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Westside Steve

The death of Stalin review

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The death of Stalin
R.                    107 min
This probably won’t make sense but I went to a restaurant with a buddy the other day and as I was looking over the list of side dishes I selected cheesy succotash. Why? For the simple reason I had never ever in my life heard of cheesy succotash, and I figured there weren’t many things in this world of which I had spent my entire life completely unaware. Now if someone told me there was a genre of films which included THE DEATH OF STALIN I’d be hard-pressed to put a name to it. Political comedy? Historical satire? Well no matter what been you put it in I’ve just seen a film about the 1953 power vacuum left in the Kremlin after the passing of Joe Stalin. Oh and one other thing, it’s a slapstick comedy. I kept thinking of a Russian history 101 College course taught by professor Marx. Not Karl; Groucho. To set the stage, for the purpose of letting the audience in on the extent of the fear and loathing of Stalin, we start with a classical Orchestral performance broadcast live on Radio Moscow. The phone rings in the control booth an engineer one is told that it is the man himself and to call back in 17 minutes. Then he an engineer two start frantically arguing Abbott and Costello style about whether that’s 17 minutes from the beginning of the phone call 17 minutes from when he was told to call back or 17 minutes after he hung up. Just for the record that’s how the pacing will be for the entire film. At the end of that time he is informed the boss wants a copy of the recording. Afraid to tell him that this was a live performance and therefore no recording they rushed down to the auditorium, force the remaining audience members back to their seats and the orchestra to perform the piece again. Since about half the seats have already been vacated they manage to go out into the street and bring in enough peasants to ensure that the acoustics in the room vacation are just as they were.  When the recording is delivered Stalin puts it on his phonograph and finds a note that someone has slipped into the sleeve calling him a brutal dictator yada yada yada. He then laughs so hard that he has a stroke and passes out on the floor. The inner circle of Russian politicians and officials, reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, rush into the room and carry the unwieldy corpse to the bed in. That sets the tone for the rest of the film. Most people, including yours truly,  aren’t very familiar with Russian history but a quick look tells us that the cast of characters here were the major players in the ensuing struggle for control actually happened. However, I assume, the jokes notwithstanding. After that it’s a mad dash to grasp power from old Joe’s not yet cold figures. The main contenders are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the weasly Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the brutal secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Just the fact that Buscemi  plays Khrushchev is enough to inspire interest in this wacky flick. Another intriguing point is that the British and American actors here don’t even bother with fake Russian accents which gives this production the rapid-fire dialogue that reminded me of a a 1930s American comedy. Still  we know the Russian politics was no walk in the park and a lot of these disputes will eventually be settled through treachery scapegoating and bloodshed. All this set on a damned authentic-looking tableau.
I’m not sure if this one will get into general release so I took a road trip to the Cedar Lee, so there’s a good chance that if you want to see it you will have to seek it out. But if for no other reason the completely oddball approach to a relatively unexplored piece of foreign history is worth the trip.

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