Stan & Ollie


A classic pairing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston, Joseph Balderrama, John Henshaw, Tapiwa Mugweni, Keith MacPherson, Stewart Alexander, Kevin Millington, Toby Sedgwick, Rebecca Yeo, Stephanie Hyam, Kate Okello, Sanjeev Kohli, Richard Cant, Ashley Robinson, Susy Kane. Directed by Jon S. Baird

The comic duo of Laurel and Hardy have transcended their medium and become iconic. Most people know who they are, even if they’ve never seen them in action. Their bits, born in the traditions of the music hall and vaudeville, still are as enthralling today as they were 80 years ago.

However, this biopic depicts the legendary team in the twilight of their career. Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver “Babe” Hardy (Reilly) have long since passed the zenith of their careers and have been rendered by television and teams like Abbott and Costello as artifacts of a bygone age. Needing cash and hoping to mount a comeback in a Robin Hood-like picture that Laurel is writing, the two mount a tour of England at the behest of promoter Bernard Delfont (Jones) in 1953.

At first, they are playing in dodgy venues to sparse crowds. There is a tension between the two, largely due to a feeling of betrayal that Stan has that Oliver worked with silent comedian Harry Langdon (Cant) on a picture called Zenobia which Laurel dismisses as “that elephant picture” following a contract dispute for Laurel while Hardy was still under contract to Hal Roach. Hardy who had ballooned to well over 300 pounds by that point, had health constraints that affected his ability to perform. Also, their wives Lucille Hardy (Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Ananda) didn’t get on particularly well.

Like most Hollywood biographies, the film does fudge a little bit on the facts but it does get the essence of the relationship between the two right, not to mention the personalities of the two men. Laurel was a thinker, a compulsive sort who did the lion’s share of the writing while Hardy was a more easygoing fellow, a bit of a hedonist and not one for thinking about the future. Even though for much of the film the relationship between the two was frosty, there was still a great deal of affection between them as you would find for any two people who were in close quarters for more than 30 years.

Coogan’s performance won him a BAFTA nomination, but for my money the performance to see here is Reilly’s, which the Hollywood Foreign Press apparently agreed with me on as he was the one who got the Golden Globe nomination. In all honesty, though, both performances are distinctive with Reilly’s being just a little bit more so.

Where the movie kind of fails is that we don’t see what really made them such a wonderful team; sure, we see a few bits here and there, and we get a sense of the chemistry between the two, but you would be hard pressed to explain why the two were so popular in their heyday by watching this film.

Still, that may not have been what Baird and writers Jeff Pope and AJ Marriott were after. This doesn’t give us the sweep of their careers, only a snapshot of a particular time in their career when they were admittedly past their prime. Still, it’s a sweet tribute to a pair of comedians who made an incalculable contribution to motion picture comedy.

REASONS TO SEE: Coogan and Reilly do a fine job of bringing the two beloved comedians to life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t re ally explore the essence of their humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got it’s nationwide American release on Oliver Hardy’s 117th birthday.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic:  75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chaplin
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Trip to Greece

The Mighty Atom


Steel chains: breakfast of champions!

(2017) Documentary (SDG) Joseph Greenstein (voice, archival footage), Mike Greenstein, Steven Greenstein, Slim Farman, Pamela Nadell, Dennis Rogers, Dave Yarnell, Edward Meyer, Jan Dellinger, Duane Knudson, Donald Kuhn Jr., John Klug (narrator), Lauren Kornacki, Alec Kornacki, Liz Kornacki, Dan Cenidoza, Paluna Santamaria, Heather Ablodi. Directed by Steven Greenstein

 

In this Internet age, we make heroes of people who do crazy stunts on skateboards, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, or simply taking dumb risks for 15 minutes of Internet glory. Back in the roaring 20s and Depression-era 30s, that particular function was fulfilled by vaudeville and the circus, where stunts of derring-do were routinely performed in theaters all over the world.

Feats of strength were certainly audience grabbers at the time but few could match the marvel that was Joseph Greenstein. Known by his nickname “The Mighty Atom,” he stood 5’4” tall and weighed 148 pounds soaking wet. He is as far from the traditional muscle men as it’s possible to get but he still performed amazing exhibitions that even today can’t be replicated easily. One of his feats was to bend a horseshoe; a modern strongman attempts to do so in a Florida lab but is unable to match what Greenstein did routinely into his 80s.

The movie centers around a 1967 radio interview that Greenstein did for WNBC in New York. The film adds interviews of his sons and grandson, fans and disciples in the muscle man (and women) community, experts on the nature of human bio-physiology and assorted spectators and interested parties. There are some diversions such as a story about a woman who seeing that the car her father was working on had slipped its jack and was crushing him lifted the 1.5 ton car off of him and pulled him to safety.

Greenstein’s success wasn’t brought on by muscle mass but rather by mental focus. As a young boy he contracted tuberculosis (which had already taken the life of his father) and he wasn’t expected to live more than a year. He got it into his head after seeing posters of strong men in a local shop that the strength these men possessed might be able to save him. He pleaded with a wrestler in a travelling circus to train him and the man took pity on him and invited him to join. Greenstein spent a few years on the road with the circus learning proper nutrition and how to focus mentally and use that focus to do amazing things.

He eventually returned home to Poland to marry and unable to find work immigrated to Galveston, Texas. There he started his own business – a gas station. Greenstein’s son Mike recalls the time when Harry Houdini, travelling through town, got a flat tire. Greenstein was summoned to change the tire and he did so without the use of tools or a jack. Astonished, Houdini’s manager brought Greenstein to New York to work on the vaudeville circuit and once he began to make some real money, he sent for his burgeoning family which now included six sons.

Besides his size, another unusual feature about Joseph was that he was Jewish and as his grandson wryly relates, there weren’t a lot of Jewish athletes at the time. Greenstein was proud of his heritage and was a devout member of his congregation for the rest of his life.

I will say the movie is entertaining although not vital; the archival footage verifying some of Greenstein’s legendary exploits which included preventing a plane from taking off using only his hair, biting through chains, bending nails, horseshoes and steel bars as well as hammering nails into plywood with his bare hands is absolutely riveting. In the footage Greenstein looks positively grandfatherly and somewhat of an academic which he was; he also marketed salves, lineaments and nutritional supplements that he created himself. He was also well-versed in the science of nutrition long before it became fashionable.

The overall tone is that Greenstein is proof that a human being can do anything he or she put their minds to, even the impossible. It kind of makes me want to go out and see for myself what I’m capable of, not a bad feeling to have after watching a film.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at strength and how much of it is not physical at all.
REASONS TO STAY: Like many documentaries, there is an overuse of talking head footage.
FAMILY VALUES: This is completely suitable for general audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was directed by the grandson of the Mighty Atom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunesVimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Beguiled (2017)

The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)


The Illusionist

The Scottish audiences were most pleased when the Illusionist conjured Scotch out of thin air.

(2010) Animated Feature (Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil, Raymond Mearns, James T. Muir, Tom Urie, Paul Bandey. Directed by Sylvain Chomet

 

There comes a time in life when we realize that the world has moved on without us. Very few of us can keep up with progress, particularly when the careers we’ve labored at all our lives have been rendered obsolete, either through technology or simply through changing tastes. It is bittersweet; the sadness that which we have labored at no longer matters, but there is also a freedom in it as well.

Monsieur Jacques Tatischeff (Donda) is a stage musician and a good one. He has played all the finest music halls and vaudeville theaters in Europe. Now, it is the 1950s and the 1960s are right around the corner and the audience for his kind of entertainment is shrinking. Once a headliner, he is reduced to taking whatever bookings he can and has found himself in Edinburgh.

He has caught the attention of Alice (Rankin), the young chambermaid at the hotel he is staying in. She is dewy-eyed and innocent, her eyes wide and open, amazed by the illusions Monsieur Tatischeff conjures. His act has convinced her that there is real magic in the world and that Monsieur Tatischeff has access to it.

For his part, Monsieur Tatischeff is touched at the attention he is receiving – one last true fan. He looks upon Alice as the daughter he never had and showers her were gifts – new shoes, new dresses. He can’t afford them on the meager pay of his bookings, so he works odd jobs when he’s not onstage so that he can buy these things for Alice, who thinks he has conjured these fine things out of air. He wants her to continue thinking that.

But this is one illusion even a master Illusionist like Monsieur Tatischeff can maintain indefinitely and soon he is faced with the wrenching choice of revealing the truth to Alice or continuing the lie. Reality is fast catching up to him as it does with us all.

Chomet was the auteur behind the much-acclaimed The Triplets of Belleville. The script he’s working off of here was written by the great French comedian and actor Jacques Tati, who wrote this back in 1959 but for some reason never got around to filming it as a live-action film although there is evidence that he intended to. This is said to be a highly personal work for him; the Alice character may represent a daughter that he abandoned, although Chomet has said that Alice was really Sophie, the younger daughter who first gave Chomet the script to produce as an animated feature.

The movie is hand-drawn rather than computer generated. This process is tedious and labor-intensive and rarely used since Pixar took over the animation market. It also renders the movie more beautifully, resembling paintings more than anything else. This is animated art folks and is as beautiful looking (even in its tedious Edinburgh scenes) as you’re likely to see.

There is almost no dialogue – Chomet prefers to make his work more universal, so most of the sounds you hear are wordless, like acrobats exclaiming “Hep! Hep! Hep!” as they bounce around the screen. There are sighs and cries, but few words. In many ways this is like a silent movie, relying on the characters to tell the story without using extraneous words.

Tati was inspired by Charlie Chaplin (and there are those who consider him France’s Chaplin) and in a sense, this is a movie that Chaplin would likely have approved of. There is some pathos and the comedy is quirky and well choreographed. There is a definite melancholic air however that might be off-putting for some; after all, this is supposed to be at its heart about a father-daughter relationship. However, it is also about the end of an era, about a man having to accept that what he had done for a living all his life was no longer meaningful. There is nothing funny about be rendered obsolete, but there can be a catharsis in it and Chomet finds it.

This is a beautiful movie, if you can find beauty in sadness. There is some joy here as well, but I walked away from it feeling like you do after you’ve had a good cry although I shed no tears while I watched. It is certainly different than the offerings of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, the two leaders in modern animation. It didn’t connect with the audience sadly, although it did get an Oscar nomination. It’s one of those movies that a lot of people kind of turned their noses up at, but it is also one of those films that if you give it half a chance you are likely to fall under it’s spell.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully hand drawn with a marvelously bittersweet story on aging and growing irrelevant.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Almost no dialogue and a melancholic feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here might be a bit difficult for smaller children to work through. There are also numerous depictions of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Illusionist’s stage name, Jacques Tatischeff, is the real name of Jacques Tati who wrote the script.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting feature that shows a scene being animated from storyboard to finished product.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.6M on a $17M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Attack the Block