Thursday, September 17, 2015

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Learning to Drive

                              Men (and Women) Driven by Machines
                                                        Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
       Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Alex Gibney)
A fairly-complete-biography of computer-innovator Steve Jobs which acknowledges all of the marvelous inventions that he guided into the transformed consciences of our contemporary lives along with showing how complex, conflicted, and downright mean he was as a human being with a “different” understanding of how he felt our lives should be lived.

 As I’ve noted before when writing about documentaries, my usual analytical structure (used below in the next review) doesn’t work as well with this cinematic approach as there’s not so much of a plot to establish points of tension and resolution as there is an encounter with the narrative structure’s presentation of the subject of the film that’s really more about what you learn from the experience and care to examine/explore more on your own after the screening; it’s not usually about the sense of aesthetic satisfaction with how the script’s complications kept you enthralled with the actions, reactions, and resolutions on screen that you find with dramatic narrative.  So it is again, for me, with Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which offers a reasonably-complete-biography of computer-whiz Steve Jobs and his ruthless determination to fill our lives with machines that do far more than compute.  (Back in about 1986 I was working for a media production company with a lot of Silicon Valley clients; as we were setting up the equipment for audiovisual support of the annual meeting for one of them someone asked me what I thought would be the “next big thing” in technological advance, to which I pondered for a bit, finally saying that something more sophisticated than the rudimentary cell phones and car phones that existed at the time might be the answer; had I been truly aware of what I was hesitantly guessing at the time I’d have been investing in Nokia, Samsung, Apple, etc. over the next decade or so, then would now be writing this review from my luxurious lanai at my vacation home on Maui, HI instead of my just-serviceable-but-still-comfortable-full-time-residence-condo in Hayward, CA [where my cat, Bella’s, keeping watch over the parking lot as I type].)  Unlike me, Steve Jobs not only knew what technology could do, he had sophisticated plans for making sure that everyone else knew about it too, as they lined up in the coming years on a regular basis to buy his latest feat of wizardry, despite his seeming-dual-personality as a man who considered himself to be enlightened, yet at best was sort of a Zen capitalist rather than a truly ego-transcended-soul (a concept to be explored further in my chosen Musical Metaphor, described—in very great length, of course—further along in this review).

 As presented in this film (which goes along with the related fictional biographies already doneJobs [Joshua Michael Stern, 2013], with Aston Kutcher in the title role—or yet to come—Steve Jobs [Danny Boyle, release date October 9, 2015], starring Michael Fassbender) the co-founder of the company that’s now become the most valued in the world wasn’t very functional with family life (he was adopted, which can be a complex matter [speaking from direct experience, although my own transposed-upbringing never inspired me to change the world, a major reason why I don’t now have that whenever-I-feel-like-it-escape-to-Hawaii-home], but when surprised with the news that he himself was a father he first tried to deny the paternity of daughter Lisa [her mother, Chrisann Brennan, offers some valuable commentary to this doc, although there’s nothing directly from Lisa nor Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell], then begrudgingly agreed to pay only $500 a month in child support at a time when he was worth multiple millions; there was reconciliation later, though, including a trip when Steve took Lisa with him to Japan) nor with people who didn’t do what he expected/demanded or created distractions for him (a lot of what we see on screen here is a video transcription of 2008 deposition-testimony to the Securities and Exchange Commission about charges of alleged, and illegal, stock option backdating, which would have provided even greater profits than Apple’s stock already carried for some specially-chosen-beneficiaries; there are also notations of collusion among Apple and other Silicon Valley heavyweights that prevented prized employees from switching employers—harking back to the bad-old-days of pre-free-agency-lifetime-baseball-contracts—along with horrifying tales of unprevented-worker-oppression in Apple’s massive China factories where horrendous conditions led to frequent suicides).

 Further, Jobs could be just plain mean, as noted by an incident in the early days of Apple where he and co-founder Steve Wozniac were paid $7,000 by Atari for a product, yet Jobs told Woz that it was only $700 with his cut being $350, or there’s testimony from a much later time about how Jobs would intentionally park in handicapped spaces at the Apple campus for no other reason than to demonstrate his disregard for rules.  Why someone with this much respect, clout (as you can see in the trailer-link noted below he acted as if he didn’t know what “power” meant), and success could also be so petty, paranoid, and self-privileged (despite his frequent trips to Japan to indulge in Zen Buddhist inspiration) is much of what motivated director Gibney to undertake this project.

 Gibney also notes that he was motivated to probe into Jobs’ legacy by the global outpouring of grief on the occasion of his death from pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011, so we begin with footage of mourners in Japan leaving offerings as if he had been a cultural figure known for success in the arts or compassionate service to his fellow humans (such as John Lennon or Princess Diana; Jobs on the other hand was no philanthropist, even cutting off Apple support of social causes—“Feeding the poor, these weren’t Steve’s values” says one commentator) instead of someone who invented and sold machines of self-indulgence (noting as I type this on my iMac computer—a desktop model in one room of our home, with a laptop version not far away, as well as Nina’s iPhone in yet another room—that by chance I’m wearing a black sweatshirt [not a turtleneck, though] and faded jeans [as I respond to a long-awaited-day of cooler weather, with some desperately-needed-rain-showers in the vicinity], so it’s not that I’m distanced from what Steve hath wrought, just hopeful that I’m using his machines to better connect to the world around me, as he claimed was his purpose, rather than isolating myself in a cocoon of social media as so many seem to constantly do, craning their sore necks over their smartphones for hours at a time on a daily basis), with Gibney asking himself why was Steve Jobs so loved and admired, even by those who’d been the ongoing objects of his wrath as he demanded perfectionism in design and execution of his pet projects, rapid turnaround of new ideas into marketable product, and embrace of his visions as if he were the latest incarnation of the Renaissance ideal.  What Gibney found in various archival footage (much of it in the old 4x3 TV ratio, with low-def video quality), augmented by more-current-interviews, results in a fascinating portrait of a guy you’d want to invest in (a likely spectacular payoff for those who’ve done so, especially if they held onto their shares when the company was in dire straits after Jobs was temporarily deposed in favor of the ultimately-unsuccessful-reign of John Scully, 1985-1993) but might not be able to tolerate even for the length of a one-on-one-dinner if you presented him with any challenge to his self-determined-revelation of “the” definitive worldview.

 As shown in the film, “different” was a word that meant a tremendous amount to Steve Jobs, with the world at large most aware of it from 
the famous "Think Different" (this is the version of the popular TV spot that aired, narrated by Richard Dreyfus; there’s also another version narrated by Steve that he pulled at the last minute) 1997 ad campaign created by the LA office of TBWA\Chiat\ Day (not directly by Jobs as you might think from implications in the doc).  He saw himself as different from most of those around him, understood his ideas as being different from the mundane (that is, IBM) applications and product designs developed for previous computer applications, wanted his customers to find different ways of interfacing with their environments via various uses of the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes, the iTunes Store, the App Store, etc., all of which served to revolutionize what we consumers understood about how these devices could produce a “different” result from what we might first have envisioned regarding them.  Certainly this is observable in any private or public space where iPhones—and their various competitors—seem to be begrudgingly used as telephones (What an unhip application of this technology!) because their presence as mini-computers and cameras has become the backbone of social media on the Internet, making me wonder why Marshall McLuhan and his 1960s prophecies of "the medium is the message" within the emerging “global village” weren’t included in the above ad.  (I realize that hardly anyone would recognize him, but I wonder how many 1997 viewers would have been able to name Buckminster Fuller, Maria Callas, Amelia Earhart, or Martha Graham either—maybe Jobs didn’t see this academic philosopher of media impact as having specifically “done” anything, as his other inclusions had, but if you want a complete embodiment of someone who dared to “Think Different” [not just “differently,” in an adverbially-supportive-sense, but to conceive in a unique mode, to conceptualize something new in tangible-noun-form] I encourage a reawakening of honor due the “prophet” of the contemporary information age—even if its citizens have embraced aspects of the one-time-disappearing-written, rather than the spoken, word—as anticipated by McLuhan.)

 But, ultimately, what makes Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine work so well is that in addition to the extensive explorations it offers about the life and complex nature of its human subject (at least as much as can be presented in a standard 2-hour-cinematic-format; there’s a lot more to know about the details of Jobs’ presence and disruption in contemporary life if you want to research more in depth—although you’ll find at least some quick mention of most of it in this tightly-packed-but-easy-to-follow-film) ... Man in the Machine probes into the larger questions of what have we, as Jobs’ constant customers, allowed ourselves to become because of our 24/7-saturation with the trivia and speculation of the world around us by our constant use of these mesmerizing technologies, likened by Gibney in interviews to Gollum’s “precious” in The Lord of the Rings (written by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954-1955 ; made most impactful as movies by Peter Jackson in 2001, 2002, 2003), objects that become so compelling that we have immense difficulty in putting them aside or not relying on them for the necessary applications of everyday business, educational, governmental, scientific, artistic, and personal communication.  Imagine, if you will (in your best Rod Serling inner-voice) a world where you have to drive to the nearest telephone when you’re in transit in order to make a call, where you transcribe words on to sheets of paper with a typewriter as mistakes need to be erased or covered over with a sort of thin paint, where photographs must wait to be seen for at least an hour after shooting depending on how close the nearest film processor is located, where you have to look at paper maps to find that film store because you have no hand-held-helper to tell you turn-by-turn how to reach your destination, etc.  Steve Jobs wasn’t personally responsible for all of the machines needed to overcome these “ancient” 20th-century-problems but he clearly deserves the credit this documentary bequeaths on him for at least popularizing alternatives that make our contemporary life so much easier and efficient, yet so devastatingly halted if the power sources fail to operate.

 Another half hour of … Man in the Machine would have been useful in exploring the further implications of the issues raised by Gibney (and warned about by McLuhan, who was no advocate of what he perceived, although that aspect of his writings is often overlooked), but in our short-attention-span-techno-environment such long-form-media-experiences are hard to market; maybe the 1-2-punch of this film and Boyle's Jobs bio soon to follow will help us better understand the full power of what “genie”-Jobs has unleashed from his iLamp.  Still, to fully understand the import of what this current doc offers us, you need to see it, not just read about it, so I highly encourage attendance (that is, if you can find it; after 2 weeks in release it’s in only 65 theaters—a reduction of 3 from opening weekend—nationwide in the U.S., thus video rental or On Demand may be your only option; if so, please take it when you can, especially in conjunction with the upcoming Fessbender portrayal, destined [I hope] to be a big hit, given the topic and the name value of the people involved [also starring Seth Rogen, Kate Winslet, and Jeff Daniels; written by Aaron Sorkin, possibly best known for his TV scripts for The West Wing, film scripts for A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, 1992), The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), and Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)]).  If you can’t get to this film anytime soon, though, here’s a final thought from director Gibney:  “In some fundamental way, Jobs’ genius was making people think that Apple stood for the world’s best values when it often represented the worst.  As a young man he immersed himself in the values of the counterculture, but the mature Jobs left all but the trappings behind.  He traded his ties for turtlenecks, loaded up his iPod with rock ‘n roll, and looked to a Zen master as his spiritual advisor.  But when it came to values, Jobs was more like Ayn Rand than Rosa Parks, more Milton Friedman than Martin Luther King, more Machiavelli than Gandhi.  He followed the path of the bull market, not Buddha.  Rather than finding empathy through Zen, Jobs found an amoral willingness to accept his own cruelty as a fact of life.  Rather than accepting that we are all ‘one,’ Steve seemed more interested in looking out for Number One.”  (There’s more from Gibney in the 3rd link far below about this film, if you're interested in hearing about his conclusions.)

Steve Jobs, John Scully
("Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl")
 For my chosen Musical Metaphor to round out these thoughts on Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine I probably should use something from Jobs’ favorite musician, Bob Dylan (if so, I’d pick a haunting one such as “All Along the Watchtower” [found first in an acoustic version on the 1967 John Wesley Harding album but this version—from the 1994 Woodstock 25th anniversary concert—is more like what you’d hear electrified by Bob and The Band on the marvelous 1974 Before the Flood album] as it speaks of mystery, confusion, and how “None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth”), but instead I’m going with a Beach Boys’ song that’s sort of on the 1966 Pet Sounds album, but there it’s called “I Know There’s an Answer” because the original version of this melodic-contemplation, as written by Brian Wilson, is “Hang On to Your Ego” which has to be found on various Pet Sounds background-compilation-tracks-collections or re-releases of the album, such as the 1990 CD.  You might want to take a look at those original lyrics, because how you interpret lines such as “Hang on, but I know that You’re gonna lose the fight,” along with “And how can I come on When I know I’m guilty?” apparently set up conflicts within the band back during the original recording sessions with reports that Mike Love was concerned the interpretation would be about Brian advocating the use of ego-shattering-LSD to find new levels of consciousness for those “Who [mistakenly] think they can do it alone” without drugs (just as the rest of the band was getting concerned about Brian’s indulgence in altered states for his creative processes).  Another interpretation, however, is that Brian was advocating a positive stance on keeping control of your selfhood without losing it to mind-altering-substances (possibly a self-warning, given how drug-fueled-situations would undermine him for years, as explored in the slightly-later-life-scenes of Love and Mercy [Bill Pohlad; review in our June 10, 2015 posting and still one of my top choices of this year’s releases]).

Brian Wilson, Mike Love
("And what can you say that won't make them defensive")
 However those concepts work themselves out for 21st-century-pop-music-analysts, though, the lyrics were altered a bit (some reports say by Love only, others by him and/or Beach Boys’ road manager Terry Sachen [on the recordings “… Ego” has Brian as the sole vocalist whereas “… Answer” uses Mike and Al Jardine as leads on the verses, Brian on the chorus]) to the “I Know There’s an Answer” version on the released record; you’re welcome to listen to both at ?v=GRHu3s6EZaQ to see which one you like better, but my purpose in calling attention to “… Ego” is to note yet another interpretation (mine, maybe singularly so, but bear with me for a moment) that the original lyrics don’t have to address LSD use at all but could simply be an admonition to those who’re “so uptight” that “Hang[ing] on to your ego” (in the negative connotation of the word, not the Freudian-Jungian meaning of your negotiated self, balancing the rages of your Id and the “morality-cop” of your Super-Ego, which would fit the drug-warning-concept of Wilson’s song noted above) is preventing a more balanced spiritual enlightenment (the goal of many Eastern religions—and Steve Jobs [as we hear throughout this doc]—devoid of the Id-releasing-encouragements of those who may have been influenced by such Western-alternative-insights but got too caught up in the hedonistic world of the transformative-substances, as Love worried that Wilson was encouraging).

 With this interpretation of mine in mind, I think the “… Ego” version of this tune speaks well to what we observe about Zen-inspired-but-still-solidly-capitalist Steve Jobs, a man who was clearly “defensive” about his motives and socially-altering viewpoints, who wasn’t “gonna lose the fight” of letting go of his ego, his self-absorption (as I interpret Brian Wilson’s lyrics, where he’s offering encouragement for “head-isolated” folks like Jobs to embrace a higher-consciousness [not necessarily fueled by drugs], which will help them willingly “lose the fight” of keeping their ego-driven “safety zones” foremost in their minds).  Maybe my interpretation of this song is all wrong (although I think it has internal logic, especially as the singer—Wilson speaking personally it would seem [Mike Love certainly seemed to think so, based on what we can glean second-hand about his objections to what his cousin seemed to be promoting]—admits that he’s in no position to be preaching to anyone else when he’s “guilty” as well [of ego-encumbrance, of drug-immersion, whatever] in his own attempts to transcend what he sees as weaknesses or difficulties in the lives of others), but it continues to make sense to me, just as it speaks to the stated ego-burdened-messages of Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a fascinating study of a most complicated guy whose life, achievements, and motives all deserve our ongoing interpretation (as we’ll continue to get in a few weeks when Fassbender inhabits Mr. Jobs in yet-another-interpretation of a personage of great current import as we continue to rush along on the “21st-century-bicycles” [as he referred to the personal computer, the foundation of all the machines that followed] he bequeathed to us).  

 (Or, if none of this blather about Steve Jobs and a Brian Wilson song isn’t stirring your interest too much maybe you’d prefer to just indulge in the entire Pet Sounds album [revolutionary in its own way for pop music as are the various “i”-devices from Apple for personal-media-use] at https://; now, wouldn’t that be nice, to just lie back and listen for awhile?  Also, please note if you do decide to indulge yourself with this Brian Wilson/Beach Boys masterpiece that this version contains “Hang On to Your Ego” as its final, additional cut.) September 28, 2015:  I've now found out that link is no longer valid so I'll offer this one instead at xPosvO, a cluster of videos that contain most of that superb album.  Sorry about the problem, but this is the best I can do for you at present although keep me informed if another "full album" option should pop up (with the understanding it may be gone by the time I'd be able to report it further).

 Before completely leaving commentary about this documentary on Apple’s co-founder, though—even if it seems to have morphed into a meditation on Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys co-founder—I couldn’t help but note one final dose of similarities in another current film, the Walt Disney doc (Sarah Colt) just shown (September 14-15, 2015) as part of PBS’ American Experience (likely to be re-broadcast or maybe hasn’t yet reached your local station; I encourage you to watch out for it, as I was unable to see it before it aired, preventing me from making these comments until now).  Like Jobs, Disney was quite a complex character (more so than any of the archetypal heroes, villains, and princesses in the movies made under his direct supervision until his death in 1966), a man beloved by generations of fairy-tale-struck kids (including me in the 1950s and ‘60s), yet equally reviled by others for telling “corny” stories (although he admitted in Walt Disney footage that he liked corny) with socially-constrictive-results for all those generations of acolytes since the release of rescued-heroine Snow White back in 1937 (as [Black] Flipper Purify [Wesley Snipes] says to his about-to-be-ex-lover, [White] Angie Tucci [Annabella Sciorra], in Jungle Fever [Spike Lee, 1991], “Look, Angie, this “Love will overcome everything” is in Walt Disney films.  I’ve always hated Disney films.”).  Like Jobs, Disney was, as one commentator puts it, “in many ways a very dark soul.”  He had a difficult childhood (no adoption, but his “brutal” father failed at many occupations, offering negative assumptions toward his son’s Hollywood aspirations); while, like Jobs as an aspiring-computer-designer, Disney was an artist but his talents were more in the realm of creative insight (an “intellectual overseer”) while leaving the management tasks to brother Roy and most of the early animation to Ub Iwerks (just as the early technical aspects of Apple were handled by Wozniak; further, just as Jobs stiffed Woz on some early income Walt changed the name of the company from Disney Brothers to Walt Disney Studios by himself); movies allowed Walt to emote in ways he couldn’t seem to do in real life (just as is said of Jobs, “He didn’t know what real connections are”); and Disney (like Jobs) didn’t handle criticism very well, especially as he came to see himself as an unappreciated artist rather than a mere entertainer (although his company was very successful in the late ‘30s, then again in the mid-‘50s, after near-disaster in the ‘40s, similar to Apple’s 1990s decline until Jobs returned as CEO).

 As for other similarities—also related to Jobs’ temperament, but not his personal appearance—I couldn’t help but see a bit of a resemblance in the young and older Disney to the filmic presentations of Vito Corleone by Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) and Marlon Brando in The Godfather (Coppola, 1972).  This becomes more than a surface commentary when you see this TV film’s segments on the strike by many of Disney’s animators in 1941, an issue which was finally settled but apparently never forgotten as Walt testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 that he felt the action was motivated by “Communists,” which he went on record to name names about (as with Michael Corleone [Al Pacino] to his older brother [James Caan]: “It’s not personal, Sonny.  It’s strictly business.”)  Like Jobs, Disney seemed to be bi-personality (if not possibly bi-polar) in being a creative genius but also a hard-hearted-despot where his business was concerned (leading to bitter results as Jobs was pushed out of Apple for a few years, just as Disney saw many of his formerly-loyal-employees join rival firms after the strike confrontation—similarly, Vito was challenged from within his Mafia “family” when driver Paulie Gatto [John Martino] conspired in the near-fatal-attack on his boss and brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi’s [Gianni Russo] betrayal led to Sonny’s death, followed by mob capo Tessio [Abe Vigoda] trying to sell out Michael when he took over the Corleone empire and brother Fredo’s [John Cazale] mistaken-alignment with rival-gangster Hyman Roth [Lee Strasberg], all of which led to death for the offenders, so it’s clear that none of these “Dons” were guys you’d want to mess with, although in the case of the fictional Godfather story it’s the youngest son who orders all of the revenge, rather than his father, who, in his later years, seemed to be much more open to reconciliation with his enemies than either Jobs or Disney).

 One final note about why this Godfather chatter has any relevance to our cinematic interests is the shocking news that Coppola has announced a remake of his famed trilogy, set in current times, starring Johnny Depp as Vito, the first installment due in 2016.  Maybe this idea will be successful (like Disneyland, derided by many critics prior to its overwhelming success from the time of its 1955 opening), but if not Coppola may join his friend George Lucas as recipient of the 21st century’s next “Bad Idea of the Decade” award with a decision as questionable (for many, although I must admit I still generally enjoyed them) as Lucas' plots of the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005).
Short(er) Takes
                         Learning to Drive (Isabel Coixet)
When a man leaves his wife for a younger woman the angry, hurt wife starts taking driving lessons as a means of increasing her mobility and life-options; her instructor is a devout Sikh from India about to be married himself—although with some trepidation—so he finds constant occasions to speak in life-lesson-metaphors to his increasingly-interested-student.

What Happens: According to her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Ted (Jake Weber), another bad idea (although possibly he’s joking) is for Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) to be on the streets of NYC behind the wheel of a car, but that’s the main plot focus of this movie as Wendy (a workaholic literary critic who put Ted’s gift of the Joy of Sex book away in a drawer, giving us some understanding of why he’s abandoning his wife of 21 years) tries to rebuild her life after Ted leaves her for a younger woman.  Wendy gets some empathy from college-student-daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer, another of Meryl Streep’s offspring—Momma Meryl can also be seen currently with Grace’s sibling, Mamie Gummer [where she plays the daughter of Streep’s title character], in Ricki and the Flash [Jonathan Demme]), spending her summer on a communal farm in Vermont, which encourages Wendy to take driving lessons, prior to buying a car in order to visit Tasha.  By chance, the cab driver, Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), who picked up Ted and Wendy from a gala affair (only to listen to them have a meltdown over Ted’s private affair) finds a envelope Wendy left in the cab, returns it to her whereupon (for reasons unknown to me) she asks for his card (A natural response toward someone who won’t take money for helping out a fellow New Yorker?), which—I guess—indicates he also gives driving lessons, so now the 2 are connected (as the plot requires, stretched as the circumstances may be).  Turns out that Darwan, a devoted Sikh/political-asylum-immigrant from India now living in Queens with some of his countrymen (but he’s the only legal one of the bunch), offers life lessons along with driving lessons, which sort of endears him to Wendy even as he’s entering into an arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), newly arrived from the old country with little English nor formal education so she's not an ideal match for a former college professor (why he’d have to ditch his beard and turban, as noted by him in the trailer [2nd link below with this movie] in order to teach at an American university isn’t clear, although I will acknowledge that our academic job market remains tight so maybe he’s correct that the best path for him in the U.S.A. right now—where he’s at times mistaken for an Arab, thereby making him a terrorist suspect, at least to badly-informed-idiots—is behind the wheel of a car where the worst he’ll face is the normal dose of road rage [which he’s centered enough to dismiss, except for some of Wendy’s clueless miscues as an apprentice driver, especially on the day he’s to meet Jasmine at the airport]).

 Once we get past all of the set-up, though (well-summarized in that aforementioned trailer), there’s not much more to encounter except for sincere intentions, solid acting by the 2 consummate-pro-leads, and a calculated warm, fuzzy feeling at the end as Jasleen gets more comfortable in her new surroundings—with the help of her friendly, better-acclimated-countrywomen in the neighborhood—and in her at-first-tense-marriage to Darwan as he agrees to stop working nights (between his 2 jobs he’s hardly ever home except to criticize most everything she does) in order to be affectionately with her more, while Wendy’s now a licensed car-owner on the road to Vermont (where Tasha’s still in residence as intended, rather than in her school’s fall semester, even though the local boyfriend’s no longer in the picture, after a pep-talk from increasingly-mellowing-Mom).

So What? This pleasant ending (appropriate to the Disney worldview noted above), however, presents a disturbing note for me in that after Wendy passes her driver’s test (following immediate problems the first time out due to intense nervousness), which then severs any need for her to be in further contact with Darwan, he makes an offer (which she can refuse, unlike in those Godfather situations, also noted above) to celebrate with her over coffee or maybe even dinner, but she turns him down in order to prevent their friendship from growing into something more intimate (even though there’s a clear subtext in the trailer and for most of the film about a mutual attraction growing between them that needs to be resolved, with the implications that his marriage isn’t working out as planned while her stumbling forays into the dating scene have been presented as equally unsatisfying, illustrated by her exhausting-sex-scene with a Tantric-yoga-practitioner who’s trained himself to have “dry orgasms,” although he offers to ejaculate on Thursday if she’d like to hook up with him again).  Up to that late-plot-point, Darwan’s been presented as a faithful devotee of his religion (although his commitment to be generous to others comes across as a bit exasperated at times), so it seems forced to me that he’s the one making the offer that could eventually lead to infidelity, allowing Wendy to be the restrained, mature adult in the situation—necessary to resolve that implied romantic tension between them but still keep everyone on the intended proper path to a more-fulfilling-future (with no last-minute-return from Ted, repenting his ill-chosen-indiscretion).  The rest of this essentially-sweet-story (to borrow an evaluation from my probably-more-satisfied-with-what-she-saw-wife, Nina) flows along pleasantly (and comically, in the sarcastic commentary spewed out by Wendy on driving and the larger metaphors it offers on life’s difficulties), but, right toward the end, when Darwan suddenly makes an uncharacteristic, unwarranted move on his new friend it just somewhat sours the whole sweetness for me in an unneeded manner (but maybe I’m just defending my fellow-husband-fraternity-brother too much).

Bottom Line Final Comments: Learning to Drive is certainly an experience more pleasant to watch from the comfort of a darkened, climate-controlled-environment than would be reliving the actual trauma of attempting to learn to control a massive machine with the constant potential of either causing harm to others or being harmed from someone else’s carelessness (it’s been just over 50 years since I had to endure that pressure in my after-school-driver’s-ed-classes, followed by the even-more-gut-wrenching-challenge of passing the driving test—which I did with a few points knocked off but looms again when I reach 70 in a couple of years); further, the main characters of Wendy, Darwan, Tasha, Jasleen, and Wendy’s sister, Debbie (Samantha Bee), are easy to relate to, comfortable to watch, and reasonable in their responses to legitimate situations that have arisen in their lives.  However, just like how the elation of passing that long-dreaded-driving-test can fade completely from your mind after enough time has passed, so does this movie evaporate after the lights come up, leaving you with just a few fleeting memories of the best moments but nothing that will likely stick with you very long.  So, in keeping with my Short Takes responses to Learning to Drive I’ll pick a rather obvious—and somewhat silly—Musical Metaphor for this movie, “Drive My Car” (on the 1965 British edition of Rubber Soul as well as the 1966 Yesterday and Today album compiled for U.S. release) by the Beatles at (illustrated with footage from concerts where they’re playing other songs [a decent mix in that it does seem they’re singing the actual ”… Car” lyrics a good bit of the time]) or if you’d rather see just one of the Fab Four actually performing the song, here’s Paul McCartney (main writer and composer, lead singer in the above link) at from a lively concert in Quebec at some unspecified time but well after the era of the original recording with his former bandmates.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine: (19:16 Q &A with director Alex Gibney—good audio quality but shaky enough camera at times to get you dizzy, so take your Dramamine if needed)

Here’s more information about Learning to Drive: (3:49 featurette about the movie, which incorporates most of the above clip but with a little additional footage along with commentary from some of the primary actors—Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer—the producer, Daniel Hammond, and the director, Isabel Coixet)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Grandma and Phoenix

            Women Well Beyond the Verge … But Clearly Not Broken
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                           Reviews by Ken Burke
                                            Grandma (Paul Weitz)
Feisty Elle Reid’s pregnant teenage granddaughter, Sage, has an abortion scheduled for late the same day she tells Grandma she needs $630 to pay for it, but Elle’s broke; most of the rest of this story deals with attempts to get the needed cash from Sage’s clueless boyfriend, Elle’s long-ago flame, and finally Sage’s Mom, Judy, in a funny but endearing tale.
What Happens: 
A very long day in the life of poet/currently-unemployed academic Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) begins as we witness the breakup (our narrative is told in chapters, “Endings” being the 1st one) of her current 4-month-romance with considerably-younger Olivia (Judy Greer), whom Elle viciously refers to as a mere “footnote” to her 38-year-connection with Violet, who died 1½ years ago but has never left Elle’s thoughts (with the memory encouraged by a tattoo of her former lover’s name on Elle’s arm).  However, the abrupt termination with Olivia (who, I assume, has her own residence because all she does upon leaving is toss her key onto a table, with no mention of retrieving anything from the house—we do see a second toothbrush in the bathroom later, but Elle quickly throws it in the trash) isn’t as easy as it seems as we cut to the next scene of Elle sobbing hysterically in the shower (some of that’s probably still grief over Violet), followed by a calming nostalgic scene as Elle dresses up in her academic robe while looking through a trove of mementos.  From there, whatever hopes she had for a more peaceful day are shattered by the unexpected arrival of her troubled teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who hesitantly explains that she’s pregnant, needs $630, and has an appointment scheduled (abortion’s not specified at this point in the script, but it’s clear that’s what awaits Sage today if she can raise the money) for late that very afternoon (pre-planning on the girl’s part doesn’t seem to be one of her stronger assets, as Grandma bluntly notes to her).  

 Elle’s no help with the cash, though, because in addition to being jobless she also recently cleaned out her savings in order to rid herself of all debts (we’ll have to assume that Olivia was the final one), then cut up her credit cards to incorporate them into a wind chime (this woman’s clearly never lost her Sixties street cred, at least where advocating feminist principles and condemning the power structure are concerned), so off they travel (in Violet’s old rattletrap of a car [a 1955 Dodge Royal which actually belongs to Tomlin]) in search of the needed money, with their first stop at what Elle remembers as a Free Clinic but it’s now a coffee shop; she decides she could do with a cup but is soon thrown out for disturbing the other customers (all both of them) as she rants about the need for abortion access, gets into a verbal tiff with the shop worker, Chau (John Cho), and generally just keeps exhibiting the foul-mouthed, acerbic attitude that we’ve quickly come to know from her.

 Their first money-quest-stop (Chapter 2, “Ink”) is to demand at least half of the fee from Sage’s increasingly-ex-boyfriend, Cam (Nat Wolff), an arrogant little punk who first tries to pass off the paternity to another guy that Sage slept with (she nullifies his timeline, though), then claims unavailability of funds while getting into a verbal sparring match with Grandma (at one point she tells him that his pathetic attempt at growing a beard just makes his face look “like an armpit”) which ends with her slamming a hockey stick into his groin, then collecting the $50 he does have as she and Sage move along to other options.  Next, Elle tries an old-friend-tattoo-artist, Deathy (Laverne Cox), who’s also short at the moment (of cash, that is; in height, she’s quite commanding) but does offer a quick free tattoo of an O on Elle’s shoulder (justified with a litany of “o”-based-words, all with importance for women—so that’s why I didn’t get any of them down in my notes, although I’d have to imagine that “orgasm” was one of them, not just because of my primate-male-brain but also because of the significance that act and its aftermath have in this film for the 2 involved males, Cam and Karl [more on him very soon]) and her available $65.  From there it’s on to another old friend (Chapter 3, “Apes”), Carla (Elizabeth Peña; 12 years younger than me but sadly already dead, since 2014, of cirrhosis of the liver and gastrointestinal bleeding resulting from alcohol abuse, a tragedy in keeping with the potentially-collapsing-worlds of many of the characters in Grandma), to whom Elle hopes to sell a bag of first-edition-books (including Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique [W. W. Norton and Co., 1963; Elle’s horrified that Sage has no idea what this groundbreaking social study’s even about]); however, not only does Olivia work at Carla’s shop (producing some clumsy interchanges) but also Elle gets into another verbal smackdown with Carla over the value of the books (even though verified by Sage’s quick Internet search, showing them as far less desirable than Elle assumes they should be) resulting in no sale, just another angry, collision-driven-exit.

 (Chapter 4, “The Ogre”) Against her better judgment Elle then goes to see Karl (Sam Elliott), to whom she was married for 2 years about 30 years ago (she says she knew then she was a lesbian but was in a state of self-hatred; he doesn’t seem like he ever gave up on their connection, though, despite having 3 other wives since then but none at the moment); their dialogue, noted in many other reviews, is one of the highlights of cinematic acting and revelatory insights into the human condition (it’s always risky making “Oscar-worthy” comments at this point in the year, but both actors do deserve very serious consideration), with Karl ready to hand over the needed $500 (after she gives him a required kiss, then is stalling about his second demand that they have sex) until he finds out the purpose (through inference we understand that she was pregnant by him, had an abortion without his knowledge, left him, then allowed herself to be impregnated by someone else because she wanted a child, not a husband, followed by her long-term-relationship with Violet [whom Elle eventually acknowledges was more complex and controlling than she let on to anyone else]); she also wrote a poem, “The Ogre Sea,” which Karl hurtfully interpreted as being about him, so nothing good comes of this “reunion,” which began with his fateful words, “It’s painful to see you, Elle.”  

 With time running out, the only choice left is Sage’s bossy Mom, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a hard-driven-woman (her office desk sits over a treadmill) who frightens both Grandma and Sage.  After the expected exchange of heated words on all sides (Chapter 5, “Kids”), Judy agrees to provide the money, along with more mutual insults and sarcasms, as Grandma barely gets Sage to the clinic in time after the car finally breaks down (they hitchhike with a squabbling couple and their carful of kids), then they must avoid the preaching of an anti-abortionist and her young daughter, although the kid (Meg Crosbie) slugs Elle in response to her counter-arguments.  Surprisingly, Judy cancels some appointments in order to show up as well, with the Reid women finally uniting over Sage’s needs, even to the point of no recriminations when Sage finally calls Mom Judy an “asshole.”

 We end with chapter 6, “Dragonflies,” as Elle has her car towed, then takes a cab home, stopping on the way at Olivia’s to leave her the bag of books unsold to Carla but finding herself there at a clumsy time as Olivia’s having dinner with her parents (the mother notes that Elle’s poem, “Dragonflies” is one of her favorites, but it’s unclear how much more—if anything—they know about their daughter’s recent love life).  Elle clearly wanted to have a more-fulfilling-concluding-conversation with her former flame but opts instead to just wish her a happy life, leaving very soon after arriving.  Not soon enough for her cabby though, as he’s already gone (after collecting his fare, then promising he’d wait for her next leg of the trip) so Elle just laughs at her ongoing fate as she begins the seemingly-long-walk-home (to whatever LA neighborhood she lives in) captured appropriately in a long-take, wide-shot finale as she hikes into the already-disappearing-sunset.

So What? In the touching-but-wickedly-hilarious Crimes of the Heart (Bruce Beresford, 1986; adapted from Beth Hendley’s 1979 play, winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) youngest Magrath sister, Babe (Sissy Spacek), shoots her abusive husband (whose own crimes were somewhat inspired by his wife’s affair with a teenage boy), then to quench her thirst goes to make lemonade, noting that she’s had “a baaad day” (if you haven’t seen this film, please do so at your earliest convenience—or maybe that’s just my twisted Southern heritage asserting itself again).  Certainly the same could be said for Elle and Sage Reid (actually, I’m not sure if the granddaughter has the same surname but given Elle’s lesbian status and the seeming lack of a stepfather in Sage’s life—along with the unlikely situation of fierce Judy taking a man’s name anyway just because she was once married to him—leads me to believe that these are all Reid women), although at least none of their travails have them even contemplating murder.  (I’m well aware that Sage’s fetus did end up terminated, but I’ll leave the Planned Parenthood-defunding-diatribes and “murder of the unborn” arguments to those who advocate such; I’m in neither of those camps, although I'll note that if you want to see a pregnant teenager decide to carry her “football” [what a good friend of mine kept referring to her second child as prior to the birth, based on what the eventual-girl looked like in her sonograms] to term, then you might prefer Juno [Jason Reitman, 2007] instead of Grandma, even as I highly recommend both films as smartly-written, marvelously-acted, presumed-comedies-but-with-appropriate-seriousness-included even as they explore differing messages about pregnancy.)

 Lily Tomlin is at her exasperated best here, barging her way through one calamity after another, saving most of her sympathy for Sage—without ignoring what she considers to be shameful ignorance by her granddaughter, whom we’re set up to sympathize with but who also seems to be lying to Judy about using the condoms her mother bought for her (in the 100-unit-package, so Mom’s certainly no prude where teenage-sex is concerned), at least in one fatal encounter with boneheaded Cam.  Tomlin manages to convey an enormous amount about Elle in just a couple of hours on screen, often through almost-throwaway-lines (“pregnant” with meaning, if you’ll pardon the pun), making it clear that despite the choices of her 2 following generations she’s no karma-prize either, a situation which she frequently, ruefully accepts in a successful mix of facial expressions displaying disgust with both herself and the unforgiving world around her.  Her co-stars are tremendously effective as well, with appropriate focus on Elliott for the complicated responses he manages to directly convey toward Tomlin, even though we have very limited screen time in which to understand his simultaneous attraction/repulsion toward Elle (it’s a much more difficult presentation than he recently delivered as a pursuer of reluctant-widow Carol Petersen [Blythe Danner] in I’ll See You in My Dreams [Brett Haley; review in our June 20, 2015 posting], although he was effectively charming in that encounter as well), but none of this would work if there were sudden distractions from the quick-characterizations offered by Harden, Greer, Cox, Peña, Wolff, and others—especially Colleen Camp as a customer in Peña’s store simply trying to get some brief attention while Elle, Carla, and Olivia have at it over their various intense disagreements.  

 Most-essentially-critical is Garner’s (another worthy nomination consideration) take on Sage, though, as we need to empathize with her while acknowledging that she’s still just a child emotionally whose actions (both with Cam and with her mother’s demolished-garage-door) lead to consequences that she can barely fathom in terms of importance rather than inconvenience.  All of these actors are up to their requirements, allowing Tomlin to provide an effective whirlwind of central activity without totally dominating the various environments that she invades.

Bottom Line Final Comments: “Time passes.  That’s for sure.”  This film’s opening graphic, taken from Eileen Myles’ collection of fictional stories, Chelsea Girls (Black Sparrow, 1994; not to be confused with the Andy Warhol 1966 film of the same name, a 2-screen, 3-hour exploration of the famous Manhattan hotel, a seeming magnet for creators in many of the arts) provides interesting after-the-fact-rumination-material on Grandma, given that we spend only one day with Elle (a very eventful day at that) but much of what resonates through the events we observe is based on years of connection, loss, and troubled relationships in her life with her long-ago-short-term-male-lover, Karl; her cherished companion of many decades, Violet (who still haunts her consciousness on a daily basis); the always-tense-situation with daughter Judy; and the unnecessarily-cruel-breakup-and-attempted-atonement with young lover Olivia.  For those of us of a certain age (you know: retirement, Medicare, all that) the emotional truth of this film adds genuine gravitas to its more outlandish comic moments (including the confrontation in the coffee shop with embattled-worker Chau in which Elle finishes off her tirade about "drip coffee" by dripping some all over the floor), allowing us to appreciate how everything we’ve ever experienced recurs in our present awareness, never allowing the past to fully subside, with the hope that somehow the future might soften some of those damaged moments (Elle and Judy with many ongoing years to share, Elle and Olivia with nothing left of each other but memories—very likely of a better-than-‘”footnote”-status) while others will likely remain in ruins (Elle and Carla, Elle and Karl, Sage and Cam—who have the added difficulty of still needing to be in their common-high-school-environment, where at best his bruised balls will keep him from trash-talking about her, lest Grandma come back for another run at his “puck”).  

 When you put all of this together, you do end up with what could be a multiple-awards-nominee (possibly for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay [Weitz also] in addition to the acting triumphs noted above).  Don’t see Grandma just expecting an R-rated-dialogue-rantfest of Lily Tomlin showcasing her comic chops as a grouchy old woman (although that’s on constant display until intra-family-things finally get resolved at the abortion clinic at the end) because there’s a lot more to it than that, more worthy of your time than is a mere showcase of well-spewed-obscenities.

 As for my choice of a Musical Metaphor to showcase what you do get in Grandma, though, I found I needed to make 2 offerings in order to properly address the full scope of this film.  Therefore, I’ll start with Jan and Dean’s 1964 hit, “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” (on their album of the same name, same year), at https:// ?v=6MhiHZvq8zc (the original recording, illustrated with appropriate pictures) because while Elle may not have “a pretty little flowerbed of white gardenias” nor actually live in Pasadena (I’m not clear which suburb she does call home because she drove all over the area by the time the film wrapped up)—as for her "brand new, shiny red, super-stock Dodge" ... well, I admit that's where this Metaphor gets intentionally-silly—but it’s abundantly clear that there’s “nobody meaner” in all of Southern CA, especially if you insult any of her many sensibilities.  However, there’s more to her and the film’s story than this so I’ve also included Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” (from the 1972 Jackson Browne debut album) at in order to address Elle’s reality of her eyes “hav[ing] seen the years And the slow parade of tears,” wondering if she was “unwise to leave them open for so long,” learning to “To see the evil and the good without hiding” because “people go just where they will,” leaving her to constantly wonder if “it’s too late for me.”  (This video, though, from the June 26, 2010 Glastonbury [England] Festival, while marvelous in image quality, is a bit muffled in audio clarity so you might prefer another performance version at from back in 1978 with very low-fi-video but much better clarity of the audio, making the lyrics considerably easier to understand.)
                                          Phoenix (Christian Petzoid)
In the immediate aftermath of WW II a Jewish-German woman sent to die at Auschwitz returns to Berlin seeking her husband, but she’s had plastic surgery so he doesn’t recognize her; however, he enlists her in a scheme to reclaim his wife’s family inheritance, a ruse that she plays along with while determining if he’s the one who betrayed her to the Nazis.
What Happens: We begin in a Berlin we rarely see on film, the destroyed capital of the Nazi empire after their defeat in WW II where piles of rubble now define the city as both German citizens and former victims of Fascist terror attempt to begin life anew after the horror of the war.  The principal in our story is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a young Jewish woman, nightclub singer, captured in 1944 (ironically, she’d lived in London until 1938), then sent to Auschwitz to die but saved through Allied liberation. She’s helped back to her former home in Berlin (with the building now one of those rubble-piles) by Lene Winter’s (Nina Kunzendorf) attempt to return the rescued to some semblance of postwar life in their homeland or possibly in pre-Israel Palestine (with the goal of establishing a Jewish homeland).  What complicates Nelly’s situation, though, is that while at the camp she was shot in the face which has led to plastic surgery, where she was given the choice of having her appearance notably altered (apparently, an offer for those who wanted to no longer appear Jewish to the outside world in response to the trauma of the war and the Holocaust) or—as she demanded—restored as closely as possible to her previous appearance.  However, despite the surgeon’s best attempts, her face isn’t precisely as it was, which horrifies and demoralizes Nelly especially as she wants to find her beloved husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), then resume their pre-war-life.  

 He’s a musician so she seeks him at the club Phoenix (with the name serving as a double entendre for the content of this film), first mistakenly following a cruel guy with the same name into an alley outside the club where he robs her but later coming upon the right Johnny (now going by Johannes) working as a kitchen busboy.  To her heartbroken shame he doesn’t recognize her, but then things take a very strange twist as he sees this woman as resembling closely enough his (presumed) dead wife so he concocts a plan for her to pass herself off as Nelly in order to collect the sizable family inheritance (all of Nelly’s relatives were killed in the war).  She agrees, in an effort to be close to him, even though she doesn’t see that much of him while hidden in his dingy basement apartment.

 From this complex opening premise (with its echoes of Madeleine Elster’s [Kim Novak] seeming-reincarnation in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958]—now ranked as the Top Film of All Time by the critics surveyed [once a decade] in 2012 by the British cinema journal Sight and Sound, dethroning my still-all-time-favorite, Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941], now in the “mere” #2-position after its 50-year-reign at #1), things get murky fast, both in terms of constructed plot and troubling assumptions for the audience about the plausibility of the ongoing interactions between Nelly (posing as Esther Blum, a woman that Lene has assured her is dead) and Johnny, as he not only doesn’t recognize his wife’s slightly-altered-face but also doesn’t connect with her voice (spoken in its normal register, not disguised as with Bruce Wayne's changed delivery as Batman in the recent Dark Knight trilogy [Christopher Nolan; 2005, 2008, 2012—review of this last one in our August 5, 2012 posting]), her movement and mannerisms—ironically, he criticizes those as being unlike Nelly’s so that she has to adapt her natural self to his memory/ conception of those aspects of his wife—nor even her embrace when he shows her how to hold him when she gets off of a train seemingly providing her return from Poland as he and their friends come to the station to greet “Nelly” after her horrid ordeal.  Even for a man who’s trying to hold onto the conviction that his wife’s dead so that he can acquire a material escape from his now-shattered-life-situation, it just seems implausible to me (and even more so to my wife, Nina) that nothing about his actual mate would open his perception, as this self-imposed-denial is just too much to accept, even though it’s the primary premise necessary for this plot to prosper (say that fast 3 times!).  

 Further, though, there’s the additional major complication that Lene (who knew our couple before the war) tells Nelly that Johnny’s the one who turned her in, seemingly to secure his own release, I guess for harboring a fugitive (hiding her in a countryside hotel for quite a while until she was betrayed)—Johnny’s not Jewish, the situation for most of their friends who, as it turns out, included a couple of Nazis, as Lene explains to Nelly—then divorced her a couple of days after she was taken away (Lene has a copy of that decree as proof), although that further complicates it all for me if he’s on record as having divorced Nelly Lenz I don’t see how he could claim her inheritance unless I missed something (easily possible as I’m scribbling notes while subtitles are still flowing upon the screen) about her taking it all, then giving most of it to him except for an accomplice’s fee.

 Another critical complication here is that Lene desperately wants to get out of Germany, establish a permanent residence somewhere in Palestine, sharing a life with Nelly, seemingly for reasons beyond platonic friendship.  Nelly’s still determined to reconnect with Johnny, though, despite her increasing suspicions and new discomfort that Lene’s right about his actions during the war.  When they visit the countryside hotel where she was hidden she finds out from the innkeepers that Johnny was there just after her capture, seemingly sealing the deal against him (he’d indicated that he hadn’t seen the place in years), although she goes along with his plan to change her hair style and color, add makeup, and wear a dress Johnny bought for Nelly before her capture as a means of further convincing their circle of friends of her authenticity, as she’d want to present herself as she’d prefer to be remembered rather than as a war-torn refugee (exactly how she’d be able to transform herself, let alone still have possession of this expensive dress after being shipped off to the death camp, where everything was viciously taken from the captives, isn’t explained either, nor is it questioned by the acquaintances who just joyously welcome the returned Nelly into their midst).  As the reunited group gathers for conversation and refreshments, though, Nelly wants Johnny to accompany her as she sings the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash song, “Speak Low” (written in 1943,while Weill was in exile in the U.S.A., for the Broadway musical Touch of Venus).  When she sings, it’s painfully-clear that Johnny finally knows the truth about this “recruited woman,” especially as he sees the Auschwitz prisoner number carved upon her arm (he’d previously asked her to slightly mutilate that limb, as if she'd been a prisoner who made the choice to cut away the identifying obscenity, in order to further validate their ruse; he was under the mistaken impression that she’d complied).  As she finishes the song, she's miserable as she walks away from him, leaving the group of attending friends stunned as well (just as we are stunned by the revelation, just prior to Nelly’s “return,” that Lene killed herself, leaving behind the copy of the divorce decree that proves her story about Johnny).

 So What? In this 2014 German film just now finding distribution in the U.S.A. we have a marvelous concept, put into action with incredible performances, especially by Hoss (who could rival Tomlin in vying for an Oscar nomination, although the Academy is extremely stingy in giving such honors to performers in non-English-language films [there is some English in Phoenix when it’s logical that American soldiers, etc. would be speaking such while expecting the same from the Germans being addressed in occupied Berlin, but the bulk of the dialogue is in German so come prepared for reading subtitles unless you’re bilingual in the Teutonic tongue] although not totally opposed, as evidenced by Marion Cotillard’s Best Actress win for La Vie en Rose [Olivier Dahan 2007]), who displays an enormous range of—often suppressed—emotions as she deals with the sense of lost identity that accompanies her slightly-new-face, the desperate optimism as she both searches for her lost Johnny and then keeps yearning that he’ll reincorporate her into his life (the hope of such being all that kept her alive during her terrible imprisonment), the bitter soul-crushing-realization that he’d both betray her to save his own skin then devise a scandalous scheme to benefit materially from her “reappearance,” followed by the icy disgust she shows in the final frames of the film as she concludes her song, then walks off to who-knows-where.  Yet, despite this bravura performance, it’s difficult for me to just praise the total impact of a film where I’m in constant disbelief about its operating premises (in truth, I feel the same hesitation about Scotty Ferguson [James Stewart] not being able to recognize Madeleine in Vertigo, a preposterous premise when you really question it yet the essential one to accept—even if just through the theatrical mode of mind long known as suspension of disbelief—if you’re to appreciate, even applaud, the impact of the compelling story being delivered in a masterful manner, from the acclaimed director on down to the talented-yet-unnamed-members of the production crew).  

 Phoenix is a powerful film about the nature of self-identity (to exceed what it offers, you’d have to go to my #2 Top of All Time, Persona [Ingmar Bergman, 1966] where the ambiguity of selfhood is on excruciating display by 2 of the world’s all-time-great thespians, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson), the (exceeded) limits of human relationships, and the wartime brutality that haunts countries and cultures even after the hostilities cease.  The question is: Can you flow into the appreciation of what impact this film has to offer when its encounters between husband and wife seem so implausible?

Bottom Line Final Comments: Ultimately, I have to answer my above questions with a well-pondered “yes,” not only because what’s going on here is so masterfully done in the handling of nuances of human emotions but because I try very hard to be consistent with my evaluations of the many films that I’ve seen over decades of viewing, so if I’m going to fault Phoenix for my rational disbelief about Johnny not being able to know that he’s really in the presence of Nelly (and, logically, I can’t believe that an identical body type, vocal intonations, and ability to imitate her handwriting after one quick exercise would escape his comprehension, even though surely he’d previously convinced himself that she’d have no rescue from a death-sentence) then I’d have to further deny similar ignorance on the part of Scottie in Vertigo, I’d have to refuse to believe that Alma could probe into the consciousness of Elisabet as she does in Persona, I’d even have to say that it’s waaay too unlikely that the events of The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller; review in our August 27, 2015 posting) could occur the way they do without some form of legal or physical retribution (even Humbert Humbert has to pay for his crimes in Lolita [Stanley Kubrick, 1962; Adrian Lyne, 1997]) even though I see all of these as being at some level of masterful films, especially the older ones to which I’d give 5-star-ratings if I were reviewing them, along with the 4 stars that I un-reluctantly gave to The Diary …  . Well, I’ve made my choice on those older masterpieces—and the significant one from present day, even if it’s not at that high a level—so I feel compelled to just accept the premise as written for Phoenix, especially given that I think part of its intention is to explore how we perceive what suits us while denying inconvenient truths (as explored in cognitive dissonance psychology, at least since the groundbreaking work of Leon Festinger in 1957, summarized very nicely by Paul Simon in “The Boxer” [on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, 1970] as “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”), allowing me to praise the delivered impact even while I was questioning the premises.  

 After all, though, if you question cinematic plot premises too harshly you run into a lot of problems in just appreciating films that continue to satisfy over the decades—in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) Isla Lund Lazlo knew that she and her husband, Victor (another seeming-returnee from the dead), had to seek their letters of transit at Rick’s Café Américain but she didn’t know the owner was Rick Blaine?  A star athlete and scholar such as Benjamin Braddock can’t find any female in Los Angeles to have casual sex with except the wife of his father’s business partner in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)?  Fredo Corleone is really dumb enough to lose track of his story on the same night about not previously knowing rival gangster Johnny Ola, thereby giving away his previous betrayal of brother Michael in The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)?

 No, I don’t think so for any of the above, but sometimes for an overall film to work holistically you have to be able to overlook some logic, accept some artistic license, give praise where it’s due to the gestalt of the experience (as I do with the no-doubt-about-it-5-star-films noted just above).  Given those premises on my part, I’ve finally come to closure with giving a measure of high praise to Phoenix, joining in with most of the rest of the critical community (which I don’t always do—see my unbelievably high 4 stars for the generally-reviled The Lone Ranger [Gore Verbinski, 2013; review in our July 11, 2013 posting] or, more recently, my restrained 3 stars for the lovingly-embraced Mad Max: Fury Road [George Miller; review in our May 20, 2015 posting]) in offering a strong recommendation about Phoenix (99% positive reviews in Rotten Tomatoes, 90% from the usually-lower-scoring Metacritics; more details in the links below).  I can’t claim that you’d be likewise able to put aside your distractions from what seems to be a holier-than-Swiss-cheese-plot-concept, but if you do (or even if you can just put that aspect of the viewing experience to the side for a bit) I think you’ll find Phoenix to be a marvelous example of in-depth-exploration of the (oftentimes, in-) human-condition, with acting that embraces the ruined souls of the characters living in parallel to the physical atrocities that they’ve endured.  As for a Musical Metaphor, I’m going to be serious for a change and just present you with Nelly singing “Speak Low,” the actual finale of the film, at, that’s been described as “a breathtaking climax that deserves a place among the finest in recent cinema.  It’s a thundering finale to a profoundly mournful movie.” (from AP’s Jack Coyle's review).

 In watching it, you may wonder exactly what’s going on in the minds of Nelly and Johnny’s friends as we see their stunned faces, why it’s so “breathtaking”; we assume, from his decision to stop playing the song as she finishes it a cappella, that he’s finally understood that the real Nelly is standing beside him—until she walks away—but as we understand this narrative the friends are supposed to have assumed that as soon as she got off of the train (that she boarded in a station east of Berlin, driven there in the night by Johnny) so what’s their shock about?  Is it because the “devoted” wife is walking away from her “loving” husband, even as her Nazi nightmare is over?  Do they know about the divorce and are having to admit that now Nelly is aware of her lost-marriage this story isn’t headed for a fairy-tale-ending, as she croons “The curtain descends, Everything ends Too soon, too soon”?  Have they also just noticed her tattoo appearing from under her sleeve, forcing them to accept the horror that they were tacitly a part of (they welcome her back home but say nothing about what she endured in the concentration camp nor how she was able to reconstruct herself in such alluring fashion)?  Petzold isn’t about to offer you any further answers here, but just to see the situations that raise such questions might be enough to encourage you to view Phoenix for yourself, a decision that I strongly encourage you to make if you have the opportunity, a difficult task I admit as it’s been out for 7 weeks now yet is playing in only 185 theaters in the U.S., but hopefully one of them will be nearby.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Grandma:

Here are some short clips from the film at (Cam [Nat Wolff] refuses to help pay for Sage’s [Julie Garner] abortion; Grandma [Lily Tomlin] takes offense), (Grandma asks Karl [Sam Elliot] for money), and (Judy [Marcia Gay Harden] questions Sage about how she got pregnant)

Here’s more information about Phoenix: (19:06 interview with director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss [sound very low at times, somewhat hard to make out because of the casual setting of the conversation])

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.