STAN & OLLIE (2019)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Any list of the all-time great comedic teams would surely include Laurel and Hardy at or near the top. Influenced by pioneers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (the rotund one) rose to the top of the comedy world through their films and shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios during 1926-1941. In later years, we recognize the Laurel and Hardy influence in hugely popular acts such as Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges. Director Jon S Baird (FILTH, 2013) and writer Joe Pope (PHILOMENA, 2013) deliver a warm tribute to the comedy giants by giving us a peek on stage and off.

The film kicks off in 1937 when the duo are the height of their popularity, and a wonderful extended opening take allows us to follow them as they make their way across the studio lot and onto the set of their latest film, WAY OUT WEST. Before filming the scene, they have a little dust up with studio owner Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over the money they are being paid per their contract. Stan thinks they deserve more, while Oliver, racked with debt from a stream of broken marriages, prefers to not rock the boat.

It’s this early scene that acts as a precursor to the challenges we witness in the business partnership side of the duo. Imagine if the work of you and your business partner were on display for the world to judge. And how does friendship fit in? The film flashes forward to 1953 when the popularity of the comedic duo has faded. They find themselves on a United Kingdom tour arranged by smarmy booking agent Bernard Delfont (played well by Rufus Jones). The purpose of the tour is to convince a film producer to back their Robin Hood parody idea. The early gigs are very small music venues and the crowds are even smaller. But these are true pros, and soon Stan and Ollie hustle up their own growing audiences, and by the time their wives join them on the tour, they are filling the best venues.

As Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) make their appearance, we soon find ourselves with two comedy teams to watch. The chemistry between the ladies is so terrific, they could be the featured players in their own movie. Lucille is a strong and quiet former script girl who is quite protective of her Ollie, while the outspoken Ida is a former Russian dancer who, in her own way, is also protective of the gentlemen performers.

The suppressed resentment over the (much) earlier Roach negotiations finally boils over in a heart-wrenching scene. The grudges and feelings of betrayal are voiced – alongside Ollie’s physical ailments. As they air their grievances, it cuts to the quick. Not long after, Ollie’s heart condition finds the two mimicking their “hospital” skit in real life … it’s a show of ultimate friendship that can only be built through decades of working closely together.

John C Reilly plays Oliver Hardy (the American) and Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel (the Brit). Both are extraordinary in capturing the look and movements of the comic geniuses. Mr. Reilly and Mr. Coogan are such strong actors, that it’s difficult to decide which segments are best. Is it the reenactments of some of Laurel and Hardy’s iconic skits, or is the off-stage moments when they are dealing with the human side of these entertainment giants? Reilly benefits from excellent make-up and prosthetics (that chin!) and Coogan has the hair and determination needed for his role.

Director Baird’s film is sweet and sad and funny. Stan and Ollie deserve this warm tribute, and it’s a reminder of all the stress and hard work that performers put in so that the show looks “easy”. This is what’s meant by honing the craft … even if it’s “another fine mess” accompanied by the trademark “Dance of the Cuckoos” music. Let’s hope the film attracts some youngsters who might gain an appreciation for the good ol’ days of Classical Hollywood.

watch the trailer:

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THE DINNER (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated writer/director Oren Moverman (The Messenger, 2009) takes the source novel from Herman Koch and turns it into a checklist of items and people to detest. Rather than a cynical look at humanity, we endure a shrill commentary on white privilege, entitlement, misguided parenting, social media for millennials, and mental illness. If somehow the world and local news doesn’t feature quite enough ugliness for you, then Mr. Moverman’s movie should fill the gap – making Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) look like a light-hearted comedy by comparison. It’s definitely no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or even My Dinner with Andre.

Dinner for four at an over-the-top ostentatious restaurant is the setting, and aggravation is the sauce for each course – labeled on screen for our convenience as Aperitif, Appetizer, Main course, Cheese, Dessert, and Digestif. Richard Gere is Congressman Stan Lohman, a candidate for Governor and a slick politician in the midst of a battle to get the necessary votes for approval on his sponsored bill. He is joined by his second (yes it matters) and much younger wife Katelynn, played by Rebecca Hall. Rounding out the foursome is Stan’s estranged (and strange) brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), who is every bit as off-center as her husband.

These four have no real interest in sharing dinner time conversation, but the horrific actions of their teenage sons have brought them together for a strategy session. Michael (Charlie Plummer) is Paul and Claire’s son, while Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is Stan’s son with first wife Chole Sevigny. Video of their despicable and unforgivable act has been posted on YouTube, and now the four “adults” are convening to decide the best step for these “good kids” who just need help getting back on track. At least that’s what Claire would have us believe. In fact, if satire exists at all in this script, it surely would be in the fact that the politician is the only one to exhibit any semblance of moral fortitude in this situation. We even hear the incident described as “an unfortunate chain of events” … further emphasizing the film’s theme that EVERYTHING is political these days.

The film itself is often too-congested and convoluted. The flashbacks are messy and unnecessary, and the dialogue ill-timed and seemingly written for shock value rather than with situational purpose. No one does droll like Steve Coogan, yet his character spends the film sermonizing (with his running narration of a Gettysburg analogy) and showing no signs of humanity. The big reveal with his character is borderline shameless and insulting. Somehow we are left to ponder who shows the worst judgment – the teenagers or the adults. Evidently we are supposed to feel the moral outrage that all of society is now driven by politics, and in politics, “someone always gets hurt”. Personally, if I have outrage, it is directed at a manipulative film that stole valuable time from me.

watch the trailer:

 


RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)

November 23, 2016

rules-dont-apply Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country (2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.

Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.

Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.

The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.

The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).

It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.

These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.

watch the trailer:

 


PHILOMENA (2013)

November 29, 2013

philomena Greetings again from the darkness. Two people telling the same story can make that story sound infinitely different. Two people united in their efforts to solve a mystery can have vastly different reactions to the same situations. Such personality and attitudinal differences are the real core of this story … even more than the true life inspired story of a quest to reunite a mother and child after 50 years.

Peter Mullan’s startling 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters provided us a look into the dark side of Ireland convents in the 1950’s. Here, director Stephen Frears brings us the very personal story of Philomena Lee – one of the unwed teenagers banished to the convent to deliver her baby and work off her debt to the nuns and church, after signing away all future access to her child. It’s a heart-breaking story of the times, of the church, and of a singular woman. Philomena struggles with guilt and regret over 50 years until her daughter arranges a meeting with journalist Martin Sixsmith. This begins their journey to uncover the truth and find Philomena’s son, and provide us with a front row to two distinct ways of viewing the world.

Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena and Steve Coogan (also co-writer and producer) plays Martin, resulting in a very “odd couple” road trip and personality test. Dench is remarkable is her role (surely in the running for an Oscar nom) as the seemingly simple woman who reads romance novels, gets excited about salad bars, is thrilled with mints on her pillow, and has lived a lifetime with a hole in her heart created by having her young son ripped from her world. Coogan is effectively restrained (minus his usual exaggerated comic mannerisms) as the snooty Brit journalist who thinks writing and reading human interest stories are a waste of time. She has maintained her religious faith and faith in people, while he has long ago given up on God and flaunts his cynicism in most every situation.

Director Frears has a widely varied movie career – from The Grifters to High Fidelity to The Queen. He excels in drama with a wry sense of humor.  Some will view the movie as anti-Catholic (replete with cruel nuns) … it is difficult to defend the painful childbirth, isolated mothers, selling of children and lack of assistance in reconciling the parties. Others will view this as a victory of faith over intellect. It’s the world-weary journalist with the $5.00 words who ends up learning a life lesson. It can be a reminder that life is going to throw some difficult situations your way. Your attitude and approach that will determine how you deal with it … and how much emotional pain follows. This is another entry into gray cinema that will generate much debate and discussion … a sure sign of success for a movie!

**NOTE: this is based on Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: instigating post-viewing debate is one of your movie criteria OR you want to see what could be another Oscar nominated role for Judi Dench

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: stories inspired by real life heart-break is not your idea of holiday entertainment, no matter how thought-provoking or well-acted.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DBPqcp6Hc4


WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2013)

June 10, 2013

maisie1 Greetings again from the darkness. An ultra-modern indie update of the 1897 Henry James novel introduces us to parents we know, but wish we didn’t. Steve Coogan plays Beale, a self-absorbed art dealer. Julianne Moore plays Susanna, a self-absorbed rock star. OK, you and I may not know art dealers and rock stars, but we know self-absorbed types and we know they make terrible parents. So not only do we know it, but it’s also what Maisie knows.

Five outstanding performances and strong work by co-directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel prevent this one from spinning off into the neverlands of melodramatic muck. Onata Aprile is a wonder as Maisie. She displays none of the typical “movie kid” precociousness. The movie (and James novel) are told from her point of view. We see the fragmented bits and pieces she experiences as her parents fight. Rather than a full story drowning in details, we share her maisie3moments of late pick-ups, early drop-offs and forgotten trips.

Soon enough Beale and Susanna are divorced and the real wars begin. These despicable adults make little effort in hiding their hatred of each other from 6 year old Maisie. It becomes background noise to her life. Further proof of the epic narcissism from both: Beale soon marries Margot the nanny (played by Joanna Vanderham) and Susanna reacts by marrying Lincoln, a simple-minded band gopher and bartender played by studly but Alexander Skarsgard. The most startling moment of the movie occurs when Lincoln first begins playing with Maisie … it’s as if we had almost forgotten what it means to give your attention to a child.

maisie2 This is not an easy film to watch … at least if you understand that parenting means putting yourself second. The directors do a wonderful job of showing us how Maisie takes in moments and what memories she makes from these. The neglect and false moments of caring from her parents make her acceptance of the attention to her step-parents even more poignant. We can’t help but hope things work out for this little girl and it’s a reminder that childhood innocence cannot be recaptured once lost … and it’s worth hanging on to for as long as possible.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a realistic and terrific performance from child actor Onata Aprile OR you’ve always believed that Henry James doesn’t translate to the big screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the last thing you wish to see is two more pathetic parents

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68pgeWPc-QI


RUBY SPARKS (2012)

August 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well it took six years, but co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris finally deliver their follow-up to the smash hit Little Miss Sunshine. With a script from first time screenwriter Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan), we get an odd mash-up of would-be Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman, Stranger Than Fiction, and a “Twilight Zone” episode.

The story begins almost as a whimsical fantasy. Paul Dano plays Calvin, a blocked writer 10 years after writing the next great American novel, while he was still a teenager. The necessary comparisons to JD Salinger are made, and we witness Calvin as a socially-inept type who was never comfortable with his early success, and now can’t find a way to move on with life. Given a writing assignment by his shrink (Elliott Gould), Calvin discovers the true power of the written word is far beyond anything he had previously imagined.

 After a dream of meeting a lovely girl in the park, Calvin’s fingers tear through his manual typewriter and develop a story around his literal dream girl. And literal means literal. He runs into her downstairs. His creation has become his creation. Once he realizes they aren’t going to lock him away for insanity, Calvin and Ruby (also Zoe Kazan) begin a real relationship. Well as real as it can be with a girl who is not really real and whose actions can be changed simply by typing words on a page. If you think this sounds like a male fantasy, then you are in agreement with Calvin’s brother (Chris Messina).

 A trip to visit the brothers’ mothers (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas) adds some humorous scenes while also signaling the beginning of trouble for Ruby and Calvin. It turns out that bringing your invented dream girl into the real world doesn’t always work so well. Who would have thought? There is much humor in the film including Steve Coogan as Calvin’s mentor. Deborah Ann Woll (“True Blood”) has a scene as Calvin’s ex-girlfriend and it is probably the best written scene in the film. Really good insight into how two people’s view of the same relationship can vary greatly.

 The story can be looked at from different perspectives. It certainly serves as insight into how a writer’s mind can work. Many writers need a muse … but few get to create their own! More importantly, it makes a statement on how we (well, not me) often try to control and manipulate the other person in our relationships. This is a sterling reminder to be careful what you ask for … you just might get it.

**Note: on a side note, it is refreshing to see a love story between two actors who look rather “normal” rather than so perfectly beautiful they appear to be a genetic experiment

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy off-beat, quirky humor with an underlying message

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the last thing you wish to do is crawl inside the head of a Hollywood writer

watch the trailer:


OUR IDIOT BROTHER

August 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen the trailer, you might have the wrong impression. This is no laugh riot. Sure there is plenty of humor and you will laugh, but it’s not the slapstick goofy movie the trailer leads us to believe. Oddly enough, one could make the case that it’s actually a “message” movie.

Director Jesse Peretz has teamed with his writer sister Evgenia Peretz to dive into the often strained relationships between siblings – especially brother and sister, or in this case, brother and 3 sisters. There are numerous examples of how we often cheat or lie our way through life, or at a minimum, trick ourselves into believing (or not) certain things about ourselves and our loved ones.

 The movie begins just like the trailer. Ned (Paul Rudd) is working an organic vegetable booth and is approached by a UNIFORMED police officer to buy some pot. Ned laughs it off until the officer says “It’s been a really rough week“. See, Ned is an incredibly nice and trusting guy. He always wants to help people and treat them kindly. This scene sets the stage … is Ned really an idiot or are we the idiots for not being as open and trusting as he? Once Ned is released early from jail (good behavior, of course), he naturally returns to the organic farm and his girlfriend of 3 years (Kathryn Hahn). To his surprise, he finds she has moved on to Ned’s apparent replicant Billy (TJ Miller). Even worse, she has no plans to let Ned take his beloved dog, Willie Nelson.

 So Ned heads off to re-connect with his mom (Shirley Knight) and 3 sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a hard-driving career woman trying to break into the magazine writing world. She believes in stopping at nothing to nab a story, or even take advantage of her neighbor (Adam Scott). Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a dedicated Mom and frustrated wife married to Dylan (Steve Coogan), a documentary filmmaker and scoundrel. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is the world’s worst stand-up comedian as well as a quasi-lesbian in love with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones in ridiculous wardrobe and glasses).

 Not going to ruin the individual story lines, but obviously Ned spends time with each of his sisters and manages to wreak havoc for each, and anyone else within ear shot. At least that’s how they see it. All he really does is act nice, be open and tell the truth. The chips then fall where they may. Each of the sisters learn a bit about Ned, but even more about themselves.

 As previously stated, there are plenty of laughs in this one, but also moments of drama and reality that work like a bucket of ice dumped on your head. The above cast is excellent and also includes Hugh Dancy and Bob Stephenson as the police officer from the opening. Mr. Stephenson is underrated and very talented. He can do much with little. For proof stay for the outtakes over the closing credits. His is a gem.

While the sisters are all quite annoying in their own special ways, it is Paul Rudd who makes the film work. He has the eyes, nature and smile to pull off this character as someone who could actually exist. Someone we all wish we could be a little more like.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you see the genius of Paul Rudd OR you are intrigued with the idea of living your life with complete honesty

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a raunchy slapstick Apatow-type OR you prefer to miss the worst ever lesbian wardrobe captured on film

watch the trailer: