Capone's Art-House Round-Up with ALAN PARTRIDGE, ON MY WAY, WATERMARK and TEENAGE!!!
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
If hearing the character name Alan Partridge does nothing for you, you've been missing a vital part of your comedy education for the past 20 years or so. On and off through various BBC-TV series and special, the great performer Steve Coogan (recently Oscar nominated for co-writing PHILOMENA, in which he also starred) has been inhabiting the role of the self-centered radio host Alan Partridge, who seems to specialize in making those around him and audience members recoil with awkwardness. He's the personification of the lovable twat whom you'd never want to spend time with, but you can't take your eyes off of him. An now Partridge is being featured for the first time in his own eponymous feature film that is as biting and inappropriate as we've come to expect from this character. But if you've never been exposed to this egomaniacal creature, consider this an excellent jumping in point from which you will work backwards.
Working with frequent collaborators, director Declan Lowney and co-screenwriters Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, "Veep"), Peter Baynham, Neil Gibbons, and Rob Gibbons, Coogan brings us a version of Partridge that is at a point of change in his life. He's working at a mid-size radio station that is in the midst of being taken over by a media giant that is plotting sweeping changes, including the name of the station and some staff cuts. When Alan finds out that the big wigs have narrowed the on-air cuts to himself and his best friend Pat (Colm Meaney), Alan lobbies hard for his own self interests, and Pat is given the sack.
Naturally unhappy with the decision, Pat leaves, grabs a shotgun and comes back to the station, taking everyone hostage and beginning his own radio show, using Alan (not knowing his role in his firing) as his go-between with the negotiators outside and as his spirited co-host. When Alan realizes the amount of publicity he's getting in this dual role, he naturally lets it go to his head and does what he can to extend the stand-off while getting maximum exposure for himself as the would-be hero of the day. ALAN PARTRIDGE is classic Coogan, in the same way that his more recent films THE TRIP and the forthcoming sequel THE TRIP TO ITALY are perfect examples of what Coogan is capable of today. In both cases, the characters that he has brilliantly created are so convincingly dickish that you utterly believe that they reflect what Coogan is like in real life.
There's an exceptional collection of fun actors surrounding Coogan in ALAN PARTRIDGE, many playing fellow DJs whom both Alan and Pat can't stand. There are young, hipster morning-zoo types who openly mock Pat's more mellow overnight show. And naturally there are the new bosses who Pat has no problem openly abusing as his prisoners. The film doesn't ever truly make it feel like Pat is an actual killer, but he's just enough of a headcase that he might hurt someone accidentally, in particular Tim Key as Alan's sidekick Simon, on whose head Pat has constructed a device to hold a shotgun in place. It sounds horrifying, but it's actually quite funny.
For those who have never seen Coogan play Partridge before, some of the physical comedy in the show might seen slightly low brow (a bit in which Alan attempts to escape and loses his pants in the process comes to mind), but even in those moments, there's something deeper and smarter at hand than you might realize. Either way, it's funny as hell. It's rare to see an actor so clearly at home and in his element on the big screen the way Coogan is playing Alan Partridge, but he's spent a couple of decades fine tuning this goofy creature. You could compare it to seeing an actor who has played a particular Shakespearean character for years finally bring that performance to the screen. Yeah, it's pretty much exactly the same.
As you watch ALAN PARTRIDGE, you'll grow to hate the man but love the character and its creator, and you'll likely want more (might I suggest "The Steve Coogan Collection"?). I'll admit, my love for this character could easily cloud my judgement on the film, but after seeing it for the first time last October, I watched it again recently, and I'm fairly certain I laughed even harder the second time. It's a smart comedy about idiotic people, and you'll laugh at the chaos and irreverence on display.
ON MY WAY
There's no denying that Catherine Deneuve is one of the greatest living actors the world currently possesses, not just because she's a talented performer but also because she has consistently aligned herself with some of the most artistically daring filmmakers, going back to her early work with Jacques Demy, Roman Polanski, Luis Buñuel, and François Truffaut to more recent works by André Téchiné, Leos Carax, Lars von Trier, François Ozon and Arnaud Desplechin. I'd even argue that the 70-year-old Deneuve's acting and choices have gotten bolder and better as she's gotten older.
Her latest work to be released in the United States will likely not be added to the pantheon of great films she has been a part of, but it's certainly not because of any lack of effort on Deneuve's part. ON MY WAY is the story of former beauty queen and current restauranteur Bettie, whose establishment in her hometown of Brittany is in financial trouble. When she finds out that her current lover has left her for his pregnant girlfriend, she has a bit of a meltdown, hops in the car and drives to get her head on straight... but then she keeps driving, deep into the French countryside.
Directed and co-written by actor-turned-filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot, ON MY WAY feels like stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, with Bettie going from place to place, meeting new people, old friends, family members, and revisiting events in her life that make her both joyful and mournful for a lost time. It's a brutal blow when she realizes she may have hit her emotional peak at around age 20. Been there, sister.
The film turns into a fairly standard-issue road trip experience, especially once Bettie picks up her pre-teen grandson Charly (Nemo Schiffman). He asks her the tough questions about her life that no one else will because he doesn't know it's impolite to do so, but it forces her to come to grips with a few tough things about the absentee way she's experienced her life. A reunion with her estranged grown daughter Muriel (Camille) and a first-time meeting with Charly's paternal grandfather Alain (Gérard Garouste) toward the end of the film, change the course of Bettie's life once again, to the point where I began to wonder why I should bother getting invested in her at all, since she seems to find new meaning in her life with the conviction of a stiff breeze changing direction.
I love that Bettie is a woman who hasn't given up on love and passion in her life, but her propensity to act on impulse and be fickle about her feelings toward people will likely do more to alienate her from audiences than make us empathize about her confusion. Ironically, it's the very elements of Bettie that make her like most human beings that also make her infuriating as a film character, and make ON MY WAY let us down as a movie. Deneuve injects so much life into every character she plays—and Bettie is no exception—but with writing and motivation this scattered, it's hard to appreciate the film that surround her.
Back in 2007, I watched a lovely, poingnant, and serene documentary called MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, from director Jennifer Baichwal, who went around the globe with photographer Edward Burtynsky, who sought out changes in landscapes due to industrial work and manufacturing. Years later, Baichwal and Burtynsky have reunited for WATERMARK, a film that isn't so much about water conversation, but more about our relationship with water all over the world. It's about how humans consume, honor, destroy, control and just generally interact with water, using stunning images of the planet's various man-made and natural structures that guide water.
We see the construction of a dam in China that will dwarf the Hoover Dam; ancient step wells in Rajasthan; a massive bathing ceremony in the Ganges River where millions walk into the water to cleanse themselves; terrible, flagrant polluting going on near tanneries in Bangladesh; vast rice paddies being irrigated; and perhaps most shockingly, a dried up Colorado River, which used to go to the ocean, but no loner. The film isn't trying to ply us with facts and figures, but instead fills our eyes with lush or shocking images in the hopes of having these pictures seer into our brains and never be forgotten. More than anything, the film makes us realize that the relationship human have with water is one that comes with a price, and today the bill is due.
WATERMARK does incorporate some interviews into the mix, but largely they are with people who are the most impacted by the various uses and abuses of water on display. For example, an elderly Native American woman voices her outrage at a government that promised the Colorado River was not in any danger of being drained, but once it was, no federal officials were there with answers. Without having a running theme of protest or politicking, this stirring work simply provides the audience with image after image of these excesses in water usage—both good and bad—and allows us to make up our own minds about what to do next during future encounters with large quantities of water (oh, hello Lake Michigan).
If it's humanly possible, I see every documentary I can get my hands on, and a great number of them present some spectacular information via the usual talking-head interviews, observational camera work, narration, statistics, archival footage—you know how this works. And then every so often, something slightly odd and wonderful and experimental is attempted in the documentary world. It's rarely something we've seen before, and it doesn't always work, but I have to give people points for trying to take the familiar and shakes things up a bit.
Case in point, there is the new film TEENAGE , which reveals something I didn't know: the group of young people known and classified as "teenagers" wasn't always a thing. Sure, there were always kinds in the teens, but that's not what the film is talking about. "Teenagers" as a concept and culture (and often counter-culture) was a gradual invention of the late 1800s through the mid-1940s that was created for several reasons—marketing and easy societal organization among them. The way director Matt Wolf (WILD COMBINATION: A PORTRAIT OF ARTHUR RUSSELL) demonstrates this cultural shift is using entirely archival material and diary entries read by actors like Ben Whishaw, Alden Ehrenreich and Jena Malone, each of whom read the private thoughts of American, English and German teens during various times in recent history, covering the era of Flappers, Swing Kids, Sub-Debs and even Nazi Youth.
Wolf based TEENAGE on the book by punk author Jon Savage, "Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945," and the film succinctly and convincingly lays out the evolution of this societal shift, which seemed to culminate (at least in America) with "A Young Person's Bill of Rights," which includes among its many edicts the most important "I have a right to be encouraged to grow to maturity at my own pace." The film shows that this wasn't always the case, as children were forced to work at young ages, making them grow up much sooner than many were ready to.
The way the movie is pieced together almost resembles moving newspaper stories that give example after example of the birth of the modern teenager. TEENAGE is an eye-opening examination of a time and phenomenon that I'm guessing today's young people couldn't care less about, but still might find interesting how similar their gripes with parents and other authority figures are with turn-of-the-century teens. It's a fascinating profile told in a unique and inspired manner that admirers of documentaries will likely enjoy, and those who were once teenagers will probably find moments of familiarity throughout.
-- Steve Prokopy
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