Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Death of Stalin

I’m fond of a quote from Mark Twain to the effect that the truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make some kind of sense. One side effect of this insight is the realisation that historical drama is going to simplify the hell out of things. And just as Victoria and Abdul seemed to telescope a 14 year long con into a couple of years, The Death of Stalin compresses the queasy six months after Stalin’s death into a couple of days of uneasy hi-jinks that resolve in the shadow of Stalin’s funeral. Arguably this is for the best, since no-one in their right mind would want to spend six months in the company of Stalin’s inner circle.

Obviously, Stalin dies. Just like in real life, he doesn’t die anything like soon enough; the ideal time for Stalin to have died would have been before his christening. Slightly less obviously, Laurenti Beria dies. I am not giving in to my natural assumption that anyone who’d go to see The Death of Stalin would naturally know that the winner of the scorpion conga was Khrushchev and the big loser was Beria. It says so very very much about Stalin’s coterie that Khrushchev was head and shoulders the good guy in any face-off over who was going to run the Soviet Union.

Beria, now. Beria. The climax of the movie has Beria beaten, gagged, dragged into a barn and subjected to a kangaroo trial where he pleads for his life before being shot almost casually by the first soldier to get his pistol into frame and having his body incinerated dismissively by Marshall Zhukov. And by the time it all happens, all any normal person could possibly think would be “damn, that didn’t hurt him anything like enough.” Simon Russell Beale gives us Beria as an irredeemable monster, driven by cruelty, lust and ambition and yet astonishingly he still makes Beria look better than he was in real life. If you just looked at Beria’s day job, you’d see a man who murdered people to stay in power, and did it cruelly because it was more fun that way. It’s when you look at how he spent his time off that you realise that he was trying to be normal at the office; he spent his free time raping women and children and strangling the ones who struggled; the survivors were sent off with bouquets of flowers to create the pretence that it had all been in fun. Beria was one of those little gifts to the world who could fuel a thousand arguments over whether it would be moral to wipe out a whole village to remove any chance at all that Beria might have been born from someone living there.

So, fun guy. Iannucci doesn’t pull any punches in depicting Stalin and co; they’re resolute no-marks, united in their mediocrity and willingness to do anything to stay in power. This, of course, freed the movie up to cast a blizzard of talented pure character actors, one homelier than the next, and all chosen for at least a passing resemblance to the originals. The standout is Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev, simultaneously a coarse scumbag full of raucous stories about war crimes he’s enjoyed, and a man just self-aware enough to realise that giving into his own ambitions might be the least worst solution to Russia’s problems. Buscemi excels at clever creepiness, and he’s perfectly cast.

Of course he’s not the most fun character; that crown goes to Jason Isaac’s Marshall Zhukov. Like everyone else, he’s a broad caricature, but he’s larger than life and his genial abrasiveness comes across as the clarity of a life-time’s worth of life and death decisions rather than the weaselly impulse to self preservation driving the rest of the politburo. Thirty years of Stalin had eroded everything decent in soviet political life; by 1953 the only survivors were the ones who would do anything to survive, and equally do nothing unless they were sure it was safe. Zhukov bursts into their company like a brass band at an autopsy and somehow lifts the mood no matter what he does.

Other bits and pieces; Olga Kurylenko is in it, and for the first time in my experience she gets through a whole movie with all her clothes on, doesn’t get killed and has a proper speaking part that lets her act. Which it turns out that she can. Which cheered me up tremendously at the credits. It almost made up for how bad I felt about Rupert Friend, having spent the whole movie thinking that Luke Evans was doing a surprisingly good job of Vassili Stalin. It would have been a surprisingly good job for Luke Evans; if I’d known it was Rupert Friend I’d probably have been expecting him to do more with the part.

Anyhow; minor history lesson. The movie is true to the character of the real players and so it’s psychologically true, albeit somewhat grotesque. It’s incredibly true to the spirit of the time; we really get a sense of the fear hovering over every person in the Soviet Union as Iannucci cuts away from the plotters to the ordinary people being dragged to their doom as each whim plays out. There’s an extended opening bit where Stalin whimsically asks for a recording of a concert after it’s ended; the desperate radio station scrambles to do the concert all over again for the recording, and my heart was in my mouth as a struggle broke out over the record just as it was being handed over to the MVD. I was convinced it was going to be broken, and that everyone would wind up in the Gulag. That’s some scene-setting, right there. So, the tone is right. The facts; not so much. In reality it took three months of manoeuvring and fearful plotting before Khrushchev could put together a coalition to nobble Beria. The end was nothing as rushed and improvised as the movie’s climax. Life doesn’t have to respect the aristotelian unities.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the whole movie is the way in which Iannucci is unblinking about the sheer horriblenesss of, well, everything, and yet somehow able to make it all bleakly hilarious. 

Friday, 20 October 2017

The Snowman; when you're in a Hole, stop digging

The Snowman is a movie where the trailer doesn’t show you what to expect; not because the movie is fully of expertly managed suspense and misdirection, but because the trailer is full of stuff that didn’t make it into the final cut. I find it hard to fight the idea that the trailer is a hint that with a better cut and more running time, they could have somehow made a movie which worked.

I call that an idea, but maybe it’s just a fond hope. Maybe I just want to think that a uniformly solid [1] cast and a pretty good director had it in them to make a decent movie instead of the steaming pile of nonsense that I watched this week. Maybe nothing was going to save it. Certainly Michael Fassbender wasn’t going to. Resolutely playing Harry Hole as if he’d been told his first name was actually Arse, his only possible excuse is that he started shooting for The Snowman four days after he came off Assassin’s Creed and he didn’t realise that he was supposed to be interacting with real humans now.

There’s something meticulously tone deaf about the whole thing. Even though the Norwegian film board hurled money at the production and there’s another wonderful landscape shot every three minutes, anything which might sound Norwegian has been meticulously sanded off the script; the newspapers are in English, the advertising is in English, and Harry Hole’s name is pronounced just like it looks, instead of the way it would sound, which is more or less Hoolay. Because the name sounds ridiculous in English, and Hole’s the kind of guy no-one calls by his first name, you’re reminded every couple of minutes that this is a movie made by people who didn’t realise that they were being idiots.

It’s also a movie which hired Toby Jones and then gave him nothing to do. He’s on screen for less time than it takes to play a Beatles song, and contributes nothing to the plot, but because it’s Toby Jones, I spent the back half of the movie waiting for him to come back to work. Nope. Maybe he’s part of all the stuff which was in the trailer and wound up not being in the movie. Him and Adrian Dunbar and JK Simmons and so on and so forth.

And then there’s the plot. The Redbreast kind of knocked me back a bit on reading the rest of the Harry Hole books, so I don’t know if the book makes more sense than the film adaptation, but the only way it could make less would be if Jo Nesbo ordered it to be printed with every second page missing. Harry is the great genius detective, but he spends most of the movie detecting his floor. He’s supposed to be a tortured genius who drinks too much and neglects his friends and family but gets away with it because he’s just so all fired good at his job. But we never see him detect a single goddam thing. Weirdly, the whole "everyone forgiving him because he’s so damn cool” thing does seem almost plausible simply because it’s Michael Fassbender, and even sleepwalking Michael Fassbender is the nearest thing we’ve got to a new edition of 1990s Daniel Day Lewis. Then there’s the murderer, who doesn’t make any sense at all, at any level, starting with the bit about him turning out to be virtually the only character in the movie who hasn’t been teased as a possible killer, and progressing cheerily through the way that his murders don’t make sense even as crazy-person murders. And there’s Harry’s female sidekick, who gets herself killed doing something so amazingly stupid that she deserved it without there being any way in which the murder could logically have happened. Man, it’s a mess. Like I say, maybe there’s a whole bunch of out-takes somewhere which make sense out of it; more likely there’s a whole bunch of outtakes which even if you strung them together at random would make more sense.

The good-ish news is that no-one is likely to be taking another swing at this any time soon. But it’s sad to see that much talent getting such a poor return on their effort.

[1] OK, maybe not Val Kilmer, who now looks like Marv from Sin City wearing a Val Kilmer mask he found in a gas station and put on in the dark

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049: "There's not as much there as you think"

Last year Denis Villeneuve made Arrival, which was probably my favourite movie of the year; there were a couple I enjoyed more, but Arrival is the one which I’d feel happy recommending to absolutely anyone, without knowing what kind of movie they liked. So Villeneuve directing a sequel to Blade Runner carried me right past “why the hell would anyone want to do that?” and into “you know what? That might just work.” 

Well, maybe. Famously the original tanked at the box office and got recut about five times, so it’s probably best to stick a pin in my first impressions and see how the revisionism goes.

Still. It’s long. It’s slow. It’s not very focused  - well, everything’s IN focus, because Roger Deakins. It’s got Jared Leto in it (Ryan Gosling won big time here by not having to share any screen time with Leto, who seems to have been at full-on creepy form for the fortnight he spent on a soundstage in Hungary; sure, Ryan got punched in the mouth and relentlessly mocked by Harrison Ford, but at least he didn’t have to put up with Jared Leto). It’s great looking without having the sheer novel punch of the original. It’s full of important themes, but at the same time it’s kind of full of itself about how it’s messing with important themes. As Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette says “I've been inside you, and there's not as much there as you think.” 

It probably wouldn’t have been so long if it could have picked a plot and stuck with it. There’s a perfectly serviceable plot about Ryan Gosling’s officer K and his alienated relationship with a computer simulation. K’s a replicant, and he’s in love with something even more artificial than he is. That’s a perfectly good movie right there, and a good place to jump off if you want to spend a whole movie brooding on the nature of humanity and identity. Sadly, that’s just the B plot. The A plot is all about finding the mysterious child of Deckard and Rachel from the first movie, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the mysterious child (who would be at least half replicant depending on your position on the whole Deckard question) is going to be leader of a fresh replicant revolution. Oh, no, it’s the end of the world. Again.

Because Blade Runner 2049 has loads of the end of the world already. In the thirty years since we checked in with Rick Deckard, things have got worse. The world’s food supply has collapsed, people have been chucking nukes around, trees are so gone that wood is worth a fortune, and weather is available in original “continuous rain” and new “permanent dust storm” and “snow? How is it snowing?” The weird thing is that after a while it just gets in the way.

Watching Villeneuve and Deakins layer on more and more detail to their world, I realised how economical Blade Runner was. It’s wet, tight, urban and claustrophobic. There’s a consistent background which tells us enough about the world and then the characters just get on with it. The background doesn’t become the foreground, no matter how impressive and immersive it gets. In 2049 minutes go by just looking at stuff. And it’s the exact opposite of immersive. At one point, K trips over a bunch of beehives, full of bees. There isn’t a scrap of green, let alone any flowers, for as far as the eye can see. What are those bees living off? Villeneuve wanted a shot with a beehive, so that K could stick his hand it and get covered in bees. Whether it made any sense or not. But because the movie is sleepwalking, I had all the time I needed to figure out how dumb this was, while it was - happening doesn’t even feel like the right word.

So there it is. A good looking movie, which I went I wanting to like. It’s well acted, by a whole swathe of good performers. Gosling is excellent. K doesn’t make a button of sense, but Gosling somehow still makes him feel like a person. Ford is the same old grumpy Ford he’s been for the last ten or so movies. Robin Wright is great, as usual. Mackenzie Davis continues to be an overlooked treasure; all I can do is hope that with Halt and Catch Fire winding down she’ll start getting more chances to break hearts without saying a single word. And there are three more women in completely schematic roles who I’ve never seen before and hope I see again; Ana de Armas, Sylivia Hoeks and Carla Juri are playing walking plot points and they rise above the writing to give you people who feel real. How can all that be happening and somehow I’m not happy?

I don’t know. But I can’t help thinking that if this goes into the same cycle of re-cuts as the original, what comes out of it will have a lot less scenery and a lot more acting.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle; he was dead, but he got better

We hold some truths self evident; if you’ve got a mini-gun and it isn’t the first thing you use to solve your problem, you shouldn’t have brought it. This struck me in the first few minutes of The Golden Circle, when the baddie’s henchmen butt into a fist fight with three mini-guns. Nothing’s made much sense up to then - and nothing’s going to make much sense afterwards either - but that felt joltingly dumb. Just when the movie was trying to overwhelm me with sensation, it was jolting me out of the moment.

Kingsman was a vaguely enjoyable mess with all sorts of good performances thrown almost randomly into a script which couldn’t decide if it was satirising the class system or glorifying it. I remember saying that Colin Firth was great and that I’d been hoping that the entire Kingsman organisation would be wiped out to make room for social workers.

On that front I have great news. The Kingsman organisation is wiped out to the last man, pretty much, and at no extra charge, Colin Firth is back from the dead. On the one hand, Colin Firth was the single best thing in the first movie even though he wasn’t even trying and had exactly one tone the whole way through. On the other hand, he’s still the single best thing in the second movie, but this time he’s actually got something worth his time. There’s a whole, legitimately good, movie they could have made about Colin Firth’s character coming back from the dead, and Colin gives us a pretty good taster for it. I have to say that it would be scientific bullshit, because amnesia after head trauma doesn’t work the way movies would like it to, but with Firth selling the bullshit, it would have been something to see. As it is, we get a few minutes of real pathos as we see him knocked back to the happier person he could have been if he’d never joined the Kingsmen, and it starts to sink in that the only way forward for the plot is for this gentle, slightly bewildered person to be swept aside. As if that weren’t enough, he’s hallucinating butterflies all the time, and it’s genuinely beautiful and immersive in a way that most of the stunts just aren’t.

So, lots of good Firth in there, and a nagging sense that if they’d bothered, they could have made a good movie. Then you look at the rest of the cast; five Oscar winners in total, and poor old Taron Egerton gamely hanging on in there trying to be a real boy while everyone else coasts. Halle Berry is there and I swear she worked harder when she was playing Catwoman. Channing Tatum shows up for just long enough to register and then gets put in a fridge before he gets in a single action scene. Michael Gambon is there, and on and on it goes. There’s a lot of great actors on screen and yet Elton John, of all people, is given more to do than most of the big names.

And man, the tone is all over the place. On the one hand, Eggsy’s actually making a go of a relationship with the Swedish princess who looked like random Bond-babery at the end of the first movie. On the other hand, I stopped counting how many different callbacks they had for the anal sex joke from the first movie (including Elton’s cheery offer to give Colin Firth “a back-stage pass” if he saves the world). It was like they had Liam Neeson’s cop from The Lego Movie writing the script and they just kept everything from both sides of the head. Half the time they’re being sweet and decent and the other half they’re being horrible, and none of it makes any logical sense.

Which leads me, as though by magic, to the plot. Which is stupider than the plot in the first movie; briefly, so that it doesn’t hurt too much, Julianne Moore’s Poppy the drug smuggler has somehow taken over the whole world’s illegal drug supply, and has contaminated it with a completely ridiculous lethal virus so that she can hold the world to ransom. She’ll hand over the antidote if the US President makes drugs legal. The President, bless him, thinks this is the best deal ever; all he has to do is play along until every drug user in the world is dead from the virus and hey presto, the war on drugs is over. Yes, the US President is horrible. I don’t know where anyone could have come up with an idea like that.

So many logistical problems. The US is somehow able to quarantine all the infected in football stadiums full of individual cages stacked hundreds of feet in the air. Where were they keeping all these cages up until then? How has society not completely collapsed with that many people dying on their feet out of nowhere? How is TV even working if all the drug addicts are dying in cages?

And then there’s Poppy’s business, which she’s running out of a hideous cross between American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now, except with robots. It’s never clear how Poppy has all these robots or how she can get deliveries that far into the jungle, but long before you start worrying about that, there’s the fun of wondering how she keeps her help and isn’t in jail. The first henchman we meet gets stuck in a meat mincer - by the second henchman we meet - after about four minutes. Bonus, it’s a meat mincer which can somehow separate all his clothes along the way so that the meat which comes out - and gets turned into a burger that henchman two is forced to eat - doesn’t have strings of blue fabric running all the way through it. This is the kind of thing which really gets in the way of employee retention. Then there’s the employee makeover plan, where everyone gets their fingerprints lasered off and their teeth ground smooth to make them harder to identify before being given a solid gold tattoo which makes it trivial to identify them as member of the Golden Circle. Poppy’s notions on management would see her in a meat mincer some time during the second week, and not head first either.

Then there’s the virus, with its improbably instant cure being flown in by drones at the drop of a hat, leaving me wondering how the drones would know where the infected were. Just too many problems.

Amazingly, the version is theatres is eighty minutes shorter than the initial cut, which boggles my mind. Is it eighty extra minutes of Colin Firth being noble and Eggsy being thick but sweet, or is it eighty minutes of queasy sex jokes and nihilism? Or forty minutes of each? Or cut scenes which explain away all the logistics problems? With anyone else, you could at least guess, but with this team, who knows?