SPOTLIGHT***** Mesmerizing


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SPOTLIGHT IS THE spellbindingly good story of the Boston Globe’s exposé of the nasty underbelly of priestly pedophilia in Boston’s Catholic Church in the 80’s and 90’s. What started off as an investigation into a Father Goeghan and a couple of other “rotten eggs” turned out to be the uncovering of the church’s systemic abuse of young kids (boys and girls…the priests took whoever was at hand) and its highly refined program of simply switching around ‘outed’ priests, with cover-ups that went right up to the top (in this case, the ironically named Cardinal Law).

Director Tom McCarthy (of The Station Agent fame and who also co-wrote the movie along with movies such as Up), working with an ensemble of superb actors (lead by the wonderfully resurgent Michael Keaton as Robbie Robinson, the leader of the Spotlight investigative group, along with an impassioned Mark Ruffalo, Rachael McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James and others), builds his horror story block by block.

There’s a palpable anger that energizes the whole enterprise. This is not the faux sanctimoniousness of The Big Short or Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, this is a movie that’s passionately and compellingly livid about the abuse of minors, hiding for so long in plain sight.

Unlike the bloated, rambling The Hateful Eight, here, not a scene is wasted. It begins with an office farewell party: the outgoing editor is about to be replaced. This is a critical factor. This very Bostonian newspaper is being replaced by an outsider. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, always superb, as the rock solid, soft spoken intellectual leader) is not Catholic (he’s Jewish) and far removed from the incestuous chumminess of the Boston power players. It gives him the perspective and independence to pursue an investigation that his paper has touched on before and for years, simply swept under a carpet of omerta.

In Boston, you don’t mess with God or the Catholic Church (to the abused children, this was one and the same thing).

We follow the story as the Spotlight team – a small group of individuals whose passionate pursuit of the story tears away at their private lives – assembles the evidence. It’s a foot-slogging journey: from door to door, they initially meet some of the victims, and the lawyers involved (the shape shifting Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian is particularly good as the shabby, disillusioned, knowledgeable champion of the abused and Eric MacLeish – Billy Crudup, the voice of the American Mastercard ads – the sleazy church consigliere).

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As the evidence (mysteriously removed from public records) mounts and as they begin to realize the extent of the ecclesiastic stain, they begin to feel the dark hand of threat: high society influencers in dark bars (Paul Guilfoyle as a pitch perfect old Irish Catholic’fixer’) who try to persuade them that exposing pedophilia really isn’t in anyone’s best interest (after all, look how much good the Catholic Church has done)

The case McCarthy meticulously builds (where every scene advances not only the story but our investment in the characters’ lives) simultaneously exposes the two interrelated strands of the problem: there’s a predatory priesthood (telephone conversations with an off camera psychologist explains the psycho-sexual corrosiveness of celibacy where over 50% of priests are in adult sexual relationships); and there’s a complicit social order that, in awe of Papal power and connections, insulate them from exposure. (As one character says, if it takes a village to raise a child, in this case, it also takes a village to rape one)

This is part detective story, part courtroom drama, part heart-stopping thriller.

The writing (by McCarthy and Josh Singer of The Fifth Estate) is superb: the conversations crackle as these hard-nosed, cynical journalists realize the extent of what they’re discovering…the size of the scoop.

It’s more than a condemnation of the Catholic Church (Cardinal Law – Lou Cariou – who spearheaded the cover-ups was forced to resign his post… and was then reallocated to the most prestigious cathedral in Rome) or for that matter of any organization where the dividing line between the authorities and the organizations they’re supposed to be monitoring have blurred (think banking). It’s also a celebration of our Fourth Estate (all too rapidly disappearing under the quagmire of the Murdoch’s and Rothermere’s of the world) in the grand tradition of Network News, All the President’s Men and Good Night, and Good Luck.

For me: movie of the year

 

SPOTLIGHT. DIR: Tom McCarthy. WITH: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup. SCREENPLAY: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. CINEMATOGRAPHER: Masanobu Takayanagi

 

THE BIG SHORT***Monopoly Money


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THE BIG SHORT is an engagingly enjoyable, morally tawdry film. It’s the dramatization of Michael Lewis’ book of the same name (so the characters are real but their names have been changed, presumably for legal reasons). It tells the horror story of the build up to and eventual collapse of the US housing market (with the rest of the world economies falling like puffed up dominoes). It’s a story of boastful greed, criminal fraud, smug hubris and thick- headed stupidity that left eight million unemployed and six million homeless.

Just another day at the office.

Director Adam McKay (Anchorman 1 and 2, Talladega Nights) hangs his tale around a triad of banker/investors, all of whom either figure out or stumble upon what’s happening in the real estate business. The story begins with Michael Burry (a compellingly watchable Christian Bale); he’s an autistic numbers-crunching hedge fund genius, with barely tolerable social skills and an unerring nose for reading the market. He is the one who sniffed out that the entire housing market was, essentially, a giant scam: fraudulent agents giving away mortgages to insolvent people; bundling and covering up these potential bad debts with other seemingly more secure mortgages, then selling them on from bank to bank and everything operating under the approval of the two corrupt ratings agencies, Moody’s and the S & P.

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His bright idea, that’s seen as ludicrously dumb by the banking potentates who control the money (how can he be right and everyone else wrong?) is to bet against (or short) the market… The more the market collapses, the more money he’d make.
He’s not the only one to read the tea leaves: Mark Baum (a permanently stressed out, pissed off Steve Carell) with an axe to grind against a system he’s part of and detests (his group work under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley) stumbles onto the truth, which they confirm when he and his team visit some of the new housing markets (and the boastful estate agents).

They discover the horrible reality of shuttered homes, properties on sale at knocked down prices, rising unemployment and mortgages being given away to the indigent.

An equally lucky duo of small-time investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witrock) coached by an ex-market trader, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt whose production company Plan B produced the movie…as it did Twelve Years a Slave) also figure out what’s happening.

They all bet against the market with the big banks and investment companies (the gang’s all there: Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs etc… the villains of the piece) greedily regarding them as motley fools with money easy for the taking.

And, well, you know where it all ended up.

Director McKay treats the whole sorry affair not as tragedy but (rightly…since you either cut your wrists or laugh) as Black Comedy. The odd song and dance routine are thrown in to underline some of his points; and he offers up the brilliant device of deliberate cutting away from the story to jokey vignettes (such as Margot Robbie in her bath sipping campaign or Anthony Bourdain in his kitchen) to explain those obtuse financial products, like collateralized debt swaps etc.

It’s a fine piece of entertainment and a damning critique of the banking system (that, the movie tartly observes, remains unrepentantly unchanged); and it’s an inventive way of turning a documentary into a drama.

But the base material (a piece of economics journalism…Michael Lewis also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side) remains a dramatic strait jacket. Despite a few cursory nods (the under-used Marisa Tomei tries to humanize Steve Carell’s character) you don’t really get to know any of the characters as people (unlike the far superior Margin Call). They remain ‘types’: the amoral nerd, the gauche college drop-outs, the aggrieved manager, the womanizing rich guys etc. In the end, what matters is the morality tale…we don’t really know – or are made to care – much about all the characters involved. But the tenor of the tale certainly has us rooting for them. After all, they were smart (in a world of idiots), they outfoxed the banks and –ta da! – made a ton of money betting on the collapse of the world economy. Is McKay insinuating that in the moral climate of the world of banks, these men were the best of a bad lot? Their certainty and self-belief certainly comes across as heroic (we’re supposed to root for the small man against the big corporation).

And the movie’s coda: that only one person was sent to jail, that nothing has changed and that we’re heading for a fall again would lead you to believe The Big Short is on the side of the angels.

But hang on here: like their banking antagonists, the (real life) protagonists were risking billions… of their clients’ money. They come across as knights in some sort of shining armour….but really they were just as amoral and money hustling as the other bunch of amoral money hustling, even badder guys. Or so we assume: they’re all shown as having higher goals than simply making money and laughing at the world as it collapsed.

But this entire enterprise (an anti-bank movie funded by banks featuring bankers as ‘heroes’) is all just a bit too specious for my taste.

 

The Big Short: DIRECTOR: Adam McKay. WITH: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt. SCREENPLAY: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay, Michael Lewis (book). CINEMATOGRAPHER: Barry Ackroyd

 

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT*** There Will be Blood


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IN THE HATEFUL EIGHT, director Quentin Tarantino assembles his characters to marshal his grand conceit, like a master chess player.

We first meet the two bounty hunters: John – the hangman – Ruth (Kurt Russell as John Wayne) with his bounty, murderer Daisy Domergue (a welcome return to from, form from Jennifer Jason Leigh) are on a stage coach trying to out gallop the coming storm and seek refuge in the lonely hilltop shop come hostelry, Minnie’s Haberdashery. Along the way, they encounter and rescue the other bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson as Samuel L Jackson), an ex-cavalry officer carrying a – putative – letter from Lincoln (his letter of freedom), along with three corpses, his bounty, piled one upon the other like pelts (Unlike Ruth, Warren prefers to kill his prisoners. Keeping them alive is “too much work”).

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But it’s a crowded road. Yet another straggler joins the party: Chris Manix (a tremendous Walton Goggins), a confederate rebel and the supposed new sheriff of Red Rock, the (typically named) town they’re all headed for.

Ruth’s prisoner has a bounty on her head of $10,000. Major Warren’s corpses have bounties on their head of $9,000. They agree to look out for each other to protect their assets.

So here you have it – Tarantino’s concerns are aligned and spread out before you like a warm blanket against the cold tundra (freshly blown in from The Revenant). The Hateful Eight continues (from Django Unchained) his exploration of the underlying tensions that were born with the union of North and South and that continue today: racism, freedom and the amoral spirit of capitalist enterprise – the three sides of the American idea.

Once they’ve entered Minnie’s Haberdashery and we meet the other key players (they aren’t so much characters per se, but symbols…of racism, greed, murder, rape etc; that’s why they’re the “hateful eight”) the issue of racism takes centre stage. Within the snow battered cabin are a lying Mexican, a morose embittered confederate officer, livid at the presence of a Black man in their midst (a beautifully quiet performance from Bruce Dern), a hangman (Tim Roth channeling Christoph Waltz) and an enigmatic gunman (Michael Madsen rendered near invisible amongst the grandstanding of the other cast).

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Within the cabin (sealed off from the outside world…from outside influences) they recreate the civil war, dividing the cabin between a North and a South. The hostility between the races, in particular between the Black free Northerner Major Warren and the White Southern “nigger-hating” confederate officer (Tarantino revels in his freedom to use the ‘N’ word without being branded racist), is fused to the venom that the White South feels by the liberation of the – Black – North.

Freedom is threat.

To Tarantino, there’s an almost symbiotic relationship between the hated and the hater.

It’s a mutual hatred that, like the storm imprisoning them all, denies them any real sense of freedom (no matter, as one character says to another, “… it’ supposed to be a free country”). Indeed, the arc of the entire narrative and the story’s Agatha Christie-type mystery is all about trying to free someone (the murderous Daisy Domergue).

Amidst all this enmity and hatred lies a common territory. It’s that of commerce. For it’s not just the captives, dead and alive who have resale value, they all do; interspersed amidst the racial taunts and the bloodshed are financial calculations and the promise of deals and counter deals. Characters who are natural enemies bond over bonds of commerce. They are after all imprisoned in a shop – about as potent symbol of America you can find.

If murder will out, so too will money.

And in the end, murder does out. This is BY FAR, Tarantino’s most gruesome venture. Brains are blown out, blood gets vomited here there and everywhere, Daisy Domerge’s face is slavered with blood for most of the movie; the whole of Minnie’s Haberdashery is, by the end, awash in red. His characters are bound not only by the handcuffs that join them, but by the (bad) blood that links them… as a nation.

Tarantino’s movies are always excessive; the action, the comedy, the bloodshed always extreme. Usually it works just fine. But The Hateful Eight feels unrestrained, his characters given over to stock archetypes. It’s an excess of self-indulgent, rambling, bloated storytelling. It’s almost three hours long; and at times, especially during the longeurs of the middle chapters (Yes “chapters”: this is after all a Tarantino movie) it feels like four.

And the orgy of blood. So much of it – like a child wallowing in mud; a gleeful attempt to outdo anything Saw or B-movie horrors can conjure up.

Pity, because it’s a visual treat and the score is tremendous.

If you choose to go, don’t eat before

 

The Hateful Eight: DIRECTOR; Quentin Tarantino. WITH: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell; Jennifer Jason Leigh; Walton Goggins; Tim Roth; Michael Masden; Bruce Dern. CINEMAOGRAPHER: Robert Richardson (World War Z); COMPOSER: Ennio Morricone (For a Few Dollars More, The Mission etc)

ROOM***Dull


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THE STORY OF Room, the excellent novel turned into a bland movie, is gripping enough: a woman is kidnapped, raped (repeatedly), impregnated and imprisoned in a shed with the son she gives birth to…for over five years. To the son, the room is his entire universe. And then one day, rolled in a carpet like Cleopatra, he’s smuggled out… reborn as it were to a new world, a new reality. The whole thing is told through his uncomprehending eyes.

But the movie, despite the brilliance of its two principal actors (Brie Larson from Trainwreck and the nine year old Jacob Tremblay), was written by the book’s author (Emma Donoghue), who also wrote the screenplay for…why, nothing else. This is always a risky proposition. And in this case, Room the moving novel absolutely fails to make the transition from book to film.

Because the movie (true to the book) is also told from the kid’s perspective and (probably also) in an attempt not to sensationalize the story, the film pulls back on ever giving us a clue to Ma (the mother’s) dread, her sense of desolation and loss, what must have been her loathing…horror of the nightly rapes. Even the drama and tension of the escape and the kid’s near recapture is a listless, unexciting affair. Jack (the kid’s) reality was that all was fine. So we the audience are left with having to work very hard to feel otherwise.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) places the emotional emphasis instead on the bond between mother and child. For five years, locked in a small room, Ma manages to make Jack’s life happy and fulfilling. There’s a real chemistry between the two actors and the love they show is touchingly real.

But what we gain with the emphasis on the mother/child relationship (symbolically the room is still her womb) we lose with the drama.

The movie feels flat, as if drained of tension and energy.

Certainly Abrahamson works hard to retain the integrity of the central idea driving the tale: reality is a very personal, esoteric conceit (that’s why “all’s well” in the room); and one that’s almost impossible to redefine and reimagine.

Jack (Tremblay) has only ever known the room. He’s proud of his ability to distinguish the difference between what’s real (his bed, his cupboard, his mother…) and what’s unreal (the worlds he experiences on TV). The problem comes when there’s the need to replace one reality (the room) with another (the world ‘out there’). A naturally happy, chatty boy, he clams up and whispers only to his mother (Larson) – the only remaining vestige of the reality he’s known. Indeed, when we see him in his new environment (the capacious home of his grandmother – the always compelling Joan Allen – and her partner, Sean Bridges from Trumbo), we see him through the bars and grills of the stairs, doorways etc, as if he’s in a prison.

but he’s young…and as one character notes, “plastic”. If the room has been his only experience, his sense of reality is not so set that it can’t be amended. Not so much his mother. No longer in control of the situation (despite being a kidnap victim and sex slave) and newly terrified by “the world”, she simply loses it. Even as the son breaks away from the barriers of his mind, she becomes ever trapped…unable to adjust to the new reality she faces. And his grandfather (William H Macy) just can’t handle the fact that his daughter had been raped and his grandson, who he can’t look in the eye, is the result of the union. Indeed (it is implied) it was the attempt to get to grips with a missing daughter, dread reality that that is, that caused the breakdown of his marriage.

It’s a solid, intelligent movie. It’s just, well…dull.

ROOM. Dir:Lenny Abrahamson. WITH: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridges, Hoan Allen, William H Macy. SCREENPLAY: Emma Donoghue. CINEMATOGRAPHER: Danny Cohen. PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ethan Tobman

 

 

THE REVENANT*** Brutish


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ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU’S “The Revenant” is a brilliantly filmed, cinematically rich, totally exhausting affair. It’s the story of one man’s incredible will to survive… driven by a fierce desire for revenge. Hugh Glass (Leo DiCaprio) is a guide to a group of wild-eyed, lawless, quasi-savage trappers journeying home with their bounty of hides. They’re out there somewhere in the uncharted wastes of a wet, wintry, muddy land. You can feel the cold seeping into their bones, into their iced up beards and snow-cracked overcoats. The miseries of this murderous weather is nothing compared with a tribe of Arikara Indians in search of the chief’s captured daughter: Powaqa. And when they attack, the ensuing battle (never has a flight of arrows felt more inescapably lethal) is a brutal, savage affair, with the trappers more concerned with protecting their stolen hides than their own hides, even as they are cut down and scalped.

By the end of the first fifteen minutes, Iñárritu (The Mexican director who also gave us the magnificent “Birdman” and “Babel”) has made his point unambiguously clear: we’re at a place where the restraints and trappings of civilization have disappeared. Here the moral code has been reduced to its most basic: kill or be killed. The niceties of our human nature have been replaced by instinctual behavior; and Glass is the unconquerable spirit – the guide – to lead us through this wilderness of savagery… to some form of savage grace (“Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine”, he says finally when revenge is his to have)

The trappers, lead by Glass, manage to evade the relentlessness of the Indians. But they still must evade the bone crushing cold, their own in fighting and the beasts that roam the countryside; this is nature red in tooth and claw. And it is Glass who is caught out by a mother bear bent on protecting her cubs (not unlike the Indians bent on recapturing their squaw). The attack by the bear on Glass is cringe-worthily nasty. She grabs and bites and brutalizes Glass, him stabbing and stabbing and stabbing her, as she flings him here and there, the spittle and blood dripping from both their mouths, necks and wounded bodies.

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There’s a brutish purity to this fight. He is defending himself; the bear is defending her family. It is when he’s ‘killed’ and then half buried by the brutish amoral John Fitzgerald (a wonderfully nasty Tom Hardy…who’d be a great Bond), trusted – and paid- to protect and care for him while the rest of the troop seek out shelter and help, that this ‘purity’ disappears. If Glass, like the Indians, are of the land (in one scene Glass enters into a disemboweled horse to warm himself and is reborn symbolically one with the elements) Fitzgerald epitomizes the man-made greed and avariciousness that is the real threat to the order of things.

It’s the likes of Fitzgerald, and the rampaging, conquering cavalry whose aftermath we glimpse in the images of raids and raped, slaughtered Indians, that, much more so than nature, are the real threat to this world we’ve entered. Here is the so-called world of civilization, the world of the White man as he savages whatever he meets, once there’s a profit to be had.

This is DiCaprio’s year for an Oscar. They’ve always favoured their actors to deform themselves (as Charlize Theron did for “North Country” or as Eddie Redmayne does as a woman in “The Danish Girl”). And here DiCaprio suffers and suffers. The movie’s PR blitz has made his real life suffering, as he filmed the move, quite clear. This isn’t so much a case of great acting (for that you’ll have to see – the un-nominated- Tom Courtnay from “45 Years” or Michael Shannon from “99 Homes”) as great, barnstorming, exuberant, no-holds-barred suffering. Oscar guaranteed.

As for Best Picture, “The Revenant” is up there with the rest of them. Along with his skilled cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s a wonderfully well-realized cinematic experience, a sort of film-maker’s film (as was “Mad Max: Fury Road” or last year, “Gravity”). But it’s a picture of broad stokes, with an emotional arc that starts in misery and ends in a little less misery. DiCaprio’s character suffers a little, then a whole lot, then a bit less. Don’t look for the thoughtful probing you’ll find in “Bridge of Spies” or “Brooklyn” (which should, incidentally be the hands down winner). Yes, you can certainly find references to the present (capitalism sucks; we are screwing nature; the White men are racist), but don’t expect an artist’s nuanced perspective on it.

But my Oscar journey is yet in its infancy. Here in London, these movies are dribbled out. “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” aren’t starting until next week.

By then I may have revised my opinion about “Brooklyn”. Stay tuned

 

The Revenant. Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu. With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter (“We’re the Millers”). Screenplay: Mark Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki (“Birdman”, “Gravity”). Production designer: Jack Fist (“Water for Elephants”)

THE DANISH GIRL*****Being…or Nothingness


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EINAR WEGENER’s (EDDIE Redmayne) cri de coeur, “I don’t want to be a painter, I want to be a woman” is at the heart of this beautifully crafted (every shot is meticulously framed and lit) movie about identity and self realization. The story follows the lives of the Danish married couple Einar and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). They are both artists; he, a lionized landscape artist, she, a talented by up-and-coming, unrecognized portrait artist. It is during the process of creation, when she asks him to hold a dress against his body and assume the pose of a model she is in the process of painting, that Einar’s long hidden, deeply buried self identification as a woman surfaces.

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From that point, with Gerda almost as his visual diarist, the twinned stories emerge: He slowly, frighteningly transforms himself (despite the moralizing opprobrium of the medical community) from Einar to Lilli; from a male artist to a female shop girl. She blossoms from woman to painter; from a run-of-the-mill portraitist to a feted artist, celebrated for her large, honest, studies of Lilli, Einar’s alter ego.

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His transgender journey to realize his identity (as a woman) is paralleled by her journey to actualize hers (as an artist).

The movie is a dramatization of the –actual- earliest attempt to execute the surgical changes necessary for this kind of gender transformation. And it makes the point that this is no weird, aberrant desire, but that our sense of our sex is a fundamental part of our understanding of who we are. It is the deepest entrenched idea that informs both how we see ourselves and how we’re seen. (There’s a nice moment at the beginning of the movie when Gerda is painting an obviously uncomfortable man. Relax, she – more or less -tells him, as she tartly observes the nature of his discomfort: “men aren’t accustomed to being so closely observed by others, especially not by a woman; but such observation is our everyday reality”…men can escape their gender; women are often defined by theirs)

“The Danish Girl” is a story about both Einar and Gerda. The title refers to them both. Her need to establish her identity freed from her gender: as an artist first and woman/wife etc. second, is as meaningful as his need to form an identity based on gender…to be, and be seen…observed…as a woman.

And underlying it all is the love that holds them together; for perhaps, it is suggested, at its deepest level, love transcends sexual attraction…happens not just between sexes, but between people (he may have morphed into she, but his/her ‘being’ remains the same).

Just as the story is about these twinned reference points of identity, the kudos of the movie goes to its two extraordinary actors. Once again, as he did as Stephen Hawkins (in “The Theory of Everything”), Eddie Redmayne disappears into the role. We suffer along with his character as he morphs convincingly from man to woman…and never to man in drag. As Gerda, Alicia Vikander (2015 has certainly been her year: “Ex-Machina”, “Man From Uncle” “Burnt” and now this) perhaps has the harder role (as the straight man?) to balance our attention away from the obvious point of focus on Einar’s transforming self. She’s the sexy, fearless, faithful, determined, insecure point of steadfastness and calm in a partnership facing its own unique crisis.

Director Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”, “The King’s Speech”) has assembled his tremendous team (his cinematographer, production designer, art director, costume designer, and editor all worked with him on “Les Miz”) to evoke, as if seen through the landscape art of the time (it’s the late 1920’s), the world of Denmark and Paris. “The Danish Girl” is perhaps one of the most densely visual, pictorial movies since Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner”.

And this visual richness is not at all some sort of self-conscious artiness, but totally in service to an underlying theme that knits the movie together: the power of art to shape our opinions and perspectives; not just the art of Einar and Gerda, but the art of “The Danish Girl” itself.
(Now if only we could get those many other viciously anti LGBT cultures, trapped in their nineteenth century moralities, to sit up and take note)

 

THE DANISH GIRL. Dir Tom Hooper. With Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben WIshaw, Amber Herd. Screenplay: Lucinda Coxon (from the book by David Ebershoff). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen. Production Designer: Eve Stewart. Art Director: Tom Weaving

 

JOY** Joyless


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“JOY” IS A movie that promises well.

It’s the eponynous story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) who, despite the odds, invented and – hugely- profited from her creation of the Miracle Mop. her story is one of a down-in-the-heels divorced mother of two who has to battle against (male) corporate patronisation and her own sleazy family’s malfeasance to make her unlikely dream come true…even while caring for her loser parents.

We expect David O Russell, armed as he is with a formidable roster of acting firepower (Robert De Niro as her dad, Bradley Cooper as the President of QVC and Isabella Rossellini as the dad’s partner) to give this rags to riches story enough of a twist to leverage it out of cliché.

The twist he offers, is to turn the whole thing into an over-long, muddled, boring soap opera. It’s a genre that’s repeatedly shown and deservedly mocked throughout the film… as offering a false and silly view of reality. “Joy” succumbs to the genre. For, despite the director’s sudden shift in mood half way through, the story, seen through the melodrama of a dead narrator (duh!), never manages to rise above the false and silly. It’s a case where the movie’s form has managed to wrench any believability away; the result is that the audience’s potential engagement with the inherent drama of the tale is entirely neutralized.

It’s as though the director himself didn’t quite believe in the story he was telling.
Russell’s stories…his characters… have always succeeded in the past by being an amusing, unexpected nudge away from everyday reality (remember Lawrence’s big hair bitch in “American Hustle” or her break-out charmer as Tiffany in “Silver Linings Playbook”). They’ve always been slightly larger than life…and that’s been a major part of their/his appeal. But they’ve always come across as being affectionately realized. Russell loved his creations and this infected our love for them too. In “Joy” the love’s disappeared. The whole enterprise feels like a laboured and a cynical ploy to once again pair Lawrence with Cooper.

Call it love’s laboured and lost.

She (Lawrence) certainly labours hard enough at infusing her role with as much credibility as possible. But she’s swimming against a tide of bad writing (Russell himself) including one awful moment when the De Niro character underlines, in BOLD type, the moral of the tale. Nor does the lackluster acting help anything. Cooper must have been filming something else at the time and simply flown in for his scenes: his role as the tough but empathetic corporate executive feels specious and half-baked. Rossellini is into full soap opera thespian melodrama.

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But the Razzie award (handed out annually to the worst of Hollywood) must go to Robert De Niro. He has now mumbled his way through so many dreadful movies (his next big can’t-miss ‘hit’ is “Dirty Grandpa” with Zac Efron)) that watching him is no more than a sad reminder of how far this once great talent has fallen. For his own legacy, he should be forcibly retired.

 

JOY: Dir. David. O. Russell. With: Jennifer Lawrence, Rbert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd. Screenplay: David O. Russell. Cinematography: Linus Sandgren

It’s not a great way to end the year…which has however been a year of fabulous film-making. I won’t offer yet another top ten best movie list (having not as yet seen either “The Hateful Eight” of “The Danish Girl”), but, apart from the Box Office cash cows such as “Spectre”, “Bridge of Spies” etc. here anyway are some of my – often unexpected – highlights of the year (really worth finding on DVD):

 

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“Wild”: Reese Witherspoon’s intelligently produced, delightfully funny movie about a woman who seeks to walk away from her troubles along the thousand mile path of the Pacific Crest Trail and ends up walking toward a future worth the walk, as it were. Written by Bruce Hornsby

ex

“Ex Machina”: Alicia Vikander’s breakout performance as a robot (probably the sexiest robot ever) and that frightening moment when robots reach (as they will) what’s called ‘the singularity’ (when sentience emerges)

young

“While We’re Young”: Noah Baumbach’s insightful satire on the pressures of growing old in a culture that only rewards youth…with and unexpectedly brilliant performance by Ben Stiller. Who’d have thunk!

charlize

“Mas Max: Fury Road”: George Miller’s out and out visual spectacle of the year with the out and out female badass creation of the year: Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa

inside

“Inside Out”: The best of animation. As good as any of the Toy Stories; an inventive and deliriously lovely anthropomorphizing of how kids (OK everyone) deal with Joy, Fear, Anger etc

45

“45 Years”: A quiet, thoughtful, nuanced movie about age, memory and love with Best Actor performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtnay

99

“99 Homes”: A spellbinding Michael Shannon as a reptilian real estate broker: the ruthless, nasty, everyday face of modern capitalism

Steve

“Steve Jobs”: Danny Boyle’s financial dud about the gulf between creator and creation; it had the sharpest screenplay of the year (from Aaron Sorkin) and an Oscar worthy turn from Kate Winslet

carol

“Carol”: My Best Movie of the year. Todd Haynes’ brilliant look at the nexus between love and desire. With glowing performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara

brooklyn

“Brooklyn”: Another finely scripted story by Nick Hornby (from a novel by Coln Tóibín). Director John Crowley locates the pin point moment where the real drama of love and belonging reveals itself without the need of faux angst and melodrama