Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Rocks actually

Boy, and you thought people chatting away on their cell phones during a movie were a distraction.

News reports say that a man shot and killed himself just after midnight on Sunday night in a cinema in Eugene, Oregon. It was during a screening of Watchmen. And all I can say is, like a lot of people, I saw Watchmen and, gee, it wasn’t that bad.

Okay, I know, I’m making light of a tragic occurrence. I’m sorry. But it does kind of put into perspective how seriously to take bad reviews. When Zack Snyder’s next movie (that would apparently be an animated feature called Guardians of Ga’Hoole) is released, no matter how it does at the box office or with the critics, he can always (hopefully) say, well, at least no one shot himself while watching it.

As I noted in my own review of it, the criterati opinion of Watchmen more or less fell into two camps: 1) those who loved the comic books but hated the movie and 2) those who never read the comic books and hated the movie. As is my usual custom, I just looked at it as a movie and didn’t worry about the comic books. My philosophy about literary adaptations is that, if you want to enjoy something that is exactly like the source material, then go back and reread the source material. In the end, I didn’t think Watchmen was exactly a bad movie and felt strongly that sitting through it until the end was definitely preferable to doing myself in. But too many bits were just plain silly, especially an ending that literally referred to the old movie/comic book convention of the villain taking time to explain his nefarious plot to the good guys, thereby giving them time to come up with a way to thwart it—and then summarily nullified it. It was a gambit that was more clever than entertaining.

And that is probably the best way to sum up the movie. It is clever, but only in the way that male university students think they are clever when they are trying to impress each other. But, hey, everything old is new again and, suddenly, nuclear disarmament and fear of atomic war seems up to the minute once again. Maybe we are ready for Richard Nixon and the Soviet Union to make a comeback after all. Heck, this was, by my count, at least the second major motion picture in a matter of mere months that featured Nixon as a significant character. In fact, by now, so many actors have played Nixon that it is hard to keep them all straight or even remember them all. That may or may not be what happened to Michael Douglas during February’s Oscar telecast when, during that weird thing when they had former Best Actor winners pay tributes to the night’s nominees, he praised Frank Langella by saying his portrayal of Nixon eclipsed all others. And standing right next to him is Anthony Hopkins, who, Langella aside, still has to be considered the definitive film Nixon for his performance in Oliver Stone’s aptly titled 1995 film Nixon. But I digress.

Right now I am not particularly concerned about critical opinion of Watchmen. I am more worried about critical reaction to a movie that opened in the UK/Ireland market last week, Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked. It is only Curtis’s second film as a director and, in a strange twist, I have seen both of them before reading any reviews of them. I saw his first, Love Actually, at the Cork Film Festival weeks before it opened anywhere in the world. And, more or less by accident, I saw The Boat That Rocked on its first night, which happened to be on a Wednesday, which meant that a lot of the reviews didn’t appear until two days later on Friday. So there was little opportunity for my potential feeling for either film to be influenced one way or the other by others. And I thoroughly enjoyed both movies. It was only after I had seen them that I became aware that many critics did not like either of them.

Now, I was able to discern immediately why a lot of people might not like Love Actually. It was unabashedly romantic and sentimental and was the farthest thing from edgy. Indeed, my personal summation of Curtis as a director after that was that I enjoy his filmmaking but I don’t necessarily feel good about it the next day. But, as I watched The Boat That Rocked, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could not like it. Well, at least anyone over the age of, say, 50. But, really, anyone. In a strange way, it reminded me a bit of another boat movie, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. That was a movie that I didn’t know exactly what to make of when I first saw it, but as time went on I found that I couldn’t get it out of my head. There was something about it that stayed with me. And that tells me that I should have rated it more highly than I did.

Among the things the two films have in common is the fact that, well, they both largely take place on boats populated by quirky characters and that music plays a large part in the tone of the film. Also in both cases, among various plot strands, there is a central one involving a father and son who have previously not known each other. But Curtis’s movie is more of a straight-ahead comedy than Anderson’s. Indeed, my mental shortand, as I was watching the Curtis movie, was “Steve Zissou meets Animal House (and then Titanic).” What’s not to like about that?

At the same time, it has a lot in common with Love Actually. There is the same pattern of sprawling characters and interwoven plot strands as well as a final crescendo of emotional sentimentality. And, again, the music plays a large role in both cases—especially and obviously in The Boat That Rocks. Finally, both have Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson and January Jones. What The Boat That Rocks doesn’t have is Rowan Atkinson (Curtis’s collaborator in the classic TV series Blackadder and Mr. Bean), who had cameos in Love Actually and the Curtis-penned Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Anyway, I was curious to see the reviews for The Boat That Rocked on Friday. As usual, the first one I read was in The Irish Times, and critic Donald Clarke did not like it one bit, leading off by saying it was “all at sea.” (Ha! Ha!) His main objection seems to be dislike of the music being played and, strangely, the inclusion of an album cover of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms during the closing credits. The most positive thing Clarke could find to write about the movie was: “[I]t takes a perverse kind of genius to make such a bad film out of such promising material.” Okay, he’s entitled to his opinion. A superficial sampling of other opinion seemed to agree that critics found the movie middling—at best. On the other hand, the completely unscientific user rating system of the IMDB gave the film a respectable 7.4 out of 10, so maybe this is one of those movies that is liked by normal people but sniffed at by professional critics.

Leave it to good old Mark Kermode of the BBC to put things into perspective. On the radio on Friday, he explained all the ways that the movie was, technically, not up to snuff. But then he said, “But you know what? I sat there and I grinned. And my face was grinning and I was feeling good and I was laughing and I was enjoying it…” The fact is that sometimes we just like a movie because we do. Even if the more logical side of our brain says we really shouldn’t. But you know what? I don’t consider The Boat That Rocks poorly made. It’s just a bit quirky—not unlike every character that populates it. And I like it.

My friends on this side of the pond can agree or disagree with me, as they like. Unfortunately for friends in the U.S., it isn’t scheduled to open there until late August.

Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. FYI: I am taking a post-Holy Week break next week, so see you in a fortnight.

-S.L., 9 April 2009

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