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Historical/Period Piece

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

Heroes of the People, surely, except when they're killing,
torturing and starving them all. Vodka and circuses for
everyone!

dir: Armando Iannucci

2018

When someone tells you that times have changed and the world we live in is not like the world depicted in this movie, consider the fact that the Russian government threatened and sued cinemas in Russia for playing this goddamn movie, because the Ministry of Culture (as oxymoronic a phrase as has ever existed) felt it insulted the memory of one of history’s greatest monsters, and it might make Russian peoples feel bad about their appalling history.

Is it really a comedy? There are moments of humour in this flick, and it’s referred to as a comedy in every single review, but there really is very little to laugh about. The world it conjures up, of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, is a totalitarian hellscape where virtually everyone lives in terror of being hauled off and killed at a moment’s notice.

Even those close to the Big Man himself, who you’d think would feel a bit more secure, know that at the slightest inclination, for the most ludicrous reason, they or their families could be hauled off and shot, tortured or sent to Siberia for having incurred the displeasure of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). His ‘friends’, the other members of the Select Committee, have to monitor every single thing they say on the off chance that they refer to something or someone out of favour, or that they don’t bray loud enough like the donkeys they are at his jokes, that they could be doomed. It’s a bit of a toxic work environment, to put it in today’s terms.

I have had managers like that in the past. Capricious, aggressive, needy, completely lacking in empathy, willing to destroy everything just to get their way or prove a point. The major difference is, in my case the people in power didn’t condemn literally millions to death and torment just for a laugh or a lack thereof.

The basic premise that the film has to establish is not the period piece specifics, of aesthetics and such; it’s the horrifying and anti-human atmosphere of a hellish totalitarian state. However the flick is described, as satirical, as whatever else, it does not make light of the fact that most of the men shown here were monsters of the highest order, of the greatest magnitude, some of the worst that humanity had ever seen at the time. It’s hard, at many times, to see what humour there is in such horror.

Rating:

A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom

What are we looking at again? Is it that thing over there, no wait, ah,
now I see it

dir: Amma Asante

2016

Ah, I love a good pun title. No, actually, I tell a lie. I fucking hate puns.

It’s an amusing perhaps pun, at least, or it’s not even a pun, and is more of an ironic title. The Kingdom referred to in the title isn’t necessarily the United Kingdom as it is known (that dwindling empire of yesteryear, that dwindles ever more with each passing year that the Tories are in charge), but another place divided by strife in Africa that the helpful Brits generously decided to help out of the goodness of their hearts.

That kingdom , that used to be called Bechuanaland, had itself, after World War II, a very merry yet precarious existence. Its status as an independent kingdom was guaranteed by Queen Victoria somehow (meaning it was essentially a vassal state), however changes are afoot, apparently. At least at the time that the flick begins. An uncle, serving as regent ruler, lives in some hut somewhere, and sends the heir to the throne, Seretse (the amazing David Oyelowo), a letter telling him it’s time to come home from Oxford to assume the mantle of kingship, time to rule his people like he was always meant to.

Seretse is, somehow, in 1940s Britain, studying law and getting along just fine down the local pub with his mates. He meets, through a church group, a lovely young Brit called Ruth (Rosamund Pike). They fall in love, have some babies, and lived happily ever after.

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The Revenant

The Revenant

Even looking like this, well, you know, half the ladies in the audience
(as if there were that many ladies in the audience) wouldn't leave him
for dead in a shallow grave, if you know what I mean

dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

2015

Again, I realise this flick has been out for oh so long, and various awards have been awarded and such, but I enjoyed the flick so much that I felt compelled to write about it.

Regardless of the absurd level of hype, and this was ridiculously overhyped, which is very strange considering what the flick was like and is actually about, this turned out to be a very enjoyable film for me that succeeds despite Leonardo DiCaprio, rather than because of him.

The movie around him, the amazing cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, the relentlessness of the very landscape around them, they all combine to deliver an awe-inspiring vision of frontier times. The story didn’t really resonate with me all that much, but I guess the performances, especially of Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleason and Will Poulter, were solid.

But the real main character? Nature, baby. C’mon, sparkle for me. Work it, sub-zero tundra!

This is set in the early 1800s, and it’s meant to be North Dakota in the States. The thing is, though, I don’t even have to look it up on imdb.com or Wikipedia to know that they must have filmed this in Canada. There is not a shred, a scintilla, a skerrick of a doubt in my mind that it was Canada. Whenever they want to film something that looks this amazing, and which tries to convince the viewer that humans who travel to these regions voluntarily are idiots, they film in these bits of Alberta.

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Suffragette

Suffragette

How could they not succeed in their efforts when they have access to
such resolute, steadfast facial expressions?

dir: Sarah Gavron

2015

There is a problem inherent in this movie, at least from my perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan both of women voting and of the people who fought for and earned the right (that should have been theirs from the start) to vote in Britain’s stupid, stupid elections.

Wait, why ‘stupid’? Well, tell me what point there is to enfranchising more than half the population of the United Kingdom when the House of Lords, the most transparently undemocratic institution since Robert Mugabe came to power as the ‘democratically’ elected dictator of Zimbabwe that’s only been around and certainly unreformed since, oh, about 1350, still bloody well exists.

It’s like Russian women having the right to vote: you have a dictator for life in the form of Vladimir Putin – who cares if you have the right to vote?

Well, whether it actually means anything, or whether it’s a smokescreen established to hide the fact that we vote for one of two sock puppets operated by the same person (you may have heard of that person, they’re known as The Man), the fact is that at the dawn of the previous century, the sisters in Britain had decided that they no longer wanted to politely ask to be allowed to vote.

Out the window went the cucumber sandwiches and the parasols, and in came blowing shit up, smashing windows, being tortured by the cops and doing what militant actions they could intended to force the government to capitulate.

Rating:

Far from the Madding Crowd

Madding Crowd

Jeez, won't someone make a decision already? Base it on who
has the best facial hair, come on.

dir: Thomas Vinterberg

2015

In this current era of remaking the classics (which seems to have lasted since at least, oh, about 1915 up to the present), this is the most recent of the ‘classics’ of English Literature that I’ve been privileged enough to see, well, this week.

We haven’t exactly been deprived of ‘prestige’ period pieces in the last bunch of years. There were the recent versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that I got to see and enjoy. The world doesn’t need more Pride and Prejudice versions, but I don’t doubt they’re on the way. I have even less doubt that there are versions of Madame Bovary and a million Dickens redos about to come out too.

It’s all good, they’re classic stories, or should that be ‘classic’. Classic because people say they’re classic. Thomas Hardy is certainly someone from the high school homework section of the literary canon. There haven’t been umpteen versions of this story thus far; this is the second I can think of, so it’s not over-represented, for sure.

As such to many viewers the characters and story could be all shiny and new. To me, it is a book I remember fondly from, like, 25 years ago, and that I still have some affection for.

Rating:

Selma

Selma

I, too, have a dream, that one day I'll be judged not by the content of my
character, but by the colour of my skin, because otherwise I'm screwed

dir: Ava DuVernay

2014

Time for more homework, me guesses.

Selma is definitely homework. Selma is the kind of flick most people only get to see because it gets mentioned at Oscar time (for people like me, I guess). Had it not been nominated for anything, anything at all, no-one would have seen it, and no-one would really have cared. Nor missed it, nor felt its lack in any substantial way, regardless of what Oprah might tell them.

What’s it about? Is it about that most beloved of Simpsons characters, Selma Bouvier and her many husbands, or her perpetual disdain for customers down at the DMV? Is it about Selma Blair, that actress from the 90s who doesn’t seem to have done much else since reaching her pinnacle in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling?

I mean, she did her bit for black/white relations in that harrowing film, but where's her parade?

No. It’s about something far more boring/important. It’s about African-Americans fighting for their right to register to vote in the South in 1965. It’s about them fighting for, and in many cases, dying for, a right most of us take for granted.

Because it’s about a specific event, you wouldn’t really call it a biopic of the very Reverend Martin Luther King’s life, and yet you couldn’t argue that he wasn’t the main character in this flick, because otherwise the main character would be… Selma, Alabama itself.

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12 Years a Slave

Run, through the Forest, run

Run, through the Forest, run!

dir: Steve McQueen

2013

How can you eat your pudding if you don't eat your greens?

The answer is, of course, you've got to eat your greens first before you have your pudding.

It was not a chore to sit through this flick, at all. It's an amazing, harrowing, sickening flick. But the hardest part for me was motivating myself to start watching it in the first place.

It's the very definition of 'homework', of eating your vegetables before getting your dessert, to see something Awardsworthy because everyone says it's the most Serious Important Film of the Year.

But I still knew I had to do it, chore or not, it had to be done. To do otherwise, as Ellen DeGeneres pointed out, would be to admit that I am deeply racist.

Yes, I'm being facetious. More so, I respect the work of Steve McQueen, who has the singular honour of being the only director who has ever, in the tens of thousands of films that have been made, made a film that could cause me to pass out in shock (being Hunger), who managed to make the pursuit of sex seem dull and horrible (Shame), and who now reminds us that Slavery was Bad, Okay?

No-one else, except for all the other directors who've done the same thing, has dared show just how much of an abomination slavery was, at least not recently. Well, not in the last couple of weeks.

Rating:

American Hustle

American Hustle

Look at them, begging for Oscars. You can see the abject neediness in
their eyes. Just say no, Academy, please.

dir: David O’Russell

American Hustle is one of those big, blousy American movies with American in the title, which virtually guaranteed that it was going to get lots of attention at the Oscars. And, unsurprisingly, it’s got a stack of nominations, most of which I hope it doesn’t get, even though I liked it well enough at the time by the end.

It’s not a flick that gets better the more you think about it, though. The more I’ve thought about it afterwards, the thinner and flimsier it seems, but the bits I found entertaining are still strong.

Problem is, those bits were few and far between.

Two con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) who get busted by the FBI are dragooned into running a scam in order to catch other corrupt people. Some element of this might have actually happened, in this world’s history.

I have no confidence that the real story is anything like what’s depicted here, not that I care. It’s not an important history lesson dressed up in 70s nylon and polyester with the necessary narrative and thematic shortcuts you’d expect from an Important Hollywood Movie. It’s an actor’s showcase, but not in a good way.

Rating:

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Could you smell my finger, please? There's a dear

dir: Joe Wright

There's some virtue to having modest ambitions. When confronted with the prospect of converting Leo Tolstoy's weighty tome into a movie, many have faltered, most have failed, and none have got it right. The book's way too big. It's also on too much of a pedestal for it to come out right to everyone's satisfaction.

Also, where some would obsess with verisimilitude, with period accuracy and historical detail, Joe Wright and the producers here have elected for a way to illuminate the story without having to get dragged into a genuine Russian winter. I mean, it destroyed Napoleon's army, it destroyed the Nazis, so what hope would petty film producers have?

Mother Russia, or at least the time and place of it relevant to this story set before the Revolution, is created for us on a stage. At least, all or most of the story seems to transpire within the confines of a massive old Russian theatre. It's deliberately artificial, as in, they're not trying to hide the fact that it's an inventive and elaborate pantomime. I doubt this approach was budgetary. I mean, I have no idea. Maybe it was cheaper to do it this way, but it doesn't seem likely. Setting up all these elaborate sets on a sound stage so that it looks like it's in on an actual stage is just as expensive as making it look like it's in outer space or in the White House.

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Lincoln

Lincoln

Come, sit on my knee, and tell me what you wish for Christmas,
as long as it is not an end to my interminable anecdotes

dir: Steven Spielberg

You know, I never thought Spielberg had the balls to do something like this, but he did, and audiences never really punished him for it. He’s taken the most iconic, the most universally admired US President (except in the South, perhaps) and depicted him as a crushing, tedious bore, and people are applauding him for it, and lavishing Daniel Day-Lewis with unending praise and statuettes.

Good for them, I guess. The thing is, I don’t even think it was subtle at all. He actively has characters respond with exasperation whenever Lincoln spins another yarn, while every other person sighs and maintains their steeliest “have to look enraptured for the boss” facial expression. People are active, working, doing stuff, usually arguing before he mutters some kind of non sequitur “It wasn’t like this back when I was splitting rails on the Tallahatchie trail”. Then everyone freezes, and we get the feeling that inwardly, they’re dying a little, and fighting the urge to run and hide in a dark, close place, or cry.

“Please, oh please let it be a short anecdote. Please don’t let this story go on so long that I chew my own leg off to escape. Please let his tongue have a stroke, even if he is the single Greatest Statesman and Raconteur the world has ever known.”

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