Pirate Radio


Pirate Radio

The one drawback to living aboad ship is all the cockroaches.

(2009) Rock ‘n’ Roll Comedy (Focus) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, January Jones, Gemma Arterton, Tom Brooke. Directed by Richard Curtis

As a former rock critic, I find myself somewhat amused, puzzled and alarmed all at once when I regard the state of rock and roll. Originally, the music was supposed to be rebellious; it was a symbol of rising up against the system and crafting something new, different and exciting. Now, it is the system. I guess that’s true of most things that start off that way.

To many, the apex of rock and roll occurred in the 60s, and the epicenter of that apex was in England. Some of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time were all practicing their art with relish and relevance – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and so on and so forth. Yet if you wanted to hear those great British bands in Great Britain, you couldn’t. The BBC, the government-controlled broadcasting company, refused to play it on moral grounds, allowing rock and roll a begrudged hour or two per week and even then the songs that were played were far more middle of the road pop than rock.

When a need arises, trust some enterprising soul to figure out a way to fill that need and so pirate radio was born. A bunch of DJs and mariners rented a merchant vessel, outfitted it with a huge bloody antenna, and anchored in international waters, beaming the sounds of the Troggs, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix to a grateful nation. The most famous pirate station was Radio Caroline (which still broadcasts on the internet to this day, by the way).

While this crew isn’t Radio Caroline (the people and events that inspired the movie were scattered on the many dozens of pirate radio ships that encircled the British Isles), they are zany in their own right. Aboard Radio Rock is the debonair and irreverent Captain Quentin (Nighy), The Count (Hoffman), an American DJ who’s enormously popular and is the heart and soul of Radio Rock; Thick Kevin (Brooke), not the brightest bulb in the chandelier; Dr. Dave (Frost), a somewhat blindly trusting DJ who ought to know better; Gavin Cavanagh (Ifans), who is the most popular DJ in pirate radio and begins a fierce rivalry with the Count when he’s brought aboard Radio Rock, and young Carl (Sturridge) who is actually the protagonist, a virgin whose free-spirited mum (Thompson) sent him aboard the pirate radio vessel to sort himself out with his godfather, Captain Quentin. Bad idea, mum.

Curtis, who also directed Love Actually which is possibly the best romantic comedy of the past decade, knows how to work with an ensemble (Thompson and Nighy also worked for Curtis in that cast) and you never feel that any character is given short shrift; well, not really anyway. Carl is a bit too bland a character whose only trait seems to be his virginity, which is more a lack of opportunity than a characteristic. He is the audience surrogate to somewhat of a degree whose only function is to sit back and shake his head at the antics of the DJs. Those guys!

And the antics are highly entertaining, particularly as they import groupies to sail out aboard the ship to relieve these intrepid men of their sexual frustrations (hey, they’re both sailors and disc jockeys – can any human being get more inherently horny?) and not coincidently, bare their breasts on-camera. Hey, sex sells damn it.

Hoffman, Nighy, Ifans and Frost are always entertaining, and seeing them work together is a nice treat. Branagh plays Dormandy, ostensibly the villain of the piece, the tight-arsed minister in charge of ridding Britain of pirate radio forever. He is aided by the appropriately named Twatt (Davenport), the assistant in charge of finding dirty tricks and loopholes. He would later cross the Atlantic and become a personal advisor to President Nixon (just kidding). Both Branagh and Davenport are solid.

What will stay with you from this movie is the absolutely astonishing soundtrack which contains some of the best music from the late ‘60s. Some critics have moaned and groaned about some of the songs being from after 1966, the year this is supposed to take place. As Jay Leno might say, SHUT UP! Nobody cares about your knowledge of music history. The music fits the story and the songs are awesome. Just sit back and listen and let the grown-ups talk.

This isn’t as good a film as Love Actually but it’s pretty dang good all the same. For those of my generation, the music is a trip straight down Memory Lane (with a brief stop at Penny Lane, although the Beatles didn’t grant the rights and releases to their music so they don’t appear on the soundtrack). Curtis does a good job of evoking the era and keeps things light and a bit manic, all leaving a good taste in the mouth. It may only be rock and roll but I like it – and so did millions of others, including you I’d bet. While this movie didn’t fare very well box office-wise, it deserves a better fate, if just for Curtis’ taste in music alone.

WHY RENT THIS: A phenomenal soundtrack and a general sense of fun and bonhomie pervade the film. The actors look like they’re having the time of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders down into Unnecessaryland and the whole virginity subplot seemed less enticing than the goings on with the DJs.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is blue, but not as blue as the bare behinds which were hanging out in the cold North Sea air.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted happened on a variety of pirate radio ships, particularly the most infamous Radio Caroline, whose red and white color scheme was borrowed by the Radio Rock vessel. A DJ did get married on board a pirate radio ship, and Radio Caroline’s first ship did sink (although the station eventually got a second ship which remained in use until 1991; it sits as something of a museum and many of the artifacts from the vessel were used in this film).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a short but informative featurette on the history of pirate radio in the UK. Unfortunately, the DVD consumer gets shafted again.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.4M on a $50M production budget; any way you slice it, the movie flopped at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Brothers Bloom

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Alfred Molina is disturbed to discover that Nicolas Cage has blue balls.

(Disney) Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Monica Bellucci, Toby Kebbell, Alice Krige, Omar Benson Miller, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens, Gregory Woo, Peyton Roi List, Nicole Ehringer, Ian McShane (voice). Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 The world is a magical place, even the parts we can see. There exists a whole world, however, that we can’t, one in which the impossible is commonplace, and in that world good battles evil incessantly, barely in the lead although not without cost.

Balthazar Blake (Cage) is one of the three apprentices to Merlin (Stephens) – yes, that one – back in 840 AD, along with Veronica (Bellucci) and Horvath (Molina). All of them are in conflict with Morgana le Fay (Krige), who wants to enslave the world by using a spell called The Rising, which will raise the dead into an army for her. She probably should have put in a call to George A. Romero.

Horvath betrays his fellows and Veronica takes a bullet for Balthazar, winding up imprisoned along with Morgana in a grimhold, a nesting doll that acts like a prison. As the years roll by, Balthazar adds more of Morgana’s followers to the grimhold as additional layers to the doll until he finally captures Horvath himself.

But Balthazar’s work is far from done. The dying Merlin told Balthazar that only one sorcerer can truly destroy Morgana and it is Balthazar’s job to find him. It only takes about 1200 years, but Balthazar finally locates him. Talk about determination!

Young Dave (Cherry) goes on a school field trip and spends most of it trying to get the attention of a comely young blonde named Becky Barnes (List), whom he asks in a note if she’s interested in him as a friend or a girlfriend. Becky checks the appropriate box, but a coincidental wind blows the note all the way to a curio shop named Arcana Cabana which is run by – you guessed it – Balthazar. Using the test of a dragon ring, Balthazar realizes that Dave is the one he’s looking for; the Prime Merlinian. Note to writers: where do you come up with these names? It sounds like something dreamed up by a panel of math geeks at an MIT calculus conference.

Because he’s nine (or ten, depending on who you ask) years old, Dave manages to release Horvath from the nesting doll…err, grimhold, and all Hades breaks loose. Balthazar and Horvath manage to be sucked into a magical urn that will hold them for ten years to the day. Why? Just because.

Ten years later, the adult Dave (Baruchel) is a physics nerd at NYU when he runs into old flame Becky (Palmer) when he runs a physics primer for English majors, which is an idea which no doubt the administrators at NYU are scratching their heads and wondering “wha…?” about. Although apparently without a job and no visible means of support, Dave has placed several eight-foot Tesla coils together in an unauthorized lab in a subway turnaround. Why? Just because.

Of course, now the two wizards are out of their urn and looking for that grimhold, Balthazar so that he can protect the world and potentially destroy Morgana once and for all, and Horvath because he wants to resurrect Morgana and destroy the world. Why? Just because.

Balthazar knows he needs to teach Dave the basics of magic and quickly because (queue serious music) the fate of the world rests in his hands. Why? Just…oh you know what comes next.

The trio of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Turtletaub and Cage has previously teamed up in the two National Treasure movies, which I found to be a seriously entertaining take on the Indiana Jones movies. This one is less effective although it still remains entertaining. This movie is a bit of a mash-up between genres, an action movie blended with a fantasy movie, sort of like Harry Potter in Die Hard. Expelliarmus mothereffer!

Cage and Molina are effective here, and you get the feeling there is a bit of a nudge and a wink in their work. They spend most of the movie lobbing plasma balls and one-liners at one another. Baruchel is less effective for me. He is the perennial dweeb in movies over the last few years, and I can understand why he was cast – Dave is certainly a science nerd. However, his hunched over posture, perpetual whining coupled with his inability to make intelligent choices, made it very hard for me to root for him. I was kind of hoping that Cage would turn him into a newt and save the day.

There is plenty of eye candy and most of it is pretty decent, although there’s a ton of plasma balls, fire streams and lightning bolts hurtling around. Some real cool sequences include a Chinese dragon (which while it was chasing Dave, made me think inadvertently of the much better movie How to Train a Dragon which featured Baruchel’s voice) and a steel eagle from the Chrysler building. There is also an homage to the sequence in Fantasia that inspired this movie which I enjoyed.

The trouble with movies about magic is that sorcerer’s should be pretty much invincible, particularly ones as powerful as these. For example, there is an extended car chase sequence in the last third of the movie; very well done, but it seemed to be fairly pedestrian. They could have easily done a chase with something more imaginative – invisible horses, beams of light, anything – and you would think that a sorcerer could wave his arms and turn the car into a mule.

Similarly, a crucial plot point involves Becky moving a satellite dish so that a spell can go awry. Wouldn’t the sorcerer casting the spell be able to move the satellite dish back into place? After all, they’ve been moving objects telekinetically throughout the movie.

But I digress. Anyone going to a movie like this and expecting Scorsese is a lunatic. This is Bruckheimer, and he excels at movies that entertain on a visceral level rather than inspire or educate, and that’s fine folks – we all need mindless entertainment once in awhile. However, I would have expected a movie about magic to be more, well, magical. Definitely this is entertaining, but it could have been done so much better with a bit more imagination.

REASONS TO GO: Cage and Molina do some pretty solid work here. The eye candy is effective.

REASONS TO STAY: Baruchel is a bit too whiny and foolish to get behind as a heroic lead. The whole car chase sequence seemed unnecessary and could have been handled more imaginatively.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of fantasy violence and some scenes of brief sexuality, but for the most part should be okay for audiences of all ages, although some of the creatures might be a little scary for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abigail Williams is based on an actual person who was accused of being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century, ran away and was never heard from again.

HOME OR THEATER: There are enough sequences that have the gee-whiz factor that I give a slight nod towards seeing it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Life in Ruins