Cold War

Jonathan’s and my most recent nerd-cinema outing was to go check out Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest black & white Polish film, baby! And I really, really liked it. I liked this a lot. I liked it while watching it, I liked it walking out of the theater into the cold (thematic!), and it’s now the next day and I might like it even more. This was easily the most romantic movie I saw from 2018—sorry, A Star Is Born, sorry Beale Street, come back to me when your characters are smoking hollowly on the snowy streets of East Berlin in 1951 waiting in vain for their lover to arrive so they can clandestinely cross the border into the west, because that’s the most romantic shit I know!!

Actually, usually when people describe a movie as romantic a little vocal part of my soul goes “bah“, but that is because they so rarely mean THIS kind of romantic. They’re not often talking about passionate, foolhardy Polish artistes staring at each other in smoky music clubs and pulling each other into their arms in dilapidated buildings still pocked with bullet holes from the war and constantly leaving & coming back together & leaving again and increasingly fucked up about it. They’re not usually talking about movies that feel cold in a good way, cold like white satin, cold like an abandoned church roof broke open to the sky. They’re not talking about movies that end with a little inscription in the lower left: “for my parents.” Like Roma, the other beautifully shot black & white non-English film whose director is nominated for an Oscar, this story feels at once so, so personal, and like a great epic. Black & white was deployed so well this year. As was that 4:3 academy ratio also used in First Reformed, another bleak stunner right at the top of my list.

Cold War is a love story, but it almost feels a disservice to follow that with “set against the backdrop of the actual Cold War.” It is of the Cold War. It is a turbulent romance inextricably tied to several decades of politics, a love story that would have no heart without this history beating through it. The heart it does have, with this lifeblood, is fiery and forlorn and guarded, strange restless reckless secrecy combined with a fatalistic, foresworn abandonment to being tied to someone forever. And at only 85 minutes long, the economy of storytelling is at once bracing and elliptical, a spare, emotive saga spanning two decades in less than an hour and a half. That they can do so much in this time is due in large part to Łukasz Żal’s breathtaking framing, which makes each new shot feel like turning a page in an art book of an esteemed Eastern block photographer. Their previous film, Ida, was like this, too.

I liked Ida, but I love Cold War. I love its dramatics, its conversation on art & politics, the use of music (that song, oyoyooyy…), and watching Joanna Kulig at parties. I could watch just Joanna Kulig at parties for another 85 minutes.

Shoplifters

Shoplifters took the top prize at Cannes this year. Historically, I gotta confess I’ve not been particularly drawn to see the Palm d’Or winners—an obscure, arty lot mostly by directors whose names you only start picking up after you’ve been kicking around the critic scene a spell. But the reviews of Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s latest were glowing, seeming almost as if their glow was an attempt to capture a glowing quality of the movie itself. Something warm, honest and feeling. It was being described as heartbreaking, but also very kind. ‘Tender’ is maybe the word for it. I only really glimpse at little pocket-reviews before I see something, and even those were enough to get this across. And I want to thank the people that wrote them, because I did go see Shoplifters, a whole gaggle of seven of us went in fact, and then stood around afterward chorusing praises.

We praised Sakura Ando as our first note, who is just….she’s phenomenal in this. A grounding, nuanced anchor and light. There’s a shot held straight on her face near the end that is easily the 2018 successor to Timothée Chalamet’s long take last year, as this person’s soul just falls open in front of you. And honestly it’s remarkable that she even is such a standout, when the entire cast is just exceptionally good. And that includes two kids! This is a movie about family—for all the twists and turns (such twists, what a turn), the thesis is always that simple—and they gathered the perfect ensemble to play out this tale. The web of relationships, and the singular universes of each individual, all get time and space in the graceful dance Kore-Eda has choreographed.

We praised that turn as well, which I’m not going to really get into much because you know my style! But it was necessary, there had to be consequences. I mean, from the premise: this is a story about a family of ragtag petty thieves who kinda half accidentally/half on purpose steal a kid. An abused little girl, but still, you can’t just steal kids! As one of my friends said, if this had just been a fun romp through illegality it wouldn’t have been as good. It wouldn’t have been as genuine. And what’s interesting is that even though there’s comeuppance and fallout, this isn’t a moralistic movie. Shoplifters isn’t going to tell you that anyone is right. In fact, it’s probably going to tell you that everyone is wrong. So let’s start there, and then move forward with compassion.

And at last we headed over to the food carts nearby, because we had started praising the noodles. This is the best Asian food porn movie since Crazy Rich Asians—a watershed year for this, apparently! It’s welcome. I love watching people enthusiastically eating on film, god do I ever. And it’s part of that warmth of this one. The family table, and the family humor. You gather, you joke, you break bread. This is how family is made. And sometimes a family is just a group of criminals sharing a paper bag of croquettes.

 

If Beale Street Could Talk

This was a stranger movie than I anticipated! Oddly, not sure if I loved it. That goes against brand.

This does not go against Barry Jenkins’ brand. It is very clear this is the same director who made Moonlight—the lyricism, the gorgeous score, shots painted with colors almost too beautiful to believe, shots close on beautiful black faces as if the camera is caught suspended on a musical note, as if we’re wondering who is holding whom in contemplation. But I feel now like the people who didn’t go in for Roma, who say: I appreciate its technical mastery of filmic beauty, but it just wasn’t in my stars; it left me cold. Roma took my heart. Moonlight took my heart. If Beale Street Could Talk did not.

This is not to say tears didn’t bloom in my eyes at moments, because they did (Regina King, ohh Regina King). But there was something about the line deliveries in this one I think, this slow cadence that kept me just a hand’s breadth apart, thinking “old stage play” for some reason, even though the performances could hardly have been less traditionally theatrical (those close-ups! film was invented for those close ups! this is a movie!) (I do love it by the way, when a director’s great love for cinema seeps into their works—Jenkins’ characters asking one another if they want to go see a movie, Cuaron’s actually going, last year Del Toro’s living above a film house…)

Ultimately, how I really know the peaks and valleys of my feelings just didn’t find the right register with this one, is that far and away the most profound emotional moment I experienced was when, miracle of miracles, Diego Luna magically appeared onscreen with nothing more to do than be a kind dear lovely restaurant owner for a few moments, the kindest dearest and loveliest you ever saw, and so overcome was I with how much I love him that I genuinely collapsed a little onto my friend’s shoulder. Diego Luna is the most charming man I think I have ever seen. He is like a living candle.

Anyway this has been my hopelessly inadequate review of Barry Jenkins’ poetic adaptation of the James Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk, in which Diego Luna appears for about a minute and a half. In 2019 we own our melt points, and here’s one of mine (Diego Luna).