Archive for January, 2016

What are we to make of “The Revenant”? Well, I think the key to understanding this film is to recall the previous film from its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  That film, “Birdman”, which won the Best Picture Oscar last year, was an artsy film that decried Hollywood’s obsession with making profitable yet empty superhero and spectacle-heavy movies over films with substance. Prior to that film, Inarrito has mostly made artsy films: “Amores Perros” (a sort of Mexican, “Pulp Fiction”-esque film), “21 Grams” (my favorite film of his, an emotionally devastating film about grief), “Babel”, and “Biutiful (unseen by me).  So now we have “The Revenant”, a big budget film with a CGI grizzly bear attack (the bear looks pretty good for being CGI) and starring popular mainstream actor Leonardo DiCaprio and co-starring Tom Hardy.  On a story level, this movie is as simplistic and mainstream as can be: A man’s son is killed and he is left for dead. Against all odds, he survives to go on a journey to enact his revenge.  Add to that story elements which would make this film appeal to audience members who love ‘Murica: frontier-living, action, big sky country, making French people the bad guys when it’s not making minorities (a Native American tribe called the Arikara) the bad guys.  It’s very easy to imagine the “American Sniper”-ized version of this story that could have been made.

 

However, we have a director who makes art films.  We should know better than to expect him to make a mainstream revenge film for Red State audiences.  Well, while “The Revenant” may be simple on a story-level, it is not on its level of artistry.  The film plays like the work of Terrence Malick, with long passages featuring no dialogue, and many expansive and beautiful shots of nature.  Inexplicable dream sequences with vague dialogue that portends to be heavy with symbolism and meaning pervade the film.  At two and a half hours, I imagine those Red Staters would be fidgeting in their chairs after the 700th shot of snowy vistas and icicles hanging off of a tree.  Dream sequences where DiCaprio’s dead Native American wife hovers above him seem to add little beyond ambience and a sense of loss and sorrow to the film.  “The Revenant” often feels like it’s trying to be the new “The Thin Red Line” or “The New World”, but less heavy and Kubrick-influenced than Malick’s “Tree of Life” was.

 

So we have a film with maybe 100 minutes of plot material stretched out with artsy nature shots and passages of silence into 150 minutes.  Honestly, it is not necessary for a film with this simple of a plot to be this long, which means that it is this length by choice and not necessity.  The full plot is this: DiCaprio is Hugh Glass, a fur trader who has gone through unincorporated Louisiana territory with a U.S. army regiment to acquire pelts for sale and trade.  Their regiment is best upon by a Native American tribe who believe the regiment is responsible for kidnapping the tribal chief’s daughter. Glass, his half-native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and some other make it out alive. One particularly antsy fur trader is Fitzgerald (Hardy) who doesn’t like Glass, and doesn’t like Native Americans since, well, they tried to scalp him once.  One morning, while out hunting, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear almost to the point of death.  Staying behind to help Glass puts the rest of the regiment in danger, so they decide to go on, but Hawk, Fitzgerald, and a young soldier named Bridger (Will Poulter) stay behind to watch after Glass in the event that Glass can recover. Fitzgerald only does so for the promise of reward from the army since, well, the regiment had to stash the pelts, which would have been the source of Fitzgerald’s payday, when running from the tribe.

Fitzgerald, getting antsy, tries to smother Glass to death, is caught by Hawk, and kills Hawk. Fitzgerald tells Bridger that Hawk ran off, and later lies and says that the tribe is hot on their trail, forcing them to abandon Glass to die to save themselves. Glass survives, driven by revenge for his son.

 

There’s a common theme in the film of theft. Characters in this film steal money, horses, people, food, supplies, weapons, and just about anything else that is able to be stolen.  Much as “Hateful Eight” was seemingly about American being based on lies, “The Revenant” seems to argue that America is based on theft.  The chief of the tribe even argues that America itself was stolen. The director, being from Mexico City and not America, is likely to agree with that sentiment.  Honestly, this movie is about stealing as much as it is about revenge or survivalism.

 

Okay, so the message that America is based on theft isn’t new. The plot itself is common and unspectacular. So why make this film if you’re Inarritu?  Why make THIS film in THIS way, so artsy and putting your crew through subzero temperatures for months on end to get perfect, un-CGI-altered shots of beautiful, ice-covered vistas?  Well, towards the end of the film, Fitzgerald is finally caught by Glass and he says to Glass “You came all this way for your revenge. Well, I hope you enjoy it then,” or something to that effect.  I suspect this is a criticism for the rubes in the audience who find themselves sitting through this film simply for the brutal, bloody revenge ending. The last shot of the film is DiCaprio looking directly into the camera, at the audience, with a look that almost says “Are you satisfied now?”

 

So if we take this and remember “Birdman” before it, my guess is that “The Revenant” is Inarritu’s way of wrapping vegetables in sugar for a mainstream audience.  A mainstream audience will not sit through an art house movie.  They especially won’t sit through a Terrence Malick art house film.  Just as a mainstream audience will sit through “Avengers: Age of Ultron” but not “Birdman”.  However, if one gives the audience a popular, mainstream actor (DiCaprio), and a mainstream friendly revenge plot, then perhaps they will be willing to sit through a 150+ minute art house film, even if they walk in not knowing its an art house film.  Maybe some of them will even like it, despite themselves and against all odds.  That’s what I think the point of “The Revenant” is: to get uneducated moviegoers with poor, mainstream tastes to watch an art house film, and maybe even like it and give them a more educated palate for film.  Will it work? Well, “The Revenant” grossed a healthy $39 million and received B+ from Cinemascore, which polls audiences leaving a film on opening night, so who knows?

 

This film is worth seeing solely for the visuals.  This is one goddamned gorgeous film to look at.  The story and characters are fairly weak and the message is hackneyed and not delivered with any real bite, but it’s a captivating film nonetheless.  There are some sequences that are breathtaking, such as the original attack on the army regiment by the tribe, which looks like it was done in a single, highly choreographed take with a shorter frames-per-second framerate.  Another scene of Glass riding his horse away from the tribe off a cliff is a triumph. There are individual shots in this film, and seemingly single-take sequences that are virtuoso in their execution.  This is not a subtly directed film, but it is an extremely well-directed film and the fact that it draws attention to itself is a credit to this particular film instead of a demerit.

 

I can’t say this is a great film, and if it wins Best Picture it probably won’t quite deserve that award.  However, this is a fantastically made piece of work and, well, if it makes some rubes enhance their film tastes and stop thinking films like “Furious 7” are good filmmaking then, well, all the better. B+.

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Almost every character in “The Hateful Eight” is a liar. They lie to save themselves, they lie by omission, or they lie for nefarious reasons.  The film even lets the characters present some information that might be a lie, but then never actually tells us if they are actually lying or not.  If the film has a political message, and Tarantino has said in interviews that the film is political, then the message is that America is based on lies, or maybe just one big lie.  Tarantino’s last two films were also political, but in a different way. “Inglourious Basterds” (sic) was an alternate-history revenge tale wherein Jews were able to exact revenge on the evils of the Nazis. “Django Unchained” was a slave revenge fantasy, but mainly dealt with white guilt over slavery. After all, it is the white bounty hunter played Christoph Waltz who kills the evil plantation owner played by Leo DiCaprio in the end, leaving the titular Django the deal with the lesser albeit smarter villain of Sam Jackson’s house slave.  “The Hateful Eight” isn’t about something as specific as the Nazis or slavery.  “The Hateful Eight”, taking place sometime after the Civil War, is about America, racism, violence, and criminal justice…but it’s not exactly eloquent with what it is trying to say. The bottom line seems to be that America is built on lies and violence, the wounds from the Civil War have not healed, being evil for an ideology is slightly better than being evil for profit, and justice is a fungible concept based largely on semantics.

 

If the message isn’t clearer, it’s because Tarantino is too in love with his dialogue, and too focused on telling his story, that he doesn’t really take the time to articulate his message. If the opening shot is of a wooden crucifix sticking out of the snow, is he making a comment about religion in the United States? About the fetishization of violent imagery? Or was it just a cool shot to pull back slowly on as the credits role and Ennio Morricone’s excellent score fills the theater?  When black bounty hunter Warren (Sam Jackson) has an argument with former Lost Causer Mannix (Walton Goggins) about the morality of North violence versus South violence, and collateral damage caused by seemingly just violence, which side is Tarantino taking?  Or are we just being set up for these characters to hate each other so that they can join forces later, and make a different comment about reaching across the aisle?  When hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) argues that the difference between justice and mob rule is the death penalty being dispensed by an impartial, dispassionate party, is Tarantino arguing that himself, or is he commenting on the absurdity of American justice in general? Hell, is Tarantino for or against the Death Penalty? I don’t have a clue, and it’s possible Tarantino is simply trying to raise issues and not actually argue a point.

 

As a film, “The Hateful Eight” is a jolly good time.  I sadly did not get to see it in 70mm, but even the digital print shows us great, expansive snow-covered vistas and warm, claustrophobic cabin interiors which make the film feel like a great stage play.  The score is phenomenal for this sort of thing, and the actors all know how to find the right balance to play this material.  If the film maybe has a bit too much gleeful violence against women, two or so stereotypical caricatures of black women, and has it’s only Mexican character be a negative portrayal, I suppose asking for the not-ever-subtle Tarantino to give us nuanced social justice in a film is asking too much, though he has done better portrayals of blacks and women before in “Jackie Brown”, his least respected film.

 

The plot is fairly simple. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is attempting to bring wanted fugitive Daisy (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) into the town of Red Rock to be hanged and collect $10,000.00.  While attempting to beat an impending blizzard there, they come across Warren and, eventually, allow him to tag along with his 3 dead fugitives, which he is also bringing to Red Rock. As the blizzard hits, they take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery (actually a lodge), where Minnie is missing, but other patrons are present, including Mobray, a Mexican named Bob (Demian Bichir), a cowboy named Joe (Michael Madsen), and an old Confederate General (Bruce Dern).  As the film progresses, political tensions between the former Union solider Warren and the Confederates mount. Arguably the best scene of the film involves Warren telling the General about finding the man’s son and, well, you’ll have to see for yourself.  In addition, Ruth becomes convinced that one or more of the other patrons are in cahoots with Daisy and see to have her set loose.

 

Tarantino is slightly restrained for the earlier part of the film.  The film takes a while to build, and the director’s penchant for violence doesn’t really hit until just before the end of the first half, where I assume the 70mm cuts to intermission.  Once the first body drops, well, it’s a downhill rollercoaster from there.  The characters, while arch and sometimes cartoonish, do the job in the way they would be arch if this was an Agatha Christie novel, or some other closed-room murder mystery.  Odd that Tarantino chose to combine the Western and the Civil War narrative with a stage-ish mystery story, but it works. The film, for however confusing it’s message is, is well made and, for a film that clocks in at just under 3 hours, a helluva lot of fun and never boring.  It moves slow, but never TOO slow.

 

8 films in, you know if you do or do not like Tarantino.  Of his more recent films, I liked this better than “Django” but not as much as “Basterds”, and it’s obviously better than “Death Proof”.  The film is ultimately much ado about, well, not nothing, but about less than the ado is worth.  The sense you leave the theater with is that Tarantino does not really like all of the bullshit surrounding America, the whole nationalist exceptionalism stuff, even if he doesn’t overly hate America and seems to really enjoy the one genre, the Western, that romanticizes America more than any other.  “The Hateful Eight” isn’t a deep movie, or as showy as some of Tarantino’s others, but it is well made and a lot of fun, and is technically head and shoulders above most of what Hollywood puts out. A-.

The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay)

Posted: January 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

“The Big Short” does the best job of explaining the 2008 financial crisis of just about any film has since.  Sometimes it’s using Jenga blocks, sometimes it resorts to Margot Robbie in a bathtub or Selena Gomez playing poker, but the fact remains that this comedy explains a somewhat complicated issue involving a lot of terms people aren’t familiar with (Mortgage-backed securities, subprime, CDOs, etc) and makes them easily graspable for the layman. If nothing else, “The Big Short” deserves credit for finding a clear and fun way to explain an important topic for people. I’d also argue the film makes itself mandatory viewing because of it.  The great thing about the film is that, beyond that, it’s one of the best films of 2015.

 

So what caused the 2008 financial crisis?  In a nutshell, people in the banking industry started packing bad mortgages (ones with high interest rates given to people who could never afford them) into bundles that were sold and traded on the market. Because no one was paying attention to the big picture, that eventually these mortgages would default and tank the bundles, people were content to make a lot of short term money until those defaults happened.  In addition, even crappier mortgages with bad credit ratings were bundled together into CDOs, and the credit agencies gave these bundles good ratings they didn’t deserve because, well, the credit agencies are private and are paid by the banks to rate their products, making it in their best business interests to rate everything very high (AAA) regardless of if the rating is deserved. Combined with “side-bets” made on the CDOs (Synthetic CDOs), and a Federal Reserve run by Ayn Rand fan Alan Greenspan that didn’t pump the breaks when the housing market was suspiciously booming and well, the entire economy was built on a house of cards.  The film does a better job of explaining all of this than I just did, trust me.

 

Enter Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a super-Aspie hedge fund manager who actually looks at the individual mortgages in these bundles, sees that they will eventually default (in 3 years or so) and realizes he can make a profit for his clients if he finds a way to, in a sense, bet against the housing market.  This leads to the creation of what became known as a credit-default swap for the housing market. Basically, if the housing market continued to be successful, Burry would need to keep paying the banks he bought these swaps at.  But if the housing market tanked, well, he’d stand to make billions.  The problem is, well, everyone on Earth at the time thought the housing market was solid and that Burry was crazy, and with about 3 years til the time Burry projected the market would crash, well, his clients didn’t want to spend 3 years paying extra premiums in the event that his hunch was right.

 

Soon, others on Wall Street hear about what Burry is doing, and while most dismiss Burry as a fool, others decide to investigate, seemingly reach Burry’s conclusions for themselves, and want to also position themselves to make a profit. There’s Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who wants to sell swaps to other investors with more money and collect a nice finder’s fee/booking fee for it.  There’s Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a hedge fund manager who kind of hates Wall Street and is allowed to pursue weird avenues with his own little team and decides that Vennett is on the up and up.  Our last group is made up of Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witlock), two young up and comers who made a decent profit betting on the failures of other investments, but who don’t have the experience, capital, or connections to make any big moves that would result in larger profits.  Luckily, they have a connection with an ex-banker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who helps them put their foot in the door even though he himself prefers to live off the land like a doomsday survivalist, but with a nicer house.

 

This is really a story-driven movie rather than a character-driven film, but we still get some decent character moments from these great actors.  Bale plays his character as a brilliant man with no social skills who is not so much cocky as he is frustrated that no one else can either see what he sees, or see that at least HE sees what no one else can see. Carrell creates a character that is likable despite basically being a young curmudgeon in the making. Gosling has never played a character as sleazy as Vennett, but he does it well.  The weird thing is, we like these characters when it’s possible we shouldn’t.  After all, these are the guys who made money off of the crippling of the world economy.  To an extent we can’t hate them.  This crash was going to happen whether or not that bought swaps.  Geller and Shipley tried to warn the media, but the Wall Street Journal chose not to report on their story, lest they ruin their friendly contacts on Wall Street.  Baum visits the credit rating agencies. Attempts are made to talk to members of the SEC (Karen Gillian has a cameo as an SEC regulator who just wants to hook up with a banker and get a cushy private sector job).  No one will listen to these guys.  So yes, they made a large profit while many others lost their houses, pensions, retirements, live savings and more.  Still, these guys are not nearly as evil as the CEOs who precipitated the culture and who were bailed out and not legally or (truly) financially punished for destroying the world economy. Capitalism!

 

This film was directed by Adam McKay, and considering his previous films include “Anchorman”, “Stepbrothers”, “Talladega Nights”, and “Land of the Lost”, it’s easy to say I did not expect a film this good to ever come from him.  He keeps the camera constantly moving, sometimes subtlety as if to simulation a boat rocking, and other times with a hyperkinetic fluidity that dials up the excitement and tension for a movie that is basically just people explaining complicated financial shit, and of which we already know how it ends.  There’s a great use of image montage, music, and comedic cutaways to either elucidate the plot, create humor, explain dry facts, or enhance drama.  This is one of the best edited films of the year, and I had no idea McKay had a film of this quality in him. Quite frankly, I am impressed.

 

This is an exceptionally made film performed by exceptional actors and directed and edited with a keen and creative precision we rarely see nowadays.  It tells an important story and conveys dense information in a wonderful and fun way.  The film is funny and angry in equal measure, and the tone is pulled off beautifully. The film even breaks the fourth wall in ways that work, and the self-aware meta-ness only adds to this wonderful concoction.  The entire world got screwed by Capitalism, a few Capitalists saw it coming, were ignored, and made money off of it, and nearly no one was punished for their evil actions. This sad, angry story ended up being one of the most delightful and funniest films of the year. I loved it. A.

Football, which is to say American Football, is the most popular sport in the United States.  Baseball fans may disagree as their sport has traditionally been called “America’s Pastime”, but to a certain segment of the United States, Football ranks right up there with Jesus, ultra-nationalism/patriotism, and the military as far as things that every American should hold dear. “Concussion” is a film aimed at making that segment of the American population (lower-middle class white Conservatives in red states) turn against football.  The problem with this is that the film’s solution to its problem of getting the audience to turn against something they love is to make the main character so unimpeachable, so likable, and so pro-religion and pro-America that he comes across as an annoying goody-two-shoes (the casting of Will Smith, he of much charisma and little actual talent, doesn’t help), and he is so one-dimensionally good and just that the film, which has a legitimate grievance with the sport of football and the NFL, feels like it is stacking the deck in a way that turns you against the film.  I’m sure the real doctor, Bennet Omalu, is a perfectly nice man and a very good doctor in real life, but the film version is a character who the film tries so hard to make it impossible to not like that it goes clean through the other side and makes you hate every moment he’s on screen.  The fact that he’s in 98% of all the scenes in the film means you have a very unpleasant experience watching the movie.

 

Omalu, as played by Will Smith, is a coroner in Pennsylvania.  He’s such a gee-whiz nice guy that he talks to his corpses before he cuts them open, and insists on throwing away his instruments after each dead body because it’s disrespectful to re-use instruments on different “patients”, even though the country coroner’s office isn’t exactly cash-rich.  This is all supposed to make the character endearing, but I found him to be about as annoying as being stuck in a jail cell with Ned Flanders. Omalu has a co-worker (Mike O’Malley) who hates him, and even though that co-worker seems to have no legitimate gripe against the guy, and thus is supposed to be a jerk, you as a viewer are so annoyed with Omalu that you empathize with THAT guy.  Omalu is a Nigerian who came to America, the film tells us, because it was one step below Heaven and because Omalu buys into the dream/fantasy of upward mobility and American Exceptionalism.  I guess compared to Nigeria the United States is a big step up, but his myopic all-in on this Conservative reactionary fantasy of America feels like a big olive branch to the Conservative audience members who would be otherwise hostile to this character (and the film) for daring to question the holy goodness of football.  And, of course, despite Omalu being a man of science (the film awkwardly gives us a long list of his credentials and education in a scene where Omalu is testifying in a murder case as an expert witness), he is thoroughly religious and invokes his god whenever possible.  When another doctor tells him not to mention god and stick to the science, I felt the same way.

 

Anyway, soon a corpse winds up on Omalu’s table that is famous in the area.  It’s ex-Pittsburg Steeler Mike Webster (played behind ridiculous make-up by David Morse).  Omalu is curious as to why a seemingly healthy man in his 50s, a famous man supposedly beloved by the city, goes crazy and dies. So, the guy pays for $20,000 worth of tests out of his own pocket. In real life I suppose this shows the real Omalu to be a selfless man in search of the truth no matter what.  In the film, it comes across as fucking annoying. Perhaps an actor better than Will Smith could have pulled this off, but Smith does little more than smile, put on an accent, and tries to combine the trope of the simpleton but give him a very intelligent doctor’s brain capacity.  The result doesn’t work at all.  The tests show that Webster had something very wrong with his brain, and soon Omalu has made the connection that a serious of concussions and sub-concussive blows on a regular basis really mess up a human brain, causing the symptoms that lead to Webster’s mental deterioration and death.  These blows came from playing football.  There are a few good moments where Omalu explains how humans have no real safety mechanism built in to protect from these kinds of blows, unlike some species of bird, and he demonstrates what happens to the brain by putting something in a jar full of fluid and shaking it. Those scenes, and a couple of montages, make up the bulk of the film’s high points.

 

Soon, more ex-players are dying, the NFL is denying things and seemingly trying to intimidate Omalu into silence.  At one point the FBI seems to be going after Omalu by indicting his boss (Albert Brooks behind very bad make-up) for using the state’s fax machine for personal use (apparently this is one of the film’s stretching of fact).  The film gives some lip service to the NFL’s business considerations and that knowledge of this disease, dubbed CTE, will keep parents from letting their kids play football and eventually dry up future talent pools of players.  It has the NFL excuse their silence and cover-up by saying they inject a lot of money into the communities they have stadiums in (John Oliver recently debunked that on his show).  The NFL are the villains of the film, and are not given a free pass, but the film still feels like it’s pulling its punches.  The movie seems to have more of an issue with football as a sport, even though real life cases of CTE are not confined to football but have been found in other sports figures from boxing, hockey, and elsewhere.  This film may have watered down its attacks on the NFL slightly, because this film is not nearly as angry with them as “Spotlight” was about the Catholic Church or Michael Mann’s “The Insider” was about the tobacco industry.  In fact, many of the people in the film attacking Omalu are not actual NFL employees, but crank calling football fans, ex-players, and doctors.  Roger Goodell and official NFL employees don’t have dialogue much of the time.

 

Meanwhile, the film tries to get us to care about Omalu’s romance with a woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) he allows to live in his home because his church orders/requests him too, and he enjoys going out dancing with her.  They don’t seem to have much chemistry, but since they’re both immigrants from Africa and religious, the film seems to think that’s enough for us to feel like they’re in love and should pair up.  Later, the film blames her miscarriage on being stalked for Omalu speaking out against football.  I don’t know if this is something that actually happened, but it feels a bit shameless and manipulative in the film.

 

There is a good story to tell about CTE, football, the NFL’s cover-up based solely on corporate greed, and the players who suffer.  There’s a story to tell about young men who, even knowing the risks, will still choose to play because the dreams of stardom and a paycheck getting them out of the lower classes is enough for them to risk their bodies, brains, and lives.  “Concussion” is not the film that does those stories justice.  It is a poorly made film with the most annoying protagonist in recent memory, horrible make-up, and that pulls its punches despite its very obvious anger.  The writer/director, Peter Landesman, has previous made two not-well-received films; one about the doctors who operated on JFK after he was shot by Oswald, and the other about the reporter who discovered the link between the CIA and crack being introduced into the American ghettos.  Not having seen those films myself I can’t personally say if they were as bad as their reviews indicate, but it seems like Landesman is making a career out of making bad movies out of really interesting topics.  One hopes he either gets better at making movies, or stops taking topics that other filmmakers could do a good job with and ruining the chances of a good film being made about them by taking them on himself. D+

“The Danish Girl” is a heavily fictionalized account of a real-life person who, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, became one of the first people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.  I’m sure the story of this woman, Lili Elbe, would be very interesting to see made into a film. Sadly, “The Danish Girl” doesn’t appear to do this woman justice. Instead, we get a film that seemingly thinks it is pro-transgender persons while, in actuality, it portrays one as an unlikable narcissistic who doesn’t seem to actually be trans, but demands everyone bend over backwards to accommodate her. When the film ends with a “tribute” of sorts to this woman, it only reveals the filmmakers’ tone-deafness.

 

The plot involves a man named Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who are both artists in the rather liberal, Bohemian world of late 20s Copenhagen, Denmark.  I know very little about what Copenhagen was actually like in the 1920s, but this film portrays it as being the classier, period-equivalent of the 60s New York art scene, as opposed to perhaps the upper-crust, and stuffy connotations we may associate with moneyed society in the early 20th century (Roaring 20s affluent heterosexual debauchery notwithstanding).  This is worth nothing simply because while the film wants us to look upon Lili, as Einar is known upon transitioning to female, as being brave for her actions, the film doesn’t actually make it seem, beyond two ruffians in a park and some reactionary medical and psychiatric professionals, that it’s much of a risk for Lili to be who she is.  The film makes 20s Copenhagen seem like a place that Andy Warhol and Truman Capote would find comfortable to inhabit.  In any event, one day Gerda has Einar wear women’s clothing to take the place of a model that hasn’y shown up to be painted. In a weird conflation of transsexuality and transvestitism, the film makes it seem like Einar’s tactile enjoyment of wearing women’s clothes is what sparks his journey into wanting to be a woman, and only later does the film attempt to clarify that Einar had the feelings of being a woman much earlier.  It doesn’t help that the film gives us close-ups of Einar running his hands through women’s costumes at a theater, thus focusing us on the clothing aspect.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say the filmmakers are actually clueless as to the fact that transsexuals and transvestites are two completely different things, and one does not exist as a gateway to another.  I do not claim to be an expert on trans individuals, but I have known a few and it seems wholly inaccurate to assume a tactile enjoyment of wearing female clothes sparks one’s feelings that they are the opposite gender inside to the one they were born into this world as.

 

Gerda, being a loving and fairly accepting wife, goes along with the initial transvestitism.  She has sex with Einar while he wears her satin (or silk) nighty, and tshe even agrees to let Einar dress as a woman to go to a social event that Einar would otherwise prefer not to attend.  It’s at this event, dressed reasonably convincingly as a woman (bearing a slight resemblance to Jessica Chastain, in fact) that Lili, as Einar form there on prefers to be called, kisses a young man.  This is cheating, and yet when confronted by Gerda, Lili completely straw mans her issues with infidelity by changing the subject to him being a woman inside and her being unsupportive.

 

This film confuses a lot of things.  Lili is presented to us as a transsexual, but the build up is all about transvestitism. Then the film seems to not know what to do with Lili’s sexuality.  Is she gay, because she (allegedly) loves her wife, or straight because she pursues relationships with men and seems to take it for granted that, as a woman, she must be with men.  This is an oddly reactionary position on sexuality for a film that’s trying to embrace transsexuality and also be a love story between Lili and Gerda.

 

It’s also odd that we have this ongoing theme of performance and art as artifice, as if the film is trying to undercut Lili as a trans individual by also making it seem like Lili is simply a performance.  Einar’s first inclination toward female clothing is with costumes at a playhouse (or ballet studio, it’s not quite clear). Einar first poses as a woman in front of a mirror at this place as well.  Later, he goes to a peep show and mimics a nude woman behind glass performing, as if that is anything close to an authentic depiction of a woman: erotic performance for the sexual gratification of men.  Einar, in becoming Lili, also places a lot of emphasis on mimicking women he sees and adapting tics, gestures, and affectations.  If anything, as Lili she comes across less like a person who is a woman on the inside and more like a man performing as a woman, in the way a drag queen is a man acting as a woman but not A WOMAN in the way a trans person IS a woman and not ACTING as a woman.  Beyond the character stuff of Einar/Lili, we see her as an artist frustrated at not being able to capture the same damn painting no matter how much she repaints it over and over again, and later she wails that “I want to be a woman, not a painter”, as if they are mutually exclusive and one cannot be both (which Gerda, to her credit, calls Lili out on).

The film is really the story of how a man who likes to wear women’s clothing decides to live as a woman, cheat on his wife, and expect everyone around him to put their own wants, wishes, and feelings aside to do what he wants, and it’s appauling because A) real trans people are not like this B) the real Lili was certainly not like this, and C) the filmmakers seem to THINK they are portraying a real, sympathetic trans person and are ignorant of what a negative portrayal of a trans person they have committed to film.

 

If anything, this film is about the infinite patience of loved ones who put up with selfish assholes in their lives.  Gerda is a little jealous of Einar’s professional success, but otherwise spends the entire film as a loving and understanding partner who tries to support her husband as he becomes she.  Gerda is reluctant to cheat where Lili has no such reluctance, and Gerda cares for Lili’s feelings and well-being whereas Lili seems to barely even pay lip service to Gerda’s wishes.  Gerda gets frustrated with Lili throughout the film, but seems to still have the patience of saint.

 

Let me be clear: “The Danish Girl” is enjoyable and almost fascinating to watch.  The direction focuses your attention in a keen way, and the film is visually nice to look at. The performances are spot-on for what the film requires of them, and Eddie Redmayne does an admirable job playing an unlikable character, while Vikander shows, after “Ex Machina” and “The Man From UNCLE”, that she has a decent amount of range and has a really bright future in acting ahead of her.  The music works to set the time period and a tone of sadness that feels as true as the screenplay reads false.  This is, in an unusual way, a good film that is a complete and utter failure at what it attempts to accomplish, and all of its sins exist at the screenplay level, in a boneheaded script written by Lucinda Coxon.  I am not familiar with any of Coxon’s other work, so I don’t know if the sins of the script are her own, or that she was simply working from poor source material, adapting the fictional novel by David Ebershoff that was inspired by the real Lili.  Certainly director Tom Hooper, who directed “The King’s Speech” (Unseen by me out of spite for it winning Best Picture in a year when “The Social Network” deserved to win and didn’t glamorize royalty or Nazi sympathizers) and the film adaptation of the musical “Les Miserables”, in which his direction was original and unusual (numerous extreme close-ups in a musical about the masses, live singing on set as-filmed) but didn’t quite work because of his own originality.  My guess is Hooper and Coxon know next-to-nothing about transgender individuals, and assumed the affluent, educated persons who would sit down to watch an art house film about one would come in very supportive and give Lili enough of a benefit that they didn’t have to work on making Lili either sympathetic, likable, or even authentically trans.  They just has to set her up as against a cruel and unfair world that doesn’t let her be what she wants to be, and we’d be on her side.  Sorry film, you miscalculated.

 

The real Lili was no doubt actually trans.  No one undergoes risky, experimental surgery to have ovaries and a uterus implanted in their body if they do not know, in their deepest reaches of their heart, that they are not the gender they were born into.  This film does the real Lili a gruesome disservice, and some changes, like having Lili die of the general sexual reassignment surgery and not the later surgeries she actually died of, are baffling.  This movie is an utterly bizarre and wrongheaded failure, but an entertaining and good-looking failure that is worth seeing just because it’s a fascinating trainwreck at the screenplay level.  I “liked” it, if that even means anything, but it does not succeed in any conventional sense, and may even be offensive to trans people who see it.  I’m giving it the relatively high rating of a B, but keep in mind that there’s a big fucking asterisk next to that letter grade.