Stan and Ollie

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* * * 1/2 (out of five)

Shame about the musical score, which is overbearing and makes the otherwise tastefully wrought and lovingly crafted Stan and Ollie seem schmaltzy. It’s not fair to the fine work of Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their wives. They’re all splendid.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy are touring England in the hopes of stirring up producer interest in one more movie, a Robin Hood satire. Implied, too, is that they need the money. They’re ageing and no longer on the top of the Hollywood totem pole, but they’re also still in good humour and enjoying their work. The film is willing to avoid throwing artificial conflict at them; for the most part, this amiable, low-key dramedy is content to be a character piece, and a portrait of a long-standing working relationship. It also features Coogan and Reilly expertly pulling off some gorgeous and very funny Laurel and Hardy routines.

I suppose the overwhelming sentimentality may be appreciated in some quarters, but it does niggle me that, since the audience is (rightly) perceived to be “the grey dollar”, they must be in want of an overbearing orchestra-full of swelling strings. No-one needs to be spoon-fed their emotions in this day and age, even those old enough to have seen the real Stan and Ollie at their local. I’d love to see a cut of this film without the score; it would simply be better, perhaps even rather sublime.

The Dinner

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* * 1/2 (out of five)

Steve Coogan is a really good actor, and he can nail drama. His introspective moments in the Trip series have been getting more and more intriguing (and they are tremendously subtle); he was phenomenal in Philomena, and his ability to portray real people, as evidenced in the masterpiece 24 Hour Party People and the pretty damn good The Look of Love, sits without many peers. That said, no actor – not Dustin Hoffman, not Daniel Day Lewis – should be saddled with the burden Coogan bears in The Dinner, an adaptation of Herman Koch’s successful Dutch literary novel from 2009 from writer/director Oren Moverman (Time Out of Mind, Rampart, The Messenger).

Besides donning an American accent (which he does admirably), Coogan has to contend with an incredibly serious impairment, an almost ludicrously difficult moral quandary, and long, long speeches, all of which could have been trimmed and many of which could have been cut. It may well be that Moverman was absolutely entranced and moved by Coogan’s excellent performance, but, in leaving it all in, he’s unfortunately left his leading man out to dry.

15797938The movie would have been better too, had those cuts been made, because it’s too long, and collapses under its intense dramatic weight. It has often been said that simple, “airport”, mainstream, easy-reading potboilers make the best move adaptations – a shark terrorises a beach community! – and that complicated literary novels are devilish to adapt. This proves the case here. Watching the film, I kept thinking, “I bet this really works in the book”.

As Coogan’s brother, Richard Gere slides too easily into a high-status role (he’s running for Governor!); Laura Linney is fantastic as Coogan’s wife but the late Sir Peter Hall’s daughter Rebecca stumbles often, lumbered with the film’s weakest dialogue, as Gere’s younger partner. There is a terrific turn from Michael Chernus as the unflappable Maître D of the ludicrously expensive restaurant where these four wretched souls are thrashing out their problems, but unfortunately The Dinner, like the extravagant dishes he’s describing, is over-sauced, over-stuffed, too rich and heavy.

THE TRIP TO SPAIN

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**** (out of five)

The simple fact of the matter is that if you enjoyed The Trip and The Trip To Italy, you’re going to enjoy The Trip to Spain – it’s more of the same, but in Spain. Likewise, there is a relative correlation – if you loved the first two movies, as I did, you’ll love this one. I did.

Once again our intrepid food reviewers Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around a gorgeous country eating amazing food and keeping each other amused, often with impersonations of British movie stars (yes, for the uninitiated, that is the actual conceit of the franchise). This time Roger Moore comes in as the most imitated, followed closely by Mick Jagger. Sir Ian McKellan gets a good look in too along with sundry others. Coogan, this time, is contemplating writing a travel book inspired by an earlier sexual conquest in Spain; to give the film even the tiniest pretence of drama, both actors are having slight issues with agents in the United States.

Once again Michael Winterbottom shoots the country and its food spectacularly while getting out of the way of his two brilliant clowns. I laughed like a drain. There is one extended sequence during which the entire critic’s screening room I was in sounded like it was about to combust from laughing so hard. Although these films were originally intended for television (in half-hour form), they are best enjoyed in as full a cinema as possible to partake of the laugh orgy inevitably inspired.

Just see this. It’s the funniest film of 2017; it’s that simple.

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Rage and Compassion

Philomena **** (out of five)

urlSteve Coogan concludes his Year of Living Brilliantly with Philomena, a controlled, precise, moving and very funny film that he co-wrote and co-stars in, playing it relatively straight and holding his own against none other than Dame Judi Dench, who, graciously, brings her most A of A Games and holds her own against him.

Coogan is a phenomenon, or at least his work has conspired to congeal around him in order to make him appear so. His 2013 has seen him as a big-screen Alan Partridge in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, one of the two funniest films of the year, which he also co-wrote and which was, in Britain at least, a huge hit, and being absolutely brilliant in a straight dramatic role in What Maisie Knew, as a father separating from his small family (and stealing scenes right out from under Julianne Moore). And now this, Philomena, which will come to define him as an artist for the next phase of his career.

Philomena2What a career! Besides being a massive comedy star in Britain, with multiple television incarnations of Alan Partridge shows, innumerable appearances, a stand-up career, radio and all manner of such success, Coogan has already had a spectacular film run, the highlight package probably being his films for Michael Winterbottom – 24 Hour Party People, The Trip, The Look of Love and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – but which also includes stand-out appearances in the Night at the Museum films, Phileas Fogg in the big-budget remake of Around The World in Eighty Days, Marie Antoinette, Hot Fuzz, Hamlet 2, In the Loop, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, The Other Guys, Our Idiot Brother, Ruby Sparks, Despicable Me 2 and, very memorably, Tropic Thunder.

Philomena Lee.
Philomena Lee.

But Philomena is something very special, not least of which is because Coogan co-wrote the superb, faultless screenplay with Jeff Pope from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (whom Coogan plays in the film) but also because Coogan’s performance in this excellent film is absolutely terrific. I can’t imagine any other actor getting the balance of comedy, drama, pathos and anger as absolutely correct as Coogan does here.

The real Sixsmith helped a woman named Philomena Lee (Dench, perfect) search for the son taken from her by Magdalene Sisters fifty years previously, and Coogan uses the story to look at faith, religion, family, friendship and love with care, delicacy, and great and constant humour. The jokes never upset the drama and the drama is never laid on. Everything comes out of character, and the two central characters are impeccably drawn.

Judi Dench in PhilomenaThe only fault lines in the film occur as constructed by director Stephen Frears with his cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, and his composer, Alexandre Desplat: some of the shots, and some of the music, do actually tip over into a sentimentality that is not at all present in the writing or the performances. But the underlying script, and those committed and heartfelt performances, are so strong, that golden hour in the frame and strings on the soundtrack don’t pull them undone. This is a wonderful, fully realised movie, small in scale but grand in scope and theme. Don’t miss it.