Reel Dad: The Death of Stalin recreates political lunacy

Satire of the past can say a lot about the realities of the present. While some may occasionally consider the workings of our government as the content for farce, making fun of what happens in Washington could bring artistic and political challenges. How much safer it can be, creatively, to look at the absurdities of a past that we only know through the history books.

In 1953, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin was a mystery to most Americans. While he had been an ally of the United States during the Second World War, he never achieved the camaraderie that Franklin D. Roosevelt experienced with Britain’s Winston Churchill. Many on the American side resented how Stalin demanded a gravely ill Roosevelt give the Soviet Union more post-war presence at the Yalta conference in 1945. Little did anyone know that, eight years later, Stalin’s death would, itself, ignite a palace intrigue with enough twists to fill a binge-worthy series.

The deviously clever The Death of Stalin dares to make fun of every Soviet leader of the moment — from Stalin to Malenkov to Khrushchev — in its meticulous examination of what could happen when a leader surrounds himself only with people who agree with him, makes no provisions for leadership beyond his ego, and lives in a fantasy of how much support he can count on. This is not a serious film. But it’s serious about its fun. The jokes are pointed, the humor broad and the ugliness of spirit and intention pointedly exaggerated. Whether or not any of what we see has a shred of truth is incidental. As we often find looking at our own politics, what we speculate can be more entertaining than what actually occurs.

The rapid-fire comedy starts from the outset in a hysterical sketch of a Russian pianist, a crowded symphony hall, and a demand from a living Stalin for a recording of a concert performance. We know, from the antics that define this sequence, that we’re in for something beyond what might see on the History Channel. Immediately we’re tossed into the middle of a dysfunctional senior echelon of political leaders, light on trust, heavy on deceit, lacking political correctness, deficient of respect for the jobs they do or the people they serve. And, when Stalin suddenly dies, whatever sense of order they might have known immediately disappears as the events bring out the worst in everyone. No one is left untouched in this celebration of how the malicious leaders can be.

For Steve Buscemi, the gifted comic character actor, playing Nikita Khrushchev (yes, you read correctly) offers the actor a chance to fully demonstrate the range of his lunacy. Rarely since his star-making turn in Fargo, more than 20 years ago, has this gifted performer been given a character that demands so much from him. Watching him swim in this pool of political savagery is one more reason to savor this lunacy. With such sharp writing and crisp direction, this visit to Stalin’s death is more than worth the trip. It may even help you look away from what’s happening here at home.

Nutritional Value: The Death of Stalin

  • Content: High. This exaggerated look at what can happen when a global leader dies delivers a stylized and entertaining look at political savagery at its best. Or worst.
  • Entertainment: High. Steve Buscemi, in an outrageous interpretation of Nikita Khrushchev, has great fun reliving a dramatic chapter in the lives of the former Soviet Union.
  • Message: Medium. There may not necessarily be a moral to this story but it’s a lot of fun.
  • Relevance: Medium. Anyone who loves politics, and observing dysfunctional political leaders, will find the backstory to this moment in history an entertaining watch.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. For history lovers, there will be a lot to discuss. But this is not something for the entire family to watch. The language can be strong.

The Death of Stalin is rated R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references. The film runs 1 hour, 47 minutes, and is showing in area theaters. Four Popcorn Buckets.

Django Unchained: Tarantino surprises, as usual

Few look at the world the same way as Quentin Tarantino.

And, even though this master director has nothing to do with The Death of Stalin, Tarantino’s view of the world can be felt in every frame of this diabolical new comedy.

No matter what he may view, he sees beyond the traditional setting, situation or moment. He takes what is and magically translates it into what could be. And he makes us believe in the journey, no matter how improbable the destination may be.

With Django Unchained, Tarantino initially seems to serve a parody of the standard issue Hollywood Western. Picture Blazing Saddles for a new generation. The director creates a fabulous first act to brilliantly skewer every expectation we bring to the genre. But as soon as he makes us think the movie will travel one direction, he maneuvers a brilliant u-turn to create something totally different. Suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of a compelling story about the issues of slavery. Tarantino invites us to enjoy one meal and then decides to serve something else indeed. And we leave incredibly satisfied.

Connecting the dots in this complex picture are stunning performances from Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx. Waltz portrays a former dentist who pays to free Foxx, a former slave, because he needs a sidekick. After all, in a Western, the hero always has a sidekick. And just when we think we will re-live the buddyhood of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Tarantino decides that a trip to the South makes the most sense, so we trek to a plantation where Foxx’s wife is owned by the mean owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio. What opens as a comic treatment of the Western becomes, instead, a meaningful look into the issues of slavery. Tarantino tricks us to pay attention to his moral by entertaining us with his characters. And the result is a thrilling ride that only a savvy director can steer.

Waltz, who won a second Oscar for the film, thrills as a man who hides his true ambitions as carefully as the director shields his intentions. The actor makes the character deliciously humorous in the comic moments and authentically touching in the dramatic sequences. Foxx, as well, makes us laugh and think as he essays the struggles a former slave would confront. And Samuel L. Jackson — who should have received an Oscar nomination — stuns in a surprising portrayal of the plantation owner’s right-hand man. Only DiCaprio, in a role beyond his grasp, feels out of step. He doesn’t seem to know whether the character is real or cardboard. And he looks uncomfortable with Tarantino’s approach to the material.

Visually, the director continues an impressive journey of visual development as he pays tribute to the visual characteristics of the Western genre. We could be watching a widescreen epic from John Ford or Howard Hawks instead of a deceptively scintillating spoof from an offbeat creator. By making the film look so traditional, Tarantino shrewdly tricks us to hold one set of expectations that he quickly replaces with the story he wants to tell.

Ultimately, Tarantino offers just what we look for in a satisfying time at the movies. He entertains as he enlightens, delights as he dissects. And, as in The Death of Stalin, we never know what will happen next.

Django Unchained, available on streaming services and On Demand, runs 2 hours, 45 minutes, and is rated R for graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity.

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