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Movie Reviews

The Death Of Stalin



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

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.



Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★



Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience



Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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