THE LAST PICTURE BLOG

OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

Watched: 2 March

I’m glad that the cast and crew of Pitch Perfect got to make a follow-up; the first film was a feel-good treat, with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson in particular managing to showcase their comic talents and deserving the chance to reprise their roles as the stars of college a capella singing group The Barden Bellas. However, there’s definitely a sense of second-film-syndrome hanging around this sophomore effort, which is a real shame. Jokes are repeated, there’s a half-arsed attempt to expand on the original by setting the plot within a world champtonship (as opposed to a national one) and the characters seem no different by the end of the film to the way they did at the start, as if they’ve become mere carriers of recognised catchphrases and little else. That said, those well-choreographed routines are still a lot of fun, and I like the way the naffness of a capella singing is still never challenged or acknowledged. (**)

Watched: 1 March

Another droll, biting satire from Armando Iannucci, a man who has been at the forefront of British comedy for the best part of thirty years. The title suggests that this film is about the notorious Russian leader’s demise – and it is, to a certain extent – but the focus is very much on the rush to seize power after Joseph Stalin suffers a fatal brain haemorrhage, Iannucci using all the panic and opportunity created by a temporarily headless state as a means of highlighting some truly despicable behaviour. The jockeying and scheming is carried out with aplomb by the ensemble cast: Steve Buscemi as de-Staliniser Nikita Krushchev; Simon Russell Beale as NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria; Geoffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, the man destined to become the next Soviet leader; Jason Isaacs as barking military hound dog Georgy Zhukov; Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana and Rupert Friend as Vasily, Joseph’s children. A great many more actors – including Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse and Adrian McLoughlin as the fearsome leader himself– also make strong impressions, even if they only appear for two or three scenes.

Iannucci’s direction is sound: he’s working with a really good bunch of actors, so it’s no surprise that all of the best lines hit the mark, and he manages to make time for all of the characters to make their mark. Perhaps most surprising to me – as someone who knows very little about 20th century Russian politics other than the most obvious facts and the most obvious names – was the clarity of the piece: it’s surprisingly easy to follow. The Death of Stalin is a great companion to Iannucci’s more recent TV work and his deliciously witty feature film debut In The Loop, sharing a gleeful immersion in the backstabbing, chaos and incompetence of the corridors of power. An excellent screenplay, co-written with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. (****)

Watched: 28 February

Here is a classic archetype of a stoic, silent hero… and a stubborn and stupid one to boot (he should have listened to Grace Kelly’s character in the first five minutes, but then there’d be no movie). There are things I really don’t like about this showdown western – the soundtrack is good but used so bloody relentlessly, and despite the Oscar win I’m not a fan of Gary Cooper’s acting (he’s just a bit…grey). However, there’s a lot that I do like as High Noon metronomically chugs through it’s 85 minutes; the final act includes a really great, purposeful crane shot, for example, and the last scene is a brilliant, silent ‘fuck you’ to the townspeople that also serves as a terrific full stop. For all Cooper’s embodiment of masculinity it’s worth noting that he’s saved by a woman before he gets to return the favour. As I say, he should have just listened in the first place. (****)

Watched: 27 February

Of the three films I’ve seen by Asghar Farhadi, this is definitely the best – a kind of modern day morality play in which the ‘separation’ is between an Iranian woman and her husband (she wants to move abroad, he wants to stay to look after his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s), or the potential distance that will exist between their teenage daughter and one of the parents when she eventually picks who she will go to live with, or indeed the ‘separation’ that occurs when the man’s cleaning lady – who also looks after his father – suffers a miscarriage. These unfortunate events link the characters together, and it’s the death of the baby that moves the plot forward most obviously, resulting in a long and protracted legal claim to establish fault, a conflict being driven by one man in particular. Throughout the characters’ opinions of each other begin to shift, and this makes for an enthralling drama that kept me on the edge of my seat for long periods – something I guess is more usually experienced while watching thrillers or action films. The acting is excellent. (****½)

Watched: 26 February

Absorbing HBO documentary about Barack Obama’s final year as POTUS, focusing not only on the inspirational leader but also on former Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama’s key aide and national security adviser Ben Rhodes and the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. It feels at times like director Greg Barker had no-holds barred access, even though I very much doubt that was the case, and it occasionally feels a bit too one-sided, too much like a four-pronged hagiography. Still, I find myself in agreement with many of the policies this team attempted to push through as the clock ticked down on the Obama administration, and it’s not exactly difficult to sympathise or identify with their despair at President Fucktrumpet’s 2016 election win. (***)

Watched: 26 February

The very best coming-of-age movies – and this widely-celebrated effort by Greta Gerwig is probably the best American take on the genre since Boyhood – find time to explore child-parent relationships as well as the usual high-school-centric flirtations with disaster. In Lady Bird, a semi-autobiographical work set in Sacramento, California in 2002, the dynamics that exist between main college-bound protagonist Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and her father Larry (Tracey Letts) are examined in a way that feels satisfying to me, though I do wonder whether this is the case simply because we get fly-on-the-wall/car window access to a few heated arguments that Marion and Lady Bird – two characters cut from the same cloth and unable to back down – have with each other; the dialogue within these rows is well written, and believable, and although it’s never comfortable watching people argue, even in a fictional film, these exchanges really do feel like they’re taking place between people who have spent 17 years in each other’s company.

I found Lady Bird’s family ties more intriguing than the up-and-down-and-up-again friendship she has with best mate Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and the two brief romances she enters into with fellow students (Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet), purely because the very best scenes here – and thus the most memorable – involve Lady Bird and her parents. In one, after a heated exchange with Marion in a car over college applications, Lady Bird throws herself out of a moving vehicle, breaking her arm by doing so. Later, in a heart-wrenching finale, the main character is set to move to New York only to be given the cold shoulder at the airport by Marion, who interprets the move as a personal slight and stubbornly refuses to go to the departure gate. Marion goes through a range of emotions in a short space of time, as does her departing daughter, and the whole episode is acted with finesse.

The film mirrors life: it’s funny, it’s sad, suburban teenage life is Ghost World-y, all car park listlessness and dreams of elsewhere, the main character is embarrassed by certain aspects of her upbringing (her home, her friend) and seeks to promote a sleeker, ‘better’ version of herself by lying about where she lives and seeking the approval of a supposedly cooler, aloof classmate. (Anyone that has watched a movie about American teenagers from the Hughes years onwards knows how all of that pans out, but it’s still a fairly common teenage mistake, right?)

I was drawn in by the acting and screenplay, and one of the main reasons I’d like to watch Lady Bird again at a later date is that I didn’t really take much note of other aspects of the film; the cinematography I think is good, the rhythm of the movie seemed to be a plus, the soundtrack is probably worth more of my concentration, and though the exploration of Catholicism and education is hardly rigorous I’m sure there’s lots there that I’ve missed too. (****½)

Watched: 25 February

Obviously it’s unusual to see a predominantly black cast and a black story in a big-budget blockbuster, as well as an African setting (or rather a quasi-African setting), and in that sense Ryan Coogler’s exciting and often thoughtful, incisive Black Panther very much stands out from the pack. (If I were a person of colour myself I expect I’d be happy – possibly thrilled – at finally seeing greater representation in this kind of movie, and while yes there have been other black superheroes before Chadwick Boseman’s Panther, this does feel more like a watershed moment; a game-changer.)

The second obvious thing to say about Black Panther is that it’s still very much Another Marvel Movie in other respects, hitting the exact same beats as many of the preceding films (well, it is a cog in the wheel of a franchise and a wider story, of course), suffering from really poor CGI on occasion and following the same basic tenets in the way it goes about telling an origin story and introducing new characters. Still, Boseman proves once more that he’s a capable leading man, Coogler regular Michael B. Jordan impresses as villain ‘Killmonger’ and the three most prominent female members of the cast – Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright – add plenty of warmth, toughness, charisma and humour. Despite the similarities that exist between them I’ve been enjoying the Marvel films again during the past couple of years, by and large. This one is a fun, entertaining adventure; and possibly their best origin film since Guardians of the Galaxy. (***)