The Death of Stalin – A Comedy of Terrors (2017), (♦♦♦♦):
Moscow, 1953. For twenty years, Stalin and his security forces had imposed the Reign of Terror, with Stalin, followed by NKVD Director, Spymaster Lavrenti Beria, compiling list after list of “traitors” that were imprisoned, exiled, or summarily executed. Upon Stalin’s death, the members of his cabinet started jockeying for positions in the new government. As Stalin’s deputy, the leading of the party fell on Georgy Malenkov’s shoulders, who proved to be a weak leader compared to the wolves surrounding him. As Spymaster, Lavrenti Beria had kept secret files on everyone in the country, including his fellow cabinet members, but as Beria’s position came under fire under the relentless assault of the others—led by Nikita Khrushchev—, he made threats that would eventually seal his fate, as had happened to countless others before him.
Directed and co-written by Armando Ianucci, Death of Stalin is a French/British/Belgian co-production with a running time of 106 minutes, starring Steve Buschemi (Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (Lavrenti Beria, NKVD Director—Spymaster), Jeffrey Tambor (Georgy Malenkov, Deputy to Stalin, and Acting General Secretary of the Communist Party upon Stalin’s death), Jason Isaacs (Field Marshal Zhukov, Head of the Soviet Army), Michael Palin (Vyacheslav Molotov, Foreign Secretary), Dermot Crowley (Lazar Kaganovich, Minister of Labor), Paul Whitehouse (Anastas Mikoyan, Minister of Trade), Paul Chahidi (Nicolai Bulganin, Minister of Defense), Olga Kurylenko (Maria Yudina), Andrea Riseborough (Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter), Rupert Friend (Vasily, Stalin’s son), Paddy Considine (Radio Moscow Director Andreyev).
There are three salient elements in Stalin’s Death; first, the spot-on, true-to-life satire of a regime, and of a disastrous political-economic system that was cemented with blood from the start. It is hard to believe that great, even outrageous comedy can be found in that, but thanks to the brilliant screenplay, partly co-written by also director Armando Ianucci, this movie has succeeded in giving its audience a taste of the extraordinarily ridiculous events that took place in the Soviet Union during Communism. Second, the classical music, a mix of Chopin, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, classical piano sonatas and maddening martial crescendos punctuate the action—from ordinary life, to conspiracies in the high corridors of power. The musical score is a breathing element of the film. Third, the great chemistry of the ensemble cast, and I emphasize great, which allowed the plot to take a life of its own, and we as audience were deeply invested in the events unfolding and the characters’ fates as if they had been the real-life ones. As I mentioned before, the screenplay gave a flavor of the times and the players involved, but Death of Stalin is really an ensemble movie, and it is all the better for it.
12 Strong (2018), (♦♦♦♦): On October 16, 2001, a month after the events of 9/11, the US military sent “Task Force Dagger”, a unit of 12 men led by Captain Mitch Nelson to Afghanistan to assess the situation for a possible incursion in country, build an alliance with the leaders of the Northern Alliance, and take Mazar-i-Sharif, a key enclave to the Taliban forces and its protégé, al-Qaeda. Captain Nelson was given six weeks to reach Maza-i-Sharif, but he argued that it had to be done in three—before the November snows blocked the mountain passages.
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, with a running time of 129 minutes, 12 Strong stars Chris Hemsworth (Captain Mitch Nelson), Michael Shannon (Hal Spencer), Michael Pena (Sam Diller), and Navid Negahban (General Abdul Dostum), among others.
Using, as first images, archival footage of the events that led up to 9/11, then televised images of the smoking twin towers on 9/11 and the Pentagon on fire, 12 Strong follows with a chaotic scene at military headquarters. Those scenes, as well as the ones that follow—of Captain Nelson’s unit coming back from a training off-grid to find that there may be a war, meanwhile they would be reassigned to other units because they lacked a leader (Nelson had chosen retirement)—make a convincing case. The events that follow—of Captain Nelson being reinstated, assigned to go to Afghanistan with his men to assess the situation (the first US soldiers in), and build an (uneasy) alliance with one of the three warlords that composed what was left of the Northern Alliance, in a country where alliances and trust easily shift sides—is one of the reasons this war movie is a must-see.
It doesn’t hurt that 12 Strong is based back on a true story, that the chemistry among the ensemble of actors is glue-solid, that we (the audience) don’t know how successful their mission is going to be, if at all, and that we see hair-raising action and astounding heroics courtesy of an elite unit of our best fighters. One can only surrender to watch as all unfolds.
Chris Hemsworth (of Thor and Avengers fame) makes not only a military seem convincing, but he really absorbed the essence of the man he was embodying and projected it stupendously. Nelson’s uneasy partnership with General Dostum was difficult to watch as one suspected that it wasn’t going to end well. Both men overcame their mutual distrust and differences and arrived at one of the most resounding military victories of all time, in record time. Their friendship endures to this day.
The non-stop action, the spot-on musical score, and the ensemble bring this movie together and make it work as the documentary experience it is supposed to be.
[Nelson]: “You alright, Hal?”
[Spencer]: “Oh, yeah. So you think you’re making any progress with Dostum?”
[Nelson]: “Yeah. Yeah, we’re doing good. We’re thinking of getting an apartment together when this is all over.”
[Spencer]: (Chuckling) Oh, sh... No, don’t make me laugh.
Glad you got a sense of humor. I got some bad news.”
[Spencer]: “Headquarters inserted ODA 555 with Atta’s militia.”
[Nelson]: “Wait. General Atta, Dostum’s rival?”
[Spencer]: “They think they have a better shot of reaching Mazar-i-Sharif. They don’t trust us to get through the gauntlet.”
[Nelson]: “This kills us, Hal. The minute Dostum hears about Atta, he’s gonna forget all about the Taliban.”
[Spencer]: “Could be. You might wanna break camp now in case you gotta get out of here quick.”
[Spencer]: “Hey, think of it this way. You’ve just been handed the most important diplomatic job in the free world. Keeping the Northern Alliance together.”
Thoroughbreds (2017), (♦♦♦): Childhood friends Lily and Amanda drifted apart as years went by. They reconnect years later as Lily has become an upper-class teenager, living in a posh mansion in Connecticut, attending an exclusive boarding school, while Amanda has grown up to become a social outcast with an attitude. Both girls bond over Lily’s hatred of her stepdad and, as the friendship deepens it brings out each other’s most destructive tendencies. All reaches a pinnacle when they hire, then blackmail, a small-time criminal to do away with Lily’s stepdad.
With a running time of 92 minutes, directed by Cory Finley—in his directorial debut—Thoroughbreds star Olivia Cooke (Amanda), Anya Taylor-Joy (Lily), Anton Yelchin (Tim), Paul Sparks (Mark, Lily’s stepdad), Francie Swift (Cynthia, Lily’s mother).
Thoroughbreds is divided in four chapters, each setting the stage for what happens next, punctuated by suspenseful, frequent jarring percussion and dissonant notes. Only in chapter three, more conventional music underscores the opening scenes with Schubert’s Ave Maria and ‘Dancin’ In the Moonlight’ in the background. The music’s strangeness adds to the power of the plot and the performances, because one can see something ominous developing from the friendship between these two girls.
The small cast, maybe a sign of a small-budget film, allows the actors to shine in their roles without competing for screen time, especially Olivia Clarke, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Anton Yelchin. Yelchin, as Tim, an overly ambitious, small-time drug dealer who sells drugs only to minors, is more than an acting match for both girls in the leading roles despite his limited role.
Perhaps the most notable aspects of Thoroughbreds are, the plot—director Cory Finley also wrote this gem of screenplay, which allows the actors to bring out their best (performance-wise) and their worst (exploring the darkness in their characters’ psychological profile) and permeate their characters with eerie believability—and the performances. In no other characters these elements are present as much as in the cases of Amanda—who does a great job as a detached emergent sociopath—, and Lily, the prim girl who only in the surface can do no wrong, but whose infractions become apparent as their friendship evolves and the film advances into its shattering conclusion. Both Anya Taylor and Olivia Clarke have enough quiet chemistry between them to set the screen on fire, and that’s a good thing considering that the story revolves almost entirely around the two.The seeming predictability of the story doesn’t mar its power, for one doesn’t know how things will work out, or if they will at all.