PICK OF THE WEEK
Pirate Radio (B)
U.S.; Richard Curtis, 2009, Universal
Pirate Radio, scripted and directed by Richard Curtis (writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which I liked, and Notting Hill, which I didn't), is an ode to '60s rock, primarily British -- and to the heyday of the young Beatles, the young Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, The Who and scads of others. It's set on a scrappy-looking old industrial ship that prowls past the outer British limits of the North Atlantic in the mid '60s, serving as floating home and 24/7 "all rock all the time" outlaw radio transmitter for Radio Rock: a community of eight DJs, and their fellow workers and carousers, led by cheerfully dissolute-looking station manager Quentin (Bill Nighy) -- all of them dedicated to breaking the BBC radio strictures on pop (allowing just a smidgen per day).
Our witness for all this is a rather mild and definitely too-typical "coming-of-age" young guy named Carl (Tom Sturridge). Carl, godson of Quentin and son of tolerant mom Charlotte (played by the still sparkling Emma Thompson), comes aboard to get a job, get laid and learn about life -- and he's immediately plunged into the pop swim with a raffish crew that includes the current Radio Rock cock-of-the-walk, The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), The Count's soon-arriving rival and London's ex-DJ monarch Gavin (Rhys Ifans), girl-shy Simon (Chris O'Dowd), out-of-sight morning man Bob (Ralph Brown), fat seducer Dave (Nick Frost), and other lovable misfits, who make up in instant color and zap what they lack in, uh, depth.
It's the dream of pop bliss for a young '60s male virgin (which Carl, to his mortification, is). Rock all day and night with your buddies and workmates (with your mom's permission), thumb your noses at the BBC and wait for the birds and the sex to come gliding in every two weeks on a hooker boat, along with occasional hotcha tours by the likes of smashers like Elenore (January Jones). Even though it's a predictable dream, it still has its hooks.
But wait! Bummer! A stuffy devil-cabinet minister is prowling around the edges of this ship of rockers: Sir Alistair Dormandy, a total twit and a beyond-John Cleese nasty ass, a cultural czar who looks as if he stepped out of an old Boulting Brothers satire, and who is played, surprisingly, by that one-time Hamlet and Prince Hal, and Emma's ex-honey/hubby, Kenneth Branagh. Scowling Sir Al is determined to clean up the airwaves and rid the high seas of Radio Rock and all that it stands for, even if he has to drown half the cast doing it.
If Pirate Radio tends to remind you a bit of the Boulting Bros, and, in a less classy and understated way, even a wee twee bit of Ealing oddball-Brit-community comedies like Tight Little Island and Passport to Pimlico, the show has one big advantage: a great play list. You'd expect the Stones and even Jimi, the Kinks and the Who. But this sound track also boasts Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Procol Harum, the Hollies and Cream -- and many others.
The acting is almost all amusingly over the toppermost of the poppermost (as John Lennon would say), even if the actors often seem better than their roles. The almost-always-excellent Hoffman starts out in his scathing, deep-voiced hipster Lester Bangs mode (from Almost Famous), becoming supposedly the first man to say "fuck" on British radio. And, then, when Gavin jars The Count's confidence, Hoffman does some fine frayed-nerve, falling-apart, self-sabotage, before grabbing at the redemption Curtis offers.
Ifans demonstrates both charisma and versatility. Is this really the same guy who played a gentle-seeming psycho in Enduring Love, a primitive cherub in Human Nature and an urban slob in Notting Hill? Of course, no one can play a scrappy dissipated type like Nighy, and, as for Branagh and Thompson, never on screen together here, this show made me wish they'd reunite for some more Shakespeare. Branagh may be no Terry-Thomas, but he's as good a stuffy, mean twit as Richard Attenborough was, in one of Sir Richard's old Boulting slumming expeditions.
Those of us who grew up or came of age ourselves in the '60s have one treasure we carry with us always: the way the American-born, British-fueled pop revolution -- melding big beats and catchy hooks with lyrics that had literacy, smarts and irreverence, that were for smart kids along with everyone else -- produced hit after hit in those days. The way they made juke boxes a joy and Top 40 lists a zone of excitement.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Essential Art House Collection 5 (A)
Italy/France/United Kingdom/Japan; various directors, 1945-65, Criterion
For the budget-minded aficionado. Five inarguable foreign film classics -- without the extras you get on the standard Criterion releases of the same titles, but with every classic moment otherwise preserved -- and at a lower price.
Brief Encounter (A)
Great Britain; David Lean, 1945
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard suffer exquisitely from one the screen's best all-time best thwarted romances, as life and love rush by a London train station. Adapted from Noel Coward's short play "Still Life." Coward is usually a master of slashing wit, but here Lean uses his words to break out hearts -- and succeeds.
Floating Weeds (A)
Japan; Yasujiro Ozu, 1959
A troupe of traveling players revisits the provincial town where the companies star/leader long ago left behind a memorable romance and an illegitimate child. Great late Ozu, remade from his 1934 masterpiece, "The Story of Floating Weeds." With Ganjiro Nakamura and Machiko Kyo. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Italy; Gilles Pontecorvo, 1960
A lesser known but powerful Holocaust film, set in a Nazi camp, from the director of "The Battle of Algiers."
Jules and Jim (A)
France; Francois Truffaut, 1961
Jeanne Moreau, as Catherine, and Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, as Jules and Jim, form one of the screen's great triangles -- and Moreau creates one of the screen's imperishable femme fatales -- in Truffaut's buoyant but tragic romance. Based on Henri-Pierre Roche's novel, which was distantly based on the true-life events Serre retold, undisguised, in Truffaut's later "Two English Girls." (In French, with English subtitles.)
Loves of a Blonde (A)
Czech: Milos Forman, 1965
A breezy and touching romantic comedy from Czech New Wave phenom (and later American expatriate) Forman about the liaison of a blond shoe factory worker and a piano player: in some ways, a Czech "Love with the Proper Stranger," but more realistic. With Hana Brejchova as the blond. (In Czech, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Plunder: The Crime of Our Time (B)
U.S.; Danny Schechter, 2009, Global Vision
For the most art, the media has done a lousy job of explaining the recent U.S. economic collapse. How many of us even know what derivatives are -- or the crucial role they played in Wall Street's casino-style looting of the economy?
That's why this new movie by Danny Schechter, a journalist and documentarian (In Debt We Trust) who specializes in economic issues, is so welcome and valuable. Schechter's In Debt predicted the crisis and showed how our economy was being strangled by massive debt and reckless, unregulated speculation (with many of the laws put in place after the Great Depression, unwisely junked by both Clinton and G.W. Bush). In Plunder there's a telling shot of some very well-dressed, so-called experts on Forbes on Fox laughing scornfully (and idiotically) at Schechter's dead-on predictions of the trouble that lay imminently ahead.
The Emmy-winning Schechter, whose beguilingly shaggy, populist demeanor suggests a less hungry Michael Moore, argues that the recent Wall Street crash was not just the product of stupid deregulation, designed to line the pockets of Wall Street insiders, but maybe part of a criminal conspiracy, and that Bernie Madoff's huge and massively destructive Ponzi scheme was just the tip of a malevolent iceberg. It's hard to argue. Schechter talks with numerous insiders, including one convicted econo-criminal, Sam Entar (who shows us how it was done), executives of the bankrupted and destroyed Bear Sterns, and ace journalist Paul Krugman.
What we hear is truly sobering and important. Schechter's suggestion that the fall of investment giant Bear Stearns was deliberately manipulated by speculators who made giant profits from the fall needs to be followed up, preferably by both journalists and law enforcement officials. And the greed-crazed, money-mad criminals responsible for this mess, largely misdescribed and misidentified by politicized "news" peddlers like Fox, need to be tossed in the hoosegow and their hands kept off the nation's dough from now on. If they are punished, and the much-needed economic regulatory reforms are adopted (probably over the dead bodies of those equally money-mad Republicans bent on torpedoing Obama at any cost), honest journalists like Schechter will be one of the main reasons. See this.
Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love (A)
U.S.: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2008, Oscilloscope
This record of the life and music of the matchless Senegalese singer-composer Youssou N'Dour follows him on concert tours in Africa and Europe, recalls his three-decade career, and watches him during his struggle to record his breakthrough 2005 album Egypt, a deeply religious work intended to project a less exclusivist view of Islam. It's a remarkable portrait of an admirable artist and man, catching him at a crucial personal/spiritual crossroads. N'Dour is one of the most popular and revered musicians in African history, yet Egypt stirred immense controversy in Senegal, for its unique mixture of religious faith and popular music. The album was attacked by traditionalist Muslims and, comparatively, failed to reach N'Dour's usual huge public. What happened next makes for stirring drama as well inspiring music.
Vasarhelyi's film is stunningly shot and packed with brilliant concert and backstage footage, with N'Dour accompanied by his longtime band and at times by fellow artists Peter Gabriel, Moustapha Mbaya and Fathy Salami, and filled with intimate sequences of N'Dour's family, private worship and life. (One scene with the singer's elderly grandmother will break your heart.) The music soars. The man touches our hearts. An extraordinary film, and a marvelous introduction to one of the world's great musical artists. (In Arabic, English, French and Wolof, with English subtitles.) (Extras: rehearsal footage for Egypt's first live performance; "Ansak," an homage to Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, one of N'Dour's inspirations; a visit with Wyclif Jean; recording with Mbaya; performance of "Birima.")