There are many ways to tell a story, and many ways to tell a story well. From classic Hollywood three-act structure pieces like Casablanca to minimalist plot essays like Hiroshima Mon Amour, and beyond, there is no one right way to write and/or direct a successful (in artistic terms) film. There are movies that hammer their points home with bludgeoning force and others that let the viewer fill in the narrative blanks.
Today, in Baltimore, four very different films open: two at Baltimore’s premier art-house and revival cinema, The Charles Theater, and two in the more commercial multiplexes. This week, I have decided to group my reviews together, and to explore how the movies handle their disparate stories through the use of ellipsis, by which certain details are left unexplained (or unexplored), since all four movies have gaps in their plots. Not coincidentally, the two films at The Charles, Ida and The Rover, are the better films, with intentional ellipses, while the two more mainstream movies, Jersey Boys and Think Like a Man Too, where the ellipses often feel unintentional, fail, in many ways, to deliver coherent stories. That’s not to say that the latter are complete and utter failures, but rather just incomplete and significantly less satisfying viewing experiences. When what is left unsaid enhances the story through mystery, then we have a near masterpiece like Ida. When what is left unexplored leaves us wondering why we should care about the characters, as in Jersey Boys and Think Like a Man Too, then we have films that may entertain at fleeting intervals, but which cease to resonate beyond the time spent watching them. Let us proceed.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)
Ida, the first Polish-language film by Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth), is a brilliant and brutal look at Polish culpability in the Holocaust. Pawlikowski describes his intentions, in the movie’s press kit, thus: “I wanted to make a film about history, which wouldn’t feel like a historical film; a film which is moral, but has no lessons to offer; I wanted to tell a story in which ‘everyone has their reasons’; a story closer to poetry than plot.” Indeed, the power of the story comes from what is left off-screen, unspoken and unexplained. Who killed whom, and why, is less important than the aftermath and consequences. It is truly ellipsis as poetry.
Ida is the story of a young novitiate nun who is sent off by her Mother Superior to spend time with her only remaining living relative, her aunt Wanda, before taking her vows. Wanda calmly and ironically informs Ida that she is actually Jewish and that her parents were killed during World War II. Together, Ida and Wanda – an alcoholic living with a profound grief that we think we understand but won’t fully comprehend until the final third of the film – drive into the countryside to retrace Ida’s parents’ final days.
Shot digitally on an ARRI Alexa and released in black & white and the pre-1953 squarish Academy Ratio (Pawlikowski discusses his reasons for these choices in an interview in Filmmaker Magazine), Ida has the look and feel of a much older film, or at least one made by a Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) or Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds). Both image and sound work in glorious (usually quiet) counterpoint to create an atmosphere of dread and reflection. Each time we think we might be approaching an answer to the central concerns of the film – guilt, vengeance, hope, love – the film cuts away. Pawlikowski avoids the easy choices, but his film is not dreary, largely thanks to the performance by his lead, first-time (and untrained) actor Agata Trzebuchowska. In her largely impassive – and elliptical – face, which finally breaks into a smile once she returns to the convent and laughs at a memory of the outside world, we see reflected the wounded soul of a nation. It would be wrong to call it a non-performance, for there is no other kind of performance that would work here. The tragedy of the Holocaust brooks no affect.
Ida is a must-see.
The Rover (David Michôd, 2014)
The Rover is the second narrative feature from Australian writer-director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, which also starred Guy Pearce). After what seems like an interminable procession of production-company logos (the joys of independently financed filmmaking!), the movie opens with the following text: “Australia. 10 years after the collapse.” Shades of Mad Max and its sequels, particularly The Road Warrior, perhaps? It’s hard to resist the comparison to that or to other non-zombie post-apocalyptic movies like The Road (which also featured Guy Pearce, albeit in a small role). And so the derivative worries begin, which are not helped by the very first plot contrivance, when our hero, Eric (the aforementioned Guy Pearce, fierce and tough) has his car stolen from a roadside bar (a set piece that is nevertheless masterfully staged), setting in motion the long chase that will drive the story.
There is much to like in The Rover, including that central performance and – yet again – the carefully considered use of narrative ellipsis. We barely get to know many details about the characters, yet we understand that what pushes them is the never-ending race to survive in the hostile landscape of post-civilization Australia. The most expository line of dialogue in the entire film is said by Pearce’s Eric, offering advice to a traveling companion who has just unintentionally killed an innocent bystander: “You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. It’s the price for taking it.” As the world falls apart around them, that is perhaps the best mantra: actions have consequences. Of course, that doesn’t stop anyone, Eric included, from killing when they need to (and sometimes when they don’t). This isn’t Dorothy’s Oz.
If The Rover is not as successful as Ida, it’s because the opacity of the screenplay doesn’t ultimately turn out to uncover any deeper moral truths than that of the 6th Commandment, and since we end up identifying with a maddened killer, it’s hard to argue that the film even makes that argument. Instead, as Eric chases down the men who’ve stolen his car – wreaking ever greater havoc as he goes – in the company of Rey (Robert Pattinson, all twitchy and possibly the worst thing in the film) the brother of one of them, the story continues to lose shape and momentum, with ellipsis becoming its raison d’être rather than its modus operandi. If you like violent thrillers, it’s entertaining enough (and even occasionally shocking), but it doesn’t add anything new to the genre. Even the ending feels like it’s partially (sort of) adapted from another 1970s dystopian sci-fi film, A Boy and His Dog (not to give too much away, but perhaps The Rover should have just been called “Rover”). In spite of all this, however, I found the film at least somewhat compelling, and enjoyed the moments where what was not said mattered as much as what was explained directly.
Not a must-see, by any means, but not without interest.
Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
If you look at the poster for Jersey Boys after watching the film – adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name and Clint Eastwood’s 33rd as director – you see a scene of The Four Seasons singing under a street lamp. They’re having fun – or so it seems – and at the end of the movie we learn that this was a moment when they rehearsed their first big hit, “Sherry.” Unfortunately, we never actually get to watch the scene beyond that brief flashback, and so the later references to the joy that the four band members took in performing together feel false. The tag line of the film may be “everybody remembers it how they need to,” but unfortunately we need more than just memories in order for a story to resonate. We need characters with enough dramatic setup so that the payoff of their particular dramatic trajectory makes sense and resonates. Jersey Boys is an example of a film where the plot ellipses feel more like an example of editing confusion – as if Eastwood delivered an overlong first cut of the film and then was forced to pare it down – than pure intentionality.
There is nevertheless terrific energy in the first half of the film. Relative screen unknowns John Lloyd Young (who originated the role on Broadway), Vincent Piazza (who has the biggest body of screen work, including “Boardwalk Empire“), Michael Lomenda (who was also in one of the Broadway runs) and Erich Bergen (who played in the show’s Vegas run) play Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio (the four original members of The Four Seasons) respectively, and all give very strong performances (especially Bergen as Gaudio, the composer of the group) and work well together. The problems with the movie are not with them. Nor do the problems lie with the music, which is lovingly recreated and wonderful to hear, nor with the rest of the cast, which includes Christopher Walken, as Jersey mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, and screen novice Renée Marino (another transplant from the stage), as Valli’s long-suffering alcoholic wife, Mary (a severely under-written role in which she manages to shine, regardless). No, the problems lie with the script, which loses all narrative momentum when the band’s fortunes go south, and then asks us to care about the fate of ancillary characters whom we’ve barely gotten to know.
In spite of the fact that this is one big mess of a film, I still enjoyed myself for much of it, if only because I knew nothing about The Four Seasons. I was especially interested in how half of them had criminal backgrounds: who knew that beneath the sweet sounds of “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” lurked some wannabe tough guys! As biopics go, it will (somewhat) hold your interest, and I assume that fans of the theatrical show (which I never saw) will flock to see its cinematic adaptation. But as a movie, it fails in significant ways, both because it leaves out what it should leave in – or be pared down even more so we don’t notice the gaps – and because its inconsistent mise-en-scène promises delights on which it later defaults. An early scene of the singers watching Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole has a funny moment after Kirk Douglas slaps Jan Sterling, and the group’s producer, Bob Crewe (a very good Mike Doyle), says, “Oh, come on, big girls don’t cry.” The camera suddenly pushes in to songwriter Gaudio’s face as he does a double-take, and then the next scene shows the group on stage performing their new hit. It’s a great smash cut – funny, inspired – and it is never repeated, sadly.
Again, by no means a must-see, but a fun film in many ways.
Think Like a Man Too (Tim Story, 2014)
Think Like a Man Too (comma omitted by the filmmakers) was what I expected, for better or for worse. It’s the sequel to the 2012 comedy hit Think Like a Man, which made over $90 million on a $12 million budget. Tim Story (director of the far superior Barbershop and even the Fantastic Four!) is back for round two, as are all of the central characters. Loosely based on Steve Harvey’s best-selling relationship-advice book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (and very much a promo for it), the first film featured five (mostly) African-American wannabe couples and their one white sidekick (a refreshing change from the usual reverse Hollywood model) as they struggled to find love (or sex). Harvey and his book acted as sage and bible to both the men and women, who saw each other as beleaguered warriors on opposing sides of the gender war. While I didn’t appreciate the movie’s retrograde sexual politics, I did laugh a few times. If you want to know more, read Ann Hornaday’s review, which is perhaps more favorable than I would have written, but spot on in many ways.
In part two, all of the friends and romantic partners head to Las Vegas for the wedding of Michael (Terrence Jenkins, the dimmest bulb in both films) and Candace (Regina Hall, who could do a lot better than Michael). Cedric (a funny, if a little too manic, Kevin Hart) is the accidental best man. It turns out that Michael actually wanted Dominic (Michael Ealy, one of the better actors in the movie) to be his best man, but asked him while short little Cedric (the film tries to get way too much mileage out of Hart’s vertically challenged dimensions) was standing below him, and so Cedric assumed the request was for him. Ha, ha! So unstable Cedric is in charge of the proceedings, and everything pretty quickly goes downhill. The surprise is that the women – with their own bachelorette plans organized by the ostensibly far more reasonable Lauren (Taraji P. Henson) – also get into trouble. But at least their shenanigans make for one of the best scenes in the film, as the ladies – all unwittingly high because of some pot-laced breathstrips courtesy of Kristen (Gabrielle Union, always watchable), who has forgotten that they’re from her pothead boyfriend Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara, whose appeal to Kristen remains a major mystery) – dance and rap to Bell Biv Devoe’s 1990 hit “Poison.” And then everyone – men and women – lands in jail, and the wedding plans are in jeopardy. How will it end? I’ll give you extra points if you can figure that out.
The problems with the film are many. Yes, it will make you occasionally laugh (and Wendi McLendon-Covey, as the token white gal, absent from the first film, is a big reason why – she kills it in the “Poison” scene). But we have, again, that annoying way of presenting relationships as a war zone, and men as predators and women as prey, which may resonate for some but which is hardly the only way to see the equation. And then there are the multiple moments that we don’t see – the sloppy ellipses, as I call them – where couples whose stories we largely ignore through most of the film come together at the end in overly sentimental scenes, and we are supposed to care. The most egregious example of this is the least believable partnership in the film, between good girl Mya (Meagan Good, not well-served by the script) and playboy “Zeke the Freak” (Romany Malco, last seen in Vegas in last year’s Last Vegas). We’re never given enough interaction between the two of them to understand what they see in each other, and so when Zeke finally – *plot spoiler* – proposes at the end, we’re left scratching our heads as to why.
Of the films opening today, this is by far my least favorite, but if you’re a fan of the original, or just a fan of Kevin Hart and his zany antics, you may nevertheless enjoy.