By William Wolf

THE DEATH OF STALIN  Send This Review to a Friend

You might not think that the death of the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin would be fertile ground for comedy, but director Armando Iannucci has found a way to make the occasion hilarious. Iannucci, deft at satire, is known for his television show “Veep.”

The key to the comic coup is portraying the infighting after Stalin’s demise to grab power, combined with the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, which might come back to haunt an official if someone he slurred were to become the new top dog. The challenge of getting the right cast has been met with often uproarious results.

The dark comedy is eerie when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has a stroke and dies in 1953. There is initial humor in the planning of his funeral, and it doesn’t take long for the manipulations and back-stabbing to begin. The most amusing casting is that of Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev. With his tough-guy American accent, Buscemi is consistently funny in a role one would never think he would play.

You can get an idea of how droll the film is by surveying other cast members—Jeffrey Tamboor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, and Simon Russell Beale as the obnoxious Beria, the secret police chief who we know from history wound up being executed himself after dispatching so many others during years of terror. The film handles the Beria episode with comic comeuppance, but in a grisly way.

Much of the humor lies in the backroom discussions and maneuvers, directed with abundant dark comedy. If the director intended the film as a more universal example of corruption beyond Russia, the viewer has plenty to think about.

Although most of the dialogue is in English with a bevy of different accents, the aura is Russian as a result of the production design and the overall look of the film. “The Death of Stalin” emerges as superb political satire. The film is based on the graphic novels of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Iannucci, working with Nury, David Schneider and other writers, nails the dark humor brilliantly. Good satire is hard to find, so check out this exploration into the evils of the Stalin era spiced with laughter. An IFC Films release. Posted March 9, 2018.

THE LEISURE SEEKER  Send This Review to a Friend

Despite the acting quality of stars Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, “The Leisure Seeker,” gets to be a slog as it goes along with questionable credibility. Directed by Paolo Virzi, “The Leisure Seeker” chronicles the exploits of an elderly couple making a last stand of freedom and dignity.

Mirren plays Ella, and Sutherland is her husband John, who is losing his memory but still has a connection to his love of literature amid lucid moments. Ella decides that they’ll take off in the family camper from home in Massachusetts to Key West, where John always wanted to visit the home of Ernest Hemingway, for whom he had admiration.

The couple disappears much to the despair of their adult children, with whom they don’t want to be in touch. Absurdly, John drives the vehicle despite his in-and-out mental state. Ella is a back-seat-driver sitting in the front. As we ultimately learn, she has a secret.

Their adventures along the way are unsettling. There is a sequence in which Ella gets so fed up with John that she checks him into a senior residence and temporarily disappears.

At one point John inadvertently mentally retreats into the past, revealing that he had an affair. Of course, Ella is furious. We watch the ups and downs of their road trip that has become important to both. At a particular stop they stumble into a crowd of rallying Trump supporters, and John, a Democrat, joins in without knowing why.

And so it goes. Traveling and bickering. Bickering and traveling. We are supposed to recognize the love beneath it all and Mirren and Sutherland do their best to bring excellent acting to the project. How will it end? It does in a logical way, but not soon enough. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed March 9, 2018.

CLAIRE'S CAMERA  Send This Review to a Friend

Wispy with a dash of charm describes what you will encounter with “Claire’s Camera,” a strange little film by Korean director Hong Sang-soo and co-starring Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-hee.

The scene is Cannes, where Huppert as Claire has gone because a friend has directed an entry in the Cannes Film Festival. Huppert, professionally a teacher, loves to take photographs, and accordingly, carries her camera everywhere and is always alert to the possibility of a good picture. She also appears to be quite self-contained and lonely with nothing much to do on the trip.

Her counterpart in this story is Kim Min-hee as Man-hee, who is an assistant in a Korean sales group on a mission in Cannes. She is taken by surprise when her boss, sternly played by Chang Min-hee, informs her during a confrontation in a café that she is being dismissed. Man-hee can’t get a clue as to what she has done wrong, but her boss spouts the feeling that she no longer can trust Man-hee, and she cannot work with someone she can’t trust.

This is all rather obtuse, as there is no overt reason not to trust her employee, but when we learn more about the situation, it is evident that there may be competition over a man. Normal behavior might be for the cruelly rebuffed Man-hee to tell her boss what she could go do to herself, but within the pattern of correct behavior, Man-hee gently presses for a reason, and also hopes she might get her job back.

A friendship develops between Claire and Man-hee when they meet on the beach, and thus the women are thrust together, with Claire taking her pictures and sympathizing with Man-hee’s plight. There is not much more to the film, little more than an hour long, but with all of the subtleties in the interaction and what we can observe, one is drawn to the relationship, enhanced by the visual appeal of the women and the quality of their acting. Resorting to mixing time frames back and forth, the director sometimes confuses. But his camera ’s captures the aura he and is stars create. Reviewed March 9, 2018.

ITZHAK  Send This Review to a Friend

Director Alison Chernick charmingly and movingly takes us into the life of celebrated violinist and dedicated teacher Itzhak Perlman in her documentary “Itzhak.” We not only become privy to his remarkable life story, but the film is filled with his music as we see clips of his concerts and his more intimate playing.

Perlman directly gives us insight into how he thinks about music. He discusses the intensity of what he feels and his approach to teaching. We also get comments from Toby, his wife of 50 years, with the story of how they met and what continues to keep them in tune.

The film gives us the back story of Perlman’s parents and his early years in Israel, followed by his eventual move to the United States. Having been stricken with polio as a child, he not only struggled with the handicap hindering his walking ability but had the problem of people judging him by the handicap instead of recognizing him for his extraordinary gift. This bothered him immensely.

One of the great clips in the film is his appearance as a youngster dazzling with his violin playing on the Ed Sullivan television show, which provided a national audience the opportunity to see a demonstration of his genius. There are many clips of honors in his life, including an award in Israel and another at the White House with President Obama bestowing the honor and praising him.

I was struck by a conversation he has with actor Alan Alda, who mentions that he also had polio as a youngster. The treatment Alda received was successful in leaving him without the condition that results in Perlman having to move around in his motorized vehicle. We also see how Perlman surmounts his difficulties, as, for example, when he drives a car.

So much is packed into the film, and in addition to enjoying his performing, we see Perlman as a dedicated teacher who wants to give back to others and communicate the love of music and the insights a student must have in order to enhance his or her talent. Perlman comes across as an artist who is determined to make a difference in the lives of others. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Reviewed March 6, 2018.


Although I saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a while after its release, in the crush of work I was remiss not reviewing it at the time. It was one of the outstanding films of 2017, a compelling story about an irate mother determined to find the rapist and killer of her teenage daughter, something the police have failed to do—a mother who swings into action on her own with aggressive steps that make the film sizzle.

The superb Frances McDormand ignites the character of Mildred Hayes with a fierceness that unsettles the authorities. Renting three billboards along a road, she uses them for a challenging and needling protest—“Still No Arrests?,” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?,” “Raped While Dying.”

This brings her up against Willoughby, colorfully portrayed by Woody Harrelson, who tries to explain the effort going into solving the case and is increasingly troubled. Another top performance comes from Sam Rockwell as Dixon, a nasty, racist cop whom Mildred must overcome. Other characters flesh out the small town atmosphere in which Mildred wages her battle.

She can be a very mean person, riding roughshod over anyone who stands in her way. She is capable of endangering lives and of lying. But writer-director Martin McDonnagh also makes us sympathetic to her and appreciate her inner guilt feelings for having wished her daughter harm for going out against her wishes. We root for Mildred’s success no matter what she says or does. Her ultimate relationship with the cop played by Rockwell becomes an interesting and affecting development.

The story engrosses, with all of the plot twists and events, and the relationships that evolve with an aura of authenticity. It is as if we are placed in the town as spectators who know the characters involved. But above all, this is McDormand’s show, and she leaves a mark of having given one of the most fully realized character interpretations we have seen on screen recently, and an extremely tough one at that.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” clicks on all counts—screenplay, direction, acting and production values. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed March 5, 2018.

GET OUT  Send This Review to a Friend

Having seen “Get Out” after it opened but did not review it at the time, I have watched with interest the enthusiasm it has engendered. For the record, I want to express my views now. “Get Out” is a well made little horror film but it is the most overrated film of 2017 with respect to its being heralded has an important metaphorical statement on racism.

This is a film in which a black man becomes a victim at the hands of white racists, but that doesn’t make it more than the good little horror film that it is without raising it to the level of a sociological statement about enslavement. The ultimate assault by whites is tied to a plot as cockamamie as those that occur in typical horror films. The distinction in this case is that the victim is black, and that raises the interest level because in that sense it is different than other horror films, but “Get Out” is too slim to elevate it above the genre even though it is well-directed by Jordan Peele of the Key and Peele comedy team and also very well acted. Peele also wrote the far-fetched screenplay.

Charismatic actor Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, a photographer in New York who has become the boyfriend of Rose Armitage, portrayed by Allison Wiliams. She is white, and when she invites him to her suburban home, Chris asks whether her family knows that he is black. Off they go, and Chris has no idea of the horror and violence that await him at the Armitage estate. He gets a hint when he observes servants of color acting as if they were brain-washed slaves. Rose’s parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) are solicitous, and soon Chris is being hypnotized by Missy in one of the film’s harrowing scenes.

This is a spoiler, so choose to go no further if you haven’t yet seen the film, but the Armitages are engaged in a bizarre white-supremacist scheme involving brain surgery to render blacks into subservient creatures. Such a horror awaits Chris and his challenge is to get the hell out of there, not an easy task given the set-up.

The film works frighteningly on that horror genre level, but should we really see so much more in it? Many think so. Judge for yourself. A Universal Pictures release. Reviewed March 6, 2018.

SUBMISSION  Send This Review to a Friend

This film based on Francine Prose’s novel “Blue Angel” couldn’t be timelier. “Submission,” written and directed by Richard Levine, zeroes in on what turns out to be an accusation of sexual harassment at a New England college and emerges as a cautionary tale. The film hits its mark with an excellent cast playing characters caught up in the situation.

Stanley Tucci is superb as Ted Swenson, a novelist and professor at the college. He is happily married but frustrated in trying to write another book. Dispensing toughness and high standards, he tries to be an inspiration to the group of students in his writing class. One student, Angela Argo, played by Addison Timlin, looks toward Swenson as a mentor. She stands out in the class and craftily gets him involved reading chapters of a novel she is writing and maneuvers to get help in finding a publisher.

Timlin is excellent, playing Angela with wily sexuality that slowly but surely lures the professor into becoming attracted to her. On the one hand he tries to avoid succumbing, but on the other hand he gets closer and closer in meeting her requests for help. He is not a professor out to be a harasser or philanderer.

But temptation is temptation and he finally indulges one time in her university housing quarters after she asks him up to help with a computer.

Some may be critical of the switch from the current hunt against predatory professors to this situation in which the student is the aggressor, even though the prof is wrong to have sex with her. What eventually occurs is her turning on him and accusing him of harassment, leading to a hearing and his being judged by disapproving colleagues.

Kyra Sedgwick plays Swenson’s wife Sherrie, and she makes the most of a blistering scene when he tries to explain what happened over a dinner in a restaurant. Sedgwick burns up the screen with her response.

Peter Gallagher does a slick job as Swenson’s publisher, who initially doesn’t even want to read Angela’s manuscript but instead proposes a sensational idea for what he would like to see Swenson write.

Professor Swenson’s life becomes a shambles as a result of his sexual blunder. It is a cautionary story for men in positions of trust or power to watch their step. But it is also cautionary for those who, In their correct desire do justice to those abused, automatically assume a woman who makes an accusation is telling the truth. I would like to overhear some of the discussion this film should engender.

“Submission” is an expertly made, totally involving film that touches various controversial bases, and one comes away especially in awe of the realistic performances given by Tucci, Timlin, Sedgwick and assorted supporting cast members, including Jessica Hecht, Janeane Garofalo and David Pittu. A Paladin release. Reviewed February 28, 2018.

LOVELESS  Send This Review to a Friend

Having missed reviewing the Russian film “Loveless” when it was released last November, I’m belatedly catching up with it as it goes into well-deserved wider release. Directed impressively by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the film poignantly examines the plight of a 12-year-old, Alyosha, played by Matvey Novikov, and in the process tells us something of contemporary Russia.

Poor Alyosha. He already experiences the coldness of growing up regarded a nuisance by his parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin), who hate each other and are moving on to other relationships. To make matters worse, he devastatingly overhears a conversation between his father and mother in which they talk of divorce and plans to put him in an orphanage.

What is Alyosha to do? The boy decides to run away. It takes a bit of time for his parents to even realize that he hasn’t come home from school and report him to the police as missing. What follows reveals that the authorities have so many such reports that they are slow to take serious action. Overworked and understaffed, they rely on volunteer groups to do the searching.

One such group is called upon in Alyosha’s case. There is one sympathetic person who takes the boy’s disappearance to heart—Ivan (Aleksey Fateev), director of the volunteers and a decent human being.

The bleak but sensitive film by implication reflects what must be the situation for other Alyoshas, and although it proceeds as a detective story, it is less intent on telling us what eventually happens to the young protagonist than providing a portrait of the society in which Alyosha must struggle to find his place. The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Oleg Negin and Mikhail Krichman, succeeds admirably, and one can see why Russia designated “Loveless” as its entry into the foreign language film Oscar competition. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed February 17, 2018.

DOUBLE LOVER  Send This Review to a Friend

In writer-director François Ozon’s French film “Double Lover,” Chloé, played intriguingly by Marine Vacht, doesn’t know what awaits her. Plagued by unsolvable physical pain, she is referred to a psychiatrist. She gradually falls for him and they become a couple. But her emotions soon become even more entangled.

With the problem of being in love with her shrink, it becomes necessary to see another doc, who turns out to be the stated twin brother of shrink number one. The brothers are enemies, and both are played by versatile Jérémie Renier, with polarized personalities. As you can imagine, the plot gets increasingly complex for Chloé, as well as for us.

Ozon has based the film on the book “Lives of the Twins” by Joyce Carol Oates. What are we to make of it all? Is the double concept truthful? Is it a figment of Chloé’s imagination? Is she being played? Ozon’s film is busy with possibilities to be sorted out.

The problem, although alleviated by the excellent acting, is that the film seems excessively manipulative in its effort to function as a thriller. There is enough steamy sex to compound our interest, but by the time we get to the finish line, the wrap-up in this adventurous film may leave one with questions and dissatisfaction despite all the moments of enticement and enjoyment.

As a plus, Jacqueline Bisset is on hand with a supporting role, and it is pleasing to see her on screen again. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed February 14, 2018.

PERMISSION  Send This Review to a Friend

What happens when two sexually loyal people in a relationship headed toward marriage experiment with plunging into sex with other partners in a comparison meant to cement their own bond and be sure they will live happily ever after? You can bet there will be unexpected fallout.

In “Permission,” written and directed by Brian Crano, the idea is not having couples commit to open relationships as a way of life. The key here is experimentation with a goal of mutual affirmation that they hope will emerge from their bedroom frolics. It is basically a nutty idea, but the film holds one’s interest because of the excellent cast.

Rebecca Hall is fascinating as Anna, who is studying music and at the age of thirty has been going steady with Will, given an excellent performance by Dan Stevens, who is finally getting up the courage to ask Anna to marry him. At her birthday dinner, Will’s partner in the furniture-making business, Reece, played intensely by Morgan Spector, mischievously brings up the idea of having sex with others to find out how proficient sex really is for Anna and Will. Reece has a homosexual partner, Anna’s brother Hale, played with sensitivity by David Joseph Craig. (More about that relationship later.)

The film covers the awkward stretch when Anna and Will decide to go ahead and be truthful about what follows. Anna starts an increasingly compelling fling with a musician, Dane (François Arnaud), and Will is seduced by sexy, free-wheeling Lydia, hotly played by Gina Gershon, who gets Will high on drugs and unleashes a lurking fantasy he has thought about.

Dane is quite the victim, as he is really being used by Anna. There is a rather unbelievable scene when he takes her into the empty BAM Opera House in Brooklyn and gets her on stage to play a waiting piano.

To find out how the Anna-Will relationship ends you’ll have to see the film. (No spoiler here.) The subplot of the relationship between Reece and Hale thickens when Hale, having made a platonic friendship with Glenn (Jason Sudeikis), a dad who sits in the park with his baby son, decides he wants to adopt a child, an idea that’s anathema to Reece.

Although “Permission” is overwrought, the sexual scenes are quite vivid, and the acting makes the characters a lot more believable than the screenplay. I would like to eavesdrop on some of the discussion that couples may have after seeing this movie. A GDE release. Reviewed February 9, 2018.


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