THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018)

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.

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MISS YOU ALREADY (2015)

November 5, 2015

miss you already Greetings again from the darkness. The theatre was filled with the sounds of sobbing. And by sobbing, I mean bawling … not the typical post-movie sniffles. While I was a little confused on just where my fellow movie watchers thought this story was headed, it’s understandable that sometimes a dark theatre is simply the best place to have a good cry. Director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Morwenna Banks deliver an unfettered look at friendship, sickness and loss … and a reason to bring tissues.

Tearjerker movies have quite the history of success. Some of the more popular sob fests include: Love Story, Brian’s Song, Terms of Endearment, Beaches, Steel Magnolias, and The Notebook. This latest is probably most similar to Beaches in that the focus is on two lifelong female friends (polar opposites in personality) who ride the rollercoaster of life together – through good times and bad.

Milly (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore) meet in elementary school and experience many of life’s “firsts” together. We know this because the film begins with a bit of a clumsy flashback sequence that shoots us through their high school years, heavy partying, and finally picks up after they are married.

There are many mysteries of the female gender that those of us with Y chromosomes will never comprehend. One of those is the close friendship between the vain, center-of-attention type, and the always supportive enabler. Milly is the classic taker, while Jess is a giver. Milly is the high-flying socialite who dresses flashy and draws a crowd, while Jess is the dependable sidekick, always there to make sure Milly is never alone. It’s confounding and a bit sad to those of us who view friendship as something much different.

Both Ms. Collette and Ms. Barrymore are strong in their performances, though Collette has the much meatier role. What’s impressive about the movie is how it takes head on the horrific travails of those with breast cancer. The emotional and physical and medical aspects are all dealt with no compromise. Some of it is tough to watch, but admirable in its directness. Milly’s breast cancer takes center stage, while Jess’ struggle to get pregnant is low-keyed. Fitting for their personalities, but each based in real life sagas. Milly’s husband Kit (Dominic Cooper), and Jess’ husband Jago (Paddy Considine) both provide understandable reactions to the obstacles faced by their spouses. Add in a bleached blonde Jacqueline Bisset as Milly’s eccentric mom, and the five lead actors each contribute a relatable element to the story.

Two other actors make an impression: Frances de la Tour as a wise and direct wig-maker, and Tyson Ritter (front man for The All-American Rejects) as a free-spirited bartender who may or may not be a good influence on Milly. Even though Jess is the heart of the story, it’s Milly who dominates … just like their friendship. Green vs glamour.

Director Hardwicke will always hold a special place in my movie memories thanks to her sparkling 2003 debut Thirteen. She and writer Banks clearly understand women, and believe it crucial to show the courage required in the fight against breast cancer. Fortunately, their main character is funny and spirited, and pals around with someone we would all be proud to call a friend. And that’s nothing to cry about.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE WORLD’S END (2013)

September 7, 2013

worlds end Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in the unofficial Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, and my guess is if you know that, you have already seen this one. Director Edgar Wright has previously delivered is parody of Zombies (Shaun of the Dead), his parody of buddy-cop-action films (Hot Fuzz), and now takes on Sci-Fi in this latest … a worthy conclusion with the trademark quick cuts and rapid fire witty/silly dialogue.

I love the premise of this one. 5 buddies reluctantly reunite after 20 years to try and finish what they failed to in their youth: 12 pubs/12 pints … an epic pub crawl. It touches on the male transition to middle-age and also reinforces the old saying ‘you can’t go home again’. Simon Pegg (also co-writer with Wright) stars as Gary King, a recovering addict who is quite simply struggling with adulthood. His manic energy reunites the boys and carries the early movie. Nick Frost really shines here and takes on a different persona from the previous two movies.

worlds end2 As I have stated many times, comedies are the most difficult genre to review as everyone’s sense of humor varies. What I can report is that I laughed quite a bit at the dialogue, but didn’t have much love for the sci-fi portions, despite some similarities to Westworld and The Stepford Wives. Oh, and Rosamund Pike reminded me again why I am no fan of hers (yes, I realize I’m in the minority).

Hardcore Wright fans will enjoy the steady stream of regular faces, and yes, we do get the expected failed fence jump. This one won’t stick with me for long, but I appreciated the laughs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Simon Pegg – Nick Frost – Edgar Wright offbeat British parody films. It’s one of their best

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your comedy tastes lean toward the conventional … a territory Edgar Wright avoids at all costs

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n__1Y-N5tQk

 


THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)

August 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Bourne series has often been viewed as the American version of James Bond … only more serious and with more action. Doug Liman directed the first, which was taken directly from the Robert Ludlum novel. Paul Greengrass then assumed control over the next two and added hyper-kinetic speed to the action sequences and focused on conspiracy theories, with a fascinating hero looking to take down a corrupt system. Involved in all three as a writer, Tony Gilroy (dir. Michael Clayton) takes over as director in this fourth entry. Unfortunately, the Bourne series is not similar to Bond, in that the directors and lead actors are not so easily replaced.

 With Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) present only on computer screens, Jeremy Renner takes over the lead as the next super-spy-weapon. When Pam Landy (Joan Allen) blows the lid off Treadstone in a Congressional hearing, the shady back office meetings lead to the decision to shut down the program. We all understand what that means … destroy the assets and lose the records. This decision is made by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach, both new to the series.

The decision leads to a vicious scene featuring the always dependable character actor Zeljko Ivanek who almost completes his assignment, but misses out on Rachel Weisz (playing Dr Marta Shearing). Dr. Shearing is involved in the manufacturing of the “meds” that keep our super-spies and super strength and super intellect. Yes folks, our superheroes are roided-up! You have to hand it to Dr. Shearing – for a lab rat, she has a remarkable ability to stay alive despite being the target of many highly trained assassins. Of course, she does have a bit of help from Aaron Cross (Renner).

 Here is the real issue with the film. Instead of Bourne trying to bring down the corrupt system, this is really two hours of survival mode for Aaron Cross. It reminded me of the Monty Python bit as they face opposition on their castle storm “Run Away!, Run Away!”. Most of the first half of the film is spent with him in search of meds, like a common drug addict, and the second half is spent on a motorcycle chase that, while quite exciting, seems to go on forever.

As an action film, this one works just fine. The limited fighting and expanded chase scenes are well filmed and intense, it’s just that as a viewer, it really isn’t as much fun to cheer for someone who is running away as it is for someone (Bourne) looking to bring down a corrupt system. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, we get brief appearances from series’ regulars Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and Paddy Considine.

The hope is that this is just a placeholder in the series. It’s been five years since The Bourne Ultimatum, and hopefully, if the series continues, we will get Paul Greengrass back in the director’s seat and Matt Damon teaming up with Jeremy Renner to wreak havoc on the true enemies of state. Otherwise, the American Bond ends up as nothing more than an action film with no real purpose.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Bourne series and are curious to see it without Matt Damon OR you simply enjoy a well made action film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the intricate conspiracy story line that put the Bourne series on the map

watch the trailer: