Grantland logo

Small(er) Movie Review Roundup: Because the Word ‘Amazing’ Should Have Been a Red Flag

‘Ida,’ ‘The Railway Man,’ ‘Blue Ruin,’ ‘Belle,’ ‘Walk of Shame,’ and ‘Locke.’

Ida, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski

This exquisitely drawn, economically told tale, set in 1960s Poland, is a study of two faces, one soft, the other hard. The first belongs to a demure country orphan named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who’s studying her vows to become a nun. A letter arrives. She has an aunt and is told by an elder nun to meet her. Reluctantly, the orphan heads to Warsaw, whereupon the hard, older, colder face — Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) — explains the situation, more or less as a man dresses and leaves her apartment. It’s complicated and simple at the same time. The orphan learns she’s not who she’s been raised to be — she’s a Jew named Ida (it rhymes with “Rita”). But with beatific poise she accepts the news and the ensuing search, with Wanda, for a man who knew her parents.

The film last less than 80 minutes, and Pawlikowski etches it in the rich, searing smoke of photorealistic black and white. The contrasting friction between the two women — virginity and vulgarity; temperance and impatience; plainness and bitterness — leads to comic drollery. Kulesza works with a bruising, bruised bluntness that moves you. Wanda is somewhere in her forties. She lost a son and a sister in the Holocaust and spent the ensuing years as a prosecutor, presumably of war criminals. The pearls around her neck and posted on her ears relax the air of toughness. Obviously, she drinks to make the days bearable.

The trip with her niece is a grim adventure for her, too. It leads to surprise and alarm. Pawlikowski’s been making quiet melodramas with women at their center for two decades. This is a formal and moral breakthrough: echoes of the great European art philosophers (Robert Bresson, say, and Krzysztof Kieślowski), stark realism, and the human granularity of superb novels. (Pawlikowski wrote the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz.) There’s a glimmer of romance, but ultimately this is a pitiless, elemental consideration of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. The war took the lives even of people who are otherwise living. And now the question is how will these two women go on, and as whom? The movie doesn’t offer a complete answer, just a stunning character portrait of survival and loss.

The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

Ida is the sort of hypnotically spare drama you wish Hollywood would attempt. But no one seems to trust an audience to sit still long enough for storytellers to work their magic. The Railway Man is also set beyond WWII, but it’s all frills. Eric Lomax was one of scores of British soldiers captured by the Japanese and forced into a Malaysian POW camp that labored to build the Thai-Burma railway.

Lomax was tortured and wrote about a book about it. Now the book’s a droopy revenge thriller with Colin Firth as Lomax, a tweedy train obsessive who meets and marries his dream girl — a nurse named Patricia (Nicole Kidman) — before falling into a long shock of post-traumatic stress disorder that only stiffens her resolve to rehabilitate him. Patricia turns to one of Eric’s fellow vets (Stellan Skarsgård) for help. What he gives us are flashbacks to the events that have left Eric a “broken man.” Those feature Jeremy Irvine, from War Horse, as a young Lomax and Tanroh Ishida as the translator who stands by as Lomax is beaten and waterboarded. Eventually, Firth’s Lomax pays visit to the middle-aged translator (Hiroyuki Sanada).

That’s the movie the ads are selling: Death Wish in elbow patches. And maybe if you put Firth and Kidman in a movie mostly set in a kind of WWII Gulag, the audiences will pile up. But this isn’t a movie that trust us to stay with it. It’s a middlebrow perversion: the lurches in time, the presentation of a romantic drama that turns into a meek film about torture then back into a romance, the determination to make it all pretty and emotionally sanitary. Indeed, as a Japanese soldier bludgeons Lomax, the movie comes up with choral music, slow motion, a handsome guy reciting the 23rd Psalm, and Skarsgård saying “madness.” We don’t see Irvine until it’s over, and he’s just a messianic mess of bloodied tatters. A scene like that tells the difference between subtlety and spinelessness.

Sanada’s stoicism is the best thing here. But he’s reduced to a weepy supplicant. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Japanese army did behave monstrously, but movie politics back the story into self-congratulatory racism — the Asians are either hideous or docile. The filmmakers don’t have the nerve for a serious consideration of trauma, vengeance, and forgiveness. It’s a work of abject tastefulness with Firth as its hood ornament. A longer, more epic film might have worked. But even with another hour, any movie that has Colin Firth walking around with a knife can only mean he’s come to cut the cheese.

Blue Ruin, directed by Jeremy Saulnier

Anyone looking for payback that hits the bull’s-eye should stop here. This bloody microbudget thriller works because Saulnier, who also wrote this script, isn’t thinking about us. But he’s not thinking against us, either — or against himself — which is crucial. He just spins his yarn and makes a very good hat from the tale of a quiet, youngish man named Dwight (Macon Blair) who’d been living as a bearded bum. The news that a character has been released from a Virginia prison sets in motion a plot he’s only partially hatched.

Saulnier is also a cinematographer, and he’s in complete control of the film’s conflation of human-scale horror and tragicomedy. Dwight has tasked himself with an execution that he can’t decisively execute. But Saulnier isn’t laughing at him. It’s as if the Coens had made a funny thriller in which they cared about their protagonist. Saulnier seems to prefer the unlucky to the stupid.

I’ve left vague the particulars of why all this blood’s being splattered because they’re too sadly life-size to spoil. This is easily the most suspenseful time I’ve had at a movie in a long while. Not only don’t you know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what you’d prefer to happen. You stop trying to guess — the movie’s got you. It’s also got atmosphere — the color blue appears in most of the shots, and, once you notice, you’re worried you won’t stop noticing.

But you do stop and start appreciating what a perfect actor Blair is for the circumstances. I’d never seen him in a movie before. I’d like to see him again. Here you can catch him wrestling, quietly, with the morality of the task he’s set for himself. He’s got the face of an unhappy baby, and the entire movie appears to have been built around his great, big eyes, two pools of shock that stay with you months after you’ve seen them. Saulnier doesn’t stint on the ruin. A lot of it’s in Blair’s face.

Belle, directed by Amma Asante

All the images in Belle look powdered. It’s a costume drama set in 18th century England, and lays the debate over Britain’s position on race and slavery at the feet of one Dido Belle. She’s an orphan (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) born to a black mother and white admiral father sent to live at the manor of her uncle, a bigoted judge (Tom Wilkinson), and his aristocratic family. It’s the kind of movie in which everyone speaks in opening and closing arguments — legally, sure, but as romance, too. “I love her,” says Dido’s primary suitor, a white civil-rights lawyer made of hair and oak (Sam Reid). “I love her with every breath I breathe!” Well, that’s nice, buddy, but you’re taking up all the air! The rest gets sucked up by all the bosom-heaving that Mbatha-Raw’s been required to do.

The film, whose script is credited, controversially, to Misan Sagay (apparently, Asante did a lot of writing, too), was inspired by a painting of Belle and her “sister-cousin” Elizabeth, who sits invitingly in the foreground. Asante took one look at the painting, saw the simpering brown-skinned woman seated to Elizabeth’s right, and basically asked, “Who’s that?” The movie she’s made is so determined to be moral and good and optimistically anti-tragic that it forgets to be interesting, original, and illuminating. Belle is simultaneously beloved and beleaguered — “too high in rank to dine with the servants, too low in rank” to dine with her family. But the movie doesn’t grant her a crucial spark of inner life.

Belle is California roll Jane Austen, a class drama loaded with political and romantic filler. So much of the film revolves around marrying off Dido and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, superb again) in the conventional ways that you feel like an opportunity’s been missed to do some real wondering. I mean, it is interesting that you can basically construct a work of PBS Masterpiece around a woman of color. (The film has some of the power-brokering of Game of Thrones and a bit of the gasp-inducing societal hypocrisies of Downton Abbey.)

But then to have everyone standing around, in court rooms and parlors, and talking about the construction is tedious. Thank god for Miranda Richardson, who barges into her scenes as the mother of two bratty suitors and injects some racist haughtiness. The movie is so busy being desperate and powdered that it doesn’t notice it’s being stolen. Richardson’s playing the one person you shouldn’t leave excited about. But you take one look at her and ask, “Who’s that?”

Walk of Shame, directed by Steven Brill

You can count on one hand the number of actors who the public likes almost unconditionally — Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, Kerry Washington, and Elizabeth Banks. They could survive almost any fiasco. Look at Banks. She gets out of this stink bomb more or less intact. It’s one of those one-night-stand comedies that covers a single disastrous day. In Banks’s case, her L.A. news anchor loses her boyfriend and a promotion, goes clubbing with her girlfriends in a yellow minidress, gets drunk with a cutie-pie bartender (James Marsden) at his loft, sleeps with him, gets the promotion back, sneaks out of the apartment but loses her car, and spends the rest of the movie trying to get home. She steals a bike, fakes being a masseuse, is kicked off a city bus, and sprints in what appear to be actual heels.

There’s one joke that’s meant to last the entire movie: Everybody assumes she’s a prostitute. It made me laugh exactly once: when Banks chases a drug dealer (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) into a crack den and gets a reasoned critique instigated by a junkie (Alphonso McAuley) named Pookie: “That’s the bitch from the news!” It’s the only moment the joke’s been set up and turned upside down. It surprises you so that you don’t stop caring that the men getting the laughs are all scary-black-dude stereotypes.

This isn’t as hateful as, say, The Other Woman. The concept’s a little higher and the humiliation more cosmic. Brill doesn’t hate Banks. He’s just never competent enough a director to tolerate his movie. Instead, he conjures a Los Angeles in which a beautiful white woman can go on what’s basically a misdemeanor spree and elude capture, nominally, in the name of hilarity. Her blonde weave is an amazing force field. This is a version of that Michael Douglas–on-a-rampage thriller, Falling Down, except Banks just keeps popping back up.

Locke, directed by Steven Wright

What are the people who love this movie going crazy for? The whole thing is Tom Hardy conducting crisis management on his car phone. It’s not dull. All of the crises are of his character’s own creation. Once, away on business, Ivan Locke had a one-night stand. The woman is having the baby, so he’s driving 90 minutes from London to be at her side. She’s not a mistress. He’s just taken it upon himself to be responsible. In doing so, he jeopardizes his cushy construction foreman job and his marriage. A quarter of his calls are to an underling whom he’s talking through a major concrete pour. A quarter are to his wife and sons. A quarter are to an irate higher-up at work. And a quarter are to the backseat and rearview mirror, where the memory of his father resides.

If you’ve ever seen a Mike Figgis movie (Leaving Las Vegas, One Night Stand, Timecode), you might understand the self-consciously conceptual, stressed masculinity that’s afoot here as mid-tier Figgis. If not, perhaps you’re sensing a stage play or a twist-less, irony-free episode of The Twilight Zone. Otherwise, it’s a good actor putting his Bluetooth to work. Hardy is quite good, actually. He gives himself some of Richard Burton’s thoughtfulness and poise, but he sobers it up. I believed him. I just didn’t believe the movie. I didn’t believe it after the first 10 minutes.

There’s no reason for the magnitude of these respective calamities to overlap. Waiting a day to drive solves the work dilemma and ultimately costs him little with the stranger having his child. But the movie needs for these things to happen more than Locke would seem to. So the film feels like an exercise in dramatic style, and maybe that’s enough for some people. But whether it’s for me or for the characters, I need an exercise to generate a little more sweat.