Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Adrian McLoughlin, Olga Kurylenko, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Paddy Considine
It has been said that comedy is tragedy plus time. With The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep and The Thick of It, really puts that idea to the test by bringing his brand of acerbic political satire to the darkness of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
In the years after the Great Terror, the Soviet citizenry and politicians alike live in a constant state of fear of their leader, Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). But on the evening of 28th February, 1953, the dictator suffers a stroke and collapses alone in his office. The guards outside the door hear him fall but are too terrified to risk interrupting. When his body is discovered the next morning the Council of Ministers convene, but the fear and paranoia remains so strong that none are willing to be the first to acknowledge he has died lest it be interpreted as wishful thinking, nor make any decisive plans lest it be seen as opportunism. Continue reading
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
As news outlets cut back their staff and refuse to pay overtime, late night footage gathering has become the realm of private operators. Known as nightcrawlers or stringers, these police-chasing cameramen listen in to their police scanners for car accidents, drive-by shootings, armed robberies and homicides, aiming to be first on the scene so they can sell their footage to highest bidding news network. With his darkly satirical Nightcrawler, writer-director Dan Gilroy takes us into this peculiar subculture.
Louis Bloom is an unemployed hustler, making a living by stealing and selling scraps and building materials. One evening, he happens upon a horrific car accident on the freeway and is fascinated by the nightcrawler who pulls up, takes a few seconds of gory footage and then disappears into the night. Seeing an opportunity, Louis buys himself a video camera and a police scanner and sets off on his new career. A fast-talker who sounds like a mix between a self-help book and an infomercial, Louis convinces the naive and desperate Rich to come on board as an unpaid intern and before you know it he is the intriguing new player in the industry. But Louis’s ruthlessness and unchecked ambition sees him willing to cross ethical lines in the name of good footage, and what starts with moving some items to create more compelling shots soon becomes something much more dangerous.
This film is built around a compelling lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears in every scene of the film. Not a hero but also not a villain, Louis Bloom manages to be equal parts disturbing and disarming. Louis is overly polite and uncomfortably intense in his friendliness. He is a lonely man in need of connection, but incapable of naturally achieving it. Having lost a significant amount of weight for the role, Gyllenhaal’s hollowed out features take on an animalistic quality which is matched by an unblinking intensity in his performance.
Nightcrawler doesn’t judge Louis. The film is less of an indictment of his character than it is of the system that rewards him. When Louis proudly delivers his first piece of footage to Channel 6, he is given the rundown from Nina Romani, the news director on the graveyard shift. White deaths are worth more than black deaths, wealthy is worth more than poor. What they want is urban crime creeping into the suburbs. The jackpot, he is told, is a wealthy white woman running down her suburban street, screaming having had her throat cut. This is ratings-driven news based on hype and hysteria. If a sociopath is defined by their lack of human empathy, surely the industry who lives off Bloom’s material is every bit at sociopathic as the man that gathers it.
Dan Gilroy is best known as a screenwriter and his screenplay here is really strong. What prevents this film from being just another anti-hero story is that Gilroy approaches his narrative from a different angle. He envisioned Louis Bloom’s story as a success story, in which an unemployed man, through his own determination and entrepreneurial spirit, founds his own business and builds it into a thriving company. As such, the film becomes a perverse take on the American capitalist dream.
An independently financed film with a budget small enough ($8.5 million) that it was free from the usual constraints and rules of Hollywood filmmaking, Nightcrawler is an unsettling but compelling piece of satire anchored by a brilliant lead performance.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Nightcrawler? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Joel Murray, Tara Lynn Barr
The fifth film from comedian turned writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait, God Bless America is the blackest of black comedies. It is also a really strong piece of satire, commenting on the downward spiral of American culture. Goldthwait laments a society which has come to celebrate the loudest, the meanest, the dumbest and the shallowest.
Joel Murray – Bill Murray’s brother (he must hate that every reviewer feels that it is necessary to mention his more famous brother) – plays Frank. Frank’s life is going down the toilet. He is divorced, with a young daughter who doesn’t want to see him. He is diagnosed with a brain tumour. He has grown tired of an American civilisation that is no longer interested in being civilised. Not only does the world around him celebrate cruelty and bigotry, kindness and generosity are treated with suspicion. When he tries to make a nice gesture by sending a bunch of flowers to a woman from work who he thinks looks like she could use some cheering up, he is fired for sexual harassment. It all becomes too much to bear for Joel, and he decides to take his own life. But before going through with it, he comes to the realisation that perhaps the world would be better served if rather than killing himself he killed those who deserved to die. So, joined by an equally disenfranchised teenage girl named Roxy, he travels around the country knocking off reality TV stars, shock jocks and spoilt brats.
What makes Goldthwait’s satirical observations about the state of American culture so effective is that they aren’t exaggerated. They simply don’t need to be. We recognised the degrading reality television programs, the hate-mongering political commentators, the bigoted and intolerant religious conservatives and the general lack of common courtesy in the day to day interactions. When Joel and Roxy rattle off a list of all the groups of people and traits that irritate them you can’t help but nod in agreement (and occasionally sheepishly recognise they are talking about you). Goldthwait doesn’t need to hyperbolise. He doesn’t need to fabricate something that isn’t there. He just puts what we have become used to up in front of our eyes and forces us to acknowledge it.
However, despite the validity of his observations, it could be argued that the execution – pardon the pun – of the satire is slightly flawed. Is the intolerance of our protagonists any different to the intolerance of those they can’t tolerate? The idea that some people deserve to die, even if presented ironically like in this film, is always going to raise problems. Is Joel and Roxy’s course of action, a killing spree that is here presented as a solution, only representative of another troubling aspect of American culture? This question raises another point, and what I think is the number one issue facing Goldthwait’s film.
Sometimes the reception of a movie is impacted by events well beyond the control of its makers, and that is definitely the case here. While God Bless America is a very clever film, and very justified in its social commentary, you can’t help but feel conflicted while watching it. In light of recent events, now more than ever it is difficult to laugh at the idea of Americans shooting each other. Being the kind of film that it is, God Bless America was never destined to be a popular success – it slandered the very audience it would have to have pandered to if it wanted to succeed at the box office – but even within its niche of the market the way it is received will be influenced.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean