Sunday, June 24, 2018


In a London synagogue Rav Krushka delivers a lesson on the concept of choice. He tells the congregation that alone among the angels, the beasts and humans, humans have the capacity to disobey. His voice falters, his respiratory system fails and he collapses.

His only child, prodigal daughter Ronit, is in New York, shooting with a Hassleblad, taking portraits of a man whose torso is covered in tattoos, Diane Arbus style. She is interrupted with the news of her fathers death. She takes to the town, goes to a bar, has some distraction sex with a man whose face we (and maybe even she) doesn't see, and then, exhausted in a changing room, tears her top and reveals a challah necklace.

Still, as Jewish as that action and decoration suggest, her reappearance in her former community is tolerated rather than welcomed. Her father's obituary omits any mention of her as does his will. As she talks to Dovid, an old childhood friend, now a rabbi, in his kitchen as the mourners fill the rest of the house we get a hint as to why this is so. Dovid's wife appears and there is an instant and connection between the two women. Ronit is invited by the couple to stay with them while in London but while no one is happy about it no one can deny her the right to mourn her father. And no one forgets. That's the problem with open secrets, you can't erase them and you can't talk about them.

What is on the surface a romantic triangle melodrama keeps a steady eye on the opening lesson about choice. Shooting style is seldom other than soberly informative and the sobering pallet of London in winter dominates. If something is to break it will need to do so in secret. Ronit remembers this but her life in New York has allowed her to happily abandon it. Her childhood love Esti is not so free, removing her sheital and disrobing with a blank face before submitting to the conjugal ritual on Friday. She has never not been lesbian and the choice she made in childhood to realise it is brought to profound disturbance by Ronit.

Rachel Weisz as Ronit and Rachel McAdams as Esti play the taboo space for its every sharp sparking charge, letting the eroticism of a simple kiss transfer like a current through the lens. And then, when the tremendous release of their sex scene breaks director Sebastian Lelio breaks it into more manageable snippets for the most part and even keeps the pair partially clothed throughout. The thrilling abandon is clear but it is still confined to secrecy, to the very kind of arcana that their managerial end of their religious community demands of its members. Outside of that gasping freedom the two, once the line is breached, communicate in a small cosmos of tiny indications of affection and outright love that only they and the very observant would recognise.

One such from the last group is Esti's husband Dovid who must deal with what he fears might be inevitable. His position as the inevitable successor to the Rav will place him at one of the apex points of his community. If his wife leaves him for the perceived usurper the reconstruction toll will be ruinous. Alessandro Nivola plays him as a contained explosion, plausibly negotiating with the threats at the gates with a rationalism that might also pass for wisdom or at the very least patience. We know that when this breaks it will deafen. It does. A speech he delivers in the last act has him in close up, playing the fixed focus like a jazz soloist, giving us a perfect sense of panic and the nausea of knowing that the worst is actually happening before him.

This is Lelio's first English language film. He has plunged himself into a particular milieu but is careful not to do so as an invader nor to make those of us beyond its bounds voyeuristic. I had to look up the sheitel and the challah as they are offered in the film without remark. We only really need to know that the religious and cultural realm where the story lives might seem strict but also offers the freedom of disobedience in the title and the opening monologue. We need no special training to see the thickly rugged up clothing of anyone who ventures outside to know what its opposite is. And when Esti is alone in a rented room and the score is swelling towards atonality that what she is doing is serious. Lelio's approach gives us that overcoat and scarf to warm us but also to bind us. If I say that this felt like a festival film I mean it in celebration.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: MIDNIGHT OIL: 1984

I am not nor ever was a fan of Midnight Oil. Their big shouting sloganeering choruses felt purpose built for all the wrong reasons. The music was prog rock without the solos. Their singer danced like a hippy at a party. They were playing to someone else. So, I went to this one to see what I'd missed.

First a little about Midnight Oil for those who have forgotten or have remained unknowing.

This sober documentary does what it says on the label and addresses the events and issues that influenced the band at its peak. Peak or plateau, though? Midnight Oil's career is the story of solid effort sustained for over a decade by 1984 to the point that the Oils were the biggest band in Australia, massive sellers in the charts and a legendary touring outfit. they weren't just big, though, they were politically minded and committed to their politics. Ponder, this is the era of synthpop, orange boofy hair where Goth was forming, providing nations of teenage pariahs with justification for withdrawal. Midnight Oil were reminding us that the world was a hair trigger away from nuclear apocalypse and brought fist pumping rock to the message. And then their singer campaigned for a Senate spot with the tiny People for Nuclear Disarmament. A rock star stepped away from mass adoration in order to accept an armful of manilla folders and an endless schedule of meetings and to-do lists. To go from masses of people singing his words back to him to a public gallery that assumed everything he said was smeared with agenda. That's big.

Through concert and backstage footage that director Ray Argall shot at the time, contemporary and recent interviews with band members and other figures in the organisation around them and a lot of contexualising news vision we are told the story of how a band that achieved everything it attempted to do in rock music might have taken it one crucial step further. And it's believable. Why? First, by this stage Midnight Oil had jettisoned the lifestyle. They were constantly touring and had found a kind of communion with their audiences that transcended the sex and drugs prerequsites. They had found that their message resonated into the furthest reaches of the landscape. This was at the dawn of the Hawke years when optimism and activism could be adopted by the same person without attendant cynicism. This film shows why there was no great contradiction about the notion of the swap that Peter Garrett intended. It was a year before Live Aid and seemed to emerge from nothing other than his own conviction.

Important word, that. Garrett's and the band's convictions about how their society could be and how a public gesture might assist the individual in the crowd to act. I used the word sober before to describe the whole film but that shouldn't be read as dull. Actually, you might take it as relief when you consider how even the least engaging figures from rock music history are given the rags to riches with a line of speed as long as the Bruce Highway. What's blessedly missing from this story is the PARTY (well, the Party only gets sentence case when it appears) and what's left is the work.

And work is what we see. Tours are organised. Records are made. Success is recorded. And then infiltrating from within is Peter Garrett's go at electioneering. Considering his evident ease with bridging the two types of interaction and the band's support, it begins to feel like metamorphosis. You can Google or Wiki the result of the campaign and I'll let you go ahead as that is only one thing on offer here. The other is extraordinary and defied my expectations: humility.

This is a rockumentary we're talking about, here. A film about a band who ascended to great popularity in the '80s and not a single clip of Molly Meldrum making a fool of himself talking about them. There is a clear sense of satisfaction from the band members at their success as an act but it's never smug. Montages of the origins of the band are laced with humour and fondness but we don't get anything like an upward trajectory. From steamy clubs where the human condensation rose to fall again as salty rain from low ceilings to oceans of fans in stadiums to outback gigs the message is about work. It's true that a comparable documentary about Cold Chisel  might feature this maxim but it would be plagued by the kind of '70s rockism that they managed to sustain as though punk really was the flash in the pan that hindsight made it. Then contrast the superb The Go-Betweens: Right Here which works from a very different part of the spectrum where the anecdotes are all personalities and quirks but is tempered by the ghostly spectre of riches that never arrive. And I guess I've reached my point.

I smirked at Midnight Oil and why? I sided left, walked near the banners (if not actually holding them aloft) at marches in Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Brisbane, felt the same unease at the ascendancy of Reagan and Thatcher, feared the threat of nuclear annihilation ... you get the idea. So why shouldn't I have gone to at least one Oils gig or shelled out for an album? Why did I and everyone I knew smirk at the sound of the big OzRock intros and shouty slogans that I wouldn't dare contradict? Maybe it's because I didn't want to be schooled by more oldies, because the jolly pink giant at the mic doing the funky chicken between lines just seemed like another teacher doling out industry doses of worthiness. Maybe. But do you want to know what it really was? We ridiculed Midnight Oil because for all our middle class posturing and the sloganeering of our own, because all of us with the Soviet Poster haircuts and op shop fashion, our crappily unrehearsed bands with their derivative songs and the quiet smiles of approval from friends in the audience, our fishbowl exclusivity and imperious campus pluck were not needed by the likes of Midnight Oil. We were scarcely visible to them.

Go and see this film and take a good look at the audience. There's not a gelled spike among them. They come from the burbs full of beer and war cries and punch the light or each other the same way. And above them in the solar blast of stage lights the tall bald bloke called the times in a wail that cut stone with perfect pitch and swung and flailed, hemorrhaging kilojoules by the second with movements that never looked like dance moves but blurred in the light as the same festive anger that drove the punters in front of him. And while we triumphed at the twenty people we dragged along to an inner city pub they were reaching into the bush, filling town halls with experiences no one who saw them would forget. And they knew all the words and sang the choruses like football chants. Sheep in a flock? More like a demonstration.

We didn't get it because we didn't want to. We didn't get it because sour grapes. Maybe we missed out on music we really didn't dig (I'm still not a fan even after the film) but we did miss out on the message the same way we did when we laughed at the advice of the old bastards who had reared or taught us. The ones who did get the point didn't care about any of that because they knew the full body experience of the greatest rock music event. We even thought of that as bullshit. I'm not saying we were wrong, I just know now that they weren't either.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


We begin with a blend of a house set in a forest surround and some exquisite dioramas including rooms in the house we've seen and a little tilt-shift here and there blurs the distinction so that we start wondering which is which. This weaves over an increasingly menacing electronic score that drones under dark corners and bright family portraits alike. This is how an unusual film plays fair. You wouldn't know that from the trailer which tries to sell the film as a kind of James Wan jump scare stravaganza when the film has more in common with Zulawski's Possession or '70s folk horror. The production house, A24, might be a clue here as it's given us such as It Comes at Night, The VVitch and Free Fire, films that crawl under the skin of genre in search of fresh veins. Well, this is another.

It begins like a brittle Scandinavian psycho drama as middle aged artist Annie juggles her torn feelings over her domineering mother's death with an exhibition whose deadline looms. She is the maker of the miniatures and burns concentration over them with jeweller's goggles. Her husband Steve is the calm gravitational centre with the easy smile and soft voice. Son Peter has hit his late teens and, while touchy and self-medicating, seems happy enough. The daughter Charlie is the spanner in the works. Slow to develop, she is withdrawn, scratching out severe depictions of the world around her on a sketchpad and constantly nibbling on chocolate. If the awkward tension of the funeral service is unrelieved all the way to Annie's fury at a grief support group isn't already ratcheting high there is one further disaster in store which will turn this hard play on grief into very dark and weird stuff.

That's it this side of spoilers (and boy is this film spoilable). The turns taken by the plot allow a lot of resistance by the film to easy thematic calls. The grief of the first act collides so rockily with rage that neither will serve as the bedrock. The power centre within the family is so unbalanced but the glimpses of warmth are so genuine that there's no easy bone pointing toward disfunction. Charlie is withdrawn and wilful but not beyond communication. The very deliberate physical casting of young actor Milly Shapiro aided by some unsubtle make-up (some shots look like her face is a loose mask) give her the alienating appearance of a young girl with the face of a grown woman. This is clearly intended as unsettling but is both so hard it seems to belong to a different movie and is a central part of this one.

The puzzling shift from the tense domestic drama of the opening act to the flights of grotesquerie of the remainder might remind the adventurous viewer of Ben Wheatley's Kill List. You might well find yourself mentally asking, "wait, when did that happen? Why is that suddenly like that?" While there are no jump scares of the crudeness of those in The Conjuring scenes from the last hour would only grind against earlier ones. So why does it work?

A story that is not afraid of taking sharp turns away from expectation nor cares much if its viewers will see some things coming too early helps. There is far less play on surprise, despite the violence of the changes, than a mounting sense of dreadful inevitability. It can be very clunky but if you're in for the ride (I can imagine many won't be; there were walkouts at my screening) you might even take these aboard as quirks of discovery. If you can go along you will be rewarded the same way that anyone who stuck through the whole Cremaster Cycle were. A film that trod ground similar to that is 2012's bizarre teen drama/body horror/performance art film Excision. Look what happened to that. Never heard of it? That's the point.

What might save Hereditary from Excision's unfair fate is the cast and their performances. Gabriel Byrne's sonorous gravitas makes us warm to him at every appearance. Alex Wolff as Peter gives us a victim whose sincerity burns through some scarifying moments. Ever dependable Ann Dowd shows us a believable folkiness that has another side (her scenes with Annie and seances are a masterclass of two-handed vignettes). Towering over this, though, is the force of Toni Collette who rages, coos, sneers, hisses and envelopes as no one else in a tour de force that is both showy and thankless. Acting like this can bid us overlook plot holes and logic leaps alike, reminding us that this is a story of characters rather than mechanical perfection. Again, not everyone will come to this but those who allow themselves will find real value.

In an interview Toni Collette mentioned without identifying it that there was a moment that audiences consistently laughed at. I noted it as I saw it and it is strange, a shot of puzzling cartoonish violence that vanishes as quickly as it appears. I wondered at it, thinking it was a misstep but then saw a later action that seemed to balance it with a winceable action that takes a little too long to stop (but then has an offscreen result that also might be comic to some). I don't know if that effect was a mistake or a nod to the notion of slapstick in horror and how uneasily it sits with the genuine, unironic grimness surrounding it. I like that I don't know.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Review: CARGO

A couple, Andy and Kay, with toddler Rosie steer their houseboat down a river that could be from a tourist bureau poster. A conversation later we learn that they are staying on the boat as a means of survival. On land an epidemic has spread like fire, rendering the infected into flesh hungry zombies. There is a treatment kit on the boat that includes a suicide device. They pass a similar young family frolicking on the bank. The worldless communication between the two parties ends in the father on the shore revealing his pistol.

Coming across the wreck of a yacht Andy takes a boat over and finds a trove of food, wine and other goodies which buy the family some time.While aboard, he notices a strange shifting sound in the cabin and sees that the sliding door has moved a few centimetres and beats a nimble retreat. Kay is overjoyed at the bounty and wonders if Andy didn't find a razor as well to restore him to at least the appearance of civilisation. While he is sleeping she makes her own sortie to the wreck, finds a razor, and is bitten by the thing in the cabin. She is infected and dons the forty-eight hour timer from the kit. Now they are on a clock.

While this film features a varispeed plot and some things are more spoilable than others I'll leave the synopsis there. Besides, this really is a lot more than the zombie fad outing that it might appear to be. The struggle to reach treatment or at least care for the daughter takes the characters into a kind of Pilgrim's Progress of good and evil in a still recognisable contemporary Australia, forging ahead through constant grief through to a credible racial reconciliation. All of that without grandstanding or the song from the Qantas commercial.

As with the best zombie stories the metaphor is high but only so high that it can survive incursions of the threat. George Romero, who retooled the sub-genre forever with Night of the Living Dead, removed the supernatural element completely to concentrate on the Great Society issues of 1968 America. He revisited it at the end of the '70s to show us consumerism triumphing over death in Dawn of the Dead and so on. Zombies make great vehicles for themes. Chief among these is survival itself but can admit of much else like the compelling presence of race in Australian culture. This is touched by the repugnant profiteer and his zombie traps with live bait and the resourcefulness of a displaced first people turning to long obscured skills to prosecute their survival.

And here the zombies are kept a little west of the central infection and how changes its victims morally as well as physically, allowing each to witness the erosion of their civilisation and then humanity. The infection discharges a sticky amber goo from the wounds which often resembles honey or tree resin as though the remaining richness of the human drips from the degenerating husk.

Martin Freeman takes what must have rested on the page as goodness and finds an understated heroism in it. He is given support  by Rosie Porter who again shows us complexity from a cause and effect part. Newcomer Simone Landers owns her part of the screen rendering dialogue that at times seems lifted from an old Adventures of the Sea Spray episode into natural credibility. And veteran David Gulpilil needs to do little more than gaze for us to know his sagacity comes from the earth's core.

I was impressed by this film's careful helming, avoiding the worst of the sub-genre's cliches and nurturing the warmth in the struggle and the chills in the decision not to struggle. The cinematography is given the fierce palate of the outback and heated by a strong score that mixes electronics with indigenous tonality.

This is worth a cinema outing. It feels as though it's come from nowhere. Don't let it go back there.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Review: TULLY

Third-time mother to be, Marlo runs a ritual brush over her son's legs and arms as the credits roll. It's the quietest moment we'll see for a good swag of screen time as we are plunged into the daily noise, struggles and teetering of a young family. The boy is being gradually squeezed from the conventional school system for being "quirky". The girl is beginning to have confidence issues. With the new one due soon there only be more of this. At night Marlo goes up to bed and collapses beside her husband as he taps at a game console. Gen X married with children.

Resisting her brother's offer to pay for a night nanny once the baby comes she yet notices how orderly and peaceful his three-child house is when over there for dinner. She takes the post-it with the nanny's number. A few weeks later of constant mounting family and post-natal strain and she finds the note in her purse. That night the radiant and bright-eyed Tully appears at the door and, after a few points of establishment, sends Marlo off to bed. The next day the house is spotless and the morning after a long sleep holds the memory only of being gently woken to nurse the new addition.

The pair establish a quick rapport and Tully's spacy new-age ways allow Marlo a way back to the person she's had to suppress in favour of the parental altruism she has had to learn. Some rich dialogue later and we've got the makings of a charming girl-buddy movie. And that's what we get, for awhile. The rest is spoilers.

Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody might well be offering this as a kind of touchpoint in their careers as the spectre of maturity looms over them as it does their characters here. Where Juno and Young Adult wrestled with questions of responsibility and many instances (not always centre screen) of denial of it, Tully offers a controlled scream at the inevitability of accepting it. Cody's script, laced with great one-liners, offers more measured reflection rather than youthful dazzle. Reitman frames it as it lifts from the grind of daily life to the moments of elation subtly, keeping to a sober (some might say drab) pallet which gives it a kind of Gen X art house functional look.

Charlize Theron drags us into the strained musculature of a veteran parent but keeps her head above the quicksand with an expert delivery of lines that a writer like Cody has saved for her. The film depends on this pendulum working and constantly. It must takes us through the exhausting montage of the new baby routines and white knuckle negotiations with her difficult son. But it must also allow us to accept the sense of healing that begins when her exchanges with the younger Tully develop and the emotional bruises come to light. For her part Mackenzie Davis must strike a balance between a kind of coddled youthful wisdom and vulnerability for this to happen. It's a thankless performance until the third act allows us perspective. Not to diminish the contribution of Ron Livingston and Mark Duplass who I could watch in anything but this really is Theron's and Davis' movie.

It's always a pleasure to be so surprised by a film that your reservations even half way through are dismissed by such good work. Well, work is what it is, work to run a family, work to deal with constant pressure, work to let one's own youth pass into its rooms serving as practical memory rather than lulling through nostalgia. But surprised I was, starting happily enough in front of a witty look at the trials of the first world but staying for the real dialogue and admitting the job it was doing.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Review: UNSANE

A male voice speaks to a woman of his admiration for her as we track slowly through an eerie midnight forest. With context silent we jump to a young woman several times smart: dressed for the office, sharp-minded and sarcastic as she icily devastates a client on the phone. Dismissing a colleague who has been listening we see her roll her chair to follow a man who has just walked through the office. Then she has a meeting with the boss who praises her work on a report before getting subtly sleazy with an invitation to join him at a conference. She heads off to an app date after work, lets him know that she's after a strict one nighter. They pash back at her place before she emotionally collapses, horrified at herself, and finds a place to hide as her bemused beau exits. The next day she goes to an interview about joining a victims of stalkers group which leaves her talking to herself in a reception area before handing a form in which results in her examination and incarceration in a mental health facility. I ran all that together as that's how it goes past in less than twenty minutes of screen time. We've got to know her fairly well but now we're wondering. She's just voluntarily sectioned herself. Huh?

This is a film too easy to spoil so I'll stop there. There is a lot of plot here but more there is a theme at play and on the rise. The tale is about the constant tension between safety and trust and the slippery nature of our perceptions when we are deemed beyond making reliable observations. The result involves us doing a lot of guessing but then when the story settles on one of the possibilities it goes well past the point of the twist scene. Anyone who wanted to congratulate themselves on getting it before time then has to negotiate with a third act that devalues that feat. There's plenty to get through after that and it's all development.

Which is strange: this is a film that presents itself as a taut thriller - is she crazy, are they scamming the insurance, is there a massive and ugly gaslighting going on? - for most of the the running time starts stretching out the issues while the plot is getting faster. I've a strong hunch that anyone demanding a stylish but standard genre movie is going to judge the third act poorly but they shouldn't.

Claire Foy gives a character who can be very hard to love and chooses to go for comprehension over sympathy. During the phase in which her character Sawyer is plummeting into instability she uses the futility of the struggle to bring us closer, even though we're starting to get a little sniffy at her antics. Josh Leonard keeps us at bay in a way that we might just put it down to writing. It's a thankless turn but ... well, you'll see. Jay Pharoah's Nate, a kind of updated Sam Fuller mean-streets sage has a similar job to Leonard in that he must risk losing us between his warmth and undeclared purpose. My one gripe with the casting is that the always welcome Juno Temple gets so little screen time. Her character is important but at times when Sawyer was getting irritating I could have used much more Violet.

It's worth noting that the score makes such determined use of monotone. Whether it's a drone on the bowed basses or electronic, or a single piano note clanging over a sparsely moving bass figure we are given the music of claustrophobia and futility. Not a soundtrack album to bring out for a dinner party but a well judged approach to film music.

Steven Soderberg has had a long career being known for movies that sport a recognisable by line but resist auteurist description. A few years back he very publicly retired from the cinema in preference for the long form of pay tv but then quietly popped back in with Side Effects and Logan Lucky. Anyone following his career might have made a lot of that but to me it really just seems like him doing what he wants, having earned the clout to do so. From his indy breakthrough in the 80s, Sex, Lies and Videotape he was written up the same portentous way that similar figures like Hal Hartley were, as the quirky voices of the neonewhollywood. But where Hartley kept consistent for most of his initial career (haemorrhaging fans with the experimental Flirt) Soderberg went big budget and then small budget, whacko and then generic, epic and intimate, Panavision and video (he is famously his own cinematographer). And here with this frenetic thriller he's just doing some of that all over again and gives us an hour an a half of good stuff. I remember noting the phrase that he was shooting lighting setups that would look warm on film but on digital video look as flat and cold as an old Dogme movie, ugly but intetntionally so. I've since learned that he shot it with a modified i-Phone. The aspect ratio is reported (IMDB) as a very odd 1.56:1. That's our Stevie, always a step ahead. But really ... a step ahead.

Sunday, April 22, 2018


Radio Moscow, 1953. Historical figure, pianist Maria Yudina plays a Mozart concerto with an orchestra before a studio audience. The control room phone rings and the producer answers it. He is told to call back on a particular number in seventeen seconds. He fumbles the number, falling apart in front of the sound engineer. The caller was Stalin. The producer calls back at the right interval and is told to send the Secretary of All the Russias a recording of the performance. Of course, of course. Then, after hanging up, he asks if they did record the performance. A shake of the head. Right! we have to do it again. Stop everyone from leaving. Get the orchestra back. The Great Leader and Teacher wants a recording. And so they make one, waking a substitute conductor (who thinks it's the secret service) and grabbing passers by from the streets to make up the audience that got away.

This tale has appeared enough to be either mythology or cold, hard truth. I first read it in the discredited autobiography of Shostakovich, Testimony. The daily life of a Soviet citizen during the terror of Stalin involved a lot of what George Orwell had already called doublethink. Stalin got something that he asked for but was not exactly what he wanted. If he'd known he might equally have Gulaged the lot of them or let them stew as he smirked at their panic. Even the wavering truth value of the anecdote helps: it works whether it's fact or fiction. That is what we are in for with this film and it's both a strength and a weakness.

Stalin collapses in his office and is not checked by the sentries placed outside because their orders are only to keep others out. He is discovered by the only person allowed in (the maid with breakfast) and the rollcall of Party lights brings the quorum of the Central Committee to the room. We see political  relationships accelerate and know that we will have to follow some dangerous conversations, slips of the tongue, desperate saves, disasters of overreaching and so on. The old man is gone and the mess he left will need cleaning, so much cleaning that the carpet where he walked will be bleached to the floorboards.

If you are familiar with at least some of director/adaptor Armando Ianucci's work you'll know his strengths as a political satirist. And if you know the work you might be expecting a series of sharpshooting bullseyes drawing a lot of knowing laughter. That doesn't happen and at first it seems awkward but there's a scheme at work and it lets us settle in. At the start we seem expected to find the wisecracks of the political heavies funny but we notice that the violence under each jibe and wink is translatable as horrifying action. The NKVD headquarters clamour with pistol shots and fresh corpses tumble down staircases as a backdrop to conversations, feeling as much like street theatre as historical terror and there's a point to it. If the violence is too amped it bruises the comedy and if the comedy is too sharp it will diminish the effect of the violence. So both need to be reined in and are.

There's a scene in Life of Brian where Pontius Pilate is forced to threaten his soldiers with severe punishment when they keep laughing at his lisp. The tension is ramped when a joke name is revealed to be the real name of one of Pilate's friends. Pilate hones in on each guard who bites his lip or twists his mouth to keep from laughing and getting thrown in with the gladiators. It's a perfectly realised moment of power reduced to absurdity. The Death of Stalin is almost all this and the only way it can sustain is by dropping the need for the audience to pay each line with a laugh, creating a broader absurdity only enriched by the earnestness of the dialogue. We are being beckoned by the film to nudge into the whispering scrums and sense the danger of each utterance.

You don't get to do this without a cast that can handle it and, boy do we get one. Steve Buscemi's Kruschev seems the calm rational centre until he reveals a mass of anxieties. Simon Russell Beale's NKVD head Berrier is all bluster and blokey but creepily sinister all at once. Jeffery Tambor's Malenkov is a thanklessly sympathetic drawing of the second in command that a tyrant might choose as he would never pose a real threat but when power is handed him he will slowly disintegrate. His constant nerves delivered with each command make him both painful and funny to watch. Jason Isaacs bursts in as Marshall Zhukov, a laddish monster with a Yorkshire lilt. That's another thing: thank the Lord Harry they went with the actors' own accents rather than impose a kind of Rosseeyan splotz on everyone. This was done as well in the 70s tv movie Red Monarch where Stalin sounded Irish, Berrier Cockney etc. The dialogue isn't in Russian so instead of going halfway why not overlay an anglophone range. Kruschev's  wisecracking suits Steve Buscemi's New York sting to a T. If anyone sticks out the wrong way it is Michael Palin (who, incidentally, played Pilate in Life of Brian) as Molotov but this is largely due to the dialogue in which he is given Pythonesque lines. Perhaps I'm projecting that but it really did feel that way and put his character out of sorts with the others in a film that depends on the strength of its ensembles. 

Why Stalin? Well, if you want to look at what happens when an autocrat goes you're best off choosing one who didn't die in extreme crisis like Hitler or Mussolini as they were replaced by conquering armies. They could've gone for Franco or Peron but, really, they don't come much more intriguing that Stalin whose command encompassed the boundlessness of the USSR who was both hero to and tormentor of his people and whose tight paranoia left the question of his succession terrifyingly difficult. Also, his story is that of a culture that commanded its own reality, whose alternative facts were dogma until circumstance reversed them. And it's not just the current U.S. presidency. This film has been banned in Putin's Russia. See what I mean? It's funny but you're not laughing.