Tagged drama

Queen of Earth – Alex Ross Perry (2015)

Last year was director Alex Ross Perry’s breakout. His third film, Listen Up Philip, a dramedy centering around two narcissistic authors, one young and rising, the other an aging literary lion, brought the director something close to mainstream recognition (while a cover story in Film Comment might not be a barometer of mainstream, certainly Disney tapping him to direct the upcoming live-action adaptation of Winnie the Pooh is). Listen Up Philip is a very good film, exploring the personality traits required (or are they?) to be a great writer, and investigating with some finesse how maleness and the egoism necessary to turn life into “art” are mutually reinforcing in our culture. While that film, as far as most of the press it received was concerned, hinged on two Philip Roth-like characters and their back and forth, the middle chunk was given over to Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and provided the alternative reality against which Philip and his mentor’s self-aggrandizement could be measured. In that section, Perry showed himself to be a keen observer of women, and perhaps more sympathetic to Ashley’s worldview than to those of his protagonists, all too easily read as stand-ins for himself. Now, only a year later, Perry has returned with Queen of Earth, again featuring Elizabeth Moss. A portrait of two female friends, meticulously investigating the ebb and flow of their relationship, and the difficulties inherent in being close enough to someone that you feel responsible for their well-being, despite being two separate, unrelated “adults,” Queen of Earth has received little of the attention that Listen Up Philip did. I will not play Kreskin much in this regard, but it does not take a soothsayer to imagine that the gender of the protagonists has something to do with it. Yes, it could simply be the fact that the film followed too closely on the heels of last year’s publicity, but looking at the critical response, and to a degree the marketing of the film, we can discern that nobody is quite sure what to make of it. The poster advertises it as an “acidly funny comedy,” which it assuredly is not (and which Listen Up Philip definitely was). Rogerebert.com calls it “as unsettling as any horror film,” and other sources pigeonhole it as a psychological thriller; while I understand this sentiment to a degree, as the main character is in crisis throughout much of the film, and we as viewers become worried that the shoe will drop, the implicit violence mustering behind Moss’s visage becoming explicit, there are ultimately no “thrills” to be had, and no horrors to behold. Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, comes closest to the truth when he compares the film to Bergman – one cannot help but think (and Perry is indeed prompting us to) of Persona, with two female protagonists going tête-a-tête in a dialectical discovery of identity while on a “vacation” that doubles as a period of convalescence. Persona, however, is more psychoanalytic, with the women losing a sense of who they were, and discovering new identities through their isolation – it views their feminine aspects as two sides of the same coin. Queen of Earth is more down to earth (surprise, surprise), more “realistic,” interested ultimately in the problems of friendship and the limits of knowing, and helping, another person. The protagonists are women, perhaps, not so much because the film is interested in the nature of women, but because women tend to care about, and interrogate more deeply, the nature of friendship, and the responsibilities and rewards contained within that relationship.

Elizabeth Moss plays Catherine, an artist who has long lived in the shadow of her much more famous artist father, whose affairs she manages. Katherine Waterston plays Virginia, a longtime friend who is seemingly content to do little with her life (in a conventional sense); she seems to rely on her parents, and their wealth, for her existence, although the details of the arrangement are never made crystal clear. As the film begins, Catherine is breaking up with her longstanding boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and breaking down emotionally. Virginia offers Catherine safe haven at her house upstate (actually her parents’ summer home), with the implicit promise of time alone to recuperate and work on her art in solitude. We sense tension between the friends from the moment of Catherine’s arrival, and soon it has made its way to the surface, with the pair snipping at each other as much or more than they sympathize. At first we don’t understand this dynamic, and assume that Virginia is being a bit remote and cold; after all, she invited Catherine up, knowing she was in crisis. Further, Virginia inserts a man into the situation, neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit), a nice-enough seeming fellow who ultimately reveals himself to be an unsettling presence, a smarmy enigma who, as Catherine later critiques, stands emotionally apart from people and pokes at them with verbal sticks. As the film progresses, however, the past begins to emerge into the present, and via flashbacks (which tend to arrive unannounced) we soon learn that a year ago the situation was reversed – it was Virginia who was in crisis, and it was Catherine who arrived, supposedly to give succor to her friend, with her then-new boyfriend James in tow. The movie then moves back and forth between these two periods (although giving more weight, and play, to the present). Catherine in the present moves further and further down the spiral, into a place that on the surface looks like “madness,” but which, in terms of her thinking revealed via monologue, seems quite in touch with the raw existential truths of reality; a year earlier, we see her smiling, preening a bit, contented and self-satisfied, happy, but only by way of forcing a comparison against Virginia, who we sense she has always resented for the ease with which she approaches life. So while we are happy to see that Catherine was not always so miserable, we also sense that her miserable state is more honest; and while Virginia at first seemed unsympathetic, we begin to see that her role in the friendship has been the harder one, perhaps, with her stoicism being mistaken for aloofness, her own crises, and problems, always given short shrift. The men in the story complicate the relationships, but they are also strictly secondary in importance – they exist to be used by the women against each other, and to flesh out aspects of the relationship that would remain unseen otherwise. The film moves to a kind of climax, with Catherine making a scene at a party Virginia hosts, and then telling off Rich even as she tries to understand him. Eventually she leaves, after having sunk further and further into isolation – she becomes not mad exactly, but beyond caring about trying to hide her inner turmoil, and her departure signals not recovery, but her desire to spare Virginia further stress (driven perhaps by guilt at recognizing her own failings as a support a year earlier). In the end, the friendship persists – we understand this through a closing gesture – but each character must bear the heaviness of their faults, and of life’s unfolding, alone.

What is remarkable about the film is how astute it is in tracing the complexities of a relationship that is chosen and not forced upon either party; it truly investigates what it means to be friends with someone, and all the pain that such a relationship brings. In Virginia and Catherine’s flip-flopping positions, with one in crisis in the past, the other in the present, we begin to see how each brings something to the relationship that attracts the other: Catherine her emotional openness, and her ability to verbally unpack the realities surrounding her (regardless of if they are “true”); Virginia her acceptance and unrelenting graciousness, a kind of maternalism, even when it is barbed and grudging. Catherine likes the ease with which Virginia takes life as it comes, not understanding that it really is not so easy for her, while Virginia admires Catherine’s talent and drive, even if it is halting or expressed in a passive aggressive way. While all of this is well and good, and displays a very admirable, and assured, grip on interpersonal psychology by Perry, what carries the film upward is the way all of this is blended into a portrayal of life as an unfolding that we have little control over; the friendship is a barometer that measures the revelation of a mystery. In the movement of Catherine from a place of happiness and assuredness to one of despair and doubt, we feel how life reveals itself as a continual series of revelations that are, for individuals and those who care about them, self-revelations as well. This is part of the motivating force behind Catherine’s monologues – she is trying to understand the nature of existence by parsing herself, and those around her, in real-time. Thus we also come to understand that Virginia is not pleased in any way by Catherine’s downfall, for it reveals to her the contingency of things, and also prompts her to consider that perhaps the seeds of the downfall were always present, and that this friend she thought she knew well is different, and always has been; further, such knowledge leaves Virginia fully alone, as she realizes she is the “strong one,” and thus will always be isolated. Indeed, the whole film is a reflection on the open question of how far we can go toward knowing others, and given that we are all, in a way, isolated inside our experience of time passing, it asks what responsibilities are inherent to friendship, and questions what we hope to get out of knowing others. Why do we do it? Why do we seek to become close to people we are not obliged to know, when it entails so much unhappiness, pain, and failure? The movie only raises these questions, it does not attempt to answer them, except insofar as to suggest, by way of Catherine’s art, that seeking truth, about our own natures as well as that of the universe, is the ultimate reason. I am happy to say that I have barely scratched the surface of the insights and pleasures that Queen of Earth provides. As usual, the cinematography is outstanding, and signifies “period” in ways that Listen Up Philip‘s also did, but much more subtly, making us feel less like we are in the realm of pastiche. This is by far Alex Ross Perry’s finest film, and one of the finest recent films about women, the nature of friendship, and what growing older feels like from the inside. The cliche says growing older is growing wiser, and there’s truth there – but such wisdom takes the form of a greater knowledge of our own failings, and humility in facing our inability to break away from our pretensions. Catherine’s laughter, which ends the film, is not the bleak laughter of the void; rather, it is laughter of the reflections in a funhouse mirror, a recognition that the way we prefer to see ourselves is distorted and (except perhaps in periods of distress) almost always backwards.

Four stars out of five

Carol – Todd Haynes (2015)

Todd Haynes is a master of the semiotics of repression, of portraying people who are caught within various forms of social control, and who work, however haltingly and unsuccessfully, to express the truth of their identity despite the pressure brought to bear by such controls. Identity is his great theme, in particular the mysterious realization it takes as it is formed, ad hoc, or emerges, inchoate, from within the half-sleep of consciousness. Thus, his greatest films are those that deal with this topic without the “contaminate” of love to complicate things – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, I’m Not There, the little-remembered short Dottie Gets Spanked, and his still greatest Safe (one of the greatest films in contemporary cinema aside from being his personal best). Now, many would argue that identity cannot be formed outside of a relationship to another person – that it is indeed absurd to speak of such an idea. This is psychoanalytically true; our primary relationship from birth is with our mother, and it is through relating to her, and distinguishing her body and person from our own, that we form an original idea of self. If we take the search for love as the quest, in adulthood, for a reunification with that (perhaps illusory) maternal state of identity loss, acceptance, and re-formation, then the romantic relationship is perhaps the crucible of identity and change for us “grown-ups.” At the same time, though, the romantic relationship is very normative, and we often desire it for reasons that have little to do with an authentic search for identity – we desire it because we desire to conform to social expectations, and affirm our identity in another sphere. Haynes deals with both kinds of identification in his films, both the need to conform and the often oppositional need to express (irrational) desires. This is why he almost always sets his films in the past, as social expectations and the patterns of conformity they engender are easier to see in hindsight. Not only that, it is easier to read the social codes of a past era intelligibly, and, at the same time, to project our own age into the past as a way to search out our own repressions and blind spots, as if in relief. While this is admirable, and I do not blame him for it, it succeeds too well in some cases – those cases being the films that deal with romantic love. Far from Heaven, Carol, and, to a lesser extent, Mildred Pierce, all portray desire rather than embody it. Haynes’s failure is that, while we come away understanding how we are intended to feel about the relationships portrayed, we fall short of actually feeling the emotions he’d like us to – they are indicated, rather than expressed, and these films end up, like many relics of the past, inert, glazed in a kind of preserving amber that, while allowing us to see the detail of the period quite clearly, are also rather bloodless, the emotions on the other side of an impenetrable surface.

Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s early pseudonymous novel, concerns a love affair between well-to-do housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the younger, semi-bohemian shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara). These women meet, happenstance, when Carol comes into Therese’s section of the department store she works at, looking for a doll for her daughter (and settling, per Therese’s advice, on a train instead). Both women are already attached to men; Carol in an unhappy marriage to husband Harge (an excellent Kyle Chandler), Therese in a rather one-sided romance with conventional and unimaginative Richard (Jake Lacy). Both women are instantly attracted to each other, and Carol, perhaps purposefully, forgets her gloves, giving Therese a reason to contact her again. They arrange a meeting, and soon Therese is spending Sunday afternoon with Carol at her large country home – much to Harge’s consternation. We soon understand that Harge and Carol’s marriage is on the rocks, and apparently has been for a long time, as they both have tried to accommodate her attraction to women. Harge, seemingly controlled by his mother, is taking daughter Rindy (Sadie and K.K. Heim) with him to Florida for Christmas, while Carol will stay at home, apparently set to spend time with best friend, and past lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson). Instead, Carol and Therese have some alone time, which winds up torpedoing what was left of Therese’s sham relationship with Richard. Carol, in need of solace after Harge threatens to take Rindy away from her, and, we assume, desperate to activate the physical side of her desire for Therese, decides to go on a road trip “out west,” and invites Therese to go along. Therese eagerly agrees, not only to spent time with Carol, but to feed her burgeoning interest in photography, a hobby that she hopes will become more, and which has been encouraged not only by Carol, but by understanding friend (and would-be suitor) Dannie (John Magaro), who works at the New York Times. On the road trip, Carol and Therese finally consummate their love (in a scene that, it must be said, is erotic, without being overly passionate); however, this peak is also a valley, as they are snooped on by private investigator Tommy (Cory Michael Smith), who is working for Harge, digging up dirt on his wife’s “amoral” relations with women to use against her in the impending custody battle. Carol flees the trip, flying back to New York to attend to legal matters, leaving Therese in the care of Abby, who drives her back east. Eventually, Carol and Harge come to terms, mostly because Carol chooses her identity over access to her child, and in the end Carol confesses her love for Therese. Is it too late, though? The ending of the film revolves around Therese’s desire for Carol, and her decision to take the relationship further, or not.

As previously mentioned, the attention to period detail in Carol is peerless, and not just in the surface trappings; the film is a corrective to our often patronizing view of the past as an uncomplicated land of steely repression and willed ignorance. Everyone in the film, from Richard to Harge to Tommy, understands, with varying degrees of sympathy, what is happening between Carol and Therese. It is not portrayed as foreign, exotic, or shocking, and the impossibility of the relationship, refreshingly, has more to do with previous romantic commitments (driven, of course, by convention and social expectation) rather than fear of being ostracized or cast out of society. (It also helps that the film is set in New York). And, ultimately, we do feel the emotional stakes involved, partly because of Carol’s sacrifice (her willingness to choose her own desire over access to her daughter), but mostly because of an exceptional performance by Rooney Mara as Therese. Her coming-to-awareness of her identity goes hand-in-hand with her growing courage and authenticity, which expands as her self-consciousness does. It is not so much in the results that the film fails us, but in the origins. We never understand, nor feel, the attraction between Therese and Carol. Yes, we understand that it is meant to be instant, a kind of love (or lust) at first sight, but the best Haynes can do to communicate this is having Carol coolly, and knowingly, sashay away while Therese stares at her a bit bug-eyed. And in the resulting long build-up to their trip, and sexual encounter, we never feel the heat. The relationship feels stilted, and distant, which may be a result of the characters’ differences in age, experience, and social status, but which gives the lie to the original, and supposedly overriding, primal desire. As with the relationship between Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far from Heaven, we can understand intellectually what is happening, we just can’t understand it emotionally. Far from Heaven had the added interest of being based on an existing melodrama (two, actually), and so that built-in turmoil made it marginally more interesting, but in both cases, for stories that are supposed to be about the sturm und drang of forbidden love, the results are often quite boring. Why do the love relationships in Haynes’s films have this problem? I have thought long on possible reasons, and have come up with two possibilities. One is that he does not give his characters enough build-up; we do not see them in their natural habitats, being themselves, for long enough, nor are we familiar enough with their inner worlds (as expressed in the quietude of “uneventful” sequences) to have a fuller identification with them. The larger problem, though, are the period settings. While it makes it easier for us to identify and parse how the social codes communicate (and, as mentioned above, allows us to reflect on our own codes more fully), it also has the ironic consequence of repressing our desire for the characters. They seem distant because they are distant; their concerns, to some extent, are not our own, their worlds are alien to us. As a fan of Todd Haynes, I would love to see him take on similar issues in a contemporary setting, and it is interesting that his best film is also his only contemporary one. I begin to wonder if he takes on so many projects set in the past because they are, in a way, purer realms of signification, free of the contaminates of present-day politics. They are safe. Here’s to hoping he soon makes a film that is messier, and less aesthetic, than his work of the past decade.

Three stars out of five

The Danish Girl – Tom Hooper (2015)

The Danish Girl, the story of one of the world’s first sex reassignment surgeries, is obviously a timely one, as this past year has been a watershed for awareness of the plight of transgendered people. Within that context, the film is in one way what you might expect, in that it works hard (and tampers significantly with the biographical details of the account) to soften the tragedy of Lili Elbe’s story and paint it as a tale of heroic sacrifice and redemption. What is unexpected about the film is that it is much more interesting as an account of a relationship, not a singular identity, and that it is really the story of the unfolding of a marriage. Again, the film tampers with the historical facts in this case too, and simplifies what is a much more complex and painful reality of a relationship pushed to its breaking point; but even given that, it still emerges as one of the more interesting recent portrayals of a husband and wife, and this is due to the fact that the film eschews formulaic or stereotypical gender shorthand, instead providing a very realistic picture of how two people, who know each other so well, and are bonded very closely, exist outside of and beyond gender, and accommodate each other as spiritual beings first and foremost. That is to say, gender and sexuality are treated as being fluid a priori, and able to shift and reinvent themselves, because of the fact of marriage. While this gives the film its interest generally, it is also not enough to rescue our interest specifically, which wanes in the second half, as Einar Wegener definitively becomes Lili, and the fluidity that previously defined both the relationship and the portrayal becomes fixed and rigid, a mere retelling of (fudged) historical fact. And in this way, the film reveals itself to be unconsciously pessimistic – the fact of history, the context of the age we live in, ultimately defines the hard parameters of our rebellious attempts at reworking our identities.

The film begins with Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) a successful and respected painter of landscapes in 1920s Copenhagen. He is married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a less successful figure painter and illustrator, who he met in art school. Too shy to ask her out, Gerda had to get the ball rolling herself, thus setting the tone for the marriage – a back and forth, with neither partner “the man” nor “the woman,” but passing the roles back and forth. (Einer is the breadwinner, and the success, a support to his wife both materially and emotionally, but is also soft spoken, sensitive, and retiring, whereas Gerda is more worldly and forthright, but neither brash nor particularly outspoken). Asked by Gerda to stand-in for an absent female model (Amber Heard as ballerina Ulla), Einar is at first put-off, but then surprised to find he enjoys dressing up as a woman, and playing the role temporarily. Gerda, feeling both turned on by this and somewhat puckish by nature, suggests that Einar attend an artist’s ball with her as “Lili,” Einar’s “cousin,” partly, we get the feeling, for her own erotic pleasure, and partly to draw Einar out of his shell, and get him to attend a social event he normally would pass on. At the ball, Lili is intriguing to almost everyone, the men in particular, and by the end she is being kissed by Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a gay man who has detected Einar’s ruse, but plays along with it. Upset, Einar gets a nosebleed and flees, and Gerda, having caught them in the act, is similarly upset. Einar enters a period of tempered euphoria, as he feels elated at having discovered his real identity, but is also confused by it, and upset at the implications it has for his marriage. Gerda is also upset and sad at the slow loss of her husband, but, perhaps as a way of coping, perhaps somewhat opportunistically, uses him as a model, and becomes a great success with the series of paintings featuring Lili. She is soon offered a show in Paris, and the couple moves there, with their life becoming more quickly inverted – Lili has no interest in painting, despite Gerda’s admonitions that Einar continue with it, and Gerda becomes the well-known, successful breadwinner. She is quickly lost in her own confusion, however, as she misses having a husband, and while supportive and protective of Lili, is perhaps not a match for her, even putting aside the unsurprising problems in the bedroom. She soon turns to an old friend of Einar’s, the art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), first as a confidant and friend to Lili, and then as a replacement husband and lover (although, it must be said, most reluctantly, and only after Lili has made it clear that Einar will not return). Hans is uniquely poised to be of help, as he shared a kiss with Einar when they were children, but is unabashed by it, and while heterosexual, is not put off by Einar’s new identity or the underlying fact of such fluidity. Einar, wanting to embrace Lili but not finding a through road that will allow him to exist in society as he would want (that is, fully as a woman) searches from doctor to doctor for answers, with naught but suffering and patronizing “help” that often is quite hurtful. Finally, with Hans’s intervention, Einar visits Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who does not think him insane, and indeed proposes a radical solution – gender reassignment surgery. Einar is elated that he will finally be Lili once and for all, and fully embodied, and so undergoes the process, which will require two surgeries. The first goes off well enough, given the medical limitations of the period, but Lili, in a quest to complete the process and catch her exterior up to her interior, pushes for the second surgery too quickly perhaps, against the wishes of Gerda, who remains by her side throughout. The second surgery is too much for Lili to bear, and she dies, with Gerda and Hans by her side. The movie ends with the new couple back in Denmark, Lili’s scarf borne aloft by the wind, a sign, we suppose, of her spirit taking flight and triumphing over the limitations of her body.

As you can likely tell from the description, the movie is standard liberal-humanist “triumph of the soul over all adversity” sentimentalism. The historical facts of Einar’s transition to Lili were much messier. Lili died alone, having divorced Gerda before the surgery, and the surgeries were not as similar to the reassignment surgeries of today as the film portrays; Lili died of a womb transplant which didn’t take (as it couldn’t, since the drugs to fight rejection of the organs weren’t introduced until half a century later). Gerda also did not end her life married happily to an art dealer, as the movie suggests, but instead died penniless, bankrupted by an Italian officer. While this whitewashing is a problem, it is a lesser one – although it undercuts the motives of the film by devaluing Lili’s sacrifice and true heroism at taking on a far more radical surgery, alone, and significantly leavens the sadness and tragedy of her hopes of becoming a “real woman” (that is, one able to bear a child). The larger issue for the film is that, once Einar “solves” his problem and fixes his identity as definitively female, much of our interest dissipates, and it becomes a fairly dry, predictable succession of “facts.” The first third of the film is alive because both characters are not one thing or another – the relationship between Einar and Gerda is continually shifting and developing, and the allegiance they feel to one another, and the angst, and excitement, caused by the introduction of this new element, always latent, is fascinating and powerful. As a portrait of a marriage, it is refreshing in its realism; it only becomes an “unconventional” relationship in the second half, when it also becomes an impossible one. Eddie Redmayne does a decent enough job with his role, but he is better as Einar – as Lili, he relies a bit much on mannerisms (in an attempt, perhaps, to capture Lili’s nascence and her biographically correct stereotypical “womanliness”), and as he takes center stage more and more, we like him less and less. This is not because we can’t identify with his transformation (that is for each audience member to experience for themselves), but because, as viewers, we have identified, and feel allegiance to, the couple, and the marriage. His abandonment of that makes it difficult for us to follow him, or to follow Gerda either, although to a lesser extent. The fact is that Alicia Vikander as Gerda has our sympathy throughout simply because she reveals herself to be a remarkable actress. I had only seen her in Ex Machina, where she was quite good, but essentially playing a pseudo-human, so I didn’t know what to expect. Her Gerda, especially early in the film, where she is frightened of Einar’s transformation, yet also turned on by it, supportive of it, curious about it, and wounded by it, is incredible. The film feels more about her experience than it does Einar/Lili’s. For most of us, she is the point of identification, as we also feel, in turn, the same about Redmayne’s Einar. We are excited, aroused, and worried for him as his new identity begins to flower, but as with most bio-pics, we already know how this story ends, and so once he moves beyond Gerda, the film takes on a closed, deterministic air. If only Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon had allowed the film’s conclusion to follow the historical reality more faithfully, we would have a different set of feelings to transition to – sadness, melancholy, perhaps horror, all mixed with hope. The full weight of the pressure of the this new identity would have been brought to bear on us. Instead, by trying to lighten the impact, we feel the film, like Lili’s scarf, becomes insubstantial – the theme of the film, after all, is the inability of someone to feel that they are properly embodied, so downplaying the bodily suffering is a strange choice. Perversely, by trying to keep a “positive” tone for the sake of people working through such issues, then and now, the film winds up selling them out, getting the nature of their struggle exactly wrong.

Two and a half stars out of five

Brooklyn – John Crowley (2015)

Brooklyn is one of those films that sails by under the radar, as watching the trailer, for instance, produces no particular impression other than mild disinterest as a series of quite generic and bland, if slightly humorous or heartwarming, sequences pass by. The heroine looks unremarkable, the dramatics subdued, the film pretty in a conventional way; it looks like a story we have seen or read a hundred times before, a safe, perhaps even conservative film, that will offer little to distinguish itself aside from a quiescence and universality that might result in mass appeal. Taken as a series of pieces, of sequences taken out of the context of the greater film, Brooklyn would not add up to much. Unlike many films which are produced these days (at least in the generally straightforward English speaking world of filmdom), Brooklyn’s impact and artfulness arises only through slow accumulation. It works subtly, deliberately, and with an attention to detail that is almost invisible. Thus, when the full film emerges (which happens only in the final shot, perhaps, but not in the sense of a more typical coup de théâtre, even of the slower Tarkovsky variety), the accumulated force is all the greater, washing over us as does a massive wave that we have barely detected, as we have studied it from underwater, unaware of its surface effects until the final moments.

The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is languishing in her small Irish town during the 1950s. She seems congenitally dissatisfied, as if not even realizing her constraints, but her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) takes an interest in her liberation, and secures her a job in Brooklyn through an acquaintance in the clergy, as well as passage on an ocean liner. We follow Eilis as she struggles to make her way, both on the boat, and later in the city, as an inexperienced, and generally shy country girl. Living in a boarding house with four other girls in similar circumstance, and under the shrewd and watchful, but compassionate, eye of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), Eilis works at a department store, but has a hard time adapting to the cheerful demands of the job. Taking note of her homesickness, the clergyman, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) intervenes, and pays her first semester of tuition so that she might attend night school and become a bookkeeper. Perking up at this intellectual stimulation, Eilis begins to find her footing as she is taken into Mrs. Kehoe’s confidence, due to her compassion and sensibility, and eventually she meets a young suitor at a dance. This young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) is Italian, and thus we expect a clash of cultures, which never materializes, as Tony woos Eilis, eventually introducing her to his family, and finally proposing love and marriage. Her deepening connection to Tony coincides with sister Rose’s unexpected demise, which calls Eilis back to Ireland, both to console her now abandoned mother and to sate her guilt at having not said a final goodbye to Rose. Eilis and Tony marry before she leaves, but once arrived, she tells no one of her recent nuptials. Although she tries to demure, her childhood best friend sets her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the local most eligible bachelor and all around decent fellow, and thus a tension develops as Eilis’s mother actively implores her to stay in Ireland, and Jim passively offers her a future and a reason to. Meanwhile, Tony writes Eilis letters, trying to stay in the forefront of her mind, but perhaps disavowing the pain the separation is causing to both of them, she leaves them unread. Her bookkeeping skills put to good use, Eilis steps into Rose’s old job on a temporary basis. No longer the dissatisfied, sallow girl without a future, Eilis is now a sophisticated import with a worldly outlook and skills that are sought after; Ireland could indeed be a satisfying place to live, unlike before her journey. Or could it?

As you can tell, there is nothing particularly innovative about this narrative – it is classically shaped, and the conflicts it sets up are universal in nature. What is impressive about the film, particularly for a work adapted from a piece of literature, is that is eschews psychologizing its subjects in any definitive way. We don’t get precise explanations of certain events, nor do we get a narration or other device to guide us through the interiority that is literature’s métier. For instance, Rose’s death is a bit of a mystery. Her mother finds her dead shortly after a sequence that portrays her as unhappy. Father Flood tells Eilis that she must have died from a medical condition she kept hidden, and Rose does indeed have a fragility about her physicality (she has, for instance, an unexplained scar above her right eye). Did she die of natural causes, or did she commit suicide? The book provides a more definitive answer, but the film, by refusing to resolve the issue, provides a resonance to Eilis’s dilemma when she steps into Rose’s shoes later in the film. Is unhappiness caused by the limited nature of this place, or by the people in it? Does it, and other emotional opportunities, emerge from within, as part of our temperament, or from without, imposed by the existential conditions we find ourselves trapped within? By simply portraying such situations, and allowing them to suggest, rather than define, the film amplifies the emotions at stake as it moves along so that, like the wave that carries us to the shore, by the end we are borne along by feelings and desires, rather than intellectual recognitions. Ultimately the film is working with very basic, and well-worn, tropes, such as the nature of love, the ability to adapt, the desire for and impossibility of return, the journey from innocence to experience. But, like many of the greatest films of the classical era of Hollywood, these universal issues allow us all to step into Eilis’s experience imaginatively by way of our own, and fuse our own voyage with hers; like many of those films, there is something for “everyone” in this portrayal. That the film effectively carries off its aims is not despite, but indeed a feature of, its simplicity, and a credit to an adroit adaptation by Hornby, and incredibly faceted performances by everyone, but especially Ronan, whose transformation does not even register for us until the last quarter of the film, and also the two men in her life. Tony, and his close Italian family, could have been a caricature, slipping into an easy identification based not on human experience, but on past filmic representations; instead, he is brash in a respectful, shy way, and his family distinctive while feeling contemporary and fresh. Jim is also a study in unexpected humility, as instead of trying to woo Eilis and keep her in Ireland, he remains at a remove, always aware of the depth of experience she has acquired that he has not, and respectful of the fact that her life is now elsewhere, in a place that likely cannot but make what he has to offer pale in comparison. The film ends in a way that is unsurprising and, like the rest of the movie, emblematic rather than distinctive. But at least this viewer found it one of the most deeply moving experiences of the past year. A powerful, and beautiful, humanist vision.

Four and a half stars out of five

Suffragette – Sarah Gavron (2015)

While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.

The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.

What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.

Three and a half stars out of five

Bridge of Spies – Steven Spielberg (2015)

Steven Spielberg has long been our foremost, and perhaps finest, liberal humanist, a nuanced artist even as he is also, at times, a nuanced ideologue. For a long time, he put forth his hopeful vision of the human animal within the wrappings of the fantastic; as he has gotten older, more and more often he has turned to history for his subjects, working within a style of high drama that simulates a product that used to be called, in old Hollywood, “prestige” or “quality pictures.” Starting with Schindler’s List (although previewed in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun), Spielberg raised the stakes of his aesthetic by making statements rather than simply telling stories that might happen to have (an often comforting) morality. As Spielberg has aged, his vision of the human endeavor has grown darker, but also more faceted; if his work is still often problematic (Schindler’s List, grim though it is, remains a fairy tale), it is still to be taken seriously, as the characters he portrays are fully three dimensional, and inhabit the middle tones of reality, rather than the high contrast relief of a cartoon. And although his subject matter has shifted from the far-flung, easily enthralling locales and concepts of his early work to the potentially deadly milieus of rooms in which characters do little but sit and talk, his style has kept pace, and we are never bored. Not that I have taken this to heart, for whenever a new Spielberg “quality” film comes out, I tend not to be excited to see it – “more drab gray and brown chromatics, more guys in suits standing around talking?” says I. I wind up dragging myself to the theater, but always come out braced, feeling remiss for not giving him more credit. So it went with Bridge of Spies, which I have only now finally seen, mostly because all my other choices had bottomed out. What is great about the film is that it speaks to our current moment, and appeals to the better angels of our nature (even though, for this viewer, only fools remain, as angels have long since learned that treading on Mars is safer and more interesting) – yet he does so by gentle, and subtle comparison, rather than with thundering histrionics. While he is out to convince us of something, he also believes in the self-evidence of his conviction, and so approaches us not as cynics in need of correction, nor naive patriots needing ammo for battle; that is to say, he treats his audience with intelligence, which is a rare enough thing these days.

Bridge of Spies concerns the seemingly undramatic, if not uninteresting, case of the clandestine spy swap that returned downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet hands. The film begins at the height of the cold war, as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a great Mark Rylance) is captured in Brooklyn. Well regarded insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to represent Abel, and after due consideration of how unpopular such a role will make him, takes the job, and mounts a vigorous defense. Much to his, and our, surprise, Abel has been prejudged not only by the public at large, but by the officers of the court as well – the judge on the case (Dakin Matthews) dismisses all of Donovan’s more than reasonable motions and makes it quite clear that, in his eyes, Abel is guilty of crimes against the state and should be executed. While Donovan does not dispute that Abel is guilty, he also finds him deserving of admiration, as although an enemy, he remains loyal to his cause and does not turn double agent, selling out his beliefs, or, at the least, his allegiance, for money or protection. Not wanting to see Abel executed, Donovan appeals to the judge’s realpolitik patriotism by suggesting that he be imprisoned, preserved in case the circumstance arises that an American agent is, at some time, captured by the Soviets and a deal need be made to bring that loyal solider home. The judge accepts this reasoning, and sentences Abel to jail, much to the consternation of the general public; Donovan’s defense of Abel, and his desire to move his case further through the appellate system, does indeed make him, and his family, momentary pariahs. Parallel to this story, we are introduced to America’s spying scheme involving the development of the U-2 aircraft, its deployment, and Francis Gary Powers’s (Austin Stowell) eventual capture, imprisonment, and interrogation by the Soviets. Now faced with the eventuality predicted by Donovan, the CIA decides that a swap is necessary to prevent Powers, who was instructed to kill himself rather than be captured, from spilling classified info. They tap Donovan to arrange the swap, as he has been approached, with much subterfuge, by the Soviets via a letter from Abel’s “wife.” Donovan travels to Berlin to arrange the swap without telling anyone, even his wife (Amy Ryan) what he is tasked with. Berlin, having just been rent asunder by the infamous wall, is a dangerous place for Donovan, as he is there without any protection, official or otherwise, and is only allowed to speak, sotto voce, for the U.S. in a fully deniable fashion. He is tasked with going into East Berlin to speak with a mysterious Mr. Vogel (Sebastian Koch), without escort and without contacts. Complicating matters is that, as the city was being divided, an American grad student was captured on the eastern side trying to bring his girlfriend across to the west – the student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), becomes a pawn in this game, as both the newly formed government of East Germany and the Russians, would prefer to trade him for Abel rather than Powers (the Russians for obvious reasons, the Germans to project the prominence of their newly formed state onto the world stage). Donovan, being the Dad and stand-up guy that he is, doesn’t want to leave Pryor behind, even though he is repeatedly warned by his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd) that he is not a priority. Donovan crosses into the east, and with his lawyerly wrangling, tries to negotiate a two for one swap. His success or failure remains unresolved until the last minute, at the early morning meeting on the titular bridge.

What makes the movie so great, and “relevant” (ugh), is that Spielberg echos forward so many of the paranoias and fears that, it must be said, have always been America’s bread and butter, but which have taken on a renewed virulence since 9/11, and he does so simply by showing, rather than saying. We recognize familiar names and sights (the U-2 takes off from an airbase in Pakistan, and looks much like a drone) and are perhaps a little taken aback by how much the now supposedly defunct Cold War still inflects, and infects, our body politic. The setting of the film, although slightly after the Second Red Scare, is at the height of nuclear hysteria, the effects of which Spielberg portrays effectively, both via Donovan’s young son (Noah Schnapp), who is heartbreakingly indoctrinated in the ways of useless fear at school, and by way of comparison with the behavior of Rudolf Abel. Abel, a painter and a man of consummate composure, is portrayed as a stoic – he continually, when asked by concerned seconds if he is not worried about his plight, responds, “Would it help?” We understand this is partly shorthand for the Russian national character, but it is also, when compared against the rabid hysteria and herd mentality of the Americans, a portrayal of our national character cast in relief, and a wise response to a world where the individual increasingly has less and less control or free will. Indeed, Spielberg, working from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (which displays more insight and less cynicism than most of their directorial work), is at his finest in portraying the travails of men in a world of existential dead-ends, doing their work as best they can, and staying authentic by trying to match that work with their own moral code. The film is an excellent portrayal of humans trapped within the context of history – the Soviets are not boogeymen, but simply hysterical in different ways, and equally convinced of the rightness of their competing, and alien, system (which, as with the portrayal of Abel, defamiliarizes our own system, and makes it seem equally strange and absurd). There are some missteps, mostly in the details. Pryor is seen toting the one copy of his dissertation across the border with him on his mission to deliver his girlfriend from Communist hands – really? And the dialogue gets a little breezy and ahistorical (Abel at one point says there “might be a glitch”). No matter, though, as the heart of the film, and the most affecting part, is the relationship between Donovan and Abel, two men who can see beyond the era in which they are both prisoners, and who admire each other for having this quality of timelessness (perhaps the prerequisite for an ethics). Abel at one point tells a story of seeing his parents beaten by anti-Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and contrasts them with a family friend who fascinated the young man because whenever he was knocked down, he immediately stood back up again, and was ravaged the worse for that trait. He compares Donovan favorably to this man, who he calls the “standing man.” And indeed, if Spielberg has an overarching theme throughout his body of work, it is the standing man – almost all of his films are portraits of him. Spielberg is an authentic artist, and it is also important that in an era where most of us cannot but crawl, that we see the standing man. Yet, this fascination is also Spielberg’s weakness. For there is no shame, or failure, in staying down when one is beaten, and what are we to say about those who cannot stand? Is there no sympathy, no place of honor, for them? Where is the artist who can, with equal eloquence, speak for, and redeem, the fallen, the defeated, the tired, and the weak?

Four stars out of five

Black Mass – Scott Cooper (2015)

Black Mass should have been titled Grey Slab – the movie descends like a winter migraine and sits on you until, final credits rolling, you escape from the theater into (hopefully) a brighter reality. Nominally the story of how Whitey Bulger made use of FBI chumps to further his criminal career, the film is, aside from the Boston accents, about as generic and bland a mobster film as you could imagine. Yes, we are in sub, sub, sub Goodfellas territory here (I am not stuttering, unlike our dearly departed Spider). There are plenty of slow motion wiseguys walking sequences. There’s the requisite attempt, also anemic as can be, to marry period pop to the scenes of wiseguys walking. There are the wiseguys themselves, so bloated and misshapen they look like beefsteaks shot full of Botox, their cheeks stuffed so full of cotton balls that even Don Corleone would, embarrassed, shoo them away, refusing to extend his hand in friendship. And the proceedings themselves are rote, predictable, and downright tedious. Like the Brutalist architecture of lovely downtown ’70s Boston that plays such a large part in the scenery of the film, this script was not written, I do believe, but simply marked up on a page in large chunks of brown, gunmetal, and worn, pockmarked slate. “Honor,” “loyalty,” and other such terms are dropped almost as frequently, and meaninglessly, as the f-bombs, and the more coherent exchanges reach high points like “Remember the old neighborhood Jimmy?” “Yeah.” “Those were the days when loyalty meant something.” “Fucking right.” How such a deeply dull derivative attracted the talents of Misters Depp, Cumberbatch, et al. remains a mystery. For Depp, I can see the appeal, I suppose, in that it allows him to play against type, or, at least, to try out big screen psychopathy for the first time. Looking like Gollum who has been sampling too much Spice (not the bodega variety, but the finer Arrakeen stuff), but unfortunately unable to fold time, he contents himself with folding his hands around the throats of hookers and housewives, all while enfolding pathetic FBI dupe John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) into his tasteless souffle of prurience. Overall, he does a credible job of disappearing into the part, such as it is. Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s younger brother, the “most powerful politician in the state” (eat that, Gov), does a good job with the accent, and with acting smug and powerful, although why we care is a mystery. Really, though, the best acting resides with the supporting players, often strutting their moment on the stage simply so we can revel in the snuffing out. Peter Sarsgaard, as pitiful jai-alai hanger on and sometime psycho Brian Halloran, and Juno Temple, as a young prostie done in by her association with step-dad meatwad Steve (Rory Cochrane – yuck), all but steal the show. (Which is, admittedly, not hard given the competition). And Kevin Bacon, looking, unlike the rest of the cast, lean and free of lumps, at least seems to have eaten his Wheaties and has some energy about him. What else? Well, there is the cinematography, again derivative and dull. Autumn and winter in Boston, awash in hideous ’70s fashions (that is, drapes and flares of brown, black, and, you guessed it, grey non-breathable fibers) and more Chevy Novas than you can shake a pimp cane at need not be uninterestingly shot, need it? Sadly, though, Black Mass follows many similar generic crap-outs in using very shallow depth of field for all but the widest shots, meaning that we are often looking at close-ups of hideous men with a thousand (or, rather, three or four) points of light floating behind them. Perhaps the cinematographer is in hiding, if not from the Mob, then from his guild, and so shot everything with a telephoto from across the street? The score, by the recently ubiquitous Junkie XL, who did a fine job for Mad Max: Fury Road, in keeping with the aesthetic, delivers more lead, the music a lulling, lugubrious nonentity. Okay, let’s get this wrapped up. Is there not any point of light here, you ask (aside from the unfocused floating variety already discussed)? Well, not really. What little interest exists in the film lies in the relationship of Whitey to the FBI, and the desire to see Connolly, who is very weaselly indeed, get his (which he does). Otherwise, this is one of those movies that, within five minutes of the (also lackluster) opening credits, you wish were already over. Take two Excedrin, spend the rest of the day lying in curtained, twilight repose, and sleep off the hangover.

One star out of five

Phoenix – Christian Petzold (2015)

Phoenix is a film that seeks to understand how we live through traumatic events. It is also a film about the passing of time, and the effect that passing has on our relationships, and on ourselves. Is it possible to recapture, or reestablish, what once was? Is there power in returning to places and people of past import, a prospect of mastery and satisfaction in regaining what was lost, or instead is it the mark of weakness, a sign of an inability to accept that the past is closed and to embrace the reality of the new person looking back at us in the mirror? Is the return a rebuke to those who scorned or betrayed us, a kind of revenge upon the past and a reassertion of our own identity, or instead a kind of stasis, a blind alley we venture down, inviting further trauma and abuse, in our inability to accept new realities? With this film, Christian Petzold delves into questions of identity not only on a personal level, but on a national one as well. Scripted by the director and the late, great Harun Faroki, Phoenix is very reminiscent of the kammerspiele films made in Germany during the early to mid 1920s. Those films, such as Murnau’s The Last Man or Jessner’s Backstairs, tend to feature lower middle class protagonists stuck in closed loops of possibility and identity formation. Often set in a few locations, most often the interiors of dingy apartments (or a men’s washroom, in the case of The Last Man), these films concentrate on psychodrama and character development, using expressionistic camerawork and lighting to augment the internal emotional states of their subjects (as well as make up for the lack of action in a more traditional sense). Set just after the end of the first World War, these films reference the damage of that conflict, both upon the bodies of their characters, and, albeit in sublimated form, upon the national character as a whole. Phoenix is similarly set just after a World War, but we have moved forward 20 years, and so find ourselves not in a world of the decrepit escapism and febrile political rebirth provided by the early Weimar years, but instead within the rubble of a destroyed and conquered Berlin, seemingly in a trance after its “liberation” from Nazi power. It asks the strange question – what would happen if you returned to the scene of your former life, went unrecognized, and then were asked to impersonate yourself?

We begin in the days just after the war, shortly after the liberation of the camps by Allied forces. Our protagonist is Nelly, a successful and cosmopolitan singer before the war who, ethnically Jewish but non-practicing, was at first hidden by her friends and husband until she was perhaps sold out by them. Her husband, Johnny, was a successful pianist, but not Jewish. When we meet Nelly, she has just barely survived the camps, and has been disfigured by violence shortly before they fell. Accompanied by her friend, caretaker, and Zionist Lene, Nelly undergoes plastic surgery to restore her face. She is warned that she should pick a new “type” of visage, as trying to get her back to her old self will leave her in an uncanny place, partly looking like she used to, partly a stranger. Regardless, she wants to look as close to her past self as she can. Healed up and, presumably, occupying the doubly uncanny space of not quite looking like herself while slipping back into the city she once called home, now a broken edifice, Nelly becomes obsessed with news of Johnny, and wishes a reunion. Lene tries to convince her that Johnny was the cause of her suffering, but Nelly is unconvinced (or perhaps simply still in love). She searches the streets, and then the nightclubs, until she discovers him, working, not as a musician, but as a busboy. After a few missed connections, she finally gets to speak with him, but he does not recognize her, and she does not reveal her true identity. Taking her for someone desperate for work, rather than truth, Johnny (now calling himself Johannes) suggests that since she somewhat resembles his past wife, whom he is convinced is dead, Nelly should enter into a deception with him. She will pretend to be his wife, mocking up a return to the city for the benefit of their friends, and, ultimately, to his benefit, as his wife was due to inherit her family’s estate (since the entire family was murdered in the camps). Nelly will pretend to be… Nelly, long enough for Johnny to claim the estate. Nelly will get a cut, she is assured. So we enter this strange, dreamlike pas de deux where Nelly lives most of the time with Johnny, observing him, trying to ferret out the truth of his betrayal. Was it forced upon him by circumstance – and hence is there a possibility for a reunion? Or did he sell her out callously, revealing himself to be a different man than she believed? Lene, of course, is horrified at this turn of events. About how the plot resolves itself, I will say no more, except that it is one of those rare films (rare except in the works of a master like Tarkovsky) where the final shot reveals everything, bringing together all the threads of the narrative as well as laying bare the emotional truths at play throughout. In this, Phoenix is fairly singular among recent films, as it practically demands to be viewed a second time in order to sort through the implications of the resolution and to allow us to feel the full force of the ambivalences and ironies at play in this tragedy. (Or is it a story of strength and redemption)?

The narrative may sound contrived. In some ways, it is guilty on this count, but it matters not, as we understand we are witnessing not just a character drama, but a larger metaphor for the afterlife. Not heaven, mind you, but life after the world has been destroyed. In the reunion of Nelly and Johnny, we witness the attempted assimilation of the survivors of a pogrom into a social fabric that they, years earlier, would have called their own. We sense that Johnny is now Johannes as a way to shore up his German identity post-facto; not as a way of proving his nationalism (as he might have done during the war), but as a means of convincing himself that this is who he was all along, as a way of both explaining to himself why he could do what he did, as well as running from the memory of that past life (in this way, the name becomes his scarlet letter). Nelly is trying to come to terms with the betrayal of an entire nation as it is personified in the people she knew and loved; were these people different than she always thought, or were they too the instruments of a diabolical machine far beyond anyone’s control? Are they sorry? Do they feel guilty? Are they even responsible for what happened to her? By being asked to impersonate herself, Nelly becomes a metaphor for her own impossible situation – she is still the same, and she is also completely different. She is, in effect, being asked to live both in the past, and in the future, with the present a kind of waking nightmare. The film has a taste of noir, but the airless, compressed, and dreamlike nature of the narrative is more reminiscent of the previously mentioned kammerspiele, and the different registers the film works in removes any reluctance we might have to accept this contrivance as truth. For Nelly is a contrived person – she is trying to recover an identity stolen from her while accounting for the fact that everyone she knew has also had something taken from them. In a way, the ending suggests, she is in the best possible position, for whatever her future, she does not have to reconcile her own guilt, or wonder what lie she has chosen to live. Her mask is sewn onto her face – she really is a new person – whereas her countrymen are left wondering, perhaps, if the mask they once donned is their true self, or worse, if there is a difference between the mask and the reality. Petzold is a well regarded German director, but one whose work I know far too little of – while he is responsible for prominent films such as Jerichow (2008) and Barbara (2012), I am only familiar with his entry in the Dreileben trilogy (his entry, the excellent first segment Something Better than Death (2011), deals with young love and class relations in an exceptionally nuanced and heartbreaking way). Phoenix is a rarity, in that it provides no answers, easy or otherwise, and no closure, while being sensitive to the points of view, and the pain, of all its characters, be they tainted by their choices or not. While the phoenix is often the emblem of rebirth, a kind of token for moving on, Petzold concentrates on the ashes, and on the struggle that lies behind the attempt to keep going. For ashes also signify rest, and finality, whereas the process of birth is a violent one. Rebirth is no more of a choice than death is, and the true horror of Nelly’s ordeal is that, dead or alive, she has no way out of it. At the same time, the phoenix can fly, and the film also suggests that impersonating herself might not help her fly off to a wonderful new life, but that she can perhaps climb above the world that left her behind.

Four and a half stars out of five

 

Infinitely Polar Bear – Maya Forbes (2015)

Yes, indeed, another indie film that nobody asked for, on a topic that has some liberal cache, amped further up by the casting choices. This is practically a genre in and of itself anymore: the “social issue” film that is also a family portrait, which takes on a “tough” topic in an insistently upbeat manner, and generally resolves itself in anodyne fashion. We could mistake it for fluff, mere Hollywood fake sunshine, but the salty language of the kids and their “unconventional” interactions with Dad round it out, giving it supposed grit and indie cred. I didn’t expect much more; I arrived hoping simply for some cute kids (which were mostly delivered) and for an interesting performance from Mark Ruffalo (which was less delivered on). The chemistry between Mom and Dad (Zoe Saldana and Mr. Ruffalo) is pretty much non-existent, which, while helping the majority of the film, as Mom and Dad are separating and growing distant, does little to shore up any backstory of how in the hell Mom and Dad got together in the first place. Oh yes, it was the ’60s, and Mom mistook Dad’s bipolar behavior for a lighter unconventionality, which was apparently in bloom during the hippy heyday along with peace, love, and dope. It certainly helps to explain why the film is set in the 1970s. Otherwise, what could the reason be? An aversion to cell phones as plot devices? A desire to watch all the characters chain smoke unabashedly? The inauthentic double gift of a time that was both let it all hang out weird as well as stodgy and conservative, as needed by the dictates of the script? (The narrative makes a lame stab at a framing device, in which we understand that the film is a recollection of the now grown children, but it never follows through on this). As a portrait of someone afflicted with bipolar disorder, it is definitely the Cole Porter version – Auntie Mame seems more unbalanced. As a family portrait, it is not very compelling, as we don’t have enough backstory or conflict to care, and the kids, while cute, are not terribly charming or sympathetic (ditto for Ruffalo. Saldana doesn’t even have a chance). It is also quite static. We start the film with Dad easing back into life after a stint in the hospital, with Mom carrying the burden of working. Dad, even without bipolar, comes from blue blood old money now gone to seed, so is not terribly equipped to work even in ideal circumstances. Mom, having an onerous, no-pay library job, decides to apply to Columbia, get her MBA, and then come back and support the family. Dad and kids, living in Boston, stay put, and the main meat of the film (ham hock though it be) is the portrayal of Dad going from a doddering father with less responsibility to a doddering father with more responsibility. Mom is gone for over a year, visiting on some weekends, and holds out a romantic reunion with Dad as a carrot to keep him motivated. Unsurprisingly, when the MBA arrives, Mom is not interested in Dad anymore, but Dad seems okay with the fact, or at least accepting, after he and Mom hug it out, crying together over a grill in the park. Mom will take a job in New York, Dad will keep the kids in Boston, and the future will grind on as it was, although with more money. The kids, resistant to Dad’s unconventional ways early on, still resist, and still scream obscenities, but now at least acknowledge that they love him while flipping him the bird. Or something like that. (I am making the film sound more dramatic than it is). Yes, this is looking to be my shortest review ever. Nothing happens in this film that you wouldn’t expect, and nothing happens that would be out of place on your average weekly TV drama. The sets look like leftovers from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Ruffalo wears Lacoste polos all film long and smokes like an affected movie Nazi. His father is played, briefly, by Keir Dullea, the whitest man alive. If any of this sounds exciting, or moving, please, do go and light your world on fire with this film’s torpid placidity. If you like cute kids swearing, you might be mildly satisfied. Plenty of crappy, wanna-be upbeat pseudo Polyphonic Spree music can be heard. Also, the title makes close to no sense.

Two stars out of five

Love and Mercy – Bill Pohlad (2015)

Our year has thus far provided an embarrassment of riches for fans of the biopic. And good for them! Me as well, as normally I would skip most biopics, but this year, soldiering on in the name of variety rather than cherry-picking, I have been exposed to many a chronicle of lived reality. Thankfully, they have been worthy of consideration, not a mediocrity among them. At first glance, Love and Mercy seems an oddity, as it scopes out a life that, while worthy of consideration, has not pressed itself upon us of late with its necessity. I hope we can all agree that Brian Wilson is a musical genius, and not in need of rehabilitation or, as the credits to this film suggest, publicity. The film does not labor extensively to prove his mettle, nor does it serve as a hit parade except in the most minor of ways. Indeed, the film feels slight in scope; really, though, it is simply a focused, fairly quiet and gentle film, which, like Mr. Wilson, might have its humility mistaken for lightness. The movie focuses on two Brian Wilsons, without feeling the need to tie the two together, or make any heavy causative moves connecting one to the other. The majority of the film is dedicated to portraying a particularly unglamorous, and perhaps even undramatic, time in Wilson’s life, during which he was under the control, mentally and, it seems, legally, of one Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), a squat, paunchy Svengali with a temper and a weird haircut. This Brian (John Cusack) is far beyond his heyday, and while still creative, spends much of his time battling his demons with no particular help from the doc, whose therapeutic techniques were developed at the school of fighting fire with gasoline. We have a feeling the good doctor is shady, but we are unsure, as we don’t know Wilson enough to tell if he’s as bad off as the doctor says he is. Wilson certainly doesn’t disagree with him, so how would we know? Enter one Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswomen and soon to be girlfriend of Mr. Wilson, who is our cinematic avatar within the weird world of So-Cal post-fame. She meets Wilson while he is shopping for a car, and despite the ever-looming presence of Dr. Feelbad, manages some alone time with him while they proceed to date. The tale of how she manages to liberate him from the constraints of not only the doctor, but of his own inner demons, comprises the main narrative thread. The film often cuts back in time, portraying a younger Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) in the period of his ascendancy, slightly before Pet Sounds until slightly after Good Vibrations and the aborted release of Smile. The film smartly does not attempt to explain the more recent Wilson with reference to the past one; even better, it does not use the past Wilson as a vehicle for mindless genius worship or the petty psychology we often get in such films. Instead, this past tale serves as a primer on Wilson, not just for the uninitiated (although for them too) but by way of showing where his particular problems began as counterpoint to where he winds up. This past thread also has the purpose of explicating his particular type of creativity, showing it in full force and also portraying the kinds of problems, social and not just mental, that resulted from his unique talents. There is not much suspense involved – really, the only question the film asks, narratively, is whether old Wilson will get the girl, be free of the evil doctor, and live happily ever after.

What is refreshing about the film, aside from its lack of pretensions, is that it places Melinda Ledbetter front and center, not only as our way into this world, but as the reason for, and star of, this film. Just as much as this is a portrait of Brian Wilson, it is a picture of romantic love that we don’t get much in popular culture these days. Melinda is not a particular fan of Brian’s work, nor the handmaiden dedicated to renewing his genius; we get the feeling that she cares about his abilities only insofar as they are part of who he is. She is not his foil, nor his steadfast, loyal support (although she is that as well); she is partly his savior, but only insofar as anyone who cared about him deeply might be. She is, in fact, not extraordinary in any way (okay, she does look like Elizabeth Banks), but simply a woman who, although in love, is mature enough to realize it might not work out. At the same time, what she cannot abide is leaving someone in a bad place when she has the power to help them out. And she does help him out, aiding him not just because she loves him, but because Landy is a blot that needs to be wiped out. Thus, she is a powerful woman who is also an everyday person, and by the end, we feel like this film is Wilson’s love letter to her. The great thing is that her power is not represented as a contrast to Wilson’s “weakness.” A strong aspect of the film is its suggestion that what made Wilson a sonic innovator also made him inclined to social maladaptation. Indeed, the sonic landscape of this film is its strongest suit; the sound design is subtle and incisive, with great secondary music as well as sculpted collages of Wilson’s output that provide portraiture of his interiority. The scene where Wilson loses it at a dinner party, unable to stop himself from obsessively focusing on the continual clatter of cutlery against china, is a great example of the melding of genius and madness. In most films, the clatter would build increasingly, perhaps underscored by the menacing thrumb of some ascending bass strings; here, however, we share in Wilson’s vision, as the clatter is musical, fascinating and unnerving. It gives us insight into Wilson’s musical interior, and also humanizes him, all by performing his reality for us. Partly due to Cusack’s strong performance (his best in ages), partly due to Banks, and partly to the script, we never feel that Wilson’s weirdness is particularly weird; there are no rote sequences of Melinda being shocked by Brian, of having to get over his quirks, or being put off by his manner in any way. This is a film about real people, not stereotypes, and while the ending is typically happy, it feels earned. Sometimes the universe does send the person you need at just the time you need them. Sometimes it helps to be a one-of-a-kind genius, too.

Three and a half stars out of five