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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Coogan’

Films about brilliant and successful people just being brilliant and successful are not really that common, probably because they’re actually quite dull. What you really want for a tip-top movie, especially a bio-pic, are some trials and struggling – someone fighting their way to the top and winning through by dint of sheer talent and hard work. Or, possibly even better, someone facing up to the reality that their best days may be behind them, and coming to terms with the fact that they are merely mortal after all. Some proper pathos, there, a real chance for some light and shade.

I have no doubt that some of the foregoing may have influenced the thought processes behind Jon S Baird’s Stan & Ollie, but presumably also crucial is the fact that this story, as well as featuring two genuine legends of world culture and dealing with universal themes, is set in locations in the UK which are reassuringly inexpensive to reach. (So it goes when you work for BBC Films, I suspect.)

This film is about, need it be said, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who are embodied for the occasion by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly respectively. The vast majority of it concerns a peculiar interlude in the early 1950s, many years after the peak of their success in Hollywood, when the now-ageing duo reunited for a tour of British and Irish music halls. It is a rather shabby comedown for two men who are still beloved and instantly recognisable wherever they go; their promoter Bernard Delfont – very unflatteringly portrayed here by Rufus Jones – books them into seedy guest houses and second-rate theatres, preferring to favour his hot young star Norman Wisdom.

Stan and Ollie are basically just doing the tour for the money, and because they are waiting on the finance to come together for a new movie Stan has has been working on the script for (at this point, historically, the pair had made only one poorly-received film in the previous eight years). However, the tour proves unexpectedly demanding and the stresses of it open up some old wounds in Laurel and Hardy’s relationship…

A few months ago I suggested that Charlie Chaplin had a good claim to be the most recognisable person in history; well, not only are Laurel and Hardy amongst the few serious challengers to that title, they are probably held in greater affection, as well. Surely everybody knows Laurel and Hardy, the comedy double-act without a straight man, the duo who took idiocy and literally raised it to an art form. They are, surely, the greatest comedians in history, with a legacy that is likely to endure as long as our culture.

While this is, to some extent, good news for the makers of Stan & Ollie, because it means the movie comes with a built-in audience, there’s also possibly a problem – namely, why would you want to watch two other men pretending to be Laurel and Hardy, when you could be watching the genuine article? (Their films are very easy to track down on t’internet these days, after all.) It’s a mathematical fact that any new film is unlikely to be quite as joyous to watch as The Music Box or Way Out West.

The new movie tries to get round this problem by giving people what they’d expect from a Laurel and Hardy movie. Reilly and Coogan do an impressive job of capturing the essence of the duo, particularly when they are performing. Steve Coogan, it must be said, does not really look all that much like Stan Laurel, but is clearly working hard to get the voice right; John C Reilly is virtually spot-on as Oliver Hardy, though (hours in the make-up chair every day probably helped). You have to admire the actors for having the guts to recreate some of the pair’s most iconic routines – there’s a wonderful version of ‘Lonesome Pine’ – and it is almost as if they are channelling the essences of Stan and Ollie. Elsewhere, the film inserts various bits of characteristic business – their arrival at a hotel, with Stan overloaded with luggage, descends into chaos, while an attempt at carrying some heavy luggage up a flight of steps likewise does not go to plan. Given that most of the film concerns the very fact that off-screen the two men were quite different from their public personae, this is possibly a bit of a cheat, but it’s an entertaining one.

And I would imagine the makers of this film are hoping that people will be interested enough in Laurel and Hardy to want to see a film which reveals a little more about them than their status as the world’s worst piano delivery-men. I imagine the movie will probably be fairly informative for most people, making clear, for example, the real basis of their working relationship – in reality, Stan was the workaholic brains of the outfit, constantly coming up with new material, while Ollie – known to all as ‘Babe’ – was a more genial, laid-back character, a martyr to expensive hobbies like excessive gambling and alimony. Central to the plot is the fact that the duo were on separate contracts with their long-time producer Hal Roach (played here by Danny Huston), eventually leading to financial and personal tensions between them, not least because of Roach’s attempt to launch Ollie as part of a new act, Langdon and Hardy, in the now-obscure comedy Zenobia.

This failed, needless to say, but the film does play with the notion of Laurel and Hardy working with other partners, and the sheer wrongness of how this feels is significant. Laurel and Hardy epitomise the notion of the comedy double act, after all, and if the film is about anything other than simply their final performances together, it’s what it means to be in this kind of partnership – people with experience of it say it is not unlike being in a marriage, with all the affection, jealousy, interdependence and potential frustration inherent in that. (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson make a good impression as the boys’ actual wives, fully aware of the odd quadrilateral dynamic to their situation.) And there’s also that sensation of not really belonging anywhere else, no matter how you may personally feel in any given moment. The film explores this with great delicacy and tenderness, and if it does suggest that there was a dark side to Laurel and Hardy’s relationship, it also stresses that it was ultimately founded on a deep fraternal love between the boys.

Well, it’s a movie, so maybe this is true and maybe it isn’t. But you’d certainly like to believe this was so, for if anything in this world is a source of untinged pleasure, it is watching Laurel and Hardy in action. Stan & Ollie never quite reaches that level of pure bliss, but it’s a well-made, very well-performed, sympathetic and insightful portrait of the gentlemen in question. If nothing else, it should do a good job of reminding anyone who has forgotten just why the world has never stopped loving Laurel and Hardy, and that’s surely worthwhile in itself. A fine film and well worth seeing.

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Well, here we are in a brand new year, still with that fresh plastic aroma, but I am saddened to have to report that a stench not unlike that of rotting leftovers is lingering on in movie theatres internationally. Yes, 2018 produced many outstanding films, but it also unloaded on us a higher than usual number of genuine stinkers, and just to remind us of this, right at the back end of the year we were treated to Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, a film which manages the feat (which I would have thought impossible) of seriously challenging Peter Rabbit for the title of Worst Film of 2018. (I initially thought Etan Cohen was a jokey pseudonym, for hopefully obvious reasons, but apparently not. This is a shame, as if so it would have been mildly amusing, which is more than you can say for anything else in this shocking non-comedy.)

Let me just describe the opening scene of Holmes & Watson and see if that gives you a taste of the very special quality, if that’s the right word, this film possesses. It opens in 1881, with Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) tending his beloved giant marrow, which he has clearly devoted many months to growing. Meanwhile, Dr Watson (John C Reilly) has recently returned from Afghanistan and, shaken by his experiences, decides to commit suicide (good comic stuff this). However, he opts to do so by jumping from the roof overlooking Holmes’ vegetable plot. Holmes, alarmed by the threat this poses to his marrow, tries to persuade Watson to jump off a different roof or possibly shoot himself instead. Naturally, Watson misunderstands all of this and believes Holmes to be genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. In his delight, he loses his footing and falls off the roof, but his fall is broken by Holmes’ marrow, which is destroyed in the process. The two men become firm friends and partners in Holmes’ detective activities as a result.

Just to reiterate, this is supposed to be a comedy film. This scene is, I think, fairly representative of the whole endeavour – in fact, I may have been quite generous, in that there are several other bits which are much, much worse. (I suppose it is just possible you may have read the foregoing and concluded ‘You know what, that actually sounds quite funny’ – if this is the case, then your imagination is doing a better job of realising this scene than anyone in the actual film, and you may want to consider a change of career.) Do you want to hear about the rest of the plot? Oh, God. The general tone of the film is one of knowing and self-satisfied stupidity. Holmes and Watson, who are both depicted as morons, are challenged to solve a murder in four days in order to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Along the way Watson falls in love with an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and Holmes falls in love with a woman who thinks she’s a cat (Lauren Lapkus).

There is actually quite a good cast here – regardless of what you think of Ferrell and Reilly, both of whom have made films I really like, it also includes Ralph Fiennes, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Rob Brydon and Kelly Macdonald. Unfortunately, the film also seems to have been afflicted by some sort of dreadful supernatural curse, which means that hardly any of these people show any sign of being genuinely amusing or showing more than marginal signs of creative talent of any kind. I would not have imagined it possible to watch a film with all these people and not once, in an hour and a half, feel the slightest inclination to laugh or express pleasure or amusement of any kind. It actually required an effort of will to stay to the end and endure the succession of witless jokes about gerontophilia, masturbation and projectile vomit.

The film’s signature joke is to insert modern ideas into its late-Victorian setting (not that historical accuracy appears to have been a concern). Thus, we have Holmes donning a red ‘Make England Great Again’ fez (along with some other unimpressive jokes about Donald Trump), Watson sending a telegram of his winky to a woman he’s attracted to, jokes about pay-per-view entertainment, and so on. I will say it again – none of it is funny. The film somehow exists within a negative-humour vortex, which even seems to be sucking the usual feeble jokes out of this review. It is uncanny. This comedy version of Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the least funny version of these characters I have ever seen. The Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is funnier. Hell, even the Jeremy Brett version is much funnier than this.

One could, of course, pause to wonder at the wisdom of doing a comedic spoof of something which was always intended as light-hearted escapism in the first place: your typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation may look like a serious costume drama, but the original stories were cut from a different cloth. One could also note the rather bemusing fact that much of this film appears to be methodically spoofing the Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law Holmes movies, the most recent of which is seven years old. Why bother? It is genuinely confounding. The only thing about this film which sort of makes sense is the news that, apparently, Sony sensed what a horror they had on their hands and tried to offload it on Netflix – but even the streaming giant, which spends money so heedlessly it apparently thought spending $80 million on Bright was a good investment, didn’t bite on this occasion.

I have to say that Holmes & Watson has caused me to question my whole choice of lifestyle as a regular cinema-goer. I saw over eighty new films on the big screen in 2018, mainly because I always like to see as many as possible and I do genuinely enjoy the mechanics of going to the cinema, buying my ticket, getting  a good seat, watching the trailers, and so on. But why on earth did I go to see this film? I knew going in it was going to be bad – word of a 0% approval rating on review aggregation websites travels, after all. And I know I always say I don’t mind watching bad films, just boring ones. But what is wrong with me? Am I some kind of masochist? Is breaking my own record worth this kind of experience? Is this review genuinely going to dissuade anyone from going to see Holmes & Watson? I don’t know. I don’t know. I may only have another 35 years left to live; do I really want to spend them trying to assimilate this kind of worthless rubbish?

The least I can say is that 2019 can only get better from this point on, because pretty much any film is going to look good after this one. Even so: this is not so much a movie as ninety minutes of existential trauma. An almost incomprehensibly bad film.

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You would expect the coming together of a group as disparate as Ridley Scott, Steve Coogan, the BBC, and the Isle of Man film board to result in a fairly peculiar film – and sometimes things work out in an entirely predictable manner, for the fruit of their collective effort is Sean Foley’s Mindhorn, which is indeed fairly peculiar. This is a comedy, which is also as you might expect given the involvement of Coogan and co-writer and star Julian Barratt. Barratt is possibly best known for his role in the TV series The Mighty Boosh, which is another one of those things I must confess to having hardly ever seen. In some ways the new movie seems very familiar anyway, though.

Barratt plays Richard Thorncroft, a TV actor who was briefly famous in the 1980s as the star of Mindhorn, a (seemingly dreadful) show about a bionic detective set on the Isle of Man. (Yes, there may well be an implied dig at Bergerac, as there is a running gag about John Nettles in this movie too.) Now, however, Thorncroft’s star has faded, and he is now an overweight, balding unemployed-going-on-unemployable actor reduced to advertising support hosiery.

Things change, however, when a murderer strikes on the Isle of Man. The prime suspect is a mentally unstable youth (Russell Tovey) who’s obsessed with Mindhorn and wants to speak to his hero about the crime. Somewhat reluctantly, the Manx police decide to recruit Thorncroft to recreate his most famous role in the hope of catching the killer.

Once back on the island, however, Thorncroft gets a bit distracted, seeing this more as a chance to relaunch himself than an act of civic duty. So, rather to the annoyance of his police handler (Andrea Riseborough), he sets about trying to woo back his ex-partner (Essie Davis) and hopefully bring about the launch of Mindhorn on DVD, provided he can win the support of a much more successful ex-colleague (Coogan)…

As I said, there is a sense in which Mindhorn feels very familiar – this film is certainly not outside the mainstream of British comedy cinema in recent years. Films about delusional middle-aged men becoming caught up in slightly absurd adventures have actually been pretty common – Mindhorn is especially reminiscent of the Alan Partridge movie, Alpha Papa (though this was perhaps inevitable given it was made by the same company), but it also has a strong whiff of the David Brent film, too. Perhaps as a result, the genuinely odd thing about Mindhorn is that it feels like a big-screen adaptation of a sitcom, even though it’s a wholly original story. There’s been a notable tradition of metatextuality in British comedy for a while now, and Mindhorn’s lovingly-detailed if rather OTT realisation of the show-within-the-movie is part of it – viewers who stay to the very end of the film are rewarded, if that’s the right word, with a fake music video from the fictional Thorncroft’s non-existent music career. I was particularly reminded of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another project built around an absurd 80s genre pastiche, and not surprised to learn that Barratt was involved in that show too.

I suppose the other distinctive thing about this film is that most of it is set in the Isle of Man. Now it’s not that the Isle of Man doesn’t show up in movies occasionally, it’s just that when it does it’s usually pretending to be somewhere else (for example, Waking Ned, where it’s supposed to be Ireland). In Mindhorn, the Isle of Man is on screen as itself (various local tourist spots are worked into the plot), but the odd thing is that this is largely bathetic. The idea of a TV show about a bionic detective isn’t as necessarily funny as that of a TV show about a bionic detective set in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man’s role in the story is to be a provincial, underwhelming backdrop (much fun is had with the supposed awfulness of the Manx Day parade), which strikes me as a rather brave move on the part of the Isle of Man film board, who were involved in making this movie, after all.

Still, none of this matters very much given that the film is genuinely funny all the way through, for all of its vague familiarity. The film is, as mentioned, lovingly detailed, with a very strong cast inhabiting its array of comic grotesques – there are a couple of celebrity cameos early on which raise a smile. As regular readers may know, I’m not a particular fan of most modern comedies – they generally don’t make me laugh, plain and simple – but there are many extremely funny bits in Mindhorn: Julian Barratt carries the film with impressive aplomb, and the script is solidly structured and cleverly plotted. On the other hand, this is clearly a film which has been made on an extremely low budget – what, the Isle of Man film board doesn’t have bottomless coffers at its disposal?! – and this does occasionally result in an unintentional sense of cheesiness.

Then again, it just adds to the charm, probably, for this is a movie which was almost certainly never intended to set the world on fire – or even the Isle of Man, probably. It’s not terribly innovative or spectacular, but it takes the business of being very knowingly stupid extremely seriously, and I did laugh a lot. And that’s ultimately what you want from a comedy film.

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Well, the number of major studio releases in cinemas has reached peak again, so while they all take a short break from bringing out big new films, a gap has appeared for the smaller and more niche movie to take advantage of. There are a couple of classic pop and rock period pieces doing the rounds at the moment – a somewhat controversial Jimi Hendrix bio-pic, which I haven’t seen, and Elaine Constantine’s ultra-low-budget paean to a very particular time and place, Northern Soul, which I have.

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Constantine’s film takes as its backdrop the Northern Soul scene of Lancashire in the mid 1970s, when young English people became thoroughly enraptured with uptempo, beat-heavy music made in the US a decade earlier. It is a distinct subculture which has experienced a bit of a revival in recent years, and one which launched the careers of some fairly significant music-industry figures (along with that of the ever-controversial Ian Levine, continuity advisor to the 1980s Doctor Who regime and co-composer of the legendary ‘doo-doo-doo-de-doo’ K9 and Company theme tune). So perhaps it makes some sense to use it as a major element of a movie.

This is not, as some publicity suggests, a dramatised history of the rise of Northern Soul to prominence, but an entirely fictional narrative – the hero, John (Elliot James Langridge), comes from an entirely made-up small Lancashire town, presumably because this allows the film to be very very rude about it without attracting complaints from irate councillors. Anyway, here he lives, mocked and ridiculed by his schoolmates, misunderstood by his parents, and so on. He is clearly a young man of potential just searching for an outlet.

He finds this when he befriends Matt (Josh Whitehouse), a flamboyant and unpredictable afficionado of the Northern Soul sound. John quickly falls under the sway of the lifestyle, with its alluring mixture of banging tunes, heavy amphetamine use, low-intensity vandalism, and improbably high-kicking dance moves. John and Matt share a dream: to go to the States, purchase a trove of obscure soul records for themselves, and use them to become established as powers in the world of Northern Soul DJ-ing…

The most obvious thing about Northern Soul is that, as a film about Northern Soul, it has a terrific Northern Soul soundtrack. But, on the other hand, this is pretty much the minimum you would expect from a film concerned with this particular milieu. The success or failure of this film depends on what else it brings to the party.

On paper the omens are good – the film has been produced in association with the usually reliable company Baby Cow, which means that the services of some noted performers have been procured – John Thomson, Ricky Tomlinson, Lisa Stansfield – as well as those of one bona fide star, in the form of Steve Coogan. However, what the advertising is somewhat less than forthright about is the fact that all of these people are only in the film for about four minutes each, and no matter how talented they are, there is limit to how high they can rise above the level of the script.

This, at the risk of mangling a metaphor, sets a low bar for proceedings. Thematically, this is just the kind of musically-tinged coming-of-age story we have seen many times before – John learns some tough lessons about friendship and responsibility along the way – and to be honest the only way it departs from this template is in a certain cack-handedness: it’s actually a little unclear exactly what tough lessons John has learned by the arrival of the conclusion – he certainly seems no closer to reaching any of the nebulous goals the script has set for him. The conclusion is, to be perfectly honest, not what you might expect, but to say much more would be to talk about second- and third-act plot details, which is obviously a no-no.

Even beyond this, the film’s actual scene execution is often sub-par: there’s almost an am-dram quality to the performances of the younger members of the cast (which includes all the leads), and too often the film trades in It’s Grim Up North stereotypes and period misery. And, for a film about rebellious youth, the film makes a serious misjudgement in presenting the forces they’re rebelling against – teachers, parents, youth club organisers – as so pathetic and petty themselves. This robs many scenes of an appropriate emotional context and the result is simply melodrama – characters seeming to overreact wildly to the simplest of things.

And so things remain fairly uninvolving throughout, which is a problem for a character-driven film like this one. And while the script has a vague stab at incorporating elements of the Northern Soul legend into the story – trips to America in search of new discs, mysterious blank-labelled records (so DJs could retain exclusive access to certain songs), certain famous clubs – it ultimately remains not much more than a broad-brush backdrop in front of which an uninspired narrative is enacted.

I wanted to like Northern Soul, honestly, but apart from the soundtrack it really doesn’t have much to commend it – the characters are unsympathetic, and not portrayed with any great finesse, while the story is uninspired and actually a bit dispiriting – wholly unlike the music it attempts to celebrate. When it comes to movies, bigger isn’t always better, but small isn’t always beautiful.

 

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Well, look, there’s all sorts of ways I could launch into a review of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, but only one which I know will get every regular reader excited.

In other words – he’s back! I am, of course, referring to my trusty Comparison Wrangler, who in the past has shared with me his considered verdicts on Beasts of the South Wild (‘Waterworld meets City of God’), Silver Linings Playbook (‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest meets Dirty Dancing’), Hitchcock (‘The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns’), and Lincoln (‘Forrest Gump meets Dirty Harry’). Circumstances have meant that the Wrangler and I have not been able to go to the cinema together in a ridiculously long time, but finally the stars came right and off we went to see Philomena (Mrs Wrangler came along too).

To be honest, Philomena had not featured prominently on my list of films to see, even though it does feature Steve Coogan, whose praises I have been intermittently singing all this year, and Judi first-person-to-F-bomb-a-Bond-movie Dench, who’s one of those people who seems utterly incapable of giving a poor performance.

PHILOMENA

Based on a true story, in Frears’ movie Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist-turned-government-spin-doctor-turned-unemployed-person (such has been the career trajectory of many in recent years, but at least he managed to dodge jail time), looking to restart his career in some fashion. A chance encounter at a party leads him to Philomena (Dench), a little old lady from Ireland who fifty years earlier was compelled to give up her firstborn son for adoption.

Philomena, naturally, has never stopped thinking about her child, but all her efforts to track him down have come to nothing. Though Martin is dismissive of this kind of narrative from a journalistic point of view, on the most basic level it at least offers him the possibility of selling a story, so he agrees to use his contacts to assist her with her enquiries.

And what follows is the sort of story you would mockingly dismiss if it were presented to you purely as a piece of fiction. I knew very little about Philomena prior to going to see it, and the various twists and jumps in the narrative consistently engaged and surprised me.

The main reason I was indifferent to actually seeing this film was that, essentially, I thought it was a movie about various institutionalised horrors perpetrated by the Catholic Church and parents cut off from their children by great distances and long periods of time. I’ve seen that film; I’ve seen that film a number of times, in fact (as The Magdalene Sisters and Oranges and Sunshine, to name but two), and I don’t particularly feel the need to go and see another version of it unless it brings something new and different to the table.

And Philomena does this, mainly because the horrible-Catholic-nun material is sparingly deployed (needless to say this also makes it more effective), and much of the film is instead played as an odd-couple comedy drama. Philomena is sweet, straightforward, uncultured, and decent; Martin is educated, refined, highly intelligent and deeply cynical. The film is fundamentally about how he gives her the answers she has been waiting most of her life for, and how she manages to instill in him a little more humanity and feeling.

The film is smart enough to anticipate the criticism that this type of narrative might not be  more than woman’s magazine sob-story fodder, and gives the film an unexpectedly sharp edge in places: Martin is initially only doing it for the cheque, privately very dismissive of Philomena, and indifferent as to whether the actual resolution to their search is a happy or sad one (both are equally good from a journalistic point of view). You know this won’t last, but it’s still a refreshing perspective to see on screen.

And of course it doesn’t hurt matters at all that the majority of the film is a two-hander played between performers both carved of solid Star. It isn’t even as if Coogan is there to deliver the smart, jaundiced comedy while Dench rolls out the tear-jerking stuff. Both of them get their moments both of comedy and real drama, and both are equally effective. It isn’t really a surprise to see a film in which Judi Dench gives a virtuoso display of acting – but it is, perhaps, where Steve Coogan is concerned. Nevertheless, he matches Dench here.

This is, I think, the fourth live-action movie starring Steve Coogan to be released this year (the third I’ve actually seen, after The Look of Love and Alan Partridge), which is an impressive work rate even before one considers the sheer range of material he appears in. Nevertheless, I think this may be a bit of a watershed moment for Coogan as a performer – it’s not a grotesque, not a comedy turn, he’s not playing an exaggeration of himself or delivering a sparkling cameo. This is a proper leading man performance from someone with serious chops as an actor, and as such this may just be his finest hour at the movies to date (the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film himself are also not to be overlooked).

This is an impressive, well-made, frequently very funny and equally quite moving film, which nevertheless has respect for its audience and doesn’t lay the sentimentality on with a trowel. It’s powered by two extremely good performances from two of the UK’s finest actors, and it’s a bit of a treat. I wasn’t planning to see this film, but I’m very glad I did.

And at the end I looked at my trusty Comparison Wrangler, not even needing to ask the question.

‘Harold and Maude,’ quoth he, ‘meets Finding Nemo.’

He’s still got it.

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There’s having a bit of a range, then there’s being impressively versatile, then there’s having a CV which is all over the place, and then there’s being Michael Winterbottom. Thomas Hardy adaptations, gruelling real-world reportage, respectable hard-core, lesbian serial killers: this man has done the lot. His work is impossible to categorise, for all that he is one of those directors who makes frequent use of the same collaborators. One of the higher-profile of these is Steve Coogan, who worked with him on 24 Hour Party People, The Look of Love, The Trip (a TV show in the UK but a movie elsewhere), and 2005’s A Cock And Bull Story.

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For a man of Winterbottom’s restless ambition you can see the attraction of having a go at Laurence Sterne’s almost-definitively unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy, for that is what this is almost-always described as. The book itself has been been on my to-read list for many years , and I am usually wary of watching film versions of books I’m planning to read. A Cock And Bull Story is probably not likely to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the source material, though.

Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, an eighteenth-century gentleman in the process of telling his life story. Coogan also plays Shandy’s father Walter, who to be honest has a slightly larger role in the film as Tristam himself is not actually born in the course of the book. This, if you will, the central gag of the book – Tristram gets so easily distracted with peripheral stories about the circumstances of his conception and the lives of various relatives that he never quite gets round to his own birth.

So this is not a conventional life story, and the film initially looks like it’s going to be a little off the wall, too: there’s a scene in which a youthful Tristram gets his member trapped in a sash window, which is not the stuff of your traditional costume drama, and then a sequence in which Coogan/Shandy apologises for the poor quality of the various child actors employed to portray him.

However, the movie is just getting started, and this is why I feel describing A Cock And Bull Story as an actual adaptation of Tristram Shandy is rather misleading. There is, all right, a longish section near the start of the film portraying the confinement of Tristram’s mother (Keeley Hawes), the arrival of a doctor who doesn’t exactly inspire trust (Dylan Moran), and so on. But then the narrative suddenly takes a step back, and rather than being about the story of the book, the film is about an attempt to make a low-budget adaptation of Tristram Shandy starring an actor named Steve Coogan.

The part of Steve Coogan is played, not entirely surprisingly, by Steve Coogan, and also appearing as fictionalised versions of themselves are Hawes, Moran, Gillian Anderson and  – most prominently – Rob Brydon. Coogan is depicted as a deeply insecure individual, permanently concerned with maintaining his status as the star of the production, and very threatened by any increase in Brydon’s prominence in the film.

Anyone whose seen The Trip will probably be quite familiar with the relationship between Coogan and Brydon’s fictional alter-egos and the sniping and backbiting that goes on between them. The clever thing about this idea is that both characters are just close enough to the public perception of who these actors really are for it to be hard to tell them apart – Coogan in particular plays up to his tabloid image as a slightly dodgy character with a chaotic personal life. On the other hand, any film in which famous people play themselves is always going to be open to charges that it’s just being self-regarding and clever-clever.

As a side issue, the film also features quite a few well-known faces – Kelly Macdonald, a pre-Moneypenny Naomie Harris, a pre-Graviton Ian Hart, and others – and it can be unclear who’s supposed to be playing themself and who isn’t. It does draw attention to the artificial divisions in the narrative.

Then again, perhaps that’s the point of it all. There are some jokes which are perhaps a little too self-reflexive: the fictional Gillian Anderson, upon seeing the finished adaptation, expresses her surprise at how little she’s actually in it – Anderson herself is in the movie for probably less than ten minutes. But most of the time, the film succeeds when it tries to be funny – although this is never what you’d call broad or even mainstream humour. There’s an air of ostentatious cleverness running through this film which may not be to everyone’s taste.

And, as usual, it’s very difficult to combine this kind of conceit with genuine drama and emotion – a parallel is established between Walter Shandy’s concerns for his son, and fictional-Coogan’s relationship with his own new baby, and the emotion never quite connects, simply because one has already been made aware that these are not real people.

That said, I enjoy clever films, and the stuff with Coogan and Brydon is droll enough to be a lot of fun. It’s not the biggest or most memorable of films, and almost certainly not one of Winterbottom’s best, but it’s certainly different. And while it may not actually be a straight adaptation of Tristram Shandy, I suspect it does a better job of capturing the style and essence of the source material than many straight adaptations manage. It’s not really Tristram Shandy, but it’s a lot like it.

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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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