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Gang Agley: The Sequel to “Trainspotting” Is an Uneven Mess, but That’s Not the Worst Thing About It

Consider, before you consider anything else about the sequel to Trainspotting, that the director of both films is an artist whose signal trait had been a seeming repulsion at the thought of ever going back to the well. Between the original and the new T2 (cheeky title, innit), Danny Boyle gave us the following: a black-comic romance, an island adventure, a zombie horror, a kids flick, a sci-fi, an Indian melodrama, a nature survival picture, a heist film, and a biopic.

That Boyle would break from his pattern of not having a pattern was cause, I think, for at least mild alarm among the faithful. Why do this? Why now? And why take the risk? Beyond the futile task of ever measuring up to a movie considered in some quarters (read: casa mia) to be a masterpiece, a limp follow-up might retroactively stain the first installment. Exhibit A: the Matrix trilogy…

Now, if you think that’s unfair — if you think this expansion on the Irvine Welsh Cinematic Universe ought to be appraised and adjudged entirely on its own merits — know that T2 makes this virtually impossible, even more so than most sequels. This is a film that takes every chance it gets to ape, echo, or literally splice in twenty-year-old footage from its formidable forerunner. The plot, which finds Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returning to his native Edinburgh, rescuing Danny “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) from taking his own life, and running afoul of Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) and Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), both of whom remain murderously vexed with Rents for having made off with their share of the big smack deal that concluded Trainspotting the first, eventually wends its way around to a (slight) variation on that same outcome. Before it gets there, the movie finds ways to alight on several locations and duplicate several precise shots from the original; cue the honeyed splices. Cue, too, at least four songs used on the earlier soundtrack (Eno, Iggy, Lou, “Born Slippy”). There are, again, multiple fir fuck’s sake!s; someone calls someone else a doss cunt, again. Renton, at the slightest provocation, and in a scene serving zero other purpose than to let him, reels off an updated, noticeably purpler “Choose Life” monologue. Diane (Kelly Macdonald) makes a sillily brief appearance, presumably for the sake of squeezing in an obvious line about how Mark’s current bird is too young for him. McGregor sneers that sneer. Bremner gawps his gawp.

Meantime, when they’re not busy self-referencing, T2‘s creators have no idea what kind of movie they want this to be. Renton and Sick Boy eventually come to terms, more or less, the former aiding and abetting in Simon’s various scams to drum up money for his fledgling business (which is either a pub or a sauna or a brothel, maybe all three). So is T2 a buddy picture, a comic crime caper? Maybe, except then there’s Begbie, freshly escaped from prison and now not so much a drunken brawler as some kind of Midlothian terminator, stalking and stabbing and garroting his prey; in these passages Boyle dips liberally into horror and suspense. And this is to say nothing of all the rather underdeveloped father-son stuff going on: There’s an out-of-left-field glossing of the chapter from the original novel where the crew run into Begbie’s father, the dipsomaniacal trainspotter of the title, in a rail station; and now Begbie’s got a grown son of his own, with whom he gets a scene that might have been touching if it didn’t come right in the middle of his savagely hunting down Mark Renton.

Not all these bits are bad. The lead-up to Spud’s attempt at self-nullification, as well as an early sequence of the recovering addict in a twelve-step meeting, are nearly as poignant as anything in the first film (and might have, with due expansion, made for a better spin-off). Conversely, T2 comes singing to life after Renton and Sick Boy’s first score, as they’re hoovering up rails of coke and talking over each other so furiously that Boyle decides to subtitle the exchange in quick-crashing waves of evaporating text. (Likewise, the single episode of heroin-relapse is a cracker, which might make you wonder whether the sequel to a film about dopers should’ve maybe included more, you know, dope.) But for each inspired moment, there’s something doubly deflating: the snatch of dialogue in which Sick Boy explicitly lays out the beats of the plot to come; the overall tendency toward the cheap crowdpleaser punchline; yet more of those oblique-angle shots Boyle’s come to favor and is now piling on to the point of distraction.

All of which gestures toward the bigger problem with the picture: It’s as if the filmmakers recognized the wanness of the material and settled on a strategy of padding it out with empty high style on the one hand and clever meta awareness on the other. Toward the end of T2 comes the curious development of Spud’s becoming a writer — and what he’s writing, on rumpled yellow pages in an unsteady hand, is Trainspotting, as in Welsh’s novel; snatching a sheet, Begbie reads out what is the real-life book’s opening line, The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy. What we’re meant to take from this is unclear, but there’s a suggestion to it, and the suggestion is more than a little cynical: that T2 is, in the final accounting, nothing more than a two-hour advertisement for itself, for the book that begat the movie that begat the movie that begat the book, and its creators are telling you they needn’t do more than keep you trapped within this circularity, where Spud is forever hapless and Begbie forever volatile and Sick Boy forever scheming and Renton forever fucking up at going straight, and you’ll eat it right up because that’s how it was when you fell in love with them. As Sick Boy says to Renton, in perhaps T2‘s most thoroughly transparent moment, “Nostalgia — that’s why you’re here.”

The audience at the screening I attended gave the closing credits a thumping ovation.

T2 Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
TriStar Pictures
Opens March 17, Regal Union Square and AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13

 

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Damien Chazelle’s Glittering Throwback ‘La La Land’ Can’t Measure Up — but That’s Its Charm

The cussedness of La La Land is almost enough to recommend it. Damien Chazelle’s sumptuous tribute to romantics trying to keep lit the fire of a guttering culture is defiantly old-fashioned in form and style. It is, among other things, a throwback to the great MGM musicals of the Gene Kelly era, just starring people who haven’t devoted their lives to the talents such musicals demand.

That failure to live up to the past is, in its way, Chazelle’s subject. Everyone involved in La La Land is plucking up their grit and striving to pull off the impossible, no matter the gulf between Hollywood as it was and what we’ve got left. His musical numbers explode with so much color and movement that to watch them is something like sticking your head into a confetti cannon. The best dancer in the movie is the camera operator, who Steadi-snakes through platoons of hoofing extras, capturing the idea of a dazzling musical more often than performances that truly dazzle.

The second big song, about the thrill of a Hollywood party, features several different actresses swapping lines of the verses, and their voices are so indistinct you might think it’s just one person singing. The soirée itself is a Gatsby lulu, wild and pleasing, shown in rapid, witty bursts, but the song is a cotton-candy wisp that dissolves between the crooners’ mouths and the audience’s ears. It’s almost clever that these sequences exemplify strain more than grace, as if Chazelle is saying, after each flat note or out-of-focus face, “See how much better things used to be?”

That’s La La Land all over: joyous, openhearted filmmaking in the service of wan songs, bloodless singing, and dancing that we too often can’t quite see — we just have to take the movie’s word that it’s great.

Wanting to be great is the theme. The leads, the swimmingly toothsome Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), play talented dreamers who have come to Los Angeles in search of last-century glamour and artistry. She’s a barista/actress/playwright who can’t get through an audition without being interrupted; he’s a jazz pianist with vague plans to open his own club someday, one that hosts only “the purest jazz.” Because Chazelle’s no dope, Sebastian gets reminded that the jazz revolutionaries he reveres became great by looking forward.

The film is effervescent at first, as Mia and Sebastian discover each other. A moonlight walk is appropriately moony-swooning, with their bickering characters trying to resist dancing together even as movie logic insists they must. Soon, they’ll swan out of a screening of Rebel Without a Cause right up to Griffith Observatory, where they’ll slip loose of gravity and slow-dance against a dome of stars. Stone and Gosling have always been adroit enough physical performers that you could compliment them with the old line that they’re actors who move like dancers; it’s also fair to say that as dancers they move like actors.

The tone here isn’t all Singin’ in the Rain giddiness and satire. The darker moods of It’s Always Fair Weather movingly weight the film with adult loss and disappointment. Mia and Sebastian’s L.A. is muraled over with the faces of stars of the past, but its movie palaces and jazz clubs keep closing down. Still, after getting over the initial mutual loathing that such movie romances demand, the two of them offer just the encouragement they both need.

She’s going to seize the world through a one-woman show, and he’s going to bank some start-up money by touring with a pop-soul combo fronted by John Legend. That move comes to feel like selling out, of course, and if your eyes roll at that I don’t know what to tell you: This is a movie in which finding success as a professional touring and session musician is the source of the third-act crisis.

Still, there’s much to celebrate here. Chazelle’s championing of jazz is touching, and he even demands we listen to and enjoy some, which is something even documentaries about jazz musicians have lately not dared to do. The air percolates between Stone and Gosling, and while neither has a strong voice they both know how to get a plaintive ballad across. Again and again La La Land cuts to some vibrant vision, and it’s often funnier about its outsize old-school ambitions than any cutting critic could be. My favorite scene is one of the simplest: Mia and Sebastian sitting down to dinner, before a glowing curtain the color of lime Jell-O, facing at last everything that’s not working out in their lives. The camera settles down, and for once we’re watching something that could unfold on an actual theater stage — we’re watching performance.

This is 2016, a year that devours dreams like Galactus does planets, so of course their wishes can’t all go the way they hope. But this is also a defiant movie musical, meaning that those wishes do flower, eventually. Complicating the eventual triumphs is the reality that the movie itself is the product of the same Hollywood that almost crushes Mia, so it’s weirdly right that La La Land — like her — reaches for the stars, doesn’t quite grab them all, and then is still kind of OK in the end.

La La Land
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Summit Entertainment
Opens December 9, Regal Union Square 14

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Set in a Now Better Than Ours, ‘Miss Sloane’ Pits a Powerful Woman Against the Gun Lobby

Miss Sloane opens with a clever gambit: Jessica Chastain’s face fills the screen in a tight close-up as she talks about strategy, breaking the fourth wall. From its opening minutes, the audience is put at the mercy of a charismatic figure and forced to piece together what she might represent about our increasingly bizarre political landscape. Chastain, with her fiery red hair and forthright delivery, is often cast as the ambitious woman who brooks no bullshit. In Zero Dark Thirty she brought down bin Laden, and she returns in Miss Sloane with another politically charged live wire of a role, one not explicitly based on true events, but still resonant in unavoidable ways: Chastain plays a hyper-driven D.C. lobbyist pushing for stricter gun control laws. As Elizabeth Sloane, she talks a mile a minute, and every aspect of her self-presentation — blood-red lipstick, dark nail polish, sharply tailored suits, high heels — suggests a powerful shield against the men who might attempt to talk her down.

The November release date and the film’s focus on an ambitious woman of politics make it clear that Miss Sloane was expected to greet America in the wake of a newly elected woman president; our new reality lends the film a strange heaviness. The glass ceiling remains in place, but Chastain still strides briskly across the screen, her character always fighting for her beliefs. Director John Madden — whose résumé includes the considerably tamer Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Shakespeare in Love — keeps his camera in constant motion, though it seems no camera can move fast enough for Chastain’s frantic, sure to be awards-hyped energy.

That said, Miss Sloane, with all its Capitol Hill gloss, sometimes feels too much like a primetime political television drama. Too many of the characters in Elizabeth’s orbit — the pro-gun lobbyists who want her on their side, the plucky young idealists she ultimately ends up working with — never quite get fleshed out, as the film settles into an us-versus-them mentality. Elizabeth has been crafted to push against the seams of likable-female character conventions. She’s bristly, tough, and has little semblance of a personal life: Everything she does is strictly transactional. She even satisfies her needs via the services of a gigolo (Jake Lacy), and their scenes together are intentionally devoid of frisson. Viewers may laugh at the shirtless jock who seems at odds with the professional woman, but this is rookie screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s unsubtle way of trying to level the playing field when it comes to gendered depictions of power. Elizabeth’s intermittent pill-popping could merit further exploration, and the filmmakers leave us to wonder — what was she like before her work became her life?

Mainstream cinema could always benefit from more complex women — even this film could, as the character of Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who works with Elizabeth and becomes a pawn in her game of getting the gun control bill passed by any means necessary, is sadly underwritten compared to her superior.

Miss Sloane
Directed by John Madden
EuropaCorp
Opens November 25, Regal Union Square

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Interracial-Marriage Drama ‘Loving’ Stirs With Quiet Humility

With films like Take Shelter, Mud, and even this spring’s somewhat uneven Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols has steadily built a filmography of terse beauty. With Loving, he tackles the kind of boldface subject matter Oscar season feeds on: It’s a historical drama about the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws banning interracial marriage. Which makes it perhaps even more impressive that Nichols stays true to his sensibility, avoiding the melodrama or the back-patting triumphalism you expect from such movies. Loving downplays the historical significance of its subject in favor of a quiet humanity.

The film stays focused — almost to a fault — on the modest, very-much-in-love couple at the center of the case. In the opening scenes, set in the late 1950s in Virginia, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) can’t seem to keep themselves off each other, whether they’re holding hands, embracing at a drag race, or even just sitting quietly, touching their knees together. Without idealizing anything, these early scenes depict a poor, rural community that’s surprisingly diverse: Black and white folks race cars, work in fields, eat at a table together. Nobody seems to make much of the fact that these two — a white man and a black woman — are in love. When they decide to get married, Richard and Mildred must cross state lines and drive to Washington, D.C. To them, it’s the way things are, and they don’t question it. They’re just people getting on with their lives.

You might expect a story like this to have lots of scenes of righteous speeches and fire-breathing racists. But all we really get is Marton Csokas in a relatively small part as the dirtbag police chief who arrests the Lovings, going on about “God’s law.” Even this one dimensional character is somewhat interesting: He sneers at Richard with a mixture of condescension and pity, because he thinks the guy is too uneducated to understand the differences between blacks and whites. These classist aspects of racism are something we rarely see in films about this period; for perhaps obvious reasons, Hollywood prefers to depict blatant bigotry as something exclusive to the poor and uneducated.

Even as the Lovings face difficulties with the law and slowly become aware of the injustice of their situation, the film never really compromises its patience and intimacy. The couple gets exiled to D.C., unable to return to Virginia together. What drives their dream of going home isn’t indignation or morality, but Mildred’s simple longing for the country: She looks at a small, ugly patch of grass outside their D.C. home like it’s an insult, thinking back to the acre in
Virginia where Richard had promised to build her a house.

Both actors are fantastic, and fantastically quiet: Edgerton’s silence speaks volumes about the shame Richard feels at having to put his wife through such horrors. Negga, meanwhile, gives Mildred a matter-of-fact rectitude: This is not noble suffering; she just wants to get on with her life. By staying within the narrow world of these two people, Nichols avoids turning his film into a familiar screed or by-the-numbers legal drama. He also steers clear of that trap so many others fall into: losing focus on the people and letting the lawyers and their arguments become the heroes.

That’s not to say that Loving doesn’t resonate beyond the particulars of its specific characters and time period. Throughout, the film subtly invokes the more recent debate about gay marriage. This is subtle at first, but it’s hard not to be reminded of the connection when we hear the words “marriage is a fundamental right” during the final trial. Nevertheless, Nichols rarely hits us over the head with such things. Throughout, the film’s muted gentleness remains its great strength. Maybe even to its detriment: There are parts of Loving in which the drama dissipates, thanks to the tension between the demands of history and what Nichols has in mind, and there are points when I wished for a little more context behind the legal issues.

But what the director does instead pays greater dividends. While Loving is intimate, it’s not indulgent; it seems to have absorbed Richard Loving’s eyes-on-the-road humility and his wife’s down-home pragmatism. The Lovings aren’t even at the court or with their lawyers when the arguments are heard and decisions are made. (One late, brief shot of the outside of the Supreme Court contrasts so strikingly with what we’ve seen up until that point that I gasped.) We get no broad cathartic moments — no great breakdowns, speeches, or confrontations. By the end, though, don’t be surprised if your face is awash in tears.

Loving
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Focus Features
Opens November 3
Regal Union Square and AMC Loews Lincoln Square

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‘Hell or High Water’ Finds Serenity in Two Brothers’ Desperate Bank-Robbing Spree

Hell or High Water sees a Scottish director making a down-home, West Texas–set movie about cars, guns, brothers, banks, and twist-off beers. But this outsider’s perspective is nothing new for David Mackenzie, who has worked with Ashton Kutcher and Anne Heche on a Los Angeles romance about a gigolo (2009’s Spread); Ewan McGregor and Eva Green on a sci-fi story concerning a global epidemic (2011’s Perfect Sense); and Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell on a father-son yarn set inside a Belfast prison (2013’s Starred Up). Mackenzie takes on new territory again in Hell or High Water, applying his serene, patient widescreen style to the open ranges, empty streets, and deserted diners of small-town Texas.

The screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), examines two sets of determined men: Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), dirt-poor brothers driven to a desperate spree of bank robberies by the threat of foreclosure, and Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), the veteran law enforcers assigned to the case. Mackenzie and DP Giles Nuttgens have no problem rendering the brothers’ forceful, panicked heists in visceral terms: The movie’s opening shot is a show-stopping traveling take that creeps around a bank parking lot, where an employee (Dale Dickey) finishes up her morning smoke before she’s grasped from behind by the Howards, both dressed in all-black hoodies and ski masks.

The muscle behind the robberies is Tanner — the hotheaded, trigger-happy sibling with a ten-year prison stint already under his belt — but the airtight logic undergirding them is Toby’s responsibility. In order to keep the bank from foreclosing on their oil-rich family property, Toby devises a plan to hold up a string of branches for low-level amounts until they’ve compiled enough to pay back the deficit.

But Mackenzie and Sheridan (who grew up in West Texas and has an ex–U.S. Marshal for an uncle) are far more interested in exploring the men’s off-the-clock behavior, suffusing the plight of both pairs with a faded melancholy. Hell or High Water‘s deliberate pacing gives it the feel of a heist story with its feet stuck in mud — and that’s a good thing. When the movie just sits with the characters on front porches or in backyards, Mackenzie’s generous, hands-off approach with his actors — most of the conversation scenes play out in long takes with minimal camera movement — yields poignant rewards. At sunset, Toby and Tanner pass a beer back and forth and mock-wrestle, getting in one more moment of tenderness before a fateful day of robbery; outside a motel at dusk, Hamilton wonders aloud about what the retired life has in store for him.

Bridges in particular is having a lot of fun here, dressed in tan shirts and red ties and delivering his lines like he has cotton balls in his mouth. When, in one porch scene, he sits down, crosses his legs, and smoothly props his cowboy hat on the toe of one of his boots, the gesture scans not as something scripted but as the spontaneous flourish of an actor who’s relaxed and in the zone. Pine, meanwhile, impresses with the opposite kind of performance: Silent and restrained, he sheds his boyish visage to an almost startling degree, signaling Toby’s regrets through hunched shoulders and downward glances.

Mackenzie and Sheridan embellish the central quartet with wonderful sideline characterizations of rural-Texas types; especially vivid are the two waitresses played by Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman, the former forlorn and sensing possible companionship in Toby, the latter a tough-talking server whose opening line to her customers is the confrontational “What don’t you want?”

Hell or High Water also takes pains to show how an amateurish bank theft might actually play out in a state with concealed-carry permits. After Toby and Tanner rip off a branch that turned out to be more crowded than they would have liked, their getaway drive is promptly attacked by a hail of gunfire — not from law enforcement figures, but from civilians in plaid shirts and pickup trucks. Later in the sequence, when Bridges’s Hamilton shows up on the scene and propositions a pedestrian for a ride to a good vantage point, the ragtag strangeness of the scenario harks back to an earlier comment of Hamilton’s, growled after an exchange in a parking lot: “God, I love West Texas.”

But even these spurts of levity can’t negate the sorrow motivating most of the characters’ behavior. Early in the movie, Toby worries about the prospect of their getting caught, only to have Tanner cut him down, as if the thought were meaningless. “I never met nobody got away with anything, ever,” he says.


Hell or High Water
Directed by David Mackenzie
CBS Films
Opens August 12, AMC Loews Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square

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Telling Its Story of a Gender Pioneer, ‘The Danish Girl’ Holds to Formula

The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s portrait of Jazz Age painters Gerda Wegener and her spouse, Einar, who butterflied into Lili Elbe via the first sexual-assignment surgery, is about gender and it isn’t. Like its subject, it’s fatally resolved to fit an ideal: the noble Oscar-bait biopic. If the script swapped transsexuality for heroin addiction, the beats of the story would scarcely change. There are secret jaunts, desperate doctor visits, pleas to change, and, finally, the slow, chilly acceptance that a partner simply can’t. Last year, star Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and The Danish Girl sticks to the template. Reminiscing one night on their bed, now divided chastely in two by a sheet, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) smiles that it “wasn’t so long ago we were married, you and me.” “You and Einar,” corrects Lili (Redmayne). Gerda suppresses an eye-roll. How can a couple communicate when they can’t even agree on the words?

Redmayne plays Lili like a saint. Yet there’s sedition in the script and a showdown for the film’s soul as Vikander, the stronger actor of the two, forces us to witness how much Gerda loses to give Lili life. I’ve seen it twice and I still can’t figure out how Hooper feels about his characters. He and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon at first present this as a sort of horror story. At the start, Gerda and Einar are happy heterosexuals who hump like rabbits, the kind of couple that sickens their friends. One day, she begs him to pose for her in stockings and heels, and suddenly a woman, Lili, bursts from his heart like the monster from Alien, killing its host. To Gerda’s dismay, the two stop having sex and switch from lovers to girlfriends. We rarely see them kiss again. Hooper’s already sold us on their hot-blooded romance — the switch happens so fast we get whiplash. “We were playing a game!” says Gerda, and Lili’s emergence almost has the feel of one, like a planchette of lipstick accidentally awakened an Ouija board.

At first, Einar can’t articulate his confusion. This was, after all, a time before today’s vocabulary existed, causing doctors, the villains of the film, to diagnose him with every disease from a cancerous growth to schizophrenia. Instead, Redmayne translates Lili’s urges in lingering looks at silk dresses, which suggest that the film doesn’t understand her deeper needs. Neither, perhaps, does Lili, who doesn’t appear to be attracted to anything other than her own reflection. Her focus — and the film’s — is on the external: the fringed scarves, the elaborate gowns, the attention-getting red wig that overshadows Gerda’s mousy bob.

There’s an electric moment when Lili attends her first party and blushes as the bachelors look her up and down. She discovers the male gaze. As a female in the audience, I rediscovered it, too — after puberty, women get so used to eyeballs that we forget. Yet Lili skips over the sour bits of being female, like the condescending gallery patrons who cluck to Gerda, “Don’t you wish you could paint like your husband?” not knowing or caring that she’s the better artist. And then there’s Lili’s exaggerated, simpering body language, all head-ducking and languid caresses, which she learns studying a peep-show stripper — someone who is herself playacting a faux femininity for men.

[pullquote]If the script swapped transsexuality for heroin addiction, the beats would scarcely change.[/pullquote]

It’s hard to tell how much of The Danish Girl is an oversimplification — or, more interestingly, a rebuke of being “womanly.” Take Caitlyn Jenner, who irritated feminists by announcing herself with a lingerie shoot. Hadn’t NOW spent decades telling women they didn’t have to dress like Playboy Bunnies? The Danish Girl is being pitched as the story of a brave pioneer — it even uses those words in its concluding title cards — but I suspect Hooper is quietly cross-examining Lili’s quest. He surrounds her with cities full of bold, aggressive, loud, strong women, from Ulla the outrageous ballet dancer (Amber Heard) to the brusque fishmongers at the market, yet Lili herself acts more retrograde than every other female in the film. She quits art, obsesses over her weight, and dreams of being a housewife. “I want to be a woman, not a painter,” she sighs. Supportive Gerda finally snaps, “Well, some people have been known to do both.”

With Redmayne reduced to poses and smiles, Vikander wrests the movie away to show us how a truly modern woman behaves. As a portrait artist, she commands her male subjects to “yield”; as a lover, she’s eager to make the first move — she even asked Einar out on their first date. Later, when her paintings of Lili are a hit, Gerda dedicates herself to her career, and their trajectories as homemaker and artist invert. Still, perversely, we can’t help noticing that their marriage becomes increasingly hierarchical — practically patriarchal — with Lili forcing Gerda to submit to her terms. Gerda is ditched at dinners, abandoned at her own art shows, drained of emotional support, and thrust into celibacy. No matter what her heart, or the empathetic score, might insist, Lili can still act like a dick.

The Danish Girl is a prism with three sides. It’s possible to watch it as an earnest biopic and walk away hailing Lili as a tragic trailblazer. That’s how the epilogue sells it, dismissing Gerda’s life with the mere note that she “kept painting Lili.” It’s also possible to see it through Gerda’s eyes — she, too, could be the Danish girl of the title — and believe that Hooper is instead hailing a wife who stood by her man even when he was cruel, and even when man was no longer the noun. Seen this way, it’s an ode to her selfless love. Einar cheats and blames it on Lili. Gerda struggles to remain faithful — and to prove her resolve, David Ebershoff, the novelist whose book the film is based on, invented hunky art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), who offers Gerda strength and sexual approval, only to be rejected as she scurries to her husband’s bedside.

But the third subcurrent undermines the whole film: None of it is true. In reality, Gerda wasn’t a lonely wife. She was a bisexual who made her name inking erotic sketches of women devouring each other on chaises longues and, by all accounts, got a thrill out of date nights with Lili. Here, she soothes Lili when her latest surgery fails — naively, the doctors hoped she could give birth with an implanted uterus. Actually, by then Gerda was divorced and living in Morocco with her second husband, an Italian diplomat. Gerda wasn’t a victim. The choice to make her one is the great mystery of the script: Why does The Danish Girl pretend to cheer Lili’s courage while changing the facts to make her seem selfish?

If The Danish Girl dared to critique its main characters, it’d be brave. If it had celebrated a modern marriage that worked for 26 years — much longer and stranger than the film lets on — it’d be truly pioneering. Real life is full of kinks, mistakes, and selfish behavior. Biopics, however, are made of formulaic virtue.

The Danish Girl
Directed by Tom Hooper
Focus Features
Opens November 27, AMC Loews Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square

Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Lucinda Coxon. Based on the novel by David Ebershoff. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, and Matthias Schoenaerts.

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Superb Reporting Drama ‘Spotlight’ Is a Rallying Cry

When veteran Village Voice metro reporter Tom Robbins left the paper, in early 2011, it’s said that he offered the staff a few words of wisdom: “Newspapers will break your heart.” Then his phone went off — it was a source — and the words of wisdom ended there, though what more could he have added? Those of us who have always loved newspapers in their traditional, printed form have watched them stumble — or, worse yet, die — in the face of that clamorous and tragically convenient info-funnel known as online media.

Newspapers are dead, except in the hearts of anyone who has ever loved them — which means there are still narrow slivers of hope. One of them now comes to us in the form of a movie: Tom McCarthy’s bold, shirtsleeve-sturdy newsroom drama Spotlight, which shows how a team of Boston Globe reporters exposed the scope of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church not just in Boston but worldwide. The film is less an elegy for the art and craft of news reporting than a rallying cry. If journalism were really dying, how could it inspire art this vital? Though it’s set in 2001 and early 2002 — practically ancient times in the distressing recent history of newspapers — Spotlight feels both timeless and modern, a dexterously crafted film that could have been made anytime but somehow feels perfect for right now.

This is also the story of the difference an outsider can make in a historically clannish city: The picture opens with a prologue, set in 1976, that dramatizes in fleet shorthand the way the Boston Archdiocese had, for many years, quickly and efficiently dealt with clergy members who’d molested children — by hustling those priests into a “treatment center” and then off to a faraway parish, where the cycle could all too easily be repeated. Flash forward to the summer of 2001, when the pedigreed Boston Globe gets a new editor, direct from the less highborn Miami Herald: Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) hadn’t grown up in Boston, as many Globe reporters and editors had; he was also Jewish, as many Globe reporters and editors were not.

But in his early days at the paper, after reading a seemingly minor piece by columnist Eileen McNamara about the archdiocese’s propensity for covering up abuse cases, Baron picks up on a potentially explosive story that seems obvious to him, while everyone else treats it as business as usual. Baron, low-key to an almost comical degree, asks his staff if the church’s record of protecting sex offenders isn’t something the paper should be looking into. The protests and excuses come from all sides, including deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and longtime reporter and editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), who together lead the paper’s Spotlight team, a crew of reporters devoted to long-term investigations. No one wants to tangle with the church in Boston, or with the aggressively affable and unnervingly powerful Cardinal Law (played, with creepy precision, by Len Cariou). But Baron, seemingly with little more than an arched eyebrow, persuades the Spotlight staff to investigate.

[pullquote]You don’t crack a story like this one by trolling the Web.[/pullquote]

In fact, Schreiber deploys an apparently infinite variety of arched eyebrows to construct a complete and marvelously detailed performance. Spotlight is perfectly cast, and the performers melt right into their roles: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James play the three Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matty Carroll. Ruffalo plays Rezendes as a man who’s given over his body, and not just his mind, to his work: He’s all sloping shoulders from too much typing, too much note-taking, too much hands-free phone-cradling. (It may be hard to believe, but Spotlight takes place before cellphones were ubiquitous.) McAdams’s Pfeiffer is the understated, empathetic listener who draws the deepest secrets from her subjects, in one case an abuse victim who has suffered privately for years, afraid to come forward: Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton, in a deeply touching, gently modulated performance) freely admits he’s gay and says he knew it as a schoolboy, when he was repeatedly molested by a priest he trusted. The upsetting clincher comes when he explains to Pfeiffer how much it meant to him that a priest let him know it was OK to be gay — a supreme example of the sinister power these megalomaniacal “servants of God” could have over innocent kids.

Spotlight, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, gets everything right, down to the Dockers: The upper-echelon Globe staffers, like Robinson and Bradlee, tend toward the safe, blueblood-approved uniform of chinos, loafers, and pale-blue oxford shirts, while the dogged foot soldier Rezendes — who at one point reveals that he comes from a Portuguese family — looks as if he’s picked up whatever looked cleanest from the floor. (If Oscars were handed out to the costume designers who get real-life clothes exactly right, Wendy Chuck would surely win one.) But Spotlight also makes it clear that the Globe draws much of its staff from people who grew up in — and know — the area, regardless of class. Going for the story is the thing that unites them, and McCarthy nails that bristling, bustling newsroom vibe.

The Spotlight team’s research uncovered nearly a hundred sex offenders who had been protected by Cardinal Law and the Boston Archdiocese; after the initial story ran, in January of 2002, many more victims who had long remained silent came forward. Still, considering those astonishing results, what’s remarkable about Spotlight is how unflashy it is. Reporters aren’t always heroes — mistakes come with the territory, and Keaton’s Robinson has to reckon with some himself.

Keaton is terrific here — his performance has more depth, more subterranean layers of anguish, than the one he gave in last year’s Birdman. Rather than making journalism look glamorous, Spotlight captures its workaday nature: When I look back on the film years from now, I’ll picture McAdams’s Pfeiffer, dressed in unflattering pants and an untucked shirt — she’s clearly not a person who thinks much about what she’s wearing — hoofing her way to meet a source at a South End café. News reporting means writing, but it also means getting out of the office. You don’t crack a story like this one by trolling the Web to see what already-broken news you can repackage.

Spotlight is a great American newspaper movie in the tradition of All the President’s Men. It’s exhilarating, as that picture was. But the fragile state of newspapers today gives it a more urgent, melancholy context. Even if Spotlight is largely about journalistic ideals, it’s also attuned to the ways in which a paper is bound up with the life of its city or town. When Rezendes quizzes a sex-abuse victim — played with anguished gravity by Jimmy LeBlanc — the man says at first that he doesn’t want Rezendes to use his name; he has a very young daughter and isn’t sure he wants her to know about his own childhood trauma. He’s a belligerent-looking guy, instantly recognizable as a specific Boston type, with a gaze that’s both direct and guarded, as if he wants to take down the world before it takes him down. Even though the articulate, inquisitive Rezendes also comes, presumably, from working-class roots, the two seem a universe apart.

But by the time the victim has reached the end of his story, harrowing in its straightforwardness, his Boston could be anyone’s Boston. That city — I lived there for sixteen years — is so striated that Carhartt-jacket Dorchester, just a T-ride away from suede-elbow-patch Cambridge, may as well be on the other side of the Earth. Yet Patrick — in the end, he allows Rezendes to use his name — collapses that distance with his story. When a newspaper dies, the stories of its city and its people are in danger of dying with it. Spotlight stands in defiance of that and asserts that the price of that defiance is worth paying. As reader or employee, newspapers will break your heart. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be worth the cost of the paper they’re printed on.

Spotlight
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Open Road Films
Opens November 6, Regal Union Square and AMC Loews Lincoln Square

Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup.

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Fall of the House of Rather: ‘Truth’ Traces the Journalistic Misdeeds That Brought Down an Anchor Rather Than a Bush

The most effective scene in James Vanderbilt’s brisk, outraged Truth is one that will be familiar to anyone who has ever sat in a room where editors and reporters are breaking down an investigative story. The reporters — here, 60 Minutes researchers played by Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, and Topher Grace — lay out what they know and what they suspect. In this case: that a young George W. Bush pulled son-of-privilege strings to duck Vietnam for National Guard pilot training he wasn’t an ideal candidate for, and that even then the president-to-be didn’t much bother with showing up, at one point knocking off for months to join a political campaign. One of the eager researchers sells the story’s nut with awed exuberance: The president of the United States went AWOL.

Getting everyone to prove what they know? That’s the wearying job of the editor, in this case Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the 60 Minutes producer and noted Dan Rather–wrangler. As often happens, this meeting sinks into conspiratorial logic touched with Rumsfeldian thinking: The absence of evidence backing up this story only convinces them more — now they have a story and a cover-up. “They’re the military,” scoffs Quaid’s barely sketched-in jarhead character after someone suggests that paperwork in Bush’s 35-year-old file might simply have been lost. “They’re good at shit!”

The scene is tense and exciting, well observed and nerve-racking, full of the pleasures of watching a team learn to work together and attack problems, the dread of knowing how they will fail, and the what-if momentousness of how history might have worked out differently. They’re meeting in 2004, in the months before the re-election of that erstwhile fighter pilot. The question isn’t just “Could they have upended the election?” It’s also “Are they trying to upend the election?” And: “Is that something journalists should be doing?”

That last question is a yes, of course, and Truth deserves credit for knowing it — for not pretending its job is to honor what our establishment press wheezily calls “both sides.” But the facts must be proven. Vanderbilt cuts, on occasion, to the “Swiftboat” ads that Bush supporters ran attacking the military service of John Kerry, ads whose creators honored none of the rules of evidence that Mapes’s team believed they were holding to but eventually got wrong — and in making that mistake brought on the downfall of Rather himself. The answers to the other two Truth leaves you to sort out for yourself. But since it’s based on Mapes’s memoir, the film plays as defiant tragedy, the story of a good reporter who possibly made a mistake but should never have been discredited.

The team knows what it needs to get to prove the things it believes it knows, and Vanderbilt soon gives us a spirited shoe-leather montage of Moss reading the names of potential sources off a dry-erase board, and of reporters making phone calls and getting what sounds like a series of coordinated run-arounds. This unflashy film’s most recurrent image is a black landline on a black counter ringing someplace in Texas, always to be answered by the slow clunk and whirr of an answering machine. Mapes and her team find themselves facing the terrible dilemma journalists face every day: the elusiveness of corroboration.

Vanderbilt is strong at scenes of process and pressure. The network trusts Mapes, but it wants the story sooner than later — not because it’s out to pillory Bush, but because 60 Minutes will be preempted two weeks early in the fall, and the brass doesn’t want to look like part of an “October Surprise.”

The investigation at last uncovers what appears to be a batch of Holy Grail documents in which the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian criticized Bush’s attendance and performance, going so far as to ground the young buck. Even more irresistible for Mapes’s team: a memo, titled “CYA,” in which Killian recounts being pressured by his higher-ups to inflate Bush’s marks.

The highest drama in Truth comes midway through: We witness, in quick but painful detail, the small mistakes and somewhat understandable bad calls that led CBS to air these memos as authentic, despite the failure of Mapes’s teams to persuasively establish their provenance. Vanderbilt, the screenwriter of Zodiac, here making his debut as a director, masters the heady pulse of high-end, high-stakes journalism. The film zips by, right up until Mapes’s piece finally airs, anchored by Rather on 60 Minutes II, and everything sinks beneath bathetic orchestral mush (daubed with Enya-like vocalizing) as we see the faces of the nation watching the report at home.

Blanchett plays Mapes as proud, keyed up, and somewhat jangled — in the opening scene, she still seems to be embodying Woody Allen’s blue Jasmine. She’s best in scenes where she’s working toward some solution, or commiserating with Robert Redford’s Rather, the only character or actor here beside whom she doesn’t read as a bit too movie-star. Glimpses of Mapes at home, with her son and husband, don’t have the same lived-in quality of the rest of the film, and the script’s stabs at a psychological backstory are reductive embarrassments, both in writing and performance. Vanderbilt links abuse Mapes suffered at the hands of her father to her need, in her professional life, to get at the truth — as the movie puts it, her father beat her for her curiosity, which Blanchett has to echo as the Bush story falls apart, crying out at CBS, “They do not get to smack us just for asking the fucking question!” Redford, meanwhile, gently lampoons Rather’s cornball weightiness, getting the anchor’s on-air cadence precisely right. But, off-air, this Rather evinces little of the salty toughness or smarts that would have gotten him to his position, or that Mapes characterizes in her book.

The collapse of Mapes’s reporting is slow and painful. First conservative bloggers and then the other networks assail the key documents as probable forgeries. Mapes, CBS, and Rather dig in, mustering evidence enough to keep the truth muddy: The docs still can’t be proved conclusively either way, real or fake. Truth despairs that in this scrum the facts that are provable about Bush’s service and Mapes’s integrity hardly matter. There’s much speechifying: Grace gets a Network-style humdinger about unchecked corporate power; Quaid muses over beers about how most reporters now only report on what other reporters have said; Redford’s Rather starts a phone call to Mapes with a disquisition on the history of profit in network news. (That’s in lieu of a “hello.”) Vanderbilt gives the best to Blanchett, who mounts a seething defense of the documents’ authenticity before a closed-door committee investigating the case.

In the story it’s to no avail. Eventually, of course, she is fired, and Rather is forced into retirement — and Bush is re-elected. The final moments suggest that it was Bush’s team who pushed for Rather’s ouster, and that at the very least the content of the memos was in the ballpark of truth. But the movie, which has been well vetted by legal teams and was not slapped together in a rush, never presents as unimpeachable truth what it hasn’t nailed down.

Truth
Written and directed by James Vanderbilt
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens October 16, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, Regal Union Square, City Cinemas 1, 2 & 3

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt. Based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes. Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, Dermot Mulroney, and Dennis Quaid.

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Single-Shot Marvel ‘Victoria’ Races Through Berlin and Into Glory

German director Sebastian Schipper is most famous for having acted a small role in Run Lola Run. His breakout fourth movie, Victoria, is inspired by Lola’s tricks: An infatuated girl sprints through a dangerous Berlin adventure. There’s even a technological twist — the film was shot in single-take in real time. The camera — and, more astonishingly, the actors — never pause as the story chases after them on bikes, up elevators, in vans, and across dance floors. But this beautiful, breakneck spree might be even better than its foremother.

Though Victoria has style to spare, Schipper is most interested in the psychology of peer pressure. The girl (Laia Costa) is a lonely Spaniard on a three-month visa. Stumbling tipsily out of a disco at 5 a.m., she befriends a handsome hoodlum (Frederick Lau) who’s palling around with three other car thieves.

Menace looms over this life-changing night. Yet Victoria doesn’t understand enough German to know how much trouble she’s in, and her dawning awareness is precisely Schipper’s point. She’s in a world where choices — and cinematography — are fluid. So, too, are we all every day; we just don’t have a camera on our heels.

This sparse marvel leaves the audience rattled by how small decisions lead to big consequences. Still, you’re most likely to leave the theater gushing about the cast’s bravura unbroken performances, particularly rising actress Costa, who, in a script constrained by language-barrier chitchat, still communicates the intelligence, discipline, and hunger for connection that will push Victoria and the guys to break every rule before sunrise.

Victoria
Directed by Sebastian Schipper
Adopt Films
Opens October 9, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Regal Union Square

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Ex Machina Asks If a Robot Can Think — and Is She Coming On to You?

Ex Machina is an egghead thriller with a scary selling point: Unlike Liam Neeson shooting up half of Boston, this actually could be taking place right now. It’s a smart film about the shrinking divide between man and robot. It’s also a hoot, an anti-comedy where all of the jokes double as threats, and vice versa. Ex Machina is the directorial debut of sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland, who penned the better-than-it-should-be Dredd and the three-quarters-perfect Sunshine. If he didn’t keep things so handsome and confident, it could play as camp. As is, it’s the film version of an iPhone: small, expensive-looking, and a touch overhyped — plus an addictive sales pitch for whatever Garland makes next.

Our hero is computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a nervous 26-year-old smartypants who’s won a company contest for a week-long trip to his boss’s cabin in the woods. The place is a million-dollar bunker carved into a cliff and buried so deep in the forest that Caleb has to helicopter over a closed rank of green trees. It’s all glass and stone, like the centerfold pin-up of Paranoid Environmentalist Living. When Caleb enters, his boss Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) scans the slender redhead and concludes, “You’re freaked out because it’s all super cool.” That’s Ex Machina‘s tone in one line: a clever and contradictory mix of truth and bluster.

Nathan is a billionaire genius with an ego to match. At thirteen, he invented the search engine Bluebook, a Web goliath with a lot of vowels in common with you-know-what. (Garland would swear it’s just coincidence that Google co-founder Larry Page built his own 6,000-square-foot ecolodge.) Isaac keys into that internet-age mix of artificial inauthenticity — he’s fantastic and funny even though we’re too freaked out to laugh. Nathan wears wife-beaters, works out, eats kale, and stocks his house with expensive artisanal booze that he chugs every night until he collapses. When he tries to sound charming, he’s a transparent jerk. Handing Caleb a keycard that only permits entrance into certain rooms — a modern twist on Bluebeard — Nathan waves away the weirdness by insisting that the system “just makes everything easier for you,” and struts off confident that he’s pulled another fast one. This master of spin makes even his baldness look like a feat of testosterone — he’s so macho that the hair on his head has simply taken up with his beard.

In part, Ex Machina is about today’s concept of power, the kind of men even James Bond and Jason Bourne are grudgingly aware actually rule the world. Those heroes might get rid of one Nathan, but there’s a thousand more tiny titans just like him slurping oysters and plotting their next success. This Nathan’s new project is an intelligent robot named Ava (the symmetrically perfect Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), who has big boobs, a see-through stomach, and a child’s curiosity about the world beyond her locked living quarters. We’re curious, too, about that painful-looking skull-level crack in her Plexiglas, but first, Nathan wants Caleb to chat with Ava to see if she passes the Turing Test — that is, can her mind pass for a human’s? Murmurs Caleb, “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. It’s the history of gods.” Naturally, Nathan misremembers his quote as, “You’re not a man, you’re God.”

With the exception of Nathan’s silent servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), this is a tidy, three-character personality clash between people who, in any other film, would each be The Smart One. (Even Nathan’s hangovers segue to a joke about the Theory of Relativity.) Crammed together, they jockey for respect. Nathan’s confident that Caleb will eventually give Ava his thumbs-up. After all, to program her, Nathan hacked into every cellphone on earth to study human behavior, which he describes as, “failed, imperfect, chaotic” — i.e., near-impossible to design.

Garland is doing the same thing. He’s analytical, not emotional. The film keeps us at a remove, asking us, too, to observe and deduce. But Caleb has a harder time staying logical. As Ava and Caleb begin to bond, she covers her machinery with girlish dresses and thick, almost fetishistic wool socks. Vikander’s posture is so erect and her balletic walk so precise that she’s convincing as a machine who’s convincing as a human — she lets us understand why Caleb almost forgets about her circuitry, even as she reminds us to stay alert. Eventually, she’ll ask Caleb a question he’s afraid to answer: What will Nathan do with her if Caleb decides her wiring isn’t perfect? The answer is inevitable. But the route Ex Machina takes to get there is full of fun detours — robot nudity, disco dancing, digressions on the importance of Jackson Pollock — that celebrate Garland’s own imperfect chaos, an achievement worth applause.