REVIEW: The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

Armando Iannucci must be sick of having to chuckle along with the observation that real-life political figures are now far more abhorrent the characters of his brilliant series The Thick of It. Perhaps this has played a part in his decision to retreat form the contemporary settings of The Thick of It and Veep into the murky world of 1950’s Soviet Russia. The resulting film is a star-studded romp which follows the turbulent and murderous week in the Kremlin after the death of communist dictator Stalin.

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The death of Stalin (hey, that’s the name of the flm!) sparks a succession crisis amongst his top ministers, with Georgy Malenkov (played to weasely perfection by Jeffery Tambor) installed as the de facto leader but he is the only Russian unaware that the true struggle for leadership is between Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and spymaster Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). A raft of comedy greats join this trio, ranging from Michael Palin as party devotee Molotov and Paddy Considine as the panicked Head of Radio Moscow trying to restage a concert after Stalin requests a recording. Jason Isaacs turns up in time to steal the show as the only man in Russia seemingly able to laugh at the situation and the idiotic politicians.

The Death of Stalin has its hilarious moments but it is also surprisingly dark and sometimes unpleasant. The comedy is constantly underpinned by the characters’ justifiable fear of being tortured and killed. Great pains are clearly made to remind us of the huge numbers of people who were tortured, killed and imprisoned by Stalin’s regime under direction from the ghoulish Beria. The spymaster brags of his sexual deviance and his rumoured paedophilia is discussed unflinchingly. With this in mind, I can see how some audiences might not get on with the film; the subject matter is tricky but I think the film justifies the comedy by not looking away from the era’s crimes.

The Death of Stalin is a good addition to the Iannucci canon and what it occasionally lacks in laugh out loud moments is made up for with the outstanding cast.

BLOG: Is Blade Runner 2049 guilty of sexism with the character of Joi?

***************DISCUSSED WITH SPOILERS***************

 

I saw and loved Blade Runner 2049 on the night of its release and gave my thoughts on the film in my review, here. I was then dismayed to see a lot of interesting articles pick out many aspects of the film which, it was argued, demonstrated an inherent sexism and misogyny. In the majority of these instances, I had interpreted the same scenes or characters in completely different ways and even came out of the cinema taken with the film’s interrogation of gender roles. I found this especially with the character of Joi, who I felt was the heart of the film in a number of ways. I decided to write this blog not as a challenge to the readings of the whole film as sexist (I have linked a couple of good articles explaining this view below) but to clarify my thoughts on Joi and where they diverge from those which deem the film sexist because of the character.

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The first thing to say is that the original Blade Runner holds some pretty rancid gender politics. There are only three female characters, all of which are either presented as sexualised beings or victims of sexually dominating behaviour from men. 2049 inherits the sexist backdrop of Blade Runner’s LA, including the giant, neon adverts featuring sexualised women. I do not mention this to excuse 2049 of its own failings, but rather to illustrate the film’s jumping-off point in its world building.

Secondly, the most evident rationale for the perceived sexism in 2049’s universe is that it is a dystopian vision of the future which is not intended to appear perfect or desirable. The film intends to amplify the flaws in our own society and reflect them back to us in a way which we recognise as morally wrong. Take the giant statues of naked women in the nuclear wasteland of Las Vegas, some obviously poised to perform oral sex; these have been criticised for their apparent irrelevance to the plot, an example of throwaway sexism adorning a dramatic landscape. I read these statues as a comment against Las Vegas in the present day, where objectification of women is perhaps only slightly subtler than these 60ft nudes. It would be lazy to explain away 2049’s issues of sexism with the ‘dystopian world’ argument but it is a key part of the film’s context, especially in the instances it acts as a reflection our own world.

A consistent criticism has been found in the character of Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificially intelligent hologram who is programmed to act as a virtual girlfriend to whomever purchases her. We see the image of Joi as an advertisement throughout the film – she is clearly a popular worldwide product and brand. Agent K’s (Ryan Gosling) version of Joi, however, appears to become more sentient as the film wears on and makes an astonishing attempt to be real for him. This scene is the most criticised in the film – Joi melds onto the body of Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), a sex worker, so as to be as close to physical as a she can for K and make love to him.

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I found the character of Joi, and especially this scene, incredibly interesting and poignant. Criticisms of Joi’s character have read that it is fundamentally sexist that her existence is solely for the pleasure of K. While that is her programming, the interest for me lies in what this motivates the character to do. She is an artificial intelligence who dreams of being human, something shared by K, a replicant, who wrestles with the notion that he is soulless throughout the film. Both Joi and K are seeking a loving connection which is beyond their programming and, in this context, I found the love-scene poignant and tear-jerkingly tender.

After K’s Joi is destroyed, he is faced with a giant, holographic version of a Joi-advertisement who seems to taunt him with her attempted seduction. She appears completely naked, another moment which has been picked out for its sexism. It’s certainly a sexist advert in a sexist world, but the effect of the scene is far from that. K is instead faced unflinchingly with the emptiness of his ‘relationship’ with Joi. He recognises that he had dreamt of being a lover but was merely a consumer who bought the projection of his desperate fantasies.

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This scene reminds me of the moment in Her (2013) where Samantha, an operating software voiced by Scarlett Johansson, reveals to Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) that she is simultaneously in love with thousands of other men. In these two moments, K and Theodore are forced to recognise the toxic idealisation of women by themselves but also by the consumerist societies which created artificial intelligence to complete the fantasy. Both are left crushed by this realisation, especially for K as he has only just stopped believing that Deckard is his father. This belief had given him a brief taste of a real connection with another real person which shines a harsh light on his ‘relationship’ with Joi, whom he could literally turn on or off at will.

It is this experience which inspires K to save Deckard, who had been captured by the terrifying Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and will likely be killed. The end scene sees Deckard reunited with his daughter, Dr Ana Stelling (Carla Juri), in another touching scene. In this final moment we see the film return to the human emotion and physical connection between parent and child, a significant reunion in this world which K realised was worth giving up his life for. This scene alludes to what I believe to be at the crux of Joi’s purpose as a character – that is the film’s exploration of emotional intimacy in a world where physical intimacy has been replaced by artifice and commodity. The film is preoccupied with this question due to our own uneasy relationship with technology and virtual relationships. Blade Runner 2049 may labour this point and the presentation of female sexuality to illustrate it, but it is not to the extent where Joi can be seen as a symptom of the film’s sexism.

 

‘Is Blade Runner 2049 a sexist film or a fair depiction of a dystopian future’, The Guardian –> http://bit.ly/2yzLrKg

Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning but subtly sexist’, Daily Dot -> http://bit.ly/2yBsmJL

Time is Always Running Out for Christopher Nolan

In his latest film, Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan obsesses over time and constantly suggests that it may run out for his heroes. Nolan places the idea of time at the forefront of Dunkirk with three intertwining narratives told over three separate time frames. Hans Zimmer’s fantastically effective score incorporates the oppressive sound of a ticking clock to further immerse the viewers in the director’s time-paranoia. What struck me after watching Dunkirk was that Nolan’s obsession with time is endemic in his filmography. He often places his characters in situations where time is their insistent and sometimes mutable enemy.

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   Memento (2000), Nolan’s second full length film, features a main character who suffers short-term memory loss. The film is told backwards, each scene lasting the length of Leonard’s memory until he forgets what he is doing. As such, he is constantly aware that time is running out before he’ll be vulnerable and confused again. This conceit makes Memento a nerve-shredding watch as both the viewer and Leonard know that the countdown is always nearly over. Nolan returns to the idea of the countdown in both The Prestige (2006) and The Dark Knight (2008), where dangerous magic tricks in the former and the Joker’s schemes in the latter have deadly time limits. However, it is in the next phase of Nolan’s career that his preoccupation with time becomes central to his films.

Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) both revolve around the mutability of time in other-worldly dimensions. Inception takes place largely in the dreams of the main characters where time moves faster than in the real world and is progressively sped up by entering ‘dreams within dreams’.  It gets to the point where the characters are in danger of being trapped for a lifetime within their own dreams while, in the real world, very little time has actually passed. This idea of being doomed to rot in the subconscious is chilling, and interestingly inverts the countdown fear in Nolan’s previous film into a fear of endless time.

The dynamic is shifted again in Interstellar, where the various planets visited by Cooper and his crew all have different time relativity compared to Earth. The crew accidentally lose 23 Earth years whilst stuck for a couple of hours on another planet, endangering both their lives and the mission. Cooper becomes so far behind Earth’s time over the course of the film that, when he finally returns, his daughter is now over twice his age and near death. He has become a victim to Nolan’s fascination for the mutability of time.

Dunkirk is a return to the relentless countdown structure of Memento and, although not as theoretically complex as Inception or Interstellar, maintains the Nolan’s current obsession with the mutable dangers and pressures of time. The success of these later films proves the audiences are just as fascinated as he is.

 

Andrea Arnold: The British Film Industry’s Shining Light

Andrea Arnold is one of the most celebrated British filmmakers working today, yet she is still little known amongst film fans. A serial prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival, and with an Oscar to her name, she has been recognized as a shining light of the British film industry. With her newest release, American Honey (2016), she has diverted greatly from her previous work, swapping the oppressive council flats of London and Glasgow for the open highways of the USA.

While the setting of her latest film may differ dramatically from her earlier work, Arnold retains her interest in working-class people struggling for fulfilment and battling personal demons. Her early short film Wasp (2000), for which she won an Oscar, tells of a young mother who takes her children with her to a bar where she has a date as she can find no one to care for them. She leaves them in the car-park, and it is at this point that a wasp becomes trapped in the car with the children, lending the film its name. Indeed, Arnold reuses this image of an imprisoned and helpless wasp in American Honey, which Star at one point rescues from drowning in a pool. This likening of people to trapped animals is especially relevant in Fish Tank (2009), the title of which evokes the feelings of central character Mia, who wishes to escape her mother and the council estate where they live.

There are many parallels to draw between Arnold and another of England’s most lauded filmmakers, Ken Loach. The most poignant comparison to make between the two is the anger with which they portray young characters unable to deal with the harsh realities of life. Billy in Loach’s Kes (1969) finds solace from his bleak home-life in the training of a kestrel he finds, and Fish Tank’s fifteen year-old Mia seeks escapism in dance. Both characters have these passions destroyed; Billy’s kestrel is cruelly killed by his older brother and Mia’s love of dance is perverted by her relationship with Conor, her mother’s boyfriend. Both are also drawn to social realism in their films, often going to extreme lengths to secure it. Andrea Arnold often casts complete acting novices in her work, some of whom she merely passes in the street – Katie Jarvis was cast in Fish Tank after she was spotted arguing furiously with her boyfriend.  Ken Loach too strives realism, and famously filmed a scene of his film Cathy Come Home (1966) in a crowded train station where only the actors knew that a film was being made. The heart-rending scene in question sees Cathy’s children taken from her by social services, after which she breaks down in despair. The reactions of passers-by, or lack thereof, offer an all too real insight into English society.

Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach are two of the great British filmmakers, leading the way for our industry. They must be cherished while their work continues to grace our screens.