Movie Review ~ Stan & Ollie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Laurel and Hardy, the world’s most famous comedy duo, attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song – a grueling theatre tour of post-war Britain.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston

Director: Jon S. Baird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: With a total of 107 movies to their name, the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy were kings of comedy in the late 1920’s through the late 1940’s, the golden age of Hollywood.  While both men had established careers apart from one another, it was only when they were paired up at the famed Hal Roach film studio that their stardom went through the roof and they became the stuff of legend.  Though they maybe aren’t remembered by name quite as much as the other comedic acts at the time like Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges, it only takes seeing an image of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and you instantly are familiar with their style of slapstick comedy.

It’s surprising to me that the story of these two men has taken so long to get to the screen and now that it has it’s arrived as a small but sturdy film focusing on the later lives of the pair as they attempt a comeback tour through England in 1953.  Far from their youth and out of practice with each other, the trip proves to be eye-opening in examining their personal and professional relationship and forces them to confront long-held grudges they’ve never really gotten over.

With a career as long and varied as the one Laurel & Hardy had, screenwriter Jeff Pope (Philomena) was wise in focusing in on just one chapter in their story.  The film buff in me would have loved a longer tale that showed us the early Hollywood years that led up to this comeback tour which proved to be the last time the two men would work together, but perhaps that’s too tall an order for a feature film and might find itself better suited as a series down the road.  Pope traces the two men as their tour starts out small but gathers steam as the has-been stars get their spark back and begin to pack in theaters throughout Britain at a time when the country needed a laugh.

Casting was crucial in pulling off this piece and director Jon S. Baird tapped the right people for the job.  As Stan Laurel, Steve Coogan (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) has moments when he looks eerily like the gangly goofball with the flat face and slinking shoulders that stands in stark opposition to the somber fellow Laurel is painted as being offstage.  John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) plays his counterpart wearing a fat suit and convincingly real latex prosthetic to enhance his chin and jowls.  Though he doesn’t have the same ringer look that Coogan does, Reilly doesn’t let the make-up do the work for him (I’m talking to you Christian Bale in Vice) and brings the physicality of the rotund comedian out to strong results. The men are backed up by two ladies that often steal the movie right out from under them.  Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) is a hoot as Laurel’s brash Russian wife that hogs the spotlight and then there’s Shirley Henderson (Anna Karenina) showing quiet grace playing Hardy’s concerned wife.

At 97 minutes, the movie feels longer than it actually is because it’s ever so slightly on the slow side.  I hate to say it but it even devolves into a rather dull film around the halfway mark when it starts to fall into a familiar biopic formula where conflict is introduced in preparation for a reconciliation right before the credits roll.  The period settings are spot-on and if you’re a fan of the duo then you’re in for some delightful moments where portions or their act are nicely recreated by Coogan and Reilly.  I just wish the movie exuded the same kind of spritely spirit Laurel & Hardy were able to convey in their work.

Movie Review ~ Glass


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Security guard David Dunn uses his supernatural abilities to track Kevin Wendell Crumb, a disturbed man who has twenty-four personalities.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing that this is a spoiler-free zone I have to say up front that while you’re not going to get much in the way of big reveals when it comes to Glass, it’s impossible to talk about the movie at all if you haven’t seen the two films that came before.  So if you haven’t seen Unbreakable or Split and don’t want to know key plot points, now is the time to turn back.

We good?

Okay…let’s get on with it.

Director M. Night Shyamalan is famous for his twist endings that send the movie and audience into a tail spin right at the conclusion, calling into question everything we’ve been watching for the previous two hours.  At first, it was a fun parlor game to predict what he had up his sleeve until it became evident that the twist was both the most interesting thing about the film and its downfall.  At the end of Split, Shyamalan lobbed a soft curveball at us before the credits but then laid out a whopper when he brought back Bruce Willis’ character from Unbreakable for a brief scene that suggested the two movies had a common bond that would become evident in a future film.

With the unexpected success of Split (not to mention 2015’s scary romp The Visit) Shyamalan was able to parlay his renewed good standing in Hollywood and his hefty profits into capping off a trilogy supposedly always at the back of his brain.  That seems like a convenient way to pat yourself on the back in hindsight but, okay, let’s just go with the claim that Shyamalan always imagined he’d make Unbreakable, Split, and Glass as a trio of films that suggested real life superheroes and mega villains truly did walk among us.

So where did we leave off with the previous films?  At the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn (Willis, Looper) had just accepted his developing powers that gave him the ability to see the bad deeds of others just by touch while his body proved to be indestructible.  At the same time, the mysterious Mr. Glass, (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) with a rare disorder that caused his bones to break with the greatest of ease, showed his true colors as a master criminal that orchestrated multiple catastrophic events in an attempt to find a man like Dunn to be his foe.  Shyamalan’s late-breaking twist gave way to an abysmal wrap-up via on screen text that did no one any favors.

The last time we saw Kevin, James McAvoy’s (Trance) disturbed Split character with dissociative identity disorder, he had transformed into a 24th personality known as The Beast.  Though his kidnapping victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The VVitch) managed to escape, The Beast has joined with the rest of the angrier personalities within Kevin to form The Horde and has continued to hunt young girls that are “unbroken”.  Casey’s recovery has included fleeing her abusive uncle, taking up residence with a foster family, and attending the same school as Dunn’s son, Joseph ( Spencer Treat Clark, The Town that Dreaded Sundown)

The movie begins with Dunn doling out vigilante justice as The Overseer in a very Michael Myers stalker-ish way, with his ultimate goal to hunt down The Horde and find a new batch of missing girls.  When Dunn and Kevin are captured by the ambitious Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave) and brought to a remote psychiatric hospital for testing, Dunn is reunited with Mr. Glass who has been waiting over a decade to initiate the next phase in his evil plan.

I wish I could say that Glass is the amped-up finale it’s being advertised as but sadly it’s a movie that coasts instead of soars.  While the first third of the film creates some genuine interest as we see the characters from previous films crossover, it quickly devolves into talky repetition that feels indulgent on several levels.  Shyamalan can’t quite get out of his own way where the crux of the story lies, falling into a black hole of superhero mythos he can’t adequately tie into the action onscreen.  The finale especially feels like a convergence of so many ideas that aren’t fully realized, making it all feel slightly half-baked and not as satisfying as I would have liked.

While I genuinely like all the actors in the movie, I struggle with praise for any of them here.  McAvoy has the showiest role…and he knows it.  Wheras in Split the shifts between Kevin’s multiple personalities seemed like an actor exercising considerable control in delineation of characters, in Glass we get to meet even more of the alters and that starts to trip up McAvoy early on.  With Shyamalan giving him far too much room to play, the performance feels overworked.  You’d be forgiven if you forget Willis is in the movie, he’s so low-key Paulson practically has to shake him awake in their scenes and he outright disappears for a long stretch in the middle section of the film.  Jackson seems to having more fun than the rest, if only Mr. Glass had been giving any new defining character trait in this film…but it’s just a repeat of work that’s been done 19 years ago.

This is all too bad because the film is rather well made thanks to thoughtfully constructed scenes by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis.  Let it also never be said that Shyamalan doesn’t fill the screen with visual clues for audiences to pick up on along the way.  Even working with a smaller budget, Shyamalan has stretched his coin with intelligence, spending the money on important visual effects and keeping the location shooting to a minimum.  What they didn’t spend money on?  A decent make-up artist.  Poor Charlayne Woodard looks like she’s melting under her old-age make-up as Jackson’s mother – we never forget the actress is five years younger than that actor playing her son.

As with most Shyamalan films, the filmmaker rounds out Glass with a coda to send audiences out with more to think about and I have to give some credit to the director for finding a way to get us back in his corner right at the very end.  It’s not quite enough to make the movie a true success but it doesn’t shatter the film experience completely.

Movie Review ~ Free Solo


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000ft high El Capitan Wall. With no ropes or safety gear, he completed arguably the greatest feat in rock climbing history.

Stars: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin

Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: One of the benefits of reviewing movies is we’re often sent screening links in advance of a film being released into theaters. Free Solo arrived in my inbox on a wave of positive reviews and good buzz coming out of the early festivals it played at. Around the same time a podcast I know and trust said the movie was best experienced on the big screen if at all possible so I opted to hold off on a home viewing in favor of a theatrical exhibition. So the link sat there and went unwatched until it expired. Ouch. And then I missed it when it was released in theaters! Double ouch.

Fortunately for me (and for you), the movie gods have smiled in our favor and saw fit to re-release Free Solo for one week in IMAX theaters and when you’re done reading this review I’d suggest you find the theater nearest you and get your butt in a seat pronto.

This documentary from National Geographic directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is likely headed for an Oscar nomination and after witnessing the stunning work that went into capturing free soloist Alex Honnold’s landmark climb it’s not hard to see why. Famous for his rapid ascents on some of the world’s largest rock formations, Honnold was already a superstar in the climbing world but his 2017 journey 3,000 feet up El Captain in Yosemite National Park made him a legend.

A free soloist works without the aid of ropes or other protective equipment. Rising far above a safe distance, any wrong move would likely mean death so it’s totally on the strength (mental and physical) of the climber to navigate a route that will keep them alive. For the armchair adventurist, this is right up there with swimming with sharks without a cage or skydiving out of a plane while trying to put your parachute on. Any mistake and you’re a goner.

Honnold is one of the most fascinating subjects for a documentary I’ve seen in some time because his seeming ambivalence to his own mortality is strikingly bold. A lone wolf that lives in a van even though he’s made a considerable amount of money off of endorsements and sales of his book, he lives to climb and seeks out every opportunity to push himself further and further. Some may say he has a death wish but he’s actually looking to challenge himself in new ways that just happen to have a considerable amount of risk to it. How many of us are that willing to go such a great distance?

The film follows Honnold as he prepares for the climb he’s long dreamed of while at the same time exploring the seeds of a growing relationship. In the past, Honnold has kept girlfriends and family at a distance because it’s easier to go into these high-stakes situations with as few emotional attachments as possible but this one seems different. With this romantic development comes new distractions that weren’t there before, playing tricks with Honnold’s focus that ultimately proves dangerous. And then there’s the question of being filmed in the first place. Is he making this milestone trek for himself or because there are cameras present? What responsibility do the filmmakers have in this situation where they could be filming Honnold’s final climb?

With a filmmaking crew made up of experienced climbers and utilizing skilled technology that allowed them to capture incredible moments without getting in Honnold’s way, the directors have made a documentary that almost feels like a feature film. I could easily see this being translated to a narrative feature with it’s emotional arc, false starts, tragedies, and triumphs. Yet it always feels immediate and honest. Constantly checking in by reminding us how far up he’s climbing, Chin and Vasarhelyi give us stunning views in the midst of incredible tension. If your palms don’t sweat and your heart doesn’t beat faster during the final 20 minutes of the film then you’re made up of stronger stuff than I am.

Movie Review ~ Capernaum (Capharnaüm)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, a 12-year-old boy sues his parents for neglect.

Stars: Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef, Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam

Director: Nadine Labaki

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: It happens every year around this time.  We’re neck deep in awards season and the foreign language film categories start to loom large for me.  The movies submitted for consideration by their countries that make the Oscar shortlist and nab spots on the earlier awards ballots (the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, etc) start to become clearer and you can predict which will probably be the nominees at the Oscars.  Yet these are the films that will inevitably be my Achilles Heel, either because I often lack the drive to see them or miss the opportunity to screen them when they present themselves.  Then I have the opportunity to see a movie like Capernaum and I realize that I’m my own worst enemy and I need to see more foreign films not just during Oscar season but throughout the year.

The likely nominee hails from Lebanon and is from celebrated director Nadine Labaki, who also has a small supporting role as the defense attorney for Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) a young boy appearing in court bringing charges against his parents.  In flashbacks, we see why he’s brought his parents to a very public hearing before a judge and what kind of life he’s been forced to live in the short twelve years he’s been alive.  Before you think this is just a Lebanese remake of Irreconcilable Differences, know that Zain’s story is filled with trauma and poverty the likes most of us will never know and, like many privileged US citizens that will watch the movie, the film was an eye-opening experience for me.

Zain’s journey takes him from his family apartment in Beirut to a rundown amusement park where he is befriended by Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman in the country illegally forced to hide her baby, Yonas, who is also undocumented.  Forming a sort of fractured family with the woman and her child, Zain takes on responsibilities in caring for the baby while Rahil works on getting her papers in order.  Through several devastating twists, Zain and Yonas are left to fend for themselves and eventually we’ll find out how Zain ends up in jail serving time for a violent crime.

This is a tough film to watch and I’m guessing an even more difficult film to get made.  Labaki was working with actors that had no experience in situations that were culled from real life stories.  That she was able to coax such realistic performances out of them is nothing short of remarkable, lead by a mesmerizing performance by Al Rafeea as our young hero.  Wise beyond his years and forced to grow up faster than any child should, his tiny frame bears evidence of neglect and yet he always soldiers on.  Shiferaw, too, impresses as a mother left to fend for herself by the man who got her pregnant and now offers no support.  With little options, she desperately attempts to piece together a semblance of a better life.

Though it runs slightly longer than necessary (it hammers its points home loud and clear) there are unexpected surprises throughout.  Let it be known that Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, the infant that plays Yonas, is the cutest baby you’ll see on screen in 2019.  Labaki is good at turning her camera on faces and places we don’t normally see.  The overwhelming bustle of the city is captured thoroughly, you can easily see why two children roaming the street could be overlooked by passersby.  True, there are several brutal lines of dialogue that cut like a knife but Labaki ends the film with an extended freeze frame that’s downright beautiful.  Even if you’ve heard that Roma has it in the bag for the Academy Award this year, keep your eye on Capernaum as a stellar example of the power of world cinema.

Movie Review ~ The Upside


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Genevieve Angelson, Aja Naomi King, Julianna Margulies

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m going to level with you and let you know that for the most part remakes are just not my cup of tea.  I just don’t see the point of the exercise so unless you are going to go your own way (hello, Suspiria), then I’d rather filmmakers spend their time on creating new work.  Don’t even get me started on American remakes of foreign films, just another way Hollywood plays into the notion that audiences won’t sit for two hours reading subtitles.  Box office notwithstanding, there are but a few examples where an English film has surpassed its international counterpart but there are times when a movie makes the leap over the ocean to our shores without tarnishing our good memories of the original.

Thankfully, The Upside is an example of the happy path a film can take when translated and it has arrived in theaters by the skin of its teeth, nearly lost indefinitely due to a controversy within its production house that delayed its release for nearly a year.  Originally set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, when the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein sent waves through Hollywood their slate of films set for release were canned and sold off to other studios.  It’s unfortunate The Upside suffered under this melee because, while imperfect, it’s largely an audience pleasing dramedy that feels like the kind of critic-proof feel-gooder that could be a sleeper hit if audiences bite.

Based on Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables from 2011, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original work with some modifications that I felt were improvements…but more on that later.  The set-up is still the same: mega-millionaire Phillip (Bryan Cranston, Trumbo) is a quadriplegic looking for a new care-giver who chooses recent parolee Dell (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer) against the advice of his executive (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased) because he’s the least qualified for the job.  The two are a mismatched pair with Aretha Franklin loving Dell clashing with opera-fan Phillip in fairly benign ways.  As Dell learns more about responsibility after largely being absent from his own son’s life and Phillip gets a new lease on living via Dell’s tough love methods, the two form exactly the bond you expect but don’t arrive there in quite the way you’d think.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere have tinkered with the story, removing some of the more white savior-esque moments from the original which just wouldn’t have gone over well in this age where everything is under a different microscope.  Dell is more of a fleshed out character than his French counterpart was, there’s less imposed upon him but rather he is the driving force in many of the key developments of the movie.  There’s also an interesting splitting of one character into two (kinda) and the insertion of a tense scene between Phillip and woman played by Julianna Margulies (Ghost Ship).  With movies like Green Book running afoul of the PC police, I feel The Upside slides by largely without incident.  In the end I guess you could unfairly boil it down to it being about a rich white guy somewhat educating, and by proxy being educated by, a poor black man but the movie rises above that antiquated trope largely on the strength of its casting.

We talk a lot about chemistry in the movies and how hard it is to come by and it’s clear at this point that Hart can create chemistry with just about any costar you put him with.  Cranston has his moments as well but Hart is what really fuels the film even when it teeters into preachy schmaltz or cornball familiar territory.  He’s dialed his routine down a few notches but that hasn’t diminished his delivery or screen energy.  It’s not hard to see why there was early buzz on his performance being a bit of a revelation.  Confined to a wheelchair and not able to move his extremities, Cranston can only use his face to sell the scenes and it turns out that restraint works wonders for coming across less earnest.  Though saddled with a wig that always seems like it needed to be brushed, Kidman’s tightly wound exec gets to cut loose a few times, though some developments later in the film feel a tad underdeveloped (if not wholly underwritten).

It’s surprising to me how popular The Intouchables remains seven years after its release.  It was the second biggest film in France that year and last time I checked it was #40 on IMDb’s list of Top 250 films…ahead of Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I quite liked the film that inspired The Upside and was surprised at how easy this remake went over with not just me but the audience I screened it with.  The laughs were where they should be and, as expected, when the credits rolled it was met with enthusiastic applause.  This says to me that audiences won’t be swayed by critics thumbing their nose at this decently entertaining buddy film.  I’d still suggest watching the original but if you’ve given that one a spin then there’s no downside to seeking out The Upside.

Movie Review ~ Escape Room


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis

Director: Adam Robitel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s the time of year when we are past the season to be jolly and across the Oscar hopeful finish line of prestige pictures trying to make their end of the year release date cutoff.  Now we’re into January, a month commonly known in Hollywood when studios will push their less than desirable products into theaters either hoping they will go away quietly or praying for a small miracle and have them catch fire with audiences and make them a buck or two.  Over the last few years the films that tend to do the best are low impact horror thrillers that are good for a jolt or two and quickly forgotten.

So it’s indeed a perfect time for Sony to release Escape Room, their modestly budgeted and mostly forgettable time waster thriller.  Though it boasts a good director that has shown he knows a thing or two around this genre and a concept filled with intriguing opportunities, it winds up being a strictly mediocre effort that sacrifices early hints of creativity for a messy finale that fails to deliver. It’s not that good but if I’m being totally honest it’s also not that bad.

Opening with my least favorite plot device, introducing a character in a dire situation and then flashing back “three days earlier”, Escape Room gathers six disparate strangers vying to win $10,000 if they can solve a new escape room that’s come to Chicago.  Though it appears they have nothing in common, over the next 100 minutes we’ll learn why they were chosen and how it came to be they are involved in a game that gets more deadly the deeper they go into the labyrinthine rooms.  Their weaknesses become their strengths and their paranoias become their downfall as each one faces their fears that pop up in a variety of ways.

Those familiar with the Saw series or the cult classic Cube will find a lot of common threads here and Escape Room starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster of better movies the longer it goes on.  Those movies at least had a concept that had an endgame, though, and it becomes clear around the halfway mark that screenwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik may have had a beginning and end sketched out but failed to come up with enough twists and turns to keep the audience off balance.  I kept waiting for the film to take a different path than what was expected but it kept motoring on with no surprises along the way.  Even the escape rooms themselves start out with interesting clues to solve but gradually get less and less creative as the group moves forward and their numbers start to dwindle.

Director Adam Robitel gave us The Taking of Deborah Logan, one of my absolute favorite horror films of the last ten years as well as last January’s Insidious: The Last Key.  It’s clear he possesses a style that works well in this genre but there’s less focus here on the substance to go with that polish.  There’s also an extreme problem with the likability of the cast.  Aside from Taylor Russell as a mousy brainiac and Deborah Ann Woll’s (Ruby Sparks) haunted veteran, none of the other cast members seem worth keeping around, especially annoying grocery store burnout Logan Miller (Love, Simon)

Yet the movie moves swiftly without wasting unnecessary time in one location for too long.  This notorious watch checker was surprised to see the first time he looked at his timepiece was 90 minutes into the film.  Unfortunately, that’s when the film lost me in a major way with a bizarre denouement and even stranger stinger that didn’t feel like it matched up with the rest of the action.  It felt like a studio mandated add-on to keep the door open for future sequels.  Up until that point the movie had played mostly by the rules but then it seemed to toss out logic and reason in favor of extending the story past the closing credits.  I wish the filmmakers had spent more time rounding out the rough edges of this movie before laying the groundwork for another.

With movies like Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, and Bumblebee still easily occupying the top slots at the box office, Sony is hoping Escape Room might find a foothold with audiences that just want to sit back and not have to think too hard over what’s passing in front of their eyes on screen.  Escape Room fits that bill and should easily make its money back in its first weekend.  I’d say it’s one that you could hold off on catching in theaters, though, and put on your list for a rainy day at-home selection.