‘The Death of Stalin:’ A power vacuum full of comedy

This image released by IFC Films shows, from left, Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley and Simon Russell Beale in a scene from ‘The Death of Stalin.’ (AP Photo)
Updated 09 March 2018
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‘The Death of Stalin:’ A power vacuum full of comedy

Just as history enshrines its heroes, it aggrandizes its villains.
The most fearsome perpetrators of evil can become calcified in the horror of their atrocities. It becomes easy to imagine them as stern, foreboding figures who could have only earned their impunity through obsessive, bloodthirsty rigor.
But of course, as Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” illustrates, many of history’s monsters weren’t nearly as imposing as their reputations. They were idiots. They were vulgar, uncouth, hapless fools whose grip on power was as absurd as it was punishing. Their reigns were intensely cruel jokes.
In “The Death of Stalin,” Iannucci, having already thoroughly satirized modern-day Washington on “Veep,” travels back to 1953 Soviet Union and the days following Stalin’s collapse. That leap may seem greater than it is. Though the stakes are considerably higher in Stalinist Russia, the herd mentality of the power hungry to keep pace with political momentum is just as desperate. ‘Here, a wrong move won’t relegate you to morning television, but it will send you to Siberia, or worse. (OK, so the stakes aren’t that different.)
The frantic bumbling of hangers-on has been a specialty of Iannucci (“The Thick of It,” “Alan Partridge,” “In the Loop“), whose farces spin like particle-accelerating colliders, firing their paranoid, ever-strategizing characters off into ever-diminishing destinies.
Adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows from Fabien Nury and Theirry Robin’s graphic novel, “The Death of Stalin” may be both Iannucci’s darkest and most timely satire yet. More than anything he’s done before, Iannucci has narrowed the distance between slapstick and savagery, prompting us to contemplate — even as we’re cackling — their uncomfortable proximity.
The movie begins with a scene that captures the expansive fear of life under Stalin. An orchestra, having just played for a radio broadcast, receives a request from their dictator — he’s a fan — for a recording of the performance. Since none was made, the orchestra and all in the audience are forced to recreate the broadcast, working well in the night. Just as the record is rushed off, a pianist (played by Olga Kurylenko) slips a personal note for Stalin into the sleeve. It’s this message — fittingly a hidden missive of honesty hidden in art — that Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is reading when he keels over.
The news of the tyrant’s imminent death sets off a melee among the ministers of Stalin’s Politburo, who come running. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) arrives still dressed in his pajamas. The latest hastily scrambled list of names to be rounded up for the Gulag is recalled.
Most of “The Death of Stalin” captures, fairly realistically, the scheming and wrestling for power among Stalin’s cabinet — the motliest of crews. The race, at first, is to be the heir to Stalin’s policies and then, once the winds shift, to win the mantle of reformer, a feat requiring extreme political contortion. It’s a rich ensemble with varying accents, from Cockney to American, and uniform comic brilliance, including Michael Palin as Molotov, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov and Jason Isaacs as Zhukov.
But the primary drama is waged between Buscemi’s terrific Khrushchev and the exquisite Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, the secret police chief, who, when not ordering murders, dabbles in rape and pedophilia. That Beale creates such a character with even a hint of sympathy is a simply remarkably accomplishment.
There are hints and allusions throughout “The Death of Stalin” of the staggering horror just outside Kremlin walls. This is Iannucci’s first time working with real-life characters and it changes the trajectory and tone of the film. “The Death of Stalin,” which was banned from release in Russia, grows increasingly grim. The laughs dry up and painful truths settle in.
“The Death of Stalin,” an IFC Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout, violence and some sexual references.” Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.


Score! Scrabble dictionary adds ‘OK,’ ‘ew’ to official play

Updated 24 September 2018
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Score! Scrabble dictionary adds ‘OK,’ ‘ew’ to official play

  • Among more than 300 additions are yowza, OK and ew
  • There’s another special new entry because it involves use of a q without a u: qapik

NEW YORK: Scrabble players, time to rethink your game because 300 new words are coming your way, including some long-awaited gems: OK and ew, to name a few.
Merriam-Webster released the sixth edition of “The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary” on Monday, four years after the last freshening up. The company, at the behest of Scrabble owner Hasbro Inc., left out one possibility under consideration for a hot minute — RBI — after consulting competitive players who thought it potentially too contentious. There was a remote case to be made since RBI has morphed into an actual word, pronounced rib-ee.
But that’s OK because, “OK.”
“OK is something Scrabble players have been waiting for, for a long time,” said lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster. “Basically two- and three-letter words are the lifeblood of the game.”
There’s more good news in qapik, adding to an arsenal of 20 playable words beginning with q that don’t need a u. Not that Scrabblers care all that much about definitions, qapik is a unit of currency in Azerbaijan.
“Every time there’s a word with q and no u, it’s a big deal,” Sokolowski said. “Most of these are obscure.”
There are some sweet scorers now eligible for play, including bizjet, and some magical vowel dumps, such as arancini, those Italian balls of cooked rice. Bizjet, meaning — yes — a small plane used for business, would be worth a whopping 120 points on an opening play, but only if it’s made into a plural with an s. That’s due to the 50-point bonus for using all seven tiles and the double word bonus space usually played at the start.
The Springfield, Massachusetts-based dictionary company sought counsel from the North American Scrabble Players Association when updating the book, Sokolowski said, “to make sure that they agree these words are desirable.”
Sokolowski has a favorite among the new words but not, primarily, because of Scrabble scores. “It’s macaron,” he said, referring to the delicate French sandwich cookie featuring different flavors and fillings.
“I just like what it means,” he said.
Merriam-Webster put out the first official Scrabble dictionary in 1976. Before that, the game’s rules called for any desk dictionary to be consulted. Since an official dictionary was created, it has been updated every four to eight years, Sokolowski said.
There are other new entries Sokolowski likes, from a wordsmith’s view.
“I think ew is interesting because it expresses something new about what we’re seeing in language, which is to say that we are now incorporating more of what you might call transcribed speech. Sounds like ew or mm-hmm, or other things like coulda or kinda. Traditionally, they were not in the dictionary but because so much of our communication is texting and social media that is written language, we are finding more transcribed speech and getting a new group of spellings for the dictionary,” he said.
Like ew, there’s another interjection now in play, yowza, along with a word some might have thought was already allowed: zen.
There’s often chatter around Scrabble boards over which foreign words have been accepted into English to the degree they’re playable. Say hello to schneid, another of the new kids, this one with German roots. It’s a sports term for a losing streak. Other foreigners added because they predominantly no longer require linguistic white gloves, such as italics or quotation marks: bibimbap, cotija and sriracha.
Scrabble was first trademarked as such in 1948, after it was thought up under a different name in 1933 by Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect in Poughkeepsie, New York. Interest in the game picked up in the early 1950s, according to legend, when the president of Macy’s happened upon it while on vacation.
Now, the official dictionary holds more than 100,000 words. Other newcomers Sokolowski shared are aquafaba, beatdown, zomboid, twerk, sheeple, wayback, bokeh, botnet, emoji, facepalm, frowny, hivemind, puggle and nubber.