Movie Review ~ Cold War (Zimna wojna)

The Facts

Synopsis: In the 1950s, a music director falls in love with a singer and tries to persuade her to flee communist Poland for France.

Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Ferency, Borys Szyc

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In 2015, director Pawel Pawlikowski made a giant splash with Ida, his gorgeous Oscar-winning work that tracked a novice nun making a road trip with her aunt to learn more about her past before taking her vows. It was stunning film, easily earning its place on the best-of year lists and further establishing Pawlikowski’s late-career resurgence in his Polish homeland. The story felt personal to the director and he’s gone even further with his latest work, Cold War, using the lives of his parents tumultuous relationship to serve as the basis for the story.  Like Ida, critics that have embraced Pawlikowski’s sparse narrative and Lukasz Zal’s (Loving Vincent) stunning black and white cinematography have met Cold War with rapturous applause. Unlike that earlier work, however, Cold War lives up to its title in more ways than one; I found it almost impossible to find a way to connect with it on any level whatsoever. Though it boasts two lovely lead performances and is grand to look at, it’s not just cool to the touch…it’s frozen.

In post war Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a government gathered group assembling a folk ensemble to tour as a way to bring back authentic tradition to their ravagaed country. It’s at the auditions and rehearsals for this troupe that he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) a headstrong woman with a questionable past that might not be the most talented but is certainly the most compelling performer. As the tour proceeds, the two find their attraction growing and when their repertoire changes to be more propaganda based they must decide if they will stick it out or attempt to run away to France.

At 89 minutes, Pawlikowski doesn’t leave much room for filler and even though the film takes several leaps ahead in time that can make your head spin it does have a decent forward momentum. I did find it a little challenging to track some of the secondary characters we were evidently supposed to keep tabs on because when long gone faces suddenly reappear after years you don’t get much chance to remember their names and how they fit into the story.  You almost need a cheat sheet to stay with the comings and goings or the supporting cast, strong as they are.

The film benefits largely from Kulig’s strong-willed turn as a woman wanting a better life but feeling trapped by her past. You absolutely get the intended feeling she wants nothing more than to chuck it all and run away with Wiktor if there weren’t the secrets she harbors keeping her from being able to turn away from her present circumstances. Kot, too, places his role with a plaintive quietness that works well with Kulig’s more aggressive tendencies. When the two are together, sparks fly. When they are apart, things slow down.

Pawlikowski nabbed a Best Director nomination for his work here and that’s a bit of a head-scratcher in my book, especially considering someone like Bradley Cooper didn’t get on the list for A Star is Born. As the director and co-writer, Pawlikowski is mostly the one to blame for the film having some pacing and narrative problems that keep it almost entirely at arm’s length. Perhaps it was because I saw the film at home and didn’t get to experience it on a big screen to let Zal’s crisp Oscar-nominated camera-work invite me in…but Pawlikowski’s films are so quiet and personal that it feels like this was just a story that wasn’t suited for me.

Movie Review ~ Ida


The Facts:

Synopsis: Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation

Stars: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  At just 82 minutes, Ida is jam-packed with the kinds of images and ideas that many films twice its length and triple its budget could only hope to accomplish.  The Oscar nominated film from Poland is the gentlest of tales, even when it finds itself dealing with horrific situations indicative of the time and place where the action unfolds.

Young novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is getting ready to take her vows at the small convent in the outskirts of the Polish People’s Republic when her mother superior urges her to make a visit to her aunt before fully committing herself to the church.  Traveling to the city, she meets the aunt that is a stern judge by day and a haunted, promiscuous, addict by night.  Seeing Anna reignites decades of pain in the judge and the two travel together back to the place of Anna’s birth…and back in time to reveal key mysteries that will change the lives of both forever.

I’ll let you figure out what secrets are brought to light because to spoil these intricate developments would be to rob you of the opportunity to experience the film with as little knowledge as possible.  I went in with only that broad framework and my viewing was all the better for it.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski and his co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz have designed a road trip picture that seems to go back in time with each mile (kilometer, sorry) the two women travel.  There are moments of genuine surprise, with some critical developments that happen without any warning…making you give thanks for the rewind button on your streaming device.

Not only is Ida nominted (and favored to win) the Best Foreign Language Film award at The Academy Awards but it also snagged a nomination for Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s gorgeous black and white cinematography.  Even more impressive is that the camera never moves in any of the crisp shots…there’s no tracking shot as the characters walk down a street or a big sweeping rise of the camera to reveal the expanse of the area around them.  No, the camera is placed and the action happens…so we always feel like we’re on some bench watching the actors play in front of us.  It’s an unobtrusive approach that, paired with the colorless visuals, works to the great benefit of the film’s effect as a whole.