Review: Unforgettable ‘Phoenix’ explores identity, memory

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It’s pretty rare to feel as overwhelmed by a film as I felt after finishing “Phoenix.” Here is my 4-star review of one of 2015’s finest.

There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film “Phoenix” that will, quite literally, take your breath away.

Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead, and to learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene.

When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. “Phoenix” is one of 2015’s finest films, and a gloriously complex conversation starter.

Its theme of the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.” But the German-language “Phoenix” tackles the concept with originality, emotion, and verve.

Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, the German-Jewish survivor. We meet her in a series of strange, mysterious sequences. Her face, covered at first in bandages, is significantly damaged. She is accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), but nevertheless seems alone in her thoughts.

Before the war Nelly was a singer at a Berlin nightclub called Phoenix – the name takes on new meaning as the film progresses – and lived with her dashing husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Was Johnny the reason Nelly was taken by the SS? Did he betray his wife?

These are the questions that haunt Nelly, and also haunt Lene. Now physically and emotionally damaged, Nelly is about to have plastic surgery. While she could, in a sense, start a new life, she tells her surgeon that she wants to look like the woman she was.

Once the surgery is complete, Nelly wants to seek out Johnny, despite Lene’s protests. She soon finds him at Phoenix, and after several thwarted encounters and the realization that he does not recognize her, something occurs that shocks her: Johnny whisks Nelly away and lays out a plan.

He wants her to pretend to be his late wife, so he can claim her inheritance. What follows is a peculiar game in which Johnny attempts to teach “Nelly” how to talk, dress, and act like the wife he believes is gone. The process culminates in a stunning series of events.

While much of the success of “Phoenix” is from the script (co-written by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki, and based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet), the trio of lead actors all give award-worthy performances.

As Lene, Kunzendorf takes a character that could have been one-note – the friend who knows best, and has an idea for your future – and infuses her with complexity. Lene watches helplessly as Nelly tracks down Johnny and agrees to his scheme. Watch Kunzendorf closely in these casually devastating scenes, and see an actor who has mastered the art of facial expression.

And, of course, there are Hoss and Zehrfeld. The duo starred in Petzold’s previous effort, “Barbara,” and were quite impressive as physicians in early-1980s East Germany.

In “Phoenix,” they go even farther with equally difficult roles. Hoss must, in a sense, give two separate performances, as Nelly when she is with Lene, and “Nelly” during her encounters with Johnny. She creates an individual who is both heartbreakingly hurt yet stunningly strong-willed.

Zehrfeld, meanwhile, has the task of demonstrating the cold, calculated nature that has kept Johnny alive, but also needs to evidence a certain charm that still envelopes Nelly.

For Hoss, Zehrfeld and Kunzendorf, then, “Phoenix” is a triumph. And for director Petzold, it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking.

When was the last time a film left you breathless? “Phoenix” will, and that makes it a must-see.

Review: ‘A Borrowed Identity’ is a distinctive coming-of-age film

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“A Borrowed Identity” came and went from local theaters quickly, but the hit or miss film should draw interest on DVD, etc. Here is my 2 1/2-star review.

The young protagonist of Eran Riklis’ “A Borrowed Identity” fits the coming-of-age mold nicely. He is smart but emotionally complex. His family life features great love, but also paternal upset. His long-term plans are a bit sketchy.

Above all else, he is dropped into a situation in which he is different from his fellow teenagers in one key respect: Eyad is a Palestinian-Israeli, an Arab trying to fit in at a predominantly Jewish school in Jerusalem.

This is the hook of a film based on Sayed Kashua’s novel “Dancing Arabs,” and it is a good one. Unfortunately, while the concept is certainly unique, the film is not. It’s an adequate, worthy production, but one that never quite surprises or makes a case for lasting significance.

Still, teenage audiences, especially, will find much to chew on. “A Borrowed Identity” is certainly a stronger coming-of-age tale, for example, than the overrated “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Yes, it is a subtitled, Hebrew-language drama, and features some brief nudity, but one of its successes is demonstrating that many of the issues teenagers face in North America exist in some form around the world – even amidst the greater tensions of 1990s Israel, and the Middle East at large.

When we first meet Eyad, he is a young adult (played by Razi Gabareen) attempting to learn how his politically active father ended up a common fruit picker. “Why? Because of the state,” explains his grandmother. “How? Because he got involved in politics.”

We jump ahead several years to teenage Eyad, now played by the poised young actor Tawfeek Barhom. He has been accepted into a boarding school in Jerusalem, and leaves home with great reservation.

“Welcome,” says one of the first adults he speaks to. “I didn’t realize they accepted Arabs here.”

Eyad encounters the usual bullies, but also becomes friends with the Jewish Naomi (Danielle Kitzis). She offers some tips on blending in, including the common pronunciation of words starting with “p.” (At home, the “p” is often pronounced as a “b” – as in “Barliament.”)

Time jumps ahead once more and Eyad and Naomi are in love, but attempting to keep their relationship quiet. He has become a popular student and friend to his Jewish classmates.

Eyad forms a particularly close friendship with Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), a music-mad teen with muscular dystrophy. This relationship is crucial to the film’s second half, for better or worse.

While it’s nice to see a prominent character with a disability on screen, the time away from school is, quite simply, less involving. Moshonov gives a strong performance, as does Yael Abecassis as his mother, but the scenes between Eyad and Jonathan begin to feel repetitive and dull.

However, this relationship is essential to the film’s “twist,” and it explains the significance of the title “A Borrowed Identity.” Without detailing what occurs, Eyad makes a crucial decision that will impact his life. In the context of the film, the move seems abrupt, and not altogether satisfying.

For all of its flaws, this latest entry from the director of international successes “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree” remains a distinctive entry in the global coming-of-age catalog, thanks mainly to its fresh milieu and sturdy central performances.

Barhom makes Eyad a strong-willed, often rebellious individual. He is an actor to watch. Also noteworthy is Danielle Kitzis, whose Naomi feels wonderfully real and delightfully wise – a strong female attempting to keep her relationship with Eyad alive and healthy amidst difficult circumstances.

“A Borrowed Identity” will not linger in one’s memory for long, but it deserves to be seen, and contemplated. Plus, there is a scene in which a character thinks he spots Saddam Hussein’s face on the moon. That has to be a coming-of-age flick first.

Review: ‘Spike Island’ is no classic, but Stone Roses fans will adore it

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It’s a ridiculously clever concept, really: a U.K.-set coming-of-age folm centered around each Stone Roses’ era-defining Spike Island gig in 1990. Unlike the Madchester heroes legendary concert, however, director Mat Whitecross’s “Spike Island” is not one that will be remembered for decades. Unexceptional it may be, but the film is undeniably involving for Stone Roses fans, and Anglophiles in general. (It’s “Taking Woodstock” for Britpoppers!)

It’s the kind of Lads-with-a-capital-“L” flick with a main character known as “Tits.” (Charming …) And that gets old pretty fast. However, star Elliott Tittensor gives a fine, believable performance as the aforementioned Gary “Tits” Tichfield, a young man devoted to the Roses, his own band, and his pals.

Tits and the other characters are saddled with some yawn-inducing subplots, including a dying father and dull romantic subplot involving — yes — SALLY (Cinnamon?), played by the Khaleesi herself, Emilia Clarke. When the gang finally makes it to the site of the gig, the film finally takes flight with some clever and convincing use of old film of the band and fine stage-setting from Whitecross.

And even when the characters and story feel rote, there is that glorious music. “Spike Island” is a reminder why the Roses still matter, and if it does nothing more, that makes for a worthwhile film.

The film is now available for rental or purchase on VOD, an ideal format considering its appeal to a limited but devoted American audience. For that group, “Spike Island” qualifies as a must-see.

Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’ offers go-for-broke cinematic insanity

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This 3 1/2-star review of “Magic Mike XXL” was one of the more enjoyable reviews to write. I’m glad to see so many critics were as impressed with the film as I was.

We need “Magic Mike XXL,” and we need it now. The news cycle of summer 2015 has been utterly topsy turvy, making this the ideal moment for a film of six-pack abs, charmingly daft “male entertainers,” deliriously turned-on women, and a deluge of dollar bills.

Some things have changed in this sequel to the enormously successful “Magic Mike.” Gone is the element of surprise that came from director Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film, one inspired by star Channing Tatum’s stint as a male stripper.

Gone too are many of the first film’s notable actors, including Matthew McConaughey’s crazy-eyed club owner Dallas, and dead-eyed Alex Pettyfer’s Kid. And Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) is replaced by his longtime assistant director, Gregory Jacobs.

Also jettisoned – wisely – is any semblance of seriousness. Admittedly, Soderbergh’s somber eye for economic hardship was key to the first film’s critical praise. (One of its more memorable sights was Mike’s sad notebook of ironed dollars.)

But dropping the gravity makes for a better film. For “Magic Mike XXL” is the rare sequel that improves on its predecessor. It’s a raucous, weightless party that might just be the summer’s finest comedy.

Much of that is due to immensely talented “21 Jump Street” and “Foxcatcher” star Channing Tatum, the inspiration-producer-star of the most unlikely franchise in filmdom. In “XXL” he is as delightful as ever, cementing his rep as equally liked by both sexes

When we last left Tatum’s “Magic” Mike Lane, he had made the decision to bail on Dallas and the Xquisite Strip Club crew just as they were ready to make their move from Tampa to Miami. He had also hooked up with the Kid’s sister, Brooke.

Fast-forward three years, and Mike has his own (struggling) business and a broken heart. When a call comes from old mate Tarzan (surprisingly witty WWE legend Kevin Nash), he cannot help but ponder the life he once led.

As Tarzan, Richie (“True Blood’s” Joe Manganiello), the aptly named Ken (Ken doll-ish Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and amiable DJ Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) explain, Dallas and the Kid have split town. So the gang is heading for one last blowout, the annual stripper convention in Myrtle Beach.

It doesn’t take much to talk Mike into joining this merry band of dancers, and soon he has a seat on Tito’s food truck.

That’s pretty much the plot. Occasionally, there is a callback to the hard-out-there-for-a-stripper vibe of “Magic Mike,” but the focus is mostly on this motley crew of characters and their adventures on the road.

Several sequences drag, yet by the time the crew unleashes its convention performance, “Magic Mike XXL” has become the rowdiest bachelorette party of (at least some of) its audience’s dreams. And my goodness, is it a comically joyous blast of shirtless anarchy.

New to the proceedings is Amber Heard’s Zoe, a sharper, sexier foil than the first film’s wan Brooke (unmemorably played by Cody Horn). Jada Pinkett Smith is perfectly cast as Rome, an old love interest of Mike’s who runs a wild establishment in Savannah.

The always likable Elizabeth Banks – who, between this, “Love and Mercy” and “Pitch Perfect 2” is having one heckuva summer – Donald Glover (“Community”), and Andie MacDowell pop up in fun supporting roles, and let’s just say you’ll never look at Michael Strahan the same way again.

Yes, the film misses McConaughey’s disorderly glee, and the darker elements Soderbergh brought to the table. But Jacobs directs with a light, unobtrusive touch, and he knows when to let his actors’ personalities take over. (It’s worth noting that Soderbergh was still involved as cinematographer, editor and a producer.)

Take, for example, Manganiello’s Richie. More of a background player in “Magic Mike,” “XXL” sees the actor steal almost every scene he’s in. One sequence in particular, a mini-mart, Backstreet Boys-soundtracked dance amid bags of Cheetos and bottles of Pepsi, might be the funniest scene of 2015. It’s that strong, and Manganiello nails it.

The film’s core audience was well-represented at the screening I attended, and hooted, applauded and laughed with abandon.

However, male or female, straight or gay, permissive or prudish, you will simply not find a summer flick to match the fun quotient of “Magic Mike XXL.” If you cannot appreciate Tatum and company’s go-for-broke cinematic insanity, maybe movies just aren’t for you.