Articles by

<Benjamin Mercer>

04/23/14 4:00am

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Revolving around an identity crisis that also occasions a crisis of faith, this black-and-white drama is, at 80 minutes, a fleet yet entirely lucid meditation on the weight of history, both familial and national. Ida is also a period piece, shot in the compact Academy ratio: it takes place in 1960s Poland, where, behind the Party line of progress, the trauma of the German occupation still looms large. The film opens in a remote part of the country, with glimpses of a cloistered convent day-to-day, but in short order moves into the wider world. The resident mother superior urges Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska, wonderfully subtle in her first role), orphaned as an infant, to make the trip to meet her one known relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a former state prosecutor who lives in her own form of isolation, drinking in her city apartment with the phonograph on.

Upon meeting, Wanda rather flippantly apprises her niece of her family’s turbulent recent past: Sister Anna is in fact Ida Lebenstein, her Jewish kin killed under mysterious circumstances during the course of the war. The young woman, soon to take her vows, does no handwringing; rather, she processes the unsettling news quietly. Pawlikowski and cowriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz instead place their focus on the deepening bond between the devout Ida and the disillusioned Wanda, following them as they try to find out just what happened to Ida’s mother and brother so that they might find their bodies and properly lay them to rest.

This film is the UK-based director’s fourth feature but his first set in his native country, and the sense of place is impeccable: a band swoons through translated covers of Western pop hits in the lobby of a hotel in the sticks; in many of the movie’s striking compositions, the characters are weighted toward the very bottom of the frame, so that we get well acquainted with the textures of the bare walls of the rooms that they occupy. The prevailing sense is of a world sadly out of balance—here, family members meet as strangers, while the past continues to upend the present.

Opens May 2 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza

04/09/14 4:00am

Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pancho Velez

At once a heady structural exercise and a deeply endearing look at people just taking in the scenery, this outstanding documentary unfolds entirely within the 5-by-5-foot confines of a cable car, moving along over a Nepalese valley bounded by foothills and dappled by forests and farmland. The vehicle travels to and from a remote Hindu temple in a matter of minutes; from high up, several different riders spot the trail that pilgrims used to spend days traversing.

Manakamana—a production from the Harvard department that spawned Leviathan, the Sensory Ethnography Lab (currently being celebrated at the Whitney Biennial and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s inaugural Art of the Real series)—develops organically into a meditation on the passage of time, as well as an informal behavioral study on shifts in perspective and states of suspension. We observe a variety of people—elderly worshippers, traveling musicians, and passing-through tourists—quietly restless in their seats, moved by the lush surroundings, antsy at being aloft, and perhaps not quite knowing where to direct their attention while they themselves are under the fixed gaze of the camera. (Not all the passengers are human, though: on one descent, our company is a cargo pen full of tensed goats, bleating as the car rattles by each of the
route’s towers.)

The camera doesn’t move, and directors Spray and Velez don’t cut away, while the metal box is in transport, a single 16mm magazine being just enough to capture every second of each 10-minute one-way ride. (The movie consists of 11 of these.) The correspondences between the apparatuses are not merely durational: the overhead spool threading the cable forward at the car’s terminus might well put viewers in mind of an oversize film reel. We settle in with Manakamana’s collection of travelers for the brief intermediate time that they’re corralled by this pair of whirring machines—idly contemplating, as they hang above a singular landscape, where they’ve been, where they’re going, and the nature of how they’re
getting there.

Opens April 18 at IFC Center

03/26/14 4:00am

Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

The alien invaders in this midnight-movie transmission are more like a couple of local poachers: a being disguised as a human bombshell (Scarlett Johansson), overseen by a shadowy figure in motocross regalia, materializes on the outskirts of Glasgow, getting behind the wheel of a van to seduce solitary males from the side of the road. She leads them all to an abandoned house and into a black pool from whence they’ll never return. (In the movie’s most eye-popping sequence, director Glazer shows us just what goes on down there: the breaking down of the masculine physique, popping, shriveling, and deflating like a balloon in the fluid suspension.) Eventually, our extraterrestrial protagonist betrays a measure of feeling for a deformed man plucked from the highway’s shoulder, deepening the inquiry into the human body, hardwired not merely as a seduction tool but also as an empathic interface.

As Johansson’s “character” apparently abandons her mission and flees to the Highlands, the film disappointingly backtracks on its initial atmosphere of total menace, but former music-video ace Glazer seems more in control of the proceedings here than he did in his previous two features, Sexy Beast and Birth (see p. 26)—both of which were easier to watch but harder to think through. Many of Under the Skin’s roadside flirtations were reportedly improvised, with Johansson herself snaring real unsuspecting passersby into suggestive conversation: as a result, somewhat unexpectedly, the film is not most squirm-inducing as annihilative-
takeover horror but rather as a record of nervous gestures, in which strangers fidget toward doomed intimacy. During these interactions, Johansson, doing something more fraught than the standard-issue femme-fatale act, manages to seem both engaged and disengaged, participant
and orchestrator.

Much more so than either Sexy Beast or Birth, Under the Skin looks like one of the MTV2 staples that Glazer devised in the mid-90s: in the protagonist’s canvassing of the sidewalks from a motor-vehicle vantage, there’s more than a hint of the drive-by grubbiness of “Karma Police” and UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” in which a babbling Denis Lavant gets clipped again and again by passing cars; likewise, it’s not surprising that the obsidian void where Johansson lures her captive prey was conceived by the man who dreamed up the scrolling space-station bay of Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity.” In Under the Skin, we see the earth made unearthly, the human body made lurchingly strange—and an accomplished stylist continuing to put it together as a filmmaker

Opens April 4

03/12/14 4:00am

It Felt Like Love
Directed by Eliza Hittman

This first feature, about the mortifications and self-delusions and dimly understood dangers of early adolescent sexual experience, is at once painfully forthright and fluently dreamy, drifting through southern Brooklyn in a series of tactile close-ups. The protagonist, 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti, delivering a subtly layered performance), stares out at the crashing ocean surf, bides her time at Coney Island, and sits at home in Gravesend, humming into a fan and absent-mindedly playing with the cord attached to her window shades. Mostly, though, she’s passing the summer as the third wheel to friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and her new boyfriend; she’s a firsthand witness to their physical intimacy, and so, naturally, the inexperienced Lila finds herself wanting a partner of her own.

In one of the film’s first shots, writer-director Hittman has her main character look straight into the camera, her face slathered in sunblock, an image that deftly hints at the defensive origins of the soft-spoken girl’s flat affect and the fumbling recklessness to follow. (We learn, eventually, of a recent family trauma.) Lila devotes herself to the pursuit of college student/arcade staffer Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein)—the grunted outgoing message on his voice mail (“You’ve reached the offices of the president of the United States. Nah, I’m playing…”), to which Lila listens several times, is one of the many little details that make these people, and this place, feel so immediate. Sammy becomes increasingly impatient with her off-target overtures, but she soldiers on, telling a roomful of his unsavory friends that she has considered porn “as a career option.”

It Felt Like Love only gets more discomfiting from here, as Lila doesn’t so much learn any kind of “lesson” as face a deeper, darker disillusionment about the world she’s been so desperate to grow into. The coming-of-age film has long since seemed a rite of directorial passage itself, but here Hittman manages to make it her own, displaying an unusually sharp-edged sensitivity to a particular adolescent moment: when a girl might well risk more than she knows in order to become someone new.

Opens March 21

02/26/14 4:00am

Grand Piano
Directed by Eugenio Mira

This high-wire thriller concerns, at its core, the escalating perils of performance: virtuoso pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) comes out of the woodwork for his first concert since a very public meltdown five years earlier, taking the symphony stage as his movie-star wife (Kerry Bishé) watches nervously from a balcony box. We first catch up with timorous Tom as he goes through the motions ahead of the show, but his anxiety changes in pitch as the program begins and he discovers a series of threats scrawled on his sheet music: there’s a sniper in the rafters (voiced by John Cusack), and he’s ready to pull the trigger if Tom hits even a single wrong note. His fears suddenly driving him toward survival instead of self-sabotage, the musician continues to bang away at the piano, the villain barking more specific orders via earpiece, and the restless camera swooping over the captive audience.

From here, the film gradually answers the question of whether Tom is in the crosshairs of a history-obsessed madman or at the center of some carefully orchestrated heist, with the focus tightening in on Tom’s artistic inheritance, the daunting legacy handed down to him by his gravely mysterious dead mentor. It’s hard not to root for this movie, the sort of winningly cut-rate Master of Suspense material engineered so that all its inner workings are clearly visible from the surface; the screenplay (by Damien Chazelle, the director of recent Sundance prizewinner Whiplash) at once needles the severe demands of high culture and the ratcheting absurdity of suspense mechanics, playing these two keynotes off each other so that the film feels impressively balanced in its over-the-top effect. Spanish director Mira’s style is distractingly loud, though—almost proudly devoid of any subtle dynamics, erupting occasionally in showy crane-shot flourishes. It’s as if you can feel him straining to rise to the virtuosic occasion—but perhaps that’s as it should be. As Grand Piano goes to show, the pressure to perform can get pretty intense.

Opens March 7

02/12/14 4:00am

Child’s Pose
Directed by Calin Peter Netzer

An impressive drama about a particularly extreme motherly intervention, this Romanian film observes the fallout from a fatal car accident, applying its hectic realism to a legal entanglement that also develops into an acrimonious family affair. Imperious architect and cultural patron Cornelia (Luminita Gheorgiu, accomplishing the significant feat of humanizing this force of nature) moves to keep her sullen adult son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) from landing behind bars on a manslaughter charge: all indications suggest he was speeding when he struck and killed a teenage pedestrian from a “simple” background. What follows is a portrait of callous upper-crust favor-trading coupled with an even more thorough examination of a fraught mother-son bond.

Early on, Cornelia is seen making excuses for why her child isn’t at her gala birthday, and much of the damage control to follow (keeping a close eye on Barbu’s every movement, trying to rig the police investigation, etc.) also comes from the desperate imperative of maintaining appearances. Cornelia’s husband can be heard uttering his unflattering nickname for her: “Controlia.” (The sharp screenplay was cowritten by Netzer and Razvan Radulescu, who also cowrote the Romanian New Wave touchstone The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.)

When, at a dinner-table conference, Cornelia pleads with Barbu to attend the deceased boy’s funeral (in a calculated ploy to keep the disadvantaged family from pressing charges), Barbu’s resentment at her meddling boils over. From this point forward, the brattily standoffish thirtysomething emerges as a complex character in his own right, reactive mainly when lashing out at his mother: he finds her entirely overbearing, but also makes sure she knows that what assistance he does ask for is lacking. (He berates her for buying a type of over-the-counter medication other than the one he requested.) Several near-masterful sit-down scenes follow in the film’s final stretches, each featuring a more shamelessly manipulative performance by Cornelia as she attempts to buy off a series of key figures without her son’s knowledge. Money might go a long way toward protecting someone from a prison sentence in this capitalist Romania, but Netzer skillfully shows that it’s of no help in fixing a family that has already unraveled from within.

Opens February 19 at Film Forum

01/29/14 4:00am

12 O’Clock Boys
Directed by Lotfy Nathan

The group of the title is named for the angle its members claim they can reach with their wheelies: straight up like the hands on a clock at high noon, leaning back their dirt bikes and ATVs into perilous position as they rev en masse through the streets of Baltimore, weaving through city traffic, darting around to elude (and sometimes taunt) the cops. In this short documentary feature, director Nathan shows plenty of neighborhood and local-news concern over the public dangers posed by this activity—the police, reluctant to pursue the riders on the ground, try to corral them with the help of helicopters—while also appreciating that these stunts can be amazing to behold. Some of this footage has long since gone viral on YouTube, but the handful of slo-mo passages from the Williamsburg-based Nathan’s ride-alongs reveal a kind of grace humming beneath the one-off daredevilry. We see man in full harmony with machine, hurtling ahead while pointing skyward.

Here, that fleeting-glory aesthetic serves another purpose, since the subject of the documentary, an adolescent nicknamed Pug, dreams of one day joining the 12 O’Clock convoy on the main drag. Ignoring the increasingly stern reprimands of his mother, Pug scoots around on one set of wheels or another—adopting a new brashness after his older brother suddenly dies of an asthma attack and the family relocates from the west of the city to the east. Veteran riders argue that the coordinated vehicular disorder is a positive draw when compared with the other, more familiar forms of illegality that continue to thrive in these inner-city neighborhoods, pitching the big Sunday ride as a release; meanwhile, an officer estimates that this reckless behavior leads to the loss of 12 to 15 lives every summer. Nathan might spend most of his time getting to know the riders, but he doesn’t make a point of taking sides. Instead, he conveys quite clearly some of the reasons how and why this dirt-bike culture matters for a kid like Pug as he grows up—no mean feat in itself.

Opens January 31

01/15/14 4:00am

Like Father, Like Son
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Leave it to Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda, who wrote and directed two of the aughts’ least histrionic gnawing-absence family dramas (Nobody Knows and Still Walking), to make a thoroughly grounded switched-at-birth movie. This isn’t to say that Kore-eda bends over backward to make his characters endearing. Masaharu Fukuyama plays successful architect Ryota, seen reinforcing overachiever values in his few spare hours with wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and overscheduled son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Visitors often marvel that the family’s sterile modern home is like a hotel; early on, we see Keita blowing out the candles on a cake to celebrate the passage of his elementary-school entrance exam, the sparkling green lights of the city skyline behind him suddenly all that’s visible from the darkened high-rise apartment.

Ryota’s rigidity emerges as a more pressing problem when the family must grapple with the news that their boy had been mixed up with another years ago at the hospital—and that their biological son, Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen), has been living with a more disheveled couple, Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari (Yoko Maki), in an apartment above an appliance-repair shop. At a food-court meet-up early on, Ryota can barely conceal his disgust as he watches his flesh-and-blood chewing on a soda straw. Yudai, for his part, only seems to be able to talk about the size of the settlement they might get from the hospital. In due course, then, disputes over parenting principles complicate the discussion about how to manage a custody exchange as seamlessly as possible.

The class differences between the couples are hammered home with an insistence that seems out of step with the otherwise unobtrusive behavioral observations of the screenplay—with Keita in the backseat, Ryota mutters “this is pathetic” as he pulls up to Yudai and Yukari’s address; in court testimony, the nurse who was on duty confesses that the allure of the more put-together Ryota and Midori led her to switch the children deliberately. Such gratuitous contrasting only serves to make the themes feel less organic, but Like Father, Like Son stays with these characters long enough to show, affectingly, how even those stuck in their ways might learn to adapt to a situation without any tidy solutions. Kore-eda, renowned for his facility with child actors (on ample display in Nobody Knows and his recent I Wish), doesn’t merely focus on the uprooted kids—here, the parents must do some growing
as well.

Opens January 17

01/01/14 4:00am

The Great Flood
Directed by Bill Morrison

The erosion of time, ever a timely concern, takes center stage in Morrison’s experimental practice. The archival footage he assembles has denatured during its decades in storage, its projected surface grown mottled and warped; perhaps unsurprisingly, his best-known nitrate-stock symphony, 2002’s Decasia, has already met with institutional approval, its recent induction into the National Film Registry preserving the catalogue of damage against further damage (at least for now). His new film, The Great Flood, exhibits this native-to-the-medium decay in its rolling out of deep-wading newsreels, while taking as its subject a natural catastrophe of historic proportions: the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, which washed out 27,000 square miles of Southern landscape.

The Great Flood wears its reclaimed-history mantle a little more lightly than Morrison’s previous feature-ish film, The Miners’ Hymns—a reverently haunting ode to County Durham’s once-vibrant coal-mining communities that played Film Forum two years ago—drifting as it does on the lapping tide of jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s roots-procession score. But there does remain a strong current of tribute: the visual record as it’s culled together here often focuses on the black sharecroppers displaced by the Delta’s levee breaches. The film offers both an extended tour of the devastation (a paddle trip down Main Street shows the roofs of the stores sloping down directly into the water) and a sort of testament to under-duress human endurance (folks pack out what they can from their submerged homesteads; workers heap dirt and sandbags along the unruly river; in downtime, musicians pick out songs we will never be able to hear).

The material state of the drawn-upon negatives does not result in shrouded action so much as it renders each gesture more eerily poignant. Dancing ribbons darken the edges of the frame to such an extent that an exodus-by-train appears as if through a keyhole; frequently, something resembling black lichen overtakes the screen, having colonized the brightest portions of the picture plane, but through it human movements are somehow still detectible. Just as we witness the river breaking its banks and wearing away the surrounding terrain, so it becomes clear that these undulating flecks and dapples are nothing other than the furrows that humidity has worn in the filmic record. The Great Flood, plainspoken as it is, nonetheless develops an undertow of considerable force: it stands as a history lesson so vividly immediate as to resemble a ghostly conjuration—an account of what people did and where they stood and how their eyes briefly met the camera straight-on—but also a dying-light reminder of the ravages of time, of just how wide a gulf a few generations can be.

Opens January 8

12/18/13 4:30am

The Selfish Giant
Directed by Clio Barnard

We’re first introduced to 13-year-old Arbor Fenton (Conner Chapman) as he angrily pounds the wooden slats underneath the frame of his bed—it’s unclear what’s set him off, only that he has a live-wire temper, and doesn’t hesitate to let those fists fly. In short order, best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) has talked him down, and the two take a midnight horseback ride down to the train tracks, where they swipe a coil of metal cable to scrap for cash. So director Barnard (oddly, the protagonist Arbor shares a name with the director’s previous film, a tough 2010 documentary with an unusual formal device: actors lip-synching over interview audio) sets up her intriguing second feature, an atmospheric spin on the British social-realist picture, edged with a just a hint of grimy enchantment.

Inspired by an Oscar Wilde fable for children, from which the film also draws its title, The Selfish Giant takes place in the ramshackle environs of Bradford (also the housing-estate stomping ground of The Arbor), a landscape littered with crumbling homes and overgrown lawns that might be scavenged for salable junk; in back of the scrapyard, pasture gives way to a power plant. Poverty and family discord (not to mention a knee-jerk defiance of authority) have cast Arbor and Swifty out into this terrain to fend for themselves, clinging tightly to each other as they playact their idea of adult self-reliance. Soon, Arbor and Swifty, excluded from school, find themselves working for junkyard boss Kitten (Sean Gilder) full-time—with Swifty drafted to tend to Kitten’s prize horse (rented out to collectors to haul carts of reclaimed metal, and run in races on the side), while Arbor, feeling left out, and thus increasingly reckless, entertains the idea of stripping the cables from the nearby power lines. The tactility of the hovering handheld photography (by DP Mike Eley) creates a sort of electricity of its own, heightening the film’s sensitivity to the hardships of the boys, blustery kids affectingly played by non-pros Chapman and Thomas. The Selfish Giant might be built like a bedtime story, but it certainly pulls no punches in ushering forth its scalding kitchen-sink shouting match.

Opens December 20