Review – Stan & Ollie

FILM REVIEWSTAN & OLLIEWith John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston. Written by Jeff Pope. Directed by Jon S. Baird. Rated PG for some language, and for smoking. 97 minutes.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were one of film’s greatest comedy teams. Paired in the latter years of the silent period by producer Hal Roach, they easily transitioned into talkies. In the prologue to STAN & OLLIE, we see Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) getting ready to work on one of their best films, “Way Out West” (1937).

While the pair had a good working relationship, they were not close personal friends. Late in life, after their film career was over – although they did not yet realize it – they toured British and Irish music halls, and it was then they built a personal bond. That’s what “Stan & Ollie” is about, and the result is one of the very best films of 2018.

The film takes some liberties with the timeline, but it’s essentially a factual story of two longtime partners coming to appreciate just how important they have been to each other. As they attempt to build interest in their tour, Stan is trying to put a new movie deal together. The British comic, who came to America with the same theatrical troupe that brought over Charlie Chaplin, was the comic genius of the pair, writing and often directing their most famous bits. Ollie, who hailed from Georgia, had had some success in a solo career, including appearing as the Tin Man in a silent version of “The Wizard of Oz,” but it was when he started working with Stan that his own comic brilliance got to shine.

It’s been said that a comic team is like a married couple, and the film plays off the Stan/Ollie relationship with their own marriages, Stan’s to the strong-willed Ida (Nina Arianda) and Ollie to Lucille (Shirley Henderson), who has become increasingly concerned about his health. Like any such marriage, it has its problems, with the movie showing how the two men ultimately realize their partnership has been the most important thing in their lives.

As Stan, British actor Coogan hits all the right notes, and nails the different way the actor sounded on screen as opposed to real life. However, the jaw-dropping performance here is that of John C. Reilly as Ollie. Sure, he’s in a fat suit and with a lot of latex makeup to become the heavy-set comic, but it’s his acting, not the latex, that is amazing. We’ve taken this character actor for granted, even as he’s done comedy, drama, musicals, westerns, and even played villains. After this we have to consider Reilly at the rarefied level of Meryl Streep, where seemingly nothing is beyond his capabilities. In a year where several actors have hit career highs in biographical roles, Reilly was not nominated for the Oscar, but he deserves it.

As a Hollywood biopic, as a story of male bonding, as a look at how aging changes one’s perspective, “Stan & Ollie” is stellar. That it also provides some laughs as Coogan and O’Reilly recreate the team’s comic routines is a bonus. Don’t miss this one.•••

score_50Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – Glass

FILM REVIEWGLASSWith James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language. 129 minutes.

glass_ver3Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has had one of the most disappointing careers in the movies. After scoring a big hit with his third film, “The Sixth Sense” (1999), he kept trying to recapture the magic with a series of increasingly lame movies where his “surprise twist” landed with a thud, such as “Signs,” “The Village,” and the laughably bad “Lady In The Water.”

Only “Unbreakable” (2000), which was not well-received at the time, has emerged with its own cult following. Then came “Split” (2017), a sorry excuse for a thriller that was saved by James McAvoy’s turn as a character with 24 different personalities, several of whom might emerge in a single scene. It was fascinating to watch even if the story was absurd. Then came the “surprise twist” at the end where the film, for no good reason, suddenly crossed paths with “Unbreakable.”

Thus we come to GLASS. After a not-very-interesting set up, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) from “Unbreakable,” and Kevin Crumb (McAvoy) from “Split,” are all locked up at the same mental hospital. There, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), is attempting to “cure” them by convincing them that they are not endowed with special superpowers, but are, in fact, ordinary people suffering from trauma and brain injuries.

Along for the ride are three actors from the previous films. Anya Taylor-Joy returns from “Split” to show her love and support for her former captor, while Charlayne Woodard repeats as Elijah’s mother and a grown-up Spencer Treat Clark returns as David’s son. As with Shyamalan’s other films, characters don’t act like human beings but are simply plot devices. So, when we get to this film’s “surprise twist” – it’s a set up for a potential sequel – it only works as much as you let it.

The three principal actors are trapped in their ridiculous characters. Jackson spends much of the film in a wheelchair, saying nothing and twitching. When he finally starts speaking you may wish he’d shut up. Willis’s character is similarly absurd, donning a poncho-like garment to become “The Overseer.” McAvoy gets to show his impressive range as various characters, and with luck will get the opportunity to show off his talent in the future in better movies.

An interesting footnote is the casting of Luke Kirby as one of the orderlies at the institution. Fans of the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” will recognize him for his startingly effective turn there bringing comedian Lenny Bruce back to life. It will undoubtedly do more for his career than appearing here.

For those shaking their heads and thinking that “Unbreakable” and “Split” were wonderful movies, you may well connect with “Glass.” It develops out of the forced marriage of the earlier films, and plays it out to a conclusion, albeit an open-ended one. However, if you didn’t like those movies or – lucky you – didn’t see them, don’t waste your time with this.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, has just been released. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – All These Small Moments

REVIEWALL THESE SMALL MOMENTSWith Brendan Meyer, Molly Ringwald, Jemima Kirke, Harley Quinn Smith, Brian d’Arcy James. Written and directed by Melissa Miller Costanzo. Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language. 96 minutes 

all_these_small_momentsThe emotional life of an adolescent can seem rough and raw because they’re experiencing so much for the first time. ALL THESE SMALL MOMENTS follows Howie Sheffield (Brendan Meyer) as he navigates several upheavals and, as in life, they’re all happening at the same time. At home his parents (Molly Ringwald, Brian d’Arcy James) seem headed for divorce, and not hiding from Howie or his brother (Sam McCarthy) just how tension and animosity has grown between them. The boys are helpless by-standers, but it affects them nonetheless.

Meanwhile, there are women in Howie’s life – sort of – and he’s equally at a loss what to do about it. One is Odessa (Jemima Kirk), whom he sees every day on the bus and develops a crush on, even though she doesn’t know him and is clearly several years older. The other is Lindsay (Harley Quinn Smith), another high school student he meets in study hall when he has to sit out gym due to a broken arm. She’s interested, and he might be too except for an ugly rumor about her.

The script by writer/director Melissa Miller Costanzo, making her feature debut after a career in film and television as an art director and production designer, consists of the “small moments” that can have great significance. Whether it’s a confession, a revelation, or a reconciliation, this is a movie about people trying to live their lives, not engage in car chases or fending off an alien invasion. It resonates precisely because the characters seem fallible and very real.

The actors fit the mold as well, with Meyer conveying the uncertainty that is the hallmark of adolescence. His puppy dog demeanor explains why the “older woman” is willing to befriend him rather than shoo him away, with Kirk’s character slowly revealing why she needs affirmation in her life as well, even if we think we know how it has to end up. Similarly, while the film is very much from Howie’s point of view, Smith’s character exposes that the teen years are hard on girls too. Ringwald and James have the tougher job, acquitting themselves well as we watch the pettiness and betrayals of a failing marriage while not making us wonder why they ever got together in the first place.

Like an impressionist painting, “All These Small Moments” is greater than the sum of the parts, with no single plot line and payoff but instead a portrait of a teenage boy learning that life is about doing the best you can, even if things don’t always turn out the way you expect.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Replicas

FILM REVIEWREPLICAS. With Keanu Reeves, Alice Eve, Thomas Middeditch, John Ortiz, Emily Alyn Lind. Written by Chad St. John. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, disturbing images, some nudity and sexual references. 107 minutes.

replicas_ver2By the time Keanu Reeves was crouched in an office bathroom straining to make small talk with his boss in the next stall while simultaneously sticking a needle into his eyeball in order to copy his cerebral cortex onto a laptop computer, I was pretty sure I had no idea where REPLICAS was gonna go next. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers didn’t either.

This is one strange shambles of a movie, thrown together on-the-cheap and overstuffed with so many stupid, bonkers conceits that it becomes morbidly fascinating to watch all the wild variations in tone and kooky, convoluted plot turns get flattened out by the pedestrian production and our genial leading man. The film lands firmly at the “Johnny Mnemonic” end of the Keanu science-fiction spectrum, though it’s nuttiness presumably won’t prove nearly memorable enough to be namechecked twenty years down the road. (I doubt people will even be talking about it this weekend.)

Reeves stars as a brilliant scientist working at a shady biotech firm headquartered in Puerto Rico. He’s been trying to implant the brain data of dead soldiers into robots with little success. His boss (John Ortiz) is about to pull the plug on the whole project, and then one night Keanu’s wife (Alice Eve) and three children are killed in a car crash. Instead of reporting the accident, our good doctor scans their brainwaves onto big, clunky hard drives and calls his lab assistant (Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley” and all those goddamn Verizon commercials) – who just so happens to know a thing or two about cloning.

With remarkable ease these dudes swipe millions of dollars in scientific equipment from work and set up a lab down in Keanu’s basement to try and recreate his dead family. (Middleditch identifies one of the purloined vats as containing “amino acids and primordial ooze.”) The catch is that there aren’t enough cloning pods for everybody, so Reeves has a mini-“Killing of a Sacred Deer” dilemma trying to choose which one of his children won’t be brought back to life.

This anguished decision is quite bizarrely juxtaposed with comedic nonsense like Reeves and Middleditch lying to teachers about the kids’ absences from school during the clone gestation process, or our over-protective dad angrily answering text messages from his teenage daughter’s wannabe suitor. These two actors have similarly laid-back line deliveries, lapsing into bits of dude comedy that don’t sit particularly well on top of all the dead kid business.

The family stuff is handled so awkwardly it’s almost a relief when Ortiz pulls a heel turn and “Replicas” becomes a regular corporate espionage thriller, albeit one that keeps bursting the boundaries of its own scientific concepts by having the characters yell laborious exposition in each other’s faces every time the script has written itself into another corner. Keanu remains an endlessly endearing screen presence but shouting gobbledygook terminology is pretty much the opposite of what he’s good at.

What’s astonishing is the all-around lack of urgency. Here you’ve got a couple of scientists who basically invent a cure for death without anybody making a big deal out of it. (Keanu’s cloned wife recovers from learning about her demise in shockingly short order.) The scale of the movie is all out of whack, nothing but drab industrial office spaces and a dingy basement. Even the supposedly futuristic scientific tools resemble crummy construction equipment, with Reeves doing his work in a flimsy helmet with a plastic face shield that makes him look like a guy who fixes telephone poles.

I suppose the general air of grubbiness could have been an aesthetic choice by the filmmakers to try and ground this outlandish story in a workaday reality. (Or the producers just could have been cheapskates.) But combined with the placid performances and nonplussed reaction shots it leaves “Replicas” flatlined, absent any sense of wonder. Keanu brings his whole family back from the dead and nobody even says “Whoa.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Upside

FILM REVIEWTHE UPSIDEWith Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Tate Donovan. Written by Jon Hartmere. Directed by Neil Burger. Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use. 125 minutes.

upsideThe good news about THE UPSIDE is that it isn’t as bad as expected. Why should there be low expectations? It’s a January release that’s been sitting on the shelf for more than a year, having premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. What’s changed is that the three leads are hot right now. Bryan Cranston is in the hit Broadway adaptation of “Network,” Nicole Kidman has a run of good roles including the blockbuster hit “Aquaman” and the Oscar contender “Destroyer,” and Kevin Hart is the once and possibly future Oscar host. The proverbial iron is hot, and fledgling distributor STX is striking it.

Based on a hit French film (“Les Intouchables”) – apparently inspired by a true story – it’s another odd couple story, like the recent “Green Book.” Phillip (Cranston) is a billionaire and best-selling author of business books who was rendered a quadriplegic after a skydiving accident that took the life of his wife. He has a decidedly quirky sense of humor and when his business assistant Yvonne (Kidman) is interviewing someone to be a personal aide, he impulsively hires Dell (Hart), a parolee trying to put his life back together.

The film is predictable in too many ways, but when it works it’s because of the rapport that develops between Phillip and Dell, which is to say Cranston and Hart. They truly are an odd couple, and yet they play off of each other in ways that are frequently comic and/or emotionally satisfying. As in the best romantic comedies – including a bromance like this – the two partners each have something to learn from the other. Phillip has become fatalistic and isn’t sure he wants to go on living. A pen pal relationship with a woman (Julianna Margulies) suggests possibilities, and it is Dell who urges them to meet. Dell, estranged from his wife and teenage son, has the opportunity to make amends thanks to his new job, something that Phillip encourages.

The person who is a third wheel here is Kidman. It’s not a problem with the performance. It’s that it’s a nothing role. As first we think that the tension between Dell and Yvonne is going to be a major plot point, but it quickly falls by the wayside. The relationship with her and Phillip is strictly businesslike, and in spite of hastily filling in her backstory, the payoff feels contrived.

After “Breaking Bad,” it’s clear that Cranston has a range that directors (in TV, movies, and theater) will enjoy plumbing for years. The person who has to be happiest about the film finally being released is Hart, who has his comic moments but also gets to turn in a more serious performance than his previous films have allowed. He will undoubtedly be looking for other such opportunities in the future.

So the upside about “The Upside” is that – surprisingly – there is an upside.•••

Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – On the Basis of Sex

FILM REVIEWON THE BASIS OF SEXWith Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates. Written by Daniel Stiepleman. Directed by Mimi Leder. Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content. 120 minutes.

on_the_basis_of_sexIt’s been said that the average person is more likely to know the names of the Seven Dwarves than the nine Justices of the Supreme Court. The great modern exception is 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg who has the sort of celebrity – which she hasn’t tried to curry – usually reserved for rock stars. Indeed, she even has a hiphop-inspired nickname, “The Notorious RBG.”

The Justice, currently recovering from cancer surgery, was the subject of not one but two movies in 2018, the documentary “RBG” and the late year release ON THE BASIS OF SEX, opening wide for award season this weekend. The latter is a dramatization of her early years, with Felicity Jones playing her as a Harvard Law student at a time when even the dean (Sam Waterston in a delightfully sneering performance) condescends to these new entrants to what was a primarily male preserve.

The movie is important for several reasons. For one thing, it reminds us just how far we’ve come, even if we have farther to go. Ruth Bader is a brilliant student, but has trouble finding a job because women weren’t taken seriously by major law firms. While her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), himself a successful lawyer, holds her in high esteem, she finds that even an ally like the American Civil Liberties Union – personified by Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) – is skeptical she can win a sex discrimination case she wants to pursue. Ironically, it involves a man being discriminated against, involving gender stereotypes where men and women are treated almost as if they were different species.

And that gets to the real reason the film works, which is that it has passion. Jones and director Mimi Leder get us involved in what’s at stake and shows us why it matters. The case that Ginsburg argues would prove to be the first major sex discrimination case upon which a whole body of law would eventually be built. We see that men can be victimized as well as women, and that sympathetic men can be as much of an obstacle as antagonistic ones.

Jones, seeming to realize that she is depicting an American icon, portrays her with dignity but not as a clay idol. She gets frustrated, she argues with her daughter, in short, she’s human. That it is a portrait crafted with respect and admiration is not surprising, given that first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman is the Justice’s nephew. It’s important to remember that this is a dramatization, not a documentary, and so while it’s apparently largely accurate, some dramatic liberties have been taken.

“On the Basis of Sex” is a compelling and engaging drama that reminds us that the issues that Justice Ginsburg has made her career upon are not merely “women’s issues,” but matters that affect men as well. In short, the fight for equal rights is the fight for human rights. The movie dramatizes this well, in a way that proves both entertaining and enlightening.•••

score_50Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – A Dog’s Way Home

FILM REVIEWA DOG’S WAY HOMEWith Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos. Written by W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon. Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language. 96 minutes.

dogs_way_homeYou may not have noticed, but there’s an actual genre of movies in which an animal – almost inevitably a dog – is separated from his or her owner and has a series of adventures while trying to get home. This includes “The Incredible Journey” (1963) and “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017). The latter is especially significant because author W. Bruce Cameron, who wrote the novel and worked on the screenplay, handled similar chores on A DOG’S WAY HOME and the forthcoming “A Dog’s Journey.”

These family films – which also appeal to animal lovers – purport to give us the animal’s point-of-view about navigating the world. From a cinematic viewpoint, what’s interesting is the staging, filming, and editing of scenes to support that perspective. In that, the selection of director Charles Martin Smith was shrewd as he worked (as an actor) in “Never Cry Wolf” and (as a director) on a “Dolphin Tale.” He’s clearly conversant and comfortable with movies involving humans and mammals interacting.

The story focuses on Bella (a real-life junkyard stray voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) who is adopted by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), an animal-loving medical student working at the Veterans’ Administration in Denver. Bella is a stray mutt but has sufficient markings as a pit bull that she is endangered by (according to the movie) a Denver ordinance that bans such dogs within the city. While Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) try to find a new home outside city limits, Bella is sent to New Mexico to stay with a friendly family.

What follows is Bella leaving the family to “go home” to Lucas, a process that will take up the bulk of the film. Along the way she will be taken in by a gay couple, a homeless veteran (Edward James Olmos), and – in the film’s most impressive sequences – a cougar. There are various subplots, but the main storyline is always about Bella striving to get back to Lucas, while occasionally being tempted by other “family” possibilities along the way.

Smith clearly understands the material and its appeal to specific audiences. For kids there are moments of drama and threats, such as when Bella is threatened by a wolf pack. For adults it is Bella’s attempts to understand the world around her, sometimes getting it right, and sometimes finding it beyond her ability to cope. It’s completely manipulative, of course, with the guaranteed happy ending – did you have any doubt? – likely to generate a few tears or, at least, a lump in the throat.

“A Dog’s Way Home” is a formula movie designed to provoke particular reactions, not reveal something about the human or animal condition. If it isn’t a great artistic achievement, it is a well-crafted movie that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. If you find such material appealing, it will work. If you’re so cynical that you find the very concept nauseating, then watching this will not change your mind.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released this month. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.