This weekend at the movies has been like revisiting my childhood, to some extent. As a young boy, I would venture into the city center to spend Saturday mornings watching old black and white serials such as “Flash Gordon” and various adventurous feature films, often from the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF). The CFF was funded by a tax on theater revenue and, as the name suggests, made films for children, often starring children.
“The Kid Who Would Be King” has slicker but somewhat reminiscent tone, in its retelling of the legend of King Arthur as experienced by modern schoolchildren. Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is a 12 year old, in the first year of secondary school, and at the bottom of the social pecking order when mysterious things start happening around him. Arthur’s nemesis Morgana is awaking from a long sleep and threatening to take control during a solar eclipse, unless Alex and his friends, and a very young, backwards-aging Merlin can stop her.
It’s good, clean, simple fun from writer/director Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block,” “Ant-Man” [writer], “The Adventures of Tintin” [writer]) but it’s worth remembering who the target audience is. Alex is 12 and the film is for those who aspire to be brave and loyal 12 year olds, who will tackle bullies and stand tall in the face of adversity – i.e., kids who are younger than 12. For older kids, the general tone and the lack of more sophisticated CGI monsters and effects will likely be a shortcoming. And the manner in which Merlin casts spells, through complex hand gestures, will likely torture parents for days afterwards (if watching the gestures onscreen wasn’t torturous enough to begin with).
The smaller release of “Stan & Ollie” was similarly nostalgic. The careers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were over by the time I first watched their work, but their films were a fixture on television as I grew up. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are near perfect in their recreation of classic performances and the film is a trip down memory lane for fans of the duo.
But it may not be as much fun for others. There’s little background here and the film rapidly skips past their successes, concentrating instead on their last tour together, years after their peak. In doing so, there’s an apparent assumption that audience members are arriving with their own context and their own past experiences with the content that is so expertly referenced. In short, it seems like a poignant and welcome exercise for those for whom the title alone justifies attendance, but perhaps “another nice mess” for those who are just along for the ride.
M. Night Shyamalan brings some resolution to the TV pilot-esque “Unbreakable” (2000) and “Split” (2016) with “Glass,” the third in this extended trilogy. “Glass” brings together Bruce Willis as David Dunn (“Unbreakable”) and James McAvoy as the 20 characters inhabiting the brain of Kevin Wendall Crumb (“Split”) with Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah ‘Mr. Glass’ Price. As with much of Shyamalan’s work, there are interesting elements here, as Mr. Glass tries to bring these superhuman characters into the public eye, but the pacing and focus is all over the place. While the fundamental story arc is built around Mr. Glass, way too much time is spent getting to what matters, mostly in watching McAvoy cycle through Crumb’s ‘Horde’ of personalities. And of course there’s a (strained) twist. One of the most pleasant elements was in watching Spencer Treat Clark return as Dunn’s son, having played him as a kid in the original film.
The latest unnecessary remake of a better film is “The Upside,” which co-stars Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart as a wealthy paraplegic and his ex-convict and socio-economically opposite personal aide. It’s more a riff on wealth and lifestyle than on disability, but in getting there it awkwardly plays disability status for laughs. Some time after an almost slapstick scene in which Hart’s Dell has to replace a urinary catheter, Cranston’s Phillip delivers the best line of the film (repeated here from memory) in which he describes his early morning hours of thought and reflection “before my day becomes a series of other people’s hands on my body.” It would be a more meaningful film if those two moments, and others like them, were flipped in terms of emphasis. The French film “Intouchables” felt more genuine and garnered nine Cesar nominations, with a win for Omar Sy as the aide – who in that film was also large enough to easily lift and carry his employer.
Meanwhile it was a rocky weekend on Netflix. If you can imagine “John Wick” without any of the wit, charm, or internal logic of its wonderful world of professional assassins, with an added side order of torture porn, you might come close to the mess that is “Polar.” Mads Mikkelsen plays a stoic hitman whose retirement account has become a bit too rich for his comically ridiculous employer (Matt Lucas). The film co-stars Vanessa Hudgens and Katheryn Winnick, although they might prefer not to be recognized or remembered for this. And Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfuss (who also makes an unlikely appearance in “Polar”) play a retired comedy agent and former comic who embark on a weed and nostalgia fueled tour and road trip, to escape the boredom of their assisted living facility in “The Last Laugh.” It’s all fairly ordinary and unsurprising until one of the worst cinematic hallucinogen scenes, which might drive viewers to their own hallucinogens simply to avoid it.