Monday, May 5, 2014

For No Good Reason, Belle, Ida

For No Good Reason


Capsule reviews on the weekend's art-house offerings:

A film about the cartoonist Ralph Steadman entitled "For No Good Reason" is the worst documentary I've seen in over a year's time. Less than 90 minutes in length, it feels like three hours, the sort of movie in which you check your watch so often you actually get excited when ten minutes have passed since last you looked. Steadman is best known for his work on "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and other pieces with Hunter S. Thompson, yet the movie captures none of the on-the-edge energy of the late "gonzo journalist," and suffers from a lack of shocking or amusing anecdotes. (I got far more pleasure watching Richard Jenkins react to Depp's minibar bill - as Thompson - in 2011's "The Rum Diary" than anything here.) Also, amazingly for a documentary profile, we learn next to nothing about Steadman himself, and I mean nothing: not his biography, his family life, his worldview, what kind of man he is. Instead, we get unilluminating interviews with celebrity fans, animations (not done by him) of a great many of his cartoons (why?), and scenes of Steadman breakfasting with Johnny Depp, who inundates him with unsought approbation (a typical comment: "Marvelous. Incredible. Just great"). His stuff does nothing for me, but even if it's your thing, content yourself with a coffee-table book. "For No Good Reason" is agony.

"Belle" is Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate biracial daughter of a British admiral (Matthew Goode) sent to live with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who happens to be England's chief justice and presiding over the Zong slave-ship case that will decide the fate of slavery in the country: Meanwhile, under the aegis of his wife (Emily Watson), Belle and her cousin/BFF Elizabeth begin to see suitors, including the two sons of Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson). There are items of interest in "Belle": first, the Zong case itself, which arises in the context of an insurance claim; second, the strategy involved in 18th-century British courtship, with a view to both rank and fortune (and, in Belle's case, of course race as well). In this, the too-rarely-seen Richardson offers an especially amusing portrayal of catch-as-catch-can opportunism, her insistence that son Oliver (James Norton) not even think about pursuing Belle falling by the boards when she learns of the stipend left to Belle by her late father. Watson, too, deftly navigates the game board of potential beaux, showing interest in one only to slink away when he avows that his brothers are all older - leaving him (a) nothing under the laws of primogeniture. And Wilkinson turns in his usual first-rate performance, balancing not only legal arguments but his love for Belle with the social norms of the day. Unfortunately, "Belle" is so righteously predictable that not one element of the outcome is ever in doubt, including Belle's secret romance with a vicar's son (Sam Reid) - the only one who loves her for who she is -- fired as Lord Mansfield's law clerk for arguing the case against slavery too strenuously. Mbatha-Raw is stiff and forgettable in the title role. And you may be forgiven for laughing when it is Belle herself who discovers the smoking gun (a sea map) on which the Zong decision turns.

I dozed off repeatedly during the 80 minutes of "Ida," director Pawel Pawilkowski's first film set in his native Poland. Anna (first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska, who has said it'll be her last time as well) has grown up in a convent and, at age 18, is soon to take her vows as a nun. Out of nowhere, the Mother Superior informs her she has a living relative, an aunt, Wanda Cruz (Agata Kulesza). Hard-drinking and promiscuous, Wanda used to be a prosecutor, and still maintains useful connections within the Communist Party. She cuts to the chase: Anna's real name is Ida, she's Jewish, and her parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation. Anna reacts to this news with ascetic equanimity, asking only where they are buried. "There were no graves," Wanda replies, before agreeing to help her learn the facts of their demise. Pawlikowski has filmed "Ida" in beautiful black and white, and made some interesting choices in the composition of shots, often placing the characters toward the very bottom of the screen. But this turns out to be, in its own way, just another Holocaust movie, and like most, it's dramatically paralyzed by the subject. Skip it in favor of Pawilkowski's gem "Last Resort," which features one of the two or three best endings in 2000's cinema. As for the deadly dull "Ida"? Recommend it to a friend you'd like to lose.

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