The Danish Girl


What makes a woman a woman?

What makes a woman a woman?

(2015) Historical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Pip Torrens, Adrian Schiller, Jake Graf, Nicholas Woodeson, Philip Arditti, Sebastian Koch, Miltos Yerolemou, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Pixie, Angela Curran, Richard Dixon, Henry Pettigrew, Emerald Fennell, Nancy Crane, Clare Fettarappa, Victoria Emslie. Directed by Tom Hooper

Although transgender surgeries have become somewhat more commonplace now than they were say 50 years ago, transgenders haven’t really been accepted by mainstream society until recently and then only begrudgingly. While the media and cinema have turned their focus on LGBT issues in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage, there has been little attention paid to the “T” in LGBT until recently.

Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is well-respected in the Danish art world as a painter of landscapes; his wife Gerda (Vikander) is a portrait painter who has achieved less success. The two are madly in love with one another, and hang out at artistic events with their dancer friend Ulla (Heard). When Ulla is delayed from a portrait session due to a late rehearsal, an increasingly frustrated Gerda enlists her husband to put on Ulla’s stockings and shoes, and to hold her dress over his body so that she can continue painting.

The incident has a profound effect on Einar. He has always felt like there was something not quite right; his infertility, his somewhat effeminate manner, his desire for men (although his deepest love is reserved for Gerda). But there is someone inside him, someone that Ulla mischievously names Lily. As Ulla and Gerda persuade the somewhat introspective Einar to attend a party with them as Lily, he is at first thrilled at the scandalous air of it all, but soon he finds himself feeling more comfortable as a woman. As Einar begins to slowly be displaced by Lily, the relationship with Gerda is strained to the breaking point, but in the end she wants her husband to be happy. However, the only way for Lily to be fully free is to undertake a dangerous operation that has not been attempted before, or at least often.

The movie is based on a fictional account of the real Einar Wegener/Lily Elbe (she would take the name of the German river near the clinic where her sex change operations were performed). While Focus has been marketing this as a true story, the only things true about it are that there were once painters in Denmark named Einar Wegener and Gerda Wegener, they were once married to each other and Einar eventually changed into Lily Elbe.

So do take the “true story” thing with more than a grain of salt. If you are interested at all in the real story of Lily Elbe, I would suggest her autobiography Man Into Woman which is taken directly from her own journal entries and letters.

The movie is very much a love story, with Gerda at first hurt and dejected by her husband’s transformation, but eventually she accepts that Lily is literally not the man she married and becomes his staunchest ally, even when Lily is a bit of a jerk to her. Gerda proves to be the more interesting character in many ways; while the real Gerda was in all likelihood a lesbian who used her marriage to cover her sexual preferences and had a much more platonic relationship with Einar than was depicted here (their marriage was eventually annulled and by the time Einar began the first of his five operations, the two had separated permanently). Vikander has this year become an actress to watch based on the strength of a series of indelible performances and this one might be the best of the lot. She may not get an Oscar nom out of this but she will soon and many will follow, I’m sure, thereafter.

As good as Vikander is, Redmayne actually shows that his Oscar win last year for The Theory of Everything was hardly a fluke. Whereas that performance was more physically challenging, Redmayne shows himself to be a marvelous emotional actor, often capturing Lily’s inner dialogue in a single downward glance, a shy smile or a feminine gesture but mainly through his eyes, which are filled with torment but occasionally joy as Lily begins to discover who she truly is. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got another Best Actor nomination for this role.

There is a strong supporting cast with Schoenaerts as a childhood friend of Einar’s who becomes enmeshed in the private hell that he and Gerda have entered, Whishaw as a homosexual who develops feelings for Einar/Lily, and Koch as the sympathetic surgeon who alone doesn’t think that Einar should be committed to an insane asylum.

The performances here are above reproach, but there is a curious atmosphere here. While Einar and Gerda and their friends were clearly Bohemian sorts, there is an odd mannered kind of style here which comes off as emotionally distant in places. The pacing is erratic and I don’t think that the writers and Hooper were entirely successful at getting to the turmoil within Gerda and Einar as Lily begins to take over their lives. We do see some conflict, but it’s more petulant than thoughtful.

Nonetheless, this is a good film although not in my opinion a great one and considering the acting proficiency going on here, it should have been. I wanted to like it more but I left the theater feeling curiously unmoved. There is a Hollywood gloss over this; I think the filmmakers would have been better served to tell the real stories of Lily and Gerda rather than this made up schmaltz fest that they decided to go with. In many ways, they do a disservice to the bravery of Lily Elbe and the first transgenders by turning her story into a kind of love story that her relationship with Gerda really didn’t support. Truth is often better than fiction and in this case I believe it would have been.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances by Redmayne and Vikander. A powerful love story.
REASONS TO STAY: So mannered that it seems to lack passion at times.
FAMILY VALUES: Strong sexuality and some graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally developed by Nicole Kidman who wanted to direct and star as Lily in the project but she was unable to get financing. When Hooper came aboard, he cast Redmayne in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Single Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sisters

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Inside Llewyn Davis


The Greenwich Village People.

The Greenwich Village People.

(2013) Drama (CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky, Helen Hong, Bradley Mott, Michael Rosner, Bonnie Rose, Sylvia Cauders, Amelia McClain. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Some places and times held a sort of magic that created oodles of great music that has stood the test of time – places like Athens, Georgia in the mid-80s, San Francisco in the late 60s, Manchester, England in the 90s and Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s. In the last of these, beatniks and folk musicians were thrown together to begin a phase of rock and roll exemplified by Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk, among others.

In this milieu toils Llewyn Davis (Isaac), once a member of the duo Timlin and Davis – until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge in a fit of melancholy that was as counterculture as a suicide can get (“You’re supposed to throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge,” grouses one character. “The George Washington Bridge? Who does that?!?”) and now Davis is trying to go it alone. It is winter in the Village and he has no money, existing from gig to gig and without a winter coat. He relies on the generosity of his friends to give him a couch to sleep on during the night and maybe a cup of coffee or some food.

When he accidentally lets out the cat of his Upper West Side buddies the Gorfeins (Phillips, Bartlett) who essentially show off Llewyn as their bohemian folk singer friend, he embarks on an odyssey of his own that takes him into the life of Jean (Mulligan), a fellow folk singer and a member of the duo Jim (Timberlake) and Jean who has gotten pregnant. Who is the father? Could be Jim, whom she is married to and wants to have a baby with…or it might be Llewyn whom she slept with in an inadvisable night of drunken regret. She doesn’t want to have the baby if it’s at all possible that the baby could be his. Fortunately for her, he has an abortionist on call for what seems to be a string of brief flings.

He ends up on a road trip to Chicago with a taciturn driver (Hedlund) and a garrulous jazz musician (Goodman) who when he’s not sleeping is regaling Llewyn with highly mannered stories about jazz hipsters he has known. He goes to meet an impresario (Abraham) his agent (Grayson) was supposed to have sent a copy of his album to…but didn’t. In tow is this cat who is the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

The Coens specialize in taking ancient stories and modernizing them and there are elements of this here, not just in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner but also in their old standard Odyssey as well as maybe a few newer tales. While there is a good deal of humor here, it is less in the dry, deadpan style they’re known for and a bit more subtle and a lot darker.

Oscar Isaac kills here. Not only does he sing and play guitar, he also acts. Llewyn Davis is a bit of a prick; he uses his friends and when they’re usefulness has been exhausted, he moves on. He is frustrated and is known to lash out without provocation and he is a bit on the arrogant side, Starving Artist division. Yet even despite Llewyn Davis’ many faults, Isaac imbues him with a kind of empathy that allows him to see through the pain. While he doesn’t necessarily like people all that much, he relates to them real well. Isaac, who has been one great role away from stardom, has found that role. Expect him to be an A-lister from here on in.

There are some fine supporting performances here as well, from the shrewish folk singer by Mulligan to the mannered jazz musician by Goodman which is a good deal out of both their comfort zones I think. Timberlake also does some good work that is a bit out of his own comfort zone, playing the terminally nice and terminally clueless Jim.

The music here is absolutely amazing. My mom used to love Peter, Paul and Mary and had an album of Vanguard folk singers that included the Weavers, Odetta and Cisco Houston and I listened to that album often. While the folk singers on that album weren’t the well-scrubbed WASPs that several of the singers are here (and which the dark-haired Llewyn is not), the vibe is at least approachable. Most of the music was recorded live and the actors mainly sang and played their instruments for real.

What happened though was that I felt disconnected from the movie to a large extent. I normally love what the Coen Brothers do and even their less successful movies (Burn After Reading) have at least something of interest about them. Frankly I admired the craft of the movie in re-creating the era; as I said, I loved the music and the performances as well. The movie just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe I was just in a bad mood but I left the movie feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it is the circular nature of the story which begins and ends with essentially the same incident although you’re never sure when the flashback actually begins.

Still, the Coens’ worst is better than the best of most directors. They take chances and at the end of the day, their movies aren’t made to please anybody but themselves which is the proper way to go about making movies. Try to please too many people and you end up pleasing nobody.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous music. Isaac is a star.

REASONS TO STAY: Much more mainstream than we’re used to from the Coens.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language including some sexual references as well as some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The photograph of Chris Eldridge, guitarist for the Punch Brothers (a real folk band who contributed heavily to the music) is seen on the Timlin and Davis album cover; Eldridge is identified as Mike Timlin, the partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Mighty Wind

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Barney’s Version


Barney's Version

Hey did you hear this one? A man walks into a bar and...oh never mind.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver, Bruce Greenwood, Rachelle Lefevre, Saul Rubinek, Mark Addy, Macha Grenon, Paul Gross, Anna Hopkins, Jake Hoffman, Thomas Trabacchi, Cle Bennett. Directed by Richard J. Lewis

All of us live two different lives; the lives that everyone sees, and the ones we actually live. It is when you see our own version of our lives that you begin to see us as we truly are.

Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) is a television producer for a horrible soap opera called “O’Malley of the North.” He smokes Montecristo cigars, drinks far too much and is crude and curmudgeonly to one and all. He has good reason to be; he is divorced and his ex-wife married a putz; to make matters worse, a retired police detective (Addy) has recently published a book that essentially accuses him of murder. That can ruin your entire day.

Barney wasn’t always like this. Once he lived a Bohemian existence in Rome with fellow artistic types like Leo (Trabacchi) – a gifted painter, and Boogie (Speedman) a gifted writer and even more gifted junkie, and then there’s Cedric (Bennett) who’s gifted at….well God knows what. Barney is getting ready to marry Clara (Lefevre), a gifted painter and poet who is, well, more Bohemian than most if you get my drift. Most everyone thinks this is a terrible mistake, with Boogie hissing “She’s a conversation piece, not a wife” but Barney got her pregnant, so he’s willing to man up and do the right thing. 

Except when the baby is stillborn and turns out to be as black as, well, Cedric, it puts an awful crimp in their relationship. When Barney blows off a reconciliation dinner with Clara (mainly because Boogie, in a stupor as usual, forgot to give Barney the invitation), the consequences are severe.

Barney returns home to Montreal where he is set up with and eventually marries the daughter (Driver) of a sour but wealthy man who disapproves of basically everything Barney is. Barney’s dad, Iz (Hoffman) is a lively Montreal detective who cheerfully admits his career didn’t advance because of his Jewishness. It doesn’t seem to bother him that much; he’s just glad to be there for his son, who is certainly a chip off the old block.

At his wedding reception, Barney meets Miriam Grant (Pike), a beautiful and erudite New Yorker who works in the radio business. Barney is immediately head-over-heels smitten with her, going so far as to follow her to the railway station, offering to take her on his honeymoon with him. She naturally declines but Barney continues to woo her in the intervening years. 

Meanwhile, Boogie’s addictions are getting worse, much to the dismay of Barney’s nameless wife because Barney takes it upon himself to care for his addled friend. One day he returns to their country lakeside property to find Boogie schtupping his wife. While Barney feigns indignity, he is actually delighted. Now he has the ammunition he needs to get the divorce he wants, leaving him free to pursue Miriam which, as it turns out, won’t take much. 

However, the problem is that Boogie has disappeared after a loud and violent argument with Barney and the now former Mrs. Panofsky said in her statement that he had threatened to kill Boogie, leading a particularly brutish detective to beat the crap out of Barney until Iz intervenes. Still, things are looking up for Barney despite the cloud of the investigation that hasn’t even yielded up a body much less a crime.  

Soon Barney and Miriam are together as it was meant to be. They make a family with daughter Kate (Hopkins) and son Michael (Jake Hoffman). A neighbor on the lake where their country house is located, Blair (Greenwood) even has radio connections and is able to get Miriam some work. However, when things are at their best is often when things are about to come crashing down about your ears. 

This Canadian production, based on the last and arguably the best novel of distinguished Jewish-Canadian author Mordecai Richler (he of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz fame) has already been distinguished in that Giamatti won the Golden Globe earlier this year for Best Actor in a Comedy (which by the way is not really an accurate classification for this movie). Unfortunately, Giamatti didn’t get an Oscar nomination, largely because the field was so strong this year but he could easily have done. His portray of Barney Panofsky is unforgettable and might even be a better performance than the one he gave in Sideways.

He has a strong backing cast. Dustin Hoffman is still as elfin and charming as he’s ever been and Iz Panofsky goes right up there in his pantheon of memorable characters, which is saying a lot. He is absolutely incandescent whenever he gets onscreen. Likewise is Rosamund Pike, a wonderful British actress who is just now beginning to get noticed over on this side of the Atlantic. As with Giamatti, this is her very best performance to date. As the long-suffering Miriam she puts up with her boorish husband and perhaps comes closest to understanding him of anyone until he makes the one transgression that she cannot forgive.  

While there are comedic elements, this is most certainly not a comedy. It’s very painful to watch in places and I spent the last 20 minutes in tears as I watched things fall apart. Sometimes the things we want most in life are the things we can’t have – not because they are unobtainable, but because we don’t have the wisdom and maturity to recognize how to keep them. It is true that the ending of Barney’s Version is very sad, but the movie is not about that; rather, it’s about the journey and taken as a whole, this isn’t a tragedy, not really.

REASONS TO GO: Giamatti, Hoffman and Pike all deliver standout performances. This critic was moved to tears by basically the last 20 minutes of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense and hit too close to home for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language; a goodly amount of it in fact, and some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Izzy Panofsky and his grandson Michael are played by, respectively, Dustin and Jake Hoffman who are father and son in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: This is playing in limited release and is worth seeking out on the big screen; however chances are you have a better shot at seeing it on home video, streaming or on-demand.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Tuck Everlasting