DENIAL*** Grippingly Relevant


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THIS IS AN absorbing, highly relevant, brilliantly well-acted movie about Holocaust denial. The story (from her book, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”) pits the American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz affecting a very credible Jewish American – Queens – accent) against Holocaust denier and bogus academic, David Irving. (Timothy Spall; as usual, outstanding… as a showy, media savvy, cunningly intelligent populist). It’s the battle between fact and the denial of fact (or, in Trump-speak, “alternative fact”).

Not too long ago (about fifteen years or so), Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books. His suit claimed that Lipstadt’s book, “Denying the Holocaust” (in which she called out Irving’s pro-Hitler, Holocaust denials as bogus academia, distorted history and anti Semitic lies) defamed his integrity and maliciously caused his loss of reputation. The suit was lodged in the U.K. courts, which unlike the USA courts, demand that the defendant (there not “innocent until proven guilty”) prove the plaintiff wrong. In other words, Lipstadt, who until then had refused to debate the actuality of the Holocaust with its deniers (As she notes in one of her lectures, “I also won’t debate that Elvis still lives”), was forced to prove Irving wrong…forced to prove that the Holocaust did actually exist.

The movie makes clear that the price of her failure to do so would open the door to Nazi sympathizers and deniers everywhere. To those survivors still alive and their families, it would be a tragedy.

English playwright and “Denial’s” writer, David Hare, no doubt overly cautious of not simply penning a polemic, lays out the story in classic courtroom drama style. He charts the twists and turns of the court case…in particular, he emphasizes the strategy developed by Lipstadt and Penguin’s two ferociously intelligent, arrogant, no-nonsense lawyers: solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott…the devious civil servant and Bond’s nemesis in “Spectre”) and his barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom WIlkinson). The strategy they chose, was to deny Irving the grandstanding oxygen of the public gallery by hearing the case in front of a judge, not a jury. And their tactic was to focus not on the actuality or not of the Holocaust (much to the chagrin of Lipstadt) but on the deliberateness of the deception; that Irving willfully lied and willfully distorted the facts of history to suit his own racist agenda.

The focus was on the nature of and the intent behind the act of denial.

Director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) and writer Hare build the movie as meticulously as they would a case. They balance the private dramas of a testy Lipstadt (whose relationship with her legal team was often fraught, distrusting, and confrontational ) and the arcane intricacies of the law.

Weisz is outstanding. She’s a very subtle actor; and even though her character is quite the showman (as you’d expect of many a great presenter), it’s in her almost imperceptible facial twitches where she manages to communicate such an array of emotions. For she is the story: the heartfelt sense of loss and agony, the fierce determination to resist and win, the public persona of defiance, the private tremble of doubt and anxiety…they belong both to the person and to the history she represents.

But in the end, though thoroughly enjoyable, the movie feels constrained within an imagined Proscenium. It remains too faithful to its historical topic. It’s about Holocaust denial, not the (so achingly immediate) pathology of denial. The alt-right have successfully managed to conflate facts with opinions; so the denial of fact is presented simply as a difference of opinion. Indeed, if it’s one conversation this movie has stimulated (OK, it’s only a conversation with myself) it’s the link between the denial of the Holocaust (essentially rooted in anti Semitism and, as the movie suggests, its close family: racism and misogyny) and the denial of Climate change (rooted in the fake -Fox-news campaigns of the profit threatened oil industry).

Certainly the role of denial, once the harmless tactic of cheating spouses (and now that we have a denier in chief running the US) has gained a new, and much more sinister twist. No wonder Irving, whose career was ruined after he lost his case, is back in the limelight. We’re thirty-three years after 1984…and doublespeak, never quite gone from political discourse is baaaaack with a vengeance.

It will simply not be denied

 

DENIAL. With: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott. Dir: Mick Jackson. Writer: David Hare. Cinematorgrpher: Haris Zambarloukos (“Eye in the Sky”)

 

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA***** Outstanding


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My grief lies all within,

And these external manners of lament

Are merely shadows to the unseen grief

That swells with silence in the tortured soul

(Shakespeare)

 

LEE CHANDLER (CASEY Affleck) is a reliable, hardworking man – a handyman in an apartment complex- and, it seems, an ‘object’ of desire to a variety of various women. But he’s sullen, withdrawn and averse to any sort of real human contact. From time to time, for no apparent reason, he lashes out…knocking down strangers and picking fights here and there. This is Shakespeare’s “tortured soul”; a man so broken by heartbreak, so battered into incoherent silence that his grief walls him off from all humanity.

And, into his fractured life comes the news of his (divorced) brother’s death and the sudden shocking responsibility of having to care for his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). To a man who can barely care for himself, this legal burden offers no manna to nourish his ailing heart. It’s just a burden.

Told partly through a series of well-timed flashbacks, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me” as director and “Gangs of New York” as writer) drips the backstory into his tale with the precision of a murder mystery. Along with the stunning acting of Casey Affleck, we become more and more immersed in, and understanding of, the nature of the grief that has so reframed the life of this once ‘ordinary’, well-adjusted man.

This is grief at its most raw; a grief beyond tears or even the ability to express itself.

Lee tries the best he can to work at and shape his new relationship with his nephew, Patrick, having been forced to morph from joshing irresponsible older brother to responsible father figure. It’s an impossible ask. And Patrick, having just lost a father, is himself fighting his way through his own sadness. The two circle each other like the wounded animals they are. Neither of them can find the outlet of tears; and the inarticulate silence of their suffering means that their griefs can never be exorcised.

At least Patrick is young, and in direct contrast to the monkish abstinence of his uncle, he can still lose himself to the healing joys of hurried, secret sex. Perhaps for him, time and life will lift him away from his pain.

But for Lee, the pain is like locked in syndrome.

In the usual Hollywood movie of this ‘type’, there’d be some sort of neat resolution, the moment of catharsis when the glimmer of light would beckon over the horizon. Not so here. Director Lonergan slyly offers us all the typical tropes of movie redemption, from the need to care for someone else to the possibility of romance or even reunion with an ex wife (Michelle Williams), who tells him that she’s still in love with him. But he seems to be saying that this is a grief beyond recovery. There is no out. There is no escape. Not for Lee. Not for us.

The glorious soothing sea of the title is little more than a sea of despair that stretches from shore to shore.

Lonergan is such an honest writer and director that even his score (composed by Leslie Barber) eschews the usual heart-tugging swell of strings. He inserts instead fragments of classical themes, snatches of melody, snippets of song. It’s a score that seeks to parallel the emotional arc of the tale, not guss it up to pull the audience’s own heart strings.

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Casey is outstanding. It’s a hard role to carry: he cannot cry, can barely speak and is mainly a jerk. But the almost palpable agony he manages to convey keeps the audience on his side. Near the end, there’s a powerful moment when he encounters his estranged wife (Williams’s small role is perfectly crafted). She is all snotty, crying, almost helpless agony…reaching out to him for her own redemption and forgiveness. He is all stoic, unyielding (superficial) cold-heartedness. Here is a couple who may once have meant so much to each other but who are now so damaged, there can be no route back to grace.

Like Lee’s brother (Kyle Chandler, the aggrieved husband from “Carol”), given a few years to live due to a damaged heart, these two have already died due to the damages in theirs.

So it goes, the story suggests, so it goes; you can’t, as the song pleads, “unbreak my heart”. If only.

 

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. With: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges. Director/writer: Kenneth Lonergan. Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes. Composer: Lesley Barber

 

AND THE LOSERS ARE…


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EVERYONE LOVES A list; and as we head into Oscar season, I too would like to throw in my top ten movie faves that I’d love to see short listed for 2016 movie accolades. Alas. Compared with those movie-mad capitols of the world, London remains resolutely parochial. Two of the year’s best: the brilliant, “I, Daniel Blake” and “Julieta”, which were only recently launched in New York, were aired here as far back as August. But we’re yet to get “La La Land” and “Manchester by the Sea”(mid January); “Jacky” isn’t due out until the end of the month; and “Fences” doesn’t show up until mid February (a tinge of racial invisibility here?). So it makes no sense to offer up a Top Ten list with these glaring omissions.

Instead I’ll suggest those movies which made me regret I’d lost two or more hours, when I could have been doing so many more interesting things…like sleeping or sharing a dry Martini.

Here’s my 2016 Low Water Mark

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

This one promised well, with respected critic, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian giving it four stars. And the premise was interesting: after an Avengers’ assault on some bad guys, the World has had enough of all the destruction that accompanies the battles of these super heroes. Is collateral damage just a small price to pay in the battle against terrorism? Or is collateral damage a manifestation of uncaring recklessness? What a premise! What thought-provoking questions! What a story waiting to be told!
It was all a sucker punch.
Having gotten the heavy philosophical lifting out of the way in the first fifteen minutes, the next six hours (what it felt like) mashed up multiple silly plot lines about Tony Stark’s murdered parents etc as an excuse for what was essentially a slug-fest between an invincible Iron Man and an unstoppable Captain America. They bash, smash, crash and make an unsightly hash of each other as they destroy an entire airport and fleets of aircraft. Pretty much the same plot actually as that other super-hero dud, “Batman v Superman”

Exhausting. Give me back my time!

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NICE GUYS

This had all the fingerprints of a movie shaped by focus group research and a squadron of script-writers. In it, two separate and not very interesting or funny characters (Russell Crowe hoping to redeem his reputation through the appearance of humor and Ryan Gosling showing that he can take a joke) happen to share a story. Said story’s no more than a series of brain-storm vignettes in search of an idea and patched together by an accountant. Bad guys arrive and shoot people from time to time; we trail through a boobs-dense Playboy type pool party (this replaces the usual boobs-dense stripper joint); bodies turn up in unexpected places and Kim Bassinger steps in as a crooked Head of the Department of Justice.

Sigh. Time was not on my side.

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GHOSTBUSTERS

Another comedy without a funny bone!
The cast certainly tried hard enough. They ground away with exaggerated enthusiasm through all the set-piece scenes as they battled against both an uprising of the dead and the refusal of a terrified government (hammily personified by Amy Garcia as the Mayor) to acknowledge the existence of whispy, malignant, slime-vomiting ghouls. SNL’s Leslie Jones, the token Black Person, exuding Black Folksiness seemed to be the only one who felt comfortable in her role. But the inventiveness of four women taking on the living and the dead (not to mention all that SNL talent) was never unleashed. The exuberant Melissa McCarthy remained strait-jacketed and unsure whether to go for the big gesture or contain herself; Kristen Wiig (SNL) was the mousy scientist with a lust for more than science who was transformed into… a mousy scientist with a lust for more than science (funny?). And fellow SNL alumni, Kate McKinnon, tried to channel the eye-popping zaniness of Christopher Lloyd from Back to The Future. Poorly.

I’d have the original again. Please

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JASON BOURNE

Not a trace of humour here in this flavorless (money-grubbing?) reboot of a leaden-scripted version of the Bourne franchise. Director Paul Greengrass’ decision to go for a revisited Bourne that was bigger, louder and more effects laden than past Bourne’s resulted in something fast and furious without a trace of finesse.
Gone was Jason’s simpático angst and the movies’ clever plot lines. This new Bourne was simply a blunt instrument, a mere action hero; one who you never felt was ever in danger.

We fans deserved a lot better. I intend to return to a time before this farrago was made and fondly keep to my memories of the first three

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

Director Antoine Fuqua managed to transform the joyful excitement of the original The Magnificent Seven into a dull, leaden, sourpuss movie. Unlike the exciting original, with its glittering cast of characters, Fuqua’s … Magnificent Seven offered up a mainly charm-free bunch of heroes (less characters in their own right, more symbols of American history) that go through the motions, energized only by the studio’s payroll and by no discernible sparks of motivation. Only Chris Platt managed to add much needed swagger and roguish dynamism into this shoot ‘em up by numbers (and there are thousands of them) gang.
Fuqua’s one level The Magnificent Seven was all dehumanized metaphor without insight, fun or freshness, energized by an idea of leaden triteness.

Like Ghostbusters, or Jason Bourne, or Captain America, it was just another dud remake

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JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

Tom Cruise at his most robotic. Now that’s saying a lot. The plot centered around Jack’s attempt to date someone he’d never met but whose voice he liked (aural sex?). But said voice turned out to be someone who “knew too much” and needed Jack’s lean, mean fighting machine skills; all running, jumping, shooting and kicking. Once Jack’s neurons had been activated, there was no turning them off until all perceived threat has been terminated.

Someone should terminate Cruise’s legal hold on future Jack Reacher stories

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THE ACCOUNTANT

The premise of the movie centered around an autistic Maths genius (Ben Affleck); a CPA working for the underworld, and also a lethal weapon thanks to his dad’s vigilance against childhood bullies. He was your typical autistic Maths genius hit man (who only killed bad guys, because he was a softie at heart). Very little made any sense in this tedious tale. He may have been a brilliant accountant, but in “The Accountant”, nothing really added up

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THE NEON DEMON

I saved the worst for last.
The highly stylized movie (every scene precisely and numbingly art directed) about our obsession over appearances, over the ideal of perfection and the predatory lusts they engender followed the life of Jesse (Elle Fanning) newly arrived in LA in search of a job as a model.

We met her initially as a corpse, blood gushing from her throat…all in the duty of art or photography or something. The story progressed via cannibalism, an eye being vomited up, Sapphic necrophilia, a snarling mountain lion trapped in a motel room, and as if that weren’t bad enough, Keanu Reeves.

Neon Demon had more symbols in the movie than a Robert Langdon symbology hunt…but without the silliness.

 

That’s my walk of shame. And there are sooo many I avoided, like Will Smith’s latest (I am told) schmaltz-fest, “Collateral Beauty”. At least I managed to hang on to my two hours there.

Happy New Year