State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

 

In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.

When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.

So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.

Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.

Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.

We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.

It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.

REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
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Welcome Matt

Now You See Me 2


The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

The rain falls on the just, the unjust and Jesse Eisenberg.

(2016) Action (Summit) Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, William Henderson, Richard Laing, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Brick Patrick, Zach Gregory, Ben Lamb, Fenfen Huang, Aaron Ly, James Richard Marshall, Alexa Brown. Directed by Jon M. Chu

 

We are fascinated by the concept of magic, of someone performing unexplainable feats of prestidigitation. Magicians are almost like real-life superheroes. All they lack is the spandex and the inclination to fight crime.

At the end of Now You See Me the Four Horsemen – the Vegas magic act that was a kind of Robin Hood, taking money from a rich insurance company and giving it back to the thousands of people it defrauded – are on the lam. J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), the arrogant onstage leader of the Horsemen, is busy trying to investigate The Eye, the mysterious organization that controls them. Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) is trying to stay under the radar, Henley Reeves has left the group and Jack Wilder (Franco) has the world convinced that he’s dead. Their nemesis Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) rots in jail and FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is trying to steer his boss Natalie Austin (Lathan) away from the Horsemen since he is their behind-the-scenes handler. Dylan also has his late father Lionel Shrike (Laing) very much on his mind, particularly the stunt that killed him.

The Horsemen need a fourth and into the group comes Lula (Caplan), a street magician like Henley Reeves was although Lula is much more into the Grand Guignol than her predecessor. They’re going to need the whole lot of them because they are up against Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), a tech billionaire whom the world also thinks is dead (the world has a terrible track record when it comes to dead guys) who wants them to steal a super secret microchip that will give him access to every computer on the planet.

The chip is held in a super-safe location in Shanghai, so it’s off to China for the Horsemen, but Mabry has a couple of tricks of his own; for one, Merritt’s identical twin brother is helping him stay one step ahead of the horsemen and Mabry is the bastard son of none other than Arthur Tressler (Caine), the insurance magnate whom the Horsemen exposed and nearly ruined in the first movie. Mabry also has sprung Thaddeus Bradley from jail and he has nothing but revenge on his mind. It will take a whole lot more than a few magic tricks for this group to escape Mabry; it will take a genuine miracle.

The first movie was a frothy affair that was light on the credibility but heavy on the entertainment. If anything, the sequel is even lighter on the credibility but as far as the entertainment value is concerned…not so much, I’m afraid. It seems a lot less lively than the first both in tone and in pacing. This sucker chugs along with tons of exposition then an elaborate magic trick before continuing to…you guessed it, more exposition.

Caplan is actually a delight here. Her character is witty, sassy and very capable as a magician. More importantly, Caplan inserts some badly needed fun into a script that should have been loaded with it. I mean, magicians who are crime fighters? Come on! That should be a slam dunk. Instead it’s more like a three-point shot…..from beyond half court.

Ruffalo is still, as ever, a bona fide Hollywood star but his role, outed in the first film, is less mysterious here and therefore less interesting. We know who he is and what role he plays and moreover, so do the Horsemen (although there’s a bit of a pissing contest between Daniel and Dylan about halfway through the film). The unnecessary introduction of a twin brother gives Harrelson double the screen time and the film an extraneous character who not only wasn’t necessary to the plot but also provides an unwanted distraction. A good 15 minutes of screen time could have been erased from this too-long movie just by removing the twin.

This is quite a disappointment. I was entertained by the first but found myself yawning my way through the second. The stunts pulled by the Horsemen are, as the first, almost all CGI which again wounds the film terribly. I think as I did with the first one that doing the magic with practical effects instead of digital would only have made the movie better. I mean, rain falling upwards? In London? Maybe on a stage somewhere but not out in the middle of the street. Movie magic is one thing, but that would have been better served in a different movie, like one with a kid with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Now, the makers of those movies understood what magic is all about better than the filmmakers of this one do.

REASONS TO GO: Caplan is a welcome addition to the cast. The premise is rock solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the vitality of the first film. Makes an art form of the preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isla Fisher had to drop out of the film due to her pregnancy; Lizzy Caplan took over as an entirely new character.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Central Intelligence

Sympathy for Delicious


 

Sympathy for Delicious

Prince is looking a little worse for wear these days.

(2010) Drama (Maya International) Christopher Thornton, Mark Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, Noah Emmerich, James Karen, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Wisdom, Dov Tiefenbach, Niko Nicotera, Deantoni Parks, Stephen Mendillo, Sandra Seacat. Directed by Mark Ruffalo

Miracles can be tricky things. There’s no guidebook in how to deal with them. If you got the power to heal people with the touch of your hand, what would you do with it?

“Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer (Thornton) was once one of the hotter scratchers – although some would prefer the term DJ – on the underground music scene until a car accident left him confined to a wheelchair. It’s also left him broke and bitter, living in his car on Skid Row. He has a grudging relationship with Father Joe (Ruffalo), a do-gooding Catholic priest who thinks Delicious has it better than most (i.e. his car) which he should be willing to share with others.

Delicious basically just wants to be left alone and says so. But that’s not going to happen when he discovers that he has the miraculous power to heal with his touch – but sadly, not himself. If anything, this leaves Delicious more bitter and angry than before. He takes up with Ariel (Lewis), bassist for an unremarkable metal band whose singer who calls himself The Stain (Bloom) – quite aptly, I believe – sneers at everything and everybody who isn’t The Stain, while their harried manager (Linney) tries to get a record deal that simply isn’t forthcoming.

Father Joe sets Delicious in a hotel and pays him a meager amount – all he can afford – to heal and as word spreads the notoriety of Joe’s mission grows. Delicious though sees all the benefit going elsewhere and none to him, so he sets himself up with the band so that his healing can be part of the show. However, things don’t go quite as planned and Delicious learns that there are down sides to miracles.

This is Ruffalo’s first directing effort and all in all it isn’t bad, but it isn’t distinguished either. He and Thornton, a close personal friend of his, have been trying to get this made for more than a decade. I don’t know that it was worth the wait, but it does have its moments.

Thornton, best known for playing Cliff Cobb on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” does a pretty good job as the bitter and churlish title character. He also wrote the script, so there’s perhaps some familiarity with the emotional landscape he must traverse. There are times he’s completely unlikable but there’s never a moment when the character seems false.

Ruffalo got a fairly fine cast for a micro-budgeted indie, including his own participation. I’ve always liked Ruffalo as an actor and his laid-back likability has carried him through a number of films. Here his character is still likable, but there is definitely a hidden agenda behind the facade. It’s a bit of a change for him.

Linney is as dependable as ever as the sultry manager, not above using a little sex appeal to sell her band. The cast is in fact pretty solid top to bottom. The story is pretty authentic in how people would react to a genuine miracle, particularly in that specific place and time. Organized religion gets a pretty harsh grade (which I would tend to agree with) in terms of how the miraculous would be used to their advantage. However, the secular world doesn’t escape unscathed either as spectacle and rock and roll get skewered as well.

The problem lies in that the movie is a bit overwritten. The focus between the secular side (symbolized by the band) and the religious side (Father Joe) should have been tighter.  The battle for Delicious’ soul is really the central core of the story and at times it feels like an afterthought. It could have used someone to stop and say “What are you trying to do with all this other stuff?” I would have liked to have found out more about Delicious and where he’s coming from, more about Joe and what he’s about. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t given much depth. They’re given a part to play and there’s nothing really behind them. They have no past and no future, only the present.

I like Mark Ruffalo and I like what Thornton did with his role, but at the end of the day this is merely adequate; it’s not something I can give a ringing endorsement to but neither is it without merit. For those who are picky about what they watch, there are many more worthy ways to spend their time. For those who are movie gourmands who watch a lot of movies, there are worse ways to spend their time. What you get out of this movie depends on which camp you fall in.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting digs at the nature of miracles and religion as well as the failings of men. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwritten. Could have used more focus on the central characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is bad language throughout, some depictions of drug use and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thornton is actually paralyzed; he was injured in a climbing accident when he was 25.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,826 on an unreported production budget; sorry folks but this one lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resurrection

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai