DENIAL (2016)

October 6, 2016

denial Greetings again from the darkness. Guilty until proven innocent. It’s a concept that is inconceivable to Americans, yet it’s the core of British Law in libel cases. When once respected British historian David Irving accused American scholar and educator Deborah Lipstadt of libel, based on her book that accused him of being a Holocaust denier, the burden fell to Lipstadt to prove not just that Irving’s work was a purposeful lie, but that the Holocaust did in fact take place.

This is the first theatrical release in about 15 years for director Mick Jackson, who is best known for his 1991 L.A. Story and 1992 The Bodyguard, and for his Emmy-winning 2010 TV movie Temple Grandin. The script is adapted, from Deborah Lipstadt’s book, by playwright David Hare (The Reader, 2008), and the courtroom dialogue is taken directly from trial records and transcripts. Like most courtroom dramas, the quality relies heavily on actors.

Rachel Weisz plays Ms. Lipstadt with a brazen and outspoken quality one would expect from a confident and knowledgeable Queens-raised scholar. Timothy Spall bravely takes on the role of David Irving, a pathetic figure blind to how his racism and anti-Semitism corrupted his writings and beliefs. Tom Wilkinson is the barrister Richard Rampton who advocates for Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin Books in the libel suit brought by Mr. Irving. Andrew Scott plays Andrew Julius, the noted solicitor who also handled Princess Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles. Others include Caren Pistorius as an idealistic member of the legal team, and Alex Jennings as Sir Charles Gray – the sitting judge for the case.

Of course for any sane human being, it’s beyond belief that a Holocaust denier could achieve even a modicum of attention or notoriety, much less have the audacity to bring suit against a scholar who simply published descriptions of that denier’s own words. Rather than come down to fact vs opinion, a more fitting title would be opinion based on fact vs opinion based on a lie. If the words used against Irving in Lipstadt’s books are true, she would win the case. In other words, she had to prove that he was a racist, an anti-Semite and knowingly misrepresented the facts in his works as a Holocaust denier.

Mr. Jackson’s film begins with Ms. Lipstadt as a professor in 1994 at Emory University (where she remains employed to this day). In 1996, the lawsuit is filed, and in 1998, Lipstadt and Rampton visit Auschwitz. Though the courtroom drama and corresponding legal work takes up much of the film, it’s this sequence filmed at Auschwitz that is the heart and soul of the film. Very little melodrama is added … the scenes and the setting speak for themselves.

The trial finally started in 2000, and as always, it’s fascinating to compare the British court of law and process with that of the United States. The formality is on full display, but nuance and showmanship still play a role. The film and the trial ask the question … are you a racist/anti-Semite if you truly believe the despicable things you say/write? This is the question that the judge wrestles with (and of course, “Seinfeld” had a spin on this when George stated “It’s not a lie, if you believe it”).

It’s been a rough movie week for me with the Holocaust and slavery (The Birth of a Nation), but it’s also been a reminder of just what wicked things people are capable of, and how current society continues to struggle with such inexplicable thoughts. Kudos to Ms. Weisz, Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Spall for excellent performances, and to Mr. Hale for the rare inclusion of a Chappaquiddick punchline.

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015)

November 24, 2015

victor frankenstein Greetings again from the darkness. If a filmmaker is going to mess with the classics, there are two paths of creativity from which to choose: stay true to the original, or put a new spin on it. In this case, the classics in question are the nearly 200 year old novel from Mary Shelley (1818) and the nearly 85 year old movie from James Whale (1931). The filmmakers doing the messing are director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John). The spin they chose was (in theory) to tell the story from the perspective of Igor, the loyal assistant to Dr. Frankenstein.

It’s an interesting approach, but one that immediately presents a problem … since the title they chose was not “Igor”, but rather Victor Frankenstein. The film does begin with Igor’s backstory in the circus as a hunchbacked clown/amateur doctor, and the character does provide some early and late narration. The conundrum stems from the fact that pretty much everything else in the movie is centered on the mad scientist, rather than the skilled apprentice/partner.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor and James McAvoy plays Victor Frankenstein (not Fron-kin-steen, in a nod to Mel Brooks), and both actors seem to be doing everything possible to bring energy and enthusiasm to a movie that can’t seem to decide if it’s a reboot or a reimagination or simply an origin story. Radcliffe effectively uses his physicality as the circus clown who is so mistreated and misunderstood, and McAvoy is such a hyper-active mad scientist that I’m sure his fellow actors many times were inclined to advise “say it, don’t spray it”.  McAvoy does seem to be having a grand old time playing the brilliant yet unhinged young doctor-to-be, and to his credit takes a much different approach than Colin Clive when he gets to the infamous line “It’s ALIVE!”

The best parts of the movie are the intricate and amazing sets, the monster himself (albeit too brief), and the expert use of classical music and film score. The circus sets are colorful and active, while Frankenstein’s soap factory home/laboratory is fascinating and creative, and the final Scotland castle on a cliff is breath-taking. Pulleys, chains and cranks are everywhere … as is an incredible amount of body parts, organs and fluids.

After a very well done circus opening, we are jarred with a seemingly out of place action sequence involving a slo-motion chase and fight scene that seems to be attempting to mimic some of the recent Sherlock Holmes movie stunts. Here they are unwelcome and ruin the flow. Another aspect that seems forced and unnecessary is a romantic interlude between Igor and a trapeze artist (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). It feels like an add-on to remind us that it’s supposed to be Igor’s story. Additionally, Andrew Scott plays an intriguing Scotland Yard Inspector who is every bit as obsessed with his faith-based beliefs as Victor is with his science-has-no-bounds stance. A story told from the Inspector’s perspective might have worked, but instead it comes across as another add-on. Another add-on is the filthy rich and very devious fellow med student (played by Freddie Fox) who agrees to fund the experiments, but mostly the character is an after-thought necessary to move the plot along. Wasted is the always menacing Charles Dance, who has but one scene as Victor’s strongly disapproving daddy.

A combination of the romance, minimal role of Igor in the grand finale, the medical school bumbling, the clunky Inspector involvement, and the all too brief monster appearance makes the film all but impossible for viewers to connect. They tell us twice “You know the story … a crack of lightning, a mad genius, and an unholy creation”, but the reality is, the fact that we know the story, makes this one all the more disappointing. It’s fun to look at, but is lacking the depth and soul that has allowed Shelley’s book to stand up over two centuries.

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SPECTRE (2015)

November 8, 2015

spectre Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t come to me looking for objective judgment on Bond. By the time we hear that familiar opening trumpet blast of Marty Norman’s Bond theme, I’ve already been swept away into the land of MI6 enchantment – gadgets, cars, women, over-the-top stunts, globe-trotting, global villains and quintessential coolness. And it doesn’t help that this time director Sam Mendes treats this 24th (official) Bond film as an homage to those that came before. At times it plays like a tribute – and maybe even a closing chapter (for Mendes and Daniel Craig?).

A long tracking shot drops us into the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, complete with skeleton masks and giant parade props. We follow a masked couple as they maneuver through the crowd and into their hotel room, where 007 quickly leaps out the window and makes his way across roof tops towards his mission. It’s one of the more visually stimulating and explosive openings in franchise history.

The story combines the personal back-story of Bond’s childhood with his relentless pursuit of the evil empire known as Spectre … the crime syndicate that has been part of the Bond universe for many years and films. The tie-in to the iconic Bond nemesis Blofeld, this new mastermind Franz Oberhauser, and Bond’s adoptive family make for an interesting chain of custody. However, as is customary, it’s the characters and action sequences that deliver the entertainment bang.

Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz (understated given his track record), and the two Bond “ladies” are played by Lea Seydoux (the daughter of Mr. White, and the key to finding Spectre), and Monica Bellucci (the widow of Bond’s Mexico victim). Mr. Waltz takes advantage of his limited screen time, while Ms. Bellucci is limited to a few lines and a chance to model some lingerie. Reprising their roles are Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White. New to the mix is Dave Bautista as Hinx (in the mode of Oddjob and Jaws), and Andrew Scott as C … the latest of those trying to shut down the “00” program. Whishaw brings a nice element to his role, while Bautista’s Hinx gets to participate in both a car chase and train fight … while uttering only a single word of dialogue.

The evil doers have gotten more intellectual over the years, and Oberhauser and Spectre have the goal of global surveillance and controlling information and data. It’s a modern theme for a Bond film that also seems intent on reminiscing. There are nods to most (if not every) previous Bond film via (among other things) Nehru jackets, cats, scars, and a white dinner jacket. And it’s nice to see the gun barrel sequence back in the opening credits where it belongs. As for the new song, Sam Smith has a very nice voice, but his Bond song lacks the punch of the best.

In terms of globe-trotting, we get Mexico, Rome, Tangier (Morocco), London and Austria. The (prolonged) car chase occurs on the deserted streets (and steps) of Rome and features two stunning cars – Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75. In addition to the cars and previously mentioned train, it’s helicopters that earned a couple of worthy action sequences.

It’s Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Bond, James Bond. He brings his own brand of emotion and cheekiness, while also possessing a physicality that allows the action sequences to work. He has made the role his, much like Christian Bale took ownership of Batman. For those who refuse to accept the new generation, director Mendes delivers enough nostalgia that even the old-timers should be entertained.

R.I.P. Derek Watkins

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LOCKE (2014)

April 15, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

locke Greetings again from the darkness. Most movies that take place within a confined space are outright thrillers that usually take full advantage of helpless and claustrophobic feelings and desperate actions. Think back to Duel, Phone Booth and Buried. A ticking clock and lack of a safe escape route had us sweating bullets with Dennis Weaver, Colin Farrell and Ryan Reynolds. This entry from the Dallas International Film Festival takes a much different approach.

Noted British writer Steven Knight also directs this one, and rather than nail-biting tension, we get a pretty interesting character study. Mr. Knight has written some impressive screenplays: Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace, and Eastern Promises. Utilizing every ounce of his writing expertise, he keeps us connected to Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) as he drives on the freeway with intermittent rain being his biggest physical obstacle. There are no high speed chases. No stunts. No weapons. Ivan is not being followed by a spy, a hit man or anyone else. He is merely driving and talking on the phone via Bluetooth.

In what could be considered the ultimate film gimmick, Tom Hardy is the only actor to appear on screen. His Ivan Locke is not just the only major character. He is the ONLY one. All supporting work and conflict is provided by a multitude of voices on the other end of a phone call. There is no need for me to delve into the story or the plot, but you should know that the situation Ivan finds himself in is not some creative web of criminal deceit … instead it’s his penance for one poor decision. That poor decision has him in a tough spot with very poor timing.

For those that wonder if Bane from The Dark Knight Rises has the acting chops to hold our attention, a reminder of Tom Hardy’s fine and varied work should alleviate concerns: Warrior, Inception, Lawless, Bronson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He can act and he can make a character his own, just as he does with Ivan Locke.

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