REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin shows a hilarious sequence of powerful people doing stupid things to become more powerful. Kruschev, Beria, Malenkov, and Molotov, competing in the power vacuum of a post-Stalin USSR. The movie shows small, seemingly mundane decisions which you usually wouldn’t think about when considering the deaths and horrors of Soviet authoritarianism, adding a darkly funny twist to a heavy history.

The beginning of the film sets the mood–the four men, Stalin’s advisors, doing their best to impress him, make him laugh. They spend a night trying to see who can crack the best jokes about people condemned to death by Stalin’s blacklists, and watching a Western cowboy movie that the four pretend to enjoy for the thousandth time, only to fall asleep. This important yet superficial game plays like a group of elementary school kids trying to impress the kid who just got the new toy everyone wants to play with. Afterwards, Kruschev goes home to his wife and they sit taking notes in the middle of the night about the absurd jokes or topics that Stalin laughed at, sharpening Kruschev’s strategy for currying Stalin’s favor. The ridiculousness of the situation becomes evident when Stalin is on his deathbed, but none of the men decide to call a doctor, each displaying a front of extravagant emotion at the illness of their dear leader while hoping for his death. The themes of manipulation, power, and absurdity are present throughout the story, as the four men throw together feeble alliances with each other to leverage as much power as possible for themselves.

The portrayal of political processes not only shed light on the sequence of events after Stalin’s death, but also shows some of the absurdity of politics in general. It helped me see why politics are so exclusive and difficult to infiltrate–you need to learn the game to be successful in this sort of cutthroat environment. One character says about Malenkov, Stalin’s meek successor: “never trust a weak man,” a testament to the cruciality of a strong arm and thick skin in politics. While cold war Russia may not be a perfect representation of the United States today, there are striking similarities.

At the end of the movie, as Beria is being killed, the others are listing off his crimes, including numerous counts of rape and sexual abuse. Beria then shouts that they have all been guilty of murder and rape. This brought me back to the current me too movement, with allegations against many politicians and actors, including some of the actors on the screen. It was striking to see Jeffrey Tambor playing one of these powerful men, since he was recently accused of sexual harassment. This was an eerie erasure of the line between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, the Death of Stalin was entertaining and made me laugh out loud. It showed harsh realities in a comedic way. I would have preferred a more substantive plot, but recommend the movie to anyone interested in thinking critically about politics while having a good laugh.

REVIEW: Play Structures: Yiu Keung Lee

In this collection, all of the eight individual structures are made from the same basic materials: terra cotta clay, house paint, platinum luster, latex tubing, and sometimes, salt. All of the different pieces are unified by the same basic artistic shapes, colors, and components as well. Each has a shiny silver ball or cone shape, terra cotta flowers, and either a spherical or oblong terra cotta centerpiece. All but one contain some form of what looks like the metal framework that you see in early stages of construction to support buildings. The artist’s short statement at the entrance of the gallery states that the collection is an autobiographical series composed of playful forms, which remind him of moments he treasures. As I was walking through the gallery, and soaking up the art, I was curious as to what memories inspired each piece. I really could not tell, and still don’t have any inkling of what the art means. Regardless, it was fun to ponder the way that our own memories work and invoke images in our minds, however indecipherable by others. The art was a reminder that we all have wonderful moments, gems of time in our lives that we will wear forever.

My favorite part of the collage of shapes that compose each structure is the array of flowers. They are bare clay, lovely and lively and natural additions to an otherwise quite abstract sculpture. The flowers are grounding in a way, and remind the viewer that the art is playful and inspired by goodness. Flowers are symbols of love–given on birthdays and celebrations of joy, and also commemorating loved ones who have passed. They are reminders of memories made and lives had.

In contrast to the plain terra cotta flowers are the glinting dashes of metallic paint, coating elegant spheres and spouts and cone shapes. These feel to me like the climax, the peak, of the memory–the shining moment that has really stuck in the artist’s mind. They are attention-capturing and bright.

Now the salt: a very interesting concept that also adds texture and movement to the sculptures. The salt and the metal-looking bar frames are what reminded me of the exhibit’s name: Play Structures. They look a little bit like playgrounds: the salt could be the sand or mulch on the ground, with flowers growing from the earth, and the metal clay bars are jungle gyms, monkey bars, to climb and to use for support.

Taking all components into account, this exhibit inspires my curiosity about the artist’s experiences and stories, it reminds me of my own memories, and all the conditions–people, places, lives, spontaneous happenings–that came together to create these moments.

PREVIEW: The Death of Stalin

A funny film about politics in a foreign country, laden with social and political commentary? You’ve got me hooked.

Directed by Armando Iannucci, and with actors Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, and Jeffrey Tambor, The Death of Stalin is described as a “political satire comedy” about the power vacuum that occurred in the time after Joseph Stalin died. This film takes a series of terrible events (and people) and makes them funny!

Interestingly, The Death of Stalin has been banned in Russia and other former members of the Soviet Union. I am very curious to see how this relates to the current talk about Russia in the United States, and how the film portrays Russia.

This movie is based off a French play, and was shown at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Now playing at the Michigan Theater! Student tickets are $8 or $7 for a matinee.

PREVIEW: Play Structures: Yiu Keung Lee

Every day on my way to class I walk past the Residential College art gallery and peek in to see what look to be small abstract sculptures made out of clay and what looks to be metal and other materials. I can never really tell what they represent, but I plan to find out!

This exhibit was created by artist Yiu Keung Lee, a Hong Kong born graduate of the University of Michigan, who has taught classes at many local universities, including U of M. He also runs a ceramics studio, and is currently working on pieces that are inspired by children’s art. I am curious to learn more about what inspired this exhibit!

Play Structures will be up in the gallery until Friday, April 5th, so get out and see it while you can!

REVIEW: Blithe Spirit, by the RC Players

This play was certainly blithe and spirited! From the beginning, it evoked laughs with playful foreshadowing, miscommunications, and plans gone awry.

My first impressions of the performance: The show’s production and set were perhaps the best I’ve seen from a low budget Residential College Players show. There were full walls and decorations of a 1940s home, creating a cohesive and realistic impression from the first glance. The transitions were smooth and the costumes were wonderful. When (spoiler) the two dead ghost-wives were together on stage in the third act, the effect of their powdered hair and silvery dresses created a distinct divide between the living husband and the dead wives, who had by this point begun to turn on him angrily. Here, the costumes helped push the plot along.

The characters were each believable and funny in their own ways. With both moments of poor judgment and wise reflection at different times, they were all relatable and developed, each with a distinct style and personality. Madame Arcati, the medium, was hilariously surprising as she threw around outdated expressions. Ruth was practical and intellectual, Elvira, the first wife, was frivolous and manipulative, Charles was confused and perpetually doling out some lesson or another.

Social commentary: The last two acts of the show especially shed light on the relationships between Charles, the husband, and his past and present wives. Throughout the show, Charles often shares advice with his wives, but ironically, hardly handles any situation well. He is patronizing in his interactions and conversations, reassuring Ruth and Elvira like children.

When Ruth and Elvira show themselves to be capable and assertive, Charles becomes frustrated that they are too “domineering” and “hag”-like. He consistently claims that they are just jealous of the other woman (and shouldn’t be), demonstrating his particular conception of how women should be and behave. An argument between Charles and Ruth, his current wife, in which Charles complains of how poorly she has handled the situation of Elvira’s return from the dead, is telling. He argues that she should have been a comfort to him in this time of strife, and fails to understand her perspective. Charles ironically presents himself as the victim of the situation, when he was the one who initiated the seance, and his wife is now dealing with the repercussions. This narrow conception of womanhood puts Ruth especially in a difficult position where it is nearly impossible to act uncriticized by her husband.

At the end, Charles is haunted by his two former wives, who, untethered by social expectations, finally have a chance to take revenge on the husband who underestimated them.


REVIEW: Border Crossers

I heard about this project when it was just getting started–with the call for student applicants. Now the project is complete, students and professors have designed, modeled, constructed, and tested their graceful, elephant-like, robot. Its completion itself is an incredible feat for everyone involved, especially as I consider how many brilliant ideas fizzle as we go about our busy lives as students. The thing itself is a 15-foot blow-up structure that arches over walls as it expands, creating the friendly sensation that someone is reaching out to you. It’s goal is to reflect what an actual structure to facilitate international border crossing would look like. But the full project is not part of this exhibit in the Institute for the Humanities gallery, open until March 23rd.

Instead, the exhibit sheds a unique light on the background and process that brought this art into being. There are large charcoal sketches on the walls, a mini model made with wood and plastic, and a binder of geometry, physics, and algebra plotting the logistics. This is the art behind the art, that we usually don’t see. It took me a minute to adjust to the idea that this was meant to show a process, not a grand product, and to appreciate the exhibit for what it was, the nitty gritty. However, seeing the visions and hopes the creators had for their project also kickstarted my imagination for how we can transform borders. The walls that the border crosser reached over were so foreboding, yet this team of people wanted to overcome them.

The process of creating the border crosser also helped surmount metaphorical borders, in bringing together people from across academic disciplines, from engineering to American cultures, to build and conceptualize the project. I don’t often think about technology intersecting with social issues, or SMTD students working with physics, but the breadth of this project forces viewers to stretch their preconceptions.

I think the most influential part of Border Crossers was the reminder that we can create beautiful things, even before we begin our careers. These students formed a cohesive groups and made something together all within the past few months, which is a pretty incredible achievement. The real world is happening now, and we can all be a part of it, even if we feel like we are not yet significant enough, not yet smart enough, not yet established enough, to produce something great.