First Man(10/11/2018)

Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.

The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name.  It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then.  There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra.  Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission.  He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson.  As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos.  That seems like quite the exaggeration.  There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out.  Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema.  I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.

The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return.  It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission.  Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut.  The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.

First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing.  In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action.  This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication.  The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period.  That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.”  The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him.  In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working.  The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father.  From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most.  We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons.  He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory.  Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line  you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable.  If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.

I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife.  In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men.  She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing.  In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less.  If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary.  That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.

There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far.  Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax.  Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images.  He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line.  The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were.  That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.

**1/2 out of Five

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Eighth Grade(7/21/2018)

I didn’t really realize it at the time but the early 2000s, when I was a teenager was something of a low point for teen movies and coming of age films.  The 90s weren’t a whole lot better of course, that was the decade of the “teen movie starring WB Network actor” with stuff like Cruel Intentions and Varsity Blues but there were some highlights as well like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Rushmore and even American Pie was a bit more insightful than its reputation would suggest.  The 80s were also seen as something of a golden age, mainly because of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, but the early 2000s?  Total wasteland.  There was Mean Girls I suppose, which I’m not the biggest fan of but certainly has some thought behind it.  I guess there was also Ghost World if you want to count that, but that’s pretty far from the mainstream.  Outside of that though there was mostly crap… I think.  Honestly I’ve never seen a lot of it but when I google “2000s teen movies” I mostly get titles like What A Girl Wants, The Girl Next Door, Eurotrip, and a whole bunch of other titles that no one has talked about in years and no one really cared about at the time.  Then I graduate high school in 2006 and suddenly we get a wave of movies like Superbad and Juno which are actually interested in doing some fun and thoughtful things with the genre.  Now we’re almost in something of a golden age of movies about teenagers like Boyhood, The Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird.  Granted the actual teenagers of the era seem kind of indifferent to the trend but even the mainstream stuff like The Fault in Our Stars looks more respectable than the likes of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  This golden age would seem to continue with the new film about early adolescence: Eighth Grade.

As the title implies, this is a film about someone in the eighth grade (meaning they’re 13-14 years old) named Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher).  Kayla lives with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) and her mother does not appear to be in the picture.  Kayla is not popular, at all, to the point where she doesn’t even really appear to have any friends.  She does, however, take the initiative to record rather inarticulate Youtube videos where she gives advice about questions she very decidedly hasn’t worked out for herself.  The film begins on the last week of middle school for Kayla, where she has been given the dubious honor of being voted “most quiet” by her fellow students, an award that a middle school should probably not be putting on their ballots.  Over the course of that final week she will pine after a popular boy named Aiden (Luke Prael), attend the pool party of a classmate named Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and shadow a high schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson).

When the movie Lady Bird came out last year I remember there being articles about Saoirse Ronan opting not to use makeup to clear up some acne in order to more accurately portray the face of a teenager.  I saw one article rather hyperbolically proclaim this decision “revolutionary” and while I like that movie and that performance I do find any assertion that it was some kind of blow for representing the plight of the average looking people of the world to be kind of ridiculous and Eighth Grade does a pretty good job of putting the lie to that little talking point.  If Saoirse Ronan was “bold” for making slight amounts of acne (barely) visible in that movie then Elsie Fisher is downright fearless in her willingness to show way more skin imperfections than Ronan ever did and the movie also isn’t exactly hiding the fact that this character is kind of overweight, at least by movie standards, and the characters’ insecurities about this come to the forefront during a particularly tense pool party scene.  Kayla is never actively bullied for her appearance but she is decidedly not popular and has become socially isolated both in real life and in her various social media escapades.

This movie is not, however, under any impression that Kayla’s problems only run skin deep as her personality does play as much of a role in her social status as her looks.  Early on in one of her videos Kayla says that her YouTube videos haven’t been getting a lot of views, and it’s pretty easy to tell why this is: it’s not because the world is cruel, it’s because her videos kind of suck.  The film’s audience finds them interesting because they offer some insights into our protagonist, but on their face they’re rambling inanities produced by someone who (at this point in life) has almost nothing of interest to contribute.  One can imagine that striking up real conversations with Kayla would yield similar results.  At one point she says “I don’t talk a lot at school but if people talk to me, and stuff, they’d find that I’m, like, very funny and cool and talkative” but there’s very little evidence to be found in the film that this is actually true.  The few moments where she actually does interact with other kids her own age she seems so filled with nerves and so out of practice at interactions and so lacking in talking points in general that she tends to just come across as weird.  Most teen movies are about people who merely think they’re social outcasts but this one is about someone who actually is.

Now, I’ve been pretty blunt in talking about Kayla and her shortcomings but I’m not doing it to be mean to this fictional character, frankly I do it because I see a lot of my former self (and if I’m being honest, my current self as well) in her.  Like, to the point where the movie is hard for me to review without getting a bit more personal than I’d like to.  The film was directed by Bo Burnham a twenty seven year old standup comedian whose previous work I am not really familiar with.  A lot of people have wondered why this guy would be so able to get into the mind of a post-millennial girl like this, but seeing the film it makes sense.  This isn’t really a movie about what it’s like to be a girl or even what it’s like to be part of Generation Z so much as it’s a movie about what it’s like to be a true introvert.   There are plenty of moments here I can relate to a bit too well: desperately not wanting to go to a party that you’ve been given an invitation to at the behest of the host’s mother, posting things online only to have most of the world not give a shit, getting “busted” hiding out in a corner rather than conversing with others, general befuddlement about the life advice “be yourself,” the list goes on.  It’s about as close as any coming of age movie has gotten to reflecting my own experiences, which you’d think would make me love the movie and in one sense that’s true, I certainly appreciate what it’s doing and on the other hand it kind of makes the movie hard to watch for me.  Some of the film’s moments of awkwardness and cringe inducing social interactions almost gave me a sort of PTSD-like flashback to some of the less pleasant moments of my own adolescence.  As such watching the movie was in many ways a more tense experience than watching most full-on horror movies.

So how does this compare to the other big coming of age movies of the era: Boyhood and Lady Bird?  Well, I’ve explained why I consider it a bit more relatable and accurate than both of them, but I’m not sure I’d call it better.  There are certainly some problems to be found in it.  I feel like the movie could have done a little more to define what Kayla is like when she isn’t being socially awkward.  Does she have a hobby aside from making advice videos?  Does she have ambitions? Does she read or watch movies?  In some ways the film remains just as oblivious to Late in the film she offhandedly mentions that she likes the show “Rick and Morty” and that tiny tidbit almost seems to say more about her interests than most the rest of the film.  I also think the audio of Kayla’s Youtube videos played ironically over a contradictory point in her life is a device that the movie probably uses a few too many times.  Also there’s a moment in a car late in the film which, while tense and interesting in its own right, does sort of feel like a bit of a tangent from the rest of the themes and conflicts of the film and doesn’t quite feel like the right climax.  Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by Eighth Grade, it’s an extremely honest film that displays a perspective that I don’t think has ever really shown up on film before, at least not in the same way.  I may never want to watch this movie again, but I’m sure glad it exists.

**** out of Five

First Reformed(6/3/2018)

Review Contains Spoilers

Paul Schrader is a bit of an anomaly among veteran film directors in that, when looked at from afar, he actually has a pretty impressive filmography but it doesn’t always feel like that.  Part of that might simply be that his accomplishments as a screenwriter have long overshadowed his work as a director.  That’s perhaps understandable, handing off a script like Taxi Driver off to a different director tends to have that effect, but he does have some really solid directorial credits as well like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and American Gigolo so that can’t be the only problem.  The real problem is simple inconsistency.  For a guy who tends to speak very seriously about cinema and who once wrote a book called “Transcendental Style in Film” about Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer Schrader sure seems to get involved in some questionable projects.  This has always been a problem for Schrader, who even in his prime years found himself making sensationalist projects like Hardcore and bad ideas like his Cat People remake.  But the last fifteen years have been particularly dismissible with him making Exorcist prequels, trashy Nicholas Cage movies, and tabloid baiting Lindsay Lohan movies with hardly a single real triumph since 2002’s Auto Focus.  Admittedly I haven’t actually seen most of the movies he’s made in that stretch and it’s possible that there are actually some hidden gems in there, but from the outside it’s been pretty easy to write the guy off as a has been chasing former glories.  But lo and behold, out of nowhere Schrader has suddenly made a movie called First Reformed that has actually gained a great deal of critical respect.  Could it be a true comeback?

First Reformed follows a modern day Calvinist pastor named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) who is currently in charge of a historic church in the Albany, New York area called the First Reformed, which is about to go through its 250th anniversary.  Toller was once a military chaplain and he encouraged his son to follow the family tradition and join the military but this went bad when that son was killed in action during the war in Iraq.  Toller is now divorced and alcoholic but still takes some solace in preaching to his small flock.  One day a woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him and asks him to talk with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who has become increasingly depressed about the state of the world.  Michael is worried about his wife’s pregnancy and feels that it’s immoral to bring a child into a world that will inevitably be decimated by climate change within the child’s lifetime.  Toller tries to console the man but is himself disturbed by what he’s saying, which sparks a crisis of faith in the pastor about everyone’s culpability in destroying the world.

First Reformed uses as a framing device the fact that the depressed pastor at its center is writing a diary to get out his inner spiritual turmoil.  This of course harkens back to Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest… I think.  Confession: I’ve never actually seen The Diary of a Country Priest.  Bresson and his theological explorations have never been my cup of tea and while I’ve seen a couple of his movies that one is a blind spot.  I have, on the other hand, seen the other movie that this one clearly draws influence from: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.  The connection between the two is pretty clear with the film’s look at environmental despair being essentially an update of the nuclear paranoia that’s going on in Bergman’s film.  There are various other bits and pieces lifted from European classics and Schrader more or less announces that he’s working within this tradition by filming the movie in the old Academy Ratio, but the movie is not necessarily as slow and meditative as some of the movies that Schrader describes as “transcendental.”  This is not exactly a summer popcorn movie or anything but it isn’t the kind of art film that’s filled with pauses and lingering shots of the kind you might see in a Tsai Ming-liang movie or something.

This also shouldn’t be mistaken for a movie so indebted to the films of the past that it isn’t bringing anything of its own to the table.  There are elements of the film that hue closer to what Schrader’s own interests in almost hysterical obsession to the point where the film almost shares the structure of Schrader’s breakthrough screenplay Taxi Driver.  These Taxi Driver like elements are probably where I start to take issue with the movie, in part because the act of violence that the movie leads up to never quite seemed plausible to me.  For one thing, the basic notion of an “eco-terrorist” owning a suicide vest strained credibility from the beginning.  “Eco-terrorists” are a thing, but they are pretty different from “terrorist terroists,” they’ve been known to cause property damage and pull stunts like breaking into labs and freeing test animals but they’ve never killed anyone and it’s doubtful they would have much use for a C4 vest.  Even ignoring that, I have trouble seeing the logic in Toller’s eventual plan, which seems to involve killing several innocent people to take out one easily replaceable industrialist.  Deranged as he may have been, Travis Bickle at least had enough common sense to hatch a plan that actually would conceivably succeed at freeing the Jodie Foster character from her pimp.  Toller is older, better educated, and seemingly less far gone than Bickle and yet his plan seems even more disconnected from reality than that crazy taxi driver’s violent outburst and it’s tough to believe that even someone in extreme spiritual tumult would hatch such a scheme.

Ignoring whether or not the development at the end quite makes sense, what are we to make of it?  I think a big part of the message might be in the music that Schrader chooses to set his climax to.  As Toller begins to mutilate himself with barbed wire and contemplate drinking drano Esther is singing an old American Hymn called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song that will be familiar cinephilles from its use in Night of the Hunter and its incorporation in Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.  It’s filled with lyrics like “what a blessedness, what a peace is mine,” “safe and secure from all alarms,” and “O how sweet to walk, In this pilgrim way.”  In short it’s a song about finding bliss and comfort in religion, which is about the opposite of what Toller is experiencing.  On the contrary, Toller finds that truly thinking through the implications of his faith and the toll of being moral in a fallen world to be anything but comforting.  I don’t think the movie is suggesting that this is an experience that’s unique to religion given that the character of Michael also ended up being consumed after truly thinking through the implications of what we’re doing to the world.  I don’t think the movie is trying to suggest that people should be living in blissful ignorance either but it is suggesting that people maybe shouldn’t try to bear the weight of the world on their own and in the final shot of the film Toller manages to unburden himself, even if only in his dying imagination, by throwing out the burdens of the cloth and following the carnal instincts that he’s been suppressing this whole time.  Some of the chains that bind him still remain, but in this final vision there is perhaps at least some hope that remains.

**** out of Five

Deadpool 2(5/21/2018)

Let it be known, while I look pretty closely at box office figures week to week I am not always that great at predicting what’s going to catch on and how big.  That was certainly the case of the first Deadpool film, which I expected to find an audience but I never imagined it would make $132 million in its opening weekend and go on to make nearly $800 million worldwide.  There might have been a little personal bias there because by 2016 I’d been pretty frustrated by the “comic book adaptation with attitude” genre as exemplified by such films as Wanted, Kick-Ass, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service.  As such I skipped Deadpool in theaters and when I finally caught up with the movie on Blu-ray I can’t say I particularly regretted that decision.  Deadpool was a fun movie but it certainly didn’t stand out to me as any kind of zeitgeist capturing triumph.  Some of its profane fourth-wall breaking antics were amusing but hardly the funniest thing I’d ever seen and ignoring the jokes it was a pretty dull origin story with a bland villain and it’s lower budget was readily apparent in its small-scale action scenes which couldn’t really compete with the giant superhero spectacles that Hollywood has been regularly churning out.  And yet, I find myself more inclined to see the film’s sequel in theaters than I was for the original, which maybe has less to do with the movies themselves and more to do with the fact that Hollywood didn’t have the balls to put out anything in the two weeks following Avengers: Infinity War and I was jonesing for an action movie.

Deadpool 2 picks up a few months after the end of its predecessor and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has embraced a life of doing mercenary work against criminals while easing into his relationship with his fiancé Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) until one day one of his enemies follows him home and kills Vanessa in front of him.  Deadpool dispatches the responsible parties quickly but is overcome with guilt and tries to kill himself explosively only to have his healing powers save him once again.  Seeing that Deadpool is hurting Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) try to rescue him and bring him into the X-Men fold once again.  Deadpool plays along, but on his very first mission he finds himself shooting someone to save a troubled mutant teen named Firefist (Julian Dennison) and both he and his friend are arrested and placed into a special mutant prison where everyone wears collars that suppress their powers.  All hope seems lost when the prison is attacked by a time traveling mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin) who seems oddly hellbent on killing Firefist.

One of my biggest problems with the original Deadpool is that is just seemed kind of, well, cheap.  I got why it was cheap, the studios were clearly as skeptical as I was about how much of a mass audience the Deadpool character could draw, but given that it was competing with any number of actual blockbuster superhero films its rather meager action scenes were a problem.  That has been solved in the sequel, which is perhaps to be expected given that the budget has almost doubled and one of the guys behind the “John Wick” series has been brought on to direct.  It would have been a massive disappointment if the action scenes in this thing weren’t a major step up, but they are.  That’s not to say that this is some kind of action movie classic but on scales of spectacle it does hold its own against most the other more conventional superhero movies and the R-ratedness of the film’s violence does give it a flavor that most of those movies don’t have.

This time it’s actually the comedy I’m a bit shaky about.  Having only watched the original Deadpool in a fairly casual fashion I didn’t really have firm opinions about the comedic stylings of the series but watching this sequel it’s clear that what’s basically going on here is that the movies are taking the “throw everything at the wall” approach to comedy that movies like Airplane! took except that it’s working with a much larger budget and only one character is really allowed to break the fourth wall.  As tends to be the case with this approach some jokes work and some don’t, and in this movie I’d say the ratio is maybe one in three landed jokes, which could be worse, but some of the jokes that don’t work are kind of cringey.  The movie really wants to seem cool and subversive but in many ways its not as smart as it thinks it is and you can really see the way it does things that seem aimed at a very wide and frankly kind of basic audience.  Like, this is a movie that feels the need to throw in parodies of the boombox scene from Say Anything and the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct as if the world didn’t already have enough of both and even feels the need to announce exactly the movie they’re referencing in the latter example.  The weird thing is that every once in the blue moon the movie actually will reference something that’s a little bit more obscure like when someone casually brings up the 2005 Australian film The Proposition or when Deadpool makes the occasional inside joke about the comic books, but a lot of these jokes just seem kind of like low hanging fruit rather than subversive digs.

The constant jokes and digressions here certainly leads to some amusing moments but they also sort of undercut the occasional moments where the movie semi-ironically tries to actually play something straight.  The moments in the film where it tries to fight for the soul of a child and prevent him from becoming a killer seem particularly hypocritical given the general disregard for human life that is otherwise on display in the movie.  This is a movie that begs you not to take it seriously outside of its overwhelming irreverence and given that I kind of wish it had gone for the jugular even more.  The film certainly isn’t making any kind of statement about society and while it does make certain digs at the comic book genre I’m not sure they’re all that biting either.  Of course this isn’t to say that the movie is a complete failure or even a failure at all really.  As summer entertainment goes the movie mostly succeeds and I think there is reason to say that it offers more to the viewer than some of the more cookie-cutter of the Marvel movies.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.  That said I don’t really respect the movie in spite of its entertainment value.  At the end of the day it’s a rather immature work and I don’t think it’s going to age we, but again, there are worse ways to spend your time.

*** out of Five

The Death of Stalin(3/24/2018)

Every year I spend a good deal of time and expend a lot of thought into making a yearly top ten list of the best in cinema, and for as open-minded as I am I have noticed over the years that it’s pretty rare for a pure undiluted comedy to make those lists.  Movies that are sort of hybrid comedy/dramas are actually kind of common, in fact my 2017 list had three movies that could be argued to be comedies in The Square, Ladybird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri but these are not generally movies people go to when they’re straight up looking to laugh at a movie theater.  Outside of those edge cases the comedies that usually make year end lists are movies like Birdman, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Wolf of Wall Street which have a whole lot going on in their production beyond their apparent wit.  I don’t think this is exactly a bias that I’m alone in.  If you look at most top ten lists and Best Picture slates you’ll probably see a similar pattern and it maybe says less about critics and more about how unambitious dedicated comedians can sometimes be in their craft.  As if being funny is in itself so hard that they can’t be bothered to also build a great movie around a great set of jokes.  I bring all this up because I think the highest a 100% comedy has ever gotten on one of my top ten lists was in 2009 when I put Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy In the Loop in my number two slot right behind Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus Ingourious Basterds (itself a semi-comedy), and the new film The Death of Stalin is in many ways Iannucci’s follow-up to that future comedy classic.

The film is set early in 1953 and begins with Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) at his most powerful and most feared.  NKVD agents (the spread police) are actively hunting down people on lists made by the party and throwing them in gulags and or executing them.  We spend a great deal of time early in the film watching a producer (Paddy Considine) at Radio Moscow scramble beyond reason to recreate a broadcast the dictator has requested a recording of just to establish the extent to which the normal Soviet citizen will piss their pants at the possibility of having slighted this regime.  But this will prove to be something of a turning point because the night of that broadcast Stalin suddenly becomes violently ill and it becomes clear to everybody in his inner circle that there’s about to be a transition of power in a global superpower and they immediately start jockeying for power.  Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) begins trying to paint himself as the people’s advocate, much to Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) chagrin and both men try different approaches to gaining the favor of Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and manipulating the parliamentary process that Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor) rather lackadaisically tries to assert.  They also try to gain the favor of army officer/war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Issac) and to manipulate Salin’s heirs Svetlana Stalina (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend).

Iannucci’s In the Loop was more or less an adaptation of a British TV show he ran called “The Thick of It.”  These were both projects that sought to demystify politics by suggesting that behind closed doors elected officials were petty and vulgar people who would make decisions for entirely self-serving reasons, but not in a glamourous way like on “House of Cards,” more like the kind of relatable human shortcomings on something like “The Office.”  If this sounds familiar to American audiences it’s because after the success of In the Loop Iannucci tooke this idea to HBO and created the much awarded series “Veep,” which is if anything even more cynical in its outlook.  With The Death of Stalin Iannucci has perhaps taken this idea to its logical extreme by applying it to one of the most infamous regimes in world history.  The various Stalin cronies who begins sniping at each other here are a bit smarter and more competent than some of the politicians Iannucci has brought us elsewhere but their personalities and shortcomings are not dissimilar from what we’ve seen in the director’s other films.  The key difference is that here’s they’re playing games that have life or death stakes to a degree that some of his other characters aren’t.

I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Soviet history and when it came to do with this particular power struggle I didn’t go in knowing much except for the fact that it wasn’t Lavrentiy Beria who would famously end up on the other side of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Consequently I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the specifics of how accurate this film is but I have a hunch that the movie’s approach is to be very accurate about the facts of what went down during this period while changing the tone of everyone’s mannerisms to fit more with Iannucci’s usual vision of how politics happens.  One part of this is that he’s casted nothing but British and American actors in the various Russian roles in the film and has clearly instructed them not to attempt any kind of Russian accent but to simply speak in their usual comic voice.  In the case of Stalin himself, who sounds like a “cockney geezer” I’m not sure this works, but for the rest of the movie it was a shrewd choice which really brings out the personalities in these characters who might otherwise be kind of hard to relate to on any level.  For instance, the Georgy Malenkov here is like the guy who finds himself in a position of authority and Beria is like the guy who’s got a plan but is so transparent in implementing it that people move against him while Khrushchev is like the guy who doesn’t have the force of personality to speak up in a meeting but ultimately sees things a bit more clearly than the people around him.

The Death of Stalin is a movie I’ve been pretty excited about ever since it started getting raves on the festival circuit and in part because of the buildup I must say that as audacious as the film was and as much as I could see the wit here the movie never quite lived up to my high expectations.  The movie is certainly funny, but it never quite had me in stitches like In the Loop did.  I think part of that might simply be that after In the Loop and six season of Veep this particular brand of comedy might just not have quite the potency it used to.  I also suspect that the foreign/period setting might have taken a few weapons off the table.  The writing here can’t really employ pop culture references for example and the actors don’t quite seem to have the same freedom to improvise that they might have in some other contexts.  Additionally there are a couple stray elements here that just feel a little sloppy like the occasional title cards which pop up to display applicable Soviet laws which don’t look great and aren’t really used frequently enough to fully integrate into the film’s grammar.  That’s a minor quibble but I think the bigger thing holding this back is that making a movie about a foreign country’s history simply feels less subversive than mocking one’s own government.  If this had been made while the Cold War was going on or been made by Russians it would have felt really daring, as it is it just feels like a strange but mostly well executed bit of gallows humor.  But “strange but mostly well executed bits of gallows humor” don’t come along every day so perhaps I should stop complaining.

***1/2 out of Five

Darkest Hour(12/9/2017)

Let’s talk about Gary Oldman for a second shall we?  Oldman is an actor who I wasn’t introduced to through one of his actual film roles but rather through online rumors that he would be the perfect person to play Doctor Octopus in the movie Spider-Man 2.  That was a role that eventually went to Alfred Molina, but such speculation was not uncommon at the time because to a lot of people Oldman was someone who would be perfect for pretty much any role and anytime there was a high profile role that needed to be filled his name seemed to come up in the rumor mill, to the point where even Homer Simpson once insisted that Oldman would be the perfect person to play him in a movie.  Part of this might have just been Oldman’s tendency to show up in movies that were popular with the young male internet dwellers of the early 2000s but it also has a lot to do with the fact that he had this odd tendency to be both a hammy scenery chewing villain in movies like Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Fifth Element but also a dedicatedly chameleonic presence in certain roles like his portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK or Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy.  The fact that he kind of stayed under the radar despite appearing in some fairly popular films was a help in this and gave him a certain cool factor.  The odd thing is, Oldman seemed to age surprisingly quickly.  Despite the internet’s obsession with him he sort of disappeared during the 2000s outside of his supporting roles in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight franchises and seemed to re-emerge in the 2010s as a seasoned British veteran in movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and now he’d doing the ultimate British veteran move: playing Winston Churchill in an Oscar season biopic called Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour is set in the May and June of 1940 and begins with parliament calling for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) for his inability to stand up to Hitler.  France was on the verge of collapse and the British Expeditionary Force that was sent to assist in the defense of France was retreating to the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais; decisive action was needed.  Unable to replace Chamberlain with his chosen successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) the Tories instead turned to the one person in their party that the opposition party would accept: the outspoken hawk Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) despite the general distaste that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) has for him over his various previous failures.  With the success of the Dunkirk evacuation very much in doubt Churchill had one very difficult decision to make: will he consider hearing Germany’s terms for surrender and call for a cease-fire or risk a potential slaughter and defeat if they aren’t able to find a way to get those men off the beach in time.

When the movie Lincoln came out a few years ago I felt like it encountered a lot of resistance less for what it was and more for what people assumed it would be.  I think what they assumed it would be is a movie not unlike what Darkest Hour is actually like.  I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie is a hagiography it’s certainly a movie that’s been made for people who are already very much believers in Churchill’s legacy.  The film isn’t afraid to show him as a drunken old man at times but it’s not very interested in challenging his worth as a leader.  The film actually serves as a sort of “Last Temptation of Churchill” and ponders what would have happened if the man whose entire legacy was built on his uncompromising certainty in the importance of fighting Nazism had considered surrendering rather than fighting.  I’m not sure I buy that this was something that Churchill really dithered over as much as is shown and I also doubt there was really as much pressure being put on him to do so as is depicted here and the sequence it invents to depict how he made his final decision is frankly corny and ridiculous.

Gary Oldman is of course really good here, possibly too good.  The film is very interested in showing some of Churchill’s vices, which is important as you want to illustrate why so many of Churchill’s colleagues and rivals doubted him at this point.  Oldman is almost too good at making Churchill seems like a mumbling drunken old man, to the point where you really don’t get how this guy ever pulled himself together enough to be this beloved figure that he is.  There are some other solid actors here like Ben Mendelsohn, who has the unenviable task of playing King George VI after Colin Firth more or less defined the role of “Bertie” in The King’s Speech but does a pretty good if not wildly memorable job just the same.  Ronald Pickup is also quite good here as Neville Chamberlain, a tragic figure that I almost would have wanted to see at the center of a film like this and Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Churchill’s wife even if she doesn’t have a lot of screen time.  Lily James is also good here as Churchill’s secretary, but I’m not exactly sure why her character is in the movie.  She seems like she’s meant to be an audience surrogate but the movie isn’t actually from her perspective most of the time and in many ways she kind of seems like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay where it was.

Darkest Hour isn’t a bad movie so much as it’s a poorly timed movie.  A year or two ago a movie about the political machinations going on in the background of the Dunkirk evacuation would have seemed like fresh ground for a film but Christopher Nolan kind of made a movie this year called Dunkirk which showed the evacuation itself in visceral detail.  Darkest Hour by contrast feels like little more than a crappy sub-plot that Nolan knew better than to put in Dunkirk to keep from slowing it down.  The experiences of soldier’s fighting for their lives is always going to be more cinematic and interesting than the old white men bickering in dark, sometimes literally smoke-filled, rooms.  And even if Nolan hadn’t made that film earlier I’m still not sure that 2017 is the best year to try to get audiences to root for a large and somewhat unconventional conservative leader to stick to his guns while in the presence of establishment doubters.  The bigger problem here though is just an absence of anything overly compelling.  Director Joe Wright adds a couple of interesting flourishes but does nothing to write home about and the script is not insightful enough about its subject to really add much to the conversation about him.