"Cold War"

Cold WarDirected by Paweł PawlikowskiPoland

Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War sounds like it must be bloated. It spans over two decades, takes place in multiple countries, and tells a sweeping romance set against the backdrop of frosty relations between Eastern and Western Europe. But to Pawlikowski’s credit, Cold War is an economical film. It is just under 90 minutes long, and no scene lasts any longer than it must. Those restraints ultimately heighten the film’s genuine power, instead of diminishing it.

The two lovers are Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). He is a music director for the Polish government’s new effort to celebrate the country’s folk traditions, and she is a vivacious, stunning singer. They begin their relationship in secret—their trysts only heighten their passion—and a trip to Berlin offers the couple an opportunity to escape communism. Wiktor waits for Zula, who never shows, so he leaves for Paris and begins a career as a jazz musician. Over the ensuing years, the lovers bump into each other in unlikely places, rekindling their romance at great cost.

Like Ida, Pawlikowski’s last film, Cold War uses black-and-white photography and a 4:3 aspect ratio. The absence of color, coupled with a boxy frame, allows the viewer to study the production design—full of postwar decay—and the emotion in the leads’ faces. Wiktor and Zula protect their feelings, so their quiet gestures contain added resonance. If this material sounds too “artsy,” Pawlikowski maintains a high level of energy with frequent music performances, subtle comedy, and a pitch-perfect bittersweet ending.

Pawlikowski reportedly based his film partially on his parents, but with its use of jazz and star-crossed romance, Cold War might be a rebuke of La La Land. It is a film with genuine stakes and characters, instead of passionless facsimile. (AZ)

Screens Friday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

In My RoomDirected by Ulrich KöhlerGermany, Italy

Post-apocalyptic movies are nothing new, but as of late, there’s been a micro-trend of stories that depict a mass extinction of humans as welcome news. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah made this point a few years ago, and this year the indie I Think We’re Alone Now, starring Peter Dinklage as a misanthrope left in bliss on a human-free planet, did the same. Add to the list In My Room, a German production about a young layabout who wakes up to find he is the only person left on Earth, and quickly becomes a better man than he ever was.

The film spares us little of the loneliness that would accompany such a scenario and all the messy human details that would follow. Armin is visiting his infirm grandmother in the suburbs when the human race all but disappears, and he handles the problem the way most of us would: by drinking himself into a vomitous stupor. Once he sobers up, he sets about building himself a spread in the country, where he can raise a few animals and live peacefully. Still, In My Room is neither idyllic nor dystopian. It takes special note of the suffering of animals, and its vision of post-apocalyptic life may leave you uncomfortable in its brutal honesty.

So I was a little disappointed when, inevitably, Armin discovers a woman who has also been left behind, and they embark on a relationship. It’s fun to watch them fall helplessly in love and then be pulled apart by their indelible human foibles, but the film either spends too much time with them or not enough. Neither of the characters are well defined enough to be fully invested in their romance, and so many of the questions you want the film to consider—like, why were these two people left behind—go unasked. I liked it better when there was no one else around. (NG)

Screens Friday, Nov. 30 at 10 p.m. and Monday, Dec. 3 at 9:10 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

TransitDirected by Christian PetzoldGermany, France

Directed by master German filmmaker Christian Petzold, Transit is like Casablanca with a renewed sense of urgency and despair. Its central conceit is disorienting at first, but it ultimately serves as a dire warning for what amounts to a worldwide crisis.

The Nazis have just invaded France, and their sweep of the countryside is coming for the coast. Most of the action takes place in the port city of Marseille, where a handful of Jews wait for a lumbering bureaucracy to clear their transit papers so they can escape elsewhere to Europe, or the United States. Franz Rogowski plays Georg, who stumbles onto a set of papers through an accidental case of mistaken identity. This deception takes on an ironic, somewhat cruel dimension, since he falls for the wife of the man he pretends to be.

In the first minutes of Transit, you may think you’re watching a science fiction film. It looks like it’s set in present day, and yet the story involves daring escapes and a totalitarian regime. This is by design: Petzold intentionally uses modern costumes and locations, even though the film is set in the 1940s. A deliberate provocation like this could have backfired, but ultimately Transit’s sense of tragedy and inevitability means something more relevant in a Europe where refugees are marginalized.

By mixing languid dialogue with a gnawing fear of the inevitable, the characters here seem like they are stuck in purgatory. This approach also creates ample time to develop the characters, who are mostly depressed emigres resigned to their fate. The complex, twisty love story also grows like a weed, until it ends on a wistful note. Rogowski is no Bogart, and yet Georg has the weariness, romance, and desperation of a lovable noir hero. (AZ)

Screens Saturday, Dec. 8 at 4:30 p.m. and Monday, Dec. 10 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

Knife + HeartDirected by Yann GonzalezFrance, Mexico, Switzerland

Some films are so transgressive and so defiantly themselves that they must be seen to be believed. The French horror film Knife + Heart is one of those of films.

Director Yann Gonzalez takes the Italian giallo tradition of stylized gore, and fuses it with the milieu of gay pornography in the 1970s. His hero is Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a lesbian porn director who works almost exclusively with men. Like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, she oversees a semi-functional family of eccentrics and weirdos. Production grinds to a halt, however, when a mysterious killer starts murdering young actors. The police are no use, so she tries to solve the case while incorporating the murders into the plot of her latest film.

The grisly murders are shown in stylized detail. The killer wears a grotesque black mask, and his preferred weapon is a giant black dildo with a knife inside it (he murders his first victim shortly after mounting him). Conservative audiences may balk at such material, but Gonzalez’s gleeful affection in handling the material elevates it above mere pornography. Whether it’s the period costumes or grainy film stock, the film’s retro feel is a sensual delight. The characters are also fleshed out, with Paradis giving an enigmatic performance.

The details of the mystery are incidental to Knife + Heart. What matters more is the vibe and liberation of watching it. Of course, AIDS is a crucial subtext in a film that deals with the deaths of young gay men. If this murderer is a walking metaphor, then the exasperation, denial, and eventual triumph of his victims represent the painstaking reclamation of lost innocence. Come for the ejaculation jokes, stay for the social justice. (AZ)

Screens Saturday, Dec. 8 at 10:20 p.m. and Thursday, Dec. 13 at 10 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

IcemanDirected by Felix RandauGermany, Italy, Austria

Set in 5300 B.C. and featuring dialogue in the dead language of Rhaetia, Iceman is an easier watch than you might think. It’s the story of Kelab, a Neolithic man who returns home from a hunt to find his family murdered by roving marauders. He sets out with the only other survivor—his newborn infant—to hunt down the killers, tracking them through frigid temperatures and dangerous terrain in order to seek his revenge and recover a valuable totem. It’s a timeless story set before time existed.

Directed by Felix Randau, Iceman doesn’t say anything that America’s bleakest westerns haven’t said before, but it remains thrilling as a work of pure cinema. Without intelligible dialogue, it is essentially a silent film, and the actors, especially Jürgen Vogel in the lead role, hold your attention through broad but believable choices. It’s especially impressive when you consider that their faces are mostly hidden behind bushy beards and long, stringy hair.

It might sound like a drag, but Iceman even finds moments of human comedy—or absurdity, at least—in its bleakness. Right before a key confrontation, as two characters are hurtling toward each other with spears drawn, the ice suddenly gives way and one disappears from view, likely dooming him to death. Finding humor in a world this barren of humanity? That’s a sure sign of evolved thinking. (NG)

Screens Sunday, Dec. 9 at 12 p.m. and Wednesday, Dec. 12 at 7:05 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

EuthanizerDirected by Teemu NikkiFinland

The euthanizer in Finland’s Euthanizer will likely inspire the admiration of animal lovers. Veijo (Matti Onnismaa), a mechanic, puts down pets as a side gig, and he asks for each animal’s story to suss out whether its owner really took care of it up until this point. Chances are they haven’t, at least not to Veijo’s satisfaction, so he lays on guilt trips that writer-director Teemu Nikki has elegantly penned. 

At the same time, however, the film can be hard to watch. Veijo either gasses or shoots the animals, and the lead-ups to their offscreen deaths are absolutely heartbreaking. There’s a reprieve when the mechanic chooses to adopt a healthy dog that a white supremacist paid to have put to sleep; a game of violent vengeance then plays out that highlights the anger that both men harbor, Veijo toward his ailing father as well as himself and the neo-Nazi toward the world in general—his apparent personal uncertainty and subsequent hatred make him flail every time something doesn’t go right, which has included the dog’s less-than-perfect behavior in his company. 

Veijo is a truly original anti-hero who’s sometimes darkly funny. He doesn’t suffer fools and incisively speaks for animals that can’t speak for themselves. He wants the bad guys to suffer and the good guys—or pets—put out of their misery in as compassionate a way as possible. Unless you take a hard line against revenge—as in typical thrillers, things do escalate quickly—this Euthanizer is easy to get behind. (TO)

Screens Sunday, Dec. 9 at 9:40 p.m. and Monday, Dec. 10 at 9:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

The Whiskey BanditDirected by Nimród AntalHungary

Writer-director Nimród Antal strips all the fun out of a celebrated bank robber in The Whiskey Bandit, a Hungarian film that starts out with the promise of a boy who’s “got the devil in him” and ends with a thief so dull he may as well be an accountant. If it accomplishes nothing else, it proves that true stories aren’t inherently interesting. This is the first feature that Antal, who directed and co-wrote 2003’s excellent Kontroll, has written on his own, and it’s mainly the structure that lets him down. He fashions the story in flashbacks, as the incarcerated title character, Atilla (Bence Szalay), meets with a detective (Zoltán Schneider) who serves no purpose other than going over the inmate’s story of whiskey-fueled heists while adding unfortunate psychological analysis that’s a prime example of why you’re supposed to show, not tell. Szalay is also an unexciting antihero with an innocent-looking face and a character who seems to turn to a life of crime simply because he’s sick of being broke and not because he’s a thrill-seeker. There are a couple of exciting chase sequences once the stakes are raised and all of Hungary’s finest are after the bandit along with a terrific soundtrack that oomphs the tension and style. But mostly this is a story so rote that after two-plus hours of tedium, you’ll need a drink. (TO)

Screens Saturday, Dec. 1 at 10 p.m. and Thursday, Dec. 6 at 9:20 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.