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The Death Of Stalin

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Director:  Armando Iannucci

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko

Released: 20th October 2017 (UK)

Reviewer: Ren Zelen

At the screening I attended there were many amused giggles and guffaws, sometimes punctuated by shrieks of laughter from one particularly lady, who was clearly very entertained. Armando Iannucci’ s film The Death of Stalin is getting good reviews and being hailed as the funniest film of the year. It is indeed, very funny, but it is funny in a very disturbing way.

The film concerns the intrigue and backstabbing (sometimes literal) which took place after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and has been adapted from Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s French graphic novel series by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin.

With the demise of Stalin, who had set himself up with god-like power over life and death, everyone is initially terrified of saying that he actually is dead, so inured are his sycophants to being in terror of their lives for one misplaced word. To say that his total control might be over may be taken as traitorous thinking.

In Armando Iannucci’s TV outings, The Thick of It or Veep, if you get something wrong, you must endure humiliation and media ridicule. Make an error under Stalin’s regime, and you get a bullet in the head. There’s a bit more at stake than your reputation – it’s all about staying alive for another day.

So, when Stalin is no longer in charge, panic and prevarication ensues. Euphemistic and magniloquent speeches are given by his ageing dignitaries until it is definitively agreed (by expendable medics, just in case) that he is really, properly, dead. They still can’t quite believe it.

This however, is the starting gun for the canniest operators to go to work. Being someone who is inured to death and violence, sadistic chief of the Secret Police, Beria (Simon Russell Beale) barely misses his stride before going into action to further his own concerns – releasing some of the prisoners left alive, in order to curry favour with the people.

Russell Beale, an accomplished stage actor, makes Beria exemplify the kind of monster the lack of any moral compass engenders. Beria is cold, calculating, sadistic and profoundly evil. He plans to ‘pause’ the regular programme of beatings and torture, so that reformists can be reviled for ideological disloyalty and weakness, and he can take the credit for restoring authority.

Beria’s cruelty and inhumanity is exemplified when he interrupts a conversation between Molotov (Michael Palin) and Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and grinningly insists on again hearing Molotov insist on how his own wife deserved to be taken away and executed for treason, before Beria shocks him by producing her from behind a door – after her long and undeserved sojourn in the bowels of prison.

Michael Palin plays Molotov as a dopey official doing his best to hide a kindly demeanour, resigned to the fact that he has sacrificed his marriage and self-respect in the tenuous hope of staying alive.

Steve Buscemi is Khrushchev, an astute operator masquerading as Stalin’s court-jester. Buscemi sometimes goes as far as to give Khrushchev a hint of the noir-movie gangster. Having these real-life Russians played by English and US actors in their natural accents helps to differentiate characters and the divisions in Russian society. It also serves to create some distance from the grotesque reality.

Jeffrey Tambor delightfully portrays the vain and ineffectual Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy, chosen for his malleability and spinelessness. With Malenkov taking nominal control, the real power struggle between the remaining members of the elite can continue. They are far more concerned with their own interests than those of the people, and scramble around trying to ensure that there is always someone else in position to shoulder blame and that any onlookers are expendable.

Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s neurotic daughter Svetlana, is particularly amusing, driven to paranoia trying to reign-in her deranged, dead-beat drunk of a brother, Vasily (Rupert Friend).

Entering like a whirlwind, Jason Isaacs plays the Head of the Red Army and ‘war hero’ Georgy Zhukov. Endowing him with the accent of a bellicose northern hardman proves to be an inspired move. Meanwhile, snide comments are interjected throughout by Paul Whitehouse, as the crass Anastas Mikoyan.

Much of the humour in The Death Of Stalin comes from the performances. It’s a superb cast, with each actor giving a stellar turn. There is possibly as much competition to outdo each other onscreen as there was in the Kremlin.

Iannucci’s film is an attack on the corruption, bureaucracy, and self-serving scheming of those who gain power, mocking those who try to maintain their hold by toadying up to their superiors. It may be significant that he has chosen to set his satire during the genocidal purges of Stalinist Russia.

High production values, great sets and locations and excellent comedic performances give the film an expensive-looking slickness. In some ways, it’s a little disquieting to perceive uproariously hilarious comedy in what are horrific historical events. It generates an uncomfortable kind of humour. I myself found The Death Of Stalin very entertaining, but in a horror-comedy kind of way.

The film has been described by some critics as ‘all too believable’, well yes, that’s because although it is hugely absurd and crazy, it’s barely fictional – these things happened much as the film sets them out, with some license to broaden the quirks of the characters for comic effect. The truth is that Stalin was an unbalanced, dysfunctional product of the Russian socialist revolution and responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people – almost twice as many as Hitler.

My smile during the film was rather of the bitter variety, as my grandparents managed escape after being left to starve in Stalin’s Gulag, and some of their friends had been on his countless ‘lists’.

The laughter in the cinema underlines the fortunate detachment most viewers experience while watching the movie, lucky enough never to have lived under a reign of terror. The closest some may come to imagining how odd this humour is, is by imagining a scenario in which, during the finale of ‘Dad’s Army’, Warmington-on Sea is overrun by the Soviet Army and the loveable characters are taken away, brutally tortured and shot.

It may be worth remembering that for some viewers, The Death of Stalin is not entirely fictional, and not merely an ‘enjoyable political romp’.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2017 All rights reserved.

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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