Archive for Armando Iannucci

The Strange Affair of Uncle Joe

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by dcairns

I should have gone to see THE DEATH OF STALIN when it came out, as I really admire Armando Iannucci’s work — maybe I didn’t because I don’t think he’s entirely cinematic. Maybe he’ll get there. This one only becomes really satisfying visually during the end credits, which repurpose the USSR’s revisionist airbrushing to witty effect, in a way that’s funny and uncomfortable, as is the film.

I remember getting into a weird discussion on Twitter with a Russian who was offended by the film, hampered by the fact that I hadn’t seen it and he had. He was disgusted that the film gets laughs out of Stalin having pissed himself. While I suppose laughing at a sick man isn’t nice, it’s still Stalin, and if that’s the thing you single out in this movie as being unsuitable for comic treatment, as opposed to Beria’s mass murders and vicious sexual opportunism, you have a problem with your priorities and are fonder of the late dictator than you are to admit.

Beale was ROBBED of the role of Dick Cheney. Or else Beria ought to have played it.

This is certainly very black comedy indeed — the characters are all totally lost to any sense of decency or compassion or compassion. The various political animals in Iannucci’s The Thick of It and IN THE LOOP were similarly bereft, and one interesting comparison between his various works (I haven’t seen enough of Veep but it looked good, but maybe lighter?) would be that the politburo bastards here aren’t necessarily worse, at a fundamental human level, that the New Labour and Tory scum of his previous outings — it’s merely that the structures of a dictatorship deform them differently than those of a democracy. Malcolm Tucker probably can’t have you killed, directly. But if he was working for Stalin he would surely have to, and might find he got a kick out of it.

A great many striking performances to enjoy here. The mingling of British and American actors and comics doesn’t always work — maybe in the past it’s been evidence of productions too eager to turn a profit, losing track of how to achieve a unified style. IN THE LOOP of course, by its very story, had to mix the two, and did so very sensibly and effectively. Here, it’s simply a question of ignoring the accents — which you can’t totally do with Stalin being played as a bluff northerner by Adrian McLoughlin (actually a southerner). But the Americans and Brits are equally strong. Fiona observed that casting Michael Palin as a ruthless state official works just as well here as it did in BRAZIL, casting “the nicest man in the world” (as Gilliam called him) as far against type as possible. Palin and Paul Whitehouse have to grab a few moments here and there, as does Paul Chahidi, who’s REALLY good at that, but Steve Buscemi and the amazing Simon Russell Beale and Jeffrey Tambor have centre stage. Then Jason Isaacs walks in (in slow motion, as do some of the others, but he really owns it) and practically blasts all opposition aside. Remarkable — the performances and dynamics just keep getting better as the thing goes on.

Nicky Smith, who features so prominently and entertainingly in our latest podcast, was telling me about Iannucci’s forthcoming THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, which has innovative racially-blind casting, with Dev Patel in the lead and a white actor as his mother, and appearances by greats like Benedict Wong. Of course, Victorian London was full of people of different races, but Dickens largely neglected to write about them. This is something different — casting people because they’re good, not because they’re racially “appropriate.” It’ll be amusing to see conservative critics tiptoeing around this. Anyway, I wonder if Iannucci noticed how white the cast of TDOS was, and asked why, if we can sit Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin round the same table, both playing Russians, then why not Delroy Lindo or Thandie Newton?

Balsa Minarets

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2009 by dcairns


THE SINGING BLACKSMITH. A town in New Jersey is transplanted to a Russia of the mind by the simple addition of balsa minarets. Such is the no-budget magic of Edgar Ulmer.

My friend Mary Gordon, organising a screening of all Ulmer’s Yiddish films, booked me to introduce this one, probably the weakest of the set, at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse last Sunday. There’s not that much to say about the film, except that the lead is called Moyshe Oysher (and I had to remind myself not to call him Oyshe Moysher, because that would be ridiculous) and the young Moyshe is played by Herschel Bernardi, the voice of the Jolly Green Giant. Ho ho.

I decided to tell the story of how Ulmer was booted out of Universal after running away with the script girl, who was unfortunately wed to one of the Laemmle family who ran the studio, and how he came East to pursue work opportunities outside of the mainstream — the Yiddish films and the negro films resulted from this decision, eventually leading to the Poverty Row thrillers Ulmer is most famous for. And then it hit me that the negligible plot of THE SINGING BLACKSMITH, in which the musical ironworker has an affair with a newly married woman, had autobiographical elements that would tie the whole thing together nicely.


And then I was off to see IN THE LOOP, that rare, almost unique, thing — a British comedy that’s funny. True, Armando Iannucci’s political satire doesn’t have the kinetic bustle of Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD or HOT FUZZ, but it shouldn’t. It has an understated documentary flavour which works, without ever actually doing anything interesting. It’s left to the actors to drive the comedy forward, and here Iannucci is in safe hands: Tom Hollander, Gina McKee and Chris Addison are brilliant as the “normal” British characters, the politicos who successfully cover their moral shortcomings with the fumbling and prevarication of regular folks, while the more outwardly evil figures make them jump this way and that. We also get James Gandolfini as a general, and Anna Chlumsky (aw! little Anna Chlumsky!”) with her weird and lovely grown-up face sitting on the front of her head like a confused stranger.

David Rasche plays a “boring psychopath” on the US side (the film deals with Brit-US negotiations in the run-up to an unspecified war in the Middle East) with cold, calm deliberation, providing a bracing contrast to Peter Capaldi’s parliamentary pit-bull, Malcolm Tucker (one of the few characters Iannucci has transferred directly from his TV show, The Thick of It), a hysterically vicious, sweary Scotsman (even traditional valedictions become opportunities for creative cursing, hence “Fucketty-bye!”). I recently ran down Capaldi’s career highlights for a student, who was impressed that the gangling naif in Bill Forsyth’s LOCAL HERO was also the Oscar-winning director of short film FRANZ KAFKA’S IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (balsa minaret link: Capaldi’s enchanting miniature of Prague), and the loud, violent-tempered Director of Communications here.

Iannucci, a Glaswegian Italian-Scot, gets great mileage from this seemingly one-note character, and tops the gag with the introduction of the pit-bull’s pet pit-bull, Jamie McDonald, played by Paul Higgins, who is even more ferocious, foul-mouthed and threatening than himself. My favourite moment of anger from him was his response to UN chairman Sir Jonathan Tutt’s choice of music, some kind of operatic lieder: “It’s just VOWELS!” Impressive how much fury a Scotsman can inject into the word “vowels”.