Wednesday 17 July 2019

Movie reviews: The Death of Stalin, Happy Death Day, Marshall

The Death Of Stalin (15A, 107mins) ★★★★★

Happy Death Day (15A, 96mins) ★★

Marshall (12A, 118mins) ★★★

Dead pan: The cast in The Death Of Stalin deliver some comedy gold moments
Dead pan: The cast in The Death Of Stalin deliver some comedy gold moments
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

When guards found Joseph Stalin lying unconscious on his office floor on the evening of March 1, 1953, they were terrified. So were Stalin's closest political associates, who gathered anxiously and quickly succumbed to infighting and indecision.

At first, they were too scared to call for medical help: 'the boss' took a dim view of doctors and had recently tortured one who suggested he needed rest. And if Stalin was dead, or dying, who would have nerve to call it, knowing what would happen to them if he suddenly recovered?

This wonderfully tragi-comic situation is the basis of The Death Of Stalin, Armando Iannucci's dark and caustic satire. While Stalin lived, even party grandees like Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Molotov (Michael Palin), Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) had trembled in fear of falling from favour and being disappeared in the dead of night.

Now, all see their chance, and Malenkov and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) lead the charge to grab the reins of the Soviet empire. But Khrushchev is wise to their game.

All of this Iannucci presents as an amusing but deadly serious game of musical chairs. Jeffrey Tambor is perfect as the lugubrious Malenkov, and Beale oozes malice as Stalin's sadistic henchman Beria. And what a masterstroke it was to cast Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev.

The Stalingrad veteran was a favourite of Stalin: he told great war stories and could hold his own during the long nights of forced drinking. All that charm and humour is explicit in Buscemi's nuanced performance, but you just know his Khrushchev is craftier than the rest and will seize his chance when it comes.

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What if Groundhog Day was a horror film? This is the big idea behind Happy Death Day, a cheerfully silly thriller set at a middle-American university.

When Theresa 'Tree' Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) comes to the dorm room of a male classmate called Carter (Israel Broussard), she groans weakly and asks him for painkillers. It's her birthday, but she'd rather not be reminded of it: she's late for class and has apparently just spent the night with a total stranger.

Tree gets about a bit and is also having a steamy affair with a married professor. A busy life then, and she's on her way to a sorority party when a masked figure confronts her and slits her throat. But Tree wakes up in Carter's room again to find she's about to live through exactly the same day and be murdered again at the end of it. But who's doing the killing and how will she manage to free herself from this Dantesque loop?

I was more interested in how I'd manage to free myself from it, because while Happy Death Day starts well enough and is very proud of its sense of humour, it's too lazy to bother its arse when the time comes to justify its premise.

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Your honour, I object! No one actually says that in Marshall, but they might as well have because although based on a true story, Reginald Hudlin's film misses no opportunity to trot out the weary tropes of the courtroom drama.

Chadwick Boseman is Thurgood Marshall, a young firebrand lawyer whose work with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People takes him across 1940s America defending black suspects who've been wrongly accused.

One such, it seems, is Joseph Spell (Sterling K Brown), a black chauffeur charged with raping his white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson). When Marshall begins working on the case with a local Jewish lawyer (Josh Gad), he finds that the woman's story is full of holes. But the defendant may not be telling the truth either.

While slowly choking on the worthiness of its subject matter, Marshall putters along perfectly pleasantly, and messrs Gad and Boseman are a winning double act.

Irish Independent

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