National Geographic Documentary Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ron Howard
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/23/20
Cast: Erin Brockovich, Michelle John, Phil John, Matt Gates
Opens: July 31, 2020

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”

Before peace can rain with Satan cast into a bottomless pit and world peace is symbolized when the lion will eat straw like the cow, our earth will be cleansed by fire. Part of that prophesy comes true though nobody in Paradise, California considers themselves cleansed when on November 8, 208, the town of Paradise looked more like hell than like the geographical entity it was named for. Whether the mother of all fires could have been prevented were it not for climate change is surprisingly glided over in this heartfelt documentary. For those of us who live in big cities, we get quite a picture of what it’s like to live in a small California town. What comes across by the film’s conclusion is that Paradise is a community in which the people are not the types who go bowling alone and who do not join groups, but rather down-to-earth, get-the-job-done sorts of folks that have the spirit, the gumption, the cojones to rebuild after mourning the 85 people killed in the fire—one while in his wheelchair and others who could not escape the flames in their cars.

A documentary about the Camp Fire recovery efforts was premiered ...

Most Americans are familiar with California names like L.A., San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and the like but may be appraised of Paradise when global news in November 2018 reported the disaster felt by the 26,000-strong residents of Paradise. The film’s director Ron Howard boasts a long résumé of acting and directing credits including his “Frost/Nixon” which is a retelling of the famous interview between David Frost and the disgraced President (“When the President does it, it’s not illegal). This time he visits the besieged town, allowing us to eavesdrop at a series of meetings filled with people both tearful and angry, though the most dramatic moments, which pop up now and then, are scenes of fires that appear to presage the end of the world.

Though perhaps hundreds, even thousands of residents are determined to leave the place for good given the possibility of yet another conflagration in these days of rapid climate change, others are staying put, emboldened by large groups of supporters who fill large auditoriums with their meetings and hear of contacts with bureaucrats in FEMA who may or may not kick in adequate funds to rebuild as though this were Europe in 1945. FEMA did, at least, provide mobile homes temporarily to house the newly homeless, probably doing a better job than any government group did when in 2005 New Orleans was turned into an American Venice.

Matt Gates is in the hero’s seat, a local police officer who on November 8 helped his townspeople to get to safety even as his own digs are wiped out by the flames. Erin Brockovich, who built a case in 1993 against the villainous Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), takes a cameo, while schools superintendent Michelle John, whose husband makes sure that the class of 2019 gets a full-scale outdoor graduation, presides of the ceremony. (By the way, at the packed-to-the-gills meetings of the community, where are the high-school kids?)

The doc seems made by National Geographic Documentary Films primarily for TV use. More information should have been forthcoming about how or whether PG&E—who sent an executive to the meeting to apologize for the corporation’s negligence—will make the residents whole and to what extent the residents are helped by their homeowners’ insurance.

95 minutes. 132 minutes with a Q&A. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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


PARADISE – movie review


Film Movement
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: A-
Director:  Andrey Konchalovsky
Written by: Andrey Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Cast:  Yuliya Vysotskaya, Peter Kurth, Viktor Sukhorukov, Philippe Duquesne, Thomas Darchinger
Screened at:  Critics’ link, NYC, 10/2/17
Opens: October 6, 2017
In the final paragraph of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Sidney Carton does a far, far better thing than he had ever done before.  Even during the hellish times of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, it’s possible for people destined for the guillotine to be saved by a heroic act. A similar situation pops up during the concluding moments of Andrey Konchalvsky’s “Paradise,” which has the original title of “Ray.”  Konchalovsky (who was born two days before me), is in his métier with his wartime movie “Paradise.” In 2002 his “House of Fools,” aka “Dom durakov,” takes on the Chechen war when a lack of staff forces residents of a psychiatric institution to fend for themselves.

“Paradise” deals with what could only be called the psychopathic ideology of Nazism, with its belief that Jews must be eliminated from Europe so that the “Aryan race” could construct a paradise on earth.  Much of the action takes place in a concentration camp in 1942-44, but this is not a straight, chronological account.  Instead, Konchalovsky, using his own script together with that of his co-writer Elena Kiseleva, changes venues and time periods regularly, using 35mm footage and, for a look of authenticity, 16mm stock, all is in black-and-white.  He even has the 16mm film show deterioration with time, and what’s more slows the momentum of the epic work frequently as though pitching commercials in the midst of the story to have the major characters talk to the camera, or to us in our theater seats.

Holocaust dramas hardly make rare visits to the cinema, but this one, which uses Russian, French, and German dialogue, is an original, in large part because of the convention of actors’ speaking directly to the camera.  What’s more, it’s filled with moments that can bring tears to those in the audience with a sensitivity to the tragic and frankly unbelievable goings-on as Germany, not content with marching throughout Europe and into the Soviet Union, diverts attention from the fighting to destroy the Jewish people.

The principal characters are Olga (Yuliva Vysotskaya), Helmut (Christian Clauss), and Jules (Christian Duquesne), all of whom appear individually to talk to an interviewer or to us in the audience.  Olga is a Russian aristocrat who is arrested in occupied France for hiding Jewish children, and is immediately questioned by Jules, a French traitor who works for the Nazis as a police interrogator, responding to Olga’s seductive manner.  But Jules is assassinated by the French Resistance before he could do anything to save her. She winds up in a concentration/extermination camp under the cruel Obersturmbannführer Hans Krause (Peter Kurth).  She’s in luck even there, as Helmut (Christian Clauss), promoted in the Nazi ranks as auditor for the camp with the authority to condemn officers caught siphoning money and valuables, had been in love with her a decade ago while both were in an Italian resort.

Highlights include Helmut’s interview with Heinrich Himmler (Victor Sukhorukov), his ego and promotion allowing him to consider himself an übermench, much like his pal in the camp, with whom he has sometimes drunken, but always insightful chats.  With the war approaching an end, some make plans to flee to Nueva Germania, or Paraguay, but while some are of the opinion that the whole Nazi enterprise is a fool’s paradise, Helmut tells the camera that he has no reason to atone for anything—particularly given his plan to get Olga safely to Switzerland.

We know from many other films about the dreadful conditions of the prisoners but this film concentrates on the women, who are so degraded that as soon as one of their number dies, a fight erupts to seize her boots, cigarettes, or anything else that might make their lives a little better.  The film is testament to the folly of thinking that humankind can make a
paradise on earth.  Nazism, with its emphasis on racial purity, and Communism, with its belief that people can be forced to submit to absolute class leveling, are extreme experiments that simply have never worked.  As the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus reminded us in 65 B.C, “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.”  “You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back.

Unrated.  132 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?