Barbra Streisand may have sung it best, but a handful of new movies in theaters or DVD illustrate the refrain of her hit Funny Girl song "People" in exceptional ways. Phoenix, which has nothing to do with the desert city of my birth, opens today in Orange County and Pasadena and continues to play in Los Angeles and other cities. German writer-director Christian Petzold (Barbara) riffs on a classic theme — the disfigured man or woman who undergoes reconstructive surgery to either their betterment or detriment — in significant ways that resonate beyond its melodramatic trappings.
Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the resurrection-prone bird of the film's title is applied to Nelly (a terrific performance by Petzold regular Nina Hoss), a popular former singer who returns alive but damaged facially from a concentration camp. She seeks out her beloved husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, who in this film bears an occasionally-distracting resemblance to American actor Matt Jones, who plays Christy's ex on TV's Mom), despite intimations that he was the one who betrayed her as a Jew to the Nazis. Johnny doesn't recognize Nelly but believes she bears enough of a resemblance to the wife he believes to be dead to pass her off as Nelly so he can collect her estate. He's clearly not a decent husband but Nelly can't picture life without him... until, that is, she eventually opens her lovingly re-constructed eyes.
Phoenix, gorgeously photographed by Hans Fromm and evocatively designed by Kade Gruber, harkens back not only to the post-war era but the psychological thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. Despite holes in Petzold's central conceit (OK, so maybe Nelly doesn't look the same but does she sound or move that differently?), the cinematic result is one of the best and most haunting films of 2015. Stick that in your designer pipe, Babs, and smoke it.
Not one, not two, but three new home video releases deal with young gay men reaching out in need to other men for the first time. The Brazilian drama Seashore (Wolfe Video) spins a familiar coming-of-age story about two teens, Tomaz (Mauricio Barcellos) and Martin (Mateus Almada) who set out on a road trip together to the coastal home town of Martin's late grandfather. Several revelations about Tomaz's sexuality and Martin's family come to light during the course of the weekend. The film doesn't offer much new and its climax is somewhat baffling, but the boys are pretty and the intentions of writers-directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon are admirable.
Blackbird, directed by Patrik-Ian Polk of Noah's Arc fame, is now available via Amazon Instant Video and DVD. Adapted and updated by Polk and Rikki Beadle Blair (Metrosexuality) from Larry Duplechan's acclaimed novel, it follows an African-American teenager as he tries to reconcile his budding homosexuality with his strict Southern Baptist upbringing. Newcomer Julian Walker gives an affecting performance as gay protagonist Randy Rousseau, with Academy Award winner Mo'Nique (Precious)and reformed homophobe Isaiah Washington (Grey's Anatomy) playing his separated parents. Again, this is fairly standard if accomplished coming-of-age stuff, although Randy's interracial first romance with an older, white aspiring actor (Kevin Allesee) adds some needed complexity.
The best of these new gay-themed releases is Hidden Away (TLA Releasing), a Spanish film about a high-school student who falls for a Moroccan immigrant playing on a rival water polo team. Mikel Rueda's sensitive, non-sexual but still sexy drama addresses the requisite aspects of struggling with one's sexuality while adding a social justice element in which Ibrahim, the Moroccan, is constantly under threat of deportation. Rafa, his Spanish friend, becomes willing to sacrifice everything in order for Ibrahim to live in peace. Most notably, Rueda beautifully captures such seemingly innocuous but sexually-tinged adolescent rites of passage as sharing a first cigarette, playing sports together, and being caught in the middle between the heartfelt devotion of one's best friend and the object of one's affection. Friends in need indeed.
Hidden Away: B+
Seashore, Blackbird and Hidden Away are now available on DVD:
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.