We investigate the qualities, of the lack of qualities, of Lucknow Central, Ghost Story, The Death of Stalin, and Thor: Ragnarok in this latest podcast episode. You should listen to it, or we will be ensaddened.
Kishen Girhotra (Farhan Akhtar) is a small-town man who dreams big: he wants to create his own band and be a musical star. Certainly, he has the musical talent, but he feels he is punished for daring to dream so high when he is wrongfully convicted of the death of a high-ranking Indian civil servant, and is sentenced to life in prison.
Tough break, but things get even worse when the murder victim’s family successfully appeals against his sentence and Kishen is sent to the maximum security Lucknow Central prison to await execution. Before his transfer, though, Kishen crosses paths with Gayatri Kashyap (Diana Penty) a prisons… administrator? Reformer? Charity worker? Maybe I missed something at the beginning, but I’ll be honest – I have no idea what this woman’s job is, or was (as it seems to change at some point). But, anyway, Gayatri has been charged by the state governor with forming a band in Lucknow Central that will compete in the annual prison band competition, and Kishen has promised to be her first volunteer, and to help find other band members.
This turns out to be considerably more difficult than Kishen expected, especially since his welcome to the prison consists firstly of Ronit Roy’s jailer pretending to hang him, and then inadvertently making an enemy of Tilakdhari (Manav Vij), the boss amongst the prison’s population. Eventually, though, he begins to earn respect and make friends, and starts to recruit band members. An interesting assortment of characters they are, too. There’s Deepak Dobriyal’s Victor, an engineer and electrician; Gippy Grewal’s Parminder Singh, who has a job in the workshop; Inaamulhaq’s Dikkat, a cleaner with the permission to go anywhere within the prison; and Rajesh Sharma’s Panditji, a tailor. Almost like the group of people you might find useful if you were, say, intending to use the concert as a cover for an escape…
Allegedly based on a true story (the story of a prison band going viral and becoming popular, certainly: I suspect the escape and ending less so), Ranjit Tiwari’s Hindi-language film, from a script by the director and Aseem Arora, feels almost like two films. The first is a quite dark drama, with police torture, prison brutality and the coercion of Kishen by Tilakdhari to murder his rival. In this same half of the story are attempts by Gayatri to prove Kishen’s innocence, and the difficulties and idiosyncrasies of the Indian legal system.
Alongside this is a story of friendship, self-realisation and the fulfilment of one’s dreams, in whichever manner that one can, accompanied by a couple of musical numbers and a few musical training montages, with attendant comedy and, at times, farce, while trying to outwit the canny and suspicious prison superintendent.
As such, Lucknow Central ends up like something of a cut and shut between The Shawshank Redemption and Jailhouse Rock, and though it suffers from the melding of two such different takes on prison, it doesn’t do so to quite the extent that you might expect. While the tonal shifts can be jarring, the ending is marred by sentimentality and the blatant eBay advert halfway through nearly breaks the film’s momentum, it builds up enough goodwill, thanks in large part to the supporting cast, for those sins to be largely forgiven and for it, in the end, to be a decently entertaining film.
It’s possible that, were this an English language film, that I might not be so forgiving, and that the relative novelty of seeing such a story set in Utter Pradesh in India, and not the UK or USA, means it gets a pass for some of its flaws where otherwise it might not. But even if that were the case, it is set in Utter Pradesh, and the unfamiliar setting alone is interesting. While, unlike another Indian film, Dangal, that we talked about a few months back, the music doesn’t do a great deal for me (I have seen this described as musical in a few places – ignore this, as a film about a band that sees them perform two songs does not a musical make), the cheesy glitz of the band competition has some appeal, and the “improvised” performance that gives the band fame is genuinely entertaining.
I also find quiet amusement in the fact that, while following the subtitles, I listen to the dialogue in Indian films to see if I can distinguish words and sounds, and am constantly discombobulated by the apparently random insertion of various English words and phrases into the middle of Hindi sentences.
A mild recommendation from me, but worth checking out for something a little different.
To be fair, I knew what I was getting into with A Ghost Story, so I’m not going to be to angry with it.
Casey Affleck’s C and Rooney Mara’s M appear to be a happy enough couple in their new home, but tragedy visits them when C is killed in a car crash. Rather than step into the light, however, C chooses to remain on this earth as a ghost and watch over his widow.
A ghost, in this case, in the lazy Halloween costume sense, as in a white bedsheet draped over him and two eyes drawn in with felt tip pens. C watches, dispassionately, probably, as M struggles to come to terms with her loss, and eats a pie. Then, she moves out, and a charming young family move in, the exuberance of the kids presumably leading C to start poltergiesting to scare them off. More people move in, and we’re “treated” to some dude ranting about time diminishing all that, if it studied for a few years, could be described as sophomoric. Then the house is demolished, and time repeats itself, and the film ends. Cue scratching of heads, mild befuddlement and almost immediate filing into your brain’s “forget me” queue.
The IMDB summary describes David Lowery’s film thus: “In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.” If you are able to read any of that into this film, as many breathless reviews have, then more power to you. I applaud your irrational attempts to impose meaning on garbage.
For us schmucks out here in reality-land, this is a unique combination of the extreme boredom and the laughable. We’re supposed to find C’s besheeted form, I gather, as an expression of yearning, of a dehumanised expression of raw emotion, instead, there’s not one time he didn’t creep up at the edge of the frame where the out and out stupidity of the concept didn’t elicit a chuckle from me. The swelling soundtrack clumsily indicates emotions, while the muted, washed out visuals compete with the narrative for dullest thing in the film.
Now, I’ve seen some very slow burning, glacially paced art house films that I’ve found quite affecting, such as With a Girl of Black Soil, but there’s no connections for me in A Ghost Story. It’s really hard to take a film seriously when over 5% of the film’s running time is devoted to watching someone eat a pie. Or it might be a flan. Hard to say. Such is the enigma of the film.
The film managed to annoy me almost from the off, first with what I assume was an attempt to avoid product placement by gaffer taping over the Sony logo on the MDR-7506 headphones, a recognisable set of cans for those in the audio game, as use in such quality productions as, well, this podcast. But there’s a Sony logo on both left and right cans, and only one is obscured. Ugh. Also, and rather less obscurely, there seems to be almost no plausible scenario where C would be able to engineer a fatal car collision on that road if he’d tried – it’s shown as happening practically in his driveway. Minor points both, but not ones that left me well disposed to a film that asks so much of its audience, for so little in return.
But, as I say, I sort of expected this coming in to it. While hoping for the best, it delivered the worst, or at least, the most boring. I suppose if you want a film to read, in the academic sense, then there’s elements to scratch that itch, but I can’t recommend this to anyone. Leave well alone.
In a dystopian, totalitarian state, a fabled, all-powerful dictator has just died. While he industrialised his nation, increased the literacy of his people and made his state a global power, his subjects lived in perpetual fear; children informed on their parents, death squads rounded up and disposed of unwanted people, often for the most minor of reasons, and he was responsible for more than 20,000,000 deaths. In the hours and days following his demise, his venal underlings scheme and plan, vying with each other in the power vacuum for the right to succeed him.
Torture, rape, imprisonment without trial, summary execution. All part of the day to day in this corrupt and dangerous empire. Not, one would imagine, the most obvious, or fertile, ground from which to grow comedy. Leave it, then, to Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep, to use this setting to harvest a crop of blackly comic, deeply biting satire.
The situation I outlined is, of course, not fanciful; it is not some bleak literary future, but rather is the past. The Soviet Union, in fact, in 1953, in the days following the death of Joseph Stalin. Based, loosely, on the graphic novel Le mort de Staline by French duo Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, Iannucci’s film, from a screenplay by himself, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, begins with a concert broadcast by Radio Moscow. After the concert is over, Paddy Considine’s producer has a phone call with Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), who enjoyed the music, and wants a recording of the concert. Tricky that, since no recording was made. Considine closes the doors to stop the remnants of the audience leaving, drags people off of the streets and a replacement conductor out of his bed, and even bribes one of the musicians to stay, in order to play the whole concert again. You don’t say no to Stalin. It’s a delightfully absurd opening that also sets up very well the thrall in which Stalin holds the country, and the stakes.
The next day Stalin is found almost dead, lying in his office in a puddle of piss, and the central committee members, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) must navigate the minefields of Stalin’s illness (exacerbated by the fact Stalin had all of the best doctors purged for being intellectual subversives, so only the incompetent ones remain), and, following his death, the election of a new leader.
The spectacular cast of characters continue to try to gain the upper hand on their opponents, with varying degrees of success; from the scheming and competent Krushchev and Beria, the vain buffoon Malenkov and the feckless, faithless Molotov whose allegiance changes as often as the wind, and who will throw anyone and everyone under the bus if it helps him to survive. Secondary characters include Stalin’s perpetually-inebriated son Vasily (Rupert Friend), Olga Kurylenko’s Stalin-hating pianist Maria Yudina and Jason Isaacs’ great turn, by way of Sheffield, as the legendary Soviet hero Marshall Zhukov. All of their various schemes and plots come to a head, when the laughter conspicuously, and deliberately, ceases, and we see the endpoint of the committee’s machinations.
The first thing to say is that this film is, in many parts, funny. Very funny. But I felt deeply uncomfortable laughing at much of The Death of Stalin. I’ve always found it a strange thing that neither Stalin nor Mao Zedong have ever been held in quite the same contempt as Adolf Hitler, despite both being responsible for more (in Mao’s case, vastly so) deaths than the Austrian. While nothing is off limits for comedy (though other concerns, like common sense or decency, ought to put a brake on it at times), not everything is well-served by the comedic approach.
Hitler has certainly been a figure of fun before – lampooning his image is a good way of lessening his power – but I (and I’m happy to be corrected) can’t think of a time when a satire or send-up of Hitler was mixed with the actualities of the crimes that his regime perpetrated. Things are very different in The Death of Stalin, where the bickering and buffoonery of the central council is constantly rubbing shoulders with death squads, political cleansing, torture and joyful boasts about multiple rapes. On occasion it works, either through a joke breaking the tension and bringing a welcome sense of relief, or that juxtaposition of evil with vanity, ambition and incompetency.
The performances are almost uniformly excellent: a notable exception is Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, whose somewhat underwhelming performance is compounded by the fact that her character is neither interesting nor funny enough – indeed, female characters, of which there are only a smattering, don’t get much of a look-in here. Anyone familiar with Veep and The Thick of It will know that Iannucci has created some stonking female characters, so I suspect this is more a result of the period than the writing. But the men – Buscemi, Palin, Isaacs, Tambor et al – are well-served, and they all generate some deep laughs. Not so Simon Russell Beale, though. Very little of what Beale says is funny. Not that he’s bad. Indeed, he’s quite the opposite. His performance as Deputy Chairman and head of the secret police Lavrentiy Beria is good. Too good. His is genuinely one of the most sinister performances that I’ve ever seen in a film, and even now, several weeks removed, he still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
It’s sharply written, expertly acted and often very funny, but Iannucci’s brand of humour and satire works very much better when the weapons are words and the knives in the back are only of the metaphorical variety. Poking fun at the bickering politicians in Whitehall and on Capitol Hill is fine, but it begins to feel very, very uncomfortable and incongruous when these petty, self-interested squabbles are put beside death, and death in such vast amounts. Attempts at one-upmanship and being seen to be decisive and in control are robbed of much of their potential for humour when, for instance, a spat over allowing the trains to start re-entering Moscow leads directly to the death of 1,500 civilians.
I recommend it, but it’s a recommendation with caveats, and anyone considering watching it really should be aware of the issues that I’ve mentioned. But, being made duly aware, and if you’ve enjoyed any of Iannucci’s other works, then I’d be greatly surprised to find that you didn’t like The Death of Stalin.
It’s rare that a series gets better as the number of instalments goes up, but there’s a solid case for that happening with the Thor films. Kenneth Branagh’s original took a few risks with the then not fully nailed down Marvel formula, and while I appreciated the effort, it didn’t quite land for me. Thor 2: Thor Harder hewed a bit closer to type, and while I recall enjoying it more, I recall almost nothing else about the film. Enter Thor: Ragnarok, with Marvel’s random director generator landing on the splendid New Zealander Taika Waititi.
First known to me as part of the driving force of the excellent Flight of the Conchords, we caught his 2010 film Boy on the festival circuit and found it a delightful experience, and I was pleased to see the new found exposure leading to a re-release (or possibly just release) of that film into cinemas recently. Since then I’ve been a little out of the Waititi loop – What We Do in the Shadows _ is a great idea for a comedy film, but it never landed for me in the 45 minutes I allowed it, and to my regret I’ve not caught up with the well-received _Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But, we’re not here to discuss his career – although in time I hope we can get to that – but to the matter of Thor: Ragnarok.
Ragnarok may pick up from the events of either the last Thor film, or an Avengers film, or something – at this point I no longer have the spare brain cycles to care about Marvel’s continuity. At any rate, before long Thor (Chris Hemsworth) figures out that it’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on the throne of Asgard, pretending to be Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Exposing this lie, he drags his brother back to Earth to track down a dying Odin, but while they’re off having a chin-wag with Dr. Strange, Asgard is assaulted by Odin’s firstborn daughter and Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett), who crushes all that stand in her way, raising an army of the undead, while Heimdall (Idris Elba) tries to protect as many refuges from the onslaught as possible out in the countryside.
Thor and Loki’s attempt at stopping her is swiftly rebuffed, and a tactical retreat goes awry when they’re hurled through space to land on a strange planet, Sakaar, governed by a strange ruler, the Grandmaster (an exceptional Jeff Goldblum). Thor is captured by a scavenger that turns out to be a fellow Asgardian, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and forced to compete in gladiatorial games, while Loki manages to weasel his way into the Grandmaster’s confidence. Thor’s surprised to find that his first fight is against Bruce Banner’s emerald alter-ego, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and to cut a narrative a bit short, hopes he can convince those aforementioned people to team up, escape the planet and destroy Hela by any means necessary.
Thor has the potential to be Marvel’s version of Superman, that is to say, a boring all-powerful dude that so outmatches his foes that there’s no drama to be had. To varying degrees, that’s happened in the previous films, but the real pleasure of his character arc is that Marvel has allowed Hemsworth to cut loose and try and be funny. And he succeeds greatly here, matching perfectly with Waititi’s brand of comedy. I suppose you’ll know if it’s for you in the first five minutes, as Thor faces off against the fire demon Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), with dialogue and comic timing that, multi-million CG aside, could have come straight from Flight of the Concords.
Waititi does an excellent job of combing the action with the comedy, and even allowing a few moments of character development in this gloriously silly comedy that somehow more meaningful than anything from the apparently serious Civil War film. There’s not much wrong with this film at all, really. Blanchett’s shown as a great threat well enough, but it’s tough to care all that much about her or her motivations, and there’s a hint that the film would much rather just be having madcap adventures and moments of inventive, funny dialogue. Likewise, Karl Urban as Hela’s somewhat reluctant sidekick doesn’t have all that much to do, but does it as well as anyone can.
But the positives, oh my, the positives. I could simply stop at the assertion that this is the single funniest film I’ve seen so far this year. And, well, I more or less will. The narrative bones of the film are fine, but the fleshy, tasty parts come from the host of terrific comic performances and chemistry between the featured and supporting cast. Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Ruffalo and Waititi, in his role as fellow gladiator creature Korg all bounce off each other wonderfully, but Jeff Goldblum steals the show with his performance, and his wonderful, wonderful costume.
Given that it’s been pretty successful, I don’t think it’s worth belabouring the point, but if you’re in-tune with this film’s sense of humour, it’s an absolute delight, and I think it’s now my favourite of the Marvel Studios output by a distance. If you’re not on board with it’s off beat moments, perhaps it’s less essential, and also, you are a terrible monster who hates fun.
Can’t recommend highly enough.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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