Thursday, March 22, 2018

Armando Iannucci's THE DEATH OF STALIN: Russian history as both tragedy AND farce

They say that history plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. British filmmaker Armando Ianucci has come up with the brilliant idea of playing both simultaneously and then executed that idea in exactly the manner it needs to work best. THE DEATH OF STALIN is at once horrifying and hilarious, ridiculous and rueful and best of all somehow true to the history that we (we older folk, at least) remember hearing -- if not, thankfully, experiencing.

Americans may have to wait for the full-out Donald Trump dictatorship to get a taste of that -- the difference being that Trump and his flunkies don't possess one whit of the intelligence of those Russians, back then or, for that matter, now, particularly that of the putrid Putin. Trump and crew have got the entitlement, vanity and avarice down pat, but more will be needed.

Mr. Iannucci, pictured at right, has shown us what he's capable of many times before -- from Alan Partridge to In the Loop to Veep (the last of which I still have not seen). The Death of Stalin may be his masterwork, something unlike anything I've previously witnessed at the movies.

After giving us just a smidgen of historical facts about the time and place we're about to enter, he tosses us into it -- at a radio concert overseen by Paddy Considine (below) to which Comrade Stalin now wants the recording. Problem is, there has been no recording made.

The uproar, the all-out fear this causes, together with how the situation is handled, proves a master-stroke in bringing out the humor and horror, and the movie simply continue in this vein -- growing more so as events pile up.

One of the more unusual choices Iannucci has made is to have each of his actors use his or her own accent through the film. Consequently, rather than having all the actors ape faux Russian accents (as in the recent Red Sparrow), each simply uses his native one. Since most of the cast is British, most of the accents are, too -- from Stalin's (mouthed by Adrian McLoughlin) to his sexy son's (Rupert Friend) to Lavrentiy Beria, the miscreant who hopes to assume power once Stalin is gone (played by the great Simon Russell Beale, below, left).

But wait, Olga Kurylenko, who plays the concert pianist who helps sets this all in motion, is Ukranian by birth and so uses her own very eastern European accent. And then we have the likes of Steve Buscemi who plays Khrushchev (shown at far right, below)...

...and Jeffrey Tambor (below, as Malenkov), both of whom speak with their own very American accents. While this is initially shocking, given how movies so often handle "foreign-sounding speech," even more shocking is how damned well this works. Our ear gets used to it all in a flash, and the actors can then simply continue with their spot-on performances, which mix smiles and shocks that blend beautifully with the humor and horror on hand. In its entirety, the movie works its magic like little else you will have seen.

The Death of Stalin also brings us a look at the lives of those Russian apparatchiks in ways that other films have not. How they can spin on a dime from yes to no, right to wrong, good to bad -- all the while exhibiting the kind of craven fear, occasionally bolstered by cold fury, that working under the thumb of insane dictator like Stalin could produce. The result looks something like what Mel Brooks might have come up with, had he lived his entire life in abject terror.

While most of the cast is male, and first-rate, we also get a couple of nice turns from the distaff side: Ms Kurylenko and the so-versatile-that-she-is-often-unrecognizable Andrea Riseborough (below) as Stalin's daughter Svetlana. Still, as in Stalin's time, this was a man's game and the various ways he could play it seem as numerous as the characters on view. And while one might win for a time, there was always another schemer waiting in the wings with claws held back but at the ready -- as Iannucci's final pre-end-credits note/visual makes cleverly clear.

In the crack cast, literally everyone manages to stand out at one time or another -- Michael Palin giving the subtlest performance and Jason Isaacs (below), along with Rupert Friend, offering the most over-the-top (all three work perfectly, by the way). I have to acknowledge Misters Buscemi, Tambor and Beale as the standouts here. For sheer versatility and delight, consider Beale's performances in this film, together with those in The Deep Blue Sea and the cable television' series Penny Dreadful to recall how no-limits incredible this actor can be.

Final credit, however, must go to Iannucci and his co-writers. What a brilliant job this humorist/filmmaker and crew have done in not simply combining but also perfectly balancing history, humor, horror and character into something vastly entertaining, thought-provoking and just a little fear-inducing, too. It's happening in today's Russia all over again. Could that kind of terror happen here? If our country grows any dumber and less alert, yes, absolutely.

From IFC Films and running 107 minutes, The Death of Stalin, after opening in some major cities a week or so back, hits South Florida (and elsewhere) tomorrow, Friday. March 23 in Miami at the Landmark at Merrick Park, Regal South Beach 18 and AMC Sunset Place. Beginning the following Friday, March 30, the film will open in Miami at the O Cinema Miami Beach and the AMC Aventura; in Fort Lauderdale at The Classic Gateway Theatre, in Coral Springs at the Regal Magnolia Place 16, in Hollywood at the Regal Oakwood 18, in Pembroke Pines at the Regal Westfork 13, in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood, and in Palm Beach Gardens at Cobb's Downtown at the Mall Gardens Palm 16.

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