The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
La Familia

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Death Race 2050


Marci Miller makes her point to Manu Bennett.

(2016) Science Fiction (Universal) Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Folake Olowofoyeku, Anessa Ramsey, Yancy Butler, Charlie Farrell, Shanna Olson, D.C Douglas (voice), Sebastian Llosa, Emilio Montero, Mark Doran, Karl Muse, Alberto Osterling, Robert Slattery, Daniela Vargas, Jonathan Fisher, Helen Loris, Hailey Livingston. Directed by G.J. Echternkamp

 

In all the annals of filmdom there hasn’t been anyone quite like Roger Corman. His oeuvre of cheap special effects and low budget with a dash of social satire and a low-brow tone has been with him through a nearly six decade career. The original Death Race 2000, made in 1975, was one of his biggest hits, starring David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. In many ways a live action version of the Saturday morning cartoon Wacky Races, it has been considered a cult classic for decades. In 2008, a remake entitled Death Race was made with Jason Statham starring. Eschewing the light-hearted satire of the original, it was a darker hued straight action movie that was successful enough to spawn three direct-to-home-video sequels, all without Statham.

This one, with Corman’s presence as a producer, is not so much a remake as a reboot. It returns to the slightly off-kilter feel of the original as well as the approximate plot. The Chairman (McDowell) of the United Corporations of America convenes the annual Death Race, the biggest sports event in the world. In it, five racers with souped up vehicles weaponized to the teeth race from Nuevo York to New Los Angeles. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who kills the most pedestrians along the way.

=You see, robots have replaced human workers in nearly every job and consequently there’s 99% unemployment and overpopulation. The Death Race thins the herd so to speak. To placate the masses, the Race also offers a Virtual Reality version in which viewers can be in the cockpit of the car of their favorite drivers through proxies who carry cameras and microphones, periodically interviewing their heroes.

The drivers are Minerva Jefferson (Olowofoyeku), a hip-hop artist; Tammy the Terrorist (Ramsey) whose name is self-explanatory; A.B.E., a robotic entry not unlike Knight Rider; Jed Perfectus (Grinstead), a buff sexually ambiguous genetically engineered athlete and the favorite, Frankenstein (Bennett) who is the reigning champion.

Curiously, fans of the drivers line up in an attempt to sacrifice themselves for their favorite drivers. And drivers steal these easy group kills from one another. As they make their way across the country big rivalries develop between Minerva and Tammy and especially between Perfectus and Frankenstein.

There is also a resistance out there who aim to disrupt and destroy the Death Race by any means necessary. They are led by former network executive Alexis Hamilton (Butler) who has a mole; Frankenstein’s proxy, Annie Sullivan (Miller). However the further they get into the race, the deeper the corruption becomes until Annie, whom Frankenstein appears ambivalent towards – he only wants to win – is unsure of what side she’s really on.

The humor here is dark and over the top as is the violence and gore. This is for sure a throwback to Corman’s heyday both in tone and in execution and for that the filmmakers are to be commended. I’m not sure how involved Corman himself was with this but his name is in the credits and in some cases on the title. I’m guessing that if he didn’t have his hands directly in it, they are there in spirit. Certainly the filmmakers understood his style.

The acting is about what you’d expect it to be, but a special shout-out has to go to Bennett. He proves that his work as the smoldering Slade Wilson in Arrow was no fluke. The man has a bright future ahead of him if he gets a few breaks and the right role. He’s got the presence.

The special effects and CGI are bargain basement and that can be an acquired taste. Modern audiences may not tolerate it when they are used to big budget effects. Admirers of classic B-movies will likely be more tolerant but these days that seems to be pretty much a niche group. I also found the soundtrack to be a bit overbearing. It became noticeable on quite a few occasions.

This isn’t for everybody but I suspect those who can appreciate the satire (the Chairman is certainly based on Donald Trump) and the humor, not to mention the gore will find this entertaining. The cheapness of the production which is an art in itself will further endear some. However – and I can’t stress this enough – those that don’t appreciate the art of B-movies will probably find this anachronistic and boring. Keep that in mind as you select it for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: The film is surprisingly satirical. It’s a throwback to Corman’s 70s and 80s films.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects may be too cheesy for some. The soundtrack is actually annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a butt load of violence and gore, some sexuality, some brief nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sneakers Jed Perfectus wears are Converse All-Star Hi-Tops.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cannonball Run
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The LEGO Movie: Batman

O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

What Just Happened


What Just Happened

De Niro contemplates the images of his latest film in the anonymous darkness of a theater.

(Magnolia) Robert De Niro, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, Robin Wright Penn, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, John Turturro, Michael Wincott, Kristen Stewart. Directed by Barry Levinson

It is said that in space no-one can hear you scream. In Hollywood, not only can everyone hear you scream, chances are the rights to it are in turnaround.

Ben (De Niro), a veteran Hollywood producer, is at a photo shoot for a Vanity Fair feature on the 50 Most Powerful People in Hollywood and he is miffed at where he is placed on the set. In a town where perception is everything, he finds himself off to the side, away from the true power brokers. For a producer, the perception of powerlessness can make his job damn near impossible.

Ben’s latest project, a Sean Penn (played by himself) vehicle called Fiercely, is at a test screening attended by the hard-as-nails studio boss Lou Tarnow (Keener). The test scores are a disaster. Not only is the hero killed at the end of the film, so is his dog, brutally shot by generic Eurotrash hitmen. The movie is scheduled to open the Cannes Film Festival in less than two weeks and Ben is ordered to change the ending or else the vindictive Tarnow will bury the film, preventing its release in any form.

When the news is presented to the film’s manic English director Jeremy Brunell (Wincott), he has a meltdown, not wanting to compromise his artistic vision. Still, those problems pale in comparison to Ben’s next project, which is set to begin filming in ten days. It’s star, Bruce Willis, shows up to the set bloated, grossly overweight and even more terrifyingly, with a beard that would do Stonewall Jackson proud. The film’s backers are threatening to halt production and sue everyone, including Willis’ neurotic and hypochondriac agent (Turturro). To make matters worse, the film’s writer (Tucci) is having an affair with Ben’s ex-wife (Penn), who Ben wants to get back together with despite their attempts at “breakup therapy” which smacks of L.A. flightiness.

While Ben navigates a personal life that is nothing short of a minefield, his professional career is threatening to implode. And buddy, nothing is harder to come back from for a producer than the perception that he is ineffective.

Director Levinson also directed the satire Wag the Dog which skewered politics and Hollywood on the same spear, but this doesn’t have the bite that the other film possesses. The movie’s worst quality is its blandness, and that prevents the movie from being rated highly. What the film has going for it is that the cast is exceptional, led by De Niro who can make ordering a ham sandwich compelling. Willis and Wincott take the over-the-top route, which works out nicely. However, it also serves to illustrate the movie’s other glaring flaw – the characters feel more like caricatures than real people. It’s hard to get behind a movie when the characters in that movie are unbelievable.

There is a fascination with peeking behind-the-scenes in Hollywood. We all have visions of massive egos jousting for higher perches in the pecking order, and to a certain extent that’s true. There’s a certain vicarious thrill with watching rich power players grovel and from time to time get put in their places and that’s the attraction for What Just Happened. It’s unfortunate that a cast this talented and a director with the abilities of Levinson couldn’t have made a better movie, but even their lesser efforts are worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: An insider’s look at Hollywood from a consummate Hollywood insider. An outstanding cast, led by the always watchable De Niro. Willis and Wincott in particular, give over-the-top performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie falters when covering Ben’s personal life. While some of the scenes are based on real-life incidents, the characters don’t feel reel. The satire is bland, the kiss of death for satire.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty salty and there are some scenes of violence, sexuality and drug use. Probably a bit rough for the younger sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the book the movie is based on is non-fiction, the book’s author, producer Art Linson, chose to film it as a fictional work with fictional characters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Traitor

The Invention of Lying


Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

(Touchstone) Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Fionnula Flanagan, Jonah Hill, Stephanie March, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Imagine a world where honesty is the only policy, where lies are unknown and advertising is completely truthful. Movies are accounts of actual events whose scripts are read on-camera since nobody can conceive of pretending to be someone they aren’t.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) lives in just such a world. People are incapable of lying in this alternate universe so when Mark goes on a blind date with Anna (Garner), she informs him at the door to her apartment that she is disappointed that he isn’t more fit and handsome and that the likelihood of them having any sex that evening is remote at best.

Things go from bad to worse for Mark. His beloved mother (Flanagan) is in a nursing home (or, as it is aptly named, “A Sad Place Where Homeless Old People Come to Die”) and he is about to be fired from his job as a screenwriter just as soon as his dithering boss (Tambor) can work up the courage to tell him, much to the bemusement of his chief rival Brad Kessler (Lowe) who hates him inexplicably, and his secretary (Fey) who looks down on him.

His landlord (Santiago-Hudson), having found out about Mark’s sudden change of employment, evicts him. Sad-sack Mark shuffles off to the bank to withdraw the $300 left to him so that he can rent a truck to load his things into. When he is informed by the teller that the system is down so she can’t look up his account to close it, Mark is struck by inspiration. He tells the teller he has $800 in his account and even though the system comes back up and says he only has $300, the teller gives him the larger amount. After all, human beings are far more reliable than machines.

Mark is ecstatic. He has discovered a game-changer, something that will completely turn around life as he knows it. He tries to tell his friends Greg (C.K.) and Phil (Hoffman) about it, but the words don’t even exist to convey telling something other than the truth. Mark experiments to see what he can accomplish; he tells a gorgeous blonde (March) that unless she has sex with him, the world will end – she believes him. He tells a cop (Norton) that his inebriated friend Greg that he has pulled over for drunk driving is in fact not drunk. He lets them off.

Things seem to be getting better for Mark. He gets his job back by writing a fictitious script he passes off as the truth, and becomes wealthy by scamming casinos after his script becomes a major hit. However, when he is overheard comforting his dying mother (Flanagan) with words about a beautiful afterlife instead of the oblivion that the people of this world have been bred to believe in, this sets off a chain reaction that will change the world in far more profound ways than even he can expect.

This is an intriguing premise that isn’t always pulled off well. It’s what Hollywood insiders call “high concept” which is what critics like to call “an idea without a plot.” The world Gervais envisions is not unlike our own, except nobody has a filter – they just blurt out whatever is on their minds, sort of like a world of six-year-olds. People are cruel to each other, sometimes intentionally.

This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to examine things in our world that depend on not telling the absolute truth, such as advertising, movies, dating and religion. The problem is they don’t really do much with the opportunity. The movie’s second half degenerates into a romantic comedy that is more about the relationship between Lowe, Garner and Gervais instead of really digging down further into the nature of religion, advertising and romance. The movie seems to be more on its game when its satire rather than romantic comedy. Yes, Mark’s words of comfort regarding an afterlife (in which everyone gets a mansion to live in) turn him into something of a prophet but that is almost an afterthought as Mark struggles to win the girl.

Gervais has made a career of playing buffoonish jerks who you love to hate but here he plays a buffoonish jerk that has a heart of gold. Once he discovers the happiness his lies bring, he walks around town whispering lies that bring smiles to the faces of the downtrodden. He knows he isn’t in Anna’s league but he is smitten by her anyway and can’t bring himself to tell her anything but the truth – mostly.

Garner has had an uneven film career since the days of “Alias” but this is one of her finer roles. She plays Anna as a woman who knows how attractive she is but not in a vain or self-centered way. Rather, she just knows she wants her children to have the best genes possible. Deep down she’s sweet and caring; like everyone in this reality, she’s merely judgmental and quite open about it.

The movie at its core is sweet-natured, just enough to leave me with the warm fuzzies leaving the theater. The scene between Mark and his mother in the hospital is highly moving. Unfortunately, the writers sabotage the movie with inane situations and the producers bring too many distracting cameos into the mix – such as Jason Bateman as a doctor and a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Guest as a script reader. The movie would have profited from a little more depth.

Although there is an implied premise that lying is the way to achieve everything you want in life, I thought the movie was more about knowing when to tell the truth and when it is better not to. There are a lot of people out there who can benefit about that particular lesson.

I enjoyed The Invention of Lying far more than Da Queen did, although I have to admit that Gervais seems incapable of reciting dialogue in anything but Gervais-speak – as in short, clipped sentence fragments. Like this. For everything. All his dialogue. Just like this. Right. In any case it makes for a pleasant diversion.

REASONS TO GO: Jennifer Garner’s best performance to date augments an intriguing premise. The movie has a good deal of heart and has at least one genuinely moving moment.

REASONS TO STAY: The romantic comedy aspect doesn’t work as well as the satire. Too many cameos spoil the broth.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and abusive language but otherwise okay.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by Gervais.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a home video recommendation.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bright Star