Archive for the ‘biopic’ category

The Danish Girl

February 14, 2016

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Once upon a time, perhaps back in 2000 when David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl hit stores, a movie based on that book about a trailblazing transwoman might have felt fresher. Now, though, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have been in the news, and we’ve seen more challenging and advanced narratives about transfolks. Besides that, we’ve seen actual trans performers play trans characters, both well-known (Cox on Orange Is the New Black) and not (Michelle Hendley in the underseen Boy Meets Girl), so a well-meaning Oscar-bait biopic with a cisgendered male (Eddie Redmayne) as trans legend Lili Elbe smells a little fishy. Shouldn’t an actor be free to play any reality?, some may ask. Let’s reframe the question: shouldn’t an actor of an often persecuted part of humanity be able to tell the stories of his or her own experience?

The Danish Girl recounts the early struggle of Lili (née Einar Wegener) to deal with her male-to-female transition while fighting the blinkered intolerance of her milieu (1926 Copenhagen) and trying not to hurt her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who supports Lili up to an understandable point, past which Gerda genuinely can’t go with her. Vikander actually owns the movie — she effortlessly conveys the pain of a woman too enlightened to be horrified by her once-husband’s transformation, but too human not to mourn the passing of the man she fell in love with. It’s the clearest inner conflict in the movie, but it’s been done before. So has Lili’s arc, despite the Right Stuff gendernaut angle of Lili’s (allegedly) being the first to have The Surgery.

Redmayne’s frail, hairless frame does much of his work for him; how odd that he should have headlined two elite biopics in a row, the Stephen Hawking movie being the first, both detailing body’s misalignment with mind. (He’s about ready to go make a film for David Cronenberg, whose work is built upon the Cartesian mind-body split.) But he never made me feel Lili’s vertiginous fright and relief at finally presenting as her own gender. That’s because he doesn’t have the material. The movie is too genteel and antiseptic, and eventually it resolves into a dull fable of Being True to Oneself. Someday a transgender writer/director will tell her/his community’s stories on film, and it will be felt from the inside, not observed from the outside, however compassionately. We will learn more from such a film than we could from movies like The Danish Girl made by people who haven’t actually endured Lili’s pain — who don’t have skin in the game.

In my Les Miserables review I hypothesized that the film’s director, Tom Hooper, might be the worst director ever to own an Oscar for directing. After seeing what he’s done with The Danish Girl, I’m no longer sure the qualification is necessary. You can certainly tell a Tom Hooper film at ten paces. That’s the film that’ll be composed with artsy whimsy, generally with people seated way off to the side of the frame and near the bottom, or scrutinized in punishing close-up, and the shots don’t cut together with any kind of grace because of the fancy compositions (sometimes the shots don’t match each other or the camera blatantly crosses the axis), and scenes just kind of start, go on a bit, and end. That’s the Oscar-winning Tom Hooper touch. If you care at all about movies as constructions of time and rhythm as well as image and sound, the aesthetically ugly cinema of Tom Hooper may cause physical revulsion.

Pompous yet banal, Hooper’s style fits this prestigious bore of a movie. For whom has it been made? Trans audiences will yawn — Lili’s story as presented here isn’t good fodder for inspiration. Transphobic bigots won’t see it in the first place, so they wouldn’t be swayed even if the movie were persuasive. So it’s for nice cisgendered viewers (i.e., those whose gender identities align with their bodies) who enjoy watching other people’s pain if it’s done tastefully enough. No blood is shown during Lili’s two dangerous surgeries, so it won’t spoil your dinner; neither will the scene in which two louts descend on Lili in boy mode, leading to the most ineptly-staged beating I’ve seen in years. Being cisgendered doesn’t disqualify you from making a movie about transgender subjects, but maybe being incompetent should.

Spotlight

January 24, 2016

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Various representatives of the Catholic Church have given a thumbs-up to Spotlight, a docudrama about Boston Globe reporters breaking the story of the Church’s cover-up of scores of abuses by Boston priests. Well, how else is the Church going to react to it? Condemning the film would be fantastic free publicity; praising it is brilliant tactical aikido against possible new detractors of the Church. Anyway, I happen to agree with the fine film critics at the Vatican and the Boston Archdiocese. Spotlight is an undemonstrative journalistic almost-thriller with an even but urgent heartbeat, driven as much by reporters’ need for their paper to be first to crack the story as by actual concern for truth, justice, and the American way. We are, for example, asked to be horrified at the idea of the Herald getting its sulfurous, tabloidy claws into this once-in-a-generation scoop.

The movie takes its name from the Globe’s elite investigative team, instituted in 1970, known for its devotion to going deep on afflicting-the-powerful stories and taking its sweet time getting there. Here, they don’t have much sweet time. The new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), makes a pitch to Spotlight commander Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton): why not look into this business about Father John Geoghan abusing children and Cardinal Law dealing with it by reassigning Geoghan and keeping silent? The team — rounded out by passionate Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), compassionate Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and dogged Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) — swings into action, soon finding that the story extends far more broadly than only one priest playing Musical Parishes.

A welcoming round of applause for the return of director/cowriter Tom McCarthy, who emerges unbloodied from his prior experience on the Adam Sandler flop The Cobbler. This is indeed the kind of “small” (well, $20 million is small these days) mid-budget drama for adults that seems so endangered now; technically, it’s an indie production, distributed by Open Road, owned by theatrical giants AMC and Regal. McCarthy, who has roots in indie comedy-drama, gives us a film that looks like television without really feeling like it; the conflicts feel major even as McCarthy and writing partner Josh Singer mostly avoid melodrama. The few encounters with victims, now grown, of pedophile priests are handled with tact but with a steady eye for relevant detail; one man shows us, almost too quickly to catch, needle tracks on his arm. The men look haunted, mutilated in their souls; they stare inward into hell.

It was a hell that few knew or cared to know about. The Spotlight team has an unwilling ally in abrupt, irascible lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who has zero patience for adults but, we discover in a late scene, all the affectionate patience in the world for his young clients who have suffered abuse. Muddying the moral waters a bit is a meeting with a molesting priest who cheerfully admits to his crimes, because he doesn’t consider what he did to be rape; rape is what happened to him. The movie doesn’t clarify whether he, too, was a boyhood victim of a priest, and whether some victims of abuse become tireless advocates for justice while others, their souls incinerated, continue the cycle of abuse themselves. A psychologist and ex-priest, played as a phone-voice of authority by an unbilled Richard Jenkins, suggests that the problem with the Church stems from psychosexual deformity caused by celibacy — or does the priesthood, and other positions of trust like school coaches, attract the psychosexually deformed? Spotlight gets us thinking about that, but ultimately leaves the answer to other movies (I recommend, for starters, the two-part powerhouse The Boys of St. Vincent). Decently, it focuses on the victims, and why there continued to be victims for so long.

The Revenant

January 17, 2016

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For all the stark realism and ballyhooed “natural light” cinematography of The Revenant, the movie tips its true hand as an aggressively directorial film when the hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is so close to the camera that his anguished, halting breath fogs the lens. You see, this is a deathlessly significant work about man’s inhumanity to man against a backdrop of unforgiving nature, but there is a man behind it all — a man of vision and integrity, you serfs — and you’d better appreciate his hard, crucifying labor, and Leo’s, too. See, there he is, suffering before you, steaming up the damn camera lens. Well, which is it? Is this a spiritual document of peerless verisimilitude, or is it filmmaker preening, reminding you that, above all else, this is a movie?

Based on his debut Amores Perros, I’ve been loyal to director Alejandro González Iñárritu for years, but after one bummer after another, as well as last year’s well-acted but show-offy Oscar winner Birdman, it’s probably time to admit that Iñárritu has a loud voice but not much to say with it. At its core, The Revenant is a simple story about Glass, a fur-trappers’ scout left for dead after a bear tears him up. He survives, and spends the rest of the long and winding movie trying to catch up with his chief betrayer, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and presumably put serious hurt on him. By the end, Glass rejects the idea of revenge, though he’s already brutalized Fitzgerald so much — in an ugly, endless brawl — that the movie gets to have its gory cake and eat it too.

Sitting through The Revenant, I kept recognizing other movies in it. The natural-lighting gimmick was done better by Kubrick in Barry Lyndon; the basic story was told before in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, which took up nearly an hour less of our time; the sometimes discordant score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto among others) recalls Neil Young’s fuzzbox music for Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man (and this film’s dependence on an Indian helping an ailing white man was already parodied nicely by Jarmusch); and the symbolic heaviness of man against nature got some play in Joe Carnahan’s underrated existential drama The Grey. No grey here; this is strictly black and white, with the half-scalped Tom Hardy practically twirling his mustache as he refers to Indians as “tree niggers” — one of the few things he growls through his Brillo beard that you can understand. (At times, I thought I could discern phrases like “kung fu” and “jolly brisket” in that mop-spatter of sad, orphaned syllables.) Hardy’s Fitzgerald also gets a monologue about how he met a man who thought a squirrel was God; then Fitzgerald killed and ate the squirrel. So he’s not only the Devil, he’s a god-devourer, like Galactus or Darkseid in the comic books.

In contrast to the racist, mutilated Fitzgerald, the thick-maned Glass (he even has all his teeth) has a dearly departed Indian wife and a half-breed son. He’s spiritually an Indian himself, just like Jack Crabb and John Dunbar. Despite that, we are shown that there are good Indians (the Pawnee) and there are “savage” Indians (the Arikara, responsible for the Saving Private Ryan massacre that kicks off the movie, though they too come in handy for the white man later on). Can it be that the critics’ dartboard The Lone Ranger actually boasted a more nuanced vision of indigenous Americans than this lionized sadomasochistic trip offers?

Iñárritu was already working on The Revenant when he won the Oscar for Birdman, otherwise I’d call this the classic post-Oscar folly. Now that it has twelve nominations of its own and is favored to take the big win in a month or so, it seems ready to become a folly atop a folly. There are a lot of elements yanking us out of possible absorption in this supposedly realistic film — a bear that doesn’t look quite real, other shots and sequences with obvious CGI doctoring. And yet the movie doesn’t even get as gnarly as the real story did — the actual Hugh Glass let maggots feast on his bearclaw wounds to prevent gangrene, and Indians sewed a bear hide to his back to cover the gashes. If you’re waiting to see that happen to Leonardo DiCaprio in a $130 million motion picture, keep waiting.

The Big Short

January 10, 2016

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Who is the hero of The Big Short, the semi-comedic semi-drama about the implosion of the housing market and the rise of those who profited from it? Is it “Dr.” Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the hedge-fund manager who first noticed the subprime mortgages’ soft underbelly? Is it Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another hedge-fund manager who carries around deep fury about the state of the system and the suicide of his brother? Is it Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), former Wall Street wolf turned retired Jedi of finance? To me, the hero of this bulging package of facts and jokes is its film editor, Hank Corwin. Since his baptism of fire on such teeming Oliver Stone hornets’ nests as JFK and Natural Born Killers, Corwin has worked selectively, adding two Terrence Malick epics to his resumé, and he cuts The Big Short with his usual instinct for allusive, propulsive storytelling, moving us along at a clip yet not too fast to process everything.

Clarity is needed with a dense story like this one, as well as an unfailing eye for the telling detail and the amusing sidebar. The director, Adam McKay, is a veteran of several Will Ferrell comedies, but he showed in The Other Guys that he had things to say about the rich soaking the poor with Ponzi schemes, and here he sharpens his blade anew. I don’t know that McKay should go on being Hollywood’s fiduciary moralist, but he’s clearly on the side of the angels and of the entertainers. On a few occasions, he recruits a random celeb to explain something or another to us, such as when collateralized debt obligations are likened to seafood stew. Like Stone’s two Wall Street sermons, The Big Short has been made for “the average people” who, says the irked Mark Baum, will be the ones paying for the banks’ fraudulence and hubris, even if we didn’t then (in 2008, when Michael Burry’s predictions came to pass) know how, or why.

We find out how and why, with the help of a cast gnawing hungrily on cynical, profane dialogue. Rageaholic Baum gets all the wounded humanity Steve Carell can bring to him, and Christian Bale makes Burry the awkward, blinkered loner that Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne would be in real life. Ryan Gosling swoops in as our narrator, a trader who hears about Burry’s calculations and gets Baum and his firm in on the scavenging. Gosling’s usual smugness works for the role; he sometimes addresses the camera and acknowledges what a prick we must think he is. This is primarily a male-id movie, though Marisa Tomei (as Baum’s wife) and Melissa Leo (as a banker who grudgingly drops some truth on Baum) brighten things. The film is, I admit, too busy working out how to explain why a man who pays his rent ends up living in his car to bother much with gender parity. Maybe next time.

The Big Short starts out antic and satirical (though it doesn’t reach the Homeric excesses of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street) but eventually spirals down into a spun-out sigh of resignation. Brad Pitt — more Robert Redford-like than ever in his tousled hairdo and salt-and-pepper beard — at one point turns to two ecstatic young investors and reminds them that their fortune will be built on the backs of real, suffering people who, if the economy tanks, will lose their jobs, their homes, maybe their lives. It’s a sobering reality blast, and we see Mark Baum almost horizontal with despair and Michael Burry lamenting that “nobody will talk to me, except through lawyers,” both much, much richer but that much less happy. An additional chilling piece of information: at the end, we’re told that Burry, the man who against all accepted wisdom bet against the economy and prospered, is now investing primarily in water. Is Burry betting that we’re headed for a grim meathook future á la Mad Max? A bit of research shows his reasoning is less ominous and more optimistic than that, but the factoid still leaves us with a shudder. Who else out there knows important, disquieting things and isn’t being listened to?

Unbroken

December 21, 2014

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“If you can take it, you can make it,” says the helpful brother of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) early in Unbroken, giving us, though not Louis, an idea of what we’re in for. What does it take — what fortitude, what inner reserves of strength or patience — to make it to the end of Unbroken? The first hour cuts back and forth between Louis’ pre-war life as just the fastest, bestest runner you ever saw, and Louis as a bombardier in World War II, before his plane goes down in the ocean and he and two fellow soldiers survive on a raft for forty-seven days. Then the raft bumps into a Japanese warship. From there, you will spend the next sixty-five minutes with Louis in a POW camp and then a colder POW camp.

These epics (usually singing the praises of the Greatest Generation) that make a virtue of endurance always make the mistake of demanding endurance of the audience as well. There’s an element of shaming in this: If Louis Zamperini could spend years of his life being tortured in a POW camp, you can spend two hours of yours watching him being tortured, you non-Greatest Generation sissies. Based on a bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken has attracted a lot of intelligent talent: a run of screenwriters (William Nicholson, then Richard LaGravenese, then Joel and Ethan Coen) and director Angelina Jolie, and it’s hard to say what enticed any of them. The movie is about a man who suffers and perseveres and survives, and it isn’t about anything other than that.

Well, maybe it is: it’s also about homoerotic sadism, a theme that most every prison yarn is good for, even after Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour made it explicit in 1950. Louis draws the eye of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), aka “the Bird,” a POW sergeant who takes out his career frustration on the allied prisoners and especially on tough, attractive Louis. This sadist looks and acts feminine and sometimes seems to be leching after Louis; after a while, nobody else in the camp interests Watanabe — he only has eyes for Louis. This all is drawn crudely, with none of the formal tension of something like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. I haven’t read the book — did the born-again Louis make as much of Watanabe’s fixation on him as the film does? Jolie, good liberal that she is, presents the dynamic but mutes it. As it is, Watanabe represents nothing but grinning sadism, as Louis stands for nothing but stoic American Christian resilience.

After the CIA torture report has come to light, it’s amusing that an epic about the spiritual value of enduring torture should become the country’s big Christmas Day release. Is Louis meant to be our very own American Christ, suffering for humanity’s sins and then forgiving his tormentors (as we’re told at the end, in some onscreen text that might’ve made for a more interesting film than the one we’ve just sat through)? Jolie straight-up turns Louis into Jesus at one point, when Louis, carrying a heavy plank over his head, casts a cruciform shadow on the soil of the prison camp. Louis hefting the plank is also the central image of the marketing. What’s actually going on here? Those who made this long, grinding tribute to The Passion of the American may find the question hurtful, but I say if you make it, you can take it.

Wild

December 7, 2014

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Pushing forty now (she turns 39 next March), Reese Witherspoon has long since shed the girlishness she had in early, attention-getting performances in Freeway and Election. She still has the drive, though, and in Wild we don’t question whether her character, Cheryl Strayed, will see her impossible goal through. Strayed, who wrote about her adventure in an acclaimed memoir, set out in 1995 to hike the Pacific Crest Trail despite having no backpacking experience. Strayed did this in part to get out of her own suffering head, after losing her mom to cancer and wallowing in annihilating grief. The way Witherspoon plays it, the hike is almost just one more way for Cheryl, an intelligent but complexly miserable woman, to punish herself.

Wild was an Oprah-approved book, and the Oprah website offers more than twenty inspirational quotes from its pages, but the movie is rather short on bromides. There are some here and there, but mainly the film respects the intractability of despair. Whatever positive meaning Cheryl’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) might have wanted Cheryl to take from it, Bobbi still died at 45 without having found her own life. Dern, though, gives us a woman who lunges at any shard of joy or freedom, and makes Bobbi’s positivity seem more tough-minded than depression or nihilism. Cheryl walks, she tells us, in hopes that she will meet in herself the woman her mother raised her to be. We may not doubt that Cheryl will finish the hike, but we’re not at all sure what kind of woman she will meet at the end of it.

Overflowing with rich but unsentimental scenery, the movie benefits from clear-eyed direction by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose Dallas Buyers Club last year shared Wild‘s compassion for flawed Americans and certainty that people will behave with kindness given the chance. Cheryl encounters a lot of men on her journey, not all of whom seem nice, though the first guy she runs into looks like a creep but ends up offering her a meal and a shower. (No strings attached; he’s contentedly married.) Cheryl is no prude: part of what she’s trying to escape is her period of anguished, drugged-out promiscuity. The movie doesn’t judge her for that — it simply allows that Cheryl has burned through it into a need for something purer.

Wild is the third movie to be released this year about a woman who goes solo walkabout; there was also Tracks, based on another desert-hike memoir, and the underseen Redwood Highway. Of the three, Wild has the obvious Oscar push behind it, but I prefer Redwood Highway and Shirley Knight’s lovely performance in it, as a kind of Cheryl Strayed forty years later. Still, Wild is decent enough as a bookend piece to Dallas Buyers Club, with a drifting, trippy-melancholic tone governed by Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” (with its binary “I’d rather be a…than a…” construction). Cheryl keeps pursuing her mom, hallucinating her at times, but to where is Bobbi trying to guide her? We have a good idea where she wants to steer Cheryl away from, but towards what?

At the end, Cheryl tells us that later on, after the narrative ends, she will marry a man and have two kids. This is fine, if it was what Cheryl chose and wanted in actual life; but why seal the movie with reassurances that Cheryl finally got off the trail of solitude and became a mom just like her dear old (young) mom? Do we need that? Does the movie? I say we don’t and it doesn’t; it carries the unattractive implication that all an unhappy woman needs are the right man and a couple of babies. I’m sure that’s not what Witherspoon (also one of the producers) intended. Right? Or is it not reassurance at all, but a kind of warning? I’ll need to mull it over; Wild is not generally a movie that says a man, or anything else, will fix whatever ails a woman.

The Theory of Everything

November 23, 2014

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Pop culture has its way of gentling great minds for the masses. To paraphrase Us magazine’s popular and frequently mocked feature: “Scientists — they’re just like us!” Those eggheads want, lust, love, and consume the same as any regular jerk. I imagine it’s one of the secrets of The Big Bang Theory‘s success: the characters may look to the stars, and even escape to them at times, but mostly they’re mired in grungy physical Earth. The nice thing about The Theory of Everything, which serves up a touching account of the love life of Stephen Hawking, is that Hawking’s cosmological curiosity seems to issue from the same place that likes booze and girls. We meet him, after all, as a gawky college student encountering his future wife Jane for the first time. Soon enough, Hawking will be as grounded as a human can be.

As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne stubbornly refuses to solicit our pity even as Hawking’s affliction, a motor neuron disease, erases his ability to walk and then to talk. Redmayne conveys some of the horror of a mind that faces being closed off from communication. But mainly he is astringent and witty, a brain too active to be distracted by mundane physicality for very long, because he has bigger fish to fry — you know, time and the origins of the universe. Redmayne’s skill at replicating the ravages of Hawking’s illness may threaten to overshadow Felicity Jones’ delicate work as Jane, but it shouldn’t; for a while, based as it is on the actual Jane’s memoir, the movie becomes about Jane and her inner life, and Jones puts across why Jane was drawn to Hawking’s intellectual gaeity and the toll his illness took on her despite her love.

Together, Hawking and Jane dramatize the Cartesian split: mind and body. A bitter irony of the movie is that Jane, pursuing her own academic career in literature, becomes essentially little more than a body: producing three children for Hawking, whose coital ability seems unaffected by his disease. The film sketches in Hawking’s relationship with his nurse, for whom he left Jane in 1995 after thirty years of marriage, but doesn’t tell us that he divorced the nurse, too, in 2006. The movie winds up saying that when you marry a scientist like Hawking, you take a back seat to what’s in his head. It’s a dynamic familiar from decades of absent-minded-professor entertainment, up to and including Sheldon and Amy on Big Bang Theory (where Hawking did a cameo, making Sheldon faint in shame over a math mistake). The Theory of Everything tries to soft-soap what should set it apart: the difficulties of being, and living with, a genius. The progressive, scene-stealing nature of Hawking’s illness cloaks the probability that he would be hard to live with even if he were able-bodied.

Still, the acting lifts the highly fictionalized story out of the realm of banality and bromide. Moment to moment, what we’re watching is the effort of two people to make things work, and this extends to the actors’ struggle to make the characters’ struggle fresh. Redmayne sneaks in the interesting sense that Hawking is spiritually and intellectually freed by his ailment — that he literally becomes a brain in a jar, a very fragile jar, and leaves the realities of dealing with his physicality to others. On the opposite end of the axis, Jones gives us a Jane who fears losing her mind, and though the movie short-shrifts Jane’s own intellect except for a scene or two of her jotting down notes, Jones makes sure we understand what it was like to be a woman in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, living in the shadow of an egghead titan who, liberal as he may have been in some areas, probably had no idea he was reducing his first love to a baby machine and unpaid nurse.


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