March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously lampooned the political landscape of England (IN THE LOOP, “The Thick of it”) and the United States (“Veep”), writer/director Armando Iannucci turns his skewering pen and clear eye to a bygone era in Russia. Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, the film takes place in 1953 Moscow at the height (and the end) of Josef Stalin’s reign.

Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces (think ‘Secret Police’) ruled by force and terror for 20 years, and most citizens lived with the daily goal of staying off “the list” – a place which likely resulted in imprisonment, if not death. An opening sequence featuring the live performance of an orchestra drives home the outright fear that hovered over every part of that society. To be clear, Iannucci’s approach is less ominous and more Mel Brooks. It’s slapstick satire with profanity.

Following the death of Stalin (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title!), what follows is a Keystone Cops medley of jockeying for power amongst the members of Stalin’s cabinet. Closed-door plotting abounds – though sometimes in full view of others – and alliances come and go in the blink of an eye. It plays out on screen as more spoof than satire, so brace for over-the-top performances from Steve Buscemi (as Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (as Lavrenti Beria), Jeffrey Tambor as dimwitted doofus Malenkov, and Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Molotov.  Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough play Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) offspring, and other supporting work comes from Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke, and Jason Isaacs.

I watched this film the day after watching RED SPARROW, and the two films provide an interesting and oddball comparison to different eras of Russian history. Iannucci’s film is nothing short of a full bore attack on Kremlin activities, as well as the self-interested actions of politicians that seems to remain prevalent in modern days. It’s also a reminder that being “better as a committee” has as many flaws as the rein of a tyrant. There is a terrific final shot in a concert hall, where seated behind Khrushchev and his wife is a leering Leonid Brezhnev … foreshadowing future events. And if that’s not enough, the closing credits are as nuts as the film itself.



May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Two years ago, director Todd Phillips presented a highly creative, hilarious, raunchy, unique film comedy called The Hangover. And now, he does it again. No, not the creative part.  I mean he presents that SAME film again. I am unsure whether this is a sequel or remake. The only substantial change is the setting … Bangkok instead of Vegas.

Now I fully understand WHY most sequels follow the formula created by the successful original film. Filmmakers want to keep their built-in audience satisfied. The theory is: If it worked once, it will work again. Especially when the first film grosses a half-billion dollars! So the chances are very good that if you liked the first one, you will also enjoy this one. But for me, I get excited for creative filmmakers … not re-treads.

 The key characters are all back and played by the same guys: Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Justin Bartha (Doug), and Ken Jeong (Mr. Chow). All of these guys have worked constantly since the first film, but it makes perfect sense to return to the scene that put them on the Hollywood map.

This time around, Stu (Ed Helms) draws the long straw and has the storyline based on his pending marriage to Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch). Stu’s “wolfpack” buddies agree to a one-beer bonfire beach bachelor party, but of course, something goes very wrong. The next morning finds our boys staggering to regain consciousness in a sleazy Bangkok hotel with no recollection of the previous night’s events. The only clues are a monkey, a severed finger, a facial tat and international criminal Mr. Chow (Jeong).

 No need for me to go into any details or spoil any moments. You know the drill if you have seen the first. What follows is nearly two hours of debauchery and moments of varying levels of discomfort, gross-out and comedic skits.

Supporting work is provided by Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor, and Mason Lee (Ang Lee‘s son). There is also a cameo by Nick Cassavetes as a tattoo artist. This role was originally meant for Mel Gibson, and later Liam Neeson. Cast and crew protests kept Gibson out and Neeson’s scenes were cut when re-shoots were necessary.  And rest easy, Mike Tyson makes another hilarious appearance – it may be the most creative moment of this remake … err, sequel.

I feel tricked by Mr. Phillips. The first Hangover had me excited that a new comedic genius had entered Hollywood and would quickly blow away the Judd Apatow recycle jobs and copycats. Instead, we get Todd Phillips copying Todd Phillips.

This is certainly an above-average comedy and there are plenty of laughs from the characters we kind of feel like we know – though, wish we didn’t. Just know going in that you are witnessing a clear attempt at cashing in, not a desire to wow.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like many, you thought the first one was one of the best ever film comedies OR you just want to see how closely Ed Helms resembles Mike Tyson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you saw the first one and wish you hadn’t OR you never saw the first one and think maybe they have “cleaned” this one up (they haven’t)


March 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Thomas McCarthy‘s first two directorial outings were excellent: The Station Agent, The Visitor. This is his third and it seems clear the first two were not flukes. He is a filmmaker who knows what he is doing and is attracted to real people in real life situations. All three films feature the reactions and adaptations when strangers collide and a family-like atmosphere is created.

In this film, Paul Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer who also coaches the local high school wrestling team. Times are tough for Giamatti’s practice and when he stumbles on a chance for some “easy” money, his wrestling match with his conscience doesn’t last too long … even though it is not in the best interest of his client. By taking the easy way out, his elderly client is moved out of his home and into a long-term care facility. Giamatti knows his decision isn’t right, so he hides it from his wife, the talented Amy Ryan. Their home life seems very typical until the Giamatti decision leads to further complications … the client’s long-lost grandson shows up.

 The kid turns out to be quite perceptive and fits right into the Giamatti/Ryan family … especially when it is discovered that he is a top notch high school wrestler. Newcomer Alex Shaffer was cast because of his wrestling skills, but shines in the film due to his ability to come across as a real kid in real world conflicts. There are times his actions and decisions are more adult than the adults.  An interesting running theme throughout the film is “whatever it takes” … sometimes this is used for good, sometimes things are a bit gray.

The grandfather client is played by Burt Young, who was Paulie in the Rocky movies. Giamatti’s best friend is played by Bobby Cannavale, whose character is going through marital hell, and whose lively spirit and outspoken tendencies provide many of the laughs in the film. Cannavale shines in this film, much as he did as the slightly desperate vendor in The Station Agent.

 Things are going along pretty well for the new “family” until Shaffer’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) is released from the drug clinic and she shows up to re-claim her son and her share of grandpa’s wealth. She and her attorney (another nice role for Margo Martindale) expose Giamatti’s earlier unethical decision and force his hand. The strength of the family is severely tested.

What I really like about this and the two previous McCarthy films are that no  Hollywood tricks are used. He hits situations head-on with realistic levels of comedy and uncomfortable people who are just trying to get along in life. In Win Win, the stellar cast brings life to these characters and draw us right in to their attempts at conflict resolution. Even though the theme is not too far removed from that of The Blind Side, Mr. McCarthy provides us with characters who could be from our own lives or even our own families. That makes all the difference.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  real characters dealing with real life situations create the type of com-dram you enjoy OR you just want to see a movie with high school students who actually look like high school students (not 28 yr old actors) OR you want to see the power of a strong ensemble cast

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: The Blind Side was as realistic as you prefer movies to get OR you want to avoid the sight of Paul Giamatti jogging or unclogging a toilet