The Death of Stalin (2017)

2018 #85
Armando Iannucci | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci, the writer-director-creator behind political comedies like Veep, The Thick of It, and the latter’s Oscar-nominated movie spin-off, In the Loop, here turns his attention away from fictional present-day politics to real-life historical ones — as the title suggests, the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the power struggle that followed. Sounds like a laugh riot, don’t it? Dark comedies don’t get much darker than this!

It plays a bit like Horrible Histories for grown-ups, teaching you the facts of an interesting period of history, containing very serious events, while also sending up the objective ludicrousness of what went on. The flip side to that is one has to wonder about its accuracy. It’s officially adapted from some French comic books, rather than, say, an academic work, and various historians have commented on its veracity with regards to historical fact — some have said it’s littered with minor errors that can be excused as cinematic licence, others that it misses the mark entirely. For his part, Iannucci claims he actually “chose to tone down the real-life absurdity” because audience’s wouldn’t’ve found it believable.

Over Stalin's dead body!

The Death of Stalin probably isn’t the best text to cite in a history essay, then, nor a valuable piece of work for anyone interested in a proper understanding of what went on. As a comedy about the ridiculousness of dark times, however, it functions in a similar way to Iannucci’s other work. Functionally it’s very like The Thick of It, in that it’s about a group of semi-confident politicians trying to scheme against each other. Of course, the results of their machinations are a bit more serious and murderous than any of the problems Malcolm Tucker ever faced.

I’m sure some viewers must find the irreverence with which the film treats such matters to be a turn-off. Personally, I think its perspective is more profound: these are silly men playing silly power games, but the end results are often unthinkable and horrific. You only have to look at the recent news headlines — in which the gibbering orange blob who is the supposed “leader of the free world” has enacted a Hitlerian policy of tearing small children away from their parents and locking them up in cages at concentration camps, only to serve his own futile political ends — to see similar situations playing out to this day.

Perhaps, in this climate, The Death of Stalin is a reminder that we need to laugh at the preposterousness of monsters in power. It’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the best of The Thick of It or In the Loop for me, but that point is, unfortunately, as relevant as ever.

4 out of 5

The Death of Stalin is available on Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

Scotland, Pa. (2001)

2016 #61
Billy Morrissette | 99 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | USA / English | NR / R

Scotland, Pa.Shakespeare gets transposed to 1970s Pennsylvania in this blackly comedic reimagining of Macbeth, which converts the Thane of Glamis into a diner chef and the Scottish throne into ownership of a new concept: drive-thru.

Writer-director Billy Morrissette cleverly reconfigures aspects of the original (the witches are hippies; the ‘spot’ on Mrs Macbeth’s hand is a burn from spitting oil), but dodges being literally beholden to the text, allowing the humour and new situations to drive matters — you don’t need to be a fan of the Bard to get it.

It’s probably a little too long, but still an amusing variation.

4 out of 5

Horns (2013)

2015 #173
Alexandre Aja | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15* / R

Did Daniel Radcliffe murder his girlfriend? Sprouting devilish horns doesn’t help his case…

Ostensibly a fantasy-horror murder-mystery, in execution Horns is mostly black comedy: the horns force people to tell the truth, to amusing effect. The mystery is so-so: it’s glaringly obvious whodunnit… though, ironically, one reason it’s obvious is ultimately inaccurate. Oops.

It goes wrong in the overblown climax. It’s like someone didn’t know how to conclude the story so went all-out Fantasy. It would’ve been stronger to stay grounded, stick with the characters’ emotions, rather than getting sidetracked into a profusion of effects.

Still, fun while it lasts.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

* Horns was cut to get that 15 — details here. It’s available uncut, rated 18, on Blu-ray (but not DVD). Unusually, it’s the edited version that’s on Netflix UK. ^

You’re Next (2011)

2015 #172
Adam Wingard | 91 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

From the makers of The Guest, a horror-thriller that’s really a dark comedy.

Murderous home invaders get a surprise when one of their targets is a secret badass. She’s cool; everyone else is thinly sketched. I’d’ve liked more character development; some viewers think it’s already too slow getting to ‘the good stuff’. That’s very violent, but imaginative and funny — the lead villain suffers an exceptionally inventive amusing demise.

You’re Next isn’t all it could be, but is pretty fun. My score errs towards generosity — those with no taste for horror, or laughs derived from murder methods, will like it less.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Tank Girl (1995)

2015 #180
Rachel Talalay | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Critically derided, this anarchic adaptation of the rebellious comic has become a cult fave. You can see why: a ramshackle plot allows for plenty of outré zaniness, including a big musical number to a punky Cole Porter cover, and surely no one predicted the bizarre truth about the Rippers!

Malcolm McDowell chews scenery as only he can, a pre-fame Naomi Watts grabs attention, and Lori Petty’s looniness somehow holds it together, helped by efficacious design from Catherine “Twilight” Hardwicke and sporadic animated interludes.

Compromised in post-production but too wacky to fully suppress, it isn’t strictly good, but I enjoyed it.

3 out of 5

Rachel Talalay directs tonight’s Doctor Who season finale.

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Shallow Grave (1994)

2015 #105
Danny Boyle | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

The debut feature of director Danny Boyle was hailed on release for being a British film that wasn’t another period-piece literary adaptation. Instead, it concerns three ultra-chummy flatmates in contemporary Edinburgh (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox) who take in a fourth lodger, who promptly dies, leaving behind an insane amount of cash. Rather than report it, they dispose of the corpse and keep the cash. You don’t get much further from Merchant-Ivory than that.

Naturally, things don’t go swimmingly. The trio’s subsequent behaviour begins to cause ruptures among them; there are some Nasty Men looking for the cash; and when the remains are discovered the police get involved. It’s kind of a dark thriller, as it sounds, but also funny — the kind of film the ’90s specialised in, in some respects (think Fight Club, say). It’s also morally and emotionally complex, however. The flatmates aren’t the villains, they’re ‘us’, tempted to extremes by unusual circumstances. Consequently, it has that great discussion-generating feature of many a zeitgeist-y ‘watercooler’ film: what would you do?

Of course, it’s testament to the film’s quality — Boyle’s kinetic direction, the accomplished performances, the entertaining screenplay — that Shallow Grave endures past that initial ponderance to remain one of the Oscar-winning auteur’s best films.

5 out of 5

The Voices (2014)

2015 #96
Marjane Satrapi | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

The VoicesJerry (Ryan Reynolds) is a nice guy living in the small town of Milton, working in shipping at Milton Fixtures and Fawcetts, where he fancies the English girl in accounts, Fiona (Gemma Arterton), and doesn’t notice how much another girl in accounts, Lisa (Anna Kendrick), likes him. He also talks to his dog, Bosco, and cat, Mr Whiskers, and they talk back. That’s why his psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) encourages him to take his medication, but he doesn’t. When he accidentally murders Fiona (as you do), it’s Mr Whiskers that encourages him to cover up the crime.

The Voices isn’t your usual kind of film — obviously. In the special features, everyone’s very keen to talk about how it exists outside of genre, and they’re right. From some of the premise (his pets talk!) and marketing, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just a comedy. It is a comedy, but a very black one. A very, very black one. A total-absence-of-light black one. The laughs do not come thick and fast, though there are some, and there’s a left-of-centre worldview that is comedy-quirky — if you tried to play this entirely straight, it wouldn’t work.

However, it is also something of a psychological crime thriller. Jerry is clearly a very messed up individual, and so we’re always wondering what he will do next, “Oops.”what happened in his past to make him this way (flashbacks and hints are scattered, leading to an eventual reveal), and how will it all end for him? We’re conflicted here, because he’s a nice guy who we like, but he’s also a murderer, in horrific fashion, and so surely justice is due. Screenwriter Michael R. Perry and director Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame) tread a fine line here: they do want us to like Jerry, but are certainly aware that can be an uphill struggle given what he’s done.

They’re aided in no small part by Ryan Reynolds’ first-class performance. Reynolds has coasted along in minor, generic, average-to-below-average action-thrillers (Smokin’ Aces, Safe House), rom-coms (Just Friends, The Proposal), and, mainly, comic book movies (Blade: Trinity, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern, R.I.P.D.), but a couple of more recent performances seem to have shown his range. Firstly, Buried (which I’ve still not seen), where he carries the film trapped alone in a box, and now this. And last weekend’s Comic-Con trailer for Deadpool, which looks like it might be awesome. Here, he essays a multitude of characters: working on the theory that the voices are all in Jerry’s head, Reynolds voices Bosco, Mr Whiskers, and a couple of other animals to boot. This isn’t just an affectation: he gives different performances as each, offering a kinda-dim but good-hearted Southern gent as Bosco the dog, and an evil bloodthirsty Scot as Mr Whiskers the cat. The dog is good and the cat is evil? Sounds about right. That’s not to undersell his main performance, in person as Jerry, a socially awkward guy who really does want to do the right thing, but can’t help being led astray.

Threesome?Able support comes in the form of three women in Jerry’s life. Gemma Arterton has a ball, first as a bit of a bitch, then as a ludicrously-chipper super-English talking head. Anna Kendrick, meanwhile, is sweet and likeable, and while we may be on Jerry’ side when he accidentally slides his knife into Fiona, we’re keen for him not to make the same mistake with Lisa. Whether he does or not is where the real battle for his sanity lies. The third is Jacki Weaver’s psychiatrist, who is central to the climax but also has the least to do of all three, really. Never mind.

Satrapi delivers a film of mixed tones, which clearly doesn’t work for every viewer, but I thought handled the shifting styles well. There’s a kind of kooky comedy to it all, but also horror movie-level disgust at points, and the complex psychology underpinning Jerry’s actions. I thought all three were mixed well, though I can see why it’s not to everyone’s taste to have such apparently-disparate genres co-existing; certainly, the darkness of the humour will be beyond some. DP Maxime Alexandre nails the visuals for all this, though. Off his drugs and in his delusions, Jerry’s world is perfect and sunny, but the cleverness here is that it isn’t beyond the realms of reality, it’s just a bright, sunny, polished, happy reality. When he takes his meds, the dark, grey, grim, hoardersome, blood-soaked, shit-stained reality of his life comes in — and his two best friends look really miserable and stop talking to him. No wonder he’s tempted to the dark side. Alexandre has form in horror movies (The Hills Have Eyes, The Crazies, Silent Hill: Revelation), so no wonder he can do the latter, but the majority of the film is on the shiny side, and he’s got that down pat too.

Murder in mindThe Voices is the kind of film you say is “not for everyone”, which are often the best kind if they are for you. For me, it wasn’t quite funny enough — I’d’ve liked more of the dog and cat, who get the lion’s share of the best material. I also felt that Jerry’s backstory, the reasons for why he is how he is and does what he does, weren’t explored quite enough. The Blu-ray’s deleted scenes hint at more of this, particularly with an alternate climax, which was perhaps cut because there was too little material specifically building up to it. Rather than losing that ending, it would’ve been better to keep it and find more scenes that contributed to it.

And talking of the ending, I haven’t even mentioned the finale! The more out of the blue it comes the better, I think, so I shall say no more. As a capper on everything, though, it’s darn near perfect.

The Voices is not an unqualified success, then, but it’s one of the more unusual films I’ve seen in a while, with a good few appreciable qualities, and I enjoy that. Recommended with caution.

4 out of 5

John Dies at the End (2012)

2014 #28
Don Coscarelli | 100 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15* / R

John Dies at the EndBased on the cult novel by Cracked.com editor David Wong, John Dies at the End is a bizarre horror-fantasy that defies easy explanation or summary.

It’s definitely an acquired taste — some will genuinely love it, some will genuinely despise it. I often fall in the middle when that’s the case, though I err towards the former here. It’s scrappy and weird and wrong in so many ways, but, on balance, pretty entertaining.

Plus, in an era when every mainstream movie (and many so-called independents) are essentially the same story told the same way, kudos for trying to do something different.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

* What do you have to do to get an 18 these days? The BBFC would’ve cut this to shreds in their scissor-happy heyday! It would seem the fact it’s a comedy allows the extreme gore to pass at a lower rating. ^

Spanking the Monkey (1994)

2014 #100
David O. Russell | 95 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 18

Spanking the MonkeyThe debut of writer-director David O. Russell sees college student Raymond forced by his controlling father to turn down an exciting summer internship to care for his invalided mother.

Cue a very ’90s indie dramedy that is most memorably concerned with matters sexual: after Raymond struggles to find privacy to masturbate, he engages in a stuttering relationship with a younger girl and, somewhat infamously, gets incestuous with his mother. It’s hard to decipher the point, especially when instead of ending the film just stops.

Spottily entertaining, history has rendered Spanking the Monkey merely an early curio from a now-famous director.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Sightseers (2012)

2014 #52
Ben Wheatley | 85 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

Sightseers“He’s not a person Tina, he’s a Daily Mail reader.”

Like The Trip, only with quaint museums instead of restaurants and murder instead of impressions, the third feature from director Ben Wheatley is succinctly described as “a black comedy”. That’s a severe understatement: it’s dark; the kind of dark you might experience on a moonless night in the middle of nowhere if you popped on a blindfold made of lead.

A distinctly odd, rambling experience, it unquestionably won’t be to everyone’s taste — to most people’s, even — but if you are on its wavelength, it’s hilarious and brilliant.

Adorable dog, too.

5 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.