There´s a real love for classic rock and pirate radio that shines through in Richard Curtis´ The Boat That Rocked, a piece of 60s nostalgia that might have otherwise sunk under its sentimentality. Despite a somewhat plotless script – the opposite of the problem that plagued Curtis´ previous film, Love, Actually – its impossibly cheerful and downright infectious; sure to win over most audiences. And as you might expect, given the subject matter, there´s an excellent soundtrack featuring over 50 hits from the era.
Curtis is best known as the writer-director of Love, Actually and as the screenwriter of Bridget Jones´ Diary, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and others – some of the most popular romantic comedies of recent years. The Boat That Rocked carries the same breezy tone as those films, but there´s precious little romance or comedy, at least in the traditional sense; instead, there´s a love by the director for his subject matter (the tale of pirate radio was Curtis´ pet project), and a cheery, warm-hearted air throughout in the place of the usual gags.
It´s the mid-60s, and pirate radio stations have taken Britain by storm, playing the rock hits that listeners really want to hear instead of the regulated fare on the country´s land-based stations. You see, they´re pirates in more literal sense: getting around standards and policies by broadcasting from ships in international waters.
The most popular off these stations is Radio Rock, owned and operated by the groovy Quentin (Bill Nighy). His DJs include American expatriate The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the hip, ever-popular Gavin (Rhys Ifans), who is returning to Radio Rock after a stint in the US, Doctor Dave (Nick Frost), Angus (Rhys Darby, who gets a lot of laughs here), Simple Simon (Chris O´Dowd), ladies´ man Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), and Bob Silver the Dawn Treader (Ralph Brown), whose presence goes almost unnoticed given his early-hours slot.
Others aboard include a lesbian cook played by Katherine Parkinson (there are no heterosexual women allowed on the ship), news man On-The-Hour John (Will Adamsdale, who has a great throwaway line towards the end), a mild comic relief role, Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), and a strangely mute shipmate Harold (Ike Hamilton) – I´m not quite sure what his role was here, but he features in one of the film´s most touching scenes. And then there´s our young lead, Carl (Tom Sturridge), who has been sent by his mother (Emma Thompson) to live with this crew, for some reason.
It´s quite an ensemble cast, and they´re all quite wonderful here, creating fully realized characters without all that much screen time. There´s a disaster movie climax, played out in the same breezy-fun tone as the rest of the film by the director, in which we inexplicably find ourselves caring about the characters almost despite the film itself. And we care about them despite their faults – of which there are many – chief of which (especially amongst the DJs) is a general air of smugness.
The bulk of the film is generally plotless: we watch the characters eat, drink, party, screw, fall in love, get their hearts broken, and broadcast some classic rock to the faithful schoolgirls, nurses, pre-teen boys and young lovers tuned in. Not much of significance goes down (my favorite scene: a showdown between The Count and Gavin), but we´re content to share our time with these characters, just like Carl, happy to be on board.
There is some semblance of plot, however, and it´s The Boat That Rocked´s one big weakness. Government official Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) wants to shut the station down, and employs a man named Twatt (Jack Davenport) to aid him. The scenes featuring these characters – and Branagh´s performance, in particular – are such broad parody they only detract from the rest of the movie. What´s worse, they are almost completely isolated from the other characters; those on board Radio Rock aren´t even aware of their existence, and while they are aware of the government efforts to shut them down, they do little to actively combat them.
There´s also a mild bias towards women on display, which is strange considering Curtis´ previous features. Most of the female characters are groovy 60s sex objects in the Austin Powers vein, two of which break the hearts of male characters rather remorselessly.
But on the whole, The Boat That Rocked is perfect lightweight fun as long as you´re in the right frame of mind. While it´s mostly fictionalized, Curtis has based Radio Rock on the real-life Radio Caroline. And that soundtrack really is excellent.
A wonderful little slice of Americana, Sam Mendes Away We Go is by no means lightweight, but it´s the perfect antidote to his previous feature, the emotionally devastating Revolutionary Road. It´s a gentle, thoughtful film that may be seen as a lower-budget departure for the American Beauty director, but it ranks right amongst his better work.
John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph star as Burt and Verona, an unmarried couple expecting a baby in three months. They share a small home in rural Connecticut, a ramshackle place with a cardboard window – not that they´re poor. Money is never really discussed in the film, but they seem to have decent-paying jobs, and can afford a cross-country trip with multiple destinations. No, they´re just stalled in life; settled into a daily routine, they´re not really happy but they don´t have the ambition to change their lives.
That ambition comes in the form of Burt´s parents (played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O´Hara), who surprise Burt and Verona with the announcement that they´re moving to Belgium. The couple has lived where they do because of the proximity to mom and dad; with them taking off, they have the chance to find a new home. But where to go? They trek across North America to find out.
The first stop is Phoenix, where they meet Verona´s ex-boss (Allison Janney), a stereotypical hard-drinking bad mother who treats her kids with indifference and makes a pass at Burt. Next up is nearby Tucson, where Verona´s sister (Carmen Ejogo) lives. Tucson is hot. The couple then travels to Madison, to meet Burt´s cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a stroller-phobic hippie, and then to Montreal, where they meet some college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), who have adopted a number of children in-between a series of miscarriages. The last stop is an unexpected one to Florida, where they help Burt´s brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) and Courtney´s daughter, who have just been abandoned by Courtney´s wife.
Eventually, they do find home, in a heartfelt sequence that ends the film on just the right note.
Krasinski (best-known from the US version of The Office) is excellent here as the good-natured Burt, who puts on a good-old-boy facade when talking to clients, and never gets angry. Rudolph is good, too, though it took me a while to shake her Saturday Night Live persona. The supporting cast is filled with recognizable faces, though there isn´t much depth to the roles; still, some of them are quite affecting, particularly Messina, Lynskey, and Schneider.
Burt and Verona are nice people: gentle, good-natured, they treat some of the craziness that surrounds them with aplomb. We rarely see characters like this in movies, which often focus on characters like those found in supporting roles in Away We Go. Burt and Verona far from perfect, but as they meet the others, with their own problems, they realize how good they have it.
Away We Go is a low-key, personal film that needs to hit all the right notes in order to succeed. It hits those notes courtesy of a script by Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida, who I know little about, but imagine put a lot of themselves in Burt and Verona.
Alex Proyas´ Knowing gets pretty ridiculous in spots, and it has this general air of silliness throughout. But it also has one of the most effective scenes of terror I´ve ever seen in a film: a positively chilling sequence that´s only a few minutes long but works wonderfully on its own terms and turns the rest of the rest of the film into an engrossing experience. I can recommend the film for this scene alone.
But I wouldn´t dream of spoiling it. Nicolas Cage´s professor has deduced the time and place a catastrophic event is going to happen. He does the opposite of what any rational person would do, and drives out to the place, at the time, knowing something awful is about to happen but not knowing what exactly that is. And then – wham! – that something awful happens. But it comes out of nowhere; even though we know something is going to happen, we´re still surprised.
And shocked. Proyas films the catastrophic event, incredibly, in one long, uninterrupted single take; the most effective shot of its kind since Children of Men. Our stomachs drop. We watch death and disaster with apathy on the nightly news but here´s a PG-13 Nic Cage film that´s able to truly terrify us; it speaks for the power of cinema. And it belongs in a better movie. Children of Men was a great film, and great sci-fi; Knowing isn´t quite either. So how´s the rest of the film?
The movie opens in 1959, as a class of schoolchildren prepares pictures for a time capsule to be opened in 50 years. But instead of a picture, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), in a kind of frenzy, jots down a paper full of numbers before her teacher stops her. Later on, she finishes her work by clawing some numbers in a basement door. (Now, the teacher sees this weird diagram of numbers, why in the world would she place it in the time capsule – to creep someone out in 50 years?)
Flash-forward those 50 years, and Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury) pulls those numbers out of the time capsule. He also starts hearing voices, like Lucinda did in the opening scenes. His shows the strange diagram to his father Ben (Cage), who dismisses it until he notices one particular sequence of numbers: 9 11 01. So he digs deeper, and discovers that the document notates every last major disaster in the last 50 years (I wonder how exactly they qualify these disasters). Ben notes that the next disaster is coming up tomorrow, so he drops Caleb off with his sister and heads out (to prevent it?)
Silliness aside, this is a compelling premise. There are also creepy albino men in trench coats, surrealistic dreams, strange black stones and other sci-fi hints. For all its failings, Knowing sticks to its guns; the ending, sure to be divisive, certainly does not go where you might expect it to. How successfully it pulls everything together and answers all its questions, however, is up for debate. It´s at least interesting, if not fascinating.
Proyas has made one masterpiece (Dark City) along with some other visually impressive work (The Crow, I, Robot). Knowing is one of his lesser efforts, both as a whole and in visual terms; it certainly looks good, but there´s some poor use of CGI, and the contemporary setting doesn´t allow for the imagination of his other, futuristic, films.
But that one scene saves the movie, and I think Knowing will become a cult item in future years. It´s certainly something to be seen, if not entirely appreciated.
Also opening: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, and Toni Collette lend their voices to the animated film Mary and Max (showtimes | IMDb), from Adam Elliot, the director of the Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet. Screening in English with Czech subtitles.