Is The Death of Stalin Funny?

Seriously.  Is the Death of Stalin funny?  Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny?  I’m asking for a friend.

Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev!  He’s brilliant, as per usual.  Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi).  But is the performance…funny?  I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how?  Funny how it looks?  How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev?  Funny ha-ha?

Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece.  What’s his end-game?  A correlation to Putin’s Russia?  Trump’s America?  Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos?  Is this a cautionary tale? Continue reading

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There are a lot of Assholes at the Bottoms of Hills in Leviathan

Leviathan

A corrupt mayor of a remote Russian fishing town (Roman Madyanov) waxes bluntly that “there are a lot of assholes at the bottoms of hills” but if his character proves anything, there are even bigger assholes at the top.  He comes across like a Russian version of Toronto’s own Rob Ford – only without the charm.

Another character, the gruff fish-mongering wife of a cop (an excellent Anna Ukulova), muses on men while watching her rambunctious young son, “At first you’re pretty and then they kill you.”

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

Andrey Zyaginstev’s Jobian melodrama, Leviathan, is full of these Russian-isms.  Bookended by bleak but beautiful seaside photography from Mikhail Krichman shown in perfectly framed shots scored by Philip Glass’ tense minimalist music, the film tells the tale of Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov – who looks ripped from the stone-cold misery of a Ingmar Bergman film), a man who the mayor, the system, and the church demand be put in his place.  His ancestral home has been seized by the government at an unfair price.  His wife (a seductively sad and emotive Elena Lyadova) is sleeping with his lawyer and friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov ).  His teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev) is surly and depressed.

The characters in the film drink, eat, go shooting and screw each other in more ways than one. Continue reading

White Trash Melodrama in Elena and Killer Joe

Stylistically the cold Russian film Elena and the perversely American film Killer Joe couldn’t be further apart.  Yet they both are prime examples of neo-noir and in their own unique ways wallow in the melodrama of the downtrodden.

In Elena, the title character (Nadezhda Markina, a modicum of pent-up middle-aged rage) trudges through the routines of her day in her posh Moscow penthouse living with the wealthy husband she hooked ten years ago when she nursed him back to health.  Her son is the epitome of the post-Soviet downtrodden, living in a trashy tenement tower underneath the shadows of nuclear silos with his lazy teenage son, do-nothing wife and an infant.  He begs his mother for money constantly, and she eventually becomes obsessed with funding her grandson’s college education even though we all know he’s not college material.  Her husband refuses to continue to support her loser family, even though he continues to dutifully spoil his own screw-up of a daughter.  When he has another heart attack and decides to revisit his will, Elena must resort to desperate measures.  Continue reading

A Review of Brad Anderson’s “Transsiberian”

Character Driven Train Ride from Hell, 1 September 2008
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Brad Anderson is probably the best unknown director working today. He’s the independent Christopher Nolan, often making character-driven, psychologically complex flicks that transcend the trappings of their respective genres. In the past he has successfully combined elements from time-travel thrillers and romantic comedies in 2000’s Happy Accidents, delivered a taut Shining-esque thriller in 2001’s Session 9, and then provided a stirring Hitchcock homage with 2004’s The Machinist, which also featured a gonzo performance from Christian Bale.  With Transsiberian Anderson attempts to breath life back into the often forgotten train-based thriller. Like those three earlier films, Transsiberian was made on the cheap, yet still manages to feature great camera-work and well known faces headlining the cast. In terms of the logistics of the location shooting in Lithuania (doubling as Siberia), this arrives as Anderson’s most accomplished film from a technical standpoint.

The story starts off with an American couple (a goofy Woody Harrelson and a criminally underrated Emily Mortimer) returning from missionary work in China by route of the famous Transsiberian railroad. Once on board the train, they befriend a young couple (Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega) who claim to be student-teachers returning from Japan but might be hiding something sinister. The screenplay does a good job of building up to “something” and developing the characters, especially Mortimer’s Jessie, delving into her past with expository dialog that makes you care about where these characters are headed and think deeply about their motives. Without giving away too much of the film, entanglements ensue as a drug smuggling operation comes to light, and in steps Ben Kingsley (excellent as a Russian bruiser) as a narcotics detective with a special interest in the case.

There is a point, however, where (pardon the pun) the screenplay derails, and despite some unexpected twists, there never seems to be that big payoff. The film keeps the viewer on their toes with a bizarre turn of events at an abandoned church and a shockingly grim torture scene, but the psychological ramifications of these events are never probed as deeply as they could’ve been. The seductively cute Mortimer gives a nervy, complex, and excellent performance as Jessie, keeping the viewer invested in her character and what could happen to her even as the screenplay goes all over the map with her development. Woody Harrelson’s performance is more of a conundrum as he seems to be playing a book-smart version of his moronic character from Cheers. He makes you laugh during some of the more ridiculous scenes as the plot holes get deeper, and whether that was intentional or not to break the tension or gloss over the leaps of logic is never clear.

Transsiberian should please those looking for something different from your run-of-the-mill Hollywood thriller. Though the screenplay initially gives us characters that feel like real people, the mechanics of the convoluted plot spoil the potential of that development. However, the film still offers up an exotic locale, solid direction, and interesting performances, which makes it easy to recommend.