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.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS (2016)

September 1, 2016

light between the oceans Greetings again from the darkness. As the closing credits rolled, it seemed incredulous that Kleenex was neither a sponsor or even mentioned in the “special thanks”. Surely a tissue company was behind such a straightforward cinematic sob-fest (calling this a tear-jerker doesn’t do it justice).

Director Derek Cianfrance is accustomed to wallowing in movie sadness. His 2010 gem Blue Valentine was an expose into a fractured and challenging relationship. This time he tackles the M.L. Stedman novel and slows the pace to an excruciatingly slow crawl.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom, a tormented WWI veteran so intent on isolating himself from society and people that he accepts a job as the lighthouse keeper in some desolate area of Australia. The locals in the small town of Stanley in Tasmania welcome Tom and provide him a festive send-off. One of these locals is Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who, despite grieving for her brothers killed in the war, takes an instant liking to the handsome and mysterious Tom.

Soon enough Tom and Isabel are married and living a blissful life on the isolated rock. Emotional turmoil and tragedies follow as Isabel suffers numerous miscarriages. It’s then that the movie takes a wild turn. Rather than a message in a bottle, Tom and Isabel find a baby in a boat. Yep, unable to bear their own, the sea delivers a baby to their ocean front home.

Tom can’t help but notice that Isabel’s depression instantly disappears as she cares for the baby, and in the blink of a misplaced eye, the three become a family. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if the baby’s birth mother wasn’t discovered, so Rachel Weisz as Hannah brings her own tragic story and mourning to the façade of Tom and Isabel’s make-believe happiness. What follows is a look at loyalty to spouse versus doing the right thing … a dilemma that isn’t as easy as it should be.

The lighthouse and surrounding coastline are extremely photogenic, as is the town and, of course, Fassbender and Vikander (both deliver excellent performances). It’s also nice to see Aussie screen veterans Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, 1980) and Bryan Brown (Cocktail), even in small roles. It’s a purposefully sad and gut-wrenching movie that evidently moves so slowly to ensure the viewers have sufficient time to utilize those Kleenex.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE LOBSTER (2016)

March 12, 2016

lobster Greetings again from the darkness. The scene playing over the opening credits is baffling to us and sets the tone of peculiarity that runs throughout the film. A lady gets out of her car during a rainstorm to perform an unthinkable act as we watch through the windshield as the wipers rhythmically clear our view. Next we watch as Colin Farrell’s wife announces, after 11 years of marriage, she is leaving him for another man. Curiously, Farrell asks if her new man wears glasses or contacts.

Welcome to a dystopian future via the warped and creative mind of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009). It really boils down to a satirical look at relationships and our societal outcast of single adults. In Lanthimos’ world, Farrell, now a single man, must check in to the oddest country hotel you’ve seen. He has 45 days to find a romantic partner. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice. He chooses the lobster because of its long life span … ignoring the probability of ending up on a restaurant platter.

It’s an oddball world overly structured with rules enforced by the Hotel manager – a terrific Olivia Colman. Farrell befriends a couple of other single fellows: the limping man (Ben Whishaw), and the man with a lisp (John C Reilly). It’s funny and uncomfortable and kind of sad to watch these folks awkwardly try to connect with others with a deadline fast-approaching.

The first half of the movie is really black comedy at its finest, but once Farrell escapes the Hotel and joins the “loners” in the forest, the tone shifts a bit. An uneven romance develops between Farrell and a woman played by Rachel Weisz (who is also the film’s narrator). Even though this group of loners pride themselves on independence, it’s ironic that Farrell has merely traded one set of rules for another … courtesy of the rebel leader played by Lea Seydoux.

It’s a bizarre film, and one from which we can’t look away. The deadpan-yet- emotional dialogue delivery is strange enough, but the site gags are even further off the charts – keep an eye out for animals (former singles) strolling by in the background (peacock, camel, etc). There is certainly insight into modern day relationships and how people connect based on instantaneous judgments … but at least we don’t have to dig our own graves … yet!

watch the trailer:

 


YOUTH (2015)

December 17, 2015

youth Greetings again from the darkness. With a Best Foreign Language Oscar for his previous film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), expectations were sky high for this one from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is also back and the two create yet another artistic entrée that is a visual extravaganza, worthy of the admission price even if no dialogue existed. Combine the visual artistry with a commentary on age and emotions, and the result is a film that will either enchant or stultify … with probably no middle ground.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a renowned Orchestra conductor, who is vacationing at a stunning Swiss Alps spa with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his long-time best friend, screenwriter Mick Boyd (Harvey Keitel). Fred, a self-professed retiree, is being pursued by Queen Elizabeth’s representative to perform one last concert. Fred is adamant in his refusal … for personal reasons we later learn are due to his nostalgic belief that his wife (no longer able to sing) is the only one who will sing his “simple” songs as long as he is alive. In the meantime, Mick is working with a group of ambitious young writers in an attempt to leave a legacy with his most important film ever. So you can already see that both men are working through their golden years in different ways.

Lena is devastated when her husband dumps her for a young pop singer (played by the real pop singer, Paloma Faith). Oh, one other detail … Lena’s husband is also Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard). This makes for some awkward (but entertaining) moments, and also leads to one of the film’s best scenes – Lena spilling her emotional guts to Fred while they are both covered in a mud bath. Director Sorrentino is a master at twisting these poignant moments with dashes of levity or irony. Another example is when Miss Universe (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea) puts a condescending movie actor (Paul Dano) in his place with a devastating shift in tone and a comeback for the ages.

Sorrentino executes a couple of bizarre dream or fantasy sequences – one with Fred conducting a cow pasture (replete with cows and other bits of nature), and another with Mick being haunted in a meadow by all the female stars from his films (each in costume of their character). Suffice to say, this is not a conventional look at aging. What’s also clear is that Sorrentino believes our emotions drive our actions. The most jarring example is the aftermath when Mick’s long-time leading lady Brenda Morel (played by Jane Fonda) declines to appear in his latest film.

Even the most bizarre segments are presented with a visual artistry that forces our brains to process overtime. How about an obese Diego Maradona (played by Roly Serrano) repeatedly kicking tennis balls into the air? Or big time actor Jimmy Tree (Dano) struggling with his decision to sellout by appearing in a popular robot movie instead of pursuing his desire to be taken seriously as an actor? Or Lena bouncing back with a socially awkward mountain man? Or the seemingly minor role of a young masseuse (played by Luna Zimic Mijovic) who has us yearning for more? In addition to how each of these segments is startling to look at, Jane Fonda’s role has so many nuances that an entire movie could be made about her.

As with The Great Beauty, the film will have the most profound impact on those of us old enough to be looking through the binoculars and noticing how far away the past looks … and wondering just how long until “Life’s Last Day”.

watch the trailer:

 


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

March 10, 2013

Oz1 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems appropriate that anyone discussing or commenting on this movie should provide upfront disclosure regarding their stance on the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Having watched director Victor Fleming’s original more than thirty times, I have no qualms in classifying myself as an unabashed fan. So it’s understandable that trepidation accompanies every Oz fan into the theatre to watch director Sam Raimi’s prequel.

Mr. Raimi’s career thus far has included two extremely popular special effects-driven franchises: Spider-Man (2002-07) and The Evil Dead (1981-92). His feel for imaginative visual effects remain in full force, and are evident from the opening credits. Unfortunately, Mr. Raimi was working with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the legal constraints that protect intellectual property. Author L Frank Baum’s original children’s books are public domain; however, Warner Brothers owns full rights to the 1939 film. This means the filmmakers had to tread lightly so as to avoid the legal whammy that goes with “borrowing” artistic rights. This is the reason we see no ruby slippers, and only tangential references to Dorothy oz2Gale, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, don’t be surprised if the news soon breaks of a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros against Disney.

The film opens with an homage to the original. Filmed in black & white and presented in original Academy screen ratio (square picture), we are introduced to Oscar (James Franco), a conniving carnival huckster who dreams of being a great man like his inspiration Thomas Edison. Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is seen as a womanizer with twisted character and lacking moral fiber. He briefly reconnects with Annie, a past Kansas fling played by Michelle Williams. She informs him that John Gale (clearly a relative to the future Dorothy) has proposed to her. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff) who is Oscar’s loyal assistant and the target of his abuse after allowing Oz to be humiliated by the parents of a wheelchair bound oz michelle williamsgirl (Joey King). This segment lays the foundation for the rest of the story as we see what kind of man Oz is; and, we will soon cross paths again with the other key players.

Of course, the story and movie really take off as Oscar is swept away in a twister (via stolen hot air balloon) and crash lands in full color and widescreen Land of Oz. His arrival plays like it’s a planned ride at DisneyWorld … complete with waterfalls, giant colorful flowers and buzzy little water fairies. Soon enough, Oscar meets a lovely local witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain the legend of the Wizard and how Oz can assume the throne, and its accompanying wealth and power, by killing off the Wicked Witch who destroyed the previous king.

oz5 Oz travels with a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who just wants to be friends, and a broken china doll named China Doll (from Chinatown, voiced by Joey King) who wants her family back (lost in a witch attack). Though this is supposedly the story of the transformation of Oz from a bad guy to a good guy, the best parts revolve around the three witches: the two sisters noted above and bubble-riding Glinda (Michelle Williams).

The visuals in the movie are outstanding. My favorites include the Wicked Witch riding the smoking broom, the scary flying baboons, the smoke-and-mirrors climactic spectacle, and the amazing effects of China Doll. Michelle Williams is perfectly angelic as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work wonders with their script-limited roles. Of course, capturing the menace and wonder of the great Margaret Hamilton from the original is a cinematic impossibility. So while the script is less oz4than enthralling, the visuals and characters prove worthy to the source material. My only significant issue with the film is that I found James Franco to be distracting and miscast. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr was Raimi’s first choice was like a jab in the ribs every time Franco’s goofy and toothy approach marred a moment.

Some of the tributes to the almost 75 year old original film include a gingham dress, the witches crystal ball, a bunch of singing munchkins, the wicked witch’s cackle, horses of a different color, fire balls, the poppy field, crows of caution, Glinda’s bubble, creepy wicked green skin, a lion and creative use of scarecrows.  Knowing that this is a Sam Raimi film, keep an eye out for Bruce Campbell as the Winkie Gatekeeper who gets slapped around.  The score is easily recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman.

My guess is that “purists” will be appalled by the thought of a prequel, while a whole generation of youngsters will be gleefully overwhelmed.  Here’s hoping their parents will seize the opportunity to introduce the Baum books and the Fleming movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original and open to a complimentary sequel OR you’d like a preview of the next ride to open at Disney World.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you hate the original OR you love the original and see no need to tinker with perfection OR Kramer’s Mary Hart seizures are minor compared to what you experience when James Franco is on screen

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


OZ: The old and new

March 5, 2013

Director Sam Raimi has a quasi pre-quel to the classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz opening nationwide on Friday March 8.  Because of production rights, Mr. Raimi was limited to the source material from L Frank Baum’s book and not allowed to borrow from the film. His cast includes James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.  I won’t spoil the surprise of who is the Wicked Witch this time around, but just for fun, let’s compare the witches from the original to witches in this version.

The great Margaret Hamilton played the dual roles of the Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch:

oz margaret hamilton

 

 

 

 

Here are the photos of the three witches in Oz the Great and Powerful

oz mila kunis   oz rachel weiszoz michelle williams

 

 

 

I’ll leave it to you to decide what the difference might be.

Here is the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)

August 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Bourne series has often been viewed as the American version of James Bond … only more serious and with more action. Doug Liman directed the first, which was taken directly from the Robert Ludlum novel. Paul Greengrass then assumed control over the next two and added hyper-kinetic speed to the action sequences and focused on conspiracy theories, with a fascinating hero looking to take down a corrupt system. Involved in all three as a writer, Tony Gilroy (dir. Michael Clayton) takes over as director in this fourth entry. Unfortunately, the Bourne series is not similar to Bond, in that the directors and lead actors are not so easily replaced.

 With Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) present only on computer screens, Jeremy Renner takes over the lead as the next super-spy-weapon. When Pam Landy (Joan Allen) blows the lid off Treadstone in a Congressional hearing, the shady back office meetings lead to the decision to shut down the program. We all understand what that means … destroy the assets and lose the records. This decision is made by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach, both new to the series.

The decision leads to a vicious scene featuring the always dependable character actor Zeljko Ivanek who almost completes his assignment, but misses out on Rachel Weisz (playing Dr Marta Shearing). Dr. Shearing is involved in the manufacturing of the “meds” that keep our super-spies and super strength and super intellect. Yes folks, our superheroes are roided-up! You have to hand it to Dr. Shearing – for a lab rat, she has a remarkable ability to stay alive despite being the target of many highly trained assassins. Of course, she does have a bit of help from Aaron Cross (Renner).

 Here is the real issue with the film. Instead of Bourne trying to bring down the corrupt system, this is really two hours of survival mode for Aaron Cross. It reminded me of the Monty Python bit as they face opposition on their castle storm “Run Away!, Run Away!”. Most of the first half of the film is spent with him in search of meds, like a common drug addict, and the second half is spent on a motorcycle chase that, while quite exciting, seems to go on forever.

As an action film, this one works just fine. The limited fighting and expanded chase scenes are well filmed and intense, it’s just that as a viewer, it really isn’t as much fun to cheer for someone who is running away as it is for someone (Bourne) looking to bring down a corrupt system. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, we get brief appearances from series’ regulars Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and Paddy Considine.

The hope is that this is just a placeholder in the series. It’s been five years since The Bourne Ultimatum, and hopefully, if the series continues, we will get Paul Greengrass back in the director’s seat and Matt Damon teaming up with Jeremy Renner to wreak havoc on the true enemies of state. Otherwise, the American Bond ends up as nothing more than an action film with no real purpose.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Bourne series and are curious to see it without Matt Damon OR you simply enjoy a well made action film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the intricate conspiracy story line that put the Bourne series on the map

watch the trailer: