Movie Review: Ida (2014)
“Ida” is a spare, quiet, beautiful film, photographed in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who discovers a dark secret about her family’s past during World War II.
It’s also the best road-trip movie I’ve seen in years.
“You’re a funny couple,” says Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young, handsome alto-sax player whom Anna and her aunt Wanda (Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza), pick up hitch-hiking. “My Aunt and me?” Anna responds. “I know.”
They’re funny ha-ha and not. Because they’re searching for unmarked graves. They’re searching for the bodies of Anna’s parents.
Road-trip movies are all about tossing together opposites, and “Ida” is no different, but on a deeper level. I think of Wanda as having lived through the middle of the 20th century—Depression, World War II, totalitariansm—and having absorbed its horrible lessons: there is no God, and there is no secular human progress. So what do you do then? What do you cling to? Wanda had communism for a while, and a rise to power in the 1950s, but now she simply distracts herself from the vast, absurd emptiness with booze, sex, and a wicked tongue.
The movie opens in a convent, where Anna, who has a spare, unadorned beauty that fits the film, is cleaning and restoring (one might say resurrecting) a statue of Jesus. She is also preparing to take her vows. Then the nuns tell her that her sole living relative, Wanda, living in Lodz, has finally responded to their queries. She should go see her. She does so, reluctantly, but with open eyes.
At Wanda’s place, the dark family secret is revealed quickly, and it’s less dark than tragic. Anna isn’t Anna but Ida Lebenstein. She and Wanda are the only ones left in their family because they’re Jewish and it’s post-World War II Poland.
At first it’s enough for Wanda to say all this and send her niece back. But she finds herself transfixed by Anna’s resemblance to her own sister, and she heads her off at the train station. She wants to bond with her. Or convert her? But to what? A prosecutor in the Stalinist era and now a judge, Wanda wants to find out what happened to Ida’s parents and bring their bones back, but she warns Anna about going along: “What if you go and discover there is no God?”
At the same time, she enjoys teasing her niece.
Wanda: Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?
Wanda: About carnal matters?
Wanda: That’s a shame.
They first travel to the isolated farmhouse where the Lebensteins once lived. A Polish family, headed by Feliks (Adam Szyszkowski), now lives there, and he’s suspicious of all strangers but Wanda in particular:
Wanda: Did you know the Lebensteins? They lived here before the war.
Wanda: No, Eskimos.
But they’re respectful to Anna, scarved as a novitiate nun, and for a time I thought that would be the plan: send in beatific Anna, alone, to get the answers, which Wanda, a Jewish prosecutor, could not. Instead they follow Wanda’s lead and visit Feliks’ father, dying in a hospital, and go to a nightclub, where Lis, their alto-sax guy, is playing jazz. Wanda drinks too much, fools around, defends herself to a silent Anna. “This Jesus of yours, he adored people like me,” she says. The closer they get to an answer, the more Wanda seems to unravel.
The search doesn’t go much further than Feliks and his father, because it doesn’t need to. Feliks is responsible. He killed the Lebensteins for their home because he could. In exchange for leaving his dying father alone, he takes Anna and Wanda into the woods and unearths the bodies. There, Anna/Ida learns she had an older brother. “The boy was dark and circumcized,” she’s told. “You were tiny.” Thus she lives; thus he died. It’s that.
“Ida” is written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (“The Woman in the Fifth”), and photographed by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, who have won awards all over the place for it—including the Spotlight Award from the American Society of Cinematographers. It truly is a gorgeous movie. Several shots stand out, none more than the last. There’s not a frame of the movie I didn’t like.
The road trip is great, but what makes “Ida” one of the best movies of the year is what happens afterwards. At the start, Anna has absolute faith, Wanda has none. So what happens? Anna returns to the convent but her faith isn’t absolute anymore. During a meal, she suddenly bursts out laughing—we don’t know why—and shortly after she speaks with the statue of Jesus. “I’m not ready,” she tells him. “Forgive me.”
The effect of the trip is worse on Wanda. Nothing is restored for her, more is simply lost. Maybe what kept her going all of these years was the mystery, and now even that’s gone. One day she’s cleaning the apartment, listening to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and suddenly she jumps out the open window. The camera stays. The music keeps playing to an empty house.
Ida comes for the funeral and hooks up with Lis. In bed, he talks of the life they’ll live together. They’ll have kids, buy a house, raise a family. “And then?” she keeps saying. “And then?” He’s offering her a good life but before the trip she had an eternal life. Now, not. Now there’s just “And then?” She can’t be on the eternal path but she doesn’t know which path to take. The final shots see her walking a road against the sparse traffic, her path uneven, unstable, the camera suddenly jerky. It’s our path.
Quote of the Day
“We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world. Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.
”The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.“
-- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, ”On Reading Proust," interviewed in The New York Review of Books, Nov. 2013. The interview was originally conducted in French and published in La Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris as part of a special issue entitled “Proust vu d’Amérique.”
- It's worth reading every word of Tim Egan's post about the sheer legal and political idiocy of John Boehner's lawsuit against Pres. Obama. Make them pay, folks. Because right now it looks like they'll be rewarded instead.
- First we had a documentary on Jodorowsky's unmade “Dune.” Now a documentary on Tim Burton's unmade “Superman” movie from the 1990s starring Nicolas Cage? How many other documentaries from other unmade sci-fi/fantasy movies can we make? Maybe we should just not make sci-fi/fantasy movies so we can make the documentaries about the movies that were never made. Why not? The movie itself usually disappoints, while the unmade movie holds the chance at being glorious.
- Indiewire presents: The History of Sex on Film in Infographic Form. Not very graphic or informative, unfortunately. I.e., there's not much there I didn't know.
- My friend Jerry Grillo breaks down the actors who played Babe Ruth and asks “Who was the best?”
- This past week the Baseball Hall of Fame (in Cooperstown) changed its voting rules so that eligible players who don't make the 75% cut but do get at least 5% of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) can only remain on the ballot for 10 years instead of 15 years. Why the change? Joe Posnanski ruminates over four theories. (Hint: It has less to do with the players than with the BBWAA.)
- No one has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 100% of the vote—not Babe Ruth (95.13%), Ted Williams (93.38%), Willie Mays (94.68%) or Hank Aaron (97.83%)—but Tom Seaver, who has received the highest voting percentage ever (98.84%), thinks that the first unanimous Hall of Famer should be ... Derek Jeter. Right. Not Ken Griffey Jr. or Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez; Derek Effin' Jeter. Because the poor guy just doesn't get enough attention. I barely knew he was at the All-Star Game earlier this month, for example.
- With all due respect to Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, Roger Angell is my Hall of Famer.
According to Jerry Grillo (and most of us concur), here's the actor who played Babe Ruth best.
Quote of the Day
“Our teachers’ best qualities—their sense of humor, their love for the subject, their excitement, their interest in students as individuals—are not being honored or valued, because those qualities aren’t measurable.”
-- Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents 84,000 teachers, in Rachel Aviv's devastating New Yorker article on the perils of applying corporate philosophy to education: “Wrong Answer: In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school makes a shocking choice.” It's not just our school systems, of course; most jobs are increasingly data-driven. So much is about the quantity and rarely about the quality. We now live in an era in which people are judged by numbers while corporations are judged as people. See Bunk for an appropriate response to all of this.
Movie Review: Lucy (2014)
Most mainstream movies don’t think much beyond the current year. Maybe they go back a decade. Ancient history is history before Elvis. The dark ages. I remember when I reviewed “Little Nicky” in which Adam Sandler played a literal son of Satan who head-banged to heavy metal music, and my immediate thought was, “OK. So what did he listen to for the 3,000 years before heavy metal music?”
Luc Besson’s “Lucy” widens the scope a bit. We see the first cells splitting, and the first human, Lucy, drinking water from a stream. We’re told that matter only exists because of time. We’re told we never really die, which is nice to know. I like the intelligence of it all, the awareness of a time period beyond our own, the encouragement of a thirst for knowledge.
Here’s what I didn’t like. Halfway through, our hero, a modern-day Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), could kill the movie’s main villain, a drug dealer and gangster named Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik of “Oldboy” fame), but she doesn’t bother. She leaves him alive. Three-quarters of the way through she could do the same. By this point, she’s so powerful she can just think somebody dead. Still, she leaves him alive. An argument can be made that he’s so below her now it’s like killing an ant, or an amoeba, but that’s not why he lives. He lives because the primitive monkey brains in the audience, our primitive monkey brains, need the tension. We need the race for the prize, the villain tracking the hero, the gunfight at the OK Corral.
I also wasn’t a fan of how cartoonish Mr. Jang was; and that he was supposed to be Chinese but spoke Korean.
But leaving him alive? That’s some rookie shit. I expect that from someone using 5% of their brain’s capacity, not 50.
Brain brain, what is brain?
It’s a good concept anyway.
Human beings use only about 10% of the brain’s capacity. So if we could tap into the rest? Yowzah.
It’s contemporary times, more or less, and Lucy, last name unknown, is hanging out in Taipei, and going to school there, but somehow doesn’t speak a lick of Chinese. She’s also got a ne’er-do-well, week-long, Aussie-ish boyfriend, Richard (Danish actor Pilou Asbaek of “A Hijacking”), who tries to cajole her into delivering a briefcase to Mr. Jang at a Taipei hotel. No go. So he locks it to her wrist and tells her the key is with Mr. Jang. She’s pissed, sure, but off she goes: to the front desk, up the elevator, and into the private sanctuary of Mr. Jang, who’s busy wiping the blood of his enemies from his face. He also kills Richard en route. Because blood. Plus all of this is intercut with scenes of jaguars on the hunt in the Serengeti. Because Luc Besson.
The briefcase turns out to be carrying blue crystals called CPH4, which is apparently a chemical used in the second or third trimester of pregnancy to create us. This is its synthetic version. It’s a drug. For what purpose? Who knows? But Mr. Jang wants it taken to Rome, Paris, Berlin and New York. The captive mules for these four cities, including Lucy (NYC), have their stomachs cut open and a Ziploc bag of CPH4 inserted. The bad news for Mr. Jang, and the good news for us, is that, before putting Lucy on a flight to NYC, they apparently stash her in a grungy prison, where a skinny Chinese dude tries to fondle her, and when she objects, kicks her repeatedly in the stomach. Of course the bag inside her is broken open. It’s our gamma radiation moment. Her eyes even go all blue. She lucies out.
Her first stop is the hospital to remove the rest of the crystals. By this point (20%?) she knows Mandarin Chinese, and with a glance at the X-rays can determine whether the patient on the table will live. He won’t, so she shoots him dead and takes his place. While she’s operated on, she calls her mother. That’s a nice scene. She says I love you. She says she remembers everything. Everything. Petting the cat. “You couldn’t remember that, honey. You were less than one year old.” But she remembers. She remembers the taste of her mother’s milk. She remembers every kiss her mother ever gave her. Johansson is quite good here. Throughout the movie, really. You get the sense that Lucy calls her mother not because she’s about to die but because she calculates human interaction will soon be meaningless to her, and she needs this last moment.
That’s an interesting thought, by the way. In most stories where a character develops massive brain power—think Gary Mitchell in Star Trek’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before”—they become as imperious as Mussolini. They view humans as ants, amoebas. But an argument can be made for the opposite. Mussolini was hardly a Rhodes Scholar, so why is he the model? Shouldn’t their humanity grow with their brain power? Does Lucy’s? A bit. She certainly has a wider perspective. She calculates she has 24 hours left before she reaches 100% brain capacity and then ... Who knows? So what should she do? She asks this of a scientist, Prof. Norman (Morgan Freeman), who has long studied the topic. We’ve even seen some of his lectures intercut with Lucy’s story. He talks about the two ways the cell’s knowledge can continue to live—immortality and reproduction—and urges Lucy to do what human beings have always done with their knowledge: “Pass it on,” he says. I like that. Pass it on.
Since this is Besson, and since international box office, she gathers everyone in Paris—other mules, Prof. Norman—so she can get the rest of the CPH4. She hangs with a good cop with a great face, Pierre del Rio (Amr Waked), who protects her when she’s not busy protecting herself, and Besson keeps reminding us of where she is on the brain capacity meter. At 90%, while gun battles rage all around, she travels through time: New York today, then 100 years ago, then with the Native Americans. Then dinosaurs. Lucy even meets the original Lucy, our ancestor, whom we met at the beginning of the movie.
Pass it on
Some of this isn’t bad. But Besson isn’t interested in straying too far from the thriller genre. He talks smart but executes stupid. So just as a bloodied Mr. Jang, our apelike contemporary, whom Lucy has left alive again and again, closes in on her sitting in a chair surrounded by awestruck scientists and computer banks she’s just digested (or something), she’s reaching 100%. Will she make it? Or will Mr. Jang kill her first?
The tension is unbearable.
No, it’s not. He fires, she disappears. Because she’s everywhere now. That’s the message she leaves him.
And the message Besson leaves us?
The movie opens with Lucy narrating the following: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. This is what we’ve done with it,” and we get shots of, you know, ugly buildings and shit. At the close, she narrates thus: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.”
Well, not really. Still at 10%. Unless you mean the “Pass it on” thing. That I can do. FWIW.
Newest Superhero, Lucy, Clobbers Oldest, Hercules, at Weekend Box Office
“I won?” “She won?” The newest superhero (left) clobbers the oldest (right) at the domestic box office.
“Hercules” had a bigger budget ($100 to $40 million), better reviews (63% to 58% on Rotten Tomatoes), more theaters (3,595 to 3,173), greater name recognition, and, of course, way bigger biceps; but the girl, “Lucy,” still came out on top. She’s grossed an estimated $44 million to Herc’s $29 at the domestic box office this weekend.
This feels increasingly the way, doesn’t it? Beyond “Maleficent,” currently at No. 4 for the year with $232 million domestic, the annual top 10 is still the old boys club: Captain America, Transformers, X-Men, Spidey, Godzilla, 22 Jump Street, Planet of the Apes. But in head-to-head matchups, the girls are increasingly kicking ass.
So Angelina Jolie with sharp cheekbones cut up Seth MacFarlane’s flaccid western in late May. So Shailene Woodley with cancer beat out Tom Cruise with Groundhog Day Syndrome in early June. And now little Scarlett Johansson, armed only with looks, lips and boobs, plus 100% brain capacity, Luc Besson as director and Taipei as locale, has clobbered Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s attempt to pull the Hercules myth out of the B-grade swamp it’s forever been stuck in.
Is this a trend? Girls gone box office? Are the studios noticing? Will they notice in particular when Katniss wipes the floor with all the year’s movies in November? Or will they point to the so-so performance of “Divergent” ($150 million) in March and do nothing as usual?
Either way, ScarJo: Hen hao. Ni hen li hai.
The other openers? “And So It Goes,” the poorly received sexagenarian comedy starring Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas, bombed in 1,762 locations, winding up with $4.5 million and in eighth place; but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role, “A Most Wanted Man,” directed by Anton Corbijn, grossed $2.7 million in only 361 locations. It also garnered good reviews: 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.
In other good news, “Boyhood,” with phenomenal reviews (99% on RT), and playing in only 107 locations, grossed $1.7 million. It’s now up to $4.1 million for a movie that’s barely playing. If it’s playing near you? Get out and see it.
The Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told is a Roger Angell Story
Yesterday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Roger Angell, 93, the longtime fiction editor for The New Yorker, who wrote a few baseball essays on the side, was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the Hall’s writing honor. (Spink, in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, was the longtime publisher of The Sporting News; he died in 1962.)
About time, I say. I spent the fall of ’94, our first fall without a World Series since 1903, reading Roger Angell. He was my compensation. I read all of him, chronologically, and there are great baseball stories throughout, but this may be my favorite. It’s from the essay, “Stories for a Rainy Afternoon,” from the book, “Five Seasons,” originally published in the summer of 1976. Our Bicentennial summer.
It’s really Tommy Lasorda’s story but Angell tells it so well. Have I told it before? Here? I tried to find it but couldn’t. So here it is again. Or for the first time.
LaSorda, it can be proved, is a patient sort of man. He grew up in Morristown, Pennsylvania, and became a serious baseball fan at an early age. When he was 12 or 13, he volunteered for duty as a crossing guard at his parochial school because he knew that the reward for this service was a free trip to a big-league baseball game—an event he had yet to witness. The great day came at last, the sun shone, and the party of nuns and junior fuzz repaired to Shibe Park, where the Phillies were playing the Giants. Young Tom LaSorda had a wonderful afternoon, and just before the game ended he and some of his colleagues forehandedly stationed themselves beside a runway under the stands, where they could collect autographs from the players coming off the field. The game ended, the Giants came clattering by, and Tom extended his scorecard to the first hulking, bespiked hero to come in out of the sunshine.
“C’n I have your autograph, please, mister?” he said.
“Outta my way, kid,” the Giant said, brushing past the boy.
When Tom LaSorda tells the story now, the shock of this moment is still visible on his face. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Here was the first big-league player I’d ever seen up close—the first one I ever dared speak to—and what he did was shove me up against the wall. I think tears came to my eyes. I watched the guy as he went away toward the clubhouse and I noticed the number on his back—you know, like taking the license of a hit-and-run car. Later on, I looked at my program and got his name. It was Buster Maynard, who was an outfielder with the Giants then. I never forgot it.”
Seven or eight years went swiftly by (as they do in instructive, moral tales), during which time Tom LaSorda grew up to become a promising young pitcher in the Dodger organization. In the spring of 1949, he was a star with the Dodger farm team in Greenville, North Carolina, in the Sally League, and took the mound for the opening game of the season at Augusta, Georgia, facing the Augusta Yankees. Tom retired the first two batters, and then studied the third, a beefy right-handed veteran, as he stepped up to the box.
The park loudspeaker made the introduction: “Now coming up to bat for the Yankees, Buster May-narrd, right field!”
LaSorda was transfixed. “I looked in,” he says, “and it was the same man!”
The first pitch to Maynard nearly removed the button from the top of his cap. The second, behind his knees, inspired a beautiful sudden entrechat. The third, under the Adam’s apple, confirmed the message, and Maynard threw away his bat and charged the mound like a fighting bull entering the plaza in Seville. The squads spilled out onto the field and separated the two men, and only after a lengthy and disorderly interval was baseball resumed.
After the game, LaSorda was dressing in the visitor’s locker room when he was told that he had a caller at the door. It was Buster Maynard, who wore a peaceable but puzzled expression. “Listen, kid,” he said to LaSorda, “did I ever meet you before?”
“Not exactly,” Tom said.
“Did I bat against you someplace, maybe?”
“Well, why were you tryin’ to take my head off out there?”
LaSorda spread his hands wide. “You didn’t give me your autograph,” he said.
Tom LaSorda tells this story each spring to the new young players who make the Dodger club. “Always give an autograph when somebody asks you,” he says gravely. “You never can tell. In baseball anything can happen.”
Wonder Woman: All the World's Waiting For You
In case you haven't seen this yet. It was tweeted by (who else?) Zack Snyder, director of the upcoming “Superman vs. Batman” movie:
A lot of fanboys were up in arms when Gal Gadot was cast, but she looks fine. But it's just a still photo. We'll see.
(Imagine the whining, btw, if we were all online in 1987 when Warner Bros. chose Tim Burton to direct “Batman,” and Burton chose Michael Keaton to play Batman. There would've been bitching right up to the first trailer; then silence.)
So is she in a volcano or something there? I never quite got Wonder Woman. What were her powers again? She's not invulnerable so she should probably suit up a bit, particularly if she's in a volcano. Other thoughts about the character in my review of the 2012 documentary “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.”
After this shot was leaked, and coupled with the leaked photos of Affleck as Batman and Cavill as Superman, “DC Comics Talk” tweeted a shot of all three along with this challenge: “Your turn, Marvel.” To which I had to tweet back this. Because, I mean, c'mon.
John Lennon on the 'Happy Days' Set
This photo was posted on Facebook via The REAL Peter Tork:
“Happy Days had just been on the air a short time in 1974 when the cast noticed a familiar looking man hanging around in the studio one day. It was none other than former Beatle John Lennon, along with his then 10-year-old son Julian. ... Lennon stuck around for the entire day of shooting, drawing doodles for the crew and hanging out until they wrapped the shoot after some 12 hours...”
From the looks of it, this was from Lennon's “Rock n' Roll” period. Was he still on the outs with Yoko then? Hanging out with May Pang?
Yes. Just did the Google search. According to BuzzFeed, it was taken in January 1974.
So this was kind of a low point for him (artistically, personally) and a high point for “Happy Days.” The early shows were quite good, and the title almost ironic. Things invariably went badly for Richie, but he had family to fall back on. It was only when the show shifted from Richie-centric to Fonz-centric that it lost its sense of irony and became a huge hit.
But that photo's nuts. Isn't it? It's like some odd amalgamation of my childhood/teen years. It would be like a photo of Evel Knievel hanging out with the Twins at Met Stadium. Or Thor Heyerdahl and Lindsay Wagner visiting “The Planet of the Apes” set. Worlds colliding.
Luis Tiant with me and my brother, Chris, on Camera Day at Met Stadium, 1970. Should Tiant have gone into the Hall? Why didn't he? (Photo by Bob Lundegaard)
- The Hollywood Reporter writes about the domestic box office slump that I've been writing about for weeks. But, you know, with quotes from studio execs. So it's important.
- Some interesting criticism of “Boyhood,” some of which echoes mine—although I found the main character, Mason, too cool for school while others (Mark Judge anyway) think he's socially awkward. Judge's “Sideways” comparison, too, I think is B.S.: We identify with many aspects of Mason's upbringing not because we're critics but because we're human beings. As for Eve's three flaws of the film? Yes to 1, no to 2, and yes to 3. Again, my review here. And again: go see it. Because you'll enjoy it.
- Speaking of: John Hartl talks with “Boyhood”'s director Richard Linklater. The film is now playing in Seattle. At the Harvard Exit. At 12, 1, 3:30, 4:30, 7, 8 and 10:10.
- The Open Carry Texas folks held a rally last Saturday at Dealey Plaza—the site of the JFK assassination. No words.
- “Just a $3 increase will make a living wage ...” Kristen Bell as Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in this Funny-or-Die viddy. Nice pipes. Good message.
- Via Hollywood Elsewhere and TCM, Clint Eastwood on James Garner.
- Why didn't Luis Tiant make the Hall of Fame? David Shoenfield thinks it was the timing.
- Read your Paul Krugman. Doctor's orders. Yesterday, he talked up California's comeback with some pointed words for the GOP. Not to mention Kansas.
- Your long read of the week: Rachel Aviv's excellent piece on cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta. The culprits? Teachers. And they're the heroes.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard