THE DANISH GIRL (2015)

December 17, 2015

danish girl Greetings again from the darkness. There was a time when movies were cultural trendsetters in such areas as speech, style and behavior. Somewhere along the way, a transition occurred, and these days movies are more a reflection of the times – showing us who we are and focusing mostly on what society focuses on. Oscar winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) capitalizes on the current movement to mainstream the LGBT community by telling the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a transgender from more than 40 years before Dr. Renee Richards, and 75 years before Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Lucida Coxon has adapted the 2000 novel from David Ebershoff, which is a fictionalized version of the 1933 “Man Into Woman” … the personal letters and diaries of Einar/Lili (edited by Niels Hoyer). The film opens in 1926 Copenhagen as successful landscape artist Einar Wegener and his struggling-to-gain-respect portrait artist wife Gerda appear to be happily married and quite attracted to each other. During this segment, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen utilize a somewhat distracting quasi-fisheye lens that distorts most every shot … presumably making the point that this couple’s life is itself distorted. There is no shortage of foreshadowing despite the bohemian artist lifestyle. Einar doesn’t miss a chance to caress the silks and frills as he visits his ballet dancing friend Ulla (Amber Heard), and things escalate quickly once he poses in stockings for one of Gerda’s portraits.

The best and most interesting segment of the film is the middle as Einar begins to explore his Lili persona, and Gerda is diligent in her support … going as far as to encourage her husband to attend a party as Lili (introduced as Einar’s visiting cousin). The public interactions with their friends and acquaintances are a little difficult to accept, though the scenes with her initial male suitor Henrik (Ben Whishaw) make it clear this is a point of no return. Despite this, the times are such that Einar willingly attempts to repress the Lili side, and even visits multiple medical and psychological specialists. It’s this segment that reminds us how quickly the medical profession of the era overreacted by prescribing radiation, electrotherapy, and even by institutionalizing those who were so inclined.

Gerda and Einar/Lili “escape” to Paris, where it becomes obvious that it’s Lily who has been masquerading as Einar, rather than the other way. The duality of Einar/Lily soon dissolves and daily life is filled with lessons … such as a Paris peep show where hand and body movements become part of the transition. Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything) gives an extraordinary performance, and is at his best when exploring the subtle nuances of Lili. It’s crucial to note that while Redmayne’s performance is a physical marvel, it’s Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Ex Machina) as Gerda who provides the real heart and soul of the story. Though the film glosses over some traits of the real life Gerda, Ms. Vikander is stunning in more than a few scenes, which in the hands of a lesser actress, could have proved cringe-inducing.

Adding some depth in limited roles are Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as Hans, Einar’s childhood friend all grown up, and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as the pioneering doctor who performs the sex reassignment surgeries that physically transition Einar into Lili. Even with the strong supporting cast, there is no mistaking this as anything other than a film that belongs to Mr. Redmayne and Ms. Vikander.

Director Hooper takes a very conventional approach to an unconventional story, and this “safe” direction seems designed to make the uncomfortable story more palatable for mainstream audiences (similar to how Brokeback Mountain handled homosexuality). However, don’t mistake this for Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. There are two serious stories here: the struggles of one person’s identity, and the corresponding challenges of a married couple. Hooper’s style is by no means cutting edge, but does feature one of the best lines of the year … “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” This story has bounced around the movie world for awhile, and for many years was rumored to have Nicole Kidman in the Einar/Lili role. Your imagination can determine if that would have made for a better fit.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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LES MISERABLES (2012)

December 30, 2012

les mis Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most anticipated films of the year is the first from director Tom Hooper since his Oscar -winning The King’s Speech. It also happens to be based on one of the true literary classics by Victor Hugo (first published 1862). And yes, it is presented as a true musical … the dialogue is sung and story advanced through forty-something songs. The latter feature gives it more of an opera feel than the stage version I saw more than 20 years ago.

The biggest question and curiosity going in was whether the cast of top notch movie stars could hold their own vocally. Sure, Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a Tony winner, Anne Hathaway (Fatine) has some Broadway chops of her own, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) sang in Mamma Mia, and Russell Crowe (Javert) has toured with his own band. But this is a whole new challenge, as director Hooper decided to have the actors sing “live” during les mis4filming, providing a more intimate feel to the film. Throw in two exceptionally strong vocal performances from Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and only the harshest critics will claim the singing disappoints.

Seinfeld” fans will enjoy the comic relief from thieving innkeepers Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as they take advantage of their customers while belting out “Master of the House“. And it’s pure joy to hear Colin Wilkinson‘s wonderful voice as The Bishop who offers Valjean his chance for redemption. Mr. Wilkinson is legendary as the original Valjean in the London and New York stage versions from the mid-80’s.  The historical les mis3relevance of the material includes the 1832 student-led June Rebellion and it’s adequately staged here.

There were a few things that distracted me at times. The most annoying being the incessant facial close-up on every song. This is typically a device to cover-up weak set design, but here the sets are spectacular and really capture the nastiness of 19th century France. And while I certainly enjoyed Ms. Hathaways’ show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream“, I found her overall acting to be quite distracting during her few scenes. Russell Crowe’s physical presence perfectly captures the omnipresent Javert, though the lack of punch in his vocals les mis2prevented the boom needed in a couple of songs. Lastly, Mr. Jackman seemed to strain on the high notes in my favorite “Bring him Home“, though again, none of these things ruined the experience for me.

As with most film musicals, the best approach is just to allow the story and songs to wash over you … don’t dwell on the minor issues. Keep in mind that this is a powerful and interesting production thanks to Victor Hugo’s source material. It’s a privilege to enjoy a first rate presentation seen through new eyes and heard through new vocalists.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the stage version OR you enjoy well made movie musicals

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the movie stars to have operatic voices OR nearly three hours of close-ups is more than you can take

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHHHUk8RCw

 


THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

December 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. British royalty is such easy pickings for film. The pomp and circumstance, colorful characters and dress, excessive everything, and especially the scandals provide an endless supply of material that can be twisted every which way. Director Tom Hooper who was responsible for fine work in the recent “John Adams” mini-series, takes the story of Prince Albert in a much different direction than one might think by reading history books.

Collin Firth does a masterful job of portraying Prince Albert, who falls directly into the role of King after the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) and abdication of the throne by his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) when he, for some reason, must marry the love of his life – a thrice divorced woman named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Now from a perspective of scandal, Edward and Wallis aka Duke and Duchess of Windsor, would make a far more juicy movie. Heck, even the story of pending World War with Hitler’s Germany would have, and often has, made for a more juicy movie. But Mr. Hooper has chosen to deliver a human drama filled with frailty, doubt, tenacity and hope. Turns out, this was a very wise choice.

Prince Albert ascends the throne as King George VI, husband to Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) whom we knew as the Queen Mother until her death in 2002. The two were the parents of a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth, the current Queen of England. Yes, we Americans do struggle with our Royalty and all the re-naming, yet remain fascinated by it. However, it’s important to note that this was a much different time. The film leads up to King George’s infamous 1939 speech in which he calmly and steadily explained to many nations that England was declaring war on Hitler’s Germany.

 What many do not know is that George suffered a severe speech impediment that caused him to stammer excessively under pressure. As you might imagine, this is a horrible affliction for a war time King! The guts of this story is the relationship between King George and his peculiar speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). There are so many dynamics in their relationship that each scene is like a skirmish between the two. Truly a fascinating progression to behold.

A deep friendship based on respect and trust develops and remains through the rest of their lives. More importantly for Britain and the world, Logue guided the King to a strong performance in the most crucial speech … thereby bringing strength to a nation and commitment from allies. Not sure which of these men was the better leader, but together they were proved very strong.

Firth, Rush, and Bonham-Carter are all excellent in their roles, and I also got a big kick out of Timothy Spall as a young Winston Churchill. Mr. Hooper does a remarkable job of creating a very human drama out of a historical period and event. The death march to the microphone is just excruciating in the climatic scene. We can feel the pain of the onlookers and supporters as they will their King to perform. I can only guess that the Queen Mother was instrumental in the development of Rolaids after so many trying moments!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true Oscar contender OR you are looking for an inspirational, historically based story

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of Royalty is a Royale Burger with cheese OR you don’t mind missing out on one of the best lead actor and one of the best supporting actor performances of the year.