Archive for January, 2019

Stan & Ollie

Posted: January 24, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jon S. Baird. Starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson.

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In 1937, and at the height of their fame Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver “Babe” Hardy (Reilly) struggle with their boss Hal Roach over their contracts. Stan wants the two of them to jump ship and get a new deal somewhere else, but whilst his contract is up for renewal, Babe is tied to Roach and chooses instead to allow himself to be paired with another comic in a film about an elephant, much to Stan’s dismay, and, although the two will eventually reunite, this causes friction between them.

In 1953, and with their glory days far behind them, the duo embark on a music hall tour of Britain in order to make some money whilst they work on new material for a Robin Hood film. Whilst the tour is initially greeted by lukewarm crowds, after prompting by their promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) and despite Babe’s obvious health issues, the two agree to a gruelling series of public appearances, and the crowds improve.

Joined by their wives Lucille Hardy (Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Arianda) the tour continues to be a success, but with Babe’s health an issue, and increasing uncertainty over the future of the movie, old wounds reopen and fractures in the partnership are created that may never be healed.

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The tour takes its toll

Let’s get the “negatives” out of the way first. This isn’t a film that will surprise you, there are no twists, not even an antagonist really, unless age or the fickle nature of fame count. It’s a lean film that at times feels a trifle lightweight.

All of that is true, but none of that stops Stan & Ollie from being truly glorious.

I grew up watching Laurel and Hardy on the telly with my dad, he loved them to bits and so it has to be said that I was perhaps predisposed to love this film anyway, but I think it could have failed miserably if it hadn’t been made with a good heart, and this film clearly was. It glorifies Laurel and Hardy without ever deifying them. They’re flawed men, each with their vices, and each with failed marriages in their wake, yet they’re both fully rounded, believable character you can empathise with, and they clearly have great affection for each other, despite, as they say, being two men who were just thrown together by Hal Roach because one was fat and the other skinny.

Coogan and Reilly are superb. Their mannerisms are spot on, and their chemistry is joyful to behold. Of the two I think Coogan shades it, if only because Reilly is ever so slightly hampered by his prosthetics at times, whilst Coogan has a bit more freedom, but much like the originals, it wouldn’t matter how good one was if the other wasn’t up to snuff, and this is a film of partnerships—and not just the partnership between Stan and Ollie, there’s also the partnership of Stan and Ida, and Babe and Lucille, and in fact the pairing of Lucille and Ida, and however good Coogan and Reilly are, and however much this is their film, credit must go to Henderson and  Arianda for their performances because both women are excellent, each playing a woman fiercely loyal to her husband, and fiercely dismissive of the other,  and frankly if someone wanted to make a prequel from the perspective of their ocean crossing to get to England, with the two women sparring the whole time, I’d pay good money to see it.

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Two double acts for the price of one.

The direction and set design are wonderful, evoking 1950s’ Britain to a tee, and whilst probably lost on US audiences, the running gag about Norman Wisdom did make me laugh, and this is a film full of laughs, albeit many of them are very gentle, and quite melancholic.

The script is touching without ever veering towards oversentimentality, and it really sneaks up on you. I didn’t expect to be fighting back tears at the end, but blimey if this film didn’t hit me everywhere it counted, and I only wish my dad could have seen it. I think he’d have liked it too.

Funny, sad, sweet and just plain beautiful, this is a loving tribute to a great double act. Sure, it could have been longer, but then so could Stan and Ollie’s career, and as the axiom goes, always leave them wanting more…

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Meddling Kids

Posted: January 20, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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By Edgar Cantero

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In the summer of 1977 in Blyton Hills, a small mining town in Oregon, a groups of child detectives known as the The Blyton Summer Detective Club, solved their final mystery when they unmasked a treasure hunter who was masquerading as the Sleepy Lake Monster in order to scare people away so he could search the abandoned Deboën Mansion for it’s supposed riches.

13 years later and the happy go lucky band of young detectives have long since gone their separate ways and all have problems. Kerri, the smart one, has issues with alcohol and struggles to complete her studies, nerd Nate is in and out of mental institutions, Andy, is a nomadic tomboy with anger management issues who’s wanted in several states, and Peter, the golden boy who made it big in Hollywood, has committed suicide.

Slowly but surely the gang come to realise that there was much more to their final case than they thought at the time, and that the horror of what truly happened that summer has haunted them ever since. Andy convinces the survivors to team up once more to uncover the real story, and so the trio, accompanied by the Weimaraner, Tim, descendant of their original dog, set off for Blyton Hills, but what they’ll find there goes way beyond a man in a mask, and these meddling kids might have bitten off more than they can chew.

For someone who grew up with Scooby Doo, the Famous Five, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, there’s an obvious draw to a story that riffs on the child detectives of my youth, and mixing that with a tale of Lovecraftian horror should have been the icing on the cake.

Shame to report therefore that, despite an engaging premise, this was a book I struggled to love. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it in places, I just wish it had been more than the sum of its parts.

The central premise of a bunch of plucky kids struggling to find a place in the real world is intriguing, as is the post-modern slant. The trouble is this has been done to some extent, by Scooby Doo itself which in recent years reinvented itself by having real life monsters. It doesn’t help that the characters never seem more than ciphers, often the most interesting one was Tim.

The real problem however is Cantero’s prose, which is all over the place, he can’t even keep his style in place, for the most part it has a 3rd person narrative, but every so often, for no readily apparent reason except that perhaps he was bored, Cantero slips into a screenplay format, complete with camera directions and screenplay style dialogue. It’s incredibly jarring, as is Cantero’s purple prose and overabundance of allusions: Kerri’s hair is practically a character in its own right given the amount of description it gets. I’m sure some would say Cantero has a unique voice, but for me it was annoying and too often lifted me out of the story.

The story is well handled, though it does meander somewhat, and the monsters suitably monstrous in a Silent Hill kinda way.

It’s a decent enough read, but style over substance only really works if you like the style, and I merely tolerated it.

Maybe he’d have got away with it, if it wasn’t for this meddling reviewer?

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The Favourite

Posted: January 16, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult.

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Not bad for someone who used to be a contestant on Numberwang!

It’s 1708 and Queen Anne (Colman) sits on the British throne. Britain is at war with France but Anne, crippled by gout and despair over multiple miscarriages and the deaths of every child she’s managed to bring to term, has no interest in ruling, so this is left to her friend and adviser, Sarah Churchill (Weisz) the wife of the Duke of Marlborough (an underused Mark Gatiss)  whose husband is leading the battle in France. Sarah is more than a friend to Anne, because secretly she’s also her lover, however she treats her poorly. Sarah spars constantly with the Tory leader of the opposition, Robert Harley (Hoult) who objects to the punitive taxes levied to pay for the war.

Into the household comes Abigail Hill (Stone) Sarah’s cousin who’s in disgrace after her father lost the family fortune. Sarah gets Abigail a menial job as a scullery maid, but when she manages to soothe Anne’s gout she is elevated to become one of the Queen’s servants. All too soon Abigail is using her proximity to the Queen to try and supplant Sarah as Anne’s favourite, and the stage is set for a tussle for the Queen’s affections that could have far reaching ramifications for the future of Britain.

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“You’re my favourite.” “No, you’re my favourite!”

A Britain riven with political turmoil, divided over how to deal with Europe…but enough about Brexit, I really want to talk about the Favourite.

There was a time when period dramas were stuffy affairs, there’s nothing stuffy about Lanthimos’ saucy tale of 18th Century oneupwomanship, a snarky, bawdy, hilarious, heart-breaking and lavish feast that revolves around three fantastic performances. You’ll hear a lot of hype about how good Colman, Weisz and Stone are, and let me just clarify that every single superlative is justified, and if at least one of them doesn’t run away with an Oscar there’s no justice.

I think like most Brits, Queen Anne isn’t a monarch I was taught a lot about at school, in fact the first thing that the name conjures up for me is furniture (Queen Anne table etc) yet in Colman’s hands she proves a fascinating character to base a film around. Liberties may have taken with history (there’s no evidence she kept 17 rabbits, and not much to suggest she had same sex relationships) but the pain at the heart of Colman’s performance is all too genuine, given Anne really did lose 17 children to miscarriage, still birth and, perhaps most tragically, a son when he was just 11, and as a visual metaphor for that loss the rabbits  work perfectly, and in fact sum up the film which balances the surreal with the all too real.

There’s a preposterousness to the film that’s intoxicating, with bewigged gentleman indulging in duck racing or pomegranate chucking whilst the women behind the scenes pull the levers of power.

Colman is excellent as the queen, befuddled and almost childlike one moment, capricious and jealous the next, easily led yet capable, on occasion, of sharp intellect. In more than one scene she goes from joy to rage in the space of a few moments whilst the camera lingers on Colman’s nuanced expression.

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“Stand and deliver! I’ll take that Oscar please!”

As Sarah, Weisz is wonderfully cold and snide, sniping at Anne at every opportunity, albeit in a curiously loving way, and it’s testament to her portrayal that a character we initially find ourselves disliking, will eventually come to appear more sympathetic, and the change is completely earned. It’s also completely clear that Anne and Sarah are in love, even if that love manifests in some decidedly unloving behaviour on occasion.

This leaves Stone as the ingenue Abigail, the final corner of this painful triangle, and whose performance shouldn’t be underestimated because she’s every bit as powerful as her co-stars, and much like Weisz she engenders one feeling from the audience upon meeting her, yet slowly changes as the film progresses.

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“When they said lady in waiting they weren’t kidding were they?”

All three are roundedcharacters; flawed, manipulative, downright nasty on occasion, yet feel completely real, with a reason behind each aspect of their personality, even if on occasion it’s simply the fact of being women in a man’s world. In many ways none of them are nice, and that’s so bloody refreshing.

As the male of note Hoult gives as good as he gets, giving a wonderfully spikey performance that bounces well, especially off Stone and Weisz, and his comic timing is spot on.

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“Okay I may have overdone things a little.”

Lanthimos’ direction paints the royal court as a curiously surreal bubble, yet his camera trickery never distracts from the characters at the heart of the story and he makes great use of long shots down corridors, even corridors whose walls are composed of flaming torches, and cavernous rooms, suggesting that, even when they’re with other people, each of these women is alone, cut off by their own pain or lust for power. The script is wonderfully acerbic, providing a whole heap of wince inducing laughs, because this is a very funny film, even in its more tender moments.

The costumes and cinematography are wonderful, in particular you have to love Weisz’s highwayman’eque shooting outfit, and it’s nice to see such a rich use of darkness, because at that time the world likely would have been a dark place much of the time, plenty of shadows to hide a multitude of sins within.

It’s a tad too long, and the music is somewhat intrusive at times, but any flaws are miniscule compared to the film’s strengths. Admittedly I’ve only seen two films so far in 2019, but for the moment this one is definitely my favourite!

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“Drop that Oscar, Rachel!”

Mary Poppins Returns

Posted: January 6, 2019 in Film reviews
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Mary Poppins Returns

Directed by: Rob Marshall. Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth and Meryl Streep.

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On reflection I really loved this film.

It’s the 1930s and the Banks children are grown up. Michael (Whishaw) lives in the family home on Cherry Tree lane with his children: Annabel, John and Georgie. His wife passed away a year ago and he’s assisted by his sister Jane (Mortimer) and housekeeper Ellen (Walters). He’s struggling financially though, and this leaves the family home in danger of repossession. Michael believes his father was given shares in Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, but unless he can find them the bank, managed now by William Wilkins (Firth), will turf the family out onto the street.

When Georgie flies the kite Michael and Jane had when they were children he’s almost dragged into the air, but is saved by Jack (Miranda) a lamplighter, the apprentice of Bert from the first film. The kite does seem to have snagged something in the clouds however, and soon enough a familiar silhouette comes gliding down. Mary Poppins (Blunt) is back and is soon ensconced in the Banks’ family home. Michael and Jane remember her but don’t recall any of the fantastical adventures they had, but all too soon Annabel John and Georgie find themselves transported to a world of magic, courtesy of Poppins and Jack, but can the family home be saved?

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“I’m sorry madame, I have no idea who this Q fellow is but I can assure you it isn’t me.”

I have a confession to make, up until a few weeks ago I’d never seen Mary Poppins, but in anticipation of this sequel I finally watched it. Sadly I wasn’t impressed. Maybe it’s not watching it with the innocence of a child but with the cynicism of an adult, but I found it very flawed. Which didn’t seem to bode well for Mary Poppins Returns.

Except, try as I might I can’t be remotely cynical about Poppins Returns, because I loved every second of it.

Much like The Force Awakens this is ostensibly a sequel, albeit one that hits a multitude of marks from the beloved predecessor. So again we have a father distanced from his children, whose sister, rather than wife, is a social activist. We have a salt of the earth working class bloke who’s fully aware of Mary Poppins and magic, and we have some children in need of a stern, or maybe not so stern, nanny. Oh, and then we have Poppins herself, an authoritative figure who never seems overbearing, a proponent of fun and frolics who carries just a hint of darkness within her (as a side note Emily Blunt might be one of the best Doctor Whos we’ll never have) and we have songs, lots of songs.

Even though I might not have felt like it, millions of people were incredibly trepidations when the sequel was announced. The casting of Blunt suggested Disney knew what they were doing, but still, a lot of people held their breath…but if it can have such an impact on me I can only hope the majority of fans love it.

The film looks gorgeous, and despite homaging the original, none of those homages feel unearned, or like a cheap rip off. It’s an odd thing to say, given how light and fancy free the film feels, but it’s clear that care has been taken over every creative choice, from the script to the casting to the effects and the music. This is a swiss watch of a film, and there’s nary a misstep in any area.

What could have been a leaden, by the numbers, sequel is instead a sumptuously, energic tour de force that doesn’t remotely feel 130 minutes long.

The cast are great, especially the kids. Whishaw and Mortimer are solid, and Firth is moustache twirlingly enjoyable as Wilkins, and there are lovely cameos by Van Dyke, Lansbury and Streep (clearly having a ball) but the beating hearts of this film are Blunt and Miranda.

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“Cor blimey, ave a banana!”

Miranda’s theatrical background is put to great use here, and he plays the loveable man of the people to a tee. One thing that surprised me about the original is how often Poppins takes a back seat to Bert, and it’s the same here. I had no real knowledge of Miranda before this, but he makes one hell of an impression.

However good he is, the reason this films works is down to the best casting of all. I won’t lie, I’ve adored Blunt for ages, going back to Young Victoria. I’ve yet to see her flounder; A Quiet Place, The Girl on the Train, Scicario, Edge of Tomorrow…she’s amazing in all of them, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she scores again. From her clipped accent to the twinkle in her eye that tells us she knows far more than she’s letting on, she’s excellent, what most surprised me was her singing voice, and her energy, especially in the almost vaudevillian ‘A Cover is not the Book’. She sings, she dances, and her comic timing’s second to none.screen-shot-2018-10-23-at-16.42.53

The decision to ape the old school animation of the original, rather than go for something more modern, is a good one. Only time will tell if the songs prove as catchy as those from the original, I suspect not but nobody’s 100% perfect, not even Poppins, and there are a few (very minor) gripes; As with the original there’s sense of the film being a series of set pieces that don’t really advance the plot (though I think it worked better here) and again, despite spending all her time with the children it’s actually a man named Banks she’s really there to help. Walters is good, but she’s essentially just doing Mrs Bird from the Paddington films again, and there’s a clear feeling of similarity with everyone’s favourite Peruvian immigrant, not least because he’s in it. Mortimer feels a little wasted, and hints of a romance don’t go anywhere, and you can’t really feel too sorry for the Banks’ given there’s likely millions far more destitute at the time (but the film’s hardly alone in portraying a rose-tinted vision of the past.)

On the whole though, I loved it. Well directed, scored, written and cast, with cinematography to die for, it might be emotionally manipulative but frankly I was quite happy to have it twist my emotions around its little finger!

Almost practically perfect in every way.

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