The Mustang

Mustang poster

Horses are magnificent creatures. Like humans, they can be out of control. Wild.

In The Mustang, men who are behind bars in a Nevada state prison are given the opportunity to help tame wild mustangs. Like the men, the mustangs have been herded into pens.

Roman Coleman (Mattias Schoenaerts) is an angry, violent inmate. He’s had time in solitary. He tells the prison therapist (Connie Britton), “I’m not good with people.”

When given the chance to work in the prison’s horse program, his first days are spent shoveling manure. Later, with guidance from the program’s crusty leader Myles (Bruce Dern), he learns techniques to calm the horses.

And, of course, Roman’s process parallels that of the magnificent creatures.

But The Mustang layers more elements atop this simple story of reform and redemption. Along with interactions with the horses and his fellow inmates, Roman has several visits from his daughter Martha (Gideon Aldon). He even makes a sort of friend when fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) helps him handle the horses.

He expresses regret to Martha for his violence that damaged her mother. He listens as Martha talks of caring for her mother after the incident. He sits in a group therapy session with the therapist and hears that other prisoners had similar violent outbursts that led them to prison. He begins to communicate and show a bit of humanity.

The Mustang is the first feature length film by French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. She opens the movie with beauty shots of mustangs running wild on the open range in Nevada.

The Mustang offers more than just another tale of a bad guy revealing his good side and being capable of empathy. It shows the grisly existence of prison. It also shows how a person may relate better to an animal than to another human being.

 

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The Danish Girl

 

Talk about perfect timing! The Danish Girl arrives at the end of a year when the world’s trangender population has received more attention than ever before.

And those stars! The Danish Girl’s title role goes to the incumbent Best Actor Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. Alicia Vikander, the gorgeous Swedish actress who appeared in Ex Machina and The Man From UNCLE this year, is his wife. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for their performances in this film.

The problem with The Danish Girl is, to borrow the Gertrude Stein line, there’s no there there. The story is weak and fragile. Husband Einar (Redmayne) and wife Gerda (Vikander) are artists in century ago Copenhagen. She asks hubby to slip on a gown so he can pose for a painting. He finds likes it!

Gerda paints more pictures of her new model and Einar hits the streets in a dress and wig. He even strikes up a relationship with a man, Henrik (the ubiquitous Ben Whishaw).

She and Einar (now going by Lili) take their art to Paris. They encounter Einar’s old friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is not particularly surprised by Einar’s new alter ego.

The support that Gerda gives her husband as he transitions to his identity as a woman is remarkable. It recalls the support given Caitlyn Jenner this year by her family members. (There is a fringe benefit for Gerda: her paintings of this “woman” are a big hit.)

In time, Lili pursues and undergoes surgery to make the transition complete.

Even with this sensitive treatment by director Tom Hooper, it is not easy to fully grasp what exactly sent Einar on this path. He and Gerda appear to be a happy, loving, sexually active young couple. Then, in short order, the movie’s story is set in motion.

Because of its subject matter and its topicality, The Danish Girl will likely receive huge amounts of praise. But there are, I hope, better, more substantial stories about the transgender population waiting to be told on screen.

Far From The Madding Crowd

 

Carey Mulligan wears her impish grin and her impressive wardrobe to great advantage in Far From The Madding Crowd. As Bathsheba Everdene, she has spunk. She’s an independent woman who claims she doesn’t need a man—while three suitors want her.

Set in the late 1800’s in rural England, FFTMC (based on the Thomas Hardy novel) teems with sexual tension. When this beautiful woman on horseback meets her handsome neighbor, sheepherder Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts), the attraction leads to his quick proposal of marriage (and gift of a baby lamb). She says no.

Bathsheba inherits a successful farm from an uncle and hires Oaks (who has lost his farm after all his sheep die) to work for her. Meanwhile, middle-aged neighbor, bachelor farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), offers his hand (and the prospect of a farming merger). Again, she says no.

Enter handsome soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). Yep, women love a man in uniform! He impresses her with his swordsmanship. (Is the sword a sexual metaphor? I think yes.) He introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh and marries her. But a quick case of buyer’s remorse sets in, leading to the story’s final chapters.

Not unlike a similarly named fictional character, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games (novelist Suzanne Collins took the Everdeen name from FFTMC), Bathsheba operates proactively. She is not the demure flower of a woman we often see in Victorian era stories. She gets things done even if it causes her to get her hands dirty. When she jumps into the water to help with sheep washing, her farmhands (and Oaks and Boldwood) are impressed.

Director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls keep the story moving at a quick pace. (The 1967 version of FFTMC starring Julie Christie ran nearly an hour longer than the new film.) A nice slowdown is the after dinner song Bathsheba sings with Boldwood.

Carey Mulligan has turned in several impressive performances in recent years but has not dominated a film quite like she does in Far From The Madding Crowd. This is her showcase and she shines.