ALAN PARTRIDGE: ALPHA PAPA (15)
Directed by: Declan Lowney
Starring: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Sean Pertwee, Felicity Montagu, Anna Maxwell Martin
Star rating: * * * *
He may be a tragic, buffoonish, laughable figure who puts the “id” in idiot, but one of the reasons Steve Coogan’s finest creation has remained so consistently funny in the 20-plus years since first appearing on Radio 4’s On the Hour is that he’s also everyone’s worst version of themselves.
He’s the petty, insecure, conservatively minded monster who won’t let us get out of our own way, not because we’re completely lacking in self-awareness (though there’s an element of that), but because we’re often so scared of failure we’ll do everything in our limited power to hold on to our diminishing position in the world, even if there might be more to be gained from letting go and doing something else.
As it happens that’s roughly where we join the character in this first big screen outing. Having long since reached the zenith of his career as a short-lived BBC chat show host, the former Day Today sports commentator has been on a slippery slope to ignominy in the years since; his primetime career careening into a life of quiet desperation full of stalled dreams, pulped autobiographies and budget hotel living.
As the film opens, though, all that seems to be behind him. Working as a mid-morning radio show host on North Norfolk Digital in his home town of Norwich, he’s found a vehicle that’s as perfect for his inane brand of genial chat as the sponsored KIA saloon car he drives is for a man of his advancing years and frozen-in-time musical tastes.
Unfortunately changes are afoot in the world of regional digital radio. The mouthy breakfast DJs who ironically dedicate Roachford songs to Alan in the full knowledge that he won’t get the dis are the first sign that the station’s new owners are intent on ushering out the old as they rebrand the station with a new name (“Shape”) and a new slogan (“The Way You Want it to Be”).
Alan’s colleague Pat Farrell, a DJ of similar vintage and temperament played by a wonderful Colm Meaney, has already seen the writing on the wall and before long, his paranoia has convinced an otherwise ebullient Alan that the end is nigh. Raging against the dying of the on-air light, Alan implores the station management to “just sack Pat” after spotting his own name on a list of potential redundancies.
But when Pat brings a shotgun to the rebranding party and lays siege to the station, Alan’s career and popularity have the chance to flourish when an oblivious-to-the-betrayal Pat requests Alan to act as an intermediary between himself, the police and the public he’s convinced are still listening.
Wilfully echoing Dog Day Afternoon in the way Alan thrives on the attention of the growing crowd gathering to witness the stand-off between the police and Pat, this relatively straightforward premise provides a simple structure for a raft of brilliantly crafted gags that range from laugh-out-loud gut-busters to quietly funny moments of introspection. With the film written by Coogan and long-term collaborators Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham and brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons (TV veteran Declan Lowney has directed it), what’s surprising about this set-up is not how basic it is, but how fresh it feels in the not particularly illustrious pantheon of British sit-com-to-big-screen transfers.
The fact that the film’s makers haven’t simply conformed to the standard trope of sending characters abroad to ensure they’re no longer in their comfort zone is a definite bonus.
Then again, because Partridge has never been comfortable in his own skin, the specificity of his myriad insecurities have a tendency to make even the most innocuous-seeming, parochial or comfortable setting feel like a foreign country.
What’s amusing to see here is that despite the presence of familiar faces from his life in Norwich – particularly his long-suffering personal assistant Lynn (heroically played by Felicity Montagu) – he’s still as adept as he ever was at letting sudden panics about his future torpedo any chance of being able to change his life for the better.
Not that Partridge is completely unredeemable. It would be too cruel and too unpleasant to watch Alan completely fail and there are small triumphs through the film that seem destined to sustain him – at least until his next professional crisis contracts his world a little more.
At the centre of all of it, Coogan delivers a finely tuned masterclass in comedic character acting. He’s been living with Partridge for so long he understands every nuance, action and gesture and in Alpha Papa, perhaps in deference to the big screen, he allows this dinosaur-facing-extinction to be momentarily heroic. It works beautifully. Or as Partridge might put it: “Jurassic Park!”
OUT THIS WEEK
The Lone Ranger (12A)
Directed by: Gore Verbinksi
Starring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Ruth Wilson, William Fichtner
Star rating: * * *
Plenty of failed blockbusters start badly and never get any better. The Lone Ranger has the distinction of starting badly, going rapidly downhill, flat-lining for about an hour, then redeeming itself by pulling off one of the most breathlessly enjoyable finales of any blockbuster this year. From the moment The William Tell Overture kicks in 25 minutes from the end, the film becomes such a giddy blast of old fashioned stunt work, high-velocity action, outrageous physical comedy and amusing star turns it’s impossible not to wonder at what might have been had the team behind the Pirates of the Caribbean movies been a bit more fleet-footed when setting everything up.
Unfortunately, the preceding two hours spent outlining the origins story of the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and his friendship with his Native American side-kick Tonto (Johnny Depp) are such a slog, not only is it hard to keep track of who’s doing what to whom and why, it’s hard to care about the characters at all, much less the little nods to their illustrious heritage the film occasionally deviates to explore. Still, that ending is pretty fantastic.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (PG)
Directed by: Thor Freudenthal
Starring: Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T Jackson, Anthony Head, Stanley Tucci
Star rating: *
Like its predecessor, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is another desperate, sputtering attempt to get a franchise going to fill the enormous gap in the market left by the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. Unfortunately, said franchise continues to be little more than blatant, crass, Americanised rip-offs of JK Rowling’s boy wizard saga, only without the Potter-sized box-office receipts, something that may have contributed to Pierce Brosnan, Kevin McKidd and Steve Coogan not returning for this outing (Stanley Tucci and Anthony Head are the stand-ins).
As such, the burden falls more squarely on Logan Lerman to carry the action as Percy, the demigod son of Poseidon who is struggling to reconcile his status as a half-human with the fact that he now has magic powers that will one day have consequences for the fate of the universe. Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is the sort of charisma-free leading man-boy few could possibly have any interest in, so it’s hardly a surprise that the film ends up being a charmless barrage of clunky special effects and rote hero’s journey plotting.
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (18)
Director: Laurent Cantet
Starring: Raven Adamson, Madeleine Bisson, Katie Coseni
Star rating: * * *
A second attempt to adapt Joyce Carol Oates’s 1993 novel about a proto-feminist gang of delinquents living in 1950s upstate New York, French director Laurent Cantet’s version may boast a grittier and more credible evocation of the period than the forgotten 1996 Angelina Jolie version, but it suffers from slack pacing. It’s as if Cantet and his co-writer Robin Campillo can’t bear to streamline Oates’s prose and the result is a film that imagines the minutiae of its characters’ lives is more interesting than it actually is on screen.
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in the early parts of the film, as the wild, tomboyish Legs (Raven Adamson) corrals a group of misfit girls, timid princesses and home-makers-in-waiting into abandoning their prescriptive societal roles to join Foxfire, an all-female gang determined to counter the daily indignities heaped upon women by a patriarchal society that turns a blind eye to casual assault, sexual harassment and demeaning verbal abuse. Sadly, as tensions emerge and justifiable acts of petty criminality give way to more serious acts of gender revenge, Cantet can’t sustain the energy or find a way to portray the group’s dissolution without resorting to cliché.
Looking for Hortense (12A)
Directed by: Pascal Bonitzer
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Isabelle Carré, Claude Rich
Star rating: * * *
Revolving around a Parisian couple drifting apart in middle age, Looking for Hortense is a fairly run-of-the mill bourgeois relationship comedy drama enhanced, as ever, by the sadly all-too-brief appearance of Kristin Scott Thomas. She plays Iva, the theatre-director partner of lecturer Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri) whose relationship is being held together largely by their commitment to raising their neurotic young son.
Finding herself attracted to one of her actors, however, she embarks on an affair, at which point the film pretty much dispenses with her character to focus on Damien. Stung by her betrayal, he throws Iva out of their apartment, and proceeds to unravel.
There’s some nice interplay between the actors, and veteran screenwriter turned director Pascal Bonitzer attempts to weave in some political points about France’s attitude to immigration. Unfortunately it simultaneously feels as if there’s too much and not enough going on in the film to sustain interest.
The Wall (12A)
Directed by: Julian Roman Pölsler
Starring: Martina Geddeck
Star rating: * *
That The Wall offers fans of the brilliant German actress Martina Geddeck (The Lives of Others) the simple pleasure of watching her on screen by herself for much of the running time is the main reason to seek out this otherwise frustrating, existential, single-character drama from Austrian director Julian Roman Pölsler. She plays an unnamed woman who wakes up one morning while on holiday with her husband in an Alpine hunting lodge to find herself not just alone, but cut off from all other human contact by an invisible force-field that neither she nor her faithful dog can penetrate.
As the days slip by, she gives up trying to find a way out of this unexplained prison and resigns herself instead to an existence alone with her thoughts and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals. The dystopian sci-fi conceit at the heart of the film is really just an excuse for a meditative character study exploring what it means to be by oneself, so it’s too bad Pölsler relies on subtitled voice-over to convey his protagonist’s inner life instead of trusting his star’s talents to give us a sense of this.