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New York Film Festival: "Real" and "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa"

The New York Film Festival (NYFF) is winding down, but we're only halfway done with our festival coverage. For me, it's hard to decide which films to cover. I've seen 13 films at the festival so far, and will see one or two more. And the movies I most want to write about are the ones I feel most strongly about. These are not necessarily projects that need championing more than any others. They're just movies I really want to talk about, though they are also all movies we haven't yet covered at this site. So I won't be writing about "Child of God," tyro actor-cum-filmmaker James Franco's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. I love Franco's "My Own Private River," a beautiful feature-length re-imagining of "My Own Private Idaho" that Franco pieced together from director Gus Van Sant's unused footage. And while Franco's "The Broken Tower" is a bit insufferable, I also mostly like it, too. It's Franco's homage to poet Hart Crane, and it's…not bad, actually. Still, I don't dislike "Child of God" enough to put it down, so I won't.

Instead, I'd like to recommend "Real," a movie that is 2/3rds on-target, and 1/3rd way off-base. By which I mean: there is a big honkin' CGI dinosaur at the end of this movie. Yes, Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the director of such deeply unnerving horror films as "Pulse" and "Cure," has made a movie with a plesiosaurus in it. Don't get me wrong, "Real," a horror-tinged science-fiction mystery that mostly takes place inside a woman's mind, is really strong. But that plesiosaurus is, like that hilariously cruel gag in "Murder by Death" about fat wives and big houses, hard to get around. It's emblematic of how spectacularly the film falls apart. No amount of intellectual justification can change the fact that a plesiosaurus (they emphasize that it's a plesiosaurus several times in the film; Plesiosaurus!) attacks two people at the end of this film. And it's every bit as off-putting as that sounds.

Still, "Real" starts well enough. Koichi (Takeru Satoh) has to wake up his comatose girlfriend Atsumi (Haruka Ayase), a manga artist that attempted suicide one year ago. So Koichi enters her dreams using a cutting-edge device that's like the mind-linking device in "The Cell." While in Atsumi's mind, Koichi learns he must find (in the real world) a drawing of a plesiosaurus that Atsumi drew for him when she was seven years old. Koichi has to find this dinosaur fast because Atsumi imagines that her studio apartment is flooding while her body fails her in real life.

Kurosawa's horror films are not only immediately spooky, but they're also clever. He's more thoughtful than most horror filmmakers, and he shows it in small ways, like how he develops the idea of using something as clinical as virtual-reality technology to navigate the human mind. People in Atsumi's mind all look plasticine because they're "philosophical zombies," unthinking constructs that have no free will of their own. And when a mysterious dead boy shows up, he's often shown in ridiculously grainy extreme close-ups. This is how Kurosawa subtlely reminds us that we're experiencing reality from a distance. The same is true of the fog that surrounds Atsumi's apartment in her head: there are limits to what we can see, and appreciate as life-like since not everything in this film is "real."

So it's with great regret that I must add that when the aforementioned plesiosaurus shows up, it's also for a reason. But just because Kurosawa's dinosaur makes sense doesn't mean that it's satisfying or any less batshit crazy. "Real" is about emotionally repressed characters, people that are afraid to confront themselves, and are now looking to make themselves better by exploring a virtual reality. But once "Real"'s story goes so far out on a limb that it hinges on a dinosaur chase, it's impossible to get back down to Earth.

Thankfully, "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa" is so good that I can recommend it without reservation. You'll want to see this film, even if you aren't familiar with British comedian Steve Coogan's titular character. "Alpha Papa" is consistently hilarious, averaging about three or four belly laughs in a single scene. And all you need to know about the film is that it features a hilarious lead performance from Coogan, follows an anti-climactic hostage crisis in a Norwich radio station, and has scads of memorable one-liners. If you have a chance to see it, you should take it.

"Alpha Papa" can be appreciated by both Alan Partridge diehards and lay-viewers alike because everything you need to know about the character is explained through his actions. Partridge (Coogan), a has-been disc-jockey that had a BBC talk show until he accidentally killed a man on live TV, is a loser. He's a self-promoting moron that tries very hard to appear like an erudite badass. He always fails at this life-goal though because he doesn't realize how painfully uncool he is, as when he greets a fellow disc-jockey by wrapping his hand around the younger man's fist, and crowing, "Paper!" "Alpha Papa" follows Partridge's many failed attempts at looking good in the midst of a hostage crisis at his workplace, a Norwich radio station. But again: Partridge is a loser. He inadvertently pantses himself before comparing the hostage-taker's dead wife to Osama Bin Laden. He's not much of a hero, and that's really funny.

As Partridge, Coogan steals the show. There's virtually no dead air in this brisk comedy, and it's thanks in no small part to Coogan's performance. "Alpha Papa" features a couple of other exceptional performances, especially co-star Colm Meaney, who plays the hostage-taker. And Coogan is just one of the film's five credited screenwriters. But "Alpha Papa" belongs to him because of how comfortable he is in the role of Partridge, a character he's perfected over the course of 19 years. "Alpha Papa" isn't ground-breaking, but it's so well-made, and charming that it doesn't need to be.

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