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Posts Tagged ‘Shirley Henderson’

Films about brilliant and successful people just being brilliant and successful are not really that common, probably because they’re actually quite dull. What you really want for a tip-top movie, especially a bio-pic, are some trials and struggling – someone fighting their way to the top and winning through by dint of sheer talent and hard work. Or, possibly even better, someone facing up to the reality that their best days may be behind them, and coming to terms with the fact that they are merely mortal after all. Some proper pathos, there, a real chance for some light and shade.

I have no doubt that some of the foregoing may have influenced the thought processes behind Jon S Baird’s Stan & Ollie, but presumably also crucial is the fact that this story, as well as featuring two genuine legends of world culture and dealing with universal themes, is set in locations in the UK which are reassuringly inexpensive to reach. (So it goes when you work for BBC Films, I suspect.)

This film is about, need it be said, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who are embodied for the occasion by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly respectively. The vast majority of it concerns a peculiar interlude in the early 1950s, many years after the peak of their success in Hollywood, when the now-ageing duo reunited for a tour of British and Irish music halls. It is a rather shabby comedown for two men who are still beloved and instantly recognisable wherever they go; their promoter Bernard Delfont – very unflatteringly portrayed here by Rufus Jones – books them into seedy guest houses and second-rate theatres, preferring to favour his hot young star Norman Wisdom.

Stan and Ollie are basically just doing the tour for the money, and because they are waiting on the finance to come together for a new movie Stan has has been working on the script for (at this point, historically, the pair had made only one poorly-received film in the previous eight years). However, the tour proves unexpectedly demanding and the stresses of it open up some old wounds in Laurel and Hardy’s relationship…

A few months ago I suggested that Charlie Chaplin had a good claim to be the most recognisable person in history; well, not only are Laurel and Hardy amongst the few serious challengers to that title, they are probably held in greater affection, as well. Surely everybody knows Laurel and Hardy, the comedy double-act without a straight man, the duo who took idiocy and literally raised it to an art form. They are, surely, the greatest comedians in history, with a legacy that is likely to endure as long as our culture.

While this is, to some extent, good news for the makers of Stan & Ollie, because it means the movie comes with a built-in audience, there’s also possibly a problem – namely, why would you want to watch two other men pretending to be Laurel and Hardy, when you could be watching the genuine article? (Their films are very easy to track down on t’internet these days, after all.) It’s a mathematical fact that any new film is unlikely to be quite as joyous to watch as The Music Box or Way Out West.

The new movie tries to get round this problem by giving people what they’d expect from a Laurel and Hardy movie. Reilly and Coogan do an impressive job of capturing the essence of the duo, particularly when they are performing. Steve Coogan, it must be said, does not really look all that much like Stan Laurel, but is clearly working hard to get the voice right; John C Reilly is virtually spot-on as Oliver Hardy, though (hours in the make-up chair every day probably helped). You have to admire the actors for having the guts to recreate some of the pair’s most iconic routines – there’s a wonderful version of ‘Lonesome Pine’ – and it is almost as if they are channelling the essences of Stan and Ollie. Elsewhere, the film inserts various bits of characteristic business – their arrival at a hotel, with Stan overloaded with luggage, descends into chaos, while an attempt at carrying some heavy luggage up a flight of steps likewise does not go to plan. Given that most of the film concerns the very fact that off-screen the two men were quite different from their public personae, this is possibly a bit of a cheat, but it’s an entertaining one.

And I would imagine the makers of this film are hoping that people will be interested enough in Laurel and Hardy to want to see a film which reveals a little more about them than their status as the world’s worst piano delivery-men. I imagine the movie will probably be fairly informative for most people, making clear, for example, the real basis of their working relationship – in reality, Stan was the workaholic brains of the outfit, constantly coming up with new material, while Ollie – known to all as ‘Babe’ – was a more genial, laid-back character, a martyr to expensive hobbies like excessive gambling and alimony. Central to the plot is the fact that the duo were on separate contracts with their long-time producer Hal Roach (played here by Danny Huston), eventually leading to financial and personal tensions between them, not least because of Roach’s attempt to launch Ollie as part of a new act, Langdon and Hardy, in the now-obscure comedy Zenobia.

This failed, needless to say, but the film does play with the notion of Laurel and Hardy working with other partners, and the sheer wrongness of how this feels is significant. Laurel and Hardy epitomise the notion of the comedy double act, after all, and if the film is about anything other than simply their final performances together, it’s what it means to be in this kind of partnership – people with experience of it say it is not unlike being in a marriage, with all the affection, jealousy, interdependence and potential frustration inherent in that. (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson make a good impression as the boys’ actual wives, fully aware of the odd quadrilateral dynamic to their situation.) And there’s also that sensation of not really belonging anywhere else, no matter how you may personally feel in any given moment. The film explores this with great delicacy and tenderness, and if it does suggest that there was a dark side to Laurel and Hardy’s relationship, it also stresses that it was ultimately founded on a deep fraternal love between the boys.

Well, it’s a movie, so maybe this is true and maybe it isn’t. But you’d certainly like to believe this was so, for if anything in this world is a source of untinged pleasure, it is watching Laurel and Hardy in action. Stan & Ollie never quite reaches that level of pure bliss, but it’s a well-made, very well-performed, sympathetic and insightful portrait of the gentlemen in question. If nothing else, it should do a good job of reminding anyone who has forgotten just why the world has never stopped loving Laurel and Hardy, and that’s surely worthwhile in itself. A fine film and well worth seeing.

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If you were the producer of a lavish, Anglophone fantasy movie, featuring stars from noted American franchises, and released in that period of early-to-mid-summer when some of the biggest hits of the year are traditionally forged, you would usually be a little bit irked if your project ended up relegated to the wilderlands of art-house showings. But if the film in question is Tale of Tales and you are its director, Matteo Garrone, it may be a different matter, for something about this film tells me it is the product of a sensibility for which mass populism is not the over-riding concern.

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I suppose there is a sense in which this is not really a fantasy but a fairy tale (the differences between the two: discuss), although there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – recent evidence indicates that over 51% of British voters are suckers for fairy tales, provided they are pitched just right and repeated frequently enough. On the other hand, fairy tales are traditionally associated with quite young people, while Tale of Tales is packed with enough gore, nudity, and associated naughtiness to make it very questionable entertainment for all but the broadest-minded of families. (Slightly ironic, given that the collection of folk tales which inspired the movie was also a primary source when the Brothers Grimm were assembling their own fairy tales.)

This is one of them there anthology films, recounting a trilogy of off-beat narratives, very loosely linked at the beginning and end. The first concerns the dangerously broody Queen of Darkwood (Salma Hayek), who is prepared to take advice from very suspect sources in order to actually have a child. As a result her devoted husband the King (John C Reilly, briefly appearing) is prepared to put on a deep-sea diving suit and engage in mortal combat with a sea-monster, as the Queen has been told that only by eating the heart of such a beast can she actually bear a child.

Well, the beast is slain and the Queen has her baby – but in an unforeseen wrinkle, the woman who cooks the heart also has a child, and as the two boys grow up they prove to be identical to one another, with an unnatural affinity for water and a very close bond. As one of them is a peasant and the other the heir presumptive, this is very much not to the Queen’s liking… but with her beloved son and his hated friend being quite so identical, is there anything she can safely do about it?

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring kingdom of Stronghold, the highly-sexed king (Vincent Cassell) falls in love with a mysterious woman based solely on the beauty of her singing voice, little realising that the shy Dora (Hayley Carmichael) is actually a wrinkly old crone in her seventies or eighties who lives with her equally wrinkly old sister (Shirley Henderson). The king remains insistent, Dora is – on reflection – wildly over-optimistic, and something very farcical seems to be on the cards.

The final story concerns the foolish king of Highmountain (Toby Jones), who becomes fascinated by his pet flea, which he indulges until it reaches a quite extraordinary size, in the process neglecting his sweet and high-spirited daughter (Bebe Cave). What follows is more like a parody of a fairy tale than anything else, involving an ogre, brave gypsies, impossible quests, and much more along the same lines.

Something else that links the three stories is the fact that none of them exactly come to a happy ending. The story of the twin boys is pretty dark all the way through, the tale of the crone sisters initially seems like a bawdy romp, and that of the king and his flea is just absurd, but they all conclude with gory unpleasantness and, more often than not, violent death. There’s a sense in which this is probably quite true-to-source – the ending of the original version of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, is quite horrible – but it does make for rather a downer ending for what started off as a drolly whimsical film.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say the closest thing to Tale of Tales that I’ve seen would be a Terry Gilliam film – maybe either Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, though this isn’t quite as anarchic as the former or as scatological as the latter. It has the same almost-palpable sense of earthy history to it, some of the same visual flair, the same understated comedy and fine performances – though, to be fair, most of it is played deadpan-straight. (Some good monsters, too.)

I suppose I should also mention that the tale of the old crones, which prominently features attractive naked young women and concludes on a moment of proper grand guignol, also put me rather in mind of a late period Hammer Horror, albeit one made on a very big budget. This story probably benefits from obviously being about something (our obsession with youth and beauty), while the other two storylines just meander about amiably.

All Tale of Tales‘ quality and visual lavishness – this is a beautiful, beautiful film, as exquisitely designed and photographed as any I’ve seen this year – is really a bit undermined by the fact that, as an anthology movie, its pacing is inevitably a bit disjointed – a great movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end, after all, not a beginning, a beginning, and a beginning, then a middle, a middle, and a middle, and so on.

I suppose this is the really odd and frustrating thing about Tale of Tales, in the end: this is a film about stories – the title kind of gives it away – and formidable talent has clearly been brought to bear in every department of the film… except that of the script itself. This is by no means bad, and the film remains engagingly odd throughout, but you never really lose yourself in any of the stories – it’s all just a bit too calculatedly arty or arch for the stories to work their own magic, and the fact that none of them have what you could really call a satisfying climax is a bit of an issue too.

As I said, this is a fabulous-looking movie and it does have a more authentic sense of the genuinely weird about it than any of the Hollywood fantasy films I’ve seen this year – more of a sense of humour, too. But in the end I can’t shake the impression that this is intended to be more enjoyed as a work of art than as an actual exercise in storytelling. Still, worth seeing if you like this sort of thing.

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