Volhynia

Volhynia

The region known as Volhynia is not obvious on most maps of Europe. It is remembered in the name of the Volyn Oblast in Ukraine. The region’s boundaries are vague, but today it is somewhere between northwestern Ukraine, southwestern Belarus and southeastern Poland. Before Ukraine gained its independence, it was ruled by the Soviet Union. Before World War II, Volhynia was the southeastern fringe of the Second Polish Republic. It is a region historically populated by Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. During World War II, it descended into a nightmare not unlike what became of Yugoslavia after its dissolution in the 1990s. Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered Poles, and the Poles retaliated in kind.

Volhynia (in Polish Wołyń, on Amazon in English as Hatred, derived from the short-story collection by Stanisław Srokowski on which the movie is based) is a 2016 Polish war drama directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, which dramatizes that awful period in the region’s history.

It is a film that begins, strangely enough, quite happily, with a wedding. There is much singing and dancing and general merriment. Making this even more hopeful is the fact that it is a wedding between a Polish girl and a Ukrainian boy. A Ukrainian priest talks of tolerance. The sister of the bride, Zofia — the main character — is in love with another Ukrainian boy, but her father has decided she is to marry an older Polish municipal authority. Even so, she continues to dally with her beau.

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Fantastic Beasts 3: The Secrets of Dumbledore

The Secrets of Dumbledore

The Fantastic Beasts series has been slow to pick up the pace. After a lackluster debut with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, which was an enjoyable movie but nothing groundbreaking, followed by The Crimes of Grindelwald (review here), which was thoroughly enjoyable but flawed in many ways, we now have an absolute winner in the form of the third installment, The Secrets of Dumbledore. It’s only just been released, and not yet released in some countries, so expect no spoilers in this review.

A couple of years after the events in Paris that took place in The Crimes of Grindelwald, we find an intrepid team of — in many cases slightly traumatized — heroes, trying to put a final stop to the rise and warmongering plans of Gellert Grindelwald. The role has switched from Johnny Depp to Mads Mikkelsen, just one of the many controversies surrounding this release. That said, while I personally felt that Depp made an excellent Grindelwald, Mikkelsen’s much more serious take on the role makes Grindelwald all that more menacing and threatening a villain.

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Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile

Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s world-class detective, in Death on the Nile, but unfortunately the movie doesn’t rise to the standard set by Murder on the Orient Express five years ago.

The sequel is beautifully done. Aficionados of dieselpunk and the 1930s will find plenty to like here. There are spectacular shots of the Nile, the riverboat on which most of the action takes place, and the Temples of Abu Simbel, which at the time were still located right on the water. (The complex was controversially relocated in 1968, when the construction of the Aswan High Dam raised the water level.)

Sophie Okonedo lip-syncs era-appropriate blues music by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The rest of the cast is no less impressive. Gal Gadot, of Wonder Woman fame, stars as a wealthy heiress who fears for her life. Emma Mackey, best known for portraying Maeve Wiley in the Netflix comedy-drama series Sex Education, plays her rival for the affections of Armie Hammer’s character. Readers will recognize Hammer from Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (our review here).

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The Last Battle

The Last Battle

In The Last Battle, Stephen Harding tells the unlikely tale of Allied and former Nazi troops making common cause to protect prominent French prisoners of war from the Waffen-SS.

This Battle of Castle Itter really happened, on May 5, 1945 — three days before victory in Europe. Elements of the American 12th Armored Division, Austrian resistance fighters, defected soldiers of the German Wehrmacht and several of the French prisoners themselves held off an attack by SS diehards before they could be relieved by the 142nd Infantry Regiment.

Among the prisoners were former prime ministers (and bitter rivals) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former army commanders Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand, and the former leader of the French far right, François de La Rocque, who had turned against Marshal Philippe Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime to secretly provide intelligence to the British.

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Catch-22

Catch-22

Ever since I read it my senior year of high school, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has been one of my favorite novels. It is a farce of bureaucracy, and as life becomes more and more bureaucratized, more and more people find themselves neck deep in this farce. It is a book that describes that unmooring, niggling internal monologue of “this is cruel and insane and it kills people and it could be changed so WHY ARE WE STILL DOING IT?!” that permeates so much of life in the twenty-first century. I quite enjoyed the 1970 film adaptation, and was excited to see how the 2019 miniseries would work out.

The series is overall quite faithful to the book. Many incidents are taken straight from the pages of the novel, and some are all the more impactful now that we can see, rather than imagine, them. I know that sounds trite, but it is one experience to read about a reckless pilot, McWatt, accidentally killing Kid Sampson; it is another to see the propeller of the plane scatter human gore across McWatt’s cockpit and then the explosion when he rams his plane into a mountain to atone for his crimes.

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The House of Lost Horizons

The House of Lost Horizons

The House of Lost Horizons introduces (or reacquaints) Mike Mignola’s Sarah Jewell and Marie-Thérèse LaFleur. In this new story, the intrepid female detectives investigate murders in a house on an island. There is a storm, there is a vault filled with occult items ready to be bargained off. It’s not an original tale, but it has been masterfully presented.

Introduced in Rise of the Black Flame, this is one of the first times the lady detectives star in their own story, and it hits the mark straight out of the gate. You don’t need to have read their debut (which is for the best, considering the prices paper copies seem to go for these days), as there is just a passing allusion to The Black Flame Cult that will hit home with those who have.

No, all you need to do is pick up and enjoy this story, and live though the storm, just like the characters, to discover what the blazes is going on.

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The Eight Hundred

The Eight Hundred

Few may have expected that the second-highest grossing film of 2020 (and the highest-grossing live-action film; the first was an anime from Japan) would be Chinese. The Chinese market is so enormous that its filmmakers can focus on their domestic audience and still make good money. The COVID-19 pandemic’s shuttering of so much of Hollywood gave The Eight Hundred a global boost.

Does the film hold up?

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My Way

My Way

Even in a world of bomber fleets and atomic weapons, legends have their way of enthralling us. In South Korea, there is the mythical survivor Yang Kyoungjong, a hero in an ancient sense, whose main achievement is simply surviving World War II in service to three different armies. The story is that he started in the Imperial Japanese Army, was captured and pressed into service by the Red Army, then captured and pressed into service once again by the Wehrmacht, until finally being captured by the Americans at D-Day in Normandy. It’s a story that begs for a film.

In 2011, Kang Je-gyu made that film: My Way. Kang changed a number of things about the myth, but in doing so created a story that is perhaps even more potent. It starts in Japanese-occupied Korea, about rivals in running Kim Jun-sik (Jang Dong-gun) and Tetsuo Hanegawa (Joe Odagiri), who are both drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army to fight in China. The broad strokes of their journey mirror the original story.

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The Day the Klan Came to Town

The Day the Klan Came to Town

The hooded robes of the Ku Klux Klan are perhaps the most visible symbol of white supremacist terror in the United States. They are rivaled only by the same organization’s tradition of burning wooden crosses.

In the 1920s, the Klan were a scarily powerful organization, with chapters all over the country. They hated many, many groups: African Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Catholics, Jews, and others. They were vicious, violent and had no qualms about killing, or being provocative. Once such time was when they marched on Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a mostly Catholic suburb of Pittsburgh in 1923.

That clash, which left at least one Klansman dead, is dramatized in The Day the Klan Came to Town, a graphic novel from PM Press written by Bill Campbell and drawn by Bizhan Khodabandeh. Befitting the publisher’s political inclinations, it is a very clearly political work, with a number of deliberate parallels to the present day.

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