathered hat with big sunglasses and the whole scene is filmed and framed in such a messy, offhand way that it’s anything but momentous. And when he first speaks into a microphone, that’s no big deal either.)

At it’s best, “Pirate Radio” is a loose, shambling collection of genial vignettes of life on the rockin’ boat, and Curtis succeeds in making us cheer for his cast of lovable losers. And Kenneth Branagh’s unctuous government official, in his repeated attempts to shut “pirate radio” down was so hilariously clueless that, at some point, I started to laugh everytime he came onscreen, whether he said or did anything funny or not.

But at its worst, you realize that there’s not much story to tell here, and Curtis makes a gross miscalculation in forcing a story arc by going all “Titanic” on us in the third act. Then he pulls out a misguided epilogue in which he attaches a political significance to the existence of the “pirate radio” station that it simply doesn’t warrant. I like the Turtles and the Dave Clark Five as much as the next aging boomer, but, please. They’re not worth dying for.


4 Comments so far
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Your typically fine work here Pat! Well, I liked PRESCIOUS a bit less than you, but I agree it's as bleak and as sordid as they come, and it's a no-holds-barred approach. Still I feel it went over-the-top dramatically in a number of scenes, and I'm sorry but I detect some fraudulence here, designed to win unqualified sympathy. The film does have that excellent performance by Monique though and you convey its essence here superbly:"Her final scene in the social worker's office, where she comes clean about her boyfriend's abuse of Precious while pleading for continuation of her welfare benefits, is a tour de force of desperation, anguish and raw emotional need that will literally take your breath away."Yeah, PIRATE RADIO is absolutely a mess, but I just sat back and enjoyed the terrific music, and let myself fall for it. It's no better than 3 1/2 of 5, but its at least unpretentious.Great work here as usual!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sounds as if it's a bit overdone. And I had it on my list. Well, maybe. Keep it up.

Comment by Anonymous

Sam,Thanks, and sorry I didn't respond earlier – I've been a little remiss this last week in responding to blog comments. I never felt that "Precious" went too far, although I've read that observation from many others. Mo'Nique is indeed the stand-out – I'd never have dreamed she had a performance like that in her.As for "Pirate Radio," I never come to a Richard Curtis film expecting anything but a cheerful good time – even so, this one was a complete mess. It could have been shot and shaped so much better and still have retained its good spirits.

Comment by Pat

To Anonymous,whoever you might be – I assume you are referring to "Pirate Radio," and yes, "overdone" is a good word to describe it. Thanks for stopping by.

Comment by Pat

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