By William Wolf

THE BEST TEN FILMS OF 2018  Send This Review to a Friend

The films on this list have been selected from among those released in New York theaters during the year and are listed in order of preference.

1. Blackklansman

2. Cold War

3. Becoming Astrid

4. Roma

5. Fahrenheit 11/9

6. The Insult

7. Capernaum

8. Happy as Lazzaro

9. RBG

10. On the Basis of Sex

Other outstanding films of 2018 listed in no particular order include: A Star is Born; Leave No Trace; Lives Well Lived; Memoir of War; A Private War; The Death of Stalin; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; The Front Runner; The Other Side of the Wind; Wildlife; Tea With the Dames; If Beale Street Could Talk; Green Book; Widows; Back to Burgundy; Measure of a Man; The Wife; Chappaquiddick; Eighth Grade; Rodin; Operation Finale; The Bookshop; Crazy Rich Asians; Nelly; Vice; Colette; Love, Gilda; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Pick of the Litter; The Guilty; Submission; Summer 1993; At Eternity’s Gate; The Favourite; First Reformed; Boy Erased; Shoplifters; Shoah: Four Sisters; Searching for Ingmar Bergman; Monrovia, Indiana; The Price of Everything; On Her Shoulders; The Waldheim Waltz; Studio 54; Call Her Ganda; Lizzie; American Chaos; Bisbee ’17; Let the Sunshine In; Godard mon amour; Lou Andreas-Salomé –The Audacity to Be Free; Ben is Back, Three Identical Strangers, Summer 1993 and Itzhak.


When I went as a teenager to Coney Island and braved the roller coaster to show off before the girls, and later, when I took my young daughters to Disneyland, there wasn’t a thought in my head about the history of amusement parks, those who created them or how many of them there were in other parts of the world.

Now along comes Stephen M. Silverman with his book, “The Amusement Park—900 Years of Thrills and Spills, and the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them” (432 pp. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. $35). And what a book it is! Not only is it jam-packed with extensively-researched information, but Silverman presents it all with his jaunty style and frequently injected humor, and to boot, the book is handsomely designed and produced and liberally illustrated with intriguing photos and drawings. It is substantiated in an extensive bibliography that reflects all of the work that went into covering the amusement park scene from spanning its fascinating history to current attractions appealing to yet another generation of thrill-seekers.

The 900 years in the subtitle is an eye-catcher. That far back? In the book’s “Part One—The Fun Begins” the author recounts how England’s King Henry I (1068-1135), at the urging of his court jester, established in 1133 in honor of St. Bartholomew the first St. Bartholomew Fair in Smithfield that initially lasted three days but went on to become an institution.

“Under an ever-widening expanse of colorful tents and aromatic stalls,” Silverman writes, “the fair helped establish several standard practices carried out in the merriment arena: Exotic animal shows. Freak shows. Magic Shows. Acrobatic shows. Theatrical spectacles. Rides. Refreshment stands. Dedicated lodgings for visitors. Prostitutes. Actually the prostitutes were already well established; there were just more of them at fair time.”

Then Silverman adds one of the informational touches like those that he sprinkles throughout his survey: “The Smithfield gallows also made a substantial contribution, particularly on Bartholomew Fair’s opening day in 1305. Before a standing-room-only crowd, William Wallace, the controversial Scottish patriot known as Braveheart, was brought to the fair site in shackles, strung up, hanged, and, for good measure, disemboweled. With that fairgoers went back to making music and merry.”

Silverman persistently sees the broad picture, not only with respect to the varied amusement attractions, but how, for example, the hot dog came to be popular at Coney Island. He also follows the ups and downs of real estate deals and investments related to numerous amusement parks.

Yes, there is also the progress of inventiveness aimed at capturing public attendance. We can follow the development of roller coasters, the higher and more risky the better, the merry-go-round, the Ferris Wheel, bumper cars etc. There are the noted names, of course, whether P.T Barnum or Walt Disney. Silverman reports on competition, budgets, profits and losses and all of the excitement that projects generated. He covers the international spectrum, with amusements abroad, as in countries such as Denmark, Germany and Japan, just to name a few.

Silverman saves elaborating broadly on the amazing Disney phenomenon until near the end of the book. He meticulously details what was involved in creating Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, as well as other Disney projects.

Sometimes at certain sections there may be even more information than we want to know, but the strength of the book lies in its comprehensiveness, right up to the recent concept of parlaying the Harry Potter saga into an amusement attraction.

You may be most interested in learning about amusement parks closest to where you live. I particularly enjoyed reading about the development of Coney Island and problems involved there. I also was especially interested in Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey and attractions in Atlantic City, where I repeatedly enjoyed visits to its famous Steel Pier.

The New Jersey shore was a big part of my fun territory when growing up. For example: Having been born with a club foot (long since mostly corrected), I regularly attended a clinic in Somerville, N.J. Once a year the Elks Lodge in my nearby town of Bound Brook would lay on a trip for clinic patients at a Jersey shore entertainment locale and treat everyone all day to a treasure trove of rides and all the food we could consume. I recall a big banner on our bus one year that said “Annual Labor Day Crippled Kiddies Outing.” Can you imagine a politically incorrect sign like that today? But who cared then?

“The Amusement Park” covers more attractions throughout the United States than I could possibly cite here, including at World Fairs. There is special emphasis on the important onrush of amusement park development in the 19th century, and how proliferation followed along through the 20th century and now in the 21st.

Hats off to Silverman for having the vision to take amusement parks as a unique subject for a book and entertainingly amass evidence to show what a major role they have played—and are still playing-- in lives in many parts of the world. Reviewed August 26, 2019.

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2019  Send This Review to a Friend

Thirty-five films from 29 countries are included in this year’s 48th annual New Films/New Directors series (March 27-April 7) presented by the Museum of Modern Art and he Film Society of Lincoln Center. A sampling was selected for previewing to the press in advance of the event.

Of those, there is only one about which I am completely enthusiastic. That is the American film “Clemency,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu, which arrives with the credential of having won the Jury Prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is a wrenching drama dealing with capital punishment from a two-pronged perspective.

Alfre Woodard gives a memorable, deeply felt performance as Bernadine, a prison warden who has been overseeing executions on death row in an unidentified state. First, it is unusual to have an African-American woman warden in a prison yarn. This one is told from the perspective of both the warden and a prisoner who is scheduled to die for a crime he insists he did not commit. The film is more concerned with the issue of capital punishment than with the alleged crime itself or the guilt or innocence question. Anthony (Aldis Hodge) has admitted taking part in a robbery but denies having fired the gun that led to a fatality.

“Clemency” opens with a harrowing botched execution in which a condemned man suffers greatly before he can be pronounced dead. Bernadine is sickened by it, and has become increasingly upset with the responsibility of putting people to death. However, she is committed to work scrupulously by the book and do her job professionally no matter what.

The drama intensifies when Bernadine becomes closer to Anthony, the next prisoner set to be killed. He is given a powerful performance by Hodge, who veers from stoicism to an attempt at suicide. One becomes deeply involved in Anthony’s plight in response to Hodge’s mesmerizing acting. His lawyer is desperately trying hard to save his life, and Bernadine clearly would like that to happen, but she has to go through with the execution if clemency is not granted.

The build-up is extremely intense, and there are complications, as a woman with whom Anthony has had a son comes forward to talk with him after keeping a low profile to protect the boy and herself from the stigma. Meanwhile, widespread protests have been taking place, and they are described to Anthony to make him feel that he is not alone and will at least be remembered if he is denied clemency.

While we are led to feel sympathy for Anthony, we are also induced to sympathize with Bernadine as she gets more and more upset about the idea of the state putting people to death and her role in the process. The job takes a toll on relations between her and her husband Jonathan, well-played by Wendell Pierce.

“Clemency” emerges as one of the important films of this year as capital punishment is increasingly debated, as evidenced, for example, by the temporary moratorium on executions declared by the governor of California. The film is extremely well done and lands like a punch in the gut.

I somewhat like “Genesis,” a Canadian film by Philippe Lesage that examines the lives of young people experiencing the pangs of growing up and forging relationships. Part occurs in a boys’ boarding school in which there are cruel complications.

A portion involves students at a Quebec summer camp, and there is an especially tender scene between a boy and girl silently expressing affection for one another. Lesage is observant in following characters who reflect various personality characteristics and surveying them in defining situations.

“Monos,” directed by Alejandro Landes, seemingly inspired by “Lord of the Flies” and taking place in the jungle of an unnamed South American country, is an ambitious attempt to follow young rebels in their battle for survival. However, the group is such an oddball entourage that one is hard-pressed to be sympathetic.

A captured American woman engineer escapes and is hunted down. Despite harsh training by the group’s leader, the youths are ill-equipped for the challenges they encounter, and one knows matters will not end well.

“MS Slavic 7,” directed by Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell, has an interesting premise, but is more suited to an essay than the static film that emerges. The story involves a young woman (Campbell), who is executor of her great-grandmother’s estate. She goes to Harvard to research correspondence between her great-grandmother, who was a Polish poet, and another poet suspected of being her lover.

Much of the film is occupied with letters, as well as with rights of their ownership, and while the subject is worth exploring, it is hard to create a strong film out of correspondence and the scholarly pursuit of the truth.

“Bait,” directed by Mark Jenkin, is a British film set in a Cornish fishing village. It follows characters and their relationships, as well as the effect of tourists on the locality. The story is less interesting than Jenkin’s method of shooting. He uses 16mm black and white and has a mania for shooting objects in close-ups.

Thus Jenkin treats objects as importantly as faces, sometimes seemingly more so, and there is an endless pattern of zeroing on in things. Enough already. But the style is surely distinctive.

The most exasperating film screened in advance is “Present.Perfect,” director Shengze Zhu’s exploration of live streaming that has taken hold in China and brought fame to participants. Most of those babbling away into the camera are utterly boring, whether a woman factory worker, a street dancer or a young man who utters a stream of nonsense.

The one interesting person is a malformed man with a great face who has interesting things to say and shows intelligence above some of the others. The film was constructed from some 800 hours of footage, and running a little over two hours, the barrage mostly tries one’s patience.

“Manta Ray,” set in Thailand and directed by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, is a delicate story of a friendship between a fisherman and the man he rescues from a swamp, a refugee who is mute. Although the film can seem long, there is an underlying feeling of a bond that can develop between people, and we follow what happens in the wake of tragedy.

“End of the Century,” an Argentine film directed by Lucio Castro, is primarily a gay relationship story. It is marked by absorbing conversation when two men, one who is Spanish and the other from Berlin, get together while in Barcelona. The dialogue is interesting, the sex provocative. The director flips back and forth in time as the film examines what happens in the future, not only with respect to the men, but concerning a woman as well. At the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street. Posted March 28, 2019.


Terry Gilliam is not a man to give up easily. Thirty years ago he first had a vision to make a film inspired by the Don Quixote story by Miguel de Cervantes. It wasn’t until 1998 that the money was raised to get started, but the production ran into problems. Now, his “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” has been completed and is scheduled to open April 19 presented by Alacran Pictures.

Gilliam, first known for his being part of the Monty Pythons, subsequently battled persistently through an array of casting problems, legal fights and other obstacles that would discourage a director with less resolve.

In 2002 I reviewed a film that was called “Lost in La Mancha” a documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe that detailed the downfall of the attempt to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” I wrote: “This is an engrossing account, blow by blow, of what happed to derail the film that was loosely based on the classic by Cervantes. The weather, problems with Illness, insurance and financing proved to be insurmountable. A key ingredient was the illness of star Jean Rochefort, the distinguished French actor signed to play the Don Quixote character, with Johnny Depp as co-star. The time of Rochefort’s absence became longer and longer and the delays caused complication after complication.”

The obituary was premature. Gilliam eventually bounced back and now, here we are with a completed film that played at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Audiences here will finally get a chance to evaluate Gilliam’s vision and see what he has finally achieved. Gilliam wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni.

The film involves Toby, a former film student who had made a film inspired by the story of Don Quixote in a Spanish village, Now, no longer the idealistic student, he is a very commercial director who makes advertising films. Upon returning to the village, he discovers that the man who played Quixote is now elderly and really believes he is Quixote. He is played by Jonathan Pryce. Toby is portrayed by Adam Driver.

Gilliam has elaborated in production notes about the film: “Now, the project is about films and filmmaking and what films do to people who are involved in the making of them. Our ad man has been transformed into someone who had made a student film, ten years previously in a little village in Spain. When he comes back to that village, thinking it’s going to be wonderful and as fabulous as when he was working there, he finds that most of the people in the village don’t like him. He has destroyed lives.”

This is a complex story with an action-filled plot. Gilliam has created an imaginative production. It includes clashes, sexuality, colorful characters and relationships. The film was shot in locations across Spain, Portugal and the Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

Gillian has further stated: “I had begun work on ‘Don Quixote’ in 1989, and despite the many obstacles, I was thrilled that, 400 years after the death fo Cervantes, my project was now in production. Don Quixote is a dreamer, an idealist and a romantic, determined not to accept the limitations of reality, marching regardless of setbacks, as we have done. I have found in Spain and Portugal all my dreamed places and, at long last, I am bringing the story of The Knight of the Mournful Countenance to a contemporary audience.”

Gilliam has a long list of credits. Films he has directed include “Brazil,” “Time Bandits,” “Jabberwocky,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “The Fisher King,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He is, of course, especially remembered as one of the Monty Pythons. He co-directed “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with Terry Jones, and for Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” he was production designer, actor, writer an animator.

He has been nominated for various awards, including Oscars. Probably a new award should be created for Gilliam: The Determination Prize. Posted March 25, 2019.


In addition to the sexy spreads in his Playboy Magazine, the late Hugh Heffner had a side of him that led to articles in Playboy by major writers about important subjects and a dedication to fighting for liberal causes. Hefner at specially interesting moments was on display in his television shows “Playboy Penthouse” (season 1959-1960) and “Playboy After Dark” (seasons 1968-1970). Now, thanks to the entertaining new documentary: “Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America,” you can get to see amazing clips from those shows involving top performers of the time.

The film, directed by Canadian director-producer Brigitte Berman (she is originally from Germany) from a script she wrote with her co-producer, her late husband Victor Solnicki, is being shown in New York, as part of the annual series that Telefilm Canada is presenting at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, to reflect the independent spirit of Canadian cinema. (Berman’s film can be seen on Friday March 8, at 7 p.m.) Berman has made more than 100 documentaries during her career.

Hefner’s informal living-room style programs featured “drop-in” guests on a racially well-integrated basis that was unique in TV at the time. Some southern stations wouldn’t carry the shows. You can have the pleasure of viewing clips from performances by such stars as Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Pete Seeger, Josh White, James Brown, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Sammy Davis, Jr., Moms Mabley, Linda Ronstadt, Steppenwolf, Tony Bennett and various others. What’s fascinating is you get to see what they were like way back then.

Some of those still alive are interviewed for comments. There are also contemporary comments by Bill Maher and Whoopi Goldberg, for example. There is a narration by Tom Wilson.

While the special pleasure lies in seeing those clips, one finds that Berman has much more on her mind than excavation. She sees the Hefner shows as tied in with the need to spotlight important issues of today. Hefner’s desire to speak out is catapulted into today’s urgencies, some of which, such as battles for racial equality, still are pertinent and make headlines.

The political points scored in the latter part of the film can at times get somewhat repetitious, but they are certainly central to the film’s main thesis, as reflected in the title.

The greatest pleasures come from seeing all of the entertainers turning up to chat with Hefner and give examples of their talent. It is as if we are watching parts of a variety show. An excellent job was done finding the clips and putting them together. Berman previously directed “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” (See Search for review) when Hefner was alive. He made an appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I first saw that film (Hefner died in 2017). Berman’s valuable latest opens a fresh window on the television contributions he made as part of his legacy. At IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue. Reviewed March 4, 2019.


It’s that time of year again for the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance (February 28-March 10). A select group of those being screened was shown to the press in advance, and among those I found some that were excellent.

My favorite is “Mademoiselle de Jonquières,” a sophisticated drama based on Denis Diderot’s “Jacques the Fatalist” and impeccably directed by Emmanuel Mouret. The film stars the wonderful Cécile de France as the widowed Madame de La Pomeraye, who prides herself on not being swept away by seductive men with less than honorable intentions.

Along comes Edouard Baer as the Marquis, known for his winning the hearts of women and then dropping them. Madame and the Marquis become just friends, but slowly and surely he ingratiates himself while cautiously keeping any distance from romance. Madame takes his behavior as an indication that he is really a sincere fellow, at least as far as his relationship with her is concerned. Of course, she falls for him, but soon there are signs of his being away too long, and when she tests him by telling him that she has lost her passion for him, this leads him, now feeling free, to make a similar confession with regard to her.

Now Madame plots an intricate course of pure vengeance. She sets him up with a plan she makes with a needy mother and a daughter who worked at a brothel. The daughter poses as a religious novice too committed to God to have a relationship with a man. As you can imagine, the Marquis becomes obsessed with the desire to have her.

How all of this is carried to the extreme in Madame’s ultra-devious plotting makes for some very entertaining viewing as one follows the scheme step by step. The dialogue is extremely witty, the acting excellent. What will happen in the relationships? There is a scene with the look that Cecile de France manages to give her character at the ending that reveals so much.

The tone of the film is just right throughout, and those who enjoy sophistication in movie-going should have a good time at this film that deserves a commercial showing in art theaters here.

My second favorite is “Amanda,” directed by Mikhaël Hers. The film involves a close and supportive brother and sister relationship, with the sister raising a seven-year-old daughter on her own. Vincent Lacoste plays David, who is young and trying to get his life together. Ophélia Kolb plays the sister, who is full of spirit and a very warm person.

Life is suddenly torn asunder when the sister is one of those killed in a terrorist attack in a park where she is picnicking. A young woman, played by Stacy Martin, a pianist with whom David is in a tentative relationship, has had her hand severely injured in the attack, rending her unable to pursue her piano playing.

What is David to do? He is not only faced with telling Amanda what happened to her mother, but he is faced with the decision of whether to place Amanda elsewhere or try to raise her while sorting out his own life.

What makes this film work especially well in addition to the relationship forged between David and Amanda is the performance of Isaure Multrier as Amanda. Her face was made for the camera, and she is a stunningly impressive in the role. One feels for her every step of the way, from the emotional shock of losing her mother to her emerging anger and rebellion, and then to steps toward her having to accept what happened and move on. This heartfelt drama makes one stop and think about the fate of so many victims and families who have had lives shattered by terrorism.

Another film to be recommended is “Invisibles,” directed by Louis-Julien Petit, which is important, emotional and also entertaining in examining the lot of homeless women in the face of bureaucracy and insensitivity.

Women with a conscience and a sense of dedication are running a shelter for the homeless in need of food and a place to stay. The operation is illegal but the do-gooders are determined to not only keep helping in the face of a decreed shutdown. They insist on continuing their efforts to train the women to be able to get jobs.

An excellent collection of cast members play all of the diverse characters, from the homeless to their would-be rescuers. We get to know their strengths and quirks and root for success in aiding the victims of society. The film’s viewpoint can have the effect of insisting on our taking a look at the homeless around us, and wondering about the back stories of such persons whom we pass on our streets.

Obviously the programmers thought highly of “The Trouble with You,” directed by Pierre Savadori, because they chose it for opening night. I find it pretty silly and far-fetched. Adèle Haenel plays Yvonne, who reads bedtime stories about her late husband to their child glorifying his exploits as a police investigator. Flashbacks keep showing wham bam action sequences in which, in comic book style, Vincent Elbaz as the husband and father dispatches his criminal adversaries.

But what happens when Yvonne, herself a cop, discovers from a colleague that her husband, instead of being a hero lionized by a statue in a public square, was a crooked guy involved in robbery kickbacks? She is especially distraught that an innocent man is imprisoned as a result of trumped up charges, and sets out to make things right. Add romantic complications.

The film’s method is broad comedy, but it becomes more frenetic and outrageous than funny, and thus leaves the impression of people working extra hard to breathe life into material that was flimsy to begin with.

A better film is “Maya,” directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, which focuses on French war reporter Gabriel, played by Roman Kolinka, when he is released after having spent time after being taken as a hostage while covering fighting in Syria. He has clearly been deeply shaken by his hostage experience and what he went through, and he needs to find ways to get back to normal.

What promises to be about what can happen to hostages who gain freedom eventually turns into a less interesting love story. Gabriel, who spent his childhood in Goa, travels there, where he is attracted to the young Maya (Aarshi Banerjee), the daughter of his godfather. He is not seeking a relationship but Maya, who had been going to school in London, finds him attractive as older and worldly.

A relationship develops between them, but Gabriel has journalism and his profession as a war correspondent deeply ingrained in him and in the process of healing he still finds himself longing to get back to covering battlefronts. Director Hansen-Løve adds spice to the film by providing us with intriguing India settings. But the film’s veer toward romance undercuts what might have been a more meaningful story.

“School’s Out,” directed by Sébastien Marnier, addresses the need to save the environment, but its plot is most peculiar. It starts with the early suicide of a teacher, and then proceeds to dramatize students who needle a new substitute teacher, Pierre Hoffman, played by Laurent Lafitte, upset by the challenge from the youths.

They prove to be an unruly and defiant lot with a penchant for what seems to be bullying a lad and other displays of violent behavior. They are engaged in secret activities, and Hoffman begins to try to track what they are doing after class. It turns out that they are poised to take guerilla action against industrial pollution.

That’s a neat idea, but where the film falls down is in making the youths a sort of obnoxious cult instead of just committed commandos. Why must they be such weirdos?

What are we to make of “Paul Sanchez Is Back!”, directed by Patricia Mazuy? Sanchez, a murderer on the loose who disappeared ten years ago in confounding the police, has been legendary in a local area. Suddenly a man appears, sending messages that he is Paul Sanchez. There are doubts.

Young, inexperienced cop Marion, played Zita Hanrot, is intrigued and wants to find out if the rumor is true. Of course, we meet the man claiming to be Sanchez, and a complex plot is set in motion, involving intrigue, danger, confrontations, doubts, violence—you name it—as Marion goes her merry way, manipulating older cops into following her theories and course of action.

What is the truth? Is he really Sanchez, or some guy who has a motive for wanting people to think he is Sanchez? How much you to enjoy the film will depend largely on how much of the plot and events you are willing to swallow.

The Rendez-Vous series includes many other films and various talks and events, all adding up to the opportunity to learn what’s happening in the world of French cinema. At the Walter Reade Theater (unless otherwise noted), 165 West 65th Street. For further information and tickets: Reviewed March 2, 2019.

TRUMPTY DUMPTY  Send This Review to a Friend


Trumpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Trumpty Dumpty had a great fall,

All of the Republican women and men,

Couldn’t put Trumpty together again.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--COLD WAR  Send This Review to a Friend

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is a very hot movie. (See my Best Ten films of 2018 list.) Inspired by the lives of his late parents, he has created a turbulent love story that rages on both sides of the iron curtain. Exquisitely filmed in realistic black and white, “Cold War” is rich in visual atmosphere as it dramatizes the opposing political realms under which the lovers maneuver in their on-again, off-again relationship. The film, shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival, is now going into commercial release.

Handsome Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor, a pianist for a Polish folk song troupe. (The film’s score is a major plus.) He is rapidly smitten by a beautiful singer, Zula, portrayed by the captivating Joanna Kulig. She is clearly manipulative in figuring out a way to be in the forefront of an audition. How can Wiktor resist? There is resentment on the part of an older woman colleague who recognizes what is happening as Zula catapults into a starring presence in the choir. Troupe manager Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), also attracted to Zula, is extremely jealous.

A love affair between Wiktor and Zula blossoms and deepens. But there is increasing pressure on the folk company to inject more Stalinist propaganda into its programs. (Kaczmarek knuckles under as a cooperative fuctionary.) Having to conform gets to a point that Wiktor cannot stand and he plans an escape to the West. Zula pledges to go with him. But she doesn’t show up at the rendezvous, and he takes off on his own.

There begins a period of longings and reconnections, Wiktor plays piano at a jazz club in Paris, and you know that Zula will eventually turn up. But working out a life together is fraught with complications.

A driving underlying force is Zula’s feeling for her homeland despite all, and Wiktor feels that too. The film indicates how unsettling it is to leave one’s roots behind, as many emigrants have discovered. For all that is politically problematical, Poland still has a strong pull on both, even with Wiktor in danger if he returns.

Zula shows her love for Wiktor when he is imprisoned… but no further spoilers here. The film surges to an ending that is at one beautifully romantic but ultimately deeply upsetting as it achieves a well-rounded finale consistent with all that has gone before, even though one might wish for a different outcome.

It is no wonder that “Cold War” has been collecting awards. If you want to be sure not to miss one of the year’s best films, put “Cold War” on your must see list. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed Dec. 20, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--HAPPY AS LAZZARO  Send This Review to a Friend

A film that starts in the tradition of Italian neo-realism, “Happy as Lazzaro,” which was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and now goes into commercial release, veers into a highly imaginative mode that escalates its creativity and establishes the work from Italy as among the year’s best. It stands as an important social commentary on class differences and exploitation. In addition, there is an implicit Biblical reference.

Alice Rohrwacher has done a superb job of direction from her screenplay, and she has as her leading actor the non-professional Adriano Tardiolo giving a riveting and deeply sympathetic performance in the title role of a young man with an ethereal screen-worthy face. The film is set in the past, with Lazzaro willing to cheerfully take on any task demanded of him in the community of tobacco farm workers exploited by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi). The men and women are treated as serf-like sharecroppers.

The story is inspired by a 1980s case of a rich noblewoman, who became known as the tobacco queen and similarly exploited workers who had been cruelly kept ignorant of the fact that such sharecropping had been outlawed. The film details the daily lives of the characters under the Marchesa’s rule until they are rescued when officials discover the illegal abuse.

Before that plot development, we see the Marchesa’s layabout son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), making a friend of the impressionable Lazzaro, whom he personally exploits. Lazzaro thinks this is a sincere friendship. Eventually (spoiler here) tragedy strikes as Lazzaro tumbles to his death from a high cliff.

Anyone familiar with the Biblical story of Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raises from the dead, can make the film’s connection as it jumps to the present when Lazzraro appears looking exactly as he did in his youth, much to the amazement of those who, now older, encounter him and are flabbergasted.

The film, rich in imagination, takes on a new dimension. Some of those freed from their lot as sharecroppers now are scrounging for a living in various ways. The Marchesa, having been exposed, is reduced to poverty. Lazzaro encounters the older Tancredi (now played by Tommaso Ragno) and a bizarre episode unfolds, demonstrating the moral superiority of those who had been the sharecroppers.

Rohrwacher’s film rises to become very special in its religion-tinged allegorical outcome. Scene after scene is superbly photographed (cinematography by Hélène Louvart). Perhaps the film could be trimmed a bit, but “Happy as Lazzaro” emerges as a film that may haunt your memory and engender special respect for this rare accomplishment. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 28, 2018.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2018--ROMA  Send This Review to a Friend

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has searched into his own life to create “Roma,” his film set in the early 1970s in Mexico City, showcased as the centerpiece of the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. It is both an intimate story and a look at the larger picture of society, within which the lives of a middle-class family and its devoted nanny and housekeeper unfold.

Central to the story, which is filmed impressively in black and white (the director was also the cinematographer) with all the realistic advantages the style communicates, is Yalitza Aparicio in the role as the dedicated Cleo. Remarkably, given her deeply sympathetic performance, Aparicio is not a professional actress. Cleo looks after a family, consisting of Sofia, the mother (Marina de Tavira), four children (three boys and a girl) and their grandmother. We briefly meet the unfaithful father, who goes off on a business trip with another activity in mind. There is also the important family cook, Adela (Nancy Garcia), who is very close to Cleo in friendship as well is in work.

There is special poignancy in Cleo’s relationship with the children, who are a handful, and one harrowing scene at the beach emphasizes how much Cleo cares for them. She works for modest wages, but when she gets into trouble, help is provided.

The trouble arrives when she finds herself pregnant after an encounter with a lout who refuses to have anything to do with her when she confronts him and says it is his child. Aparicio’s understated performance is what holds the film together even though we also become involved in the other characters.

Cuarón makes a point of stressing life in Mexico City, starkly dramatized by including shots of a major controversial event, a protest demonstration by students brutally confronted by rampaging police—an episode in 1971 called the Corpus Christi Massacre. The director handles this by showing what is happening from the viewpoint of Cleo and the grandmother who observe the demonstration and the police attack.

Thus we do not get just an isolated portrait of the family for whom Cleo works and its daily lifestyle and crises, but also the director’s take on the Mexico City he knows. All is surveyed masterfully in human terms via the story, casting, involving performances and direction, a combination that results in a major film of the year. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 21, 2018.


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