Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Death of Stalin: Coup Comedy

If there's one thing the British know to do, it's political satire. And with writer-director Armando Ianucci at the helm, it's no surprise that The Death of Stalin is an absurd, laugh-out-loud film that also gives you much to ponder about the politics of staging a bloody coup.

Ianucci is the genius behind the TV comedies The Thick of It and Veep but here he gives us a film adaptation of a French graphic novel of the same name. Set in 1953 when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) keeled over from a stroke, we follow the men of the Central Committee as they jockey for position to see who will take over as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. The main contenders are the Moscow Party Head, Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), and NKVD Head, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), with Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) serving as the clueless stooge who thinks he's really in charge of things as Stalin's Deputy.

It's a lot of Russian names, which makes following the dialogue a bit of a challenge at times, but there's nothing challenging about following the actions of these brilliant actors as they deliver inane dialogue with Shakespearean earnestness. Everyone retains their original accent, so you've got a suite of Russian leaders all speaking with a variety of English and American accents, but once you get used to that anachronistic detail, you're sold. After all, everything else is so absurd anyway. The timing of this film also couldn't be better, given that US politics is currently rife with toadies currying favor and secretly pitting people against each other to wrest control from clueless party members. In fact, while you may laugh a great deal while watching this film, later when you think about it, you might feel a little heartsick at how close it hits to home.

At the beginning of the film, there is a brilliant set piece involving a Radio Moscow broadcast, and the actual death of Stalin involves a tremendous amount of outright physical comedy that I found more hilarious than anything else in the film. I'm not that sophisticated in my comedy tastes, and it turns out that as witty and wonderful as these actors might be when delivering barbed political satire, I am far more amused when they are carrying around a body and tripping over themselves in confusion. As the movie progressed, I found it a bit difficult to keep track of all of the different plots and machinations, but as long as there was impeccable line delivery and a great deal of bombast, I didn't mind.

Lest we forget, this is a seriously dark comedy, with people getting shot every minute or so for being a political enemy (as the political situation is in flux every second, that involves a lot of political enemies). Stalin was a ruthless dictator and his policies incited fear and violence at very turn. This movie finds the absurdity in it all, but one does need to spare a thought for the folk outside the Central Committee, who lived in abject fear during this time. Like most great political satire, The Death of Stalin makes light of an impossible situation, and while you will legitimately burst out laughing in the theater, you'll feel a twinge of guilt about it when you leave. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Game Night: A Shot of Ridiculousness

Do you need a movie to decompress from the Oscars? Something that will make you burst out laughing with sheer audacious silliness? Then Game Night is the movie for you. Word of warning: don't bother watching the trailer for this film as it gives away scenes from the beginning to the end. Just go into it unspoiled and savor the madness.

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman star as Annie and Max, a happily married couple that absolutely love game nights. They are uber-competitive but fun people, so their friends show up every week at their home to get slaughtered at charades, Pictionary, and whatever game takes their fancy. However, when Max's "cool" brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), arrives in town for a business trip, he invites Max and his friends over to his place for a much more high-scale game night experience. He has hired a company to treat them all to a murder mystery night and in the midst of setting up the scene for his guests, two men burst into the house and attack him. He runs around the house, throwing things at them, trying to shoot them before he loses his gun, and ultimately is bound and gagged and dragged out of the house. All while his guests watch, astounded at how realistic the whole performance is and ready to get started on this murder mystery party. But of course, all of that was real, and Brooks really has been kidnapped by some unsavory characters.

The rest of the movie proceeds as inanely as you would expect. The three couples split up, each determined to win, as the prize is Brooks' vintage sports car. Through different routes, they all finally arrive at the conclusion that this has all been a horrible misunderstanding and they end up having to join forces in earnest to save Brooks' life. This involves tussles with mobsters, a botched heist, dealing with Annie and Max's creepy cop neighbor (played with kooky joy by Jesse Plemons) and endless opportunities for physical comedy and hapless ineptitude. There are multiple fake outs, convoluted storylines, and outrageous plot twists before things are finally resolved. Somewhat.

Game Night is concentrated comedy gold. Written by Mark Perez and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, it is so intricately plotted that I can't complain about the moments of extreme absurdity. Each couple gets an entertaining story arc, everything get tangled and untangled elegantly, and the entire thing is carried off by an all-star cast that knows how to sell every moment and keep you intrigued till the end. There were multiple moments where I burst out laughing, and there were also moments where I literally hugged my knees to my chest (we were watching in a recliner theater) and cringed because things were getting way too bloody and hilarious. It is such a wonderful, stupidly clever movie, and I hope there are sequels because I could watch this kind of thing forever. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

And the 2018 Oscar Goes To...

Another year, another Oscars, another Pop Culture Scribe Oscars blog post. This year, I have slightly broken with tradition, in that there are two categories (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor) where I didn't see one of the performances. In my defense, I was so devastated that The Florida Project didn't get nominated for Best Picture that I lost the will to be an Oscar completist this time around. On that note, let's venture into my picks for this year's ceremony.

Best Picture: Did I mentioned The Florida Project was robbed? Anyway, despite that oversight, this category still contains some brilliant films. Unfortunately, signs are pointing to a win for either The Shape of Water or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, neither of which I would have picked for Best Picture. If one of those two has to win, please let it be The Shape of Water as that is a cinematic spectacle with sexy man-fish action. Three Billboards is clever, but boy, oh boy, is it tone deaf and should not be celebrated in our current political climate. Phantom Thread is gorgeous but weird, Darkest Hour has a strong central performance but is hackneyed in its final moments, and The Post has clunky Oscar bait written all over it, with no actual substance. Call Me By Your Name and Dunkirk are two very different movies that both manage to be emotionally resonant and get the viewer right into the shoes of its protagonists, but they did not steal my heart like Lady Bird, which is my top pick. That movie tore into my soul and reminded me of my teenage angst in the best possible way, and it is funny and charming to boot. With a terribly effective use of the Dave Matthews Band (who would have thunk it?). However, if it could tie with Get Out, that would truly be sweet, as that movie may be the most revolutionary thing in cinemas last year. I recently re-watched it with a friend and it really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Best Director: Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird or Jordan Peele for Get Out. As mentioned above, if their movies could tie for Best Picture, it would be amazing, and if these two could also tie for Best Director, that would be equally grand. But if I have to pick one, I'm gonna go for the lady (#TimesUp gentlemen!), and pick Gerwig. Chances are Guillermo del Toro is actually going to walk away with the prize, and while he is a perfectly capable man, he did not make a movie that I wanted to re-watch the second it ended and recommended to everyone I met for months after.

Best Actress: It's going to be Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand was great in the movie, and will probably give a hilariously unconcerned Oscar speech, but still. Ugh. I'd rather give it to Saoirse Ronan for Lady Bird (particularly if John Travolta is presenting the award and has to say "Saoirse"). Sally Hawkins was a dream in The Shape of Water and kept that movie afloat (pun intended!) while Margot Robbie spun circles around the competition (extremely labored pun intended!) in I, Tonya. So really, I wouldn't mind any lady winning this award, except for Meryl Streep for The Post. Sorry, Meryl, but even you know that nomination was a crock.

Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya should win. That Get Out performance was nuanced and impeccable and will be talked about for years to come. But he isn't going anywhere (neither is Timothee Chalamet, though I do wish there was an honorary Oscar for Best Love Scene with a Fruit) so fine, we'll all step aside and let Gary Oldman have his award for Darkest Hour. Daniel Day-Lewis has been lauded enough and that Phantom Thread performance didn't deserve a statue. And sorry Denzel, but I couldn't be bothered to watch Roman J. Israel, Esq. When and where did this movie even come out? I am flummoxed.

Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney has been sweeping the awards for her work in I, Tonya. But Laurie Metcalf is so much more deserving for her work in Lady Bird. Lesley Manville was a magnificent enigma in Phantom Thread, Octavia Spencer was trusty and wise in The Shape of Water, and Mary J. Blige was quietly powerful in Mudbound, but no one held a candle to Metcalf as far as I'm concerned.

Best Supporting Actor: Like Gary Oldman, Sam Rockwell will win because he is a respected actor who has never won an Oscar. And yet, that character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is so odious and unforgivable that all I can do is hope he somehow splits the vote with his co-actor Woody Harrelson, and Willem Dafoe walks away with the award for his empathetic performance in The Florida Project (a movie that was robbed, did I mention that?). Richard Jenkins is a lovely, reliable actor, but he didn't particularly wow me in The Shape of Water. And I didn't bother to watch Christopher Plummer (who already has an Oscar) in All the Money in the World because frankly, who has time for that actor-swapping drama?

Best Original Screenplay: I am torn again between Get Out and Lady Bird, but for this category, Get Out gets the win for true originality. Movies like this don't come around often, and when they do, you should applaud them with all your might. So Jordan Peele, grab a statue. And if he gets defeated by Martin McDonagh, the whitest man alive who wrote Three Billboards, I will be rioting. Shout out to Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon for their nomination for The Big Sick, a very sweet romcom that leaned too heavily into stereotypes of traditional brown women and families to truly win me over. I'm allowed to make fun of brown people, but you're not, goddamnit.

Best Adapted Screenplay: General consensus is that James Ivory should win for Call Me By Your Name and that's fine and dandy by me. He managed to make a movie out of a book that traffics largely in internal monologues and feelings, so job well done, here's your Oscar. Mudbound is based on a novel by a Wellesley woman (obligatory Wellesley woman shout out!), but the screenplay was a bit too sprawling for my liking. Logan was fine but nothing to write home about, and my feelings about the painful Sorkin-ness of the Molly's Game script have been made abundantly clear. I did love The Disaster Artist, but ultimately we should go for the classier choice. Plus, we don't need to validate Tommy Wiseau's opinions about his artistic prowess.

That's it for the major categories. I would love a Best Cinematography win for Rachel Morrison's work in Mudbound as she is the first woman EVER nominated in this category (it's been 90 years, Academy, WTF). But renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins is nominated for his 14th award and still hasn't won, so he will probably beat her to it. Are we noticing a theme of men winning "because they're due" while women (except Meryl Streep) are still fighting to just get a nomination? No? Just me? Moving on.

Baby Driver should get Best Film Editing because that movie is an absolute masterclass in editing. And I think I have opinions on Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, which share the exact same nominees in both categories. Dunkirk and Baby Driver had very effective use of sound so I would like them to win something, but because I have absolutely no clue what the difference is, I'm going to leave that one to the professionals. And finally, Best Costume Design to Mark Bridges for Phantom Thread. And yes, it's cheating because the entire movie is about a fashion designer, so of course the clothes will be sumptuous, but whatever. I could practically feel the satin running through my fingers.

See you on Sunday night for a long, star-studded salute to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that will make me very angry. But hey, that's 2018 for you!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

May It Last: Philosopher Poets

I had heard of the Avett Brothers, but never listened to their music. I knew Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio had directed an HBO documentary about them, May It Last, but I didn't bother watching it on HBO as I figured there was no point in watching a movie about a band I didn't follow. However, after being persuaded by my colleague Steve, an Avett super-fan, I gave this movie a shot. And by the time I got to the end, I was smitten.

The documentary is told in a classic style, beginning with the childhood of Scott and Seth Avett (the eponymous Brothers), commenting on their personalities and close relationship, their love of music and evolution from grunge fans to to a return to their North Carolina roots and embracing Americana and folk music. We get the story of how the band was eventually formed and are introduced to some of the bandmates they recruited along the way. After several independent releases they finally agreed to sign up with legendary music producer Rick Rubin, and this movie focuses on the recording of their 2016 album, True Sadness, the one that truly launched them into mainstream music consciousness.

Those are all the classic elements of a musical documentary. But what is so moving about this particular band is that the brothers are genuinely thoughtful and introspective men who love each other and love music. And not just music, but writing songs. The most incredible part of this documentary was its focus on the songwriting process, watching Scott and Seth work on songs together and find just the right lyrics to get their emotions across. Scott talks about how his grandfather was a preacher and he always thought that people would want to hear about his emotions. That is what he and Seth put into their music - their souls. As Seth remarks, every time they go on stage, they are reading their diaries out loud. They don't know how to do this without being completely open about the moments in their life that have made a genuine impact. And sometimes this even means writing a song called Divorce Separation Blues.

The movie contains long interludes where we simply watch the band play, whether it be in the recording studio, a giant concert hall, or an intimate venue. Their music is soulful and varied, but the final half hour of this film is my absolute favorite. At the recording studio, after a magnificent rendition of a song called No Hard Feelings, Scott gets taken aback by his producer's congratulations. He and Seth take a break and what ensues is a deeply philosophical talk about why it feels so disingenuous to be congratulated for performing a piece of music that needed years of living before it could be crafted. Scott hates the commercial side of music - after pouring his heart into this song, ultimately he is being told it is "good" because it is going to sell. And after a whole movie where everyone called Seth the sensitive younger brother who Scott looked out for, we see how Seth calms him down and knows just how to give him the right advice to keep going on. In this small moment, you see how brother leans on brother and they keep on singing because they simply can't do anything else. This movie is full of a sense of family and community and I never questioned the love between these two men as well as their bandmates who have weathered tragedies together.

And then we get the end credits. Which feature a pair of songs that almost stopped my heart. Both are songs about or for their children, and both reveal how these men can create a song seemingly out of thin air and imbue it with lyrics that are deeply personal yet somehow also universal. It's a magic trick that only the greatest writers achieve. So watch and listen to May It Last. You may think you don't care for this music, but you'll find that you certainly care about the men who make it. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tamborine: Chris Rock Gets Deep

Comedy = Tragedy + Time. However, if you're Chris Rock, that equation doesn't matter. He'll take the latest tragedies and mine them for insightful social commentary and comedy gold. So sit back and enjoy his Netflix special, Tamborine. It's a wild hour that will make you laugh and then somberly reflect about the current state of the world.

Tamborine is certainly one of the more topical sets of stand-up comedy I've seen in a while. Rock has always been a brilliant comedian, but he is particularly laying into the fact that he's a black comedian and there's much to be said about the state of race in today's America. He is incredibly funny, but a lot of his jokes hit home truths about what a terrible thing it is to be a black man in this country. One of his best jokes is, "People say young black men are an endangered species. That isn't true, at least endangered species are protected by the government." You'll also find out why George Bush should be hailed as a black revolutionary; it's a twisted and hilarious piece of logic.

Rock notes how as a black man, he doesn't really get the celebrity treatment until the cops actually recognize him. He knows he has had a fortunate life, but he isn't going to pretend it still doesn't suck to be black, even if you are famous. And this concern has now moved on to the next generation - he has two daughters, and we get a hilarious segment on how to raise black children so they fear all white people. And also some thoughts on how schools are too soft on kids in general and we need to bring bullies back. There's even a diatribe about how true equality would mean that police would shoot more white kids and we'd have white moms on TV weeping about how they need more justice for Chad. Yeah, Chris Rock really knows how to walk that tightrope. 

The emotional meat of this special comes from Rock's thoughts on relationships and his divorce. He wasn't a faithful husband and he takes full responsibility for the dissolution of his marriage. That may not sound particularly funny, but it's Chris Rock, so he finds a way. He doles out surprisingly wonderful advice that all couples should follow if they want to ensure a stable relationship. The title of the special, Tamborine, comes from the notion that a relationship is like a band, and not everyone can be the lead singer all the time. Sometimes, you have to take a backseat to your partner and play the tamborine. And play it like you mean it. If you haven't seen Chris Rock giving it his best shot as a tamborine player, you haven't seen anything yet.

I'll stop this review before I give away the rest of his great jokes or insights. Tamborine is a solidly constructed stand-up set that you will want to revisit multiple times. My friend Eva, who recommended the special to me last Saturday, had already seen the special twice, and now I have followed suit because I needed to re-hear some of these jokes and marvel at them. There are no frills and flounces - this is just a man at the top of his game, on a stage, doing comedy for an hour. And it is enlightening, revolutionary, and cathartic, all in one go. Grab your tamborine and join in the fun. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Panther: A Superhero Who Matters

Marvel's Black Panther is on track to make a bazillion dollars at the box office. Many people are saying this "exceeds expectations," but let's be real. Everyone has been talking about this movie from the second that trailer was released. There was so much hype and excitement, and people were so ready for this movie. So let's not pretend that the amazing business this film did on opening weekend is a surprise. It was 100% expected and it's time Hollywood acknowledged that if they make a movie without a lot of white people, audiences will still go see it. In fact, they'll probably go see it a lot more.

This movie is revolutionary in many ways. The cast is almost exclusively composed of black actors, apart from Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis (the "Tolkien white guys" as per the greatest joke I ever read on Twitter). And they are the creme de la creme of acting talent - Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, the list goes on. All of these actors have proven themselves independently in movies where they're the sole black person, but now, they are all in one movie together and the screen crackles with their chemistry. Since we're talking about a superhero movie, a superhero analogy comes to mind - Captain Planet. While everyone might have their special powers by themselves, when they combine forces, they manage to create something absolutely unstoppable.

I know everyone is waxing poetic about this movie and perhaps you're someone who is rolling their eyes and saying what's the big deal? Well, the big deal is that we always see white people on screen. And because of that, we have no trouble empathizing with white people from all backgrounds and walks of life. We have seen white criminals, white CEOs, white ballerinas, white truck drivers, etc. But when it comes to seeing black people on screen, we have seen so little and therefore, have so little to empathize with. Black actors are almost always the sidekicks, or the slaves, or the villains, or the troubled schoolchildren. They are usually struggling to get by in life, an afterthought in some white person's story, or a sympathetic/sassy friend. But with this film, they get to be freakin' superheroes. And royalty. And save white people and make jokes about them and call them "colonizers" while the entire theater bursts into laughter.

Representation is crucial. If you are a young black child who only ever sees people like you on screen portrayed as drug dealers or cleaning ladies, it limits your ambition. It tells you that this is the most you can achieve in your life. A movie theater is a portal to a land of fantasy and make-believe, and yet for most black kids, even this land of endless possibilities tells them that only white people can be anything they want to be - the black ones are still only secondary characters with boring lives. But when they go to see Black Panther, they will see themselves portrayed as intelligent, proud, noble, daring, fierce, and marvelous. Even more importantly, the black women in this cast get equal screen time with the men. So this film is doing double duty, helping to represent women as well, and let little girls see themselves as incredible warriors who help to save men instead of needing to be rescued.

In terms of plot, Black Panther is a pretty straightforward superhero movie. There's a ton of action, lots of fights with multiple villains, and ample backstory involving the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. But there's nothing straightforward about how these elements are portrayed on screen. First off, there's the eye-wateringly spectacular production and costume design, a blend of traditional African design and futuristic elements that blend harmoniously to create something you've never really seen before. The score is a similar blend of traditional African music, current hip-hop, and orchestral swagger that sweeps you off your feet from the very first second. And each character brings something different to the table. The Black Panther is an extraordinary fighter, but he also cares a great deal about his country and his family, and isn't simply a warrior in a black suit. He has a heart and a brain, and he spends a lot of time trying to keep the peace instead of punching people. The women around him are incandescent; some are fierce warriors who can casually speak Korean, throw spears, and are not averse to using their weave as a weapon to blind their enemy in combat. Others are tech geniuses, who use Wakanda's secret stash of Vibranium to develop technology that makes Wakanda a world leader in infrastructure, healthcare, communications, and every other field imaginable. 

Black Panther offers up a whole new vista of possibilities to a black audience and gives them a chance to dream. It also carries a particularly apt message in our current political climate where the US President can casually denigrate immigrants from "shithole countries." In this movie, Wakanda pretends to be a third-world country, a fact that gets thrown in its inhabitants' faces all the time, because they are afraid that if the world knew what they possessed, they would be invaded and colonized like all their neighbors. It's so on the nose, because that is the history of the African continent - anything they had of value was plundered by the West, until they were left with nothing but inadequate portrayals of themselves in Hollywood movies. Well, director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole are offering up a new vision of Africa and of the African people, as a leading light in the world that will save us all. That's the vision more people need to see, and it's about damn time. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Molly's Game: Men Playing Poker

The best part of Molly's Game is, naturally, Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, the worst part of Molly's Game is how Chastain is wasted in the role, thanks to writer-director Aaron Sorkin's inability to let women speak for themselves. Perhaps it's a question of timing - if this movie had come out a decade ago, I would have praised its storyline and production values, and the sheer novelty of seeing a woman as the protagonist. But nowadays, I expect more from Hollywood, and Molly's Game, while pretending to be the story of an extraordinary woman, quickly devolves into a story about the men around her.

The movie tells the true story of Molly Bloom, a brilliant young woman who was about to qualify for the Olympic skiing team and had been admitted to Harvard Law School. However, after a disastrous accident in her Olympic qualifying heat, she took a break for a year and moved to LA. She eventually started helping a hotshot Hollywood producer arrange his weekly high-stakes poker game with business moguls and celebrities. Naive at first, but quick to learn, Molly discovered she could make way more in tips from these poker games than at a regular job, and eventually, she struck out on her own.

The story is non-linear, with flash forwards to the present where Molly has been indicted by the FBI for allowing Russian mobsters to play at her game in New York. Through flashbacks we get the story of how things escalated to the point where Molly's perfectly legal games devolved into slightly more dubious fare, while in the present, her lawyer (played by the always suave Idris Elba) patiently tries to suss out his client and figure out how he can help a woman who is so adamant not to reveal the names of the people who played at her game. Molly doesn't want to destroy the lives of the men (always men, apparently no women ever played poker) who trusted her and shared sordid details of their lives that would prove incredibly embarrassing to their families. Our heroine has a heart of gold, and she would rather go to jail than compromise her morals. It's all very admirable, but also very cliched.

Molly has a voiceover throughout the movie where she explains what's going down, e.g. a particularly tense poker hand, or skiing the moguls. These sequences are well-done and snappily explain complex concepts. And yet at key moments, it's her lawyer or her emotionally distant father who explains why Molly did the things she did and tells her how she should be feeling. For a character who is so intelligent and introspective, one would think she could explain herself quite easily to the audience, but no, apparently we need the more authoritative voices of Idris Elba and Kevin Costner to get the message across. It's infuriating.

Sorkin's writing style is evident in every scene in this movie. It isn't just the rapid-fire dialogue between characters. It's the random segues into nonsensical facts (did you know the center of the galaxy smells like rum and raspberries? Now you do, but it sure doesn't advance the plot) and the casual elitism where the smart folk spout literary jargon about The Crucible while others are too dumb to discuss James Joyce's Ulysses. Everyone is either proving themselves by trading trivia, or inspiring a smirk by not knowing the answers to obscure questions. In Sorkin's world, people are either literary or Neanderthals, and this movie quickly descends into a mass of stereotypes where our heroine and her lawyer are up against a bunch of buffoons.

Molly's Game isn't particularly boring - my attention didn't waver and I sat through the whole thing without checking my watch. It's well-paced and certainly tells a story about a compelling woman. Unfortunately, that compelling woman is often a bystander in her own story. In another director's hands, perhaps this movie would feel more refreshing. However, as yet another man tells the story of a powerful woman, all we get is Molly's Game: The Men Tell All.