Nov 28, 2015

The Danish Girl

When someone like Todd Haynes gives a conventional treatment to unconventional stories, like Carol, he uses the context of the era and a certain ironic detachment which raise his films above melodrama. Tom Hooper, the director of The Danish Girl, and his writer, Lucinda Coxon, are only interested in melodrama and they trample over everything else.
Watching The Danish Girl is like hearing a generic power ballad: a synthesized load of hysterical, sanitized, empty emotion. Sentimentality is the poison of truth. This movie is a sentimental waste.
Even though the story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (neé Einar Wegener, a man) and her wife Gerda is set at the turn of the century, in Hopper's version it could have been set at any other time in history. He completely ignores the zeitgeist, an era of feverish and rapid transition to modernity, which could have richly echoed his hero/heroine's own gender rite of passage. In fact, this movie could be set in Mars, and it would make no difference. It is under written and over directed, and it strands two excellent actors, Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne, in a vale of tears.
Alexandre Desplat's lush but gooey score is a good illustration of the mistaken temperament that courses through this movie. Instead of using the music of the time as inspiration, Desplat writes a mawkish score that, except for four notes I'm convinced he borrowed elsewhere, is devoid of any relation to the music of the era.
Worse, there is no real ambiguity in this story of deep, layered gender ambivalence. The characters are mostly presented as saintly people. Einar/Lili is a poor woman trapped in a man's body and she is either gripped by unhappiness or by tremulous joy. There's little in between. I expected to see rage, willfulness, or callousness in Einar's dogged pursuit of his truth -- something with an edge. But the writing is all declarations of undying love or recriminations: it has the level of a soap opera.
It is not the actors' fault. They give it everything they have, but it seems that they have either been instructed to emote as much as possible, or the director has chosen their cheesiest takes. Hooper steadfastly ignores any dark human traits that do not hew to the unhappiness-happiness continuum. At first I was appalled to see a fantastic actress like Vikander trying too hard to convince us and herself that she is a spirited and bossy painter, stomping around her atelier like a child pretending to be a general. Later in the movie she becomes better and, despite her director's best intentions, has moments of real, heartbreaking confusion. Still, the actors are saddled with an unimaginative and corny script. I had to go to Wikipedia after the movie to confirm what I suspected all along, which is that Gerda must not have been the paragon of heterosexuality herself. Turns out she was a full out lesbian who specialized in exquisite and explicit lesbian erotic illustrations. The movie does not mention this, and deliberately obscures Gerda's lesbianism, so poor Vikander is left playing a shell. No wonder she seems a little lost. It's all fake.
Redmayne is a magnetic and sensual actor. Here, when not crying rivers of tears, he finds the charm and longing in Lili, as well as the storm of conflicted feelings inside Einar. He brings the sexy all by himself: Redmayne swoons and does arousal better than anyone else onscreen, male or female. But since this is a sentimental movie, it is predicated on his character's noble suffering, and that gets old fast.
There is nothing really adventuresome in this film, a sense of humor is sorely lacking, and everything is bathed in virtue, and worse, cliché. The best scene is one in which Gerda starts undressing her husband to find he is wearing her silk camisole underneath. Redmayne is transfixed by arousal and she finds it arousing too. If only there had been more of this kind of exploration. Are we really that binary? What are the gradations of gender identification and sexual desire? The movie is too busy being trite and careful to dwell on these things.
Even when the irresistible Matthias Schoenaerts arrives to save the day (and that he does, making himself useful by refusing to shed a single tear), Gerda feels horribly guilty for kissing him, even after her own husband has virtually become a woman and refuses to come back to her. Are we expected to believe that these artists living in Paris and Copenhagen at the dawn of the 20th century behaved like such bourgeois prudes? The fact that The Danish Girl insists on presenting Gerda as a card-carrying straight woman makes it completely dishonest, and a disservice to its own topic.
What is appalling about this movie is not that a heterosexual actor is playing a transgender character (when you find a transgender Eddie Redmayne, and by that I not only mean someone with his talent, but also someone with his Oscar and his star power, we'll talk). It's that a committee apparently has decided to make transgendered people and their lovers palatable to a mainstream audience by discarding everything that is visceral, messy, sexual, mysterious and true about their experience and substituting it for toothless pablum.

Nov 22, 2015


Perhaps it is by design that Todd Haynes' movie, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith (well adapted by Phyllis Nagy) feels so airless. After all, lesbians in the 1950s must have felt claustrophobic. Ed Lachman's gorgeously muted cinematography suggests a repressive, lonely world. It feels like being inside an Edward Hopper painting: alone in the crowd.
Carol (Blanchett) is a rich lady with a small child and a marriage on the rocks, and Therese (Mara) is a salesgirl at a department store and budding photographer. They meet as Carol is browsing for Christmas gifts and take a shine to one another. Therese is beguiled by Carol's glamor, and Carol sees something beautiful and dangerous in that deceivingly mousy girl. Their gaydar goes off immediately. In those days, gaydar was a finely tuned instrument, and essential to recognize other kindred spirits who lived in the shadows.
Because Carol and Therese are women, they have to use a language of glances and gestures while they try to pass off as straight in a world that denies them existence. At the same time, because they are not even supposed to happen as a couple, they can meet in public and pretend that whatever is going on is anything but a romance. Not only are they attracted to one another, but there is a difference in age and in social class. The movie illustrates this tension between private desire and outward appearance to perfection. Powerful feelings simmer under the surface until they have to blow up. It is a hard way to live. Even though much has changed in terms of gay rights since then, in the personal realm, this negotiation of sexuality with the world at large is still dramatic for a lot of people. This is what the movie brings to light.
Carol serves as an interesting contrast to our own times. Today, even those who disapprove have to concede that homosexuality exists and gay people have successfully demanded parity and dignity. The story's setting in the 1950s, that decade of American prosperity, puritanism and witch hunts, takes us back to an era in which there was a collective will to smother and penalize homosexuality by placing it under the category of perversion, and in male instances, crime. As long as it wasn't outward, people pretended it didn't exist. If it made a sound, it was swiftly punished. Hence, it comes as a bit of a shock that the men in Carol and Therese's lives are viscerally aware of their rebellious strangeness. They argue against it as if they could change it. But they are not villains. Both Carol's husband (Kyle Chandler) and Therese's boyfriend (Jake Lacy), love these women. It is hard on them too.
It's difficult to live a double life, or a life that seems charmed but is deeply unhappy, as is the case with Carol. If divorce was a scandal in those days, imagine lesbianism: Carol was doomed. But she decides to pursue Therese. They take the car, that most available of American freedoms, and go on a road trip together. Therese has less to lose. She is young and ripe for adventure. For Carol, things are harder. She is richer, wiser, older and she has everything to lose.
If there is anything subversive about Carol is that it is a conventional movie. It's a classic love story. It's also a classic melodrama. The characters have terrible obstacles to overcome, as in any story about forbidden love. It just happens to be between two women. This is the point Carol makes: there is no difference between this love and the one society approves of. But this movie is also about pursuing personal freedom, at a great cost, in the face of an uncomprehending society. It's about rebellion.
Everything about Carol is exquisite and exquisitely controlled. It has class written all over it: Lachman's cinematography, excellent editing by Affonso Gonçalves, costumes by the great Sandy Powell, music by Carter Burwell and an amazing soundtrack of pop music of the period.
As in Far From Heaven, Haynes frames this narrative of personal rebellion in genre, namely, 1950's Sirkian melodrama. Perhaps because of this Carol seems more like a beautiful artifact than a story about messy passions. It is too stylized to breathe fire, and something in its composure mutes its emotional and erotic power.
If it has an impact, it's because Blanchett and Mara bring a fierceness to their roles that struggles against all that composure, both in the story and in the telling. They illustrate perfectly the unbearable tension between who they are and who they are expected to be. They are both excellent. Blanchett is a monster actress, and she does not disappoint. But I'm very impressed with Mara, who doesn't seem to take up much space but radiates a quiet and formidable willpower.

Nov 11, 2015


Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by him and Josh Singer, is less about child abuse than it is about hard work. It's about how journalists at The Boston Globe, after years of burying the story, finally investigated claims of the massive molestation of children by Catholic priests in Boston, with the complicity of Boston's Cardinal Law.
There is barely a child in sight. There are no teary scenes with outraged parents. Better yet, there are no scenes of abuse, just the powerful, uncomfortable retelling of it. The victims are in the periphery of life, muted, forgotten. Once in a while they come back as adults to demand to be heard. The way in which they are shrouded by hurt is evidence enough of their torture at the hands of the priests who raped them.
Conceptually, the movie frames the story within the same opacity and obfuscation the journalists encounter when dealing with claims of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy. No one wants to know. No one wants to believe that priests are capable of such depravity. Several times we learn that people (lawyers, victims) shared this information with the Globe and it was buried in some neglected newspaper section that no one ever reads. Such is the depraved arrogance of the Church, and its confidence on its own unquestioned power, that it can operate a ring of pedophiles in plain sight for years, shuffling criminal priests off to different parishes, never prosecuting or punishing them, and then quietly settling with the victims for a pittance.
Spotlight is not an emotionally dramatic movie. It is a procedural. It accumulates a quiet outrage as it churns out the finding and corroborating of evidence. Spotlight is also not a visually exciting movie. It is shot in muted tones and looks and feels like an old-fashioned TV show. But it is gripping in its steady and clear narrative.
The stellar cast seems to have been instructed to rein in any kind of histrionics, except for a moment when journalist Mike Resendez (Mark Ruffalo) loses his cool as his boss (Michael Keaton) decides not to publish just yet. Otherwise, they just work their butts off every day to get closer to the truth.
Liev Schreiber (so nice to see him playing a mensch), is quietly impressive as Marty Baron, the new editor of the Globe, an outsider who wonders why this story has not been followed. He is not Catholic, he is not from Boston and he doesn't care that no one messes with the Catholic Church.
The actors are all solid, from Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (incapable of not being droll, but it works), Brian D'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Len Cariou as Cardinal Law and Paul Guilfoyle, a standout, as the Church's hatchet guy. Especially powerful is Neal Huff as a victim who refuses to let it go.
If I have nitpicks, is that no one bothered with the Boston accent and that there may be a couple of unnecessary scenes that explain too much. But there are many nice touches. The way the beleaguered victims' lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) chirps up, but only when he speaks to children. The way court clerks, judges, lawyers, relatives of the priests instinctively close ranks the minute someone comes snooping is the chilling portrayal of a day to day conspiracy, made more sinister by the fact that everyone in Boston seems to be in on it.
Investigative dramas tend to tug at our heartstrings by parading the victims and giving them their day, trying to assuage our sense of redress. Here, there is no redress. Most offending priests and their powerful enablers have never been prosecuted. There is no happy ending. Since the movie doesn't focus directly on the suffering of the victims, their plight resonates more strongly in our imagination. What breaks the heart is the shroud of indifference that engulfs these people, who live their lives with terrible burdens and secrets that the police, the press, their communities, their church, even their parents - refuse to acknowledge. One is revulsed by are the arrogance of impunity, the strong arm tactics, the sadistic refusal of the Church to put an end to this problem. Not to mention the fact that the offending priests preyed on the most vulnerable children from impoverished, broken homes.
Even the journalists have to deal with some soul searching of their own as to why the Globe never really pursued the claims when they first appeared. I wish the movie had given more weight to this, which centers on the editor of the Spotlight section of the paper, Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), but it refrains from turning into a blame game. Spotlight goes out of its way not to tarnish the sad legacy of the victims' stories with cheap drama. Its power is that it points to the evil of indifference, denial and acquiescence, implying that everyone who turns a blind eye is guilty, as to the evil of the abuse itself. It's the kind of movie that gains in stature the more you think about it.

Nov 3, 2015


The pedigree of this movie is as impeccable as its execution. Based on the novel by Colm Toibin, adapted by screenwriter and novelist Nick Hornby, and directed by John Crowley, Brooklyn is a gem of gorgeous writing and sensitive direction; a truly beautiful film.
It is a story of immigration that does something rare: it truly communicates homesickness and captures the contradictory feelings of people who straddle life in two countries. Nothing terrible happens in this movie. There is no violence; just loss, experience and the passage of time. Just enormous changes on a personal scale; that is, life.
The wonderful Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a young woman from a provincial little town in Ireland who, with the help of a caring priest (Jim Broadbent), boards a ship towards a brighter future in early 1950's America. Once in Brooklyn, she lives in a boarding house with other spirited young Irish lasses, supervised with keen, warm discipline by Mrs. Kehoe (the scene-stealing Julie Walters).
Eilis works in a department store and pines for her mother and sister left behind. She feels lonely and adrift. Anyone who has ever emigrated will understand exactly what she is going through. The sense of possibility is so wide open that her only way to manage it is by narrowing her existence to working and staying out of trouble and by missing horribly what she left behind.
Eilis is hardworking and solid, and she is cautious with adventure, but soon she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a nice Italian guy (this is the only part of the movie that feels a bit ersatz, and I blame it on the foreignness of the filmmakers, who like Eilis, come from the other side of the pond). Eilis and Tony fall in love. Then Eilis has to go back to Ireland. There, she experiences the flip side of immigration: her perspective changes. Suddenly her culture, which was as natural as breathing, seems to her narrow and provincial.
The film is an example of sheer craftsmanship, from the cinematography to the production design, to the uniformly excellent cast. But more poignantly, it is emotionally authentic and true to life. It does not serve up easy clichés, but delves deep into the bittersweet experience of experience. We really see Eilis mature. She is the same character yet changes before our eyes, from the moment she first gets on the ship, young and unprepared, to when she returns to Ireland, shaped by experience. It's not just her hair and makeup, and now worldly wardrobe -- it's her behavior that is a wonder to behold.
It is in her quiet, momentous choices that Brooklyn soars.
You don't have to be Irish to fully profit from the wisdom of this movie. Besides its universal insights on the immigrant experience, it is eloquent about the pull of America, with its modernity and its expansive embrace of individual freedom. Things are not so much said, as seen and felt: We feel the giddiness of liberation in the girls of the boarding house. They may miss home, but America is fun. Returning with Eilis to her hometown, we feel and see the gray, oppressive pinch of small minds and stifling tradition.
In the end, Eilis bravely chooses to look ahead and remake herself, but not without rueing what she leaves behind. This elegant, soulful movie feels as satisfying and profound as a lovely, juicy novel. I have not read the book, but Brooklyn the film is a great story, beautifully told.