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Posted: November 19, 2009

Dave on film: sweet 60’s nostalgia in “Pirate Radio”

Or go for the really big bang in "2012"

Dave Taylor

 I have two new films for your consideration this week, and which you'll prefer depends on which direction you prefer your flashback: if you prefer going back to the 60s, then you might really enjoy Pirate Radio. If you'd rather go forward in time to the apocalyptic end of the world and have a sneaking suspicion that the Mayans might have been right anyway, then 2012 is the film for you. Let's dig in and see what's what.

Pirate Radio

Any film that's built around the music of the mid-1960's starts out with one thing going for it: a great soundtrack. That Pirate Radio goes beyond that and offers up an entertaining and poignant story about loss of innocence is what makes it a film well worth your time.

The massive wave of music that came out of Britain during the 60s, the "British Invasion", is the basis for Pirate Radio, and the story, set in 1966, is simultaneously of the cast of characters that were the DJs and station staff and the government officials who spent almost a year trying to find a legal loophole that could shut down the broadcasts forever.

The main character in the film is Carl (Tom Sturridge), a lost 18-year-old boy and the godson of the dapper Radio Rock owner Quentin (Bill Nighy). Carl's mum doesn't know what to do with him so sends him to spend a few months on the ship, under Quentin's watchful eye. Problem is, the boat is a floating discotheque of sins and everyone's looking for 'birds to shag', drugs, smokes and every other manner of bad habit.

As Quentin says when Carl arrives: "Let me get this straight. Your Mum sent you here under the assumption that the bracing sea air would sort you out? A spectacular mistake!"

The group of disk jockeys at the station are quite colorful. The most popular is The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an American who is a bit of a git and takes himself entirely too seriously, an anchor for the entire movie. In this role, I have to say that Hoffman demonstrates a range of emotions that few of the other characters in this film convey.

Problem is, The Count is only the #1 DJ because the real king of rock and roll, Gorgeous Gavin Cavenaugh (Rhys Ifans) had quit to go to America. When he returns, there are a series of funny one-upmanship scenes that culminates in a game of chicken that captures the loss of innocence of the entire era.

Kenneth Branagh has a stand out role as the completely uptight bureaucratic git Sir Alistair Dormandy, who is assigned by the Prime Minister (Stephen Moore) to shut down Radio Rock and all the other pirate rock 'n roll radio stations. He's brilliant and indeed, the portrayal of the British government, particular when contrasted with the common people who are fans of the radio station and music, is superb.

One of the running storylines is the many attempts that "young Carl" has trying to lose his virginity. Every other Saturday women are allowed on board and the subsequent scenes for the few station personnel that don't "have a bird" are quite amusing. Carl, though, doesn't want to remain a virgin and is finally set up with the lovely young Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), just to have her stolen away by the sly Dave (Nick Frost). All is ultimately not lost, however, or, um, all is ultimately lost, depending on how you want to look at it.

Pirate Radio is a fun, delightful, witty and affectionate look at the foibles and optimistic naivety of the 60s, a sweet story of lost innocence, both individually and as a generation.

2012

As the 2 1/2 hour 2012 unspooled, I got more and more confused trying to follow the cliché-ridden storyline that loosely holds together the mayhem and destruction that is at the heart of Roland Emmerich's new end-of-the-world film. I was impressed by the first hour of the film, but then the story got increasingly unbelievable and goofy.

The setup worked well, starting with Indian scientist Dr. Satnam Tsurutani (Jimi Mistry) explaining to US government scientist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that they were encountering odd and anomalous neutrino count measurements due to solar flares. "Neutrinos," he explains, "appear to have mutated into a new kind of particle, and it's heating up the Earth's core."

Turns out those savvy Mayans, hundreds of years ago, foresaw the alignment of our solar system on Dec. 21, 2012, and predicted that day would be the end of the world. More recent experts, notably a chap from back in the 1950s called Professor Hapgood, theorize about Earth Crust Displacement, the idea that a sufficiently cataclysmic event (like heating up the Earth's core) will cause the tectonic plates to shift quite significantly which ends up as the heart of this exciting special effects rollercoaster.

This is one of those movies that are tough to review: on the one hand, as a film, 2012 is not very good. The acting is mediocre, the storyline rarely makes much sense, and the character development scenes are painful to watch. As a vehicle for special effects, though, it's pretty awesome and worth the price of the ticket to see the astonishing scenes of the Earth being torn asunder on the big screen, with big, loud sound effects.

Having watched and generally enjoyed Emmerich's previous cliché-ridden apocalyptic movies, notably Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, it does seem like he's maturing a bit as a filmmaker. Things unfold in slightly more complex ways, including a scene at the beginning of the film showing Tibetans being forcibly relocated for what's ostensibly a dam construction project but turns out to be, well, suffice to say later in the film you realize there's a very good reason why we see the hapless natives being forced onto military trucks early on.

The basic story is easily explained in a dozen words or so, and it's been a cinematic staple for decades: if you knew the world was ending, what would you do and how would you try to survive? As in the classic science fiction film When Worlds Collide, do you build spaceships and fly off the planet, hoping to find somewhere habitable, or do you perhaps follow the mythic lead of Noah and build a ship that can survive the flood?

Either way, you now have a very thorny problem: who gets to be on board? Is it the rich people, those with the highest intellect / most physical prowess? Do you use some sort of DNA analysis to pick a perfect gene pool? Or is it ultimately political after all, because we're all just human, with foibles, biases and fears?

Curtis (John Cusack) is an unsuccessful book author. He's written Farewell Atlantis, a novel about how people act during an apocalyptic situation, and it's sold less than 500 copies, but through an astonishing coincidence one of those copies was bought by wild-eyed environmental crackpot Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), and another copy bought by Presidential science advisor Helmsley (Ejiofor). Coincidence or lazy plot device?

For reasons that are never explained, Curtis takes his children camping to Yellowstone, by car (a boring 1000+ mile drive from their home in LA), just to find that a portion of the public park is fenced off, with scary no-trespassing, government property signs. They hop the fence and instead of finding a pristine mountain lake that Curtis remembers, instead find a dried, muddy lakebed that's clearly a part of the local seismic activity. But why? What could have happened to dry the lake up?

Setup complete, the film starts to unspool in earnest, with buildings collapsing, massive canyons appearing where previous there was nothing, massive clouds of dust traveling the world, famous landmarks crashing to the ground, etc etc., ad nauseum.  And ya know what? It's pretty darn cool.

Turns out that Curtis has a day job is as a driver to eccentric Russian billionaire Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric), who has two unpleasant, spoiled sons Alec and Oleg (twin actors Alexandre and Philippe Haussmann) and a much younger girlfriend Tamara (Beatrice Rosen). Yuri, it turns out, has bought a ticket on the apocalyptic ship. Coincidence? Wait, it also turns out that Tamara had her breasts enlarged by... ready for it? ... Dr. Silberman. A neat package indeed.

Suffice to say, 2012 is definitely part of Roland Emmerich's oeuvre: great special effects, a huge, sweeping story plagued by the most tedious and banal of writing and characters that are less than one dimensional.

The less said about the last 30 minutes, the better. I'll just say that by then it's imperative that you stop thinking and just be in the moment. Otherwise you'll be yelling at the screen and throwing popcorn at fellow theatergoers who think it's a splendid way to end things!

If you want to see some stunning visual effects and really get a sense of the terror of our planet being ripped asunder (which, btw, none of the characters in the film ever seem to experience), then I encourage you to see 2012 in the theater. It's the kind of epic that's really a perfect summer movie. Just a few months late.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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