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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Ralph Breaks the Internet

Cast: (voiced by) John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O’Neill

Directors: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston

Writers: Phil Johnston, Pamela Ribon


Nowadays Disney tends to make two kinds of animated movies. One half of these films follows the fairy tale tradition that made the Disney brand, drawing from historical myths and fables and adding in music and colour to bring us the likes of Tangled, Frozen and Moana. The other half (moreso if we also include Pixar) looks more at the present in its search for inspiration in making films that depict complex systems and ideas that many children can often find difficult and scary to comprehend. Zootropolis provided an allegory for racism on a societal level and considered how decent, well-meaning people could be prejudiced in ways that they had never considered. Inside Out explored the emotional psyche of a young girl and concluded that sadness is integral to our abilities to cope with growth and change. Coco ventured into the land of the dead in its ode to the Latin American spirituality of ancestry and death. In this sequel to what is perhaps the only great video game movie in all of cinema, Disney sets its sight on their most complicated, perilous and inscrutable setting yet: the Internet.

The Internet is something that other blockbusters have struggled to depict in insightful yet kid-friendly ways, especially in terms of exploring its darker, more toxic side. Ready Player One dared go no further than to say, rather generically, that people should probably spend more time in the real world. The Emoji Movie didn’t even go that far, instead advertising the Internet as this cool, fun-filled landscape where you can enjoy all these trendy apps. This is rather concerning since so many people who use the Internet, including children, can find it to be a dangerous place where bullying, invasiveness, misinformation, illicit dealings and addiction can be allowed to run rampant. A quick Google search revealed to me that the vast majority of films about the Internet made for an adult audience, including The Social Network, Unfriended and Citizenfour, are overwhelmingly negative in their portrayals. This is why I think Ralph Breaks the Internet could be a real groundbreaker (no, I will not apologise for the pun). While the movie doesn’t hesitate in depicting the Internet as this vast, colourful, dynamic world of endless possibilities, directors Johnston and Moore are not blind to the lesser qualities of the online experience and portray them about as well as one could expect of a product of a multi-billion dollar corporate machine with a brand to advertise and a profit to make.

The set-up is a little flimsy but it does the job. Retro video game bad guy Ralph and glitchy speed car racer Vanellope have settled into a pretty comfy routine since becoming the best of friends. Day after day they continue to fulfil their prescribed roles in their respective games and, once the arcade closes, they’ll spend the whole night together drinking root beer, goofing around and chatting about anything and everything. For Ralph life couldn’t possibly be any better. Vanellope however is less satisfied. Having learnt every race track in Sugar Rush by heart and regularly beating her competitors, she’s grown bored with the monotony. In typical Disney heroine fashion, Vanellope desires something more; a larger world with greater possibilities and challenges. Ralph, eager as ever to be the hero, tries to help out by digging a new track, but things get worse when the detour inadvertently leads to the breaking of the game’s steering wheel. New parts for the arcade game are hard to come by since the company that made the game is no longer in business and it looks like Sugar Rush will be permanently shut down. A solution presents itself however when a strange device called Wi-Fi (pronounced wee-fee) is introduced to the arcade. When Ralph and Vanellope learn that a replacement part is available on the Internet, they use the Wi-Fi to transport themselves there so that they might buy it.

As soon as they get there Ralph and Vanellope are awestruck by the Internet in all its enormity and activity. The web is shown to be an endless metropolis made up of titanic skyscrapers housing such techno-industrial giants as Google and Amazon. Lively avatars representing users from around the globe whiz about in every direction from one website to the next, stopping only to be harassed and redirected by obnoxious pop-up ads and unsolicited video recommendations. One click, whether intentional or accidental, will summon a car that will instantly zoom you over to another part of the virtual world. It is a hysterically accurate representation of what using the Internet is like, one that captures exactly how somebody can log on with a specific task to accomplish only to wind up down a rabbit hole of cat videos and Twitter feeds. Amongst the characters our duo meet are KnowsMore, an enthusiastic search engine that compulsively tries to predict the users’ queries, and JP Spamley, a Gil Gunderson type of salesman desperate to make sales on outrageous clickbait ads. Yet Ralph and Vanellope soon learn that it’s all too easy to take a wrong step and find yourself overwhelmed and lost in the chaotic mess that is the world wide web. All it takes is a visit to eBay and a fundamental misunderstanding of how bidding works for Ralph and Vanellope to find themselves in a sticky situation.

Having massively overbid on the part needed to fix Vanellope’s game, she and Ralph now need to raise a lot of money in very little time. This mission ends up taking them all over the Internet to such sites as Slaughter Race, an online racing game so over-the-top in its dystopian grittiness that Mad Max looks almost tame in comparison, Oh My Disney, where you can take an online personality quiz to find out who your spirit Disney princess is (mine is Belle incidentally), and BuzzTube, a Buzzfeed/YouTube hybrid where videos can be shared and receive likes (just don’t read the comments). While Ralph works on becoming a viral star on BuzzTube with the help of Yesss, the arbiter of all that is trending, Vanellope finds herself wholly enraptured by the thrills and challenges of Slaughter Race, especially after meeting the impossibly cool racer Shank, and starts to consider the prospect of staying there rather than returning to her old life with Ralph. It’s this dilemma that allows Ralph Breaks the Internet to truly come into its own as it explores the complexities of friendship and how difficult it is to let somebody go even if that is what they need in order to grow and pursue their ambitions and desires. Through rich animation and the wonderful voicework of Silverman and Reilly, the film teaches an achingly poignant lesson about how there are changes and limitations we have to accept in our lives and that the best we can do is learn to evolve and adapt.

On a more 2018 note, the movie also provides a surprisingly astute illustration of toxic masculinity and how it is exacerbated by insecurity and negative feedback. Ralph, usually the toughest, most macho guy in the room and infinitely happier since finding respect and reverence in his friendship with Vanellope, is someone whose self-esteem depends on near-constant positive reinforcement. When he makes the fatal mistake of reading the comments to his hot-pepper-eating, goat-screaming, bee-punning videos, he finds himself feeling weaker, smaller and more vulnerable than he’s emotionally prepared to handle. Thus he lashes out in ways that threaten to wreck the friendship he and his bestest friend hold so dear. He reads Vanellope’s actions as reflections of his anxieties rather than as those of her own desires and from there his needy, self-destructive insecurities manifest themselves in monstrous ways that must be overcome if their relationship is to be saved. This is a concept that has grown only too prevalent in online culture over the last few years and it is one that Disney handles cleverly and with great sensitivity. What made Wreck-It Ralph so great compared to many of the other animated movies of that era was how endearing its characters were and how much their actions and emotions drove the story. The same is true of Ralph Breaks the Internet and the sequel is almost as great as the first.

The movie’s main issue is that sometimes it takes a while to actually get to the outstanding character-driven moments and that the quest for the steering wheel gets a little tiresome as it becomes less relevant to the central conflict. The movie tends to work better when it either focuses squarely on the characters or forgets about the plot for a while and has some fun with its depiction of the Internet and pop culture. The main highlight is Vanellope’s much-advertised stint with the Disney princesses which leads to some great laughs as they poke fun at some of the tropes Disney has so happily perpetuated from the questionable sexual politics to the easily shrugged-off traumas (“Are you guys okay, should I call the cops?” Vanellope asks as they excitedly recall being poisoned, cursed and kidnapped) and the casual absence of mothers. While the sequence does feel a little like Disney synergism at work in the form of shameless self-promotion (including their Marvel and Star Wars brands), it’s still good fun when taken at face value and it also leads to Vanellope being given her own Menken-composed Disney princess song. While Ralph Breaks the Internet can feel overlong and aimless at times, it manages to bring it all home in the end through hysterical jokes, superb animation, two complex and loveable characters and a profound and socially relevant moral.

★★★★

Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★