THE DEATH OF STALIN***** From Russia with Wit


HAVING RIDICULED THE amoral, power hungry incompetence at the hearts of governments in his outrageously funny TV series, “The Thick of It” and “Veep”, where could writer/director Armando Iannucci turn to find a proxy for the infighting imbeciles in Whitehall and the dangerously powerful infants running the White House?

You turn to a country where amoral, power hungry incompetence is wedded to sleazy sex and a ruthless reign of terror: the Soviet Union. “The Death of Stalin” is billed, accurately as “a comedy of terrors”. And what a comedy! What terrors!

The story spans the (three year) period between the death of Stalin and the ‘election’ of Nikita Khrushchev, during which time, against a background of on-going summary executions, Stalin’s inner presidium went, briefly, from mourning to chaotic in-fighting, plotting and double- crossing to the eventual victory of the army-backed Khrushchev over the secret service-backed Beria.

And this is the stuff of comedy?

In Iannucci’s hands it is. He deftly manages to maintain a neat balance between the terror (never marginalized) and outrageous, often slapstick comedy. From the outset Iannucci establishes Stalin’s absolute authority when we see him demand the recording of a just finished live piano concert. It’s not an unreasonable request but for the fact that the concert hadn’t been recorded. Welcome to the world of Stalinist Soviet absurdity, as a panicked producer (Paddy Consadine) frantically locks everyone he can into the concert hall, dragoons innocent passers-by to fill in any vacant seats left (to ensure that the sound accurately replicates the original performance), drags a conductor (terrified) from his bed in his pyjamas (to stand in for the original conductor who’s passed out) and records the re-performed symphony. The flunkies awaiting the record are furious that it all took so long.

So when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is found comatose on his carpet (“in a puddle of indignity”), there is no absolute authority to tell his courtiers what to do. Chaos ensues. They can’t even carry his body from one room to the other without pratfalls and mayhem. It’s a woefully dysfunctional team of ruthlessly powerful sycophants and clowns who, relieved of the puppet master, turn on each other. Iannucci zeroes in on his cast of characters with laser like precision, peeling back their disarmingly banal character traits to reveal their deeper natures. Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) is the conniving master plotter disguised as the harmless clown prince; Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the avuncular rapist and executioner; Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the empty figurehead; Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the soldier hero in love with himself; Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) is the idiot son who needs to be either sedated or heavily managed; Svetlana Stalin (Andrea Riseborough) is the distraught daughter slowly fraying at the edges. And on and on. And somewhere out there, beyond the gilded walls of the Kremlin, slightly out of focus are the wretched people who suffer at every turn.

It’s a world of dysfunction, incompetence and the greed for power. “The Death of Stalin” may be set in Russia and may have itemised the events and characters in the aftermath of that eponymous death. But it’s really a story about the present state of the self-serving Republicans and the infighting Conservatives. Democracy or dictatorship. It’s almost as though the director were suggesting (seen through the lens of laughter) that the institutions of either of these opposite political systems were no more than facades for the interchangeable venalities and greeds of the people who run them.

As you’d expect from Iannucci, the writing (along with fellow writers, David Schneider and Ian Martin) is as spot-on sharp as it is scatalogical. Everyone curses all the time. It’s as though the conversations of his characters are as debased as their souls.

And the acting is outstanding. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale carry much of the show, but the quality of supporting cast, even in the smallest of roles (such as Paddy Constdine’s distraught, dandyish concert producer or Michael Palin’s faux-courageous Molotov) ensures that the whole enterprise never flags.

Maybe Trump/Congress and May/Parliament should be made to watch this movie over and over again until the penny drops.

But that’d probably take years

 

THE DEATH OF STALIN. Dir: Armando Iannucci. With: Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Ruper Friend, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale. Written by: Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin; adapted from the comic book of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Production Designer: Cristina Casali. Cinematographer: Zac Niclolson

 

THE ACCOUNTANT** Doesn’t Add Up


maxresdefault

THIS MOVIE HAS made quite a decent profit so far. Ah, well, there’s no accounting for taste.

In sum, here’s the story: Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an autistic maths genius CPA who is a one man PWC for sundry gangsters and terrorists groups. He’s also – a very calculating – Batman who can whup ass like nobody’s business. That’s ’cause his dad, a traveling Army man, turned him into a lethal weapon (to defend against childhood bullies; and, like the accountancy, that training stuck).

He’s your typical autistic maths genius hit man. (The autism factor is there, supposedly, to add intrigue, depth and differentiation from all those other Hollywood action heroes. Buyer beware: this is not a character driven movie)

Wolff (What’s in a name?) has been hired to do what he thinks is a straight forensics audit of a firm that seems to have ‘lost’ $60+M. But the books are more than cooked; and when Wolff finds that he must protect whistleblower Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick as the chaste, chemistry-free love interest), he suits up (masses of guns hidden in a trailer) and goes into battle.
imgres

On the positive side of the ledger, he really only kills bad guys; and, deep down, is a pretty decent, if inhibited guy. On the negative side, clearly Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick and J.K. Simmons (as the lawman chasing him down) figured out half way through the filming (the full script must have been withheld from them prior to signing their contracts) that this one wasn’t going to be on the plus side of their movie CV’s. Our loss is, no doubt, their net profit.

images

Director Gavin O’Connor hasn’t had a great year: earlier on in the season, he unveiled “Jane Got a Gun” – the Natalie Portman movie that only her family went to. That said, O’Connor’s workman-like directing delivers a decent, if suspense-free, flow of set-piece action encounters that staves off sleep and boredom (Originally the movie, apparently, had the Coen Brothers at the helm. What a difference that would have made!). And Bill Dubuque’s screenplay (his last movie was the equally ‘business-themed’ The Headhunter’s Calling with the nuanced acting of Gerard – “I am Spartan” – Butler) is un-inspiredly adequate.

The blame for this mid-budget creative loss leader has to be placed squarely on the buffed, broad shoulders of Ben Affleck (no doubt too preoccupied with scripting the next Batman movie). For an actor you can usually bank on, in The Accountant, Affleck’s eyes remain dead. What we see in these windows of the soul aren’t the social phobias of an autistic accountant, but an actor who’d rather be anywhere but here. He runs and jumps and feigns emotion more, probably, at the behest of his financial consultant than of the character. He’s the least exciting hit-man to have come along in some time. Call it net deficit acting.

Net net, if you wish to invest your time at the movies, perhaps, on balance, it were better spent somewhere else.

 

THE ACCOUNTANT Dir: Gavin O’Connor (Warrior). With: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K.Simmons, Jeffrey Tambor. Writer: Bill Dubuque. Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey (Fifty Shades of Grey)