Rent/Stream This: 2009’s Bitter, Brilliant “In the Loop,” Co-Starring James Gandolfini

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As I mentioned yesterday, in 2009, I reviewed “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci’s bitter masterpiece “In the Loop” for the Buffalo News. While James Gandolfini did not have a starring role, his was a key supporting performance. The four-star (says me) film is available on Netflix Streaming, and is, without question a must-see.

“In the Loop” has been referred to as the “This is Spinal Tap” of political cinema, and that glib description is not far off. Like “Spinal Tap,” it is a comedy in which every moment of absurdist humor is completely believable. This, it seems, is our government, and it’s not pretty.

Also like “Spinal Tap,” “In the Loop” is utterly, gob-smackingly brilliant, a piercing piece of satire that is laugh-out loud funny, boldly plotted and wonderfully cast. And with the Academy Awards’ best picture category now fattened to 10, it may even find itself up for the top Oscar.

Armando Iannucci — best director’s name since Florain Henckel von Donnersmarck — is not a well-known filmmaker in the States, but fans of Brit comedy might know his work with actor Steve Coogan; they devised “Alan Partridge,” an oft-failing fake chat show host. (Add the series to your Netflix queue, now, and watch for a Coogan cameo in “Loop.”)

Tom Hollander, an actor best known for a supporting role as a stiff-upper-lipped baddie in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga, is ostensibly the lead in what is really an ensemble film about diplomacy, war, manners and the culture clash that occurs whenever multiple nations are called upon to work together.

Hollander plays Simon Foster, a U.K. government minister who makes a disastrous faux pas in an interview, referring to a U.S.-backed war in an unnamed land as “unforeseeable.” This is a problem, since it’s at odds with the prime minister office’s expected stance.

Peter Capaldi, as Malcolm, the PM’s communications director, is forced to explain Simon’s comment, which is interpreted by the media as a slide-away from support for the Americans. As Capaldi, a Scottish actor who here turns cursing into a stunning art form, explains, “He did not say unforeseeable. You may have heard him say it, but he did not say it.”

It’s also the first day for Toby (Chris Addison), dubbed “Ron Weasley” by Malcolm. He’s a young aide seeking to make an impression, and finds himself joining Simon on a trip to D.C., and in the bed of another ambitious aide, played nicely by all-grown-up Anna Chlumsky (“My Girl”).

Toby tries to help Simon right himself; the wishy-washy politico is unsure which side he’s on anyway. Soon ambushed by press, Simon’s response to the “Is war unforeseeable?” question is a confused doozy: “Look, all sorts of things that are actually very likely, are also unforeseeable — for the plane in the fog, the mountain is unforeseeable — but then it’s suddenly very real, and inevitable —”

The media’s follow-up question is, of course, “Are you saying the government is lost in the fog?” which leads to an even greater pearl: “To walk the war of peace, sometimes we have to be ready to climb the mountain — of conflict.”

“You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews,” judges Malcolm.

These are the Brits. The Americans, meanwhile are an equally dysfunctional group. Karen Clarke (played by a wonderful actress, the award-worthy Mimi Kennedy), is a U.S. assistant secretary. She’s one of the few arguing against conflict, and she’s joined by a well-reasoned general, played, with utter perfection, by James Gandolfini.

David Rasche, so good in the thematically and spiritually similar Coen Brothers coal-black comedy “Burn After Reading,” is the epitome of the Washington hawk. His Linton Barwick, yet another assistant secretary, is a man not above altering meeting minutes to ensure the escalation of war.

“In the Loop” perhaps sounds confusing, and in some ways it is. The dialogue is lightning-quick, the acting suitably frantic, the mood, stressed. As it should be.

Another reviewer said “In the Loop” just might be “Spinal Tap meets Strangelove.” I think it’s too soon to say, but it’s certainly one of the year’s finest, most bitter masterpieces. This one goes to 11.

James Gandolfini Won’t Fade Away

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The news of James Gandolfini’s passing seems to have hit TV and film fans quite hard — bullet-in-Big-Pussy’s-belly hard. (There are many, many fine remembrances of him across the internet; a nice list was posted on Movie City News, along with Gandolfini’s great “Sesame Street” appearance.)

A lot of that has to do with the popularity of “The Sopranos,” and his triumphant role in the HBO series. But I think his persona has played a part, as well.

He was a bear of a man — in fact, he played a character named “Bear” in 1995’s “Get Shorty — and excelled at portraying the sly brute. (See Tony Soprano, or his unforgettably evil turn in 1993’s “True Romance.”)

Yet he possessed an inherent likability, as well. We knew “T” should either be in prison or dead, but we didn’t want that to be the case. That’s due to great writing, certainly, but also due to Gandolfini’s nuanced performance. It should rank among the finest TV has ever seen.

Note that Gandolfini’s post-”Sopranos” career was wildly varied, an indicator of an actor who did not wish to be constrained by the role that made him (almost) a household name. Consider some of his post-2007 output:

2009:
“In the Loop”
“The Taking of Pelham 123”
“Where the Wild Things Are”

2010:
“Welcome to the Rileys”
“Mint Julep”

2011:
“Down the Shore”
“Cinema Verite”

2012:
“Killing Them Softly”
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“Not Fade Away”

It is a fascinating list. “In the Loop” (which I reviewed for the Buffalo News upon its release in 2009; I’ll be posting the review this weekend) and the underrated “Welcome to the Rileys,” in particular, feature two of Gandolfini’s finest performances.

Look closely at 2012. I did not love “Killing Them Softly,” but Gandolfini’s battering-ram character stands out, as does his Leon Panetta in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” is the film I really want to draw your attention to. The story of a 60s garage band’s brief brush with success is not a great film, exactly, although I would certainly call it a good one. But Gandolfini’s work as the stern father of the film’s main character is priceless, easily among his best. The ending will now seem especially poignant, I think, and that gives nothing away.

It will be difficult to watch “T” onscreen and not feel a bit sad, but isn’t that the ultimate sign of a great actor, and a beloved performer?

 

Photo from Film.com