Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A post war identity crisis

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (opening Friday at The Maple Theater) is a story of lost love but with a twist. Germany has just surrendered after World War II and rubble-heaped Berlin is divided into Allied sectors. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a Jew who suffered a disfiguring facial injury and requires surgical reconstruction. She returns to her old neighbourhood and searches for her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She finds him (quite readily) working as a busboy in a nightclub. He doesn’t recognize her but cooks up a plan to have her impersonate his former wife - in other words, impersonate herself! She’s in love with him and agrees to go along. And despite her trying to convince him she’s really his wife he’ll have none of it. But what’s on Johnny’s mind is to exploit Nelly’s inheritance. She agrees to pose as his wife (ironically as herself) to claim the estate. He also coaches her on how she is to arrive on a displaced persons’ train and behave while the family and he greets her. She goes along with all this, seemingly, because she’s still so in love with him. When she changes her hair colour and clothing to mimic what she used to look like he’s startled for a moment but then says “it’s all wrong.” She tells her confidente Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), “I’m really jealous of me!” This may sound funny but in the film's context it’s really not. But it does make you want to give old Johnny a shake since Nelly’s facial reconstruction and mannerisms are close enough to what she used to look and be like. Or, more practically, to have Nelly shake him since she's such a diffident character. Moreover, Lene can’t understand Nelly’s continuing attraction to Johnny, who betrayed her during the war as a Jew. “The gasses come and we forgive,” she says despondently. Johnny is a pianist and Nelly a singer. And when they finally perform before family and Johnny hears Nelly’s voice it’s then that he recognizes this woman must indeed be his wife. I know this story is based on a novel, Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet. But that story must have had more believeability because it introduced a third dimension in a daughter who is trying to determine parental recognition. In the film, it seems implausible that Johnny wouldn’t recognize Nelly and the fact he doesn’t undermines the plot’s credibility. Moreover, the film is a one-trick pony - a drawn out effort by two people to create a false impersonation. It would have been nice to have had a few subplots (the exploitation of nightclub performers or the sordidness of post-war Berlin although one incident suggests this). Or it could have had greater context: I didn’t think many Jews returned to their homes after the war; Nelly sought her husband but wasn’t she otherwise conflicted?  The best parts of the film are the vivid dark, moody cinematography (Hans Fromm), and Zehrfeld and Hess’s stand out performances. Both also starred in Petzold’s 2012 Barbara - about an East Germany physician - which has more complexity and is a more satisfying picture.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Treading water in late August, barely

It’s the dog days of summer and my movie watching has been as lacklustre. Over the last couple of weeks I did manage to see a couple of half decent films and, well, a couple of classics for the ages. I’ll have a review next week on the new film opening August 28 at the Maple - Christian Petzold's Phoenix.….Meanwhile I got to Woody Allen’s 46th film Irrational Man. Joaquin Phoenix plays a stand in for Woody’s normal angst ridden cerebral character as a philosophy professor (Abe Lucas) at a small New England college. He’s moody handsome bait for a couple of women - one on faculty (Parker Posey as Rita Richards) and one a student (Emma Stone as Jill Pollard). Allen, as a writer, has inserted philosophical themes from a lesser to greater extent in many films and here it’s embraced widely. Lucas arrives on campus rather despondent finding little meaning in life. As a kind of existentialist, however, he realizes he can become a man of action which in turn gives life meaning. This happens to be criminal but for good purpose. Irrational Man isn’t Allen’s best. It seems narrow in subject matter, characters, even humour. But it’s worth seeing. A bonus - at least for me - is that it’s filmed in one of my homes away from home, Rhode Island. There’s a scene where characters are in front of Island Books on Spring Street in Newport. That’s the store I went into last September after losing my wallet, seeking a phone number for the local police department. (My wallet ended up being returned intact.)

On Netflix I watched The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, (2014, Mike Fleiss), about perhaps the second most famous member of The Grateful Dead who accompanied lead man and icon Jerry Garcia, improvising chords to the bearded one’s nifty lead guitar. Normally docs aren’t made about second tier band members. But this is the Grateful Dead, which developed its legions of Deadheads (don’t ask me). So I guess some of the iconography rubs off. Nevertheless it’s an engrossing flick and isn’t just about Weir but the band generally. There are great scenes from early Haight-Ashbury days and the band’s decades of musical truckin.’ Weir was the lady’s man in the group but has settled into contented older age, happily married with children in leafy Marin County, with some contemplative Buddhism to round out life’s mystery. 

And there is Turner Classic Movies' ongoing Summer Under the Stars schedule. I caught back to back Marx Brothers’ films celebrating Groucho. First was Horse Feathers (1932, Norman Z. McLeod) a spoof celebrating the president of Huxley College, Quincy Adams Wagstaff, played by Groucho. My favourite scenes are on the football gridiron with wonderful non-stop sight gags as Huxley beats Darwin usurping a planned thrown game……The second was Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey) a satiric comment about the rise of fascism (Mussolini banned it). Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, leader of fictitious Freedonia. The movie winds-up in a crescendo of delightfully absurd song and dance numbers with a cast of hundreds and a medley singing the praises of their great nation with lyrics overlaid against some of Americana’s most famous songs including a Negro spiritual and Oh Suzanna. Yuck, yuck.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inmates run this asylum, or don't

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre) is a kind of drama-documentary about a real life experiment that, well, went so right it went wrong. It’s based on a true psychology experiment at Stanford in 1971 with a theme you’re probably familiar with. Throw a bunch of people into opposing power relationships and see what happens. In this case Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), the psychologist, cooked up an experiment whereby a bunch of students would be paid $15 a day to stay in a replica prison for two weeks. Some were chosen as guards, others prisoners. The students at first take a light-hearted approach thinking there might be some realism but, hey, this is a controlled university experiment - with explicit instructions of no physical harm - taking place on campus, so what could go wrong? As you might suspect, plenty. Well, actually, in scientific terms, nothing. In fact, the students who play the guards take their roles so seriously the experiment is a smashing psychological success in terms of what it finds about the excesses of human nature. The jail - actually a small cordoned off hallway in the bottom of a university building - soon descends into the roughest prisoner boot camp you might imagine. The prisoners have the proverbial smiles on their faces wiped off in no time. An insubordinate prisoner is forced to strip naked. Others are literally thrown in “the hole” (a dark closet). The hands-off approach is ignored and physical fighting breaks out with the guards using their night sticks to keep the inmates in line. When one of Zimbardo’s associates suggests intervention, he says, “No, let the guards figure it out.” A rebellion ensues and a riot takes place within a hundred square feet. The guards, especially one played exquisitely by Michael Angaramo as a kind of badass southern sheriff (think: “You in a heap of trouble, boy!”), become almost psychotic in their demands for obedience and eventual enforced depravity. The experiment, however, goes off the rails when the prisoner students think this is more than what they signed-up for and demand out. But they can’t leave, except in one or two extraordinary cases, where the first released inmate threatens legal action. Zimbardo himself takes on the role of authoritarian warden, calling the basement cell block “my prison.” When the guards try to force the prisoners to sodomize one another Zimbardo finally intervenes and calls a halt. The two week experiment ends after six days. Based on true events none of the participants suffered long term harm. Zimbardo found the research (the movie is based on his book The Lucifer Effect) integral to an understanding of authority, power relationships and how good people turn bad. It’s similar to the earlier Milgram electric shocks experiment at Yale. This is all fine and the movie is tautly paced and has great performances by a rising group of young actors including Ezra Miller, Johnny Simmons, and Tye Sheridan. But if the film follows the experiment so closely (and Zimbardo consulted on it) I wonder how Zimbardo got away with creating a real life dungeon, depriving citizens of their rights. In the end, though, Zimbardo is lauded for his depth of research into how ordinary people can become tyrants. But didn’t anyone question how he himself became one?