Monday, January 18, 2016

THE BIG SHORT

Do you remember the immortal scene in Sidney Lumet's Network where Peter Finch breaks down live on air and screams "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"? The Big Short works on that same level of cathartic release, only adapted to the American housing bubble that led to the financial crisis of 2008 and from then on a global recession we're still not exactly free from.

     It's a film that comes from a righteous and entirely understandable place of anger, indignation, rage, frustration, injustice, channeled by director Adam McKay into a tongue-in-cheek, freewheeling satire of modern day class struggle and capitalist greed. The Big Short essentially follows a small of group of investors and fund managers from 2005 to 2008, as they realize just how busted, corrupt and unmanageable the American financial system has become, but it excuses no one and its heroes are hardly squeaky clean. Nobody is innocent in this sorry tale of credulity, high hopes and dreams of profit, not even the fund manager who effectively gambled on what would eventually be the apocalypse of a whole socio-financial structure.

     The film seems structured as an ensemble mosaic narrative, cross-cutting between three sets of leads: first, quasi-autistic pattern analyst Michael Burry (Christian Bale); then, perpetually apoplectic idealist fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his crew, and smug, ambitious shark Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling); finally, small-town "garage fund" managers Jamie Shipley and Vinny Peters (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) and their neighbour and consultant Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). But, in a nice, smart touch, they never actually meet; and there is no connection between them other than serendipitous hearsay that brings it all home.

     Starting from Michael Lewis' non-fiction best-seller, Mr. McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph distill it into a no-holds-barred screwball satire that is unashamedly accessible and populist but trusts its audience to think for themselves, propelled by an utterly manic velocity that seems to have internalized the non-stop rhythms of a trading floor (a virtuoso feat of editing by Hank Corwin). It's an ADD-fuelled rollercoaster ride that leaves your stomach feeling queasy from all the apparent sugar rush - but that candy coating is why you'll sit through The Big Short grinning like a fool only to come out with whiplash from the constant twists and turns you've just witnessed.

THE BIG SHORT
USA. 2015. 130 minutes
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei
Directed by Adam McKay; written by Charles Randolph and Mr. McKay; based on the book The Big Short by Michael Lewis; cinematography Barry Ackroyd (widescreen); music by Nicholas Britell; production designer Clayton Hartley; costume designer Susan Matheson; film editor Hank Corwin; produced by Mr. Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Arnon Milchan; a Plan B Entertainment production, presented by Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises


Saturday, January 16, 2016

BROOKLYN

I really, really, really wanted to like Brooklyn more than I did. I loved the almost casual sense of life happening in front of your eyes, achieved by Irish director John Crowley by always placing the irrepressible Saoirse Ronan in the middle of places, streets, events, rooms - hardly ever alone, but always on her own, a young woman making her way in the world on the way to a new world.

     I loved how Yves Bélanger's cinematography imperceptibly shifts from the cold landscapes of closed-off rural Ireland to the vibrant "you've never had it so good" pastel colours of bustling New York. I loved how Nick Hornby's streamlined adaptation of Colm Tóibín's book of 1950s Irish immigration to the US focuses on the small things Eilis grabs on to, as she finds herself a stranger first in a strange land and then in what was supposed to be her home land; how Mr. Crowley and Mr. Hornby devise the narrative arc as a mirror of how growing up happens in real life. And, especially, I loved Ms. Ronan, a wonderfully sensitive actress here perfectly cast and perfectly poised as Eilis Lacey, a young woman torn between past and future, both wise beyond her years and too innocent to understand the ramifications of her choices.

     And yet, I was mystified as to why, despite all these wonderful contributions, Brooklyn somehow became less than the sum of its parts. A perfectly correct, well made, sensible, sensitive drama that never takes its audience for granted nor condescends to it. But its many qualities never truly coalesce into the transcendent, transcending melodrama it could have been - maybe because it maintains that well-known reserve of British quality drama, making everything too much about class and breeding and keeping everything simmering along lid but never truly bringing it to a boil (or eventually fizzling out before it gets to explode). It's still a lovely film, and Ms. Ronan alone is worth the ticket.

BROOKLYN
United Kingdom. Ireland. Canada. 2015. 112 minutes.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Directed by John Crowley; written by Nick Hornby; based on the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín; cinematography Yves Bélanger; music by Michael Brook; production designer François Séguin; costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux; film editor Jake Roberts; produced by Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey; a Wildgaze Films, Finola Dwyer Productions, Parallel Films and Item 7 production, in association with Ingenious Media, RTE and Hanway Films, presented by BBC Films, Téléfilm Canada, Irish Film Board, SODEC and the British Film Institute
Screened January 4th 2016, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon


Thursday, January 14, 2016

JIGEUEMEUN MATGO GEUTTAENEUN TEULLIDA
RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN

The thing you have to remember about Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo is that the more of his films you know, the more you'll appreciate each new one. This is important, not only because Mr. Hong's work is an acquired taste: it's important because seeing just the one film isn't going to cut it. You're going to come out asking exactly what was it you just saw.

     What initially seems like throwaway trifles shot in a loose, almost amateurish way turns out to be deceptively thought through: the films aren't careless at all, they're rather simplified to an almost ascetic purity, borderline innocent in the way they record what is happening in front of the camera in a no-frills, no-budget way. There's always an apparent element of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but what matters is that Mr. Hong's cinema is effectively shorn of any surplus requirements: it simply is what it is, aiming to capture that blink-and-you'll-miss-it magic that happens when you least expect it.

     If you've seen more than one film, you will also be able to identify the way that they seem to cross-reference themselves and the recurring motifs and narrative devices, which many equate with Éric Rohmer's gentle flâneries but that in the more elaborate narratives I tend to compare more to Alain Resnais's playfulness. This is the case again with the Locarno winner Right Now, Wrong Then, a sort of "Hong Sangsoo Redux" about a film director (Jung Jaeyoung) who arrives early to a Seoul suburb where his work is being presented, and his awkward romantic advances to a shy painter (Kim Minhee) he casually meets at a museum, before leaving town after the screening the next day.

     The trick is this apparent one-night stand is told twice, "rewinding" as it were midway through the film, according to an imperceptible "butterfly effect" radiating from one of the director's celebrated food-and-drink long-takes (again, another element that stands out if you've seen his work before). First, the story is played for laughs, as director Ham's awkwardness and over-consumption of drink turns him into a buffoonish womanizer who makes all the wrong calls; then, the tale is rewound as bitter-sweet comedy, as Ham opens up to Heejung and there's more of a give-and-take connection between them. Right Now, Wrong Then thus works both as "a night to forget" and "a night to remember", elegantly and discreetly pointing out how an apparently harmless decision makes a world of change.

     But, as always with the director, it does so unobtrusively and almost in the background, and though the film may work as a good entrance point for the neophytes, it's certainly much enriched by prior knowledge of Mr. Hong's cinema. What may seem puzzling or bewildering to a newcomer will be recognised by the aficionado as part and parcel of the director's idiossyncrasies, which do not exist in a vacuum - his acclaim is also due, beyond the obvious qualities of the work, to his refusal to get with any sort of program and follow any other muse than his own. Mr. Hong stands alone and apart, in the absolute freedom his quick, cheap, no-nonsense cinema allows him.

JIGEUEMEUN MATGO GEUTTAENEUN TEULLIDA
South Korea. 2015. 121 minutes.
Starring Jung Jaeyoung, Kim Minhee, Ko Asung, Choi Hwajung, Seo Younghwa, Kee Joobong, Youn Yuhjung, Yu Hansang
Directed and written by Hong Sangsoo; cinematography Park Hongyeol (colour); music by Jeong Yongjin; film editor Hahm Sungwon; produced by Kim Kyounghee; a Jeonwonsa Film Company production.
Screened August 12th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

KILLING TIME - ENTRE DEUX FRONTS

There has been no shortage of narrative attempts to deal with the sensitive real-life subject of contemporary war veterans, and their return from the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan to a home that no longer seems to be the same as when they left. That disconnect between war and home in the modern world, the stress patterns of violent conflict in the war zone and the anesthetized comfort of life "back home", may be at the heart of American cinema since the Vietnam era. But, in modern days, that disconnect seems to be more carefully and attentively treated in documentary work; films such as Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington's Restrepo have gotten closer to what it means to be at war than any narrative fiction.

     Belgian director Lydie Wisshaupt-Claudel's film is one more proof of that, beginning after the return from war and ending before the return to war. A hushed, quietly observational piece, Killing Time focuses on nothing else but the downtime of a group of Marines recently returned from overseas to their home base of Twentynine Palms, California. The film is cleverly bookended by two symmetrically opposite scenes at a storage facility - with one soldier removing his possessions out of storage at the beginning after returning from his tour of duty, only to putting them all back inside before leaving.

     It's a powerful metaphor for these "inbetween days" - some may have family, some not, but they are all suddenly at a loss. What happens when you take these boys heavily trained for conflict, their life defined in terms of one thing, and then take away that thing? What happens when these boys who have seen war come back to the peace they left behind? And which of the two lives is the real one - the one left back home in storage or the one lived in the heat of the war zone?

     The title - Killing Time - is certainly not accidental: some of them do go out and shoot stuff for fun, but there's also the sense that there's not much to do to while away the time in the desert other than drink and drive (one of the most powerful scenes has young soldiers in a bar followed by pulsating disco lights that seem like gun barrel sights). Ms. Wisshaupt-Claudel and her camera, neither overly intrusive nor excessively obtrusive, capture unguarded moments and conversations as people readjust to daily life with friends and family, but she is not trying to propose a solution or answer questions: just to open a window into the lives of these men and women and show them when nobody else is looking, focusing on the person behind the job. It's a gentle, warm film about the calm after and before the storm.

KILLING TIME - ENTRE DEUX FRONTS
Belgium. France. 2015. 89 minutes.
Directed by Lydie Wisshaupt-Claudel; cameraman, Colin Lévêque (colour); film editor, Méline van Aelbrouck; a Cellulo Prod, Productions du Verger and ARTE France production, in co-production with the Centre de l'Audiovisuel à Bruxelles. 
Screened November 25th 2015, Porto/Post/Doc official competition screener.


Monday, January 11, 2016

CARTEL LAND

One of the chief complaints raised by Matthew Heineman's documentary Cartel Land was that it was too well shot, too carefully composed - as if a documentary on the topic of drug cartels and citizen militias could not, or should not, also be a work of art with formal concerns. In the case of Cartel Land, the accusation comes in part from the fact that Mr. Heineman's punchy, hard-driving film has the soul of an exposé or news report while pushing forward like a no-nonsense action movie looking like it had top-notch production values.

     The presence of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow as executive producer will give you by itself a sense of the morally shifting landscape Mr. Heineman's film inhabits, making it a true-life counterpoint-slash-companion-piece to Denis Villeneuve's Sicario. But, for all the drive and strength of Cartel Land, it's clear this undeniably riveting and technically accomplished work of filmmaking never really finds its footing as a piece of contemporary documentary.

     Its central problem is also one of its strengths: what starts out as a piece on the nativist militias that dot the American land borders with Mexico, and particularly veteran Tim Foley's Arizona Border Recon, changes its focus across the border to physician Manuel Mirales' Autodefensas de Michoacán, a group fighting to reclaim territory from the rural drug cartels. Though initially the question is "what's the difference between them?", exploring how these sort of militia movements can be very similar in practice while representing different things in theory, Mr. Heineman effectively realizes the greater story is in Mexico and the American footage, present mostly as relativising counterpoint, becomes secondary and occasionally surplus to requirements.

     Next to the fighting for their lives and lands that the Mexicans are doing - their openly anti-governmental fight is borne out of an actual situation on the ground and aims at reinstating a measure of dignity, lawfulness and peace to their territory - the Americans are essentially playing at soldiering and seem to have little idea at what they are aiming at. This, however, leads into a somewhat formulaic rise-and-fall narrative arc for Mr. Mirales himself; the narrative developments lead you to ask if Mr. Heineman is trying to emulate his own experience as he learned of all that was actually going on, or if he is manipulating the timeline as expertly as he manipulates the visuals (four editors and two composers are credited).

     For all that, there's no doubt that the actual footage the director got in Mexico is absolutely outstanding, with a sense of nerve-wracking, you-are-there witnessing that transport a heart-pounding clear and present danger, stunning for both its urgency and its formal control. That Mr. Heineman actually went out and shot this himself, and that the film does not shy from the big questions it raises while refusing easy answers, is why you can't dismiss Cartel Land as mere "docsploitation" work.

CARTEL LAND
USA. 2015. 101 minutes
Directed by Matthew Heineman; camera, Mr. Heineman and Matt Porwoll (colour); music by H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg; film editors, Matthew Hamachek, Mr. Heineman, Bradley J. Ross and Pax Wassermann; produced by Tom Yellin and Mr. Heineman; an Our Times Projects and Documentary Group production in association with Whitewater Films, presented by A&E Indiefilms
Screened November 26th 2015, Porto/Post/Doc official competition advance screener


Friday, January 08, 2016

LAS VEGAS IN 16 PARTS

While screening Argentine director Luciano Piazza's Las Vegas in 16 Parts, I couldn't help but think of Nicolas Provost's absolutely delightful found-footage noir short Stardust. Mr. Piazza's mid-length structuralist essay shares some of that film's foreign wide-eyed fascination with the almost unbelievable carousel of kitschy period Americana that is Las Vegas - the ultimate temple of consumerism, endlessly commodifying and recycling a handful of key events in post-WWII American popular culture through a non-stop assembly-line of trashy, throwaway souvenirs.

     As its title suggests, Mr. Piazza's film is a homemade Lego construct, starting from a small number of constituent pieces recognised as Vegas trademarks: neon signs, casino floors, souvenir shops, Elvis impersonators. But in between are mixed other American signs and identifiers from the same period that molded American imagery: guns, cars, skylines. And Las Vegas in 16 Parts is designed as a mosaic of segues, composed out of 16mm footage (mostly his own, with a few period footage thrown in), aiming at reaffirming and transcending the clichés and platitudes we identify it with: an attempt to reach the essence of what we have come to think of as 20th-century America by focussing on its lowest common denominator.

     But its sparse, academic design fails to make it gel as a viewing experience: though a slim, hour-long effort, its conceptualization quickly becomes staid and stale, our interest being maintained out of the somewhat voyeuristic curiosity of seeing "what comes next" (for all that, Mr. Piazza announces the "list of contents" at the beginning and repeats it at the end). There are some truly affecting moments in the mix, for sure, like the plans of empty hotel corridors in "part 9" or the assemblage of period footage in "part 15" that point glaringly out the promise that Las Vegas failed to truly fulfill and the vacuum that was erected in its wake. Which leads us into another interesting aspect of the essay - does that emotional connection come more from Mr. Piazza's assemblage of the material, or from our own fascination with the gaudy seediness of Las Vegas? Or is it a mix of both? Maybe Las Vegas in 16 Parts is designed as a litmus test. After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

LAS VEGAS IN 16 PARTS
USA, 2015, 63 minutes
Conceived, realized and edited by Luciano Piazza; sound mix by Craig Smith; produced by Martin Ahualli, Mila Djordjevic, Jessica Gordon-Burroughs, Alberto Mendez, Luciano Piazza, Marcelo Piazza, Marta Piazza and Victoria Piazza; funded partially by Fotokem and the California Institute of the Arts Completion Grant
Screened November 26th 2015, Porto/Post/Doc 2015 official competition advance screener


Thursday, January 07, 2016

JOY

What shall we do with the endearing mess that is David O. Russell's not-quite-biopic of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, turned into a rags-to-riches story of a true-life suburban Cinderella? Well, first of all, we should compliment Mr. Russell's chosen lead, Jennifer Lawrence, whose no-holds-barred yet intensely well-judged performance as Joy single-handedly holds together the film.

     As always wise beyond her years, Ms. Lawrence is absolutely great as the working-class girl that fights the odds every step of the way, even when they seem to be insurmountable - or especially when they're so. Also, the actress effectively makes minced meat of the stellar cast the director has surrounded her with, though in all honesty that's also because hers seems to be the only truly rounded character in the entire film. Everybody else, from Robert de Niro's ineffectual father to Bradley Cooper's guest turn as a kinda sorta Prince Charming, from Isabella Rossellini's half-bored stepmother to Diane Ladd's spectral grandmother, is playing at archetypes rather than at real people.

     Joy is consistently aiming at a sense of transcendence and achievement, the American Dream of success through grit and hard work, while literally tearing that dream away from Joy at every turn of the road only for her to get up and snatch it back. But each of those turns also sees Mr. Russell veer somewhat mystifyingly from tone to tone - off-centre romantic comedy, amped-up satire, eccentric family portrait, maximalist melodrama, old-fashioned woman's picture, business drama, in a non-stop roulette of possibilities that are never truly decided upon. No wonder that Joy never truly coalesces into one great whole, despite the great individual contributions: its director's trademark has always been frat-house maximalism, continuously piling stuff on until the films can't take any more and either collapse from the weight or soar away from it all.

     In Joy, it's clear the Cinderella story at its heart will eventually collapse, but while this is the messiest of the director's films since The Fighter returned him to A-list status, it also has a depth and a sincerity that makes it feel more like "one for himself" rather than a mere careerist move. There's a lot of things Joy could use, but that somehow makes it more endearing than it had any right to be.

JOY
US, 2015, 124 minutes
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, Edgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Maurice Benard, Donna Mills, Bradley Cooper
Directed and written by David O. Russell; based on a story by Annie Mumolo and Mr. Russell; cinematography Linus Sandgren; music by West Dylan Thordson and David Campbell; production designer Judy Becker; costume designer Michael Wilkinson; film editors Jay Cassidy, Alan Baumgarten, Christopher Tellefsen and Tom Cross; produced by John Davis, Ken Mok, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon and Mr. Russell; a Davis Entertainment Group /10 By 10 Entertainment production, presented by Fox 2000 Pictures in association with Annapurna Pictures and TSG Entertainment
Screened December 29th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon


Monday, January 04, 2016

JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE
Diary of a Chambermaid

It's a tall order to put yourself in the line of fire by following on the footsteps of the two major filmmakers who adapted previously to the screen Octave Mirbeau's 1900 novel, Jean Renoir (in 1946, with Paulette Goddard in the lead) and Luis Buñuel (1962, with Jeanne Moreau). And there's certainly no shame in not reaching their level, even if each of their respective Diary of a Chambermaid isn't among their crowning achievements.

     For that matter, neither is French stalwart Benoît Jacquot's, despite Léa Seydoux's forceful portrayal of Célestine, the proud turn-of-the-century housemaid who chafes at the subaltern role society forces her into. This is no Upstairs Downstairs glamorous nostalgia; Mr. Jacquot makes a point of underlining the daily humiliations suffered by a young woman in the serving trade. And Célestine has her hands full with her current masters, the childless, rural Lanlaires, an oily lecher with eyes only for the newly-arrived Parisian maid and a petty, mean-spirited prude. The judiciously placed flashbacks to her previous placements drive home the unavoidable dependence of a young girl, despite her profound yearning to be independent and take control of her own destiny. But is that even possible in turn-of-the-century France?

     Mr. Jacquot's film begins as a companion piece to his earlier exploration of female identity within period social constrictions, 2012's Farewell My Queen, given a modern sheen by DP Romain Winding's carefully modulated widescreen swings between warm candle-light colours and naked natural light. But it's fatally unbalanced by a third-act descent into sultry, quasi-noir territory, as Célestine and the Lanlaire's groundskeeper Joseph (played with brutish energy by an underused Vincent Lindon) become an item and start plotting in secret. It's a tantalizing direction, but one that brings a strange tonal shift to the film and eventually makes it feel awkward, incomplete, as if it started in one path to change direction halfway through and lose track of its goal.

JOURNAL D'UNE FEMME DE CHAMBRE
France, Belgium, 2015, 96 minutes
Starring Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Clotilde Mollet, Hervé Pierre, Mélodie Valemberg, Patrick d'Assumçao, Vincent Lacoste, Joséphine Derenne, Dominique Reymond, Rosette, Adriana Asti
Directed by Benoît Jacquot; screenplay by Hélène Zimmer and Mr. Jacquot; based on the novel The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau; cinematographer Romain Winding (widescreen); music by Bruno Coulais; production designer Katia Wyszkop; costume designer Anaïs Romand; film editor Julia Gregory; produced by Kristina Larsen and Jean-Pierre Guérin; a Films du Lendemain/JPG Films/Films du Fleuve production in co-production with France 3 Cinéma, Mars Films, VOO and Be TV
Screened December 23rd 2015 

Sunday, January 03, 2016

CREED

No matter how fondly remembered the original Rocky film remains, there was on paper really no reason to reboot the Philly boxing saga after 2006's apparent coda Rocky Balboa. And then, like a totally unexpected uppercut, here comes Creed, effectively passing the torch from one generation to another in a surprisingly punchy way, shifting its focus from the aged Italian Stallion to newcomer Adonis Johnson, the late Apollo Creed's illegitimate son saved from a struggling life by Apollo's widow Mary Anne.

     Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler updates and resets the tale of a hungry young man with a dream to the post-Katrina, post-Baltimore times, while avoiding any overt politicization and wearing its contemporariness lightly. Creed isn't a tract about contemporary black America - the young director's 2013 debut Fruitvale Station didn't want to be one either thought it couldn't help it at times - focussing instead on making a gritty, powerful genre exercise that reflects the times it was made in.

     It's a tale of lineage and family not as something inherited but as something chosen - a choice that may in itself be extremely relevant to our day and age. Adonis (played with the right level of intensity by Michael B. Jordan) comes from a broken home and seems directed towards the petty-crime cliché of the aimless young black male; instead he is nurtured by Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who gives him all he needs to make his own decisions for himself, and the choice to follow the dream of boxing leads him to ask guidance from Rocky - played by Sylvester Stallone as an affectingly world-weary supporting role that lends pathos and a sense of "blessing" to the film. Creed thus projects the idea that "it takes a village" to raise someone to his full potential, but not just "any" village - it has to be the right village.

     Attentive to the texture and realism of the Philadelphia streets (as he was of the Bay Area in Fruitvale Station) shot without any touristic affectation, Mr. Coogler makes no apologies for profiting from the ready-made Rocky mythology to leave his own mark and confidently present his own take on the boxing movie. The result, bookended by two extraordinarily shot boxing matches that suggest the director has done his homework right, may be occasionally over-long (and suffer from an overly bombastic music score) but is never less than kinetic and avoids all sorts of gratuitous show-off. Creed is less a grand artistic statement than a meeting between an earnest filmmaking drive to tell stories of modern America and a big-studio franchise. Yes, there may still be hope for the mid-level Hollywood drama.

CREED
USA, 2015, 133 minutes
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
Directed by Ryan Coogler; written by Mr. Coogler and Aaron Covington from a story by Mr. Coogler; cinematographer Maryse Alberti (widescreen); music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer Hannah Beachler; costume designers Emma Potter and Antoinette Messam; film editors Michael P. Shawver and Claudia Castello; produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Kevin King-Templeton and Mr. Stallone; a Chartoff-Winkler Productions production, presented by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures in association with New Line Cinema
Screened December 18th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon


Saturday, January 02, 2016

THE DANISH GIRL

The Danish Girl puts an end to any accusations that Eddie Redmayne's exquisite portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything was a fluke. It wasn't. The British actor's elegant, delicate transformation from Einar Wegener, the true-life acclaimed Danish painter of the 1920s, into Lili Elbe, his true identity as a woman, is another well-judged, glorious balance of craft and emotion.

     Unlike James Marsh's biography of Mr. Hawking, though, The Danish Girl is a much less interesting and more formulaic proposition, handled by The King's Speech and Les Misérables director Tom Hooper as yet another upscale prestige period drama. Everything is in its proper place in this adaptation of David Ebershoff's book about Wegener's discovery that he had been a woman trapped in a man's body all along, and of his journey of transition into womanhood with the support of his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Everything, that is, except the sense of urgency and of life that propel the Wegeners to find the true nature of their personalities and of their relationship.

     In a way, that is appropriate for a tale that is about the chipping away at a facade as seen from the inside. Lili, the feminine personality that surfaces almost naturally in Einar, starts off as a playful game and slowly takes front and center stage as the Wegeners understand there's more to it. That the film seldom deals with the public consequences of that transformation, preferring to keep it mostly within the rarefied, tight-knit circle of friends and family, may be what is most interesting about The Danish Girl. It focuses on the reevaluation of Einar/Lili and Gerda's relationship as they try to find a way to not let it be lost, with the excellent Ms. Vikander and Mr. Redmayne playing that give-and-take from a place of sincere love and affection. 

     But there's always a sense that Mr. Hooper, whose career in film so far has remained within the realm of the attentive illustrator, is unable to match their layered performances. The film often deploys the tried-and-true trappings of the period drama, with pastel-coloured, picture-postcard views of Copenhagen and Paris. The effectively striking but heavy-handed symbolism and the constantly overbearing camera set-ups Mr. Hooper uses (especially in the second half) create a sense of excessive distancing that effectively sabotages the need to understand the thrust of a couple stripping all pretenses away.

     There's a great film hiding in The Danish Girl - it's the generous, affecting one that its actors are playing in, at loggerheads with the middlebrow true-life drama aimed at the Oscar constituency Mr. Hooper seems to be making. 

THE DANISH GIRL
US, UK, Japan, Belgium, 2015, 120 minutes
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Directed by Tom Hooper; screenplay by Lucinda Coxon based on the book The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff; cinematographer Danny Cohen (widescreen); music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer Eve Stewart; costume designer Paco Delgado; film editor Melanie Ann Oliver; produced by Gail Mutrux, Anne Harrison, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Mr. Hooper; a Working Title Films and Pretty Pictures production in co-production with Artémis Productions and Shelter Prod, in association with Revision Pictures, Senator Global Productions and Taxshelter.be, presented by Universal Pictures in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
Screened December 17th, 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon