Stan and Ollie a Light on its Feet Delight

Stan and Ollie (2018)
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Entertainment One, 93 minutes, PG.

Director Jon Baird takes liberties with the actual events upon which Stan and Ollie is based, but he got it right to present the relationship between them as a love story. It was not one in which a couple gazes at each other with puppy dog eyes as (metaphorical) fireworks explode against a background of string-heavy romantic music. Theirs was a non-sexual love that was deeper than friendship. It was every bit a can’t-imagine-life-without-you tale.

Stan and Ollie gets my vote for the biggest surprise of early 2019. I expected Steve Coogan (Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (Oliver Hardy) to be good and they surpassed my expectations. What I didn’t expect is how much I would care about their alter egos. Like most people my age, I used to watch recycled Laurel and Hardy films on TV when I was young. Those “old” movies–as I saw them then–were my initial contacts with cinematic history, but I thought no more about the individuals behind the roles than I did of the real-life Abbott and Costello or Three Stooges. In my view, Stan and Ollie is one of the better celebrity biographies in quite some time.

For you non-Baby Boomers, Laurel and Hardy were among the few comedy acts that survived the transition from silent films to sound. (Charley Chaplin and the Marx Brothers also made the shift.) The tall, rotund (6’1” 280 pounds) American-born Oliver Hardy (1890-1957) played straight man to the bumbling lean English-born Stan Laurel. Each had made scores of silent films before they teamed permanently in 1926. Over the next 25 years, though, they made an astonishing 107 films together, 23 of them full-length features. They became so well known that some of their stock phrases such as “Doh!” and “Well, here's another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” were pop culture buzz phrases, and Laurel’s unique head scratch was much imitated. Theirs was a vaudevillian mix of song, dance, and slapstick comedy.

Stan and Ollie opens in 1937, when Laurel and Hardy are (allegedly) the top-drawing act in Hollywood. (Actually it was Gary Cooper.) In the film, this is the pinnacle of their careers and they split when Hardy didn’t walk away from his contract with producer Hal Roach. It is true that Hardy was still under contract for six months after Laurel’s contract expired–a deliberate ploy by Roach to prevent team bargaining–but the two were estranged for months, not 16 years as the film implies, and Stan wasn’t angry when Ollie took roles in two (awful) films without him: The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and Riding High (1950). Laurel actually encouraged him to go forth because they were angry with post-Roach studios that didn't give them script control.

In the film we leapfrog from 1937 to 1953, when the fading-from-public-acclaim duo reunited for a stage tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. (Actually, they made a film, Atoll K, in 1951, but there was a hiatus occasioned by Hardy’s health problems.) At first they played to nearly empty houses, but the two soldiered on to rebuild their fame and friendship. Their final performance was a triumphant show in Plymouth, England, on May 17, 1954, by which time Hardy was battling congestive heart failure.  

Forget the script's deceptive turns. Coogan and Reilly are as sublime as the originals. They are nimble with quips and light on their feet, a particularly deft feat from Reilly, who wore a fat suit and prosthetics that added a hundred pounds to his fighting weight. The two interact in ways that are about as close as two heterosexual males can get without crossing the identity line. This extends to moments in which they are with their wives, Lucy (Shirley Henderson), Hardy’s second (and last) spouse; and Ida (Nina Arianda), Laurel’s third (of four). We witness a pair that is only really in their element when they are together, even if they are angry with one other. Coogan is terrific as a man at sea when faced with being on his own, and Reilly is so good as Hardy at the end of his string that it’s easy to overlook the subtlety embedded in his quiet performance. Both deserved Oscar nominations, but Hollywood doesn't like to honor films it doesn't make*. 

If one wishes to nitpick, begin with Shirley Henderson. I don't understand why she gets roles given that her dictation and voice are unintelligible. She’s also outdone by the feisty and snarky Arianda. Neither woman had a lot to do in this film but for once this isn’t sexism; the true love story is that of Stan and Ollie, who spent more time with each other than with any of the women or children in their lives. Another small critique is that a few of the exterior shots are rather obvious cheap sets.

Maybe Stan and Ollie isn't cutting-edge filmmaking, but director Jon Baird does a nice job of evoking the 1930s and early 1950s. For a short movie, Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope also do credit to what film buffs will recognize as Sunset Boulevard syndrome. Must faded stars disappear into a black hole? Maybe not.

Rob Weir

*Entertainment One is a Canadian company and England's BBC Films coproduced it.


Us Against You: Is This Return to Beartown Needed?

By Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 435 pages.

How do you feel about sequels? If you see them as the next chapter of an ongoing tale, you’ll like Fredrik Backman’s Us Against You. If you think they are recycling, you might not.

Backman came from nowhere with A Man Called Ove in 2012, and quickly made his way onto my reading list. His 2015 My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is one of the most magical books I’ve read since childhood. I wasn’t quite as enamored of Beartown (2016), but it grabbed me about halfway through. If you’ve not read Beartown, don’t read Us Against You until you do, as it’s most assuredly a sequel and you'll need Beartown’s background and character development. Even then you may come away with the impression that maybe a sequel wasn’t needed. 

There are three major takeaways from Us Against You: Backman really loves hockey, rural Sweden is more violent than you imagine, and Backman thinks that family and community matter at least as much as hockey. Us Against You returns to Beartown, a postindustrial working-class town in a remote part of Sweden. It’s a place of hard times and hard people, unlike the nearby town of Hed, which is middle class and more prosperous. Those who stay in Beartown share the perspective of the mother of a talented hockey player: “Fatima loved the people here because they didn’t try to pretend that the world was uncomplicated. Life is tough, it hurts and people admitted that.” About all the town has going for it is a great hockey program and, if you’ve read Beartown, you know that even that isn’t as good as the one in Hed and is in severe crisis.

As we come into Us Against You, it looks as if the Beartown and Hed squads will be consolidated as one–in Hed, of course. You’ll meet the same cast of characters: Hog, Tails, Sune, Ramona, Amat, Bobo, The Pack, and Benji and his sisters. At its center is the Andersson family: Kira, a lawyer; Peter, the general manager of the town’s hockey clubs; 12-year-old Leo; and 16-year-old Maya. Maya was central to Beartown, but now her plight has split the town. Some blame her for the impending demise of the hockey club; others are royally ripped that she’s being treated so inhumanely. The pressures on the Andersson’s marriage is acute, Leo is growing up lean and mean, and Maya increasingly withdraws into her music and her friendship with Ana. Packing boxes mysteriously appear on the Andersson property, and phone calls from moving firms they’ve not contacted disturb their privacy.  

Possible salvation arrives in the form of an ambitious politician, Richard Theo. He’s as oily as a sardine factory, but he has an enticing plan that will save the hockey team and bring new jobs to Beartown. This leaves Peter with the task of trying to reassemble a dispersed hockey team and defeat Hed in the process. The complication is that he must rein in The Pack, a group of local toughs who stand at hockey games like a Norse version of the Hell’s Angels. That’s daunting enough, but the fact that Peter would have to break his word sets up the classic dilemma between being safe and honest, or aligning with power and paying the cost to keep the hockey program.

If you are tempted to shout out, “Oh for heaven’s sake. It’s just a bloody game,” the only part you’d be right about is the blood. You’ll meet a few new characters such as a tough-as-iron female hockey coach named Elizabeth Zackell, and Vidar Rinnius, a brilliant goalie who is the troubled younger brother of Teemu, the thuggish linchpin of The Pack. This novel isn’t what you imagine about Sweden and violence. You might also be shocked by what passes for okay among the adolescent males. In Us Against You, we confront situations that are as volatile as a dry forest. It won’t take much for things to ignite. Damage will be done to the degree that we must wonder if redemption is possible.

The central question is whether we the readers are convinced that hockey is a profound metaphor for life. I love the sport, but it was a struggle to freight hockey with as much symbolism as Backman infers. Part of me wanted to cast the book aside as a problematic sequel what was already the weakest thing Backman has written. I continued because Backman has a knack for tossing off simple-yet-profound insights that make their way into the mouths of his characters. Why might someone distrust men in suits? Because people with ambition and money, “never love anything, they just own things.” Or how about this bon mot from Leo: “… people will always choose a simple lie over a complicated truth, because the lie has one unbeatable advantage: the truth always has to stick to what actually happened, whereas the lie just has to be easy to believe.” Ouch!

How then to evaluate Us Against You? Maybe this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I see it as a really great mediocre offering. It is, however, time for Backman to turn his attention to other matters. This is his third sports-based novel and even the best metaphors break if you flex them too often.

Rob Weir


First Reformed Paul Schrader's Best in Decades

Directed by Paul Schrader
A24 Films, 113 minutes, R (But why?)

The camera slowly tracks up a steep drive toward a classic white wooden church. It lingers, and then pans upward toward gable and steeple, where it lingers again. This long establishing shot sets the tone for Paul Schrader’s deliberately paced First Reformed, and nearly every single drawn out frame of this film is exactly as it should be. First Reformed has drawn comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 artistic masterpiece Winter Light. That may be a bit overstated, but it’s certainly Schrader’s best directorial effort since Affliction (1997) and is of the quality of auteur offerings from his heyday in the 1970s/80s such as The Comfort of Strangers, American Gigolo, and Mishima.

The white frame church is a Dutch Reformed house of worship about to celebrate its 250th birthday. Although First Reformed was filmed in Queens, we imagine that its fictional setting of Snowbridge, New York lies somewhere in western New York’s “burned over” district where the evangelical fires of the Second Great Awakening reached white hot temperatures in the decades before the Civil War. No more. Although the First Reformed Church is solid, handsome, and somber, it’s also mostly empty in most senses of the word. It is spartan in its furnishings, houses a non-functioning organ, is devoid of frippery, and numbers a congregation of about a dozen. It keeps the lights on by peddling tours and trinkets to tourists and through the largess of a nearby super-church, Abundant Life.

First Reformed’s pastor, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), is like his church: quiet, stern, and emotionally empty. It’s the kind of posting for individuals who probably ought to be in therapy rather than the ministry, and Toller certainly has his demons. Like cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s camera work, Toller’s secrets come out slowly and obliquely. First Reformed is told largely from Toller’s point of view and even then, often via a voice over of the words he is writing into a journal into which he spills his thoughts every day for a year.

It doesn’t take long to work out that Toller is a damaged ascetic. He’s a conflicted one, though, as he pores over texts by both Thomas Merton and G. K. Chesterton. Merton (1915-68) was a Trappist monk and mystic, and Chesterton (1874-1936), an eccentric lay theologian who was also a bon vivant, gourmand, and detective fiction writer. In other words, Toller is trying to work out the Christian dilemma of being in the world but not of the world—a maddening paradox that leads him to the borders of agnosticism.

Toller’s austere lifestyle and beliefs stand in marked contrast to Abundant Life, where Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) presides over a 5,000-seat church that’s a monument to wealth and worldly success. Toller has trouble processing Jeffers’ advice to lighten up and get with the times, just as he is confused by the (often unwanted) attention lavished upon him by Esther (Victoria Hill) Abundant Life’s choral director. But he is shaken to the core when pregnant Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), who is urging her to abort. Michael isn’t selfish by any means. He feels that it’s wrong to bring life into a world that is on the verge of becoming unlivable. As Toller digs deeper into the climate change data that has unhinged Michael, he finds himself unable to answer his penetrating question: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” Nor can he rationalize Pastor Jeffries’ advice to avoid controversy when he learns that his church’s big celebration is being underwritten by one of the country’s worst polluters. All of this sets the stage for anguish, contemplation, and actions that take unexpected twists and turns.

Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career thus far as Toler. His angular face embodies sternness and self-denial, and much of what he communicates on the screen is done through small physical movements and expressions. As befits his character, he is a man of few words. Hawke gives us a portrait of a man so inwardly torn apart that one wonders if the very filming of his part was torturous. There is buzz that he will be nominated for an Oscar for this film. It would be a travesty were he not to get one.

This film is slow, but it packs a philosophical wallop. It is about the soul versus the senses on a microcosmic level, but on the macrocosmic, it’s about denial and spiritualism versus materialism and pleasure. Take note of how spare everything looks; Toller’s parish home and church are empty, but so is the Mensana home. Everything in Snowbridge is as bleak as the Superfund toxic waters along the town’s outskirts.  Schrader also raises the question that sent Augustine of Hippo on his journey: Where is God? Is it significant that Seyfried’s character is named Mary? What are we to make a controversial segment that breaks the film’s tonal arc and ventures into something akin to magical realism?

I’m not sure Schrader sticks the dismount in this film. He may have been aiming at something that was more developed in his mind than comes across on the screen, or he may have wished to leave big questions open. I suspect, though, that he thought himself into the unpainted corner of the room. I’ll leave that to you to sort out. I will say that this is a provocative film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater. It left me shattered. In a good way. I think.

Rob Weir

Postscript: I was shocked to learn that Paul Schrader has never been nominated for an Oscar of any sort. That should change. Now.