‘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

‘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.


At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak looks on at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 9 min 11 sec ago

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”