4 movies you should check out this month

Films including 'Journey's End' and 'The Forgiven' earned top marks from our movie critic, Peter Rainer.

Courtesy of Steffan Hill/PMK
'Journey's End' stars Asa Butterfield.

This past month, some of the films that caught Monitor film critic Peter Rainer's attention had themes including the spirit that can transcend war and how people forgive in unimaginable circumstances.

Black comedies don’t come much blacker than 'The Death of Stalin'

Good political satires are rare. This one is not only nonstop funny but it also contains some very pointed and pertinent takes on modern political intrigue. –Peter Rainer

Black comedies don’t come much blacker than “The Death of Stalin,” the latest satiric whirligig from co-writer and director Armando Iannucci, best known in the United States for “In the Loop” and HBO’s “Veep.” Based on a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin and co-written by Iannucci's frequent collaborators, David Schneider and Ian Martin, it’s set in March 1953, shortly before Stalin’s sudden demise from a heart attack. When Stalin keels over, the Kremlin intrigue kicks into high gear, with each Committee member conniving for power.

It’s a marvelous crew of comic actors. They include Rupert Friend as Stalin’s dissolute son, Vasily; Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Stalin’s putative successor; Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev (just thinking of Buscemi as Khrushchev is laugh-inducing); Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the infamous cocktail); and, best of all, that grand Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, the lethal head of the NKVD.

The central conceit of “The Death of Stalin” is that what is funny is not always just funny. In this sense, the film is closer in spirit to “Dr. Strangelove” than, say Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” The latter was a jape; the former was a cautionary howl. It’s a howl that very much resonates in our own political era. This must be why Russia banned this film for, among reasons, being “extremist.” They got that right. Grade: A- (Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references.)

'Isle of Dogs' is a stop-motion tour de force that is flabbergastingly original

Wes Anderson's movies are an acquired taste that I have not always acquired. But this stop-motion movie is a marvel of visual ingenuity. –PR

The best justification for making an animated movie is that its story couldn’t best be told any other way. This is certainly the case with writer-director Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” a stop-motion tour de force so flabbergastingly original that, despite being replete with references to other movies, it is practically a genre entirely unto itself.

Set primarily in a near-future fantasyland Japan, “Isle of Dogs” posits a world where dogs have been exiled from the teeming city of Megasaki to a remote garbage dump called Trash Island because of the rampant spread of “dog flu” and “snout fever” that is crossing into the human population. The hatchet-faced mayor, Mr. Kobayashi, is descended from a long line of dog haters, so it becomes increasingly clear, especially when a pair of scientists reveal that they are on the verge of discovering a cure, that something more conspiratorial is afoot.

Despite its zigzaggy wit, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is also a political movie, to a far greater degree than we have previously seen from Anderson, and with sometimes too heavy a hand.

At times, it’s too much of a good thing. Like Terry Gilliam, Anderson is one of the few directors around who suffers from having too many good ideas. But there is so much to look at in “Isle of Dogs” that a second viewing is almost mandatory. You can forgive its fetishism. Mania this dedicated deserves its due. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.)

'Journey's End' shows horror of war, spirit that transcends it

It always feels good to be pleasantly surprised by a movie. I wasn't especially looking forward to another earnest movie about the horrors of warfare, but "Journey's End" is one of the best of its kind ever made. –Peter Rainer

I did not expect to be as moved by “Journey’s End” as I was. Based on the 1928 R.C. Sherriff play about a battalion of doomed British soldiers during World War I, the play is such a sturdy contraption that, as directed by Saul Dibb and written by Simon Reade, it transfers almost seamlessly to the screen. The power of the material survives because the anguish and heroism inherent in the story are enduring. So, alas, is war itself.

Set in March 1918, at a time when the German Army is poised to launch its Spring Offensive, “Journey’s End” focuses almost entirely on the vastly outnumbered C Company lying in wait in a muddy trench in northern France. Into this purgatory arrives Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a fresh-faced enlistee just out of basic training. His former schoolhouse monitor, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), whom he idolizes and who is wooing his sister, is in charge.

“Journey’s End” does justice both to the horrors of war and to the spirit that can sometimes, somehow, transcend it. Grade: A- (Rated R for some language and war images.)

In ‘The Forgiven,' Desmond Tutu faces off with a white separatist

This film portrays the redemption of a white separatist in ways that are not only credible but moving. -PR

An intermittently powerful drama loosely derived from real events, Roland Joffé’s “The Forgiven” takes place in newly post-apartheid South Africa and is based on a play by Michael Ashton called “The Archbishop and the Antichrist.”

The archbishop is Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker), who was chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which sought to investigate the brutal politically inspired abuses committed during the apartheid years. The antichrist is Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), an unregenerate white separatist with a history of apartheid-era violence who is doing major time in Pollsmoor Prison. Their dialogue over several meetings is the intense core of the conflict in “The Forgiven” and by far its strongest aspect.

The most powerful scene in the movie, and the one that most fully encompasses its meaning, belongs to Mrs. Morobe (the marvelous Thandi Makhubele), a mother who has pleaded with Tutu to uncover the circumstances behind the likely murder of her teenage daughter. When she confronts the perpetrator, her blinding rage and sorrow come pouring through and you ask yourself how this woman will ever find it in herself to forgive. And yet she does, and in a way that most of us could never believe ourselves capable of. Before our eyes, and by her furious grace, she unshackles herself. Grade: B+ (Rated R for disturbing/violent content and language throughout, including some sexual references.)

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