Monday, February 25, 2019

Reviews from gulag: Literally!

As usual, we're still cleaning up the previous year long after the mess has ceased to matter, but nevertheless, here's two reviews, for The Death of Stalin and First Man.

THE DEATH OF STALIN (Armando Ianucci, 2017 kinda, but we're counting it as 2018)
In 1953, Iosif Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) dies, and his inner circle jockeys for control of the Soviet Union.  Two factions coalesce between Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) on one side and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) on the other.

The Death of Stalin is a terrifically ahistoric mish-mash that takes on the power struggle that defined Soviet governance over the months and years following its titular dictator's demise.  It condenses that power struggle into a little less than one week's time—for cinema's sake—while getting tons and tons of things wrong, big and small alike.  Somehow, it's the small things, like an overflight of several just-slightly-anachronistic jet bombers (probably Tu-16s) that are the most annoying.  But the big things are pretty big, like a fictional massacre of Stalin's mourners by a security service that did not, in 1953, exist; or the implication that Stalin trusted Lavrentiy Beria any further than he could throw him, which he would've been likely to do (into a grave, that is), if Stalin had lived much longer than he had; hell, there're credible allegations (not in the film) that Beria got him first.  But it gets at least one big thing right, and that's take Armando Ianucci's usual, cynical, somewhat tedious all-politicians-are-venal-or-morons-or-both approach to political satire (e.g., Veep), and applies it to a situation where total venality was, effectively, a necessary condition of literal survival.  So that must be the other big thing it gets right: it makes for an effective black comedy that generates its uneasy laughs out of the nihilistic insanity of the very regime it inaccurately, but not quite untruthfully, depicts.

It still means that Death of Stalin is almost wholly resistant to complexity.  For example, Beria was, at the same time, both a vile monster—not just a mass murderer, but a ravenous, often-deadly sexual predator—and probably the most moderate voice on foreign policy in the mid-century history of the USSR.  Ianucci and Beale's Beria is more like a matinee villain, albeit a very good one.  He sets off to some extent the more overtly comic cast he manipulates and cajoles and threatens, above all Buscemi's annoyed Krushchev.  But there's also Stalin's legal successor and heir-apparent Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, cutting an appropriately sub-Stalinesque figure), as well as Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), Bulganin (Paul Chahidi), Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Voroshilov (James Barriscale), and poor Molotov (Michael Palin), so beaten down over the years that he's pretty sure his imprisoned wife was some kind of traitor and that he's capable of grieving for the leader who was going to have him killed, and who sort of wanders through the whole film shellshocked and underreactive to every event.  We also find Stalin's offspring Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and drunken, loutish Vasily (Rupert Friend) puttering around, being used or being failed to be used as political props by Beria and by Krushchev, precisely which depending on the moment.

It bears noting that no one's really asked, and few volunteer, any attempt at a Russian accent, or any unifying accent, or even really a unifying performance style, let alone a serious one, and most of them only somewhat resemble the people they're playing.  It's a bold and jarring choice that tends to freshen up what would, in other hands, likely be an objectively-grim and potentially-musty period piece, and it absolutely serves the film's underyling motives.  On the other hand, it tends to combine with the oddly metallic cinematography to give the impression of an amazing community theater production that has, for unknown reasons, been descended upon by a host of marquee actors, as almost a dozen independently-arrived-upon larks. (Then again, the production design, taking advantage of Ukrainian location shooting, gives it a much richer feeling than that, and it's more visually-driven and sharply-edited than you'd expect a comedy from 2018 to be, especially one that depends this much on politicians stage whispering their evil schemes at each other.  Obviously, they are pretty much all evil: Krushchev arises as a "hero" only in the sense that Buscemi feels the most put-upon while also being the least-cowed, and also because we know, historically, that Krushchev was an improvement on Stalin.)  Imagine Dr. Strangelove, but it's all War Room scenes, has more swearing, and lacks much of the visual poetry.  That still sounds rather fine, doesn't it?  So it plays like a pretty great sitcom about the Central Committee.  In fact, more often than that it plays like a pretty great sitcom about a retirement home for eight old men who've known each other so long they can't stand each other but have no one else to talk to—only that these old men are all genuine monsters, and can have any given person they dislike killed pretty much any time they feel like it, except each other.  They have to work at that, hard, which is ironic and amusing itself, since they're the people they want to kill the most.

It's funny, then, in its rather tasteless way—ranging from the physical slapstick revolving around Stalin's corpse to ha-ha? lots of mass imprisonment and mass liquidations, some of which almost certainly didn't happen, to the basic conceptual joke of the piece, that for all the Central Committee squabbles like children, we know this will eventually end in a bloody coup—and it's surely never funnier than when the last plotter, Field Marshal Gyorgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), arrives upon the scene.  The general presents himself within the story almost as an avowed deus ex machina, throwing off the whole scheme of things with a parody of military machismo that goes so far, and strikes such a contrast with the bumbling bureaucratic ineffectiveness of the other leads, that he comes off as the coolest guy in the world, something which Ianucci underlines with worshipful slo-mo and which Isaacs spins into utter weirdness with the only attempt at an different accent in the whole film, which makes him sound like a constipated Crocodile Dundee.  All told, The Death of Stalin is kind of great; strangely enough, however, it gets better the less it's trying to be a hilarious comedy that happens to also be a murder plot, and the more it becomes a murder plot that happens to be soaked in the absurd.  "Gags" as such are forgotten as it turns toward a bitterly ironic, but not especially funny, endgame.  Yet this is when I felt myself most completely invested in its mechanics.

Score: 8/10

FIRST MAN (Damien Chazelle, 2018)
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) goes to the moon, because he is sad, and this makes his wife Jan (Claire Foy) also be sad.

First Man is made to make a very obvious point, and it's the point Damien Chazelle always makes, though this is the first time he's done so in a way that intends to please practically nobody (it's no surprise it somewhat bombed), with audiences bound to object to some aspect of it, either to its faintly-problematic central theme, or to its chilliness, or to its occasionally questionable aesthetic choices (yo), or, as some very loud voices have indeed objected, to its extreme lack of rah-rah patriotism, manifested not just in a slight deficit of American flags on moons, but in an abiding suspicion regarding America's priorities in general.  The film marks the first time Chazelle has worked entirely from someone else's script (credited to Josh Singer, a rewrite of a screenplay from Nicole Perlman, based on James R. Hansen's biography).  And yet you could be fooled.  For just as it was with Whiplash and with La La Land (and maybe as it was with Eugenio Mira's film of Chazelle's screenplay, Fun Whiplash, a.k.a Grand Piano), Chazelle's perpetual point remains thus: that the superhuman efforts required for greatness necessarily come with the cost of leaving something human behind.  First Man, taking on the retiring and publicity-averse first man on the moon, has Neil Armstrong pay his price in advance, in the form of his daughter, dead of brain cancer almost before she could walk.  It's a tragedy that Neil has responded to by running away—figuratively, in that he has emotionally all-but-abandoned his wife and two older sons, and, more to the point, by joining NASA's Apollo program and literally attempting to flee the planet Earth for a place where he wouldn't have to feel feelings anymore.  It's so incredibly in-your-face blatant (albeit reportedly maybe not that faithful to the real Armstrong's psychology) that I kind of have to love it for it.

So what First Man does, then, is tie itself tightly to Neil himself, and to the ways he tries to dissolve his individuality and the pain this causes him within the collective work that will ultimately send him and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) to the moon (and will send that other guy that we don't remember very well (Lukas Haas) into lunar orbit).  It does this with a side order of Janet Armstrong and Neil and Janet Armstrong's kids, mostly to reflect what kind of damage Neil is doing to his family, and also to indulge in some impressiontic montages of middle-class white people in the 1960s that tend to feel like footage Malick declined to use, probably filmed during the week on The Tree of Life that Emmanuel Lubezki called in sick.  I'll derail myself to make two points: Foy has a necessarily thankless job with Jan, and does pretty well with it, stumbling only in one key scene, when Jan's dialogue is too pointed and on-the-nose-about-themes for any actor to save it; and I really don't like the way some of First Man is shot.  Often presenting itself in a pseudo-verite, fauxcumentary style, these parts made me somewhat glad I intentionally skipped it in theaters (I might've barfed), with the kind of ugly tricks that I thought went out of style more than half a decade ago, like that quick pan/on-the-fly refocusing that wants to give the film a spike of urgency, and only winds up turning, e.g., a press conference into a formal garbage fire.  In this, if in nothing else, First Man is a radical departure for Chazelle, whose La La Land was so classically pretty; it is, in any event, clearly exactly what he asked La La Land's cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, to do on his behalf.  (I was also grossed out by the literal POV shots when Neil's operating the practice lunar lander; they jar with the period even more terribly.)  But credit where it's due: I enjoyed the way First Man is lit a great deal, and the different but equally old-fashioned ways its 16mm and 35mm elements reproduce color and texture—it apparently wants to at least allude to older methods of production, and does so very successfully—and the choices it makes on how to open up the aspect ratio in the switch to IMAX stock are (fairly enough) breathtaking, and basically perfect.

Anyway, First Man easily and immediately escapes the shadow that any space program movie would find itself caught under in a world where The Right Stuff exists, despite beginning with a sequence that couldn't more loudly acknowledge its debt.  It does this, effectively, by combining what amounts to the story of an organization (as The Right Stuff did) with an almost-strictly first-person perspective, the two competing narrative styles being unified in the form of Neil's own very deliberate retreat into the process itself, complemented by a score from Justin Hurwitz—also as far away aesthetically as you could get from La La Land—that is only modestly distinguishable, except in big moments (when it gets all Manselly), from the diegetic hum and noise of electronics and machinery and spaceships.  Meanwhile, the most explicit evocations of any personality in Neil are when he politely but very firmly objects to Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz having ones of their own.  (I forget who pointed it out to me, but Neil addresses his oldest son's questions about the moon shot as if he's still at that press conference, and, like the press conference, he clearly didn't want to be answering any questions at all; the subtle shading is that maybe he's slightly more direct and honest with his kid.)  Naturally, I'm always thrilled when a film uses Ryan Gosling the right way (Drive, Blade Runner 2049) and we can now add Neil Armstrong to the list of roles where the actor—seemingly a very nice man, very handsome, very funny, and all that—turns out to be at his greatest when he uses his melancholy stare to communicate that a character's utmost desire is for annihilation, more in the Buddhist sense, I suppose, but not exactly free of an active death wish.  It's as unique a take on the space program as I imagine we will ever get.  It's almost perversely untriumphant.  It barely sees any real use for it.  (When we get a sequence narrated over by Gil Scott-Heron's poem, "Whitey On the Moon," this doesn't feel discordant, or even like somebody taking a stab at wokeness for its own sake, but only like another expression of uneasiness over the sheer because-it's-thereness of the whole endeavor.)

Nonetheless, it is certainly impressed by the endeavor, and by the men who endeavored.  It sometimes has a use for the sense of yearning for beauty and discovery that they say inspired them; it's a movie that isn't afraid of nuance, despite seeming so single-minded.  The film's first scene, Neil piloting the X-15 into the boundaries of Earth's atmosphere, and almost dying when he bounces off its invisible surface on reentry (maybe another metaphor, that), has a moment that crystallizes this yearning within him and within us, in nothing but the simple, iconic image of his face, with our planet's curvature reflecting upon his visor.  It kind of made me want to be an astronaut again.  Then the other scenes of space exploration happen, I think to disabuse one of this romantic notion.  These scenes are cramped and claustrophobic and shaky as fuck, and, as put together by Chazelle and editor Tom Cross, absolutely white-knuckled in their thrills—I mean, you know what happens, obviously, but they are immediate and experiential in a way that even non-fiction space movies usually avoid.  Want to see the cosmos?  Look out that tiny window, but not too long, because there are a thousand esoteric indicators in your capsule that you need to read first.  You are reminded that it actually might have taken a Replicant to surpass the challenges posed by flying inside a shitty machine that could never have been robustly tested, controlled by a "computer" less capable of navigating in space than your phone is.  These scenes (these were the ones shot in 16mm), which demand total naturalistic grittiness, are perhaps the excuse for Chazelle and Sandgren's not entirely-successful shot design elsewhere.  They're a good one, and make me wish I hadn't skipped it in theaters.

But as for whether the act of landing on the moon was a victory for humankind or not, the film is shockingly agnostic.  It retains its personal focus right through the end: in the haunting shots of Neil on the moon, he is cosmically isolated, silent as a grave after he recites his famous canned speech and alone in the universe before Buzz touches down and joins him.  Even the image of his humanity has been wholly overwritten by the spacesuit and its featureless, mirrored visor—and it's here that you sense that he has, in his way, finally come home.  That he has accomplished what he desperately needed to accomplish, after 141 minutes of story that have alternated between life-and-death struggle in a vacuum and, it should be conceded, scenes that flirted with intentional boredom as a reflection of Neil's own unwillingness to connect with anything or anyone on the planet he came from.  Yet First Man reorients itself toward humanity in its finale, in a way that I'm not sure intellectually works for its exploration of its particular Neil Armstrong.  But it works emotionally; I won't deny it, it works very well.  It is a flawless last half hour to a movie that's been, with some minor exceptions, flawless so far, but has also been so distant and cold you wonder if there's a point to Chazelle's point, if you know what I mean.  Well, he pulls it off.  So I don't know if it's an even remotely truthful biography of the first man on the moon.  But I do know it's a pretty damned great and insightful one.

Score: 9/10

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