VICE – movie reveiw


Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Adam McKay
Screenwriter:  Adam McKay
Cast:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Lily Rabe, Alison Pill, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk
Screened at: DGA, NYC, 11/23/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
Vice - Poster Gallery
Adam McKay is nothing if not a patriotic critic of United States policy.  With his adaptation of “The Big Short,” he took on the folks who gave us the worst recession since the Great Depression.  With “Revolt of the Yes Men” he and his fellow directors struck at corporate crimes for Big Business’ efforts to fight climate change.  “Anchorman 2” showed the man’s ability to make a light movie just for fun, though he is probably critical of any newscaster who came after Walter Cronkite.  Now he does it again with a satire that has elements of Michael Moore’s hard-hitting humor but tempered in his depiction of former Vice President Dick Cheney to such an extent that you might think at times that he is simply neutral about the man’s “accomplishments.”  “Vice” is a most delightful description of Cheney and his times beginning in 1963 and ending with the closing of the Bush administration where he watches the Obama inauguration from a wheelchair, pretending for the photographers that he is not completely disgusted with the afternoon’s activities.

As played by Christian Bale, who gained forty pounds for the role (not a wise choice considering that this could put him in league with the Veep who had five heart attacks), Cheney influences President George W. Bush to such an extent that journalists and pundits believe that he is not just the man behind the throne but the guy who is actually serving as President of the United States.  Cheney is a master manipulator, using his street smarts to get Bush to give him more power than any preceding Vice President ever enjoyed.  In fact he had been so aggressive in his determination to influence American foreign policy that he may have made the big decision to move troops from Afghanistan into Iraq, the kind of mistake to which the U.S. had become accustomed–not such our policy toward Vietnam but dating back to colonial days when patriotic countrymen strung up those dreadful witches.

Though his approval rating when he left office was 13%, you’ve got to wonder where the people who became the rank and file of the Tea Party were. Surely more of us, particularly in the red states of course, are willing to defend anything the Republican Party does, even tolerate a serial liar and womanizer simply because the person occupying the Oval Office is doing what they want him to do.  Cheney himself notes that like Nixon, he believes that anything the President does is ipso factor legal.

McKay, who wrote the script as well as directs, reaches back to 1963 when the Nebraska-born, Wyoming-living politician attended Yale and later the University of Wyoming getting a graduate degree in Political Science.  McKay brings us to the Nixon and Ford administrations where he pushes his way into getting appointed as White House Chief of Staff, then in 1978 becomes the sole Wyoming representative in the House where he is reelected five times, then Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush presidency.  He has time even to become the CEO of Halliburton which, by coincidence no doubt, won many government no-bids contracts to supply war needs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It’s little wonder that when he resigned from Halliburton—whose stock rose 500% at one point—he was given a separation sum of $22 million.

Much is made of the domestic life of the man.  He is given hell by his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) during the early years of their marriage for being a drunk and getting into bar fights, but soon enough he shapes up to watch his star rise and see the pride that Lynne takes in him.  His wife, surprisingly, does not want him to accept an appointment from Bush to be his running mate since the job is considered ceremonial—or in more colorful terms as John Nance Garner once put it, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”  Little did Garner realize that a manipulator of the sort that Cheney was could actually set policy, which would be officially announced as the thoughts of the President.  The only character who shines as much as both Bale and Adams is Steve Carell, a busy man indeed, who can emcee an evening of Saturday Night Live and now just as effectively portray Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

About the Michael Moore comparison: the most comical scene occurs when Bush (Sam Rockwell, who is truly funny to nobody’s surprise) tries to coax Cheney into becoming his running mate.  Cheney resists, telling POTUS that instead he could recommend a slate of people he considers worthy.  Little does Bush realize that Cheney is playing him, acting coy in order to make demands that Bush give him more policy-making power than any Vice President had before him.  Cheney is  mum on the issue of gay marriage, which a conservative Republican would surely oppose.  Could it be because one of his two daughters, Mary, is an open lesbian now living in Virginia with her wife Heather Poe?  And could that explain why Cheney broke rank with most of his fellow conservatives by supporting gay marriage?  If only the man were that decent and not the one who supported waterboarding and other methods of enhanced interrogation!  Never mind that Mary’s sister, during her own campaign for Wyoming’s rep in the House, insists that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Ah, politics.

Even serious matters like Cheney’s heart attacks are choreographed with wit.  When the Vice President falls to the floor and an ambulance is called, that’s the usual way.  In two other cases he stands with colleagues and announces casually and almost ironically that they should call the hospital.  When Cheney gets the heart of a man who dies in an auto accident, instead of praising the hero’s family he says that he is proud to have “my new heart.”  If Cheney is truly the man with the most influence on foreign policy during the Bush administration, he deserves censure for the loss of life of our fighting team and for 600,000 mostly civilian deaths in Iraq.

This is not the first satiric movie about Cheney but arguably the most incisive and best acted.  Oliver Stone directed a biographical drama using Richard Dreyfus to impersonate Cheney; in “Who is America” Sacha Baron Cohen pranked Cheney into signing a makeshift water board kit.  Ultimately you might agree that Cheney is so out of touch with common decency that you don’t need to pen a satiric book or a broadside on the screen.  He is his own caricature.

123 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – A-


  • To search for a review, click the three bold horizontal lines near the upper left corner.  In the search box, enter the movie’s title, or director, or screenwriter, or principal actor, or opening date, or even a key word.  Reviews by Harvey Karten are from select movies from February 2017 to the present.

THE INVISIBLES – movie review


THE INVISIBLES (Die Unsichtbaren)
Greenwich Entertainment
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Claus Räfle
Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López
Cast: Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras, Victoria Schulz
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/6/19
Opens: January 25, 2019

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Once the Nazis rounded up the Jews and other groups that they opposed for reasons difficult if not impossible to believe, and transported them into concentration camps, there was little hope for their survival. In Poland, which had the largest per capita number, only one Jew out a hundred survived, usually liberated by Russians or Americans. On the other hand, many Jews who once lived in areas occupied by Germany during World War II were able to survive by leaving for the UK, the U.S., or Israel provided that they realized Hitler was not about to go away in a few weeks or months and were courageous enough to give up their property and money by escaping. There is another segment, some 7000 according to historians, who hid in plain sight, given refuse by Christians at the risk of their own lives, refusing to leave and taking their chances. Yet only 1700 survived thanks to the civilian creeps who informed on the others with the Gestapo and especially from the loathsome Stella Goldschlag who used her beauty to ferret out Jews and who, after serving time in a Soviet prison, converted to Christianity and became an anti-Semite. “The Invisibles” is a docudrama about four Jews who remained in Berlin intent on trying their luck. Claus Räfle in his freshman work for the big screen, informs his audience about both the rashness of their decision and the prudence which allowed them to remain calm and not to allow their youthful energy to lead them into captivity.

Räfle, who co-wrote the drama with Alejandra López, employs grainy archival film from the war, frequently cutting from the colorful modern shots, while also pausing to focus on the individuals as they live now. This is a technique that has good and bad points: the latter because it interrupts the flow, and praiseworthy by showing the audience that these folks are still alive (except one who died after the filming) with sharp memories of the most fearful event in their lives. The film could have avoided confusion by concentrating on two people instead of four, one, Cioma Schönhaus (Max Mauff) who wound up with a counterfeiting ring, thereby saving thousands of his fellow Jews, and another, Hanni Lévy (Alice Dwyer), who died her hair blonde and lived by daily visits to the local cinema. Lévy found refuge with the woman who sold tickets and who, maybe, could have figured that a young person seeing the same movie over and over might be hiding from the authorities.

Less developed cases involve Ruth Arndt (Ruby O. Fee) and her sister who turned up as maids for a military officer who knew full well that he was harboring Jews.

In framing the work, director Räfle gives attention to both the talking heads and the dramatizations, the latter being the more absorbing thereby avoiding the plight of documentaries that spend all their time on interviews without dramatic contextualization. The team of survivors dish out credible performances, the most alluring to me being that of Alice Dwyer’s Hanni, who might stand in for perhaps scores, maybe hundreds of young Jewish women who could pass because for one thing, Germans could not imagine that Jewish hair could be “Aryan-color” and for another, Goebbels announced in 1943 that Berlin was free of Jews.

If you go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, be sure to look up the names of Righteous Among the Nations, Christians who risked their lives hiding Jews like the ones in this film, many found out and executed. The film was a feature at last year’s Jewish Film Festival and should be seen by folks of all ethnicities, religions and races. If you go to Berlin, and you should, you can’t miss the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2711 stelae or slabs taking up the entire city block. Germany today, unlike Turkey, does not hide its wartime crimes, openly advertising tours to such structures as the Jewish Museum. The Jewish community of Berlin, which in 1933 numbered 160,000, became what Goebbels called free of Jews in 1943, and is now home to 118,000 Jews who no longer need to hide.

110 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B-
Overall – B

GIRL – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Lukas Dhont
Screenwriter:  Lukas Dhont, Angelo Tijssens
Cast:  Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter, Oliver Bodart, Tijmen Govaerts, Katelijne Damen, Valentijn Dhaenens
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/17/18
Opens: January 18, 2019
Victor Polster in Girl (2018)
European countries like Denmark are passing laws outlawing circumcision, but if you accept what you see in the movie “Girl,” you’ll wonder why Belgium would allow sex change operations, which are far more complex than circumcision.  I would guess that this is because babies are circumcised long before they have the right to consent to the minor surgery while boys who want to transgender to girls are of the age of consent.  Still, when 15-year-old Lara, formerly Victor (Victor Polster), opts to change from male to female, he is still a minor by our laws here.  Maybe things are more liberal in Belgium.

The drama “Girl” is directed by Lukas Dhont in his freshman, full-length movie.  He had done the short “Headlong” previously about a young ballet dancer in a foreign location overcome with loneliness, so he is in his métier in dealing this time with a whole class of ballet dancers practicing under strict supervision in one of Belgium’s most prestigious dance academies.

“Girl” is part a mostly internalized emotional roller coaster taken by Lara, part a look at the intense practice sessions of the school where teachers have no problem with tough love, another part being a look at the procedure a man must go through in that country if he wants to change his sex.  Lara is in virtually every scene, her (using “her” from this point) face a clear mirror of the emotional traumas she experiences.   She is living with his Francophone father, Mathias (Arieh Worthalter), a cab driver, and a six-year-old brother Milo (Oliver Bodart) who once makes the mistakes of calling Lara by his birth name of Victor.  The dad is understanding, escorting the 15-year-old to sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr. Pascal (Valentijn Dhaenens) and the surgeon Dr. Naert (Katelijne Damen).  Both medical professionals listen well, are warm and comforting, and seem to look upon a sex change as a vital procedure for the emotional health of the patient.

At this point, it might be said that straight people like me have trouble accepting the cutting up and surgical dangers to be undergone by candidates for transgender surgery, as it is probably difficult for most people to accept the intense need by candidates to accept the side effects of the surgery and hormonal upsets that the body must go through.  But as they say, you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand, though some men desiring to become women may stop short of surgery by becoming simply cross-dressers while others go the full gamut to connect to themselves.

Much of the film comes across as visuals, not depending on dialogue.  The mixed class of young people go through the ballet steps as the instructor barks orders, performing arabesques, glissades, pas de chat, pirouettes, switch leaps, all of which are important if you, as a spectator, attend a concert.  While the dance sessions are outward, Lara’s emotions are inward.  Nothing will please Lara more than to speed up the process of becoming a woman, whether to take extra hormones (not recommended) or to get the final procedure to turn male members into a vagina and even a clitoris.  Though Lara is counseled to live for today and not to make time pass slowly by dreaming of the final surgery, she simply cannot get her ultimate goal out of her mind.  This passion for fast change—something shared by straight adolescents for whom the world is moving too slowly and transgender candidates—will lead to a dramatic finale, one that, from what we hear, will have Cannes viewers talking for months.

Some people in the LGBTQ community may object that a cisgender male was cast, the term meaning one whose birth sex is the same as his natural gender role, just as those in the deaf community believe that only deaf people should be cast as actors in movies about the deaf.  Still Victor Polster has the look of someone who could easily play a girl (see his picture on, a professional dancer who knows how to perform ballet and to take on the difficult role of a person who faces the double emotional rides of both adolescence and a girl born into a boy’s body.  Both Victor and all the supporting roles, especially of girls in the dance class who at one point egg Lara on to show them his “third leg,” are strong. “Girl” is Belgium’s Oscar entry for best foreign picture.

109 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

PIG (Khook) – movie review

PIG (Khook)
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Mani Haghighi
Screenwriter: Mani Haghighi
Cast: Hasan Majuni, Leila Hatami, Leili Rashidi, Parinaz Izadyar, Mina Jafarzadeh
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 1/6/19
Opens: January 11, 2019 at Iranian Film Festival in NY: at IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue

Pig (2018 film).jpg

How do you like your Iranian movies? Do you favor meditative ones in the Ingmar Bergman style with a focus on the regrets of old age? Then Bahman Farmanara’s “Tale of the Sea” is your glass of sharbat. If instead you prefer absurdist dark comedy, Coen Brothers’ fashion? Then go for “Pig.” “Pig,” or “Khook” as the picture is known in Farsi, is a hallucinatory look at the high-end folks of Tehran, people who visit museums that show modern art and those whom Trump supporters would consider elitist. These are the well-to-do, BMW-owning artists, in this case represented by Hasan Kasmai (Hasan Majuni), a filmmaker who was blacklisted by the government. People in the know about global politics will pick up that Kasmai stands in for the real-life Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker who was unable to get a job because the politicians did not like his alleged propaganda against the government and who in 2011 smuggled a video out to the Cannes Festival by hiding the flash drive inside a cake.

Writer-director Mani Haghighi, whose “Men at Work” is an allegorical take on four middle-aged men on a ski trip, continues his wont to hide political commentary in a similar allegorical form, this time gives us “Pig,” a barb against the narcissism of artists, a trait that we in the U.S. know well given the current administration in the White House.

To get his message across, Haghighi employs the darkly comic theme of murder, wherein a killer decapitates artists before or after cutting off their heads. One filmmaker, the blacklisted Hasan Kasmai, feels slighted that he still keeps his head, wondering whether he is really in the top tier of his profession if he is being ignored by the murderer. Perhaps Haghighi is saying that some high-up officials are themselves being headless, persecuting those with whom they disagree.

“Pig” can be considered a horror film only as a stretch. When we see a few heads on the curbside and in the morgue with missing torsos, we are not in the company of filmmakers like Wes Craven and Rob Zombie who give their largely teen base the blood and guts that they eagerly lap up. When Hasan, the film’s principal subject, is not lamenting the injunction on his film making, using his time to shoot commercials, he is having an affair with leading lady Shiva (Leila Hatami). But Shiva, tired of being without employment because of the ban on her lover and director’s art, goes over to filmmaker Saidi (Ali Mosoffa) to Hasan’s displeasure.

Still, Hasan is pursued, even stalked for roles in movies yet to come, by Annie (Parinaz Izadyar). At the same time Hasan is himself babied by his rifle-toting mother, who will play a major role toward the story’s conclusion. Hip audience members will recall Chekhov’s insight that a gun shown in Act I will be used in Act III.

Among the visual candy on hand is an extended insecticide commercial, the all-female crew of bugs dressed in red with yellow boots, ultimately to be killed off by a huge, misty cloud. A dig at social media, in this case Instagram (Iran does not allow Facebook), sets Hasan up as the murderer by capturing him in scenes that could lead to his prosecution. Despite the thematic importance of this film, Hasan Majuni in the lead role becomes tiresome with a half hour to go. He is unlikable; an obese, temper-tantrum baby wearing silly T-shirts including one advertising Black Sabbath, an English rock group named after Mario Bava’s 1963 film of the same name.

There’s an elephant in the room. We in the U.S., told repeatedly that Iran is an authoritarian state that denies freedom to women and would not tolerate a movie critical of its repressive laws, may be surprised to note that men and women who are not related are seen chatting freely, driving cars, and observing so-called corrupt abstract art which was banned by totalitarian governments like Germany in the thirties and the Soviet Union under communism.

“Pig” is among the films exhibited beginning Jan. 10, 2019 in New York, enjoying the first Iranian Festival contributions this year. Shot on location in Tehran with sharp images by Mahmoud Kalari, the picture is in Farsi with English subtitles.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

TALE OF THE SEA – movie review

TALE OF THE SEA (Hekayat-e Darya)
Reviewed for and by: Harvey Karten
Director: Bahman Farmanara
Screenwriter: Bahman Farmanara
Cast: Bahman Farmanara, Fatemeh Motemad Arya, Leila Hatami, Saber Abar, Ali Nassirian
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/
Opens: January 10, 2019 at the First Iranian International Film Festival in NY: At IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue, NY NY.

Leila Hatami and Saber Abar in Hekayat-e darya (2018)

You would not be surprised at the similarity of “Tale of the Sea” to previous works from the Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Farmanara. Farmanara deals with momentous subjects in previous works. In “Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine,” for example, the writer-director envelops his principal character with thoughts of death, plot items evoking thoughts of the final exit. The principal character wonders why his niece’s husband fails to return home. He searches hospitals for an unclaimed body while his own heart is giving out. In “A Separation,” a married couple runs into conflict as one partner wants to leave Iran while the other needs to care for an ailing mother. A heart (one breaking, the other physically fragile), marital conflict, illnesses including a budding schizophrenia and depression, and once again thoughts of leaving Iran, crop up again. This new film may remind literate moviegoers of the works of Ingmar Bergman, particularly his 1957 film “Wild Strawberries”(an aging man confronts the emptiness of his existence)—while Peyman Yazdanian’s score at times recalls Hitchcockian tones.

“Tale of the Sea,” which takes place in a writer’s spacious home overlooking the ocean, is a theatrical piece, with most scenes involving one or two people with the occasional presence of a trio. Taher Mohebi (Bahman Farmanara), the principal character, is played by the filmmaker, who is 77 years old, a large man made up to look as though he is approaching his mid-80s. Conversations take place between drinks of tea that his wife Jaleh (Fatemeh Motamed-Arya) often prepares and a cup of Turkish coffee brewed by Paraveneh, a surprise guest in his home who will radically change the married couple’s life.

For his part Taher, a writer known by his former students as Maestro, has spent three years in an institution for the emotionally disturbed, longing to remain there though prodded by his doctor (Ali Mosaffa) to go out and face reality. Taher continues to look like Job, years of woe yielding a face whose perpetual sadness belies the pale blue eyes that we assume should connote joy. We don’t wonder why his wife wants a divorce, though she will wait until her husband gets better lest an announcement of separation now lead to the poor man’s death.

A few scenes on the beach take us temporarily away from the purely theatrical. Taher meets people from his past, including a hallucinatory friend (Ali Nassirian) who had been “assigned to eternity” years earlier, and an emotional political activist (Saber Abar) who would like to relive the best years of his life—which were back in college when Maestro was his favorite teacher. All this Proustian remembrance of past memories is not unlike the situation faced by Dr. Eberhard Isak Borg in “Wild Strawberries,” whose “visits” to past people in his life remind him of the emptiness of his existence.

If you are not familiar with Ingmar Bergman—though if you read commentary on this film you surely must be—then think of Katherine Hepburn who, when asked about the value of old age to provide wisdom to youth replies that old age has not a single redeeming feature. You would expect that in his better days, Taher, active as a teacher and a celebrity author as well, was a different person, and you would probably be right. By the time you exit the theater, you may be more fearful of growing old (yes, of course, it’s better than the alternative), than ever. The melancholia of age and the way the brilliant director, producer, screenwriter and principal actor work to make you feel the mournful emotions, are what make “Tale of a Sea” a downer, if you will, but one that will leave you absorbed for its full 97 minutes while respecting that this filmmaker is at the top of his game.

97 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

ASHES IN THE SNOW – movie review

Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director: Marius Markevicius
Screenwriter: Ben York Jones, based on Ruta Sepetys’ novel “Between Shades of Gray”
Cast: Bel Powley, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Martin Wallstrom, Sam Hazeldine, Peter Franzen, Sophie Cookson
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/3/19
Opens: January 11, 2019

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When Ruta Sepetys’ novel “Between Shades of Gray” came out, it made a hit with some middle school and high school educators and was relegated in some public libraries to the YA sections, meant primarily for youths. Some parents inevitably complained that the book was so bleak, the action so violent, that it was robbing their precious children of their innocence. Innocence: in the 21st Century when kids are likely to witness torture and killing on a mammoth scale on the screen? Maybe. In any case the film’s dialogue, a product of Ben York Jones’s screenplay adaptation of the novel, is simplistic, as though meant for a target audience who barely know that the U.S. fought Germany and not the Soviet Union in the 1940s and could expect to make a chore of several minutes when ordered to find Lithuania on a map of Europe.

Marius Markevicius, who directs his sophomore feature, is in his métier, having presided over the documentary “The Other Dream Team,” about Lithuania’s basketball squad, struggling under Soviet rule, making the hoop sportsmen a symbol of the Baltic country’s independence.

Markevicius assembled actors from the U.K. Norway and Sweden, even one from Finland, and shot the movie almost entirely on location, using a topography as bleak as the story line, with miles of miles of snow that make you want to race from the theater at the conclusion and head for Punta Cana. If this film came out in 1950, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were no longer pals, you’d think it had CIA funding, once again stressing the simplicity of the plot and the dialogue to make clear to all common denominators in the audience that we were the good guys and not those people speaking with strange accents. Though Uncle Joe Stalin is not seen except in a photo on the wall, he is responsible for sending millions to the gulags in Siberia, including a few score folks right now in this movie.

While the Soviets are battling the Nazis in 1942, they have time to dispatch people from occupied Lithuania to the far north for, what exactly? For digging up potatoes? Really? The exploited workers seem to have conditions as bad as inmates in Hitler’s concentration camps, doing penance for crimes that the idiot Nazis considered to be crimes. A whole family are accused of treason, and hauled out of their flats, which gives director Markevicius—who is of Lithuanian heritage—the opportunity to focus on one actress with whom the principal expected audience would identify. That would be English actress Bel Powley, a 26-year-old in the role of one who is but sixteen, and whose agonized face is seen throughout. Hoping to be an artist, she is the pride and joy of her mother, Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli who is Norwegian). Martin Sallstrom as Nicolai Kretzsky, is a bad guy but not entirely. To one prisoner, he admits that he does not want to be where he is either. Would he prefer to be transferred to the Russian front?

Aside from the acting talents particularly of Wallstrom and Kongsli, a fine job comes from Ramunas Greicius behind the lenses. The makeup team does splendid work in changing the appearance of the happy Lithuanian family to a chorus that could march off the set to the second job in Les Misérables.

Though many a film has Germans speaking English and Scandinavians imitating just about anybody else with their multi-lingual capabilities, the authentic scenes are the ones in which the Russians speak Russian, the Lithuanians speak a language which has roots in Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek. The English language, which takes over the majority of the 100 minutes, could have used subtitles given the forced accents put on by Powley and others.

100 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – C+
Technical – B
Overall – C+

COMMUNION (Komunia) – movie review

HBO Europe
Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director: Anna Zamecka
Screenwriter: Anna Zamecka
Cast: Ola Kaczanowski, Nikodem Kaczanowski, Marek Kaczanowski, Magdalena Kaczanowski
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/2/19
Opens: January 4, 2019

Komunia (2016)

In his book “Bowling Alone” author Robert D. Putnam laments the loss of American community using the sport of bowling as metaphor. In former times we used to have bowling leagues. Now those who attend alleys increasingly see men and women bowling by themselves, perhaps because they cannot find people to join them or maybe they prefer being away from the stress of bonding with others. A more serious situation occurs when children cannot even enjoy the stability that a two-parent family should be able to provide. This is true not only in America but in Poland as well. Anna Zamecka, in her debut as director, writer, editor and producer, knocks out quite an opener using a non-traditional documentary format, a fly-on-the-wall method to capture the tensions within a working class Polish household.

“Working class” would be a promotion in the Kaczanowska household. The father, Marek is lethargic, a layabout on the dole, a chain-smoker with a love of the bottle. It does not help that his wife Magdalena left him a few years back and now has a baby with an abusive spouse. Nikodem (was he named for the patch you wear on your shoulder to quit smoking?) is autistic, makes animal imitations and sounds. He moves his body about spastically. He is being prepped for communion at the age of thirteen, the local priest being too strict to accept the boy’s apparent deficiencies of memory. The star of the movie, though, is Ola, a fourteen-year-old who has friends her own age but is called upon at her tender years to be the majordomo of the family: to sweep, to prepare her brother for the upcoming service, to coax her dad away from the bottle. In other words she is being put upon to act the adult and naturally would like her mother to come back to the fold and restore stability to the dysfunctional family. The boy’s communion provides the opportunity for the get-together, and while the father is optimistic, Ola, more realistically, knows that the get-together will be but brief.

Given the lack of family functions the world-over, “Communion,” which as a narrative focus is about a specific religious event, is more broadly the effort to get four people to commune together, to stop bowling alone, so to speak. Dad, daughter and son are of course aware that the camera is on them, a feature that could serve, if anything, to increase the stress, which is all to the good. We are aware of the fragilities of family life, we are told that family is the one place to which we can escape the pressures of the outside world. But what happens when life within offers no respite to the life outside in the cold, cruel world? As the Kaczanowskis’ lives unfold, we wonder what will happen when mom flies the coop once again. We can ponder that no miracles will happen with them and, by extension, with so many of the folks in Poland, in the U.S., in Wherever. Ola turns in an authentic, semi-scripted performance but for pure entertainment, we cannot fail to focus our eyes on the hyperactive thirteen-year-old who, though his spasms reflect a sad condition of autism, his clownish behavior serves for us a laugh that gets caught short in our throats.

72 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B


Reviewed for and by: Harvey Karten
Director: Roberta Grossman
Screenwriter: Roberta Grossman, Samuel Kassow from Kassow’s book “Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto”
Cast: Jowitz Budnik, Piotr Glowacki, Piotr Jankowski, Wojciech Zielinski, Karolina Gruzka, Bartlomiej Kotschedoff, Gera Sandler
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/1/19
Opens: January 18, 2019

Who Will Write Our History Large Poster

We in the U.S. are living now in a time that the printed word has been downgraded, where texting and sexting are the language of youth, and where the New York Times is denigrated by our country’s chief office holder as “failing” and full of “fake news.” How refreshing it is, then, that a film and the book from which it is adapted honors the word, whether in English, or Yiddish, or Hebrew or Polish. “Who Will Write our History” commemorates and even idolizes a few remarkable people shut inside the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi conquest of Poland who dedicated the rest of their brief, remaining lives to writing an archive of material. The material, mostly of the printed word, includes some pictures, so that people in London could be made aware of the delivering of Polish Jewish into a gated neighborhood ghetto followed by their mass murder. The sixty thousand pages of first-person testimony were buried after the ghetto and, indeed, much of the entire city was burned to the ground and found only recently by groups of workers with some documentation presumably buried under the Chinese Embassy in Poland’s capital.

Using archival film taken mostly by Nazis who, by photographing Jews wasting away with starvation and afflicted with lice and disease, employed the films as propaganda to show the world that the Jews are filthy and lice-infected—as though the heartless conquering people had nothing to do with their miserable and desperate condition. The source material, from Samuel Kassow’s book “Who Will Write our History,” cannot be faulted as the author, who lectures on Russian and Jewish history, received a commentary from the New Republic magazine “May be the most important book about history that anyone will ever read.” (Available from Amazon for $17.04.)

The documentary mixes in contemporary footage in full color as actors taking the parts of journalists, scholars and community leaders who go about their secret work of writing voluminous accounts of the greatest crime of the last century. Emanuel Ringelblum was the leader of the group, a historian who gave the project the code name of Oyneg Shabes, determined to puncture German lies with the pen while lacking the sword—at least until the uprising of those Jews remaining in the ghetto on April 19, 1943.

The project is directed, written and produced by Roberta Grossman, whose passion for social justice is easily understood by looking at her previous works. “Seeing Allred,” which she co-directed, takes on the recent testimony of sexual assaults, while her “Hava Nagila” is a virtual travelogue of the famous Jewish song. For this film she employs the voice of Joan Allen, whose narrative offerings include “Rickover: the Birth of Nuclear Power” Catherine Senesh from a movie about Hannah Senesh, who was captured by the Nazis while trying to rescue Jews during the war. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, narrator Adrien Brody used his narrative voice in the past as the mouse in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Focusing on the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabes archive, writer-director Grossman honors the determination of writers to become eyewitnesses to the destructive criminality of the Nazis, indicting the Jewish police as well for their desire to save their lives by treating other Jews with the same brutality as the Germans. What emerges from the writings is not simply a narrative history, as the sixty writers also knocked

out diaries, essays, jokes, poems and songs. Most significant is that they depict the Jews from the Jewish point of view so the world should see German propaganda as little more than the lies of a craven people.

This is a major piece of documentary filmmaking, the scholars and filmmakers working for six months to prepare the actual shooting, while the words spoken by the actors are the very words that emerge from the printed material. In 1999 three document collections from Poland were included by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: the works of Chopin (ironically enough considering the composer’s virulent anti-Semitism), the works of Copernicus, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

Some may argue that the special effects and reenactments threaten the veracity of the material but Grossman makes sure that every word spoken in the recreations, every emotion, boldly supplements the amazing collection of archival celluloid, much of which I for one had never seen before despite my aim to see every film made that tries to make sense of the Holocaust.

95 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A
Overall – A-