Last week, I reviewed Z For Zachariah, the latest film by director Craig Zobel (read it here), which is based on Robert C. O’Brien’s posthumous 1974 novel of the same name. I had planned to reference an earlier adaptation of the book, a production shot by Anthony Garner in 1984 for the BBC program “Play For Today.” The two-hour movie is much closer to the source material in plotting but is also not without its faults. Most significantly, it feels very much like a dated product of its era: Cold War dread of nuclear fallout.

In his adaptation, Zobel does a fine job cutting out the dated concerns that played on Cold War era fears, so it’s a shame he doesn’t magnify the more primal tensions of the drama to make for a more timeless film. Though there’s a sense it was designed for it, I doubt this film will be remembered come Oscar time, considering some of the movie’s fine performers, who ultimately couldn’t seem to rise above the scant material.

In my review, I pointed out Zobel’s weak grasp on the film’s mood as a great issue of his version. Not so for the BBC version. What succeeds with this adaptation is that you feel a creeping sense of disquiet that surrounds the idyllic zach01farmhouse, spared nuclear annihilation because it happens to sit in a valley. Solitary farm girl Anne Burden is played by TV actress Pippa Hinchley, making her acting debut. Here’s a fun bit of trivia: she happened to have played a minor role in the Chris Pine vehicle People Like Us (2012). Pine plays a third character in Zobel’s adaptation of the film who was never in the book nor the BBC version.

There’s a darkly wonderful moment in the BBC version establishing Anne’s response to the loss of her family after they leave her alone at the homestead to search for other survivors but never return. After waiting for who knows how many days, she weeps for them, gathers their toothbrushes and some dead flowers, and tosses them all into the garbage. It’s an interesting gesture. Just when you think she will become sentimental about her loss, she does not. For what use is sentiment when there is no one else left alive?

Eventually, a survivor arrives at her house. John Loomis (a scenery chewing Anthony Andrews) first appears at a distance, emerging from a white tent in a radiation suit. He gradually moves the tent closer and closer to Anne’s house. This version of Z For Zachariah indeed takes its time with both atmosphere and character development. In Zobel’s film the chemistry and trust between John and Anne seems too simplistic with a sense of little at stake. Garner’s version genuinelyzach03 considers the chasm of trust that would lie between a teenage girl and a shady looking man, taking its time to reveal a sense of trust with John that is doomed to failure. There’s a profound sense of ambivalence between Anne and John from the start, something Zobel’s version so sorely needed early in its drama. In the 1984 version Anne keeps her distance for days. When she does approach, John has gradually been weakened by radiation poisoning. His sickness only enhances the specter of death that looms over the film. Meanwhile, in Zobel’s version, it only takes a few injections of a handy serum for John to recover from his illness.

In this 1980s version, John also gives soliloquies about the horrors of radiation poisoning, how it gradually eats away at a person’s body as well as revealing what happened to set off the nuclear holocaust that brough Anne and him together. This element of suspense feels remarkably zach04dated in today’s post-Cold War era, and Zobel is right to cut it back. He instead focuses on the personal drama of alienation from society. There’s an unnerving sense of the inevitable power of a man who invades on a world of a woman who thought she was alone in the world. She is getting by, but she can hardly fend for herself, lacking the skills and knowledge to get the lights back on and clinging to her precious faith for survival.

A sense of the grim inevitable in the early version is revealed during other scenes of dialogue, as this film seems more concerned with death than it is the dynamic between the man and the teenaged girl. In one scene, crippled by radiation exposure, John dishes advice to Anne on how she might survive on her own by rotating the crops. He slowly goes mad, and a third man does appear, but as a figment of his delusions, as he feverishly rants about his past, revealing to Anne deeper and darker secrets. Things get scarier from there, but the movie also tumbles over a cliff by dragging out a hackneyed turn in the plot. But one more plus: the dog figures into the story till its grim ending, unlike Zobel’s version, which inexplicably drops the dog out of the narrative a mere quarter of the way through. Both films are mediocre adaptations, but this older dated version really isn’t as weak a film as the more recent version.

Without further ado, watch the 1984 adaptation of Z For Zachariah here:

And the new version of Z For Zachariah is currently playing in our Miami area exclusively at Sunset Place. It’s also available on VOD. Again, here’s my review: 

Z For Zachariah can’t overcome shortcomings to live up to its concepts — a film review

All movie stills in this post are courtesy of TV Cream. I’ll leave you with the trailer for the new movie, which I should note also stars Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

ZFZPOSTER1433438299Despite a curious concept and a strong cast, the post-apocalyptic drama Z For Zachariah cannot overcome several problematic decisions by its filmmakers. Director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi have adapted Robert C. O’Brien’s posthumous 1974 novel, a story about a teenage girl surviving alone on an English farm spared nuclear annihilation because of its location in a valley. Then a stranger in a radiation suit appears. Stricken with radiation poisoning, she takes the man — a scientist — in and cares for him. The story becomes a weird post-nuclear metaphor for the Garden of Eden until the sexual tension turns into something decidedly more sinister.

The fear of nuclear war isn’t what it used to be when the novel was released, so Zobel and Modi have thrown in a third character, a second man, to explore something decidedly more primal. Margot Robbie plays the young woman, Ann Burden, though she is no longer a naive, skittish teen but a stronger-willed young woman who hangs much of her survival on Christian faith. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the interloper John Loomis, an engineer who has grown tired of hiding in a bomb shelter. About halfway through the film, after the two gain a sort of trust and friendly affection for one another, real tension arises when Caleb (Chris Pine) appears. He’s a blue-collar type whose charm, age and race seems the better fit for Ann. The threat goes three ways, in a simmering, subtle conflict of manners.


Unfortunately, it’s not enough to hold the concept together, as Zobel struggles to maintain the subtle tone necessary to explore the thin thread of social decorum in a post-society world. It’s either too subtle or too sloppy. The performers exude a sense of ambivalence to varying degrees. Ejiofer is the standout, transmitting the conflict within him with the most clarity. Pine does a fine job, too. He’s at times a grim and ominous presence. Robbie isn’t bad, but her character feels inconsistently drawn, either too meek or too independent, but most of the blame for that goes to the script and the dated story. It’s as if the filmmakers have hesitated to explore the woman’s psyche.

It could be the film is trying to be sly about the tension or maybe the script isn’t up to par to clearly present the subtle antagonism among this “society” based on a trio of people. Then there are the scenes that glaringly point to deficiencies in the writing. In one scene John spies on Ann through the site of a rifle, as she works a field of crops. It’s an unnerving moment that is quickly diffused soon after Ann returns, and he tells her it felt “weird” to point the firearm at her, and she explains, “It’s got a great scope.” It’s one of too many clunky occasions that undermine the mood the film strains to maintain. As overwrought as it sometimes feels, Heather McIntosh’s score does a more efficient job of controlling the film’s atmosphere.


Then there are a few silly details that even more harshly breaks the film’s suspension of disbelief. Early in the movie, Ann plays a 78 record on an old phonograph to sit down to eat a dinner she fancies up with candles. It’s presented as part of a montage to show her loneliness and boredom. But those records have a maximum run time of three and a half minutes, hardly the time needed to complete a leisurely dinner. But the worst of these sort of missteps is the presence of a dog that seems to be Ann’s only companion, until John arrives. Somewhere off camera, he just drops out of the narrative. Maybe I blinked and missed something, but the dog plays a big role in the book, and it seems the filmmakers just had enough of the dog and cut him out without a single reference. That’s just sloppy.

Speaking of cutting out, the film’s fatal mistake arrives at the end and how it handles the inevitable confrontation between the two men. I don’t usually point out gripes with a film’s ending, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with how Zobel chose to deal with resolving this conflict. It sanitizes the characters by keeping their ugliest acts off-screen. This is how you weaken the impact of a concept. Zobel fails to have it both ways: presenting characters with dark, primal sides while trying to make them sympathetic, which many filmmakers have done successfully (take Noah Baumbach, for instance). This is especially disappointing because Zobel is the director who went all out when he adapted a disturbing real-life story that explores the profundity of the dark limits of human behavior while implicating the audience in 2012’s Compliance, (Compliance reveals horrific dimensions of social behavior – a film review). He could have so easily achieved the same level of unease with this movie had he only not backed away from the abyss. It’s a shame to see Zobel blink.

Hans Morgenstern

Z For Zachariah runs 98 Minutes and is rated PG-13 (cursing, some light nudity and sexuality and the threat of violence). It opens exclusively in our Miami area at Sunset Place (put is also available on VOD) today, Aug. 28. Roadside Attractions provided all images in this post and an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

beachhouse-depressioncherry-900If you want to hear a band that refuses to compromise its sound and instead chooses to evolve on its own terms, transcending their influences, you should check out Beach House. The duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally have endured comparisons ranging from Nico-era Velvet Underground to Dream Pop. Sometimes they have been even more egregiously lumped in with the chill wave movement. But really, they’ve turned an affection for vintage organs, exercises in looping guitar lines and echo effects to encapsulate their personal experiences with a deep-seated connection to their instruments and the crafting of melodies. When I spoke to Legrand a few years ago (Beach House’s Victoria Legrand talks recording upcoming new album: ‘Bloom’), she revealed just how intimately she feels about Beach House’s music, bristling and the chill wave comparisons and explaining an almost spiritual connection to the creation of music when I asked her who the song title “Irene” refers to. She told me:

It’s not a specific person. It’s the name that describes the entity of that song, which is, in itself, a person. The song for me is a spirit, so it’s no different when I say, yeah, it is somebody. It’s this character, this song. It’s this kind of mystery of:  What is in that? What is in that room? Why am I compelled toward this? And that’s for me, one of those songs where it feels like sort of a question and answer within itself. It’s like, why am I drawn towards this, but I can’t help it?

With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their latest albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element to their early sound. The strength of their last album, 2012’s Bloom, could be found in the raw moments where the members gelled and ran with a song. The tension between the musicians playing together and the song leading them on a journey felt palpable in these blissful moments of chemistry. These instances are few on Depression Cherry, due to a lack of a live drummer. However, the control of the songwriting and a sense of experimentation with the Beach House formula makes this album one of the duo’s most intriguing records in its history, standing up heartily to repeat listens.

It opens with a slow burn. “Levitation” is at first just skittering drum machine and twinkling keyboards. As the keyboards swell, Legrand sings in a higher pitch than usual, beachhouse-2015-promo-01-shawnbrackbill-1500x2248-300enjoying the end of her breath, as she says, “You and me…” The song slowly builds with spare notes of added keyboards, hushed harmonizing vocals and even an additional programmed rhythm. After some potent, yet unobtrusive synthesized stings, Scally breaks out a rumbling, soaring guitar line where Legrand sings, “There’s a place I want to take you…” and her voice layers up, tangling in a helix of vocals, as a shimmering drone emerges and overtakes all the instruments, which swell in layers of harmony before they fade off and meld into space as a sparkling drone swells and overtakes the song. It’s as if the band has slipped away into the darkness. It’s a charming opener that highlights how the duo can play with so many of layers of sound for a simple yet immersive mood.

The layers of unintelligible voices and harsh guitar work, topped off with massive organ chords that open “Sparks,” feels like a harsh follow-up to the majestic opener. “Sparks” was released on July 1, as the first single to hype the release of Depression Cherry. It certainly hinted at the experimental spirit of the new album, albeit a bit heavy handedly. It’s a dense track that feels a little over-whelming for its own good. The best bit arrives when Scally shifts to screeching laser like loops from his guitar at the song’s center. Beach House has an instinctual sense of dynamics that even keep their weaker tracks interesting and compelling.

On the other end, the highlight of the album has to be “PPP.” It was released as the album’s second teaser single last week via Spotify. Scally kicks the song off with a sort of bright, circular guitar line that will remind some of “Lazuli” (ironically, the second single off the previous album). Legrand plays around with some speak-singing at the start before going into her usual dreamy voice. “Did you see it coming? It happened so fast.” But this is really Scally’s track. He has an amazing moment at the center of the song, repeating a line he licks off as he climbs down his fret board, repeating it in a kind of loop, but each time exploring its subtle possibilities with an extra note here or a different emphasis on the notes there. Each time the loop grows more thrilling and entrancing. It’s a brilliant moment as grand and as the epic finale of “Irene,” from Bloom. I dare say “PPP” makes the album, casting a pall across the tracks that follow it. Still, close listens grant payoffs.

“Days of Candy” closes the record, and it seems like a deceptive snooze at the start, sounding like some unformed, skimpy Cocteau Twins song. Legrand sings in an uncharacteristically higher octave as the song churns along on a slower beat, propelled by a monotone piano and some cheesy zaps of a synthesizer. But a turn in the song redeems it, reaching a surprisingly charming climax propelled by the sudden appearance Scally’s churning guitar as Legrand sings, “I know Beach House Band Photoit comes too soon, the universe is riding off with you … I want to know you there, the universe is riding off with you.” It’s a beautiful line that captures the fleeting moments that define one person to another by also proving definitive to a life joined in intimacy that is a universe unto itself. It’s the perfect closer to an album that lives up to its title, sounding a bit sad … in its own sweet way while celebrating the remarkable chemistry of Beach House. With Depression Cherry, Beach House shows an incredible maturity in its songwriting, dropping the more gimmicky elements of their early years, like the vintage-inspired sound, and shows a blossoming, a coming into its own where there’s an assured exploration of a sound that stands on its own merits.

Our vinyl is in the mail, so I cannot comment on its sound quality (the album sees official release this Friday, Aug. 28). I will offer this one tidbit:  The album was recorded last November at Studio in the Country in Louisiana. The press materials have not said what equipment was used, but the studio does have the capability of recording to analog tape. When I spoke to Legrand about recording Bloom, she noted the band had recorded to two-inch tape, and that was important to them. I can only imagine it still is, so we have some high hopes for re-experiencing this album as a vinyl record. It’s also worth noting, the album cover has a distinct fuzzy quality (see close-up in the gallery below), adding another tactile layer to the experience of listening to a record. Also, of the posting of this review, the limited “loser edition” clear vinyl was still available at the Sub Pop shop. Click here to order direct from them. If you want to support this blog with a little commission, click here to order it from Amazon, where it is currently on sale for the super crazy price of $8.99 (yes, cheaper than the mp3s and CD!).

Hans Morgenstern

We got a streaming link to the entire album back on Aug. 11 after pre-ordering the vinyl from Sub Pop. All images above provided by Sub Pop.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

portada-algo-sucedeThe first thing you will notice about Julieta Venegas‘ new album, Algo Sucede (Something’s Happening), is how upbeat it sounds. Opening with the sounds of a buoyant, airy synth like something out of 1980s new wave, her seventh solo album immediately lets us know this album is not going to be anything like the more contemplative, sometimes somber 2013 album Los Momentos (Moments). Though that album was another excellent display of Venegas’ song craft, presenting a strong woman coming to terms with the end of a meaningful relationship, Algo Sucede is an album that feels luminous, filled with a loving look at the past and a hopeful glance to the future.

“Ese Camino” (“That Road”), the album’s first single released in May, celebrates childhood and how that time in development marks the beginning of a personality that — at its core — remains similar throughout life but it is also marked by one’s own personal history. The tune itself transports us to Julieta’s northern Mexico roots, a Tijuana native who has successfully mixed traditional sounds, like accordion and horns, with modern pop and rock elements enveloped in an up-beat twee vibe.

Another fun track is “Esperaba” (“Waiting”), the album’s opening track, which talks about growing up in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, listening to Argentine rocker Charly García and dreaming about all the possibilities that world has to offer. Indeed, the song is filled with that anxious, hopeful energy that one has as a teenager beaming with ideas and waiting to jump into a new life, one created by oneself. The song’s synth melodies give way to driving guitar lines and rhythms, including hand claps, and brilliantly sets the album’s bright mood.

If there’s any doubt Venegas has moved on, there’s “Buenas noches, desolación” (“Good Night, Bleakness”), which casts away negativity following a bout of depression. The upbeat, festive song offers a close to all that drags one down to the dumps, and literally puts desolation to bed. It’s a song of hope that marks a new beginning to an unknown destination with eyes bright and wide open.

The album is also about finding love and enjoying it as it is, without big demands or pressures. The track “Algo Sucede” explores those emotions we encounter as we begin to fall in love. The instant when we know that “something is happening” as marked by those subtle changes that maybe others are unaware of, but we can feel deep inside, like a change in the tone of voice or changing breathing patterns. The song is an open invitation to get to know one another without changing one’s essence and without hiding certain traits. In the same vein, the delicate, piano-driven “Todo Está Aquí” (“It’s All Here”) offers a love that is present and for the taking today; a love that may make promises it cannot keep for an idealized future. Venegas seems to celebrate the simplicity of giving oneself to the present happiness, without thinking of what comes next.

Though love and relationships are a focal point of Algo Sucede, it wouldn’t be a complete Venegas album without a politically conscious track. Disguised as a perky pop song, “Explosión” (“Explosion”) makes serious demands for those who have disappeared, left to be forgotten without an investigation. They are the faceless crowd that falls victim to everyday violence, something all too familiar for those living in her native Mexico. The song raises awareness and invites the listener to feel the same rage and empathy for those who are victimized, as it could be us one day. You can here the track below:

Venegas has always conjured a wonderful balance between her traditional sound and contemporary alternative rock. Her strong accordion playing is still present on many songs, but it never dominates the album. She spaces out keyboard-driven songs with those featuring the accordion. Some are brilliantly combined, like the album’s title track, which opens with a catchy accordion melody, followed by a bass hook, and flows on a motorik beat decorated with a sparkling trickle of electronic harpsichord and airy synth chords.

The album is a return to the style that made Venegas popular, a singer/songwriter known for a unique sound that melds traditional Mexican sounds with more contemporary songwriting and rock rhythms. The tracks on Algo Sucede fit neatly into the repertoire that made her an internationally known artist, with hit tracks like “Limon y Sal,” “Me Voy,” “Algo Esta Cambiando” and “De Mis Pasos,” to name a few. Algo Sucede also marks an opportunity to see this brilliant singer live, her tour dates — so far — can be found here:

Ana Morgenstern and Hans Morgenstern

All images are courtesy of Sony Music, who also provided a preview stream for the album last month for the purpose of this review. We were also invited to attend her performance in Miami at the Flamingo Theater in Downtown Miami, earlier this month, where she previewed some these songs live alongside her hits for Terra Live Music. You can watch the entire show below:

(Copyright 2015 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the_look_of_silence_posterIt takes a strong constitution to look into the abyss presented by The Look of Silence, the latest documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, the Oscar-nominated director behind 2012’s The Act of Killing. Beautiful images of the lush Indonesian jungle and a soundtrack that mostly features crickets are juxtaposed against tales of the horrors of the Indonesian genocide of 1965/66 and its terrible effects on its survivors. In this “war,” the military sat back and let propaganda do its work, as mostly civilian death squads took charge of killing the communists, intellectuals and Chinese immigrants that allegedly threatened their society. The Act of Killing already documented all kinds of killings in Indonesia, detailed by several boastful perpetrators. Oppenheimer showed how they are treated as heroes in Indonesia today, as those in power got there because of this genocide.

Though it takes on the same subject, The Look of Silence is a very different movie. Gone are the surreal, staged reenactments by the killers. Instead there is but one reenactment, and it’s only shown on a 4:3 TV screen watched by Adi, the son of elderly survivors who lost their first son, Ramli, during the massacres. It shows two old men laughing about eviscerating their victims by the Snake River before throwing their remains in the water. They also go into stark detail of how they chopped at one victim, including a humiliating death blow. That victim was Adi’s brother.


Despite the collaboration of many victims in The Act of Killing, all were simply credited as “anonymous” for their protection. Adi and his parents, however, not only appear on camera, but Adi also goes out to interview known members of the death squads, seeking some apology for the death of a brother he never knew. His job as the village’s optometrist gives him access but also acts as metaphor. Oppenheimer never makes it feel heavy-handed, as he prefers to explore the silences with rich images. It’s a film that primarily exists between the lines of action. It’s in the pacing of the shot/reverse shot during Adi’s interviews or his silence as he watches the two jabbering old men in the video. It’s also in the wide shots of the gorgeous jungle that grows fruitful because of the past and its decay. Still, no amount of finesse can overshadow the crimes against humanity committed in the past, and Oppenheimer emphasizes this by repeating certain set pieces.

For instance, both killers and survivors repeat, “The past is the past.” The past certainly provides the distance necessary to cope with the horror, but Oppenheimer doesn’t allow it to cloud the viewer’s judgement of these scenes. He presents no archival footage to validate the statement. He keeps The Look of Silence firmly in the present, but the weight of the past is felt everywhere. Actions define the victims and the perpetrators now and what kind of people are they.


So who are these people? They are Adi’s father, who, according to his mother, started losing his teeth after Ramli was killed. He’s now a shell of a person, lost to dementia, an object that sometimes lets out a groan of discomfort, as Adi’s mother bathes him, scrubbing with a familiar, routine purpose. Then there are the perpetrators who blame another time for what they did, even though those in power today are there as a result of the mass killings. The past is also no to be trusted. As in an early scene in an elementary school classroom where a teacher tells his half-bored students, including Adi’s son, about the evils of communism. He bends down to a boy and points a pen to his eye as he talks about communists who gouged the eyes out of their enemies. The only concrete presentation of the past, however, is in that video Oppenheimer shot about 10 years prior and Adi obsesses over.

These are people, but they are also walking metaphors for the effects of these crimes. They are human, breathing records of the effects of a society born of impunity. Adi is the lone optometrist trying to open everyone’s eyes. His mother is sadness personified whose longing for her murdered son is only qualified by her belief that Adi is his reincarnation. The father of Ramli, is the saddest of the lot. Adi’s mother says he began losing his teeth after the death of Ramli. Now his is blind, toothless and demented. In one harrowing scene shot by Adi, he scoots around the house on his behind patting at the walls, calling out for help, that he doesn’t recognize the building. Hope, however, lies in Adi’s two children, a daughter who still finds flatulence funny and a son who Adi must constantly re-teach history in spite of his teacher’s propaganda.


We meet the kids as they watch jumping beans, larvae that struggle so violently to get out of their shells that they jump. Oppenheimer does not make The Look of Silence some precious movie about seeking closure. These are people deeply scarred by a most dehumanizing kind of warfare that pitted neighbor against neighbor. They are not victims searching for a way to forget the past and move on but accept it in order to live with it and move forward. The Look of Silence is an extraordinary document of the dark nature of humankind and a testament to its ability to heal. It’s a film that must be experienced fully, with eyes open, for the sake of our own humanity, as well.

*  *  *

You can read more about this movie in my interview with the film’s director:

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of The Look of Silence, talks influences, follow-up movie and “the past” — an interview

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: The Look of Silence returns to our Miami area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Friday, Sept. 4 (see screening calendar here).

The Look of Silence runs 103 minutes, is in Bahasa and other Indonesian dialects with subtitles and is rated PG-13 (the most disturbing thing about it is the details of the past). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at O Cinema Miami Shores today, Friday, Aug.14. It plays only for the weekend. If you live outside of Miami, visit this link for other screening dates and locations. Drafthouse Pictures provided a screening link for the purpose of this review and also provided all images in this article. Finally, listen to me on WLRN today as speak in praise of this movie as well as as films at 1 p.m. EST. The live stream is here. The show will also later be archived on that page.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

3047304-inline-i-1-poster-captures-the-strength-of-street-knowledge-in-black-and-whiteThe late ‘80s was a watershed era for music. There was a revolution against pop music driven by synthesizers and lyrics that were either superficial or overly conceptualized. New genres emerged, motivated by earthy, raw and real experiences. Some of these movements included grunge, hardcore and lo-fi music. Specific to the Los Angeles ghetto was gangsta rap, pioneered by the likes Ice-T and N.W.A. Depending on who you asked, it was a dangerous, brash style of rap that glamorized sex, drugs and the gang lifestyle or it was an angry revolt against oppression by the police and a frustrated howl against the disenfranchisement of those living in the inner cities.

With Straight Outta Compton, his biopic on N.W.A. (i.e. Niggaz Wit Attitudes) director F. Gary Gray, whose debut as a filmmaker was a music video for Ice Cube, does not gloss over both of these sides of N.W.A.’s story. It opens with a scary dope deal involving Eazy E (Jason Mitchell in an impressive debut starring role) and ends with the consequences of his hard-partying lifestyle. Best known for action films like The Italian Job (2003) and most recently Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Gray made his feature film debut with the cult favorite Friday (1995), starring Ice Cube, who co-wrote that film’s screenplay. In Straight Outta Compton, though he is working off a script and story by five writers, Gray blends the story’s gravitas with a kinetic style of filmmaking that still has moments of great humor (the scene where Eazy E finds his voice in the studio while recording “Boyz-N-the Hood” is a high point) and a nimble pace.


Gray never lets up the tempo, despite a near two and a half hour run time. His flair for the music video comes across in moments as obvious as when the group takes the stage or in the smaller moments, like the intro to Dr. Dre (an exceptional Corey Hawkins). The slowly spinning camera compliments the fact that Dre is reclining on a bunch of records with his headphones, on listening to “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by Roy Ayres, a song he would later sample in 2001’s “My Life.” The film is rich in these small details (including some sly references to Friday).

In the wider scheme, Gray never misses an opportunity to make encounters with the police confrontational. At the same time, he never lets the group off on their self-destructive hedonism. There are parties in hotel rooms and Dr. Dre’s house over-flowing with naked and willing groupies. But even deeper, are the egos that made the group so unstable (they only released two albums). You get the sense that though the music united them, it also divided them. They were strong and passionate as they railed against police oppression in “F**k Tha Police,” but they also turned that energy on themselves. There were the diss tracks to one another like N.W.A.’s “Message to B.A.” after Ice Cube left the group (B.A. stands for Benedict Arnold) and then Ice Cube’s take-no-prisoners response “No Vaseline,” which even included a jab at Jerry Heller, the band’s manager.


Speaking of Heller, Paul Giamatti takes the role, bringing a humanity to the music mogul accused of taking advantage of the group. White people do not come off well in this movie, however. Heller and Priority Records exec Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington), have a couple of hokey high-pitched scenes in the face of threatening acts by Eazy E and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Most of the stop-and-frisk obsessed officers are white, save for the black officer who leads a search on the group in front of the recording studio, an event that winds up inspiring Ice Cube to write “Fuck the Police.” But everyone does great work as actors in the film. The film’s standouts are Mitchell and Jackson Jr., who happens to be Ice Cube’s son. Both have important emotional opportunities on this roller coaster of a drama, and the performances are consistent and easy to empathize with throughout the film. The only time Gray ratchets up the cinematic sentimentality too far is after Eazy E’s AIDS diagnosis. It’s really a disservice to Mitchell’s ability to carry the drama.

Finally, there is a timeliness to this film. N.W.A. arrived during a tense time in Los Angeles history. The tension between police and young black males was at fever pitch. The rap group’s rise to fame grew with the tensions that included the caught-on-video beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots after the officers’ were acquitted of their actions on the unarmed black man. Now, once again, there is tension among police and African-Americans. The cameras are more ubiquitous this time and some of the crimes have grown increasingly violent, involving guns and fatalities. There have been riots, as well. Yet, no one in the popular music scene has taken the spotlight quite like N.W.A. did — the fuming personification of angst through artistry.

Hans Morgenstern

Straight Outta Compton runs 147 minutes and is rated R (the parties, the drugs, the language and violence that N.W.A. rapped about is all here). It opens in wide release this Friday, Aug. 14. Click here for tickets. Universal Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Universal.

Update: The Miami independent theater O Cinema is bringing Straight Out of Compton to its Wynwood location beginning Friday, Aug. 21. Details here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

phoenix posterA mystery movie doesn’t always need to have its mysteries hidden away, obliging itself to constantly stringing along the audience with questions and twists. There are other ways to create thrills, and German director/writer Christian Petzold (Film review: ‘Barbara’ – transcending suspicion with grace) has devised an unequivocal experience with Phoenix. Working with regular co-screenwriter Harun Farocki, Petzold has adapted Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des cendres (Return from the Ashes), which already had a bit of a convoluted film adaptation in 1965 by J. Lee Thompson starring Maximilian Schell. Hence, the possible title change.

There is some elegance in Monteilhet’s original title, which offers a more deliberate reference to where the film’s main character comes from, as a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. However, Petzold and Farocki have streamlined the story quite a bit, dropping characters, and focusing profoundly on the notion of love and the past, and the two characters at the center of the film, the Jewish singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, Petzold’s go-to lead actress) who finds several levels of freedom following liberation by the allied forces, and Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her gentile husband, a pianist who performed with her, until the Nazis separated them. He thinks she, as is the case with her entire family, is dead.


Nelly first appears onscreen with her face wrapped in bandages. She is driven into Berlin by the only friend she has left, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), where a surgeon will help repair her face, a process he clarifies is “not reconstruction” but “recreation.” Though Lene promises Nelly that they will find their true sanctuary in Palestine, Nelly remains obsessed with finding her husband in the ruins of Berlin. Though Lene tells Nelly that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis, Nelly goes out at night secretly searching. Nelly comes across Johnny working in the maybe too aptly named Phoenix lounge. She takes advantage of her new face to feel him out and introduces herself as Esther. So begins a deception that explores moral character in the wake of an atrocious past.

Lene is desperate to find love again, but the question always lingers whether Johnny loved her to begin with, and if so, what was that loved based on? The answer might seem simple when Johnny notes enough of a similarity in “Esther” to his wife Phoenixthat he comes up with a scheme to use her. He suggests that she might be able to impersonate Nelly, so he might get his hands on her inheritance. But Phoenix is a much more complicated film than that. Petzold instead has created a film that feels like an inversion of the film noir. The femme fatale is duplicitous, yes, but she loves someone, or an idea of someone, and that someone is a man she is both scamming and scamming for.

The conflict and irony of her actions is what make Phoenix‘s drama so compelling. It’s in the small moments when Nelly lets out a smile behind Johnny’s back, as he gives her a ride on a bike to their old hiding place. There’s a practicality in his relationship with “Esther” that fills a void for Nelly who wants to be herself in the past, but cannot seem to face her new reality even with a new face. The lack of existence is revealed an intensity that lies in the smallest gestures.


Not only is Petzold working again with his co-writer and Hoss, who again brings a soft-spoke grace to a complicated female character, but also with cinematographer Hans Fromm. Fromm has always had a knack for brightening the dark moods of Petzold’s films, and he does it again in Phoenix. Film noir comparisons would be incomplete without recognizing how this movie plays with shadow and light. From the harsh red neon glow of club Phoenix, the site of Nelly’s rebirth, to her struggles of devotion enhanced by the subtle contrast of shadow and light in the home Nelly and Lene are taken in as lodgers, there is hardly any incidental lighting. There’s also a different kind of light and darkness in the set pieces. There are deep shadows in the ruinous devastation of Berlin that speak to the past of the city as well as that of Nelly and the natural, green bucolic beauty in the still very intact, lakeside mansion where Lene once hid from the Nazis.

An intelligent film with style to spare, Phoenix is driven by a strange mystery, in that it invites the audience to contemplate deception from another angle. Driven by a dramatic irony that lets the audience in on everything, Phoenix becomes something else entirely, much like the main character who finds empowerment in her wounds.

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: By popular demand the following have for Sept. 4:

Aventura Mall 24 Theatres – Aventura
Indian River 24 – Vero Beach
Silverspot at Coconut Creek – Coconut Creek
Last Picture Show 5 – Tamarac

Phoenix runs 98 minutes, is in English and German with English subtitles and is rated PG-13 (it has its disturbing moments). It opens in our South Florida area on the following schedule:


  • MDC’s Tower Theater in Miami
  • Miami Beach Cinematheque
  • Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale


  • Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables
  • Movies of Lake Worth
  • Movies of Delray 5
  • Living Room Cinema 4 in Boca Raton


  • Silversport Cinema in Naples
  • Prado Stadium 12 in Bonita Springs


  • Lake Worth Playhouse

It first premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival. IFC Films shared a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Christian Schulz for IFC Films.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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