Film reviews round-up: Baywatch, The Red Turtle, The Other Side of Hope, Diary of a Wimpy Kid

A botched take on classic TV cheese, a beautiful new production from Studio Ghibli, a great Finnish talent returns, and a sequel flops

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Wednesday 24 May 2017 11:42
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Baywatch (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Seth Gordon, 116 mins, starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera

"Get it through your head, Mitch, you’re not a cop, you’re not The Equaliser,” the beefed up hero of Baywatch is told again and again. “He ain’t Superman, he’s just a damn lifeguard.”

This isn’t news that Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) is ready to accept. It also goes a long way to explaining why the film makes such little sense. Mitch is leader of a Lifeguard squadron. By rights, he should be rescuing drowning surfers and keeping the beach safe. However, he just can’t help behaving as if he’s on leave from the latest Marvel summer blockbuster.

Baywatch is an exercise is self-reflexive irony and kitsch. It’s mocking the original TV series – which seems pretty pointless given that the series was tongue in cheek anyway. Director Seth Gordon wastes no opportunity in showing women in swimsuits running in slow motion down the beach and making jokes about the men who lust after them.

There is a very painful bit of sub-Porkies comic business early on involving Ronnie (Jon Bass), the overweight youngster who wants to join the Baywatch lifeguard squad. Whenever he sees C.J., (Kelly Rohrbach), one of the female lifeguards, he gets an erection and then has to go to extreme lengths to hide it.

If the filmmakers can’t help slavering over the women in swimsuits, they’re equally obsessed with the physiques of Mitch and of Matt Brody (Zac Efron), the disgraced Olympic swimmer who has come to join the crew.

Baywatch - Red Band Trailer

Matt won two gold medals but vomited in the pool during the team relay after a night of heavy partying. He is supremely arrogant, drives a motorbike and has pecs almost as big as those of Mitch himself. Matt may be a celebrity whose presence on the team will be good PR but the screenplay asks us to believe that he’s also homeless and down on his luck.

The real challenge for screenwriters Mark Swift and Damian Shannon is to find something meaningful for the lifeguards to do. Saving mums and drowning toddlers is all very well but hardly enough to sustain a feature length movie.

That’s why they come up with a very flimsy storyline involving a beautiful and ruthless nightclub owner Victoria Leeds (played by former Miss World Priyanka Chopra) who is smuggling drugs, bribing politicians and trying to drive real estate prices down as she strives to get control of the bay. The cops are either too busy or too stupid or too corrupt to do anything about her. Mitch therefore takes on the task.

The most important relationship here is that between Mitch and Matt. Early on, Mitch goes out of his way to taunt and humiliate Matt, calling him “One Direction’ or “High Street Musical’ (another of the many in-jokes in the film.) Matt taunts Mitch in turn. Nonetheless, the bad mouthing is really just the prelude to the bromance we all know is bound to spring up between them.

Just occasionally, the filmmakers do squeeze out a few laughs. There’s a memorably grotesque scene in a morgue involving embalming fluids and the private parts of corpses. Bass’s Ronnie has an appealing lost puppy innocence about him as he continually makes a fool of himself in the showers and on the dance floor.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen gives an enjoyably sardonic performance as the cop on Bay duty, always trying to warn Mitch that he isn’t Batman. Many of the performances have a self-parodic quality as if the actors are playing live action versions of characters in a LEGO movie.

Whenever the plot is about to stall, there will be yet another slow motion close up of a female lifeguard in a swimsuit. You can tell that everyone is running out of inspiration by the final reel in which we’re treated to a spectacular but completely redundant fireworks display to stop our interest from ebbing away.

Director Gordon himself could do with some assistance from lifeguards as he flounders between scenes, uncertain whether he’s making a thriller, a bawdy National Lampoon style comedy or a public information film about how to stay safe in the water.

There are the inevitable cameos late on from David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson – stars of the original Baywatch – and hints that another sequel might be in the offing. This, though, is a franchise that doesn’t need saving.

The Red Turtle (PG)

★★★★☆

Dir: Michael Dudok de Wit, 81 mins

Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle is a rarity – an animated feature which feels utterly personal. This is a world away from Pixar or Disney. There is no dialogue. The animals don’t talk or pull funny faces. The film, co-produced by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, has a dream-like quality and an air of mystery.

The story is simple enough. A man is shipwrecked on an island. We don’t learn his identity or where he is from. He tries to escape, using trees to build himself rafts. He’s like Sisyphus. Whenever he takes to the sea, the rafts fall apart.

He is furious when a red turtle buffets one of his rafts, and he later has his revenge when the turtle is washed up on shore. This turtle, though, turns into a woman and there is the prospect of a blissful, Edenic life with her on the island.

The screenplay, by de Wit and French writer-director Pascale Ferran (best known internationally for her version of Lady Chatterley) is deliberately very spare. If a turtle becomes a woman with long, red hair, we are not provided with any explanation as to why. By refusing to provide background information, Dudok de Wit invites us to interpret events in any way we choose.

You can see the film as a Robinson Crusoe-like story of a castaway or as an allegory about human endurance and the cycle of life. Either way, it is exquisitely crafted. Whether it’s the movements of a crab, the way that the man casts shadows on the sand, the furious patter of a rainstorm or the shape of the sea waves, everything here is depicted in a precise way.

We have a sense of the stifling heat that the man is enduring and of how puny he is in the face of the natural world when storms or tidal waves threaten him.

There is no differentiation between fantasy and reality. If the man suddenly sees a classical music quartet playing on the beach or a bridge opens up across the water or he suddenly starts to fly, these scenes are represented in exactly the same way as the ones of him desperately trying to stay alive on the island.

At times, when he is together with the woman and their child and the weather is benign, the island appears a paradise. It can seem hellish too. The music by Laurent Perez del Mar plays a crucial role in setting the rhythm of the film and establishing its many changing moods. Kids may find it a little austere. (There aren’t many merchandising opportunities here.) Nonetheless, the film has an emotional kick that you’re certainly not going to get with Donald Duck.

The British-based Dudok de Wit is an immensely distinguished figure who has won Oscars and BAFTAs for his short films. The Red Turtle is his first full length animation. It’s a superb piece of work, beautiful and enigmatic.

The one critical question it provokes is why it needed to be made at feature length. At times, there are repetitions here. The ideas could all have been been communicated equally well in a shorter piece.

The Other Side Of Hope (12A)

★★★★☆

Dir: Aki Kaurismäki, 100 mins, starring: Kati Outinen, Ville Virtanen, Tommi Korpela, Matti Onnismaa, Sherwan Haji, Jörn Donner

The great Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki is an unsung hero in real life. He secretly helped smuggle Chechen couple Khadijat and Malik Gataev into Finland and fought for them to be given political asylum when they faced extreme persecution back home.

His new feature The Other Side Of Hope is a typically deadpan and brilliantly observed comic study of the plight of a fictional asylum seeker in Finland. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), first seen emerging from the coal on the ship he has stowed away on. He’s from Syria. His unlikely benefactor is travelling salesman turned restaurateur Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), another of Kaurismaki’s stoical and impassive heroes.

Kaurismaki tells his stories with a simplicity and directness reminiscent of old Charlie Chaplin movies. His films are effortlessly funny, even when they’re dealing with the darkest subject matter. He is one of the only filmmakers who could take a scene of a refugee being stabbed by a right wing thug and give it a comic pathos.

As Khaled, Haji has a Chaplin-like innocence. We see him at the refugee centre, treated as if he is a criminal, fingerprinted and photographed, and then put in a cell with an Iraqi refugee (who advises him of the importance of always seeming cheerful).

He has endured terrible suffering in the course of his journey to Finland and he and his sister are the only members of their family surviving. He’s desperate to be reunited with his sister.

There is a quirkiness here that you wouldn’t find in, say, a Ken Loach film on the same subject. Khaled’s plight is bleak. Parts of the film are very downbeat but the film comes complete with the familiar Kaurismaki ingredients: scene-stealing dogs, incongruous rock music and absurdist humour, much of it revolving around Sushi and Japanese ornaments. It’s also a redemptive story in which we see more of the best of human nature than of the worst.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (U)

★☆☆☆☆

Dir: David Bowers, 91 mins, starring: Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Charlie Wright, Jason Drucker, Alexa Blair Robertson

Bodily functions are to the fore in excruciating new family comedy Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul. We see nappies becoming stuck to people’s hands or vomit landing on their faces or little boys urinating in bottles during car journeys or the humour comes just from old fashioned potty jokes. These gags grow ever more desperate as the filmmakers pursue a ‘throw enough poo at the windscreen’ strategy and hope some of it will stick.

The Long Haul has the same characters as in the earlier Wimpy Kid movies but there are new actors playing them.The story follows the Heffley family on a long road trip to grandma’s 90th birthday party. Plot wise, this is very similar to the National Lampoon 2015 feature Vacation – but even cruder and less funny.

Little nerdy Greg (played this time out by Jason Drucker) has been humiliated on a video that has gone viral and is now known as “diaper hands”. His far-fetched plan to redeem his online reputation is to trick his family into taking him to gaming convention, Player Expo. Here, he hopes to shoot a video with his hero, Mack Digby, an obese and obnoxious gamer and YouTuber.

Alicia Silverstone, in one of her more thankless roles, plays the uptight mom Susan Heffley, who insists on her sons and husbands giving up their mobile phones so they can spend more time interacting as a family during their cross country trip. It’s a painful journey for everyone concerned, most especially the viewers. There are filthy, cockroach-infested motel rooms to endure, traffic jams and mechanical mishaps.

They pick up a piglet at a fair. Somehow, this cute but foul smelling little runt raids the mini-bar and lands the perpetually harassed dad Frank Heffley (Tom Everett Scott) with an enormous bill. (How the creature used its trotters to open the mini-bar door, let alone the packets of crisps, is never explained.)

Every so often, we’ll see some squiggly animation in the style of the books, and one or two of the jokes do actually work. There’s funny scene in which the baby younger brother Manny’s Spanish speaking ability gets the family out of a tight hole and the old fashioned slapstick (characters smeared with mud by a car wheel, Greg himself turning the strident orange colour of a cheesy wotsit) is fitfully effective.

What the film completely lacks, though, is the Adrian Mole-like pathos and gentle irony of the original Wimpy Kid movies. They focused closely on Greg’s best (and only) friend, the overweight but always cheerful, Rowley Jefferson.

Unfortunately, Rowley isn’t along for the ride here. Greg’s only foil and companion is his thoroughly unlikable and dim witted brother, Rodrick, the would-be rock drummer who is part of a band called Loaded Diaper. As portrayed here, the Heffleys make horrific travelling companions. This is a road trip best avoided.

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