The Breadwinner Far More than a YA Film

Directed by Nora Twomey
Written by Anita Dorn and Deborah Ellis
A24 Films, 94 minutes, PG-13

There are those who argue that the Taliban must be part of any permanent peace settlement to end the war in Afghanistan. Very few of those raised voices come from women.

The Breadwinner did scant business in North American markets, though it gained an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. I certainly understand the war-weariness of the film-going public, but imagine what Afghans must feel.

I highly recommend watching The Breadwinner to gain insight into why sex and gender matter in Afghanistan. The subject matter is distressing, but the film is superb, and its animated format allows the squeamish to consider the violence inherent in the Taliban worldview without being bombarded with gory imagery. In fact, one of the film’s many virtues is that, by cartooning the violence, viewers are forced to confront ideological brutality rather than getting sidetracked. Let’s give this variety of fanaticism a name: misogyny.

We are taken to a marketplace where eleven-year-old Parvana sits with her father, Nurullah. By most measures, Nurullah would be a hero. He was a teacher who gave up his job to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet rule (1979–89). In this struggle he lost his oldest son to a bomb explosion and his own leg. Under Taliban rule (1996–2001), however, Nurullah is a worthless person, and is forced to peddle scant goods—including a hand-embroidered costume that was supposed to be for his eldest daughter’s wedding. He also has to hold his tongue from the insults of gun toting young Taliban punks who fancy themselves the purifiers of Islam. One day, Nurullah's not obsequious enough and he’s dragged off to prison.

Big problem. Women are not allowed to be in public without an adult male escort and there is now none in Nurullah’s household. How is his wife, Fateema, supposed to provide food or haul water for herself, her two daughters, or her infant son? She is beaten and threatened with prison for even raising such a question. The answer is always the same: find a male relative and stay out of sight.

Parvana comes to the rescue by cutting her hair, donning boys’ clothing, and passing as Aatish, Nurullah’s nephew. You can probably write the script from here—with harrowing escapes from being exposed as a central theme. Add to this threats and insults when she/he shows up at the prison seeking information on “Uncle” Nurullah. Parvana has an even more dangerous secret: she’s literate—a big no-no for Taliban misogynists. But as Aatish, she makes some money reading and writing for the large numbers of illiterate people, including Razaq, who may or may not see through Parvana’s disguise. Can she trust him as a potential benefactor?

Such a charade cannot last; they have an obvious shelf life. But Parvana means “butterfly” and Aatish translates as “fire.” The names are metaphors for both personal transformation and for the conflagration that will bring down the Taliban. Interspersed is Parvana’s serial storytelling to her baby brother of a young man’s encounters with the evil Elephant King.

The Elephant King folk tale has obvious parallels and, I suspect, that it, the film’s cartoon-like look, and the fact that the movie was adapted from Deborah Ellis’ YA graphic novel have led quite a few people to assume that The Breadwinner is a kids’ film. Perhaps, but I’d suggest that it’s deeper than that. The Breadwinner is ultimately a triumphant (of sorts) film about a tragedy. The script, direction, and imagery of the film do indeed cast an adolescent vibe, but as I suggested earlier, this is a deliberate softening of bloody detail in the service of focusing on the mindset behind the horror.

The rise of ISIS has shifted attention from the Taliban’s brutality, though insofar as the two groups view women, both are misogynist monsters. But don’t take my word for it­—ask the women in the post-Taliban parliament. Ask female professors, social workers, and school children. Ask Malala Yousafzai. And if the U.S. government agrees to a future government that includes the Taliban, ask why the hell we ever sent troops to Afghanistan.

Congratulations to all associated with The Breadwinner. It looks like a children’s film, but it’s really a testament to how you can slay dragons with a feather instead of an AK-47.

Rob Weir


From the Land of the Moon Trite and Sexist

Directed by Nicole Garcia
IFC Films, 120 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality)
In French with subtitles

From the Land of the Moon was nominated for eight César awards and won none, thereby proving that sanity prevails in the land of fromage and croissant. Even though Marion Cotillard was cast in the lead role of Gabrielle, the best that can be said of the film is that Cotillard's appearance is akin to placing an elegant beret atop a cheap wig.  The film garnered middling reviews and the only thing that kept it from being savaged is that a woman, Nicole Garcia, directed it.

Think I'm kidding? Imagine if a man directed a film with these themes. Gabrielle is a sexually precocious teenager who tries and fails to seduce one of her married male teachers. She's also incorrigible, which leads her mother, Adèle (Brigitte Roüan), to arrange a hasty marriage to a Spanish laborer, José (Alex Brendemühl), whom Gabrielle finds boring and physically ugly. José agrees not to have sex with Gabrielle because, after all, the arrangement is financial insofar as he's concerned—not to mention that Gabrielle is obnoxious and mean-spirited. José does, however, prosper and he's a decent man who is at least willing to keep Gabrielle in material luxury.

But wait, we have a reason for Gabrielle's unpleasantness. The French title for this film is Mai de pierres, roughly "stone sickness." Gabrielle's libidinous desires are not so much a matter of frustrated sexual awakening as the fact that her body is riddled with kidney stones that occasionally cause her to double over in agony. So it's off to a posh sanitarium in the Alps to take a cure—not that the state of medicine is very advanced during this time, which is right after World War Two and in the midst of France's disastrous attempt to reassert control over Indochina. Gabrielle spends her days taking various water cures and throwing wobblies, until she mellows a bit in the presence of a kind nurse, Jeannine (Victoria DuBois), and when she helps care for and develops a deep lust for a handsome amputee André (Louis Garrel). Or at least that what's we are led to imagine, because we see things through Gabrielle's thoughts and not all of them are reliable.  

This could have been a film about female desire, or mental illness, or perhaps even France's fall from geopolitical relevance. One could have, for example, equated André's missing leg and feverish weakness with the dismembering of France's prewar colonial might, with Gabrielle representative of a population weighed down (stone-like) by sclerotic leaders blind to new realities. Instead it's just a big strip tease for a final reveal for characters about whom we've long since ceased to care. Not even Cotillard can redeem a role that's essentially that of a mimsy mooncalf.

There are but two reasons to consider this film. The first is its beautiful glimpses of the Alps in their niveous winter splendor and again in their verdant summer clothes. I'd suggest downloading a good travelogue instead. The second reason would be to open a contentious dialogue about double standards in contemporary filmmaking. Is a sexist film any less so if a woman directs? I'll skip that debate and simply declare From the Land of the Moon unworthy of further analysis.

Rob Weir


Carmanah, Buffalo Tom, Polly Woods, Taylor Leonhrdt, and More

Carmanah, Speak in Rhythms

Ready for some rock and soul? Carmanah is another amazing Canadian band, a quintet hailing from Victoria, BC. The amazing Laura Mina Mitic, a mite with a mighty voice that she’s not afraid to air, fronts the band. As the album title suggests, this is a record that emphasizes rhythm. “Send It To Me” opens to claps and stomps, settles into a funky groove and fuzzy electric guitar behind the beats, and lets Mitic wail voodoo soul-style of letting the Devil bring on hellfire heat. Band members are also eco activists, sensibilities you’ll pick up in songs such as “Roots” and “Water Falling.” It’s testament to band’s versatility how different these two songs are. The first uses a finger-snapping opening for a piece that layers guitars, moves to a big swell, backs off, and repeats—a perfect mood setter for a song that celebrates being in wild spaces. The second unfolds to something akin to cool jazz, segues to more rock flavored cadences, and lets Mitic bring on the soul. Rather have it soft? Carmanaha can do that. Check out “Another Morning” with its melodic acoustic guitar, gentler vocals, and tight harmonies. This is definitely a band to put on your watch-for list. ★★★★

Buffalo Tom, Quiet and Peace

If you share my view that rock and roll is best when it’s plebeian and loud, you’ll probably also share my love of Boston’s Buffalo Tom. (The name is an amalgam of Buffalo Springfield, a band these old UMass friends liked back in the 1980s, and drummer Tom Maginnis’ first name.) There’s a groove, timing, and synchronicity that longtime bands possess that you can’t teach. Although Maginnis, guitarist/vocalist Bill Janovitz, and bass player Chris Colburn have done other things in their lives, they’ve been playing music since 1986—even when they were technically on hiatus. Quiet and Peace is their ninth album—a mature effort that, despite the fact its content has the usual rock n’ roll dilemmas—exudes contentment around the edges. “All Be Gone” is a passage of time song that burns high octane, but it’s also about Janovitz missing tranquil days floating in a boat with his daughter. Several songs lament time wasted on things that mattered more than they should have: “Overtime” and “Roman Cars,” the latter pulsing with hints of New Wave rock. I particularly liked the yearning and spotted attraction of “Freckles,” which reminded me of a rocked out Richard Shindell song. Solid stuff from a solid band—and that makes them solid with me. ★★★★

Polly Woods Ordinaire, Polly Woods Ordinaire

I wish I could tell you something about Polly Woods Ordinaire, but there's scarcely a scrap of info out there. The name is lifted from an 18th century Virginia log cabin that was an inn operated by a widow into the 1850s, the "ordinary" signaling that it was a no-frills concern. It's now a tourist attraction of sorts off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I suspect, however, that this is a project led by Michigander Lucas Taylor. Whoever it might be, this is a terrific EP with folk rock/progresive bluegrass/mountain/blues grooves. There's always something going on in the music—in a good way. Even though there are not many instruments playing at any one time, the music feels big, even epic—like a community harmony is about to break out. The male vocals are as clean and smooth as the opening track "Clear Blue Skies." The other three tracks, "Colorado Mountain Pines," Hands," and "Howling at the Moon" are equally delightful."  ★★★★  

Update: Members of Carmanah seem to be connected with this project somehow. Why the mystery? Damned if I know! 

Taylor Leonhardt, River House

This young singer/songwriter from Raleigh, North Carolina, has just released her first full-length album. Her songs are personal and sometimes spiritual, but not of the stick-faith-in-your-face variety—more like being humble in contemplation of things bigger than one's own ambitions. A good sample of this is "Lay My Head Down," a piano-based song that, in my opinion, ought to lose the percussion track. I really like Ms. Leonhardt's voice. She tempers her high timbres and whispery tones with a quality that reminded me—despite their very different repertoires—of young Nanci Griffith. There are tender songs such as "When You Open Your Mouth," whose melody is reminiscent of Cheryl Wheeler's "Arrow." "Surprising Me" has a simple but effective piano hook," and "Today If You Hear Him" is another contemplative, quiet song. Leonhardt tries on a lot of different hats; you will hear splashes of everything from banjo to brass. I liked this record, but it's also a blender mix of indie, folk, and pop that's missing an ingredient or two. When we get to the end we think, "Ah, what a pleasant recording." In a perfect world that would be enough; in this one, it lacks a signature identity. I kept wondering what all of this would sound like with a producer such as Daniel Lanois (or a less expensive one in the same creative vein). I suspect that Ms. Leonhardt will need to pick a direction in the near future and, in my view, a bit of backcountry would be a good way to go. ★★★½

Kate Tucker, Practical Sadness/Sampler

Remember how Los Angeles used to be the music production capital of the land? That role has been taken over by Nashville and I’m starting to think that maybe that American music needs to get out more. Akron-born Kate Tucker has been around since 2007, often with the Seattle-based quintet The Sons of Sweden. She long ago moved to Nashville and is the kind of singer the industry likes: female and small-voiced. The challenge for each of these women is to establish an identity independent from the studio. I enjoy Kate Tucker, but not when the music features Nashville session players that drown out her mellifluous tones. On Tucker’s single from her new album, “It’s True,” she displays superb timing that gives accented heft to her voice. I also like the cool guitar riff on “In Your Arms,” though it points to a problem: a tendency to lose the singer in overly processed arrangements. This happens a lot these days; studio musicians grab the glory and female performers are interchangeable snap-ins. Check out back catalog material like “Blue Hotel” and “Let Me Go” and you’ll hear what I mean. From a musical standpoint, I’m more impressed by simpler tracks such “Where You Are (I am Already Gone),“First toLeave,” and the bubbly early-60s pop evocations of “You Belong to Love.” I think Tucker would be best served by traveling with just a good lead guitarist who knows how to shape a song instead of playing to formula. ★★★ 1/2

Society of Broken Souls, Midnight and the Pale

This is a tough review to write. I admire everything about the values of Dennis James and Laura Shapter, who bill themselves Society of Broken Souls. As their handle suggests, the duo is steeped in a narrative tradition that looks at the downside of life in an enough-with-rainbows-and-unicorns kind of way. Theirs is an often-personal look at the scars one accumulates through life stripped of magical thinking. As Shapter puts it in "Witness:" I don't need a hero and I don't need a hand/I   don’t need someone to rescue me from the places that I land/And I don’t need your pity, sure as hell don’t need your scorn/I just need someone to walk by me when I walk through the storm. Their music is frequently dark in tone, a combination of Shapter's acoustic guitar and James' brighter, even crystalline amped down electric guitar. Don't expect a lot of upbeat material. "Sunflower Blues" is about a person who would put the rain back in the clouds if you could; and the slow waltz tempo "Pretty" is a litany of all the messages society sends to young girls that mess them up as adults. That one would be destined for wide circulation were it not for my misgiving that you'll have little idea what they're singing if you don't have a lyrics sheet in hand. Shapter and James are so intent upon being serious that their voices often tail off and neither articulates consistently. Of the two, James is by far the stronger singer, as you can hear on "April's Moon." They are good songwriters, I get what they're driving at, and admire it, but its impact is diminished if we literally can't hear it. ★★★ 

Short Takes:

Now that Ali Akbar Khan is gone, who is the master of the sarod, that multi-stringed lute that is a staple of Hindustani music? How about his son, Alam Khan? His new album, Immersion advances such a claim. It features classic meditative ragas and occasional flight into something more modern and adventurous. In case you’re wondering, the sarod is enough like a sitar that non-aficionados confuse them, but its sound has richer overtones, different string tensions, and fewer melody strings. Partake of this slowly to appreciate its hypnotic qualities. Sample here.

 I don’t know if Sammy Strittmater would be comfortable being grouped with Alam Khan, but Get Out of the City shares trance-like qualities with Khan’s music. The Texas-based Strittmayer plays everything except bass on this record and his songs mostly address coming, leaving, and leaping into the unknown, but it’s the gentle spirit of his voice and dreamy instrumentation that resonate most deeply. His music has been labeled soft rock and Zen-like; at the risk of evoking an unpopular term, it struck me as popped-up ambient and New Age—in a good way. It is the kind you can put on your phone, pop in the earbuds, and simply chill. Try “Indigo Bunting,” “We Are the Evening Tide,” and the title track. One small slip: 17 tracks are half again too many. We want to vegetate, but not take root. ★★★

I tried to pass on Catherine Bent, but her publicist insisted I'd love Ideal. The idea was for Bent to use her cello to play choro, an upbeat Brazilian instrumental style that emphasizes bright melodies, improv, syncopation, and percussiveness. Maybe fans of meandering jazz will appreciate this, but I found very little spark or innovation on this record. In the age of players such as Natalie Haas, Gideon Freudman, Tristan Clarridge, Ben Sollee, Rushad Eggleston, and the incomparable Yo-Yo Ma, you need to do more than a bit of backbeat polka to impress.Click here for a sample. Call this less than Ideal. ★  


New England Fashion an Amusing Concept!

This might sound odd from a guy whose idea of fashion is a clean T-shirt, but one of my favorite features in the paper is its periodic look at “local fashion.” The quotation marks are necessary because New Englanders don’t really do fashion. But that doesn’t prevent some folks from trying. I love the fashion section because it’s so damned funny.

Weather conspires against high fashion. In Massachusetts, there are just 98 days of full sunshine per year, and more than a third of the time Mr. Sol fails to appear at all. Imagine the statistics for northern Vermont or Down East Maine. We get enough snow, ice, rain, and cold to make skinny fashion models reach for long underwear, pork rinds, hot coffee, and the “Help Wanted” ads. New England fashion pretty much gravitates between styles labeled “prep,” “classic,” “hunting and fishing,” and “Igloowear.”

Here are some things that make for New England fashion amusement:

1. Uggs are rather universally panned these days. I don’t find them offensive, but they seem pretty dumb up these parts. We call untreated suede “bedroom slippers,” and know better than to wear them on slushy streets. We also wonder why anyone would wear them in warm weather.
2. Short dresses with down jackets make even less sense. Replace the rule of thumb with the rule of knee: If your knees turn red when you go outside, put on long pants! The male equivalent is the idea that a hoodie is outerwear. I don’t know whether to laugh or scowl when I see some young guy shivering in 10-degree weather. Hoodies are a layer, dude! (Move the calendar to June. Observe the same feckless youth sweltering in his hoodie.)

3. Sneakers: No more than two primary colors under any circumstance. Avoid all hues that look like something went wrong in the chemistry lab.

4. Long shorts are a contradiction in terms—especially if, like me, you’re short. It’s embarrassing when people come up to you and ask how you manage to walk without knees. NBA players are even worse; their ‘shorts’ make them look as if 80% of their height is from the waist up.

5. Clam diggers are for people who can’t decide between jeans and shorts. For the record, they have nothing to do with hunting mollusks; actual clam diggers wear wicked tall rubber boots. As fashion, Grace Kelly introduced clam diggers. She would have looked just as glamorous wearing the aforementioned rubber boots.

6. When I see ripped jeans I think, “Sucker!” Practical New Englanders either patch ripped jeans, or call them “rags.” If you must have a pair, don’t pay some fashion label $100; buy a pair of $30 Lees from Target, an exacto knife, and make your own.

7. On most men, moccasin style shoes say “geezer.” Or “banker on holiday.”

8. I am a proud Scot. Scots have a quirky sense of humor. Plaid is the best joke Scots have ever played on the world. There are–maybe­–two plaids that look halfway attractive. Chances are they are not in an L.L. Bean catalog near you.

9. There are two worse patterns than plaid, one of which is madras. I think it comes from the Hindi words that means, “getting sick from Indian food that’s off.” The worst of all, though, is camouflage, which is French for “monkey butt ugly.” Do you ever have the urge to come up to some camo-clad mall rat and say, “Despite your best efforts to hide, I saw you behind that rack of fuchsia towels?”

10. Pastels look good in Florida. In New England they make you look like a lost tourist. 

11. Hey guys, WTF with the sport jacket and an untucked shirt hanging a foot below the jacket hem. It makes you look like either: (a) a person who needs to get up 10 minutes earlier to finish dressing, (b) a slob, (c) a person who needs to ask his mom what goes together, or (d) all of the above.

12. It’s hard to avoid logos like the Nike swoosh, Lacoste alligators, or designer labels, but steer clear of what I call billboardware—the stuff that blasts the brand name and logo all over the article of clothing. You are, in essence, paying big bucks to become a walking advertisement. Especially avoid clothing that plasters its name across your rear end, or anything filled with so many logos it makes you look like a NASCAR driver or a Tour de France biker. Here’s the difference: those companies sponsor the celebrities, whereas you pay the companies for the privilege of looking dopey.
13. If you’re a normal person, avoid things in catalogs that say slimming. Yeah—they take a 100-poung woman or a ripped 160-pound guy, stick ‘em in Spandex and they instantly look to be not an ounce over 95 or 157. You will look like meat being stuffed into a sausage skin.

14. Mullet dresses. Just no. No mullet anything for anybody except hockey players missing at least 9 teeth. 

Not Ok.



Vivian Leva June Album of the Month

Time is Everything

There's no need to wait; Vivian Leva's Time is Everything is the best album of the month of June—maybe the year. My goodness, what a gorgeous voice! Leva grew up with traditional music in the Blue Ridge of Virginia and she sings it with a purity that could make those old mountains weep. She and her musical partner, Riley Calcagno (banjo, mandolin, fiddle), demonstrate the innate and intuitive understanding that Appalachian, old-time, and country music don't need a lot of musical ornaments when a good song and a great voice collide.

Let's talk about Ms. Leva's voice. The first song that grabbed and wouldn't let go was "Every Goodbye." It couldn't be simpler—just a bit of easy strum mandolin to frame it as Leva's voice hits each down stroke and lingers in the spaces in between. Yet somehow, if one morething were added, the spell would be broken. "Last of My Kind" is in the same vein—unpretentious music that speaks for itself. The catch in Leva's voice turns this into a weepy in the very best sense. You weep for the song's beauty, its fragility, and the utter perfection of the spare arrangement. And then there's the title track. There's a little flat-picked guitar and then, if we tweaked Leva's twang to make it sound more Texan than Virginian, you'd swear you stumbled across an unknown Nanci Griffith song.

The good news keeps on coming. Leva does retro country as well as she does neo-trad. "Bottom of the Glass" is honky-tonk at a slow gallop, "Wishes and Dreams" a gentle country waltz, and "Sturdy as the Land" has a bridge in which Leva's voice is almost like a meadowlark yodel. Rather have some bluegrass breakdown? Try "No Forever." "Here I Am" features piano notes that evoke an old standup. It's the sort of song that would have been an outro from the golden days of mountain music radio. Maybe this sounds like an oxymoron, but I'd label this album nouveau retro mountain/country music.

Before signing off, let me give a shout out to Riley Calgano, a musician some may know from his time in The Onlies. He's a fine player and could have certainly put himself forward on this project. Instead, he honors the music and Ms. Leva's voice in ways that shape the song instead of spotlighting virtuosity. Anyone with the beyond ego self-control to respect the music earns mine. Calgano's backing is skillful, tasteful, and tune appropriate at all times.

This is simply a marvelous record. Listen. Enjoy. Thrill. Weep.

Rob Weir


Death of Stalin is No Funnier than Stalin Himself

Directed by Armando Iannucci
IFC Films, 107 minutes, R (language, violence, crude and disturbing sexual references)

The humor in The Death of Stalin is droll, dark, and irreverent. Unfortunately it’s also dull, crude, and as broad as Rush Limbaugh’s backside. (Hey, why not put all our tyrants in the same bowl of borscht?) I was hoping for an offbeat comedy such as Christopher Guest, Wes Anderson, or the Coen Brothers would make, but Scottish—yes he is Scottish—director Armando Iannucci isn’t up to such standards. He’s not even up to a sophomoric Mel Brooks-like effort.

The setup is real enough, even if Iannucci plays loose with facts. Josef Stalin took power in 1924, after pretty much betraying the Russian Revolution and turning the Soviet Union into a combination gulag and killing field. By the 1930s he had established himself as one of history’s great monsters—one responsible for the death of three times more Russians than Jews under Hitler. His brutal secret service, the NKVD, led by the brutal torturer Lavnentiy Beria routinely rounded up “enemies” of the State—a category that pretty much meant any sort of rival to the Stalin cult of personality. Survival required becoming a glad-hand sycophant and even then, one had to be careful that a drunken remark or poorly worded joke didn’t cause fatal offense.

Move the clock to 1953, the year in which we join the tale. The film opens to a Radio Moscow concert and a phone call from Comrade Stalin himself demanding a recording of the evening’s performance. Big problem—no tapes were rolling, but engineer Andreyev (Paddy Considine) and others in the booth know their heads will tumble if they don’t provide one. They scramble frantically to reassemble the musicians, find a conductor to replace the one who scampered out, and recruit a new audience. The line of scruffy peasants entering the hall is funny enough, albeit a gag that trades in stereotypes. But as the recording is delivered to a courier, pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips a hate note into the album sleeve. Stalin sees it, laughs heartily, and collapses to the floor with a cerebral hemorrhage.

Call this the first of many scenes that could have been outlandishly humorous but is instead only mildly so. Stalin is lying on the floor, but there are no competent doctors to be found because Stalin had them all shot. (Not so!) So we watch his inner circle of yes men stand about wringing their hands: Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the hapless Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the conniving “Niki” Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the bureaucratic waffler Vyascheslav Molotov (Michael Palin). “This is terrible,” each proclaims, but none will take action lest Stalin survive and disapprove or, worse, he dies and the others turn against the actor in the power struggle sure to ensue. It could have been amusing, but it plays like a third-rate Victorian drawing room comedy.

Also misplaced is the orchestration of Stalin’s funeral. Instead of a full-bore send up of the State-directed/bungled attempt at image and impression management, we get a stitched-together parade of one-liners that are essentially a skim milk version of the dialogue among thugs from Quentin Taratino’s Reservoir Dogs. The only part of this sequence that brings a smile comes from Tambor as Malenkov. Under the Soviet constitution, he is acting head of state, a job for which he is as qualified as a plumber is to do brain surgery. There is funny sequence in which Malenkov tries to manufacture continuity by recreating an iconic photo of a smiling Stalin embracing a peasant girl oblivious to the fact that said photo was a few years out of date. His "official" portrait is also a hoot.

The central lampoon of the messiness and bloodiness of Stalin’s succession is true in its essence, though it’s unnecessarily freighted with detail that is more scene-chewing than central to the story: Svetlana’s (Andrea Riseborough) Jekyll and Hyde act of grieving daughter and erstwhile plotter, or Rupert Friend’ rather ham-handed turn as Stalin’s drunken and cowardly son Vasily. Jason Issacs goes so far over the top as the be-scarred General Zhukov I expected extras to enter the room and proclaim, “Hail, Caesar!”  Uncharacteristically, Buscemi is flat at Khrushchev, and Tambor brings to the table many of the same fey qualities from TV’s Transparent. The best performance by far is that of Simon Russell Beale, who is chilling as Beria.

As for the rest, I give credit for not trying to make the actors speak in bad Russian accents, but that’s about it. There is nothing remarkable about the camera work, the cinematography, or the script. There are pocketfuls of laughs scattered here and there, but not enough to offset inappropriate jokes about rape, rampant ethnic stereotyping, or gruesome scenes such as Stalin’s autopsy or the murder of Beria. The script was developed from a graphic novel and that is part of the problem. Not to slam graphic novels, but most are more visual than verbal and The Death of Stalin needed sharper words to pillory the world of soulless apparatchiks serving a heartless tyrant. By the time you read this review, The Death of Stalin will be available in video and streaming. A better fate would be to send it to Siberia.

Rob Weir


Wait, Blink an Intellectual and Literary Novel

WAIT, BLINK  (2018)
Gunnhild Øyehaug
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 288 pages.

Late in Gunnhild Øyehaug's Wait, Blink, Dante is walking through the icy reaches of hell and encounters the heads of each of the major characters in the novel. Virgil tells him to leave them alone; Dante covers them with snow and moves on. It is an apt metaphor as each individual lives so much in his or her head that they are, in a sense, disembodied. They are certainly cold, isolated, and alienated from all things collective.

 Øyehaug's novel is partly a literary delight and partly a philosophical journey reminiscent in tone (but not content) of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's also an offbeat exploration of postfeminism, a slippery term that generally accentuates lacunae and contradictions within feminist theory. Øyehaug's work—translated from Norwegian—will reward the patient reader and frustrate those who simply want to chow down on a page-turner. This one is definitely not the latter; in fact, there are (literally) sentences in the introductory sections of the book that took up an entire screen of my Kindle.

We meet four women, each in inappropriate relationships with older men, though age probably wouldn't matter to anyone in this novel. As suggested above, for the most part these are people held prisoner by their own inner thoughts, musings, and fears. They are the sort who end relationships because of disagreements over Sofia Coppola films or the deeper meaning of Kill Bill 2—movies certainly open to interpretation, but probably not the kind that would cause most folks to suffer existential crises. But our characters are not most people.

Sigrid is a 23-year-old literature student who lives in dreams and metaphors. She has a picture of literary theorist Paul De Man on her wall, as well as a poster of Van Gogh's painting of sunflowers, though she's a bit embarrassed by the latter as many her circle would find those sunflowers trite and clichéd. Read what you want to in the fact that one of De Man's most heralded works is titled Blindness and Insight. Sigrid is a fragile thing that can never trust herself—each insight generates its doubting opposite. Øyehaug casts her as akin to Dante's Beatrice, a symbol of sublimation. She is obsessed with film images of women wearing oversized men's shirts* and ponders its feminist implications.

Sigrid will eventually drift toward author Kåre Tyvle, twenty years her senior, who is also plagued by self-doubt and is in mourning for his broken relationship with Wanda, a free-spirited bass player. Wanda aches with loss as well, but can either she or Kåre break through the intellectual fissures that drove them apart? Moreover, can Wanda ever live up to the post-breakup pedestal upon which Kåre has placed her?

Twenty-something Linnea poses postfeminist challenges. On the surface she's a self-driven and determined filmmaker. In private she's been involved with 47-year-old Göran, a married literature professor obsessed with his own views on literary theory and his own ego—though given the nature of this novel, he's also weak and crippled by all doubts that go bump in the night. Linnea's drive blinds her to many things, including the unlikelihood things will go anywhere with Göran, or that she has a hangdog suitor in 51-year-old Robert, ostensibly her producer, but one lacking the courage to declare himself or to tell Linnea her film will never be made. 

Our cast rounds out with 28-year-old Trine, an explicit performance artist, but one whose private life doesn't match her image; she's estranged from the father of her child and how can she possibly perform genital-content art when her breasts are so swollen with milk that she's in pain? And then there's Elida, a fishmonger's daughter, who first saw Viggo when she was 9 and he 19, attending his grandmother's funeral, bloodied, and missing a tooth from a bicycle spill. She's pined for him ever since, but Viggo still carries ghosts and terrors. The wild card in the mix is Magnus, the ex of several women in the novel.

If you get the sense that Wait, Blink is a danse mélancolique, you are correct. The title words pop up in various and unusual places and, like most things in the novel, are metaphors for the situations in which the characters find themselves. All of them, by the way, seem to have read Cervantes, Dante, Ibsen, and Kafka—among others. You can draw conclusions from that, just as you can mine the entire book for archetypes, symbolism, and metaphors. What does Øyehaug want us to take away from this? What is her overarching view of modern feminism? I'd be lying were I to say I'm sure of any of that, but if it was her goal to make us put aside assumptions and contemplate such things, she has succeeded in spades. Let me reiterate; you need to put on your thinking hat for this one.

Rob Weir