The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)


Armando Iannucci is, if nothing else, the defining political comedian of our era. The anti-Aaron Sorkin, he understands that politics is about power, and nothing else. His lying, manipulative, vulgar, grasping, venal, and above all stupid bureaucrats, officials, advisors and other governing detritus barely even pay lip service to the ideals and ideology valorized in the word of the last era’s most celebrated propagandist, Aaron Sorkin, and Iannucci, with his television series The Thick of It and Veep and his film In the Loop, seems to have dedicated himself to undermining and unraveling all the myths and delusions of propriety, fair play and principled centrism that The West Wing perpetuated. I don’t know that the functionaries of Iannucci’s work are any more “accurate” than Sorkin’s heroes and heroines, but they seem like it. And in their degradation they certainly speak more to the present moment than the earnest ideologues of neo-liberal technocracy. That Iannucci can so deftly translate his style from the world of contemporary American politics to that of Soviet Russia should tell us a lot about what politics truly is: games of manipulation performed by the vile, the scheming and the moronic for the sake of self-preservation and, above all, power.

The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel, begins on the last day of the Russian dictator’s life. He eats a big meal with his closest advisors: Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), watches a Western (I couldn’t tell which one, but they toast Wayne and John Ford at the end of their boozy night) and, left alone in his room, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. He’s not discovered until the next morning and, because he’d recently killed or exiled all the best doctors in Moscow, he’s unable to receive medical attention until it’s too late. The delay is exacerbated by the scheming of his advisors, most of whom are more than willing to let the man die: as soon as his condition is discovered Beria and Khrushchev begin their plotting, a race to secure the support of the various other members of the inner circle and the various state security forces. Beria, as head of the secret police (called the NKVD at this point), has the initial advantage, and is able to manipulate Malenkov (a fool in most things and especially devoted to Stalin: a pointed reminder that in a totalitarian state the only officials who survive long enough to attain any kind of importance are either evil or stupid or both), who as Stalin’s deputy becomes the titular ruler in his absence.

The scramble for control between Khrushchev and Beria is greatly accelerated in time: events that here transpire over only a few days in fact took about six months, but while the film certainly takes liberties with historical fact, in its essence it is accurate. A host of fascinating side characters fill out the world, the overwhelming sense of terror and irrationality and double-thinking inherent in the Stalinist state. Olga Kurylenko plays the pianist Maria Yudina, whose defiant note to Stalin (included in a concert recording, the apocryphal story of which opens the film) may have killed him. Michael Palin plays Molotov, a longtime Stalin ally who had been marked for death but is rescued by the dictator’s demise, who nonetheless sticks to the Stalinist party line (Palin gives maybe the best performance in the film, and Molotov is its most dizzying character, a cruel man driven mad by even greater cruelties). Jason Isaacs appears late in the film as General Zhukov, bedecked in a lunatic assembly of medals, who comes to Khrushchev’s aid. But the Beria/Khrushchev conflict is at the film’s core: Beria tries to consolidate power by appearing to overthrow the “excesses” of Stalinism, positioning himself as a reformer while merely switching out one list of enemies for another. Khrushchev, on the other hand, actually is a reformer (well, relatively speaking), and while he (apparently) lacks Beria’s most vile qualities (in addition to all the murders, Beria was a perpetrator of just about every sex crime you can imagine) he has no qualms about exercising any means necessary to achieve his goals.

The Death of Stalin is deeply, darkly funny at almost every moment, like all of Iannucci’s work. Whether in the petty infighting and reversals of the Soviet leaders, to minor side-plots like the comic opening sequence with the fear and panic of the Radio Moscow technicians when Stalin requests a recording of a concert that was broadcast live, forcing them (led by Paddy Considine) to regather the audience and musicians to play the whole thing again, or the desperate scrambling of Stalin’s children, suddenly pawns in a greater game they are wholly unequipped to play (the son’s coaching of the state hockey team is especially funny), or more terrifying background action, like the cold brutal efficiency in which everyone in Stalin’s household is rounded up and shot by the NKVD. It’s an absurdist world where there are literally no moral or ideological values, and only the people who actually understand that truth are able to achieve power.

120 Beats per Minute (Robin Campillo, 2017)


120 Beats per Minute, inexplicably changed to Beats per Minute or simply BPM for its English language title, at least so far, we’ll see when it gets a regular theatrical release, is a heist film built around a social problem, a social problem film structured around a series of heists, a film about politics that sees action as not only possible, but necessary for life in the face of inexplicable tragedy. It’s the story of the Paris branch of ACT UP in the early 90s, protesting the Mitterrand government’s silence about the AIDS crisis and pushing drug companies to speed up the release of new drugs that promised to greatly ameliorate the effects of the deadly disease. The film alternates between fascinating group discussions in which the activists argue about and plan various tactics (with shades of Ken Loach’s masterpiece The Wind that Shakes the Barley) with highly suspenseful recreations of their guerrilla demonstrations. One invasion of a drug company office, for example, is as fraught with suspense as any sequence in any film this year. Running through it all is the love story between a young HIV+ activist and a new, negative member (regardless of their status, all ACT UP members would claim to the public to be positive). Each movement is punctuated by a dance party, the youth of the world luxuriating in a space where they’re free to express their sexuality with the kind of joyous release that comes from spending most of your life confronting your own imminent mortality. The film is an effective counterpoint to all of the nihilism of Nocturama, where a later generation of revolutionaries lacks the imagination or will power to carve out a place for themselves outside the system, where their aimless act of resistance is easily swallowed up by the world they stand against. If there’s a more vital piece of popular cinema this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

VIFF 2016: Yellowing (Chan Tze-woon, 2016)


As a documentary about the 2014 Umbrella Movement, in which thousands of young Hong Kongers gathered to Occupy districts throughout the city in protest of the PRC’s decision to not allow the former colony to directly choose its candidates for high office, Yellowing is something remarkable in our time: an honest direct cinema film, with nary a hint of meta-commentary about film theory or storytelling. Not that there’s anything wrong with the doc/fiction hybrids that have become so ubiquitous lately, there’s just something refreshing about the open earnestness of the filmmaking here, mirroring a little bit the idealism of the young people at its center. Shortly after the Hong Kong police attacked protesters with tear gas on September 27, 2014, Chan began filming the students as they set-up in and occupied the Admiralty and Mongkok neighborhoods. He focuses on a few young people through the run of the 67 day occupation: a man nicknamed Lucky Egg who gives impromptu lectures in English and political philosophy; a young man who works in construction who wanders in and out of the protests–something big always seems to happen when he’s there; a law and literature student named Rachel who makes announcements in three languages and provides the film’s eloquent final statement, an open letter to a professor who had infuriatingly denounced the students’ idealism.


In focusing on the details of the occupation, recording the quotidian requirements of activism (building rain-proof shelters, finding a mattress to sleep on, distributing water, masks and umbrellas to counter gas attacks), as well as the ideological arguments the protestors are making (they want to be able to vote for their leaders, this is anathema to a paranoid one-party state), Chan’s film resembles no less than Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871), one of the great films of this century. The similarities between the protestors then and now is striking, but Watkins’s film, being nearly six hours long, takes a couple of meta-fictional turns in its historical reenactments (for instance: the film’s actors discuss the issues the Communards raised in character, and also as themselves, expressing how the process of playing 150 year old activists affected the way they see politics in their own time). Chan has no need of such artifice: his movie isn’t a reenactment, and we see the impact the process has on his subjects unfolding as it actually happened. Beyond that, we get a feel for both the city itself and the young people not leading, but forming the heart of the movement. Whether discussing the nuts and bolts of activism and its limits (most of them know very well they cannot succeed, but they’re there anyway; Rachel distributes yellow wristbands sporting the slogan “They Can’t Kill Us All”), or just hanging around trying (and failing) to meet girls (“you need guts and brains to get a girl”). In its ground-floor, first-person perspective, it finds more honesty and wisdom and life than a hundred Hollywood issue-advocacy films.