Stan and Ollie: Movie Review.


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What an unexpected joy this delightful ensemble piece is.  An ensemble, how can it be an ensemble when it’s a ‘biopic’ of arguably the world’s funniest double act?

The reason is because the supporting cast, principally the wives (Shirley Henderson as Mrs Hardy and Nina Arianda as Mrs Laurel) along with showbiz impresario Bernard Delfont, played beautifully by Rufus Jones, all add such colour and magic to what is already two show-stopping performances that the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.

It’s curiously unfunny actually, indeed it’s the opposite.  It’s a sentimental trip through the sad “where are they now years’ of Laurel and Hardy’s final variety theatre British tour in 1953, 16 years after their final movie in 1937.

The tour opens to empty houses (prompting notions of them being ‘has-beens’ and could have led to mawkish self pity but the writing team avoid that trap).

But the tour gradually builds momentum, through some pretty onerous publicity marketing stunts, and pretty much in the same way as the movie builds in its confidence.

I found the movie hard to get into initially – I think perhaps one is initially overly absorbed in Steve Coogan (Stan) and John C. Reilly’s (Olly) impersonations.  But once you’re over that, and have realised that their performances are actually magnificent, I  relaxed and became immersed in the story.

And, you know, it’s terribly, terribly sad.  Although the tour grows in its success their relationships and their health suffer considerably.

It turns out that Stan has been harbouring a grudge since the late 1930’s, when Olly made a film without him.  Hal Roach having contractually split the pair.  Did this mean they were just doing a job together?  After all it was Hal Roach that teamed them up.  they weren’t a ‘thing’ before that.  Indeed Stan had even performed with the great Charlie Chaplin.

This leads to some momentous moments of real emotion that had me choking back the tears.

It’s beautifully shot, with a lovely period feel, despite its obviously low budget.

The direction, by Jon S. Baird, is out of the top drawer, again surprisingly so because his CV doesn’t suggest this is his kind of thing at all.

The interplay between the two wives is actually the funniest part of the movie.  Henderson is kind and supportive to Oliver Hardy; Arianda is a Russian trophy wife, played for laughs, but contained.  She also has a great affection for her husband, Stan.  They are both brilliant and the movie wouldn’t be what it is without them.

All in all, an absolutely tremendous lesson in acting with Coogan putting in a career-best shift.

Very highly recommended.  Take Kleenex.

 

 

Birdman Review – You really will think a man can fly.


It starts with the poster and never looks back.

It starts with the poster and never looks back.

It’s as if Alejandro González Iñárritu and Michael Keaton have been on an unintended collision course towards the inevitable making of this arthouse meets superhero movie – although Kick Ass managed to subvert the latter genre it only did so on a single dimension; this does so on multiple levels.

To even allude to it as a Superhero movie is, of course, to massively understate what is a film bristling with more ideas than a month-long sabbatical at Stephen Hawking’s house.

It starts with the poster, moves onto the credits (the best I’ve seen for years) and then; scene one act one.

Every scene brings another “how did he do that?”  in fact “how did he think of that?” moment.

In fact the scenic structure is the first big jaw drop aspect of the movie given that, essentially, scene one act one is all there is – it, arguably, never ends.  Cleverly stitched together in the edit suite and captured by Emmanuel Lubezki the whole film is an homage to the ambitions of Orson Welles in his monumental “El Rancho” tracking shot from Citizen Kane.

Lubezki’s camera prowls the dressing rooms, corridors and backstage areas of a Broadway Theatre endlessly, where washed up ex-superhero (the Birman of the title) star, Riggan Thomas played in a career defining performance by Michael Keaton is mounting a self-funded, self-adapted, self-directed and self-starring play of a Raymond Carver short story.

The trouble is; it sucks.

But after the weak link in the four man cast is nearly decapitated during late rehearsals, a big box office stand in, Mike Shiner, ((played magnificently by Edward Norton) takes his place the day before the first preview.  Shiner may be a true star vehicle and ‘box-ioffice gold’  but his highly contrived method-acting is a massive pain in the ass and causes mayhem both on-stage and off.

Meanwhile, trying to direct the volatile Shiner plus his equally volatile girlfriend (more of  a cameo but again brilliant by Angela Risborough) Keaton’s character starts to fall apart, simultaneously haunted by his alter ego (the bird man that is embedded in his avian brain).

The action is relentless, breathtaking actually, as it is driven along by an incessant jazz drum solo that peppers the score.

Keaton looks and acts more and more like Bill Murray in his prime but his performance goes far deeper than anything I’ve ever seen Murray achieve (with the possible exception of Lost in Translation).  It’s dark, tragic and sensitive.

The awful relationship he ‘enjoys’ with his clearly disgruntled ‘assistant’ and rehabilitating daughter, Sam, played to scuzzy perfection by Emma Stone is remarkable.  In one scene Stone berates Keaton for his inept fathering skills to the point that you genuinely think her head might actually burst open.  It’s electrifying.

As the frankly bizarre story unfolds more and more levels of pathos, black humour and tension are introduced; the pursuit of short term fame is brought brilliantly to life when Keaton ‘trends on twitter’ after an inadvertent stroll through Times Square in his jockeys.

The veneer of fame and the dubiousness of acting ability – “You’re a celebrity not an actor” sneers New York Times theatre critic played viciously by Lindsay Duncan in another notable cameo just before she sets out to crucify him: just because she can.

And we meet up with Keaton’s superhero past an an entirely unexpected way.

The opening night of the play brings a denouement that I dare you to predict.

You won’t.

You can’t.

I’ve had my eye on Alejandro González Iñárritu since his debut feature in 2000, the heartbreaking Amores Perros, through 21 Grams and Babel and most recently the battering ram that is Biutiful.  All these movies deal in big issues around the human condition.  All break your heart in different ways and all are light, very light, in humour.  So for him to create a comic masterpiece such as this is all the more disconcerting really.  It has many, many laugh out loud moments but at its heart lies yet another big human condition movie.

How can one create true happiness in life when relationships are such fragile things in the world of celebrity?

What is art?

What indeed is fame?

As Andy Warhol said; we all have 15 minutes of it.

The trouble is, for many, the real stuff is like crack cocaine and we all know that’s a hard one to kick.

 

 

Winter’s bone


I was looking forward to this, big style, on the basis of the crits I’d read.

I expected it to be dark, brooding and very engaging.

It is dark. It is brooding. But it is not engaging.

It’s boring!

It is shot in a half light that is just plain dull and the performances, throughout, are at best subdued.

The plot is murky and very unclear. The dialogue is, at times, virtually impenetrable.

To be honest I can’t really be bothered reviewing this any more.

Burn after reading by The Coen Brothers


Even geniuses can have a bad day at the office.

Frankly, the best thing about this movie is the poster.  The rest of it adds up to a whole heap of nothing.  Unquestionably the Coens’ poorest movie; it just never gets going.  The trouble starts with the writing which has its moments, not many of them mind you, and only then if you like the idea of John Malcovitch with Tourettes.  There is an amusing moment with a highly complex sex toy so it’s strange to see them sacrifice the more subtle end of their humour register for fairly crass fare.

It just feels like something the brothers dashed off in their lunch break.  The plot is pretty wooly and the point of it?  Well, I could see no great subliminal message.

Brad Pitt must have gone to the screenings and thought.”OMG what was I thinking of.  I am awful, like A-W-F-U-L.”  He’s not just bad, he’s criminally bad with his truly nauseating campy, gay but not gay, creepy yukky characterisation of a bungling idiot. (I didn’t like him in this).  But, maybe it’s just me, every lady in the audience guffawed every time he appeared on screen, at what I know not.

George Clooney just about passes muster as a paranoid serial womaniser and the best of the ladies (as per usual) is Frances McDormand, but again it’s far from her towering performance in Fargo and Tilda Swinton goes through the motions.

It is such a shame that this, The Coens’ first major league film – as a result of the success of No Country – had to be so poor.

No country for old men


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Although Josh Brolin, playing Llewelyn Moss, is ostensibly the star of the Cormac McCarthy story, his faultless performance is overshadowed by that of Javier Bardem – the “hood” Anton Chigurh. Bardem’s performance is unquestionably the stuff of Oscars and every time he hits the screen the effect is electrifing. Seemingly inhuman (other than the time he spares the life of an old petrol station owner on the toss of a coin) he radiates evilness.

Set in Texas and on the Mexican border in 1980 the tale verges at times on the preposterous as a tangled web involving trailer trash opportunist, Moss, stumbles upon$2 million dollars as the result of a shoot out between rival Mexican gangs at the handover of a truck load of drugs. Instead of handing it into the police like any good boy would do he decides to keep it and there then follows an elaborate chase to get the money back, led by Bardem , The Mexican’s hired hand. It is much complicated by the simultaneous tracking of Moss by, but the other Mexican gang, a Private detective/hitman, Woody Harrelson, and a “whatever” Police Sherrif, the world and police force-weary Tommy Lee Jones who is nearing his retirement.

In the middle of it all sits the vulnerable and utterly convincing wife of Moss played beautifully by Kelly MacDonald. What a repertoire she has – her range is astonishing and she is quickly becoming one of Scotland’s greatest actresses ever.

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The title is in some aways a parody. It’s difficult to reach old age in this racket and the deaths clock up on a regular basis. but also it represents the central theme of the movie which rotates around Thornton’s imminent retirement and the memory of his father, also a copper, who died young (in his 40’s).

It is a movie about death and has strong ethical and moral undertones. Although he has little screen time it is Thornton who is, in reality, the central protagonist as it is he who bookends the action with his reflections on life and its meaning.

The action is pretty grizzly but rarely gratuitous, as the Coen’s have chosen to direct it lightly – no great, epic cinematography – but great cinematography nonetheless, no music AT ALL – it’s almost a Hollywood Dogme film and that adds greatly to its impact.

Heavy-handed direction, big scores, florid cinematography; all would have turned the prepostrousness of the tale into a prepostrous movie. As it is, it succeeds effortlessly in being the movie the great mafia directors (Coppola, Mann, Scorsese) would die for. In the hands of Tarantino the film might have become a parody of the book.

The Coen Brothers are very, very good filmmakers. This is a very, very good Coen Brothers film.

9 out of 10.

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