Monday, September 28, 2015

PHOENIX (2015)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
DIRECTOR: Christian Petzold
GENRE: Drama/Suspense

In Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss) is playing a role. She's playing herself,  as if she were someone not herself...playing herself. That's a head scratcher until you learn that she is a concentration camp survivor in post-war Berlin, recovering from reconstructive facial surgery due to a bullet wound.

Her friend and caregiver, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), wants her to come to Tel Aviv to start a new life. But Nelly is intent upon finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She was a singer--he was a piano player. They made a good team. Or so she thought. 

When she finds him, he doesn't recognize her because her face is different. In a poignant scene, he tells her of his wife (herself), convinced that she perished in the camps. But Nelly fits the same profile, he thinks, and he recruits her to impersonate herself in a scheme to collect inheritance money, as the rest of her family had been killed. Here is where we must decide whether to employ the willing suspension of disbelief and go with the idea that Johnny wouldn't recognize his own wife--face altered or not--by the sound of her voice, her mannerisms, etc.  My advice is to run with it, because you won't be disappointed the rest of the way.

Nelly doesn't reveal her true identity to Johnny, because Lene has told her that he is the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. She doesn't want to believe it, but she must discern the truth, so she plays along with his scheme until a climactic scene so "heavy" (as we used to say back in the day) it will have you thinking about Phoenix for days afterward.

German born Nina Hoss shines as a woman torn between love and mistrust...between the past and the present...between the dark and the light.

Grade:  A


Phoenix, despite its basic implausibility, got my attention. And that wasn't easy. Forget about the mistaken identity plot used in literature throughout the ages. What irked me from the get-go were the indecipherable subtitles. (White type against a white background? Pul-eeze!) Then I got confused about the main character's relationship with her friend. Was this woman her sister? Her lawyer? Her wannabe lover? I realize that foreign films don't feel the need to explain everything the way American films do. Still, confusion doesn't sit well with me. All this being said, the ending was worth the price of admission.

And the musical score was beautifully integrated with the story. (Of course it didn't hurt that our facially mutilated heroine was a jazz singer.) That being said, I'm sure Cole Porter would roll over in his grave if he read the German translation of the lyrics to "Night and Day" sung in campy style by two plump, post-war strippers. Which reminds me of another weakness in this film: the title. "Phoenix" is the neon-lit name of the nightclub where the husband works. And, yes, it can also be symbolic of our leading lady's rise from the ashes. But it's a stretch – like so many things about this movie.

Grade:  C +

Friday, September 11, 2015


Rated:  R

STARS: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach
GENRE: Comedy 

Mistress America is reminiscent of a turn of the millennium TV show you may remember--Gilmore Girls--which featured Lauren Graham as a thirty-something mom engaging in rapid-fire repartee with her teen daughter (Alexis Bledel) throughout the show. It was always witty (thanks to the writers) and deadpan humorous. If you liked that show, you will love this movie--the talkiest film I've ever seen (other than My Dinner With Andre and Before Midnight). And yes, it's a total chick flick, but nonetheless I attempt to draw whatever minuscule comprehension of the female brain that I am capable of,  because I owe it to you, dear reader!  

In Mistress America, we have a similar pairing of an 18 year-old college freshman and aspiring writer named Tracy (Lola Kirke), and her thirty-ish future sister-in-law, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Tracy's mother is marrying Brooke's dad, and so Tracy contacts her future "sis" with the intention of bonding. Brooke takes Tracy into her madcap Times Square world, and Tracy soon develops a strong admiration for this quirky, free-spirited individual, and is writing a story--thinly veiled as fiction but all about Brooke--that will come back to bite her later on.

Brooke's ambitions are bigger than her follow-through. She's got grand schemes, one of which is to start a restaurant, but we can see that she's just a little too scattered to bring something like that off. And she wants to get even with the woman who stole some of her creative ideas, her boyfriend, and her two cats to boot! It will all culminate in a climactic scene that's like something from one of those wacky British stage plays, where everyone is talking a mile a second, and gesticulating wildly, and running in and out the door and up the stairs, and the audience just keeps tittering away. Only the humor here is more deadpan, more urbane, and inventively conceived.

Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with her real life partner, director Noah Baumbach, is at least as good as any (current) SNL actor in pulling off her Zooey Deschanel-esque character. Lola Kirke, a relative newcomer, brings a low-key likability to her role, but I get the feeling she is capable of much more. And then we have Jasmine Cephas Jones as Nicolette, the obsessively jealous girlfriend of  a fellow student Tracy might have some real interest in if he weren't already taken. And though she has a minor role, Jones has been given the best lines in the movie--blunt, jaw-dropping, and not repeatable here!  

At first I wasn't sure what to make of this film. But gradually, it began to win me over. As a small tale about two people in search of themselves, Mistress America has some heart. And it tries really hard. And in an unconventional kind of way, succeeds. 

Grade: B +


Don't you hate it when friends, people whose opinions you respect and trust, recommend a movie you wind up thinking is a piece of crap? Well, Tim. If Mistress America is "a total chick flick," I want to change my gender!

As happily Hollywood-married as Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach may be, they don't know bupkus about script-writing. Obviously, they've never heard of a "character arc" as no one really changes. (I mean really changes.) Everything is so slick and facile. From the get-go, it's hard to accept that the unpopular-at-school heroine, played somewhat believably by Lola Kirke, is in fact unpopular. She's gorgeous. And unless school values have changed drastically since I was in college, beauty counts. Then there's her new girl crush Brooke, who is so ADHD-ish and self-absorbed that her likablity factor is zero. Some of the scenes felt like they were straight out of SNL. While others, the overly talky ones, were just plain bor-ing. 

Thankfully, I saw this film with someone (clearly not Tim) who had the same brain-numbed reaction I did. And judging from the two other audience members, this film may be a critics' favorite but isn't exactly resonating with the general public. One scene, where all the players are simultaneously reading a script over one another's shoulders is pure slapstick. The rest? Pure schlock.

Grade: D -

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

NO ESCAPE (2015)

Rated: R

STARS: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan
DIRECTOR: John Erick Dowdle

Appreciate a good plot? Not the movie for you. Enjoy character development? Not the movie for you. Like balls-to-the-wall action in an edge of your seat thriller?  Si, senor, this da movie for you! Which means that after the prologue and the who, what, when, and where have been established, No Escape is essentially one long continuous action sequence.

Texas businessman Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their two young daughters have arrived in an unspecified southeast Asian country, where he has been transferred by his company. Just in time for the assassination of the prime minister and a revolution in the making. Bands of roving killers sweep through the streets, invading the tourist hotels and executing Americans and their sympathizers on the spot. (It seems they don't like us.) 

 Jack finds himself careening through the streets with an angry mob in pursuit. He must make it back to the hotel and collect his family and get the hell outta Dodge. If they can. And that's what No Escape is about. They run and jump from rooftop to rooftop, from alleyway to alleyway, dodging bullets. An expatriate they have befriended, named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), falls in with them and is able to provide some cover fire. He may be ex-CIA. Or he may just be M.I.A. In a rare moment where the five of them are able to catch their breath, he intimates--in so many words--that all the stink is a reaction to American Imperialism. (So what else is new?) 

A deeper film might have explored some of the politics behind the turmoil, but that is not the intent here. The movie knows what it wants to do, and it's good at what it does. The only story question being: Will they survive? (Much like Robert Redford in All Is Lost.)  Unfortunately, it is telegraphed who is going to make it and who isn't (for anyone who has seen three movies and can put two and two together). Predictability in a film can be a bummer and make it just another ho-hummer, but things are moving so fast, and you came here primarily to get your adrenaline pumping anyway, so you're not going to dwell on it. 

Owen Wilson, with his basset hound mug (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), seems a peculiar choice for the part of a man who will be thrust into the role of becoming a do-or-die hero, but he grows on you. Lake Bell grows on you too. She doesn't possess Angelina Jolie features, but she has a presence that I find appealing, and sexy even. So I'm going looking for more of her work. 

Grade:  B


A nail-biter from start to finish. (And if you don't bite your nails? You will by the time this film ends.) The thing that impressed me was how the suspense kept building. And speaking of buildings, the scene where they have to heave their kids onto another roof to escape the angry mob is truly heart-stopping. (It's in every trailer of the movie so I'm not ruining anything.) Usually in these chase movies, I get bored after awhile. Not this time. Whether Owen Wilson's terrified family is running through an unfamiliar city, a blown-up hotel, or a bombed out American Embassy, the tension created is relentless.   

Who is director/screenwriter John Eric Dowdle and what has done in the past? Not much. A third place award from the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards for directing and writing As Above, So Below (2014). This tells me he knows his way around cinematic scariness. And he's only 42. So I look forward to more of his directorial efforts.

As for what I didn't like? At one point, the Pierce Brosnan character gives a lengthy explanation of why American corporations are to blame for all this unrest. Ho hum. When I'm on the edge of my seat, completely wrapped up in a "will-they-or-won't-they-escape" drama, I don't need a sermon. Another thing that made No Escape great escapist entertainment was the use of silence. Although Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders are credited with writing the musical score, it was sparingly used -- to great effect.

Grade: B +