First Hit: This film keeps the audience engaged, although there are only about 30 speaking lines in the whole thing.

There are just a handful of movies where the actor can carry the film by themselves. It’s difficult to keep the intense drama high enough while retaining the audience’s engagement. One film that achieved this was 2013’s All is Lost with Robert Redford. In that film, he’s sailing on a boat that crashes into an errant cargo container and tries to stay alive in a sinking ship. He’s the only one in the film.

In Arctic the film opens with Overgard (Mads Mikkelsen) scraping snow away from a large SOS signal he’s made in the snow. He then checks a rig he’s prepared to catch fish through holes in the ice. He goes back to his crashed airplane. At a particular time, he gets up and goes out to a snow hill and turns a crank on a box that sends out a distress signal. After so many turns (we hear him mutter a count), he packs up the machine and heads back to the protection of the fuselage.

We don’t know how long he’s been out here, but it must be quite a while because the plane is deteriorating.

He’s very regimented because of the way he does the same schedule each day. One of the things he does each day is clean a small pile of rocks. We find out only later what this represents.

One day, just as he finishes cranking the signal device, the green light goes on, meaning someone has gotten the signal. Then a helicopter appears. However, the high wind starts tossing the aircraft around, and as it starts to fade from view, it crashes. Overgard’s hopes of being rescued are dashed.

Going to the wreckage he finds the pilot dead, and a young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) injured but alive. Watching him work to help this woman is a study in kindness, thoughtfulness, and selflessness.

Although he discovers that she doesn’t speak English, he finds a way to get her to squeeze his hand, letting him know that she’s alive and her current level of her strength.

Throughout the rest of the film, she murmurs about ten unintelligible words, at most, and the rest of the dialogue is him asking her to squeeze his hand and telling her it will be “OK.” Because he found a map of the area in the helicopter wreckage, and that the young woman is not getting any better, he decides to try to move them to an outpost that’s identified on the map.

Fighting off a polar bear, the intense elements, steep crevasses, and caverns, he makes his way towards the outpost pulling the young woman behind him.

The scenes are shot so well that I felt just as cold as they were sitting in my warm cosy seat. The intensity of the weather and the patient way Overgard stayed focused to his task was unbelievable.

Mikkelsen was amazing. His clarity of staying alive surpassed anything I think I could have dredged up from within. I believed every step of this journey. Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison wrote a fantastic screenplay. Penna must have put himself and the crew through incredible hardships to be able to film this story.

Overall: I was enthralled every step of this journey.

Cold Pursuit

First Hit: This film was a cross between a Liam Neeson Taken thriller and a black comedy using a Taken like storyline.

The film starts as a typical Liam Neeson film about him making violent amends for wrongdoing to his family.

Here as Nels Coxman (Neeson), his job is running a snow plow for the city of Kehoe Colorado, a small glitzy resort town up in the Rocky Mountains an hour or two outside of Denver. His wife Grace (Laura Dern) hangs around the house, smokes pot and has virtually no lines or involvement in this film. She disappears shortly after their son Kyle (Micheal Richardson) is found dead because of a heroin overdose.

Problem is Kyle doesn’t do drugs which Nels holds on to and determines that someone murdered his son. Because of this, he decides to find and kill the people who did this.

Starting at the bottom of the food chain, he begins with the guy who was with his son and actually set up the problem in the first place when he stole 10 kilos of cocaine from the area the kingpin Trevor ‘Viking’ Calcote (Tom Bateman). Nels, works up the food chain killing people higher up in the Viking organization.

Viking is a controlling arrogant bizarre drug dealer. He’s got a son from a former marriage who spends half of his time with him. His ex-wife is an American Indian. The importance of this is that Viking’s father made a deal with White Bull to split up the drug dealing territory.

When Viking wrongly kills White Bull’s son thinking that the son took his drugs, White Bull and his gang go after Viking.

So now the plot has Nels killing Viking’s gang, one by one, and Viking going after White Bull’s people and White Bull planning to do a significant hit on Viking’s gang for killing his son.

Convoluted? Yes, but when the director creates scenes with hang gliding Indians, hotel front desks with white fur on them, and bizarre killing scenes, one has to really wonder what the director was thinking.

I started laughing out loud at some of the audacious dialogue and strange scenes. It took a few minutes, but then others in the theater joined me in seeing the dark humor of this film.

Neeson did his best to keep the Taken guy in play for this film, but Nels is no Bryan Mills. It would have been interesting to hear the direction he got for this role; be Mills but be ready for dark humor. Dern was not used, had virtually no dialogue, and left me wondering why she even took this role unless to get paid. Bateman was OK in this over the top part. Frank Baldwin wrote an oddly constructed screenplay because of the way the actors said the lines. Hans Petter Moland had an odd vision of this film especially when the Taken series was tracked so differently.

Overall: This film was amusing, although I’m not sure that was the intention along with, intense and Neeson delivered what was expected.

Miss Bala

First Hit: Although there’s a twist at every turn, it is predictable, but has enough of a twist at the end to make it interesting.

The film begins with Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) doing makeup for some fashion models in a Los Angeles fashion show. After the show, she gets in her car and heads to Tijuana Mexico to visit a close friend, whom she considers family. Suzu’s (Cristina Rodlo) family took Gloria in when she was small, and they spent their young years together. Gloria is headed there to help Suzu get ready for the Miss Baja California contest.

To introduce Gloria to Chief Saucedo (Damian Alcazar), who has some sway over who wins the contest, Suzu takes Gloria to a nightclub. What we also learn is that Saucedo is slowly taking over all the illegal trade that goes across the U.S – Mexico border. He’s attempting to take this unlawful business away from a gang called Las Estrellas.

Las Estrellas is led by Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova). To shut down the Chief’s attempt to take over the border trade business from Lino, the Las Estrellas gang steals into the nightclub and starts to shoot it up. In the process they kidnap Suzu.

Gloria spends the rest of the film trying to find and rescue her close friend.

The storyline takes Gloria through being captured and used by the DEA, Las Estrellas, and the CIA. It is how the story weaves its way through all this that makes the film both work and not work. There’s too many tricks, story twists, and plot turns.

One thing that wasn’t very believable was the apparent age difference between Gloria and Suzu. This difference made me wonder about how they were friends when they were young. I also thought the some of the scenes were overly staged.

Rodriguez was good as an intense person who wanted to find her friend. Rodlo was OK as Gloria’s friend. Cordova was OK as the heavy leader of the gang. Alcazar was appropriately manipulative and arrogant as the crooked police chief. Anthony Mackie was OK as the undercover agent. Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer wrote an overly trick-filled screenplay. I didn’t engage with all the twists and turns. Catherine Hardwicke did a reasonable job of directing through all the storylines. 

Overall: This was an overly complicated film, and it didn’t need to be.

Capernaum (Chaos)

First Hit: This is an incredibly powerful film about the state of children and their survival in Beirut.

The tale told in this film holds up a mirror to share the reflection of what happens when ill-informed beliefs, the devastation of war, and the lack of order (chaos) creates a society not equipped to deal children born into it.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is twelve years old, but nobody knows because his parents, Souad (Kawsar Al Haddad – as the mother) and Selim (Fadi Yousef – as the father), failed to document and register Zain’s birth with the government, so he has no ID and is unknown to the government. Souad and Selim follow tradition and have lots of children, and as the oldest, Zain takes care of himself, brings home what money and food he can steal or hustle and is protective of his 11-year-old younger sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam).

He’s in court facing a judge while serving a 5-year jail sentence for stabbing a “son of a bitch.” Zain is now suing his parents. The judge asks, “Why are you attacking your parents in court?” He responds with “For giving me life.”

Hearing this from a twelve-year-old boy was heartbreaking. And from this opening moment, we delve back into how Zain ended up stabling someone and in court suing his parents for giving him life. Not only is he mistreated, the family lives in abject squalor.

We follow Zain as he tries to protect his sister Sahar when their parents attempt to sell/trade her to Assaad (Nour El Husseini), the family’s landlord for chickens. When Sahar has her period for the first time, Zain, helps her wash her pants, and folds up his own shirt to catch and absorb her menstruation. Zain doesn’t want his parents to know because then she’ll “be ripe” for sale.

Finally fed up Zain leaves his home and journeys out only to find Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) who is barely 17, has a baby named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and is illegally in Lebanon from Ethiopia. Being the incredibly responsible person he is, because she provides a place to sleep and food, he takes care of Yonas. When she gets caught by immigration and doesn’t return, what Zain does is beyond remarkable. His ability to survive, protect, and take care of this baby is impressive.

However, equally as powerful, is the way this film is shot. Extraordinary. The actors are not professional actors by trade. As in another of this year’s nominees, the film Roma, the roles are filled with everyday people. Screenwriter and Director Nadine Labaki elicited sublime performances from everyone, even the baby. Her camera angles were not looking down on the children but making their view of the world the primary focus. The sound, especially at the beginning, has a deep rumble as if bombs are still exploding in the far distant background. This noise added an edge to the film that haunted me. Lastly, the camera work, including the movement, was excellent.

Rafeea as the boy Zain was beyond amazing. The look in his eyes, the sad face, and his evident intensity to do what it takes to survive were ever present. Shiferaw as the Ethiopian mother of Yonas was divine. I loved how she was able to navigate and figure out how to survive while continually being aware she needed to get papers to stay in the country. Bankole, the baby - Yonas, was perfect. Haddad and Yousef as Zain’s mom and dad respectively, were powerful components of this film’s intensity. Izzam was sweet as the sister. Labaki wrote an extraordinary screenplay that highlighted the plight of children in this war-torn city. Her ability to envision and capture the deep mistrust children have of the world around them, and their ability to continue fighting was terrific.

Overall: If this film were up for the Best Picture award, it would be a great choice.

Cold War (Zimma wojna)

First Hit: I liked the quality of sets, the black and white photography, and the feel they gave for the time this film covers.

I like good period pieces, and the timing of this story is smack dab in my childhood days. Although it begins before my birth, in the 1940s, it moves through into two additional decades in Poland, Russia, and France.

The feel of the stage shows, the night clubs, and the music really stood out for me. The oppression of the Polish and Russian governments are what the characters played against in choosing their path and livelihoods.

The story is about a Zula (Joanna Kulig) who finds herself auditioning to become one of the state-sponsored singers in a Polish youth group.

The beginning is touching in that a small team of people is combing the countryside looking for authentic voices to sing traditional songs. We follow them as they record these untrained voices in their homes and the fields.

Zula is not one of these country voices. We learn that she has been recently released from jail because she took a knife to her father. And paraphrasing her words when she speaks to Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), one of the school’s music teachers, about why she was in jail; he was mistaking me for my mother, so I took a knife to him to remind him of this.

This statement along with the way Zula teams with another girl to sing a traditional song shows something about her will to survive and the myriad of ways she’ll do it.

Wiktor is the pianist for the music dance school and is impressed with Zula, her voice, and mostly her extra special something. He supports choosing Zula to become part of the stage act. He’s also attracted to her and begins to fall for her romantically. She, in turn, during a walk in the countryside, falls for him as well and here begins their love story for the next twenty or so years.

The film then shows how the stage show moved from being a taste of traditional Poland to a tool used by Stalin and the Polish quasi-government to promote communism. Wiktor cannot take it and decides to defect to France where he can use his musical talents in arranging and musicianship to make a living. He hopes that Zula goes with him.

However, she’s playing it safe and stays with the group but they both pine for each other.

Their love, how they meet up multiple times throughout the film, and the inability to keep their love alive is what this film is about. The oppressiveness of the Cold War is the backdrop for the challenges Zula and Wiktor navigate to stay together.

What didn’t work for me in this film was the editing. Scenes end abruptly, and a new scene begins with little context. It isn’t that the scenes are not within the scope of the film, it was the harsh and jarring way it was cut from one to another.

Kulig was excellent as the strong, apparently aiming to survive, girl/woman who loved Wiktor more than anything because he supported her. Her passion for him on the screen was palpable. Kot as Wiktor was outstanding. His performance as a musician was perfect. I fully believed him as a pianist and his love for Zula. Borys Szyc as Kaczmarek the promoter who was always looking for the angle while being politically on the side that was winning was perfect. He carried the right look and feel for the role. Paweł Pawlikowski wrote and directed this film. As I mentioned, I didn’t like the scene edits, but the writing and overall look and feel to the film was outstanding.

Overall: I can see what this was an Academy Award nominated foreign film from Poland.