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Death of Stalin, The

Paramount // R // June 19, 2018
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted July 12, 2018 | E-mail the Author
In Cold War Russia, Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) rules with an iron fist, sending out lists of people he wants rounded up and executed through NKVD head Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Beria is one of Stalin's inner circle, which also includes Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). Although the trio put on a good face for their leader, when Stalin is discovered post-stroke and dies soon after, the political squabbling starts almost instantly, sucking in other members in Stalin's orbit, including Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Stalin's children, prickly Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and drunken trainwreck Vasily (Rupert Friend). Malenkov is made the new leader, while Beria and Nikita begin facing off in a power struggle to control him and ultimately take over.

Those familiar with Armando Iannucci's previous work, including the British-American political satire In the Loop (a spin-off of his television show, "The Thick of It"), and the HBO comedy "Veep," will have a good idea of what they're in for with The Death of Stalin, which peeks inside the halls of power in Communist Russia and reduces all of the participants to selfish, nearly incompetent assholes. Using the torture, murder, and control of Russian citizens as a backdrop, Iannucci stages a farce using some of the best comic and dramatic performers around (although one of them has since made headlines for the wrong reasons and puts a bit of a damper on the proceedings). It's an ambitious film, one that represents a step up in scope and craft from In the Loop, but also one that may be slightly less accessible to American audiences not intimately familiar with Russian political history.

The star of the film is arguably Buscemi, whose perpetually irritated expression make him a great straight man against Beria's more aggressive tactics. He's funny just to look at, with his slightly evident bald cap, high-waisted pants, and sour attitude, as he reels with exasperation from whatever new piece of unfortunate information he's just been fed or discovered. Beale, probably best known to American audiences from the TV show "Penny Dreadful," is a master with some of Iannuci and co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin's more scathing one-liners. Both have great fun turning their characters into giant children, even as their actions put the lives of innocent people at stake. Around the fringes, Michael Palin is also hilarious as the particularly spineless Molotov, and Jason Isaacs turns up late in the film as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov and scores some big laughs. There is also an extended bit near the beginning featuring Paddy Considine as a panicked theater manager that is especially funny.

It's frustrating, on the other hand, that so much of the film's story revolves around Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, a clueless puppet who simultaneously loves his newfound fame and power and also is desperate to try and please everyone. Although Iannucci can't be held responsible for Tambor's public scandals (especially given that some of them occurred after the film was made), but it is unavoidably tough to watch him taking part in wacky bits with his other castmates. The best scenes with Tambor are the ones around the midway point, inside the chambers where motions are being put forth and passed, in which the rhythm of the whole group working together clicks into place and it's easier to view his participation as part of a well-oiled comic machine.

Although In the Loop built to a Middle Eastern conflict that was clearly rooted in reality, Iannucci is more pointed about the horrors going on in the background here, pushing The Death of Stalin toward a darker tone. As Khrushchev moves toward an endgame with Beria, Iannucci lets the cruelty and soullessness of the people on screen sink in a little further, resisting the urge to puncture some of the more brutal moments with jokes. The result is a tricky balancing act that viewers will likely be split on. Regardless, the risk-taking nature of the movie is one of its more pleasing aspects, finding Iannucci expanding the boundaries of his satirical eye even as he largely stays within his stylistic wheelhouse.

Paramount brings The Death of Stalin to DVD with the same modified theatrical poster artwork that was used in the United States, which features most of the cast but omits Jeffrey Tambor. The cover is fine, although the order of the actors is clearly based on American popularity more than importance to the film. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, The Death of Stalin looks and sounds pretty good on DVD, which is a relief considering there is no American Blu-ray release and the DVD does not come with a Digital HD copy. The film has a low-key visual appearance that tends to accentuate the production design, and a slightly de-saturated look that turns skin tones a bit gray and underlines the monochromatic costume design. Detail is decent and there are no issues with compression or banding. The sound mix is impressively authentic in the moments where real action breaks out, but the film is mostly dialogue-driven. An English Audio Description track and English subtitles are also included.

The Extras
Two bonus features are on offer: a clip-heavy featurette (11:05), "Dictators Murderers, and Comrades...Oh My!" Surface-level interviews from most of the movie's key performers and Iannucci are mixed in with the footage.

The slightly superior extra is a reel of deleted scenes (11:03), which is less a collection of scenes as it is a collection of excised moments, including a lot of one-liners that didn't make the finished film. Worth a look.

No theatrical trailer for The Death of Stalin has been included.

The Death of Stalin is an acid-tipped bit of satire, not just in its brazenness to skewer some of history's greatest monsters, but also its willingness to lean into the darkness without a joke at all. It's a shame that Tambor's presence has retroactively become a negative, but Buscemi and Beale give great performances in an impressive ensemble. Recommended.

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