Out on Friday October 20
Armando Iannucci finds humour in historical horror. Vince Vaughn leads a bloody genre mash-up. Daniel Radcliffe gets lost in the Bolivian jungle.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of The Death of Stalin, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Jungle, I Am Not a Witch, Unrest, Access All Areas, The Ballad of Shirley Collins, Dina, Earth: One Amazing Day, North by Northwest, and Pawno.
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The Death of Stalin
It would be easy to declare political comedy dead in the era of America’s parody-proof commander-in-chief, but master satirist Armando Iannucci proves there are still laughs to be extracted from the corridors of power in this jet-black Kremlin-com. Wilfully absurd, but scarily plausible, it chills and tickles while exploring the power vacuum that results in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
A finely tuned opening sequence sets the tone as Paddy Considine’s fretful radio producer forces an exhausted orchestra to recreate an entire performance when Stalin himself calls to demand a recording. That Stalin is played by a diminutive north Londoner who wouldn’t look out of place flogging fake handbags out of a white van goes without comment.
After dying from a heart attack, Stalin is discovered by his presidium of sycophants and scaredy-cats who, faced with his demise, panic, plot and make wary power-grabs before the premier’s corpse can cool. But whereas The Thick of It and In the Loop’s spin doctors, party aides and civil servants scheme to avoid humiliation, the clueless cowards in Stalin scramble for self-preservation, knowing the wrong word could mean death.
Adapted from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, its Stalinist setting proves fertile ground for Iannucci’s unique brand of political satire – most powerfully in the overwhelming paranoia that pervaded every facet of the distrustful dictator’s regime. Iannucci’s gift for deploying scathing, Malcolm Tucker-esque barbs, meanwhile, is not wasted by the assembled cast’s acid tongues.
That cast may seem an unlikely troupe, but the results are inspired. For the most part they keep their own incongruous accents to riotous effect. Simon Russell Beale, acclaimed for his stage work, is the standout as odious secret police chief Beria; Steve Buscemi is part Michael Corleone, part Littlefinger, as backroom wrangler Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor is perfectly ineffectual as the vainglorious Malenkov; and Jason Isaacs makes the most of his plum role as the barrel-chested leader of Russia’s armed forces.
If Iannucci’s film work to date has felt a tad televisual, there’s no such problem here. Period costume and production design impress, while the mock-doc cinematography of The Thick of It is dropped (aside from one key sequence that uses handheld photography to gut-churning effect) in favour of unfussy but effective lensing.
A couple of performances feel a little too broad and, at times, the joke can wear thin. But the fact that anyone could make politics amusing at a time when the news is scarier than most horror movies inspires a strange hope for the future.
THE VERDICT: A frighteningly funny satire that finds humour in historical horror. Watch and feel better about the world.
Director: Armando Iannucci; Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
Brawl in Cell Block 99
Hot off cult western Bone Tomahawk, writer-director S. Craig Zahler hits the bullseye again with his sophomore effort. At its core is a powerhouse performance from Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a drug-running family man with more anger management problems than the Hulk. But he’s also fiercely loyal, even when a narcotics run goes wrong and he’s left facing seven years in jail.
Once inside, he’s put in a further bind: either he kills a fellow prisoner, or a doctor will mutilate the unborn child growing inside Bradley’s kidnapped wife (Jennifer Carpenter). Trouble is, the inmate in question is in a separate maximum security jail – run by Don Johnson’s cigarillo-chewing warden – and holed up in Cell Block 99, “the prison within the prison” where the real lowlifes reside.
Tarantino, Peckinpah and Siegel-inspired, Zahler sends Bradley on a Dante-like journey through the Circles of Hell – a hopeless and horrifying descent. Full of skull-crunching, arm-snapping, face-scraping moments, the violence is cartoon-sick. But Vaughn, shaven bald to reveal a huge cross tattoo, utterly convinces. Scored with stomping soul (by Zahler and Jeff Herriott), it electrifies.
THE VERDICT: Aided by an astounding Vaughn, Zahler’s ultra-violent genre mash-up is bloody terrific.
Director: S. Craig Zahler; Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from such cinematic delights as Deliverance, Aguirre, Wrath of Gods and, um, Without a Paddle, it’s never, ever travel by river. Indeed, in Greg McLean’s (Wolf Creek) survival drama, based on actual events, Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends are already in trouble before they build a raft.
Lost on a gap-year-ish trek through the uncharted wilderness of the Bolivian jungle, with an iffy guide (Thomas Kretschmann) and scabby feet, they decide to paddle a manmade raft to safety. Bad idea. What follows is an extraordinary test of character, presented in sometimes less-than extraordinary fashion, although the river sequences are suitably hair-raising.
Struggling manfully with an ambitious New York Jewish accent, Radcliffe gives it everything he’s got: wrangling snakes, birds, wild cats and – ewwwww! – larvae as he tries to get back to civilisation without food. But strip away his full-pelt performance, and you’re reminded of that Harry Potter film where they go camping for three hours then nearly boff. The Lost City of Z cut more of a dash covering similar territory, and Jungle, like its hero, struggles to stand out in the field.
THE VERDICT: Gently engrossing rather than earth-shattering, Jungle is – like Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek – a decent advert for staying the hell home, but no more.
Director: Ggreg McLean; Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Thomas Kretschmann, Alex Russell, Lily Sullivan, Yasmin Kassim, Jacek Koman; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
I Am Not a Witch
The Zambian-born Rungano Nyoni returns to her roots for her directorial debut, a curio that’s as frustrating as it is distinctive. It begins as orphan Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is accused by her fellow villagers of witchcraft.
Exiled to a witch’s camp – which really do exist – Shula becomes embroiled in a story that blends satire and social comment. Aesthetically brave, narratively chaotic, this casts a singular spell.
Director: Rungano Nyoni; Starring: Margaret Mulubwa, Henry Phiri, Nancy Mulilo; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
This documentary by chronic fatigue syndrome sufferer Jennifer Brea is a candid first-hand account of a widely misunderstood illness. Researching others’ experiences as well as recording her own, Brea turns an unflinching eye on the distressing details of those left bed-ridden.
That said, more expert talking heads would have been welcome to help elucidate why CFS so divides the medical community.
Director: Jennifer Brea; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
Access All Areas
A group of kids head off to the ‘Isle of Sound’ music festival to cut loose and give their parents the shakes in this mildly entertaining romp. Ella Purnell leads as Mia, and there’s a nice cameo from Jason Flemyng as a reclusive musician.
The humour swings between gentle and gross (dropped phone in a Portaloo...) and director Bryn Higgins makes good use of real-life fest Bestival.
Director: Brynn Higgins; Starring: Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel, Georgie Henley, Jordan Stephens; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
The Ballad of Shirley Collins
As the title suggests, Rob Curry and Tim Plester’s doc about folk singer Shirley Collins eschews a traditional biopic structure for song-like lyricism.
But in practice it’s chaotic, flitting between Collins’ early years collecting songs in the Deep South and her later life, brushing over the fascinating moment she lost her voice following a personal trauma.
Directors: Rob Curry, Tim Plester; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
Winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ fly-on-the-wall film follows the titular 48-year-old, an anxiety-riddled eccentric, as she prepares for her impending nuptials with autistic boyfriend Scott.
With past traumas and present issues, it’s no smooth journey, though the co-directors never patronise. A diverting – if hardly life-changing – doc.
Directors: Antonio Santini, Dan Sickles; Starring: Dina Buno, Scott Levin; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
Earth: One Amazing Day
Showing how animal families are driven by the rhythms of night and day, this sometimes awe-inspiring doc is visually stunning. Wrapped in Robert Redford’s eco-conscious narration, it offers giraffe brawls, intrepid zebras and heart-in-mouth penguin odysseys.
It’s from the Planet Earth people, so extended versions of TV sequences are mixed in with arresting new action.
Directors: Richard Dale, Lixin Fan, Peter Webber; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
North by Northwest
After Vertigo’s head-spin, Hitchcock assumed showman mode for 1959’s proto-actioner. Cary Grant is the martini-dry ad fella pursued by James Mason’s lisping villain; Eva Marie Saint joins the ride and a semi-screwball chase flick follows.
Ernest Lehman’s cheeky script, Bernard Herrmann’s score and several sizzling set-pieces deliver a rush of pure joy.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017
Paul Ireland’s movie doesn’t hit the heights of those movies, but still captivates with compassionate vignettes of humanity. Writer Damian Hill also stars as the shop assistant linking the stories and dreaming of love.
Director: Paul Ireland; Starring: John Brumpton, Maeve Dermody, Damian Hill; Theatrical release: October 20, 2017