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Films I Neglected To Review "Fair Is Foul And Foul Is Fair"
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Danish Girl," "The Keeping Room," "Macbeth" and "Youth"

Every year at awards time, a film comes around that screams "Oscar Bait!" so loudly that it almost feels as it was generated in a lab dedicated to creating award-winning product. This year, that film is unquestionably "The Danish Girl," a work that practically arrives in theaters with its acceptance speeches already in hand. By telling the story of artist Einar Wegener, a Danish artist from the 1920s who, while married to fellow artist Gerda, began dressing as a woman and adopting a female identity, Lili Elbe, as a precursor to the first-evert attempt at male-to-female gender reassignment surgery, it offers up a historical drama that nevertheless has surprising relevance to what is going on in today's cultural landscape. In actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays Einar/Lili and director Tom Hooper (whose previous efforts include "The King's Speech" and 'Les Miserables"), it has a couple of recent Oscar winners clearly going for the gold once again. In Alicia Vikander, who plays Gerda, you have one of the hottest up-and-coming actresses around making her first real bid for awards consideration. Hell, there is not a single aspect of the film that has not been handled with the kind of impeccable taste and care that inevitably leads to bushels of awards and nominations.

The only problem with all of this is that the film itself is, quite frankly, not very good. It wants to be seen as a daring look at the life of a person whose struggle to express who they really are inside and how those very same struggles continue today but, as depicted here through Lucinda Coxon's Level One screenplay and Hooper's typically antiseptic direction, there is never a moment when we in the audience get to really feel any genuine emotions regarding Einar's journey to become Lili for good. (In this regard, among many others, Francois Ozon's recent "The New Girlfriend," which also dealt with similar themes, beats this film like a gong.)Hardly anything about it rings true--the dialogue is overly written to the point where you never believe that the characters themselves are talking and the atmosphere is so stilted and decorous, even when it begins to get into the details regarding the then-radical surgery being planned, that it feels as if the whole thing is taking place in a museum. Even Redmayne's much-hyped performance leaves one wanting much more--he seems so concerned with getting the physical aspects of his transformation down that he never quite gets around to understanding what makes his character tick and conveying that information to viewers.

To prove just how mannered and one-note his Acting really is, all one has to do is watch the genuinely inspired performance from co-star Vikander. IN every scene, she manages to break through the overly polite and mannered presentation with a turn in which every moment seems deeply felt in terms of the raw emotion that she generates. Her performance is so strong, in fact, that at a certain point, it almost feels as if the story belongs to Gerda rather than Einar/Lili. This is the second great performance this year from Vikander, following her stunning turn as the most alluring example of artificial intelligence imaginable in the sci-fi mind-bender "Ex Machina," and it should help her become the top-level star that she has been poised to become for a while now. Too bad it couldn't be in the service of a film strong enough to deserve it.

Set in the South during the waning days of the Civil War, "The Keeping Room" tells the story of two sisters, Augusta and Louise (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their former slave, Mad (Muna Otaru) as they try to maintain their family home by themselves while the men are off fighting (and presumably dying) in the war. This is difficult enough as is but becomes exponentially more so when two advance scouts for the approaching Union army (Sam Worthington and Kyle Solter) shoot up the local general store and follow Augusta back home with rape and violence on their minds, not realizing that the women are far more resourceful and resilient than they might initially appear to be. Essentially blending together elements of the revisionist western and home invasion genres, Julia Hart's screenplay offers a fresh and unusual approach to the familiar basic material and director Daniel Barber brings it to life in a spare, brutal and quietly effective manner. As the two sisters, Marling (the indie darling from such films as "Another Earth" and "The East") and Steinfeld (making her second foray into the western genre following her breakthrough role in the "True Grit" remake) are both quietly impressive and Otaru scores her share of points as well. By comparison, Worthington and Solter come across as half-formed and never quite as terrifying as they think themselves to be, though I am willing to concede that this was intentional. As oddball westerns from this season go, this film may not quite rank with either "The Hateful Eight" or "The Revenant" but until those finally come to town, "The Keeping Room" will more than do.

Considering the number of times that William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" has been translated to the screen--Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski are just a few who have tackled it over the years--it would stand to reason that anyone planning to film it once again should have some compelling reason for doing so or a fresh take on the familiar material. The trouble with the new version from Australian director Justin Kurzel is that while it brings plenty of blood and thunder to the proceedings, it never quite makes the case for its own existence. This adaptation does mess with the text in a couple of areas--we are now treated to an opening scene featuring Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) burying their infant child and not only have the prophecies of the three witches been mucked with, a fourth witch has been added to the mix--but beyond that, there really isn't anything particularly new or innovative this time around, certainly nothing that comes close to approaching what Welles, Kurosawa and Polanski made of the material.

As Macbeth, Fassbender is okay but he never manages to bring the character to life in the way that he has done with other roles in the past. As Lady Macbeth, arguably the most memorable female character in Shakespeare's canon, Cotillard is infinitely more compelling and interesting--she manages to find a certain undercurrent of humanity to the otherwise power-hungry character and the decision to keep her French accent rather than attempt a Scottish brogue is an inspired choice that helps to accentuate her separation from virtually all the other characters and bring her desire to rise above them all by any means necessary into sharp focus. Tradition suggests that you should never utter the name "Macbeth" in a theater, lest you be cursed--unless you are a Cotillard completist, the same fate will befall anyone who mentions it when they get to the ticket booth at the multiplex.

One would think that a movie that brought together such disparate and wonderful talents as Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Jane Fonda could not be anything less than interesting--hell, a hidden camera video of the four of them having lunch together would probably be smarter, funnier and more incisive than most current movies. Alas, "Youth," the latest film from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, whose previous effort, "The Great Beauty," caused a stir a couple of years ago, somehow manages to waste their combined efforts on one of the most infuriatingly annoying and pointless movies of the season. Set at a Swiss retreat that appears to have been trucked in from a Fellini production, the film focuses on two old friends on an extended stay--a retired composer (Caine) who has just turned down an invitation to conduct a concert for the Queen and a director (Keitel) struggling to put together a film that he has labeled his "testament." Apparently afraid of facing their own uncertain futures , they spend their days obsessing over the past while refusing to confront their respective demons. Among the other attendees at the spa who occasionally drift into their focus are the composer's daughter/assistant (Weisz), who has just been abandoned by her husband--the director's son--for a pop star, a famous actor (Paul Dano) who yearns to be celebrated for his talents and not for the blockbuster film in which he played a robot, an aging diva (Fonda) who holds the fate of the director's film in her hands and Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), because why not?

In essence, the film offers viewers the chance to spend two solid hours watching a bunch of obscenely rich people feeling sorry for themselves in comfortable surroundings that are occasionally interrupted by surreal sights and sounds. (Suffice it to say, this is the kind of film where, when a monk is introduced in the first act with the announcement that he has been trying to make himself levitate, you know that he will be taking off in the third.) This could have made for a decent enough movie if the characters had been interesting or if the sights were sufficiently eye-popping but in both cases, it falls perilously short. All of the characters are ciphers and not even the game actors on display here can do much of anything with them--Weisz is one of the most reliable actresses around but her character here is so shallow that it makes her role in "Fred Claus" seem nuanced by comparison. Sorrentino tries to supply any number of odd visual flourishes but with the exception of Miss Universe entering a swimming pool in her birthday suit, none of them are especially memorable. Caine and Keitel each have a couple of nice moments here and there--though it is hard to buy the two of them as lifelong friends--but there are not nearly enough to save "Youth" from being anything more than an astonishingly pretentious bore and a near-criminal waste of a supremely talented cast.

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originally posted: 12/11/15 16:23:29
last updated: 12/12/15 08:37:08
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