Stan and Ollie, directed by Jon S. Baird, 2018.

with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

I had gone to the movie expecting to be impressed by John C. Reilly’s performance as Ollie, since I had already enjoyed his acting in the Sisters Brothers where for once he could show his range in the lead role, and in the silly Holmes and Watson movie where he demonstrated how much acting is play with Will Ferrell. He is equally good as Ollie, with prosthetics to make him look perhaps a bit fleshier even than the real thing, but mostly in soulfully sad ways as the team face their decline. I was not prepared for the depth of feeling that Steve Coogan brought to his role as Stan Laurel.

Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel

Laurel and Hardy, the peerless comic duo, were popular during the early days of cinema, when audiences were satisfied with short movies, even in the age of sound. Once the movies grew longer, the drawn out scripts did not suit them as well. Laurel was the brains of the outfit, writing the bits, but without Hardy’s counterbalance: his obesity to Laurel’s reed like slenderness, his slow burns to Laurel’s hapless goofiness and contrition, his patience to Laurel’s quickness to solve things in exactly the wrong way, Laurel was quite lost. The two needed to work together for their comic brilliance to shine.

The screenplay, based on Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours by A. J. Marriott, follows the tour of stage performances they made after the second world war, a reunion comeback after a rift that results from a contract dispute with director Hal Roach. Ostensibly the tour is meant as a prelude to their shooting a movie based on Robin Hood. Getting to that point takes them through nearly empty theaters and rundown hotels until with a bit of nudging by their producer they do a lot of publicity and begin to fill bigger and better theaters on their way to London.

In London they meet their wives, perfectly cast Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda. The women want the best for their men, so when Hardy’s health begins to fail, a crisis ensues.

Reunited in London with their wives.

The re-enactments of their best bits, including a sublime dance, are lovingly staged and photographed. There is a double door routine, basically an elaborate sight gag, that makes everyone in the theater laugh.

Dance made immortal in Way Out West
performed by Coogan and Reilly

It takes an argument, as happens so often in the longest marriages, to bring the couple together and discover their love for each other. The script depicts the stormy relationship between the two leads. Most poignant is the line: “I loved us.” spoken by Laurel when he is explaining how the separation felt.

The movie made me hungry to watch some of the original movies which are easy to find on youtube. Steve Coogan I think of as a comic actor, perfect in the Trip movies with Rob Brydon, riffing on this and that in the car as they make their way to one restaurant after another. There is the Alan Partridge persona. He did show some acting chops in Philomena with Judi Dench. But this movie has him in a much more complex part, where he has the restless energy of a writer, the pathos of a man put down by the snobby movie industry which has lost any interest in his genius. And as a friend and partner to Oliver Hardy, he shows the dependence that comes with any great partnership. Reilly is good as always, but the two of them together rise up and take inspiration from the older duo.

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The Favourite directed by Yorgis Lanthimos, 2018.

with Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone.

The Favourite is a story about power, and the wielding of it by three women, each from a different class. First there is the queen, Anne, who is homely and portly, and plagued by gout. Who wouldn’t be cranky, especially considering that every single baby she conceived, had died? So she takes great comfort in the Duchess of Marlborough, someone she grew up with, someone almost of her class, who can tell her things straight, without lying, or putting on airs to please her. Who wouldn’t want such an ally in court? So the Lady of Marlborough becomes the first lady of the court, and manages everything, including the budget, while her husband, an equally prestigious personage, goes off to fight the wars with the French.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne

Rachel Weisz portrays the Duchess of Marlborough, the central figure in the trio of women.

Then along comes Abigail, the Duchess’s distant cousin, who has fallen onto hard times, and can only gain a position as a maidservant, or worse, a scullery maid. When she arrives, she is first thrown into the mud, and then told to wash the floors with lye without being told to wear gloves, and soon she is thrown into the mud again. Abigail could use a bit of power for herself, and so she gains it by being very kind and subservient to the Queen. As she treats her own lye stricken hands with a salve she garners from the nearby moss, so she helps the queen’s skin broken out into sores from her gout.

However, Abigail’s ascendancy comes at the price of the Lady of Marlborough’s descent, which naturally peeves the latter. This is where the power struggle lies in the movie. Which woman will retain her position of prestige, as the Queen’s favourite?

Emma Stone as Abigail

All of the acting is superior. Olivia Colman is a revelation to me, not having seen her before. Rachel Weisz is as always, stunning to look at, especially when she is practicing shooting, with a large rifle, alongside her rival. Emma Stone speaks with a convincing British accent, and proves that Abigail is not dedicated to any one in particular, just to herself, surviving all of the bad things thrown at her. Did I mention that she falls into the mud, not two but three times? The costumes are gorgeous, as is the setting amid three castle like structures in rural England. The dialogue bristles with wit.

There are also a few men very pleasant to look at, especially when they wear outlandish wigs

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Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2018.

with Kiki Kirin (Hatsue), Lily Franky (Osamu), Sakura Ando (Noburo), Jyo Kairi (Shota), Sasaki Miyo (Yuri), Matsuoka Mayu (Aki).

Where did these people come from and what drew them together as a makeshift family? This is the question that gnawed at me as I watched the disparate group of people living in a modest house, all six of them:

–Hatsue, a grandmother, who still pays tribute to her deceased husband, whose pension makes her life possible

–Osamu, a construction worker, well skilled in shoplifting who teaches

–Shota, a ten year old boy the art of stealing, so long as the stuff doesn’t belong to anyone yet, the boy refusing to call the man dad

–Nobuyo, Osamu’s girlfriend, seen ironing among her co workers in sweatshop like conditions

–Aki, a sex worker (peep show variety) very beautiful, perhaps related to granny

–Yuri, a small girl, rescued from a neighbor’s abusive household, with scars from previous beatings

They live as a multigenerational family, piled one on top of each other, no one really responsible for the care and upkeep of the house, except when the little girl wets the bed. Then Nobuyo immediately takes the bedding off to be washed, and the granny pours salt on the girl’s palm, instructing her to lick it, for that is the way one is cured of bed wetting.

Questions of right and wrong arise many times. Teaching your son to shoplift is wrong, right? Removing a girl from an abusive situation seems noble, but isn’t it also kidnapping if you don’t tell her parents? Squatting with granny because she has a pension is just taking advantage of an old woman, isn’t it? As the family’s coherence and affection and inner goodness make themselves plain, the honor among thieves is tested.

So much depends on the anchor of the old woman who mothers not just the little girl, but also the young woman known as Aki. When Hatsue disappears, things begin to fall apart. Shota, a boy on the verge of adolescence, hesitates when Osamu asks him to stand lookout for a car theft — the car clearly already belongs to someone, so to steal from that person would violate the code he was brought up in.

Osamu and Shota scope out the goods in a market

The sad denouement could be predicted, but thanks to the stellar performances of all the actors, especially Sakura Ando, who asks fundamental questions such as, is giving birth the only way you qualify to be a mother. The movie gets under your skin, and makes you wonder why you can’t pick your own family, and once you have, and made it work, why should the legal authorities get to take it away.

Yuri and Shota

Hatsue, or granny

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Holmes and Watson, directed by Etan Cohen, 2018.

With Will Ferrell John C. Reilly, Kelly Macdonald, Ralph Fiennes.

Holmes and Watson features a Queen Victoria played by the actress who played the Trunchbull in Matilda, an American doctor played by Rebecca Hall, a truly strange female sidekick played by Lauren Lupkus, a one armed murderous tattoo artist played by Steve Coogan, Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis, played by Ralph Fiennes, Sherlock’s competitive brother, Mycroft, played by Hugh Laurie. In other words, the superior supporting cast buffets the inanity with moments of comic precision.

But what the movie is about, after the back story reveals why Sherlock cannot have an emotional life but must rely strictly on his intellect, is the relationship between Sherlock whose ego is huge and reputation enormous, and Watson (John C. Reilly), laboring in Sherlock’s shadow.

Will Ferrell is a funny man, willing to do stupid things at length to get a laugh. His chemistry with John C. Reilly has already been proven in Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers. What Ferrell lacks in finesse Reilly fills in. They sing their duet with feeling. It makes you believe the two men really do love each other.

Hudson (Kelly Macdonald), the housekeeper at Holmes’ and Watson’s apartment, comes in for some heavy lifting and is quite perfect in the plot twist at the end. The only part I had to close my eyes to –just too gross for words–took place in the morgue. Who actually thinks vomiting is a funny gag?

Hugh Laurie as Mycroft has a scene in a gentleman’s club where his conversation with his brother Sherlock does not require spoken words

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Mary, Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, 2018.

with Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie.

If only I could stop focusing on the high hair of Mary Queen of Scots, I might have paid closer attention to what she was saying, or doing, but the costumes and the hair styling, and the sweeping production of this movie overwhelm any sensible narrative.  There is a conflict between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scotland when she returns from France where her husband has died.  Elizabeth has decided not to marry, leaving the question of heirs in doubt.  Who is the legitimate heir to the throne?

Mary thinks she has a claim.  Elizabeth is certain the Tudors not the Stuarts should prevail.  Elizabeth dangles her very nice boyfriend, Robert Dudley, in front of Mary hoping that the combination will solve the problem.  Then Lord Darnley arrives with his luckless pappy in tow, who needs a leg up in the privy council, and after thirty minutes, Mary for some reason is smitten.  It is true, he is good looking, but would you marry someone so hastily just in order to produce an heir?

So Mary turns out not to be the stalwart clear thinker we had started with when she was speaking in an oratorial fashion.  She becomes more reckless as the days go by, and civil war results in needless bloodshed.  Repetitive speeches issue from John Knox who claims that Mary is a harlot and in service to the Pope.  Mary never mentions religion except once when she says there is room for both Protestants and Catholics in her realm.  But once she is accused, we don’t get to hear from her how she feels about these virulent attacks.

John Knox (David Tennant)

Elizabeth is clearly the more sound leader, but again, even though the movie has feminist leanings, and the women refer to each other at times as sisters, and vow to each other as faithful cousins, the scene we are waiting for at the end, when the two women finally get to meet face to face, is obscured literally by too much fancy set dressing and gauze curtains in front of them, and then sappy tears.   After all of that statesmanship, we are left with sentimental sorrow. 

I was hoping to learn more about the actual conflict.  I got a general sense of things.  Elizabeth relied on the wise counsel of William Cecil, played by Guy Pearce.  Robbie and Pearce have a great scene together, where they admit they are both men, exhilarated at the power they wield. 

Lord William Cecil and Elizabeth I

The two actresses seize every chance they can to perform their queenly duties.  Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie are up to the task.  But the subject of the two queens vying for the kingdom has a high pedigree.  Many other movies and television series have been made before this.   I am afraid this particular movie does not quite rise to the occasion.  It left me wanting to know more, or at least to see Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson in the 1971 version.

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Green Book (directed by Peter Farrelly), 2018.

with Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen.

Once I saw this movie, I wanted to know more about the veracity of the story.  I go to History vs. Hollywood to fact check what the “inspired by” historical movies is based on actual events and what is made up.  Green Book is about a classically trained pianist, Don Shirley, who had a trio that toured the deep south in the early 1960s.  Shirley was black, his bass and cello players white.    Mahershala Ali plays the notes as if he were really creating the sound we hear, and it is a testament to his acting that we cannot tell it is not him.  Shirley carries himself as a true aristocrat, with erect posture, meticulous manners, and impeccable clothing. 

The real Don Shirley next to Mahershala Ali

Then there is the matter of the other leading actor, Viggo Mortensen, who plays the Italian American driver / bodyguard, Tony Vallalonga.  Not that we have to know if he actually ate 26 hot dogs on a bet, or practically forced Shirley to eat fried chicken as they entered Kentucky.  Mortensen has put on some pounds to mimic the beefy guy’s physique.

The Shirley Trio with Tony Lip

The story compresses into two months a tour that took over a year.  To qualify for the position of chauffeur, Tony must first interview with Dr. Shirley (who he thinks is a medical doctor when Shirley’s degrees are in psychology, music and theology) at his Carnegie Hall apartment. The setting contrasts greatly with Tony’s working class Italian neighborhood in the Bronx where we had just watched him park his car in front of a hydrant by tipping a trash can upside down over it.  Dr. Shirley not only has an elegant outsized apartment with rare collections of ivory from Africa, but he has a very polite Indian valet.  It is hard to believe that Dr. Shirley wants to hire Tony until we learn that he knows he will need a tough guy to handle his concerts in the deep south.  

As they begin their drives together, culture clashes erupt.  Tony has the radio tuned to pop music, but Don has not heard Little Richard play, or Aretha Franklin sing.   Tony can’t believe that a black man would not know about his people. The low brow guy teaches the high brow guy until the high brow guy has to point out that Tony should wipe off his knees since he has dirt on them, after Don insists that Tony not toss trash onto the side of the road.  He teaches Tony about diction, and helps him write love letters to his wife.  H is not exactly Henry Higgins, but Tony has more to learn from Don than the other way around.  What Don needs from Tony is protection from the virulent racism in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Sometimes Don dictates letters for Tony to write to his wife, ala Cyrano

As the two get used to each other, they move deeper into the south where the Green Book of the title is genuinely needed.  A publication created for black travelers during the Jim Crow era, it helped them find motels that would accept them.  Even though Don is selling out his concerts, he is not allowed to try on a suit in a shop, or use the restroom in the club where he is performing.  Eventually the last straw comes when he cannot eat in the dining room booked for the last concert of the tour.  

The leading actors have real chemistry with each other.  There are moments of humor thanks to Peter Farrelly’s direction, and some snappy dialogue by the screenwriters (which include Vallalonga’s son).  It is not just the friendship that carries the story.  It is the struggle Shirley faces as to where he belongs: “If I’m not black enough, nor white enough…” he begins a lament.  Who accepts him for who he really is?  He reveals to Tony that he and his brother had a falling out.  “The world is full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.” Tony says.  

Tony’s wife is a very sympathetic character, waiting for her husband to come for Christmas
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Amazing Grace 2018

a documentary about a live recording of Aretha Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir  in Los Angeles in 1972

Aretha Franklin was tired of being a pop diva.  She wanted to go back to what started her career in song: her gospel roots.  She, along with the Reverend James Cleveland, her lifelong friend, put together a list of religious songs that they would perform in a church and record live.

The New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA, invited people to attend the recordings.  The Reverend Cleveland urged them to respond as they would if they were attending church.

Just because Aretha is the headliner does not mean that she is the star of this film.  Sure, we get to revel in the brilliance of her voice, a voice that  spans octaves and is most eloquent and refined even when she is screaming.  But the choir must take a bow along with Alexander Hamilton, the choir director, who coaxes performances and chords and beautiful music, spirited renditions always.

The filmmakers are barely  able to contain the action, and seem to struggle not only with the all important sound recording but also with the cameras which seem frequently out of focus, or in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sydney Pollack, the director of the original footage, is out of his element.  

The film we see has been doctored and finished by Alan Elliott (Pollack died ten years ago).  Aretha didn’t want the movie released until she got what she asked for financially.  

What we see is a singer take her gift and present it to her savior, Jesus Christ.  I am sure that Aretha is now in heaven, seated on a throne, so clearly does she proclaim her abiding faith as she sings.

Her father, a renowned Baptist preacher, appears the second night of recording, and reveals the lineage of greatness in the Franklin family — his gift for speaking and holding you captive to his silver tongue.  He passed that on to his daughter.  Her singing is a gift to us all.

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