Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Phoenix, or: A Miraculously Creepier Version of Pygmalion

Christa and I were unanimously decided the lead in Barbara, Nina Hoss, was the highlight of the film.  Since this week’s film is essentially a cast reunion in a suspenseful film noir war drama, we are absolutely in.

The Film:


Where to Watch:

Netflix (US)

The Premise:

After facial reconstruction surgery changes her appearance, a Holocaust survivor sets out to find her husband, the man who may have turned her in.

The Uncondensed Version:

Our film opens as two women cross back into the German border immediately following WWII.  The driver, Lene, explains her passenger, who rests semi-unconscious and covered in bandages, is a survivor from the camps.  After being seriously wounded by a shot to the face, Nelly is returning to Berlin for facial reconstruction surgery.

Nelly learns she can afford this expensive surgery only because of a large inheritance left to her as the only surviving member of her family.  Though the results of the surgery will be quite impressive, her face will no longer be the one she knows.  In a beautifully shot scene, Nelly sees her new face for the first time reflected in a broken mirror in the bombed ruins of her former home.  “I no longer exist,” she says without emotion.  Her desire to recapture what was lost contrasts sharply with Lene’s conviction that creating a new future in Israel is the only option for them.

A woman looks at her reflection in broken shards of glass on the groud.
Chills, man.

Before the war, Nelly was a singer of some renown.  Unlike Lene, she never really considered herself Jewish and feels no connection to the new Jewish state.  Nelly also dreams of reuniting with her husband, Johnny, which Lene dismisses.  As it turns out, Johnny was arrested days before Nelly…then released as soon as she was arrested.  This is straight out of Hitchcock and would’ve had me running a mile from this shady dude.  However, Lene keeps this information hidden for a while…along with the fact that Johnny filed for divorce before Nelly’s arrest.

Two women embrace in a living room.
A true friend will help you obtain a visa and give you a revolver as a gift.

Nelly, oblivious to all of this, becomes determined to track down her husband and live together as the devoted couple once again.

When Nelly finds Johnny, he’s working at a shady AF night club, called—guess what—the Phoenix.  Conveniently, her face is different enough to dodge recognition, though she still bears some resemblance to her former self.  This gives Johnny the idea to bring Nelly, now known as Esther, in on his scheme to claim his supposedly dead wife’s inheritance.  They will split the money if they can pull off this scam, which seems like a great idea to Nelly…mostly so she can prove once and for all Johnny really loved her.  IDK, I feel like knowing your husband has a scheme to collect your inheritance because he thinks you’re dead is a major tip-off…?  But Nelly has a more trusting nature than that and wants to believe in her husband and the possibility of a return to a normal life.

A man with a moustache stands looking at a woman whose face he holds in his hand.
I won’t get mad–tell me your honest opinion about the ‘stache.

While Esther trains to be Nelly, she isn’t allowed to leave Johnny’s apartment.  It’s quite a twisted version of Pygmalion, with Johnny’s insistence that Nelly will dress glamorously and remain unchanged by her experience as a Holocaust survivor creating a bitter irony.  He chillingly reassures her that what may have happened in the camps won’t matter as no one will ask about them.  In a scene that’s almost funny but not quite, Johnny calls off the scheme when he decides no one will ever believe she’s the real Nelly.

However, Esther convinces him to keep going when she quickly masters Nelly’s handwriting.  She tries to draw as much information from Johnny as possible, but he’s extremely reluctant to talk about the past.  A sudden, dramatic complication arrives in the form of Lene finally revealing the truth about the divorce to Nelly.

The revelation leads to an incredibly final scene that unfolds painfully and heartbreakingly clearly.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Despite all of the melodramatic film noir elements (facial reconstructive surgery, a sketchy night club, an inheritance scheme, a case of mistaken identity), this film takes quite a realistic approach to betrayal and the lasting impact of war.  The ending of the movie is haunting and understated in spite of the enormity of the revelation.  Partly because it’s not a surprise to the audience, but also because it’s much more ambiguous than a revenge plot or a dramatic noir ending.  It becomes clear Johnny will never see a dime of Nelly’s inheritance, but will he be punished for his role in Nelly’s harrowing experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and does he even feel the slightest remorse about it?

To pick a bone, however…even though a lot of the dramatic tension comes from the audience knowing the truth about Johnny quite early on, it still would’ve saved SO MUCH goddamn time if Lene had just fucking told Nelly what she knew to begin with.  I wonder if Lene suspected Nelly wouldn’t believe her or possibly she didn’t want to break her heart completely with that knowledge?  Either way, the revelation that your friend’s husband turned her into the authorities (presumably to die) seems like a pretty important detail to share.

It’s also really painful to watch Nelly blindly ignore the facts for so long, but it does make a degree of sense as acknowledging the truth means accepting that it’s no longer possible to return to the life she had before the war.

Nina Hoss is incredible in this and, as Christa noted, bears almost no resemblance to the character she played in Barbara.  And not because the actress went method and really had facial reconstructive surgery.  As far as I know.

Would my blog wife run an inheritance scam with this one or walk away slowly and deliberately?  Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Silenced, or: Ghost Super Soldiers

October in blogland at last!  You already know this month’s theme.  We’re into hauntings, unexplained disturbances, and creepiness in general, aka Paranormal Blogtivity (admittedly a title that needs work).

The Film:

The Silenced

The Premise:

Disappearances and creepy goings-on plague a Korean girls’ school conveniently in the middle of nowhere.

The Uncondensed Version:

Bit of background:  it’s Japanese-occupied Korea, just before the outbreak of WWII.  As it goes with empires, everyone wants to go to Japan since it can provide a better education and more opportunities for young people.  This is especially true for the girls in this film, who are competing for one of two coveted spots to go to Tokyo for school.

Shizuko is a transfer student to a school that is also a sanitorium(?) in the Korean countryside that seems to specialize in embroidery and vaulting.  Seriously, they are in a traditional classroom once in this entire movie.  Though Shizuko is very ill, she starts to get better with the help of the headmistress and some very experimental treatments.  She also makes a friend, Yeon-deok, and develops romantic feelings for her.

a girl in an austere school uniform embroiders a cherry blossom design
You know what they say about girls who know their way around embroidery cherry blossoms… (Actually, I have no idea what that even means)

Meanwhile, all kinds of creepy shit keeps happening.  There are events that seem to be tied to a ghost or some other supernatural presence—girls choking, seemingly victims of possession, and becoming very violent.  Petty high school things also happen as one girl in particular seems to have it in for Shizuko and does crazy shit like leave a dying bird in her locker and spreading rumors that she has TB.  In part, they’re uncomfortable because a girl named Shizuko disappeared before this new girl with the same name arrived.  Spooky, eh?  Sort of?

a teen girl in a school uniform looks in horror at her blood-covered hands
Mandatory staring at hands in horror scene.

As Shizuko recovers, she becomes inhumanely strong, which is bad news for the girls bullying her.  You’d better believe she’ll get her Carrie moment.  What kind of medical experimentation is really going on with these girls?  And what’s up with the nearby Japanese army base?  Super sketchy shit, guys.  Super.  Sketchy.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Really brief plot summary reflects my inability to follow this very easily.  The chronology is confusing as fuck, and I never quite knew what the intent of this film is.  It begins as a ghost story, but shifts rather abruptly to a story about medical experimentation.  Make up your goddamn mind—is this a ghost story?  Forbidden schoolgirl romance?  Conspiracy?  Sociopolitical commentary?  Please pick one or two themes and develop them further.

This had a lot of promise at the beginning, and there were elements that were a bit like Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language films.  There’s even a really beautiful but despicable character who you are just waiting to see die violently.

a woman sits in a dimly lit office, a teapot on her desk

The problem is that there’s no emotional resonance, which is a pretty terrible crime for a film that deals thematically with coming of age, first love, abuse, and the devastation of war.  I can’t say any of the characters felt especially three-dimensional or interesting.

I’m not crazy about revenge films, but this one may have been better off with that focus as the last 10 mins were so fucking badass.

Not a terrible film, but somewhat aimless and confusing.

Did Christa think this one made a miraculous discovery or would she rather it simply disappeared?  Find out by reading her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The House on Telegraph Hill, or: Cold (Stare) War

Let’s be honest: The Man Who Never Was let me down in terms of noir-y elements. This edition of Blog Free or Die Hard is an attempt to find a better film noir as Christa and I agree the genre is pretty fab when done well. Melodrama, flawed/awful human beings, and old time-y swearing are crucial elements of a film noir. Did my pick deliver this time? Read my review or, better yet, Christa’s.

The Film:

The House on Telegraph Hill

Where to Watch:

Netflix (US)

The Premise:

A Polish survivor of the Holocaust steals another woman’s identity in order to immigrate to the US. Complications arise in the form of the woman’s family members, the fate of a rather large inheritance, and serious bitch face.

The Uncondensed Version:

I was trying to figure out what nationality the lead actress was, and I finally just Googled it. Italian. She looks and sounds a bit like an Ingrid Bergman knock-off, honestly.

However, for the purposes of our film, our protagonist, Victoria, is a Polish Holocaust survivor. This film is approximately 800x darker than I expected it to be, even for a film noir.

After losing her home and husband in the war, Victoria is a refugee. The Americans want to help her return to Poland, but Victoria is quite resourceful. She has stolen the identity of Karin, a friend who died in the camps, and who happens to have wealthy family in San Francisco. Family = son who was sent away before the war for his safety + Aunt Sophie, matriarch of the family.

However, Aunt Sophie dies, leaving everything to Karin’s son. Victoria is quick to realize she stands to gain safety, an opulent lifestyle, and a damn nice house, if only she can put up with raising this admittedly quite irksome child as her own.

The pieces fall into place quite nicely when Chris’s guardian, Alan takes an interest in her. He is rather shadily only related to her through marriage, which makes it okay. From a legal standpoint, anyway.

Two men face a woman standing in an office who wears a beret and holds an envelope.
It’s really unfair how well she pulls off the beret.

After like 3 days, BOOM, Karin/Victoria and Alan are married. Karen finally gets to meet her son, Chris, for whom she demonstrates a healthy level of disdain. She obviously hates playing catch with Chris and looks so incredibly uncomfortable when he calls her mom.

I think this is actually a remarkably well thought-out plan, but remember how this is film noir? Shit’s about to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Karin, who is haunted by guilt, wakes up one night to find Alan having a heated argument with Margaret, the governess. Alan, obv, makes up some really unconvincing lie, so you know there’s way more to that story than you really want to know.

Karin and Alan have a party one evening, and who should arrive but Mark, an American major who helped Karin get to the US. Mark and Alan are the original frenemies and do this annoying territorial douchebag thing with Karin.

In an effort to bond with Chris, Karin brings him ice cream from the party even though he isn’t supposed to eat after 8:00. As soon as he utters these words, it’s like Margaret is magically summoned, and the two ladies have a fucking face-off over this ice cream. Ultimately, Margaret is the master of mind games and plays the trump card by allowing Chris to make his own decision.

A woman in fancy dress looks down at a woman and young boy sitting down. The seated woman holds out a bowl of ice cream to the boy.
Make your own decision, Chris.  But if you eat that ice cream, you’re dead to me.

Karin makes one last attempt to outmaneuver Margaret when she discovers there was an explosion in the playhouse years ago that could’ve killed Chris. Margaret apparently knew about this but kept the details to herself. Proving herself the queen of the disdainful Bette Davis bitch face, Margaret gives zero fucks when Karin fires her. The following day, Alan reinstates Margaret as governess.

Two women face each other, with one looking scornfully at the other.
Tell me I’m fired one more time…

After a confrontation with Alan about the explosion, Karin’s has a brush with death when someone cuts her brakes. She realizes Alan is trying to kill her and confides this in Mark. He actually sort of believes her, which leads to several tension-filled outings all 3 attend. Plus they start having an affair.

The rest of the film is ridiculously full of tension as certain facts come to light about the attempted murder of Karin as well as the death of Aunt Sophie.

I don’t want to completely ruin the ending because it’s so suspenseful and got really annoyed when I realized it was time for lunch and had to pause the film for approximately 3 minutes while I reheated a burrito. The end is quite like fucking Notorious but without the terrifying German mother-in-law: full of suspense and nasty things in drinks.

Suffice it to say everything comes to a rather dramatic conclusion and there’s a refreshing moment of female solidarity at the end.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I loved this one. It’s not necessarily a new favorite, but I’m so glad Christa and I experienced this one together. Margaret’s bitch face is something I will probably never master, but I will try damn hard to do so.

I wish there were way more film noir options on Netflix b/c this would be noir blog all day, every day.

Does Christa agree or will we have to wax our brows, apply some bright red lipstick, and stare each other down? Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Man Who Never Was, or: Operation Mincemeat Is a Terrible Codename

The next few weeks on the blog are basically anything goes as we Blog Free or Die Hard. Freedom, carpe diem, etc. This week I picked a WWII thriller because I didn’t think I could handle two Polanski films in a row. I do really love Chinatown, though.  Our film for the week is the nonsensically titled The Man Who Never Was.

As usual, find Christa’s review here!

The Film:

The Man Who Never Was

Where to Watch:

Netflix (US)

The Premise:

Those sneaky Brits come up with a plan to mislead the Nazis about where the invasion of Sicily will occur.

The Uncondensed Version:

Based on the introduction, this film is going to be super melodramatic. These two military dudes are talking, and the younger dude (Montagu) gets stuck with the job of tricking the Germans into thinking the invasion of Sicily will be somewhere else (NOTE: I was trying to place the younger guy, Montagu, and I finally Googled him [bad librarian]. He’s that really sketchy journalist in Laura!)

Even though he is apparently a reasonably important naval commander, Montagu seems to have a staff of two to accomplish this. But maybe that’s normal for the military, IDK.

A man reads from a portfolio in a basement office as two employees look on.
Understaffed? Underfunded? Check and check.

Staff = assistant Pam and this lieutenant who is also an assistant. I felt he wasn’t particularly important in this film, so I didn’t really make an effort to figure out exactly what his role was. Pam is def important, along with her roommate of loose morals, Gloria Grahame. Obv Lucy/Gloria Grahame is American b/c no Englishwoman would have such low standards of morality. It sucks to be Lucy as the dude she’s dating is a pilot, and she is way more into him than she’d like to admit.

But back to the military strategy side of things. Montagu decides he will fool the Nazis by planting the body of a downed pilot off the coast of Spain. This is Operation Mincemeat, aka one of the worst codenames for a military operation in history. There are two major obstacles to overcome for the plan to work: 1. Montagu needs a body, and 2. The strategic meeting pretty much exists for all of the important military dudes to criticize Montagu’s plan and person.

A man with military decoration rests his hand reassuringly on another man's arm.

However, Montagu eventually manages to wrangle a body from a Scotsman. He and his crew have to spend quite a lot of time deciding what the pilot should be carrying: passport, love letters, picture of Gloria Grahame, etc.

After Montagu sets the body on its way, he is troubled, which you know because there are shots of him thinking about the ocean while everyone else is laughing and having a jolly old time.

Surprisingly, things go according to plan, and the Greeks or Italians or whatever find the body. (It took me a while to figure out what nationality these ‘50s people were going for, but it’s Spanish.)

In a dramatic twist, a Nazi spy arrives in London and starts stalking Gloria Grahame. Will GG be able to fool the Nazis, save England, and preserve life as we know it? (Sorry, Christa, I just stole your blog technique.)

I’ll give you a hint: GG comes in really drunk and starts reciting Tennyson and half-assedly playing the piano and crying.

A woman looks blearily around her as she sits at a piano.
Oh, girl. We’ve all been there.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I expected this to be a bit more on the thriller/film noir end of the spectrum, but there were quite a lot of lengthy logistical discussions. Ex: there was a scene where Montagu was rubbing a letter on a cabinet to make it look old, followed by a discussion about why exactly he was doing so. Not the most gripping dialogue in the history of cinema.

And, typically, Montagu ends up with a medal and GG doesn’t even get a fucking mention.

Have you read Christa’s review yet? Well, why not? You can find it here!