The Death of Stalin

March 29, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale
Directed by: Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”)
Written by: Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”), David Schneider (“All the Queen’s Men”) and Ian Martin (TV’s “Veep”)

It’s virtually impossible while watching the British dark comedy “The Death of Stalin” to not think of the potentially side-splitting scenarios a talented, Oscar-nominated screenwriter like Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”) could piece together as a feature film about the current U.S. Administration led by treasure trove of hilarity, President Donald Trump. Russian bots, secret Kremlin meetings, dossiers, loyalty pledges, porn star lawsuits — the thing practically writes itself.

Taking the most ridiculous — and often serious — situations and creating one big, absurd narrative is what Iannucci does best in “The Death of Stalin.” As the old adage goes, “truth is stranger than fiction,” especially in the hands of a satirist as sharp, witty and unapologetic as Iannucci is with Soviet history.

Set in Moscow in 1953, everyone is walking on eggshells around their unpredictable leader Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the Soviet dictator who was known for exiling, imprisoning, torturing and murdering individuals he felt were a threat to his regime. In one early scene, Soviet statesman Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who ultimately helped de-Stalinize the country after Stalin’s death, dictates dialogue he shared with the dictator at dinner as his wife makes note of the jokes that didn’t make Stalin laugh, so he would remember to avoid those topics later (and avoid the possibility of getting killed).

Stalin’s officials are wound so tight, when he suffers a stroke and dies soon after, they don’t know what their next move should be. Iannucci portrays most of the men as lost puppies, specifically Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), who succeeds Stalin as leader and is reluctant to join his colleagues when they decide to overthrow their repulsive deputy premier Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale).

Playing out like a feature-length version of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” minus the slurred speech, “The Death of Stalin” is chock-full of amusing, dry British humor and earns its laughs even during some of its most disturbing scenes. Iannucci doesn’t pussyfoot around the cruel politics on display, but still manages to find subtle ways to take effective jabs at every turn. Not all the one-liners and gags are knockouts, but some of Iannucci’s gut punches are significant stingers.

Although it would probably benefit audiences to go into a film like “The Death of Stalin” with some idea of who the major players were during this tumultuous time in the Soviet Union, the film isn’t one that relies heavily on references to push the story forward. Instead, Iannucci banks on his finely tuned actors to deliver the farcical dialogue he and his team of writers seem to have painstakingly perfected line by line.

Banned in Russia, “The Death of Stalin” is a timely satire for those moviegoers who are fine with taking the film at face value — as a silly ribbing of government corruption — and those who find comfort in comparing the nonsense on screen to America’s own political reality show. No matter which camp you belong to, you’ll appreciate how “The Death of Stalin” is able to balance its pitch-black power dynamics with smart, classic wordplay (“When I said ‘No problem,’ I meant, ‘No! Problem!’”) and a cast of clowns who know their way around a circus.

Monsters University

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Ashley, Reviews

Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren
Directed by: Dan Scanlon (debut)
Written by: Daniel Gerson (“Monster’s Inc.”), Robert L. Baird (debut), Dan Scanlon (debut)

Twelve years ago, Pixar introduced us to the charismatic one-eyed monster, Mike Wazowski, and his ginormous polka-dotted buddy, Sulley, in “Monsters Inc.” Set 10 years before their epic adventure with Boo, its prequel, “Monsters University,” prevails in both charm and humor. Simply put: It’s just so darn cute, it’ll make you want to grab your best friend and give them a monster-sized cuddle.

In “Monsters University,” the origin story of how Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) came to be pals takes center stage with a trip back in time to their college days. We quickly discover that it wasn’t always happy times for the BFF’s. In fact, they detested each other their first semester in college.

Their constant bickering finally blows up in their face when they are kicked out of the elite Scaring Program on campus after impulsively breaking out into a fight, right smack in the middle of their final exam. Catching the undesirable attention of stern and intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), Mike and Sulley are forced to change their majors and say goodbye to their long desired dream to become professional scarers.

Mike’s lifelong aspirations, however, keep him from giving up. He optimistically enters the Scare Games, an Olympics-style team competition on campus, in hopes of being crowned “Best Scarer on Campus.” With one more shot to prove his worthiness, Dean Hardscrabble agrees to let him back into the program if he can clinch the title but not before he is forced to team up with the nerdy misfits of Oozma Kappa, the only fraternity on campus that will have him, and his enemy, Sulley, who fills in as the sixth required fraternity member.

With an impeccable cast, every actor effortlessly lends their voice to the animated characters, making the ensemble irresistibly entertaining. Its heartwarming storyline is likely to put a smile on everyone’s face no matter what age, especially with its inspiring message of friendship and finding the inspiration to overcome life’s obstacles.

“Monsters University” is flawlessly animated with striking and vivid colors, making every scene pleasurable to watch. With its bright and intricate details, take heed in knowing there is no reason to purchase a 3-D ticket. Despite the many off-the-wall activities the Scare Games demand the fraternities and sororities complete before going onto the next round, nothing is added to the movie watching experience in a 3-D format.

Even though the film might not be able to make you tear up like “Toy Story 3,” director Dan Scanion saves it from becoming another Pixar misstep like “Cars 2.” With its crazy antics, memorable characters and rambunctious comedy, “Monsters University” delivers a satisfying G-rated film the entire family will enjoy.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

March 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi
Directed by: Don Scardino (TV’s “30 Rock”)
Written by: Jonathan M. Goldstein (“Horrible Bosses”) and John Francis Daley (“Horrible Bosses”)

It used to be that magic was something as simple as a few card tricks, pulling a rabbit out of a hat or in the case of the most famous magician of all-time Harry Houdini, performing death-defying escape acts. Somewhere along the line, however, acts like Criss Angel and David Blaine showed up, who while maintaining the traditional sense of magic, began injecting large-scale, often endurance-based stunts like being trapped under ice or standing on things for long periods of time. With this came the transition from Vegas acts to TV specials. The landscape of magician-related entertainment was changing. As a very loose social commentary of sorts, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” shows the exaggerated difference between old-school and new-school magicians.

As people get tired of watching the recycled acts of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) they begin to flock to street magician Steve Grey (Jim Carrey) who performs absurd stunts. When Wonderstone and Marvelton have a falling out, Wonderstone is forced to come up with a magic act on his own for the first time. When Burt has a revelation that he isn’t the same on his own, it is up to him to try to reconnect with a partner to win back his audience.

Though “Burt Wonderstone” has its comedic moments that work, it is surprising how little of the laughs come as a direct result of the seasoned comedic cast. Carell’s character is brash, annoying, and has character traits that seem to come and go at random (his accent, for example). Buscemi disappears halfway through the film, having failed to make a true comedic impact. His return later on doesn’t provide much humor either. Carrey’s appearance winds up being more of an extended cameo. He will periodically appear on the screen to do his wacky trademark Carrey stuff and then just disappear for large chunks of time. Simply put, nobody in the cast is particularly funny despite some of the scenarios they are involved in hitting their mark.

Most of what works in “Burt Wonderstone” comes from sight gags, both subtle and occasionally overtly goofy. Things like Wonderstone trying to perform a magic trick after the separation between him and his partner are legitimately funny. Other magic tricks performed during the film are actually amusing.  That isn’t to say all of them are. Carrey’s character, which is the most obvious Criss Angel exaggeration possible, makes his living off shocking stunts that are too grotesque to be considered magic. The first of his stunts involving a card trick and a knife is particularly funny, but the concept of stupid stunts wears out its welcome fast. It is definitely not helped by the over-the-top performance Carrey is know for delivering.

The final act of the film is absurd, but thanks to a pretty funny epilogue, is somehow acceptable. Mainly, “Burt Wonderstone” wastes its strong comedic cast. The subject matter is a little outdated with traditional magicians and magic shows seemingly weaning in popularity. But perhaps even cloaked in irony, the goal of “Burt Wonderstone” is to reignite people to that type of entertainment.

Youth in Revolt

January 8, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart
Directed by: Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl”)
Written by: Gusten Nash (“Charlie Bartlett”)

It’s common knowledge in most Hollywood circles that when making a movie (indie or otherwise) where the script calls for a soft-spoken, insecure character with a heart of gold the actor on top of most people’s lists would be Michael Cera (followed closely by the fidgetiness and nervous rambling of Jesse Eisenberg).

While Cera’s style works rather well in most cases like in “Superbad” and “Juno,” it would still be interesting to see what he could do out of his comfort zone. How much longer will he be able to pass for a dweeby teenager anyway?

His newest comedy, “Youth in Revolt,” isn’t the breakout role some of us might be looking for, but it’s a nice transition piece that could expose him to some dimension. It’s ironic that a role like this also does the exact opposite and pigeonholes him into what we already know he’s good at.

In “Revolt,” which is adapted from the epistolary novel by C.D. Payne, Cera plays Nick Twisp, a shy high school kid who listens to Frank Sinatra and is mystified by the opposite sex. Still, he’s a sweet, old soul who wonders why “in the movies the good guy get the girl and in real life it’s the prick.”

With nothing better to do, Nick goes on a spontaneous vacation to a trailer park with his mother (Jean Smart) and her loser boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). While there, he meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), the girl of his dreams who is culturally aware of all things French and would think Nick was much cooler than he really is if he’d just show a little backbone.

He gets the chance when their fling ends and both realize the only way they can be together is if they can pull off an intricate plan. Part of the mischievous plot is for Nick to get himself kicked out of his mother’s house. To do this, Nick creates an alter ego named François Dillinger (also played by Cera), a rebellious little punk with a pencil-thin mustache, blue eyes, and sharp tongue. Basically, François is the man Nick wishes he was because he’s the type of guy Sheeni could go for without hesitation. François, however, become more trouble than anticipated when he turns Nick into a fugitive.

This is where Cera breaks out of his usual mold and shows us something different, but not entirely unconventional to where one might think he was trying too hard. François puts Nick on edge and gives Cera a great character to explore alongside another that basically comes naturally to him at this point. The identity crisis works well as his battling personalities match wits. Cera alone has it in him to push the adapted material well passed a month most would deem as a cinematic dumping ground.

Surprisingly, “Youth in Revolt” is a rarity for early new-year releases. With filmmaker Miguel Arteta (“Chuck & Buck,” “Star Maps”), who has been making solid albeit small films for the past 12 years, the journal entries of one Nick Twisp are a creative and amusing journey about what it means to be at an age where the world begins and ends with whether or not you have the ability to grow facial hair.