REVIEW: Denial

6 11 2016

If the U.S. presidential election and the “Brexit” decision have not made it abundantly clear, our time is teetering on the brink of becoming a “post-truth” era. Using any variety of rhetorical techniques, charlatans can play fast and loose with the facts to push an agenda based on blatant falsehoods or distortions of reality. Mick Jackson’s “Denial” plays like a kind of incidental prologue to our present dilemma, and perhaps this recent history is one we ought to have lent more credence as it played out.

Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) falls under attack from Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall), who baits her into making disparaging comments on video so that he can sue for defamation. Using a sneaky legal maneuver, he files suit in the United Kingdom where the burden of proof falls on the accuser. Thus, Lipstadt and her legal team must make the case that the Holocaust did happen, and Irving deliberately twisted the truth.

David Hare’s script hardly ranks among the most compelling courtroom dramas – a bit of fat could definitely be eliminated to make the film tauter – yet “Denial” still provides plenty of fodder for the mind. Some of the most provocative action in the film takes place in plotting the logistics of the case. Is the best strategy to go after the message or the messenger? It might be easier to take down Irving based on his character, but does that show adequate respect for the suffering of those whose history he tries to erase? Should Lipstadt take the stand? What about Holocaust survivors?

Ultimately, “Denial” asks us to consider who gets to make the case for history – and what place those who lived through those events have in shaping it. The road to the conclusion can be an uncomfortable sit; however, the film’s passionate case for freedom of truthful speech and the primacy of logic are quite moving. And given the current climate, we could all use a little confidence booster that reason will eventually triumph over the misguide notion that it’s respectable to have two points of view regarding incontrovertible evidence. B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 1, 2015)

1 01 2015

Mike Leigh’s films are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea; I, myself, often find his movies rather impenetrable.  His scripts, with their precise and emphatic characterization, often feel like the most episodic instances of linear plots imaginable.  Leigh takes his sweet time in getting to his final destination, which can be maddening for those not on board.  The leisurely pace can often provide quite the opposite of leisure, as a matter of fact.

All these things are true of his 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy,” a historical biopic of British opera masters Gilbert and Sullivan set at the development of their great production, “The Mikado.”  The movie boasts all the hallmarks of a period piece – namely, extravagant attire and luscious set design – but little of the stuffiness or self-importance that usually accompanies them.  This is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the way it eschews that style of opulence-focused filmmaking in favor of its talented ensemble.  Leigh cares far more about what feelings lie underneath their wardrobe instead of the fabrics that adorn it.

Sorry to keep limiting the audience, but the film will carry far more meaning for those who have spent any time working on a theatrical production.  The stage draws a particular kind of personality and ego towards it, and “Topsy-Turvy” packs its cast full of these personages.  These are not just “Waiting for Guffman”-like archetypes, though. All the players feature a depth of character that makes them all the more recognizable as people, not just as figures.  Common sense would not dictate the logic behind granting so much screen time to those who execute Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, yet it somehow works.

The two titans of the operetta hardly go underdeveloped, however.  “Topsy-Turvy” offers plenty of insight into the working relationship of two talented artistic creators, showing how their professional collaboration turns sour after over a decade.  Sullivan (Allan Corduner) seeks to craft a breakthrough opus while Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) seems hardly phased by their relative creative stasis so long as it continues to pay the bills.  They almost dissolve their partnership over simple disagreement, not because of some extraordinary circumstance that usually tears musicians apart in cinematic renderings.

Ultimately, they pull it together and create something fresh and exciting with “The Mikado,” and Mike Leigh arguably achieves the same feat with “Topsy-Turvy.”  The film is funny as well as insightful, in sneaky ways that are not entirely apparent until it concludes.

REVIEW: Mr. Turner

5 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I spent last fall in London, I often found myself wandering the halls of art museums (largely since they boasted free admission).  Quite often, I would walk past a painting on the wall without giving it much thought, admiring its remarkable craft but feeling rather unmoved emotionally.  One painter whose work struck me on a deep and profound level, though, was J.M.W. Turner, whose work with light and shadow predated the renowned Impressionist movement.

I was hoping that Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” a film who places J.M.W. Turner in the subject position, would stir me similarly.  Unfortunately, I can’t really say that I felt the same pull to Leigh’s film as I do to Turner’s paintings.  But simply because I did not respond deeply to it does not mean the work is entirely void of merit.  I simply appreciate it more than I like or enjoy it.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

With the exception of 2011’s “Another Year,” I seem to be rather immune to being swept away of Mike Leigh’s uniquely derived products.  (For those who don’t know, Leigh formulates his screenplay in tandem with the efforts of his actors in a lengthy, laborious rehearsal process.)  The characters all seem well-formed, and the dialogue always feels quite natural.  It just never feels exciting to watch.

In a sense, though, that’s kind of the point.  “Mr. Turner” is a biopic in the sense that it covers the life of J.M.W. Turner, but Leigh resists all the clichés and conventions we are normally conditioned to expect from a movie about a true-life creative mind.  Turner has no flashes of mad inspiration, nor does every word he utters ring with capital-I “importance.”  In fact, we rarely get to see his creative process at all.

Leigh uses “Mr. Turner” not to show how his subject is extraordinary, but rather the many ways in which he is ordinary.  It’s a biopic hiding inside an ensemble drama where Turner happens to have the most screen time.  Timothy Spall, a consummate character actor perhaps best known for his turn as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” series, certainly makes the most of the attention given his grimacing genius Turner.  It’s a physically committed, emotionally potent performance that gives him a much-deserved moment in the spotlight.

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REVIEW: The Damned United

12 05 2010

Really, there’s not too much wrong with “The Damned United.”  It’s just all too easy to be ambivalent about.

Michael Sheen really does give an admirable performance, and it’s the next step towards something that will gain some Academy attention.  Those who saw him in “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon” will probably notice that Sheen has been gradually upping his game.  If he keeps up this trend, he will be at Oscar level in a few years.

But for now, not even Sheen can make any part of “The Damned United” memorable.  The premise seems like it’s something that can really rile up some emotion: Brian Clough (Sheen) is a soccer coach who plays a game of honor, yet he has to put up with some dirty cheating players at his dream job coaching for Leeds United.  We see the mettle of Clough as he raises his Derby County team from the cellars of British soccer to playing with the league’s big dogs.

So it should be heartbreaking whenever the Leeds players disrespect him and refuse to acknowledge his role as their coach, right?  It isn’t.  The movie has no urgency, and no power to play up any sort of emotion.  It’s a breezy movie and easy to watch because of this, but I feel like it had the potential to really pack a punch.  However, “The Damned United” felt surprisingly coy with just providing an overview of the events.

So, if you happen to be looking for a movie that is good but doesn’t require you to turn on your brain, this could be just the right thing for you.  Don’t expect to be blown away, though.  Expect “good” and nothing more.  B /