All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

CITIZEN K

Producers: John Battsek, Alex Gibney, P.J. Sandwijk, George Chignell and Erin Edeiken   Director: Alex Gibney   Screenplay: Alex Gibney   Cast: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Leonid Nevzlin, Igor Malashenko, Anton Drel, Maria Logan, Alexei Navalny, Tatyana Lysova, Derk Sauer, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Martin Sixsmith and Arkady Ostrovsky   Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment

Grade:  B

It took some chutzpah for Alex Gibney to allude to Orson Welles’ masterpiece in the title of his documentary dissection of Russian politics since the fall of the Soviet Union;  he could hardly hope that “Citizen K” would approach the quality of its sort-of namesake.  But the cheeky in-joke seems appropriate in view of the sometimes attitude of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-Russian oligarch and former prison inmate, now a staunch critic-in-exile of Vladimir Putin, from whose perspective the story is basically told.

The film is organized around excerpts from interviews with Khodorkovsky conducted in London, where he now resides after being released from a Russian prison in 2013 after serving nearly ten years, pardoned by Vladimir Putin as—some argue—part of his public relations campaign in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  It also follows his activities in connection with the ant-Putin Open Russia Movement that he had founded in 2001 and re-launched in 2014.

Khodorkovsky’s story is presented as a microcosm of the trajectory of the Russian government and economy in the post-Soviet era, a period marked by the erosion of the hope for democracy and capitalist enterprise that followed the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the rise of Putin to dominance in the aftermath of Boris Yeltsin’s sad tenure as president.  Gibney presents him as Khodorkovsky portrays himself—as a man who took advantage of the admittedly shady opportunities offered by what he refers to as the Wild West capitalism of the nineties to build an oil empire that made him arguably the richest man in Russia—until he fell afoul of Putin’s drive for control and was charged with fraud and embezzlement, convicted and jailed, thus becoming an activist icon opposed to the president’s increasingly despotic tendencies, who continues his work for change in Russia today. 

It’s in many respects a cleverly self-serving portrait, which admits his early business double-dealing in the freewheeling economy of the nineties but in effect justifies it by emphasizing how he used the influence his wealth brought him to fight against the autocratic tendencies that became evident by the early 2000s, only to be crushed by them—and yet survive.

But though Gibney presents him in generally heroic mold, with his sometimes bemused tone Khodorkovsky still emerge in the film as a man of contradictions, who by no means apologizes for his early activities (and, in fact, squirreled away enough of his riches to be able to live comfortably in exile now, and to finance his anti-Putin campaign) but has adopted a position in favor of true democracy and economic freedom in Russia that happily coincides with Western ideals and thus has earned him staunch supporters in Europe and the US.

Nor does Gibney overlook dark clouds that continue to hover over Khodorkovsky.  He includes comments from his critics as well as supporters and early business partners, and does not ignore the charges that Khodorkovsky was involved in the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, a Siberian mayor who had accused his company Yukos of tax evasion (though the implication is that the case was used by the regime not merely to cast doubt on his character, but to continue to keep him out of the country). 

While Khodorkovsky remains at the center of “Citizen K,” moreover, Gibney situates his story within the context of Russian politics over the past thirty years.  Integrating archival footage, commentary from experts like the BBC’s Martin Sixsmith (who reported from Moscow) and detailed narration with the interview excerpts, Gibney and editor Michael J. Palmer have constructed a perceptive primer on how things have developed over the three decades, moving from the chaos of the Yeltsin period, when oligarchs like Khodorkovsky became supremely powerful (even manipulating the media to ensure the unpopular, ill president would remain in power), to the era of Putin, whose canny consolidation of control the film meticulously records.  The new president’s ruthlessness in dealing with Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs like him is presented as an integral part of that process.

So “Citizen K” Is actually as much about Putin as Khodorkovsky.  The difference is that the latter gets his say (including the observation that Putin’s hold on power is actually fragile and doomed ultimately to unravel) while the latter doesn’t, except in footage of public events—and reports of how his opponent are likely to meet with unhappy fates.

But even if Gibney’s film essentially offers the view of Khodorkovsky that he himself promotes, it also provides an engrossing overview of the post-Soviet Russian history in which Vladimir Putin plays such an oversized role.     

FANTASY ISLAND

Producers: Jason Blum, Marc Toberoff and Jeff Wadlow   Director: Jeff Wadlow   Screenplay: Jeff Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs   Cast: Michael Peña, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang, Portia Doubleday, Ryan Hansen, Parisa Fitz-Henley and Michael Rooker   Distributor: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

Grade:  F

The original ABC TV series of “Fantasy Island,” which ran from 1978 to 1984, might have been a pretty horrible program, but it wasn’t a genuine horror.  That’s what producer Jason Blum and writer-director Jeff Wadlow, who previously collaborated on the awful “Truth or Dare,” have made of it—a horror movie that’s genuinely horrible, its stupidity being exceeded only by its dullness.

In a move that recalls ABC’s attempted 1998 reboot of the original, which bombed of course, Wadlow and his co-writers have ratcheted up the supernatural elements of the premise while emphasizing their potentially fatal consequences.  The fantasies here turn out to be more nightmarish than satisfying as they collide and replace ostensible hopefulness into what emerges as nothing more than a contrived revenge plot, complete with zombie-like villains.

The picture begins with Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley and her boss, the mysterious Mr. Roarke (colorless Michael Peña), welcoming their five new guests, who have each won trips to the purported paradise.  Brothers JD (Ryan Hansen, obnoxious in Dax Shepard mode) and Brax (goofy Jimmy O. Yang), who want the “time of their lives;” Patrick (stolid Austin Stowell), who wants to play soldier to honor his dead soldier dad; Melanie (Lucy Hale), a hottie who, in turns out, fantasizes about humiliating Sloane (Portia Doubleday), the mean girl  from her past; and Gwen (subdued Maggie Q), a reserved woman still grieving her failure to accept the marriage proposal offered by Rocklin (Robbie Jones) years before.

The fantasies—which, Roarke warns them, will have to follow the “natural course” determined by the island to their ends—begin, but they quickly grow awry and begin to intersect in weird ways.  Other figures intrude on the action, among them a grizzled guy in the forest (Michael Rooker) who shows up when characters get into trouble and a character called Devil Face (Kim Coates), who leads a squad of masked gunmen.  Even Patrick’s dead father shows up.

As things grow more and more complicated, the movie becomes decidedly chaotic, and it takes more attention than the material deserves to keep things straight, especially since the script is constantly tossing in contrived plot curveballs, which in the last act culminate in a series of revelations and resolutions so absurd that they leave the movie a complete mess.  Along the way, there are a few gross moments (like a “Hostel” reminiscence early on), but generally the picture moseys along surprisingly pokily, overstaying its welcome by clocking in at nearly two full hours.       

You have to give a certain degree of credit, though, to the behind-the-camera craftsmen (save for Wadlow, of course, whose direction is pedestrian).  Marc Fisichella’s production design has some elegance, and cinematographer Toby Oliver provides glossy widescreen images; and one feels sorry for editor Scott Albertson, who tries desperately to give shape and coherence to the constantly shifting storylines, even  if he doesn’t always succeed.  Bear McCreary’s score, though, bangs away mercilessly.

As usual nowadays, the movie concludes with the suggestion of forthcoming sequels (along with an especially lame “reveal”).  By the close of the movie though, you’ll definitely be inclined to agree with the survivor who acidly remarks that she just wants to get off this damned “Island.”