Monday, 19 August 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

At long last Steve Coogan brings his comic creation to the big screen and succeeds in hilarious fashion. Though the central conceit – a siege at North Norfolk Digital – upgrades Alan’s story to an intentionally-more cinematic outing, the action stays firmly in Norfolk. It’s an outlandish storyline but hey, this is comedy and it’s certainly not an incongruous gimmick like a holiday abroad for the entire cast. The Partridge Universe is thus expanded while staying close and very true to its roots.

North Norfolk Digital has been taken over by a large conglomerate and been rebranded as the more youth-aimed ‘Shape’. A victim of its restructuring, disgruntled DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) comes back to the station armed and takes everyone hostage. Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is recruited by the police to assist in the negotiations.

The simplicity of the story is key to its success. The action surrounds one main location - the radio station – and its sheer lack of glamour is used to splendid comic effect. Nakatomi Plaza this is not. The mores of the siege genre are followed to the T (negotiation through bullhorns, media circus etc) but in a quirky and exquisitely Partridge manner.

Alan Partridge’s shortcomings are legion: he’s bigoted, shallow, egotistical and selfish, to name just a few. The film fleshes out that persona, but revealing (even more so) that he’s only human. His awkwardness is intrinsically English and his behaviour, while not entirely forgivable, is understandable. Well, sort of. Coogan is wonderful in the role. You feel sorry for Alan but accept who he is and you’ll always end up rooting for him.

Declan Lowney has a long and impressive CV (Father Ted is just one of the great TV comedies he’s directed) and he’s worked with Coogan before on the little-seen-but-rather-lovely Cruise of the Gods. He draws great performances from all and exacts devastating comic timing. The always-superb Colm Meaney brings bona fide Hollywood heft to the table and is alternately funny and scary. Solid support comes from Partridge regulars Lynn Benfield, Simon Key, Simon Greenall, Nigel Lindsay and Phil Cornwell, along with an effective host of new blood. Writing duo, twins Neil and Rob Gibbons reinvigorated Partridge with Mid Morning Matters which established the film’s foundation and, I imagine, helped bring this to fruition. Here they supply a fine, economically-scripted and stupendously funny cinematic outing.

It’s peculiar sharing the normally-confined-to-your-home experience of Alan Partridge with an audience who will, undoubtedly, be laughing their heads off so I cannot recommend this enough. NB: While not as earth-shaking as some of Marvel’s recent output, it’s worth staying a while as the credits roll.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Lone Ranger

While only just released in the UK and still yet to open in a number of other territories The Lone Ranger is looking to lose Disney - by its own admission - $190 million. The film-makers have been quoted as blaming the critics. If I may be included in that critical fraternity, it’s flattering that they think we wield such power. There have been more than a few critically-lambasted stinkers that have made pots of cash. Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Titanic were not noted for kind appraisals yet they still made over a billion dollars, as did two execrable Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Of the latter, that same team - star Johnny Depp, director Gore Gorbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer - reunite here to produce a work of inconceivably-less effect. It’s not the critics who are to blame for its failure, it’s the sheer flat-footedness of the film.

Lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a deputised Texas Ranger who unwillingly teams up with Native American Tonto (Johnny Depp). They step outside the law to avenge his brother who died at the hands of stone killer Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).

The Lone Ranger himself is a figure of fun – inept and silly – whereas the put upon Tonto is the brains of the duo. That’s a lovely dynamic, seen to exceedingly-greater effect with, for example, the far-smarter Gromit ever propping up the hapless Wallace. The Tonto part does work but the film tries to offer John Reid pathos and dignity when he’s nothing more than a clown. In this respect, it’s very uneven in tone. His story swings clumsily from a serious man out for revenge, winning back his true love to a fool, hopelessly out of his depth and incapable of change.

Armie Hammer is not bad in the role, it’s just badly written and due to the writing (not the actor) he’s an unlikeable hero. He does his best with the material and I hope this doesn’t put a kibosh on his career because the man has talent – he has comic chops and dramatic presence. Depp is really quite brilliant, though. The level of commitment in his performance makes me very sad because he simply deserved a better film. His Tonto offers some glittering nuggets of humour amidst this big pile of dirt. It doesn’t help that he’s the sidekick, playing second fiddle to someone we care two hoots about. But when he’s on screen he is rather wonderful, giving a consistently-comical performance as the put upon Comanche in a white man’s world. And, ingeniously, he pulls it off without being in the least bit patronising.

At two and a half hours I immediately assumed it to be overlong for a family film. However, Mary Poppins runs just ten minutes shorter and, like Mary herself, that film is “practically perfect in every way”. It’s the lack of fun in The Lone Ranger that makes it so bloated. For all its big action set-pieces there is much tiresome, humourless plodding. So its length will certainly exceed the attention span (and popcorn consumption) of younger viewers.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Only God Forgives

You'd be forgiven for expecting Drive 2: Bangkok Boogaloo. However, this is a very different beast from Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling's previous collaboration.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug smuggler in Bangkok operating behind the veneer of a Thai boxing gym. As a result of his vile behaviour, scumbag brother Billy (Tom Burke) meets a grisly end. Julian accepts the consequences of his actions but their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) seeks vengeance on corrupt cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Sounds exciting, right? Alas, the film is painfully dull. It's all very attractive, mind. The beautifully-lit Thai locations are richly bathed in colour. Crisp neon hangs against endless deep reds. There's also great camera work involving some very sexy tracking shots. The entire piece is an exercise in stylish flourish but it’s seriously lacking in substance. The absence of a solid script makes the rudderless direction acutely self-conscious. This provides plenty of unintentional laughs. The supposedly profound comes across as plain silly.

An otherworldly atmosphere is achieved by the director but that spell is often broken by cringe-inducing lines of dialogue. For a film without a great deal of talking, much of the dialogue is fantastically klunky. In terms of writing, the director has gained more success through collaboration. (And Drive was scripted entirely by Hossein Amini, adapting from James Sallis’ book.) Here, Winding Refn takes a sole screenplay credit which, I believe, speaks volumes. The timing has a lot to be desired too and I don't think you can blame the editor. It actually feels like a first-time director finding their feet. As a result, I found the whole thing extremely daft and incredibly boring.

One of the few things the film shares in common with Drive is the bursts of eye-watering violence. Winding Refn executes these moments with proficiency and great relish. On more than one occasion this softy reviewer was struggling to keep his eyes on screen.

Kristin Scott Thomas does have a few good lines and, as a result, steals the show. It's an impressive performance as a very different kind of ice queen. A key issue is the Gosling role. I don't mind characters not having an arc but the problem with this protagonist is that you are offered scant reason for everything he does. As a result, the film’s message is very confused. 

In an industry of endless derivation I admire the director’s intention to create a different commodity. In that respect he has succeeded. Only God Forgives is unique in its peculiarity but it’s deeply flawed.