Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

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Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the rest of the Central Committee set up a funeral for Joseph Stalin in Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Death of Stalin. (Source: IMDb)

Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci is known for making satires of American politics (HBO original series Veep) and British politics (The Thick of It and the spin-off feature film In the Loop). This time, he tackles a bit of Russian history in The Death of Stalin. Based on a series of graphic novels (originated in France), this political satire/dark comedy got banned in Russia by the Minister of Culture, who found the subject matter to be too offensive. “He said its satire was part of a Western plot to destabilize the country,” Iannucci said in The New York Times. “Now the Russian presidential election is looming, and we all know how vehemently Vladimir Putin despises the idea of anyone interfering in the elections of a foreign power; so onto the blacklist my movie went, and no one in Russia is officially allowed to see it.”

With the entire ordeal aside, the movie is beginning to expand throughout the United States. The Death of Stalin came out at a good time.

In March 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has been running the Soviet Union for years, and is responsible for the lives of millions. One night, he unexpectedly dies from a stroke. He’s soon surrounded by the Central Committee, which includes Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD (Simon Russell Beale), Deputy Gnl. Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, Monty Python), and Minister of Agriculture Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi). Hijinks ensue while they make funeral arrangements and invite Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) to give their condolences.

It’s been awhile since I laughed at a new comedy. Nowadays, comedies are becoming tiresome and cliched. Kudos to Iannucci and his team of wonderful actors, they offer enough to make the audience laugh. The jokes and one-liners come lightning fast yet they are perfectly timed. Buscemi’s Khruschev is portrayed as Stalin’s comedian turned “funeral director”. He leads a wonderful cast who are at the top of their game. Notice how none of the actors play their characters in a Russian accent. If they ended up doing that, it would have push things over the edge just a hair.

While the twenty minutes might run out of steam, The Death of Stalin is, nevertheless, a wild ride that is funny as it is unnerving. Who knew Stalin loved classical music and Hollywood movies so much?

3/4

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Movie Review: Unsane

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Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) serves time at a mental institution in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone thriller Unsane. (Source: IndieWire)

It’s quite something to see a great filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh to discover new filming techniques. For Unsane, his latest film, he shot (under pseudonym Peter Andrews) the entire movie with an iPhone on a budget of $1.5 million. With Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (a native of Portland, Maine) writing the screenplay, the movie sounds like it has a crazy concept. While, at times, the movie can be appropriately unnerving, it’s also uneven and lacks the surprises and thrills for it to be any good.

Soderbergh’s movies feature some great names for the characters. Erin Brockovich, Big Dick Richie (Magic Mike), Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan (Ocean’s Eleven), and Joe Bang from Logan Lucky is a classic! Sawyer Valentini (from this movie) definitely joins the endless list of one of the best character names in a Soderbergh movie.

Valentini (Claire Foy, The Crown) is a business woman who moves to Pennsylvania from Boston to get away from her mother (Amy Irving) and the man (Joshua Leonard) who keeps stalking her. One day, she accidentally commits herself to voluntarily serve at a mental institution for 24 hours. Those hours turn into days when the doctors question her sanity. While trying to get along with her ward mates, including the dreadlocked Violet (Juno Temple) and the smooth Nate (Jay Pharoah), Valentini begins to freak out that her stalker might be working at the facility.

I have to admit this movie did come out at a perfect time. We are at a day and age where women are struggling to be heard (hence the #MeToo movement). Kudos to a miraculous performance by Foy, she unwillingly fights against her will in order to escape this madhouse. She and Irving are the saving graces of this sluggish, by-the-numbers, silly psychological thriller. The iPhone camerawork gets a little tiresome after awhile. It’s a bit of a disappointment.

1.5/4

Movie Review: Annihilation

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Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) discovers something really bizarre in Alex Garland’s Annihilation. (Source: The Atlantic)

Alex Garland has changed the way of how we see horror and science-fiction. He first received attention from writing the screenplays for the zombie movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. His directorial debut, Ex Machina, became one of the best sci-fi movies of the century. Not only does it generate brilliant ideas and makes you think, it also makes you send shivers down your spine and goes in ways you can never imagine. Annihilation, his sophomore feat (in which he also wrote the screenplay), marks his return to the wonderful world of the two genres.

Based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor with military background. She’s dealing with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, the second collaboration with Garland) for about a year. One day, she ends up at a government facility and meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She assigns Lena to embark on a mission into “The Shimmer”, an environmental disaster zone where an alien presence is presumed to be located. Along with physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson, Thor: Ragnarok), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Lena discovers the mysterious area of flashing colors and mystical creatures. Once they enter The Shimmer, they will never be the same.

It’s better going in Annihilation without knowing too much of the narrative. I certainly had no idea what I was in for until the movie started. After the movie, I had a similar reaction to Arrival, another sci-fi movie. It blew me away yet I knew I had to see it again.

Portman, leading a gifted cast, delivers the best performance of her career as Lena, who traces her husband’s team’s tracks into the unknown. It doesn’t take long for her and the team to go the downward spiral into madness. This is something terrifying yet truly dazzling. It’s the old-fashioned science-fiction containing unique ideas overshadowing overblown action. The final act (containing minimal dialogue) is something to behold like the rest of the movie. One of the best films so far this year!

4/4