15 April 2018

Adventures at the 42nd Cleveland International Film Festival

This is weird, but even as an avid nine-year casual Internet movie blogger I've never had the opportunity to check out a film festival. When I heard that my new city of Cleveland, OH hosted a massive Film Festival at the Tower City Cinema, I was really excited. I ended up seeing three movies in three days (two last night), although the festival actually went on for like two weeks. I found out about it way too late.

I also rarely do this, but I thought I'd wrap up the three movies I saw in three micro-impressions here, since they're not well-seen (yet, hopefully), and for once I'll actually avoid spoilers in my discussion here.

Really not enough bits about alcoholism here
Scotch - A Golden Dream
Dir: Andrew Peat, Taiwan

Peat was there at the screening answering questions, but seemed aloof as to why he was currently living in China making movies about Scotch. He did say he was originally from Cleveland, which really just further confounded things.

Anyway, A Golden Dream was a solid documentary on the scotch industry, particularly focusing on Islay, Scotland. There is some great insight into the both the history and culture of the industry along with background on some specific distilleries. It ends up narrowing in on Jim McEwan, a distiller at Bowmore for years before revitalizing Bruichladdich and leading them into prominence. Well, quasi-prominence. That brand is critically lauded but I'd never heard of them - and I... drink a lot of scotch. I think it's just out of my price range.

While the film has all these really interesting moments it struggled in focus at times. It seemed like it didn't know what it actually wanted to say. McEwan is a good focus, but then it will leave and spend a lot of time with underappreciated roles of women in the industry or glass-making or the proper way to sniff a glass. And again, this is all interesting factoid stuff, and in the case of female scotch makers, fairly important in breaking stereotypes. But instead of using all the female interviews to fuel material for women in industry, why not just hear what they have to say about the creation of scotch? That's still left up to the men, and ultimately all the women are allowed to discuss is their own role both currently and historically.

I was really torn with this. Scotch comes off sometimes as a feature-length advertisement for Islay scotch, Bruichladdich in particular, virtually ignoring Lowland, Speyside, and Highland producers. It still has a lot of insight into the creation process, the level of skill master distillers display on a given day, and how much it means to the Scottish people. On some level it feels like the level of insight you'd get on any distillery tour, but considering I don't plan on flying to Scotland anytime soon, it's nice to have here.

Lord Bullington was also the Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut
Dir: Tony Zierra

This documentary was about Leon Vitali, who if you don't know, was an English actor who appeared in just about every movie and television show possible before starring as Lord Bullington in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). I can tell you're still not with me. After his experience on that film, Vitali became enamored in Kubrick's personality, directorial style, and perfectionist regimen. He ended up foregoing a budding acting career and became sort of Kubrick's personal and professional assistant, dedicating his entire life to behind-the-scenes work and since his death, continuous restoration and media format transition work.

It's a fascinating piece of work, especially as a big Kubrick fan who didn't know anything about this guy. He did everything from casting to coaching actors to editing, color correction, and archiving. What's most striking its Vitali's worth ethic and loyalty to Kubrick, who we all know is kind of nuts, but this film makes clear is totally bonkers. You know, in a good way.

What's most evident, though, is that Vitali was instrumental to much of Kubrick's success and has gone totally unnoticed for the better part of the past forty years. He's still alive and kicking it and has some great stories that fill this film. It'd be a hard documentary to get through if you're not real familiar with Kubrick, or at least his last three films that Vitali helped out with behind the scenes - The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

To some extent I was left wondering why the hell Vitali was required to work so hard, sometimes day and night (he says his longest streak was two 36-hours sessions), when there was only three fucking movies to make in twenty years. Of course, he ended up handling just about all of the VHS and later, DVD releases of Kubrick's earlier work as well, and the insight of working with a maniacal, demanding, eccentric boss is relatable to anyone. I think it's worth some discussion whether or not his effort was ultimately worth it - solely handling almost all production and marketing duties that normally entire studio departments would take on, because he was supposedly the only one who truly understood Kubrick's vision. I don't doubt that that's all true, but c'mon Stan, we'd still buy A Clockwork Orange (1971) on VHS no matter what was on the cover.

Film-wise it's a solid effort, and despite there being some questions left on the table (it's Kubrick, of course there will be), and it not really reaching an intellectual high point like a Kubrick film, this was fun. I wonder if Leon Vitali handles Netflix previews of Kubrick films.

Blood Fest
And the fat kid from Spider-Man!

Dir: Owen Edgerton

Blood Fest is a horror comedy about a young horror fan who attends this horror convention in the woods called Blood Fest, that, to his horror, becomes all too real when the events vendors make the horror come alive. The group of plucky fans must escape through re-created tropes of Romero, Raimi, a Jason-inspired slasher, torture-porn, and uhh...clowns.

There is some good commentary here on tropes and how to navigate a horror film, and it strikes a good balance of comedy and horror, but as I was sitting there all I could think about is films that played with tropes better like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) or horror comedies that were both scarier and funnier like Zombieland (2009). Even something like Scream (1996) nailed the meta-tone while creating its own iconography in way that this film seems to want to do. You get a pathetic feeling as this flick continually name-drops major horror icons like Freddy and Jason while having to settle for knock-offs to actually fight like the fictional Arborist. I can't really sum it up better than this headline.

Alright, having said all that, this is definitely a film that's trying to have fun with itself, and that's something. The most compelling character may be the completely insane and ammoral guy in charge of Blood Fest, who ironically, is played by director, Owen Edgerton. He brings a totally unhinged joy to his performance. Seychelle Gabriel does some good, underrated work as someone who in most other films would be an uninteresting love interest. A love un-interest, if you will, ho ho. She's great here. There's a certain glee to all the mayhem and the crowd definitely loved it. In the moment I was loving it too, but I wanted to see it build to something more significant.

In fact, as I was watching this, I began questioning if horror movies could even be successful as straight horror anymore. Sure, we just had A Quiet Place (2018), and Get Out (2017) make big bucks, but I'd be hesitant to call either of those straight horror with high body counts. Instead I think of The Babysitter (2017), Happy Death Day (2017), The Final Girls (2015), or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) as movies that I've all loved, but were only really elevated by pointing out tropes. Even WolfCop (2014). Man I've seen a lot of bad horror movies lately. Anyway, maybe we're beyond that point where we can have a straight slasher or monster movie that's actually scary. Or to be honest, at all.

There is more to talk about here. Purge. The Conjuring Cinematic Universe somehow. Anthology films like XX (2017), Holidays (2016), Tales of Halloween (2015), The ABCs of Death (2012), V/H/S (2012). A little movie called IT (2017). The Ritual (2017). There are a lot of good horror flicks out there. Blood Fest tries to be one of them, but ultimately can't find the balance.

I had fun at this festival. Sure all three of these films had problems, but it's really cool to see these before they ever get distribution, if they even do. And although there were issues here, each film was definitely interesting and memorable, which is important. I'd be into supporting any of these on their path to mainstream distribution.

For the record, other films I was interested in seeing but unable to:

The Carter Effect, Sean Menard
Five Fingers for Marseilles, Michael Matthews
Humor Me, Sam Hoffman
Mary Goes Round, Molly McGlynn
RBG, Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Revenge, Coralie Fargeat
Won't You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville

So, go watch these. And any other films you see at festivals nearby. It's fun stuff!

13 April 2018

First Impressions: Blockers

As we examine the theater-going crisis in this country right now, where interest has pooled to a few Disney-centric blockbusters and the prospects of just about any mid-range mainstream film is riskier than ever, the reasons why people identify with and flock to any particular film are ever more obscure. As the other great mass media, television continues to diversify and splinter, the distribution and projection costs of movies makes it difficult to be attractive to the most possible viewers.

No wrestling fan will watch this movie
I say all this because Blockers (2018) joins a slew of random-ass movies I've seen in theaters. I think of course back to The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) last year. I did not even know that Blockers existed before my credit card was hacked and therefore my Netflix account was temporarily rescinded, so I signed up for a free month of Hulu. That shit played a Blockers commercial every single break for every single show. And Hulu has a lot of commercials.

This looked like a really dumb movie. A forgettable comedy that I had no interest in at all. I moved on with my life. A friend of mine wanted to see it, though, and as I suggested, there were some hints that this movie could elevate itself beyond its reductive surface-level problematic elements. So from this slim impulse they got another ticket. On a Monday night. Go figure. All of the marketing elements this movie put forth measured up to absolutely nothing in getting me in the seat - in fact, it was a deterrent. We're in a weird world these days.

To get to the heart of the actual merits of this film, Blockers was way way funnier than it deserved to be. It was even a pretty good film structurally, although it tended to lose track of which group of people it wanted to be its protagonists at various points. When a film just feels good, though, and delivers the laughs, that's easy to ignore. I should explain what the hell is actually going on here. And SPOILERS forever, which is maybe significant for this film, but the plot is ultimately inconsequential to the jokes and character moments.

The film follows three daughters of three parents who all grew pretty close when the daughters were little, and although that trio has stayed BFF, the parents have drifted apart. Prom is coming up and the daughters start thinking about sexy times. The parents find out, freak out, and try to cock block them. Not all, of course, Ike Barinholtz wants to celebrate his daughter's budding homosexuality, which she is grappling with herself.

Everyone in this movie has their own thing or their own goal, gay Samantha is one of six. There's some really great focus on these High School seniors figuring out what's important to them, developing as individuals, transitioning to adults, and the balance of parental supervision. These are helicopter parents, folks - people who have raised their daughters wholly in the new millennium. The parents learn to let go, learn to find ways to re-connect, and actually learn to trust themselves and their own parenting, along with their daughters to make good choices.

All the actors hit their respective notes really well. Gideon Adlon, daughter of Pamela Adlon, plays the lesbian nerd, whose references to Smaug and Galadriel were on point (even if her girl crush's cape was definitely not Galadriel-esque). She's fairly closeted, scared of what her friends and family may think, so she tries to force herself into a heterosexual relationship, even just to try and see what it's like. It doesn't work out so she hooks up with a hot Asian girl. It's a kind of matter-of-fact homosexuality that came across as real, nuanced, and developed. This is from a movie that features John Cena anally ingesting IPAs.

Ike Barinholtz is her father who is kind of a wacky divorced dad piece of shit, but who also has the most trust and understanding of any of the parents. The opposite end of that spectrum is Leslie Mann, the single mom who doesn't want her daughter, played by Kathryn Newton, to make the same shitty mistakes that she did. A lesser movie would leave it at that, but Blockers progresses that further - questioning Mann's choices as legitimate mistakes, acknowledging that her daughter is making more independent decisions than just following horniness, and is part of a relationship where both partners are nervous about sex rather than just trouble-making teens. The weirdest part is that on the surface, Newton is clearly the hottest of their friends, but still totally best friends with this nerd (even though Adlon is probably secretly the hottest). They actually all represent really different friend groups, which further cements the sex bond they want to have.

I ought to talk about her bf, who somehow has the most open and trusting relationship with his parents, played by the sexually experimentative Gary Cole and Gina Gershon, perhaps a little too open and free. It presents a contrast to more common tropes of clueless parents.

Finally we have John Cena and his daughter, played by Geraldine Viswanathan. I was kind of surprised that this is actually the largest comedic role Cena has ever had. He had bit pieces in Trainwreck (2015) and Sisters (2015) and you could include the Daddy's Home movies. I totally forgot about The Marine (2006), 12 Rounds (2009), and The Wall (2017). It is amazing that such a forgettable action star could be such a natural comic gift. He's not front and center of this film, but the majority of jokes are at his expense, which is perfect. It's clear that he's remarkably comfortable laughing at himself and he exudes extreme confidence on screen.

MORE amazing than that is that they found Viswanathan who matches him. I'm not sure the last time I saw such a determined, strong, independent teenager on screen before. She commands every scene she's in while maintaining a doofy pluckiness that's sublime to witness. I hope she's in for a long healthy comedic career.

Part of this is how the teenage boys are portrayed. They're mostly idiots who don't know what they're doing, which seems to match well with the confident, sexually adventurous women. They all offer proper consent and largely roll with whatever the girls want to do, including at times, declining sexual intercourse. To some extent this may have been irresponsible in not addressing sexual assault or date rape, but that also seems really out of place for the tone of this movie. To be honest with the amount of nerdy idiot friends I had and was in High School I can't say I'd have acted much differently. Part of the core arc of this film is these parents learning that they have raised their daughters to have enough self-esteem to not hang out with or approach the sleezeballs of their grade for intercourse. They're hooking up with people they know will respect them. While the parents freak out at their daughters' precious innocence, the daughters themselves are totally in charge of each of their own situations.

That's an amazing achievement for what should have ostensibly been a brainless teenage sex comedy. There are some ham-fisted moments where this ideology is explicitly laid out, which was probably necessary based on the normal audience attracted to this kind of teen sex movie, but largely it twists its high concept brilliantly.

It's also really funny. That's important. Like I said, there are moments where the film doesn't know who to focus on, and we lose track of the daughters for a while while the idiot parents get into wacky hijincks, but it largely works. Blockers may be in the running for funniest film of the year, except I JUST watched Death of Stalin, so it's got its work cut out for it.

Critters Go Nuts, some Fight the Rock

Another Friday has dawned and it's time to take apart what's hitting your local multiplex. There is a rath of animal flicks dropping today, all of wildly varying genres. The big tentpole of course is Rampage (2018), which is based on a really niche video game that fizzled out like twenty years ago, despite having a more recent release in like...2006. We need to talk more about this, but let's first get some of the more inconsequential releases out of the way.

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero (2018). Say, you like saccharine family-fun features but also want to honor World War I dog veterans? Sgt. Stubby seems to play like the conservative, America-friendly animated flick, one that neglects any kind of real danger or insight in favor of blind jingoism. Yeah, I'm probably reading too much into this. It's probably just a cute little picture, definitely skewing way too young. Fucking Sgt. Stubby. I get annoyed at these pathetic last minute animation attempts to make a quick buck. For some reason they really get under my skin. Like Sherlock Gnomes (2018). It feels like such a futile effort and waste of everyone's time. This is probably an adorable inspirational movie.

Next up we have Borg vs. McEnroe (2018), which feels like it's been stewing for a while, and frankly, I didn't realize was even getting a nationwide release this weekend. It's Shia LaBeouf, which is cool because he's nuts and trying to become a real actor (doing a decent job of it lately), but I don't see how this improves upon 7 Days in Hell (2015). Critical appreciation seems like it's...okay? Maybe not worthy enough to be a real prestige release, but a fair shake at a sports drama. It's decent counter-programming to anything else out right now, and depending on the pathos it delves into, it ought to do...fine. It's kind of a sneaky film that could easily be forgotten forever. Or maybe it lasts. Either way, tennis is sill boring as hell.

Arf arf arf!
With each Wes Anderson movie he becomes more Wes Anderson-esque, and that's definitely true with Isle of Dogs (2018), getting a slight theater bump, but not quite wide release. Good enough. He has his fans and the marketing for this has been solid. Do kids even like this kind of animated film? It's so measured and tepid. Like the exact opposite of any flashy Dreamworks animation. The colors here are so muted, camerawork, and set design so artificial. It wears this artificiality on its sleeve, though, as if to simply say "Let's not let this get in the way of the story."

There's some criticism of Japanese cultural appropriation which I don't really think is valid, but we'll have to see. It looks fun, iconic, weird, and tragic. Basically super Wes Anderson-y. To be honest, Anderson doesn't have a great track record with women characters, either, so I'm kind of curious how that plays out here. It seems like we have at least one prominent female quasi-protagonist. So...that's something? I've already hyped this up and still want to see it. Wes can be brilliant or a hipster doofus, but animation suits his sensibilities far more than he actually indulges. That is, he should really just only direct animated films.

That is pretty cool, though, actually
Alright, back to Rampage. Why the fuck are they making a Rampage movie. The original arcade was a cheeky 80s romp, where you took control of a King Kong analogue (George), a Godzilla analogue (Lizzie), and uh...a giant Wolf, who I always thought looked like a rat (Ralph). You pretty much just smashed up everything. It was a really simple game that was fun as hell. I played the hell out of Rampage: World Tour for the Nintendo 64. The goal is always to eat some toxic waste and turn into the giant evil bat. That's what life is all about. Subsequent games added more monsters, and that's cool, but this was never a really huge game, either in depth of gameplay, story, or popularity.

That didn't stop Hollywood, though. Someone thought this was a good idea. Through the Rock in and blow up some buildings. It's all good. I kind of wish they didn't spoil Ralph and Lizzie appearing in this movie, but what are you going to do. It could be pretty fun if it keeps up the irreverent spirit of the games that were borderline parody / homage to classic Kaiju moments. I don't really see that being a thing here. Director Brad Peyton has done servicable work with Johnson on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) and San Andreas (2015), but these are movies no one cares about. The screenplay was written by a four-person committee whose biggest name is Carlton Cuse, so there's nothing notable to be said there.

I hope it's good! I always end up so bitchy in these things. The marketing material hasn't been all that grab-worthy, and if there's good character work and a solid bond between The Rock and a giant albino Gorilla, then cool. If not, then it's another Pacific Rim Uprising dumpster movie. Is it weird that I actually know a lot of Rampage video game trivia?

What are you seeing this weekend?

06 April 2018

Teddy, Cena, Noise-fearing Monsters This Weekend

We've got a unique weekend, folks, with three movies that have decently actually caught some zeitgeist despite not having anything to do with any franchises or explosions. Well, mostly. It really just feels like the lull before the great storm of Infinity War (2018) in a few weeks, and even though Ready Player One (2018) is a decent hit, it's definitely Black Panther (2018) who is THE blockbuster of the year so far. More and more it just feels like we're biding time in between big Disney hits.

But enough about that crap. There are three films of varying values and interests dropping this week, and although I doubt any will hit the big time blockbuster-wise, they ought to all make enough dough to get by in their own niche. Let's start with an adult period drama - Chappadaquick. Or Chappaquiddick (2018). Actually, I think I've been reading it in my mind and calling it Chappadaquick for years.

The movie centers around a really dark and evil story of Teddy Kennedy. There are varying takes and I'm curious to see which one the film centers on, but my understanding is that the Senator got blasted at a party, tried to drive a young woman home, lost control the vehicle, then abandoned it and the girl as it sank into Nantucket Sound. She died. It was decently big news and marred Kennedy for a while, but because it was 1969 and she was a woman, nobody really cared. It's the kind of thing that could really derail someone today. Unless of course, it was our actual current President.

It really sucks that one of the biggest shining light Democratic dynastic families in the 20th-Century were really a crew of disastrously awful people. We've heavily mythologized the Kennedy clan for a century, which is so misguided. I'm a huge Democrat, but I'd like to think I can still tell right from wrong. This is a tough scenario to remember, especially because for some reason Teddy was in office for almost another forty years. How is any of that okay? There's some merit here that I'm curious about, although it's still a difficult subject for liberals to rectify and live with, while if it's not simply a smear campaign, Republicans may not be interested in. I'm actually getting myself more interested as I speak, although I don't necessarily get the impression it'll do anything bold or revolutionary.

Next we have...Chicken Blockers? That is apparently the official title. Or Cockblockers. Or Blockers (2018). I had no idea this movie existed until a month ago when I was forced to get Hulu (long story, folks) and saw adds nonstop. During every fucking commercial break despite paying for it. How is that still a thing. Anyway, it seemed really dumb and even reductive towards young female sexuality, but apparently it may actually be somewhat redemptive? Or even possibly show the viewpoint of a generation struggling to rebel against its strict and helicopter upbringing? I get why the marketing may need to focus on John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, and Leslie Mann being stereotypical goofy parents who don't want their precious daughters having sex, like any movie ever, but I'm way more interested if there's more to it than that. And it's currently at an absurd 83% on Rotten Tomatoes! The critics really like this thing!

We've been starved for a real classic comedy for a while. A long while. 2016 didn't quite have any standouts, unless Deadpool counts. Or, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, honestly. 2017 maybe you have Girls Trip or The Big Sick, but neither of those are really like, the classics. Could fucking Blockers join them? I think no, but we need something. If this could hit a vein, then yeah, have a great April!

Last we have A Quiet Place (2018), from reknowned horror director, "Jim from The Office." It's amazing how much John Krasinski has done since The Office (even during his run on the show) and how little anyone has cared. Is anyone here a big fan of Leatherheads (2008)? License to Wed (2007)? 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)? His two previous feature directorial efforts are Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) and The Hollars (2016). Yep. Exactly.

But damn that trailer. Let's just post it here:

It looks fucking sweet. A pretty cool idea with some genuine terror and suspense. If you take anything from Krasinski's efforts above you can kind of see how un-Jim like a lot of his recent work is. I also just watched Detroit (2017) and Krasinksi shows up as the lawyer defending the racist cops with twenty minutes left to go and OWNS it. In a horrible, terrible racist way, but you totally buy in that Jim is this dickish prickish no-nonsense lawyer. It's kind of amazing. The Office's goodwill only keeps rising, honestly, which is also crazy because there's only about three and a half good seasons in there. Even towards the end Jim became pretty assholey. Maybe Krasinski is actually good at playing assholes.

Of course, we should also mention his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, who I'm always struck by how much better her career is. He knows this. Her films are waaay more successful in every possible way. I'm glad they stick together. She's also about to explode with Mary Poppins Returns (2018). I get some Looper (2012) vibes from this role, but Blunt brings such strength as well as a decent variety to everything she does. It's amazing that they've never worked together, and you get the feeling that this is a personal passion-project type film for Krasinski, which will probably make it better.

I'm weirdly excited for all three of these films, and if you read this site at all, you know that never, ever happens. I'll probably be slitting my wrists come Sunday, but for now the vibe is good. See? I'm not just a bridge troll hurling feces at everything. Good films are good films and more importantly, rare films. What's caught your eye this weekend? Drama, comedy, or horror?

04 April 2018

2018 March Badassness CHAMPION!

This was all too easy. What was really wild is how we got here, though. T'Challa, King of Wakanda, the Black Panther himself defeated uhh....Sonic the Hedgehog. What are you people doing.

Here's the final poll, which Black Panther won with 83% of the votes.

And his path to victory:

Round of 64: Defeated (15) Wing Gundam
Round of 32: Defeated (10) Legolas
Sweet Sixteen: Defeated (14) Commander Peter Quincy Taggart
Elite Eight: Defeated (4) Dutch
Final Four: Defeated (3) Mulan
Championship: Defeated (9) Sonic

Peter Taggart and Mulan were wacky fan favourites, Black Panther's victory here is pretty significant. It also helps that he couldn't be hotter off one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. Also of all time. But let's also look at Sonic's path at a 9 seed:

Round of 64: Defeated (8) Lorraine Broughton
Round of 32: Defeated (1) Goku
Sweet Sixteen: Defeated (12) Roland Deschain
Elite Eight: Defeated (6) Deathstroke
Final Four: Defeated (1) King Kong
Championship: Lost to (2) Black Panther

Sonic beat two #1 seeds! But other than that a lot of his opponents were pretty obscure. That Round Two defeat of Goku is UMBC-esque, though.

So, Black Panther as a champion #2 seed joins the ranks of March Badassness Champions. Eventually we'll do 64 of these and have them all fight each other. That would be in the year 2078. Man I hope I'm still alive doing this crap in 2078. Here's your all-time Winner Rundown:

2015: (1) Han Solo
2016: (9) Buffy Summers
2017: (1) Sam Jackson
2018: (2) Black Panther

I kind of do want to point out that only one straight white male has won in four years. Diversity is badass, baby!

As we do look to the future, I've got to say that we scraped the damn barrel pretty hard this year. I have currently amassed 87 more pop culture icons to duke it out, which I'll whittle down to 64 for next year, but it's going to be ROUGH. I can't imagine anyone coming in who has never seen this site before and thinking, "Why is Atom Ant a #3 seed?" That's how it works. If you've got any ideas of who you'd like to see, please...please send them in.

I also think I might move this to Twitter next year. Maybe even dust off the old twitter handle. I have...I have four followers and have not tweeted in seven years. I see no issue with this.

That's all for this year, folks. Start following @NM_Wood, I'll start tweeting some stupid crap

02 April 2018

First Impressions: The Death of Stalin

I am not the biggest Armando Iannucci fan simply in the sense that I just haven't seen that much of his work. It pretty much boils down to Alan Partridge, In the Loop (2009), and VEEP, of which I'm weirdly most into Partridge. Still, the dude has a knack for political satire (clearly), and has made a career out of twisty, rapid-fire jokes, and unabashed vitriol. He brings all this to The Death of Stalin (2018), which becomes one of those films that I watched on a whim, thought might be good, and ended up being one of my favourite flicks of the year so far.

Uh-Oh Spaghetti-Os!
This is interesting subject matter to mine for comedy, but it's not really as dark as it could have been. It ends up being an exercise in madcap ridiculousness, power-mongering, double-crossing, and a carefully executed escalation of stakes until everything pops. It's over the top and amazing. For those not in the know, the film centers around the well, death of Joe Stalin in 1953 and the chaos of the ensuing power struggle among his top aides, members of the politburo, and immediate family. There is no attempt made at delivering Russian accents or even consistent British accents. There is also not even really an attempt at casting actors who resemble the historical characters they're playing. Somehow this gets in the way of nothing and only serves to concentrate the film on the performances, trusting the actors naturally shine.

They do and it's fantastic. Steve Buscemi is Khrushchev somewhere between a good-hearted 90s Buscemi weasel and the dangerous Nucky Boardwalk Empire Buscemi. Jeffrey Tambor is the heir apparent, Malenkov, a spineless loaf. Michael Palin comes out of no where as a strict defender of the Old Guard. Jason Isaacs is a supreme and undaunted Commander of the Red Army. Perhaps the best performance of all, though is Simon Russell Beale as the head of Stalin's secret police tasked with hunting down and executing anyone found on a certain list. He's a deplorable awful man but it's also clear that they all are. They're all just competing for power and approval working under fear that they could be crossed and murdered at any moment.

That's really just the tip of this cast. There are an army of sycophants that all have little moments to shine as well as bitter pianist Olga Kurylenko whose letter to the Chairman might have caused the stroke that led to his death. There is an unending array of little moments from Paddy Considine's put upon concerto director in a whirlwind opening scene to the breathtaking incompetency of Rupert Friend as Stalin's son. Andrea Riseborough plays Stalin's more levelheaded daughter with a series of more subtle jokes as each of the buffoons running the Soviet Union vies for her favor.

To really get into this film is to understand that everything is a joke - in the audience it seemed like people were occasionally leaning into the seriousness of the proceedings, but almost every moment is undercut with some blatant incompetency, ham-fisted obviously selfish act, or otherwise insane premise. The film has gotten flack in much of the former Soviet Union, but to be honest, the parallels to modern American politics are more blatant. Beale's Lavrentiy Beria bears at least a physical resemblance to Dick Cheney for sure, and could easily be transposed into a Steve Bannon-type figure. It's easy to picture Trump as Stalin, with his array of easily disposed, fearful quisling cabinet and staff members all battling for approval and power. Not a single one of them cares about the Russian people, it's instead an adherence to Soviet ideology, the demagogue of Stalin, and most of all, saving their own skin.

As with most funerals, white is the color of choice.
The Death of Stalin weaves this intricate political gamesmanship while remaining really funny. It's definitely in that VEEP mode where no character likes each other and doesn't particularly even try to hide that fact. Everyone is too caught up in his own game to worry much about anyone else until the pot boils over and breaks. There's yelling, dominating, cowering, all fruitless action until Khrushchev emerges as the master tactician. That's hopefully not a spoiler, it's...you know, like actual history. The fun part is watching all the madness unfold and seeing how we get there, and as the epilogue implies, Khrushchev was only good until Leonid Brezhnev usurped him.

It's early in the year and there's a lot more film to go - we haven't even gotten into the Summer Blockbuster season or the Fall Awards season yet (who am I kidding, those seasons suck), but I'm digging this one a lot for now. It's refreshing, vibrant, silly, serious, and contemplative. Go see it.
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