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Image result for death of stalin

Imagine HBO’s Veep, but instead of the made-up travails of a narcissistic, ambitious politician in the form of Julia Louis Dreyfus, you have Khrushchev, Beria, Molotov, Zhukov and Malenkov, all jockeying for power and survival after Stalin has passed.  Like Veep, writer-director Armando Iannucci’s movie is undeniably hilarious, providing the entire swath of the comedic, from slapstick (the scene where each central committee member arrives at Stalin’s unconscious body on the floor, only to engage poorly with his urine, is gut-busting) to sharp wit delivered so fast, you catch it 30 seconds later.  Steve Buscemi’s scheming Khrushchev is inspired, as is Jeffrey Tambor’s vain toady Malenkov (good to see him again since his banishment for his own crimes against the state).

The only aspect that drops this a half point is the milieu.  It is undeniably funny, but we are dealing not with the trials and tribulations of Vice President Selena Meyer, which are ultimately trivial, but the terror and horror of the Soviet state, which sometimes tempers the laughs.

But only a little (at least, for me).  It is, after all, a very black comedy.  The film is currently on the Showtime schedule and was also one of The New York Times top 10 for 2018.  It’s also one of mine, thus far.

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Image result for Dead Man Walking

I caught this a few rainy days ago.  There are very few films that deal with contemporary hot button issues well. Most of the time, the inclination of the writer and director is so patently obvious that the art is robbed of plausibility and force.

This movie is an exception.  The issue is subordinate to the human story, and while that story is primarily told from the viewpoint of an anti-death penalty character (Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean) ministering to convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), that in no way colors the message, which is admirably equivocal, even, to my mind, shockingly, a hair pro-capital punishment. That is probably just me, given the hackneyed uniformity of most such films, but that the picture provides an emotional and almost ethical argument for the practice is astonishing.

Sarandon is restrained and effective as a woman of faith called to provide spiritual comfort to a man who has committed a monstrous crime, and as that man, Penn exhibits all the bravado, self-pity, cruelty and narcissism of a thug.  Eventually, she learns she is not there to redeem him in any way, and shucks off her self-comforting fantasies that he was just a good boy led astray,  and focuses on simply leading him to confession.

Director Tim Robbins takes meticulous pains to display the brutal toll on the victims’ families and has the balls to juxtapose the execution with an unforgiving flashback of the crime, and unlike what Poncelet has been selling Prejean up until the last moments before he is executed (he is innocent, he was stoned, his accomplice did the killing and raping and things just got out of hand), those flashbacks show him as a vile, entirely in control piece of shit.

Nobody is caricatured. No easy rhetorical gotcha’ lines are delivered.  The employees of the prison, the medical professionals involved in the process, the families, they are treated with rare grace and equanimity.  An example: Sarandon has dinner with her wealthy family, some of whom question her service to Poncelet.  In the wrong hands, they would have been portrayed as the aristocratic, privileged rich, more concerned with their name and espousing small, likely bigoted views.  Robbins, however, shows them as loving and concerned, with questions (“Why spend so much time on this cretin when you could be helping young children not to grow up into becoming this cretin?”) similar to that of the audience.

Similarly, Poncelet is never a beatific victim.  Near the end, he praises Hitler, he spews racist invective, he even makes a sexual come on to Sarandon.  But she works with him, to help him find a dignity within himself through the sole act of the admission of his guilt and contrition.

Great film.

 

 

Image result for Mary Poppins returns

What is good:  the song-and-dance numbers are assured, the melding of animation and reality is deft, and it is for the most part very pleasant.

What is bad:  you don’t remember one of the tunes upon exiting the theater; it is very long and the plot, such as it is, is ragged; Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes off as kind of bitchy, with no real affection for the family; the father (Ben Whishaw) is a pitiful whiner; Lin Manuel-Miranda would have been better off writing the musical numbers rather than offering his version of the cockney lamplighter (that version has said lamplighter on MDMA with an accent rivaling that of Kevin Costner in Robin Hood for authenticity); and Meryl Streep is shoehorned into the picture as a gypsy, replete with her own hammy, endless, obnoxious number.

Image result for de palma documentary

Brian De Palma is a fascinating subject, in many ways, as fascinating a subject as a director. His best work is admittedly and unabashedly derivative, basically a total homage to Hitchcock (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables).  He has also made some atrocious films (Body Double, Casualties of War, Bonfire of the Vanities) and some films you can hate and then love and then hate again (Scarface, Carlito’s Way).

No matter how you feel about De Palma’s work, his recollections of film making in 70s and 80s Hollywood are a blast, and he’s a very easy and open storyteller.  This is an entertaining, comfortable review of his work presented entirely in clips and a single interview.

A few great tidbits: as a teenager, De Palma tailed his own father when he was cheating on his mother; during the execrable Casualties of War, Sean Penn would physically bully Michael J Fox and whisper to him “television actor.”

Good, fun stuff.  I’d take this sort of retrospective over a slathering like HBO’s Spielberg any day of the week.  Currently on Netflix streaming.