Sunday, April 26, 2015

movie review: Phoenix

(Germany, 2014) 
director: Christian Petzold

In Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Jewish jazz singer, manages to escape Auschwitz with a horrible gunshot wound to her face. A plastic surgeon is enlisted, and soon Nelly is recovering with a face that is almost, but not quite, her own. After her terrible experiences in the concentration camp, she is desperate to find her loved ones, but most were killed by the Nazis. However, she is certain that her piano-playing husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfield) is still alive, and she is determined to find him.

Nelly's friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), who works at the department of Jewish records, holds secret knowledge about Nelly's husband Johnny. Lene has taken up the role of Nelly's rescuer and is making plans for the two of them to go to Palestine, which will soon be made into a Jewish homeland, a place Lene imagines will be free from anti-Jewish sentiment, free of Nazis, and far enough away fro the Germany of World War II that they will one day be able to bear listening to German songs again. Lene quivers with pride, passion, and barely sublimated desire when speaking to Nelly about the life they will live together there, free from the chaos and hatred of the war. The character is onscreen for a relatively short period of time, yet Kunzendorf manages to convey Lene's inner turmoil beautifully.

However, Nelly still longs to find Johnny, whom she loves and misses dearly; her desperate quest to find him takes her along the dangerous streets in night-time Berlin that are populated with American GIs, street corner musicians, and violent criminals. As Lene watches in helpless anguish, Nelly tracks Johnny down to a nightclub named "Phoenix."

As the nightclub's name implies, Phoenix is both a literal and metaphorical story of transformation. (The metaphorical flavour of the movie helps make Nelly's surprisingly normal post-operative appearance easier to accept.) Post-WWII Germany is portrayed as a society in transition--it is a country still uncertain of how to make reparations for the unrepairable. Can anything ever make up for Nazi crimes against humanity? What do we do about the everyday people who sold out their friends and loved ones to save their own skins? What should Holocaust survivors be given? And importantly, what is it that they need?

Hoss is entirely believable as a woman slowly re-emerging from suspended animation. While she was in the concentration camp, she did not know what was happening to Berlin. Her reactions to the rubble and ruin in the city are poignant. Just as she is rediscovering herself with her own new face, she is also rediscovering her old city with its new face.

Zehrfield has, in some ways, a more challenging role. In some ways he is an enigma; we don't really know what drives him, though we can speculate. We as the audience see him simultaneously through two lenses: we are privy to Lene's knowledge, so we know the truth about him, but because we also see him as Nelly sees him--her true love--his character lends itself to a slightly more complex reading.

The movie's pacing is perfect. It never moves too slowly or too quickly; it maintains tension and keeps the viewer wanting to find out what happens next. But at the same time, it never seems rushed. As events unfold, the movie marches calmly forward to its inevitable climax. We do not quite know exactly how things will be resolved, but we know that no matter what happens, it will not be the ending any of the characters wished for. An audience, however, one could not wish for a more perfect cinematic resolution.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

movie review: A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year
(USA, 2014)
director: J.C. Chandor

Despite its title, A Most Violent Year should be very boring, and indeed it does start off quite slowly. The camera is weirdly static for long periods of time, there is very little in the way of soundtrack, and there are a lot of intense discussions about the ins and outs of the heating oil business. This does not exactly sound gripping. However, the film builds tension surprisingly well, the cinematography is expertly handled (I was especially impressed by the camerawork in a chase scene in the trainyards), and the cast is uniformly excellent.

We follow Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an intense New York City businessman, over 30 days in 1981 (the "most violent" year referenced in the title, when New York saw the highest number of murders in its history). Abel makes real estate deals, secures loans, and tries to find out who is robbing his company's heating fuel trucks, all the while doing battle with the district attorney (Peter Oyelowo) who is investigating Standard Heating for a variety of offenses including fraud and tax evasion. This problem with the DA particularly vexes Abel, because he feels he has tried very hard to run an honest, above board business. He has fully bought in to the idea of the immigrant's dream of America, where hard work and ambition will bring success, and so far the idea has worked for him--until now.

We meet Abel's smart and steely wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father originally owned Standard Heating. Anna loves Abel and their two daughters, and she is not about to let anything get in the way of their continued safety and success. At one point, Anna tells Abel he'd better solve his problems, because otherwise she will get involved, and no one is going to be happy if that happens. We find out exactly what she means by that a couple of scenes later.

The film is paced very slowly but deliberately, which adds to Abel's sense of growing dread. The robberies are increasing and getting more violent; the Morales' new mansion is breached; the bank is becoming uneasy about Standard Heating as a loan prospect; the district attorney is becoming more insistent. Abel seems to be unhappily over his head.

The filmmakers managed to assemble a stellar cast, all performing in an understated but powerful way. Chastain is underused, but still riveting in her limited role; Isaac is just as intense and effective as he was in Inside Llewyn Davis, and Oyelowo is pleasant but insistent as he tightens the vise grip on Abel and his business. Albert Brooks is enjoyable as usual as Abel's lawyer, an easygoing, perennially beleaguered guy who is a lot smarter than he seems. And Elyes Gabel is excellent in a small but pivotal role as Julian, the young, inexperienced driver whose truck is carjacked (truckjacked?) at the very beginning of the movie.

A Most Violent Year is understated but it works. At the end, we see that Abel finally understands the steep price for achieving the immigrant's dream in America. Anna knew it all along.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

movie review: Timbuktu

(France/Mauritania, 2014)
director: Abderrahmane Sissako

 I grew up hearing the term "Timbuktu" used as a synonym for "far away in the middle of nowhere." I don't think I realized it was a real place until I was a teenager. In reality, Timbuktu is a beautiful place in Mali, Africa, where people live among gently sculpted sand dunes, under a blue desert sky.

The very first shot of the film shows a gazelle running gracefully, a jeep full of jihadists with AK-47s in pursuit. One of the men comments that they should stop shooting and just let the animal run and tire itself out so they can catch it. Next, we see the men using traditional local statues for target practice. The statues start out whole and dignified, but after a few rounds, are sadly just fragments of their former beautiful selves: they are now missing breasts, arms, heads. Both scenes are a subtle but powerful setup for the film's depiction of the physical and psychological destruction the jihadists have wrought on the local community.

Our sympathies are immediately with the locals. The jihadists are a heavily armed, dour bunch from elsewhere, and in fact do not speak either the local languages or French, the area's literal lingua franca. Many of the film's conversations are done through translators. We get the impression that for a long time before the invasion, the locals were peacefully minding their own business, only to have their lives turned upside down by the fundamentalists, who have now forbidden things like smoking, singing, and soccer. When the jihadists enter the local mosque, the imam tells them that they are not really acting in the name of Allah, or Islam for that matter, and that they should leave.

Ignoring the imam and local custom, the jihadists exhort the village women to veil themselves and wear gloves. In one memorable early scene, a market woman shouts at the jihadists in exasperation that she's a fishmonger, so how on earth is she supposed to clean fish while wearing gloves? She pulls a filleting knife out of her pocket and tells them that they'd better cut her hands off, because she's not going to wear gloves. Besides, she says, when her hands are cut off, they won't be able to force her to wear gloves anyway.

Gradually, we are introduced to more and more villagers who run afoul of the fundamentalists: the young couple who steal romantic moments with each other; the family who insists on continuing to play their musical instruments and sing; the mother who does not want to marry off her daughter to an imperious stranger. But the characters we get to know best are a small Bedouin family--Satima, the mother, Kidane, the father, and Toya, their twelve year old daughter--and Isaan, the local orphan boy who looks after their tiny herd of cows. The four of them live peacefully among the dunes in tents, happy together but slightly concerned about the steady exodus of their neighbours. Satima notes that they are the last ones left in their camp. Kidane says he wants to stay put; after all, where would they go? But he admits he is worried too. We, the audience, are also worried as we watch the family eventually come under the scrutiny of the jihadists.

Unlike the jihadists, the filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, does not see things in black and white. Everyone is portrayed with compassion and dignity. We see one of the senior jihadists, Abdelkarim, as he privately struggles with the conflict between his fundamentalist principles and the stubborn resistance of the locals. He isn't very good at driving in the desert, so he has a driver, Omar, who tries to teach him the ways of Toyota trucks. "You don't know everything," Omar points out to him, calmly, as he stalls the truck once again. When they approach Satima, washing her hair outside the tent, Abdelkarim tells her to cover her head; she tells him calmly that if what he sees offends him, it is his duty not to look. He pauses, then walks back to the truck and drives away.

Wisely, the film isn't unrelentingly dark; there are moments of surprising levity and joy. Though soccer is forbidden, the locals find a way to defy the rule without breaking the letter of the law. The scene is beautifully shot and is a testament to both the beauty of the landscape and the skill of the cinematographer, Sofiane El Fani. Other beautifully shot scenes feature Zabou (Kettly Noel), the wonderfully strange village witch, who prowls around the village in her gorgeously eccentric colourful dresses, practicing rituals with chickens and calling the jihadists "assholes." They leave her alone, for reasons unknown. The soundscape of the movie is also very well done: the family of musicians makes beautiful melodies that float out into the night; during one tense scene all we can hear are the snorts and moans of the herd of camels; the sounds of corporal and capital punishment echo painfully after the scenes are finished.

Eventually, despite the resistance of the locals, the jihadists gain more and more of a foothold in the village and there is more violence. There are lashes; there is forced marriage; there is a brutal stoning. The Bedouin family is put in peril.

By the end, we are back to the image of the gazelle. Is it tired out yet? It's still running, but we don't know for how much longer.