Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: "Stan & Ollie"

“Stan & Ollie” is a melancholy look at the relationship between one of film’s great comedic duos: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Though their place in the pop culture consciousness is closer to distant reverence than relevance these days, they were as big in Hollywood as you could get in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In their onscreen act, Oliver Hardy was the portly, overbearing one while Stan Laurel was the skinny numbskull. But as the film makes clear, in real life Stan was the stodgy brains of the outfit who wrote all their material, while Oliver was the joyful retiring sort who was happy to let his partner handle the business side of things.

They are played by Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Oliver. Both are completely believable, physically and otherwise, in their parts. Coogan gets by with just a little Brylcreem and altering his voice; Reilly uses a fat suit and impressive facial prosthetics. We quickly look past the exterior finishing and concentrate on the souls behind the legend.

The film, written by Jeff Pope and directed by Jon S. Baird, is set in 1953 after their fame has mostly faded. Oliver is now in his early 60s and in poor health, while Stan has been cut down by his attempts to buck the Hollywood system. An opening scene from 1937 shows them butting heads with studio chief Hal Roach (Danny Huston), demanding more money, which briefly led to them splitting up the act for a time.

It’s all water under the bridge for Ollie, but Stan still has a chip on his shoulder. He’s organized a stage tour of the United Kingdom, which is to build hype for a film they’re planning to shoot playing off the Robin Hood legend. They keep working on different bits for the movie, even though the man in charge of putting the financing together isn’t returning Stan’s calls.

What this lovely film shows is how people can be a perfect fit onstage but not really get along off it. They don’t detest each other or anything like that. They’ve played golf and double-dated with their wives -- whichever ones they had at the moment; both men have married and divorced repeatedly, which has cut into their finances -- without ever really becoming true friends.

Comedy is their shared language and point of reference for, well, everything. Playing seedy theaters before small audiences and staying in third-rate hotels, they make a joke of their circumstances while seething about it. But at the urging of the vaguely slimy producer handling the tour, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), they do some publicity stunts in the different locales.

The crowds start to get bigger, and the boys find themselves actually enjoying working together again. What's more, they find themselves bonding in a way they hadn't before.

Around the midway point “the girls” arrive: Stan’s wife, Ida (Nina Arianda) and Ollie’s wife, Lucille (Shirley Henderson). Both men finally got it right after several tries, and found women they remained married to until they died. Ida is surly and Russian, and keeps prattling about her own dubious showbiz career. Lucille is a little shy and snarky, and worries that Ollie is endangering his health with the tour.

The women soon set to bickering, but the boys are still overjoyed to have them around.

There isn’t a whole lot of story to “Stan & Ollie.” It’s the story of two guys whose stars were inseparable, but whose personalities didn’t quite mesh. And yet, they managed to create something that endures. Sometimes just doing good work is enough.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Video review: "The Hate U Give"

“The Hate U Give” may be the best movie of 2018 most people haven’t heard of. This smart, heartfelt and riveting drama is perhaps the finest cinematic exploration of race relations in American in the past decade.

It takes as its jumping-off point the shooting of an unarmed African-American man, but this isn’t a heedless Black Lives Matter screed. Amandla Stenberg plays Starr, a smart kid from the bad part of town who attends an upscale, predominantly white high school on a scholarship. She narrates about traversing these two worlds, show us how she speaks and behaves around her white friends, including boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), and her black family and friends.

One day she meets up with an old childhood friend she’s sweet on, and he winds up getting shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. For a while no one in either her white or black communities know she’s a witness, and Starr struggles to find a middle way that will protect those she cares about.

The terrific supporting cast includes Russell Hornsby as her dad, who has a powerful scene where he gives “The Speech” about how black teens should behave around law enforcement; Regina Hall as her mother; Common as her uncle, who’s also a member of the LAPD himself; and Sabrina Carter as a white friend who turns out to be not as woke as Starr thought.

Directed by George Tillman Jr. from a screenplay by Audrey Wells, based on the book by Angie Thomas, “The Hate U Give” offers no easier answers but many nagging -- and important -- questions.

Bonus features are quite good, cemented by a feature-length audio commentary track by Tillman, Stenberg, Hornsby and editor Craig Hayes. Such commentaries are always better when they include cast and crew.

There are also three extended scenes six making-of documentary shorts.



Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: "Glass"

I don’t think when “Unbreakable” came out 19 years ago anyone believed it would become a trilogy. I don’t think even M. Night Shyamalan thought of that notion when he first came up with the idea for “Split” from 2016.

(He claims otherwise, but creative types love to tell you they had a plan all along.)

But now it’s all come together, strangely but rather satisfyingly, in “Glass,” which wears the clothes of a supernatural action/thriller but is really more of an exploration of the modern superhero myth.

You may remember that in “Split,” James McAvoy played Kevin, a man with dozens of personalities, some of them friendly, many of them not. They were dominated by the Beast, a mad, feral manimal who exhibited extraordinary abilities -- including bending steel bars, climbing walls and surviving shotgun blasts.

In “Unbreakable,” it was Bruce Willis’ modest security guard, David Dunn, who discovered that he had similar abilities after surviving unscathed from a horrible train wreck the killed everyone else aboard. This also contained the revelation that (sorry, no spoiler warnings after nearly two decades) Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, a genius comic book dealer burdened by a fragile skeleton, had rigged the train wreck to prove that superheroes really do exist.

Flash forward to present day, and Dunn is still secretly chasing bad guys with the help of his admiring son (Spencer Treat Clark), running a family security business by day. Lately they’ve been chasing Horde, a mysterious criminal who kidnaps and brutally slays teenage girls. You might have guessed this is the handiwork of the Beast.

Events transpire to bring all three men together in Raven Hill, a hospital for the mentally ill. Elijah, who dubs himself Mr. Glass, has been incarcerated there all along, kept heavily sedated most of the time.

You may think it odd that the person whose name is the film’s title spends the first half speechless and motionless, vegging out in his wheelchair while sadistic orderlies taunt and tease him. Jackson’s name even appears last in the credits.

Running this little cuckoo’s nest is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating the delusion of people who think they’re superheroes. She undercuts the mythology of comic books and works to convince the trio that their supposed abilities are imaginings spurred by past trauma: David’s childhood near-drowning; Kevin’s abuse at the hands of his mother; Elijah’s brilliant mind being trapped in such a breakable body.

For a time, they start to believe her. The Beast goes into remission and David starts to question his past experiences. Elijah still just stares woodenly at the floor.

Of course, we don’t believe any of this. Eventually the men are going to get the chance to prove they’re the real deal… right?

McAvoy has the flashiest part, flexing and growling like a demon is trying to pop out of his skin. I kept worrying he was going to give himself an aneurism. His fight scenes with Willis are curiously restrained; the older man seems more perturbed than frightened.

Anya Taylor-Joy is brought back from “Split,” though this movie doesn’t really know what to do with her. Charlayne Woodard plays Elijah’s mother, horrified at his deeds while unable to hide her pride at such an extraordinary child.

The first two films featured twist endings and “Glass” is no exception. I doubt even if you’re looking forward you’ll guess what it is. I can’t say I found it the most plausible thing in the world. But then this is movie that posits that ordinary-looking people can flip cars over.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Review: "Shoplifters"

Knowing that "Shoplifters" won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I was surprised at how sentimental a film it is. Cannes is in love with edgy, out-there choices for its top film award -- "The Square," "Blue Is the Warmest Colour, "Amour" and "The Tree of Life" being recent picks.

Compared to these films, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda's film is a big warm hug of a movie. It's about an ersatz Japanese family of petty thieves who take in a wayward little girl who's being neglected by her parents, and the tale of how she is gradually incorporated into this spirited little band.

It reminds me of post-war Italian neorealism movies, with maybe a little dash of Akira Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den" thrown in.

Osamu (Lily Franky) is the supposed patriarch of the clan, though not a domineering one. He's a construction worker who's been laid up with a broken ankle. The mother, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works at an industrial laundry service. The son, Shota (Kairi Jō), is Osamu's main pupil in theft, using hand signals and cooperation to steal from local stores. For example, one will pretend to browse nearby, blocking the view of the shopkeeper while the other filches.

Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who's probably in her 20s, works as a hostess at a nightclub, entertaining businessmen. Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) is the grandmother, who owns the modest house where they all live. She gets by on the pension of her deceased husband, as well as guilt-laden handouts from her wealthy stepson.

As you've probably guessed, none of these people are actually related to each other. Every one of them is, on some level or another, on the make. Although they steal, they are bonded by their commitment to their little make-do family unit. Kore-eda repeatedly suggests that their affection for each other often surpasses that in clans defined by bloodlines.

Things change when they pass by little Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who's about 5 years old, on the way home one night. She has been left out in the cold hungry while her parents do drugs and carouse. It's not the first time they've witnessed this.

Osamu brings Yuri back to their home for a good dinner and to spend the night, intending to return her the next day. But they never get around to it.

Part of it is the fact that the little girl will likely wind up starved or abused. But also, she just clicks with them. They've got a dad, mom, grandmother, aunt and rebellious preteen son, so an innocent small girl rounds out the portrait.

Even when the police start seeking Yuri and her picture is splashed all over the television, they take steps to keep her, renaming her Lin and cutting her hair. And they begin to apprentice her in the family trade.

You might be tempted to look down upon the shoplifters, but somehow we find that tender feelings have grown in our hearts for them. They may be (minor) criminals, but there's no hatred or degradation in their house.

Even their stealing has a sense of a tightly defined moral code. They're not stealing luxury items for profit, but mostly food and other essentials to help them get by. We're not surprised when it turns out the people working in the store are not as blind to what goes on as they may think.

"Shoplifters" is joyful, sad and observant. Be forewarned: this film steals hearts.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Re-Animator" (1985)

If someone was kid in the 1980s or 1990s, you can tell a lot about them by their relationship to "Re-Animator." If they've never even heard of it, then you know you're talking to a more or less upstanding person. If it's one of their watershed movies, then you're dealing with a twisted, addle-brained horror film junkie who lives for bloody gross-out scenes and gratuitous nudity.

I lie firmly in the latter camp.

Based on a 1922 novella by H.P. Lovecraft, "Re-Animator" falls into the nether region of subgenres, with elements of zombie, vampire and mad scientist flicks mixing together. It's essentially a Frankenstein story, with a brilliant but morally unbound scientist conducting experiments that set off a killa-palooza of murder and dismemberment.

Directed by Stuart Gordon from a screenplay he wrote with William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli, "Re-Animator"  claimed its cult film status largely based upon one truly iconic sequence. In it, a man who has been beheaded and brought back to life walks around with his body holding his head, continuing to commit dastardly deeds.

He turns the hospital morgue into his personal lair, creating other undead minions to obey his whims, including having the young feminine object of his obsession brought to him and stripped bare. His corpse holding his head in its hands, he licks her up and down her body with his bloody, dripping tongue. He's interrupted just as the head is being held hovering above her quivering loins, getting ready to do a deep dive into the holiest of holies.

It really is the purest black-or-white moment for cinephiles. You're either horrendously disgusted by that, or itching out of your skin with glee.

Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a Machiavellian medical student who has developed a reagent that will bring dead tissue back to life. After being cast out of his school in Switzerland, he shows up at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts to continue his... studies. West is peevish and creepy, immediately butting heads with the medical school's star surgeon, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who insists that irrevocable brain death occurs six to 12 minutes after the body dies.

What's interesting about this story structure is that Herbert is introduced as the villain, and he conducts himself that way through most of the movie. But when Hill learns of Herbert's discovery and tries to horn in on the credit, he becomes the true antagonist while Herbert takes on a sympathetic note.

Herbert may be a diabolical genius who brings corpses to life and, eventually, starts killing  specimens himself. But the idea of another doctor stealing the credit for his invention somehow makes him more relatable.

Bruce Abbott plays Dan Cain, the bland golden boy do-gooder who gets corrupted by Herbert's influence when he moves into his spare bedroom. Dan's cat soon goes missing, turning up in Herbert's mini fridge. He insists the feline suffocated in a freak accident, but we suspect otherwise.

Dan is a typical horror movie hero, lacking much personality beyond a desire to do good, along with being susceptible to temptation. In his case, it's the possibility of conquering death once and for all.

Alas, the dead do not return to their former stable mental or physical state, but become violent killer beasts, blood pouring from their mouths as they attack those who reanimated them. It appears the longer the gap between death and the introduction of Herbert's neon green serum, the more psychotic they'll become.

The med school dean, Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson), gets choked out by a corpse from the morgue during Herbert and Dan's experiment, and gets turned into a loyal zombie henchman by Dr. Hill. It seems Hill, in addition to inventing a new laser drill, has also mastered the art of hypnosis -- which works on both the living and the dead, apparently. Even Herbert falls briefly under his spell. It underscores Hill's unmistakable Dracula vibe.

Dan's fiance, Megan (Barbara Crampton), is your standard-issue damsel in distress whose job is to make protestations against unwise actions, get attacked by loathsome beasties and drop trou on cue.

I'm curious about the metaphysics of Herbert's reagent. In the experiment on Dan's cat, the reanimated (for the second time) feline can't move because its back has been broken during the fight to kill it (again). But Dean Halsey has full range of motion despite having suffered a broken neck when he was killed.

Then there's Hill's ability to control his body after beheading. None of the other reanimated dead appear to have this power. After one or two initial stumbles, Hill's body seems able to carry out every normal function -- even when doing things where Hill does not have line of sight to be able to see where it is going or its hands are reaching.

It's suggested, though never overtly, that Hill has developed mental powers, including the hypnosis mentioned above. There's also some talk about isolating the "will" center of the brain. We're left to guess that his own research has developed far beyond what is depicted.

Perhaps this also explains why Hill retains his full intelligence while Halsey becomes a nearly mindless beast, despite the fact both men received the reanimation serum mere moments after death.

Hill's disembodied head is still able to speak, though in a breathless rasp. He has his body place it in a tray that is filled with blood taken from packs, which apparently are necessary to sustain the head's function. Prior to this, the head was becoming dizzy and on the verge of passing out. Though it apparently doesn't require oxygen, having been carried around in a duffel bag.

"Re-Animator" is generally labeled as a horror comedy, though I would argue it's more or less a straight scare picture with some funny moments -- some intentional, some not. It originally received an "X" rating from the MPAA for all the gore, and had to be trimmed down to receive an "R." Makeup effects artist John Naulin said he used 12 times the amount of fake blood on the production compared to other horror films.

As a result, there are several edits of the film available. The original R version included some material that had originally been left on the cutting room floor that was restored to bring the running time up to the respectable 90 minute range. You can still find the uncut version, and a more recent "Integral" edit includes both the R version with the gruesome stuff from the X. My most recent viewing, probably the first in 20 years, utilized the latter.

The film actually received some decent reviews from mainstream critics, and did enough business on video to result in a pair of lackluster sequels in 1990 and 2003.

"Re-Animator" is a cheap, skeezy horrowshow that's both ridiculous and riveting. I love it so.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Video review: "Halloween"

Why in the world did we need another entry in the exhausted “Halloween” franchise? The studio can give you 253 million reasons.

That was the box office tally of the newest Michael Myers slasher flick, and the first one to feature Jamie Lee Curtis since “Halloween: Resurrection” 17 years ago. It completely retcons the series, banishing all the movies since the second one from its memory -- the sequels, the reboots, the remakes -- and taking us back to square of the smart, tenacious girl and the masked psycho who wants to slash her to bits.

Except, of course, both Laurie Strode (Curtis) and Myers aka The Shape (played this time by Nick Castle) are both grandparent age by now. Indeed, Myers spends more time chasing Strode’s granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak) than Laurie, who has become a pistol-packin’ grandma and recluse who seems to have done little over the past 40 years but wait for Myers to get out of prison.

Supporting characters include Will Patton as a veteran cop in Haddonfield, the fictional city where all the mayhem takes place; Judy Greer as Laurie’s estranged daughter; and Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Sartain, the oddball psychiatrist who’s been treating Myers without much success, just as Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis did.

The new “Halloween” has a creative team from a comedy background: director David Gordon Green and his fellow screenwriters, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley. It’s not a total yuk-fest, but they do slip in some comedic moments to lighten the mood.

Me? I likes my scary movies pure scary.

Bonus features are decent. They include seven deleted or extended scenes and the following documentary shorts:
  • Back in Haddonfield: Making Halloween
  • The Original Scream Queen
  • The Sound of Fear
  • Journey of the Mask
  • The Legacy of Halloween


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: "The Upside"

I did not expect to enjoy "The Upside" as much as I did. It's an American adaptation of one "The Intouchables," of the highest-grossing French films of all time, which in turn was inspired by a documentary about a real wealthy man who is quadriplegic and bonded with a caretaker of African descent with a troubled past.

It's been "Hollywooded up" to the nth degree, filled with easy emotional entry points and cathartic moments you can almost time with a stopwatch.

And yet, doggone it, I couldn't help being engrossed by the story.

It stars two accomplished funnymen, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, who are at different stages of seguing into more dramatic material. Cranston was known -- and dismissed -- for years as "the dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle' before going dark in "Breaking Bad." After a recent Oscar nomination, he's now pretty much universally regarded as a serious actor.

Hart is just taking his first steps along such a path, but I like his stride so far. I wonder if he would ever completely leave behind his stand-up comedian roots in the way that, say, Robin Williams did. I tend to doubt it. But I liked watching him stretch for something more than a laugh.

Hart plays Dell Scott, who's been in and out of prison most of his life. He's currently half-heartedly looking for a job. Asked at a burger joint what his greatest accomplishment is, he says getting out of bed this morning. He's more interested in collecting signatures to prove to his parole officer that he made an effort than actually securing employment.

He wanders into a swanky apartment building after a janitor job and winds up in the penthouse, where billionaire investment expert/author Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) and his right-hand executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), are interviewing candidates to be his "life auxiliary." This is fancy rich-people talk for a 24/7 caretaker, who will do everything from dress, bathe and feed Phillip to being his companion when he goes out in public in his high-end electric chair.

Phillip became a quadriplegic years earlier in a parasailing accident -- if ever there was a quintessentially wealthy person's endeavor, it's parasailing -- and lost his wife to cancer around the same time. Although he has an incredible penthouse, a best-selling book ("The Lateral Way"), a garage full of fancy cars and every wall has expensive art on it, Phillip doesn't have much zest for living anymore.

He impulsively hires the puckish Dell because he's the worst person for the job, and Phillip is looking to die. He instructs Dell about his DNR, immediately followed by explaining what a DNR is.

Dell is an interesting character. He's a guy who has never had much demanded out of him in life, and has fallen down to people's expectations. He's estranged from his son, Anthony (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), and ex-wife, Latrice (Aja Naomi King). Kicked out of his pad and way behind in child custody payments, he steals a book from Phillip's library to give to his son for his birthday.

"Which one?" Anthony demands, knowing that his father probably isn't even aware when it is.

Things go from there. Phillip and Dell slowly form a bond based on harsh truth-telling, which goes both ways. Phillip introduces him to opera and Dell helps him get funky. Yvonne is the hardcase looking for any excuse to fire Dell, but gradually warms up.

There's an implication of a potential romance between Yvonne and Phillip, which they both strenuously deny. The movie, directed by Neil Burger from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, toys around with the idea without ever giving it a complete workout. I'd like to think they could share a deep and abiding friendship without there having to be romantic entanglements involved.

Meanwhile, Phillip does have a female pen pal he corresponds with, exchanging lovely poetry and sentiments. Phillip dubs it an "epistolary relationship," which is how smart, rich people pronounce "pen pal." Dell encourages him to take the friendship to a new level, but he worries that she'll be put off by "the chair," as he calls it. 

Being a famous mega-wealthy billionaire is kind of a hard thing to hide from Google, which Dell is quick to point out.

If it's possible to really like a movie without necessarily respecting it, then "The Upside" is it. I recognize its shortcomings and lack of higher ambitions. But Cranston, Hart and Kidman are marvelous together. There's genuine chemistry and, eventually, affection between them. I think of the scene where Phillip has been persuaded to attend his own birthday party, and Dell coaxes the wallflower Yvonne to dance. 

The look on Phillip's face as she comes out of her shell is one of pure joy. Rather than lamenting his inability to join in (other than a little melodic wheeling), he's filled with happiness for her chance to express herself in a way normally denied her.

It's hard to be happy for yourself if you can't be happy for others. Even a modestly agreeable flick like "The Upside" understands this.