Telling the rousing story of Lili Elbe, a landscape artist who was the first to undergo gender correction surgery, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper enlists a talented crew lead by last year’s Oscar-winner Eddie Redmaye and illustrious hot ticket item Alicia Vikander. Both show off their acting chops like wolves gnashing at lambs but there’s an uncomfortable air of assumed prestige to Redmayne’s whisper-heavy performance and Tom Hooper’s mawkish tendencies on full display. Redmayne’s clearly a phenomenal talent but, in a role that requires so much externalization of ticking internal clockwork, his turn as Lili risks being too showy, much like the film itself. On the surface, The Danish Girl is among the most “progressive” movies of the year and yet it can never stay the feeling of being tame, almost safe. Read More
True to its title, not much in the way of chaos occurs in Alan Rickman’s sophomore directorial effort. In fact, most of the time affairs are the exact opposite of chaotic. Instead it’s a modest well-mannered period piece, taking part in the action of Versailles, France, 1628. It’s technically proficient – as most period pieces are – and the performances are solid across the board, though nothing outstanding. Rickman directs with competence but on the whole A Little Chaos is instantly forgettable—marked by a feeling of slightness and opting to pursue the safest routes for predictable romantic dramas. Read More
A nobleman, a commoner and a soldier walk into a bar. There sits a property-owning, curly mopped brunette beauty. Which man does she choose to marry? Such is the premise of Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 romance novel; a 512-page amorous yarn, turned into a dramaturgical 107-page script, turned into a 119-minute film. In simplifying the story, good sense is tangled in expedited character arcs and though less plodding than many coattail and gown costume dramas, Far From the Madding Crowd is at best a handsomely photographed venture back in time and at worst a perfunctory, sloppily told bore.
As hot as an exposed ankle in 1870, Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) is a feminist champion amongst old-fashion cods. Her free-wheeling ways are as accented as Beast’s Belle, which we see manifested in her willingness to hop in the slop and give lambs a good spanking to get a move on. “My lord, but what about your dress?” When she shoots down marriage proposal numero dos, you can almost hear the townswomen tittering, “Can you believe she didn’t marry that man?” Titter, titter.
But let’s back up in time. Before Bathsheba becomes a certified landowner and town-wide hot topic, she was naught but a lowly farm girl, her only holdings being her education and her sharp wit. Neighbor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), upon retrieving her red scarf from the woods – Oh! Red! In June! How scandalous! – wastes little time in trying to secure a marriage. It’s your average “boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl, boy’s dog chase his sheep off cliff, boy loses farm, girl inherits farm, boy works at farm” saga.
English costume romances such as these thrive on their performances and none here disappoint. Mulligan offers up some of her finest work – a nuanced and lively portrait of a woman ahead of her time. Her inner workings are like a skeleton watch; her eyebrows flock hither and thither with each dutifully charged enunciation; her faint smile is a beguiling jewel. And magical though her work may be, it doesn’t prove enough to camouflage the bigger issues at play.
Take for instance Bathsheba’s romance with Mr. Oak – who might I say looks confusingly like a hot Charlie Kelly. Schoenaerts displays fierce subtly in his quiet, complacent role as Mr. Oak and in his own right is excellent as well but his chemistry with Mulligan is cursory at best. Considering that the weight of the film rests squarely on our investment in Mr. Oak and Bathsheba’s brewing romance, the fact that their entanglement is barely lukewarm makes everything else feel a touch soggy, soiled and businesslike. They have kind of a Luke ‘n’ Leia thing going on where you dread having to watch them kiss. For a romance, that’s a pretty huge problem.
Furthermore, they’re both kind of boring characters who like each other because the other one is equally boring. Everyone’s drinkin’ and dancin’ at the wedding? Best tend to heaps of hay!
No matter how fancifully dressed up it is – and believe me, from costumes to sets to cinematography, Far From the Madding Crowd is an appropriately distinguished visual feast – it cannot escape the Hollywood romance formula wherein we’re supposed to root for the centerpiece love story because they’re the sexy stars of the film and the sexy stars of the film are supposed to do it by the end. There’s certainly consolidation points earned for its free-spirited feminist lead – in addition to Mulligan’s apt performance – but that’s not enough of a cover job to disguise its disappointingly flat – and sometimes seriously head-scratching – narrative turns.
The most pronounced of which comes in the form of the character Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and his perplexing motivations. They prove particularly problematic in that his arc only makes sense if we regard him as a madman. His steadfast abandonment of former love Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) works in and of itself but not in the context of his later developments with Bathsheba. Relationships like this may thrive on the page with much more time and care dedicated to them but on the screen, they just don’t make much sense at all old boy.
Vinterburg delivered a picture of staggering depth with The Hunt and unfortunately his vibrantly nuanced tendencies have all but disappeared here, like a children hiding beneath his mother’s dress. Though there’s much to like in Far From the Madding Crowd – especially Michael Sheen, props to Michael Sheen – there’s little to love.
Pitch perfect performances grounded by a bare-bones gangster plot and a neglected puppy makes The Drop a sweeping human story surging with thematic undertones of good versus evil. Returning after the majorly affecting Bullhead, Belgian director Michael R. Roskam enters the English language game to deliver yet another absolute wonder of subtlety and character. Backed by a screenplay from Denis Lehane (Shutter Island, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), who adapted from his own short story “Animal Rescue”, The Drop is a nerve-wracking shadow game that puts the players at the forefront and lets the underlying crime elements serve as a guide to move those characters into different lights. With the shadows and spotlights cast here or there, Lehane’s characters electrify or terrify. They are tarnished archetypes; representations of the degree to which the label “good” has become sullied and the awful selling power of “bad”.
To get a sense of the acting prowess working under Roskam, look no further than leading man Tom Hardy, who once again proves to be an absolute wrecking ball onscreen. As nuanced as any of his finest performances, Hardy is cloaked in his own kind of puppy dog veneer. He’s fiercely trustworthy, notably thick-skulled and loyal to a fault. On his way home from working at Marv’s Bar, Bob Saginowski (Hardy) even stops to rescue a battered and bleeding Pit Bull puppy from a trash can. All signs point to him being a pretty great dude. But that doesn’t mean he’s not mixed up in some sketchy shit.
Throughout the picture, Bob’s past is hinted at, as is his former association with Marv, played by the late, great James Gandolfini, and his “golden days” crew. From Marv’s relative low-standing in this harsh New York neighborhood, we learn he’s a man fallen from grace. With flashes of Tony Soprano shimmering through, Marv makes a point of rubbing Bob’s nose in his former glory at one point, supposing in a superior tone that to have and to lose is better than to never have had at all. We, like Bob, are left to work through this values judgement on our own. We’re equally reminded of Gandolfini’s massive ability to juggle soul-bearing humanity and seething rage in one mere scene. For a final role, his turn as Marv is humming with potency and understatement, and like Gandolfini himself, leaves us wishing for more.
Late one night, Bob discovers said puppy abandoned and whimpering in a trash can in front of Nadia’s (Noomi Rapace) seedy apartment. Against his better judgement, he decides to take in the pup and care for it with the occasional help from this new friend and potential love interest. At first their meeting seems entirely coincidental but as we learn more, we come to know that’s not quite the case. When antagonist Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), infamous around the neighborhood for killing a young man in a yet unsolved crime, enters the picture demanding his dog back, a threatening triangle begins. It’s almost too easy to sense won’t that things won’t be right until one of the parties is offed.
With Bob tending bar during the nights and Marv running the place in name alone, a group of Chechen gangsters – who we can only assume are responsible for putting the aforementioned crew of Marv, Bob and co. out of the game – own and operate Marv’s Bar, using it primarily as a place for money drops. After an amateur sting takes the place for five large, the Checens breath down Marv and Bob’s neck to recover the money and Lehane starts to inject the proceedings with the sheen of double-crosses and mystery that he’s so well known for. He gives a certain amount of pieces to the puzzle but forces his audience to assemble it without a key. As characters expose themselves one piece at a time, we learn bites, not mouthfuls, of truth and Lehane manages to keep the major reveals close to his chest until the spell-binding climax.
The three major plot points – Deeds and the dog, the heist at Marv’s, Bob and Nadia’s fledgling fling – all run parallel to each other before coming to that show-stopping head. As Lehane builds the tension slowly, Roskam lets the big moments strike the audience like a street fighter wearing brass knuckles. There’s no showboating, no “gotcha” moments; just an elevated series of genuinely earned, classically executed character revelations. No one is quite who they seem to be. Everyone puts on a face of some degree. Is Bob the harmless dummy he puts forth? Is Deeds the ruthless killer he claims? Is Marv too far past redemption to survive? All may be solved but it’s never quite completely resolved. Like life, things are messy and answers don’t come wrapped in bows.
Moving into its final moments, Roskam and The Drop pull a bit of a Return of the King triple ending that mutes the power of one of Bob’s closing soliloquies. Rather than end on the somber note Lelane had driven towards, the piece moves towards a hopeful coda I wish Roskam had spared. It’s a turn I’m willing to forgive but it isn’t without its consequence. But forgiveness goes a long way in a movie packed with four prodigious performances; Hardy lays out some of his best work yet, Gandolfini exits on top, Schoenaerts continues his streak of haunting strong, silent types and Rapace hints at a kind of subtlety I didn’t know she was capable of. From front to back, these performances rightfully help keep the focus on the characters and not the events surrounding them and each of the above actors deserve high praise for such.
By the end of the film, we’re met a slew of ugly, compromised characters and seen their chameleon turn from one thing to another. The archetypes fade away to reveal broken men and women. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis‘ tasteful shadows consume all at some point. At a critical junction, Nadia questions Bob whether or not he was “still in the life”. He replies, “No, I just tend bar.” The Drop is all about sussing about whether that singular statement is the truth or not. That and puppies.