Silence tells the story in ‘Ida’

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The alarming precision of nuns singing chromatically descending chants.

The hollow, circular depression of earth on the grounds of the convent where a life-size statue of Jesus stands, and where Ida paces restlessly.

The hermetic insularity of these images and sounds are what give “Ida” its incisive narrative force. Despite its circular and deceptively simple storytelling, the film conveys an awesome transformation within its main character Ida, (or Anna, her Christian name), a young novitiate about to take her vows who discovers she is Jewish.

Ida’s story is one of many, a single thread in a web woven from the aftermath of the Holocaust. Despite its historical context, Richard Brody, in his controversial review in The New Yorker, asserts that “Ida” is fraudulent, vague, and distasteful. Mr. Brody argues that because “Ida” is non-specific to any particular event related to Jews and the Holocaust, it sacrifices truth in favor of director Pawel Pawlikowski’s own version of history: “It filters out all supposedly extraneous context to stick not merely to the story but to Pawlikowski historical point…..nothing in the film is a solid thing or an action; everything is an example.” Mr. Brody goes on to call the film  “a history lesson in editorial form.” But “Ida’s” vagueness does not make the movie shallow or false; in fact, its ambiguity is what gives the film its haunting demarcations.

A scene from Pawel Pawlikowski's award-winning Ida.Mr. Brody states that many definitive actions are never seen, nor is specific historical context provided. But Pawlikowski conveys the devastating results of those actions. The farmer is not shown digging up the bones of the family he has murdered – Ida’s family. What is shown is Ida’s aunt Wanda kneeling next to the grave while clutching the small skull of her child, before wrapping it absentmindedly in a shawl. Later in the film, Wanda commits suicide by leaping from a window. Pawlikowski does not show her descent, nor the impact – this would be crude. But the sound of her body hitting the ground can be heard, even as the camera remains fixated on the open window.

Ida remains still and poised as she undergoes a series of discoveries and revelations. Often, after a shocking truth is revealed, the camera will linger on the unexpressive planes of her face. Ida’s stoicism is not shallow, but emotionally transparent. Her emotional restraint allows the viewer to use her as a vessel for their own thoughts and reactions. An example of this character-to-viewer transference is a scene late in the film where Ida is eating a meal at the convent. Like most activities, the meal is shrouded in reverent silence; the only sound that is heard is the scrape of utensils against dishes. Suddenly, a choked, almost inaudible giggle escapes Ida’s throat. The origins of her laughter could be a number of things, ranging from sensual excitement to a cynical reaction to the horror and absurdity of her recent discoveries. It is an exhilarating moment, and the viewer empathizes with the possibilities of Ida’s array of emotions: pleasure, gallows humor, shame. The cause of this outburst remains unknown; the viewer can only try to imagine the thoughts running through her head.

Because Pawlikowski does not disclose the details of Ida’s family history, and because the film isn’t overridden with overt references to the Holocaust or explanatory flashbacks, (I don’t recall the words “concentration camp” and “Nazi” ever being uttered) the viewer is left to construct their own lessons from Ida’s terrible circumstance. And of course the task is difficult – impossible,  even. So instead of feeding us the simple logic of cause and effect, problem and resolution, we are left – forced, even– to ruminate. And the thoughts that materialize in our own heads can be more vivid and disturbing than anything a movie screen, or perhaps even history, can show us.

“Ida” / Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski / Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza / 1 hour, 20 minutes / Rated PG-13


‘Black Rock’: Women with Spears

blackrock112920128Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton surprised me with “Black Rock,” a lean, formidable thriller about survival and friendship. A husband and wife team, Mr. Duplass wrote the screenplay and Ms. Aselton directed.

Mark Duplass is known as the star of goofy but earnest films such as “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Humpday.” He also shared writing, directing and producing credits with his brother, Jay Duplass, for the off-kilter comedies “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”  Followers of Duplass will recognize and appreciate the relaxed and improvisational banter between “Black Rock’s” three main characters:  Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell) and Gabby (Ms. Aselton). The women are childhood friends who have reunited for what Sarah hopes will be a bonding experience (especially for Lou and Gabby, who are in the midst of a falling out).

The spiky rapport between the women is intimate and spry, with a streak of black humor (says Sarah: “we are all dying, we can be hit by a bus tomorrow, and I’ll tell you one thing for certain, there are no buses on that island, so we can go out there and be safe from buses.”). This kind of dialogue is silly and unfussy, but holds enough clarity to bring the characters info focus.  Like her husband, Ms. Aselton is known for her comedic traits on the  improv comedy show “The League” and roles on “The Office.” As a director, Ms. Aselton is adept at building tension – both in atmosphere and between the three women.

In many ways,  “Black Rock” is a formulaic thriller about three women who, after a chilling turn of events, fall predator to hostile men while on a secluded, wooded island. But “Black Rock” distinguishes itself from the trappings of the genre. For one, the women fight back.

At one point in the film, Gabby tells Lou that they are the only two women left on earth. This statement is not uttered out of hopelessness, but to instill hope – and fury – into her panicky friend. After Sarah is shot and killed, Gabby and Lou are indeed the only two women left on the island, and they continually prove that this is in no way worse case scenario.Throughout the course of the film, the women display heroic (if at times unbelievable) feats of physical perseverance.

Lake-Bell-Black-RockAfter a harrowing escape attempt gone horribly wrong, Lou and Gabby attempt to swim to their boat in below-freezing waters. The boat is too far from shore, and the two women return to the island and remove their clothing to avoid hypothermia. The most empowering scene in the film is when Lou and Gabby huddle together for warmth, alone and naked in the woods.  Instead of reducing the scene to a  tawdry moment of sexualized female objectification, Aselton conveys their nakedness as a conduit of primal strength. Gabby and Lou are two unadorned Eves who have found themselves not in a prelapsarian garden, but in a terrifying and corrupted wood. And what do they do in the woods? They make spears and fight back.

The image of two naked women carving rudimentary spears in a dark wood was both absurd and alarming.  So was a display of what can only be described as pure, unabashed female machisma between Gabby and Lou right before they siege their attackers’ campsite. The scene was complete with head-slapping, steely gazes, f-bombs and a brief but chilling tutorial of how to efficiently slit someone’s throat.

“Black Rock” is not bogged down by convoluted plot-twists or over-wrought explorations of the characters’ psyches. Yet, the latter could be considered the film’s weakest element, especially concerning the male villains. The men are former soldiers who, for reasons not fully explained, were dishonorably discharged from service. The heinous actions of these men could be seen as a defamatory depiction of soldiers who deserve nothing short of our thanks and support.

However,  these characters represent a generation of young veterans who are plagued by PTSD. I am in no way suggesting that soldiers who suffer from PTSD (male and female) are prone to the inexplicable violence committed by these fictional characters. Yet, recent events (the murder of Chris Kyle by Eddie Ray Routh, the trial of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales) make this scenario in the woods disturbingly – and tragically – plausible.

“Black Rock” | Directed by Katie Aselton | Screenplay by Mark Duplass | with Katie Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth | 1 hr, 23 minutes | rated R


Why Did We Watch ‘Amour’?

Emmanuelle Riva in AMOUR_Photo by Darius Khondji_Courtesy of Flims du Losange and Sony Classics

I am not fluent or even remotely familiar with the French language. But, after watching Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and listening to it play out four more times in the movie theater where I work, I became attuned to repetitive patterns in the dialogue. From merely listening to “Amour,” I learned the French translation for the following words and phrases:

What’s going on?

What’s wrong?

I don’t understand.

Sweetheart.

Hurts.

For a movie that has been praised, criticized and analyzed to pieces by writers and audience members alike, “Amour” is not a complicated film. Its themes can be parsed with the above expressions. These fragments and questions, uttered by the three main characters, are the very same that we ask, often silently and without an answer: What happens as life dwindles, and how do we react when we encounter death – or worse, experience the suffering and decline of a loved one?

Here I pose another question: If “Amour” is so straightforward, why bother writing about it? What more can I say that hasn’t already been said? “Amour” has been praised by Manohla Dargis as a “masterpiece,” scorned by Richard Brody for its exploitation of euthanasia, and rendered audiences speechless as they exit the theater, silent and stunned as a funeral procession.

The strangest reactions of all from viewers were the intermittent peals of laughter that offered momentary relief from the film’s claustrophobic, hermetic tone. It should be said that these chuckles occurred early on, when Anne and Georges are trying their best to figure out what exactly happens next – both for their relationship and for their individual, daily lives.  It was clear that certain viewers could relate to this long-standing couple (portrayed with nuanced honesty by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). They found humor and understanding in Anne’s bluntness about her condition and her husband’s earnest efforts to accommodate her.

After I watched “Amour,” I struggled to find the right words to express the depth of emotion that this film conveys. Like many others, I can draw from personal experience. My grandmother suffered and died from Alzheimers, and my mother was her caretaker for many arduous years. It’s hard for me to remember my grandma before she succumbed to the disease, but every so often she will appear in my dreams – walking, talking, remembering my name. When Anne, immobile and suffering from dementia through the duration of the film, materializes in the kitchen at the end –  standing, washing dishes, scoffing a mesmerized Georges to put on shoes and a coat before going out – I wanted to thank Michael Haneke. I wanted to thank him for conveying that moment on film without pathos or sentimentality, but with a paralyzing sense of disbelief.

So back to the question. Why write about this film? Perhaps for the same reason that audiences chose to pay money to sit in a theater and watch the brutal decline of an elderly woman: to grasp at some sense of understanding, and, dare I say, comfort. Comfort in knowing that our ends, no matter how miserable or peaceful, are being conveyed on a universal scale through cinema, which, in a strange and sad way, feels validating.

The press notes for “Amour” are spare, almost as if mocking the excess of criticism, essays, and commentaries. It consists of a cast and production list and Mr. Haneke’s filmography. There is no director’s commentary or quotes. The film synopsis is brief and blunt:

Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers.

Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family.

One day, Anne has an attack.

The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.

That is really all the explanation you need for “Amour.”


‘Take This Waltz’

Michelle Williams in “Take This Waltz”

A film whose subject is inconsolable sadness has never looked so rich and vibrant and felt so warm and inviting. “Take This Waltz” is Sarah Polley’s second directorial feature, (her first being the highly praised “Away From Her” starring Julie Christie), and Ms. Polley has certainly proven herself to be a sensitive, bold and emotionally resonant filmmaker. Polley is widely recognized for her work as one of Canada’s most talented actors, appearing in offbeat, independent films from directors ranging from Hal Hartley (“No Such Thing”) to Atom Egoyan. Even as a young actor in Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” it was Polley’s eerily mature and elusive performance that proved to be the backbone of the film. She could convey a wide array of emotions and thoughts through silence and stillness that would be hard pressed to find in actors twice her age.

The same could be said of her talents as a director. In the opening scene in “Take This Waltz,” even the simple act of baking muffins is fraught with a sense of yearning. Michelle Williams compliments Ms. Polley’s vision with a performance that is at once intelligent, sexy and vulnerable as Margot, a young woman who is the personification of the film’s melancholia. Margot appears to be living a fine life. She is married to Lou (Seth Rogen) a loving, playful husband; lives in a house in the Toronto suburbs, and is supported by good friends and family (including Sarah Silverman as Lou’s recovering alcoholic sister).

But there is fear, sorrow and a sense of emptiness that is gnawing at her. Above all, Margot fears the unknown. This fear is extrapolated in one of the film’s first scenes at an airport, when Margot reveals her phobia of connecting flights: “I’m afraid of connections…I don’t like being in between things.” Ms. Polley is refreshingly unapologetic with the obviousness of her metaphors, and we can see how Margot’s fear of connections—material and intimate—affects her relationship with Lou, which varies from sweet and loving to stilted and cold.

Ms. Polley also has a penchant for grounding improbable circumstances in reality, such as the series of events in which Margot meets kindred spirit and potential love interest, Daniel (Luke Kirby). The  alarmingly raw sexual discourse between Margot and Daniel during the first few hours of meeting each other is almost non-existent between Margot and her husband Lou, whose interactions, even sexual, are expressed through cutesy baby-talk. I am still trying to figure out whether Margot and Lou’s infantile interactions mark their intimacy as a couple or their emotional detachment. A tender seduction scene between Lou and Margot that is devoid of words and physical touch may disprove the latter.

“Take This Waltz” is about one woman’s journey towards finding happiness. Regardless of the path Margot decides to take, Polley makes one thing clear: melancholia is something imbedded deep within, and sometimes, the longing for contentment cannot be sated by outside circumstances, whether through true love, parenthood or friendship. The title of “Take This Waltz” is a homage to the eponymous Leonard Cohen song:

Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take it’s broken waist in your hand

For some people, accepting sadness as a flawed but faithful dance partner may just be a way of life.


Best performances by a non-actor/inanimate object

This “best of” list is by no means an original idea. I first came across a similar such superlative in the NYTimes Magazine around Oscar season.  It seemed like a fun diversion from my usual “close-reading” reviews, and as I have been short on time for creative dabbling, it is ideal for a time-efficient blurb-type post. Most of these films, I believe, were release in the past year.

If any readers out there have any more suggestions, don’t be shy! This is an ongoing list.

Hokay, here we go!

1. The hot-pink script credits in “Drive.”

The obvious route to take here would have been The Driver’s (Ryan Gosling) notorious scorpion jacket. But the neon-pink  opening credits that come across the screen over the shot of the L.A. highways sets the tone for this inscrutable movie. “Drive” is either making fun of itself or boldly inhabiting a dated early 1990’s genre of undercover cop fair such as “Point Break” or “Miami Vice.” It is a clever move to begin “Drive” in such a fashion because from this moment on, because as we are gaping at the hot-pink script, we are wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this movie. And, when/if we do start taking it seriously, we are either being skillfully manipulated or realizing that “Drive” actually may be, in all of its super-stylized, silent hero-without-a-name glory, a serious movie. The beauty of this is you can watch it both ways and it still works. It’s not perfect, but it works.

2. The planet measurement device in “Melancholia”

It’s been named “the doom-o-meter” and “mortal coil” by Michael Vazquez of The Huffington Post. I like to call it “the downward spiral.” A rudimentary device crudely fashioned out of wire by a young boy, this apparatus is repeatedly utilized towards the end of the movie and is at firs the source of comfort, and inevitably, dread. It’s method of use is to hold the circular coils to the sky so that it frames the planet Melancholia, thus revealing it’s distance from the planet Earth by its size in relation to the tiny coil. The doom-o-meter spends most of its screen time clutched in the spindly, tense fingers of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who anxiously peers through the mortal coils only to see that Melancholia is looming larger, and getting closer and closer….

3. Sigmund Freud’s cane in “A Dangerous Method”

“Fascinating,” proclaims a sardonic Mr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen) through a mouthful of cigar as he observes a young female patient of emerge from a “therapeutic” bath. In this scene at a psychiatric hospital and in virtually every scene in the movie, Freud is clutching his faithful cane–and (he would be the first to admit), his penis. In one later scene, after the defiant Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) liberates himself from Freud’s overbearing patrimony, Freud becomes ill and collapses. His cane can no longer steady him and he flings it through the air, almost comically, leaving Freud prone on the floor. The father–and the phallus–have been castrated.

4. Lisbeth’s Salander’s t-shirt in David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Self-explanatory.

5. The shelter door  in “Take Shelter”

At the climax of this haunting film from director Jeff Nichols, Curtis (Michael Shannon), his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter, who is deaf, are sequestered in the storm shelter during a tornado. Curtis has been suffering from terribly lucid visions/hallucinations (the difference is the crux of the film) of an apocalyptic storm, which is his reason for building the shelter. After the duration of the storm, Samantha is more than ready to emerge from their subterranean refuge; the paranoid Curtis refuses, believing the storm–or something much worse–is still raging above. Throughout the film, Curtis’ visions and paranoia make him a frightening and fallacious figure–whenever he is on screen, he is the subject of uncertainty, of dread–the lines between delusion/dream/reality  are always  blurred. The shelter door represents this boundary between what is real and imagined, sane and insane. The moment when Curtis refuses to unlock the shelter door, he is at his most terrifying–the suffocating fear that he has stifled inside is ready to explode, and this  fear makes him so unpredictable that it is entirely possible for him to do a number of things–including trap himself along with his wife and daughter in this shelter for the remainder of their lives. What lies outside that shelter door  is the moment of truth as to whether or not Curtis is some kind of a portentous soothsayer or a paranoid schizophrenic. The claustrophobia of the shelter–a sealed, impassable portal–combined with the trepidation of what may lie beyond it made this scene unbearable to watch.

6. The shattered windshield in “A Separation”

 Sin–the act of sinning, of absolving one of sin, and the self-sacrifice of bearing the burden of a loved one’s sin– is one of many profound themes in this devastating Iranian domestic drama. Hojjat, unhinged, unemployed and hot-tempered, beats himself in the head repeatedly on various occasions to punish himself for his sins. It is implied that he used to beat his wife but has since reformed, and now takes the sin out on himself. When we see a crack the size of a human head in the windshield of the car belonging to the family with which he and his wife are in a heated dispute (a dispute which is the crux of the film), it brings self-flagellation to a new and frightening realm. As the family–husband, wife and teenage girl–make the tense drive home, the wind hisses through the cracks in the windshield. When a windshield is shattered, the cracks form web-like designs which disperse to form  multiple tiny spider webs, each representing the fragmented psyches of a different character in this film and how they are interconnected.

 



‘Turn Me On, Dammit!’ Norway’s tribute to adolescent female horniness.

American teenage-angst films can learn a thing or two from “Turn Me On, Dammit!”, Norway’s answer to the likes of “American Pie” and “Superbad.”  Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen explores uncharted territory: a coming of age story about teenage sexuality from the female perspective.  Abandoning verbose, snarky dialogue in favor of unpretentious, blunt exclamations of the feral adolescent variety, “Turn Me On, Dammit!” is a dead-pan and bold depiction of female horniness. Helene Bergsholm plays Alma, the sexually charged heroine who feels trapped by the constraints of her boring, provincial town. She and her best friend, Sara (Malin Bjorhovde), ritualistically flip-off the town’s sign on the school bus. In droll voice-overs, Alma describes her life as an un-superlative list of “empties” and “stupids: “empty road, empty yard, stupid trampoline, stupid kids jumping on stupid trampoline.” In the midst of all of this banality shines one beacon of light for Alma: her unrequited love for Artur (Matias Myren). Alma becomes an outcast when word gets out of an arousing but awkward encounter between her and Arthur, and “Turn Me On, Dammit!” authentically depicts the self-loathing and self-empowerment that come to pass as a result of being deemed “abnormal.”


‘Angels Crest’: A sober tribute to the precarious art of parenting

Thomas Dekker in Angels Crest

Don’t be fooled by Thomas Dekker’s boyish good looks—the long, effeminate eyelashes and angular, delicate lines of his face can contort into expressions of terror, shock, confusion and profound sorrow. Mr. Dekker’s unforced performance as a grieving and guilt-ridden young father is the driving force behind the gritty, unrelenting drama that is “Angels Crest.”

Directed by Gaby Dellal and adapted from the eponymous novel by Leslie Schwartz, “Angels Crest” is named for a small town nestled in the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The wintery, rural landscape and dark storyline are akin to Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010), but “Angels Crest’s” theme of childhood death within a close-knit community shares more similarities to Atom Egoyan’s widely praised 1997 film, “The Sweet Hereafter.” Also based on a novel (by Russell Banks), “The Sweet Hereafter” explores the conflicting sentiments of the townsfolk after nearly all of its children are killed in a tragic bus accident. “Angels Crest” also deals with the loss of a child, but examines grief and guilt on a more intimate level, directing its focus on the dynamics of young parenthood.

The aforementioned Mr. Dekker (“Foreverland,” “Kaboom”) plays Ethan, whose seemingly innocent but thoughtless actions play a role in the tragic death of his son, Nate. On the morning of the first snow of the season, Ethan takes Nate for an early morning drive with plans for some serious snow-man building and ends up parked at the edge of the wilderness. Ethan is lured from his truck by the sight of a herd of deer, and leaves his son sleeping in his car-seat with the heat turned up and doors locked. Ethan returns after a short time to find that Nate is no longer in the truck, and a panic-induced sequence of events soon unfolds with a sense of urgency so strong, it feels as though it is happening in real time. The town’s residents, including Angie (Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino), the owner of the diner, and Ethan’s best friend, Rusty (Joseph Morgan, from television’s “The Vampire Diaries”) form the search team that struggles desperately to find Nate alive.

When Cindy, Nate’s estranged, alcoholic mother (played by Lynn Collins, who starred alongside Al Pacino in 2004’s“The Merchant of Venice”), arrives at the scene, her shear sense of panic is portrayed with an brutal realism that can be painful to witness, even from our safe distance in the movie theater. Cindy desperately calls Nate’s name, and demands to know why the search party isn’t doing the same; in one chilling moment, Cindy scrawls Nate’s name in red lipstick on a car window, as if the scarlet red letters would serve as a beacon for his safe return. When Ethan discovers Nate’s body a mere quarter mile from his truck, Ms. Dellal’s sensitive directional eye does not linger on the child’s lifeless form, and instead chooses to express the unspeakable horror through Ethan. As Ethan carries his son’s lifeless form and howls into the unresponsive rocky bluffs, one cannot help but recall the wails of sorrow from Shakespeare’s King Lear, as he cradles his dead daughter, Cordelia, and scorns stoic bystanders for their impassiveness—“O, you are men of stone.”

Nate’s death causes a fissure among the residents of Angels Crest between those who blame Ethan  and those who pity him. This conflict causes tension within the town’s most intimate relationships, especially between gay couple Jane (played by Golden Globe-nominee Elizabeth McGovern of PBS’s “Downton Abbey”) and Roxie (Kate Walsh, of television’s “Private Practice).  The level-head but compassionate Jane sympathizes with Nate, and remains his loyal friend despite the misgivings of Roxie, who accuses Ethan of being an irresponsible father. Charges are eventually pressed against Ethan for criminal negligence, and Jeremy Piven (television’s “Entourage”) plays Jake, the prosecuting lawyer who we learn has also suffered the loss of his child. Thankfully, “Angels Crest” does not succumb to the banalities of a courtroom drama, and remains an intense character study for the effects of extreme grief and guilt without falling into clichés of the genre.

Some dramas that deal with the death of a loved one have characters that conform to the strict rigidity of the Kubler-Ross model for the Five Stages of Grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Ms. Dellal spurns such conventions. Ethan and Cindy articulate their mourning with a surprising fluidity that lends a realistic and visceral blow to our judgment. Just as we begin to pity Ethan for his loss, we rebuke him for playing violent video games with his buddies the night after the funeral. Likewise, we wonder whether Cindy’s rampant alcoholism is her way of mourning, or if she is using Nate’s death as an excuse to drink herself into a stupor. And, when Ethan supplicates his naked body to the frozen, snowy ground so that he might experience the last dying moments of his son, one begins to wonder why blame and guilt is not a sixth stage of grief. Reflection and loneliness are sometimes added to versions the Kubler-Ross model, and are conveyed in the quietly devastating final scenes of “Angels Crest.”

Any parent will no doubt be haunted by “Angels Crest,” both by the fearlessly vulnerable performance of Mr. Dekker and the troubling questions posed about parental awareness/consciousness. In fear of spoiling some small but crucial plot points, I will only say that if Ethan bears any responsibility for Nate’s death, it is because he underestimates his son’s capabilities. The level of awareness that parents must have concerning the actions and abilities of their children must be so vast and yet so acute that the mere thought of the enormity of that scope of cognizance can take one’s breath away. “Angels Crest” is an unflinching study of sorrow; but above all, it is a sober tribute to the precarious art of parenting.


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