Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 24: The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio)

"All over the world, young men and young women will always dream dreams, and put those dreams into song."

Richard Curtis is one of the most interesting writer/directors around. He got his first big break writing for Black Adder with Rowan Atkinson before penning one of the best screenplays of the nineties with Four Weddings and a Funeral. He continued writing very lucrative screenplays such as Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary, before trying his hand at directing with 2003's Love Actually. The common thread with all of these is his adeptness at handling multiple character arcs within the context of a larger story, and his latest film The Boat That Rocked, released in America as Pirate Radio, is no exception.
Set in 1965 & 66, the film focuses one of a group of ships that broadcast rock and roll radio programs 24 hours a day, as in the United Kingdom, rock and roll was only broadcast for less than an hour a day.

When you consider the fact that no less than three of the best rock and roll bands of all time were from England and recording at that time, it seems all the more tragic that this music was relegated to pirate radio stations. The film tells the story of Radio Rock and it's colorful assortment of deejays and technicians, lead by station owner Quentin (Bill Nighy). There's The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Dave (Nick Frost), Nigel (Rhys Ifans), Simon (Chris O'Dowd), Angus (Rhys Darby) and Bob (Ralph Brown, whom you may remember as the roadie Del in Wayne's World II).

Into this world is thrust Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin's godson, who has been sent by his mother (Emma Thompson in a great cameo) to live on the boat. Carl is the ultimate outsider at first: young, naive & callow, but he soon integrates himself into the crazy world of these crazy people and finds himself having the time of his life. This story is juxtaposed by the story of Minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, wonderfully stuffy) of the British Parliament, who has been charged with figuring out a way to ban these pirate radio stations. He turns to an ambitious young assistant by the name of Twatt (Jack Davenport) for help with this, and Twatt works tirelessly to figure out a way to shut them down. The joke about his name is not entirely played out after the first joke, but it does get a little tired.

Curtis' gift for handling multiple characters, stories and arcs serves him well here, but the main issue I have with many of his screenplays inevitably becomes the large amount of filler that ends up on screen. This is not to say that it's no enjoyable, I actually really like pretty much all of his films, it's just that he tends to divert the story towards small moments and conversations that do nothing to move the plot forward. Case in point, the entire subplot dealing with Simon's 17 hour marriage and the elaborate game of chicken which follows takes up roughly fifteen minutes of the running time, and does nothing to move the story forward. It's great character development for Simon, Nigel and The Count, but it really doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the film.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great as always. He is the most reliable character actor alive, and his mere presence in a film elevates it immediately. The rest of the cast is great as a whole, though Nick Frost and Chris O'Dowd stand out in particular. Carl finds out that his father is aboard the ship, and though we're led to believe it's most likely Quentin, it turns out to be the reserved early morning dj Bob. We find this out halfway through the film, and then Carl and Bob have a total of two scenes after this revelation dealing with it, so there's seemingly no real reason for it to have been there in the first place. I understand that the film is by and large about Carl's journey of self discovery, but the biggest revelation of his entire life is given pretty short shrift.

All of this is not to say that I didn't enjoy the film. I really liked it quite a bit. The third act in particular is very strong with the Parliament passing a law banning pirate radio and the station deciding to stay on the air. The boat picks up anchor and heads for international waters, but the engine is so old and out of shape that it ends up blowing a hole in the side of the boat and dooming everyone on board. If you've seen the trailer for the film, you've already seen how it ends, but I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't as it's actually really well done, and should not have been given away in the trailer. This is the kind of movie that people who like the other movies Richard Curtis has done will like. I doubt it will win over any converts, but you'll find solid entertainment if you're a fan of his work.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at the perennial Christmas favorite, Bob Clark's A Christmas Story with Peter Billingsley and Darren McGavin.

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  1. Ok yeah this movie fell apart in the third act (sorry but as he boat is sinking on is when I checked out) I do agree that the best parts are Hoffman and Nighy.

    I am torn on Curtis because I think he has great moments but not great films.

  2. I tend to agree with your last statement, he makes good movies filled with great moments but there's way too much filler to make them great movies. I actually like the sinking boat, I thought it was great in terms of being a dividing line with The Count showing that he was 100% rock and roll all the way. I wasn't crazy about Carl going back for his dad, but I laughed out loud when Dave threw the one record he saved back down.
    Who is this, by the way? Do I know you or are you just a random reader from the ether? If so, welcome and thanks for your comments!

  3. It is the wisest person you have ever known....ok its nargi