Stan & Ollie

Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones

Director: Jon S. Baird

Writer: Jeff Pope


‘Iconic’ is a word that gets overused these days but I think it really does apply when talking about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They were a vaudeville double act that peaked in the 1920s and 30s and it’s fair to say that most people my age have probably never seen their slapstick classics Sons of the Desert and Way Out West, never mind know the history of their lives and partnership (I know that I didn’t). And yet everybody knows who they are the same way they know who Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein are. That’s how famous they are and how strongly their legacy endures. The image of the hulking, overweight Hardy and the short, lean Laurel standing side-by-side donning their bowler hats while one leans over to the other to lament “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” is as iconic as that of Charles Foster Kane uttering his dying word or Don Lockwood singing in the rain. If you’ve watched The Simpsons, Monty Python or literally any comedy double act ever, then you’ve seen their legacy. Stan & Ollie is a love letter that pays tribute to the duo with both humour and affection.

When we first meet Laurel and Hardy (played by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly respectively, both of them perfect), it’s at the prime of their lives in 1937 when they were the two biggest names in comedy. They are comfortably at the top of their game and are filming what is sure to be another hit movie for them, but Laurel isn’t satisfied with the lack of creative freedom or the pay. He meets with their producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), the man responsible for bringing the two comedians together, and threatens to walk out unless changes are made to the contracts. Hal refuses and Stan leaves for Fox, certain that his partner will join him in solidarity. “You can’t have Hardy without Laurel”, he states defiantly. Cut to sixteen years later and we see that things didn’t work out quite how Stan planned. Ollie stayed with Hal Roach productions, made a movie without Laurel, and the rift that emerged in their partnership has never quite gone away even as they’ve continued to perform together in the years since. Now, as they embark on a UK tour performing their old act in half-empty music halls, they’re both in the autumn years of their lives and it’s becoming ever clearer that they’re not the Hollywood titans they used to be. “I thought you’d retired”, says one clerk at the low-rent inn they’re lodged in and so, it seems, did everyone else.

The tour is modestly successful and the pair appear to be getting on famously, performing bits and trading jabs anywhere and anytime they can and sharing ideas for a new screenplay Laurel is working on. There is however an definite tension between the two old hats that both are determined to leave unspoken. And that’s how it goes until until their wives, Ida Lauren (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson), fly out to show their support. The interplay between the four is where the drama really comes out as they talk about old times (Ida is always quick to remind everyone that she was once an actor who worked with Preston Sturges) and allude to the elephants in the rooms that still inspire feelings of hurt, resentment and betrayal after all these years. There’s never a sense that this is conflict for the sake of conflict nor do the wives exist as plot devices to stir the pot. Far from it, Ida and Shirley both prove themselves wholeheartedly devoted to their spouses and, while that does lead to treat each other rather spikily where their husbands are concerned, it turns that they both somewhat sympathise with one another as they both experience and endure the toll that show business takes on marriages. There’s a wonderful irony to the way that the film opens with Stan and Ollie coolly recounting their previous divorces and yet ends up with them in a place where both have faithful, dedicated wives and it’s their own relationship that’s subject to doubt.

It wouldn’t be a Laurel and Hardy picture if it wasn’t funny though and the film delivers on that front as well. Not only is the likeness there, thanks in no small part to the work done by the prosthetics and make up teams, but the timing and body language is there as well. Hardy, who looked like a big, lumbering figure, performed his comedy with the surprising poise and delicacy of a ballet dancer and Reilly gets it exactly right while Coogan brings that same silent comedy star expressiveness that Laurel had right down to the eyebrows. The routines they perform together are not only able to score laughs by being well-acted routines in and off themselves, but also because they are done with the kind of familiarity that comes with two partners who know each others lines and steps inside and out. Greater emotional weight is placed on these routines by the constant way the film blurs the line between Stan and Ollie’s real and comedic personas. As two showbiz legends, the two doubtless feel like there’s an expectation for them to always be ‘on’, which is why they’re always ready to perform skits anytime there’s cameras or a crowd to perform for. Even when they’re alone together, slapstick just inevitably seems to happen as when Stan trips over his suitcase while checking into the hotel or when they accidentally drop a trunk down a flight of stairs at the train station.

When Stan declares that you can’t have Hardy without Laurel, it’s shown to be an ironic statement that ends up spelling their doom. It is also however a statement that this film believes unreservedly. Stan & Ollie is a celebration of two iconic comedians and the immortal comedy they made together. While bittersweet, it is ultimately a feel-good movie which is why it stops short of following through on some of its darker moments, makes light of some of the less flattering aspects of their lives such as Stan’s alcoholism and doesn’t hit on some of the harsher truths that get shared and revealed quite as hard as they could have. Laurel and Hardy themselves were specialists at delivering light-hearted comedy and so perhaps it’s fitting that the film should follow suit, but it also feels a little sterile as a result. It is doubtless a delight to watch and it does all the same succeed in showcasing what exactly made Laurel and Hardy such a great team and the bond that they shared. There were feelings of bitterness and resentment between the pair and working together wasn’t always easy but, when it cam down to it, they respected each other, they loved each other and, above all, they needed each other. There’s a post-script at the end which drives the film’s bittersweet tone home; a revelation about the last few years of Laurel’s life that is both beautiful and tragic. This is a film made with true affection and reverence for the two men that inspired it.

★★★★

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Wonder Woman

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

Director: Patty Jenkins

Writer: Allan Heinberg


Whether it wants it or not (and whether it’s fair or not), Wonder Woman has got a lot of pressure and expectation riding on it. Not only is it the first solo movie for one of the most iconic female characters of all time, it is also the single biggest movie to ever be made by a female director. For years studios have been pointing towards flops like Catwoman and Helen Slater’s Supergirl as evidence that female superhero movies don’t work (as if male superhero movies have such a perfect track record). With the MCU so far neglecting to make any female-led movies in spite of having a popular character and marketable star in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it falls onto DC to finally break this glass ceiling. While it’s not up to me to judge this movie from a feminine standpoint, I also cannot ignore what a big deal this movie is or how significant its success will be. And it is by all means a resounding success.

The movie starts off with Diana (Gal Gadot) as a child on the secret island of Themyscria, the home of the Amazonian race. There, as the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she is forbidden to partake in training as a warrior, but does so anyway with her aunt, General Antipone (Robin Wright). Years later, having grown into a strong and capable woman, she rescues a downed pilot as his plane crashes nearby. The pilot is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he is an American soldier fighting in the First World War as a spy. He was being pursued by the Germans as he was escaping with a notebook stolen from the infamous chemist Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and must return to London as soon as possible. Diana, believing that the war god Ares, whom her people have sworn to oppose, is orchestrating this war in the form of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), arms herself with the Amazons’ ‘Godkiller’ sword and accompanies him. Thus she joins the war to end all wars where she will discover the true extent of her powers and find her destiny.

This film marks the fourth instalment in the DCEU, a franchise that has so far proven uneven in its storytelling. Batman v. Superman for example was a movie that felt messy and overblown because it took on too many storylines and spent too much time on world building. One of the strengths of Wonder Woman is that it tells an entirely self-contained story. There are no forced cameos, no tangential set ups for upcoming titles and no unnecessary subplots. This is Diana’s story and the movie keeps the focus on her. When approaching a character such as Wonder Woman, one might have been tempted to sculpt her simply as a strong, badass warrior woman, essentially a female Braveheart. The movie however is more thoughtful and complex than that. Diana is indeed tough and vengeful, but she is also curious, compassionate, earnest and brave. She is an inspiring hero of a kind that movies haven’t really seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman. When Diana runs into battle to face the enemy, there isn’t a childhood trauma that forces her, no words of wisdom from a mentor that move her, no inner conflict about responsibility and morality that compels her. Diana is a kind, virtuous person who wants to help simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Joining Gadot in her wonderful turn as the DC legend is a strong supporting cast, the best of whom is Chris Pine as the dashing WWI pilot. Whereas Diana is hopeful, naïve even, Trevor is altogether more pessimistic and world weary, a quality to which Pine brings both charm and humour. There is a clear attraction between them on the outset which feels utterly authentic and organic due to the electrifying chemistry they share. Not many superhero movies can make their romances work, but this is definitely one that can. Also great are the Amazonian women, particularly Wright, who are every bit as fierce, steadfast and awesome as a warrior people ought to be. Watching them in action is one of the most thrilling parts of the movie as Jenkins does away with the rapid editing and generic framing we see in most blockbusters. Instead we get to see the warriors in their full glory, fighting in a variety of styles that make the combat feel more like an epic ballet than a punch-by-numbers.

Jenkins is to applauded on more than just the action scenes. Much of Wonder Woman feels unlike anything we might’ve expected from recent blockbusters, including and especially those of the DCEU. For one thing, Wonder Woman has actual colour in it. The magnificent gold of the Amazonian armour and the luscious greens and deep blues of their paradise island can all be seen in their splendour. Even the reds, greys and browns of the Western Front show that dark colours can be dire without being murky and stale. The movie also installs much humanity and humour into its story which, far from undercutting, help to enhance the film’s more serious moments. When we see Diana charging into her battle with her comrades, which include Charlie (Ewan Bremner) the sharpshooter, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) the Native American smuggler, and Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) the Moroccan master of disguise, its all the more affective because the movie has actually taken the time to show these characters bonding. Wonder Woman, being set in 1918, also does a good job of tackling issues of sexism and racism without beating us over the head with it.

The fatal flaw holding this movie back from greatness is its third act which sadly slips into the more generic territory we’ve seen in recent blockbusters. In starts off promisingly enough with a reveal for the villain that is surprising in its sophistication, suggesting that Ares is not in fact the simple baddie we took him for, and there is an excellent final scene between Diana and Steve that I found moving. Otherwise, unfortunately, the climax is typical of the sort of explosive finales that modern blockbusters like with overwritten, pretentious dialogue and a morally confused resolution. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a weak ending and it certainly doesn’t kill the movie, but it was underwhelming given how strong and fresh the first two acts had been. Still, even if I would have preferred an ending that took a few more risks, Wonder Woman is despite its flaws a great watch. It is gorgeous, exciting and inspiring and is entirely worthy of the comic book icon it has brought to life.

★★★★