Damn, That’s a lot of Good Movies
You may not find any big ticket flicks in theaters this weekend, but the quality and quantity of indies — most of them Oscar nominated — to hit Columbus screens this weekend is staggering. Great weekend for a date with the movies.
by Hope Madden
Set against shifting political and musical environments and spanning at least four countries and 15 years, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a gorgeous and mournful ode to star-crossed lovers that feels equally sweeping and intimate.
Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) share names and characteristics with Pawlikowski’s own parents, though their story certainly differs a bit. As the film begins in post-war Poland, Wiktor is recording the songs of the people, folk songs handed down by peasants, which will become part of a new arts program aimed at celebrating Poland’s authentic voice. Until, that is, the program is co-opted and the songs become tributes to Stalin and agricultural reform.
Zula is unphased. A pragmatist, a survivor and a bit of a con artist, she wiled her way into the company by enchanting Wiktor with a song she’d learned from a Russian movie — not exactly a peasant’s lament.
As the film follows this very different and yet somehow connected pair, Pawlikowski casts a spell, with an assist from Lukasz Zal, whose black and white cinematography here is as glorious as it was in his Oscar-nominated 2013 collaboration with the filmmaker, Ida.
Together, they capture an evolving tone and changing rhythm as folk ballads become jazz tunes, as Poland becomes East Germany and then Paris. In everything, Pawlikowski holds those melancholy, wistful notes just an extra beat. It’s a melody Kulig and Kot dance to beautifully.
Kulig impresses most as the ingénue who is master of her own future. Her performance is unpredictable and unapologetic, emphasizing the will of a character who does what she feels she must do, although that is rarely what anybody else expects.
Kot’s gentle, smitten but equally tortured character offers a fascinating, sometimes frustrating counterpart. It makes sense that these two creatures are based at least somewhat on living people. It would have been far too easy for them to fall into stereotypes, but instead they are as authentically confounding and beautiful as any committed and self-destructive couple.
Pawlikowski uses music to inform a shifting relationship; he uses a relationship to illustrate changing global politics; he leans on an impossible political situation to articulate insurmountable challenges within a relationship. The result is poetry.
by George Wolf
Nicole Kidman got no Oscar love this year, which gives you some clue as to how many great performances we saw from women in 2018.
Her nuanced supporting turn in Boy Erased was certainly worthy, but Destroyer, released in select cities early enough for consideration, served up a menu that seemed more tailor-made for selection. She’s a major star playing way against type, she goes full anti-glamour and yep, she’s damn good.
Kidman is Erin Bell, a police detective who looks, and acts, like death warmed over. When Erin and her hangover crash the crime scene of a newly discovered dead body, the local cops can mask their condescension with only the thinnest veil of respect.
But Erin knows more than they do about how this guy got dead, and director Karyn Kusama plays a gritty hand juggling the shifting timelines that will lead to Erin’s connection with the stiff, and to the roots of her frayed psyche.
Fans of HBO’s True Detective will feel right at home. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who both teamed with Kusama for The Invitation and Aeon Flux, alternate between past and present to slowly reveal the details of an old case that led to Erin’s breakdown. She and partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) were deep undercover with a gang of bank thieves led by the slimy Silas (Toby Kebbell), and as Erin and Chris mixed business with pleasure, the lines separating their realities began to blur.
Kusama keeps up a knowingly effective pace, dropping just enough breadcrumbs to keep you interested until the twist reveal she’s sitting on. Of course, she’s also got Kidman’s range to lean on, occasionally forgetting it doesn’t need that much help getting noticed.
Kidman, with help from extensive makeup artistry, takes Erin from fresh faced ambition to grizzled hopelessness. Scattershot attempts to reconcile with her reckless daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) add emotional layers, and it’s only when Kusama pushes the melodramatic envelope that Destroyer seems overly desperate for us to appreciate its anti-heroine.
She doesn’t need that push. The film delivers a satisfying payoff to its slow burn, and Oscar nomination or not, Kidman crafts a transformative character arc that’s worth your attention.
They Shall Not Grow Old
by Hope Madden
For those of us who haven’t experienced it, war is nearly impossible to fathom: the horror, terror, inhumanity and chaos of it. Filmmakers have been trying to make sense of it for audiences since film began.
Peter Jackson may bring us as close to comprehension as any director has, not by dramatizing war or by reenacting it, but by revisiting it.
The Oscar winning director and noted World War I fanatic sifted through hundreds of hours of decomposing footage, restoring the material with a craftsmanship and integrity almost as unfathomable as war.
He then recreated sound and audio, employing lip readers and researchers to guarantee the quality was a match for the beautiful restoration.
Over this he layered audio, pieces from BBC interviews with WWI veterans conducted in the 1960s and 70s — candid, moving and oh so British.
These he braids together into a cohesive whole, taking us from the wide-eyed patriotism that drew teenagers to volunteer, through their training and then — with a Wizard of Oz-esque moment of color, depth and clarity — into battle.
At about the 10-minute mark of They Shall Not Grow Old, the obsessive maestro differentiates this film from any war doc you’ve ever seen.
Quite unlike the disastrous 48 frame per second gimmick Jackson employed for The Hobbit, the restoration, colorization and even 3D here all serve a singular purpose: to immerse you in these moments, these lives, these battles.
The fact that this immersion pulls you 100 years into the past is beyond impressive, but the real achievement is in the intimacy and human connection it engenders.
The clarity of the faces, the tremor in the voices, the camaraderie and filth and death — all of it vivid as life. It’s as informative as it is enthralling, an equally amazing achievement in filmmaking and in education.
Watching Jackson’s Tolkien films betrays the filmmaker’s perfectionism, vision and, perhaps above all, deep respect and love of the source material. The same shines through the images of these young men. And though, as the storyteller here, his respect borders on awe, he never for a moment stoops to sentimentality or emotional manipulation. He is not trying to make you feel something. He is trying to tell a lost story, and one that has no business being lost.
Minding the Gap
by George Wolf
The legendary inscription carved into Woody Guthrie’s guitar read, “This machine kills fascists.”
In the Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap, a Sharpie-scrawled proclamation on a skateboard declares, “This device cures heartache.” And despite the free-flowing and exuberant skateboarding footage, it is the way first-time director Bing Liu chronicles those heartaches that enables the film to soar high above skatepunk stereotypes.
It’s anchored by footage Liu began filming over a decade ago, while still a restless teen in Rockford, Illinois. Liu and his friends Zack, Kiere and Nina forged early bonds through the joy they found in skateboarding and the escape it provided from their troubled home lives.
Spurred by the foresight of wisdom beyond his years, Liu began focusing his lens less on “big air” tricks at the local skate park and more on what he and his friends were experiencing on the way to adulthood. It results in a consistently touching ride.
Liu, who’s been working behind the scenes on various film and TV projects the last several years, displays remarkable instincts assembling his first feature. He weaves old and new footage deftly, drawing us into the lives of he and his friends with an amazing knack for knowing just when a shot needs to be held one beat longer, or when a quick cut to a Rockford billboard might subtly underscore the issues at hand.
And as the kids grow into young adults, their interviews sometimes reveal amazingly clear bits of self-assessment. Zack and Nina face a tough road as new parents, and when a troubling issue threatens their relationship, Liu frames it with skillful delicacy. Kiere has an enthusiastic spirit and a bright smile you won’t forget, even when you can’t ignore the pain hiding behind it. It is a pain that Liu shares, something he believes connects them all and inspired the direction of his film.
It’s instantly easy to care about these young people, about what they are going through and where they might end up. And it is through them that Liu is able to organically present a microcosm of America itself, beset as it is with issues of race, class, violence and opportunity.
Minding the Gap entertains as a testament to the love of skateboarding, but it transcends as an emotional statement on the fragile bonds of parenting and an earnest ode to the power of love.
by Hope Madden
There’s a lot that shouldn’t be said about Piercing, Nicolas Pesce’s follow up to his glorious 2016 horror, Eyes of My Mother.
Because the film’s tension relies on power exchanges, surprises and averted climaxes, the less you know about how the story progresses, the better.
Suffice it to say that new father Reed (Christopher Abbott), fighting a serious urge to stab his infant with an ice pick, concocts a plan. It involves that ice pick, a “business trip” out of town, and a prostitute (Mia Wasikowska).
The amateur murderer works out the perfect crime, practicing conversations and actions (decorated by Pesce’s remarkable knack for unsettling sound effects), only for the cosmos—or the filmmaker—to wreck those plans.
Abbott’s flat yet sympathetic would-be murderer helps Pesce achieve a peculiar, semi-comic tone, but it’s Wasikowska, playing wildly against type, who carries this film. The two share a mad and maddening chemistry, and even during moments of somewhat forced dialog, their commitment and spark keep you enthralled and guessing.
The film is an exercise in thwarted expectations wrapped up in voyeurism and lurid imagery.
The influences here are dizzying. Ryu Murakami’s source material obviously evokes his own Audition (director Takashi Miike’s classic in power shifting and poor romantic choices). The opening act wades through more modern indie sensibilities, but Pesce quickly overwhelms that flat grit with grindhouse thriller flair before simply succumbing to giallo (Goblin tuneage and all).
This drunken meandering through styles fits the narrative that forever questions the reality or unreality of each situation. Like the cityscape miniatures Pesce uses as the adventure’s out-of-town backdrop, Reed’s whole experience could simply be cool -looking but pretend.
Are those flashbacks or nightmares? Does Reed have a haunted past leaking its way into his present, or is he simply a psychotic hoping to overcome his problem by submitting to it just this once?
Pesce toys with our commitment to Reed’s reality, questionable from the moment his infant halts a crying jag to tell his father, in a demonic voice, “You know what you have to do.”
It’s not a film that will satisfy a lot of viewers, it’s more of a fascinating and forgettable sketch. Still, at under 90 minutes, it’s a weirdly fun little indulgence won’t hurt you. Well, not too much.
An Acceptable Loss
by Brandon Thomas
That phrase kept popping up in my mind while watching An Acceptable Loss. Unfortunately, the subject of morals mixed with politics was something the film was only concerned with on a surface level.
Libby Lamm (Tika Sumpter) has just started a teaching position at a prestigious Chicago area university. Although she’s excited about this fresh start after leaving a position at the White House, many staff and students are less than enthused with her presence on campus. One of Libby’s pupils (Ben Tavassoli), in particular, is fixated on the new professor and begins tracking her every move around campus and her home. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about the devastating decision that led Libby out of politics, and into being one of the country’s most hated pariahs.
The most frustrating aspect of An Acceptable Loss is how it sets up a central conflict that could have made for a spellbinding thriller. It instead settles for a Cinemax-level B-movie.
One of the earlier scenes between Libby and her student, Martin, is a tense clash between two people who couldn’t be further apart, and it makes you wish for the movie that might’ve been. Instead, character motivations change on a dime, and that early sense of dread is replaced with a sense of “been there, done that.”
The majority of the cast doesn’t make the material any easier to swallow. Sumpter’s wooden delivery of political jargon is more reminiscent of a freshman PoliSci major than a beltway professional. Tavassol spends the first half of the film brooding at every other character (I honestly expected him to start giving extras the Stink Eye), and the second half doing his best (worst?) Shia Labeouf on cough medicine impression.
Jamie Lee Curtis, in her small role as vice president and president, fares somewhat better. Her natural gravitas lends itself well to being the leader of the free world; unfortunately, the dialogue she’s delivering is almost 100 percent clunky exposition.
It’s unclear what director Joe Chappelle’s (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) original intentions were. Did he envision a taught political thriller in the vain of Three Days of the Condor or was a low-rent Pelican Brief always the plan?
Chappelle’s mishandling of the film’s focus and pacing hobbles the An Acceptable Loss early on and it’s never able to recover.
Maybe this movie was never going to be anything other than cheap Tom Clancy. The promise of that first act, however, hangs over the rest of the film, and in the back of this viewer’s brain, like a giant “What If?”.
Also opening in Columbus:
The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story (PG13)
Miss Bala (PG13)
Sarvam Thaala Mayam (NR)
Vantha Rajuvathaan Varunin (NR)