Denial

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: David Hare

Directed by: Mick Jackson

There’s no denying the spectrum of emotions Deborah E. Lipstadt experienced during her days in the Royal Court of Justice, recounted in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (upon which this film is based), deserves the silver screen treatment. Hers is a story that’s at once infuriating and inspiring, one that addresses the unfathomable but of course very real possibility of people denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Or, at the very least, that the aftermath was ever as devastating as it has been reported.

Denial represents director Mick Jackson (Volcano; L.A. Story)’s first theatrical release in almost 15 years. He has returned to craft a dignified if at times clunky dramatization that takes audiences through the harrowing Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. court case, a trial that lasted for over a month as it painstakingly poured over details like the existence of Zyklon-B insertion points and the significance of Prussian blue — all things that confirm gas chambers were used to kill. You know, the sort of stuff that can’t possibly be denied but is anyway because it is a fundamental human liberty to express opinions in a free society.

Rachel Weisz digs deep and creates a brash but deeply sympathetic character as the embattled Deborah Lipstadt. The plaintiff in this case is notable historian David Irving (bravely portrayed by Timothy Spall). An English author who had written extensively on the military and political history of World War II with a particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, Irving began marginalizing himself in 1988 with his perpetuation of the notion that the Holocaust was a propagandistic tool designed and used by the Jews to gain financial benefits and public notoriety. In 1996 he sued Lipstadt for remarks she made in her recent publication Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory — remarks he believed to be damaging to both his personal and professional reputation.

As a defendant in the English legal system, where it’s Guilty Until Proven Innocent, Lipstadt carries the burden of proof; that is to say, yes, her legal team (chiefly comprised of litigator Anthony Julius and libel lawyer Richard Rampton QC, here portrayed by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson respectively) has to prove that Irving’s rhetoric is reliant upon omission of facts and details, and that such omission of facts and details was deliberate. One cannot hope for victory over their opponent simply because he or she happens to be a Nazi sympathizer. Adding to her difficulties, Lipstadt is expressly told not to speak during court, that she cannot appear on the witness stand. Nor can any London-dwelling survivor of those camps. Including their testimonies would only aid the enemy. It would invite the possibility of public humiliation and unwanted complications.

Naturally, cameras linger close to Weisz as her composure informs the tone and attitude of the film. Her face becomes tight and twisted in disgust and frustration as the implications of her challenging Irving rather than choosing to settle out of court begin to overwhelm. Evidence of an emotionally hefty if not ultimately rewarding shoot is written all over the actor’s face especially as she goes out on her nightly runs — Weisz of course being born of Jewish immigrants. Denial is riddled with tension and fraught with emotional crevasses down which we journey. The film is at its most sobering when we visit Auschwitz. Her attorneys must gather evidence that gas chambers were used for mass murder rather than protection from incoming bombs. For some time her character isn’t even trusting of her own defense, who must frequently remind their client that becoming emotional in court will not help anything.

Despite some hiccups the case itself is intelligently and thoughtfully presented, and though a lot of legalese is included even in the few scenes that do not take place in court it’s not alienating. Rather than condescend, the meticulous attention to detail creates the cold and clinical air of detachment lawyers are meant to exude, no matter what cause they are rallying behind. Though in this case, a quiet righteous anger in Scott and Wilkinson simmers just below the surface.

It’s a competently shot and well-acted courtroom procedural even if the story that develops outside the walls of this hallowed institution stumbles over itself, a little too excited to arrive at its logical conclusion; to rightfully bathe in the glory of a just resolution to an ugly legal battle. Ultimately Denial is a straightforward presentation of a complex and seminal case in English law, one that is supposed to have revolved around libel and libel alone but which ends up delving into matters of historical accuracy, a directorial decision that will no doubt become a major point of contention for historians and viewers who fancy themselves history buffs. In a sense we should be thankful these creative liberties ultimately pave the way to predictability. To think that this saga would end any other way would be, in a word, unbearable.

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Recommendation: Performances allow the film to rise above its narrative flaws. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to Rachel Weisz these days. She is an intense performer and her Deborah Lipstadt is a great example of her skill set. What a resilient individual this person was (and is). This is a film to watch for great contributions from the supporting cast as well, namely Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott. A heavy film, but surprisingly not as confronting as you might expect.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

True Story

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Release: Friday, April 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Rupert Goold; David Kajganich

Directed by: Rupert Goold

True story: Rupert Goold’s cinematic adaptation of the memoir penned by disgraced New York Times writer Michael Finkel elicits more yawns than being forced to sit through days’ worth of testimony in an actual courtroom would.

It ought to be a compliment that this would-be crime thriller plays out with the fastidiousness of a trial hearing, but obsession with detail and determination to present evidence in a nonlinear fashion don’t translate into a compelling narrative. Ironically the slow-burn nature of this event is what ends up turning viewers off circa the halfway point. If you are really determined, you might give the last half the courtesy of staying awake long enough to see what the judge’s ruling is.

James Franco is Christian Longo, an Oregon man accused of murdering his wife and three children and who’s apprehended while laying low in Cancún for a time. Jonah Hill portrays Finkel, whose fabrication of certain details regarding his cover story on the African slave trade leads to his dismissal from the paper and a long period of unemployment. The two become entangled when Longo claims to be Finkel upon his arrest. Finkel — and by extension, we — demand an explanation as to why he chose his name. He wants exclusive access to Longo, but he’s limited to the sessions the prison will provide. In exchange for giving the journalist the inside scoop, he wants to learn to write, as he’s been a longtime admirer of Finkel’s work. Longo also wants Finkel’s word that he won’t divulge any information to outsiders.

These discussions constitute the bulk of True Story‘s narrative, and while they offer the pair of leads a chance to bite into their most somber material thus far in their careers, they also offer viewers many an opportunity to tune out and wonder if they’ve left the sprinklers in the yard running. (It’s alright, when I get back I’ll have a nice patch of overly-watered grass to enjoy watching grow.)

When Goold isn’t spending time highlighting Hill and Franco’s remarkably restrained performances — and if there’s any real reason to go and see this film it is for them rather than the shocking case — he’s weaving back and forth between cuts of Longo’s past and shots of a superfluously cast Felicity Jones as Finkel’s wife, Jill. As little as her dramatic prowess is utilized here Goold could have cast anyone. Why he opted for an undoubtedly expensive bit of casting is almost as much of a head-scratcher as how Longo, by all accounts a seemingly normal man, could be capable of such a heinous crime. Not to mention, Hill and Jones don’t particularly make for a convincing on-screen couple. Romance doesn’t necessarily have to be depicted (don’t worry, it’s not) but chemistry never hurt a film.

If I’ve given the impression True Story is a terrible movie, I should probably rephrase my major complaint. The odd relationship between Christian Longo and Michael Finkel attracts, though ultimately this story, this investigation into what is true and what isn’t has the feel of a compelling A&E True Crime segment. That Goold never does anything outrageous, like drastically alter facts in order to derive a denouement more befitting of cinematic spectacle is a strength. But again, the irony is a killer.

We should be impressed by how much True Story disturbs us. We should feel offended by the crime. We shouldn’t feel indifferent.

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2-5Recommendation: The film completely subverts previous conceptions of James Franco and Jonah Hill. The pair give incredible performances (this might be Franco’s best work since becoming Aron Ralston) but they’re unfortunately wasted in a sluggishly paced film that doesn’t add up to much in the end. I’d recommend a rental for the performances but not the drive out to the theater.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”

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Woman in Gold

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Release: Wednesday, April 1, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Alexi Kaye Campbell

Directed by: Simon Curtis

For a film trading in the recovery of stolen artwork at the hands of the Nazis Woman in Gold should, without necessarily resorting to graphic depiction, linger in the mind much longer than it’s going to.

Simon Curtis’ suitably respectful tone and ability to extract heartfelt performances from his leads does not make for a product that approaches poor quality, but here is a film that wastes more often than passes time laboring over detail in its over-reliance on flashbacks to set the scene of a contemporary legal battle. The legalities in question revolve around Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (an endearing Helen Mirren) and a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who together bring the Austrian government to court in a bitter dispute over whom some of the nation’s most famed artwork ultimately belong to.

One particular painting by Gustav Klimt, the ‘Woman in Gold’ portrait — so named by the Nazis who took it from her home — of Maria’s aunt Adele is regarded as “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Austria” and is valued at $135 million (this is the price a New York museum buys it for when all is said and done, anyway). This is the piece with which Maria’s ultimate concerns lie. Will the last remnants of her family history remain property of the famed Belvedere Gallery in Vienna or do they belong stateside with her? A large portion of the film is indeed spent in the present (well, in 1998 Los Angeles) focusing on the practicalities of setting up her case. Reynolds is excellent in another mature performance as Maria’s put-upon legal representation. His new job at a major law firm grants him a week to pursue this most unlikely avenue but his boss (Charles Dance) advises him that he ought not to get too invested.

Which of course he absolutely does. His initial impetus for helping out the elderly (and cranky) woman is of a financial nature, which no one can really blame him for. But things change once he has spent said week in Vienna only to have unsuccessfully built a case for Maria to retrieve the art. An Austrian journalist by the name of Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) inexplicably, though conveniently, takes an interest in the case as well, assuring them that not all hope is lost, although in order to pursue further action it’ll cost the pair a fortune in court costs. Thus far investing in the drama is almost as effortless as Mirren makes it look in portraying a woman so historically connected to, yet simultaneously repulsed by this part of the world, and Reynolds is again far removed from his days as a partying, wise-cracking slacker.

One of Woman in Gold‘s strengths is its ability to etch a portrait of human strength using minimally distracting cinematic tricks. The flashbacks are perhaps as ambitious as this film gets. Quite a few moments spent in the 30s serve to heighten the drama and contextualize our first visit to Vienna, a trip Maria initially claims she’d rather die before undertaking. We should have some background on this character, the significance of the artwork as well as the characters of Maria’s opposition. Of course, the fascists hiding in the shadows of the past we need little introduction to.

Unfortunately Curtis overestimates the technique’s effectiveness. After awhile the repetition and reinforcement of Maria’s haunted past cross over into redundant exercises in sentimentality. There are easily ten to 15 minutes that could be removed from his final cut. For a film that clocks in under the two hour mark time moves rather listlessly, save for a harrowing scene that explains just how narrowly Maria and her husband managed to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Woman in Gold is certainly not known for its action sequences, nor should it be, and perhaps it is overly critical to call out its deliberate pacing for this is a narrative that effectively absorbs — particularly hitting upon nostalgia with a marvelously crafted opening scene. Impossible to shake though, is the sense that the film sans a few of the trips down memory lane would have struck a deeper nerve.

This is a potent film all the same. It’s terrifically acted and to their credit the flashback cuts possess an ethereal quality that begets an, ironically enough, simpler era. They counter in an often colder palette the warm yellows and reds of the modern portions. Indeed, cinematography resembles that of a labor of artistic love. Maybe not as elegant as a Klimt, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes and heart all the same.

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3-5Recommendation: The true story of Maria Altmann, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 94, makes for compelling cinema. This is a few shades away from being a truly memorable tale though and could have benefitted from editing and a few sharper scenes. Still, it’s getting ever more exciting watching Ryan Reynolds adapt his skill set and any fan of historical events and Helen Mirren ought not to give this a pass.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “I wasn’t going to miss all of the fun! This is like a James Bond film, and you’re Sean Connery.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Judge

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Schenk; Bill Dubuque 

Directed by: David Dobkin

The honorable David Dobkin, who’s responsible for giving the world Wedding Crashers, presides over his very first drama and makes a relatively strong case for his continued exploration outside his comfort zone.

Despite narrative clutter and a doggedly long runtime (almost two and a half hours), which is perhaps more indicative of Dobkin’s awe over the star talent amassed in his courtroom (who else gets to say they have three epic Bob’s working for them on the same project: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton?) than his ability to trim the fat from his scenes, The Judge is a worthwhile procession featuring performances that do nothing but exceed expectations.

At its core and simultaneously where the film reel shows its most serious signs of wear and tear, this is a tale of tough love — a power struggle between a father and son who have lost touch and any interest in reconnecting. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful Chicago lawyer, returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He and his father, the powerful and widely-respected Judge Joe Palmer (Duvall), can barely look one another in the eye and after 20 years it’s all the two can muster to force an awkward handshake. Given the actors involved, the personal tension is inherently intriguing and, presumably, complex. They become characters we’re instantly invested in.

We are less invested in the roughly 30-40 minutes used in setting up Hank’s backstory and what kind of life he’s leaving behind in Chicago to deal with his family — one of luxury made less alluring by what certainly appears to be a failing marriage. We’re not asking too much by wanting to skip to the part where Iron Man gets to square off in court with his bull-headed father, now, are we? Does that overlook the point of having Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Vera Farmiga as strong supporting characters who help illustrate what it is that Hank left behind all those years ago?

Maybe a little.

Contributing to the excess is the fact that there are one too many peripheral characters that Dobkin clearly wants to develop so as to not leave them as secondary thoughts. Unfortunately by the time the denouement hits, it itself has become a secondary thought, sidelined by over-explained relationships that truthfully don’t have anything unique about them. It gets to a point we almost forget the real reason we’re here: not just to experience the power of two heavyweight actors within a courtroom — which, by the way, is a very interesting setting in which to try and contain the personality of one Bob Downey Jr. This is, after all, technically a crime drama. There must be plot beyond seeing how well the actors come together as judge, jury and executioner.

For what it’s worth, thanks to the insertion of Billy Bob Thornton as a bloodthirsty lawyer on behalf of the plaintiff, the drama on the floor crackles with intensity and emotion. As Dwight Dickham, Thornton is once again too good at what he does. He stands out from the local crowd as obviously as Downey’s Hank Palmer who, with a minor degree of reluctance, represents his father in the wake of a disconcerting discovery at their residence — one involving bloodstains found on his old garage-bound jalopy that he has been appearing to cover up. Hank (and to a lesser extent his brothers) immediately know what this finding will mean if his dad has to appear in court.

Yes, indeed — that old trick. The unlikely bond forming in the 11th hour, then the series of unexplained circumstances testing the durability of the new bond. I wouldn’t be so irritated by the writing had this involved quite literally any other cast; these actors are too good to be pigeonholed into predictable trajectories. The guy playing Hank Palmer, for one, is a rather unpredictable actor but even he can’t escape the shackles of cliched character development.

It ain’t all bad, though.

The emotions run high and there are several moments in which time seems to come to a stand-still as dialogue flows forth freely, on occasion exploding as if released from a fire hydrant. Legal mumbo-jumbo isn’t even an issue here, which is a compliment that ought to be paid the screenwriters. Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque understand they needn’t alienate an audience with technical jargon when there’s already enough beating around the bush going on.)

Come the end credits it’s difficult to shake the feeling The Judge could have banged its gavel a little more. . .creatively.

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2-5Recommendation: This guy may seem to be ruling slightly harsh on this film but this is mostly due to those pesky expectation levels again. While what this cast bring to the table is worth the price of admission, I can’t say the same about a rather bloated narrative that almost threatens to undermine a Robert Downey Jr. who may never have worked so hard for a paycheck. He alone is enough to still warrant a recommendation for seeing this in theaters. I just wouldn’t recommend going in expecting a whole lot more than a solid episode of Law & Order with A-list names involved though.

Rated: R

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Closed Circuit

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Release: Wednesday, August 28, 2013

[Theater]

Shortly after seeing Closed Circuit, my brain short-circuited.

After a serious cerebral work-out trying to figure out why any of the events that occur in this British pseudo-psychothriller really matter, I may have injured myself. I apologize if this review doesn’t come out all that coherently and/or if details are botched.

Despite the film’s best intentions to remain an involved, tense and compelling examination of the effects of what happens when concerned citizens get involved in an oppressive government’s affairs — all it can really muster up the strength to do is tease an audience willing to participate. Indeed, the film has a very interesting concept and the cast is relatively inspired. As well, it contains potent subject matter: who doesn’t love a good government-bashing every now and then? There are even several considerably compelling sequences, though they are rather scattered throughout an intensely dialogue-driven narrative. But the film goes nowhere, often veering off course into some yawn-inducing segments that wind up providing more loose ends than tying current ones up. At the end of this film you’re likely to be asking yourself why you just sat through that.

The more basic issue with the film is that there’s almost no payoff at all; that’s mainly due to the narrative being largely unsatisfying — equal doses distancing and too convoluted for one to care much about it or for the individuals in supposed crises.

Closed Circuit is the unsettling story of a corrupt court case that goes public in London, ostensibly set in the present-day. After an explosion kills over one hundred people in the downtown area, two lawyers — Martin Rose (Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Hall) — are called upon for an unusually tricky legal defense concerning one of the suspected bombers. The British attorney general (Jim Broadbent) has announced that there will be two sessions in which information shall be disclosed concerning the incident — an open court session proceeding a closed one; if that sounds a little fishy, a little disconcerting, well that’s the main selling point Closed Circuit is nagging you with here. It’s no new strategy, but in this case it’s a pretty interesting situation given the events.

As per the instructions given to Martin and Claudia by the presiding judge, the two go a long period without communicating with each other by any means, nor do they receive information through each other or are seen in public together; they are only to meet independently with a third party — a man named Devlin (Ciarán Hinds) who will discuss matters in private with each lawyer. Given some history between the two, it’s even more crucial that they remain out of contact with each other, in case they get too emotional around each other and threaten an already delicate legal situation. Of course, the two go as long as they can separated before they naturally break that code when their situations go from bad to worse.

To make things more complicated (and this is where your brain’s computing power really starts to kick-in here, hence your future headache), one of Britain’s top security enforcers, a government-run agency called MI5, could be implicated in the investigation into what’s generally being regarded as a terrorist attack against the country. As Claudia and Martin continue to dive into their investigation, several suspicious individuals begin lurking around in their vicinity, even despite the two’s initial willingness to comply with the conditions of their assignments. In Claudia’s case, a shady Middle-Eastern agent named Nazrul (Riz Ahmed) is perpetually looking over her shoulder, trying his best to be polite and as “friendly” as possible. At least, those are the initial appearances.

When the convoluted plot fully reveals itself somewhere near the end of the middle third of the film, it’s clear that he’s only a pawn in this elaborate government conspiracy that now threatens the lives of both lawyers.

Had the film not been obsessively talking to itself for most of the time, getting into the minds and lives of these characters would be surely worthwhile (and achievable). It would’ve provided this film a level of psychological dysphoria unmatched by many films coming out of Britain as of late. Instead, because there’s little character development or demonstration that any one person really is ever in danger at any time, the journey with the characters comes across catchpenny and largely devoid of emotion.

Bana is more or less a decent excuse to see the film, though his character is as haunted by his past towards the tail-end of the film as he is in the beginning. Rebecca Hall as his would-be partner here has a few moments to really shine, and she ends up coming to the rescue in terms of delivering a few of the more compelling lines and owning some of the crucial moments. Hall is actually quite good. Despite the cast’s best efforts to elevate the dull script, the tone continues to isolate and bore. If we were the jury sitting in on this case, we’d require substantially more evidence to see if this movie should be charged guilty of fraud or not.

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2-0Recommendation: The title ‘Closed Circuit‘ suggests more about the degree of participation you might feel throughout this film: you could feel a little left-out and isolated from it all. That’s not your fault. On that basis alone, this film is difficult to recommend to many who actually enjoy being a part of the film. If you’re okay with sitting back and being well aware of watching a film, this might be worth checking out. There are some tense moments but these are so sporadic its not even really worth it for that, either.

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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