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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

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

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Beale Street Movie Marker

Released: 8th February 2019

Directed By: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

In his entrancing and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’, it was the longing to be authentic. To be accepted in an often volatile environment that powered its narrative.

Clearly in this pitch-perfect adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, director Barry Jenkins is consumed with longing of a different kind that is just as potent. Justice. An eradication of the infuriating systemic abuse of law and power against black people in America, that sees this luminous love story in 1970’s Harlem, strike modern-day parallels with our own divided, morally skewed society.

An incandescent portrayal of young romance. The tenderness, respect and sheer revolve that underpins the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) will leave you spellbound from the outset, as their lives are soon mired in despair. The rapturous joy of new life as Tish falls pregnant, backed up by the triple threat of mom Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Quickly cancelled out by the malice of Fonny’s staunchly religious family and a false yet potentially devastating rape allegation made against him, as they scramble to prove his innocence.

Punctuated by Kiki Layne’s wholesome narration and an overwhelmingly beautiful Nicholas Brittell score that i would be content listening to for days on end. Jenkins exchanges the melancholic blues of his previous effort for a broader but no less lush visual palette, with its exquisite interiors and classy costume design almost serving as a rainbow for the tears that have streamed down their faces through such hardship, but their spirit and love continues to illuminate their gritty surroundings. Whether it be lingering close-ups of sweet embrace or deep sorrow. Its director doesn’t flinch for a second in conveying the simmering emotions on display and in doing so, leaves you completely transfixed by his tactful approach to the source material.

There is a raw resilient energy that permeates throughout its central romance. Kiki Layne’s Tish serves as the remarkably understated, calming influence to Stephan James’ broken-hearted prisoner, a slave to a corrupt system with a searing monologue by Fonny’s dear friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) reinforcing the pain inflicted. Through it all, their hopeful adoring looks and stifling intimacy simply captivate. In Regina King’s marvellous mother figure, she peppers the film with considerable candour, armed with dialogue that pierces your soul. Whilst Jenkins leaves enough room for inspired cameos that are best left a secret, which gorgeously represent a sense of community and a progression in attitude, that defies the period.

A steady panning shot as Fonny smokes may seem throwaway. In this case, it is awfully fitting to articulate the finesse of its director. Lose yourself in the mesmeric haze of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

A lyrical experience that reminds you of the poetic power cinema can truly possess. His love for the art form brought him here. On this form. Trust Barry Jenkins to go all the way.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Stan & Ollie

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Stan and Ollie Rating Movie Marker

Released: 11th January 2019

Directed By: Jon S Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Products of classic Hollywood whose superior slapstick routines triggered endless laughter from their legion of fans, propelling them to legendary status. The sheer physicality and comedic prowess displayed by the English/American duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, still puts many modern-day efforts to shame.

But like so many comedians, there is a tragic element to their careers that contradicts their profession. Through this solid biopic by Filth director Jon S. Baird, it looks to give us a poignant insight into the duo’s grueling twilight years.

Their popularity slowly dwindling. Their bones creaking. Whether on the big screen or the stage, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C.Reilly) are suddenly not the hottest ticket in town in the early 1950’s. Lumbered with Rufus Jones’ Bernard Delfont, a wisecracking promoter who seems more invested in the likes of Norman Wisdom, they look to reignite interest with a lengthy theatre tour and a long-gestating film project. Yet with audiences middling, contract negotiations stalling and the workload far beyond what was expected, it puts a significant strain on the health and friendship of these two towering talents.

Inevitably with its story, you would expect ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be assured in its abilities to make you laugh. However much of the first half feels surprisingly stilted as Coogan and C.Reilly throw themselves into the pair’s much-beloved routines, with regular cutbacks to their adoring audiences. For the uninitiated, it may initially make you wonder what the fuss was about. Thankfully as the film’s supporting players are introduced to spar with our central characters, it finds a more consistent comedic rhythm, neatly intertwining with the film’s simmering emotion.

Whilst it’s undoubtedly a few visual flourishes away from being a formulaic BBC Christmas special. The admiration of S.Baird for Laurel & Hardy certainly shines through in its refined production, beginning with an exquisite tracking shot on a studio lot as he works his way through the duo’s masterful mischief with fondness.

The rapport between John C.Reilly and Steve Coogan anchors proceedings wonderfully, skilfully capturing the mannerisms and effectively articulating how dependent they are of each other, despite their ongoing disputes. In C.Reilly’s Ollie, his fully-fleshed turn pierces through the fat suit he wears, whose willingness to perform despite failing health is soul-stirring. Whilst the relentless nature of Coogan’s Stan, as he looks to churn out the material strong enough to breathe new life into their double act, makes for compelling viewing. The real danger posed however, is that the film’s main attraction are nearly upstaged by their witty wives, with Shirley Henderson’s Lucille and Nina Arianda’s Ida threatening to steal every scene they grace.

Entertaining enough to gently applaud. Yet perhaps not an act that quite raises the roof. ‘Stan and Ollie’ coasts by on its endearing nostalgic charm and committed performances.

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