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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Culture Corner with Andrew Williams

The Arts Desk’s weekly picks for movies, books, music, television shows

Movie: “Death of Stalin” dir. by Armando Iannucci

Scottish director Armando Iannucci refits the demise of Joseph Stalin to his own satirical lens, conjuring up either hearty laughs or prolonged looks of shock depending on your personal opinion of the late Soviet Union. Shenanigans ensue when Stalin croaks and his inner circle jousts for their position. Shots are fired and insults fly high. Making matters more bizarre, all the bickering is delivered in an assortment of haphazard accents — mostly British and none Russian. With the plot being so ambitious and off-the-walls, the execution had to be on point. Taking up the mantle of this task was a cast of comedic stalwarts including Steve Buscemi as a jovial scheming Nikita Khruschev; Jeffrey Tambor as meek surrogate ruler Georgy Malenkov; and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s chronically drunk and petulant son Vasily. All in all, “Death of Stalin” is about as fun as it is absurd — and boy is it absurd.

Book: “Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster

My father is an architect and like many architects, he gravitates toward everything architecture. So naturally, when deciding on what to read to his 8-year-old son, he picked up a novel written by an architect. “Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Shuster is a tale of three characters: a boy, a watchdog (a literal fusion between a watch and a dog) and a stuffy humbug. They set off together on a quest to restore Rhyme and Reason — two princesses —  to their rightful place on the throne. While meandering through the bustling word-market of Dictionopolis and traversing the mines of Digitoplolis, the audience is swept into Juster’s love for everything that has to do with knowledge. His contagious admiration for a child’s curiosity is brimming on every page. This book masters every respectable grade school’s teacher dream: to make learning fun. Although the novel is meant for children, I revisited it this past week and found a new appreciation for Shuster’s wit and nuggets of wisdom. Flipping the book shut, I found I had heightened senses and refreshed appreciation for the time that’s tick, tick, ticking away.

Album: “James Blake” by James Blake

There is an often cycled mantra in the design world that “less is more.” James Blake’s 2011 debut album embodies this mantra to a tee. Blake breaks down his art to the minutiae, removing anything that isn’t essential to the feeling being conveyed. More often than not, that feeling is isolation. The wispy electronic soundscapes, deep blue piano and torn soulful voice paint a collage of despondency. His lyrics are even minimal, building more an underlying tone than a precise message. Although I would not recommend heavy doses, his music can be a tonic to alleviate the ache of moments when we feel most alone. When it seems like the world has tuned you out, James Blake is here and he gets it.

Television Series: “Mad Men”

The Dos Equis Man better start hunting for a new day job because Donald Draper is officially the most interesting man in the world. Draper, played by Jon Hamm in his breakout role, is a dashing, debonair and deeply depressed ad-man working on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. The writing department of “Mad Men” pulls no punches, depicting boardrooms and bedrooms laden with all the -isms: sexism, racism and a hefty dose of alcoholism. Yet within all the vulgar humor and frankly infuriating decision making by the protagonist, there isn’t much not to love. The performances by the women of “Mad Men,” namely Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, steal the show. Aesthetically, the show hits the nail on the head at every point from set design to Roger Sterling’s impeccable double-breasted suits. But beyond that eye-pleasing facade, we find the show’s core — a swirling mess of insecurity that taps into places even great television rarely ever can.

Written by: Andrew Williams — arts@theaggie.org


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