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 As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than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

London Has Fallen


Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

Gerard Butler is sick and tired of poor reviews.

(2016) Action (Gramercy) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Colin Salmon, Alon Aboutboul, Waleed Zuaiter, Adel Bencherif, Mehdi Dehbi, Shivani Ghai, Penny Downie, Deborah Grant, Nigel Whitmey, Andrew Pleavin, Julia Montgomery Brown, Elsa Mollien. Directed by Babak Najafi

What do you do when you’ve already foiled a hostile takeover of the White House? Why, for most of us it would be resting on our laurels. For any action hero worth his salt, that’s just the beginning.

But Mike Banning (Butler) has had enough. Despite the fact that he has the world’s best tough-guy name (just say it out loud over and over again – you’ll get what I mean), his wife (Mitchell) is having a rug rat and is due any day now. He wants to settle down and be a dad and a husband. He’s even writing out his resignation letter.

But when you’re a Secret Service Agent with a Special Forces background who goes jogging with the President every morning that’s not such an easy task. When the Prime Minister of Great Britain has a fatal heart attack, the world is coming to London to attend the funeral, and President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) is not one to miss the funeral of a world leader. So with Banning’s boss (Bassett) breathing down his neck to be in charge of the President’s security while he’s in London, he can’t really say no.

It’s a good thing he decides to go because bingo bango bongo five world leaders are assassinated and the President’s chopper is shot down by terrorists. Like most terrorists, they have an axe to grind with the United States, but unlike most terrorists they seem to be well organized, infiltrating nearly every stratum of security in Britain. Getting the President to the U.S. Embassy is job number one for Banning but he’ll have to negotiate the streets of London which are now overrun with bad guys impersonating cops, soldiers and Central Casting.

While I liked the predecessor Olympus Has Fallen just fine, this is a step backward from its predecessor. The first film was a wild ride in the vein of Die Hard; this one just dies hard. The action is on the pedantic side, never a good thing. Action junkies may end up yawning which is always a bad thing – there is a definite been there-done that feel to the action. I don’t expect them to reinvent the wheel but there needs to be a lot more passion invested than apparently was put in here.

The shame is that I have always really liked Gerard Butler as an actor and you can tell he’s really doing his best with a subpar script. Butler is one of those guys that you’d probably have a great time sharing a beer with and telling tall tales to in a pub. He’s what I call a working class actor; he’s not  the sort of guy who gets offered roles that win Oscars, but he gets the job done day in and day out and in the end comes off as a likable guy, even when he’s playing a real douchebag (as in Gods of Egypt). I think he doesn’t get the respect he deserves, either from critics or casting agents but that’s just me talking.

He has a decent supporting cast, but many of them are wasted in roles that feel like they mostly ended on the cutting room floor – Leo and Forster have both got Oscar nominations on their resumes but barely get a line or two in here. Morgan Freeman, maybe one of the most respected actors of this generation, has a little bit more to do but not by much; his role is essentially display dismay, frustration and once in awhile deliver a “we’re gonna kick your ass” zinger as is necessary in most action films. Like the previous one, there is a bit of a right wing dick swing vibe here as the President gets tough on terrorism directly – with a machine gun. Go, POTUS, Go!

I get that with most action movies you really don’t want to think about the plot too closely as there are often logical holes in them but there has to be at least a LITTLE bit of logic; most people understand that the President is protected by a virtual army and when he goes to a foreign country, he is literally surrounded at all times by Secret Service agents and if his helicopter was shot down in a friendly country like England, there would be a rescue operation already in place and scrambled even before the chopper hit the ground.

Still, even as mindless entertainment goes, there is a bit too much disbelief to suspend here. I’m one of those people who thinks that there is something noble about creating a vehicle for people to forget about their troubles for a couple of hours but this movie could have used a serious rewrite (and it got several, judging from the number of screenwriters credited) or more likely scrapping the project altogether. While I wouldn’t mind seeing the character Mike Banning again, I would rather see him in a much better movie than this. Check it out if mediocrity is your thing, but don’t make too much of an effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty action sequences. Butler is excessively likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Really hokey script. Lacks any sort of credibility and any sort of logic.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of action, mayhem and violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fredrick Bond was set to direct but dropped out due to creative differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White House Down
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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