Sunday, 29 October 2017

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is justly famed for his political satires. With The Thick of It and In the Loop, and latterly the US-set Veep, he has pilloried the absurdity, pettiness and power-hungry games of UK and US politics. Turning to historic Soviet politics, however, involves not just the absurdity of this, but utter horror and brutality. And so The Death of Stalin, while hitting the comedic level of his best material, is also the bleakest and most serious of his political comedies. The tagline, "A Comedy of Terrors," is apt indeed.

It's not that the film isn't funny, simply that the comedy is violently undercut by the oppressive grimness of the story. Still, how could it be otherwise? This is Stalinist Russia, one of the true nightmares of twentieth century totalitarianism, and the power struggle that played out in the aftermath of Stalin's death is living memory for a lot of people who could watch the film today. Kruschchev's rise to power, both brutal and forward-thinking at once, shaped the geopolitics of the latter half of the century. From cruel Chief of Intelligence Beria to the violent Zhukov, these were monstrous people.

But the best way to undercut these people is to mock them, and while Stalin has been the focus of such mockery many times before (although not nearly as much as his ally/nemesis Hitler) it's not often the Soviet cabinet as a whole gets this treatment. Iannucci's approach is to treat them as the squabbling old men that they were, already past their prime by the time Steely Joe died, desperately clinging onto the power they held at his whim. Casting Brits and Americans indiscriminately, the Soviets come across as a ragtag bunch of ageing gangsters.

What a cast, though. The cream of comedic and dramatic actors here. Jeffrey Tambor, who's never anything less than hilarious, is the hangdog-faced deputy Malenkov, who's propelled to supreme power in the wake of Stalin's brain bursting. The exceptional Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the vicious, gleefully cruel spymaster who murdered and raped his way through god knows how many victims, yet with Beale's performance is somehow both terrifying and likeable. The great Michael Palin as devout Stalinist Molotov, the most sympathetic of the characters, and even he denounced his wife as a traitor to maintain political leverage (of course, Palin has always excelled at playing nice bastards). Most brilliant of all, Steve Buscemi as Khruschev himself, the backstabbing party leader who, eventually, even after the close of the film, comes out on top. Until Brezhnev, of course.

Probably the funniest performance, though, is that of Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, head of the Red Army, which he elects to play with a broad Yorkshire accent and a manic gleam in his eye. Other significant roles include the wonderful Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter Svetlana, Joseph Friend as her hilariously drunken paranoiac brother Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as the subversive pianist Maria Yudina. Perhaps the greatest turn actually comes from Paddy Considine, who opens the film as a desperate theatre owner under impossible pressure to record and already completed concert for the Premier. His performance sells the utter fear and desperate self-preservation of everyone living in the Soviet state at the time, while being hilarious to boot (with some superb straight-manning from the still-underappreciated Tom Brooke). Not forgetting, of course, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin himself, portrayed a small, withered man, pathetic even as he commands life and death over all those around him.

Predictably, Russia hates this film, seeing it as a Western attempt to undermine their great history. After all, many Russians still view Stalin as a great social architect and war hero, instead of a power-crazed murderer. At least, they say they do - after all, disagreement likely goes down very poorly. There are films that gain notoriety on the back of this kind of controversy, but The Death of Stalin deserves to be seen on its own merits as a funny, powerful historical satire, with character moments that are equal parts cringe-inducing embarrassment, crushing wit and genuine fear for life and liberty.

I get the feeling The Death of Stalin will be watched for many years to come as a look back at a pivotal moment in history. This is exactly the sort of film that should be made, and if it pisses off the Kremlin, all the better. Just imagine the movies we'll get about Putin, Trump and Kim in sixty or seventy years, assuming we're not living in some irradiated wasteland by then.

Saturday, 28 October 2017


After a disappointing third episode, Series XII gets back on track with a hugely enjoyable story that gets just about everything right. After three episodes with significant guest casts, "Mechocracy" gets back to core Dwarf. It's Lister, Kryten, Rimmer and the Cat as the only humanoids onscreen, with only vending machines and other appliances as supporting characters. The story sees Lister allow a computer virus to infect Red Dwarf's system, leading to an "abandon ship" situation to which the vending machines are not invited. Long story short, the AI-run machines on the ship go on strike, so Rimmer and Kryten compete to become their president and thus control Red Dwarf.

Sunday, 22 October 2017


Irony: an episode about a society in which criticism has been banned being the most critically panned episode in recent years.

The central idea is pretty promising. A society in which no one is held accountable for anything, no one learns how to do their jobs because positive criticism is illegal, where no one can insult or belittle anyone, no matter how idiotic. This could have been a Hitchhikers-eqsue satire. This could have been a timely attack on the fragile nature of people's egos and the tendency of people today to take anything as an offense. It could have gone down the route of Incompetence, Naylor's old stablemate Rob Grant's novel, where no one could be dismissed or barred from a position no matter how ill-suited or unable they were. We might have expected a few pokes at a certain notoriously incompetent and idiotic POTUS, except that these episodes were written and filmed before that world-damning election.

What we got was a bunch of people in children's television "crazy" costumes acting like irritating prats, and not the class of irritating prat that we're used to getting with Red Dwarf. It was a bit of a warning sign when the promo photo released was of Johnny Vegas in a baby pink police uniform, but he's actually the best thing in this episode. As the Crit Cop, Vegas's performance is just the right combination of frustrating and likeable, and his style fits in nicely as part of the Dwarf's world. (It's easy to imagine Vegas playing a crewman on the Red Dwarf back in pre-accident days, and he's apparently a big fan of the series, which is nice to know.) He's a damned sight better than Jamie Chapman as Captain Ziggy, although, to be fair to him, he had pretty poor material to work with.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Polari Brighton

The Polari Literary Salon is an LGBTQ literary performance workshop that is generally London-based but makes outings to other parts of the UK. The Arts Council England has presented the organisers with a grant to fund a nationwide tour to mark their tenth anniversary, and so last night Polari came to Brighton.

I didn't know anything about Polari until my partner Suz and I met the wonderful Cerys Evans at a very Brightonian barbecue in the summer (lots of vegan sausages on offer). Cerys is a writer and performer (and has just started her own website), and is instantly a hit with everyone she meets. We made sure we were free to come see her perform at the Marlborough Pub and Theatre, a cosy little venue on the edge of Kemptown. It turned out Suz's friend John McCullough, a talented poet, was also performing that night. So naturally we absolutely had to make this.

We still managed to be late, and missed Cerys's first poem, which is frankly unforgiveable, but she still wowed us with some amazing readings of her own, very personal, very moving work. John was up during the second half reading from his latest book, Spacecraft, and giving us a sneak peak of his work in progress. John's poetry can be moving, powerful, funny - the gamut. And he likes to sneak in Doctor Who references.

It wasn't all local peeps, though. V. G. Lee, five time novelist and short story writer, read one of her stories from her collection As You Step Outside, and I loved it so much I went and bought the book straight away. Playwright Alexis Gregory performed part of his upcoming work which deals with pivotal moments and periods in the gay community throughout the twentieth century. He gave us the opening piece, a performance of a memoir from a man who was present at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. It was an astonishingly powerful and moving piece, bringing to life an event that was long enough ago to feel historical, even mythic, to us now.

Each step of the tour includes a writing workshop, and one person is chosen from each to perform their piece at the event. A new writer read her poem #MeToo, a powerful hit of painful experience. The event finished with Sylvia Brownrigg reading from her new novel Pages for Her, which was beautiful, although I feel I ought to read the previous Pages for You from 2002 first. The evening was hosted by top-hatted raconteur Paul Burston and sign-interpreted by Natalie MacGarvie. It was a wonderful experience, and I'm glad that I'm learning to appreciate poetry at last - something I never really "got" until lately, and a lot of that is down to Suz.

We stayed out chatting with talented people and making new friends. Just a wonderful night. There's still time to see Polari on tour in London and Newcastle, and beyond.

Monday, 16 October 2017


To be honest, I think Blade Runner - the original, from 1982 - is a little overrated. It's a great film, of course, hugely influential, but it's not, in my opinion, the mighty classic that people think it is. Still, it is a beloved film, and the announcement of a belated sequel over thirty years later left a lot of people uneasy. Critics were gunning for this film, ready to pounce on it and declare it a hollow remake of a classic. So I was surprised to see almost unanimously positive reviews.

They were deserved. Blade Runner 2049 is excellent. With the original being set in 2019, there was no point pretending that this was representing our future. Instead, the filmmakers take the noir-ish, dirty but ultimately very cool future America and extrapolated what it would be like thirty years down the line: toxic, broken and dying. Replicant technology has been refined by Wallace (a very sinister Jared Leto), a bioengineer who has saved the world from famine during this ecological collapse. The last elements of free will have been purged. Ryan Gosling's character, generally referred to as K, works for the LAPD to hunt down the last of the previous generation of replicant rebels.

Gosling is perfect as K, completely laconic and emotionless until the scene demands his resolve crack. K's only friend is Joi, a holographic companion provided by the same corporation that created him, although he has earned a measure of respect from his superior, the steely Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), in a world where most humans spit at "skinjobs." The inclusion of Harrison Ford as Deckard is, of course, a huge draw, but he has far less screentime than expected, which is very much a positive. Gosling's character is well established as the centre of the story by the time he finds the older Blade Runner, so Deckard's inclusion comes at the right time to fully tie this story to its predecessor. It's also a nice touch that Edward James Olmos makes a brief reappearance as Gaff. The film also leaves the exact nature of Deckard uncommented upon, which allows much of the mystery of the original to remain.

There has been some discussion about the feminist aspect of the film. While many of the most powerful characters in the film are female (Joshi, Sylvia Hoeks as the deadly replicant Luv), there are also several female characters who are literal or figurative sex objects. Joi exists purely at the whim of K; Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) is a replicant prostitute in the manner of Pris of the original. They are still significant and powerful characters in their own way, and to dismiss the film because of their objectified status misses the point. The film is about the commodification of human life. People - replicants, holograms, children - are owned and utilised in one way or another. People are property, as ever they were, in a future where the leading industrialist laments that society has lost its stomach for slavery.

Blade Runner 2049 represents a lost, unreachable future, but it is still relevant today, and in some ways surely prescient. Beautiful in its ugliness, gripping and exceptionally directed, this is a sequel that's as good as people say the original is.

Saturday, 14 October 2017


Back in the mists of time, I started writing a Red Dwarf fanfic which saw the crew encounter a ship full of liberated mechanoids, who turned Kryten under their wing even as the higher series mechs put down the lowly Series 1000s. It's long lost and wasn't very good, but it perhaps goes to show that "Siliconia" is an idea that's been long overdue. Kryten may have broken his programming (more than once), and he certainly still gets tetchy from time to time, but nonetheless he's still been scrubbing gussets and hoovering quarters for three million years. Surely there are other mechanoids out there who have rebelled against their masters with a little more effectiveness than Mr. 2X4B 523P?

I have to say though, I never would have thought of turning the rest of the characters into droids. Yes, that image we've all seen floating around promoting the latest series with the full cast in mechanoid make-up is from this episode. As punishment for their crimes against machinekind, Lister, Rimmer and the Cat have their mins downloaded from their bodies and re-uploaded into mechanoid bodies, forced to serve their new mechanical masters.

While it starts with a few broad, old-fashioned gags, "Siliconia" turns into a classic episode. With a unusually large cast all buried under latex, this one must have cost a large chunk of Series XII's budget, but there was still enough for some very impressive effects shots. It's the plot that makes this episode a winner, though, as Kryten is wooed by the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front (not as good an acronym as the Committe for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society, but pretty good). Meanwhile, the remaining Dwarfers find themselves becoming increasingly "Krytenified," as their new programming takes over.

What's really interesting is how quickly Rimmer changes into a subservient mech. The chance to mindlessly serve gives him the opportunity to leave his considerable baggage behind. He no longer feels inferior to his brothers or compelled to become and officer. It's a penetrating moment of character study that makes the old goit seem truly sympathetic for the first time in years, Unfortunately, it's a brief moment in a busy episode, and gets a bit swallowed up. This is a better-paced episode than some have been in Series XI and XII so far, but it's still too short to encompass all of Doug Naylor's ideas properly. It's a strong argument for a fifth Red Dwarf novel, just so he can have the chance of exploring all the ideas that he's clearly so eager to put out there.

The MILFs have taken on empowering new names and have their own, hilariously well-observed self-help group, but there's a rot within their organisation. Poor mechs of a lower class (fronted by a surprisingly recognisable James Buckley) toil in the ship's engines while their brethren of a higher operating system enjoy the life upstairs, all the while in search of their promised land.

"Siliconia" is a cracking bit of Red Dwarf. All it needs is a bit more room to breathe. And a cameo from David Ross might have been a nice touch.

Continuity Bollocks: Kryten has been described as a Series 4000 mechanoid since 4.1, "Camille," which also introduced the superior Series 4000 GTi with the slide-back sunroof head. However, the previous episode, 3.6, "The Last Day," had it that he was a "Kryten Series III." This episode gives a way to clear that up: Kryten and most of his fellows of MILF are Series 4000 Mark IIIs, while the downtrodden rabble are Mark IIs. At the end, they're all upgraded to Mark IV. Presumably, Hudzen 5 from "The Last Day" is an example of Series 5000, although he's never described as such.

Good Psycho Guide: Four-and-a-half chainsaws

Best line: "I've got a registered trademark where my wing-dang-doodle used to be!"

REVIEW: THE GIFTED 1-1) "eXposed"

The only non-DC/CW comic-related series I'm reviewing here, this is Fox's new X-Men-related series. Aside from reminding me that I still haven't watched Legion, about which I've heard very good things, this is a great opening episode that promises an interesting take on what is now a well-worn subject. I haven't watched the second episode yet, but I ma very much looking forward to it on the strength of this. The X-verse is big enough and has enough characters to generate new spin-offs for years, as long as the creators can do something interesting with them. While it's important that The Gifted distinguishes itself from the X-Men movies, it's a good idea to have Bryan Singer helm the pilot. There's a darker, grungier feel to this than the movies, but it still feels like part of the X-verse, even though it's very unclear how - or even if - it fits into the continuity there. Not that it has to matter, given how shaky the Fox movie timeline was even before the timeline changes, but this might just fit in as an earlier part of Logan's timeline, after the X-Men are destroyed but before mutants are weeded out.

The cast are all fairly impressive in this pilot. Amy Acker is always a favourite, and Stephen Moyer is very strong as the anti-mutant police officer Reed Strucker. It's a set-up with some effective built-in conflict: the family headed by someone who prosecutes mutant criminals, and then lo and behold, the two kids turn out to be mutants with psychokinetic abilities. I like Reed is clearly torn between his oath and his family, but quickly and decisively chooses to go on the run with them because he knows exactly how badly the kids will be treated. Immediately after young Andy's powers manifest while some jocks are kicking the shit out of him, everything goes to hell, and the news is branding them as unknown mutant terrorists. Sentinel Services - complete with its own mutant-hunting robots - is sent out to detain them without charge, and in seconds, one of them has a gun trained on a teenaged kid. While the X-Men franchise has been used to explore all sorts of discrimination and outsider groups, this is so far pretty blatantly about racism and kneejerk reactionism. You only have to look at how many black kids are shot by white cops who supposedly felt threatened to see how this would go down in the real world. (It might have been interesting to show Andy deliberately blowing up the school as a lashing out against his bullying as a parallel to the epidemic of school shootings in real world America, but I guess that would have made him far too unsympathetic a character).

The mutant vigilante team are fun, although we don't get to know them very well. Even Marcos/Eclipse (a new character, not from the comics), who is the de facto leader gets little fleshing out, but then this is only the first episode. His power set is pretty cool so far: not only can he generate light energy as a weapon, he seems to be actually full of light, which bleeds out of him when he's shot. It's good to see Blink reintroduced after her short appearance in Days of Future Past (more Blink-and-you'll-miss-it there), and Jamie Chung's a favourite too. I like that these kids aren't portrayed as straightforwardly the good guys, either. They're obviously fighting against real injustice, but people die because of their actions, and they're not left unquestioned. There are some interesting hints for the future, as well. Polaris is clearly set up to be a major character once she appears, which brings possible links back to her father, Magneto, and presumed half-brother, Quicksilver. The multiple images of a wolf-like creature are interesting foreshadowing, too. (I'm guessing nothing to do with Wolfsbane or the Demon Bear, what with these lined up for The New Mutants movie).  Definitely one to follow.

Sunday, 8 October 2017


Red Dwarf kicks off its twelfth (and final?) series with a bit of a corker. These episodes were recorded back in 2015-16 along with Series XI, so there's information on the plots out there if you want to go looking. However, if you don't want to be spoiled, go watch the episode first, because there are some big surprises crammed into the half-hour.