Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reverend's Preview: That Fascinating Danish Girl

An impressive cast and crew of Academy Award winners have teamed to bring a little-known chapter of LGBTQ history to the big screen this month. The Danish Girl, scheduled to open this Friday, relates the challenging personal journey undertaken by acclaimed painter Einar Wegener in the 1920’s to transition from male to female. Wegener adopted the name Lili Elbe and hers became one of the first documented cases of gender reassignment or confirmation surgery.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar last year for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, stars as Wegener. He will surely be nominated again for his excellent, beautifully nuanced and authentic performance here. If he should win, Redmayne will become the first back-to-back Best Actor winner since Tom Hanks over 20 years ago.

The Danish Girl is directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Academy Award for directing The King’s Speech. Hooper followed that historical hit with the 2012 musical Les Miserables, in which Redmayne played the French revolutionary Marius.

“I was at the Les Miserables barricades and Tom said, ‘I would like you to read something,” Redmayne recalls. “Tom then got me the script (for The Danish Girl) and I sat down to read it, knowing nothing about it. I was profoundly moved, it blew my mind. I found it extraordinarily passionate and deeply felt.”

Lucinda Coxon’s revelatory screenplay was adapted from a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff. The book won the Lambda Literary Award and was immediately optioned for a movie, but it has taken 15 years and numerous false starts to finally bring it to fruition. Producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner — whose Working Title productions, including Billy Elliot, Dead Man Walking and Fargo, have been honored with 11 Oscars and even more nominations — saw The Danish Girl through to completion.

“When I read (the book), I realized that Lili’s remarkable story had been swept away by the tide of history,” Coxon said. “What I was particularly struck by was that this was the story of a marriage, a love between two artists of courage and imagination.”

Einar/Lili was happily married to Gerda, at least until his gender issues emerged. Initially, Gerda (played in the film by rising star Alicia Vikander) treats Lili playfully and even uses Lili as the model for Gerda’s own well-received paintings. They are both forced to grapple with the reality that Einar considers himself a woman accidentally born into a male body. Anxious to have a child together but ultimately unable to do so, the movie powerfully depicts the couple as “giving birth” to Lili through Einar’s transition.

The Danish Girl, both Ebershoff’s novel and the new motion picture, takes some dramatic license in detailing the relationship between Lili and Gerda. Gerda is shown standing by her spouse throughout the gender-confirmation surgeries and being at least partly responsible for having Einar’s/Lili’s journals published in 1933 as the book Man Into Woman. In reality, though, their marriage was annulled and Gerda married another man while Lili was still alive. The movie holds a more romanticized view but, in doing so, delves more deeply into the challenges and risks associated with Lili’s pioneering decision than it might have otherwise.

According to Coxon, “Hers was an incredibly important moment, and one I’d not heard about at all. And I suppose what appealed to me (while writing the script) was telling a universal story through something highly particular.”

I similarly found Lili’s a fascinating story about which I knew nothing. The Danish Girl is beautifully shot by Danny Cohen (who also shot The King’s Speech and Les Miserables) using painterly compositions appropriate to the film’s artistic lead characters. Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) provides a lovely music score too. On the negative side, a gay character played by out actor Ben Whishaw, who can also currently be seen as Q in the new James Bond epic Spectre, is awkwardly under-developed. The film's depiction of transgender issues might also be considered dated by some, although I was able to accept this within the context of its 90-year old true story.

“When I read a script, I go on an instinctive, emotional reaction,” Whishaw shared. “I read this script in one sitting, barely catching my breath. On reflection, I realized that it was about something that’s rarely dealt with in a mainstream film but the themes are universal: it’s about a relationship, and about a person who is trying to be authentic to themselves. (The script) shows kindness, hopefulness and sensitivity, but also how it’s not a walk in the park.”

The finished film shows Einar and Lili undergoing considerable hardships in addition to negotiating their marriage to Gerda. As Einar attempts initially to disassociate himself from his true self, he experiences nosebleeds and painful headaches. In one memorable scene, he pays to watch a private dancer in order to study her movements and sensuality only to have her reciprocate unexpectedly. Once Lili embraces her identity, she is beaten by two men and left for dead before submitting to gender-confirmation surgery while the risky procedures involved were in their infancy.

“Was I daunted by it?” Redmayne reflected on his decision to accept the role. “Yes, I was, but I’m daunted by everything! But I have begun to realize that fear of not doing a character or a story justice is a galvanizing thing — it pushes me forward and makes me work harder.” The actor met with numerous people in the trans community and researched their lives in his effort to make Lili as realistic as possible. Director Tom Hooper also cast transgender actors in background roles. Despite this, The Danish Girl is being met by some criticism that a trans actress wasn’t cast as Lili.

No one can fault Redmayne’s sincere dedication to the role, which also required full-frontal nudity from him. “If you are lucky enough to be given the opportunity to play Lili Elbe and tell her story,” the actor said, “you should be giving every ounce of yourself. It’s a great privilege, and a great responsibility.”

Don’t miss The Danish Girl and the opportunity it presents to learn about Lili’s remarkable life.

Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Scary Christmas


Halloween 2015 has come and gone, and the Christmas movie season is well underway with both the James Bond adventure Spectre and The Peanuts Movie raking in big bucks. But a pair of spooky flicks, one new in theaters and one new to home video, are trying to assert themselves before the Santas, reindeer and snowmen take over. The Nightmare Before Christmas' Jack Skellington would be proud.

The Hallow, opening this weekend in Los Angeles, is an Irish-set tale of malevolent fairy folk out to protect their forest home from usurpers. Their primary target is a young family headed by Adam (Joseph Mawle), a conservationist hired by the company that is planning to turn the forest into tract homes. His wife, Clare (Serbian actress Bojana Novakovic, who has a number of horror films under her belt), and their infant son are (unfortunately for them) along for the ride.

Despite warnings from their neighbors, the unbelieving Hitchenses are soon beset by ancient, fungus-based creatures that have called the forest home for millennia. They are able to turn humans into their own with the help of needle-like appendages that inject their fungal spores. One particularly tense scene in the film shows Clare this close to being injected via her eyeball.

Director Corin Hardy has a great eye himself for visuals and his success on The Hallow, his first feature, has already secured him a job directing the upcoming reboot of The Crow. The creepy creatures are shown only fleetingly until the film's finale, which proves most effective. Unfortunately, the script falls prey to the old "Why don't they just get out of the house?" complaint that has prevented many previous horror movies from achieving their full potential. Adam is especially, egregiously stupid as a father, frequently abandoning his baby in seedy locales. One ends up rooting for the monsters to succeed in stealing the baby because we suspect they will take better care of it. I dare say Adam is the dumbest dad in horror movie history.

This past summer's suspenseful sleeper hit The Gift is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. The first film written and directed by actor Joel Edgerton (Exodus: Gods & Kings, Warrior), who also co-stars, it is a tense freakfest with an unexpected social conscience.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall headline the cast as Simon and Robyn, a happily married couple who have just relocated to Simon's hometown. They haven't been there too long before they cross paths with Gordo (Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon's. Mutually friendly at first, things get uncomfortable once Gordo starts leaving strange gifts on their doorstep and, more disturbingly, showing up at their house while Robyn is home alone.

Secrets are gradually unearthed about the true nature of Simon's prior relationship with Gordo. The transformation of Simon from sympathetic protagonist to the plot's true villain is extremely well-handled by Edgerton as writer-director as well as by Bateman. I won't reveal specifics about this or about Gordo's motivations but they make The Gift more significant than your average modern-day psychological thriller. The film's ending is truly haunting but the Blu-ray and DVD include an alternate ending that clarifies some unresolved plot points as a bonus feature.

Between its opening sequence set against the backdrop of Mexico's Day of the Dead and overall sense of foreboding, Spectre emerges as probably the darkest out of all 24 "official" big-screen James Bond sagas. It is also the longest at 148 minutes and most expensive of them all, and the film's excess becomes sadly draining rather than exhilarating.

007, once again effectively embodied by Daniel Craig, ends up in Mexico at the behest of a posthumous message he receives from the former M (Judi Dench), who died at the end of Skyfall. There, he offs an Italian mafia strongman but, more importantly, steals his octopus-emblazoned ring. Longtime Bond fans know the multi-tentacled sea dweller is emblematic of SPECTRE (ordinarily capitalized except in this film's title), a vast and powerful criminal organization intent on world domination. What's more, it is headed by Bond's cat-loving archnemesis, Blofeld, who makes an appearance here for the first time since 1983's "unofficial" entry Never Say Never Again.

Spectre boasts many impressive elements, including its "Writing's on the Wall" title song performed by Sam Smith (the first out gay singer to pen and warble a Bond theme), typically spectacular stunts and Hoyte Van Hoytema's gorgeous cinematography. Ben Whishaw's Q has a beefed-up role here (the character's possible homosexuality is also hinted at), while Christoph Waltz is more restrained than usual as a key villain and more threatening as a result.

I can't help but feel though that a leaner, less expensive Spectre would have been better. For starters, the film's first five minutes could be cut with no negative impact on the story. There is also a pointless supporting villain, Mr. Hinx, played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and a largely wasted turn by Monica Bellucci. Blofeld's efficiency experts should have been allowed in the budget meetings and editing room.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Hallow: C
The Gift: B
Spectre: B-

The Gift is now available on DVD and Blu-ray:

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Monthly Wallpaper - November 2015: James Bond 007

With this month's premiere of Spectre, the 24th film in the 007 series, Movie Dearest celebrates the films of "Bond... James Bond" with this month's Calendar Wallpaper.

For over fifty years, with six leading men and countless baddies, babes and bathing suits (!?), the cinematic adventures of Britain's greatest super spy have left us both shaken and stirred.

All you have to do is click on the picture above to enlarge it, then simply right click your mouse and select "Set as Background". (You can also save it to your computer and set it up from there if you prefer.) The size is 1024 x 768, but you can modify it if needed in your own photo-editing program.