Wave Goodbye

German director Dennis Gansel’s political allegory The Wave is based on a real event that took place in a Californian history class in 1967, when an impassioned history teacher laid down draconian new rules by way of introducing his students to fascism and was surprised to see the teenagers follow them to the letter.

Now transposed to modern-day Germany, we first meet Rainer Wegner (Jürgen Vogel), a hopelessly trendy teacher in a Ramones T-shirt and canvas satchel, as he races his car to work. Disappointment awaits - a rival teacher has taken the class on rock and roll anarchy and he must teach boring old autocracy. Stupid Hitler and all that stuff, say the kids on the first day; the jock, the hippy, the goth and the hot girl united in eye-rolling ennui. But Wenger has a trendy plan. He’ll subvert their expectations by turning the classroom into a microcosm of dictatorship, with him as the glorious leader.

Under the teacher’s charismatic instruction, the slouchy, lippy teenagers straighten up and fly right with implausible alacrity, adopting a white-shirted uniform and rediscovering personal grooming. The new class slogan, “Strength Through Discipline” has clearly struck a chord. By Wednesday, they have promulgated a floppy-armed salute, like someone describing the contours of a recumbent Sophia Loren. Thursday sees the class scrawl a graffito of flaming waves throughout the town while developing a snippy attitude towards outsiders and a not-the-brightest collective mentality, a C+ hive mind.

As the power-tripping Wenger surveys his new-build Reich, remnants of his liberal consciousness cause an eye to twitch. What Would Joey Ramone Do? Also, his wife doesn’t like it. The experiment continues apace, despite the efforts of a red-shirted dissenter (Jennifer Ulrich), who has cottoned on to ze movement’s malign momentum and made a myspace page about it. Just in time too. The kids have taken to pointing guns at punks, the point at which the already slack narrative finally loses its hold, the nub of truth worn down to didactic nudges and calculated contrivance. Friday holds little surprise.

More props than characters, the young ensemble are efficiently commanded by the veteran Vogel but are less convincing when playing soldiers amongst themselves. Although he touches off themes like teenage alienation and parental disinterest, Gansel turns an interesting premise into a grasping, over-extended trudge through the bullet points of totalitarianism. The Wave has things to say, but lacks the guile, wit and dramatic innovation to say them well.

A Memorandum Of It

Adapted from John Boyne’s bestselling 'young adult' novel, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of eight year old Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the son of the Nazi commander at Auschwitz, who strikes up a friendship with a Jewish boy Shmuel through the fence surrounding the camp, behind their house in the countryside.

A lonely, inquisitive child, Bruno is ignored by his career-minded father (David Thewlis), cosseted by his mother (Vera Farminga) and tormented by his teenage sister Gretel (Amber Beattie). The family have recently left Berlin to arrive at a beautiful Bauhaus manor in the country, beside what Bruno thinks is a ‘farm’. Wandering about one day, Bruno meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a skinny, bald-headed boy on the other side of an electrified fence, and the two strike up a friendship. Bruno wants a companion, someone to talk to, in part to help him understand what is going on around him. Shmuel only wants something to eat.

As an attempt to humanise the inhumane, and re-frame a terrible history in a way children can understand and empathise with, Boy In The Striped Pyjamas succeeds for the most part, but Harman’s adaptation falls prey to narrative blind alleys and emotional clichés without ever losing a nagging sense of over-simplification. He frames these events as a fable, establishing Bruno and Shmuel as allegorical archetypes but cannot then ground them in their time and place – a serious flaw when the time is the Holocaust and the place is Auschwitz. It is never a good thing when a film calls to mind the unutterably trite Life Is Beautiful and while Harman’s film doesn’t go as far as making a cartoon out of unfathomable suffering, there are moments when the film’s awkward artificiality are impossible to ignore.

Still, this is an interesting treatment of an interesting story, convincingly played by the two young leads. In the third act, Bruno cheerfully initiates a game, having spied on a screening of a propaganda film, setting in train a series of dreadful events that are beautifully crafted into a deeply powerful dénouement as Harman moves from the realm of fairytales to the stuff of nightmares. Elegantly photographed and delicately poised, there is enough in the last half hour to carry the entire film.

The headline comes from a passage in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland: "The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget!" "You will, though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it".

Fruit Machine Gun

There is a lot to like in Pineapple Express, a cross between Cheech & Chong and Lethal Weapon which reunites Freaks & Geeks stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as a pair of stoned idiots getting caught up in a drug war.

The curly-headed Rogen plays Dale, a habitual pot smoker, who buys his marijuana from Franco’s similarly bewildered Saul. While Saul rarely leaves his gadget-scattered apartment, Dale’s low-pressure job as a legal clerk, delivering writs to defendants, gives him plenty of time to spark up in his car between jobs. One night, half-baked, he witnesses druglord Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and his crooked-cop accomplice (Rosie Perez) murder an Asian gangster.

As it happens, the weed Dale was smoking is a rare strain known as Pineapple Express imported by Jones, who traces it back to his supplier Red (a scene-stealing Danny McBride), and then onto the boys. As Dale and Saul run for their lives, they soon discover that they’re not living out some pot-induced paranoid dream; the bad guy’s henchmen (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson) really are trying to kill them.

What follows is a suitably incoherent but brilliantly observed and affectionate buddy comedy that offers plenty of laughs in the first section, but abruptly switches genre half way through to turn into a surprisingly visceral action movie which revels in showing our previously charming and befuddled heroes pick up machine guns and kill dozens of people. It’s played as a spoof, but still, it’s a jolting transition that considerably lessens the film’s giggling appeal, trailing Hot Fuzz – for instance - in wanting to be two or three movies at once and ending up split down the middle.

Nevertheless, Pineapple Express has all the elements you expect by now from Rogen: barrel-chested male bonding, adolescent sexual fantasies, endless movie references and quotable foul-mouthed dialogue all suffused in the bittersweet whiff of marijuana. Fittingly his script, the second collaboration with Evan Goldberg following last year’s Superbad, rambles, becoming incoherent and distracted, but the life-affirming central story of male friendship is closely contained.

What really distinguishes this film from the stampede of Judd Apatow productions is the poetic touch of director David Gordon Green, an indie darling for his repertoire of offbeat, tender films like George Washington and All The Real Girls. Not the obvious pick for the material, Green does bring a fresh look to the typically flat, televisual scheme of these production-line comedies, but overplays his hand markedly in the big action finale, galloping through what is expected without bringing anything particularly new.

Rock Steady

Having failed to make his wife Madonna into a movie star and likewise botched his attempts to fashion a crime caper out of the ancient Jewish Kabbalah, mock-cockney chancer Guy Ritchie goes back to his roots for the surprisingly effective and determinedly entertaining Rocknrolla.

Opening with a flashy montage of the cast and a typically pounding juke-box soundtrack, Rocknrolla centres on…well, that’s the thing. Working from his own convoluted script, as he did in Lock, Stock... and Snatch, Richie once again creates a sprawling, character-heavy world where geezers and hoodlums rub shoulders with celebrity and high society, a legion of movers and shakers who wind their way through the story while at the same time becoming embroiled in the main plot, by accident or design.

As far as I can make out, that main plot involved a pair of wise-cracking London gangsters, One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba), who become involved in a land deal with the dangerous Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) that goes belly up. The pair, given an extremely short due date for the debt, are serendipitously recruited by crooked accountant Stella (Thandie Newton), to steal a bag full of money from her Russian oligarch paymaster Uri (Karel Roden). Into this already meaty soup, Richie throws a missing painting (which we never see), a missing-presumed-dead rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) and an out-of-their-depth pair of American music producers (played by Jeremy Piven and the rapper Ludacris). Acting as a guide, in voiceover, is Lenny’s right hand man Archie (an excellent Mark Strong), who discovers a dark secret about his boss that will test his loyalty.

Although too easily distracted and belaboured with some clunky dialogue and overly-flashy photography, Rocknrolla is a return to form for Richie, aided by a talented cast, Kebbell in particular, and an irrepressible energy. All the Richie motifs are present and correct; criminal slang and inventive swearing, coincidental comedy, surprising violence, car chases and whip-crack edits. Although essentially another rethread of the ‘missing valuables’ story, Richie shows his mastery of character, filling out the presentation with funny asides, mainly at the expense of his floundering would-be hero Butler.

As you’d expect from the title, the shiny action is underlined by a blistering, brilliantly-chosen soundtrack, Richie’s trademark skills at matching sound and visuals reaching a peak with the fuzzy, growling 'Have Love Will Travel' from 1960s garage-rockers The Sonics. Currently preparing his Sherlock Holmes adaptation with Robert Downey Jr, Ritchie has already said Rocknrolla will form the first part of a trilogy of interconnected crime capers, a development to be cautiously welcomed.

Stranger Danger

Minimalist American home-invasion thriller The Strangers is a bit like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games without the fun and games; a stripped-down, carefully modulated examination of what happens when a young couple are subjected to a night of terror at the hands of three masked psychopaths.

Returning late to their remote holiday home after a friend’s wedding, Kristen and James (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) were supposed to have a romantic night of champagne and swing music, but she has just turned down his proposal of marriage. The atmosphere already strained, things get worse when a strange girl bangs on the door at four in the morning, asking for someone who doesn’t live there. Slowly and steadily, the situation escalates, more banging on the door, strange messages written on the window, things going missing until, eventually, the intruders are inside the house.

On debut, writer and director Bryan Bertino shows his acute understanding of the fundamentals of horror storytelling – the unknown is terrifying, tension is everything and panic is contagious. After a lengthy set-up, the first encounter between madman and victim is well drawn, ending in a chillingly choreographed reveal as the masked psycho looms into frame behind Tyler’s back. We might have sent his sort of thing a thousand times, but it’s still frightening, particularly when Bertino focuses on sound to add an extra sensory dimension to the coming apocalypse. From that point, the stage set, the director pulls the few strings in his cat-and-mouse story taut, extending the stresses across his carefully composed widescreen with scenes played momentarily longer than expected and vibrato screams pitched just short of dog whistles.

What should result is a sense of dread and fear, but the mood is broken by nagging irrationalities and clumsy exposition. In these modern times, in order to properly isolate characters being lined up for gory execution, at least twenty minutes must be spent disabling their mobile phones. Here, in her first clue that something might be amiss, Tyler’s mobile is thrown on a fire by an unseen hand. Like filling out forms in a dentist’s waiting room, these scenes require processing before the real action can begin, but they are tiresome and time-consuming. Having established the victims as a couple on the verge of splitting up, Tyler and Speedman have nothing to do but race from one end of the house to the other, dodging the maniac’s thrusting blade, until they come to realise that their interpersonal problems don’t amount to much in the bigger scheme of things. In this, Speedman is a convincingly anonymous everyman but Tyler struggles to overcome her famous face, her absolute lack of ordinariness dragging us out of the fantasy.

In as much as you can extract a message from a film where young lovers are chased to their deaths by sadistic killers for 90 minutes, The Strangers real thesis emerges when, in a particularly sticky moment, Kristen asks James to find “his Daddy’s shotgun”. In a culture that sees itself as being under constant threat from and unknown and unreasonable external force, and must take every effort to defend itself, the first priority is an armed response. Kristen and James were unprepared, and look what happens to them.

As an exercise in controlled bedlam, The Strangers is efficiently, effectively scary, but it owes too many debts, from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs to James Foley’s Fear, via the mocking European ironists like Haneke and the French thriller Them, which it more or less remakes, without acknowledgement.