THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously lampooned the political landscape of England (IN THE LOOP, “The Thick of it”) and the United States (“Veep”), writer/director Armando Iannucci turns his skewering pen and clear eye to a bygone era in Russia. Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, the film takes place in 1953 Moscow at the height (and the end) of Josef Stalin’s reign.

Stalin’s NKVD Security Forces (think ‘Secret Police’) ruled by force and terror for 20 years, and most citizens lived with the daily goal of staying off “the list” – a place which likely resulted in imprisonment, if not death. An opening sequence featuring the live performance of an orchestra drives home the outright fear that hovered over every part of that society. To be clear, Iannucci’s approach is less ominous and more Mel Brooks. It’s slapstick satire with profanity.

Following the death of Stalin (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title!), what follows is a Keystone Cops medley of jockeying for power amongst the members of Stalin’s cabinet. Closed-door plotting abounds – though sometimes in full view of others – and alliances come and go in the blink of an eye. It plays out on screen as more spoof than satire, so brace for over-the-top performances from Steve Buscemi (as Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (as Lavrenti Beria), Jeffrey Tambor as dimwitted doofus Malenkov, and Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Molotov.  Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough play Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) offspring, and other supporting work comes from Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Tom Brooke, and Jason Isaacs.

I watched this film the day after watching RED SPARROW, and the two films provide an interesting and oddball comparison to different eras of Russian history. Iannucci’s film is nothing short of a full bore attack on Kremlin activities, as well as the self-interested actions of politicians that seems to remain prevalent in modern days. It’s also a reminder that being “better as a committee” has as many flaws as the rein of a tyrant. There is a terrific final shot in a concert hall, where seated behind Khrushchev and his wife is a leering Leonid Brezhnev … foreshadowing future events. And if that’s not enough, the closing credits are as nuts as the film itself.

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THE YOUNG VICTORIA (2009)

February 8, 2010

 (2-8-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Emily Blunt would have stolen The Devil Wears Prada if not for the queen of screen, Meryl Streep. Here she competes with no one and does a nice job of carrying this film based on the early years of Queen Victoria. If you are rusty on your British sovereign history, she ruled from 1837-1901.

For 20 of these years, she was married to her true love, Prince Albert (played well by Rupert Friend). While the two meet as youngsters, the bond between them comes from their letters … an early precursor to eHarmony?? We know Victoria mostly from royal portraits, so it’s nice to see her as a rebellious youngster trying to learn the tricks of the trade, even while being manipulated like a pawn by her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her mother’s lover (Mark Strong). We get to see her tenacity blossom as she matures and literally grows up into the monarchy.

While Ms. Blunt’s performance is strong, Julian Fellowes’ writing is not at the level of his previous work in Gosford Park. We do get some of the same power plays, but it is missing the nuances of that much better film.