Low camp on the high seas

Image of Nigel Andrews

The Boat that Rocked ★★☆☆☆ (Richard Curtis)
Religulous ★★★☆☆ (Larry Charles)
Modern Life ★★★★☆ (Raymond Depardon)
Cherry Blossoms ★★★☆☆ (Doris Dörrie)
Monsters vs Aliens ★★☆☆☆ (Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon)

The Boat that Rocked is a Richard Curtis film, a categorisation that has begun to have the same scary, feelgood reverb as “a Frank Capra film”. Smiles and whimsicality are guaranteed; happy last-reel tears are probable. In Curtisland, human beings jaunt around the landscape, falling in love, falling over their lovable feet, falling for or into anything that makes the planet a sweeter, wiser, goofier place.

Here it is pirate radio. The story is drawn from truth. Broadcasting buccaneers actually started such a service in the mid-1960s, off the UK coast, after the BBC rationed its pop music outlay to 45 minutes a day. With no one knowing how to shut down a floating radio station, the Bluebeards of pop transmitted their tunes 24/7. The only man who legally could stop them was the Labour government’s postmaster general, one Anthony Wedgwood Benn MP, now everyone’s favourite ageless radical, back then wearing the persona of a churlish old fogey.

Kenneth Branagh impersonates Benn as a mixture of Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army and Hitler. His martinet knockabout is more enjoyable than the maritime larks of the DJs, a woebegone crew of comedy turns worthy of a bad Carry On film. Philip Seymour Hoffman stands surety for the US box-office, or tries, with his riff on transatlantic disc-turner Emperor Roscoe, while lesser stars play the rakes, virgins and airheads involved in the daily tumble of sex and slapstick.

The audience’s mirthless rictus lightens only when Mr Rictus himself appears. The lovable Bill Nighy, that pencil moue quivering in those shyly jocose jaws, plays the boat’s live-in millionaire owner and makes even witless lines seem scripted by Oscar Wilde. (Listen to the curlicue of comic despair he bestows on the phrase “lost generation”.) Elsewhere it is all hands on deck long before this ship runs out of steam, cruising on empty engines towards its Titanic-impersonating climax.

The satirical documentary Religulous has much the same plot as The Boat that Rocked. Some decades ago, dismayed that He occupied only 45 minutes in most people’s daily thoughts, God initiated – at least in the US – a round-the-clock propaganda broadcasting service. Pirate gospellers took turns, and still do, to prey on vulnerable minds. Robbing the poor (us) to pay the rich (themselves), they sell religion as afterlife insurance.If you believe, you are saved. If you believe, counters comedian and media heretic Bill Maher, you are – to put it bluntly – stupid.

Outlining such borderline-lunatic creeds as Mormonism (get a free planet if you’re good) or Scientology (intergalactic reincarnation), Maher asks why Christianity is considered more rational. Talking snakes, virgin births, a religion born in poverty that flaunts palatial cathedrals and men in expensive frocks... Like a jesting Richard Dawkins, Maher goes about the world confronting assorted believers and trying to make them admit their folly. I counted two knockdowns, one submission, one walkout (a huffy US southerner the size of a blimp) and several dead ties.

Some fights are suspiciously unfinished, reminding us that Maher and director Larry Charles (Borat) had right of final cut. Dr Francis Collins, genome researcher and Christian believer, barely gets started. And time is wasted, late on, on a hippy guru running a one-man cannabis cult and on the self-evident imbecility of a creationist theme park where dinosaurs co-exist with humans.

The serious food for thought gets lost amid the one-stop snacking. Why, a movie like this might ask, has religion meant so much to so many artists? From Bach to Dostoevsky, from Waugh to Greene to Tavener. Were they – are they – all cuckoo? Don’t get me wrong: I am on Maher’s side. Empty the world of religion and it will become a livable, lovable, lucid place. But you do not win arguments by picking the feeblest antagonist and assaulting his straw-built premises.

Raymond Depardon’s Modern Life is an epitaph on the rural smallholding. The great French documentarist who made 10th District Court and Profils Paysans has farming acquaintances – irresistibly characterful – in central-southern France.

Some of them, gnarled with mistrust and grimly jealous of their lands and traditions, could audition for a film of Cold Comfort Farm. They are watching their way of life die. For an hour there is no “message”, just Depardon driving around visiting and recording these pals. The faces like leather purses, the expressions like cracked rockfaces; the voices so laconic you could stick an entire short film between two sentences. Family feuds lurk like viruses. Two rheumy-eyed brothers cannot bear the daughter-in-law of one, a girl who has moved in on their shared home and livelihood: “She called us dirty, I’ll never take that.” A live-alone farmer, peering through lank, unwashed Richard III hair at some unending television church service, clearly has some tragedy-racked history. Another, younger farmer, reluctantly tending his parents’ imperilled holding, is trapped for talk atop a tractor by the director, but Depardon can barely wring three words from his shy, resentful phiz.

Even so, we are invited to shed a tear finally at the passing of the old peasant culture. Factory farming sweeps across the land, destroying not just the heritage of family husbandry but local dialects and folk culture. Progress has always been cruel, modernity murderous. But that brute reality doesn’t mean we cannot pause, with Depardon, to mourn and commemorate.

The old world beckons differently in Cherry Blossoms, written and directed by German miniaturist Doris Dörrie. Midlife couple Rudi and Trudi (Elmar Wepper, Hannelore Eisner), learning Rudi is terminally ill, take a trip to the Baltic. Death occurs; emotional adjustment creates its importunate weather system; a trip to a Tokyo-dwelling son, for the survivor, may lighten skies and mellow grief. I am stepping gingerly around a plot spoiler. Dörrie has a surprise early on, then a more extended and communicable “surprise” later. A young butoh dancer in a Japanese park proves she can hale an aching heart from an ageing body and reclothe it in hope. Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s great Tokyo Story, Dörrie aims to combine tragic resonance with origami delicacy. If she doesn’t quite go the distance – resonance needs richer characterisation, origami finer scissors – Cherry Blossoms is still a touching, tangibly personal chamber movie.

The kids will probably go mad for Monsters vs Aliens (left). My advice: let them. Stick them in the multiplex, fit them with the 3D glasses, then run a mile. This Easter digimation romp is big on action and slapstick, small on charm, tiny on wit and endurability; unless you are nine, when anything goes.

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