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.”

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

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

The Monuments Men

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Release: Friday, February 7, 2014

[Theater]

Hollywood’s golden boy, the man who no one thinks will actually age is not only going grey, he’s becoming uninteresting. His latest directorial effort fails as a historical work of art, but succeeds in the extreme in showcasing A-list celeb vapidity. I’ve never been the biggest sucker for the handsome devil myself, and with the release of The Monuments Yawn, I’m ever more comfortable on my little island.

After watching this film, if you find yourself in agreement that the guy is overrated, I’ll move over and share some space. This island is big enough for the both of us.

The latest contribution from the Ocean’s Eleven star is threefold: Clooney’s front-and-center as art historian/appreciator Frank Stokes and can also be found behind the camera directing a cast with its own sense of history. He also wrote the story. The likes of John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett were all at his disposal, as Clooney attempts to dramatize a most unusual circumstance — with the exception of Blanchett’s character, the rest form a band of art buffs who are tasked with locating and recovering precious works from a Nazi regime quickly crumbling during the final year(s) of World War II. They must go behind enemy lines and risk their lives in an effort to ensure der Führer isn’t successful in completely eradicating a culture via the hoarding and subsequent destruction of their remaining artistic creations.

By George, the man’s got a fascinating premise to work with, a heck of a cast, and an indisputably impressive film résumé that has earned him many a star and stripe. Yet he does a disservice to all of the above by creating a film that’s as boring as history courses are to the students who perceive their enrollment in them to be a complete waste of their time.

There’s no denying that one of the world’s most recognizable names has eked its way into a position of absolute authority. We’re at a point where seeing ‘Clooney’ beside the directorial credit is less of a surprise as it is an assumption confirmed; the longer you endure as a performer, the transition from actor to director is a bridge that will inevitably be crossed. . .just because. Of course, there are names aplenty who have realized their storytelling abilities are best demonstrated from the director’s chair, while still being able to show a modest level of conviction in their on-screen presence. Clooney is such a big name that the fact he’s a director now might be a reality we are going to invariably dismiss as the norm for aging A-listers.

In the many instances he comes up short as a director here, it’s not for a lack of trying. With a well-selected cast and a beautiful, authentic sense of time and place, his intentions are earnest and noble. He infuses wit into a story that, given the heaviness of the historical context, really could use it, and he appropriately selected class acts like John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban as the vehicles for comedic relief. Too bad they never manage to yank the material out of neutral and become truly funny, as they more often than not are known for being capable of.

Costumes, make-up and set design are all impressive as well, particularly the set design. The film oozes 1940s quaintness. Dull browns and greens compose most of the shots taking place outdoors, while rich hues of mahogany and other colors of royalty help accentuate the dominance of the presence of the Third Reich, even in its state of decay in this moment in time. All actors are outfitted in appropriate garb that feels of the day, while the use of a portable radio that Frank discovers plays up the nostalgia factor wonderfully.

But considering all of these qualities, The Monuments Men should be so much better. It needs to be so much better. If the story were a map, we’re lost instantly in an incoherent jumble of directions, references, points of interest and a few other historical bits and bobs. At the very least, the journey we are meant to undergo throughout France and Germany is set up for some entertaining discovery. Instead what we are provided is a sprawling mess with an alarmingly low payoff come the long-awaited conclusion. Poor, if not nonexistent, character development is chiefly responsible for the way in which this film peters out into nothingness.

This mission is a noble undertaking, and so it stands to reason we should have some fairly compelling characters to deal with for two hours. As it turns out, this is arguably Bill Murray’s most uninteresting turn ever as Sgt. Richard Campbell, whose shining moment is cracking a tooth on some shitty food. Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz feels nothing less than squandered; and while Goodman and Dujardin have more work to do, it’s still menial as compared to Clooney’s talky lead.

As per usual, good old George is perfectly satisfactory as a leading man, playing the invigorated art appreciator who’s responsible for rounding up the troops (I really need to cease and desist with the cute puns). His directorial eye isn’t so trustworthy though, as he clearly has no idea how to control tone. The Monuments Men is monumentally tone deaf as it switches from comedy to drama back to comedy and even to romance from time to time in the space of a few short scenes. Plenty of films slip in between genres, but none feel as bipolar as this one does.

Worse than any of the aforementioned, the film is really a tough sit because it so often falls flat. This includes the comedic side of things. Clooney proves he’s as incapable of writing a convincing, historical script as he is directing it. His most recent directorial effort is a cardboard cut-out of what should be compelling filmmaking; it’s flimsy, hollow and yeah. . .cardboard-y.

Best just to stick to the basics, George. You know, looking great in front of the camera and all that jazz.

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2-0Recommendation: Tall order, recommending this one. The Monuments Men is a massive disappointment on virtually all levels. The main reason to go see this at this point is for the sake of seeing Mr. Clooney in another role, playing alongside otherwise excellent big-screen legends. Here, everyone (with the exception of the man himself) seems wasted in a movie that doesn’t seem interested in. . . .well, making anything interesting. I’d say skip this if you can help it.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Take a goddamn cigarette, Private.”

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

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