Sunday, February 17, 2019

COLD WAR (2018)

Rated:  R

STARS: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
DIRECTOR: Pawel Pawlikowski
GENRE: Drama/ Romance

With border crossers being the hot button topic of the day, we get a film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski that crosses more borders--physical, political, and musical--than you can shake a stick at.

Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a performer in a song and dance troupe showcasing traditional Polish music and culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the director who quickly falls for his lovely young ingenue, who is on probation for stabbing her father. (She's got real spunk and spirit, this one.)  She is also attracted to Wiktor, and they will do their thing with each other, and it will be good for a while. Until the commies want them to start injecting some Stalinist propaganda into their performances. Wiktor defects to France and Zula is supposed to follow suit--but she balks, and this is where the complications set in for the star-crossed lovers. But they manage to hook up improbably in Paris, Prague, and Warsaw amidst the changing circumstances of their lives. 

Pawlikowski reportedly based the lead characters on his own parents. But since his father was a doctor and his mother a literature professor, Cold War is not their story--though perhaps the seeds of it were sown when his mother removed him from communist Poland to a permanent exile in the west.

Music, the universal language, is what ties the disparate elements of Cold War together. The traditional folk music of Poland gives way to the jazzy film noir atmosphere of Parisian night clubs. The only constant is that the two leads remain hot for each other through a period spanning the decades of the fifties and sixties. (Only thing is they don't seem to age that much...but regular sex will keep you young looking...or so I hear!)

Joanna Kulig, who does her own singing and dancing, is immensely talented--an alluring and captivating presence who carries the film, which is something of a flawed masterpiece. I say flawed because of the ending. Without giving it away, I'll just say that it doesn't fit the characters. It's a lazy, deus ex machina way to end a film. Points deducted accordingly.

Grade:  B

For those of you who've gone to see movies with me, you already know my 'bottom line' litmus test. As we exit the theater, I always ask, "What one thing did you like most about this movie? And what one thing did you like least?" (It saves me from listening to long, disjointed cinematic opinions!) Then it's my turn. In the case of Cold War, my favorite thing was definitely the music. No matter what rhythm, language or how a song was presented, it reiterated to me how universal and powerful music is.

My least favorite thing? The editing. Cold War leapt from scene to scene faster than those high-kicking Polish dancers. Whatever happened to subtle transitions in movies? I realize life is often an emotional roller coaster but does art always have to imitate it?

This is the second black and white film I've seen this season. The first being Roma. (Both have received 3 Oscar nominations for Cinematography, Directing and Best Foreign Film). I wasn't killed with either. But forced to choose, I'd go with Cold War. For me, the black and white movie that truly deserved it's many, many Oscar wins was The Artist (2011).

Unlike Tim, I found the ending realistic. But then I'm less of a romantic than my co-reviewer!
Grade: C

Monday, February 11, 2019

FREE SOLO (2018)

Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless
DIRECTOR: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
GENRE: Documentary

Some folks need to risk death to feel truly alive. I have no need of such drastic measures. Falling out of bed in the morning is enough to jolt me awake and be fully present in the moment. But some people need more. Much more.

Enter Alex Honnold, rock climbing enthusiast. Ascending to mountaintops the normal way, with ropes and harnesses, isn't good enough for him. He wants to be the first person to inch all the way up the 3000 foot sheer granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any of that "sissy" equipment that normally provides the difference between life and death in such endeavors. Alex isn't like the rest of us. He needs a higher level of stimulation, as a telling MRI of his brain reveals.

Free Solo is the documentary that follows him from the planning stages of the climb through the actual attempt itself. Along the way we learn quite a bit about the young man, a healthy eating vegetarian who lives in his van and travels around practicing his "upwardly mobile" lifestyle. It is clearly the most important thing in his life because he indicates that when push comes to shove, he prefers a rock face over a pretty face.  

Enter Sanni McCandless, a young woman he met at one of his book signings. They hit it thing leads to another...and now she's become a part of his life as they cohabitate in the van--and though she's not a professional climber, she's getting more and more into it with him.

There's an undercurrent of how their ongoing romance may affect his concentration and dedication to his sport. (I flash on Burgess Meredith telling Sylvester Stallone in Rocky: women weaken legs!) Any lack of concentration or attention to detail during such a harrowing free solo climb could easily result in it being curtains, and to drive home the point we are shown a lengthy list of climbers who perished during such attempts. 

Free Solo is as gripping and compelling as any suspense thriller I've ever watched. With dizzying and breathtaking cinematography that we get from every angle. I purposely did not do research on the film before seeing it, so I didn't know what the ultimate outcome of Honnold's foolhardy El Capitan adventure would be, and found myself with sweaty palms throughout the second half of the film. And yes, I say foolhardy, because the guy has a girlfriend who looks like a model and his whole life ahead of him. 

For most of us, that would be enough. Unless getting into the record books means more to you than life itself.

Grade:  A


A nail-biter for sure. And like one of the camera men filming this inconceivable adventure, I had to look away during the final ropeless climb. I went to an evening show and the audience was filled with young people who were vicariously climbing along with Alex Honnold. I was not. But I was admiring his single focus, his dedication and his passion.

If Free Solo wasn't based on an actual event (nominated this year for a Best Documentary Feature award), I'd find it hard to believe that any mom or girlfriend would be so supportive. I sure wouldn't be!

Some of the photography looked like abstract art. And the majesty of El Capitan, as captured so beautifully on film by co-director, cinematographer and co-producer Jimmy Chin, took my breath way. (When I remembered to breathe!)

Tim McGraw's song "Gravity" plays as the end credits roll. As I end my review, I'd like to quote some of them: "Look what you have overcome to get here...Look at the distance you've run...The doubt that you push down...Fear you have drawn out when they said it couldn't be done..."

PS – If you suffer from vertigo, avoid this film at all costs.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, February 5, 2019


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies
DIRECTOR:  Neil Burger
GENRE: Comedy/ Drama

There are multiple factors to consider when evaluating a film: story line...acting... cinematography...soundtrack. Sometimes one stands out and makes up for weaknesses in the other areas. In The Upside, a remake of the hit French film from 2011--The Intouchables (reviewed here)--it's the personnel on hand. The quality cast. 

To wit: Bryan Cranston, who plays Phillip, a quadriplegic billionaire (a paragliding accident has him permanently confined to the chair). Cranston does all of his acting from the neck up. No easy feat.

Kevin Hart brings his comedic instincts to the part of Dell, the man who gets hired as Phillip's caretaker and companion. Dell is totally unqualified for the position. He lives on the fringes of the law and he's way behind on his child support payments. He doesn't even want the job--he's just out collecting signatures  to appease his parole officer--until he learns how much it pays. Phillip sees something in him that represents rebellion. Freedom. Adventure. It will happen.

Hart plays Dell as a hapless slacker. In the original film, Dell's counterpart, "Driss," is portrayed by Omar Sy. He's more of a thuggish, straight-ahead tough guy. So there's a different tone to the character. There are laughs in both versions, but in The Upside Hart is spoon-feeding them to us (like he haphazardly spoon feeds Philip).  But every film should stand on its own, and as we all know, movies that are"based" on a book or a true story or another film often fiddle with the particulars.

Nicole Kidman is Phil's gal Friday, who is staunchly opposed to the hiring of Dell in the beginning. I think of Kidman as our finest living actress. I came to this mindset after viewing her fiery performance in Eyes Wide Shut. Since then I've examined her work with a more critical eye, and she is the real deal. Here she is looking radiant and almost school-girlish, belying her 51 years on the planet. 

The exquisite Julianna Margulies as Phil's pen pal rounds out the cast. Their dinner meeting together is  bittersweet, and marks the turning point in the film. 

All that and you get Aretha Franklin singing opera in the background! That's different.

I gave The Intouchables an "A" grade. I like the remake almost as much as the original.

Grade: B +


When I went to see The Upside, I had some pro and con prejudices about the actors. Con Kevin Hart (too attention-grabbing) and pro Bryan Cranston (AKA William White in "Breaking Bad"). By the end, my preconceived opinions were eradicated.

This seems to be the year of movies featuring totally opposite characters who become bosom buddies, i.e. Green Book and now The Upside. (It all began with Stanley Kramer's 1958 classic The Defiant Ones with convicts Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, eventually learning to trust, even like each another.)

There have been some great films about quadriplegics. To name two of my favorites,The Sea Inside (2004, Javier Bardem) and The Sessions (2012, Helen Hunt). I will now add The Upside to this list. It's a totally engrossing film with more humor, much more, than those other two....

Sure, there are some unbelievable moments but once you buy into the premise, it's a fun ride. When Hart's character earns a $50,000 check for a painting and spends it on a fancy automobile and two apartments in NYC my practical side scoffed. (I kept thinking of my niece's daughter who pays $2500 a month for a 500 sq. ft. studio in lower Manhattan.) And some of the antics (car chases, paragliding, etc.) seemed a bit hard to imagine for someone as physically compromised as Cranston's character. But imagine them I did – and was much the happier for the experience.

Emotionally, I'd like to give The Upside an A. But a small part of me feels it was too happy and upside-ish for the actual situation. I'd love to know how a quadriplegic viewer would react.

Grade: B +