The Death of Stalin

March 29, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale
Directed by: Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”)
Written by: Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”), David Schneider (“All the Queen’s Men”) and Ian Martin (TV’s “Veep”)

It’s virtually impossible while watching the British dark comedy “The Death of Stalin” to not think of the potentially side-splitting scenarios a talented, Oscar-nominated screenwriter like Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop”) could piece together as a feature film about the current U.S. Administration led by treasure trove of hilarity, President Donald Trump. Russian bots, secret Kremlin meetings, dossiers, loyalty pledges, porn star lawsuits — the thing practically writes itself.

Taking the most ridiculous — and often serious — situations and creating one big, absurd narrative is what Iannucci does best in “The Death of Stalin.” As the old adage goes, “truth is stranger than fiction,” especially in the hands of a satirist as sharp, witty and unapologetic as Iannucci is with Soviet history.

Set in Moscow in 1953, everyone is walking on eggshells around their unpredictable leader Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), the Soviet dictator who was known for exiling, imprisoning, torturing and murdering individuals he felt were a threat to his regime. In one early scene, Soviet statesman Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who ultimately helped de-Stalinize the country after Stalin’s death, dictates dialogue he shared with the dictator at dinner as his wife makes note of the jokes that didn’t make Stalin laugh, so he would remember to avoid those topics later (and avoid the possibility of getting killed).

Stalin’s officials are wound so tight, when he suffers a stroke and dies soon after, they don’t know what their next move should be. Iannucci portrays most of the men as lost puppies, specifically Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), who succeeds Stalin as leader and is reluctant to join his colleagues when they decide to overthrow their repulsive deputy premier Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale).

Playing out like a feature-length version of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” minus the slurred speech, “The Death of Stalin” is chock-full of amusing, dry British humor and earns its laughs even during some of its most disturbing scenes. Iannucci doesn’t pussyfoot around the cruel politics on display, but still manages to find subtle ways to take effective jabs at every turn. Not all the one-liners and gags are knockouts, but some of Iannucci’s gut punches are significant stingers.

Although it would probably benefit audiences to go into a film like “The Death of Stalin” with some idea of who the major players were during this tumultuous time in the Soviet Union, the film isn’t one that relies heavily on references to push the story forward. Instead, Iannucci banks on his finely tuned actors to deliver the farcical dialogue he and his team of writers seem to have painstakingly perfected line by line.

Banned in Russia, “The Death of Stalin” is a timely satire for those moviegoers who are fine with taking the film at face value — as a silly ribbing of government corruption — and those who find comfort in comparing the nonsense on screen to America’s own political reality show. No matter which camp you belong to, you’ll appreciate how “The Death of Stalin” is able to balance its pitch-black power dynamics with smart, classic wordplay (“When I said ‘No problem,’ I meant, ‘No! Problem!’”) and a cast of clowns who know their way around a circus.

Win Win

April 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)
Written by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”)

While most sports-themed films focus on the game-winning shot at the buzzer or a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, none are as emotionally rich as the ones that revel in the post-game celebration. Even then, winning isn’t everything if the narrative is brimming with spirited drama like in “Rocky,” “A League of Their Own,” or “Friday Night Lights.”

Sure, watching Rudy Ruettiger on the sidelines during his team’s final defensive stance in “Rudy” would have been extremely anticlimactic, and Daniel LaRusso probably would’ve found himself in a body bag if he hadn’t crane-kicked Johnny in the face at the end of “The Karate Kid,” but those things happen. The ball doesn’t always find the center of the rim. The coach leaves you sipping Gatorade on the bench. Nerves factor in. Someone always goes home disappointed.

It takes a film like “Win Win” to find a silver lining or thematic balance when a screenplay isn’t dictated by typical Hollywood standards. Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “The Station Agent”), “Win Win” isn’t so much an inspirational “Pride of the Yankees”-type sports movie as it is an endearing family dramedy set delicately in the competitive world of high school wrestling.

Unlike Gary Cooper in that 1942 Lou Gehrig biopic, Paul Giamatti in “Win Win” is far from announcing to anyone that he’s the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” As a small-town New Jersey lawyer with a struggling practice, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) worries about how he will support his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters. Moonlighting as the local high school wrestling coach doesn’t help ease any anxiety since his team of young grapplers is missing a few things, specifically skill.

But Mike’s problems seem to be solved two-fold when he agrees to take legal guardianship of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a client suffering from early stages of dementia. Afterwards, Mike’s moral compass spins out of control; he pockets the monthly stipend and checks the old man into a retirement home. His sketchy behavior leads him into the path of Leo’s unusually mature, albeit slightly rebellious, teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer in a breakout role), who happens to know his way around a wrestling mat. Mike and Jackie are adamant about giving Kyle the stable, suburban upbringing he needs after they find out the only adult in his life is his drug-addicted mother (Melanie Lynskey). McCarthy writes Kyle with sensitivity and depth and treats him like a real kid, as opposed to the oversized puppy dog Sandra Bullock boards in “The Blind Side.”

McCarthy could’ve replaced the wrestling scenes with scenes from any other sport and still produced the same heartwarming and darkly hilarious movie (credit actors Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as assistant wrestling coaches). The crux of this story comes from the complex relationships between all of McCarthy’s meaningful human characters. Giamatti’s role isn’t a stretch from the frustrated failures he’s accustomed to playing, but there is such a decent heart inside Mike that it allows audiences to overlook some of his early underhandedness and will his redemptive qualities to the forefront. Newcomer Shaffer holds his own in the daunting task of sharing the screen with juggernaut Oscar nominees; his non-actor charisma and natural athleticism (he’s really a state high school wrestling champion from Jersey) maintain his believability. “Win Win” may not be a flawless victory, but McCarthy is able to pin us down effortlessly nonetheless, proving there’s more to life than being carried off the field a hero.