Our critic’s three can’t-miss movies for January

Two of the movies that Monitor film critic Peter Rainer enjoyed are a film about love against the backdrop of postwar Poland and a biopic about 'Stan & Ollie,' otherwise known as legendary screen duo Laurel and Hardy.

Amazon Studios/AP
Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig star in 'Cold War.'

A few movies caught Monitor film critic Peter Rainer's attention this month, including "Stan & Ollie," a film about screen duo Laurel and Hardy, and a documentary about young skateboarders.

Artists suffer under communism in ‘Cold War’

Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film, “Cold War,” which he co-wrote with Piotr Borkowski and Janusz Glowacki and which is a nominee for the Oscar for best foreign language film (Pawlikowski also earned a nod for best director), is dramatized in short narrative bursts over a period of 15 years, ranging across Poland, Germany, France, and Yugoslavia. It’s a movie that seems always in the process of finding itself. 

The film opens in 1949 as Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a music conductor and pianist, is heading a team tasked with chronicling authentic regional Polish songs and dances among the peasantry. While holding auditions for a choral and dance performance, he is struck by the effrontery and sheer beauty of the teenage Zula (Joanna Kulig), who soon becomes not only the emerging troupe’s star but his lover, though she is at least 10 years his junior. The stage is thus set for an incendiary, star-crossed romance between temperamental opposites. What saves the movie is the rude, dynamic force of Kulig’s performance. Without ever sacrificing her own singularity, Kulig is like a crammed compendium of movie femmes fatales.

To his credit, Pawlikowski makes it clear that Wiktor and Zula’s problems are as much personal as political. It’s likely that in any era, these two would make a warring, combustible combo. Still, granting this psychological complexity, what struck home the most forcefully for me in “Cold War” is its depiction, insidious and unrelenting, of how artists under communism suffered for their art. At its best, the film is like a bulletin from a benighted world. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some sexual content, nudity, and language.)

‘Minding the Gap’: Boys battle chaos with skateboarding

In the Oscar-nominated documentary “Minding the Gap," skateboarding is more than just a lark for teenagers Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and Bing Liu. It’s a way of escaping from the extreme difficulties of their lives. Liu, whose first feature film this is, has stated that he doesn’t want people to perceive it as yet another skateboarding documentary. He needn’t have worried. 

For the three boys, skateboarding clearly functions as a stay, however momentary, against chaos. (One of the skateboards has the inscription “This device cures heartache.”) And because of this, the gliding, swooping skateboarding sequences often carry a sense of liberation that is both kinesthetically and emotionally powerful.

Liu expends most of the film’s screen time on Keire and Zack. The ambition of “Minding the Gap” – a full-scale portrait of abuse and forgiveness – is a bit beyond the reach of Liu. It may be that only a dramatic film artist could have done justice to this subject. But as a piece of cinematic self-therapy, fragmented though it is, it has few rivals. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)

‘Stan & Ollie’ pays tribute to classic comedy team

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made up the greatest comedy duo in film history, and one of the nice things about “Stan & Ollie” is that it will prompt audiences who have never seen their movies to discover them. But the film is much more than a mere memory jog. Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Jeff Pope, it’s a rueful and respectful tribute that stands on its own because of the extraordinary performances of Steve Coogan as Stan and John C. Reilly as Ollie. 

A brief, bitter split between the two is presaged before the film cuts to 1953 when, reunited, their movie careers very much on the wane, they undertake a tour of outlying British music halls hoping that the renewed attention will secure financing for a new movie project: a comedic version of “Robin Hood” that Stan is writing. “Stan & Ollie” mines the dissension between the men, but what makes the movie more than just a revisionist exercise is that it also shows, without undue sentimentality, the love that bound these two men together.

This double-edged approach would not have been possible without the deep understanding and conviction – the deep regard – that Coogan and Reilly have for their characters. Coogan gets to the quick of Stan’s despondency and resilience. Reilly, fitted with extra jowls and padding, is equally strong as Ollie.

I wish the film had been written and directed with a bit more verve. It’s revivifying when the pair’s wives turn up – Shirley Henderson’s Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda’s Ida Kitaeva Laurel, both excellent – but the film could have employed them for more than momentary comic relief. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for some language and smoking.)

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