Let’s kick things off with Criterion’s release of Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix,” one of the very best films of 2015. The film follows Nelly (Nina Hoss in an absolutely stunning performance), a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, who returns to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstruction surgery. Upon return, she wishes to reconnect with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), but Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), her friend, warns her that Johnny was the one to betray her. Nina finds him anyway but is shocked to discover that Johnny is unable to recognize her, though he admits that she bears a striking resemblance to his late wife. He then ropes her into a complex scheme in order to obtain Nina’s inheritance. The film garnered rave reviews for its layered psychodrama within a noir genre piece, as well as its complex, interwoven metaphors involving survivor trauma, denial in the face of unspeakable horror, and the instability of love. Hoss’ performance was singled out for praise, especially her work in the last minutes of the film. Make no mistake: “Phoenix” is worth your time.
The other major new release this week is László Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” a Holocaust drama, which follows a day-and-a-half in the life of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, who helped assist in the disposal of gas chamber victims. One day, he finds the body of a boy he believes to be his son, and he wishes to give the boy a proper burial. The film was shot on 35mm film and garnered praise for its cinematography that captured the sounds of the concentration camp in the periphery of the action. “Son of Saul” garnered plenty of critical acclaim and won many accolades, including the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Many critics consider it a landmark in the depiction of the Holocaust on film.
The last new release is Gavin O’Conner’s action western “Jane Got a Gun,” starring Natalie Portman as a woman who asks her ex-lover (Joel Edgerton) to help save her husband (Noah Emmerich) from a gang that’s trying to kill him. On top of that, there are plenty of classic films on deck this week. Besides “Phoenix,” Criterion has two more Blu-ray releases: David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” about an emotional love affair between a married woman and a stranger in 1930’s England, and “The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates,” a series of three documentaries and one poetic short about JFK on the campaign trail and in the oval office. Oscilloscope Pictures has Kelly Reichardt’s first film “River of Grass” on Blu-ray. Warner Bros. has William Friedkin’s 1977 film “Sorcerer” about four outcasts tasked to transport six crates of unstable dynamite through the South American jungle. Vinegar Syndrome has the classic blaxploitation film “Dolemite” about a pimp (Rudy Ray Moore) serving a 20-year prison sentence after being set up by his rival, but when a fellow pimp schemes to get him out, Dolemite tries to take revenge. Arrow films has two new Blu-rays this week: John Milius’ “Dillinger,” about the true-life story of the titular gangster played by Warren Oates, and the Nico Mastorakis’ B-movie “The Zero Boys” about a paintball team that discovers a massacre in the mountains and must fight the enemy with real weapons. Finally, Severin Films has Roman Polanski’s “What?” a comedy about an American girl (Sydne Rome) who takes shelter in an Italian villa filled with strange guests, including a retired pimp (Marcello Mastoianni).
A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
Glancing down into the rubble of a collapsed building, Nelly Lenz catches her own reflection in a shard of broken glass and is shocked to discover that she doesn’t recognize the stranger staring back at her. It’s 1945, and Nelly, a Jewish chanteuse emerging from the living hell of Auschwitz, has lost her career, her family, and now her very appearance to the Nazis. The surgeons warned that the disfigured visage they reconstructed — a word of multiple meanings in postwar Germany — might look as unfamiliar to her as the bombed-out Berlin she’s returned to. But there’s really no preparing someone for the shock of unraveling rolls of bandages, only to find someone new waiting underneath. “I don’t exist,” is about all this traumatized survivor can stammer on first glimpse. That face, so foreign to the character wearing it, belongs in our reality to Nina Hoss, willowy star of the new new German cinema. “Phoenix” is the sixth film Hoss has made with director Christian Petzold — the others include “Jerichow” and “Barbara” — and it’s very much the culmination of their collaboration, rewarding the trust these two artists have placed in each other. Conflating personal and national identity in the aftermath of the war, this classically efficient psychodrama nods to movie history without slavishly imitating it. For what it sets out to accomplish, across a brisk 98 minutes, Petzold’s film feels perfectly judged. And it builds to an ending that’s just plain perfect. Read more.
“Son of Saul”
Criticwire Average: A-
Stephanie Zacharek, Time Magazine
There’s no way to describe “Son of Saul,” winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes last year, without making it sound like one of those movies you know you ought to see but will find any excuse to avoid. But if it’s a demanding film, in the end it isn’t a despairing one. “Son of Saul” doesn’t give the audience anything so falsely comforting as a happy ending — how could it? But it treats suffering as a living, breathing entity, not just as a dramatist’s tool or a means of punishing an audience. Its director and co-writer, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes (making his feature-film debut), isn’t just re-creating unspeakable sadness but electrifying it with a kind of somber energy. For all its intensity, “Son of Saul” is never ponderous. It moves so quickly, and relies so little on dialogue, that you need to race a little to keep up with it, and to keep your eyes open every second. Still, you should brace yourself for the experience of watching it. Nemes keeps the camera moving almost constantly, focusing mostly on Saul’s face, though also quite often on his back — he wears a gray coat with an X marked on it, and there’s no way to avoid fixating on it. We follow along, seeing what he sees. Disturbingly blurry images often lurk just on the periphery: Human corpses still pink with life are dragged as if they were animal carcasses (camp officials refer to them as “pieces”), and the movie’s sound design is distressingly effective — the victims’ screams may be muted, but there’s no blocking them out. Read more.
“Jane Got a Gun”
Criticwire Average: C
Glenn Kenny, The New York Times
“Jane Got a Gun,” a western directed by Gavin O’Connor, is a prime example of what French critics used to call a “film maudit,” or cursed film. The production, started in early 2013, was thrown into disarray when its original director, the visionary Lynne Ramsay, left mere days into shooting. At least two key cast and crew members followed her. In addition, the movie’s original distributor, Relativity Media, lost the rights to the picture in a bankruptcy proceeding. The final film was released by the Weinstein Company, without screenings for reviewers. Under such circumstances one hopes for, if not a lost masterpiece, then something quirky and entertaining. The tale of a frontier wife, Jane (Natalie Portman), in the New Mexico Territory, enlisting a former lover (Joel Edgerton) to defend home and hearth after her husband has been laid low did not seem to be an unreasonable scenario. I was hoping for something along the lines of a gender-reversed “Shane,” with Noah Emmerich (he plays the husband) in the Jean Arthur role. No such luck. Read more.