Phoenix
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: Unrated
Theater: Edina Cinema

Sometimes implausible and always engrossing, “Phoenix” takes us to postwar Berlin, a shell of a city where concentration camp survivor Nelly is a shell of herself. The Jewish chanteuse, played by Nina Hoss, has returned to the bombed-out German capital for reconstructive surgery, having been shot in the face before her rescue from Auschwitz. With surgical scars still fresh, she tracks down her husband, Johnny, who may have given her up to the Gestapo.

The catch is that Johnny doesn’t recognize Nelly, who looks pretty much like Nelly, except for the black rings around her eyes from the surgery. Johnny does at least notice a resemblance to his wife, however, and asks this mystery woman to impersonate Nelly so that they can cash in on Nelly’s considerable estate.

It’s a far-fetched setup, but director Christian Petzold never loses control of his taut film. He seems to relish making us wonder about the murky motivations of his characters, and the situation allows the gifted Hoss to show a conflicting array of emotions. Petzold delivers a sublime ending that is simple yet powerful. Like many scenes in the film, it raises questions and is somewhat hard to believe, but we’re never less than engaged every step of the way.
David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle

 

She’s Funny that Way
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for some language including sexual references.
Theater: Mall of America

 

Peter Bogdanovich’s latest film is a likable diversion, but it feels inconsequential. It’s a zany sex farce, less like a 1930s screwball comedy than like one of those faux naughty comedies from the mid-1960s, and it’s as phony as those movies, without contact with real emotion or even with recognizable human behavior.

But it’s not bad. Funny thing about “She’s Funny That Way”: It doesn’t feel right to criticize it, but it feels just as wrong to endorse it. At his best (and worst and most in-between), Bogdanovich has often seemed like a filmmaker transmitting from Jupiter, from an artistic frequency that’s his alone. Anything from Jupiter is worth a look, but some Jupiter movies are better than others.

This one revolves around a successful film actress (Imogen Poots), recalling how she ascended to the heights after a stint as a call girl. In her daffy call-girl mode, Izzy meets a theater producer (Owen Wilson), whose thing in life is to spend the night with call girls and then financially back them to achieve their dreams. Some of this is fun. Jennifer Aniston is particularly funny as a psychiatrist who refuses to disguise the contempt she feels for her patients. In any case, by now you probably have a pretty good idea of what kind of movie this is, and if you still want to see it, I won’t talk you out of it. But that’s as far as I’ll go.
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

 

Hitman: Agent 47
⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: Rated R for sequences of strong violence, and some language.

 

If you see one movie about governmentally modified assassins this weekend, don’t make it “Hitman: Agent 47.” “American Ultra” is the far superior take on the unknowing superspy, because it takes itself far less seriously. “Hitman: Agent 47” was just never going to be able to keep up, especially with its overly serious take on the genre. It’s so coldblooded, it’s practically reptilian.

The story seems overly complicated but is actually quite simple: Someone’s trying to make more of the genetically enhanced “agents,” and in order to succeed, they need to find the originator of the project, Litvenko (Ciarán Hinds), who has dropped off the face of the earth. In pursuit are Agent 47 (Rupert Friend), a contract killer so focused on his job he’s practically a robot, and John Smith (a woefully miscast Zachary Quinto), who works for the private organization Syndicate International. Agent 47 is trying to stop Syndicate from making more agents.

There’s a half-baked attempt to answer some existential questions about the nature of humanity when you’re a murderous robot person, but the sentimentality doesn’t mesh with the film’s desire for cathartic, cinematic violence. Unfortunately, the action that we do get is chaotic and incomprehensible, largely bloodless and without any sense of tension. There are times when it feels profoundly like a first-person-shooter video game, which makes sense because it’s based on one.
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

 

Sinister 2
⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: Rated R for strong violence, bloody and disturbing images and language.

 

Horror sequel “Sinister 2” doesn’t quite know what it is. You can’t tell if the filmmakers are deliberately going for a goofy throwback feel, but that’s what comes across. It’s almost like an ’80s movie you’d find on cable, and that might appeal to some horror audiences. The film, like its predecessor, follows the creepy antics of the ghoulish Bughuul, a tall drink of nightmares. He’s installed in an old abandoned farmhouse where some grisly murders happened, as ghouls do. Finding sanctuary there are Courtney and her two boys, Dylan and Zach, hiding out from her abusive ex-husband.

Bughuul’s gang of child ghosts has been visiting Dylan at night, entreating him to join their snuff film club. These scary little ghost kids are bad news, and Dylan knows it. Whether his brother Zach fully understands is another question. They are also witness to their parents’ nasty custody battle, in which a local ex-lawman finds himself embroiled.

This isn’t a very scary movie, although there are a couple of good jumps. The most sinister thing in “Sinister 2” is the terrifying domestic violence and its ripples throughout the family. In a final sequence that pays homage to Michael Powell’s classic “Peeping Tom,” there emerges a rather conservative message about the effects of violent imagery on children, which is itself an indictment of watching horror movies. If that is the case, audiences shouldn’t worry too much, as the effects of “Sinister 2” won’t be long-lasting. K.W.