99 Homes – The American home foreclosure crisis, the subject of Ramin Bahrani’s latest film, is the stuff of Michael Moore-style documentaries. The film observes various middle-class families fighting tooth and nail to hold onto their family homes, only to be physically torn from their residences as they’re informed by cops, the government and real-estate agents that the property is no longer theirs. Bahrani’s story focuses on the brutality of these legal confrontations and their subsequent emotional trauma, using Dennis Nash’s (Andrew Garfield) family (his son and mother, played by Laura Dern) as a textbook example of the failed American Dream. Nash soon comes to work for the real-estate agent who kicked him out, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who helps Dennis refinance his family home, but soon his embroilment in Rick’s corrupt business practices wreaks havoc on his conscience. Bahrani’s style is gripping as an emotional thriller, at times reminiscent of Asghar Farhadi, but the best scenes involve the sneaky legal maneuverings and machinations of Rick’s get-rich-quick scheme. This is not a terribly insightful film about the awful realities it tries so hard to depict, but it’s a solid and well-made drama that avoids its genre’s typical tear-jerking traps and hints at awards-season potential.
The Duke of Burgundy – The sumptuous details in Peter Strickland’s film are perhaps to be expected, given that his films are not just homages but loving reimaginings of some cinema’s most stylized cult genres. But here, exquisite period fashion, precise production design, and nostalgia-evoking music reveal a tender love story between a lesbian pair whose penchant for S&M role-playing begins to take its toll on the older lover, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). We are introduced to the couple as if Cynthia is really just a horrible house mistress to her maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), forcing her to clean long hours, massage her feet, and take undeserved punishments, which occasionally delve into scatological territory. Beautifully calligraphed note cards finally cue us onto their true dynamic: Evelyn is the real master, sexually turned on by Cynthia’s staged domination, and the rest of the film slowly re-enacts their same role-play scenarios over and over again, underscoring the clock-like design and tedium of their otherwise fascinating relationship. This purposeful repetition makes the viewer sympathetic to Cynthia’s weariness and her suffocation in wearing tight, constrictive lingerie for Evelyn’s pleasure. While it may sound like a depressing bore, The Duke of Burgundy is mostly light and playful, an exploration into an unusual relationship that rarely borders on exotizing female sexuality.
Phoenix – Though the final scene in Christian Petzold’s latest film about post-war Germany is near-perfect in its cinematic design and emotional punchline, Phoenix’s premise is so questionable it’s downright unbelievable. Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a physically abused Holocaust survivor whose facial reconstruction surgery renders her unrecognizable to her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who believes his wife died at the camps. Johnny shrewdly catches onto her facial similarities, however, and decides to dress her up to pass for Nelly in front of the authorities so that they can claim her inheritance. The premise is a beautiful and rich metaphor for the post-Holocaust identity reformation for Jewish survivors and their post-war acceptance in Germany, but it’s not a perfect analogy and the film doesn’t seem entirely convinced in its own themes to substantiate these ideas. The film also suffers from one too many plot holes to flesh out the basic premise of Johnny’s lack of recognition and Nelly’s unrequiting forgiveness in Johnny giving her up to the Gestapo and hunting her money. All of these illogical narrative details momentarily disappear with that final scene, in which Johnny slowly and sadly clues onto Nelly’s identity, but the questions linger after the film ends. Why didn’t Nelly tell Johnny who she was in the first place? Why didn’t he recognize her (or at least act confused) when she used his real name? This is a beautifully flawed film that invokes plenty of political and historical readings, but it’s a shame the film doesn’t work hard enough to earn them.