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Cold War

I’ve been trying, folks. I really have. But I’m having a hard time getting any kind of optimism for this year’s Oscars.

The ceremony couldn’t find a decent host. The Academy wasted another Best Actress nomination on a half-assed Glenn Close performance. If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, even though Vice, Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born all did. The Academy decided that goddamn Vice was better directed than Mary Queen of Scots, On the Basis of Sex, Leave No Trace, Destroyer, or Private Life, and so not a single female director got nominated. Sure, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther both got Best Picture noms, but the only acting nomination given to either movie went to freaking Adam Driver.

Oh, and while this was admittedly a fantastic year for documentaries, am I seriously supposed to believe that Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t even rank in the top five?! Fuck outta here!

So now we have Cold War, which predictably picked up a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. And surprisingly, it also got nods for Best Director and Best Cinematography. While I knew virtually nothing about this movie going in (the trailer, predictably, was no help at all), I was expecting something truly fantastic.

When the credits started rolling, I was pushing everyone out of the way on my desperate run for the exits.

To be clear, there’s a lot to like at first. I’ll freely admit that (while the camerawork in If Beale Street Could Talk was far superior) the Best Cinematography nod was well-deserved. The movie looks fantastic from start to finish, and the dance sequences are especially gorgeous. Which is important, as music and dance are central to the plot.

The movie begins in Poland, circa 1949. Now that the war is over and the Germans have left, the Polish have to clean up the mess. More specifically, they have to pick up the pieces of whatever culture they had before Hitler barged in and destroyed everything.

The solution: 1) Record folk songs and dances from everywhere in Poland, 2) Hold nationwide searches and auditions for the finest performers in the nation, 3) Put them all in an academy where they can hone their skills on traditional Polish folk routines, and 4) Tour them all over Europe and Russia to make the definitive global statement that this is who and what Poland is.

It’s a good plan, and one that invites all sorts of possibilities for personal drama between the students, instructors, and administrators involved. There’s also a great deal of dramatic potential in the struggle to define and protect a national identity in the wake of something so huge as WWII. Especially when Stalin comes to power and tries to make every facet of culture into propaganda, much as Hitler did before him. This is all fascinating stuff and it could have made for a compelling movie if the filmmakers had stuck with it.

But then we meet our main characters.

Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor Warski, the academy’s chief musical conductor, who strikes up an illicit affair with one of his students. The student in question is Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (played by Joanna Kulig), who tries to cheat her way into the academy and allegedly murdered her father. So one of them is an unethical womanizer and the other one is a femme fatale (no joke, one character literally calls her a femme fatale in the movie), which makes her inherently untrustworthy.

To be clear, I understand that these two were loosely based on the actual parents of director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski. Even so, this romance is DOA. Sure, the chemistry between the two actors may be solid, but it’s all for naught when I have zero reason to care about either of them or their ill-advised romance. And when the romance takes center stage — shuffling the initial premise out of sight and out of mind about halfway through — I completely checked out.

What makes it even worse is that this movie is trying to compress fifteen years of story into 90 minutes of film. As a direct result, the movie is pockmarked with time jumps, skipping several years’ worth of story, and not enough effort is made to cover everything we need to know about the intervening time. It’s not like working around this was impossible — biopics cover two decades or more in 90-120 minutes all the time. But it might have gone a lot more smoothly if the filmmakers didn’t put in so many long brooding shots that do a great job of establishing a mood while doing fuck-all to convey any necessary exposition! It’s not often I see an 89-minute movie that feels three hours long, but here we are.

Cold War has gorgeous visuals, wonderful music breaks, solid acting, and an intriguing central premise that gets thrown aside in favor of a plodding romance between two unsympathetic leads. After our two leads’ botched attempt at escaping the Soviets, I couldn’t figure out what was going on and I had no motivation to try. While I’m certainly open to the possibility that maybe this is a Capital-A Arthouse movie that’s going over my head, there’s no way I can sign off on this.

If you want a heartfelt, moving, black-and-white, foreign-language movie made in 2018 by a cinematic grandmaster in tribute to his parents, stick with Roma. Unless you’re an awards completionist or a more seasoned cinephile than I, don’t bother with this one.

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