‘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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‘Generation Wealth’ Finds Hope Outside of the Corrupted American Dream

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In 1988, John Carpenter made “They Live,” a science fiction horror film about a drifter who discovers the ruling class are actually aliens who have managed to conceal their existence and manipulate the human race into spending money and to “obey” them through subliminal messages in mass media. Years later, when Carpenter was attending a screening at the Egyptian Theatre, he described “They Live” as being his response to his horror at the Ronald Reagan years and his distaste at the increased commercialization of politics and popular culture in the 1980’s. When I was at a screening of “Big Trouble in Little China,” and I got to ask Carpenter the following question:

“You have said ‘They Live’ was your response to your horror at the Reagan years. With George W. Bush currently wreaking havoc around the globe, don’t you think this is the perfect time for a sequel?”

Carpenter’s response stays with me to this day:

“The 80’s never left us.”

Looking back, he was absolutely right. While I am a child of the 80’s and have a great love for that decade, it marked the start of America becoming an infinitely greedy nation as we strove to become very rich, deficits began to explode, and politicians began selling us on trickle down economics which promised that tax cuts on the rich would benefit the middle and lower classes. This proved to be a big lie, and yet politicians still try to sell Americans on it.

All of this went through my head as I watched Lauren Greenfield’s “Generation Wealth.” This documentary comes to us in 2018, and it proves once again how the 80’s still live on as we watch individuals try to become wealthy or at least gain the appearance of being rich. What results is a look at how the American Dream has been corrupted, the cost of greed, and the chance for redemption.

Greenfield is an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, and “Generation Wealth” starts off with her narrating how through her 25 years of work, she discovers her work has pointed to one uniting phenomenon: wealth culture. From there, she investigates the various pathologies which created the richest society in the world, and she interviews several people who look to increase their bank accounts or change the way they look to where society will view them as sexy.

We meet Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager who at one time had a net worth of $800 million and ended up fleeing the United States to avoid getting arrested by the FBI. Watching him sit back on a couch while smoking a cigar with glee makes him look the modern-day version of Tony Montana from “Scarface.” Homm is never shy about just how much he loves money, and he laughingly admits how Harvard Business School didn’t train him to be an ethical businessman but instead to be “fine-tuned to rule the world.”

We also get introduced to Cathy, a bus driver from Virginia who travels to Brazil to get extensive plastic surgery which she charges to a credit card, the successful porn star Kacey who gained notoriety after Charlie Sheen paid her $30,000 for a days long party and drug binge, a young beauty queen who looks like a combination of Honey Boo Boo and JonBenet Ramsey, and former rapper Cliff (G-Mo) who we first celebrating the hip-hop version of the American Dream. They all want the best-looking bodies as well as all the money in the world, but as Greenfield says at one point, those who have everything never feel like they have enough.

I found myself getting sickened by the subjects Greenfield photographed and interviewed as it felt they were doing more damage to themselves than good to where they appeared, if not soulless, very empty on the inside. It proved to be a relief when someone like Chris Hedges shows up to put some much-needed perspective on what we are seeing as he compares America’s obsession with wealth to the end of Rome. At one point he even says, “Societies accrue the most wealth as they face death.” Can America be close to suffering the same fate? It certainly feels like it.

Greenfield doesn’t break new ground with “Generation Wealth” as Michael Moore already compared Rome’s fall with America in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and “The Big Short” was an entertaining and sobering look at the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Do we need to go through how greed has wrecked America in yet another movie? Oh yes, we do! This country threatens to make the same mistakes yet again as politicians still insist on selling its citizens on trickle-down economics.

One key character from the 1980’s whom Greenfield highlights is Gordon Gekko, the fictional and unscrupulous corporate raider Michael Douglas played in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” But while Stone intended for “Wall Street” to be a cautionary tale about the downside of unchecked greed, Gekko proved to be such a charismatic character to where he became a huge inspiration for those desperate to make it big on Wall Street. It didn’t matter how Gekko set a terrible example for them, these wannabes still looked up to him, and there is a good deal of him in many of the people Greenfield interviews here.

Greenfield to her credit she never judges any of the people featured here. She presents their stories objectively and never tries to manipulate us into thinking about them in one way or another. Whether you are intrigued or repulsed by the things they do, there is a sense of empathy I had for them as they become more and more human as the documentary reaches its final act.

When it comes to “Generation Wealth’s” final act, we see the results and repercussions of the actions everyone has made as they reach a plateau in their quest for money. Greenfield aligns their journey with the catastrophic financial crash of 2008 which left much damage in its wake. Seeing these people on the other side of it has them finding something absolutely priceless while others find tragedy and financial ruin. This proves to be both inspiring and devastating all at the same time.

“Generation Wealth” does lose some of its focus as Greenfield awkwardly inserts herself into her documentary. Is she also interested in being rich and wealthy? Is she well off thanks to her photography? It’s hard to say what she is saying about herself, but it does lead to some very amusing moments as one of her sons admits he knows the name of each Kardashian but not those of his neighbors, and her other little boy ends up inserting a sign in front of her camera as she films everything and anything. I don’t want to spoil the moment for you as it had me laughing endlessly.

Watching “Generation Wealth” kind of reminded of when I first saw “Doc Hollywood” which starred Michael J. Fox as a doctor intent on making tons of money as a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and who later finds a more meaningful life for himself in Grady, South Carolina. But that was a fictional movie, and this one deals with real life, and I came out of it with more hope for the human race than when I went in. This documentary also shows how life is about the journey rather than the final destination. While I wanted to sit some of these characters down and force them to pay close attention to the lyrics of Digital Underground’s “No Nose Job,” it is worth watching their journey as, like them, we come to see what matters most in life.

With that, I leave you with the words Harold Perrineau uttered as Augustus Hill on the HBO series “Oz:”

“We think we know what we need. We spend our time figuring out how to get what we want, who can help us, who’s in the way. We make our moves and sometimes we get lucky. We get exactly what we want. And life gets worse. Simple truth #22, be careful what you wish for, brother. Be very, very careful.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ Unveils its First Trailer

Suspiria 2018 poster

Like it or not folks, a remake of “Suspiria” is officially on its way. Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film remains one of the most unforgettable ever made as the Italian filmmaker turned the act of murder into a work of art, and he gave us visual set pieces which were things of incredible beauty. Surely no director, however talented, could top what Argento gave us 40 years ago, could they? Well, with the now-released teaser trailer for the remake of “Suspiria,” it turns out the filmmakers are not even attempting to try.

According to its director Luca Guadagnino, who last year scored a critical triumph with “Call Me by Your Name,” this “Suspiria” is meant to be an “homage” to Argento’s film and reflect the “powerful emotion” he felt upon first seeing it. But what is especially striking about this teaser trailer is how muted its color palette proves to be. Guadagnino has described his film’s look as being “winter-ish, evil, and really dark,” and this certainly comes across here. As before, the story is set a renowned dance academy in Europe where Suzie Bannion, now played by Dakota Johnson, enrolls at to study dancing. But considering how bleak the setting is here, it makes me wonder if the students, once they arrived there, said out loud, “This looks nothing like what I saw in the brochure!”

I don’t mean to make this sound like a criticism as the lack of primary colors shows, among other things, how Guadagnino is attempting to make this material all his own. What especially pleases me is how this trailer makes his take on “Suspiria” look like much more than the average horror film, something I always feared a remake like this would end up being. With its scattering of images featuring Johnson, the infinitely cool Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf and, if you closely enough, original “Suspiria” star Jessica Harper, this does look to be an unnerving motion picture which deals more with the horrors of real life than in the realm of fantasy.

In addition, I enjoyed the Kubrick-like stares Swinton and others exhibit throughout as, like the ones in “Full Metal Jacket,” they appear to go on for a thousand yards. It also looks like a scythe will be the weapon of choice instead of a shiny razor this time around, and we do get an image of a female student levitating in her room, something I don’t remember seeing in the 1977 original.

Whether or not this “Suspiria” equals the original or comes close to doing so, I admire how Guadagnino has given us something which looks strikingly different to where it appears more like a trailer for the next Lars Von Trier cinematic opus. Then again, the trailer for “The House That Jack Built” had far more color in it.

“Suspiria” is set to arrive in theaters on November 2, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

Exclusive Video Interview with Matthew Heineman on ‘City of Ghosts’

City of Ghosts poster

Of the documentaries released in 2017, “City of Ghosts” is one of the most important to witness. It follows the journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), a group of anonymous activists who came together after their peaceful hometown was taken over and decimated by ISIS in 2014. What results is a film which is as astonishing as it is harrowing to sit through. We watch as Raqqa goes from being a town whose inhabitants celebrate weddings for a whole week to one laid in ruins as the radical terrorist group ISIS uses every weapon available to suppress the population and silence those who would speak out against them. Despite being threatened by one of the greatest evils in the world today, this group of citizen journalists continue to stand up against the atrocities ISIS has committed, and the images they have captured show just how far they will go which includes executing the father of one of the journalists.

“City of Ghosts” was directed by Matthew Heineman who previously gave us “Cartel Land,” a documentary which examined the ongoing drug war at the U.S./Mexican border and of the vigilante groups fighting the Mexican drug cartels. Heineman was inspired to make a documentary about RBSS after reading an article about them in the New Yorker, and he managed to gain their trust very quickly to where it didn’t take long for filming to begin. We watch as these journalists and activists flee their homeland and struggle to keep their spirits up as the threat of death continues to hang over them no matter how far they manage to get away. Also, we view the horrifying footage they have captured of the horrific acts ISIS has committed in Raqqa which includes executing and crucifying its citizens in public view. What is shown cannot be easily erased from our minds, but these crimes of humanity need to be seen as this threat needs to be stopped, and the actions of RBSS need to be commended in a time when journalism is being attacked by those who do not want to hear the truth.

It was an honor to speak with Heineman while he was in Los Angeles to talk about “City of Ghosts,” and he spoke of how he became inspired to create this documentary as well as the current state of the war in Syria which will hopefully end sooner rather than later. Check out the interview below as well as the documentary’s trailer. “City of Ghosts” will make its streaming debut on Amazon starting October 13, 2017.

Manchester By The Sea

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There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s never easy recovering from grief whether it involves loss of a loved one or dealing with the now inescapable fact that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Watching Casey Affleck’s character in “Manchester by the Sea,” I wonder if he will ever get past the first stage. If he’s lucky, he just might make it to the second. While some are able to get past their grief, others are doomed to be stuck in it for an eternity.

Many movies about grief have been made over the years, but few feel as bitingly honest as “Manchester by the Sea” does. It is the latest work from writer and director Kenneth Lonergan who previously gave us “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” and he really tops himself with this one. While this may, on the surface, seem like a depressing movie, it is one filled a surprising amount of laughter and a wealth of interesting characters whom we watch struggle with the steep hurdles life has thrown at them as well as the snowy weather which chills all those who live in Massachusetts during the winter months.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler who, as the movie starts, works as a janitor and lives in the tiniest of apartments in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is a quiet man and one who is not quick to make friends, especially with those who stare at him for a couple of seconds too long. His face seems as frozen as the snow he constantly shovels off his front porch, so we know the movie will be a journey into discovering how Lee ended up looking so bereft of life.

One day, Lee gets word his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away after suffering a heart attack. This forces Lee to drive to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to meet up with family members and relatives he has long since become estranged from, and his reaction to seeing them all seems strangely serene as if he has been preparing for this moment in a way no one else would bother to. But as the movie goes on, we come to see why Lee can never again be comfortable in his hometown as it is filled with memories and ghosts he may never ever put behind him.

Now in many ways this movie sounds like a typical one about someone reflecting on the memory of a friend who is no longer living, but Lonergan never tries to take the easy way out here. He presents us with characters who are ever so real, and their reactions to the tragedies thrown in their faces feels honest as one never responds to something so painful in the way you might expect. Everyone is far from perfect and no one here is easily likable, but the characters grow on you as they attempt to navigate past the wreckage of their lives.

Lonergan’s talent as a writer has never been in doubt, but what astounded me most about “Manchester by the Sea” is how confident his direction is. His cast ends up giving such naturalistic performances to where they inhabit their characters more than play them. I never felt like I was watching a movie, but instead it seemed like I was eavesdropping on people whose lives and problems feel more real than we ever could expect. Pulling something like this off requires major talent, and Lonergan has it in massive supply.

All eyes are on Affleck who gives what is far and away one of the best performances of 2016. His character of Lee Chandler reminded me of William Hurt in “The Accidental Tourist” and Nick Nolte in “Affliction” in that those actors played characters so damaged by horrific tragedies in life to where they could no longer process a wide range of emotions. Affleck has a tricky role here as Lee looks to be experiencing intense grief from start to finish, but at the same time he is constantly running away from circumstances which will cause those emotions to overwhelm him in a way he feels he can never handle. This must have been an exhausting role to play, but it’s no surprise to see Affleck rise to the challenge.

There is not a single weak link to be found in the cast here as each actor, no matter how small their role is, creates a multi-dimensional character worth following. Michelle Williams in particular has a show stopping moment as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, as she tries to make peace with him after all they have been through. Williams has always been fearless in exploring emotions many of us have tried to numb ourselves to whether we realize it or not and, just like she did in “Blue Valentine,” she digs deep into the tragic nature of her character as Randi appears far more ready to deal with past than Lee is.

I also have to single out Lucas Hedges who gives an honest portrayal of a teenager as Lee’s nephew, Patrick. So many teenagers in movies these days seem designed to appeal to a popular demographic regardless of whether the target audience can relate to them or not. But Hedges gives us one who quickly reminds us of how we juggled a number of girlfriends (if we were lucky to, that is) while dealing with a tragedy no one that young should ever have to deal with. Hedges is a real find as he makes Patrick a far more mature character than his emotionally wounded uncle, and he is as unforgettable as Affleck is in this movie.

In a year which proved to be a mediocre one for motion pictures, “Manchester by the Sea” is easily one of the best for many reasons. If it has any flaws, they are hard to see on the first viewing. But even if you do spot any flaws, they are not enough to take away from how great a movie this is. Lonergan has given us a cinematic masterpiece which demands your attention as it deals with a subject that is never easy to grapple with. While the movie’s ending proves to be understandably ambiguous, he never leaves these characters without a sense of hope for the future.

Watching this movie reminded me of an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Pit Bull Sessions” in which Frank Pembleton and Paul Falsone interrogate a man whose pit bulls have been trained for dogfighting have killed his grandfather. This man, who was played by Paul Giamatti by the way, cares for his dogs far more than he does for any member of his family to where he shows little, if any, remorse for what has happened to his grandfather. Falsone is incensed over how the son seems indifferent to what has happened to a member of his family, and it leads to a classic exchange between him and Pembleton.

“That bastard can feel,” Falsone says.

“He can’t, that’s the horror,” Pembleton replies.

Sad but very true.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert on ‘Author: The JT Leroy Story’

Of the plethora of excellent documentaries to come out in 2016, one of the most fascinating to watch is “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, it chronicles the rise and fall of literary sensation JT Leroy whose rough and tumble childhood crafted him into a writer of such books as “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” the latter of which was adapted into a film by Asia Argento. However, it was eventually revealed that JT Leroy did not in fact exist and was actually an avatar for former phone sex worker turned housewife, Laura Albert. Following this revelation, Albert was considered a fraud and many believed she concocted nothing more than an elaborate hoax. But with this documentary, Albert seeks to set the record straight over how JT Leroy came into existence for her, and she makes it clear that what happened was in no way a hoax.

The beauty of “Author: The JT Leroy Story” is it never judges Albert for a second. The documentary simply lets her tell her side of the story which proves to be more complex than we could ever have imagined. Considering her dysfunctional childhood, it is understandable she needed an outlet of some kind to vent her pain and frustration with life, and with JT Leroy she found a way to express things she was unable to as herself.

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It was a real pleasure to talk with Feuerzeig and Albert while they were in Los Angeles, and the two of them talked at length about what possessed them to take on this project and of what went into its making. Albert’s insights into her writing process were especially fascinating as she actually found herself predicting the future through her books.

Check out the interview above, and be sure to catch “Author: The JT Leroy Story” when it arrives in theaters in Los Angeles on September 9. You can also check out a trailer for the documentary below.

 

Exclusive Video Interview with ‘Gleason’ Director Clay Tweel

Few movie going experiences in 2016 will be as hopeful or as emotionally draining as the documentary “Gleason.” It takes a good long look at the life of former NFL player Steve Gleason, a defensive back for the New Orleans Saints, who was best known for blocking a punt from the Atlanta Falcons on September 25, 2006. This game marked the first time the Saints had been back to their home stadium since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, so it made their welcome back celebration all the more thrilling.

In 2011, Steve was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gerig’s Disease, an incurable disease which slowly robs the body of all its motor functions and eventually leads to death. It was around that time that he also discovered his wife Michel was pregnant with their son, and this led him to start a video diary for their unborn child so that he could leave as much of who he is as a person to him before the disease takes its toll. While his situation is bleak, Steve still lives life to the fullest and is determined to be there for his wife and son no matter what.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the director of “Gleason,” Clay Tweel, while he was in Los Angeles. Tweel previously directed “Make Believe,” a documentary which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 LA Film Festival, and “Finders Keepers” which premiered to rave reviews at Sundance in 2015. For “Gleason,” Tweel had to go through 1,500 hours of footage to give us the documentary that is now arriving in theatres everywhere.  He explained how he managed to whittle down that footage, how “Gleason” compares to the film “The Theory of Everything” which also deals with ALS, and of how the health struggles of a family member and the late, great Muhammad Ali inspired him to get the director’s job for this.

Please check out the interview above, and please be sure to see “Gleason” when it arrives in theatres on July 29, 2016. You can also watch the trailer below and visit the website at www.gleasonmovie.com.