We look at the season’s hottest movies: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ ‘The Danish Girl,’ ‘The Big Short,’ ‘Carol,’ ’Concussion,’ ‘Joy,’ ‘The Hateful Eight,’ ‘The Revenant’ & more
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
It’s not an accident that so many good films get released in a telescoped window of time in between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The studios often know when they are sitting on gold (film festivals can give them a heads-up), and they save the best for last … to woo critics, Academy voters and audiences with more than the usual amount of free time on their hands.
But not all of the movies are gems — some are meant merely to be crowd-pleasers, some are so specialized they won’t necessarily appeal to all tastes and some hit it on all cylinders … including at least one (or two!) with strong LGBT issues. Here, then, is my primer for the films of the season.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A masked, black-cloaked villain… a mystical, reclusive Jedi… a sorry-ass Millennium Falcon… a planetary-sized killing machine… an heroic droid carrying secret plans, all set to a thrilling John Williams score. It sounds like the original Star Wars (later rechristened with the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope), right? But I assure you, these images dominate the latest entry in George Lucas’ iconic space opera. You’re probably sick of all the hype, but the fact is: The Force Awakens is everything it promises to be — everything you want it to be … and more. And no one is more delightfully surprised than I.
The last time director J.J. Abrams got his paws on a sci-fi franchise — Star Trek — he did a sly bit of tap dancing to make the original characters relevant again, with an outright reboot that nonetheless clung to the past by purporting to follow a separate timeline. As entertaining as the film was, it was also a cheat: If you can just reinvent the past and the future (but still cast Leonard Nimoy!), you’re not being fair.
He couldn’t get away with such underhandedness with Star Wars (Lucas, unlike Gene Roddenberry, is still around), so he did the next best thing: He took the finest elements from Episode IV through VI, shuffled them around a bit, and cooked up a soufflé of the new and the familiar, of old friends and new leaders.
The plot is right out of a Saturday morning serial: A map to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the last surviving Jedi, has been placed in a droid found by Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphaned scavenger on a remote desert planet. She teams up with a pilot, Finn (John Boyega), the first-ever stormtrooper with a conscience, to escort the droid to the Rebellion leadership, and defeat the First Order, Nazi-like descendants of the Dark Side of the Force. They escape in a rat-trap cargo vessel called you-know-what, whose former pilot (Harriso…. C’mon!) and first-mate track ’em down.
There are more than a few plot holes. How, in the 30 years since the Jedi returned, did they fall into disfavor again? Why are the rebels still “rebels?” How does the First Order afford such expensive hardware? Stop asking those questions! This is action-adventure with a soul, the ultimate marriage of chick-flick and nerdgasm that provides a love story (just try not choking up when Han and Leia reunite) and parent-child dynamics that delves into something primal. Star Wars was the defining pop culture touchstone of my generation; it feels like The Force Awakens could be the same for post-millennials.
Exquisitely paced and seamlessly weaving beautiful visual effects, it’s perhaps the most heartfelt action movie ever made, though in part for reasons that go beyond what’s on the screen. After Lucas’ trilogy of bloodless but technically proficient prequels, it’s like the best family reunion imaginable … and may, in fact, be better than all of them.
We’re home, guys … 33 years late, but we’re home.
(Now playing in wide release.)
The Danish Girl
In the 1920s, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) was a celebrated painter of landscapes, applauded by society and beloved by his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Einar’s paintings had truth in them … an achievement made all the more remarkable because Einar hid a dark secret. When Gerda teases it out of him, asking him to model for her portrait in women’s clothes, her paintings, and his suppressed identity as a transgender woman (of course, there was no term for it at the time), emerge. Finally they can both have what they want … but at a price.
The Danish Girl is the most serious, respectful and reserved portrayal of gender identity you could possibly imagine, which is exactly where it goes wrong. The director, Tom Hooper, has made the Masterpiece Theatre version of the wrenching, bloody, horrific process of sexual reassignment. It needs to be less Downton Abbey and more Downtown Shabby.
Not that The Danish Girl fails because it isn’t Tangerine (though that’s part of it); it doesn’t really fail anyway. What it does is take the calculated approach of portraying the trappings of gender dysphoria. Because the people themselves didn’t have the language to discuss it, there’s amazingly little discussion of it at all. Redmayne — his face a nondescript sea of freckles, teeth and pale skin — is a blank canvas on which Hooper paints his alter ego, Lile Elbe (historically, one of the first successful sex-change patients). But there’s so much dignity at work (the sets and costumes practically demand Oscar nominations) that the more I think about the film, the less favorably disposed to it I become. There’s no powerhouse moment, no startling revelation… unless you count Vikander’s performance as Gerda. Especially during the first half, the film belongs to her. She’s a potent onscreen presence (as anyone who saw her in Ex Machina can attest) who dominates our attention. She’s the driving force of the film’s heart — perhaps the real Danish girl it should be about.
(Now playing in limited release.)
The Big Short
Considering how important the financial markets are to, well, the world, it’s scary how nobody really seems to know what they are doing. Want to create a drug to fight HIV? Regulators will test it for years to make sure there aren’t serious side effects; want to bundle junk bonds together and sell them to ignorant investors? No one cares so long as it makes money. And the side effects can be far more devastating.
Around 2005, only a few Wall Streeters bothered to look at the new-fangled instruments call “credit default swaps,” which looked secure (mortgages! Who doesn’t pay their mortgage!) and realized that these were time-bombs for the national real estate market to crash. No such thing had ever happened before, so no one thought it could this time. But the speculators were willing to take the risk. They bet against the market — known as selling short — and paid premiums to investment banks, waiting for the inevitable to happen … and make a shitload of money when the bottom fell out. Which it did.
The Big Short is a remarkable movie for many reasons, not the least of which is it’s a comedy about one of the great tragedies of the last 50 years. Trillions of dollars in wealth disappeared practically overnight. But the speculators weren’t the bad guys; there were the Cassandras of Wall Street, predicting doom while nobody listened … and they cleaned up as a result.
Another reason The Big Short delights is that the writer-director, Adam McKay, is best known for the Anchorman movies. (He even casts alum Steve Carell as an obnoxious but socially-conscious investor in a scenery-chewing role, and gets comedic light out of Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling.) That gives a silly energy to what could be a grim, ominous movie about complicated business terminology (see Margin Call) instead of the raucous, guerrilla-toned dark absurdism in front of us. We laugh a lot … the laughter of the damned.
(Opens Dec. 23 in wide release.)
You never fully appreciate the skill it takes to make a convincing lone-hero-against-the-establishment story until you see it done badly. On the heels of one of the best (see The Big Short above) comes this disastrously pompous and humorless drama with a terrible name. Whereas The Big Short explores how greed blinded supposedly smart guys to the carelessness of their own actions, and Spotlight pitted crusading journalists against the entrenched hierarchy of the church in the most Catholic city in America, Concussion suggests that only one doctor ever drew a connection between getting hit in the head and brain injuries, and how the NFL is the most demonic organization is this side of SPECTRE.
The lone-wolf hero is Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), an idiosyncratic Nigerian pathologist who draws a link between former football stars who got bashed in the noggin repeatedly for 15 years and their cognitive problems late in life. I won’t deny the historical bona fides of the story — I assume Omalu really did encounter resistance from the Powers That Be when he tried to warn of the long-term dangers of professional football — but as with the tobacco lobby, I don’t think anyone really ever thought he was wrong.
That’s not good enough for writer-director Peter Landesman (who also wrote last year’s heavy-handed Kill the Messenger), who piles on the syrupy dialogue that serves only two purposes: First, to explain how incredibly perfect and great Omalu is in every time aspect of his life, and second, how deeply corrupt everyone else in the world is, for no apparent reason. (Omalu is forced to pay for testing out of his own pocket because a colleague, who’s also a football fan, doesn’t want him proving that his hero died of anything other than natural causes … why?) It might be tolerable if the film weren’t so relentlessly dour, with Smith’s accent coming and going as often as GOP hopefuls on the debate stage. I’d prefer to be beat on the head than sit through this again.
(Opens Dec. 25 in wide release.)
Joy is two movies in one package — the first half a quirky, humorous character study of a working-class family; the second a female-empowerment anthem about household gadgets. If those don’t sound entirely compatible, you’ve keyed into the primary disappointment of this sprightly but ultimately unsatisfying comedy.
It’s the 1980s, and Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is a working mother of two with a pushy dad (Robert DeNiro), a neurotic mom (Virginia Madsen), a caring grandma (Diane Ladd) and clingy ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), struggling to keep it all together. As her mom gets lost in cheesy soap operas that start to take on a life of their own, Joy schemes for a way out. And then she comes up with one: a self-wringing mop. If she can just get folks to believe in her product, she’s sure she can make a million … perhaps even selling it on this new-fangled cable channel called QVC.
The portion of the film where Joy is trying to succeed has all the elements of a rags-to-riches success story (and anyone who’s used the mop in the intervening decades knows she was onto something) with a goofy charm and airiness not usually seen in films from David O. Russell since Flirting with Disaster. But it makes the same mistake Concussion makes: Becoming excessively simplistic in pitting Joy against the rest of the world. Indeed, a key scene in the climax, in which she confronts a “rich businessman from Dallas,” looks like it was set in Waxahachie circa 1915, or a Simpsons episode with the Rich Texan yee-hawing with a caricature drawl. Really, guys? The clichés might not have been so offensive if the bit worked; it’s never a good thing when you’re watching a scene and think, “I could write that better.”
(Opens Dec. 25 in wide release.)
Director Todd Haynes’ best film, Far From Heaven, was a tribute to the 1950s melodramas of filmmaker Douglas Sirk, with a gay twist: A prim housewife tortured by the upheaval caused when she discovers her husband practiced “the love that dare not speak its name.” Well, that was Haynes best film; now that honor belongs to Carol, a sort-of companion piece that explores the anatomy of a same-sex romance in an era when homosexuality was still criminal and stigmatizing (i.e., pre-2005 … though in this case 1952).
It’s Christmastime, and young Therese (a brilliantly understated Rooney Mara) is working as a shopgirl at a Midtown department store. Her eye is caught by a glamorous, slightly mysterious customer, Carol (Cate Blanchett, exuding perfection). Carol casually drops a glove on her way out; Therese mails it to her; Carol thanks her with an invitation to lunch… and so goes the tentative courtship between a divorcee who knows what she wants and an ingenue just beginning to understand her feelings aren’t wrong.
It’s difficult to tell at first what direction Carol is going to head in; will it be a self-destructive thriller, a gauzy romance, a banal potboiler? That makes the film’s progress tense yet woozy, as a true relationship blossoms, even as Carol’s ex-husband (Kyle Chandler, exuding milquetoast petulance) interferes with some dire consequences.
One thing that makes Carol so magnificent — in addition to the performances, Haynes’ deliberate but subtly exhilarating direction and Ed Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography — is Phyllis Nagy’s exquisite script, which roils with double meaning but never becomes heavyhanded. (Concussion, are you listening?) And unlike The Danish Girl, which takes primness to extremes, Carol packs an emotional wallop, and resolves its unresolvable story (this is the 1950s, after all) with honesty, realism and emotional satisfaction. Few period dramas are as precisely envisioned as this; it feels like a time machine that takes you fully to another time and place, dropping you into the emotional lives of people you know. Carol is truly one of 2015’s unmissable aristic achievements.
(Opens Dec. 25 at Landmark’s Magnolia.)
Also on the radar
Youth. In an idyllic resort in the Swiss Alps, a renowned but retired composer/conductor (Michael Caine) is approached by Queen Elizabeth’s emissary — will he conduct his famed Simple Songs for a command performance? Meanwhile, a hot young actor (Paul Dano) prepares for his new role in what promises to be a terrible movie. And a respected filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) brainstorms to finalize his masterpiece, set to star his longtime muse (Jane Fonda). Director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) cribs liberally from his fellow countryman Federico Fellini for this reverie about art, life and creation, with an engaging, lopey energy, spot-on performances, a haunting score and breathtaking scenery. It’s not the most exciting film of the season, but it may be the most thoughtful. (Now playing in at the Angelika Film Centers.)
The Hateful Eight. Quentin Tarantino returns to the post-Civil War wilderness with his follow-up to Django Unchained, which hits theaters in two forms: A three-hour-plus road show edition (coming Christmas Day, complete with overture, intermission, entr’acte and additional footage) and a shorter-by-20-minutes-or-so “basic” edition. (Read the full online Dec. 21; road show edition opens Dec. 25 in limited release; expands in January.)
The Revenant. Although it doesn’t open until Jan. 8, the epic you need to put on your radar is this amazing achievement from the Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Inarritu. (Read my full review Jan. 8.)
PLAN YOUR VIEWING
Our directory of movie openings
New this week
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (wide release); Sisters (wide release); Star Wars: The Force Awakens (wide release); Youth (Angelikas)
The Big Short (wide release)
Carol (Magnolia); Concussion (wide release); Daddy’s Home (wide release); The Hateful Eight (road show edition, Angelika Mockingbird Station; mainstream edition goes wide Jan. 1); Joy (wide release, pictured above); Point Break (wide release)
The Revenant (wide release); Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Angelika Mockingbird Station)
Anomalisa (Angelika Mockingbird Station)
45 Years (Angelika Mockingbird Station and Angelika Plano)
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 18, 2015.