Stream of the week: PHOENIX – riveting psychodrama, wowzer ending

Ronald Zehfeld and nina Hoss in PHOENIX
Ronald Zehfeld and Nina Hoss in PHOENIX

In the German psychological drama Phoenix, Nina Hoss plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor whose face has been destroyed by a Nazi gunshot; her sister has arranged for plastic surgery to reconstruct her face. When Nelly gets her new face, we accompany her on an intense quest.

Writer-director Christian Petzhold is an economical story-teller, respectful of the audience’s intelligence. Watching a border guard’s reaction to her disfigurement and hearing snippets from the sister and the plastic surgeon, we gradually piece together her back story. The doctor asks what seems like a very good question – Why would a Jewish woman successfully rooted in London return to Germany in 1938? The answer to that question involves a Woman Loving Too Much.

The sister plans to re-settle both of them in Israel, but Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband. She does find her husband, who firmly believes that Nelly is dead. But he notes that the post-surgery Nelly resembles his pre-war wife, and he has a reason to have her impersonate the real Nelly. So he has the real Nelly (who he doesn’t think IS the real Nelly) pretending to be herself. It’s kind of a reverse version of The Return of Martin Guerre.

It’s the ultimate masquerade. How would you feel while listening to your spouse describe you in detail to a stranger?

Nina Hoss is an uncommonly gifted actress. Here she acts with her face fully bandaged for the first third of the film. We ache for her Nelly’s obsessive need for her husband – and when she finally finds him, she still doesn’t really have him.

As the husband, Ronald Zehfeld shows us the magnetism that attracts Nina, along with the brusque purposefulness that he thinks he needs to survive and flourish in the post-war Germany.

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborated on the recent film Barbara (he won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for his work). About Barbara, I wrote

“Given that’s it difficult to imagine how anyone else could have improved Barbara, I’ll be looking for Petzold’s next movie.”

Well, here it is, and it’s gripping.

The ending of the film is both surprising and satisfying. Several people in my audience let out an audible “Wow!” at the same time.

Phoenix was one of my Best Movies of 2015. It is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, YouTube and Google Play.

Stream of the week: PHOENIX – riveting psychodrama, wowzer ending

Ronald Zehfeld and nina Hoss in PHOENIX
Ronald Zehfeld and Nina Hoss in PHOENIX

In the German psychological drama Phoenix, Nina Hoss plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor whose face has been destroyed by a Nazi gunshot; her sister has arranged for plastic surgery to reconstruct her face. When Nelly gets her new face, we accompany her on an intense quest.

Writer-director Christian Petzhold is an economical story-teller, respectful of the audience’s intelligence. Watching a border guard’s reaction to her disfigurement and hearing snippets from the sister and the plastic surgeon, we gradually piece together her back story. The doctor asks what seems like a very good question – Why would a Jewish woman successfully rooted in London return to Germany in 1938? The answer to that question involves a Woman Loving Too Much.

The sister plans to re-settle both of them in Israel, but Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband. She does find her husband, who firmly believes that Nelly is dead. But he notes that the post-surgery Nelly resembles his pre-war wife, and he has a reason to have her impersonate the real Nelly. So he has the real Nelly (who he doesn’t think IS the real Nelly) pretending to be herself. It’s kind of a reverse version of The Return of Martin Guerre.

It’s the ultimate masquerade. How would you feel while listening to your spouse describe you in detail to a stranger?

Nina Hoss is an uncommonly gifted actress. Here she acts with her face fully bandaged for the first third of the film. We ache for her Nelly’s obsessive need for her husband – and when she finally finds him, she still doesn’t really have him.

As the husband, Ronald Zehfeld shows us the magnetism that attracts Nina, along with the brusque purposefulness that he thinks he needs to survive and flourish in the post-war Germany.

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborated on the recent film Barbara (he won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for his work). About Barbara, I wrote

“Given that’s it difficult to imagine how anyone else could have improved Barbara, I’ll be looking for Petzold’s next movie.”

Well, here it is, and it’s gripping.

The ending of the film is both surprising and satisfying. Several people in my audience let out an audible “Wow!” at the same time.

Phoenix is one of my Best Movies of 2015.  It is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, YouTube and Google Play.

99 HOMES: desperation leads to indecency, then redemption

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 HOMES
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 HOMES

The opening scene of the brilliant psychological drama 99 Homes illustrates the life-and-death stakes of our nation’s foreclosure crisis.  It’s a topical film, but 99 Homes is emotionally raw and as intense as any thriller.  Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a working class single dad, down on his luck.  He loses his home to foreclosure and then must make a Faustian choice about supporting his family.  Can he live with his choice, and what are the consequences?

With capitalism, where there are losers, there are also winners who have bet against the losers.  Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) has built a prosperous real estate business on legitimate evictions and flips, supplemented with schemes to defraud federal home loan agencies, housing syndicates and individual homeowners.  His world view is defined in a monologue about this nation bailing out the winners, not the losers – a cynical, but perceptive, observation.

Director Ramin Bahrani is a great American indie director, with a knack for drilling into the psyches of overlooked subsets of our society – immigrants (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo), industrial farmers (At Any Price) and now the victims and profiteers of the Mortgage Bubble.

As foreclosure inexorably approaches, Garfield’s Nash is absorbed by dread, then desperation and, finally, to panic.  His mom (Laura Dern) takes a different tack, settling firmly into denial and then erupting in hysteria.  That denial recurs again and again in 99 Homes among those about to be evicted.   These are people who have bought homes and can’t believe/grok/internalize that one day they will actually be forced out of them.  One of the strongest aspects of 99 Homes is the use of non-actors who have lived through the nightmare.   Some of the individual stories, especially one with a confused old man, are so wrenching as to be hard to watch.

This may be Andrew Garfield’ strongest cinema performance.  Dennis Nash is a decent man incentivized to do the indecent.  Garfield takes this good man through an amazing internal journey.  Nash is forced to accept the failure resulting from his attempts to do what is right, juxtaposed with the success from conduct that he finds repulsive.  Bahrani’s arty shot of the reflection of a swimming pool shimmering in a sliding glass door makes it look like Garfield is under water –  which he metaphorically is at this point in the film.

Michael Shannon, one of my very favorite actors, is superb as a guy completely committed to pursuing his own survival/prosperity strategy – no matter that it is based on ruining the lives of other humans.  Unlike Nash, Shannon’s Carver has accepted the incentives to act badly and has overcome any qualms about either moral ambiguity or even stark amorality.

Veteran television actor Tim Guinee is remarkable as homeowner Frank Green.  Laura Dern is excellent in a pivotal role.  The character actor Clancy Brown proves once again that he can grab the screen, even when he’s only visible for a minute or two.

With its searing performances by Garfield and Shannon, 99 Homes is unsparingly dark and intense until a final moment of redemption.  It opens on Friday.

PHOENIX: riveting psychodrama, wowzer ending

Ronald Zehfeld and nina Hoss in PHOENIX
Ronald Zehfeld and nina Hoss in PHOENIX

In the German psychological drama Phoenix, Nina Hoss plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor whose face has been destroyed by a Nazi gunshot; her sister has arranged for plastic surgery to reconstruct her face.  When Nelly gets her new face, we accompany her on an intense quest.

Writer-director Christian Petzhold is an economical story-teller, respectful of the audience’s intelligence.  Watching a border guard’s reaction to her disfigurement and hearing snippets from the sister and the plastic surgeon, we gradually piece together her back story.  The doctor asks what seems like a very good question – Why would a Jewish woman successfully rooted in London return to Germany in 1938?  The answer to that question involves a Woman Loving Too Much.

The sister plans to re-settle both of them in Israel, but Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband.  She does find her husband, who firmly believes that Nelly is dead.  But he notes  that the post-surgery Nelly resembles his pre-war wife, and he has a reason to have her impersonate the real Nelly.  So he has the real Nelly (who he doesn’t think IS the real Nelly) pretending to be herself.  It’s kind of a reverse version of The Return of Martin Guerre.

It’s the ultimate masquerade.  How would you feel while listening to your spouse describe you in detail to a stranger?

Nina Hoss is an uncommonly gifted actress.  Here she acts with her face fully bandaged for the first third of the film.  We ache for her Nelly’s obsessive need for her husband – and when she finally finds him, but she still doesn’t really have him.

As the husband, Ronald Zehfeld shows us the magnetism that attracts Nina, along with the brusque purposefulness that he thinks he needs to survive and flourish in the post-war Germany.

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborated on the recent film Barbara  (he won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for his work).  About Barbara, I wrote

“Given that’s it difficult to imagine how anyone else could have improved Barbara, I’ll be looking for Petzold’s next movie.”

Well, here it is, and it’s gripping.

The ending of the film is both surprising and satisfying.  Several people in my audience let out an audible “Wow!” at the same time.