An interesting 'Ida,' and I loathe 'Lucy'

There is a stigma associated with foreign films, especially ones that are shot in black and white and set in a historical period that most Americans are unfamiliar with: That they are long and boring and nothing ever happens.

I’ll be the first to admit it: It’s hard to get psyched about seeing a movie about an orphaned young woman getting ready to take her vows in a convent in early 1960s Poland.

But director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” now playing at Liberty Hall, is an 80-minute road-trip movie filled with plenty of plot and surprising revelations, not to mention fascinating lead characters who couldn’t be more different from each other.

The chaste and sheltered 18-year-old title character (Agata Trzebokowska) is a bit of a blank slate, wearing her poker face at all times and holding tightly to her teachings. Her world is turned upside down following the news that her real name is Ida, not Anna, and that she’s Jewish and her parents were killed during World War II.

It’s her one known relative Aunt Wanda (Agneta Kulesza) who delivers this bomb, and she relishes the moment. An angry former prosecutor for Poland’s Communist party, “Red Wanda” now spends time assuaging her guilt with booze and one-night stands.

Like everything else in “Ida,” the complicated social and political backdrop of post-war Poland is filled in naturally as the movie progresses. There’s no onscreen titles or omniscient narrator to explain the film’s context and setting. It’s easy enough to glean this information from the complicated feelings of its characters.

What is fascinating is how Pawlikowski reveals so much by simply sticking with Ida and Wanda and acutely observing their behavior.

The visual strategy is as striking as Pawlikowski’s efficient storytelling. Shot in the square aspect ratio of yesteryear, it has a rigid quality that reflects Ida’s upbringing.

Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal employ a camera that’s eternally still, and often keeps its subjects smaller in the frame or partially obscured, as if some larger force were bearing down on them. The soundtrack is austere as well, featuring music that only occurs in the reality of the film, save for the quietly powerful last shot.

“Ida” is a study in contrasts, from its stark black and white presentation to its diametrically opposed characters, each of them representing aspects of their country at a complicated juncture.

A dark cloud hangs over Poland in the film. The population is haunted by the recent past, and Wanda’s resentful attitude is obvious. (Kulesza is a particular standout certainly worth remembering come Oscar time.) Ida represents the country’s tough road forward, confronting not only her family history and everything she’s been taught but also modernization and shifting social mores.

If the movie still sounds a little too much like doing your homework, it’s not. You’ll just have to trust me.


For every complex social issue at play in “Ida,” there is an equally fascinating quasi-philosophical question to match it in Luc Besson’s action-movie “Lucy.” Unfortunately, these questions are answered in the most reductionary of ways by a filmmaker who has neither the patience nor the interest in actually engaging intelligently with the material.

The core idea of “Lucy” is a tantalizing sci-fi premise, exploring what would happen if a human were able to access the 90 percent of brain function that is currently unavailable to us. Scarlett Johansson is the woman who gets this ability suddenly (and by accident), and the disappointing answer has his film falling into lazy superhero tropes and many of the same action clichés that Besson’s been pumping out in the Euro trash action flicks he’s been producing for years.

The prospect of instant evolution and a sudden massive intellect is foreshadowed by the appearance of a hairy Neanderthal at the film’s opening. The fact that the CGI cavewoman is named Lucy and an exact physical replica of her somehow resides in a natural history museum in the present-day is the first sign that “Lucy” is going to be corny as heck.

Besson goes on to squander a tense, thriller-style opening where Johansson shows considerable spark and makes Lucy someone worth rooting for. The actress also shines in an emotional phone call to her mother as long-forgotten childhood memories flood her mind. But the more she becomes like a supercomputer and is distanced from what makes her human, the less interesting the movie becomes.

Poor Morgan Freeman is here collecting a paycheck as a researcher who lectures on the subject of the brain’s capacity and hypothesizes that someone like Lucy will eventually come along. It’s too bad that he delivers this exposition in an actual lecture, which Besson keeps cutting back to in an extended scene that feels like it’s using about 1 percent of the brain.

Despite all of the interesting ideas that it brings up, “Lucy” is unimaginatively scripted and staged. Although Lucy has a constantly expanding consciousness, she mostly uses it to turn into Magneto and swat bad guys away with her mind.

Besson wants to show he’s got bigger issues on his mind, but he relies on CGI sequences inside her brain that look like animated screen savers from 2004, as well as wide shots of the planet Earth as seen from space.

“Lucy” wants to be a thinking man’s action movie with strains of “The Tree of Life,” but it’s really a by-the-numbers revenge movie for people who thought Ashton Kutcher's “The Butterfly Effect” was profound.


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