CITIZEN K – movie review

CITIZEN K
Greenwich Entertainment/Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Cast: Mikkhail Khodorkovsky, NYMikhail Gorvachev, Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Petukhov, Leonid Nevzlin,
Screened at: Critics’ link, 12/17/19
Opens: January 15, 2020

Citizen K (2019) picture s_id875062.jpg

I would like to have been in Moscow to observe the well-preserved body of Vladimir Lenin on the day that “Citizen K” was released. You can be assured that he would be turning over in whatever receptacle is holding his bearded frame, because somehow the gods might have allowed Lenin to watch this movie and weep for what happened to his country, to his fondest dream. Instead of a paradise for workers and peasants, the former Soviet Union, having lost its satellite empire and given up communism, did not replace it with the kind of capitalism that Milton Friedman or Michael Bloomberg or New York Times economist columnist Paul Krugman would cherish. Russia is now under the influence of a wild-west kind of capitalism that some of us here in the U.S. can understand, given that in our country one percent of the citizens owns some twenty-five percent of the wealth. Inequality is even worse over there: at one point the oligarchs, the seven richest men in Russian, controlled fifty percent of the economy. Maybe Putin’s interest in gobbling up parts of Ukraine and feasting his eyes as well on the former satellite countries is his desire to distract the Russian people for what is being done to them.

“Citizen K” Alex Gibney, whose 2005 doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” lays out the case for a corruption that led to the company’s demise, now concentrates on two factors in the Russian economic and political goings-on. One subject is Putin, now the head of his country for eighteen years. The other is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the oligarchs and perhaps the richest man in Russian, whose fall for criticizing Putin led to the state’s seizure of his asserts and his imprisonment in Siberia for ten years. Gibney’s camera switches from president to oligarch, the former winning a series of fake elections while the latter, exiled in London and still holding on to hundreds of millions of dollars stashed safely in countries like Ireland, directs his venom toward the current Russian system.

Gibney has a way of making documentaries into thrillers as he did with Enron, though in this case he relies too much on a hugely intrusively score to give the impression that he is filming not a doc to enlighten us so much as a thriller to capture our emotions. Zipping through a series of historical events that pave the way to the present Russia, Gibney, ignoring Lenin and completely and showing a quick, archived film with Stalin’s picture, points us past Gorbachev’s glasnost era (Gorby is still considered by many in Russia to have single-handedly caused the Soviet Union’s end), through Boris Yeltsin’s turn at bat. With the government about to collapse once again leading perhaps to a return to Communism, Yeltsin bargained with the oligarchs. The state would borrow money from them knowing that they could not be paid back. And the oligarchs would own Russia’s leading assets, including oil.

During that time Khodorkovsky—whom we see as a young man and then as a figure aged largely by his stay in Siberia—by himself created the country’s first commercial bank while at the same time picking up Yukos, a number of Siberian oil fields, at pennies on the dollar. Khodorkovsky is later blamed for the murder of a Siberian oil town mayor who had claimed that Khodorkovsky evaded taxes, and guess who would be the leading suspect, given that it even happened on the oligarch’s birthday! Putin, moving rapidly up the political ladder, determined to go against Khodorkovsky at a time that the rich man exposed state corruption. K was arrested on fake charges and sent on a seven day’s journey to a Siberian prison. One must wonder why Putin did not simply have the man poisoned or shot, as he has been charged of doing for several other opponents.

Behind the lenses, Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov give us the long view of Russia’s seat of government while switching to a one-on-one series of interviews with a seated Khodorkovsky. This may not be a Michael Moore type of doc, loaded with wit and humor, but with its quick pacing and a script that allows us in the audience to understand at least a little of what our adversaries in Moscow are doing, it serves as entertainment and enlightenment equally.

126 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE DEATH OF STALIN – movie review

THE DEATH OF STALIN

IFC Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Armando Iannucci
Screenwriter:  Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin
Cast:  Adrian Mcloughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/15/18
Opens: March 9, 2018

It’s commonly agreed even by those who hated Josef Stalin that the Russians owe him a great debt, that without policies under his leadership that turned the Soviet Union from an agricultural state to a mighty industrial nation in just a couple of decades, the USSR would have been defeated by Hitler.  Some say, in fact, that Stalin was crazy during a good part of his reign but virtually electroshocked into sanity during the war.  When Khrushchev denounced Stalin, thereby ending the man’s glory, even changing the name of Stalingrad in 1961 to Volgograd, you might have assumed that the man who ruled the Soviet Union from 1953-1964 was showing his disgust for Stalin’s purges, the show trials that led hundreds of thousands to the gulag or to the firing squad.  After seeing Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin,” you might get the idea that disowning previous administrations is the way things were done to consolidate power, something never seen in recent U.S. elections.

Armando Iannucci, whom you may know from his TV series “Veep” which takes satiric aim against the U.S. government and “The Thick of It,” in which American and British operatives try to prevent a war between the two countries, now takes on a government system ripe for satire.  “The Death of Stalin” spends most of its 106-minutes’ screen time dealing with the struggles for power immediately after the death of Stalin, who, at least in this movie, dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after reading a missive denouncing him as a tyrant.  As one of the few people who really look like their real-life counterparts, Adrian Mcloughlin looks the part with a thick, brown mustache and a grin that replicates pictures that used to hang on the residential halls of patriotic Soviet citizens.  As Stalin lay on the floor hovering near death, high-level officials gather, each ambitious to wield power after their leader succumbs, debating which doctor to call.  Slowly.  “They’re all either in the gulag or dead,” explains one, and by the time they decide on a retired doc, Stalin is dead.

The film starts with promise.  During a symphonic concert performed with Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) at the keyboard, the engineers get a call: Stalin wants a recording of the music.  Since no record had been made, Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) in the engineer’s booth, orders the doors locked as the audience shuffle out and demands that the concert be replayed from the beginning.  This time the recording will be made.

After that, the picture falls apart, with the potential successors to the Kremlin’s equivalent of the Oval Office argue, debating who is the most qualified to fill Stalin’s shoes.  The problem is that none of the dialogue is the least bit amusing, and what’s more the bickering becomes repetitious particularly given its lack of bon mots.

Steve Buscemi comes across with the loudest mouth in the role of Nikita Khrushchev, Leventiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) turns in a role of the head of the NKVD (secret police) with the most bear-like figure, and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) stands in as the fashion-conscious, would-be successor who asks strange questions and delivers a range of stories in a white suit.  The party leaders meet to take votes which seem to require unanimous consent.  Afterward we receive visits from army commander Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) weighed down by some twenty medals and ribbons, and Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) who throws his weight around with a flurry of tantrums.  Unfunny.

When Khrushchev emerges as new leader, the movie is bookended with another concert, finding the man in the audience while his own successor, Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) sits behind him probably plotting a move that will put him over the top.

The best that can be said is the music: the concert that opens the show and even the majestic orchestral tones that underscore (finally) the long list of credits.  Two days before the picture’s release in Russia, the Ministry of Culture banned the film.  Lucky Russians.

Unrated.  106 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C-
Acting –  C+
Technical –  C
Overall – C-

LOVELESS – movie review

  • LOVELESS (Nelyubov)

    Sony Pictures Classics
    Director:  Andrey Zvyagintsev
    Screenwriter:  Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
    Cast:  Maryana Spivak, Alexey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasilyeva, Andrid Keishs, Alexey Fateev
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/27/17
    Opens: February 26, 2017  but  December 2017 for one week for awards consideration.
    click for larger (if applicable)
    You’re of course familiar with the chorus of Van Morrison’s song that goes “She give me love love love love crazy love/She give me love love love love crazy love.”  You are also familiar with The Beatles “All you need is love.”  In this cynical age those songs may look sappy and unrealistic, but Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose incredible “Leviathan” finds a family fighting a corrupt mayor intent on demolishing their house, now suggests that there may be something to those songs.  He can’t prove it with his latest movie, but he is hell-bent on showing that in the absence love, only tragedy can result.

    Bookmarking “Nelyubov” (the original title of this Russian language film with English subtitles) with a wintry, somber landscape that could stand for a land without love, Zvyagintsev hones in on one family not only on the brink of dissolution but actively cursing each other with terms like “Scumbag” and worse as they seek to sell their Moscow-area house and move on to try different partners.  As though Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin) are about to face even more catastrophes while they’re fighting like Edward Albee’s George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” their introverted 12-year-old son Alexey (Matvey Novikov) eavesdrops  and is not overjoyed to hear them shout that they never wanted the kid (she was afraid to abort) while his mother adds to the dialogue “And I never loved you…I just used you to get out of my mother’s house.”

    There’s nothing particularly Russian about dysfunctional families but Oleg Negin, who co-wrote the script after co-penning “Leviathan,” appears to have it in for Russia which comes across as a vast region whose police and bureaucrats haven’t the will or energy to protect the vulnerable but must resort to drafting unpaid volunteers to help each mission.  The mission here is to find their boy, who had overheard that at least one parent never wanted him, and runs away from home.  A search team based largely on free volunteers combs the area, and in the most dramatic development enters the private home of the boy’s maternal grandmother—whose idea of love is to berate her daughter Zhenya for hitching up with Boris while making sure she know that there’s no way she would think of taking the boy in.

    When the dysfunctional couple are not looking for their boy they do not realize that their new boyfriend-girlfriend will not solve the problem but will probably lead shortly down the road to more demoralization if not hatred.  Sexual scenes involving Boris and Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) and Zhenya and her rich businessman Anton (Andris Keiss) are prolonged unnecessarily presumably because that’s what the film-maker believes would interest part of his audience.

    The only humorous scene takes place in a huge cafeteria where Boris and a colleague joke about their Bible-thumping boss who would fire anyone participating in a divorce.  One employee had to hire a family, a woman with her two children, to play wife.

    This is quite the film, ambitious and successful in making a family a microcosm to effect a parable about a country that needs more love love love.

    Unrated.  127 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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