Phoenix (1995)

VHS Cover (EI Independent Cinema)
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Overall Rating 42%
Overall Rating
Ranked #8,633
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A morgue attendant and a strange waitress form a bizarre connection which may or may not be related to the waitress' dead sister. --IMDb
Aisha Prigann
Aisha Prigann
Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz
Sasha DeMarino
Sasha DeMarino
Ike Gingrich
Ike Gingrich
Susan Hinshaw
Susan Hinshaw
Review by Chad
Added: January 14, 2009
For the most part, I can make a pretty good guess as to what I'm going to rate a movie by the midway point of the overall running time. It's true that a particularly good (or an especially horrible) series of events towards the end can radically change that rating, but nine times out of ten, I've got a damned good idea as to what that rating will be before I know how the filmmakers are going to wrap things up. Phoenix was not one of those films, and truth be told, the rating that I had in mind changed considerably over those ninety minutes and even afterward.

You see, the film starts out in an extremely avant-garde style - you know, the sort of thing that David Lynch excels at. I know that there's a lot of people out there who like that type of film and I try to be objective when reviewing said films, but here's the deal: I really don't like them even when they're particularly well done, and I can only be so neutral before personal bias starts to creep into my words. A couple of scenes later in the film, an honest-to-goodness storyline started to become apparent, and not only was it interesting, but it actually made complete sense (which is a bit of a rarity in this type of release). That went on for a while, and then, there were a handful of scenes that really hurt the flow of the overall movie, and just when I thought that I knew the true nature of the beast, it whipped out an final chain of events that truly impressed me.

At this point, I was trying to figure up some sort of average rating: the first quarter wasn't all that great in my eyes but would certainly appeal to fans of that sort of thing, the second chunk was a particularly nice setup for a good film, the third piece of the puzzle seemed to lose its direction, and the finale was a particularly fine ending. I decided that since I enjoyed the commentary track found on Suzie Heartless, I'd go ahead and watch the film again and hear what director Tony Marsiglia had to say about this one before sitting down to do the review. From there... well, we're three paragraphs in and I haven't said a word about the actual plot, so let's get that out of the way first, shall we?

I'm going to try to tread carefully around this synopsis, since I'm not sure how much was supposed to be revealed early on and how much was intended to be saved for the grand reveal (more on all this in a moment). Let's say this: one of the main characters is a morgue attendant (Mark Schultz) who had a pair of creepy parents who babied him well into his adult years, and who - instead of sitting down and discussing the birds and the bees like they should have - employed a stranger to come in and discuss these things with him. The stranger opts to instead hand him a block of wood with a nail inserted into one end, with the idea being that our hero could clip on pieces of women's hair and clothing to make any woman he wants. A block of wood will never hurt or reject him and it'll certainly never leave him; it's the perfect woman, and he's kept it close over all these years.

There's also a woman (Aisha Prigann) who visits the morgue from time to time in search of her lost and possibly-dead sister (Sasha DeMarino), and she and our wood-sporting friend soon find themselves in what could technically be labeled as a relationship. Don't get me wrong: the two don't love one another and it's not even a relationship centering around sex, but the two do see something in one another that keeps them coming back to each other. Mark finds himself wanting to discover what happened to Aisha's sister, while Aisha... well, I'm going to go ahead and cut this short since it'd be best to just discover all of this for yourself.

As I was saying, I watched the film a second time with the commentary track turned on, and this time around, I realized the significance of certain scenes that initially seemed to have been inserted for no good reason. When you know how it all ends and go back for a second viewing, you realize that the seemingly-random imagery is actually completely relevant to the storyline at hand, and in fact, some of it should have been a clue as to where the film would end up going (clues that completely went over my head, but clues nonetheless). Granted, it would have been nice to have not been quite so lost the first time through, but my fear that the man was simply being artsy for the sake of being artsy was unfounded. Therefore, my issues with the first chunk of the film had been alleviated.

My other issues with the film, however, stood after this second viewing. There's one scene in particular that takes place in hotel room with an otherwise insignificant character that just seemed completely out of place. I can't fault the actress for this as she did a decent enough job with the material that she was given, but the scene simply didn't fit in with everything that came before or after it. Marsiglia explains the significance of one part of this scene during the commentary track, but I simply didn't get the message that he was trying to convey while watching it the first time around... and to be honest, I don't see how most if any could without hearing it from his mouth. I'm not one of those guys who can watch a character throw away the last bite of his McDonalds hamburger and take that as a powerful metaphor for starving children in Africa, and while the scene in question isn't quite that extreme, it isn't too far off either.

Another scene that bugged me featured a couple who had no relevance to the film at hand visiting this same hotel, and before they enter their room, the husband decides to steal some money from a nearby room. This prompts the guy who was robbed to grab an uncooked chicken and slowly stalk the thief, who manages to barely escape his stalker before... stripping down to his tighty-whities and literally jumping on top of his spread-eagled wife. It's every bit as silly as it sounds, and it really breaks the flow of the film and should have been left on the cutting-room floor. There are a few other scenes that were apparently shot with a similar mindset (a well-placed fart and a comedic reaction to a bum being puked on), and while they were just as bad as the two that I mentioned, they didn't have the "benefit" of having taken up a sizable piece of the running time.

These two scenes did bug me, but that is all that they were: two scenes (plus a single sound effect and a short punchline). I firmly believe that the film would have been better off without them, but I can't say that their inclusion completely killed my enjoyment of the overall product either. Imagine if Frank Darabont had decided to include a five minute scene of a monkey playing with its own feces midway through The Shawshank Redemption: monkeys are always good for a laugh and the surrounding film would have still been great, but you'd wonder why in the hell that scene was added to begin with. It's the same thing here, only, we get some good actors toying with awkward material instead of a monkey having fun with a pile of shit.

Getting back to the film's strengths, I simply couldn't cap off this review without discussing the general look of the movie. It's shot in 35mm black and white, and to be blunt, the entire thing looks gorgeous. I've always been a fan of black and white films that can really run with the lack of color and use the limited number of tones to their advantage, and this was certainly one of those movies. A good chunk of filmmakers - even those who used black and white back when it was a requirement - never figured out how to use this medium as a perk instead of a hindrance, but Phoenix is a film that I just couldn't see in color: it's that beautiful.

Overall, I'm going to have to give this one a solid recommendation. It does have those few flawed scenes that I described above, but for a feature film debut, it turned out to be much more entertaining than I had anticipated. It presents us with an interesting and unique storyline that is capped off in an unexpected fashion, and it's all displayed with extremely impressive cinematography (some of the shots that they got transformed mundane scenes into works of art). You can certainly tell that Marsiglia has grown as a director over the years and has learned a few tricks that he didn't know during this first outing, but putting all of that aside, Phoenix is simply an intriguing little film in its own right. 8/10.
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