Archive for the Biography Category

Sully

Posted in Biography, Drama on September 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sully_ver2_zpsgo7sqnzo.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgLet’s get right to the point. Sully bored me to tears. The movie that is, not the pilot for whom I have the utmost respect. I have to make that abundantly clear so I’m not misunderstood. This production is simply not artfully designed to maximize entertainment value. At least not as far as this reviewer is concerned.

But what do I know? Sully continues to astound as the #1 film this weekend with another $22M. I shouldn’t be surprised by its success. This is an old-fashioned tribute to an American hero by director Clint Eastwood starring Tom Hanks. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing subject with a starring role that couldn’t miss pressing all the right buttons if the drama had been constructed out of a marketing focus group. In some ways, that feels like part of the problem.

Sully is a biopic about the actions of one Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549. Back in Jan 2009, the airliner hit a flock of Canada geese only 100 seconds into the flight, disabling both engines. Determining that no airports were within a safe distance, He made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The entire dilemma occurred and was resolutely solved in 208 seconds. All 155 passengers and crew aboard were saved. Sully was immediately hailed as hero. The incident came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”. Case closed. End of story, right? Not so fast.

How do you create meaningful tension in a tale with a central issue that was quickly solved and with a happy ending to boot? Clint Eastwood is often captivated by downfall and redemption themes. Therefore, he has retrofitted his aesthetic to manipulate a story where there really is no conflict. I’ll admit there’s excitement in a crash landing, or what could have been a disaster. Drama resides in human fear. Except that’s not how Mr. Eastwood approaches this topic. The crisis has already happened when the chronicle begins. Instead of concentrating on the incident itself, Eastwood tries to mine thrills by fashioning the plot around an inquisition by the National Transportation Safety Board. They believe Sully had enough power to safely return the plane to LaGuardia or land at Teterboro airport in nearby New Jersey. The movie flashbacks to the roughly 5 minute ordeal over and over again as details emerge. Each side contends their own side of the truth. I thought of Inherit the Wind and the way “right vs. wrong” was amusingly portrayed in a courtroom setting. It’s all about the “I bet you feel like an idiot now!” moment.

I’m not here to debate whether the NTSB really was the villain in this ordeal. (For the record, they gave Sullenberger high marks in their accident report and publicly credited his quick action that saved lives.)  I just want an engaging flick. Sully, however, is a deferential hagiography that manufactures the final payoff out of a series of dreary flight simulations in a room full of people talking. This becomes the weak climax of an account where the ultimate showdown is a big yawn of a discussion.  Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is unquestionably a hero. No one disputes that — or no one but the NTSB according to this script. In any case, this feature chose to depict a 5-minute event that had a happy ending. It’s not easy to make that exciting. This film proves that. Even at a scant 96 minutes, the drama feels overstuffed with filler.

09-15-16

Florence Foster Jenkins

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on September 15, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo florence_foster_jenkins_zpsglvvlopw.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWho knew that a historical drama starring Meryl Streep would elicit the loudest and most sustained laughter I’ve heard in a theater this year? Certainly not I. Chalk it up to matching the right audience with the perfect film. Florence Foster Jenkins is old-fashioned in its construction, but it’s so lovingly composed and well acted that you can’t help but appreciate the craft that went into making it.

The 2nd week of August saw a flurry of new movies. Florence Foster Jenkins is a picture I initially passed on back in August because I chose to see wider releases instead, namely Pete’s Dragon and Sausage Party.  This biopic tops them both. Florence Foster Jenkins was an actual New York City heiress and socialite who loved to sing but didn’t let her lack of vocal talent stop her. In the face of substantial shortcomings, she attracted a considerable fan base. She sang at the parties of the various clubs and societies she supported, amassing a fervent following of affluent New Yorkers. Her popularity and reputation grew during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Florence Foster Jenkins makes a comprehensible case as to how such a bad singer could become such a sensation. People relished her awfulness. This fascination with failed crooners isn’t a peculiarity of the 1940s. The success of William Hung’s American Idol audition or the 2011 song “Friday” by YouTube personality Rebecca Black are recent examples of this phenomenon. Whether Florence was aware of the “mockers and the scoffers” is not altogether clear. To be fair, she had her genuine adherents too.

As you’d expect, Meryl Streep is flawless. Yet the production features not one but three bravura performances. St. Clair Bayfield was her husband and a minor Shakespearean actor, to boot. He devoted decades to protecting the soprano from the critical voices that might silence her enthusiasm. It’s Hugh Grant’s juiciest role in almost a decade. An important side character through all this was her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame. His double takes and incredulous stares are priceless.

Director Stephen Frears has given us successes like Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen, so he obviously knows how to produce a tale that is perceptive as well as crowd pleasing. Despite the costume drama milieu, Florence Foster Jenkins is not some staid period piece. This is a comedic farce that relies heavily on Meryl Streep’s hilarious ability to sing really really badly. Indeed, there are scenes where most directors would have cut the song short, but Frears gives us extended takes that revel in just how truly awful she is. In the hands of Meryl Streep, the character becomes larger than life with a predilection for ornate costumes and flamboyant flair for the theatrical show. It’s a spectacle to be sure but a rather amusing one at that. Although there’s nothing funny about the deeper notion of idealistic dreams. The narrative is equally uplifting. A fearless spirit has the capacity to transcend one’s limitations.

08-30-16

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Posted in Biography, Drama on June 16, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo man_who_knew_infinity_ver2_zpsdhy0zicy.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) should be the subject of a compelling movie. He was an accomplished Indian mathematician.  In this school of thought, people like Sir Isaac Newton or Professor Stephen Hawking are household names to anyone over the age of 12. Ramanujan, however, still remains somewhat of a mystery. That is until now. His lack of recognition with the general public makes this document of his life even more crucial.

Born in utter poverty, Ramanujan possessed a brilliant mind for analytical theory but had no university training. At one point he decided to send some of his written formulas to a well-known professor at Cambridge University during World War I. At first G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) thought the correspondence from the unknown sender was a joke, but in time Ramanujan was invited to come study at Cambridge. This occurred in 1914.  He would ultimately become a pioneer in mathematical principles under the guidance of professor G. H. Hardy, his advocate and sponsor.

A fascinating man inspires this production but it’s buried under the formal structure of a staid biopic. Dramatizing the study of theorems is not easy to do and the drama (perhaps wisely) doesn’t even try. Instead, the best parts of The Man Who Knew Infinity deal with the push and pull between Ramanujan and Hardy. They butt heads over differing ideological views. Ramanujan is a devout Hindu while Hardy is openly atheist. Hardy demands proofs. Ramanujan relies on intuition. Their battles of wills is the engaging conflict at the heart of this rather academic and somewhat superficial picture. It’s their love of mathematics that unites them.

Two talents elevate this script. Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel play off one another. To say that this is Dev Patel’s greatest performance since Slumdog Millionaire sounds a bit like damning with faint praise. After all the actor has struggled since that breakthrough in films like The Last Airbender and Chappie. Patel gives the part a sweet determination that honors the man’s accomplishments while giving us an appreciation for all the sacrifices he had to make. The Man Who Knew Infinity isn’t a great movie. Yet let’s consider the fact that it exists to honor the contributions of an unsung hero. That alone makes the biography worthwhile.

06-15-16

Eddie the Eagle

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama on February 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo eddie_the_eagle_ver2_zpsqj4hb05e.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgEddie “the Eagle” was the nickname of the British skier born Michael Edwards.  For most American moviegoers, the next response to that would be, “Um excuse me, who?”  In the absence of challengers, the record holder was the first person to represent Great Britain in the sport of ski jumping at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. But he wasn’t a gold winning athlete. Far from it in fact. The plasterer by trade had a surprising lack of aptitude for an Olympian.

Eddie’s saga actually began in the competitive world of downhill skiing but he switched to ski jumping when he realized it was easier to qualify. You see, there were no other British ski jumpers to rival him. He attracted publicity thanks to an upbeat can-do attitude that captivated the hearts of his fellow countrymen, much to the chagrin of the discipline’s purists. Coincidentally this was the same Olympics at which the Jamaican bobsled team famously made their debut. That much more familiar tale (to Americans anyway) was recounted in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, an underdog story with which Eddie the Eagle shares a very similar narrative structure. The film’s essence can be summarized in one sentence: “You don’t have to win, to be a winner.” Taron Egerton affably portrays Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards as an unlikely hero.

Actor Egerton was nominated for the Rising Star Award at the 69th British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAs) in 2016. He didn’t win. John Boyega of Star Wars: The Force Awakens received that honor. But if Egerton had, he would have been deserving of the accolade. He auspiciously came to widespread attention in the hit Kingsman: The Secret Service, then followed up with a supporting role in the Tom Hardy movie Legend. Now he’s back in the lead with this biopic. It’s almost as if each character was played by three different actors. The depictions couldn’t be more dissimilar from one another. As Eddie, Taron exudes earnest passion.  Even prickly Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), after several refusals, finally accedes to coach him – won over by Eddie’s enthusiasm.

Eddie the Eagle is so guileless in its composition, that at times it’s hard to tell whether the concoction is winking at the audience or simply just that incredibly straightforward. I suspect the latter in most cases. The uncomplicated drama clearly seeks to uplift the subject. I have to give the script credit for such cheerful goodwill. It has a lot of heart. Yet the film itself is kind of artificial. At one point it uses Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” in a training montage without a hint of sarcasm. The 80s styled font titles announcing the height of each jump and Matthew Margeson’s cheesy synth-heavy score dovetail nicely with Edgerton’s demeanor.

Eddie the Eagle all works together in a rather campy, but loving tribute. My lack of familiarity with the actual man is a benefit because Edgerton’s performance never rang false. It’s an odd characterization. Taron Edgerton dons big glasses and affects an underbite to play the gawky athlete. He mercilessly hams it up playing up Eddie’s little eccentricities. Occasionally the portrait verges on caricature. However Eddie is so likable and sweet that you forgive the affectations. What comes through is a genuine soul who just wanted to compete so badly. That Edgerton makes us understand this man without resorting to ridicule is kind of miraculous. His sincerity, much like the real life Eddie the Eagle, won me over.

02-21-16

The Lady in the Van

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on February 19, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo lady_in_the_van_ver3_zpsthjsprwh.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgMiss Mary Shepherd is an aging homeless woman struggling with physical decline. Her home is a broken down van which she parks in the neighborhood of Camden, in London.  BUT Mary isn’t some lovable scamp.  No, far from it. She’s a cantankerous old shrew to be quite honest. Eccentric and ill tempered, she isn’t the first person to whom you’d want to give a warm hug.

The Lady in the Van has a sweet quality that will delight some and irk others. It’s self consciously precious and finds humor in the little mundanities of life. The tale is based on English playwright Alan Bennett’s own reminiscence of an elderly woman who lived out of her car in his London driveway for 15 years. Bennet is well acquainted with adapting his plays for the screen (The Madness of King George, The History Boys). Director Nicholas Hytner has experience with handling the film versions. Maggie Smith has portrayed this part twice: the original stage production in 1999 and later a radio program on the BBC in 2009. Alex Jennings is the other component as the exasperated author that effectively matches Smith in their verbal exchanges. It’s clear everyone is very at ease with the material.

Now if the casting doesn’t already pique your interest, as it did me, then perhaps your enjoyment of The Lady in the Van will be a bit more of an uphill battle. Maggie Smith, that grande dame of the British acting world, has made a career of late playing cold, judgmental types. Her irascible demeanor somewhat softened by the biting quips she can deliver with her uniquely styled sardonic wit. Although she’s rude, the audience is still willing to embrace her spunky temperament. It’s not an easy task but Maggie Smith has perfected the trait. She embodies the role with flamboyant flair making full use of her considerable acting talents.

The Lady in the Van is first and foremost a star vehicle (no pun intended) built around Maggie Smith’s performance. She puts on the part like a comfortable old sweater. That describes this trifling slice of life to a T. It’s cozy. The joy is watching thespians Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings in one amusing tête–à–tête after another. Their personalities clash and mesh at various points – she a grouchy curmudgeon, he a finicky chap that talks to himself. The discovery is what we learn about these two characters as the years pass. The drama is slight, charming and oh-so-British.

02-17-16

Concussion

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on January 11, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo concussion_ver2_zpsn7swvjsa.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgBefore I launch into my review of Concussion, I thought a little primer on biology might help. So the brain floats inside the skull surrounded by something called cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). When the body is suddenly stopped after a blow to the head, like after being tackled for example, the brain continues to move in the CSF until it hits the next solid surface – the inside of the skull. Sure a helmet will protect the skull, but it cannot protect the brain. If this happens enough times, the nerve fibers break off and proteins start to build up in the brain leaving scar tissue. That’s bad.

Concussion is a medical drama about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He works for the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office in Pittsburgh. A forensic pathologist, Omalu conducts the autopsy on Hall of Famer Mike Webster – legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster had not been well. He was suffering from amnesia, dementia, depression and died from a heart attack at only 50 years old. What Omalu finds, leads to his discovery of a new disease that he names chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE in 2005. The complications of which somewhat resemble Alzheimer’s, however they occur much earlier in life. The depression, memory loss and erratic, aggressive behavior experienced by ex NFL players, continues to this day. Concussion does a nice job at emphasizing the severity of these symptoms.

Given the subject matter, this could’ve been a much more incendiary film. The research calls the very sport of professional football into question. (I assume athletes in boxing, soccer, hockey, rugby and wrestling would be at risk as well.) As you might expect, the publication of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research is viewed as extremely controversial by the National Football league. The NFL had a choice. Join Dr. Bennet Omalu and try to solve the problem, or use their considerable power to discredit him. The NFL choose the latter and they certainly do not come off well. They’re presented as this monolithic corporate entity as headed by commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).

Dr. Omalu’s fight to get people to acknowledge he is right, becomes a veritable David-vs.-Goliath match. He was born in Nigeria. Dr. Omalu earned his degree in medicine there before coming to the U.S. where he completed his residency. Despite all of his education, he is seen as an outsider. “They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” he has said. Not only is Dr. Omalu an immigrant, he is indifferent to that quintessentially American of pastimes called football. Nevertheless he does gain a powerful ally in former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).

I really wanted to love this movie. Concussion has the best intentions. It dramatizes a serious story that needs to be told. At the heart of this biography is a compelling performance by Will Smith. Historically he has often had a difficult time disappearing into the persona of another person. We see mega celebrity Will Smith – the brash movie star, not an actor fading within a role. Here however, he manages to convincingly present a different personality – accent and demeanor included. It’s his most impressive achievement since The Pursuit of Happyness. Unfortunately, the diffuse narrative spends way too much time on tedious details involving his personal life which includes love interest and eventual wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She is far too great an actress to be saddled with this expendable role. Concussion is at its best when it’s delving into the science of Omalu’s work, chronicling his study and the ensuing struggle to get his important research acknowledged. The production ends unresolved. According to the film, his research still has yet to be taken seriously by the NFL. Although some concessions have been made, very little about the sport has changed. Apparently the issue is far from over. Stay tuned.

12-29-15

Joy

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on December 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo joy_zpsft2v08cz.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Joy of the title is Joy Mangano. For those unfamiliar, she is an American inventor who created the Miracle Mop – a plastic implement “with a head made from a continuous loop of 300 feet of cotton that can be easily wrung out without getting the user’s hands wet.” Although a modest succes initially, it wasn’t until the entrepreneur appeared on shopping channel QVC in 1992, that the invention actually took off. Although Joy is based on a real woman, this isn’t some straightforward, by the numbers biopic. What David O. Russell has done with the saga of Joy Mangano is a visionary appropriation of the facts. The director has creatively imagined Joy Mangano’s memoir as a modern day fantasy.

Fairy tales do come true. Jennifer Lawrence is surrounded by a colorful ensemble that supports her narrative to comical effect. They almost compel her to rise above the depths of her existence. There’s never any suggestion that her family members don’t love each other. However the menagerie of eccentrics that comprise her family are, hmmm shall we say, a little dysfunctional? As the matriarch of a multi-generational household, her environment is constantly in a state of disarray.  Joy is a divorced mother with two small children. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) is obsessed with this soap opera and never leaves her bed. An amusing aside is that the daytime serial she’s watching is a fictitious send-up. It features newly shot scenes starring icons of the medium, including Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, Laura Wright and Maurice Benard.  It pops up throughout the years hilariously marking the time period.

As in any fable, there are many obstacles to overcome. Her father, and mother’s ex-husband, Rudy (Robert De Niro) comes over to live in her basement after he has broken up with his girlfriend. Complicating matters is the fact that Tony (Edgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, is already living down there and has for the past two years. He’s trying to jump start his stalled lounge singing career. Isabella Rossellini later emerges as Trudi, Rudy’s new girlfriend who becomes the chief financial backer for Joy’s innovative idea. Do I see a ray of light? There’s also Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who runs the QVC shopping network. He’s sort of the male version of a fairy godmother in her life. Joy’s jealous half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) is a negative presence, but her longtime childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) is a positive one. Diane Ladd is Mimi, Joy’s supportive grandmother and the narrator of this fable.

Truth is stranger than fiction. David O. Russell has brilliantly distilled the elaborate narrative to its essence, trimming away the excess fat of unimportant details and highlighted the bonkers mentality of her life. The director has recontextualized the very true story of Joy Mangano into that of a contemporary fairy tale. Like some Cinderella scrubbing up a spill on the floor, she gets cut after wringing out a mop. Her hands bleed from the shards of glass. Inspiration strikes without a hint of cynicism. Joy isn’t some woman waiting for her prince charming . She improves the very mire of her own existence with her entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The chronicle demands that we reconsider how inspirational fantasies from the likes of the Brothers Grimm, are still happening today. The hard working resolve of a single mother with a dream manifested as a glorious paean to female empowerment.

David O. Russell has found his muse. As Katharine Hepburn was to George Cukor or Marlene Dietrich was to Josef von Sternberg, so too is Jennifer Lawrence to David O. Russell. This is his 3rd picture to feature Jennifer Lawrence but the first to star her — or any woman for that matter — as the sole lead in one of his movies. The partnership has yielded yet another fruitful collaboration for all involved. In an era where we routinely bemoan the derth of strong roles for women, Joy quietly enters the discussion and gives us exactly that. It’s a real tribute to the scrappy heroines of the 1940s when female-centric films were common. Think pictures starring Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. Yes those are indeed lofty comparisons but Jennifer Lawrence embodies the fierce spirit of those trailblazing heroines. What’s old seems new again. She’s an uplifting breath of fresh air. A woman with her eyes firmly set on the American dream. This is a defining role where she comes in not aggressively “with a bow and arrow,” as the director has noted, “but with her heart and soul.”

12-03-15

In the Heart of the Sea

Posted in Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama with tags on December 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo in_the_heart_of_the_sea_ver4_zpsnlbtbdyq.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgIn the Heart of the Sea is a solemn drama of outmoded style. It concerns the adventure that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Our 19th century sea faring tale begins with the American novelist (Ben Whishaw) visiting old Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Thomas was once a cabin boy and is the sole living survivor left from the doomed final voyage of the whaleship Essex. Herman has to bribe him to tell the unvarnished truth so he can commit Thomas’ words to the printed page. We then flashback to the events of his yarn. Why we needed this framing device is a mystery. It’s a construct that seemingly serves no purpose other than to derail the picture at inopportune moments. Every time something exciting starts to happen the narrative abruptly stops in its tracks to remind us we’re still listening to a story. I suppose observing two people talk in a dark room is slightly more interesting than watching someone silently write a book. However it’s less exciting than seeing people fight a whale attacking a ship. I figured a director as talented as Ron Howard would have understood this by now, but apparently not.

The proper tale takes place when the Essex leaves Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819. The chronicle centers around Chris Hemsworth as dashing Owen Chase, the first mate, and Benjamin Walker as the more genteel Captain George Pollard, Jr. The aristocratic Pollard has a family lineage that accords him the position, as opposed to the more qualified Chase, who has the experience. Chase’s lower social status has unfortunately precluded him from commanding a ship yet again. The stacked set-up is a cliché. Nevertheless, their combative relationship is a fairly compelling plot point. Early in their voyage, Pollard tests his crew by ordering them to deliberately sail into a dangerous squall. This is amidst the protestations of Chase. The decision almost capsizes the ship, but somehow Pollard finds a way to hold Chase accountable for the debacle anyway.

I was quite enjoying the acrimonious affiliation between the Captain and his first mate . It sort of reminded me of Capt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, although I admit I am being very charitable when I say that. But then the whale shows up and the focus shifts to CGI spectacles. The whaling scenes pitting man against beast are jampacked but strangely, not thrilling. The action is undone by choppy editing that obscures what is happening exactly. The presentation has a colorful 2D aesthetic but it gives the visual spectacle a simulated muddy quality that lessens the excitement. As a result we’re less invested in their plight.

In the Heart of the Sea is constructed as an old fashioned epic that is anything but. Lots of details about the whaling industry are present. Few scenes stand out, but one features cabin boy Thomas (the narrator of our story, played as a youth by Tom Holland) entering a narrow hole cut into a dead whale’s head, to extract the supply of sperm oil inside. During the 2nd half, when the gang gets shipwrecked, so does the plot. Chase and Pollard promptly make amends and lose the personality that made their antagonistic relationship engaging. Watching the crew, which includes second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), just waste away,  is pretty tedious. They do what they must in order to survive. This includes behavior that should be disturbing, but the environment is so dignified, it barely registers. Honestly, you could say the same thing about the entire film. It’s not awful, but it is awfully forgettable.

12-09-15

The Danish Girl

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on December 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo danish_girl_zpskpzxg9gw.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Danish Girl is a partially fictionalized biography about the very real Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. The account imagines the experience of Einar Wegener, a man living in Europe who underwent a series of procedures from 1930–1931. It is based on a 2000 novel by American writer David Ebershoff. The tale begins in the early 1920s in Copenhagen, Denmark. Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a successful landscape artist married to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), also an aspiring painter and illustrator. However Einar is the more well regarded of the two. Gerda just hasn’t found the right muse. One day Gerda asks if her husband would stand in for their ballerina friend Ulla (Amber Heard) who hasn’t arrived as the model. He dons female stockings and shoes so that his wife can finish painting that part of the picture. Einar is oddly comforted by the experience.

At first, Gerda seems remarkably receptive to her husband’s inclination to dress in women’s clothes. In fact, she promotes it initially, helping him disguise as a woman to attend a society party so he won’t be recognized. To her, it’s a game that she encourages not knowing the extent to which it starts to cement Einar’s feelings. They have fun passing him off as Lili, Einar’s visiting female cousin. However the game goes too far when Gerda catches her husband’s interaction with another party guest (Ben Whishaw). The previously unflappable Gerda, is a bit unnerved.

The production is a gorgeous period piece of costumes and manners. In the 1920s there was no transsexual or transgender vocabulary. Gender identity vs. sexual orientation were not even understood as separate ideas by most of the medical establishment. Einar’s case was unheard of at the time. While the chronicle is ostensibly a drama about the metamorphosis of Einar Wegener, what captivates the mind more is the journey of his wife. Gerda’s realization of how deep her husband’s feelings go is the most compelling thrust of the narrative. Whether that is intentional is perhaps irrelevant if the story is interesting — and it is. However it is at the expense of truly deep comprehension of what makes Einar Wegener tick. The jump from putting on women’s clothes to getting a “sex-change” operation is such a massive leap. The screenplay lacks the required depth to explain the idea in the mind of the viewer. As a result our sympathies start to align with Gerda, trying to wrap our heads around Einar’s struggle that leads to a difficult decision we don’t fully grasp.

Despite the film’s title, Gerda Wegener is the more intriguing presence as the wife. The production begins so tastefully restrained and sensitive that it initially resembles any number of well mounted period pieces that incur respect. Both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander give compelling performances that sell the narrative. Eddie Redmayne has the showier role. At one point Einar visits a seedy part of Paris to see a peep-show — but not for pleasure. No he is actually there to study the graceful movements of the stripper who performs for him. It’s a memorable vignette. Redmayne ably demonstrates the persona of a man who became a woman with the right mixture of sincerity and uncertainty that the part requires. Yet Vikander slowly seizes our focus. Her journey becomes just as important as that of the title character. Gerda’s gradual understanding that her marriage will forever change is a dramatic story arc. Her strength of resolve to indulge her husband, is kind of incredible. This would be true of any age, but particularly given this era. Yet her support never seems unnatural or anachronistic. We are fascinated by this woman, oddly even more so than her husband’s landmark decision.

11-10-15

Spotlight

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spotlight photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe difference between when a story explodes in the media and the time it actually happens, can be two totally different things. Just ask Bill Cosby. Such is the case with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. On January 6, 2002 the Boston Globe ran the first of many reports detailing a shocking pattern of molestation and cover-ups that had been going on for years. The ignominy went deeper than the actual acts. It was also that the Church knew about the crimes and knowingly shuttled priests to different parishes when incidents would rise. The events in the Archdiocese had local repercussions. Cardinal Bernard Law ultimately resigned as the Archbishop of Boston for his administrative role in the crime. However what originally appeared to be a problem within the local diocese caused other victims to come forward in parishes across the United States. The sheer number of people attested to a pattern that went back decades. The ensuing scandal spread and became a nationwide crisis for the Catholic Church.

Confession: The scandal had far reaching consequences. The victims had been harmed directly but the news also disturbed faithful members of the Church. As a practicing Roman Catholic, the scandal shook me. It was a powerful reminder that a religious organization is not God. Of course I knew what Spotlight was about even before I saw it. This was going to be a painful reminder of a very embarrassing chapter in the Catholic Church. What I didn’t expect, however was the balanced level at which the movie treats faith. At one point in their investigation, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team comes into contact with an ex-priest turned psychiatrist. He was not involved in any wrongdoing, but they wanted his comment on it. Incredulous they ask over a phone call, how he can still be a practicing Catholic. His response, “My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two.”

First and foremost, Spotlight is about investigative journalism. The story itself is secondary to the way reporters conduct their procedure. The narrative is fashioned as a finely tuned ensemble piece. It’s fascinating that an entire film can be constructed simply out of conversations. But rest assured, these are extremely eye opening discussions. Liev Schreiber is the newly appointed Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron, presented as a Jewish outsider in the largely Roman Catholic enclave of Boston. At first the exposé appears to be about John J. Geoghan, one former priest found to have a history of abuse, but Marty suspects a systemic problem. Before they publish, he presses the team to dig deeper. Was the hierarchy of the Boston diocese aware of this misconduct? Editor Baron pays a courtesy call to Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). Their chat highlights a happily upbeat Law, who mistakenly assumes the Boston Globe will work WITH the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Spotlight is the investigative unit. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James portray the core reporters of the team. As Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr., John Slattery oversees them. Spotlight certainly puts the Catholic Church on notice for the way it handled the allegations, but it also has a harsh critique for journalists themselves, even the very ones who finally broke the story. Interestingly, all of the the “Spotlight” reporters admit to being lapsed Catholics. Despite having fallen from organized religion, their lack of desire to offend their readership underlies their hesitancy at first. The way news stories are buried and ignored, sometimes for years, is a very key point of the drama. The information was always there. It just wasn’t reported properly. Lawyers (played by Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) are on opposite sides that have represented the plaintiffs and defendants for years. They each have extensive knowledge of the cases and are key to understanding the depth of this problem.

Spotlight is a pragmatic and clear headed approach to investigative journalism. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win) and his co-writer Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing) do not sensationalize the subject. For example, there are no flashback scenes of the abuse. Discussions with the now adult victims are carefully handled as fact finding interviews. At one point, a man only offers he was “molested” as a boy. Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, gracefully presses that he needs to be more specific as that word can have a variety of meanings to different people. Our witness to the rest of their conversation ends there. In a later scene, Sacha knocks on the door of another former clergy member: Father Ronald H. Paquin (Richard O’Rourke). Their brief, matter-of-fact interaction is one of the most memorable dialogues in the entire film. It stays with you because it reveals so much in mere mommets. The trust we place in trusted figures of authority, the role of journalists to report the news, the way scandals affect our faith, the lasting effects of sexual abuse – Spotlight touches on all of these issues and more in a 128 minute runtime that flies by. It does all this in the guise of a straightforward drama. The account could have been about almost any report, as long as it were true. The nature of this story obviously gives the chronicle an emotional component, but Spotlight is somewhat dispassionate. Yet that weakness of sorts is also its strength. The drama is efficient, objective and direct and that’s exactly what good news journalism should be.

11-09-15