Bohemian Rhapsody

A flawed piece of work, but Rami Malek brings passion and energy to the role of Freddie Mercury that are unprecedented.
★★½
Movie Review #1,135

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Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox. Biography, Drama, Music. Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language. Released November 2, 2018. Directed by Bryan Singer. Produced by Jim Beach and Graham King. Story by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan. Screenplay by McCarten. Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, and Dickie Beau.

Sometimes all you need to make a movie memorable is one stunning performance. That’s the case here with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Rami Malek absolutely carries the movie in his performance as Freddie Mercury, the frontman of rock band Queen. He looks, talks, and acts like this superstar and that’s something that few could pull off. The man was born for this role. Even when he’s just lip-syncing to the songs of Freddie Mercury, from the recording sessions of songs like “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” to the band’s iconic performance at the Live Aid charity concert in 1985, he brings passion and energy to the role that are unprecedented.

This is a Hollywood movie. Many historical inaccuracies abound and it’s in the hands of screenwriter Anthony McCarten that these events are tailored to fit a more artistic timeline as he sees fit. He’s been infamous for taking such liberties in his screenplays for “The Theory of Everything” (based on the life of Stephen Hawking) and “Darkest Hour” (based on the life of Winston Churchill). In those cases it worked; in this case, the historical goofs just feel lazy. It may help to go in blind, having not grown up during Queen’s success and perhaps knowing little about Queen at all. On the flip side, McCarten offers dialogue that is rather enjoyable. The banter between the band members, and sometimes between others, is iconic. My personal favorite scene in the film came with a cameo from Mike Myers as the band’s manager. Their argument over whether a long and otherworldly song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” should be produced is a highlight of the film. “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is an eternity,” Freddie Mercury says, drawing approval from the audience.

The film’s focus isn’t so much on the band itself as it is on its frontman and in that respect it feels rather superficial. Oftentimes we feel like we’re just checking the boxes on territory every musical biopic should explore and that can feel a bit mundane. We never really delve into the gravity of Freddie’s repressed sexuality or what it’s like to be a gay man in the 1970s. Nor do we venture into what exactly made Freddie such a legend. Sure he talks about being a legend and they seem to think their band is a game-changer but none of that means anything to us when there’s nothing to show for it in the film. What makes matters worse is later in the film when Freddie starts to part ways with the band. He becomes an increasingly unlikable, childish, and impulsive asshole. This is a film that simply wants one thing and that’s a feel-good reaction from its audience but this segment of the film feels draining. But Malek is never missing a beat with his performance as Mercury, and by the time the Live Aid concert rolls around at the end, he’s able to bring it back on its feet. It’s possibly the most stunning reenactment performance you’ll see in any film. As previously mentioned, he carries the film. It may be flawed, but Malek is its savior.

Halloween

“Halloween” is an homage for fans of the original.  If you’re a fan, go see it.
★★★
Movie Review #1,134

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Distributed by Universal Pictures. Horror, Thriller. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Rated R for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity. Released October 19, 2018. Directed by David Gordon Green. Produced by Malek Akkad, Bill Block, and Jason Blum. Screenplay by Green & Danny McBride & Jeff Fradley, from characters by John Carpenter & Debra Hill. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Haluk Bilginer, Will Patton, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, Toby Huss, Virginia Gardner, Miles Robbins, Drew Scheid, and Jibrail Nantambu.

Since John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” in 1978, there have been seven sequels, a remake, and a sequel to that. 2018’s “Halloween” is bold in that it asks you to forget everything in the franchise except the initial installment. Set forty years after the original, we open to two podcasters who are interested in studying serial killer Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle) for their next project. Myers has been locked away in a mental asylum for the last forty years and is about to be transported to a different one. The podcasters visit him in the asylum, as well as Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has been suffering from PTSD ever since Myers attacked her on Halloween night four decades prior. Unlike her estranged daughter (Judy Greer), she believes the world is an evil place full of darkness. She lives in a heavily protected property on the outskirts of Haddonfield, Illinois, prepared for the night that Myers will escape and wreak havoc again. Sure enough, on Halloween, that night comes.

Let’s be honest, we can’t expect any “Halloween” sequel to be a classic like the original. But as far as sequels go, this one is damn good. It doesn’t rely on jump scares like the average contemporary horror movie; instead it uses our anticipation as a tactic for scares in the same manner as John Carpenter did with the original. The script is written by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, who have worked together on comedies such as “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” This is definitely a different genre for them to approach but they’ve done well. Not only is it scary, we also get some comedy, specifically from a boy named Julian (Jibrail Nantambu) who is being babysat on Halloween night. The brief time for which we’re acquainted with his character makes the film all the more enjoyable.

“Halloween” does a good job at inciting the original. We see obvious references—be it Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) sitting in the back corner of her classroom and looking out the window as Laurie did in the original, a body covered in a ghost-sheet, or a character pinned to the wall with a knife. Even Carpenter’s original score is here. Okay it’s been modified by his son Cody Carpenter and his godson Daniel Davies. I wasn’t a fan of some of the modifications. They made some of the dramatic scenes in the first half feel kitschy. But what was kept when the film started getting scary was rather effective. The new “Halloween” isn’t a standalone film. It’s an homage for fans of the original. If you haven’t seen the original, you probably won’t appreciate it as much. If you’re a fan, go see it.

First Man

We’ve seen great dramas come of screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”) but none so personal and full of such deep character development as “First Man.”
★★★½
Movie Review #1,133

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Distributed by Universal Pictures. Biography, Drama, History. Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. Released October 12, 2018. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Produced by Marty Bowen, Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, and Isaac Klausner. Screenplay by Josh Singer. Based on the book by James R. Hansen. Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Still, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, and Ethan Embry.

Note that the title of this film is “First Man,” not “First Mission.” It’s not about the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s about its commander, Neil Armstrong, who is portrayed here by Ryan Gosling. Gosling delivers this role so intimately. We’re not shown Armstrong as a hero but rather as an ordinary, vulnerable human being. Perhaps the only thing extraordinary about him is his bravery to continue pursuing mission after mission even after those close to him, beginning with his own daughter and continuing with his own neighbor, are dying. He’s clearly haunted by these occurrences but he refuses to show any emotion. He’s a stoic; he even initially refuses to say goodbye to his sons before leaving for the Apollo 11 mission, knowing full well that he may never see them again. We’ve seen great dramas come of screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”) but none so personal and full of such deep character development as “First Man.”

Even better than Gosling’s performance as the titular character is up-and-coming actress Claire Foy’s performance as Armstrong’s wife. You may know her from the Netflix drama “The Crown,” where she played Queen Elizabeth II for two seasons. She also starred in Steven Soderbergh’s recent thriller “Unsane” and she also takes on the lead role in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” which is out next month. But if any of these roles are going to make a name for her—and win awards for her—it’s going to be this one as Mrs. Armstrong. She’s a charming woman but also a sensible one who stands firmly for what she believes in.

The film’s use of sight and sound are especially remarkable. They create an atmosphere during many sequences, such as a test pilot sequence in the very beginning where we can only hear Armstrong’s breathing through his mask. It speeds up rapidly as the test vehicle accidentally bounces off Earth’s atmosphere, making for a rather thrilling experience. The Gemini 8 sequence, Armstrong’s first mission, is also exciting to the same effect. The camerawork alone is astounding. We’re treated to a grainy, old-fashioned look that brings us back to the 1960s, and as one would hope, the moon landing sequence at the end is absolutely awe-inspiring. Of course one can’t fully review a film by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land”) without commenting on the music, which as always is the work of his Harvard roommate Justin Hurwitz. The music carries a mesmerizing, Philip Glass-esque sound that accents the nature of the movie. I had my doubts about Chazelle taking on this lofty film seeing that it was the young filmmaker’s first effort outside of the music genre. It turns out this is another great movie where music just so happens to be one of its strongest points.

Monsters and Men

John David Washington gives an award-worthy performance, but I doubt “Monsters and Men” will show up on Oscar radar.
★★½
Movie Review #1,132

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Distributed by MoviePass Films and Neon. Drama. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Rated R for language. Released October 5, 2018. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Produced by Luca Borghese, Julia Lebedev, Josh Penn, Elizabeth Lodge, and Eddie Vaisman. Written by Green. Starring John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Let’s talk about John David Washington’s performance in “Monsters and Men.” It’s superb. Between this film and “BlacKkKlansman,” this football running back-turned-actor is as promising as his father Denzel was in his early career. His character, Brooklyn police officer Dennis Williams, is one of the best written characters all year. This feature involves the aftermath of the shooting of a young black man, and a third of it is seen through Williams’s eyes. We can feel the cognitive split of this character. A black cop, split on his feelings. He understands the discrimination firsthand; the film even opens with him being pulled over while he’s on the job for no apparent reason. But he also understands the mindset of a cop after eight years on the job.

This portion of the film is in a sense an unbiased portrait of police brutality. Obviously we have a predisposition going in, but watching the film, we’re not sure how to feel. If only the rest of the film were this emotionally deep. Washington’s portrait is only the centerfold of “Monsters and Men,” bookended by two other accounts: that of a bystander to the murder (Anthony Ramos), who uploads a video showing the shooting, and that of a local baseball legend who decides to take action (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). I couldn’t find myself in either character. It puzzles me that for how well first-time writer-director managed to flesh out Washington’s character, these two seemed so superficial. I furthermore had a problem with Ramos’s acting. Ramos is another promising up-and-comer for sure, and he proved himself recently with a small role in Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” but his character here is entirely unlikable.

I don’t have much to say about “Monsters and Men.” It has good intentions for sure but it’s not holistically compelling enough to recommend. For what it’s worth, I consider myself lucky to have seen this film before most everybody else does; it’s showing in a limited release currently. However, it’s been three weeks, the movie hasn’t even crossed the $500,000 mark, and it’s already leaving many theaters, so it may not see a wide release. It’s clear that my sentiment is one shared by most audiences; to accent the poor box office results, the film scores a 5.9 out of 10 on IMDb. Washington’s performance is enough to make the film barely satisfactory, but given how forgettable the film is, I’d be surprised if it shows up on Oscar radar when awards season rolls around.

A Star Is Born

Pure Oscar material about the rise and fall of two musicians, a classic story tailored for the “La La Land” era.
★★★½
Movie Review #1,131

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Distributed by Warner Bros. Drama, Music, Romance. Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse. Released October 5, 2018. Directed by Bradley Cooper. Produced by Cooper, Bill Gerber, Lynette Howell Taylor, Jon Peters, and Todd Phillips. Screenplay by Eric Roth and Cooper & Will Fetters. Based on the 1954 screenplay by Moss Hart. Based on the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson. Based on a story by William Wellman and Robert Carson. Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, and Dave Chappelle.

About a week ago, in a course I am taking on principles of communication theory, we were discussing the power of celebrity image and how it blinds us from reality. In a fashion that is practically unconscious, we lionize these people to the extent that we thoroughly miss the fact that they are normal human beings just like you and I. In a sense we treat them like gods, which is why when we see their flaws, we experience cognitive dissonance, an uncertain feeling about how we should regard them now. “A Star Is Born” captures the essence of this concept marvelously. Our hero, or rather antihero, is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a total rockstar with a household name. His hamartia is alcoholism. Granted, it’s what brings him to meet Ally (Lady Gaga) at a drag bar where he makes a pit stop on his way back from a show. He pursues her to no end until she finally comes on the stage with him at one of his concerts, eventually landing a major record deal, and becomes a hit. But at the same time, while Ally’s career is on the rise, Jackson’s drinking problem leads to a tragic decline in his own career as his private vice becomes intertwined with his public life.

The two biggest surprises of the film are the most anticipated. Bradley Cooper can sing and Lady Gaga can act, and rather phenomenally. The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is dynamic. They offer so much humor and charisma to their roles, and we develop a deep emotional connection with them. It makes for an emotional powerhouse of a film. Of course Gaga’s sensational singing abilities make the movie all the more fabulous. Her seminal performance of Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” is absolutely stunning. Watching the intercutting focus between her singing and Cooper reacting, we’re absolutely captivated. I’ll also note that the camerawork does the film a great deal of justice. It adds a raw, indie vibe to the film. This is a movie that you don’t just watch; you feel it. The scene where a nervous Gaga comes onstage to perform “Shallow,” the lead single from the film’s soundtrack, with Cooper is downright riveting. You feel butterflies when you watch it, as if you were right there with them.

There isn’t much to complain about with “A Star Is Born.” The acting is phenomenal, not just by Cooper and Gaga but also by Sam Elliott, who plays Cooper’s older brother, father figure, and manager. The best of his performance is brought out by the drunken volatility of Cooper’s character. Their heated sparring with words gives us chills. The midsection of the film, which is just as deep as the rest of it, deals with Ally’s frustration that the desires of her record label conflict with her creativity as an artist. The heavily produced synthpop songs that ensue are meant to sound sub par, but they go the distance in illustrating this portion of the narrative. The only problem I see with the film is the fact that Jackson’s fans aren’t any bit hesitant to applaud Ally’s performance at his concert. Their sounds are worlds different. But this is something I realized after the film; watching it, I was blown away. This is the fourth incarnation of “A Star Is Born,” after the 1937 film with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 musical with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1976 musical with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Bradley Cooper’s 2018 directorial debut tailors the classic story for the “La La Land” era. Like the aforementioned, it’s pure Oscar material.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

If you need any more reason to admire Mister Rogers, this is for you.
★★★
Movie Review #1,130

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Distributed by Focus Features. Documentary, Biography. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. Released June 29, 2018. Directed by Morgan Neville. Produced by Caryn Capotosto, Nicholas Ma, and Neville. Featuring Fred Rogers.

When I saw that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” had received a PG-13 rating, I was rather confused. How could a documentary about Fred Rogers, the most wholesome man ever to appear on his own television program, possibly receive a PG-13? After watching the film, there is decidedly some mature content in the film, be it material that parents would find inappropriate for children (i.e. discussion of homophobia) or material that children simply would not understand (i.e. Mister Rogers’s testimony in front of the Senate to advocate for continued public funding for PBS). It’s not a documentary aimed at children but rather for adults, particularly those who grew up watching his show. But even for those like myself who are too young to remember “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” it’s a rather touching film.

Of course I knew who Rogers was before watching the film. I’m familiar with its trademarks, such as the song “It’s a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood” and Rogers’s iconic sweater that he would don whenever he entered the set of the show. But I had no clue what a game-changer he was in terms of children’s television. Rogers recalls in the beginning of the film that he was in his final year at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary when he discovered television. He sees it being used to portray silly fare such as people pieing each others’ faces and has a revelation: television can be used as a tool to speak to children in a much deeper way. It’s at this point that he first considers giving up his path as an ordained Presbyterian minister to work in television.

We learn the beauty of Mister Rogers’s method in this film. He speaks candidly to kids. When he faces the camera, he’s speaking to one person. Not one specific person, but rather one person in a sense that he’s having a one-on-one conversation with every kid who is watching his show. “I’ve always felt that I didn’t have to put on a funny hat or jump through the hoop to have a relationship with a child,” he says. He uses music, which he describes as his first language, and puppet voices to communicate to children, knowing that simply straightforward, spoken words can be difficult to articulate in tough situations. He teaches children about topics they may find confusing, such as grief, after the assassination of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Challenger explosion, as well as death and divorce.

Many may find “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” to be a mere summary of what they already knew about Mister Rogers. As a communication major, I found the coverage of his abilities to establish an interpersonal relationship with children nationwide to be fascinating. He understands that the feelings of a child are every bit as important as those of an adult. Director Morgan Neville does a decent job with tackling Rogers’s wonderful, immaculate personality. While not as captivating as his last major documentary “Best of Enemies,” it’s certainly an emotional powerhouse that makes the subject even more admirable.

The Nun

A haunted house movie with a twist: it’s boring rather than scary.
★★
Movie Review #1,129

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Distributed by Warner Bros. Horror, Mystery, Thriller. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images. Released September 7, 2018. Directed by Corin Hardy. Produced by Peter Safran and James Wan. Screenplay by Gary Dauberman. Story by Wan & Dauberman. Starring Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, and Ingrid Bisu.

“The Nun” is a spin-off from “The Conjuring” series, and more specifically “The Conjuring 2.” I haven’t seen the latter but from what I am told, the titular appears briefly and is the scariest part of the film. If that’s true then it seems obvious that the producers at Warner Bros. would decide to cash in on that. However that’s no guarantee of a good movie. Sometimes a momentary character appearance should remain just that, and that’s precisely the case with “The Nun.”

It’s common that critics will comment on a contrived ending that ruins an otherwise good movie. That’s essentially the case with “The Nun,” except it’s not the ending that feels contrived but rather the entire feature. It seems to have little sense of direction or pace, and particularly so when it nears its conclusion. The story details the aftermath of a nun’s suicide in 1952 Romania. I’ll admit that the inciting scene itself is terrifically spooky. It’s a wonder director Corin Hardy couldn’t maintain that atmosphere for the rest of the film. This is his first proper film and while this is a commercially successful vehicle for him, his work needs improvement if he wants to receive critical success as well.

As is well known, suicide is considered a most heinous crime by the Catholic Church, so naturally the Vatican commissions a priest (Demián Bichir) and a nun (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate the happening. They join forces with a French-Canadian farmer (Jonas Bloquet) to look into the monastery, which is essentially a haunted house that has been taken over by a demonic force of some sort. So it’s a haunted house movie with a twist: it’s boring rather than scary. (Okay that’s two twists if you count the fact that it’s a haunted monastery instead of a haunted house.)

I’m sure screenwriter Gary Dauberman had it in him to write a more effective spin-off. Yes, he wrote the horrendous “Annabelle,” which acted as the first spin-off in the “Conjuring” universe, but he also wrote last year’s “IT,” which was somewhat beyond today’s standards for a horror movie. At the current moment he’s likely the wealthiest writer of horror movies in terms of box office revenue, and clearly he’s just in it for the money with “The Nun.” His script gets ridiculous toward the end and at the very end, it’s extremely corny. As far as we can tell right now, there isn’t much to tie this film to the rest of the “Conjuring” universe, aside from two thirty-second clips that bookend the film.

One final, more positive thought. Taissa Farmiga is now on my radar. She gives a devoted performance in “The Nun.” She’s the younger sister to Vera Farmiga, who played Lorraine Warren in the first two “Conjuring” movies. They share a strong facial resemblance. My initial reaction to this was one of contempt; I wasn’t anywhere near sold on the fact that the two could be playing two completely separate characters. But the sisters are 21 years apart, and the space between “The Nun” and the first “Conjuring” is roughly that as well. Despite my disdain for the rest of “The Nun,” I’m interested to see where this could be going in forthcoming films.

Hell Fest

In “Hell Fest,” an ordinary slasher premise is channeled into a surprisingly spooky thrill ride.
★★★
Movie Review #1,128

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Distributed by CBS Films and Lionsgate. Horror. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Rated R for horror violence, and language including some sexual references. Released September 28, 2018. Directed by Gregory Plotkin. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd and Tucker Tooley. Screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood and Blair Butler and Akela Cooper. Story by William Pence & Chris Sey. Starring Bee Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Amy Forsyth, Christian James, and Matt Mercurio.

In “Hell Fest,” a small group of college students are among hundreds, if not thousands, to attend the titularly named traveling carnival. They’ve heard rumors about a young woman who was murdered at Hell Fest a few years prior, then left hanging from the ceiling as a prop in the amusement park, but they don’t believe them. When they start seeing the masked killer turn up wherever they go, they initially brush these strange occurrences off. One of them quips, “He’s just going for employee of the month.” But when one of them witnesses another woman being stabbed to death and their friends start to go missing without any explanation, they start to believe that there is a killer stalking them.

The premise is nothing extraordinary. From a certain perspective (and no doubt the one that many critics have taken), this can be viewed as nothing more than a rote slasher film. I’ll admit that the acting doesn’t elevate it above the average horror film. Nonetheless, we identify with these characters and their situation. The whole atmosphere of the film, clad with spooky costumes, props, laughter, and organ music, adds to it and makes it loads of fun to watch, and not in a “so bad it’s good” fashion.

What sets “Hell Fest” apart from other horror movies is its use of violence. Undoubtedly it’s there but it’s rather minimal for a slasher. Director Gregory Plotkin understands that it’s the ominous stalking, not the stabbing, that makes a difference. This is his sophomore feature and its a major step up from his first film, “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.” From the very beginning, where we see a retro credits scene depicting the much-rumored killing, we’re in his lair, scared shitless and wanting to leave the theater but at the same time glued to our seats. The climax is especially terrifying. Its music, composed by Bear McCreary (“The Walking Dead”), is inspired with hints of “The Shining,” “Halloween,” and “Friday the 13th.” Granted, this isn’t nearly a classic in the ranks of those films, but as far as horror flicks go, it’s a hell of a fun, spooky thrill ride.

The Death of Stalin

A blatantly British comedy that is funny in parts but overall underwhelming.
★★½
Movie Review #1,127

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Distributed by IFC Films. Comedy, Drama, History. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references. Released March 9, 2018. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Produced by Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader, Laurent Zeitoun, and Yann Zenou. Written by Iannucci and David Schneider and Ian Martin and additional material by Peter Fellows. Based on the comic book “The Death of Stalin” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Original screenplay by Nury. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, and Jeffrey Tambor.

“The Death of Stalin” is supposedly one of the best comedies of the year. Metacritic designates it an 88, meaning universal acclaim; any film to surpass 80 (out of 100) on their scale is generally worth seeing. Now I consider myself a smart person. I like lowbrow humor but I can also understand and appreciate highbrow humor as well. But the folderol surrounding this film simply befuddles me. Parts are funny, but if I’m watching a movie, especially a comedy, I want to enjoy the whole shebang as a holistic product.

“The Death of Stalin” is a blatantly British take on the Russian government’s power struggle in the days after the sudden death of their communist leader—ahem, dictator—Josef Stalin. The film starts out hilarious and madcap for roughly the first twenty minutes. We’re treated to an extended gag where an orchestra is performing for government officials. Stalin is unable to attend and calls right at the end of the performance asking that it be taped. He doesn’t sound demanding but these men know that it means their life if they aren’t able to fulfill this for him, so naturally, they insist that everybody sit back down and the orchestra start their performance all over again so they can tape it.

This scene is gold. It plays out like a “Flying Circus” skit, or perhaps a Monty Python film (whose own Michael Palin appears in the film as First Deputy Chairman Vyacheslav Molotov) had any of them been set in Soviet Russia. It works quite well as an exposition. But as soon as Stalin dies—the inciting incident of the film—and the film’s plot goes into effect, the laughs become few and far between. The film is a ridiculous portrayal of the Russian government in its post-Stalin days, but oddly enough, not ridiculous in a funny way.

Incidentally the major standout of this film is virtually its only American actor, Steve Buscemi. There’s something special about the way that this is a film about Russia with a British cast whose best moments are Buscemi’s references to 1950s American pop culture icons like Clark Gable, Abbott and Costello, and Grace Kelly. He’s about as convincing as Nikita Krushchev as Martin Wuttke was as Adolf Hitler in “Inglourious Basterds,” but that’s most certainly the point.

These are positive points in a film that is rather middling overall. “The Death of Stalin” is the cinematic child of satirist Armando Iannucci. He’s better known as the creator of TV’s “Veep,” which I didn’t find particularly funny either. If you did then perhaps this is for you, but if not then it surely isn’t.

Fahrenheit 11/9

An intriguing analysis of President Trump’s rise to power—that is, when it manages to stay focused.
★★½
Movie Review #1,126

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Distributed by Briarcliff Entertainment and GathrFilms. Documentary. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. Rated R for language and some disturbing material/images. Released September 21, 2018. Directed by Michael Moore. Produced by Carl Deal, Moore, and Meghan O’Hara. Written by Moore.

“Fahrenheit 11/9” is Michael Moore’s newest documentary, part paean to socialism, part condemnation of capitalism. It’s a common theme in many of his films. One of his lesser known works even bears the tongue-in-cheek title “Capitalism: A Love Story.” There seems to be a bit of false advertising here. The title is a variation on his 2004 film “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which some regard as one of the greatest documentaries ever made. 9/11, of course, was September 11, 2001, the date of the deadliest terrorist attack in American history. That film focused on President Bush’s place in the incident, including the subsequent War on Terror. The 11/9 in this film’s title refers to November 9, 2016, the date on which President Trump’s election was announced. Moore’s thesis at the beginning of the film: “How the f—k did this happen?” We’re now prepared to be enthralled by how he details the answer to this question over the next two hours.

The only problem is that for a lot of the time (I’d estimate 60% of the movie), he doesn’t. Moore’s polemic takes a turn from its primary focus repeatedly to discuss topics that are pertinent to America as it stands today, but not pertinent to the subject of the film. This includes the water in Flint, Michigan, teachers’ pay in West Virginia, and the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I’m reminded of a chemistry teacher I had during my junior year of high school who would often go off topic to talk about his time in the military or his aversion to police officers. They’re interesting topics, particularly when told with a wicked sense of humor like Moore’s, but these segments just feel like recurring bathroom or smoke breaks because they’re not what we came here for. It almost leads me to believe that Moore doesn’t have enough beef on Trump to make an entire documentary about him, which I know can’t be true.

I didn’t dislike “Fahrenheit 11/9” for one reason, and that’s because Moore brings to the table the same passion that he does with any movie. When he does talk about Trump, you know he means business. In the opening moments of the film, he uses instrumental music and footage of crowds during the election to illustrate his argument on an emotional level. He brings forth an idea that I’d never previously heard: Trump’s presidential campaign announcement was initially a sham where he paid extras to act as a crowd of people, an idea that he previously decided on when he found out that Gwen Stefani was being paid more for “The Voice” than he was for “The Apprentice.” The idea seems far-fetched at first but his argument is rather convincing. “Fahrenheit 11/9” isn’t a nonpartisan film, although it’s not a matter of partisanship either. Moore blames Democrats and Republicans alike for Trump’s rise to power. To him, it’s more of a game of the elite versus the bourgeoisie. Despite being an elite himself, his passion for the ordinary man is eminent and it makes for a bona fide feature. That is, when he’s actually staying on point.