‘Cold War’ Beautifully Contemplates The Things We Do for Love

Cold War 2018 movie poster

It has now been over a week since I watched Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and it is rightly described in the production notes as being “an impossible love story in impossible times.” Indeed, there is something about love which forms a bond which cannot always be described in words. The two star-crossed lovers we see here share a love for music, but their differences come to the surface more often than not to where you wonder why they keep reuniting time and time again. Pawlikowski never tries to provide an absolute answer as to why these two individuals cannot end their deep affections for one another, but he doesn’t need to as some things cannot be put into words.

Thinking about “Cold War” somehow brought to mind one of my favorite songs by Howard Jones entitled “What is Love?”. This song was released back in the 1980’s which marked the start of America being seduced by infinite greed, but I was just a kid who had yet to have his innocence ripped away from him. The music really took me in as the synthesizer melodies were a big favorite of mine back then, but the lyrics have since taken on a deeper meaning for me:

“I love you whether or not you love me

I love you even if you think that I don’t

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind

Why should I mind, why should I mind?

What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

“Cold War” seeks to ask those same questions as it transports us back to post-war Poland in the 1950’s where we meet Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a musical director at Mazurek, a nascent folk arts ensemble which, as one of its instructors makes very clear, deals with the music of “pain and humiliation.” In the process of auditioning new singers, he comes across the young Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) who is fearless in continuing her performance even after she is told to stop. It’s a thrilling scene as these two individuals from different parts of life are quick to lock eyes and create a connection not easily formed in the average Nicholas Sparks cinematic adaptation.

Wiktor comes from a more refined and educated world while Zula comes from, as some may say, the wrong side of town. Their attraction to one another is instant. Is it a fascination with a person’s past history? Wiktor is told Zula stabbed her father with a knife, and this of course makes him wonder why someone would do such a thing. When he asks her why, her answer is blunt and to the point, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” We never even learn which part of the body the knife pierced.

Their differences are strong, but there is an unmistakable bond between them which will not break. As “Cold War” moves on, their relationship stretches over a decade and several different locations including Poland, Warsaw, East Berlin and Paris. They become involved with others, but the love they have for one another will not die an easy death. You keep waiting for one of them to tell the other “I wish I knew how to quit you” because they cannot get themselves to leave the other be. Wiktor tells Zula to find “another normal guy” who can support you to which she replies, “Such man is not born yet.” This happens around the movie’s midpoint, and by then it is unlikely such a man will ever be born.

Is this real love, or is it just obsession? Such answers do not matter because all you need to know is how strong Wiktor’s and Zula’s bond is. You can question it all you want, but the love is there even if it exists in a state of emotional torture. John Lennon once sang of how love is real, but Nazareth made it clear that love hurts, and the love these two mismatched souls have for one another seems to exist in a space between those two thoughts.

Just like Mike Leigh did with “Mr. Turner,” Pawlikowski does a brilliant job of taking us back to a time and place to where I felt truly transported to another era. I never questioned the authenticity of what was being presented because it all felt so real to me, and Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is simply gorgeous to take in. It makes me wonder why we don’t get more black and white movies these days. While the lack of colors may seem limiting to filmmakers in general, there is something about the monochrome look which gets everything just right.

What’s especially commendable about “Cold War” is how epic this love story is, and yet Pawlikowski fits everything into a running time which is just below 90 minutes. The movie felt so much longer than that, and yet I came out of it feeling like I saw something immense and wide-ranging.

Tomasz Kot is one those actors who has this smoldering intensity about him. I remember William Petersen having this same kind of intensity in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” and it’s as if he doesn’t have to do much to generate any kind of charisma. I am envious and, I have to admit, a bit resentful of actors who can pull this off, but he also lets you see what is going on in his mind as his character of Wiktor suffers through a maddening heartbreak and career setbacks which have him trading the music he loves out for something more politically friendly. You have to admire the subtle acting he does here as it is never easy for anyone to pull off.

Joanna Kulig is every bit Kot’s equal as Zula, and it is fascinating to watch her take this character from being a young student to an adult in an equally subtle way. Kulig also excels at spelling out what is going through Zula’s head to where she needs no dialogue to spell out her feelings, and she is fearless in portraying the character’s constant struggle to escape the confines of a life which keeps putting her into a corner.

“Cold War” is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018, and I hope any phobias you have about movies with subtitles do not keep you from seeing it. The love story is harrowing, but the visuals are beautiful. It’s hard to find movies these days which suck you into their settings the way this one has, and it serves as a reminder of how powerful cinema can be.

Pawlikowski has said this movie is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by his parents who kept splitting up and getting back together time and time again. Why do couples do this to themselves? It seems unhealthy, and yet some cannot tear themselves away from a mad love story. But once again, he is not out to answer what he believes love really is. I guess he just wanted to know their love was real in some unspoken way. With “Cold War,” I believe he has accomplished just that.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Suffers from Overkill, But it’s Still Worth a Look

Kingsman The Golden Circle poster

Ever since his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has done an excellent job of reinvigorating different movie genres to great effect. His “Kick-Ass” was the comic book movie many were too afraid to make, and I like to think it paved the way for “Deadpool.” He brought the “X-Men” franchise back to vibrant life with the prequel “X-Men: First Class,” and it was a prequel which put so many others like it to shame. And then he gave us “Kingsman: The Secret Service” which turned the world of spy movies upside down. In a time where James Bond, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies and the Jason Bourne franchise ruled the spy genre with an iron fist, Vaughn made “Kingsman” stand out amongst the competition to where it felt fresh and unique as it was filled with invigorating action sequences and characters who were wonderfully realized and as suave as 007 is without being anywhere as cold.

While Vaughn skipped out of doing follow-ups to “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick-Ass,” it was very re-assuring to see him come back to co-write and direct “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Now that all the origin stuff is out of the way, we can now watch Eggsy Unwin/a.k.a. Galahad (Taron Egerton) battle the enemies of the world in a beautifully tailored suit without having to prove to us he is worthy of the status he has attained.

Indeed, Vaughn refuses to keep us waiting as “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” opens with a gangbusters action sequence in which Eggsy fights former Kingsman trainee Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in the back of a taxi as it hurtles through the streets of London while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts away on the speakers. It’s a lively introduction to a movie as Vaughn looks to be holding nothing back, and it made me eager to see if he could top what came before.

But just as Eggsy looks to be settling down with the beautiful Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), a sudden attack completely decimates the Kingsman suit shop and its headquarters to where he and his trainer and die-hard John Denver fan Merlin (Mark Strong) are desperate to defeat the nemesis who laid waste to their well-dressed intelligence community. They eventually discover their chief antagonist is the notorious criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who looks to gain worldwide stardom as a drug dealer, and this leads them to join up with their American counterpart, the Statesman, in an effort to exact revenge.

At this point, I should say while “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” proved to be a fun time at the movies for me, it does have flaws impossible to ignore. With a running time of over two hours, I couldn’t help but think a lot of fat could have been trimmed as this sequel feels overstuffed with characters Vaughn can’t give enough attention to as he tries, perhaps too hard, to subvert our expectations as this movie heads towards its unsurprisingly violent climax. Also, while the original was full of anarchic energy, this one settles into a rhythm which might seem more conventional than “Kingsman” fans may care for.

Still, I had a giddy time with this sequel, and one of the main joys I got from it was the casting of Julianne Moore as she gives us one of the most lovely and appealing sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Her character of Poppy Adams is the world’s biggest drug dealer, but she suffers from homesickness while hiding away in the undiscovered ruins of Southeast Asia. Poppy ends up curing her homesickness by making her hideout into a 1950’s theme park which evokes memories of “American Graffiti” and the classic television show “Happy Days.” I kept waiting for The Fonz to show up, but Poppy ends up entertaining herself with a certain musician who should remain nameless before you watch this sequel.

Moore is clearly having a great time co-starring in this “Kingsman” movie as she makes Poppy into a villain who is as delightful as she is devious. Even as she entertains prospective applicants wishing to join her evil empire, it doesn’t take much for her to show an ever so subtle psychosis with those who have failed her as they meet a fate as grisly as the one who got put into a wood chipper in the movie “Fargo.” Even as her actions show her to be incredibly vicious, Moore is a hoot throughout to where she makes it hard for us to hate Poppy even though we should despise her from the get go. She also has kidnapped a certain musician who… Well, I will leave you to discover the identity of the superstar she has kidnapped for her own personal entertainment.

While this sequel does tread familiar ground, it allows our protagonists to travel to Kentucky where they meet their American equivalent, the Statesman who have a flair for alcohol as Kingsman does for clothing. It also allows for charming American actors like Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry to join the party in a variety of roles which they fit them like a glove. It’s especially nice to see Berry in something good after appearing in the critical debacle released this past summer which was “Kidnap.”

One who stands out in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, best known for his work in “Game of Thrones” and “Narcos,” as Statesman secret agent Whiskey. Pascal has a wonderful Burt Reynolds vibe going on here, and I don’t just mean his mustache. He also proves to be incredibly effective with a lasso, albeit an electronic one which can decapitate its victims as well as capture them before they can escape.

As for the cast members from the original, Taron Egerton does a wonderful job of taking Gary “Eggsy” Unwin to the next stage in his life as we watch his character continue his journey from leading an aimless life to embracing one filled with purpose. Eggsy still has his friends from the past, but he is open to embracing a future which includes a lifelong commitment to the woman he loves. It’s not often you see a spy movie where a secret agent calls his girlfriend to ask for permission to sleep with the enemy in order to save the world.

Mark Strong also gets to have more fun with his character of Merlin as he gets to be more of a field agent this time out. Strong also makes Merlin’s funniest moments feel genuine to where it feels more emotionally moving than I expected. His rendition of a particular John Denver song carries more meaning these days than when it first became a hit, and it makes for of this sequel’s most unforgettable moments even as the Monty Python bit, “Farwell to John Denver,” kept playing in my head as I watched him.

And yes, it is so great to see Colin Firth back as Harry Hart. While Harry suffered a rather grisly fate in the original, this character had to come back in one way or another. Even as Harry struggles to remember the secret agent he once was, Firth invests him with a dignity and sense of duty which empowers his performance in a very memorable way.

When all is said and done, I did have a lot of fun with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” regardless of its flaws. At almost 2 hours and 30 minutes, it runs a lot longer than it should, and it does suffer from overkill as Vaughn looks at times to be desperate in topping what came before. The sequel also could have been more anarchic as the original lovingly laid waste to many spy movie clichés. This one threatens to be a little more conventional, but it still embraces its R-rating with a lot of glee.

Rumor has it that Vaughn already has a third “Kingsman” in the works, and it would be great to see this franchise grow even further. But if he is to make another one, my hope is he embraces the anarchic nature of the original more than he did here. As spy movies continue to be made, the genre will always need a swift kick in the butt.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Big Eyes’ Marks a Return to Form for Tim Burton

Big Eyes movie poster

Tim Burton’s unique talents as a filmmaker have floundered in recent years with his abysmal remakes of “Planet of the Apes” and “Alice in Wonderland” which was lacking in wonder. But with “Big Eyes,” he gives us his best and most human movie in a long time as he examines the life of American artist Margaret Keane whose paintings of children with oversized, doe-like eyes became very popular in the 1950’s. It reunites Burton with his “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who have provided us with some of the most unique biopics in recent memory like “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on The Moon.” Yes, it is based on a true story, but for once it helps to know this as the movie is a tale which proves there are things much stranger than fiction.

“Big Eyes” starts with a narrator saying the 1950’s was a good time if you were a man. This certainly seems to be the case with Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) as she is in the process of leaving her husband and drive herself and her daughter Jane out to San Francisco to start all over again. This decade had women relegated to the role of housewife, and they could do very little else as feminism had yet to become a movement. Margaret has trouble finding work until she gets a job at a furniture company painting baby cribs. At the same time, she is quite the painter who paints pictures of children, most of which resemble her daughter, that stand out because of the big eyes she gives her subjects.

While at an art sale, Margaret meets Walter (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter who quickly becomes enamored of her and her paintings, and he quickly begins to encourage her not to sell herself short. They soon fall for one another and get married, and they become determined to sell their art to the masses. When their attempts to get their work hung up at art houses fails, Walter resorts to renting the walls at The Hungry I club owned by Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito). It is there the paintings begin to gain notice, but patrons are far more interested in Margaret’s work than they are in Walter’s. In the process, Walter starts to take credit for his wife’s paintings, and this is where things take a rather interesting turn.

Margaret is repulsed at first by the idea of Walter taking credit for her work, but she finds herself giving in to him as he promises to give her everything she ever wanted in life like a big house to live in. But as the popularity of the paintings grows, a rift forms between them as Margaret ends up residing in the background while Walter takes center stage at various talk shows and public engagements. Soon, Margaret goes from being timid to becoming a very determined person as she aims to reclaim the art she created.

What happened between Margaret and Walter Keane became the story of one of the most epic art frauds in history, and I have to admit I was not aware of this piece of history before I saw “Big Eyes.” If this story were presented to me as fiction, I’m fairly certain I would not have bought it as this story would have been far too bizarre to be the least bit believable. But these events did happen, and Burton’s strong affection for Margaret’s work is definitely on display here.

I’m so glad Alexander and Karaszewski are still getting away with making these renegade biopics about individuals who might otherwise not get cinematic treatment. The fact they brought this particular story to the big screen is extraordinary as it involves an act of plagiarism which didn’t take place in Hollywood. It sounds like a typical good guy/bad guy story, but the way the story develops shows this to not be the case.

Adams is her usually remarkable self as she takes Margaret Keane from the depths of isolation and bitterness to the heights of confidence and self-assertion. She also presents Margaret to us with flaws and all to where we respect her deeply even if some say she put herself in the position of having her work stolen. The 1950’s may have not been the best time for women, but the victory Margaret achieved opened doors for them to where they would never ever be held back by the role society expected them to play.

Waltz won his two Oscars for good reasons as he portrayed his characters in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” with such relish. His performance in “Big Eyes” proves to be equally wonderful as he makes Walter into such a charismatic figure to where it’s no wonder Margaret falls under his spell. While his character is essentially the bad guy of this piece, Waltz does give Walter some empathy as his actions result from a rather unconscious need for approval in a world which has deemed him a fair artist at best. While we can’t condone his actions, we can certainly understand where his motivations come from.

For Burton, “Big Eyes” is a return to the low budget roots he started out in. While it may not feel like the typical Burton movie along the lines of “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” or even “Batman,” it’s certainly his most heartfelt movie in a long time. He recreates the San Francisco many of us know from the 1950’s and 1960’s, and he shows us how Walter succeeded in commercializing art to where it became available at all the local supermarkets. But at the heart of it all, “Big Eyes” fits in with the kind of stories Burton loves to tell; of outsiders who are seen as far too different to succeed in popular culture.

“Big Eyes” falters a little towards the end as Walter starts to come across as less complex and more of a one-dimensional bad guy the audience understandably wants to see go down. Part of me wanted to see Burton delve a little deeper into his psychology as making him the typical bad guy in this movie seemed much too easy. Still, it makes for a very entertaining courtroom scene where both he and Margaret fight for the right to Margaret’s work like never before.

It’s heartening to see Burton give us such a heartfelt motion picture like “Big Eyes” as his last few movies kept taking away from his distinct talent as a director. Even with a lower budget than what he is used to working with, he still gives us a wondrous if roughened up look at an artist caught up in a real-life situation which threatens to rob her of the work she created. Here’s hoping we see more movies like this from Burton in the near future.

* * * ½ out of * * * *