Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pirate Radio

A really unpleasant neighbor can ruin most movies. A very uncomfortable seat can make a mess of an afternoon movie, too. I watched Pirate Radio today next to an extremely unpleasant person (not my fellow reviewer!) in a chair designed for torture, and I still had a good time. Pirate Radio is an entertaining romp that is very loosely based on the history of "pirate" radio stations anchored in international waters off the coast of Britian in the 1960's.

The story is fairly straightforward, with a subplots that engage nicely. I was surprised to find out that the film was released in the UK as The Boat that Rocked, and it was a critical and boxoffice failure. Re-edited and re-packaged, it was released in the U.S., but I still felt that the advertising did a poor job of describing the film. It conveys the silliness and rebellious mood of the mid-1960's, but its history is badly mangled. Better to market it as a romp than as a history.

Some great tidbits: much of the vintage equipment is from Radio Caroline, a real pirate radio station from a slightly later period. Katherine Parkinson turns in a cheerful performance as the lesbian cook and manager on board, but I wondered whether the screenplay portrayed accurately the attitude a bunch of male 1960's DJ's would have about her in real life. Emma Thompson is wonderful as an appalling mother; her performance is one of the best in the film. January Jones looks to be making a career of playing strange women from the period; fans of TV's Mad Men may wonder what Betty Draper is doing on that boat. While all the women are fun to watch, none of the women characters in the film ring true.

I'm giving this film a moderate "thumb's up." I had a really good time: there were many actors I like, lots of music I liked, and the whole thing added up to "silly fun." Great cinema? Not for a minute. But if you are nostalgic for music of the era, if you love radio, this film is worth a look.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is Anybody There?

A young 10-year-old is pretty much alone in 1980's rural England. He has no friends at school, and he certainly has none at home because he lives in his parents' assisted living home for the aged. He sees one after another of the tenants die, so much so that his hobby concerns what happens to the person after that die. In fact, he plants a tape recorder under the bed of the one he thinks will "leave" next in order to track when the ghost leaves the body.

In walks Clarence (played by Michael Caine), literally. He doesn't want to be there, obviously, but for some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, he feels he must ("but it's temporary," he says, on the verge of crying). And at first, he and the young boy get off to a bad start. But when young Edward learns that Clarence knows magic tricks, he tries a little harder to get to know the old man.

At first, we wonder, also, why Clarence is there at the home. Yes, he lost his wife several years ago, and doesn't seem to know where she's buried. But, bit by bit, we see little lapses here and there, and definitely depression that this once strapping man is now at the mercy of the denizens in a place like this. As it turns out, a lapse of memory is a bad thing for a magician to have.

This is Michael Caine's latest, and I probably never would've taken a look at it had he not been in it. But he makes the property sparkle, even during the rather dry parts. Those "dry" parts set up the story and the personalities, mind you, but they're still rough to slog through. I actually think this is the best thing Caine has done in years, perhaps ever. He has to portray an old man who realizes he's losing his faculties, has already lost his wife, and is in the process of losing any real sense of who he ever was. He does it brilliantly.

I also thought it a story with a true spine. That is, there's nothing magical that happens outside of the tricks. Friendships take time to grow, and trust is even harder. The tale is heart-warming in ways, but not spectacularly so, because it still illustrates that getting old sucks big time, and stages of Alzheimer's make it even tougher.

Thumb's up.

Monday, November 16, 2009


It's been awhile since we had a riproaring disaster film. Well, Roland Emmerich is back, and has given us the Big Daddy of disaster films, 2012.

Most large-scale disaster films have a couple of things in common: an introduction to a few individuals, usually Americans, so that we can see how this disaster is impacting their lives. And something destroyed on a large scale. Remember Independence Day (another Emmerich film)? They were advertising the destruction of the White House a full year before the movie was released.

And, yes, the White House is destroyed in this one, but that's one of the lesser disasters. The special effects are outstanding, almost overwhelming, they're that good. The U.S. president, played by Danny Glover, is standing in the snow outside the White House, looking at the destruction that has already been wrought, when he looks up and sees a Navy aircraft carrier (the USS John F. Kennedy) coming at him sideways, carried by a huge tsunami. It's just one of many such surprising scenes.

This isn't great drama, but it's exactly what it purports to be, a big, exciting movie with a lot of surprises therein. And our cast of John Cusack, Thandie Newton, Amanda Peet and many others helps us see it in human terms.

This is an exciting, E-ticket ride, the most adrenaline-pulsing film experience this year.

Thumb's up.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Ugly Truth

The Ugly Truth is a movie about boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, they make up. Ho-hum.

The movie is directed quite nicely, which is great to see after watching some confusing duds with no transitions between scenes. And there are two scenes that really stand out for comedy, maybe even more.

Abby is a producer at a Sacramento TV station, but it's slowly losing ratings because people don't want to watch the run-of-the-mill, man-on-the-street stuff. In walks Mike, who's been hired as a guy who will shake things up, calling his show The Ugly Truth, a one-man tome on the doomed relationships of men and women. He's crude, he's witty, he's gorgeous-sexy. Abby, who is so much a control-freak that she grades men on their looks and behaviors, doesn't know what to do with him and his new show.

So, of course, they fall in love.

There are a lot of things that don't ring true. Oh, not the falling in love bit, because we all know opposites attract, especially when the opposites are gorgeous. Katherine Heigl is a fine comedian, and although Gerard Butler seems out of sorts in this kind of medium, he makes his point. Still, it seemed kind of stupid to sell Butler's Mike to us as an American, a graduate of San Jose State, of all things. If he went to San Jose State with that accent, I graduated from Oxford.

There are some funny moments, even some witty ones, but as a whole there is nothing new or surprising about this comedy.

Thumb's down.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Disney's A Christmas Carol

"What do you mean, it's not for children?" my friend asked me in disbelief. I was talking about A Christmas Carol, and it was my belief that if the thing was going to be done right, it was too scary, maybe even too boring, for children.

I watched the movie, decked out in my 3D glasses, today, and noted that there were quite a few children in the room. They were quiet during the scary times, at least at first, and then the questions came, like, "What's going on?" And then they'd go back to their gameboys or talking with each other. They were mainly bored.

But I wasn't, not at all. First, let me say that the 3D effect is absolutely the best I've seen up to this point. The opening scenes are a wonder, as Scrooge walks down a snow-filled street in 19th century London. I could see quite clearly through the window as he talked with Bob Cratchit, and realized that it was as if I was there, seeing things as they were. And that's what we really want from 3D, not some device where we'll duck from a spear thrown our way.

This Zemeckis version of the old Dickens tale is closer to the literature than any other you've seen, and because of that, it's newer, scarier, much more meaningful. The film takes the time to fill out details, pause a moment while Jim Carrey-as-Scrooge puckers up his nose and issues a 'bah, humbug!'

The characters are ones we recognize, but even so, we recognize them as actors we know. Gary Oldman is in Bob Cratchit's face, all right. Colin Firth is Fred, Scrooge's long-suffering nephew. And Bob Hoskins is Fezziweg, Scrooge's boss from Christmas past.

It's a story that has lived through the ages, even moreso than Dickens' other memorable projects. Redemption is powerful stuff. And this is a powerful movie, done right. Isn't it wonderful that all the money and special effects were poured into this project to bring out the original message in a powerful way?

As I was leaving the movie theatre, after having watched the credits, I noticed one little girl dancing around and around to the music. Well, at least one child got it.

Thumb's up.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Box

There are two types of people who might feel obligated to take a look at The Box, the new film starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. First, if they're fans of director Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko"), and second, if they're fans of Richard Matheson, the sci fi writer who authored the short story ("Button, Button") from which the movie was based. I fall into the latter category.

Matheson is known by sci fi fans as the author of some of the most adapted stories out there. "The Incredible Shrinking Man," "Somewhere in Time," and "I Am Legend/Omega Man" are some of the movies made from his stories, and he also wrote several for the Twilight Zone, including an adaptation of "Button, Button."

We know what we'll get when we look at a Matheson adaptation: a terribly intriguing idea, and no idea how it will work out. But it's always a story that draws us in and keeps us there, prisoner, until we experience the last horrific awestruck moment that will signify the end. However, in this specific case, Kelly done him wrong and has produced an unkempt, confusing mess. I urge you: Do Not open this Box.

During the 1976 Christmas holidays, schoolteacher Norma (Cameron Diaz) and her NASA engineer husband Arthur (James Marsden) find a box on their front step one day. Before the man behind the box can explain, Norma finds out that her teacher discount for her son's private school tuition has been lost, and Arthur finds out that he has been turned down as an astronaut. When the ominous stranger finally shows up, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) explains that if they push the button within the next 24 hours, they'll earn $1,000,000 in cash. However, there will be consequences: someone they don't know will die.

One of the immediate problems with the story is that they're not in bad enough financial straits to justify killing someone, even someone they don't know. They live in a nice house; he drives a nice car. They still have their jobs. Sure, their son may have to go to public school, but this doesn't send us into despair for the couple. And there's not even a lot of discussion about The Consequence. You know, of course, that the button will be pushed.

It's what happens after that that is confusing, moments with townspeople never adequately explained. Most of the situations that are set up are never followed through on. We meet people we'll never see again. I suppose that we're to think that we've opened the box and are staring at a worldwide conspiracy to penalize the lack of morality in the human race. However, nothing is adequately explained to lead us to that conclusion or any conclusion.

I believe that the problem with this movie lies with the fact that Matheson wrote a short story, nothing more. And director/writer Kelly expanded it into a creature that lumbers in many different directions at once, all wrong.

Thumb's down.