Grass directed by Sang-soo Hong, 2018.

In Korean with English subtitles, with Min Hee Kim.

A young woman sits in a cafe eavesdropping on the other customers.  She sits quietly in the corner, typing on her laptop computer.  The other customers have serious conversations about their lives, and there are not one not two but three suicides under discussion.  Or is it one suicide, played out three different ways?  The main idea is that people need each other, and are made up of very strong emotions, and the people who share them blend into each other in a big disharmonious mess.


Some of the customers, none of whom has a name, scream at each other.  We don’t learn exactly what happened to precipitate the melodrama, but that is the point.  The observer in the corner, the fly on the wall, has to figure that out for herself because she is writing a screenplay, or the screenplay is about a screenplay.

the eavesdropper

The black and white photography of the main actors is crucial.  Each couple is framed in a medium closeup with individuals in profile, except on occasion when the camera moves away from the two, and focuses in on one.  In one of the conversations a woman does the lion’s share of the talking, and the man we only see from behind his right ear.  This could be irritating in less than sure hands, but Hong has cut his teeth on this kind of close observation.  Only at the very end did I grow tired of the slightly out of focus shot of the surrounding area around the cafe where most of the action takes place.


Min Hee Kim who plays the eavesdropper is a remarkable actress.  She just keeps drawing you in, making you wonder who she really is.  The simplicity of the screenplay, where she is mostly just observing , and writing her thoughts on what she is overhearing, is enough.  But when she leaves the cafe and hangs out with her brother for a moment, and is antagonistic to his fiance, we learn more about her temperament, and we seem to be exiting the world of the screenplay and entering real life.


I have grown tired of movies that are a bit too long.  The ease of filming with digital technology, compared to cinematography with film, has drawn filmmakers to shoot too much, to include scenes they should have edited out.  This is one thing I loved about this movie: its brevity.  Brevity stands in for discipline, for including only the things needed to tell the story, not that there is a story yet, but the movie is about someone trying to make sense of the world around her.

The soundtrack however, was really bothersome.  In the cafe, one patron notes that the owner who is never seen but remarked upon for his good manners and gentlemanly behavior, likes to play classical music.  Unfortunately, the songs used are often those used for famous ballets, and distracted me from the main scene playing out in front of me, and made me visualize the great ballet dancers I have seen perform to this music. I remembered Peter Martins, and Baryshnikov, and Suzanne Farrell, dancing.  Then Pachelbel’s Canon would play. Or some other chestnut so loud that it practically drowned out the dialogue of the actors.

talking suicide,upset

But I came away thinking highly of the director, and his muse, the actress, who I had last seen in Claire’s Camera, with Isabelle Huppert.  There were many similar scenes in that movie, of two people, just sitting across from each other, talking to each other about things that really matter.  How unusual and profound is that. There are so many people walking down the street, gazing into their phones,  that this movie was a welcome relief, and reminded me of how important it is to reach out and really connect.


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Never Look Away (directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), 2018.

in German with subtitles.  With Paula Beer, Saskia Rosendahl , Sebastian Koch, Tom Schilling.


The Spanish poster, Obra Sin AutorWithout An Author

The opening scenes are mesmerizing, with a young boy named Karl, maybe five or seven years old, in the care of his aunt, attending an art show during the Nazi era, where all of the degenerate art is disparaged as not having anything to do with real people but only the egos of the artists, and the compulsion to invent.    The boy you can tell loves the art, and his aunt whispers that she likes it too.  The portrait of an artist as a boy  is lovingly begun, but the director’s treatment is overbearing.  The tour guide does not just preach about one or two artworks, but about many, and goes on at length about how this is bad for society.


Karl with Elisabeth at the Degenerate Art show during Nazi era

A mirroring effect occurs with the socialist government that followed Hitler also condemning art that does not support the workers’ aims.  By now the boy is in his teens,  with the story not as much about his personal journey, as the Nazi system having echoes of the socialist system, at least as far as art is concerned.  There is good art and bad art.  Good art supports the state.  Bad art does not, just glorifies the artist.  Again the audience is lectured at length.

There are other mirrors: the aunt, a beautiful young woman named Elisabeth, is schizophrenic, indulging in strange pastimes, such as asking the bus drivers all parked together in their lot, to blast their horns, so that she can feel the tone of the universe surround her.  One day when the boy’s parents arrive home,  they discover Elisabeth nude playing the piano, and witness her beginning to harm herself, and the furniture.  Later, after Elisabeth is committed to an insane asylum, and her nephew is in his teens,  he runs in from a beautiful day climbing trees, declaring to his father that he hears the universe, and now knows what to do, and it is all clear as can be.  Both the aunt and the nephew hear the universe speak to them, but Elisabeth’s fate is tragic, and haunts the rest of the movie.

The boy, named Karl, falls in love with a woman named Elisabeth (nicknamed Ellie) who bears an uncanny resemblance to his aunt.  Thus begins a love story with the two leading actors giving it their all, but the filmmaker again can’t resist repeating himself, showing scenes of lovemaking over and over again, which tender as they are, make you wonder what happened to the rest of the plot which seems more pressing.  It turns out that Ellie’s father had a crucial role in determining Karl’s aunt’s fate. He is an evil gynecologist, something out of a horror movie.  Sebastian Koch  is terribly good, so I was riveted and alienated at once by the melodramatic tone and his sinister aims.

After the war, Karl becomes a disciplined artist.  Even though he is bored by it, he excels at painting what the leadership wants, constant tributes to the working classes.  He is awarded work as a mural artist.  Resuming the story of an artist finding his way, the director spends again overly long scenes showing not just one or two but what seem like dozens of abstract, conceptual,  and modernist artists breaking free from the old schools of thinking about art, and declaring that painting is dead.

During the war Dresden, a jewel like city, is completely destroyed in firebombing.  Karl’s relatives are killed.  The film making is brilliant at this point, showing the boy take it in, with his parents, and move on.  The movie’s cast, especially Sebastian Koch and Cai Cohrs as the young boy Karl, are convincing.  All of the sets and production values look splendid.

After I had watched the movie, I learned that it was based primarily on the artist Gerard Richter’s life and work, and that Richter disapproves of a movie that elevates his backstory and perhaps invents an explanation for a key painting.  The director had at least four major threads to tie together — the Nazi regime’s treatment of the mentally ill, the various periods of German history with relation to art, the personal tale of the artist, including his love for his wife, and the post war treatment of war criminals– and does not quite manage to do so, but in the process he has laid before us a beautiful collection of scenes that demonstrate his ambition.   It makes me think of Gerard Richter as a heroic artist as well, and now I am eager to look at his work.

However, there are so many redundancies that I grew bored, and restless for answers to questions that remained unsatisfied.


Tom Schilling as Karl the adult




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Sunset (directed by László Nemes), 2018.

In Hungarian with English subtitles.  With Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter

The movie begins with a series of still images as the sun sets in Budapest, giving a sense of time passing, the sky darkening, the lights coming on in an elegant Beaux Arts building.  The sky turns pink, gold, finally blazes in a red sunset that I was happy to wait for, almost as if in real time.  Little did I know the slow pace of things to come, the concealment of the director’s aims, and the dark we would remain in as the audience.  I love it when the filmmaker lets me figure out what is going on, and does not explain things in mind numbing detail, but this movie challenged me in ways I was not prepared for.

Irisz, the main character, a young woman dressed in a white blouse with a stand up collar, and wearing her hair in a modest style pulled away from her face, is in an elegant department store, being shown a series of hats.  As the sales staff positions each hat on her head, Irisz remains mute, indicating nothing, not that she likes them or doesn’t like them, remaining completely passive.  Finally after the third choice, she states simply that she came about the position, in other words, she is not looking to buy, but to be hired.

How frustrating, I thought, for the sales staff, to go to all that trouble.  Why did not the woman explain herself in the beginning?  How easy it is to put your case forward, before they have carted off your suitcase (why did they cart off her suitcase?– is that normal treatment for visitors to the store?) with your designs in them, that might help you get hired as a millinery designer.  It turns out that Irisz is a Leiter,  the family that founded the store, and she wants to work in the place that her parents founded.  Everything we learn about the main character, and what actually drew her to Budapest from Trieste, in 1913, at the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is veiled in a mist of secrecy that at first I thought only the director of the film, who I was convinced was a sadist, is privileged to know.

The actress playing Irisz is given stilted dialogue to recite, and often no dialogue at all, even after being questioned, as if she has a hearing problem, or is on the spectrum, and would prefer not to communicate.  But many of the characters behave in the same way.  Questions, many questions, remain unanswered.  There is a mystery to be solved, involving Irisz’s brother, and whether or not he committed a grave crime, and is perhaps at large leading a group of anarchists as they go about their work destroying the aristocracy.  If only the point of view were not from Irisz’s unchanging eyes.  She never changes expression until she is threatened with violence, as she is more than once.

I cannot say that the movie is without its pleasures.  The hats are gorgeous, the production design speaking of the early 20th century’s visual delights.  The costumes and sets and props speak of a time long ago, but once again made vividly clear.  But the storytelling, including much of the photography, is excruciatingly frustrating.  Just when you think you are about to get somewhere with the plot, a long shot of a person crossing a large field, takes what seems to be forever, and you wait until the person comes into focus, and you can see that even that does not help you understand what is happening.

There are moments of dramatic clarity, for example, when Irisz enters the royal household, and is asked to take off her shoes, and she finds her way into the inner circle of men who seem to be discussing some political crisis.  But we never get to hear it exactly.  Anything we learn is hearsay.  Irisz keeps trying to break through, but I have never seen a more inarticulate heroine, or more stolid actor whose face remains blank.

The closing shot of World War I, and soldiers in a trench, jumps forward and signals the real meaning of everything that came before.  So we in the audience are given the prelude, one woman’s relationship to it, and then skip forward to where it all led, without any of the dots connected.  After a day of ruminating on the film, and its close adherence to the heroine, I realize that I was expecting a conventional narrative, a story about a woman, and her need to learn about her family, from whom she was separated for most of her life.  But after careful reflection, I think that was not the director’s aim.  He was not telling a story about one human being, but about a whole class, or several classes of people whose lives were forever altered once the aristocracy was shown to be corrupt.  The images of the sunset at the beginning of the film were more important than I thought.  They were not just pretty pictures.  They meant to describe the end of a way of life forever.

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War and Peace (1966) directed by Sergei Bondarchuk

Most of the moving pictures I watch appear on a small tv screen.  Television programming offers an overwhelming  abundance of shows, which I can access almost any time I want.  Sometimes it is hard to wait for Schitts Creek episodes which are doled out weekly, the old fashioned way.  As a woman of a certain age, it is not second nature for me to know the myriad techniques to get to them.  Even though I depend heavily on Netflix, I do not use Hulu, and resent having to use Amazon Prime, but eventually give in to it so that I can watch the Amazing Mrs. Maisel.

Going to the movies is a special pleasure.  It takes me out of my living room, into a theater where I must sit in the dark with a bunch of strangers, and be quiet, and focus on the feast in front of me.

Going to see the spectacular epic Russian film that is now over fifty years old, and has been remastered and lovingly presented at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, reminds me of the way that film can draw people together, people who might not have anything else in common except the need to see greatness on the big screen.

The film’s director, Bondarchuk, plays Pierre, the central figure of Tolstoy’s novel.  Pierre is a man in search of meaning.  He drifts through a historical period in which emperors vie for territory and greatness.  Frederick and Alexander and Napoleon stand in for the grand ambition somehow lacking in Pierre’s soul.  Andrei, his close friend, as aide de camp to one of the generals at Austerlitz, confesses to his need for glory and risks his life to obtain it.  However, on the small stage, in his marriage, he is an abject failure.

The brilliance of the movie comes from its balance of the grand spectacle of historical events and social occasions like balls, with the interior monologues of the major characters. Andrei, Pierre, Natasha each voice their inner thoughts, dreams, anxieties– allowing us viewers to understand them in a far more intimate way than most movie figures.


Part I.  Andrei

Pierre and Andrei, Natasha and Maria, Kutuzov and Bagration, Helene and Liza, so many characters with their interwoven relationships to learn in 1805, just as Napoleon is at the peak of his power.

Fittingly the movie opens as the book does, with a party at the salon host’s house who knows how to mix up her guests based on politics, rank, and among the women, their beauty.  Andrei is there, glum, ignoring, then being quite rude to, his wife who is visibly pregnant, who wonders why he has turned against her.  We in the audience would also like to know, and the only evidence we have is that she is pregnant, but even so, she is still the most beautiful woman in the room, with a light in her eyes, and a kind manner.


Anastasiya Vertinskaya plays Andrei’s wife Elise

Pierre is a bit of a bumbler, going out with a group of drunken soldiers who challenge each other to drink a whole bottle of liquor while precariously balanced on a window ledge high enough to ensure certain death if one fell.  Pierre later attends a dance at a neighbor’s house even while his father lies on his deathbed, and wishes to say goodbye to him.


Bondarchuk as Pierre

Natasha is pure spirit and capriciousness, bouncing around like a hungry sparrow, taking everything in, observing how lovers kiss so that she will be ready.


Lyudmila Saveleva plays Natasha

Visually the movie has grandeur and sweeping horizons.   The opening scenes almost hallucinate the passage of time between peace and war, with jarring clashes, the sound of upset horses, gunshots, explosions, and then the grass coming into focus in close up as the camera lifts and moves away revealing a landscape near the river, and in the distance, plains, and a village with small houses.

Most epic are the battle scenes with the innate chaos that comes when men must play that game of chicken and decide who will fire first. Soon relentless firing of canons yields much more efficient harvesting of human souls.  Andrei is an aide de camp to the general in charge of the attack at Austerlitz, and he is eager to be known for his courage, and yearns to gain some glory.  Since Part I centers on Andrei, I found the actor a bit stiff in the beginning, inscrutable, and distant.  As he begins to participate in the battles, his character becomes more knowable.


Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Andrei

My trouble with Tolstoy is his treatment of women who exist to fall in love with, to be treated like doormats and playthings.  Andrei’s relationship with his wife would be more tragic if we understood why he ignores her and treats her like dirt.  But I suspect that is just the paternalistic society he lives in – nothing else is expected of him.  It makes him rather a dull subject.

Still there are passages of the film full of suspense and pathos, like the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov over his dalliance with Pierre’s wife.  One minute everyone is seated at dinner, about to read the menu, the next the piece of paper is torn from Dolokhov’s hand, and then it is dawn, there is a pair of pistols, and a surprisingly well aimed shot.  Dolokhov wallows in the snow, red blood coloring the white ground.  It has the feeling of authenticity. When Pierre realizes what he has done, he goes mad for a bit, and it is as if the audience were swept up into the soul of both opponents, part of us lying on the ground, bleeding, the other half wandering in a daze at the evil just done.  The filmmaker knows how to thrust you into the action, and feel the pulse of the characters.

The costumes and sets are impeccable, the acting forceful and true.  The cinematography is masterful, with all sorts of dissolves, including one where Natasha spies on a couple stealing a kiss, and the image remains frozen midair after the couple walks away and Natasha savors it.


Part II Natasha

Of course once Andrei’s wife dies in childbirth, he is eligible to marry.   Not so lucky Pierre witnesses his wife’s infidelity and puts up with it, listens to his friend gush about Natasha after they waltz at a ball sponsored by the emperor.  Bondarchuk, the director, immerses us in the spirit of Natasha’s immature, frivolous charm as she is swept away by Andrei’s gravitas, good looks and excellent dancing.  The only problem is that he tells her he must wait one year for their marriage to take place, once he has spoken with her mother. 

The tacit withholding of information or reasons why this long an engagement must take place is frustrating to Natasha and to the audience who is equally left in the dark.  This technique of having the audience embrace the point of view of the main character is very effective.  Natasha is only too human, and once a dashing young man comes along, seemingly deliberately planted there by the sinister Helene, Pierre’s two timing wife, Natasha succumbs to his charms.  So she has had three infatuations in one year, beginning with Boris, continuing with Andrei, and lastly, with Kuragin, who really does look good in uniform.


Vasiliy Lanovoy as Kuragin

These quick reversals show Natasha’s lack of depth, and unreadiness for marriage.  When Pierre brings her the news of Andrei’s break with her, he is equally effected by the sorrow she feels.

So there are three kinds of men in Tolstoy’s world:  the man of action, the man of greed, and the man of decency.  It would be nice if there were a little more mixing and matching, not that each of the three characters – Andrei, Kuragin, and Pierre, lack complexity—but still, it is clear that Natasha will eventually choose the man who has virtue over the other two.

The ballroom scene trembles with excitement.  The camera is everywhere, crowded with onlookers hoping for a glimpse of the emperor, stuck on the sidelines with Natasha who worries that no one will dance with her, even spying down from the ceiling, watching the whirlwind of dancers take their places on the dance floor.


Other episodes beautifully crafted are the hunt of the wolf, with its subtle soundtrack and gorgeous wolfhound dogs, and the mummers dashing through the snow, then hoping they learn the future with various spells.  After this particular episode, absorbing things from Natasha’s point of view, watching her dance at her uncle’s lodge, having her declared a genuine Russian dancer, I feel as if I have lived in the country, and begun to understand, or at least had a taste, of the glories of the culture.


Natasha rides side saddle with the wolf hunters

When 1812 comes, a year that is infamous in Russian history, and the battalions form again at the border where the French have invaded, a feeling of dread comes.  Other things we learn:  Andrei’s father has gone mad. Natasha’s brother and sister are close, though we barely get to know Nikolai, let alone Petya.

Part 3.

The battle of Borodino ends in bloodbath with at least 70,000 casualties.  Treatment of such massive carnage on screen requires large numbers of soldiers, none with any distinguishing features, trampling, shooting, stabbing each other, loading cannons, leaving massive quantities of smoke, mud, blood, and corpses.  You wonder who gets to clean up this mess?  Trenches are dug not for the protection of the men so much as for their quick burial.

After a while, the soldiers get tired, begin to flag, the look in their eyes dims, they wonder when they will go home.  Yet only Kutuzov stands out as an individual because he is the general in charge whose strategy and belief in his mission fuels the rest of the men’s resolve to win.

There is a tender reunion between Andrei and the general before the battle begins, and the general requests the nobleman to return to his side as his aide again.  Andrei has a regiment of his own by now, so much decline, but the embrace of the two men is heartfelt.

Andrei’s inner thoughts make him realize he faces certain death. In the middle of this reverie Pierre arrives, wanting to witness the battle.  Dressed in his civilian clothes in great contrast to the military uniforms, he looks ridiculous.  White top hat, beige tailored three pice suit, fine leather boots, do not fit on the battlefield.  The soldiers laugh at him, call him doctor.


Pierre, who in the beginning of the film was praising Napoleon for his honor in the face of the revolution, now would like to assassinate the man who has invaded Russia.


The battle takes up all of Part 3, and has moments of redundancy, but is full of rapturous cinematography, ravishing to the eye.  Why is it that the orange smoke that plumes above the recently set off cannons has an ethereal beauty?  Or the formations of men as they obey the commands of their superiors, no matter how suicidal, look heroic?  Bondarchuk successfully captures the momentous events of war, but as the movie wore on, I grew hungry for the individuals I had learned to care for in the earlier chapters.


Soldiers crowd around precious icon and pray.

Part 4 begins with the decision to retreat from Moscow, which results in the whole city evacuating, leaving Napoleon an abandoned, silent bauble to claim as his empty prize.  Now Pierre stays on with the singular intention of assassinating the emperor of France, but instead is himself taken prisoner.  Pierre witnesses atrocities and tragic injustices, including the execution of innocent people and the burning alive of children.

Natasha tends to her wounded Andrei– one of the more frustrating romances in literature– Andrei so reserved and undemonstrative until it is too late, Natasha just a bundle of feelings and quivering lips.  No intellectual content at all.  All the women are ciphers, including Andrei’s long suffering saintly sister, Maria, and Natasha’s mother who howls like a wounded beast when her son is killed.

The movie’s set pieces swallow up the characters and leave you wondering why you don’t feel as much sympathy for the characters as you do awe at the brilliant photography of battles.  Every once in a while a person comes into focus, for instance, another prisoner who along with Pierre, must occupy an old barn.  He offers Pierre a potato, and instructs him how to eat it for maximum satisfaction.  That prisoner has a dog, and when he is executed because he is weak, his dog goes to Pierre.  This is one of the more tender moments in the film.  I wish I could have seen Pierre escape from his captors which happens off camera.

There are many other strengths throughout the film:   the singing and music, the sense of place, the costumes.   And  then there is Napoleon, always appearing at the center of things, he who set the whole thing in motion, with his driving ambition, and thirst for power.


I will never forget the experience of going to this movie, partly for the grandeur of its scope, partly for the reverence with which the audience watched it.  At one point, I wanted to eat a mint, but was afraid to make a sound as I fished for it in my bag.  A woman warned us in a loud voice before the lights went down, “Please if you have to cough, keep it inside of you.”  I never heard a single cough throughout the seven hours of War and Peace at Lincoln Center.

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Vice directed by Adam McKay, 2018.

With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockport.

Adam McKay wants honor in government, and he sees chicanery and downright manipulative evil in the person of Dick Cheney.  Of course he is not alone.  Many people were upset during the  George W. Bush administration, when it did seem as if the vice president wielded more power than the president, and it was frustrating to consider this laconic, smug man as someone worthy of it.

The movie points out how the vice president usurped the power rightfully belonging to the president and congress to accomplish several things in the wake of September 11, when the country was reeling from the terrorist attacks.  He used the unitary theory of the executive branch to exercise control of the government.  So Cheney ran with it, and instead of conferring with the legislative branch after September 11, he told the army what to do, urged the war in Iraq and attack on Hussein, inflamed the other terrorists in the region which resulted in ISIS who inflicted much more damage on the region than Al Qaeda ever dreamed of.  The vice president in his wily secretive but effective use of power goaded everyone into thinking these were good ideas.

Sam Rockwell is George W. Bush

He also used torture and extreme rendition in his pursuit of the bad guys.

Threading through the public story, the historical record, is the personal life of the man and his family.  His wife, Lynne, is a powerhouse herself, coming from a family that we are led to believe has an abusive, perhaps murderous father.  One of the more amusing scenes in the movie has Dick and Lynne in bed performing a scene from Shakespeare (Macbeth?) which details their need to exert power and acts as an aphrodisiac to Dick.

Amy Adams plays Lynne Cheney

The Cheney children include a daughter whose lesbianism proves their closeness as Dick says to her when she comes out that he loves her no matter what.  We also see how lucrative it is to move from a modest role in government to an executive position at Halliburton (1995-2000), and how the company he worked for benefited from his association with it during the war.  As the New York Times reported in 2004, “Halliburton’s business with the military has grown substantially since Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney took office. The company rose to seventh-largest military contractor in 2003 from 22nd-largest in 2000.”  Cheney also continued to receive bonuses from his former company.

There is some splendid acting in the movie especially from Sam Rockwell as W, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfield, Lisa Gay Hamilton as Condeleeza Rice, and Jesse Plemons who narrates the story.  It is his point of view, as the person whose heart Cheney got in a transplant, that informs the movie.  Perhaps his heart was meant for better things.

Jesse Plemmons narrates

Metaphors like this crossed my mind as I watched, (though I turned away when Cheney’s heart was removed from his chest, which was the point, in case you didn’t get it, that he did not have a heart at all) but the most compelling images come at the closing credits, when enlarged fishing flies appear in close up.  One of them besides the brilliant feathers tied onto its hook has the Pentagon buried inside it.  Another has a ballistic weapon.  One has a small model of the White House.  And so on.

This is the third set of credits McKay had fun with.  The first came mid movie, when Bill Clinton’s election removed Cheney from the circle of power, and a bunch of typed credits say that he retired to Virginia, a multimillionaire, after working at Halliburton, etc.  The second set of credits comes after Cheney is interviewed and lashes out about how he did what he thought would defend the country from terror.  Then there is a scene with a market focus group where one man calls another man a libtard and in turn the libtard refers to Trump as a cheeto and so on.  Very juvenile, very SNL worthy.  But my favorite bit comes in the form of the fishing flies, because no one is voicing what you are supposed to think.  You get it through the visuals.

Tyler Perry as Colin Powell

Lisa Gay Hamilton as Condeleeza Rice

Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfield


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Cold War directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

with Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Boris Szyc, Agata Kulesza.  Cinematography by Lucasz Zal.

Music begins the movie, with a harsh, blunt bagpipe horn blaring, letting you know you are not in the land of of the high class.  You are in hardscrabble rural Poland, in 1949, just after World War II, when people who sing the old songs and play the instruments of the people, are starting a tour led by some musicians in search of the best exemplars of authentic folk music.

Agata Kulesza as Irena, who witnesses her country becoming more constricted  by Soviet politicies

This folk music collective develops into a touring company.  Some singers are clearly talented, some are homely, some are comely, and the pianist Wiktor who listens and watches them is clearly attracted to Zula, a young blond beauty who has already shown her ability to manipulate the situation. Zula suggests to a very strong singer that they try out together after getting her to reveal the song she means to sing.  You can feel the discomfort of the stronger singer, but Zula gains an instant advantage by appearing with her.  Wiktor recognizes the charisma of Zula, and her appeal goes beyond her musical talent.  Their love affair becomes the subject of the movie.

The music never fades behind the glare of the love story, and the political restrictions that wrest the two lovers away from each other.  Joanna Kulig’s voice brings pathos to the songs in her clear vibrato, whether they are the old folk tunes or the modern jazz she transitions to with the help of her lover.  The beautifully composed black and white photography highlights their stark choices.  As the folk music is forced into a regulated political mold, as Zula falls into line with the administrator of the company, as Wiktor becomes more disillusioned with his lack of freedom, it seems impossible to navigate an easy exit from each unpleasant condition.  The crisp editing commands your constant attention.

The folk company in concert

Wiktor conducts each performance of the company on tour

The acting by both leads has nuance, mystery, tension, all the things that keep your eyes glued to the screen.  I found the love story believable, the situations convincingly set up, all the costumes, the make up, perfectly done in the spirit of the late forties, fifties, and early sixties.  The film deserves to be called a musical, so much does the music match the feelings of all the players.  Even though it is a very personal story, the political straight jackets direct how each person behaves.  The not unexpected tragic end is as beautifully filmed as the rest of the movie.

Bearing perhaps not equal weight, but contributing greatly to the movie are two other actors: Boris Szyc who plays Kaczmarek, the administrator of the company, and the other music scout/director of the company — Agata Kulesza as Irena.

Borys Szyc as Kaczmarek

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If Beale Street Could Talk, directed by Barry Jenkins, 2018.

A young couple in love struggle when the young man is sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. Tish, the girl, has a supportive family that goes to great lengths to help his release. Racist police,  potentially insane victim, and delayed court dates conspire against them.  

Kiki Layne is Tish

The cast is beautiful. Kiki Layne has a an unlined face that draws you in with her searching eyes. Stephan James is lovely to gaze at. Regina King as Mrs. Rivers, Tish’s mother, deserves more leading roles.

The story dips in and out of the conventional romance disrupted by racial injustice. At times the camera slows down, and just wants you to watch the love making, or a slow gaze. This can be satisfying for the first hour, but by the time the movie is over, an uneven rhythm especially reliant on violins and back lighting makes some of the repetitive pieces of the story irritating.

Visually though you cannot fault the photography, or the costuming, or the sets, which carefully construct a mood of soulful longing for a simple life with an apartment big enough for the two lovers to inhabit, and create their own family. That goal is derailed by the racist police action against Fonny, told in flashback scenes. The two lovers have a purity of heart that somehow promises to get them through, though many obstacles block their way.

Fonny speaking to Tish in jail

The movie is dedicated to Jimmy, James Baldwin, the writer of the novel the movie is based on. Baldwin’s story is full of love, and hope, and injustice, as is the movie.  The love and hope come not only in the form of the young people, but of Tish’s parents, how willing they are to take all kinds of risks to save their children, and give their grandchild a chance.


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