So as I stated last week, I’m in mass catch-up mode before I put out my first edition of the Best of 2018 list (Part 1 here). So here’s this weeks round-up:
THE DEATH OF STALIN dir. Armando Iannucci
From The Thick of It to In The Loop to his current HBO series Veep, Armando Iannucci has perfected the art of political satire in which he hilariously and terrifyingly points out the petty ways people can wield their power. It makes perfect sense then that in the post-Trumpian age he would train his satirical eyes to depicting the chaos surrounding the death of the great leader Stalin. The movie begins with a pitch perfect sense of gallows humour as an off-hand request from Stalin sends a music hall’s worth of people to scramble to try and recreate a recently concluded concert with typically comedic results. As with most Iannucci projects, he treats words like deadly weapons as character after character spews vitriolic statements with such elegant ease that it feels like we are watching a much ruder – and decidedly darker – Shakespeare comedy unfold. The anachronistic decision to have all the actors not even attempt an accent simply adds to the absurdity of the unfolding drama, while it frees said actors to truly flex their dramatic and comedic muscle. Led by Steve Buscemi, it is not hyperbole to say that this is one of the strongest ensembles ever assembled and most of the delight in this movie is watching them effortlessly bounce off one another. Iannucci seems to know intricately that the easiest and most powerful way to cut down the powerful is to mock them, humiliate them, and show just how petty and pathetic they are. The Death of Stalin may just be Iannucci’s masterpiece and the perfect distillation of his penchant for cutting down the powerful – at least until he inevitably decides to turn his eyes toward a certain contemporary leader.
PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING dir. Steven S. DeKnight
I will go to my grave defending Pacific Rim as an under-appreciated work of art. It is the ultimate B-movie script made with an A+ level of craft and care that is as thoroughly entertaining as any other IP-based blockbuster released in the last few years. Pacific Rim: Uprising however is nothing short of a soulless CGI-monster that is as cynical a studio-mandated cash-grab as I have seen recently. Getting rid of original director Guillermo del Toro proves to be a mistake as the movie severely lacks in visual imagination or playfulness with every bit of del Toro’s intentional rough edges in the original slowly being filed down so that the sequel looks like just about every other CGI-heavy movie. From a plot standpoint meanwhile, it is clear the studios were looking for a potential franchise as they ditch most of the gonzo nature of the original plot for a franchise-ready plot featuring teenagers (youths!) now piloting the Yaegars for some indiscernible reason. They have successfully turned one of the most original big-budget blockbusters in years into what is basically a Power Rangers clone. Good job.
THOROUGHBREDS dir. Cory Finley
Set in the emotonally frigid but affluent suburbs of Connecticut two former best friends Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) are brought together somewhat forcibly by circumstances: Amanda is the social outcast with charges of animal cruelty hanging over her head after euthanizing her horse, and Lily is being paid to be her companion. They cut through the pretense fairly quickly and recognize that their transactional relationship has a purpose. Amanda’s cold and seemingly emotionless personality proves to be the perfect sounding board for the slightly unhinged Lily, whose mother’s latest boy-toy rich stepfather is proving to be acerbic enough to inspire murderous thoughts. Together the two form a chillingly sociopathic pair akin to Heavenly Creatures but who are much, much more sadistic in their execution. First time director Cory Finley shows himself to be quite adept at restraint, creating a stylishly cool and almost meditative piece that terrifyingly shows rich kids discovering their privilege. Unfortunately as with most first-time directors, the material is stretched thin – it would be much more effective as a 45-minute short. Still, Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and Taylor-Joy (The Witch) are a pleasure to watch, as they are quickly establishing themselves as rising stars, while an appearance by the late (but very young) Anton Yelchin provides another reminder of just what a great talent he was.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE dir. Lynne Ramsey
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is not what you would call a likeable hero. He is a hired-gun who hunts down child-traffickers and dispatches them in typically brutal fashion (he is given a gun, but prefers his hammer). He is also a fraught system of nervous trauma, clearly shaped by his time as a vet and from his abusive childhood – making him less than in total control of his faculties. When he is sent on a mission to rescue Nina (Ekaratina Samsonov), the underage daughter of a U.S. Senator, he quickly finds himself plunged into a rabbit hole of political corruption and criminal abuse, which naturally brings out the best in him. The parallels to Taxi Driver are quite clear and apparent here, but especially in this one way: Joaquin Phoenix puts in a performance every bit as compelling as Robert De Niro did as Travis Bickle. Meanwhile Lynne Ramsey manages to weave a taut tale in which the quiet moments are every bit as intense as its more violent ones. This movie portrays Joe as an avenging angel of justice, and reminds us that vengeance should be terrifying.
CHAPPAQUIDDICK dir. John Curran
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: this story needed to be told. The 1969 incident where Senator Ted Kennedy through his negligence got in a drunk-driving automobile accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne is a tragic incident in American politics, made all the more tragic by the way the political establishment worked to cover up Kennedy’s criminal negligence in not reporting the case to save his career. The problem is that this particular vehicle for conveying that story is an anemic, by-the-book retelling that does little to compel anyone who is not already familiar with the subject to watch it. The dynamics of this drama are broad and thinly sketched as Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) wrestles with his fate with his good-conscience represented by his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) while his politically ambitious side is represented by his father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern). Once you accept (rightly) that what Ted did was criminal and he got away with it on the basis of his family name, the curiosity and intrigue for this movie is drained and all we’re left with is waiting for the drama to play itself out. There is hardly any incisive insights to gained from this movie that you could not also get from the Wikipedia page of the same incident, as damning an indictment of the film’s purpose for existence as you can get.