Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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The Death of Stalin

Based on a French graphic novel La mort de Staline, “The Death of Stalin” depicts the Soviet power struggles following the death of dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) in 1953. The death scene comes early, in the context of a Moscow radio concert that has to be summarily repeated because the Great Man did not hear the live performance. The extravagant lengths to which the program director (Paddy Considine) must go to recreate the transmission is done in a Keystone Kops manner that signals the ribald tone of much of this picture, while at the same time the sequence’s gripping paranoia about placating Stalin captures the mordant side of the film. These two facets—goofy and scathing—are carefully juggled throughout the movie directed by British writer/director Armando Iannucci.

After the concert, Stalin has a massive stroke in his office, but his night guards are too frightened to go in to see if the premier is OK. By morning, the parade of sycophants from the party’s Central Committee stumbles in to find the old man dead, lying in his own urine. The parade is led by Deputy Party Chairman Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), party leader Khruschev (Steve Buscemi), Vice Chairman Molotov (Michael Palin), and secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), among others.

Nonplussed, these panicked leaders begin immediately struggling to both undercut and one-up each other to seize and maintain power. Among them, Malenkov, in line for the head post, is a mincing nonentity, the hustling Khruschev is a profane brute, and Molotov is the ultimate party-line toady (he rejoices that the Party has placed his wife in prison). Only Beria, an unrelieved swine, seems to have a clear plan to power: by killing or jailing as many enemies as possible.

Tangentially based on real events, the film takes plenty of license, though, as Iannucci has indicated, some elements, like the repeat concert episode and the reluctant guards cited above, really happened and are too zany not to be included. Verisimilitude, though, is hardly the point of “The Death of Stalin.” The Anglo-American cast speaks a mash up of accents: Stalin seems to be a cockney, Buscemi spouts in caustic Brooklynese, Palin uses a semi-tosh Britspeak, and Beale (a Shakespearean actor) speaks in a corrosive growl. Perhaps the funniest line deliveries of all are those of Field Marshall Georgy Zhukhov, played imperiously by the medal-laden Jason Isaacs, whose hilarious putdowns are delivered in an accent somewhere between Yorkshire and Scotland.

Iannucci’s depiction of the bizarre struggle among the committee members at times seems like a zany update of the Marx(ist) Brothers, with the pratfalls and one-liners mingling uncomfortably with the darkest sides of Stalin’s legacy and the vicious practices of Beria. It’s a delicate line the film treads, ready giggles tempered by chilly winces—sometimes in the same scene! In all, it makes for a heady stew.

Director Iannucci Discusses “Stalin”

British writer/director Armando Iannucci is best known for his caustic HBO comedy series, “Veep.” But prior to that success, he scored with a droll feature “In the Loop” (2009), a satire that lampooned politicians and bureaucracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, he has turned his attention, somewhat surprisingly, to an offbeat piece of history in the pitch-black farce, “The Death of Stalin.”

Iannucci, in DC March 15 to promote his film, spoke to the audience at a preview screening. Asked about the original idea for the film, he said he was thinking about doing a story about a fictional contemporary dictator when he ran across the French comic novel and decided: “This is the film I wanted to make.” The subject was “so crazy, that comedy is the only way you can deal with it.”

The film, shot from June to August 2016, involved doing some on-the-ground research in Moscow because, he said, “I wanted to get the look of it right” and recreate “a sense of anxiety.” While most of the picture was shot on English sets and locations, the filmmakers did shoot some exteriors in the Ukraine to get the appearance of Soviet architecture.

The film, which opened in London this past October, was also on track to open in Russia early this year. Iannucci himself was in Moscow to meet with the Russian press and some selected screenings had already taken place. Then, days before its general release, “The Death of Stalin” was banned from Russian cinemas.

The director said he “wanted Joseph Stalin to be seen not as the tall, strong man” so many Russians still fantasize about but to cast a short, mundane person “to contrast the great ‘leader’ with the real man.”

He acknowledged that the film is hardly historically accurate, but that the lunacy of Stalin’s rule was such that certain untoward incidents in the film really happened, such as the hurried re-run of the concert program and “Stalin showing late-night Westerns to Politburo members after lengthy dinners” to get them to reveal themselves.

Now that he has dipped into historical material for the first time, Iannucci was asked about his next project: he is going to film “David Copperfield” with Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel.

(The film is rated “R” for raunch, tough swearing, and nasty violence. It and runs 107 minutes.)

(March 2018)

Photo Credit: Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Adrian McLoughlin (on floor) as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in “The Death of Stalin.”
An IFC Films release: photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy of IFC Films

7 Days in Entebbe

“7 Days in Entebbe” is a “tick-tock” thriller, a movie that counts down minutes, hours, or, in this case, days to a dramatic, suspenseful resolution. Older audience members may recall the real incident, but younger filmgoers can be forgiven if they don’t know about this riveting rescue.

The plot opens when two German radicals associated with the Bader-Meinhof Gang, Wilfried Bose and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike), and two members from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) take over an El Al flight from Athens to Paris on June 27,1976. The group aims to trade the plane’s hostages for imprisoned Palestinians in Israel and commands that the airliner stop in Benghazi before heading to their final destination, Entebbe Airport in Uganda. There, the country’s despot, Idi Amin Dada (Nonso Anozie), is happy to welcome them (the plane carries almost 250 passengers, more than 80 of them Jewish). Thus begins a waiting game, as the terrorists isolate the Jews and then wait for their demands to be met.

Parallel to the terrorist/hostage narrative are the machinations—both political and military--in Israel over how to handle the crisis. Key figures here are the earnest Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and his canny Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan), who must decide whether and what kind of military action they might take and, just as importantly, the political ramifications of any effort they launch. As it turned out, the raid was a thorough success, with the terrorists all summarily executed, but four hostages lost, and with one (famous) Israeli casualty, Col. Yoni Netanyahu, the older brother of Benjamin.

The film does not have much time for backstories of the multiple characters: its point is taut conflict. The director, Brazilian José Padilha, has shown competence in this genre before with another tick-tock film from 2002, “Bus 174.” We learn a bit of Wilfried and Brigitte’s backgrounds from flashbacks in Germany, showing them plotting the act. The two play out contrasting roles, she the more fanatic and excitable; he the calmer one, somewhat more skeptical of their cause. Pike carries off her assignment well, with a good German accent and an anxious face showing both fear and fervor. Brühl is even better, trying to make more rounded and complex what could easily be a two-dimensional figure. As for the Israeli leaders, Marsan is an unctuous and gnomic presence, while Ashkenazi exudes reason along with political smarts.

No breakthrough, no masterpiece of its genre, “7 Days in Entebbe” is a foursquare rendering of an amazing military action.

To note: This reviewer has a very personal connection to this drama. In June 1976, I was a Foreign Service officer living in Nairobi with my family. On June 27th—the date of the Air France flight from Tel Aviv—I saw my wife and two daughters off on a flight to London with a brief stopover at Entebbe. I learned later that they left Entebbe on the last flight out, after 11 pm. The next day I heard about the Air France hijacking, then after the raid itself, I came to a stunning realization: if my family’s flight out of Entebbe had been delayed for any reason, the hijacked plane would have landed and closed the airport down, leaving my family held at the same airport as the hostages. What might have been...

(The film is rated “R” and runs 107 mins.)

(March 2018)

Photo Credit: Rosamund Pike (left) and Daniel Brühl star in José Padilha’s “7 Days in Entebbe,” a Focus Features release.
Photo Credit: Liam Daniel / Focus Features

The Party

Versatile British writer-director Sally Potter has made only eight feature films over 35 years; films that have received radically varied critical assessments. Her gender-bending “Orlando” (1992) was seen as a creative breakthrough, while the period piece “The Man Who Cried” (2000) generally bombed. Her film “Rage” (2009) was a stinker by all accounts, while “Ginger and Rosa” (2012) showed she could handle young actors. It’s been five years since “Ginger and Rosa,” and Potter has now come up with “The Party,” a dark comedy done as a tight one-acter with a kicker ending.

The set-up is simple: present day, neat London townhouse, stellar Anglo-American cast as seven friends getting together. Vibrant, politically liberal Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is hosting a gathering in her home to celebrate her recent naming as a shadow cabinet minister, though her academic husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), seems stuck to his chair, almost moribund. Janet’s best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), then arrives with her on/off German boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). A lesbian couple, American academic Martha (Cherry Jones) and her (very pregnant) English partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), show up with some testy issues between them (Jinny’s carrying triplets). Finally Tom (Cillian Murphy), a haunted, jittery investment banker, arrives without his mysterious wife, who for some reason cannot make the soirée. Champagne is served, but a jaunty atmosphere is undercut by hidden behaviors: Janet is taking clandestine calls from her supposed lover, Tom has a gun and is shooting up coke in the bathroom, April is finally swearing off Gottfried, etc.

Then an out-of-the-blue announcement by the ailing Bill provokes a series of revelations and recriminations, charges and counter-charges that gradually unravel all the attendees at the party, and a night that began with sophisticated chatter gradually veers out of control.

“The Party” is a sardonic chamber piece, with echoes of both a smart Noel Coward play--with its brittle exchanges--and an ominous Harold Pinter work--but with fewer ellipses and more dialogue. You know, going in, that this party is not realistic—the patter is too calculated—and you sense that its bubbly opening portends collective disaster. Watching that slow-motion disaster unfold is precisely the point.

Scott-Thomas is initially enchanting as the perfect hostess who eventually slides into wide-eyed panic. Spall’s arc is the opposite, from infirm lump to emotional arousal. The Jones-Mortimer conversation is tart and touching, and Ganz is mildly amusing even if his life-coach shtick is overdrawn. Murphy’s Tom seems too over-the-top, but he is on drugs after all, while Clarkson is the film’s skeptical center, an acerbic realist who has sworn off political commitment and who gets most of the laugh lines.

Potter was most economical in directing “The Party:” a week’s rehearsal and two weeks shooting fulltime in the house/set. She herself has said that the film was “conceived as a ‘bare-bones’ film turning confinement of place...into a virtue. In a black and white cinematic world without elaborate special effects or multiple changes of location, apparently simple elements have to do the work of storytelling. Everything is exposed. There is nowhere to hide when working with the primary ingredients of story, character, light and dark, voices, and music. The camera peers into the shadows and stares unflinchingly at the faces of these characters in their moment of crisis...”

All I can say is that I hope Potter and her cast had a great time on set—perhaps boosted by real champagne in their glasses.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 71 mins.)

(February 2018)

Photo Credit: Patricia Clarkson and Kristin Scott-Thomas are nonplussed in “The Party.”
Photo courtesy McGillivray Freeman Films, Copyright