Friday, January 25, 2019

Laurel & Hardy are given deserved homage in poignant, often hilarious ‘Stan & Ollie’

By Steve Crum
There is a brief but poignant scene in the wonderful Stan & Ollie wherein Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) is walking along a London street in 1953. He passes a large movie poster pasted to a brick wall, and then backs up to give it closer attention. The film being advertised is Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, starring the then #1 comedy team in movies, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Stan sighs in deadpan, and walks away without comment. From 1921-51—and 106 comedy films, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were undoubtedly THE funniest duo in motion pictures. It is a telling sequence, laced with sad irony of fleeting fame. The proverbial parade passes by. 
Stan & Ollie, which finally opens throughout the country today after premiering Dec. 28, is a warm and often hilarious biographical drama about Laurel and Hardy’s twilight years in show business. It involves “The Boys” and their exhaustive music hall tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland during 1953. This took place two years after making what amounted to be the worst film of their career, Utopia. It was the team’s final movie. 
Their movie career virtually ended, The Boys had great plans for a movie comeback with a burlesque of Robin Hood. Stan had been working on a script for months when he and Ollie undertook their British tour. As such, there are flashbacks to some of their funniest movie moments in the feature, Way Out West, and the short, County Hospital. Each sequence is recreated spot-on, from duplicated sets to brilliant characterizations by John C. Reilly (as Oliver Hardy) and Steve Coogan (Stan Laurel). 
It could not have been accomplished without stunning movie magic provided by a team of 20+ makeup gurus handling the prosthetics, as well as hair and teeth designs. Reilly’s transformation to Hardy is incredible. 
Directed by Jon S. Baird (his first theatrical feature of note) and written by Jeff Pope (Philhomena), Stan & Ollie begins in 1937, when Laurel and Hardy were at the peak of their careers at Hal Roach Studios. The duo dances to “At the Ball, That's All” from Way Out West. During a break, the two grouse about Producer Roach’s hedging on a raise in their pay. 
Cut to 16 years later in Newcastle, England. The duo are fresh off the ship, ready for a what turns out to be an overall successful, but physically taxing series of live stage appearances wherein they recreate some of their greatest movie comedy bits. Unfortunately, their manager/producer, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), has been derelict in both their bookings and hotel accommodations. 
When Stan and Ollie’s wives join them on the tour, things get interesting. Both are wildly eccentric, and played with aplomb by Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy…whose voice sounds like a Munchkin; and Nina Arianda as Ida Kitaeva Laurel…possessing a heavy East European accent and sounding like Maria Ousepenskaya. Both are very protective of their husbands. All four together create an unique dynamic.
And then Ollie has a physical setback. So the movie proceeds in its mixture of hilarity and heartfelt love. It is a joy to experience. 
As a 40 year member of The Sons of the Desert (the international Laurel and Hardy fan club), I feel that any movie based upon Stan and Ollie has to pass a credibility and likability test. This flick succeeds with Flying Deuces*…er, colors. (The Flying Deuces*, 1939, stars Laurel and Hardy.) 
To play upon Mr. Hardy’s catchphrase, Stan & Ollie is quite the opposite of a mess The Boys have gotten us into. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: A

Friday, January 11, 2019

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality heroically portrayed in ‘On the Basis of Sex’

By Steve Crum
On the Basis of Sex adds to the cadre of biographical films based upon U. S. Supreme Court Justices. That relatively short list includes 1950’s The Magnificent Yankee, starring Louis Calhern as Oliver Wendell Holmes. Among those that followed, two focused on Thurgood Marshall: Separate But Equal (1991—Sidney Poitier) and Marshall (2017—Chadwick Boseman). 
That said, On the Basis of Sex is a fascinating, well crafted, accurate bio-drama about the early life—personal and professional—of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg has also been the focus of a fine documentary, RBG, which premiered last year on CNN. At this writing, 85 year-old Justice Ginsburg is recuperating from ill health while maintaining her senior status on the Supreme Court. 
Directed by Mimi Leder (Pay it Forward), and written by Daniel Stiepleman, Basis follows Ginsburg’s early years (as Ruth Bader) with her parents, and then her eventual marriage to fellow law student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Felicity Jones portrays RBG as a highly driven and aggressive law student. That verve would soon transition into a clever and relentless attorney. 
Basis paints RBG as a highly intelligent idealist possessing great stamina. Case in point: Soon after her marriage, husband Martin gets cancer, and is unable to attend classes. So in addition to taking her own full schedule, Ruth substitutes for Martin in his classes, taking copious notes used to prep him for exams. Describing such as an incredible feat is understatement. 
After transferring from Harvard to Columbia University, the Ginsburgs—now with a baby—complete their law degrees. Martin immediately finds an attorney position, but Ruth does not. Really, she is not permitted to do so. Law firms were male dominated. Period. This was in the late 1960s. 
Ruth is relegated to teaching “The Law and Sex Discrimination” at Rutgers Law School. And she is lucky to get even that.
While On the Basis of Sex is by no means a rags to riches story, it does fit the mold of failure to success—or, to be accurate, obscurity to success and fame. It does not take long for the disappointed RBG to be offered a lawsuit that will propel her upward and onward into law book history. Since she represents no firm, Ginsburg enlists help from friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), an ACLU attorney. The case involves a Denver man who hired a nurse to help care for his aging mom. Since he had to continue working, he could not take care of her himself. So he declared the payment to his mother’s nurse on his income tax. Then he butted head to head with the IRS, whose code limited any such tax deduction…for a man. It was justifiable for a woman to declare such, but not a man. 
What occurs for the remainder of the film is reflected in the movie’s title. The beauty of On the Basis of Sex is its portrayal of Ginsburg’s almost single-handed pursuit of justice for men AND women. Gender discrimination becomes the mainstay of Ginsburg’s case, which she argues pro bono. 
Aside from the courtroom scenes, there are welcome castings of Kathy Bates (as women’s rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon) and Sam Waterston as Erwin Griswold, a Harvard Law School administrator who eventually represents the IRS in court vs Ginsburg. 
Look for a surprise cameo near the film’s end. Then again, it will probably not be so surprising. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+