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Review Round-Up: “Capernaum”, “Cold War”, and “The Quake”

For the first of two review round-ups to tackle this week, we’ve got a foreign film threesome to dive into! It’s also a bit of catching up, as two titles have opened already this past weekend. The trio here today happens to be the Lebanese outing Capernaum, the Polish film Cold War, and the Norwegian flick The Quake. These movies each offer something very different, though each do their jobs quite well. All three get the thumbs up from me today, to different degrees, but they’re each quality outings. Tomorrow will be a more mixed, if higher profile, bag, so stay tuned for that. For now though, we can dive into these three foreign titles…

Here we go:


To make an “issue film” is to proclaim that you have something to say. The danger here is that, sometimes, a movie can come off as preachy. Luckily, the Oscar hopeful foreign flick Capernaum never falls into that trap. Co-writer/director Nadine Labaki has such a deep well of empathy for the plight of children caught in conflict that it’s impossible not to be moved by it all. Ever since the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Capernaum has been building Academy Award buzz. Not just in Best Foreign Language Feature either (more on that later), but in a broader sense too. This one has got the goods.

The movie is a Lebanese drama about the struggles of young boy. When we meet 12 year old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), he’s in the middle of serving a prison sentence for a violent crime. At the same time, he’s suing his parents for what he claims is the crime of being born. While he explains this to a judge, along with his parents telling their story, we flash back to see his many hardships. He quickly goes from being a boy into a man, all too soon. Various moments see him surviving on the streets with nothing but his brain and desire to survive, as well as his interactions with the Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her little baby boy Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). We’ll also see how he wound up in the courtroom, all the while wondering how things could have come to this. Nadine Labaki directs and co-writes with Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Keserwany, Georges Khabbaz, and Khaled Mouzanar (the latter also composed the score). Supporting players include Kawthar Al Haddad, Nour el Husseini, Cedra Izam, Fadi Kamel Youssef, and more. Cinematography here is done by Christopher Aoun.

This film moves you in a really deep way. Filmmaker Nadine Labaki cast nonprofessional actors and actors, let them improv, and really allowed life to find a way here. Her direction is intimate and intense, through and through. She has a real find, acting wise, in Zain Al Rafeea, who is our entry point into the flick. Without Al Rafeea, it’s arguable that Labaki wouldn’t have been able to fully pull this off. Occasionally, things get cliched, but by and large, it all feels essential, immediate, and real. Kudos to Labaki for going out there and bringing this story to us.

Capernaum is going to be nominated for an Oscar in Best Foreign Language Feature. Mark it down. It even could be looked at as a dark horse contender in Best Picture, Best Director (for Labaki), and Best Original Screenplay (for Hojeily, Labaki, Keserwany, Khabbaz, and Mouzanar). If nothing else, it’s one of the main alternatives to Roma in Foreign Language Feature (along with the next film we’re reviewing today). If you’re someone with empathy at all, this movie will move you. Credit to Labaki for making such an immediate feeling flick. It’s out now in theaters and well worth seeking out.

Cold War

Anyone who claims that this is the “other” black and white foreign movie in 2018 is selling it way short. Cold War is an old fashioned romantic drama that does something truly amazing. Filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is able to tell this story in under 90 minutes. Yes, this film is only 88 minutes long. Especially when, like me, you saw this in a film festival environment, that’s an extra bit of appreciation. Beyond convenience, it’s just wonderful to see Pawlikowski able to tell an un-compromised tale in that amount of time. Bravo. Obviously, this is destined to be compared to Roma, but that’s an unfair comparison. Spoiler alert though…I prefer this.

In many ways, this is a very traditional Romeo and Juliet type love story. Set in the 1950s, during, you guessed it, the Cold War, the film is a period drama that follows a couple in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris, as they deal with essentially an impossible situation. Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) is a musical director who, during auditions one day, stumbles upon young singer Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig). Immediately smitten, he finds her to be a strong willed presence, one he can’t shake over the years. The less said, the better, as there are surprises in store. Pawil Pawlikowski co-writes with Piotr Borkowski and Janusz Glowacki, as well as directs. Supporting players include Agata Kulesza, Borys Szyc, and more. Previous Oscar nominee (for Ida, which was another Pawlikowski collaboration) Lukasz Zal provides the cinematography.

Watching the film is a hypnotic experience. Part of that is surely due to the star power of Joanna Kulig, who Pawlikowski gives a luscious showcase to. She’s effervescent and a superstar in the making. Whenever she’s not on screen, the movie takes a step down, no offense to Tomasz Kot, who’s also very good. Pawlikowski knows that Kulig is the focus, centering his amazing Lukasz Zal cinematography often on her. The combination of Kulig, Pawlikowsi, and Zal is hard to beat. Hopefully the trio continue to work together. The three are capable of bringing out the best in each other.

Beyond just being a foreign contender, Cold War has a chance to really make an impact with Oscar voters. Amazon’s campaign is rightly centered on Best Picture, Best Director (for Pawlikowski), Best Actress (for Kulig), Best Original Screenplay (for Borkowski, Glowacki, and Pawlikowski), Best Cinematography, and, of course, Best Foreign Language Feature. Already a shortlisted finalist for Foreign Language Feature, this film is a real dark horse for a Director nomination too. Many pundits have noted that Pawlikowski has some industry support, and when I update predictions on Friday, you’ll see where I have him ranked now. Watch out for him in that category, for sure.

Cold War is a flick that stays with you. Between this, the just mentioned Capernaum, and the ever present Roma, the year is a banner one for foreign cinema. A strong case can be made, by yours truly at least, that Cold War is the best of the bunch too. Whether it pulls the Academy Award upset or not, this is cinema that demands your attention. At under 90 minutes as well, there is literally no excuse not to go check this one out. Once you do, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. Feel free to thank me at a later date…

The Quake

If you saw The Wave a few years back, you saw a little Norwegian outing manage to do what too few disaster pictures do these days: tell an effective story on a reasonable level. While never skimping on the main special effect, it was more about the characters, along with tension. Now, a sequel in The Quake comes to continue the story, with a new natural disaster headed Oslo’s way. Though not the surprise delight that the last one is, this flick is still fun and easy to enjoy. It’s very much a throwback kind go thing, and meant to be so.

The film is a disaster epic, told on a scale that’s oddly both big and small. The set up is the following plot description from IMDb: “In 1904 an earthquake of magnitude 5.4 on the Richter scale shook Oslo, with an epicenter in the “Oslo Graben” which runs under the Norwegian capital. There are now signs that indicate that we can expect a major future earthquake in Oslo.” Obviously, that sets up a race against time, as Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner), our surviving protagonist from The Wave, finds himself caught up in another potentially devastating event. Scarred from that wave, he now ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time when Oslo begins cracking in half. As the government tries to prepare, Kristian must try and save not just himself, but those closest to him as well. John Andreas Andersen directs a script from John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg. In addition to Eikjord, the cast includes Ane Dahl Torp, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Kathrine Thorborg Johansen, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, and more. John Christian Rosenlund handles the cinematography, while the score comes from the pairing of Johannes Ringen and Johan Söderqvist.

There’s some fun to be had with this movie. While meant to be melodramatic, it still never feels overly serious. It’s not silly either, so the fun is in seeing this done so well. The build up to a giant earthquake can make your pulse pound, so while the scope is larger than just watching a big wave hit, it’s similarly effective in its goals. There’s a slight feeling of having been there and done that which dulls a bit of its luster, but that’s not a huge ding. It simply means this is now an interesting Norwegian franchise to take note of. If there’s another disaster coming to Oslo, count me in for it.

Anyone who dug The Wave should go for this one as well. The Quake is the most easily enjoyable foreign outing of the week, representing much lighter fare than the awards contenders. This isn’t going to compete for Academy Award love, obviously, but it’s a romp that represents a real change of pace. Keep your expectations in check to some degree, but disaster movie fans will be in for a treat, regardless. The film knows what it is and never strays away from that. You probably already know if this is for you, but if you’re on the fence, consider this a push to get you to seek it out…

All three films will have hit theaters by this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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