STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Bringing two movie comedy legends to (real) life

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We proudly share the following movie review as part of this blog’s self-designated Laurel & Hardy Month. What in the world is that, you ask? Click on the above image to learn more!

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When a movie had good intentions but eventually went off the rails, the late film critic Roger Ebert used to say that the movie “knew the words but not the music.” In Stan & Ollie, the music is so lush and sweet, you can forgive the words being a little garbled sometimes.

What I mean by that is, if you go in expecting a 100% factual story about the later career of film comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, you will leave the theater grumbling to yourself and ticking off a checklist of everything the movie got wrong. But if you go to see a heartfelt story about two talented comics in the twilight of their careers, you will be richly rewarded, even if you’re not a Laurel & Hardy fan.

The film addresses the period where Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) took to touring European music halls in the early 1950’s after any chances of making new movies had mostly dried up. For dramatic purposes, the film condenses a lot of the true story. L&H actually made three separate tours of Europe that were mostly successful. Here, it’s a single tour that doesn’t really take off until L&H do publicity in local towns to promote the show. A subplot of the movie is Stan trying to get financing for a L&H movie comedy based on the Robin Hood legend. In real life, there was an attempted Robin Hood project, but that had mostly fallen through the cracks by the time L&H began their initial tour.

One could keep on nitpicking like this all day long, but in the end, what one is left with is the movie’s characterizations and situations, and happily, these shine like the midday sun. Let me add to the chorus of voices that have already declared Coogan’s and Reilly’s acting work remarkable, and this is another area that transcends nitpicking. Coogan gets Laurel’s voice, body language, and (seemingly) thought processes down pat. And yes, Reilly does have layers of prosthetics to help him show us the real “Babe” (Hardy’s lifelong nickname). But that only further demonstrates how Reilly managed to convey a vulnerable person breaking through those pounds of fake flesh.

The supporting actors deserve kudos as well. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson convey strength and humanity as The Boys’ wives, fiercely protecting their men from the world (and each other). Rufus Jones is a smirky delight as tour producer Bernard Delfont, trying to act as though he cares about Stan and Babe’s welfare while keeping one eye on the box-office take. And Danny Huston displays appropriate gruffness as L&H’s indulgent movie producer Hal Roach. (Well-meaning L&H historians have stated that Roach comes off as too harsh in this movie. The lawsuits that sailed back and forth between Laurel and Roach in 1939 [not depicted in this film] indicate that Roach was indulgent of Laurel’s creativity but never shy about asserting his authority when necessary.)

If you aren’t familiar with Laurel & Hardy’s movies, you’ll still appreciate Stan & Ollie’s subtle and layered portrayal of their real-life friendship. If you are a fan of L&H, you’ll be amazed at how their real-life story (at least in this instance) parallels their movie comedies. The overwhelming theme of all of their movies was of two naive friends trying to hold their own against a hostile world. In telling their late-life story, Stan & Ollie only deepens that theme.

(If, by chance, you want to hear more of what I have to say about this wonderful movie, click here to visit my Laurel & Hardy podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts.)

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LITTLE MAN TATE (1991) – Amazing movie about an amazing young man

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The following is my contribution to Girl Week 2018, hosted by Dell on Movies from Nov. 19-25, 2018. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on female-centered movies, with women in front of and/or behind the camera!

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In her directorial debut Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster exhibits the same innate, glorious intelligence that she has personified so beautifully as an actress in movies such as The Accused and Contact. In her best movies, she comes across as a no-nonsense woman who is sometimes too blunt because she has no time or patience for social niceties. That approach works perfectly here, particularly in Foster’s supporting role as a single mom who is clueless about how to handle her prodigy-son.

The title character is played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who is one of those Hollywood rarities — a child actor who doesn’t give off the slightest sense that he’s acting. Fred, the child prodigy, is a genius, and of course, he is branded as a freak by his more average classmates because of this. Dianne Wiest plays a teacher who wants to encourage Fred by enrolling him in a summer course for such prodigies. Thanks to the teacher’s snooty attitude, Fred’s mom is immediately suspicious of her motives. But both women, through the film’s many trials of Fred, provide what he needs: the teacher provides the means for Fred to express himself with like-minded students; Fred’s mom provides his nurturing and love at all costs.

That includes making Fred unsympathetic at some points. One scene, a conversation between Fred and his mom, shows Fred belittling her for not being as smart as he is. Rather than letting Fred have it with a you-don’t-talk-like-that-to-your-mother speech, his mother sits there and takes it — not because she’s a wimp by any means, but because she knows that Fred is lashing out at not being accepted by his peers and she is, unhappily, his closest target. Their reconciliation scene is touchingly directed by Foster, too — the teacher tries to nose into their business one more time, realizes what’s happening, and backs off.

Those scenes, and many others, are so refreshing because they treat everyone in the movie, from Fred on down, like real people. Harry Connick Jr. plays a college-age student who sympathizes with and befriends Fred, and yet he and Fred also have a confrontation. Nobody in the movie is spared from being human (read: losing his/her temper, even with someone he/she loves). That alone makes the movie a rarity in mainstream films.

1991 was a beautiful year for female-directed movies, including Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and this one. In fact, these two would make an ideal double feature. Just keep a generous supply of Kleenex nearby while watching them.

INTERIORS (1978) – Woody Allen’s first foray into drama

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Let me go on record as one of the few people in America who liked Interiors.

I first saw it a few years after its initial release, by which time the furor about comedian Woody Allen having dared to film a laugh-free drama had died down. But it continues to inspire hostility among many of Allen’s followers. In his recent biography about Allen, David Evanier deemed the movie “practically unwatchable” and “dead on arrival.” While I concede that the movie is often very tony and talky, and it certainly makes countless nods to Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman, I’d hardly call the movie unwatchable.

The story concerns an upper-class family whose members could finance some analysts’ sessions for several years. The family has three sisters, all of whom crave respect: Flyn (Kristen Griiffith), a successful actress who feels she’s wasting her talent in vapid TV dramas; poet Renata (Diane Keaton), also successful, who worries that her work isn’t enough to earn her immortality; and Joey (Marybeth Hurt), who flits from job to thankless job and wishes she could express herself creatively. These women have been raised in the dark shadow of their mother Eve (Geraldine Page), who is obsessed with perfection in the aesthetic world around her as she leaves her daughters’ psyches in tatters.

Eve is in the midst of estrangement from her long-time husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall), who has finally come to regard his seemingly perfect home as an “ice palace.” Eve holds out a naive hope that Arthur will come back to her, but in a low-key yet tense scene, he announces to the family that he wants what he euphemistically calls “a trial separation” from Eve. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie, as we watch hostility and sorrow quietly boil over at the family dinner table. It gets even worse for the daughters when, at the movie’s halfway point, Arthur brings home his new girlfriend Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), whose bohemian ways and zest for life throw the family and the home completely out of kilter.

I can see why moviegoers find Interiors off-putting. The family is obsessed with upper-middle-class concerns (what people these days would call “First World Problems”), and they express themselves all too verbosely. (At one point, Joey tells her mother, “There’s been perverseness, and willfulness of attitude in many of the things you’ve done” — not exactly the kind of sentiment you ought to express to your mentally ill parent.) The movie’s naysayers have said Woody Allen seems to have cribbed this kind of dialogue from the subtitles of Bergman’s movies. Yet I truly believe that this is exactly the kind of way that these women’s repressive mother has probably taught them to express themselves.

David Evanier opines that “The family in Interiors was a family that Allen knew nothing about.” Perhaps you’d have had to live with a woman like Eve to believe that such people really exist. (I did live with a mother figure like Eve, about which the least said the better.) But I found this family all too believable, and Allen does a superb job of showing his characters as tortured and often hostile, but not unlikable. And Allen (expectedly) does not cop out with a happy ending for the movie; it depicts several “life lessons” from which one would expect the characters to have learned something about themselves, yet they remain rigid and frigid right to movie’s end.

I can’t help thinking that if this movie had been released anonymously and that we hadn’t known that it came from a man best known for his all-stops-out comedies, the movie might have gotten a little more credit. (Two years after Interiors came out, movie star and first-time director Robert Redford earned plaudits and Oscars for Ordinary People, which explored a similarly repressive middle-class milieu.) Befitting the movie’s austere setting, Allen’s direction is appropriately spartan, with shots and scenes that quietly make their points and then move briskly on rather than wallowing in melodrama (as Allen, in interviews at the movie’s time of release, feared he was doing).

Interiors might not be to everyone’s tastes, but don’t tell me it isn’t lifelike, because I’ve met too many pretentious people with the same kinds of hangups. It’s an excellent foray into pure drama from a man who found that he can’t always use comedy to soften life’s harsher moments.

 

BEHIND THE RED DOOR (2003) – Low-key, moving AIDS drama

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Behind the Red Door has every potential to be one of the most bathetic TV-movies ever. Instead, it’s one of the most uplifting ones.

It concerns Natalie Haddad (Kyra Sedgwick), a photographer whose friend (Stockard Channing) tricks her into a free-lance assignment. Natalie, too late, finds out that the job is to photograph her long-estranged, gay brother Roy (Kiefer Sutherland).

The movie’s plot sets up a number of hurdles for itself. For one, Roy is succumbing to the final stages of AIDS. Natalie, a bitter loner, must make peace with both Ray and her dysfunctional family’s past, shown through black-and-white flashbacks of her mother’s murder.

The past credits of the movie’s co-writer and director, Matia Karrell, are not promising; they include scripts for the schmaltzy sitcom “The Wonder Years.” But evidently, Karrell’s own past — the movie is dedicated to her late brother, also named Roy — inspired her to take a great leap forward in quality.

Behind the Red Door pulls no punches in terms of its subject matter. Yet the movie, refreshingly, skirts every possible cliche presented by the movie’s familiar situation.

Sedgwick and Sutherland begin with familiar, almost conventional characters and whittle them down to their basic truths. Both deliver career-worthy performances.

And director Karrell never milks any situation for tears. Each scene lasts long enough to make its subtle point, and then the movie builds to a very low-key but moving conclusion.

TV-movies have come a long way from their origins as 90-minute time-fillers. Behind the Red Door is more satisfying than most theatrical releases of its year.

FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY (1997) – A story sprinkled with fairy dust

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There’s a very telling moment in FairyTale: A True Story where a young girl asks Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, if he has ever told anyone how he does his tricks. “Never,” Houdini replies, “and I never will.” Then with a wink in his voice, Houdini adds, “Of course, most people don’t really want to know how you’ve done them anyway.”

It is at that level that the “true story” of FairyTale is approached. The movie is based on the lives of British cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who created an escape for war-torn England by taking photos which, they claimed, showed real fairies. Needless to say, the movie doesn’t quite tell the true story. It has since been shown that the photographs were faked. And yet, do we really want to know how, or even if, they faked the photos?

As if to drive this point home, the movie opens with Elsie attending a performance of Peter Pan. Since this is the same motif that began Steven Spielberg’s Hook, we know we’re not in a for a searing docudrama. Still, Elsie’s family could use a few fairies. Elsie’s brother has died of pneumonia, and Frances’ father has sent her to live with Elsie while he fights in World War I.

Frances turns out to be a liberating force. When, at her first day in Elsie’s school, she is questioned at length about her previous home of Africa, she ends the class’ quizzing with, “Are there any more stupid questions?” Later she confiscates a camera from Elsie’s dad, and she and Elsie take the infamous photos, which come to the attention of no less than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Doyle’s pal Houdini.

The fairies themselves take somewhat of a backseat in the story. Apart from a few terrific shots of the fairies in flight, they don’t have much in the way of personality. But after a while, you begin to realize that’s beside the point. The question is, why are there always naysayers who want the real world to intrude upon the innocent fun of childhood?

Apart from the charming Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel as Doyle and Houdini, there are no big-name stars in the cast, but there are also no bum performances. As the cousins, Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl are the best sort of natural child performers, completely unadorned by Hollywood affectations. And Phoebe Nicholls is endearing as Elsie’s mother, whose faith in life is restored by the whimsical photos.

Admittedly, the movie does take a while to get to its (beautifully realized) climax, and some younger audience members might get restless before the end. Personally, I was so grateful for a family movie which didn’t talk down to me, I began to believe that FairyTale might indeed be a gift from the little blighters.

THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON (2005) – Interesting tale of a sad nobody

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The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a very well-made film, with the usual superior acting from Sean Penn — and I never want to see it again.

The plot is based on the real-life story of Samuel Bicke (Penn), a man who (at least as portrayed here) is the very definition of the word “loser.” He has a dead-end job as an office-supply salesman (at which he almost strives to do poorly), he is separated from his wife, and seemingly his only friend in the world is Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), a black garage mechanic who indulges Sam’s half-baked idea of starting a car-tire delivery service.

But events not only don’t happen quickly enough for Sam — they usually fail to happen at all. When Sam applies for a small-business loan for his delivery idea, he is told that the approval process will take six to eight weeks. But Sam thinks he can get quicker results if he pesters the loan supervisor to death about his application. Sam’s estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) is polite to Sam but is clearly eager to move on from him, but Sam keeps bothering her at her job, whining and begging for a second chance at the marriage.

Worst of all is that, rather than facing up to reality, Sam is eager to blame “The Man” for all of his problems. He pesters Marie about the short skirt she has to wear at her job as a cocktail waitress. And while Bonny is surprisingly agreeable about his fate in life, Sam keeps trying to convince Bonny that because he’s black, anyone who doesn’t indulge him is automatically a racist.

Assassination fairly obviously uses Taxi Driver as a template for its story. Where Taxi‘s Travis Bickle has only a faint association with his fellow workers to bolster him up, Sam’s only friend is the extremely patient Bonny. Where Travis kept a diary for his supposedly deep introspections, Sam records audio tapes that he intends to mail to his hero, composer Leonard Bernstein.

As noted, Penn offers another of his unflinching portraits of people’s darker sides. Indeed, there’s not a bad performance in the entire cast. Where the movie falters is that it’s so eager to punch home Sam’s alienation that it leaves a lot of ciphers behind. Sam’s sales boss obviously looks down on Sam and does everything to prove what an inferior salesman he is, yet he appears extremely surprised when Sam finally quits his job in a huff, as though the boss hadn’t been baiting him to do exactly that to start with. We never really learn why Bonny indulges this man who is obviously going nowhere, or what Sam’s ex-wife ever saw in him to start with. The result is that the movie is often just off-putting — you end up cringing as though you were one of the guys getting cornered by Sam for an endless conversation.

And yet, the movie is tightly, professionally accomplished. (In particular, the final scene perfectly encapsulates Sam’s bitterness at being a non-entity in life.) And as always, Sean Penn digs into his character and brings out every nuance. So watch The Assassination of Richard Nixon at least once — and then be grateful for your comparatively decent lot in life.