Movie review: The Death of Stalin (2017)

I was surprised by how true to events this dark comedy was. Granted not everything was historically accurate and probably the conversations didn’t happen exactly as depicted, but the broad historical strokes surrounding Stalin’s death were spot on.

This comedy includes a stellar cast playing the different members of the Central Committee. The Central Committee, the rigidness of Soviet ideology, and Stalinism are perfect for satire. The movie plays up the utter indecisiveness of the committee, the brutality of the Stalin era, and the stupid adherence to bureaucratic procedures.

The movie portrays people of the Stalin era as utterly terrified. (They probably were given Stalin’s reputation.) As a concert concludes, Stalin calls to demand that the recording be sent to him as quickly as possible. The only problem is that no recording was made. To prevent certain death, the sound booth operator orders the audience back in their seats and the concert played again. Half of the audience already left, so peasants are brought off the street to ensure that the acoustics (read: number of bodies) in the room are as close to the original concert as possible.

The recording makes it to Stalin who removes the record from the record sleeve only to discover an anti-Stalin note from the famous pianist included. He collapses from what later was deemed a cerebral hemorrhage. His brutality—which scares others into doing nothing—actually prevents him from being helped until hours and hours later.

The two guards outside his room hear him collapse but decide not to investigate—Stalin would have them killed if nothing was wrong. They continue to stand guard. In the morning, they let a servant in to serve him breakfast. She discovers Stalin on the floor. But he is still not helped.

The members of the Central Committee are called and arrive at the scene one by one. Beria is the first to arrive and mysterious ransacks the place to find and destroy presumably incriminating papers. After the Central Committee arrives, we see the first instance of paralysis from the bureaucracy that was Stalinism. They leave him lying on the floor in his own excrement as they try to determine what to do.

Should they get a doctor? Wouldn’t that get them killed if Stalin came to? Didn’t they round up and kill all of the good doctors in the country? Yes, but there are still bad doctors around. Well, wouldn’t Stalin kill them if he discovered that they called bad doctors to care for him? Well, if he dies, then he wouldn’t know they were bad doctors. And if he lived, then the doctors were good, right?

They set out to round up various doctors, herding them into a van and driving them to Stalin’s dacha. The doctors, scared to death, give their assessment. Would Stalin recover? No. Only he did. Briefly. And then he really died.

The absurdity continues with the Central Committee unable to make decisions. When they do, the decisions must all be unanimous.

And the conniving! The Central Committee was thick as thieves and just as backstabbing. Little clicks and cabals form, plotting and strategizing how to outmaneuver each other.

The movie takes the tragedy that is Stalin’s Russia and turns it into a farce. After Stalin’s death, all jump in their individual cars to leave the dacha, with each blocking each other’s way. Eventually, the car carrying Stalin’s body leaves first. Khrushchev laments that he ended up in the last car to leave.

Beria, the ever-cool power behind the throne, has his security forces replace the Army throughout the city. Men in uniforms hand their guns to other men in uniforms and change places. Later, Field Marshall Zhukov helps initiate a coup of sorts. Then we see the opposite happen; the Army returns and the security forces hand over their guns and change places.

Malenkov takes control as Stalin’s replacement but is so wishy-washy that he is easily controlled by the others. He is a bit unsure and constantly looking for reassurance from others.

It is decided that he will have his photo taken with the same little girl that Stalin did in a famous photo. The search is on to find the girl. (Never mind that the ensuing years since the photo with Stalin was taken—the little girl is no longer little.) They do eventually find the “girl” and decide that um, they need a little girl that looks like her, not the real her since she is grown up.

Stalin’s children appear but are controlled and manipulated by the members of the Central Committee. Beria and Khrushchev take turns sucking up to Svetlana, who is eventually banished to Vienna. Her brother, the drunken, uncontrollable Vasily, disrupts but is allowed to give a speech at the funeral.

Molotov does not appear to be the steely strong man that I imagine would have an incendiary device named after him. A mousy, soft-spoken man, he hatches a plot with Khrushchev and Kaganovich in the back of a car, but only agrees to follow through with it if all members of the Central Committee agree—because Stalin opposed factionalism. The next day, Khrushchev leads him to believe that everyone is on board and the coup proceeds.

The dialogue is witty but quick. You can easily miss the humor as it flies by. Pairs of Central Committee members connive together but closely watch the others that they also know are conniving. At one point, Khrushchev is running back through the woods where he was in consultation with another committee member. “How”, it is asked, “can you run and plot at the same time?”

When Khrushchev, Kaganovich, and Molotov are the in the back of a car plotting a coup, the premise was so absurd and surreal. At one point, Kaganovich exclaims, “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this.”

The Death of Stalin is not your run-of-the-mill comedy. It is dark, it is satire—one might even call it historical comedy, akin to historical fiction. Bits are true, other things happened differently, probably still other events are completely fabricated. It is a dark comedic look at the death of Stalin when everything changed and at the same time nothing really did.

The main characters in the USSR changed but the stage and story stayed the same. As if to belabor this point, the movie closes with a shot of Brezhnev seated behind Khrushchev, Brezhnev who would eventually push Khrushchev out of power and replace him as leader of the Soviet Union. History repeats, or at least rhymes.

Movie review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

Often sequels are a bad idea. Incredibles 2 is not one of those bad ideas. The movie is quite engaging and entertaining. I loved the expressions on Baby Jack-Jack’s face, the ways he kept his dad up all hours of the night, and his stay with Aunt Edna—the family’s designer of their superhero suits. I liked Aunt Edna (aka Edna E Mode) too.

At the opening of the movie, our superhero family is in the midst of saving the world: father Mr. Incredible, mother Elastigirl, daughter Violet, son Dash, and baby Jack-Jack. (In all fairness, Jack-Jack wasn’t involved in any world saving. Yet.) They, of course, save the day. But the villain gets away. And the world doesn’t rejoice.

In fact, supers—as superheroes are called—are illegal. Throughout the world. They are banned due to the damage they inflict on the world.

But a billionaire businessman of a telecommunications company approaches them, offering to be their sponsor of sorts. His late father loved superheroes and had phones with direct lines to them. This is before the supers were banned. According to this businessman (Winston Deavor), all supers need is good PR. Then the public would come to their senses and make supers legal again.

How to run this PR campaign? Well, Mr. Incredible is all gung-ho to get started. But no, no. As a man, Mr. Incredible would not do as the face of the campaign. But his wife, Elastigirl, would. An interesting twist of events that parallels the rise of female superheroes in other recent movies, female politicians in the US, and women actors. Yes, 2018 was the year of the woman, even cartoon women.

The PR campaign is rather a commentary on the role of women in movies. Once upon a time, a lead role by a woman, especially in action movies or ones involving heroes that save the day, was unheard of. Strong women were not seen as good box office draws—until actually it turned out that they were. Incredibles 2 clearly pokes fun at this with the PR campaign that focuses on putting Elastigirl front and center.

It really isn’t all that radical for a wife and mother to be working or the sole breadwinner. This is the late 2010s. But I felt that I had fallen down a wormhole back to the 1980s. (In fact, I had. The Incredibles movies are set in the 1960s/1970s.) Mr. Incredible was crushed that he wouldn’t be out there battling villains. He had to take second seat to his wife and relinquish the limelight to her.

He belatedly offered to stay home and take care of the kids: helping them with their new math homework, fixing relationship problems, and watching the baby constantly. He seemed to be a bit insecure and nurse a fragile ego. And, of course, there were jokes about the work to care for kids as not being hard work (until he actually had to do it).

The daughter Violet deals with her own relegation to the stereotypical lesser female role. She and her brother Dash are left to care for the baby. And then Dash leaves her to babysit. (Later she arranges things so he has to look after the baby while she goes off to fight the bad guys.)

All in all, Incredibles 2 was an enjoyable watch. I already miss Elastigirl answering a call from Dash about where his shoes were while she was on her motorcycle chasing bad guys, or Mr. Incredible staying up all night to learn new math so he could help Dash do his homework.

And I miss the artistic Edna Mode with her large glasses, pageboy haircut, and kimono. She is the quintessential creative designer type.

She causally notes that Mr. Incredible’s way of placating Jack-Jack and preventing him from transfiguration by giving him a cookie is not a good solution. “Any solution involving cookies will inevitably result in the demon baby.”

Her solution is a creative one. Whenever Jack-Jack bursts into flames from anger, his superhero suit encases him in a fire retardant. “The fire retardant is blackberry-lavender, darling. Effective, edible, and delicious.”

I am already looking forward to another sequel. I hope it doesn’t take as long as the last one (fourteen years). I need more Edna in my life.

Movie review: The Incredibles (2004)

Action movies. Animation. The two come together in The Incredibles. Either genre has die-hard followers—think of the influx of action movies in the past decade or the movies of Hayao Miyazaki such as Spirited Away. I occasionally enjoy a well-made action or animated movie, but I am not a rabid fan of either. (Well, Spirited Away might be the exception.)

But I LOVE The Incredibles.

I am not sure why it took me so look to watch this 2004 film. Perhaps because of the oversaturation of action, super-hero movies and the fan-base that goes with them. (I do tend to shy away from the latest fads gripping popular culture until years after the hubbub has died away.)

The Incredibles is set in the 1960s—home décor screams the colors and designs of that era and the division of labor by sexes suggests it too. Superheroes abound in the world but after the destruction that accompanies them saving the world, they are banned. Outlawed. The supers are relocated in witness protection programs. They start their lives over as ordinary people, blending in as much as possible.

Sandwiched between saving the world and this ban, Mr. Incredible marries Elastagirl. They fully embrace their non-superhero identities as The Parrs.

The movie fast forwards fifteen years. The ban has long been in effect. Bob (Mr. Incredible) is slowly being crushed under the weight of being a normal Joe, a cog in the corporate wheel. Helen is a stay at-home home with three kids in a house with avocado-colored décor. (Yes, the 1960s.)

Bob occasionally gets together with his former superhero colleague Frozone. The two friends go bowling, which is actually code for listening to police scanners. They try to respond to dire situations without getting caught. Sometimes they are not so lucky.

Bob ends up fired from his job where he approves or rejects insurance claims—he is suppose to reject all but finds ways to help customers get approval. (Probably a background in helping others is NOT good for excelling at rejecting insurance claims.) His firing isn’t the only secret he keeps from his wife Helen.

He is contacted by Mirage, a former superhero, about a new gig—capturing a robot gone rogue. He jumps at the chance to be Mr. Incredible again. All is well until it turns out that the guy behind the request is a former fan that he spurned—a geeky kid now all grown up with technological toys.

Meanwhile, Helen has discovered that Mr. Incredible’s old suit had been repaired. Curious she calls up Edna Mode, the ultra-hip designer of their suits, to have a chat. Helen learns that Edna designed new suits for the entire family. With a tracking device linked to the suits, Helen finds Mr. Incredible, now a captive on a volcanic island owned by the formerly spurned fan. (Could this be a more 1960s action movie plot? James Bond anyone?)

The family unites to battle the foe, which spills over from the island to the mainland. Clearly, they are violating the ban on superheroes. In the end, they vanquish the foe, only to have another one appear. But that foe, it appears, is for another movie.

My favorite part of the movie? Edna Mode. Her character is such a delight. (She does kind of have a cult following it seems.) She has some of the best lines. “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” She is adamant on her designs. Capes are out. She calmly lists all the superheroes who died thanks to capes that got caught in something or other. And you do not argue with Edna. When she asks you to stop by in an hour, you stop by in an hour. To do otherwise is unthinkable.

The benefit to watching a popular movie years after it released? The sequel is already out. No fourteen years of waiting for it. More Incredibles and Edna Mode awaits.

Movie review: The Big Sick (2017)

Kumail Najiani, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter. I was intrigued. A romantic comedy. Would it be up to par with romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally, which I probably saw half a dozen times during the year it was released?

Probably not. The Big Sick is a good, entertaining story with some talented actors. But I am not sure I want to watch it five more times this year. I enjoy Kumail Najiani and would like to see more of him and additional movies that he and his wife write.

The Big Sick is a light-hearted romantic comedy that deals with a serious subject. In the age of modern romance, Kumail and Emily hook up but then they spend more and more time together in what becomes in the parlance of my generation a relationship. Only there is a catch that Emily realizes after three month that leads to her to end the relationship.

She stumbles across a cigar box where Kumail keeps photos of the women that his mother introduces him to. He is Pakistani and his parents expect him to settle down with a woman that they arrange for him to marry.

His relationship with Emily, which seemed so promising, at least to her, ends when she walks out. Why stay in a relationship that is doomed to end in him agreeing to an arranged marriage?

Unfortunately—or fortunately depending on your perspective—tragedy strikes and Kumail is forced back into her life. Emily becomes strangely sick, so sick that she is admitted to the hospital. And her friends at school cannot look after her, so they call Kumail.

And Kumail suddenly finds himself thrust back into her life as her “legal guardian” until he calls her parents. Naturally at first his interactions with them are less than stellar. They know all about Kumail and the end of the relationship.

Over the course of Emily’s strange sickness and stay in the hospital, the three of them interact and move through different stages of engagement. The stress of the situation, the stress of their dysfunctional marriage, the stress of Kumail’s and Emily’s relationship appear. Life and relationships are less than perfect. Along the way Kumail goes from a go-lucky stand-up comic to a more grown-up adult who realizes the beauty of Emily and the love her parents have for one another.

The Big Sick is a fun movie with jokes and serious moments. The premise of the movie is actually based on the experience between Kumail and his real-life wife. (He plays himself in the movie. Why did she not play herself, I wonder?) What will their next collaboration be?

Movie review: Mr. Roosevelt (2017)

Mr. Roosevelt is a movie about angst-filled twenty-somethings—that decade when many people float by, cobbling together low paying jobs before figuring out more serious endeavors.

Our heroine Emily is one such twenty-something. She moved from Austin to LA to quasi pursue comic gigs. She’s not a standup comic. She’s not an actress. In between auditions, she pays the bills (sort of) with a video-editing job.

She is basically wandering aimlessly through life with little self-esteem and purpose. (In one scene, one guy comments on what low self-esteem she has before saying he’ll buy her another drink before sleeping with her, which she is completely fine with.)

Then her ex-boyfriend calls. Her cat that she left with him in Austin is dying. She flies to Austin with the clothes on her back.

To her surprise, she discovers that the ex-boyfriend that she left behind has moved on. He has a new girlfriend. Celeste is the new girlfriend that you would love to hate and Emily does. Celeste bends over backwards to be friendly and accommodating to Emily, inviting her into their home, loaning her clothes, inviting her out, arranging a celebration brunch for Mr. Roosevelt.

Emily is anything but grateful. Clearly, she expected her ex-boyfriend to be the same guy and unattached. Instead, he has moved on with a new girlfriend who is an entrepreneur, encourages Eric to get a real estate license, and remodeled his house.

But Emily doesn’t see it that way. She sees Eric’s guitars relegated to the storage shed and Eric studying for a license that he doesn’t want and now on antidepressants. She is so wrapped up in herself that she doesn’t see reality. Her leaving Eric crushed him and led to him getting on antidepressants. He is quite happy to have direction and a stable girlfriend in his life. He has moved on from drifting through his angst-filled twenties. Emily has not.

Back in Austin, every time she turns around she encounters someone who knows her for her YouTube videos—childish vapid videos that others find amusing. Emily is frustrated that this is all she is known for. She seems caught between those transitioning to adulthood (Eric and Celeste’s crowd) and those stuck in the pre-transition time (Jen and her crowd).

It’s not clear that Emily can make the transition or even wants to. She and Eric are in different worlds now. She flies back to LA to no job (she lost it while in Austin) and no comedy prospects.

Emily can barely hold herself together or function in the world. In one scene, she asks her new friend Jen, “Am I a bad person?” “You’re a good person with really bad execution.” Probably an apt description for any of us on a particular day.

In between all of this angst are snippets about Mr. Roosevelt. Initially greatly impacted by his death, Emily is perplexed by Celeste being upset. Mr. Roosevelt was at least as much a part of Celeste’s life as Emily’s but Emily clings to him as her cat. In the end, Eric, Celeste, Emily, and Jen bury what is the remainder of his ashes in the backyard.

Mr. Roosevelt is a comedy of sorts but left me sad. Some people in the movie are navigating their twenties well. Others not so much. Austin is portrayed as a stereotypical hippie enclave being pushed out and aside by incoming tech people. The movie also seems to be a commentary of transitioning to adulthood. Neither those that transition or those that don’t come out looking all that well.