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.
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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.


  1. Really liked Phoenix although the subtitles are poorly executed over most white portions of the screen (often to the point of illegibility). Also recommend The Gift for an "old school" suspense thriller with high production values (in English).

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the rapid response (which wouldn't have to coincide so closely if I could ever get these damn things posted at a reasonable hour on the West Coast). Still haven't caught The Gift yet but will see if I can work it in at some point. Ken

  3. I may not have been as impressed by Grandma as you were, at least in terms of award nominations, but it was good and these days, that's a good enough reason to see this film. Tomlin and Elliott were certainly the highlight; I would like to see Sam Elliott get a full length feature role against one of the other A list actors soon. Also recommend Meru, a mountain climbing documentary that breaks expectations, particularly if you don't know the story going in.

  4. Hi rj, Thanks for your reply on Grandma, even if my insights are better than yours (just kidding; I hope to someday journey back to Texas and actually meet up with you, as I think we could have some great conversations). Always good to hear from you; thanks also for the promotion on Meru, which I don't know if I'll get around to so please add considerably more commentary if you like. Ken

    1. Meru is simply an excellent mountain climbing chronicle done well by the actual climbers as it happened without any Hollywood scripted melodrama. Even so, it has twists and turns that only a true story, shot primarily by the climbers themselves, make believable. It makes you appreciate what these guys did and how they did it and will, almost certainly be recognized during award season, as will Amy, another powerful documentary shot primarily by Amy Winehouse's father. Of course, mountain climbing reflects a triump of human spirit while Amy is a true cautionary tale, both well executed and worth seeing.

    2. Hi rj, Thanks very much for these comments on Meru, a film that I just don't think I'll be able to get to so I'm glad to have your comments included here in our blog archives.