The Danish Girl (2016)

★★★

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The Danish Girl PosterDirector: Tom Hooper

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

Just like last year, Eddie Redmayne is spending his January up on cinema screens across the UK in a film about strong relationships and physical change. The Theory of Everything thrived upon its stars’ chemistry — Redmayne and Felicity Jones perfectly complemented each other as Mr. and Mrs. Hawking — and it is true that much of what is great about The Danish Girl revolves around its central pairing. Unfortunately, the film undercuts the dramatic potential of its subject matter (reality-based pioneering gender reassignment surgery). It shouldn’t be standard fare, but it is.

Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an artist who dresses up as a woman at the behest of his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and feels whole upon doing so. Einar evolves into Lili, first mentally and then physically, though Redmayne’s vulnerability remains steadily palpable throughout. The problem isn’t the actor; it won’t come as a surprise for you to learn he is good. Rather, it is the syrupy circus that surrounds him — those feather-light piano melodies that are enforced without any sort of careful restraint, and a screenplay absolutely swamped in fluffy dialogue (“My life, my wife”).

There is heartfelt delicacy, which is clearly what screenwriter Lucinda Coxon is going for, and then there is off-putting sentimentality, which is what she ends up with. Despite this, the film manages to celebrate two different kinds of femininity. Redmayne plays Lili with a soft evasiveness undoubtedly born out of her repressed identity. Gerda, on the other hand, appears battle-hardened, initially parading a boldness and then later genuine strength in the face of life-changing revelations. You have to believe in their relationship and its robustness in order to believe in the film on a very basic level, and you do because Redmayne and particularly Vikander sell their characters’ love authentically.

As Lili’s desire for personal correction ripens, the nuances of the two central roles are reversed and the narrative focus flips (at least it did for me). The Danish Girl starts to explore those hardships encountered by its other Danish girl, Gerda. Lili’s physical and mental anguish is plain to see and at times tough to consume, but we also must remember the major impact her situation is having on Gerda’s life too. Vikander takes us on an emotional roller coaster: pained, confused, sorrowful, empathetic. We watch just as she does, and we feel because she feels.

Like in Mr. Turner, art is used as a mode for exploration. That is until the film forgets about the art, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Securing one’s true lifestyle is far more important after all, but we do spend a fair chunk of time in plush museums and at fancy gatherings and around interesting paintings for the piece to avoid that stuff thereafter (the movie’s funniest moment transpires from Gerda painting a particularly uptight gentleman). To be fair, this move away from art is consistent with Lili’s mindset — she decides not continue her career upon finding her real self — though a visit to the easel every now and again would have been welcome for story continuity: how are the duo making enough money for travel and healthcare if only one of them is working?

Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen borrow from, of all people, Wes Anderson’s portfolio, at one point whimsically depicting a street of yellow bungalows side-on. It is a great shot, a single quirky page out of an otherwise standard picture book. Lili and Gerda’s house looks a bit like a charcoal painting, with shades of blue and grey adding little colour to the wooden floorboards and cracked walls — like the opening hour of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, of all films, it feels as though we are watching people interact on a carefully constructed set.

Todd Haynes’ Carol took on the social imbalance of 1950s New York and The Danish Girl similarly reflects a time when ‘to be different’ meant ‘to be insane’. We never really get into the nitty gritty of that though; the piece does seem to want to delve further into how Lili is affected by society’s petulance, opting to show an unprovoked attack and a couple of doctors’ misinformed diagnoses, though that is as far as it goes. Upon learning about a surgeon who might be willing to help Lili from one of Gerda’s clients (Amber Heard), any lingering backlash becomes non-existent.

Vikander aside, subtlety rarely features. Perhaps the subject matter requires as much, but an overly mushy screenplay lands the outing in cold water. The script also fails to carry the level of propulsion necessary to maintain two genuinely compelling hours. We enter more interesting territory when the spotlight is shone on Gerda and her struggles — a point at which Lili’s post-breakthrough self-obsession is admirably acknowledged (“Not everything is about you”) — but it isn’t really enough. Matthias Schoenaerts and Ben Wishaw freshen things up occasionally, though their roles do not carry any weight in the grand scheme of things.

I referred to a particularly amusing portrait painting scene earlier as a lone funny moment, but there is another unintentionally humorous façade: Lili (at this point still Einar) dresses up as a woman and attends an artist’s ball with Gerda. It’s like something out of a Superman comic: apart from a few close friends, nobody recognises the apparently popular landscape artist despite the astounding resemblance. Perhaps that is The Danish Girl in a nutshell: all too obvious and oddly difficult to comprehend.

The Danish Girl - Eddie Redmayne & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures

Brooklyn (2015)

★★★★

Brooklyn PosterDirector: John Crowley

Release Date: November 4th, 2015 (US); November 6th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson

When we first meet Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) she is about to work a shift for store owner Miss Kelly — aptly nicknamed Nettles Kelly, played with spite by Bríd Brennan — who apparently enjoys making the young Irish lass’ life a misery. So when Eilis’ local priest sets in motion a plan that’ll take her across the pond, you expect to see a burst of excitement, relief even, emanate from our protagonist. Yet the prevailing emotion is guilt, over leaving her mother and older sister, over leaving her home, even over leaving her downbeat customer service job.

And this guilt never truly dissipates at any point during Brooklyn, John Crowley’s richly romantic immigrant drama. A shipmate on the stomach-lurching trip to the US manifests as a friendly face full of relaxing advice: “The mistake was coming home from America in the first place”. Her caring attitude reminds us of Eilis’ older sister Rose, who is movingly played by Fiona Glascott. Glascott, along with Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, should be a main player during the upcoming awards season.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis begins work as a seller in an upmarket department store, supervised by Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré) who fits somewhere between Nettles Kelly and The Devil Wears Prada’s Anne Hathaway on the strict spectrum. Eilis quickly realises she is an errant tadpole swimming in a giant urban ocean. She’s just a normal girl after all, someone who yawns at church and rolls her eyes when discussing boys. Yves Bélanger inserts a few mirror shots of Eilis, her reflection lost and alone amongst a rabble of strangers, their faces either hidden from view or burry.

She is scared to commit, perhaps a consequence of her rough separation from Ireland — an emotional packing scene between her and Rose is subtly powerful — or maybe because she is unsure of herself in this grand new world. However everything changes after two key events: the obvious, her meeting Tony Fiorello (Cohen), and the less obvious, a reaffirming experience at a holiday dinner for the homeless (Irish immigrants who built America, who founded opportunity for millions of others though their unselfish hard graft). At times Nick Hornby’s screenplay dabbles in romantic extremes, and when one of the immigrants sings a familiar song that leaves Eilis in tears, your sentimental barometer rages.

Tony doesn’t talk much because he loves listening to Eilis’ voice. He’s like James Dean, only less rebellious, and has the perfectly poised wavy hairdo and charming, cocky grin to match. The chemistry between the two sparks with authenticity, thanks in no small part to both actors. Cohen is readymade for 50s living and the manner in which he carefully interrogates his muse is unflinchingly amiable. Ronan is also excellent, for the most part reigning in her exterior while also managing to evoke an entire range of emotions, from longing to hope, and despair to joy.

We meet Tony’s youngest brother at a Fiorello family dinner, the kid a comedic firecracker with slapstick sensibilities. Laughs arrive on fairly regular basis throughout Brooklyn and the vast majority of them are mined around the dinner table (Crowley and co. could be on to a new subgenre). As head of the boarding where Eilis stays during her time in New York, Julie Walters is frequently the pivot from which laughter swings, often humorously shutting down the film’s very own ugly sisters — they’re actually beautiful, and not related — who constantly spew mischievous mealtime jibes.

Eilis’ commitment issues are especially highlighted in the presence of Tony, though she never looks disconnected, just slightly standoffish. We will her to take the plunge, not through malice, but because the pair are clearly meant to be together. The idealistic core that shapes their relationship reflects Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne’s rapport in The Theory of Everything. It’s not physical thing, nor even an emotional one; there is a sensitive pressure surrounding Jones and Redmayne’s companionship that isn’t necessarily prevalent here. Rather, both partnerships evoke a pleasant tenderness and both are as far from saccharine as is possible.

As Eilis’ confidence grows, her happiness shoots up and her outfits become brighter. Just as she is riding the crest of an enormously positive wave, a significant event sends the water crashing. We revisit Ireland and meet another potential love interest in Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Those who have seen the trailer will know about Jim’s appearance, though upon spending some time with Tony you begin to wonder exactly how Brooklyn is going to successfully introduce a serviceable competitor for Eilis’ affections. Well it does, and the casting of the intrinsically unlikeable Domhnall Gleeson is why. Gleeson, by the way, seemingly repels poor films.

We revisit the theme of guilt born out of love and loneliness: when Eilis returns to Ireland everyone wants her to stay. To marry. To work. Distance can be both an enemy and a friend. Unfortunately the enemy consistently lingers like a spectre whereas the friend only visits fleetingly. From a tadpole in an ocean, back in Ireland Eilis looks like a misplaced New Yorker. She now has two homes and misses them both.

There is nothing flashy going on in Brooklyn, which is testament to John Crowley’s trust in the material — a solid screenplay, an unobtrusive score, a talented cast. The material, as it transpires, is delightful.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight Pictures

Macbeth (2015)

★★★★

Macbeth PosterDirector: Justin Kurzel

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (UK); December 4th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Justin Kurzel’s ferocious take on Macbeth begins and ends with death. Though its Shakespearean format might isolate those who aren’t well-versed in the Bard’s prose, the film attains a degree of accessibility by dealing in brute force and thematic clarity. We see a Star Wars-esque information trail at the start, but this time the text is in blood red. Jed Kurzel, Justin’s brother, concocts a score that drills and hammers in tandem with bellowing battle cries, bestowing total discomfort upon us. Writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie opt to examine how the loss of innocence can incite the immoral side of power, and the results are unflinching.

Upon discovering he is destined to be king, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) weighs up the immediacy of his sure-fire thronage. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) urges her husband to commit treasonous murder, to speed up the process by killing King Duncan (David Thewlis). Convinced, and perhaps driven by grief brought about by the death of his own child, the Thane of Scotland slays his superior. From then we see the man crumble, haunted by visions of dead clansmen he swore to protect in battle. He becomes a mad king increasingly propelled by unfettered impulsion and corrupted by power (“Full of scorpions, is my mind”).

Kurzel’s film will likely appeal to a specific audience; attempts to widen its potential reach are few and far between. Ye who enter devoid of prior knowledge, like myself, will have to contend with a movie that communicates entirely through the diction of Shakespeare. As such, it functions much in the same way a foreign language piece without subtitles would, which might alienate some viewers. It shouldn’t though. Blindly following the story is never too difficult as the actors offer a tangible, precise translation. It’s a testament to the performances of Fassbender and Cotillard in particular that the narrative is sold to us without a verbal parachute.

With Fassbender, it’s all in the eyes. His Macbeth, a brooding warrior at the fore, grows bags that darken beneath increasingly absent pupils as the pressure of sovereignty takes over. We never really know where we stand with him — his irreverent actions eventually hit a point of no return, but until then there’s a sorrowful tragedy surrounding Macbeth. In a case of role-reversal, it is Lady Macbeth who must take on the burden of regret. Cotillard is more subtle than her male counterpart. Her words, though often beautiful, are enshrouded in hysteria and pain; the camera unblinkingly lingers on her face during a scene towards the end as the actor speaks with utter command, evoking genuine heartbreak.

The framework from which the duo perform is comparable to how Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones navigated The Theory of Everything: one exercises true physicality while the other evokes a delicate-yet-purposeful poise. There is often a lingering stillness that is only interrupted by Fassbender’s increasingly perturbed movement, and only Cotillard has the guile to reign in said eccentricity. Friend-turned-foe Macduff, played by an emotionally-wrought Sean Harris, christens Macbeth the “Fiend of Scotland”.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising might have been a touchpoint for Kurzel, especially in a visual sense: the unquenchable mist, the moorish setting, the breadth of visceral savagery, all invoked. Battle scenes could very well be taking place among the Dead Marshes on the boggy road to Mordor. The Scottish setting, not unlike modern times, is always cloudy, or rainy, or dank, but the aesthetic is never mundane — fog is crimson coloured and dynamic. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw mixes steady shots with a shaky cam effect, mirroring the vacillating levels of order and chaos afoot.

Arkapaw shot the soon-to-be iconic six-minute drug den raid in True Detective season one, and Macbeth revels in similar technical prowess. From sound, to look, to how the film is edited, it’s quite stunning. Scenes showing brutal murder, such as the death of King Duncan, are intercut with instances of solemn hush. A contrast is evident throughout, pitting light against dark (or perhaps it is dark against post-dark). The sound design is worth mentioning too: rallying howls echo with spine-tingling reverence around cavernous cathedral-like rooms.

To the credit of those on and off-screen, it never feels like we’re watching a play. In many ways this is a niche offering; much of the verbiage might not make sense, yet you can’t help but stare. And when what you’re staring at is this good, this impactful, words are almost inconsequential. Here are two more anyway: Hail Macbeth!

Macbeth - Michael Fassbender & Marion Cotillard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Oscars 2015 — Final Predictions

Oscars 2015

Don’t we all just love the Oscars? It’s an evening of maniacal celebration, of gratuitous back-patting, of cringe-worthy speech-making and of hosts trying to grasp the latest social trend – I’m looking at you, selfie Ellen. The folks over in Hollywood might “really like” Sally Field, but they’re not quite as fond of Selma or Nightcrawler, and goodness knows how fond they are of American Sniper (hopefully not as much as many fear).

All joking aside, Academy Awards night is a big one for the film industry. The movies nominated are, for the most part, pretty damn good too and should be heralded on a grand stage. Tonight’s ceremony is looking fairly clear-cut in most categories, but there are still a few ambiguities to be sorted.

Better get on with some predictions then. Click on the appropriate film titles for reviews.

Best Picture

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: Boyhood

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Interstellar

Oscars 2015 - Boyhood

Best Director

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

– Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

– Should win: Richard Linklater

– Should’ve been nominated: Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin)

Oscars 2015 - Inarritu

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Michael Keaton (Birdman)

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

– Will win: Michael Keaton

– Should win: Eddie Redmayne

– Should’ve been nominated: David Oyelowo (Selma), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)

Oscars 2015 - Keaton

Best Actress

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)

Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Rosumand Pike (Gone Girl)

– Will win: Julianne Moore

– Should win: Rosamund Pike

– Should’ve been nominated: Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow)

Oscars 2015 - Moore

Best Supporting Actor

Edward Norton (Birdman)

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Robert Duvall (The Judge)

– Will win: J.K. Simmons

– Should win: J.K. Simmons

– Should’ve been nominated: Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Andy Serkis (DotPotA)

Oscars 2015 - Simmons

Best Supporting Actress

Emma Stone (Birdman)

Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

Laura Dern (Wild)

Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

– Will win: Patricia Arquette

– Should win: Patricia Arquette

– Should’ve been nominated: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl)

Oscars 2015 - Arquette

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

– Will win: The Imitation Game

– Should win: Whiplash

– Should’ve been nominated: Gone Girl

Oscars 2015 - TIG

Best Original Screenplay

Birdman

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

– Will win: Birdman

– Should win: Boyhood

– Should’ve been nominated: Guardians of the Galaxy

Oscars 2015 - Birdman

Final Thoughts

It looks as though the only real tussle – and it’s a big one – will be between Boyhood and Birdman for Best Picture. They’ll probably split the top award and Best Director between them, though Boyhood and Linklater deserve both.

Michael Keaton might yet nab Best Actor from Eddie Redmayne and despite the bookies favouring the Brit after his BAFTA triumph, I fancy the American to win in the US (cynical me).

As far as the other three acting categories go, Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette are all shoe-ins. The latter two fully deserve to win. Still Alice still hasn’t hit cinemas over here in the UK therefore I have yet to see Moore’s performance, but I just can’t look past Rosamund Pike’s stunning turn in Gone Girl. Pike should win. She won’t.

The biggest snubs of the year are probably Interstellar and Nightcrawler. David Oyelowo absolutely should be contention for Best Actor (he should probably win it, in truth) but at least Selma has top table nomination. With ten possible slots in the Best Picture category, the dismissal of Interstellar and Nightcrawler is unjustified.

Carrie Coon should feel aggrieved to be missing out on a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as should Channing Tatum in the Best Supporting Actor – or even Best Actor – category. It has been a strong year for the actors to be fair. And a word too for Blue Ruin, one of 2014’s less well-known masterstrokes.

If you’re watching, enjoy the show!

Oscars 2015 Best Picture

Images credit: ColliderHollywood Reporter, Indiewire

The Theory of Everything (2015)

★★★★

The Theory of Everything PosterDirector: James Marsh

Release Date: November 26th, 2014 (US); January 1st, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

In The Theory of Everything Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) spends a lifetime trying to figure out the inception of our very existence. For all intents and purposes he succeeds in doing so. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own beliefs. James Marsh’s film ventures down a similar path to that of its central figure as it attempts to fulfil various thematic nodes: love story, tale of human adversity, science exhibition and so on. As these strands weave together to form Stephen’s story they don’t always feel complete. Or maybe they do. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own expectations.

Providing those expectations aren’t bound up by a need to see something totally flawless, The Theory of Everything should cover all bases sufficiently. Most of us are aware of Stephen Hawking; certainly of his illness if not the physicist’s scientific endeavours. The film takes us through Stephen’s adult life, from his first inclinations that something is wrong with his body to the writing of his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.

But it becomes clear as the picture develops that Marsh’s vision isn’t necessarily weighed down by either disability or science, and instead the director wants to tell the story of a relationship. As such, The Theory of Everything becomes a co-biopic, its emphasis as much on the obvious struggles of Stephen as on the less obvious trials of his long time wife Jane (Felicity Jones). It’s because of this, and because the filmmaker only has two hours to capture a life of enormity, that key elements fall by the wayside. Shortly after Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease — a scene shot so intimately by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme that the devastation is doubled — we learn that he only has two years left to live. Though, in a move that indicates the director’s desire to fit more stuff in, the film nonchalantly evades the two year mark.

It is an unenviable problem to have, one that leaves Stephen’s relationship with Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) a little underfed, but the (admittedly necessarily) overstretched journey does afford us more than just an insight into the Hawking family. The early interactions between Stephen and Jane are reminiscent of those shared by Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy; he is quite awkward and she timid, but before long they are strolling around picturesque locales discussing the source of humankind. Both are defined by entirely separate ideologies too, Jane being a believer God and an arts student, Stephen an advocate for method and science. “I have a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise,” he says and from then we’re totally drawn into the pair’s capricious relationship.

In a manner of speaking, The Theory of Everything draws its pulpy interior from a clash of science and faith. Yet the film never exploits this duel beyond repair and instead uses it as an underlying catalyst for its central love story. Stephen, despite his adoration for the subject, is increasingly pillaged by science, his health deteriorating by the frame. He even defies the presence of a doctor, much to the chagrin of his wife. On the other hand Jane finds herself silently enraptured by the life she might’ve had as she and her husband spend more and more time with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a choir conductor whom Jane meets at church. The influence of the couple’s branching schools of thought is slight but entirely profound, a notion particularly felt when Stephen momentarily submits his incessant ignorance of God and then begins to backtrack. “Are you actually going to allow me to have this moment?” Jane asks.

Much of the praise the film have received thus far has been directed towards the performances of both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and for good reason. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that in 2015 these actors will deliver excellence on screen, but the level the pair operate at here is truly magnificent. Redmayne does all the hard graft as Stephen, completely embodying the physicist’s eventual symbolic manifestation. It’s a role without a safety net and Redmayne should be commended for his artistic bravery as well as his tremendous portrayal. Jones is every bit as good, her subtlety and finesse perfectly complementing the physicality in Redmayne’s enactment. She’s more than simply a supplement though, Jones accentuating the strength of Jane through her pained-yet-defiant facial range. Supporting work from the likes of Charlie Cox and David Thewlis is also strong, though it is Redmayne and Jones who stand out significantly.

The Theory of Everything is at its best when Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are united, projecting performances that are totally different but equally effective and affecting. The film is delightfully funny too, and not at all bogged down by disconsolation. And hey, if it’s good enough for Stephen Hawking, it’s good enough for me.

The Theory of Everything - Redmayne and Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures