Archive for April 25, 2018

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Get ready for Julius Caesar with Russian accents or rather since The Death of Stalin follows an ancient film tradition of spoken in English juxtaposed against Russian written on the signs and flower arrangements we’ll skip the Russian accents entirely.

Scene. An orchestra and pianist play Mozart live over Radio Moscow. Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) enjoys the performance in his dacha and calls the station manager wanting a copy of the recording. Ooops! No one had thought to push start on the record cutter.

The station manager runs around frantically because no one denies the “great” man anything. The live audience has mostly left the building and must be replaced. The audiophiles say that the different people will change the acoustics however slightly. It will have to do. The conductor has gone home another must be found. Amid, yet another round of late night roundups of people disappearing into the totalitarian night, a conductor is seized and brought to the radio station in his bathrobe. And they bribe the pianist with 20,000 rubles to play again.

This possibly true to life scene said to have happened in 1944, well before the 1953 death of Stalin, serves as a brilliantly hilarious farcical set piece to open a hilarious movie about the death of one of the world’s great villains. Especially when you consider that the movie has the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), a real life musician famous for hating Joseph Stalin and barely tolerating his successors, add a nasty note into the record sleeve that in the movie promptly creates the stress that brings on the cerebral hemorrhage or stroke that history says killed Joseph Stalin.

The movie unfolds as a power struggle between Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Largely because history records that Beria had his hands on the wheel of the many purges throughout Stalin’s Reign of Terror and the filmmakers making no bones about a common belief of ‘absolute power corrupting absolutely’ we quickly start rooting for Nikita Khrushchev as the lesser of two evils. The secret police chief is depicted as using his power over political prisoners to get on with their desperate wives.

The pitch perfect farce and comedic acting of Buscemi and Beale drive a delicious romp through official Soviet Russia intended to make mincemeat of totalitarian government by casting it as necessarily absurd. The contestants must maintain the ear of Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor) depicted as an ineffectual and easily bullied man more interested in photo ops than running a coherent government.

Each man gets in his shots against the other. Beria sends his secret police to take over Moscow security from the Red Army. Khrushchev orders the trains to let mourners into the city forcing Beria’s unprepared men to open fire. Finally, the game turns on making the right deals, promises and outright lies to Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the head of the Red Army and Conqueror of Berlin. With the army on Khrushchev’s side things go as downhill for the movie version of Beria as quickly as they did for the real life man once described by Stalin as “our Himmler.” Good riddance.

The filmmakers and the French graphic novel on which the movie is based clearly used black farce to grind several axes about the Soviet era and Stalin’s rule. And it shows on screen where the guards hear Stalin drop to the floor and no one enters to check because if you guess wrong about the big man’s health and disturb his sleep…BANG! It shows in Nikita Khrushchev flushing toilets to beat Beria’s bugs and complaining about “fucking apartments!” It shows in the sheer number of extras cinematically executed with pistol shots especially Stalin’s house staff. And in a nasty crack when the Politburo arrives and decides to summon a doctor – “We killed all the good doctors.”

In this absurdist farce played completely straight by everyone in the movie, there is one character that stands out as part of the anti-Soviet symbolism in the movie. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) infamous as origin of the nickname Molotov Cocktail (firebomb) is played as the only true believer in the room. His wife has been previously rounded up during a midnight purge and held alive by Beria as a bargaining tool and still the man assumes that his wife must be guilty. It takes Mister Buscemi’s Khrushchev to slap him around and admit the previous regime was capricious and did things at a whim, including that Molotov was on the last Enemies List put out before the death. Mister Palin deserves any and all accolades for this small but vital part.

It helps that this story about ambitious men killing each other to further their ambition and survival is set to really great music. Composer Chris Willis creates the tone of the times by creating music that sounds like Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich could have written them (assuming the Soviet censors would let them be associated with an anti-Soviet movie). It grounds the movie in a time where brutality was great and the art that survived the insanity of the Socialist Realism Movement reaches higher.

With the exception of Mister Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev few of the actors look very much like their real life counterparts as seen on Wikipedia. But, you spend so much time laughing at this perfectly directed and edited farce gifted to us by director Armando Iannucci that you just don’t care.

You’ll laugh hysterically at the movie antics of some of History’s worst people. Family entertainment at its finest.

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Some movies sneak up on you and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is exactly that kind of movie. I’ve seen it now a couple times since stripping off the shrink wrap on the disk that I’d let sit on my table for several months doing other things. This latest entry in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World franchise gets better with each viewing.

Scene. Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) blows up other wizards presumably in Europe. Events that are reported with the typical bloodthirsty scaremongering headlines of The New York Daily Ghost or perhaps the real life New York Post. The viewer must pay attention to the moving newspaper as it lays the foundations of the story. Grindelwald has the wizards everywhere in an uproar. American wizards don’t really like the magical beasts with whom they share the planet. Certain muggles or No-Maj Americans organize against the wizards despite few believing them. You might enjoy some giggle water…Oh, yeah, mustn’t forget the unknown force rampaging the city.

Into this turmoil lurking under the surface, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) walks down a steamship gangplank bringing his special suitcase that needs a Muggle button to hide the wondrous things inside. He intends to release a Thunderbird back into the wilds of Arizona. All of which goes awry walking past a bank in Lower Manhattan.

Despite being the sort of odd duck that has trouble looking people in the eye, Newt catches the attention of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), an anti-witchcraft activist. The distraction allows a niffler to peel its way out of Newt’s TARDIS-like suitcase. Newt follows the kleptomaniac platypus into the bank where he chances to meet Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), baker in need of a loan to open his bakery. Newt and Jacob each bring similar suitcases into the bank.

Meanwhile, Tina Goldstein (Kate Waterston), a former Auror (magic cop) with MACUSA follows Newt into the bank suspicious of the odd duck in New York. Between the niffler picking up all manner of shiny objects for the pouch and the inevitable switcheroo of the similar suitcases, Ms. Goldstein has her hands full helping Newt and Jacob retrieve the magical creatures that have escaped. Launching us on a path that leads to the inevitable discovery of the creature terrorizing New York such that even No-Maj people feel the threat.

In many ways, Jacob Kowalski steals large sections of the movie as the No-Maj sidekick. Mister Fogler’s performance as an everyman attempting to bootstrap himself in the bakery of his dreams helps ground the movie. His eyes bug out seeing what magic does for the wizarding community and then he shrugs digging in to experience the next assault on regular reality. And of the two male leads paired off with the Goldstein sisters, he gets the better scenes with Tina’s baby sister, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). He also takes getting steamrolled by a magical rhinoceros very well.

Given that the movie is set in 1926, I still found it odd that Tina comes off as the type of no-nonsense woman typically played by Kate Hepburn and Queenie comes off as the sort of high-pitched flapper later consolidated into the cartoon character Betty Boop. I kept wondering how these two completely different women actually resulted from the same orphan upbringing. But, then the filmmakers made sure that Jacob entered scene soon enough to keep us from asking this question more than once.

As for the developing relationship between Newt and Tina, both characters start with great reserve. Newt’s general inability to look people in the eye would seem to get in the way of engendering trust, but Tina finds whatever there is to find in this odd British duck. Frankly, Mr. Redmayne’s choices for the character are primarily why it has taken me several viewings to decide I liked the movie instead of merely tolerating the story. Even when they mean well, real world people that don’t make eye contact are sometimes hard to take.

But, then you dive deeper and realize that the odd duck is the plan. He admits to Tina early on that he “tends to annoy people.” And as you’d hope for the wizarding equivalent of Dr. Doolittle, the character lights up with wonder every time one of his fantastic beasts shares the screen.

I will highlight Colin Farrell as the chief American Auror, Percival Graves, providing a harsh look at wizard justice, especially violations of the International Secrecy Act. He holds his cards to his chest presenting what seems to be the care and concern for wizards and witches. He keeps an eye on Mary Lou Barebone’s New Salem Protective Society turning the woman’s adoptive son Credence (Ezra Miller) into an asset trying to find the Obscurus (a parasite that grows from repressed magic) that stalks New York despite official protestations to the contrary. Creepy personified.

Rounding out the experience of this fun movie, we get to look at CGI artists going all out for the creatures in Newt’s suitcase. Most of them closely reference real world animals or legendary creatures and provide most of the color in the neutral hues used for a New York imagined diagonally from the photographs of the era. Good times had by all.

In short for a fun movie that grows on you each time your kids make you see it, see this movie.