COLD WAR – movie review

COLD WAR (Zimna wajna)

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriter: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn
Screened at: Soho, NYC, 10/25/18
Opens: December 21, 2018

In “Meet Me in Saint Louis” Judy Garland sings: “How can I ignore, the boy next door, I love him more than I can say.” It’s quite possible that most marriages today are between people from the same town, but if you’re European and you don’t like the folks living near you, you can find a mate somewhere else in your country. Or you can go abroad, which is easy enough to do on the Continent. No data exist on whether marriages survive better if you’re with a mate from the same area, though common sense dictates that this is likely true. In the case of “Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” the original Polish title being “Zimna wajna,” the two principal lovers travel considerably, not always the easiest thing to do when you live in Communist Poland in 1949 through 1964. Whether distance makes the heart grow fonder or whether out of sight is out of mind is the rule, these two people show that both proverbs are true.

Pawlikowski, whose best known movie drama “Ida” is about a woman about to take vows and join a nunnery in 1960 but whose plans are disturbed by a surfacing secret about her father, this time spends time not only in Poland but also in Yugoslavia, and France. Communism has an effect on two lovers, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), pushing them into locations where they separate, but you can’t blame simply politics for the destruction of a passionate love. These two people are from the same country but they are different sorts who probably could not survive under the same roof for more than two years, notwithstanding their vows of eternal affection.

Despite the fine performances by Joanna Kulig Zula and Tomasz Kot, the best parts of the film take place during the musical concerts, where folk dance performances in costumes of the traditional Poles and similar exhibitions forced by Communist officials to set the mood of land reform and the god-like image of Stalin, are given a respectable amount of time for us to enjoy. While Zula is perfectly willing to conform to the political correctness of the time by remaining with the folk group and doing what the government requires, Wiktor, the pianist and orchestral conductor is disgusted. Though Wiktor and Zula are passionate about each other, the schism begins when they agree to leave the Communist-controlled Poland and go to Paris. He leaves. She stays behind. Thus begins a twenty-year affair during which time she marries an Italian and then a high-ranking Polish official.

They meet and part. They appear in jazz clubs and concerts in Yugoslavia. Wiktor is more of a steady force while Zula is a firebrand. The stage is not set for a Hollywood ending.

The principal problem is that black-and-white photography and an Academy ratio of 1.37:1—representing the width and the length of the screen—may give a period look, but then OK: we get it. It’s 1949. It’s 1960. There is enough atmosphere within the filming to know that this is a period piece. Why compromise the beauty of the Polish folk-dance concerts with shades of gray? Why not have the usual aspect ratio of 2.39:1, giving us in the audience benefit of a wider screen? The dances together with the colorful, harmonic singing would be enough to allow us even to overlook any behavior of the principals that does not rivet us. Still, given the gestalt, a look at the sick requirement of Communism to force works of art into glorifying the state, the fantastic music which includes Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (my favorite R&R song), and the joys and pains of Wiktor and Zula, all combine to make this Poland’s obvious choice to promote for Best Foreign Feature for the 91st Academy Awards show.

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

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

NEVER LOOK AWAY – movie review

NEVER LOOK AWAY (Werk ohne Autor)

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenwriter: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl, Cai Cohrs, Oliver Masucci, Ina Weisse, Rainer Bock, Johanna Gastdorf, Jeanette Hain, Hinnerk Schönemann, Florian Bartholomäi,Hans-Uwe Bauer, Jörg Schüttauf, Ben Becker, Lars Eidinger
Screened at: SONY, NYC, 11/12/18
Opens: November 30, 2018

When a mother names her newborn baby Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, that kid better do something in his life that justifies the fancy moniker. In this particular fellow’s case he more than meets his family’s expectations. In his Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others,” von Donnersmarck looks at a Stasi official in the 1984’s East Berlin who surveiles a writer and his lover, becoming absorbed in their goings-on, a stunning look at the repressive forces in East Germany. Germans who saw the film were said to be amazed at the authenticity of their lives back then, including the idea that the government was suppressing the elevated number of suicides plaguing the state. And that was just von Donnersmarck’s debut! Now he has done it again, with a film which, to date, should be considered not only for awards in the best foreign language category but, what the heck, the best movie of the year. Period. So far. “Never Look Away,” whose German title “Werk ohne Autor” (Work Without Author) is too bland considering the subject matter, has a better English title, one which is based upon one character’s telling her young nephew to look at life in all aspects with enough curiosity to make informed decisions.

Werk ohne Autor (2018)

If the three and one-quarter hours of running time makes you hesitate to check this film out, ignore indecision. This film is so riveting, so absorbing a story about art and love and politics and finding your identity, that I dare you to look away even once. That’s how brilliant this modern masterpiece is.

Though based loosely on the life of Gerhard Richter, a popular German painter who in this fictional form takes on the name of Dresden citizen Kurt Barnert, “Never Look Away” is an epic work encompassing some almost decades of German civilization from 1937 through the early 1960s. If you did spend a week play hooky from your history class for a week or so, you’ll know that that Central European nation had undergone years of tragedy, as extremist ideas take a role first as a country under National Socialism, then, after the war, shifting gears wholly as the Eastern sector is dominated by pro-Soviet governments. Specifically, von Donnersmarck, using his own script, gifts us by portraying an artist who at first is pressured to conform to Nazi ideology in painting canvasses that eschew so-called degenerate art, later pushed by communists to knock out works of socialist realism (the “boy loves tractor” idea crafted to uplift the people by glorifying workers and farmers).

Nor does it hurt that the writer-director enjoys the talents of Sebastian Koch, Germany’s greatest contemporary actor, here playing an evil s.o.b. that will condemn one young woman to be asphyxiated with carbon monoxide and another, during a different political climate, to have an abortion which may cause her to be unable to produce the children she so resolutely desires.

Prepared to be nailed to your theater seat right from the beginning as in 1937, the Nazi government invites people to visit the Degenerate Art exhibition, the guide (Lars Eidinger) delivering a snarky but captivating lecture to a tour group about the alleged evils of what we today would call contemporary or avant-garde painting. Young Kurt Barnert (Cai Cohrs) will never forget the experience as his favorite Aunt Elizabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) introduces him to a museum that will likely be avoided by people his age who might prefer to play soccer with his pals. Elizabeth, a beautiful young woman with flowing blond hair, may well be the kind of Auntie Mame type we all wanted, a woman who is anything but conventional and whose idea of educating a young boy includes appearing before him in full, frontal, naked beauty. Older relatives catch her the raw, and turn to gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch) to send her away to an institution which must decide whether to eliminate her (returning soldiers need more beds) or simply sterilize the poor woman.

When little Kurt, now a young man (Tom Schilling) is admitted to an art academy, he finds that the new Communist regime in East Germany allows socialist realism as the only acceptable art form, warning him that the country does not need more Picassos. The best is to come when Kurt flirts with and eventually marries fashion student Ellie Seeband (Paul Beer), not realizing that her father is the notorious professor who sent his beloved aunt away. The hateful professor continues to spew venom, arguing that Kurt is not good enough for his daughter in part because he considers the handsome young man unemployable. Kurt’s favorable future is virtually assured, however,when he is taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf by Antonius Van Werten (Oliver Masucci), a man who covers his deformed head by a hat and who relives his rescue by Tartars when his plane was shot down over Crimea. Now without restrictions—he and Elizabeth had fled to the West—Kurt survives the humiliation of scrubbing hospital floors to pay for his schooling and to go on to find his true identity in his art.

The great changes that befall Germany during a thirty-year period are dealt with flawlessly. You might think the Communists and the Nazis have much in common, at least as their viewpoint on art coincide. It’s almost predictable that a movie with art as a subject would conjure the idea that a great artist must have suffered trauma or be emotionally disturbed. “At Eternity’s Gate,” Julian Schnabel’s new picture about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh, is the latest entry into the subject, though when considering off-center neurotics and psychotics like the professor and Aunt Elisabeth, Kurt is the model of stability and maturity.

The movie soars cinematically under Caleb Duschanel’s lensing. Outdoor scene are of brilliant sunlight of the kind that fought to keep Vincent Van Gogh from going completely bonkers. The historical background is illuminating without being reductive, the passages from Nazism to Communism to democracy seamless and pristine. The mostly large paintings, notably the ones we see when Kurt’s coming into his own, look as though they might be in a museum rather than mediated by the screen in a film that’s in German with English subtitles and photographed in Berlin, Dresden, Dusseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony and the Czech Republic.

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

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A
Overall – A

CAPITALISM – DVD review

CAPITALISM

Icarus Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ilan Ziv
Scipt by: Ilan Ziv and Bruno Hahon
Cast: Dr. Robert Boyer, Dr. H-Joon Chang, Prof. Noam Chomsky, Dr. Alan Ebenstein, Prof. Stuart Ewen, Mary Gabriel, Prof. James Kenneth Galbraith, Dr. Lewis Gordon, Dr. David Graeber, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, Dr. Michael Hudson, Ho Fung Hung, Kari Polanyi Levett, Dr. Philippe Norel, Prof. Nicholas Philipson, Prof. Thomas Piketty, Prof. Abraham Rotstein, Lord Robert Skidelsky, Prof. Yanis Varouyfakis,
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 5/7/18

Opens: May 1, 2018 on DVD from Icarus Films

From the vast library of Icarus Films, a major distributor of DVD’s, comes “Capitalism.” The commentators are talking heads mostly in the field of Economics with some on related subjects like Anthropology. One thing must be made clear: This is not a Michael Moore treatment from the person I consider the foremost documentarian of satirical left-biased treatment in the entertaining “Capitalism: A Love Story” (an ironic title, of course, considering the filmmaker’s ideology). By contrast the episodes in Ilan Ziv’s film, which total 320 minutes, are more like the fare you expect in a college classroom, each unit’s becoming the subject of from a variety of academics in several languages according to each person’s home idiom.

It may be true that you will learn more from this series than from any course you might take at the university level, as then again, each unit is handled by experts—who may be more knowledgeable and even have a greater gift for language than your own professors.

If Economics is a popular major in college, it may be not so much that our young people are fascinated by the subject but rather that they perceive the study will enhance their lifetime earnings. This may or may not be true, but you will probably earn more than if you studied anthropology or theater.

For non-Economics people such as I, the episodes are on the whole as informative as they are dry (where is Michael Moore when we need him?) The DVD comes with a glossy booklet giving full descriptions of the storytellers, writers and director if you want to check that these are authentic and reliable voices. Ilan Ziv, who sits in the director’s chair, is Israeli-born, fought in the October 1973 war in his home country, and founded Icarus Films. After he left that auspicious company, he made oodles of documentary films mostly on human rights, such as “An Eye for an Eye,” which deals with crime in Texas.

“Capitalism” was broadcast on ARTE in October 2014, made up of six episodes, available on three separate DVDs. They are: Capitalism, Adam Smith, another on Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Keynes vs. Hayek and The Human Factor. Each episode delves deeply into the subject. For example, the initial one broadly entitled “Capitalism,” takes us before Adam Smith’s famous book “The Wealth of Nations,” indicating that during the Age of Exploration, slaves were treated as capital goods, bought and sold. The essay on Karl Marx takes us to the mid-19th Century, indicating that Marx published The Communist Manifesto too late. The revolutions in Europe were already going strong, meaning that his printed materials did not inspire the violence in the way that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a forerunning of the U.S. War Between the States.

At least one pundit notes that 1991 marks the date that Communism ended in most of the world, but in 2008, Capitalism met its potential death throes. The series would be of great interest to Economics majors but is unlikely to find a happy home with folks who look for more entertainment with their scholarly leanings.

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

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

THE REAGAN SHOW – movie review

THE REAGAN SHOW

Gravitas Ventures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B+
Director:  Pacho Velez, Sierra Pettengill
Written by: Josh Alexander, Pacho Velez
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/18/17
Opens: June 30 in NY and LA; July 4 on VOD
The Reagan Show Movie Poster
Elderly woman to General Secretary Gorbachev of the Soviet Union:

Woman: “Who invented Communism: a politician or a scientist?”
Gorbachev: “A politician.”
Woman: “I thought so.  A scientist would have tried it on mice first.”

This is one of the gags in a vivid documentary about President Ronald Regan, a man whom conservatives today  lionize as the greatest commander-in-chief of his century, one responsible for much of the progress that the United States has made during his two terms in office.  Reagan himself would doubtless get a charge out of the joke.  He was not fond of Communism.  He called the Soviet Union part of an Evil Empire.  But like Dick Nixon, similarly conservative yet the man who “opened” China, Reagan would change his mind and confess that his view of the USSR might have been true then, but were hardly the same now.

In dealing with the Soviet Union, Reagan’s most famous quote is “Trust but verify” regarding his way to handle America’s chief adversary, a term he used over and over during photo-ops and was kidded about it by Gorbachev during one of the times they got together. The two leaders competed for the world’s attention not so much by talking about guns and bombs, but who could be the more effective communicator.

Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill’s stunning documentary is unusual in that it throws aside the dull convention of interviewers getting answers from subjects.  Instead, “The Reagan Show” is composed one hundred percent of archival films, the directors going through one thousand hours of tape to cherry-pick the most entertaining moments of Reagan’s presidency, and that would include the bloopers he made in his TV addresses.

It’s called “The Reagan Show” for a reason, as the fortieth president (1981-89) was the first to take on the Oval Office as a former Hollywood actor.  Though Ronald Reagan was a B-list performer throughout his career with fifty-three Hollywood films under his belt, he was a class act in front of the TV camera, able to charm the American people as well as he did a chimp when he appeared in “Bedtime for Bonzo” in 1951.

Missing from the doc was the tragic scene of his attempted assassination which he miraculously survived, since Velez and Pettengill are intent to focus on his abilities under the camera, and especially the way he competed with the Soviet counterpart who was as equally seductive.  A highlight of the movie is the outtakes, comments made by the president before or after the taping sessions, such as when he has to read his campaign message for John Sununu who was running for New Hampshire governor on a program to lower taxes. Reagan had to go through the speech three times as he seemed unable to pronounce “Sununu.”  In another situation he practiced two or three words of Russian, for use in a broadcast to the people of the Soviet Union, wishing them a happy new year as though the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the best of friends.

When members of the press or the public would shout after him with their questions, Reagan would dodge and wave as though he needed a consultant to write  polished replies, though this tactic could be said to improve his popularity as he avoided saying something that might alienate either the right or the left.  In one major issue he held a firm opinion, and that was to draw an agreement with the Soviets on reducing arsenals of weapons. Gorbachev insisted Reagan give up the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) known as Star Wars, by which the president claimed to be able to shoot down enemy missiles in the air—a provocative policy in that this technology would upset the balance of power between the two countries.  In one of the film’s rare use of graphics, we get to see how this would work.  So far as we know today, Star Wars either functions on a limited basis or is of no use at all.

Some opponents of Reagan like to say that the president did not have a grip on reality.  He thought for eight years that he was in a movie. Somehow we all pulled through without getting blown up, a blessing we hope for during the term of the present administration which is led by a fellow who may think that he’s in a reality show.  Mostly we come away after seeing this highly absorbing, entertaining and laid-back documentary with the view that acting skills win votes. If you can communicate with the public, there is no limit to what you can politically achieve.  John F. Kennedy became aware of that concept when he showed the TV audience that he was no naïve kid and could easily handle the challenge from Richard Dixon.  Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, defeating sixty opponents.  Do you think that’s because of his experience in government?  Donald Trump, a TV actor as well as developer, emerged the victor from a group of sixteen Republican primary opponents, following a win over the expected Hillary Clinton administration.  There is little doubt that Trump’s advisers, at least those whose counsel he is willing to accept, have learned the lesson taught by Ronald Reagan.  Since TV has become the leading medium, the ability to charm, seduce, transfix the American people is the key to the Oval Office.

Unrated.  74 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?