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

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REVIEW: Snowden

14 09 2016

At 69 years old, Oliver Stone isn’t likely to change his filmmaking style, but a little bit of uncommon subtlety might have behooved his latest work, “Snowden.” So often is the director determined to write the first rough draft of cinematic history on a current event – Vietnam, the Bush administration, the 2008 recession – that he sacrifices insight for topicality.

His take on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden doubles as a discussion about the trade-offs between privacy and security in the digital age. When he’s not blaring the themes through dialogue in lines such as “terrorism is the excuse; it’s about economic and social control,” the talking heads trade lines that sound excerpted from TED Talks. Moreover, the dust is still settling here. Why remake Laura Poitras’ perfectly good documentary “Citizenfour” with flashbacks when the story is still unfolding?

The film’s background information on Edward Snowden, largely left out of news media discussion, does provide some intriguing context to his giant revelation. His participation in questionably legal CIA operations, bipartisan disenchantment and operational disillusionment all played a big role in leading Snowden to rendezvous with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in June 2013. To Stone’s credit, he lets these events slowly form the character’s resolve to leak information; no one moment seems to snap him.

As Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a turn that belongs on the Wikipedia page for “uncanny valley.” He channels the familiar real-life figure in many surprising ways: a deeper voice, a less frenetic pace, a quiet resolve. The only thing that stands in his way is the repository of ideas we have about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which he automatically taps into by appearing on screen.

Between “Snowden,” “The Walk” and even going back to “Looper,” Gordon-Levitt has amassed an impressive body of work where he selflessly attempts to bring himself closer to the character, rather than the other way around. He’s busting his hump to ensure we see the role he plays as someone distinct from himself, not just some costume he puts on to slightly mask his own persona. Frequently, Gordon-Levitt’s reckoning with the character of Snowden feels more fascinating than the character himself. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Selma

7 01 2015

Selma” is not a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.

Or, I should say, “Selma” is not just a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.  It is so much more than just the story of one man.

Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb create their “Lincoln,” a film concerning the premier orator of his era set in the twentieth century’s ’65.  This man, standing with little more than ideology and conscience, must work against a political establishment stacked against them.  What is right, in the minds of these officials, must take a backseat to what the voting public is ready to accept.

But DuVernay, thankfully, disposes of Spielberg’s hagiography of Honest Abe that reeked of cinematic mothballs.  She opts for a portrayal of Dr. King that focuses on who he was and what that allowed him to accomplish.  In a way, not receiving the rights to use King’s actual speeches makes “Selma” a stronger movie.  Whether organically or out of necessity, he becomes so much more than a collection of recognizable catchphrases that trigger memories of a high school civics class.

“Selma” certainly does not shy away from some character details that the history books often elide, such as his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War and his marital infidelities.  Dr. King, as portrayed by David Oyelowo, does not always don his shining armor, either.  The film’s most powerful display of racially motivated violence takes place when hundreds of protesters attempt to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be brutally attacked by a cabal of police and townsmen alike.  King is not there with them.  He is at home, trying to smooth over a marital rough patch with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

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REVIEW: Belle

9 08 2014

“Costume design porn” (if that’s not a phrase yet, I call dibs on the trademark) rarely satisfies for me, but I’ll admit, “Belle” came as a pleasant surprise.  Amma Asante’s 18th-century set period piece focuses far less on the threads and refreshingly more on social values of the period in England.  And for once, I felt like I should care far more about what the characters had to say than what they wore.

Perhaps my interest in the film’s subject came from having visited Kenwood House in London, the film’s setting.  I spent one beautifully foggy morning exploring the newly refurbished historical site while it was nearly empty, and one particularly kind docent took the time to explain the history behind Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of an English aristocrat.  Dido is brought up just like any other legitimate child by her aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle (Tom Wilkinson), who is tasked with deciding a landmark case of the rights of slaves.

Ironically, her cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) has far more power and standing in British society … yet far less of a dowry to offer suitors.  A rivalry develops between the two that feels completely believable, and the tension propels “Belle” throughout some dull moments in the middle of the film.

Assante’s film has its heart in the right place, promoting causes like racial equality and the rights of women as self-sufficient individuals.  She gets a little self-righteous and preachy at times, but at least these struggles ground the world in reality as opposed to the first-world problems that seem to occupy most films of this genre.  Sadly enough, these are battles still being fought, and “Belle” reminds us that we’ve still got some distance to go even though we’ve progressed from the times being covered in the movie.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

24 06 2012

As the all-star team of British thespians entering their twilight years disembark from their plane in India at the beginning of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the particularly closed-minded Jean (Penelope Wilton) claims to know a little something about the native culture from reading Rudyard Kipling.  Of course, she is referring to “The Jungle Book” and other works that famed British author Kipling wrote about his country of birth.

However, if there was one thing I learned from all three of my high school history classes, it was that Kipling appears in textbooks for something else he wrote.  It’s a little ditty called “The White Man’s Burden,” and the first verse goes like this:

Take up the White Man’s burden-
Send forth the best ye breed-
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need…

Kipling’s poem was written to encourage the United States to join Britain in its endeavor to colonize the uncivilized East at a time when it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” because their holdings were so vast and widespread.  While I doubt this poem crossed the minds of director John Madden or the rest of the cast, I found it beautifully ironic. “The White Man’s Burden” would explain the troublesome undercurrent of neo-colonialism that runs throughout the movie, just as it can persuade them into thinking their adventurous escapade to India is just and noble.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 6, 2012)

6 01 2012

With previous Oscar winners George Clooney and Tilda Swinton coasting towards another nomination for “The Descendants” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” respectively, it’s as good a time as ever to feature a movie they starred in together, Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton.”  The 2007 Best Picture nominee (and winner for Swinton’s performance) is a gripping legal thriller that never takes you farther than a deposition room but provides legitimate fodder for thought beyond the annals of the court.  Gilroy presents three characters, played by Clooney, Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson, who each must consider what place morality and truthfulness has in their lives and in their jobs as lawyers.

It all begins with Jerry Maguire-esque moment of awakening for Wilkinson’s Arthur Edens, an incredibly respected New York attorney, who suddenly realizes that he no longer wishes to deny his conscience by representing UNorth in a class action lawsuit that violates his ethics.  After meeting with the victims of the company’s agrochemical products, the class action suit suddenly gets a human face for him … and Arthur feels the need to purge this skin of falseness so urgently that he strips naked in the middle of a deposition room.

While Arthur has a history of mental shakiness, Clooney’s Michael Clayton, the fixer for their firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, knows that there’s something more to the meltdown that a few chemical issues.  Michael, facing staggering debt from a failed restaurant and questioning the value of his job, is forced into a rigorous self-examination that Clooney animates with the perfect balance of internalized and externalized emotion.  He proves himself to be one of the best, if not THE best, actor of his generation at exploring tortured souls.  He realizes Michael’s flaws so vividly but finds some hidden nobility so we care about the journey even while vacillating on our opinion of the character.

Meanwhile, the scene stealer is Swinton’s Karen Crowder, the general counsel for UNorth.  She’s an über-Type A perfectionist who labors and frets over the smallest of details and really has no idea how to handle a situation like Arthur’s, which threatens to undo years of litigation and jeopardize millions of the company’s dollars – not to mention their reputation.  As he descends into madness (or a divine clarity depending on where you stand), she descends into a professional hell where her off-the-record, back-alley decisions make the difference for the fate of the lawsuit.  Karen, like the rest of the characters in the movie, are so richly written by Gilroy, who uses them to explore complex issues without ever being preachy or turning “Michael Clayton” into a silly morality play. In an era where “Inside Job” shows the actual moral bankruptcy of corporate America, the four-year-old movie remains incredibly relevant.