A Murmuration of Stalins

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s comedy for decades now. He was there behind On the Hour and The Friday Night Armistice, not to mention The Thick of It and In the Loop. Much of his work this century has been exploring the back stabbing shenanigans at the heart of politics, even as reality outstripped him.
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Blood is Thicker than Water (and as Thick as Two Short Planks)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)

I confess I had a sneaking liking for Guardians of the Galaxy, in part because I went in with no baggage and low expectations — although clearly that’s a contradiction. I quite liked the ironising, which under cut the macho posturing, but I was left with the sense of the displacement of ethnicity onto different coloured aliens and a near absence of women (a green heroine and her blue sister, who apparently was Amy Pond).

Vol. 2 comes with the baggage of the original and the risk of a joke being dragged too thin. It begins mid-caper, with the Guardians protecting batteries for a alien species called the Sovereigns in return for the return of Amy Pond who had previously tried to steal them. Unfortunately Rocket Racoon steals some himself, and they are chased across the galaxy by the Sovereigns, who seem rather weaponised for people who employ mercenaries. The Sovereigns then employ Yondu Udonta, who brought Peter Quill up, to go after them. Quill, meanwhile, is rescued by his father Ego, who turns out to be somewhat of a God and who has created a paradise. Perhaps.

By now, the pattern is established — witty banter between the central heroes punctuated by fights and capers, synchronised to a seventies soundtrack. We reach the diminishing returns pretty early on with the fights, but be reassured that no one will really die that you care for. There is the Unspoken Sexual Tension between Peter and Gamora, and Drax gets a few more lines, and Groot is cute, as baby Groot. A new character is brought in — Mantis, an empath with feelers, oddly Sino-French, but apparently German-Vietnamese in the original comic appearance — and adds a little to the cringe factor.

The casting of as Kurt Russell as Ego is genius — bringing with him the baggage of cult director John Carpenter such as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., The Thing from Another World and Big Trouble in Little China, heroic but seedy, not entirely trustworthy. If you can’t afford Jeff Bridges, Russell’s your man. I could totally believe in him as love ’em and leave ’em immortal, but I definitely didn’t buy the plot gimmick as to why he needed his son. Ah well.

But it is, to some extent, a film about family and the coming together of estranged families, whether or not there is a blood tie. Yondu and Amy, recurring villains from the first film, are, after all, family, and family is family. They can be forgiven remarkably quickly and given a shot of redemption. Perhaps that’s what makes it comedy.

Meanwhile, as the Marvel Universe expands, the cameos and the injokes expand, with seemingly never ending closing credits, more Howard the Duck, too much Stan Lee — who has hardly improved as an actor since Mallrats — and Easter Eggs for future movies.

I can see how if you like this kind of thing you’d love it. I’d even go back for a third dose, but Ego is not the only thing to be indulged.

Death of a Maître d

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

The central sequence of this film feels like a stage play: Brooke (Greta Gerwig) wants to open her dream restaurant in New York but is several thousand short, so has travelled to Greenwich, Connecticut (screwball comedy central) to borrow the money from her nemesis Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) who had previous stolen her best idea for a tshirt, her kittens and her fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). She has been driven there by Harold (Matthew Shear), friend of her soon to be step-sister Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and Harold’s girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Brooke is a dreamer, probably self deluded, the kind of role that a Ricky Gervais or a Ben Stiller or a Jim Carey would play at any opportunity — a motor mouth, turning on a sixpence, full of how great they are and how dreadful others are. It’s rare that it’s a female character, although it clearly offers a version of the unruly woman. It’s a twenty or thirty year younger version of Edina and Patsy. Her dream of a restaurant, Mom’s, where you could get a hair cut and would be a shop in the day and where her children when she has them would do their homework, needs money, but we go through various shades of farce as she attempts to get it — foiled by a pregnant lawyer at Maire-Claire’s bookclub, a snide neighbour and Nicolette’s jealousy of Tracy.

Tracy is meant to be the viewpoint character — in her first term at a swanky New York university, wanting to be a writer and to join the university’s fraternity (of writers) and the Nick to Brooke’s Gatsby or the I to her Withnail. Tracy has stolen Brooke’s character for her latest fiction, something that will lead to friction. She is dull of course, but we should luxuriate in a rare example of a movie built around female friendships. There is a minor drama around how far she will become like Brooke, but there’s more of a sense that she can see through her whilst wanted to give support.

Your liking of the film will depend on your liking for cringe comedy — think of the embarrassments of Basil Fawlty, David Brent and (restaurant investor) Larry David. At times it’s nails on a blackboard, fingers on a balloon, laughing bat rather than with. But it also has that awkwardness of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the tragic hero of the American Dream, who believes the tales he spins because to sell objects requires commodifying the seller. You can see straight through him and yet don’t want him to fail.

It is surely no accident that the film is Mistress America: Brooke becomes the personification of the American Dream that anyone can make it. She’s brash, self-deluded, yes, but also determined and ambitious. We don’t have to like her — but I think we can respect her.

Meanwhile, how does the film fit into the history of the bizarre post-apocalyptic depictions of New York in which all People of Colour have been wiped out? Well, Brooke has an African American neighbour, there’s the pregnant lawyer in Connecticut and, of course, Nicolette, whose jealousy reminds me of Angela (Jaz Sinclair) in Paper Towns. Is the indie-flavoured young female of colour there to be insecure or clingy? I hope not, but it’s just a sample of two.

All in all, an interesting film, although I can’t say I laughed out loud more than once or twice. But Baumbach and Gerwig, cowriters here, have plainly hit a groove that will be interesting to follow (and I should look up Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), which is clearly on a similar theme).