Hamlet 2 (2008)

After my “Film Round-Up” posts of the last few months, I’m trying out another way to present shorter reviews of things I can’t bring myself to write up at greater length.

After a strong opening, this high school comedy about a washed-up drama teacher (Steve Coogan, playing American with middling effect) sort of peters out a bit. It’s a pity, because even if reminiscent of some of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer Players stagings, the film has the germs of a fine idea — that Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be improved upon and be inspiring to a new generation of students — but the film’s overall failure just reminds us how difficult comedy can be to get right. In the end, there are some good images that might suit an animated gif format (the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” setpiece for example), but beyond that, probably best given a miss.

Hamlet 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Andrew Fleming; Writers Fleming and Pam Brady; Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski; Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Skylar Astin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Steve Coogan has done a lot of fine acting work, particularly in the films of Michael Winterbottom (A Cock and Bull Story is my own favourite, though earlier this year was the underrated and less overtly comedic The Look of Love), but he remains most famous to British viewers for his character Alan Partridge, who’s had a number of radio and television series not to mention special appearances over the last two decades. The popularity of the character is such, in fact, that it’s prompted this film, though I’m just reciting what I’ve heard because I’d never seen any of these previous appearances (except for his segments on the wonderful The Day Today media satire). Luckily, the film is strong enough to stand on its own without any previous knowledge of his character.

Partridge is by this point a radio broadcaster in his local Norwich, though an erstwhile TV chat show host and before that a sports reporter, known for his terrible fashion sense (knitted sweaters, polo necks and the like), his penchant for bloated MOR rock, his retrogressive political views and most of all, an overweening ego. When the station is taken over and rebranded by a conglomerate named Shape, threatening layoffs, Partridge does all he can to ensure he does not lose his job (or more particularly, his access to whatever small remaining local celebrity he still retains), forcing fellow DJ Pat (played by Colm Meaney) into the firing line. This leads Pat to take the station and its management hostage, and Partridge is the go-between in the ensuing crisis.

There’s some of the same play with a nostalgic past that’s in the other big British comedy of this summer, The World’s End, and though the initial impulse is to laugh at the expense of Alan’s character, in truth there’s a lot of sadness at some of the changes that have occurred, not least those wrought by the rapacious corporate overlords Shape, who have forsaken community values in implementing a bland programming schedule on the radio station. We repeatedly get the sense that the community is behind Pat and Alan rather than the hostages, though that’s only ever around the edges; the filmmakers thankfully aren’t interested in jokes at the expense of the audience (whether the one in the film, or the one watching it).

Beyond this affectionate tribute to the kind of regional and local media that’s so often overlooked, there’s no really big theme to the film, and it’s competently put together. However, it’s consistently funny and sustains the laughs to the end; even the big emotional scenes aren’t played entirely straight, but you get the feeling that beneath the laughs there is a genuine sense of fondness for a disappearing strain of media personality. Steve Coogan may play the character, but the character seems to have his own existence by now.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa film posterCREDITS
Director Declan Lowney; Writers Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Armando Iannucci; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 10 August 2013.

The Look of Love (2013)

It’s not much of a stretch to see Michael Winterbottom as a sort of British Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker who has turned his hand to a huge range of different film projects over his career, which he churns out at a fearsome rate and which are always put together with verve and visual flair, despite sometimes being of uneven quality. While I found Soderbergh’s most recent film Side Effects (2013) at times overburdened itself with melodramatic twists, I might say that this film remains a bit too comfortable given its potential, though both films are excellent at telling their respective stories.

I suppose the extent to which you’ll like The Look of Love (originally to be called The King of Soho, though that title has been optioned by the subject’s son for his own future film project) is a matter of how much you empathise with Steve Coogan’s portrayal of the brooding ‘regal’ central character, Paul Raymond. Your response may also be influenced by the casual (female) nudity that frequently frames the scenes. After all, Raymond was an impresario in the world of adult entertainment, and though his character is always quick to avoid being labelled a mere pornographer, his legacy as filtered through this film is very much one of sleazy softcore magazine titles like Men Only and the kinds of faux-artistic revue shows that can claim a direct lineage to those glitzy Las Vegas acts as seen in films like Showgirls (1995). In a press conference at one point, he is asked by a female journalist if his work is demeaning to women, for which question he pauses briefly before grandiloquently stating “no”; however this statement is immediately undercut through montage, as we skip straight to the sleaziest yet of photoshoots for his magazine, one dominated by many of the signifiers of naff 80s Britain.

As a story which covers several decades from the mid- to late-20th century, it’s mainly style which dates the passage of time: haircuts, clothes, interior decor, fonts and design. The Soho that we glimpse around the (period-dressed and coiffed) characters is largely the scrubbed-up gentrified present day Soho with its hip bars and restaurants, and as an aesthetic choice to avoid the wholesale recreation of a more ‘accurate’ historical fabric, it’s a subtle way perhaps of imbricating into the past Raymond’s more enduring property legacy. We are reminded more than once during the film of just how much of Soho he bought up in the 1970s and especially after the financial crash of the 1980s (and which his family presumably continues to own), leaving it an area largely untouched by the kinds of unattractive wholesale redevelopment that has beset other parts of central London, with enduring institutions such as the wonderful Maison Bertaux tearoom (glimpsed a number of times in this film). It is an area which has reinvented itself just like its owner (himself born Geoffrey Quinn).

Of course, the film’s story is more interested in presenting the more sordidly photogenic side of Raymond’s pursuits. The narrative is framed by his old age and the early death of his beloved daughter Debbie (played charmingly in the film by Imogen Poots), as he reflects on his life up to that point. It’s a choice that ensures that all of what we see of his life is inflected with an underlying melancholy, though even without it, I feel that Coogan’s performance, all hollow-eyed flashy bravado, is strong enough to convey the ennui of his existence. And sure, like Arbitrage (2012) earlier this year, this makes it essentially another film about the travails of a nouveau riche, which you’d be quite entitled to dismiss, except for the characterful central performances (Coogan here as Gere there).

But aside from Coogan (and a nice turn by Chris Addison as the louche magazine editor Tony), it’s the female actors who dominate The Look of Love and really carry the film. Tamsin Egerton enters initially as the coquettish Amber, a showgirl in one of Raymond’s shows, before reinventing herself as Fiona and taking control of her life, though from the very first she’s clearly no-one’s stooge. Meanwhile Anna Friel, as Raymond’s first wife, invests a character who could easily be a nagging shrew with far more pathos and assertiveness. Their character arcs further ensure that Raymond, a man of undoubted ambition but with the Hefner-like affectations of a self-centred roué, never really compels as a role model: as played by Coogan, he is easily charismatic but difficult to really sympathise with. His part in the decline of his daughter comes to overshadow and inflect his other achievements.

Whatever the squalid excesses of the life the film depicts, it’s a compelling story of reinvention which shines an affectionate if unflattering light on a corner of London’s recent history.

Director Michael Winterbottom; Writer Matt Greenhalgh (based on the book Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond by Paul Willetts); Cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski; Starring Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Tamsin Egerton, Anna Friel; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 2 May 2013.