Movie Review ~ Stan & Ollie


The Facts
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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 ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s a play based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins I saw several years back called Souvenir.  A two-person drama set in a supper club where Jenkins performed with her pianist Cosmé McMoon, you knew in advance that she was regarded as a terrible singer and that’s what attracted me to it.  The lights go down and I spent the next twenty minutes waiting for the actress playing Jenkins to open her mouth and warble out an opera aria.  She did. I laughed.  Then I spent the next two hours waiting for it to be over, the frivolity having running its course by the time the third song began.

That’s what seeing the new film Florence Foster Jenkins feels like…waiting for the joke and then checking your watch to see when it will end.  Buoyed by strong performances but misguided by some plot distractions that laboriously pad the running length instead of graciously filling it, it’s not a bad film in the slightest, just a one-joke movie that has its moment in the sun before entering some rainy weather territory which seriously drags down the latter half of the picture.

Jenkins (Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady) was a spirited eccentric that actually believed she could sing and was surrounded by friends (some say hangers-on) that wouldn’t be honest with her.  Her common-law husband (nicely played by Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas) pays reporters for good write-ups and has a girlfriend on the side (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) while her new pianist (Simon Helberg) is aghast that someone so bad could be lauded so much.

Focused on the last year or so that Jenkins was alive, director Stephen Frears (Philomena) and writer Nicholas Martin have crafted a splendid looking period piece set in New York (but filmed in London) that hits most of the right notes even as their leading character runs afoul of her own musical keys.  Still, there’s a paint-by-the-numbers feeling to it which keeps it awkwardly grounded and merely content with going through the emotional moments.

Yet from the rapturous reception the film received at my screening, it’s clear this is an audience-pleasing picture.  I almost feel like I need to see it again since so many lines were lost to audiences roaring over a previous phrase (which I feel is actually a problem with overall editing…didn’t anyone involved screen this with a crowd first?).  Released at the tail end of summer when more discerning crowds have come in from the summer sun, it’s likely to be a well-timed alternative to the CGI heavy box office fodder that’s hogged many screens at your multiplex.

Streep is, as always, beyond reproach and you can pretty much count on her making another trip to the Kodak theater with another Oscar (and SAG and Golden Globe) nomination under belt.  There’s already a ton of press showing Streep singing well (like in Into the Woods) and praising her bravura bad singing here and it’s nice to find out she did the majority of the singing live.  It can’t have been easy for a trained singer to learn to sing so poorly…but Streep doesn’t merely sing off-key, she’s studied Jenkins and found out WHY she doesn’t sing well and used that to get the sound right.  Her Queen of the Night aria is alone worth the price of admission.

Supporting Streep is a dandy Grant who I hope will also get some Oscar recognition for his work.  A difficult role seeing that he’s a bit of a cad, Grant digs deep and shows that above all else the man he’s portraying truly loved Jenkins even though they couldn’t have the kind of life together that either planned.  Under some old age make-up, Grant remains charming in that aloof sort of way but over the years he’s grown as an actor to temper that aloofness with authenticity.

Aside from Streep and Grant, the other supporting players are a mixed bag.  Helberg’s performance is all overbite…literally.  Though Martin takes some time to flesh out Jenkins long-time pianist, Helberg plays him so slight and twee that I half expected him to fly away at any given moment.  He’s got good chemistry with Streep, though, and that’s all that really matters.  I’ve liked Ferguson and Nina Arianda in other movies but not much here…both play grating women in roles that easily could have been excised, especially Ferguson as Grant’s long-time mistress.

What makes Florence Foster Jenkins something I’d cautiously recommend is the stately way Frears, Martin, and Streep have presented this delusional socialite who performed her final concert to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.  Knowing the difference between a characterization that’s eccentric instead of goofy, Streep gives her the requisite dignity without letting her totally off the hook.  Like the overall film and the peculiar woman at its center, it’s an admirable close but no cigar.

The Silver Bullet ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

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Synopsis: The story of New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Release Date:  May 6, 2016

Thoughts: We all know Meryl Streep can sing after turns in Mamma Mia, Into the Woods, and even Death Becomes Her…but how good can she sing badly?  This looks like a swell comedic turn for the Oscar winner, ditching her more serious fare for the kind of fun diversion she likes to take up between period dramas and new accents.  I know a little about the lady she’s portraying and if the film is half as clever as the Florence Foster Jenkins stage play Souvenir (this film is not based on that) we’ll be in for a good show that’s not as off-key as its subject.  Always nice to see Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) part of the mix, too.