Survivor’s Guilt and a Phoenix Soaring to Rarefied Cinematic Heights

Phoenix - In the Ashes

War can change a person to where they become unrecognizable to their loved ones and to themselves.  It can ravage people and places.  It can disfigure a person’s body and soul.

Writer-director Christian Petzold takes this idea literally in his masterful new neo-noir, Phoenix, where his long-time muse, Nina Hoss, delivers a performance for the ages as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who undergoes facial reconstruction surgery and then finds herself in the psychologically complex predicament of having to go under disguise as another woman pretending to be herself so as to find out the truth about her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis during the war.

Phoenix - Club

Despite the warnings of her friend and confidant, Lene (a bleak and soulful Nina Kuzendorf) who hopes for Nelly to rest and recover while she works out the legality of claiming Nelly’s family inheritance so that they can join the flux of survivors to Palestine, Nelly wanders the ravaged Berlin landscape mourning bombed out homes, hiding under a widow’s mask and traipsing through the shadows like a Frankenstein monster until she comes across the down-and-out Phoenix nightclub where American soldiers mix with the German underbelly looking to ply them with sex and show tunes.  Nelly, a former torch signer, and Johnny, a former pianist, find themselves in this hellish version of their former lives, both on the outskirts looking in, not able to perform.  He sees her as someone who looks vaguely like his dead wife, who he now wishes to resurrect so he can collect the inheritance (which he promises to split with her if she plays along).  She sees him as a shell of the man she once fell in love with and who she desperately wishes she could fall in love with again. Thus a grand charade begins, and they are soon caught up in perverse duplicity where emotions and guilt run high.

Petzold films scenes in perfect frames and shadows, evoking a chamber-piece version of The Third Man, without it ever seeming overly stylish.  Meanwhile Hoss’ physical stiffness is in stark contrast to her otherwise subtle performance where she speaks volumes with her eyes and facial expressions – expertly showing the audience the dichotomy of her predicament where she must hide herself from everyone while inside her inner turmoil runneth over (leaving Nelly to literally lurch).  It’s such a controlled performance (inside such a controlled, economic film where not a single shot or line of dialogue is wasted) that when Nelly’s full transformation occurs at the film’s end, it a pure moment of cinematic awe where the audience is left gasping.

SPOILER ALERTS – DO NOT READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM – It is highly recommended you see the film on as clean a slate as possible, then come back and read the following paragraphs to join the conversation.

Continue reading

It Happened Again on True Detective

True Detective - Rust and Marty in the Car

A Note to Readers: The following contains descriptions of events that have played out over True Detective’s eight-episode run and details on the finale.  Read with caution if you are afraid of spoilers before having seen the entire season.

“It Happened Again on True Detective”

About six months ago the initial previews for True Detective boldly announced The McConaissaince was coming to TV, and just look at how gristly Woody Harrelson had become!  It promised yet another slow-burning mystery…this one on the oilfield strewn and smokestack choked bayous of Louisiana (the cable network’s favorite homestead, seen also in True Blood and Treme).  The big boys at HBO were gonna show the basic cable boobs behind The Killing and The Bridge how it should really be done.  It all felt a little tired.  We’d seen this before.  And it was with a morbid curiosity that I tuned into the first episode.

The opening credits embraced the conventions with seductive glee.  A creepy folksy tune titled “Far from Any Road” by the Handsome Family spun tales of a “poisoned Creole soul” and brooded over a graphic artist’s phantasmagoria of overlaid images, like a deadly serious realist flip side to the trashy-kitschy credits of the supernatural True Blood.  It was stylish and admirable…but predictable…HBO shows are known for their innovative and signature opening credit sequences.

True Detective - Opening Credit Shot Highway Face

True Detective - Opening Credit Shot Burning Face

It wouldn’t be until later episodes that I realized the credits’ subliminal power.  The image of a winding highway superimposed over Woody Harrelson’s face, in particular, was something that began to creep into my poisoned TV soul and became more unsettling every time I saw it.

The first episode, too, catered to the conventions.  Two prickly opposites were partnered to solve the murder of a drug-addled prostitute named Dora Lange who was found with antlers on her head and other cultish mumbo-jumbo casting a pall over the scene.  The story was presented in flashbacks as the elder versions of our detectives were questioned separately in 2012 about the case from the mid 1990’s hinting at something larger…a new copycat killer perhaps…and a current riff between the former partners.  Episode One was slow…methodical…well acted…well directed…tinged with nihilism…yet where was it going and would anyone care once we got there?

Eight episodes.  A complete story.  An anthology series in the style of American Horror Story – a title that could’ve easily been used here.  True Detective, unlike Twin Peaks and The Killing before it, promised completion…no long drawn-out anti-climax stretched over multiple seasons.  The approach was like that of an eight-hour film with one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga (the mastermind behind two stylistically disparate but equally compelling films, Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre), who armed with the scripts from under-the-radar novelist Nic Pizzolatto created a consistent and quietly thrilling tone.  So I stay tuned in…and slowly but surely I became addicted.  The communal fervor for the show bloomed along with my obsession.  Continue reading

The Truth Has No Temperature but The Counselor is Tepid

The Counselor - Cameron Diaz

I’ve come to the conclusion that Cormac McCarthy is incapable or writing interesting women, but he thinks he knows a lot about them.  The men in his screenplay for Ridley Scott’s slick, pulpy and sweaty “massive drug deal gone awry” flick The Counselor spend most of the film’s runtime spouting off quasi-philosophical macho riffs on life and greed and chicks, man…chicks, they’re like crazy.  The men toggle between misogyny and bafflement.  The character played by Javier Bardem (who, god bless him, tells the story to Michael Fassbender’s protagonist with comically black glee) knows his chick is crazy because of the way she made love to his Ferrari.  No, I’m not kidding…the woman literally humps the car.

That woman, the inexplicably named Malkina, is inexplicably played by Cameron Diaz, who looks great and gives it her all, but just isn’t up to par for this type of role.  She’s borderline camp, and a better actress (an Angelina Jolie perhaps?) would’ve either gone whole-hog with the camp or truly smoldered.   – POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD –   Continue reading

Moody Lighting, Red Hallways and Religious Symbolism Run Amuck in Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives - Ryan Gosling

A piece of human scoria (Billy Burke) with strong ties to the Bangkok criminal underworld murders an underage prostitute and is then justly dispensed of by the avenging angel ex-cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), which sets off a sequence of violent events as Billy’s brother, Julian (a practically speechless Ryan Gosling), is ordered against his will by his evil wicked-witch of a mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas – so brilliant at going against type and positively oozing with diabolical dirt-baggery), to mete out Chang.  Suffice it say…(am I spoiling anything here?)…wrong move, brother.  Only God Forgives is a film about the scum of the earth…ahhhh…but it’s an art film!

If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was the best neo-noir “love story in the city of dreams” since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, then Only God Forgives is a despicable neo-noir “hate story in the city of sin.”  Continue reading

His Name is Mud and it’s a Helluva Thing

Mud - in the trees

Look up there…it’s a helluva thing.

Mud, despite its name, is anything but muddy. It’s a finely tuned man’s-man tearjerker about boys coming-of-age, fathers realizing what’s important, the women they love and the trouble we’re all capable of making for ourselves and others. Writer director Jeff Nichols (who previously haunted us with another fine piece of blistering Americana in Take Shelter) crafts the film like an adaptation of a long-lost great American novel, framing it with a strong plot and filling it to the brim with fulfilling character arcs, character foils, and visual motifs of migrating birds, slippery snakes, open windows and the great wide flowing waters of the Mississippi.

Mud sure is a tale, but it’s also a man – a man called Mud, played with crafted precision by good ol’boy Matthew McConaughey, who in the past few years with roles in films like Bernie, Killer Joe and now Mud, has eradicated the stank left on him from years of bad rom-coms and “sexiest man alive” shenanigans to emerge as a truly great (dare I say method) actor. Here he’s a man in hiding on an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River running through Arkansas. He’s discovered by a pair of young teenage boys: good-hearted, sensitive and eager-to-throw-a-punch Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who previously only got to cry and play in The Tree of Life, but here emerges as an appealing young actor worth watching for in the future) and shit-talkin’ smart-as-a-whip Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who ventured out to the island on the promise of finding a cool-ass boat lodged in a treetop (“A helluva thing,” says Mud). Turns out Mud’s been living in that helluva thing, and boy, does he have some stories for them boys. Continue reading

Raising Cane and Making it Rain in Looper

Hello, me, it’s me again!

I’m 60 years-old.  I’m retired and living in Sri Lanka on a tea farm I purchased for my long-lost love with whom I recently reunited.  Don’t ask…just go with this fantasy, okay?  She’s lying in bed next to me with her back against mine.  A balmy midnight breeze blows in through the window and the white curtains scale up the walls and then billow down.  My mind is similarly rising and falling in humidified thought.  I can’t sleep.  I saw something today that reminded me of a film I once saw a long time ago but I can’t quite place the moment or the film.  She’s half-awake, too.  She turns over to face me and runs her hand through my hair.  I whisper to her, “Were you there with me?  Do you remember that movie?  It was soooo good.  You know, the one about time travel where the guy was on the run from his future self and he hid out on that farm in Kansas with that beautiful woman and her little kid who could…” 

…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Behold the litany of reasons Rian Johnson’s Looper is an instant genre classic I will fondly recall when I’m 60 years-old: Continue reading

White Trash Melodrama in Elena and Killer Joe

Stylistically the cold Russian film Elena and the perversely American film Killer Joe couldn’t be further apart.  Yet they both are prime examples of neo-noir and in their own unique ways wallow in the melodrama of the downtrodden.

In Elena, the title character (Nadezhda Markina, a modicum of pent-up middle-aged rage) trudges through the routines of her day in her posh Moscow penthouse living with the wealthy husband she hooked ten years ago when she nursed him back to health.  Her son is the epitome of the post-Soviet downtrodden, living in a trashy tenement tower underneath the shadows of nuclear silos with his lazy teenage son, do-nothing wife and an infant.  He begs his mother for money constantly, and she eventually becomes obsessed with funding her grandson’s college education even though we all know he’s not college material.  Her husband refuses to continue to support her loser family, even though he continues to dutifully spoil his own screw-up of a daughter.  When he has another heart attack and decides to revisit his will, Elena must resort to desperate measures.  Continue reading

Let’s Go for a Drive

Just your typical afternoon Drive...

What are you going to do?

Hey, Ryan Gosling!  Here’s the scoop, friend.  You’re a low-rent stunt driver for Hollywood.  When not flipping over cars, you’re working in a body shop for that old guy (Bryan Cranston) who’s helped you out like you were his own son.  You moonlight for criminals (giving them five minutes and five minutes only) driving getaway cars under strict rules that keep your record clean.
 
In step some shady characters looking to invest in drag racing.  There’s the Jewish Pizza shop guy (Ron Perlman – thuggishly good) and Mr. Money Bags (Albert Brooks – slow to menace).  Hey, slow down, here’s the deal.  The old guy builds and sells them a custom car – and, that’s right – you just might get to be the driver.  This might be your ticket out!
 
But then you meet a swell gal (Carey Mulligan – cute as a button and donning a hairstyle that would fit Naomi Watts circa Mulholland Drive) who turns out to be your neighbor, a waitress, and single mom to a neat kid (Kaden Leos) who knows a bad guy when he sees ’em.  Turns out her hubbie (Oscar Isaac) is in jail.  Just as she’s gettin’ all sweet on ya, he gets out.  But guess what?  He’s actually a nice guy just hard on his luck.  You wanna be his friend – for her – for the kid’s sake.
 
Your new friend has some bad guys after him – looking to shake him down for protection they gave him while in the slammer.  Continue reading

The Red Riding Trilogy

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…all good children go to heaven.”

You wouldn’t believe it at the start of the grim trilogy of films that aired on British television in 2009 and were released in art-houses stateside in early 2010 (and new to DVD this month).  Spanning almost a decade (from 1974 to 1983) and following a labyrinthine plot involving missing children, serial killers, conspiracy theories and corrupt police officers in northern Britain’s Yorkshire area, The Red Riding Trilogy is hard-hitting, trippy, convoluted stuff…the stuff of communal M-like nightmares.

The first thing that is so striking about the films is their look – dripping in period detail and directorial chutzpah that’s like Godfather-era Francis Ford Coppola as channeled through Danish Dogme ’95.  From a critical standpoint, the consistent tone running through all of the films is even more astounding when you realize each part was directed, edited, scored and photographed by different teams.  The first two parts were directed by Julian Jarrold and James Marsh respectively, and it’s only in the superior third part (1983, directed by Anand Tucker) do we see any kind of deviation, and that’s only in a few powerfully placed auteuristic flourishes involving flashbacks and voice-overs. Continue reading

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Gemma Arterton is Alice Creed.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed opens with a point-by-point look at two men (a menacing Eddie Marsan and a bewildered Martin Compston) preparing for the kidnapping of our titular anti-heroine (former Bond girl Gemma Arterton).  Writer/director J. Blakeson builds the tension confidently with well shot, well scored scenes that lull the audience into believing these men are so meticulous and organized, whatever it is they are about to do, they’re going to pull it off brilliantly.  They just have to.  Oh, but when you mix in human emotions, things couldn’t go more astray.

We’ve seen these kidnap flicks before, and we know something always goes horribly awry.  Blakeson knows he’s going to have to keep us on our toes, and he does so with some gravely intimate moments while falling back on old-fashioned melodrama.  Continue reading