Review: Cold War (2018)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a study of life in post-war Poland, following two lovers who would never fit in among the communist society that formed. This is romance at its extremes, two self-destructive people trapped inside a brutal machine.

Cold War runs largely off the vibrancy of its characters. The story starts with Wiktor Warski recruiting peasants for a folk music project. He becomes immediately enamored with Zula, a beautiful young woman who begins by attempting to ride the coattails of a more vocally-talented woman and is soon exposed as a city girl. Despite this, Wiktor casts her and they begin an increasingly desperate love affair.

The narrative structure is straightforward, its cruelty all the more palpable due to the simplicity. There’s so much at play here – two artists restricted in their freedom to create, but increasingly difficult to cheer on as more inner flaws are exposed. Cold War plays with our ability to sympathize.

What really sells Cold War as an important film is its stunning black and white cinematography, framed in a square ratio as if to announce that this is indeed an art film. Each image feels as if it could have fallen out of some old photo album. Pawlikowski has a tendency to allow his central images to sit just off-center, drawing our attention to the full picture. He’s dedicated to a conspicuous lack of symmetry.

There’s something disconcertingly fatalistic about the film, which holds a certain power but might not have landed with me as intended. Perhaps I lack the cynicism to be snared by its message – Cold War hits like the bleakest kind of Bergman movie. But walking disasters like these characters certainly exist – this is a film that seems to lack personal resonance despite carrying all the signifiers of a great work of art.

But with a title like Cold War, I suspect that feeling is intentional. The concept of giving up on everything but a single person should leave us cold. They are relatable and not – I’m sure many people have experienced a love that might have bordered on obsession at some point, but to carry it as far as Wiktor and Zula is madness.

Cold War is undeniably a well-crafted film. The actors, the cinematography, the staging, the sound – from a formalistic perspective, this is easily one of the most impressive films of 2018. It never wastes time, saying so much in less than 90 minutes. Its design is purely mechanical – cold.

But I’m wrong to suggest this movie is entirely cold – it’s filled with the fire of passion. In fact, I think contradictions are a key element of this film. People madly in love go out of their way to harm each other while beautiful camerawork lingers on dirty scenes – this is love framed against rubble. Perhaps this is less about love and more about trying to find something, anything to be passionate about in a world where expression is limited and constantly surveyed.

To put it plainly, I walked away from Cold War not knowing what to make of it – though its narrative was succinct, the meaning behind it is layered. These are the films that carry a lasting impact, and I’m certain this will be a work I look back on in a year with a stronger perspective. I’m already eager to revisit it, which is a rare state for me. But at this current moment, I can only say it’s a beautiful film that didn’t resonate quite enough to hit me now.

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

The third film in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, The Hidden World captures a lot of what made the first two movies the best animated films out of Dreamworks this decade. But is retreading the same ground enough to make this a good film in its own right?

My praise for The Hidden World would be very similar to that of the previous films – firstly, the animation is phenomenal. The series pushes more realistic character designs while maintaining a cartoonish charm, avoiding the uncanny and offering dozens of stunning sights. Each character has their own distinct design, yet they fit perfectly side by side. The Hidden World‘s greatest strength over its predecessors is five years of visual evolution.

What’s always striking about this series (and DeBlois’s earlier Lilo and Stitch) is how it manages to capture character among non-human figures – a ton of effort is poured into getting Toothless’s animations just right, giving him perhaps the most vibrancy of any character despite an inability to speak.

A central focus of this movie is Toothless meeting a female member of his species that the humans nickname Light Fury. A great scene on the beach finds Toothless attempting to woo her, invoking childish moves and odd Birds of Paradise-inspired dances. These details establish Toothless as an awkward young adult much like Hiccup.

Which, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the guiding force of the series – and I’d say this is where The Hidden World falters a bit. The film does reach similar emotional heights to the first two entries, but a lot is saved for the ending.

Where the first two films speak of learning the language of a supposed enemy and coexistence, The Hidden World deals with separation. Hiccup and Toothless have formed an almost symbiotic relationship over the series, but The Hidden World gives Toothless his own personal pursuits. While this provides a strong inner conflict for Hiccup, it disrupts the screen time between the leads.

Where The Hidden World is a largely satisfying conclusion to a trilogy, its central conflict doesn’t do enough do raise the stakes from the previous. The villain is largely forgettable and is notably less threatening, and most of the characters lack an arc or real development – despite the distinct designs, the side characters offer little but comic relief. This is an excuse to revisit the familiar more than being an expansion on the lore.

Luckily, this is a world worth revisiting. For those invested in the series, it will hit you hard at key moments. Despite being about mythical creatures, How to Train Your Dragon has always felt like the story of a boy and his dog. The Hidden World pushes past that, instead paralleling old friends who you know someday will go their own way. Toothless is never subservient but an equal, and this entry explores what that means as the two enter maturity.

As such, The Hidden World is a stellar conclusion to a great series, but one that doesn’t quite have as much impact on its own. The narrative beats land a bit flat during the second act, but this is balanced out with quieter stakes from the earlier installments. How much you get from this depends entirely on how invested you are in the series as a whole.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Why We Build the Wall

I entered the 2016 election with much the same feeling as the 2012 election – there’s no way we would actually vote in Donald Trump of all people, right? A man I and likely most of my generation knew through reality TV, who we had previously collectively laughed at for his orange complexion and awful hair, who made George W. Bush look intelligent and grounded?

But I made sure to vote anyway – unlike Romney, Trump felt like a true threat. Even if the polls suggested he had little chance of winning, and again my vote in Illinois would mean nothing either way, politics no longer stood in the background. More than likely, I was galvanized by the 2014 election – my first job out of college was represented by a public union, and we were essentially public enemy #1 in Bruce Rauner’s Illinois. I couldn’t vote him out until 2018, but I had learned other races matter.

Trump winning is still this surreal moment – just like my high school, I somehow believed we as a country had moved past such blatant displays of hatred. But an entire swath of our country voted in a man who spoke to nothing but underlying fears of the other. How can so many people – the people who by all measures have the power in our country – be living lives guided by terror?

You invited me back to your office that next morning – you could recognize my despair, knowing that I was young, openly gay, and therefore more than likely sharing your political leaning. You told me we’d get through it. I was terrified – I was in the midst of planning my wedding, and had only just gained that right. How much could Trump and a Republican Congress take from us?

You spoke of how we survived Bush and survived Reagan – but did we? Did people like me truly ‘survive’ Reagan? White women like you, yes. But nearly an entire generation of gay men were wiped out by a virus that Reagan actively ignored.

Not only was I gay, but I was finally coming to terms with the fact that I probably didn’t identify as a man. I didn’t identify as a woman, either, so I wouldn’t really be affected by these bathroom debates, but where would the line stop? Most people don’t accept that non-binary people like me even exist – I had every right to believe Trump and his Congress would attempt to delegitimize us further, not just socially but through legislation.

People like me, we’re simply one of the many building blocks for the wall. Trump knows he can call upon us to strike up new fears – that his wall won’t be built until his followers are convinced they’re being attacked from every angle. These people are blinded to the actual sources of the instability in their lives, living as though they’re dying of a preventable disease and happy with articles that claim the blood they cough will go away once they spit enough out.

So, yes – you will survive. As much as you didn’t want it, Trump’s America is designed to harm people like you the least – and I can count myself lucky I’m still high enough on the pecking order that I probably will, too.


You were pissed at me for not bothering to vote.

I tried to talk it down – after all, this was Illinois. Obama couldn’t lose here, and if he somehow did, we certainly weren’t going to be the swing state.

I came into that night with relatively little fear – who in the world liked Mitt Romney? You pointed to other things, such as local elections. I’m afraid to admit I’ve always been a bit more ignorant than I like to admit. None of it mattered – things would work out fine.

I feel like I can better recognize your frustration now – me, a white (at-the-time-identifying-as) man, telling a black woman there was nothing I was afraid of. I carried the privilege of not having to care. You appealed to my queer identity, but the polls were already closed. There was nothing we could change at that point.

We sat around watching the numbers come in, but I was quickly bored as the predictable result occurred. This election carried as little meaning to me as that mock election back in 2000; the safe, familiar thing was happening, and my side was winning. It would have been nice to see Democrats regain power in Congress – but it’s not like I really appreciated anything beside the presidency even at the beginning of my adulthood.

Man – it was really nice not having to care.


It’s not the glee at finally being rid of Bush or anyone like him that I remember about the day after the election, nor was it celebrating that the same America who elected George W. Bush twice was now welcoming its first black president.

No, what I sadly recall is overhearing an upperclassman talk about wanting to take his father’s shotgun to the White House as we sat in our computer class. The murmurs in the hallway featuring words I would never repeat here, in a town I never realized was like this.

I remember sitting beside you as you spoke of lynching before Pre-Calculus began. I had known you for several years at that point, and I was unaware something so vile sat inside your heart. That not only did you carry so much hatred toward those of differing beliefs, but that it was expressed through a desire for racial violence – all of this coming from one of the most bullied girls in our school.

To think I used to pity you.

I had been ignorant enough to believe this type of vitriol was limited to the south – that everyone was equally shocked back when our eighth grade history teacher spoke of the time her grandmother casually mentioned baking for her father’s Klan meetings over dinner. Soon after the election, another history teacher who had a particular focus on the Civil Rights movement informed us that even our own town of Mt. Zion had a history with lynching.

His name was Samuel Bush, and he was accused of assaulting a white Mt. Zion woman and taken to the jail over in Decatur. The Deputy Sheriff and Chief of Police tried to talk down the mob of nearly one thousand people that had gathered, an act for which the latter was assaulted. Sam Bush was dragged naked through the streets, offered a last word as a noose was already so tight around his neck that it had to be loosened for him to speak. “I hope to see you again in heaven,” he told the crowd of people gathered to murder him.

Our town is the type of place where you imagine the same families hanging around for well over a century; was your great-great-grandfather one of the men who gathered to hang Samuel Bush at the corner of Wood and Water? Which, now that I’m looking at a map of Decatur, I realize is a corner right outside the building where my step-father and aunt work.

I never realized this was so close to home.

Mt. Zion was so white-washed that I never really had to think about race until Obama became president. I assumed everyone had accepted the whole ‘racism is bad’ thing – the worst I thought was maybe some misguided beliefs through our lack of really experiencing diversity. But to you and your kind, Obama was a very real threat.

A bit later, that same teacher brought in a cousin of Emmett Till as a speaker. He told our school of that horrid night, of being there at one of the most nauseating atrocities in American history. I’d like to think this got through to people like you, that hearing a first-hand account of such horror would wake you up.

But more than likely, his story fell on deaf ears.

Critical Failures

Even as a child, I never understood how George W. Bush won a second term. Perhaps the explanation was as simple as my likely reason for going against Gore, that John Kerry was so frightfully boring that Bush managed to come off as the more charismatic of the two.

Whatever the case, it became so hard to believe in this country. How could it come down to those two choices, how could we choose the same person who dragged us into such horrifying conflicts with no apparent end? Bush fumbled everything he touched, and his nonsense vocabulary was by this point familiar. If this man represented the country as a whole, it was scary to think what this country was.

But at the end of the day, this was a minor annoyance in my daily life. It didn’t affect me directly in any meaningful way, and Bush being president was a familiar experience. Surviving another four years would be easy enough.

And if nothing else, I never got the sense Bush was intentionally trying to sabotage our country – the lack of intent behind harm somehow seems honorable these days.

Ignorant Pleasures

I voted for George W. Bush back in 2000.

My second grade class, for whatever reason, held a mock vote for that election. I can’t remember why I chose Bush – I don’t know if I knew anything about either him or Gore at that age. Perhaps I caught enough of the morning news before school to see how boring Al Gore was – you know, the important stuff. But the choice was more than likely entirely random.

There was something satisfying about his win – again, not because I was invested in what he stood for, or even understood what a president really did, but because it was my team. I didn’t see his verbal flubs, hear about any hanging chads – it was nothing but a popularity contest.

It’s easy to treat elections like a game when you don’t know enough to know it affects you. George H. Bush won – I won.

Review: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Alita: Battle Angel is a tale of an abandoned cyborg returned to life without her memories, finding herself in a ruined world beneath a floating city. It’s got all the features of a major studio blockbuster – big action sequences, a vibrant future noir world, an obligatory romance.

After months of staring this trailer down, I feel like I have to look it in the eye. It’s the most jarring detail, something painfully discomforting to look at. But where it turned me away from the film in the trailers, it works in the full context – it’s an intentional invocation of the uncanny valley, immediately marking Alita as out of place.

Alita: Battle Angel comes off as a film not certain of what it wants to be – it’s everything and nothing at once. Throughout the opening act, it sets itself up as if it’s going to be this classic dystopian tale with deep lore – and it really wants us to learn this lore, as the entire opening feels like nothing but exposition. But this doesn’t go anywhere – the dialogue is largely amateur, the elements of the world stale. There’s no attempt at any meaningful philosophical pondering, so why waste our time acting like there’s some grander concept at play?

Tacked onto this is a familiar love story, a young woman new to the world falling for the first young man who introduces her to it. There’s no meaningful chemistry between the two, but despite this failure, the film at least uses these moments to explore Alita as a character outside of the initial wonder and the later warrior.

After wasting our time with themes it doesn’t actually want to explore, Alita picks up the pace during the action sequences. This film is really dumb, and it’s at its best whenever it embraces that fact. It’s brutally violent and visually chaotic – that is what Rodriguez knows how to do. It’s a shame so many action directors feel a need to justify these battles – this film could have trimmed quite a bit of fat and been a much more engaging experience if it just dropped some of the political intrigue.

The one redeeming element of the narrative is Alita herself – this is a character who finds her own story, has passion and energy. These elements aren’t limited to her seeking out fights – her curiosity seems genuine, and her evolution as she begins to understand the world is largely successful. She’s alien in the right ways, making extreme gestures that are believably not as extreme from her cyborg perspective. All of this adds up to an ideal action protagonist, someone who carries the plot instead of being pushed along.

The worst part about this movie is that it ends – specifically, that it ends way before it actually ends. This is apparently going to be a story in multiple parts, as the conflict the movie keeps building toward doesn’t actually happen within the film. I felt blindsided by the credit roll – was their goal to leave the audience as immediately underwhelmed as possible? The film doesn’t do enough to leave me wanting to dive back into the narrative of this world – I just wanted a cool closing action sequence.

But the fact I wanted that means there’s some success – this is a movie that got better as it went on, to the point I must have been invested by the end. Between the lead character and the visual design, a sequel could turn out a lot better since it gets to skip over the set-up.

All in all, Alita: Battle Angel perfectly encapsulates the styles of both Rodriguez and James Cameron. There’s chaotic violence, a bold new world…and a consistently fumbled plot. If you can tolerate the sometimes maddening narrative, you’ll be rewarded with some truly fun action sequences.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Fyre (2019)

The failure of the Fyre Festival was one of those spectacular social media events, a cavalcade of schadenfreude as we collectively laughed as rich kids overreacted to a bad vacation. It was symbolic of issues within social media, an event carried entirely by hype and no outside oversight, sold through ‘influencers,’ with no one questioning who was running it and if they had ever done something similar before. Fyre dives into the background details, pinpointing the people involved and why it went wrong.

Being a documentary about recent events that are still tangled in legal issues and interviewing people who may or may not be culpable, Fyre is a film that needs to be met with heavy scrutiny – who is making this and what are they trying to say? If you went purely off this documentary as presented, everything seems to fall on CEO Billy McFarland, that rich white frat bro-type seemingly designed to be hated. He obviously is a central negative force – but an event this big has several people involved, and no one seemed to do anything meaningful to prevent the disaster from being fully realized. There was no excuse to allow people to actually arrive at the festival grounds.

What Fyre fails to meaningfully establish is that this was a scam created by rich people targeting rich people. The documentary casually introduces attendees, and they are never questioned. Who are these people that are willing to drop thousands of dollars on a festival without first making sure it was the real thing – especially one occurring in 2017 with Blink-182 as a headliner? These aren’t sympathetic figures, but Fyre is happy to drop successful venture capitalists in front of us and act like they’re everyday victims.

As long as you go in with a critical mind, Fyre does a pretty good job establishing what allowed this to happen – even if some people might be covering their own tails, there are solid elements being discussed, like how they managed such expert marketing and the struggles of attempting to put together a big event in such a short time. There were promises of something that had never been done before, with no one thinking to ask why it hadn’t been done before. This was a concept being sold as a finished product. There’s quite a bit of fun in seeing people who can usually buy their way out of every problem running into something that no amount of money can fix.

The film is at its strongest when it exposes the actual victims at the heart of the matter – as in people who were actually harmed by the festival. Interviews with the locals who did the actual ground work are depressing, people promised something meaningful for their community and then abandoned without pay. This would be a stronger documentary if they gave this subject more time – but Fyre seems to want to run off the more absurd elements.

The Fyre Festival is certainly an event worthy of a cinematic exploration, but this film is coming at a time where it allows certain people to save face – it’s hard to view it as a meaningful statement until the dust settles. It’s certainly a fun subject matter presented fashionably, but the film itself is teaching us not to trust presentations simply because they have a slick presentation. A fuller truth will be revealed in time – but this is a fair summary as we have it today.

3 Stars Out of 5

A Shortness of Breath

I was introduced to Godard in one of my first film classes. We watched Breathless, and it appeared most of my fellow students hated it.

For me, it was like the final piece of a puzzle. I got narrative, I got atmosphere, I was at least aware of the more technical aspects of cinema, but Breathless operated like an immediate lesson on editing. Of course all films have editing – well, almost all – but it tends to be a subtle form. The less you notice the better seems to be the common wisdom. Breathless tosses that aside, taking a Brechtian approach. If every cut is noticed, we are reminded again and again this is only a movie.

Where Eraserhead was like a chance encounter with a babbling Ancient One, Breathless is that jerk who explains every magic trick before it’s finished. Godard wants us to be aware how easily manipulated we are, to be aware how violent a simple cut can be.

It’s that moment at the beginning, where Michel shoots a cop and flees – but we never see the shooting, only a quick series of shots that suggest a shooting. Everything – well, almost everything – in fictional cinema is a construction, several stray shots connected to form a bigger whole.

I don’t believe Godard is a cynic to make such a film – quite the opposite, in fact. I can’t imagine anyone having more fun while actually making a movie. His love of cinema seems apparent in how he works in the medium. He doesn’t want to eradicate the illusion as much as he wants an informed audience – a more knowledgeable audience allows an artist to do more with their work.

There are certain people who seem to expect critics to be able to just turn off their judgment and take a movie in – as if everything we’ve learned through the thousands of movies we have watched can just be put aside for a few hours. People seem to think critics don’t have fun while watching movies – but the truth is that our idea of fun has changed with experience. So many traditionally ‘fun’ films rely on simple imagery, things that start to lose meaning once you’ve seen several films do the exact same thing. We don’t watch art films simply because they’re more ‘valuable’ or what-not; for someone who has viewed that many movies, it’s the more technical aspects that become fun. A truly great director offers a certain style that can’t be found elsewhere.

And because I think this needs emphasis – art films are fun. Critics wouldn’t be so enamored if they were bored. The opposite is also true – these big Hollywood productions become boring when you sit through enough of them. It’s not that we can’t have fun, as much as certain studios tend to cut corners and offer nothing new beyond some shiny visual effects. What’s enjoyable about an old experience with purely surface-level modifications?

We’re not some alien creatures, judging films with inexplicable criteria. In all honesty, I think there’s a certain point where the simple act of watching a movie should become a fun process. The idea of being ‘bored’ by a movie seems a foreign concept these days. And when you reach the point where the simple act of watching a film is fun, you have to develop criteria that looks beyond enjoyment – otherwise, every movie carries the same value.

To create art is a skill – what is often overlooked is that the act of consuming art likewise requires skill. No one is born with an understanding of cinema, or books, or music. Everything we see in this world was at some point learned. Never accept the easy answer – it might make things simple, but in the world of art, you’re missing so much because of it.

Like everything else in life, the effort you put into understanding film determines how much you can get out of it.