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Recent Movies: Phoenix; Ex Machina; Mad Max: Fury Road; Old Movies: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

July 1, 2015

Recent Movies

Phoenix

Shortly after the end of World War II, a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Nelly (Nina Hoss) returns to her home city of Berlin hoping to reunite with her beloved husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), a man whose character she might have over-estimated.

There are many bizarre twists in the story of “Phoenix” (deliberately excluded to avoid spoilers) which make it all the more intense and fascinating.  An odd scheme devised by two of the main characters leaves one uncomfortable and angry and how blind “love” can be.

Director and co-writer Christian Petzold keeps viewers at the edge of the seat trying to understand the characters’ motives while being reminded of the post-trauma of Holocaust survivors and the awkwardness of German citizens after being reunited with Jewish Germans they once knew before the war.  The final scene is gripping as it leaves one thinking “Oh my God, how could they end it THERE?” but it still leaves viewers able to fit the final pieces of the puzzle on our own while recovering our emotions from watching a film of such impact.

As the very complex Nelly, Hoss is superb.  Whether appearing self-destructive at the beginning or showing revelations in the brilliant final scene, her face and body language say everything necessary.  Zehrfeld also provides Hoss a very strong counterpart in their many scenes together.

The movie genere of “Holocaust themed films” is filled with so many great works that it can leave the question: is it possible to even get close to this high benchmark and possibly surpass it in some ways?  With “Phoenix”, the answer is an absolute ‘yes’.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * * 1/2

Outstanding Achievements:

1)  Directing by Christian Petzold

2) Acting by Nina Hoss

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Ex Machina

A young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest at his company.  The prize is to spend a week with the company’s eccentric CEO (Oscar Isaac) in an isolated compound residence in a mountainous region.  The main purpose of the visit is to experiment with an Artificial Intelligence robot (Alicia Vikander) to see if she has human characteristics.

The set design can remind viewers of an early James Bond classic, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969).  Both films create an atmosphere that seems luxurious and seductive but also have many similarities to a prison.

The few performers do a fine job in this film especially Isaac.  He has a special way of appearing to be fun and playful while also sending out a vibe that one should be very cautious of him.

The film works well in the first half but the continuous premise starts to drag somewhat in the second half.  The surprising conclusion helps in adding more sizzle to the film but by that time, it already seems to have missed its full potential which is unfortunate.

RATING:   * * 1/2

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Mad Max: Fury Road

In yet another post-nuclear-apocalyptic film, an unlikely group of rebels gradually join forces to escape across a desert from a brutal tyrant and his forces.

Regarding action and special effects, this movie is a fun ride and admirable as well.  The trouble is that the action is almost non-stop.  The scenes aren’t repetitive or dull but their excess seems to put the film out of balance and in need of more breaks for other story-related elements like character development and letting the audience know why people are doing what they are doing.

The film editing also seems less than stellar during these action scenes.  Improvements might have helped viewers in keeping up with what was being done by whom against whom.  Also, as most characters in the chase scenes are white, bare-chested men with shaved heads, it was almost impossible to tell them apart.

There was an interesting addition to the story of a small tribe of women of various ages, most of whom were over fifty.  To include such a group is a step forward for a big-budget Hollywood film.  But overall, the flaws and lack of balance left an incomplete feeling.

RATING:   * * 1/2

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Old Movies Seen for the First Time

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie  (1969 – U.K.)

Edinburgh, 1932:  A teacher (Maggie Smith) at a conservative all-girls school makes waves as she uses a more passionate and unconventional approach to teaching her students.

This wonderfully acted film tells a fine multitude of stories that mix school politics with the private lives of the teachers and students.  In the beginning, the rebellious teacher’s opinions provide a solid contrast to the attitudes of the stodgy school administrators.

[MINI-SPOILER ALERT]:  A twist occurs later when it is learned that Brodie embraces the fascist movements of Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain.  In today’s terms (and even those in 1969), this seems wildly contradictory for someone who has “liberal” values.  Yet, at that time, this was actually common among liberal idealists.  As it seems so out of date and odd in today’s thinking, the film would have benefited if there had been a scene in which Brodie defends why she holds such ideals while arguing against someone trying to convince her that her unconventional ways of teaching would be crushed under a fascist regime.  [END OF SPOILER]

It is the acting, however, that rises above the later holes in the story.  Maggie the Magnificent is superb in the main role.  Her character is given a wide range and she excels stunningly.  Her best work is in two different confrontational scenes in which another actress is also given the chance to excel:  Celia Johnson (so great in “This Happy Breed” (1944) and “Brief Encounter” (1945)) as the school’s traditional headmistress; and Pamela Franklin as one of the pupils.  Each of these scenes are fierce and unforgettable.

This film reminded me of  “Dead Poets Society” (1989) which I had seen before “Brodie” in which Robin Williams played a very similar role to that of Smith.  Each film stands very high on its own merits.

RATING:   * * *

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:   Acting by Maggie Smith (in the lead role) and Celia Johnson and Pamela Franklin (both in supporting roles)

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Dennis Bowman

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