In the world of art cinema you sometimes get pleasant surprises and one of those pleasant surprises was the unexpected success of Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2014 film Ida. That film was something of a sneak attack; its director was respected but not necessarily a huge name and while it got some buzz at festivals it was largely over-shadowed by other movies. I didn’t even hear about it until I saw its rather striking trailer the week before it came out and new it was going to be something worth checking out. Even more surprising was that the movie was a hit, at least by the modest standard of subtitled film in the 2010s. Its $3 million take might not sound like a lot but if you exclude movies clearly marketed at immigrant communities rather than cinephiles its one of the twenty highest grossing foreign films of the decade, which is kind of awesome considering that it was a black and white movie about Polish nuns and kind of seemed to defy standard notions of commerciality. When he accepted the Best Foreign Language film Oscar that year Pawlikowski gently quipped “how did I get here, made a film… about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation and here we are at this epicenter of noise and world attention. Fantastic! Life is full of surprises.” With the clout he earned from that film Pawlikowski has come back with another black and white film about life in 20th Century Poland called Cold War which has arrive with much more fanfare and higher expectations.
Cold War begins in the Poland of 1949 where the post-war Polish People’s Republic has become firmly established as a Soviet puppet state. One of the things this new communist government apparently did was establish an academy of sorts to create a song and dance troupe that would bring respect to the music if the downtrodden proletariat peasants, and this is where our characters come in. Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) is the musical director and conductor for this troupe while Zuzanna Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) is a young woman who auditions for the troupe and immediately catches his eye. Before long the two have started an affair and when the troupe finds itself touring to East Berlin Warski proposes that the two try to escape to the west.
First and foremost Cold War just looks really awesome. Like Ida before it the film is in black and white and in the academy ratio so as to invoke the look of the European arthouse films of the era its set in. Experiments to imitate previous filmmaking eras like The Good German or The Artist often come off a bit gimmicky but Pawlikowski has really managed to make something that looks like the genuine article and seems aesthetically pleasing beyond mere nostalgia. Ida was of course a movie about spiritual exploration so it’s look perhaps invoked something more along the lines of a Bresson or Tarkovsky, but Cold War is more of an epic romance of sorts and takes the form of something like a European noir or some of Rossellini’s work in the 50s. Helping this illusion is that Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig both manage to have a very classical look, which is admittedly probably helped by the fact that neither of them are terribly well known in the English speaking world.
The movie is, at its heart a film a relationship that’s rocky for both internal and external reasons. Sometimes they’re kept apart by the repressive society they live in, sometimes they’re separated by national borders, sometimes they’re separated by relationships with other people or even by incarceration but often they’re also often separated by their own dysfunction. At times this seems like a pair that are almost going out of their way not to be happy and I think part of the problem is that the movie feels a bit rushed at times. This is after all a movie that’s set over the course of more than fifteen years but runs a scant 85 minutes and this means that certain stages in their relationship have to be summed up in just a scene or two and the last development in the film feels especially rushed through. If you’re going to make an epic romance I don’t see why you wouldn’t want it to be a bit more epic in its length, Still the film’s style makes up for a lot and even if we’re only getting a taste of this romance it does still leave you with some of the emotion and when the film looks like it does that’s always just going to be catnip for film critics.
**** out of Five
During the last two years I found myself forming something of a new end of year tradition for myself by going to see the Oscar nominated live action shorts. Unlike the documentary shorts (which are very easy to track down online and on Netflix) and the animated shorts (which are usually very short), the live action shorts seem to me to be the ones that really benefit from going to the package that gets put into theaters by a company called ShortsTV. These theatrical presentations have become increasingly popular over the years but could be in danger given that the short categories are probably going to be on the chopping block in the near future in the Academy’s unending quest to shorten its telecast at the expense of its integrity. That said, if they keep nominating classes of shorts like the ones this year that could hurt this little tradition as well. Personally, I’d say this is actually the best roster of live action shorts they’ve nominated in the three years I’ve been paying attention (with one notable exception) but they are decidedly not going to be for all tastes. All five of these nominees is rather dark and some are downright grim. Child endangerment is something of a running theme and audiences sensitive to such material may not find this to be a very fun evening at the cinema.
Please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.
The first short of the package is probably the most conventionally entertaining of the five insomuch as its disturbing content fits well within the confines of the mainstream thriller genre and would not be overly noteworthy were it not in this company. The film, a Spanish production directed by a guy named Rodrigo Sorogoyen, begins with a woman in her late twenties and her mother walking into an apartment. You instantly assume that the mother is the mother of the title, but you start to reconsider that when you learn that the younger woman is herself a mother of a small child and the action really kicks off when we learn that this child has somehow found himself alone on a beach in France with his father (who he was vacationing with) having disappeared. The mother frantically tries to get as much information as she can from the child before his battery runs out and there’s a real kinetic charge to watching this mother panicking and doing her best to solve the situation. The film is also done largely in a single shot as it follows the two women around this apartment and incorporates some interesting surround sound elements as well, making it one of the most technically accomplished of the five. It’s big weakness however is that it ends abruptly with no real resolution to the conflict at its center. When watching it I had a hunch that this was meant to be a proof of concept and perhaps opening scene to a longer movie along the lines of The Vanishing or something and sure enough this director is currently working on a feature length adaptation. I’d be interested to see that version, but the way this shorter version ends just kind of makes you feel like you were tricked into watching a (very well made) trailer.
Its Oscar Chances: Low. Some people might want to recognize it simply for being the most professionally made, but that ending is going to be pretty off-putting in general and for better or worse this just doesn’t feel like the film out of the five that will elicit strong reactions one way or the other.
The next short is the first of two French Canadian live action shorts and both one of the best of the shorts here and one of the most disturbing, which is kind of saying something. The film concerns two children of about ten or twelve who are playing outside in the outskirts of a town and are playing a strange game amongst themselves involving various dares and “made you looks.” The two become increasingly oblivious to how dangerous this behavior can be as they wander into a cement mine and continue to play there. Unpleasantness ensues. That description probably makes the film sound rather trite but the film is really good at building tension and the sense of dread it creates is definitely intentional. Director Jérémy Comte clearly has both a command of his craft as well as a sort of perverse view of humanity that I’d like to see expanded on and he adds a little note at the end which I suspect some will hate but which I think does make the film go full circle in a dark but oddly satisfying way.
Its Oscar Chances: In another year I would be a bit more optimistic about this one but a lot of people are going to come out of this bunch of films really sick of seeing children placed in danger and given that this movie does that most clearly they may take that frustration out on it.
The third film in this presentation is another French Canadian film and is the only film of the bunch which doesn’t involve children or bad things happening to them. It’s not exactly a “happy” movie but in this bunch it feels like an oasis in a desert of misery. It involves interactions between a PCA and an elderly woman who lives alone in a house. At a certain point the old woman learns that the PCA is a lesbian married to a woman, which brings back memories of her own past being in love with a woman herself but having never been able to act on this because of “the times.” Ultimately there’s not a whole lot to the film, it’s certainly less eventful than the other four, but it’s reasonably well acted and constructed and I think director Marianne Farley would be well suited to making dramas on a larger canvas.
Its Oscar Chances: This is sort of the opposite of Fauve in that I think it kind of benefits from the company it’s in. In normal years I would say it didn’t have a chance because it lacks anything to really make it stand out and stick in the memory, but this year it’s a total apple in a basket of oranges and could well be something of a protest vote in opposition to what the other films put their audiences through.
The fourth and most controversial of the shorts is Detainment an Irish production set in England which takes another look at the Jamie Bulger murder, which if you’re not familiar with was a case that occurred in Liverpool during the early 90 where two small children kidnapped and murdered a toddler for reasons that appear generally psychotic. The film is largely a reenactment of the interrogation of these two children intercut with reenactments of the moments leading up to the murder. The film is just tasteful enough to not show the actual killing but it is certainly discussed in graphic detail. I will say that the acting in the film, especially amongst the two child actors, is very strong and I suspect that is a big part of why the film received the nomination. However, everything else about this thing seems completely misguided. The family of the real Jamie Bulger have come out against the film, which was not made with their permission. Personally I don’t feel that the making of any movie based on fact should need the blessing of an estate in order to be made, but if you’re going to do that you should at least have an important movie to show for it and this isn’t it. In many ways it falls into the same trap as Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it recreates a really extreme act of human cruelty while ultimately finding nothing to really say about it except to stare into the abyss, and that movie at least had the excuse of bringing attention to a lesser known moment in history, which is certainly not the case with the Bulger murder which is one of the most discussed cases in all of true crime.
Its Oscar Chances: None
The final film in the package is Skin, an American film from an Israeli director which focuses on a family of white supremacists who are covered in hateful tattoos, listen to obscene music, and have no qualms about using grotesque slurs. They’re white supremacists of the worst kind, but they do seem to love their son and at least treat him well. The film does come close to the making the American History X mistake of making a critique of white supremacy which nonetheless gives more screen time to the white supremacists than to the ultimate message, but this problem is somewhat mitigated by the twenty minute format and by the fact that the characters rarely really articulate where they’re coming to these hateful views. Eventually the film builds to a vicious hate crime and then it transforms into a slightly more fanciful revenge scenario where the skin heads “get theirs” in an implausible but interesting way. The film works best if looked at as a sort of modern day fable, but I’m not sure that its conclusions are overly profound.
Its Oscar Chances: Not bad, in fact I’m kind of reluctantly going to predict it simply because its finale stands out as one of the more creative moments in any of the films and because the film at least leaves the audience with some feeling that evil has been defeated by the end, which a lot of the other films lack.
With the 2018 live action shorts we are faced with the limits of programing a block of short films simply through all the options being nominated for an award rather than through a more strategic selection. I’m going to assume it’s just a coincidence that most of the nominees this year are as dark as they are because I doubt any voters necessarily wanted it to turn out this way. I feel like almost all of these shorts would have been better served as the most serious film in an otherwise neutral festival block than played one after the other pretty much inviting comparison between them all.
There are a lot of geographic blindspots in my film viewing and a pretty big one is the Middle East. It maybe isn’t quite the blindspot that African cinema is, but with that continent I at least have the excuse of most of the rest of the film world being about as uneducated as I am. I’m not completely unversed in cinema from that region, I have a reasonable knowledge of Iran’s unique brand of brainy experimentation and if you include movies from places like Turkey, Israel, and North Africa I’m sure seen a couple dozen or so movies from the area and obviously that’s more than most people but compared with the number of movies I’ve probably seen from individual countries like France or Japan it’s really nothing. On top of that there isn’t really that much of a shortage of movies from the Middle East, like clockwork there tends to be at least one or two movies a year being imported in hopes of competing for that Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and that might actually be part of the problem. The movies from the middle east that they try to import around award season are universally about these countries’ social and political problems and they almost always draw reviews that are respectful but not overwhelming in their praise. This year’s contender for the “important movie from the middle east” award is the new Lebanese film Capernaum, and I’ve decided to give this one a go.
Capernaum begins in a Beirut courtroom where a child named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) who’s currently serving a prison sentence for stabbing someone has had his parents Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and Selim (Fadi Kamel Youssef) brought in as defendants in a lawsuit. We’re told that these parents are ostensibly being sued for bringing Zain into a world of suffering, which more literally seems to be a suit for abuse or neglect or something (the legal grounds for all of this are rather vague). We learn that his parents had way more children than they can afford to support and never bothered to get any of them real birth certificates or papers. When these plainly awful guardians marry off Zain’s eleven year old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam) for dowry money Zain goes into a rage and run away from home. While away he encounters an illegal Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who takes him in and gives him room and board in exchange for his watching her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) while she’s at work, which goes pretty well until one day Rahil is rounded up in an immigration raid and Zain is stuck having to find a way to keep this kid alive while alone on the streets.
On its most basic level Capernaum is a kind of neo-neorealist movie about the life of a street kid in the poorest sections of Beirut. Zain is said to be about twelve in the movie (not knowing his actual age is something of a plot point) but he looks like he could be nine or ten and seeing him in this harsh environment is supposed to be a bit jarring. He speaks in very vulgar street terminology and while he does clearly have conscience he doesn’t seem to think twice about petty theft. This reminded me a bit of the Moroccan film Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, which came out about twenty years ago and also looked at the life of street kids in the Arab world, but where that really focused on a group of kids in this position this one really focuses in on Zain as a solitary figure alone in the city. The idea of people being alone in this cruel world is a bit of a recurring theme: Rahil seems to be similarly without anyone to depend on as her neighbors seem to be needlessly hostile towards her and she doesn’t seem to have a single friend who can help Yonas once she’s put in jail and the few people who should be acting as a support system like Zain’s parents seem to completely fail him.
Where the film starts to go astray is in its framing story. The trial that is meant to be the catalyst for much of this reflection makes very little sense if taken literally. I’m no expert on the Lebanese legal system but I doubt that there are any legal grounds for someone to actually sue their parents for choosing to bring them into the world and even if that is meant to be a stand-in for a more mundane charge like child neglect that would still be an unusual place to tell this whole story given that the parents aren’t even present for something like 60% of the story that Zain is telling. Even if you look at the trial sequences purely as a sort of metaphoric soapbox I’m still not exactly sure I’m on board with what the movie is saying. Zain’s final word on the matter is that he wants his parents to stop having so many damn kids they can’t afford, which is a message that rings a bit too close to the kind of “welfare queen” shaming that often characterizes discourse about poverty in this country. The movie isn’t completely in the position of demonizing poor parents as Rahil is clearly held up as an example of the kind of “working poor” who doesn’t deserve the misery she receives, but all too often the movie seems more interested in blaming poor people for their problems rather than highlighting the societal ills that are really at the heart of these problems. Ignore all that though and Nadine Labaki has still made a pretty compelling human story which seems to capture the environment it’s trying to shed light on pretty effectively.
*** out of Five
Sometimes I think it’s important to lay one’s biases right out when they start to talk about movies, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have some biases about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. I certainly wasn’t opposed to the very idea of a Queen biopic, I like that band as much as the next guy and I’m not completely allergic to musical biopics like some people are but when the movie came out in late October it was completely panned by the critics and I had much more important things to see and I felt pretty comfortable skipping it. Then it just kind of never went away. The thing became a ginormous hit at the box office despite everyone in the film world having nothing nice to say about it and it somehow managed to become a big awards contender and despite having not seen it I sort of went along with my critical brethren in trashing each and every organization that thought it appropriate to treat this thing like one of the year’s best. That instinct probably reached its pinnacle on the night of the Golden Globes when the movie shockingly won the Best Motion Picture Drama award and I responded with some rather rude tweets including “they must have straight up been smoking crack” and “The #HFPA is basic as fuck.” I don’t exactly regret the tone of those tweets so much as the fact that I was talking about a movie without having seen it (for the record, both sentiments also apply to the night’s other big winner Green Book, which I had seen). So, with the not at all loaded mission of wanting to be able to trash something with more credibility I used my newly acquired AMC Stubs A-List membership to go see the damn movie, and while I certainly had my biases against it I also kind of had a sinking suspicion that with expectations so low I might have ended up pleasantly surprised.
The story of Queen begins when a young baggage handler named Farrokh Bulsara, who would soon come to be known as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), caught up with a bar band called Smile right as their bassist/lead singer had given up and quit the band. Seeing the potential in the group he convinces the remaining guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Tayler (Ben Hardy) to let him join them as the new lead singer. After hiring a new bassist named John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) and touring extensively the group decides to make an album. Meanwhile Mercury has been starting a relationship with a woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) who he seems to have a deep and abiding love for but there always seems to be something between them keeping the relationship from completely working, what could that possibly be?
The element at the center of this film is of course Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury, which has gotten a lot of acclaim even from people who dislike the film. He does indeed to a pretty good job of looking like Mercury for most of the movie and he can certainly lip-sych like a pro (the singing is provided by archival recordings), but I wasn’t overly impressed by the speaking voice he mustered for most of the movie. If you look up some old Freddie Mercury interviews you find he didn’t really sound that much like what Malek is trying to sell here and even if he did Malek just generally seems to be struggling with trying to perform while using the voice and there are some questionable line readings in the movie. The rest of the cast is serviceable. This is clearly a movie that’s primarily about Mercury for obvious reasons, though you do get the impression that the surviving band members are calling some of the shots as there is a suspiciously large focus on making the audience very aware of the fact that some of the other band members are responsible for writing a lot of the band’s hits.
The central sin of Bohemian Rhapsody is that it is absolutely slavish to the rock biopic formula as lampooned by the movie Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story. You’ve got the “I’m going to think back on my life before a performance” trope, the pop psychology about the artist’s childhood, the record exec who doesn’t get what they’re doing because they’re so ahead of their time, the record studio montages, and of course the “it used to be about the music, man!” segment. To some extent a lot of this stuff is unavoidable in a biopic which isn’t doing some sort of avant garde I’m Not There experiment and I don’t expect every movie like this to subvert all of them but this movie really shamelessly leans into the formula without doing anything to bring any originality to the proceedings. The film also really distorts a lot of facts about the band in order to fit this formula. Much of the film’s second (and weakest) half revolves around Freddie Mercury’s supposed abandonment of the band in the early 80s to pursue a solo career and to pursue hedonism. This version of the narrative rather conveniently ignores the fact that this supposed hiatus only lasted two years, that Brian May and Roger Taylor both released solo projects before Mercury did, and that the band had already reunited, released an album, and gone on a tour before they performed at Live Aid.
Of course all movies based on true events take some creative license but there are ways to use creative license for good and ways to use it for bad. Here the liberties they take generally just served the purpose of making the movie more clichéd and predictable. There is of course also the matter of how the film depicts Mercury’s sexuality. Now, the film doesn’t necessarily hesitate in depicting Mercury as a gay man, something it might have done if it had been made some twenty years earlier, but in some ways what it does do is more insidious. As I mentioned this movie follows the rock biopic formula to a T and these rock biopics almost always reach a point where the lead singer becomes full of himself and starts destroying the band, usually by falling into drugs and alcohol. That happens here too, but instead of drug addiction the thing that starts happening to Mercury at this point in the story is that he starts fully embracing his sexuality and engaging with the gay community. Yes, he’s also said to be taking drugs during this section but that is deemphasized here and it almost feels like the movie is equating homosexuality itself with self-destruction to the point where all the references to gayness in the script could have been replaced with references to drugs and the story would have basically been unaltered. The presence of Jim Hutton, Mercury’s boyfriend in his later years mitigates this a little, but if they’d been more honest about this relatively healthy relationship which began long before Live-Aid and before Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis the structure and framing would have been a lot less problematic.
So did I hate Bohemian Rhapsody? Nah, it plays things a little too safe to really become something worth hating. It also has one major and rather obvious asset: it has a lot of Queen music in it. It will be a surprise to no one that Queen was a pretty damn good rock band and even knowing that it’s just a lip-synch show there is obvious entertainment value in seeing the scenes of the band performing these songs, especially if you’re watching them on a very large screen and with a really aggressive sound system. Aside from a stretch leading up to the Live Aid performance at the end the movie is mostly pretty well paced ad often has a sense of humor about itself. What I’m trying to say is that as corny as the film is at times there are worse ways to spend two hours in a theater, and while I don’t respect the movie at all I don’t have much ill-will for it either… at least I wouldn’t if not for the fact that some people have apparently blown the film’s positive qualities way out of proportion and are trying to give it a bunch of awards it plainly doesn’t deserve, but when you have low expectations like I did and you keep things in perspective there is guilty pleasure to be derived from this thing.
**1/2 out of Five