Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Death of Stalin

I must admit to being mildly curious how wide this opened and is opening around the country, as it's playing a lot of local theaters in Boston, with multiple screens for several. Is this just something that local theaters thought we would like, the way it's being rolled out in all big cities, and how is it going to play in places like Portland and Worcester when it finally gets there?

I'm also kind of looking forward to picking up the original graphic novel next week, just to see how much came from there and how much is Armando Iannucci. My curiosity is also mildly piqued by the fact that the team that did the comic also did one called "Death to the Tsar", which means they have carved out a curiously specific niche.

The Death of Stalin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

The Death of Stalin is one of the more audacious bases for a comedy you'll see, and one that may be coming a bit late to come across as truly daring - the Cold War seems just long enough ago for this story to seem more abstract than immediately terrifying - but it's not hard to see a metaphor in its madness regardless. Armando Iannucci has made a still-timely look at both the absurdity of having to live in fear and how it warps minds so that what comes after is a sort of scramble, with even the most diabolical often setting to strike randomly, hoping for an opponent's mistake as much as anything else.

The fear is on display right away, as a Radio Moscow producer (Paddy Considine) receives a call from the leader of the Soviet Union - he's terrified that he'll be a minute or two off the time he was requested to call back, and when he finds out that Stalin Josef (Adrian McLoughlin) wants a recording of the night's broadcast that wasn't made - well, he scrambles. Meanwhile, Stalin is yukking it up at his dacha with the members of his inner circle of Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Gregory Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), even though Molotov and his wife are on a list of enemies to be liquidated. He then suffers a cerebral hemorrhage while listening to his new record, and when he's found the next morning, the Central Committee are faced with a sticky situation: Most of the best doctors have been purged, and trying to maintain a tyrant's favor just in case he pulls through doesn't necessarily put one in the best position when scrambling to pick up the reigns of power should he not.

We've all been there, crazy as that can sound; few other leaders may have matched Stalin for scale in ruthlessly removing anyone seen to be a threat (and anyone around them, just in case the next guy might find martyrdom useful) and making use of the resultant paranoia, but most people have dealt with pettier tyrants and observed the combination of ambition and cowardice that it takes to function around them. It's a tricky thing to get right sometimes, and Adrian McLoughlin's Stalin may be the weakest part of the movie: He's as ridiculous as his underlings, but never quite displays the hidden danger that the other men get a chance to show.

Full review on EFC

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