movie reviews May 2018


mountainthe Death of Stalintully

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For their latest release, director Jason Reitman and writer by Diablo Cody, the duo behind Young Adult,have once again teamed up with Charlize Theron. For the role, Theron padded her svelte frame with as much as 50 extra pounds. It should be noted that the last time the actor put on noticeable weight for a role was for her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos. This time she portrays a different kind of monster: a bad mom.

Theron is Marlo, who, when first introduced, is pregnant with her third child — a mid-life surprise. Husband Drew (Ron Livingston), when not traveling for work, helps their oldest, Sarah (Lia Frankland), with her homework but does little else around the house, leaving Marlo to deal with Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) whose undiagnosable sensory sensitivities cause teachers and relatives to repeatedly describe him as "quirky," much to Marlo's irritation. "Do I have a kid or a f—ing ukulele?" she eventually snaps at his school's principal (Gameela Wright).

To be fair, it's not that Marlo is abusive or even that neglectful. She's smart-alecky and standoffish. “I have my own personal hug-buffer now,” she says of her pregnant belly, and Drew confirms she may prefer to navigate the world that way were she not aware that her mammoth belly, beyond mere baby bump, is considered obscene to some. But Marlo's biggest problem isn't that she doesn't live up to the unforgiving standards of perfection for privileged mothers; it's that she actually wants to, despite her contempt.

A chance meeting with a former roommate at the beginning of the movie informs us that a lifetime ago Marlo possessed a creative, adventurous identity that she traded for a dull, settled suburban life without much thought about the casualties of her safe choices. "Women don't heal," she laments later. They just cover the scars with makeup.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), the night nanny. She's an energetic, flat-bellied sprite who offers comfort through sibylline scientific facts and philosophical conundrums. She has the assured wisdom only one so young can possess; an attitude as pacifying, if not more, to Marlo as it is to new baby Mia. The two women have much in common, save for where they are in the chronology of their lives.

Under Tully's spell, cupcakes are baked for treats to bring to school, balanced meals are put on the table on time, and flowers are arranged on the breakfast table. More important, Marlo is happier, if not exactly happy. But then the obvious, inevitable final twist — played out in a repeat of the film's pivotal scenes edited for any viewer who as yet didn't see it coming — takes it all away. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 5/14/2018)

The Death of Stalin
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

It's almost impossible to anticipate the whims of tyrants. One may demand a second scoop of ice cream while his guests receive just the one, or another violates his own travel ban on Westerners to bring in a championship basketball player in the waning days of his celebrity.

In British political satirist Armando Iannucci's second feature, adapted from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), just home from a drunken evening around Joseph Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) table, gives a play-by-play recap to his yawning wife (Sylvestra Le Touzel) for her to write it all down so that the next morning he may more soberly study which jokes made the General Secretary laugh. Khruschev is like a comedian perfecting a bit, except it's for an audience of one person who has the authority to send him to the gulag.

But not even Khrushchev, with his detailed notes and the tomatoes he carries in his pockets should the need arise for a prop gag, can predict Stalin's next yen. Radio Moscow is wrapping up a live broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, when a call comes into the booth. The architect of the Great Terror wants a recording of the performance brought to his dacha that night. After an alarmed realization that no recording has been made, the station director (Paddy Considine) implores the musicians and conductor for a repeat performance. For crowd sounds, they drag in people off the street. “Don’t worry,” he reassures the fearful new audience. “Nobody’s going to get killed.”

The statement isn't exactly true. Stalin, after reading a seditious note slipped into the sleeve of the recording by the orchestra's pianist (Olga Kurylenko), succumbs to a stroke. In the morning a hushed alarm is sounded and soon Stalin's prone body, lying on the urine-soaked carpet, is surrounded by the members of his Central Committee, to a man, too cowardly to declare him alive or dead, and no doctor can be called because the man in need of one had them all either exiled or killed.

The members of the Central Committee are played by a roster of distinguished British and American actors — Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Michael Palin and Buscemi — eschewing Russian accents for exaggerated versions of their own dialect. A stroke of comedic genius if there ever was one, and Jason Isaacs letting loose his Yorkshire accent for the celebrated WWII general Georgy Zhukov is the pinnacle of inventiveness. “I fooked Germany," he deadpans. "I think I can take a flesh lump in a fookin’ waistcoat.”

There's not a decent guy in the lot, and though there seems to be no end to the bald-faced irony that turns the biggest laughs into guilty ones, the movie begins to sag a bit under the weight of their scheming. A literal shoving match almost comes to blows mere feet from the open casket where Stalin's body lies in state. Eventually, the maneuvering boils down to who can get Tambor's Georgy Malenkov, the titular leader of the Soviet Union, to waffle their way — the worst of the worst or just the least worst of the worst. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 5/14/18)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

A whiff of pretentiousness fills the air as Mountain opens with black-and-white footage of a stage tech tuning a piano in a concert hall, a musician warming up a cello, and narrator Willem Dafoe, sporting headphones, settling behind a microphone. Against a dissonant tremolo, a stark black screen displays the unattributed epigraph; "Those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear the music."

Not a good sign.

But then come the mountains.

Against a washed-out, monochromatic mountainside, a red dot is visible, presumably a climber. The camera slowly glides in, and then suddenly cuts to a shot from almost directly above the figure, peering down, past his head and shoulders, toward the vast chasm beneath as he slowly reaches out, feeling for a grip in the sheer rock. No ropes. No harness. Just a pair of athletic shoes and a thin layer of chalk on his bare hands.

It's a stunning, vertiginous minute and a half, and nothing else in the film will match it. But several moments will come close.

Australian director Jennifer Peedom, whose 2015 Sherpa documented the commoditization and exploitation of indigenous peoples in service of the Everest trade, here teams up with the Australian Chamber Orchestra for something more akin to a tone poem than a standard documentary. Set to a range of classical chestnuts (Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King") as well as brief original passages by ACO conductor/composer Richard Tognetti, Peedom offers impressive footage of intrepid mountain climbers, as well as base jumpers, freestyle skiers, snowboarders, and para-bikers.

The real star of this effort, however, is cinematographer and professional climber Renan Ozturk (Sherpa), who makes impressive use of the most current drone and helicopter cam technology to obtain truly remarkable footage of activities never before captured so closely or vividly. Frustratingly, Peedom eschews subtitles identifying the peaks, locales, and climbers on screen, inadvertently creating a distraction in her determination to avoid them.

Dafoe's brief narrative interjections suggest the film's historical and philosophical focus: When, and why, did we stop fearing these foreboding regions and find ourselves, instead, drawn to conquer them?

The narration is drawn from British writer Robert Macfarlane's 2003 historical reflection “Mountains of the Mind” and includes such blanket statements as, "Three centuries ago, risking one's life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy," and, "During the second half of the 1700s, however, people started for the first time to travel to mountains."

It quickly becomes clear that "we" and "people" refer solely to westerners, certainly not the ancient cultures that have inhabited mountainous regions the world over for centuries. Despite the occasional shot of a Sherpa village or eastern religious temple for color, the film's focus stays firmly on the western interlopers.

Even at a brief 74 minutes, an overreliance on time-lapse shots of nightfall and slow zooms from wide vistas to a tiny human figure pinned, like an insect, to a cliff face suggest that the filmmakers have run out of new things to show. And Dafoe's florid pronouncements, such as, “They watched us arrive. They will watch us leave," suggest that no real answers to the film's ruminative questions will be forthcoming. NR Rating: 3 (Posted on 5/14/18)

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