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Posts Tagged ‘Colm Meaney’

It’s something of a remarkable week, as for the first time since March they have released two new movies which interested me enough to make the effort to see them (well, all right: a friend suggested seeing this second one, I’m not entirely sure I would have bothered otherwise). Both of them were partly financed by Ingenious Media – I’m not sure whether this was a coincidence or not – and, confirming my suspicion, both of them were preceded by virtually an identical set of trailers: Kenneth Branagh dusting off his moustache and Belgian accent, Colin Firth weepy, Blumhouse’s Craft remake and peculiar mash-up of Freaky Friday and Halloween, etc, etc. I forgot to mention – perhaps my subconscious was heroically trying to shield me – another movie on the way out, which looks like being a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy to do her usual schtick. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but it also seems to prominently feature James Corden as the voice of a super-computer. Friends, if we all get out of this year intact, one of the things I will take away from it is the sudden realisation that I don’t need to brutalise myself by going to see movies with James Corden in them, and I’m damned if I’ll watch another.

Not that I’m swearing off dodgy movies entirely, of course, or I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Barnaby Thompson’s Pixie. This is Thompson’s first movie as sole director, but as a producer he has a track record going all the way back to Wayne’s World, nearly thirty years ago. Since then he has had a hand in a bewildering variety of films, including Spice World, The Importance of Being Earnest, Fisherman’s Friends and a version of Lassie – of the few of these that I’ve seen, none particularly impressed me, if we’re honest, and some of them were honestly really poor. However, I knew none of that when actually going to see the new movie (which is probably just as well).

Pixie is set in Northern Ireland and mostly concerns the doings of the title character (played by Olivia Cooke) and the various men (young and old) who wind up in her orbit. One of these is her stepfather Dermot (Colm Meaney), who is the local gangster kingpin. The fact that this is going to be a knockabout crime thriller aspiring towards black comedy is established when two young men kill some drug dealers dressed as Catholic priests (despite the fact that two of them are supposedly Afghan) and steal a huge quantity of drugs from them.

After some rather convoluted plotting has unfurled itself, the drugs end up in the possession of two entirely different young men, Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack), who are not the sharpest or most self-aware tools in the shed. Luckily, they are acquaintances of Pixie, who blackmails them into cutting her in on the drug deal they are hoping to set up: her share will finance her going to art school in America, apparently.

However, the original owner of the drugs, one Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin, giving a textbook demonstration of a phoned-in performance from an imported American star), would like them back, and in addition Dermot has also sent one of his people in pursuit of the trio, not realising one of them is his own stepdaughter…

Well, when the lights came up at the end of Pixie and we were sitting there watching the closing credits, I turned to my companion, feeling compelled to share my gut reaction. ‘People have got to get over wanting to be Quentin Tarantino sooner or later.’ My friend is perhaps a little too young to have lived through that era where every aspiring film-maker and their dog was trying to do a knock-off of Pulp Fiction – things like Two Days in the Valley, The 51st State and Killing Zoe – so it took him a moment so see what I meant, but the odd thing about Pixie is that it does feel very much like a script from the mid-to-late nineties that it’s taken them twenty years to find the financing for.

If this were actually the case, I might even suggest they could have usefully spent the intervening time polishing the thing up, because while films about laid-back Irish chancers out for a bit of craic are all very well, they still need to have reasonably sharp and cohesive screenplays. This one has one of the most fumbled opening acts I can remember seeing, with what feels like a lot of needless faffing about – or at least poor exposition – and characters being introduced in the wrong order. It does all settle down eventually, but it’s still a needless demand on the audience’s goodwill.

Even then, the film constantly feels like it’s on the verge of unravelling completely, with jokes not really connecting, significant bits of storytelling just not there and inconsistent characterisation being used to keep the plot going: Pixie herself is a cool, smart, plans-ten-steps-ahead kind of girl, except when it’s necessary that she isn’t. After meandering about amiably for over an hour, the film suddenly seems to realise it needs to have some kind of climax, and so one is rapidly contrived: though just what the principal characters’ plan is never quite becomes clear – the director seems much more interested in a slo-mo shot of a screaming nun firing a pump-action shotgun.

As I say, it is kind of amiable, and it does have some very able actors in it like Colm Meaney and Dylan Moran (who gets a very funny cameo). Front and centre all the way through, though, is Olivia Cooke, whose career I have followed, not without interest, since she appeared in the Nu-Hammer movie The Quiet Ones in 2014. She does her usual fine job, but this is not one of the better films on her CV. ‘What do men see in irritating free spirits?’ wondered Julia Roberts’ character in Larry Crowne; well, it’s clearly still a live question, as the film is named after Cooke’s character for a reason, and we are all clearly supposed to fall in love with her. She’s an odd mixture of butt-kicking feminist and Holly Golightly – streetwise, ambitious and determined, but also caring and not without her vulnerable side (with the faintest suggestion of a slightly kinky sexual availability too). I have to say the character didn’t really seem plausible to me, despite Cooke’s best efforts – and even if she had been, I would probably have found it difficult to warm to someone whose repertoire includes dealing in drugs, swindling her so-called friends and the odd cold-blooded murder.

Then again, none of the film really feels like it has any connection to the real world, even the real world we were expecting at the start of the year. It’s not the worst film of its genre that I’ve ever seen, but it has nothing like the genuine warmth and texture and really good jokes of a film like The Guard (another black comedy thriller set on the island of Ireland). Olivia Cooke, possibly not for the first time, passes the movie star test by being very watchable in a not very good movie, but this is still really a waste of potential in most ways that count.

 

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I almost get the sense that 2020 is a moment the world got stuck in and can’t get out of: in some respects, at least. The much-feted reopening of cinemas doesn’t seem to amounted to very much at all, with Tenet only having made about $36 million at the US box office after several weeks of release, cinemas are still closed in some major cities. (Yes, a paltry sum indeed – I should like to say, for the benefit of any moguls reading this, that if they would like to give me a lump sum, a mere 10% of Tenet‘s American take, I will happily never say a bad word about a James Corden-starring movie ever again. Everyone has their price, even if it’s a mere three and a half million dollars.)

As you’ve probably read, the studios have taken fright at this and suspended the release of any other substantial movies – the kind that the average cinema relies upon to earn its crust. People aren’t going to the cinema, so new films aren’t being released, so people aren’t going to the cinema even more. It’s hard to see where this will stop. The art house in Oxford closes again as of Friday, while the big commercial cinema is down to a three-day-week from the same point.

The bellwether in all of this certainly looks like the decision to postpone the release of No Time to Die from November this year until early spring of next. (I don’t believe in this notion of ‘cursed films’, but given all the travails this one has suffered, from losing Danny Boyle onwards, I’m almost inclined to declare an open mind where Bond 25 is concerned.) Eon have taken some stick for what unsympathetic commentators have decried as an act of cowardice, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to be quite so critical: the Bond movies are their main source of income, after all, and it’s in their interest to try to ensure both the films themselves and the manner in which they are released are as good as they can manage.

I’ve been musing on all things Bond-related recently, for a number of unconnected reasons, and this led me to (finally) watch Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 film Layer Cake, a film which has certainly ended up in the orbit of the Bond franchise, even if this wasn’t the intention at the time: back when it was new, everyone’s point of reference was Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the plethora of mostly underwhelming knock-off lairy gangster movies it went on to spawn.

The title of the film, lest you be wondering, is a metaphor for the hierarchy of the criminal underworld, which is the milieu in which almost all of it takes place. Daniel Craig plays an ambitious young professional – his name is never revealed – whose industry of choice is the drugs trade. He is. very pointedly, not a gangster – he is a goal-oriented businessman, with a plan to make his money and then retire. It seems like he knows all the angles and has the firmest of grips on what’s happening around him.

(Not entirely surprisingly, the film seems to have no moral qualms about depicting drug dealers, and indeed narcotics themselves, in a moderately sympathetic light – one of the few times Craig sounds morally outraged is when musing on the fact that, if convicted, he’d do more time inside than a rapist, the implication being that drug pushing is a trivial offence compared to sexual assault. Hmmm, well. It certainly seems of a piece with the non-judgemental view of drug users from the second Kingsman film, also directed by Vaughn.)

All this changes for the Craig character, however, when senior gangster Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) puts the brakes on his plans to retire – at least until he’s done a couple of jobs for him. One of them is finding the errant young daughter of Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), another businessman with a portfolio which is not 100% legal, the other is handling the disposition of a huge quantity of Ecstasy which a gang of small time criminals – these guys are basically idiots – have nicked from a gang of Serbians.

Craig protests it’s not really in his line, but Price is insistent: but things proceed to get worse and worse. It turns out there is more to the missing young woman than initially meets the eye: murky gangland politics are involved. It turns out that the Serbians, meanwhile, think Craig is responsible for the theft of their drugs – due to one of the gang of idiots shooting his mouth off – and have dispatched an assassin noted for the savagery of his methods to retrieve them. It’s almost enough to make a serious-minded professional contemplate violence…

I must confess to a bit of a dislike of the laddish gangster movie as inaugurated by Guy Ritchie, even though I’ve only seen one of Ritchie’s movies which qualifies as such – 2005’s baffling Revolver. It’s probably because of my exposure to all those knock-offs, some of which I have had the misfortune to see: 51st State, Love, Honour and Obey, and Rancid Aluminium (supposedly the worst film ever made in the UK: given this list necessarily includes titles like Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Peter Rabbit, the mind boggles as it has seldom done before).

I suppose my dislike really stems from that very laddishness of the films – a sort of crass hetero-normativity, coupled to amorality and the idea that violence and criminality is inherently funny. One point in Layer Cake‘s favour is that much of this is dialled down to the extent that it is simply background noise – although it almost goes without saying that this is still a very blokey film: Sienna Miller plays Craig’s love interest, and is almost wholly decorative, while Sally Hawkins plays ‘Slasher’, one of the gang of idiots. Nevertheless, the film does handle its subject matter and the consequences (mostly) thoughtfully – the nature of the drugs trade isn’t dwelt upon, but at one point Craig realises that the only way to avoid a lengthy prison term and the loss of all he’s acquired is to kill a man in cold blood, and the corrosive effect of this, and its aftermath, are considered and depicted at some length.

There’s something very familiar about this bit, in particular, especially nowadays: the dead, icy look appearing in Craig’s eyes as he accepts he has crossed a line and can never go back. If Layer Cake is remembered for one thing, it’s as the film that swung Craig the role of Bond, and you can see why – he looks good, handles the violence and the womanising equally well, and also can clearly bring the extra level of humanity to the part that Eon were looking for at the time. Yet it is a different character, less of a rogue than Bond, more cerebral – to begin with at least. (Interest for Bond-followers in the film may be added by the presence of Michael Gambon, who turned down the role in 1971, not to mention Craig’s several scenes with Ben Whishaw, while we can only hope that the presence of a young Tom Hardy in a small role is a portent of future pub-quiz questions to come.)

Craig is very good as a man who’s forced to get his hands dirty and come to terms with the fact that, when it comes to criminal politics, being the smartest man in the room isn’t always enough to get results. This is the script’s main thesis, which it puts across well enough – though a lot of it is the usual gangster nonsense, presented fairly stylishly. The rest of the performances are also rather good – Colm Meaney is also in the gang, as is George Harris, while Gambon is genuinely frightening as the senior man on the scene.

In the end I would say this was a good film rather than a truly great one – good performances and ideas are not quite elaborated upon enough in the script, and it does still fall into a few of the typical post-Ritchie potholes. Nevertheless, this is a superior, tough thriller, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits rather than as an extended audition piece for its star’s most famous job.

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I can honestly say – and I have this in common, I suspect, with a number of friends and acquaintances – that I don’t know quite what shape my life would be, in the absence of the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I probably don’t fully appreciate the scale of their influence, for the same reason that it’s quite hard to accurately gauge the size of an island while you’re living on it. That said, I don’t think I ended up living in Oxford solely because Tolkien resided here for much of his life, even though he has a palpable link with the city (much more so than Jo Rowling, not that this bothers the speciality tour operators and gift shop owners much). Anyway, it seemed entirely fitting to go and see Dome Karukoski’s new film about Tolkien’s early life, entitled (unsurprisingly) Tolkien, in Oxford. Tolkien is such a draw around here that the new film even managed to challenge the Marvel hegemony and land the biggest screen at Oxford’s most distinguished city centre cinema.

The meat of the film gets underway with Tolkien’s youth in the rustic idyll of a place called Sarehole (UK readers, feel free to come up with your own anagrams), but this naturally does not last long. With his widowed mother on her uppers and the family reliant on the charity of the church, it is still a shock when local priest Father Transporter Chief from Star Trek (Colm Meaney) has them all moved to grotty digs in industrial Birmingham.

Still, young JRR (Harry Gilby) soon makes friends with the better-off boys from the prep school he is sent to, and they swear eternal friendship and all the usual sort of thing, forming a club to discuss art and poetry and music and other sorts of culture (suffice to say that Wagner does not prove popular – ‘there’s no need to take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring,’ someone complains, one of the few flashes of genuine wit in the script). However, as the one-day-to-be Prof gets older (transforming into Nicholas Hoult along the way), he finds himself increasingly drawn to his adopted sister Edith (Lily Collins), despite the disapproval of Father Transporter Chief, who thinks he should be focusing on trying to pass the Oxford entrance exam.

Well, to cut a fairly long movie short, there is Oxford, potential failure, heartbreak, philology, and then the looming spectre of the First World War. It’s all enough to give a man the idea for a best-selling (and that’s putting it mildly) series of books…

I don’t mean to be harsh to what is an undeniably pleasant and apparently well-meaning movie, but Tolkien is basically a con trick, trying to fool you into thinking things are in it which are simply not present. As everyone involved has taken great pains to point out, they don’t have the rights to any of Tolkien’s fiction – his most famous books were brought to the screen a few years ago, as you may possibly have noticed it – and so the film can only allude to them. (They don’t even appear to have the rights to quote from Tolkien’s gravestone, the text of which is referred to but not in any detail.) So much of the film consists of subtle little hints and references intended to put you in mind of something Peter Jackson did on a rather bigger budget in New Zealand, without actually being a direct steal.

The other problem is one common to many biopics operating in this particular sphere of the arts, which is how you make the life of a writer remotely cinematic. Writers tend not to have very interesting lives (well, except for maybe Hemingway and Steinbeck); the life of Tolkien, the part for which he is remembered, with him actually putting in the hours and writing out The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and so on, was that of a middle-aged university don sitting in his study every night for years and years. How are you supposed to turn that into a film with any kind of commercial prospects?

Karukowski’s answer to this is to put together a fairly predictable coming-of-age storyline which mostly feels like off-cuts from Dead Poets Society seasoned with a sort of lament-for-doomed-youth vibe, as the bold and bright (and mostly very rich) young lads grow up together before marching off to the trenches. Intercut with this is a conventional romance-against-the-odds plot as Tolkien must overcome his own limited prospects, not to mention Father Transporter Chief’s resistance, and win the woman he truly loves.

You may be thinking ‘this all sounds very generic’ and you would be right. Karukowski’s cunning way of giving all this Added Tolkien Value is load the film with sly little references, mostly to the Jackson films: we see Tolkien the boy playing in a landscape intended to suggest the Shire, and when the family move to Birmingham, it is a dark, hellish vision of looming towers, belching smoke and spouting flame (not sure the Birmingham Tourist Board are going to be wild about the suggestion their city is effectively twinned with either Barad-dur or Isengard). Young Tolkien can’t see a tree outside the window without being inspired to start drawing Ents, and – in the film’s biggest set piece – the feverish young officer witnesses the battle of the Somme and has a vision of dragons and wraiths devastating the British army. All the while on the soundtrack, Thomas Newman is trying to sound as much like Howard Shore as possible without actually being sued. As someone else has said, it is a bit like Shakespeare in Love but without the jokes; if this film were true, it’s not really surprising that Tolkien wrote all those books, it must have been essential therapy for him.

But it’s not true, and it does Tolkien the disservice of suggesting his whole life was essentially preparation for the moment he sat down and wrote the word ‘Hobbit’ for the first time. So much of what made Tolkien such an extraordinary man is entirely absent from the film – his extraordinary facility for language is touched upon, but many telling facts are omitted, perhaps for fear they would make him seem a bit weird: the fact he claimed to recognise archaic Anglo-Saxon upon first encountering it, his habit of referring to the Norman conquest as a relatively recent event, and so on. I’ve seen it suggested that Tolkien felt the Norman conquest essentially destroyed native Anglo-Saxon culture, and that his works were an attempt to provide a substitute for this – ‘how one man, in his lifetime, did the work of nations,’ to paraphrase a quote off the back of my copy of The Silmarillion.

There are moments in the film which do fumble their way towards a more authentic notion of JRR Tolkien – there’s quite a long scene discussing his belief that the words cellar door are the most euphonious sound in the English language, and quite a long section where he and his mentor (Derek Jacobi) discuss trees, which Tolkien loved. They lift the film, but also suggest the possibilities of a much more interesting, but probably more cerebral and less commercial one, which this definitely isn’t: Tolkien is basically the romantic lead throughout, albeit one whose walls appear to be covered with pictures from Peter Jackson’s art department.

That said, the film is as well-mounted as you would expect, in the usual British hats-and-fags way, and it has to be said that Nicholas Hoult does the very best he can with a somewhat unrewarding part. The film clearly admires Tolkien and wants to be respectful towards him, but too often it makes the easy and obvious choices. The result is a good-looking but ultimately rather simplistic film that sometimes seems to be more interested in Tolkien’s books (or, even worse, their film adaptations) than the man himself.

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There is no doubt a very good reason why Steve Coogan, Armando Ianucci, Peter Baynham and their various colleagues have chosen this year to release an Alan Partridge movie, but for the life of me I can’t quite make out what it is. It’s not as though all their careers have been in the doldrums, and they’re in need of a relatively safe bet to make some money – Coogan has led one film in the last twelve months and played major roles in a couple of others. Nor is it that public interest in and demand for more Alan is currently at a peak – it would have been a relatively easy prospect to secure funding for this project at any time in the last fifteen years, and I always got the impression that it was Coogan himself who was reluctant to spend too much time playing Norwich’s famous son. Nevertheless, here it is – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (the subtitle is largely irrelevant), directed by Declan Lowney.

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Everyone in the UK, surely, has some idea who Alan Partridge is, but I suspect he is much less celebrated in the wider world. Suffice to say that Partridge has bestridden the media landscape like a sports-casual-clad colossus for over two decades now, first rising to fame as a radio sports correspondent, then exhibiting a magisterial grasp of interviewing techniques in various branches of the BBC. Sadly, his chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge was cancelled in 1994 due to unacceptably low viewing figures (and the high mortality rate amongst the guests), since when the great man has retreated to become a legend in Norfolk-based local radio.

This is where we find him as the film opens. The station at which he works has just been bought by a large media company, who are intent on making changes – and when Alan discovers his name is on a list of potential sackees, he does the honourable thing and persuades them to get rid of fellow veteran DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) instead of him. Pat takes this news badly and proceeds to take everyone in the building hostage at gunpoint, insisting on being allowed to air his grievances over the airwaves. Furthermore, he refuses to speak directly to the police, accepting only one man as an intermediary and negotiator. And that man’s name is Alan Partridge.

In some ways this is a slightly odd film: Colm Meaney gets his name above the title, presumably because he has some sort of profile in the US and this will help when it comes to marketing the film over there. I still can’t imagine this will be an easy proposition as when all is said and done this is still yet another TV comedy spin-off movie, and a very, very British one. The humour is basically a mixture of slapstick farce and comedy of embarrassment – I can potentially see the former reaching an international audience, but not the latter.

This is not to say that the film is not funny, because it is – if you get the Alan Partridge character, anyway. Alan’s mixture of political incorrectness, brazen self-absorbtion, bad taste and general social awkwardness is the same as it has ever been, but as ever there are moments of pathos that ensure he doesn’t come across as a complete monster. The brilliance of the character is in the sheer precision and attention to detail with which he is written and performed, and this has not changed: one of the funniest sequences in the film is the opening credits, which simply show Alan singing along to the radio while driving to work. But he’s still quite a subtle creation, and I’m not sure the big screen is Alan’s natural home.

To repeat, though, this is a funny film that’s worth the price of admission. Steve Coogan is always, always worth watching, and here’s he’s supported by a very strong cast of British comedy stalwarts. Meaney is quietly rather impressive, inasmuch as he stops Coogan completely dominating all their scenes together, and long-term Partridge followers will appreciate appearances by several members of Alan’s regular supporting cast off the telly.

Even so – I have laughed more, and been more engaged by, other comedy films recently. This is perhaps a little too low-key and parochial, compared to – for example – The World’s End, and the siege plotline feels a bit underpowered. There are moments when the story doesn’t quite hang together, too. Then again, I’ve always preferred the very early Alan Partridge radio and TV shows in terms of their basic comedy value, rather than the later more character-based stuff. Nevertheless, for me this doesn’t quite do either Alan Partridge or Steve Coogan full justice. Still a decent, entertaining comedy though.

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