Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate
























Mike will be moderating a talk with scholar Aynne Kokas on her new book, “Hollywood Made in China,” which examines Hollywood’s role in scaling up China’s film infrastructure. The program is from 7 to 9 pm on Tuesday, April 24 at Hill Center. More details at hillcenterdc.org.


Current Reviews



The Rider



This film is a surprise, an earnest, well crafted portrayal of a life interrupted, based on real events that actually happened to the people depicted. It feels like a documentary in much of its look and method but is in fact a careful fiction, and the “real” players, who could come off as the most obvious kind of amateurs, appear fully authentic and true.

We first encounter Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) as he awakens from a dream of horses in slo-mo then must tend to a vicious wound on his head. It turns out he was a promising rodeo cowboy, but a horrible spill from a bucking bronco has left him badly injured (he has survived a coma and has undergone multiple brain surgeries). We see him excruciatingly pull nasty staples from his wound, knowing that his days performing rodeo are behind him. Doctors have advised him to never ride again. Since being a “rider” has been his whole life, the future looks barren.

Brady lives in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota’s Badlands with his dad Wayne (Tim Jandreau), a Sioux ranchman and widower who has turned sullen and cynical and uses gambling as a crutch. His little sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) is a 15-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome who is full of spirit and love for her brother. He has a coterie of buddies, all rodeo hopefuls, too, and they hearten him, but they also have riding futures he cannot expect. With no work, he spends too much time watching old videos of rodeo competitions. His life is sparked only by visiting best friend Lane Scott, a promising bull rider who had his own rodeo accident and has become brain-damaged and wheelchair bound.

What motivates Brady most is his love of horses, including one on his farm called Gus, whom he can spend pleasant hours riding. But Wayne sells Gus for needed cash, and Brady must turn somewhere to fill his days. With no education or prospects outside of rodeoing, he takes on a job at a supermarket and, in one instance, is hired by a neighbor to tame a wild horse for use. Even that positive experience turns dire when the horse, Apollo, is injured and must be put down by Wayne. What can you do when your whole life plan collapses before you?

A large part of the surprise of “The Rider” is its creator. Chloé Zhao was Beijing-born and US-educated and now works here. She comes to this project from previous experience. In 2015, she won acclaim with the independent “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” another thoughtful take on another struggling Indian family on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was during filming “Songs” that she discovered Brady and his family and resolved to tell another tale of the plains.

Clearly, the reservation’s world and the stark beauty of Pine Ridge have inspired Zhao. Her use of vivid landscapes is brilliant, especially for multiple scenes shot at the “magic hours” of dawn and dusk, and she and her fine cinematographer (shout out to the talented Joshua James Richards) offer a genuine and generous vision and avoid excess. She tells her watchful story at a measured pace, giving scenes a chance to breathe. Never more so than in a lengthy sequence that shows the true horse trainer that Brady is, gently, serenely, breaking a skittish wild horse to obey him. It is simple yet riveting cinema.


(The film is rated “R” for language and runs 103 mins.)

(April 2018)

Photo Credit: Brady Jandreau (as Brady Blackburn) is “The Rider.”
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Isle of Dogs



Wes Anderson has crafted a unique career among American filmmakers with his highly stylized, jewel box movies, ripe with candy colors and often-static set-ups. Think of his recent efforts, like “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Great Budapest Hotel.” His latest film “Isle of Dogs,” however, brings directly to mind his 2009 feature “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” In his latest film, he again envisions a droll animal-centric world created in painstaking stop-action animation (with characters as tiny mobile models rather than drawn figures).



Here the animal protagonists are a whole population of dogs that have been forcibly removed from the fictional, futuristic Japanese city of Megasaki by order of its cruel mayor Kobayashi (Kinchi Nomura), using a ruse that the dogs have infected the population with “snout fever.” The mayor’s 12-year-old ward, the orphan Atari, (Koyi Rankin) thus loses his beloved bodyguard and companion, Spots (Liev Schreiber), who is shipped, like all other dogs, to Trash Island to live out a life of misery and starvation. The young man, desperate to save his dog, flies a miniature plane to the island, where he eventually enlists a posse of five variegated mongrels—led by the indomitable Chief--to retrieve his beloved pet, a search that leads them, through a bevy of doggie encounters, to the farthest corner of the toxic island.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Atari’s quest finds a parallel in an underground movement to save all dogs headed by some thoughtful scientists and a plucky exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig). The picture thus toggles between Trash Island sequences and the city’s clandestine movement.

Peterson works out his story, as usual, with sundry kinds of eccentricity. His characters, dog and human, show an eyes-wide, face-front stolidity to the camera, often in symmetrical settings. Those settings are rendered very meticulously, like the detailed detritus on Trash Island (which recalls the environment of “WALL-E”), as well as beautifully, with some backdrops as colorful as a kaleidoscope’s disc. Your eyes will find a treasure of lush and exquisite images to savor.

Most line deliveries are deadpan, if not monotonic, by an array of actors who have worked with Peterson before. You will probably recognize the voice talents of Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Jeff Glodblum, Bob Balaban, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, and Tilda Swinton, and inevitably, Anderson regular Bill Murray, who has made eight films with the director. The significant newcomer to the Anderson dog pound is Bryan Cranston, who growlingly voices the character of Chief. Perhaps to add some similitude to the picture, Anderson somewhat whimsically has most of Japanese characters speak Japanese without subtitles (though he cheats a bit by incorporating a translator--McDormand--into the storyline).

Though childlike and apparently naïve in many respects, “Isle of Dogs” is not for kiddies. It is rightly rated “PG-13” and contains some scary scenes of animal death and sushi making, for example. It is, however, fanciful, and while it will surely appeal to those Anderson fans who appreciate his special sensibilities, other filmgoers will just have to go with his flow. For those who can, it can be a rewarding fable.


(The film, in English and Japanese (untranslated), runs 101 minutes and is rated “PG-13.”)

(March 2018)

Photo Credit: Left to right: Bob Balaban as “King,” JeffGoldblum as “Duke, Bill Murray as “Boss,” Edward Norton as “Rex,” Bryan Cranston as “Chief,” and Koyu Rankin as “Atari” in “Isle of Dogs.”
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.


The Death of Stalin



Based on a French graphic novel La mort de Staline, “The Death of Stalin” depicts the Soviet power struggles following the death of dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) in 1953. The death scene comes early, in the context of a Moscow radio concert that has to be summarily repeated because the Great Man did not hear the live performance. The extravagant lengths to which the program director (Paddy Considine) must go to recreate the transmission is done in a Keystone Kops manner that signals the ribald tone of much of this picture, while at the same time the sequence’s gripping paranoia about placating Stalin captures the mordant side of the film. These two facets—goofy and scathing—are carefully juggled throughout the movie directed by British writer/director Armando Iannucci.



After the concert, Stalin has a massive stroke in his office, but his night guards are too frightened to go in to see if the premier is OK. By morning, the parade of sycophants from the party’s Central Committee stumbles in to find the old man dead, lying in his own urine. The parade is led by Deputy Party Chairman Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), party leader Khruschev (Steve Buscemi), Vice Chairman Molotov (Michael Palin), and secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), among others.

Nonplussed, these panicked leaders begin immediately struggling to both undercut and one-up each other to seize and maintain power. Among them, Malenkov, in line for the head post, is a mincing nonentity, the hustling Khruschev is a profane brute, and Molotov is the ultimate party-line toady (he rejoices that the Party has placed his wife in prison). Only Beria, an unrelieved swine, seems to have a clear plan to power: by killing or jailing as many enemies as possible.

Tangentially based on real events, the film takes plenty of license, though, as Iannucci has indicated, some elements, like the repeat concert episode and the reluctant guards cited above, really happened and are too zany not to be included. Verisimilitude, though, is hardly the point of “The Death of Stalin.” The Anglo-American cast speaks a mash up of accents: Stalin seems to be a cockney, Buscemi spouts in caustic Brooklynese, Palin uses a semi-tosh Britspeak, and Beale (a Shakespearean actor) speaks in a corrosive growl. Perhaps the funniest line deliveries of all are those of Field Marshall Georgy Zhukhov, played imperiously by the medal-laden Jason Isaacs, whose hilarious putdowns are delivered in an accent somewhere between Yorkshire and Scotland.

Iannucci’s depiction of the bizarre struggle among the committee members at times seems like a zany update of the Marx(ist) Brothers, with the pratfalls and one-liners mingling uncomfortably with the darkest sides of Stalin’s legacy and the vicious practices of Beria. It’s a delicate line the film treads, ready giggles tempered by chilly winces—sometimes in the same scene! In all, it makes for a heady stew.

Director Iannucci Discusses “Stalin”

British writer/director Armando Iannucci is best known for his caustic HBO comedy series, “Veep.” But prior to that success, he scored with a droll feature “In the Loop” (2009), a satire that lampooned politicians and bureaucracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, he has turned his attention, somewhat surprisingly, to an offbeat piece of history in the pitch-black farce, “The Death of Stalin.”

Iannucci, in DC March 15 to promote his film, spoke to the audience at a preview screening. Asked about the original idea for the film, he said he was thinking about doing a story about a fictional contemporary dictator when he ran across the French comic novel and decided: “This is the film I wanted to make.” The subject was “so crazy, that comedy is the only way you can deal with it.”

The film, shot from June to August 2016, involved doing some on-the-ground research in Moscow because, he said, “I wanted to get the look of it right” and recreate “a sense of anxiety.” While most of the picture was shot on English sets and locations, the filmmakers did shoot some exteriors in the Ukraine to get the appearance of Soviet architecture.

The film, which opened in London this past October, was also on track to open in Russia early this year. Iannucci himself was in Moscow to meet with the Russian press and some selected screenings had already taken place. Then, days before its general release, “The Death of Stalin” was banned from Russian cinemas.

The director said he “wanted Joseph Stalin to be seen not as the tall, strong man” so many Russians still fantasize about but to cast a short, mundane person “to contrast the great ‘leader’ with the real man.”

He acknowledged that the film is hardly historically accurate, but that the lunacy of Stalin’s rule was such that certain untoward incidents in the film really happened, such as the hurried re-run of the concert program and “Stalin showing late-night Westerns to Politburo members after lengthy dinners” to get them to reveal themselves.

Now that he has dipped into historical material for the first time, Iannucci was asked about his next project: he is going to film “David Copperfield” with Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel.


(The film is rated “R” for raunch, tough swearing, and nasty violence. It and runs 107 minutes.)

(March 2018)

Photo Credit: Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Adrian McLoughlin (on floor) as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in “The Death of Stalin.”
An IFC Films release: photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy of IFC Films