Don't Worry, Be Happy 

Redemption in the ghetto (Precious), rock on the high seas (Pirate Radio). Don't they know it's the end of the world (2012)?

One of the disadvantages of graphic horror movies is that they dull the impact of that other kind of horror, the sordid tale of social misery. In creating fright films for the youth market, the makers of fantasies like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant and the Saw movies have a vested interest in amping up the exploding pustules and gooey gore — it's what their jaded audiences expect.

But what to do with a sixteen-year-old girl being tormented and exploited by her violent, self-loathing, welfare-cheating mother, who's merely a gatekeeper for the real beast: the girl's drop-in father, who has already raped his daughter and fathered a baby with her? The girl's mother is thus also her bitter rival, an excuse for more abuse.

That's the setup for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, the awkwardly titled but undeniably intense story of Clareece Precious Jones (played by Gabourey Sidibe), a Harlem high-school student, circa 1987, that in another, crueler movie might be cast as a monster herself. Obese, dark-skinned, and barely able to communicate, Precious exists on a steady diet of hideous "po-folks" food and her mother Mary's (Mo'Nique) attacks. Precious' daughter, Little Mongo ("short for Mongoloid Down Sinder"), stays with a relative. Precious goes to school, a corner of hell in its own right.

In the same way as with the Elephant Man or an Angkor Wat idol, we're fascinated with Precious' face. It's inert and monolithic, almost unknowable. What's going on inside her head? Riffing on TV, Precious dreams up a scenario: She's a poor Italian woman — Sophia Loren! — on the run from the bad guys with her young daughter. A heroine in her own adventure story. And so novelist Sapphire's mechanism — adapted for the screen by writer Geoffrey Fletcher and directed by Lee Daniels — kicks in. Precious is not only redeemable, she is capable of a certain sophistication. More to the point, she is capable of taking control of her own life and pulling herself out of the pit. It's just a matter of how.

"Gabby" Sidibe, a 26-year-old native of Brooklyn with little acting experience, does a wonderful job with Precious, letting only the tiniest ray of sunshine escape from her eyes at a time, teasing us, as Precious carefully, slowly climbs up. After director Daniels (Shadowboxer) has finished dragging us matter-of-factly through Precious' inferno, her world suddenly opens up and a crowd of personalities floods in: Joann the smart-mouth classmate (Xosha Roquemore), friendly teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton), and Lenny Kravitz as Nurse John. Why are Precious' halfway-house classmates all so model-beautiful? Ask the director.

The true liberal safety valve of the piece, of course, is Mariah Carey's performance as Ms. Weiss the welfare officer, a remarkable bit of characterization that goes beyond merely dyeing the singer's hair and adopting a no-nonsense demeanor. Precious is in the business of redemption, in particular the redemptive powers of self-esteem. Once the initial shocks wear off, it's less interested in crimes-of-the-slums outrage than in hope, that precious commodity.

Pirate Radio is going to be the event of the year for a narrow but passionate slice of the population: guys of indeterminate age (but closer to fifty than to fifteen) who can never get enough Sixties rock 'n' roll at the movies. Radio programmers will also dig it — it's their perfect scenario.

The latest dog-eared quasi-romance from filmmaker Richard Curtis, the Black Adder man (he also wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and wrote and directed Love Actually), is based on actual events. Seems that at the height of the British pop era in 1966, almost no UK radio stations actually played rock music, so enterprising types set up broadcast operations aboard ships in the North Sea, outside British jurisdiction, to beam nonstop rock to a thirsty populace. The party only lasted a short time, but it was fantastic.

The scene on the Radio Rock vessel is like a vinyl nerds' summer camp: all blokes, no birds except for the amiable lesbian cook (ahem). Leaders of the deejay pack are American transplant the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and foppish Gavin (Rhys Ifans). The boss is a twee commodore named Quentin, played to the hilt by Bill Nighy, and naturally there's a green kid, Carl (Tom Sturridge), who first learns how to pull the pin on the love grenade during one of the scheduled visits by a boatload of willing girls. The birds are uniformly mini-skirted and randy. Austin Powers would understand.

Opposing the Radio Rock crew is the film's sharpest character, a killjoy government minister named Sir Alistair Dormandy, played by Kenneth Branagh with slicked down hair and grotty specs. He has an assistant named Twatt. So what if Pirate Radio is thirty minutes too long? There are plenty of tunes to help pass the time: an excess of Kinks and Who, a squirt of Skeeter Davis, but, curiously, no Stones nor Beatles nor Dylan. Somebody couldn't pay the freight?

In 2012 the world ends, more or less, and the fault is in the stars, not ourselves. Forget about global warming. Earth, the sun, and the other planets line up in such a way that neutrinas from solar eruptions bombard the Earth's core and heat it up like a microwave. The Mayans saw it coming. The Earth's crust destabilizes, quakes and tsunamis run riot, and continents shift, opening up a chasm directly under Columbia Pictures, the folks who hired Roland Emmerich to direct the movie. Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla) is one of the three worst directors to hand such a story to, the other two being Michael Bay and McG.

At the end of the world, personality is everything. Who's going to make it? Nice guy divorced dad John Cusack? Ex-frau Amanda Peet? Conscientious scientist Chiwetel Ejiofor? Environmental nut job Woody Harrelson? Fat cat plutocrat Oliver Platt? President of the US Danny Glover? The president's daughter, Thandie Newton? The Russian gazillionaire who paid one billion Euros apiece for three seats on the privately financed ark for him and his sons?

Los Angeles is the first place to go, of course. Yellowstone Park and the East and West Coasts are musts to avoid. The new South Pole is in Madison, Wisconsin. The African continent is suddenly prime real estate. The Tibetan lama who rings the final gong shows the most poise. The Day After Tomorrow was more fun. In the end, god/mother nature/the universe echoes the words of Clemenza in The Godfather: "These things gotta happen every five million years or so. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten million years since the last one."


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