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.



August 5, 2014

monty python Greetings again from the darkness. Consistently landing in the Top 10 whenever a film publication posts an all-time Best Comedy Movie list, this Monty Python classic should be a rite of passage for all teenagers. It is loaded, start to finish, with sight gags, one-liners, outright jokes, satire and overall outlandish behavior. It’s also a reminder that comedy need not be filled with profanity, and that once upon a time, a certain level of grossness was considered tongue-in-cheek.

In 1975, the Monty Python troupe was in between seasons 3 and 4 of their BBC comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“.  While on break, they came up with the movie’s theme of King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail, though mostly it’s just one related sketch after another.  The six members of Monty Python are each cast in numerous roles, and one of the fun games to play while watching is identifying each new character.  As a hint, Michael Palin plays the most characters (12) and four of Terry Gilliam’s characters die on-screen.  You might also note that the witch is played by Connie Booth, the wife (at the time) of John Cleese.

Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam co-directed, while all members received writing credits. The endless stream of classic sketches include: The Black Knight (“it’s just a flesh wound“), Song and Dance at Camelot (it inspired the Spamalot play), the ridiculing French guard, Trojan Rabbit, the on-camera modern day historian, the Knights who say “Ni”, the 3-headed giant, Castle Anthrax, Swamp Castle, Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch (spoofing Sovereign Orb), the Bridge of Death (3 questions), the abrupt ending with organ music. Other classic moments include “bring out your dead“, the recurring “run away” strategy, an (over) abundance of details on swallows, difficulties in counting to 3, and the best film uses ever of shrubbery and coconut shells. LOADED, I tell ya’!

While it would take multiple viewings to catch everything thrown into this one, it clearly jabs (all in good nature) such targets as Royalty, politics and politicians, Religion, and of course, the French. The animated God in the sky is actually a photo of 19th century cricket legend W.G. Grace, and the barbs directed at the French military are downright hilarious.

Graham Chapman (King Arthur, et al) passed away in 1989 due to complications from cancer, but he was one of the first celebrities to publicly come out as gay.  He spent much of his life as a gay activist.  John Cleese has had much success as an actor, appearing in A Fish Called Wanda, as well as two “James Bond” movies, two “Harry Potter” movies, and voicing the king in three Shrek movies. Cleese was also the creative force (with his wife) behind “Fawlty Towers“.  Terry Gilliam has had most of his success as a film director.  His films include Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys.  He was also the main animator for most of Monty Python’s work. Eric Idle is very familiar to audiences after decades of movie and TV acting.  He was also a member of The Rutles (look it up!) and was the musical director and co-creator of the Tony Award winning play SpamalotTerry Jones was the sole director of Monty Python’s next and final two films, Life of Brian and The Meaning of LifeMichael Palin also appeared in A Fish Called Wanda, but these days is renowned for his work as a Travel writer and Travel documentarian.

The five surviving members recently (July 2014) reunited for a live performance that was simulcast to many theatres around the world. They stated this was to be their final appearance as Monty Python, and that this was the best way to say goodbye.  Making people laugh for almost 40 years is quite a legacy, and few have done it better than this comedy troupe and this classic comedy movie.   And just remember, when life gets tough, rather than “run away”, simply tell yourself “it’s only a flesh wound“.

Here is a re-cut trailer that presents the movie as a dramatic action film, rather than uproarious comedy. If you’ve seen the movie, you will “get” this.  If you haven’t seen the movie … it’s high time!