(On Cable TV, July 2019) Calling The Death of Stalin a comedy only works if you include the darkest, most uncomfortable sort of comedy, describing life under a tyrannical regime in absurdist life-or-death fashion. Nominally a historical work (albeit one taking many, many liberties), the film follows the last moments of Joseph Stalin and the weeks following his death, commenting on the inherent instability of an authoritarian regime suddenly stripped of its leader. Following absurd orders and pretending everything is normal is the least of the characters’ worries when even a hint of disloyalty can get you shot. The political shenanigans to succeed Stalin grows complex even before the funeral is underway, and if the actors all have a talent in common, it’s to play this deadly eeriness with a deadpan expression. The terrific cast includes names such as Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor among many others—considering writer-director Armando Iannucci’s pedigree, the dialogue-heavy, almost theatrical script is an actor’s dream to play. The film would act as a powerful warning to anyone tempted by the lure of authoritarianism that such regimes are actively dangerous to everyone including the person at the top—but one suspects that anyone tempted by dictatorial regimes today are nowhere near Iannucci’s target audience. Alas, the effectiveness of the premise is not completely met by its execution: Considering that The Death of Stalin had been on my radar for more than a year before seeing it, I found myself underwhelmed by the actual film—while interesting, it’s not as gripping or amusing as I’d hoped. It didn’t help that I had a self-censor tripping up whatever amusing moments I found myself enjoying: This is a film that places a lot more emphasis on the dark of dark comedy.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) For a movie that’s nearly forty years old, And Justice for All still works remarkably well. It’s recognizably from the late seventies, but it tackles evergreen notions of idealism versus cynicism, as exemplified by an impetuous lawyer (Al Pacino, in a career-establishing performance) stuck between his ideals and the realities of the judicial system. It’s very darkly humorous (call it a courtroom drama with a body count) but it doesn’t make the mistake of being nihilistic: throughout, we can cheer for our protagonist as obstacles pop up. Pacino is terrific, director Norman Jewison keeps everything at a slow boil, old-school veteran John Forsythe makes for a loathsome villain, Christine Lahti is good in her big-screen debut and Jeffrey Tambor also pops up as an unhinged lawyer. (Almost all of the characters are unhinged in their own way, but that’s the film.) While the script is riddled with contrivances and satirical moments, it’s that bigger-than-life quality that gives And Justice For All it peculiar charm and timeless appeal.
(On-demand video, April 2012) Here’s my new life pro-tip for cinephiles: “Get premium cable TV channels for the big Hollywood movies; keep it for the smaller films that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise!” Flypaper may not have been seen in theaters, but on the small screen it makes for a clever and satisfying crime mystery. The film does take a while to find its footing, as a quirky savant finds himself in the middle of two simultaneous bank robberies: for a while, Flypaper’s tone remains fuzzy as it veers between a serious crime film and a more light-hearted comedy. But such initial sputters a common in dark comedies, and Flypaper soon finds itself on firmer footing as the real nature of its convoluted plot becomes more apparent. Patrick Dempsey is the anchor of the film as a troubled genius investigating the crime in which he’s being held hostage, while Ashley Judd makes for a compelling heroine. Some of the supporting characters do the best work, though, as with the banter between blue-collar bank robbers played by Tim Blake Nelson and Pruitt Taylor Vince, or a small-but-showy part for Jeffrey Tambor. The dialogue is occasionally witty, the script is a cut above most crime comedies, and the inspired direction has its moments. Flypaper is a dark-horse, hidden-gem kind of low-budget film: small cast but a capable script and well-handled filmmaking. It wraps up on a high note, and leaves a great impression.
(On DVD, June 2011) I’m just as surprised as anyone else that I lasted two years without seeing one of the cultural movie touchstones of 2009, the R-rated comedy that affirmed the dominance of the arrested-male-teenager as the comic archetype of the time. I have little patience with the form and didn’t expect to like The Hangover much, but as it happens there’s quite a bit to like in its cheerfully anarchic approach to plotting, as it uses flashbacks, comic detective work and wild characters in one big pile. Todd Phillips’ directing is assured and neatly guides viewers through a more complex narrative structure than is the norm for comedies. It helps a lot that the characters are interesting in their own right: Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma transforms a borderline-repellent role into something nearly cool, while Ed Helms proves a lot less annoying than I’d initially guessed and Ken Jeong supercharges every single scene he’s in. Small roles for Mike Tyson (not someone I’d hold as a role model) and Jeffrey Tambor also work well, although I still can’t think of Zach Galifianakis as anything but obnoxious (and discover retroactively that he played the same character in Due Date). For all of the icky what-happens-in-Vegas immaturity, there are a few chuckles here and there: it’s hard to begrudge a film as likable as it is foul-mouthed. Alas, I didn’t go completely crazy for the film: Fonder flashbacks to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (curiously unacknowledged) and the far funnier absurdist amnesia masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? held me back. But comedy’s notoriously subjective, and it’s not as if I actually disliked The Hangover: I just found it a bit underwhelming, most likely conceived from assumptions that I don’t share.