Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is a fantastic funny film

Thank you, Mark Frost.

Mark Frost, the co-creator of Twin Peaks, introduced me to the world of Steve Coogan’s Alan Patrtridge character a little more than three years ago. I had seen some clips before that conversation, but when Mark gave the show his enthusiastic recommendation I knew I had to investigate it further. If Mark liked it, I’m sure I’d like it too.

And boy, did, I. The wonderfully buffoonish character has appeared in radio and multiple series for the BBC, and has evolved from a daft sportscaster to a complex and well-rounded personality. Alan Partridge is like a combination of David Brent, Inspector Clouseau, and Rush Limbaugh, but is still a unique original character.

I finally got around to watching the character’s feature film debut, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, and once again… thanks, Mark. It’s hilarious.

Coogan is utterly fearless in the film, doing jokes and physical comedy that many performers would shy away from. Not Coogan. He goes for it with gusto, and sells every moment. The only actor I can think of who approaches such work with similar relish was the late Peter Sellers – which is the highest praise I can give.

If you have never seen any of the “legacy” Alan Partridge series, fear not – you can watch this movie with no context and still enjoy it. If you have seen the previous work, the film delivers some great call-backs to earlier stories and pays off a couple of long-running jokes.

I won’t delve into the plot, because this is another one of those movies that works better when you come to it fresh… though as a former radio DJ myself I have a real appreciation about how they weaved in the “corporatization” of radio as a core subplot.

(As a Star Trek fan, it’s great to see Colm Meaney – Chief O’Brien – play such a prominent role. He’s great in the film, a fine “partner” to Coogan’s Partridge.)

Humor is very subjective, but I dare say that there’s so much that is funny in Alan Partridge: Alpha Baba that if you can’t find something to laugh at, you are dead inside.

(Here’s the trailer, which, unfortunately, gives away bait too much of the plot. Watch it if you want some of the movie spoiled…)

Pretty Maids All in A Row goes where Gene Roddenberry often went before

As a Star Trek fan, I have read a lot of articles and books about Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry, who (as most know)created the show, is often portrayed as a saintly figure… a visionary and brilliant storyteller with great optimism and hope about the future. Other writers covering Roddenberry’s life highlighted his womanizing, his credit-grabbing, and his adultery… detailing a man who was a deeply flawed human being.

Where does the truth lie? I have no idea, because I never met the man. I know him through his work, through his creations… and what I do know for certain is above all else he was a thinker, an idea man. Like George Lucas a decade later, he had a lot of very distinct notions… ideas that became the key concepts of that thing we know as Star Trek: The Original Series… and for that alone, he is worthy of recognition and praise.

But, like Lucas… Roddenberry needed smart collaborators around him to execute his vision effectively. When he was making Trek, those collaborators were Robert Justman, Matt Jeffries, William Theiss, Herb Solow, D.C. Fontana, and many others. When both were in full control, when they were the only writer as well as the man in charge… well, things don’t go very well.

For Lucas, the example of this is the (rightly criticized) Star Wars prequels. For Roddenberry, it is the 1971 movie Pretty Maids All In a Row.

I had read about Pretty Maids All in a Row many years ago, when I was looking at Roddenberry post-Star Trek history, and before The Motion Picture. Roddenberry wrote Pretty Maids… (based on a novel by Francis Pollini) as well as produced the film, and the movie was a box office flop. Even still, the movie developed a cult following (The IMDB reviews positively gush over it)… and Quentin Tarantino considers it one of the best movies EVER MADE.

Well, I finally saw the film this week… and, sorry, Quentin… this movie is a mess. And the blame falls squarely at the feet of Gene Roddenberry’s script.

Here is a quick plot summary. Rock Hudson plays the alpha-male Vice-Principal of a high school Tiger McDrew (and he’s also the guidance counselor and football coach, for some reason). He is cheating on his stunningly beautiful wife with his female students… as well as grooming a protégé to take his place when he becomes Principal, an insecure sexually frustrated male student who has yet to even “touch a naked breast.”

When a beautiful young female student is killed, Telly Savalas (!) along with his partner James Doohan (!) show up to investigate. Oh, and Angie Dickinson plays a substitute teacher who is as sexually frustrated as Tiger’s protégé and… well, I won’t detail what happens because it’s obvious the moment the two characters meet.

The script is a mess, with dialogue that is cloying, pretentious and often sexist. The female characters are either sex crazed victims-in-waiting or clichés (No wonder Quentin Tarantino loves this movie). Angie Dickinson, as the female lead, is beautiful to look at but the character is insulting to any woman who has an IQ above room temperature.

Gene Roddenberry was rumored to have used his “casting couch” to enjoy himself with many beautiful women when he was making Trek, and it’s seems to me that many of the trysts Tiger has in his office was written by someone who was quite familiar with such subject matter. To go a step further, I think that Rock Hudson is playing a hyper-real version of Roddenberry himself… Hudson’s character in the movie is even a writer! The main character manipulates and uses women to get what he wants and when they threaten the balanced life he has created for himself… he gets rid of them.

I don’t know how much of the plot is from the book and how much came from Roddenberry, but even if the movie is a direct, no-embellishments adaptation.. The fact that Roddenberry was drawn to the material to adapt it tells us a lot about the man. If there is any doubt the sexism that is often present in the original Star Trek originated with Roddenberry… well, this movie confirms it.

There is some good stuff in this film: William Theiss, who did the amazing costumes on Star Trek, does the costuming here… and as a direct result the women look stunning (and Dickinson wears an outfit an hour in that will make all red-blooded men watching… um… stand at attention). It’s nice to see James Doohan act without his Scotty accent, even though he only gets four lines. Director Roger Vadim again demonstrates that, after making Barbarella, his greatest skill is making women look sexy as hell. And the supporting cast is great: Roddy McDowell, Keenan Wynn, William Campbell… some wonderful character actors doing good work with weak material.

Pretty Maids All in a Row is not a BAD film… it’s just not a very good one. I was really hoping to like it, but I was so taken aback by the thin plotting and dialogue that I just couldn’t get into it. Fans call it a “dark comedy” and I question that classification: It’s dark, but rarely funny. But frequently misogynistic.

Roddenberry tried a couple of times to create something after Trek, returning to TV after Pretty Maids flopped… but none of it worked. So, he returned back to the final frontier… and thankfully, he was once again surrounded by talented people were not beholden to follow it. The result: a run of successful films, movies that had very little input or direction from Roddenberry. The next time Gene Roddenberry had anything close to full control over Trek was the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Need I say more?

Xanadu is an underrated delight, disco skating and all

“Oh, for a muse of fire… to ascend the brightest heavens… of invention.”

I’ve been chasing a muse for years. And I blame Olivia Newton John.

When I was 11 years old, I saw Xanadu. And it was a revelation, as much as Star Wars was a revelation a few years before. Xanadu was the first musical I ever saw, besides The Wizard of Oz… and at the time it had three immediate effects on the young Joe.

First, it made me a fan of the surreal ludicrous genre called “The Musical”, movies that have musical numbers and extensive choreography happen at the drop of a hat – reason and logic be damned. I discovered the sheer joy of watching happy people prance, happily, on screen.

Second, it brought to my attention the talented Gene Kelly, who, though he was past his prime in the film, was still a Movie Star (capital M, capital S) and boy does he work it (and know it). It is thanks to Xanadu that I searched out An American in Paris, and (one of my favorite films) Singin’ in the Rain.

Third, it brought me the Electric Light Orchestra. The music of Jeff Lynne and company impressed me so much I stole my sister’s Xanadu soundtrack, and played the heck out of it until I could afford a copy of my own. I bought every album ELO made, and I’m fan to this very day. It’s perfect pop music, done well and entertaining as all get-out.

Looking back now, I can see a lot more in the film that influenced me… especially it’s theme. Yes, folks, Xanadu had subtext. The movie is about creativity, and failure, and finding our muse… it’s about dreaming, and making your dreams come true.

It’s trite, it’s hokey, it’s completely unrealistic. And yet, for the optimist in me, this resonates. It rings true. I WANT it to be true. If only life worked out as it did in Xanadu… well, maybe with less roller disco.

“What the hell, guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.” That’s the first line spoken in the film, as Jeff beck’s character reflects on a sketch that isn’t right. As a creative person, who hasn’t said something like that? Art is WORK, and the illusions that there is some form of rare “genius” that produces great work is just that… an illusion.

I rewatched Xanadu after I had just seen another film about creativity and art… Tim’s Vermeer, a film by Teller (of Penn and Teller) that tells the story of a man who tried to figure out the techniques of Vermeer in order to create his own “masterpiece.” Tim’s Vermeer details a man obsessed, who spends countless hours working on building a mechanism that would recreate the work of the master painter. A technician becomes an artist because of compulsion. He HAS to.

I know that compulsion. It’s what drives me to write instead of sit on my fat ass and watch reruns on TV.

It’s the main part why Xanadu works for me, not just the nostalgia… it’s because of that message. I think we are at our core creative creatures. We exist to make things, add flavor and color to the universe. If we don’t even try, in the littlest of things… it’s then that we truly fail.

We are all here to create. To build our own Xanadu.

All this pretension, to write about a 1980s musical flop? Yup. Because Xanadu is the poster child for this review series. Neglected Cinema is about highlighting the diamonds in the rough, the gems that most people overlooked. Xanadu is a movie that has a lot to recommend, and should get more attention and appreciation.

It’s far from perfect, though… And I have to be honest inmy appraisal. Jeff Beck as the protagonist is the very definition of “nondescript” and because the lead lacks charisma the film is weaker and less effective. The tone is uneven, the dialogue clunky in many spots, and the plot has no clear through-line. And while I think Olivia Newton-John is a beautiful woman who sings and dances her heart out here… she could have benefitted from a couple of more acting lessons. But, flawes and all, Xanadu is a lovely film… and a great way to spend 90 minutes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to chasing my muse. Hopefully I’ll catch her someday… and she’ll look like Olivia.

The documentary Who is Harry Nilsson pulls on all my heartstrings

I love Harry Nilsson.

If you are thinking, “Who?” then I feel sorry for you. Harry Nilsson was a singer songwriter in the 1960s and 70s who wrote and/or sang a lot of great songs: “Without You”, “Coconut”, “One”, “Everybody’s Talkin’” and more. He was also an eccentric who drank and partied to excess with people like John Lennon, Randy Newman and Ringo Starr. He was whimsical, funny, dark and amazing – often all at once.

He’s dead now.

Harry Nilsson left an incredible body of work, a sizable collection of ground-breaking albums and singles that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Thankfully, the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? provides a great overview of his life and work through film footage, videos and interviews with his friends and family.

While I took slight exception at the documentary mixing up the chronology a bit (it ignores two albums and shows events slightly out of order) as a fan of Nilsson I couldn’t be happier. While we still have the music, it makes me miss the larger-than-life personality that was responsible for it – even though I never met him, I “knew him” through his words and songs.

Do yourself a favor and watch this documentary – and if you don’t seek out one or more of Harry’s albums after watching it, well… there’s no hope for you.

The documentary Milius showcases the underrated writer/director

John Milius is a force of nature.

He wrote Apocalypse Now, Quint’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws, and Conan the Barbarian – and that’s just SOME of what he’s done in Hollywood. He directed and wrote Red Dawn, “punched up” dozens of movie’s screenplays (including Dirty Harry and The Hunt for Red October), inspired Spielberg and Lucas to aim higher… and he also inspired John Goodman’s character in The Big Lubowski.

He’s a master storyteller. He loves guns, cigars, and surfing… and right now he is recovering from a major stroke – one that took away his ability to speak.

Suffice it to say, someone with the kind of life John Milius has lived is someone who should have a documentary made about them… and thankfully, that documentary has been made. Milius tells the story of the man, through his own words and anecdotes from his friends and peers. It shows the highs and the lows, and touches upon how hard it is for a conservative like Milius to get work in left-leaning Hollywood.

The most inspiring segment is at the end, as we see Milius recover slowly from his stroke – and the movie ends with him finally able to return to the shooting range, triumphantly shooting down clay pigeon after clay pigeon.

Everyone who loves movies should watch this – it’s on Netflix streaming, and so you enjoy it from wherever you are. Hopefully Milius has a complete recovery, because a man with such a distinct voice should never

Human Highway is a bizarre cult film from Neil Young and DEVO

When I heard about Bob Casale’s death this week, I started researching the history of the band DEVO. I’ve always been a fan – even met them once – but I was never a SUPER fan, so some of the stuff I uncovered surprised me. I never realized how popular they were in countries like Australia, for example.

But nothing surprised me more than Human Highway.

Human Highway is the “movie” directed by (and starring) musical great Neil Young, and features songs and a score (Mark Mothersbaugh’s first) from DEVO. And whatever Young was having… well, I wouldn’t mind a serving as well.

Whew, boy, Human Highway is a weird weird movie. It’s a musical… kinda. And a love story… kinda. And it ends with (spoiler) the start of World War Three as the cast climb a literal stairway to heaven.

Human Highway isn’t very good, but it has a surreal style all it’s own. A style that looks awfully familiar.

As I watched it, I had to wonder… Did David Lynch see this?

The movie features Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell, and Dennis Hopper. Many of the scenes are set in a dinner. The film has a decidedly “Lynchian” tone.

And it came out four years before Blue Velvet did.

Not saying that Lynch ripped off Neil Young, here… but I can envision Lynch watching the film and going, “Man, Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell are awesome, I need to put them in something! And Russ Tamblyn, too!” And some other elements in the film could have seeped into his unconsciousness, coming forth in later work such as Twin Peaks.

(Charlotte Stewart, who was in Peaks, is also in Human Highway… though Lynch had worked with her before).

So, if you’re a Neal Young fan, Lynch nut, or a Devolutionist… seek out a copy of Human Highway. It’s out of print, but if you look hard enough on the Internet you can find it.

Here’s the trailer: