Laurel & Hardy may be the most popular comedy duo ever — their fame was international, easily surviving the transition from silents to talkies in large part because their “universal” physical humor depended so little on dialogue. They were particularly beloved by children (many of whom knew them by the local equivalent of “Skinny and Fatty”), getting another lease on life when their films became standard fare on TV in the 1950s. 

Yet unlike most comedy stars of their calibre, they did not exactly enjoy the high life. This has usually been blamed on the skinflint ways of Hal Roach, whose studio was their professional home for many years. But in fact they were quite well-paid. The problem lay more in the fact that neither performer was very business-savvy, and both had small armies of ex-wives requiring alimony. Those plus other factors (medical expenses, gambling losses, etc.) further conspired to keep them working out of necessity well past the point when they should have retired — not least because while Hardy’s ever-growing weight kept him ageless in a way, diabetic Laurel began looking like an old man, lending a queasy touch to his perpetually childish screen persona. 

Thrown together more or less by accident—each was considered a leading player for comedy shorts specialist Roach before they gradually became a “team” — they had an amiable partnership despite very different personalities and work ethics. However effectively he played a simpleton, Britisher Laurel was in fact the “brains” of the operation, compulsively hatching and polishing their material, while Georgia-born Hardy was content to punch the clock as an actor. 

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do not immediately leap to mind as likely candidates to play L&H, but being good actors, they prove capable of disappearing into the roles with surprising aplomb. Nor does Jon S. Baird, the director of aptly named Irving Welsh adaptation Filth, seem an obvious choice to direct Stan & Ollie. But this biopic nonetheless proves a solid piece of work on all counts. It’s much in the vein of two other fairly recent British features, My Week With Marilyn and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which likewise mixed nostalgia, humor, and pathos to limn scenes from a fading real-life Hollywood glory. 

After a prelude in 1937 (just before they jumped ship from Roach to MGM), we greet the duo again nearly 20 years later, when the prospect of securing one last film deal ropes them into an arduous European stage tour. Neither are in the best of health, physically or financially; the arrival of their quarreling current wives, played by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson, does nothing to relieve the general stress. Things grow increasingly downbeat as the veterans’ fortunes fail. 

Nicely if conventionally written by Jeff Pope, this bittersweet tale is unlikely to convince any newbie of the team’s greatness — taken from their original celluloid context, the routines recreated are just kinda cute — but will be enjoyable for anyone who has formative memories of watching Laurel & Hardy. It’s a nicely depthed tribute to the men behind mirth, without being quite warts-and-all enough to sour the legacy of that humor. 

Elsewhere this week, there’s not a whole lot of new-film activity, with the sole major commercial arrival being M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest-hits thriller (it reprises characters from his Unbreakable and SplitGlass. The Roxie, which has had great success of late as SF’s de facto center for anime, should have another hit with Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the latest installment in the giant multimedia franchise that’s been a Japanese cultural behemoth since 1984. It’s the twentieth feature film in that sci-fi fantasy series, and has been acclaimed as the best to date among all its big-screen incarnations. 

Slipping into town with no fanfare is a Henry James adaptation with Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson. That certainly sounds promising, yet when you see it, you’ll understand why The Aspern Papers has sidestepped early reviews—it’s a hamfisted travesty that completely misses the ironic wit of James’ novella, and is full of cheesy anachronisms. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is dreadful as the 1880s American (wait till you hear his honking accent) who schemes his way into a majestic but cash-poor Venetian home for two expatriate spinsters, hoping to get his hands on love letters once written by a long-dead poet. Even Redgrave is underwhelming amidst the kind of posey, smirking costume-party tosh that reflects first-time director Julien Landias’ background—he’s worked primarily in commercials and the fashion industry. This is exactly the movie you might expect from an ex-model, more heavy-breathing perfume ad than Henry James.

However, one of the year’s best movies (be it 2018 or 2019) is also opening on Friday, and there are a few flavorsome one-shot screenings around town this week:

Cold War

Damn that Alfonso Cuaron: If Roma hadn’t become the first foreign film in aeons to sweep all the early critics’ prizes that don’t explicitly omit non-English-language titles, this latest by Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski would be getting all that attention, or nearly as much. A late bloomer who didn’t make his first dramatic feature until he’d past 40, the writer-director made diverse documentaries and a couple relatively high-profile films in English (My Summer of LoveThe Woman in the Fifth) before having a most unexpected international hit five years ago. Ida was an improbable success story — a somber little B&W drama about a young nun, set in the less-than-swinging Sixties of Poland behind the Iron Curtain — but the rare such movie to prosper simply because it was so profoundly conceived and beautifully made. 

Cold War is also a remarkable piece of work, more ambitiously scaled yet still rigorously controlled. In a late 1940s Poland still reeling from the devastation of WW2, beautiful young Zula (Joanna Kulig) determinedly gains berth in a state-funded folk arts ensemble being assembled by pragmatic manager Irena (Agata Kulesza) and exacting music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Their project soon becomes one of those acts that defines a nation’s cultural heritage (and current propagandic mission) both at home and on tour abroad, while Wiktor and Zula (to Irena’s vague annoyance) become a secret romance. But he’s dissatisfied with the artistic limitations thrust upon him by government minders, yearning for escape. So their love, frequently discordant yet inescapable, has to weather the trials of separation and expatriation over the long haul of Cold War’s episodic, decades-spanning story. 

Expertly mixing the political and the personal without ever growing too obvious about either — this is a movie whose narrative lives largely in unexplained gaps we must fill in with our imaginations — Pawlikowski’s very complicated love story is like La La Land with a brain. It’s a musical in everything but the “bursting into song” sense, with song and dance integral throughout, albeit never presented in classic movie-fantasy terms. There are dazzling individual sequences gorgeously shot (again in B&W) by Ida’s Lukasz Zal. Still, the emotional effect is stripped-down, reflecting the deprivation and compromise these characters must live with in their endless political straits. It’s a great movie that is sure to reward repeat viewings. At area theaters. 

Julius Eastman/Gay Guerrilla

Adventuresome NYC pianist, singer and composer Julius Eastman died just short of age 50 in 1990. Since then, there’s been a steady effort at reconstructing a body of work rendered elusive by his erratic notation of scores, failure to be embraced by mainstream institutions, and troubled non-artistic life. (His later years plagued by drug use and homelessness, his death wasn’t even publicly noted until months later.) As a gay African-American mixing elements of minimalism, jazz, pop, improvisation, and multimedia along with sometimes outre political statements (one piece was called Evil Nigger), he was perhaps too far ahead of his time for his own good. During his life, he was best known for participating in other people’s work—notably as a member of the great Meredith Monk’s vocal/dance ensemble.

This weekend SF Cinematheque is co-hosting a two-part tribute to Eastman’s legacy. Sun/13 will bring a concert of his works at Old First Church. The prior night at YBCA is film-focused, with U.K. collective The Otolith Group’s recent The Third Part of the Third Measure providing a meditation on and amplification of Eastman’s “aesthetics of black radicalism.” There will also be the Group’s prior Be Silent, For the Ears of God Are Everywhere, and Cauleen Smith’s Entitled, a tribute to pioneering African American still-life painter Charles Ethan Porter. Sat/12, YBCA Screening Room. More info here.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Largely dismissed at the time as yet another of director Terry Gilliam’s expensive commercial failures, this 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 roman à clef now seems one of his most fully realized works. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro play the greatly drug-and-alcohol-addled duo whose trip to Vegas on a journalistic assignment turns into a monumental dive into hallucinatory comedy and paranoia. 

Gilliam’s fantastical imagination here drinks deep from not just Thompson, but Ralph Steadman’s famous drawings, making this arguably the most expensive ever approximation of an LSD wig out. That was way too much for critics and audiences at the time; they were more appalled than amused. But it’s a hilariously discomfiting film whose achievement the almost perpetually thwarted director hasn’t come near equalling since. This 20th-anniversary 35mm screening is presented by Spoke Arts and Midnights for Maniacs. Sat/12, Roxie. More info here.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

The sleeper success of Wes Craven’s original Nightmare in 1984 made sequels inevitable, and for once, welcome: The surreal-dream-peril conceit was one horror hook that could be expanded upon endlessly without losing its mojo. Still, this first followup, rushed into release less than a year later, was a bit more than most moviegoers were prepared for. It’s being offered up by the Alamo Drafthouse on Terror Tuesday as “the single most powerful cinematic depiction of a young man coming to terms with his latent homosexuality.” They’re not kidding, exactly — even at the time, Freddy’s Revenge was regarded as having a whole lotta, er, “subtext.” 

From its spectacular schoolbus-in-hellscape opening onward, teenage protagonist Jesse (Mark Patton) is the persecuted odd man out — a “new kid in town” whose house turns out to be cursed by the spirit of guess-who. Freddy wants Jesse to “kill for me,” possessing the perpetually sweat-drenched, writhing-in-bed adolescent’s body to slay the men in his life. 

Whether it’s a strapping jock pantsing him on the baseball diamond, discovering his coach is a leatherman (who’ll die a bondage death), everything around our hero is loaded with homophobic/homoerotic innuendo at Jesse’s expense. (And at the expense of the franchise’s fundamental “rule” — here, sleep isn’t required for those being menaced by the supervillain.) His basement incinerator now a metaphor, Robert Englund’s Freddy Kreuger is positioned as the flaming little secret Jesse didn’t ask for, and doesn’t want to “come out.” Good luck with that. 

The only fire that doesn’t start around here is the one Jesse’s wannabe-girlfriend (Kim Myers) keeps trying to light in his libido. (Actor Patton, who really was closeted at the time, later blamed the filmmakers for ending his career by surreptitiously “outing” him onscreen.) Jesse’s plight had a queasy quality — hitting a note at once sympathetic and exploitative — arriving at a moment when the AIDS crisis was stirring maximum public paranoia. The film was adopted as a guilty pleasure by some ‘mo’s, yet one wonders just how “gay-positive” the makers were being when after all their dude-on-dude teasing, they suggest at-risk Jesse can finally only be saved by “real love” — a woman, natch. 

This festival of shirtless locker-room jailbait directed by Jack Sholder (whose career peaked with sci-fi cult fave The Hidden two years later) isn’t the best Nightmare movie, but it is definitely the weirdest. This 35mm screening benefits the American Genre Film Archive’s preservation efforts. Tue/15, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.