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Film reviews: Comrades in comedy

Back in the USSR: Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor appear in The Death Of Stalin


The Death Of Stalin

(15) ★★★★★

IT’S The Thick Of It — in Russia. Armando Iannucci, genius comic creator of Veep and In The Loop, ostensibly treads new ground in adapting Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s French graphic novel, set in Stalinist Russia, for the big screen. But its hilarious mix of craven political backstabbing, perfectly tuned physical comedy and the most superlative swearing known to man should prove familiar territory for admirers of the peerless Iannucci.

It’s Russia, 1953. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin, playing him as an old-school East End gang boss) has ruled the Soviet Union with an iron rod for 33 years. One night he has a stroke. For hours Stalin lies sprawled unconscious in his own urine: his guards are too scared to move him and there are no good doctors left to treat him, all the best ones having been sent to the gulags. The film follows the ensuing mad scramble for power between his closest comrades and is all based, incredibly, on true events.

Cast-wise you’d struggle to find a more inspired mix of character actors, all must-sees in anything they do. Steve Buscemi’s clownish weasel of a Khrushchev is sort of the lead but The Death Of Stalin’s true power lies in being a remarkably strong ensemble piece.

Jeffrey Tambor is magnificent as Stalin’s vain, manipulable deputy, Michael Palin — what a treat to get him back on the big screen — is in Monty Python mode as the almost likeable Molotov while the never-less-than-astonishing Simon Russell Beale lands the prime, Peter-Capaldi-from-The-Thick-Of-It-type role as brutal secret police enforcer Beria, a cuddly shark whose obscenity-fuelled insults are here more than mere idle wordplay. Paul Whitehouse, Andrea Riseborough, Paddy Considine and Jason Isaacs round out proceedings with turns that would normally steal a movie.

That all the actors eschew dodgy Bond villain-style accents to speak in their usual voices makes this satire feel more immediate. Witty and scarily pertinent to almost any organisation, The Death Of Stalin is so brilliant it’s a privilege to watch it.

The verdict

Quite simply the comedy movie of the year

I Am Not A Witch

(12A) ★★★★✩

THIS arresting debut sees a nine-year-old girl sent to government-approved ‘witch camp’ (now, there’s a C4 reality series just begging for commission). There, little Shula (Margaret Mulubwa, pictured) is tied to a massive wooden bobbin and presented with a choice: stay tethered in camp and become a slave or cut the ribbon that binds her and transform into a goat.

A fascinating witch’s brew of absurdism, realism, satire and fairy tale, I Am Not A Witch reveals young Zambian-Welsh director/writer Rungano Nyoni as a blazing talent to watch. A striking, if self-conscious, aesthetic is thrillingly combined with rural Zambian locations and a magnetic, almost entirely amateur cast. Like its young heroine, the film remains intriguingly hard to read yet casts a strange, boldly beautiful spell.

Brawl In Cell Block 99

(18) ★★★✩✩

‘BRAWL’ barely hints at the hardcore violence unleashed by this superior 21st-century grindhouse flick.

Bradley (a career-reinventing Vince Vaughn) is a hulking skinhead whose life is ‘south of OK, north of cancer’ even before he’s slammed up in jail and his pregnant girlfriend (Jennifer Carpenter) is held to ransom by drug lords. To free her, Bradley agrees to kill a prisoner in the notorious gothic Cell Block 99, ruled over by Don Johnson, but first he has to go bat-poop psycho enough to get banged up in there.

Vaughn is captivating in his vulnerable, forlorn-eyed, rage-fuelled intensity. More than anything, it’s him that compels you to watch through these 132 demolishing minutes.

Another slow-build juggernaut of violence from S Craig Zahler (director of Bone Tomahawk), Brawl In Cell Block 99 is an uneasy mix of cartoonish physicality and something nastier, particularly in its victimisation of women (or rather woman -there’s only one). It left me more nauseous than anything in The Human Centipede but, even as you’re peeking through your fingers, you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.

Also out: Picks for half term

Earth: One Amazing Day (U)

BBC Earth Films’ sequel to Earth provides another montage of amazing wonders, cosily narrated by Robert Redford.

My Little Pony: The Movie (U)

The ponies are back in this animated musical reboot, with Emily Blunt leading the new voice cast as an embittered unicorn.

Barbie: Dolphin Magic (U)

This ‘never-before-seen, UK premiere’ screens alongside fellow animated kid-pleaser Paw Patrol: Big Screen Tails nationwide but only at Showcase Cinemas.