The Death of Stalin

I am Not a Witch Brawl in Cell Block 99

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - CINEMA - HILARY A WHITE AINE O’CON­NOR AINE O’CON­NOR

Cert: 15A; Now show­ing

The fi­nal days of Stalin’s dic­ta­tor­ship is not an ob­vi­ous set­ting from which to mine com­edy gold but Ar­mando Ian­nucci has not got where he is by be­ing con­ven­tional. The Scot­tish satirist made a name for him­self with the bril­liant cur­rent af­fairs spoof The Day Today (which, of course, paved the way for both Brass Eye and the Alan Par­tridge char­ac­ter).

What all th­ese el­e­ments have in com­mon is an acidic af­ter­taste to the hu­mour, and The Death of Stalin — penned by Ian­nucci and reg­u­lar co-writ­ers David Sch­nei­der and Ian Martin — is no dif­fer­ent. We’re in the Krem­lin, where ev­ery­one from un­scrupu­lous se­cret po­lice chief Be­ria (Si­mon Rus­sell Beale) to a lo­cal or­ches­tral pro­ducer (Paddy Con­si­dine) are jump­ing through hoops lest Com­rade Stalin should find ill-favour with them and add them to the con­sid­er­able purges tak­ing place. When he pops his clogs, it throws his cab­i­net into a tizzy. Power-plays get nudged about by Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Malenkov (Jef­frey Tam­bor) while def­er­ence must still be feigned to their glo­ri­ous leader, es­pe­cially with his un­hinged son and daugh­ter (Ru­pert Friend and An­drea Rise­bor­ough) about.

That cast is bol­stered by Ja­son Isaacs (pic­tured right), Michael Palin, Paul White­house and our own Der­mot Crow­ley.

Unashamedly Bri­tish hu­mour prances about the ruth­less cor­ri­dors of Soviet power and the ef­fect is fresh and price­less.

Think Black­ad­der but, well, red­der.

Cert: 12A; Now show­ing, IFI

Tourists get off a bus in Zam­bia and are shown a witch camp, a group of mostly older women at­tached to huge spools of rib­bon. The spools are an in­ven­tion of Welsh-zam­bian writer-direc­tor Rungano Ny­oni. The witch camps are not.

Women ac­cused of witch­craft, whether through gen­uine su­per­sti­tion or sim­ple mal­ice, can be despatched to th­ese camps where they are es­sen­tially used as slave labour. It is this as­pect rather than su­per­sti­tion that Rungano Ny­oni fo­cuses on in her fas­ci­nat­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally sur­re­al­is­tic satire.

From the tourists the film switches straight to the in­cred­i­ble face of Shula (Mag­gie Mu­lubwa) an eight-year-old or­phan who is ac­cused of be­ing a witch. A scep­ti­cal po­lice of­fi­cer nonethe­less calls in lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) who takes Shula to a witch camp, at­taches her to her rib­bon and of­fers her the choice to cut it and be­come a goat or stay and be a witch.

The older women take her un­der their wing while Banda tries out dif­fer­ent ways to make Shula into a money spin­ner.

It’s very lo­cal but the satire ap­plies glob­ally — the need to ex­clude, the need to be­long and the need to ex­ploit. It is beau­ti­fully shot by David Gal­lego, and the direc­tor throws ev­ery trick at the film. Some work bet­ter than oth­ers but it feels brave and orig­i­nal and en­er­getic. The char­ac­ters are very one-di­men­sional and the nar­ra­tive is a bit too jumpy but while not for ev­ery­one it is ac­ces­si­ble and sur­pris­ingly light. Cert: Club; Now show­ing, Light House There is more than one clue in the ti­tle to S Craig Zahler’s fol­low up to Bone Tom­a­hawk. It takes a lit­tle while to get to the ac­tual Brawl in Cell Block 99 but the road, as the ti­tle is homage to, is pure 1970s ex­ploita­tion movie. It’s a slow, steady build to graphic vi­o­lence run all the way through with a fan­tas­tic turn from Vince Vaughn.

The film opens with Bradley (Vaughn) los­ing his job. He has a cru­ci­fix tat­tooed on his head, God pop play­ing in his car, his rage is clear but un­der con­trol. There are trou­bles in his mar­riage to Lau­ren (Jen­nifer Car­pen­ter).

Eigh­teen months later their lives are turned around but, in a some­what con­trived plot mech­a­nism, Bradley ends up in pri­son and the brawl in cell block 99 (un­der the com­mand of Don John­son) gets closer. Vaughn re­ally in­hab­its what is a well-de­vel­oped role and it’s great to see. At well over two hours the film is too long and the vi­o­lence, is in­tense, sound ef­fects re­ally adding to its im­pact. Fans of per­sonal mis­sion movies should ap­pre­ci­ate this wor­thy ad­di­tion to the canon.

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