Saturday, October 22, 2016


Now playing at an indie art house near me:

DENIAL (Dir. Mick Jackson, 2016)

This is this year’s TRUTH, and that’s not a good thing.

If you’ve forgotten about TRUTH, which was about the 2004 “Rathergate” scandal, and released this same week a year ago, that’s completely understandable because it was a unremarkable piece of pure Oscar bait; an issue movie with big stars that was engineered to win awards.

But it was bait that was rejected and won no awards - it didn’t get any major nominations – and it faded away.

DENIAL will maybe fair better as it’s about a much weightier subject – i.e. the holocaust – and it’s a much better film, but it resembles TRUTH in that it so self importantly depicts a true-life scenario involving a fight for justice headed by an idealistic woman who was born to make inspirational speeches.

In this case, a curly red-haired Rachel Weisz plays author/historian Deborah E. Lipstadt whose 2005 book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” serves as the film’s basis.

With curly red hair and a not terribly convincing Queens accent, Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, who we meet teaching a class on the basics of holocaust denial: how deniers claim that the killings weren’t systematic, the numbers of deaths were exaggerated, that there weren’t gas chambers, etc.

During a Q & A at DeKalb Community College in Atlanta in 1994, Lipstadt is challenged by a man named David Irving, portrayed by Timothy Spall with a permanent scowl, who declares “I’ve got a thousand dollars in my pocket I’ll give to anyone who can prove Hitler ordered the killing of the Jews!”

A few years later, Irving sues Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel claiming that Lipstadt’s 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust,” which labeled him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial,” damages his livelihood and reputation as a serious historian.

Lipstadt travels to London for the trial and gets lawyered up with an ace legal team including British-Jewish lawyer Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce; and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).

The fly fishing, wine loving Rampton insists that they take a trip to Auschwitz so that he can inspect it like a crime scene. Lipstadt is emotionally stirred by walking around the gray haunted grounds of the former concentration camp, while her team coldly concentrates on the forensics of the case.

It’s nearly halfway through the film before we get to the trial, in which the team’s strategy is for neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors to testify because Irving, who’s representing himself, will have a stage on which he can intimidate and mock them.

Irving’s case centers around the existence of gas chambers for the purpose of killing Jews at Auschwitz, and he argues that there is no evidence of the chimneys or ducts that the Nazi’s poured poison pellets into and his statement “No Holes, No Holocaust” becomes a newspaper headline and a famous Revisionist slogan.

This is compelling stuff story-wise, and David Hare’s (THE READER) screenplay is sharply written but Jackson’s unimaginative execution of the material makes for too many scenes that just serve to carry us from beat to beat instead of building any momentum or compelling suspense.

Despite the undeniable passion that Weisz brings to her part, some of her line readings are stilted and off, possibly due to her handling of Lipstadt’s accent. However, she fares well with warmth in a downtime moment at her apartment with Wilkinson (don’t worry there is no contrived romance here or elsewhere in the film).

Sadly, Spall’s Irving is just an evil caricature of a sad man with a flimsy case. There’s no scene or moment that’s reveals anything about the guy that we can’t guess from the get go.

The arching theme of fighting for truth against a movement founded in lies especially relevant these days in light of our current political climate in which a certain candidate’s outrageous utterances are scrutinized and debunked daily, but DENIAL doesn’t really have much to say beyond its presentation of the basic facts of the trial’s circumstances.

While it’s a very watchable, and reasonably entertaining movie, DENIAL only exists to discredit a horrible point of view that has already been well discredited, and get some award season action in the process. But as we get further into fall, and it gets overshadowed by bigger and better projects, and largely forgotten, I predict that’ll it will join TRUTH on the shelf of earnest but overreaching historical melodrama Oscar bait fails.

More later...

Thursday, October 20, 2016

JACK REACHER Is Back In A Standard Issue Action Thriller Sequel

Opening today at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Edward Zwick, 2016)

The first movie in the budding Jack Reacher franchise, 2012’s JACK REACHER, was a standard issue action thriller, and this is its standard issue action thriller sequel.

Tom Cruise, who also co-produced, returns as the army trained indestructible badass title character, in this adaptation of the eighteenth entry in Lee Child’s Reacher series (the first film was based on the ninth novel – don’t ask me why they are doing them out of order) with writer/director Edward Zwick replacing Christopher McQuarrie at the helm.

After an opening scene that, apart from a few crucial beats, has been heavily spoiled in the film’s trailer and TV spots, involving Reacher turning the table on a couple of corrupt cops in a diner, we learn that our stoic, rarely smiling hero is still doing his drifter thing off the grid. 

The guy has stricken up a bit of a long-distance relationship over the phone with a Major Susan Turner (Colbie Smulders, still best known as Robin from How I Met Your Mother despite her more recent work in Marvel movies), who has taken over his post in the military police force.

Despite that they’ve not met in person, Reacher and Turner set a dinner date for the next time he’s in the D.C. area, but when he gets there he finds out that she’s been arrested for espionage, after two of her sergeants were killed in Afghanistan under suspicious circumstances. Our hero senses she’s been framed and seeks out her defense attorney (Tony Beard), who tells him that one of the reasons that Turner has expressly forbidden Reacher from getting involved, is that he might be a deadbeat dad.

So the mystery of whether or not Danika Yarosh is Reacher’s 15-year old daughter Samantha is intertwined with the mystery of who’s behind the setup that comes to involved Reacher himself getting framed for the murder of Turner’s lawyer. So Reacher breaks Turner out of military jail, they find Samantha, and the threesome are on the run, mostly from Patrick Heusinger as an darkly dressed assassin only credited as “The Hunter.”

Reacher and The Hunter tangle in brutally violent fight scenes, there’s a deafening amount of gunfire in the shoot ‘em ups, and, of course, as in any Cruise action flick, there’s a lot of on foot chases (check out this supercut of “Every Tom Cruise Run Ever” which was recently added to YouTube – it goes on for nearly 19 minutes).

I’m unsure of what the title, NEVER GO BACK, means. Maybe it’s supposed to be taken in a Thomas Wolfe “you can’t go home again” way, like how Reacher returns to his old army base and has to keep telling everyone who salutes him as a major, that he’s an “ex-major.” But that doesn’t really seem to fit as it seemed like he was only visiting the place to get a date. Whatever the case, I bet it’s something that’s conveyed better in the book.

As with just about every sequel released this year, it’s a case of diminishing returns. The first one was no classic, but it was edgier and had Werner Herzog as the villain – Heusinger’s Hunter puts forth some effective evilness, but sure can’t top that.

Many times I felt like I was watching a TV show, which makes sense as director/co-writer Zwick has a lot of small screen experience, with how the narrative slickly moving from set piece to set piece with perfect places for commercial breaks. Seems like the fair to middling movie franchise would make for a much better Showtime series.

The plot points surrounding the conspiracy and cover-up involving the selling of US arms on the black market, really didn’t hold my interest. But the Reacher bonding with his possible daughter angle had a little more going for it because there’s some unforced cuteness (largely on account of Yarosh), but not much.

Smulders, who with her role in the Marvel movies as Commander Maria Hill, puts in a strong performance as a strong woman who can take care of herself here, but I wish that the film gave her more chances to upstage Cruise. Smulders’ Turner stands up to Reacher, but still lags behind him in the New Orleans-set climax which involves a chase across rooftops in the French Quarter with fireworks overhead – this plays out as predictably clichéd as it sounds.

He’s getting slightly more grizzled looking now, but at 54 Cruise can still pull off being an A-list action hero – especially if guys like Liam Neeson can still do it at a decade older. Hell, Harrison Ford is still making BLADE RUNNER and INDIANA JONES movies * and he’s 74!

Point is, Cruise still has a lengthy career ahead of being an indestructible badass. But, here’s hoping that he’ll choose worthier, more inspired projects than this in the years to come.

* Okay, Fords last Indiana Jones movie was in 2008, but he’s got another scheduled for 2019, and BLADE RUNNER 2049 comes out in a year. So there.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

A MAN CALLED OVE: A Lovely Look At The Life Of A Curmudgeon

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

A MAN CALLED OVE (Dir. Hannes Holm, 2016)

There is a mini genre of movies about old cranky guys whose wives have just died and they have to realize that, with the help of some quirky elements, there are still reasons to still want to be alive. See ABOUT SCHMIDT, GRAN TARINO, and UP for starters.

Add to that short but sweet list writer/director Hannes Holms’s A MAN CALLED OVE, which stars Rolf Lassgård as Ove, a 60-ish widower who lives in a small gated townhouse community in a pretty plain looking suburb of Sweden.

When Ove loses his job of 43 years with the railroad, he decides to take his life so that he can join his wife in the afterlife much sooner. But his attempts to hang himself (with a thin blue nylon rope that you know is just going to break) keep getting interrupted by a family moving in next door.

Ove’s new neighbors consist of the pregnant Iranian refugee Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), her dopey, bearded husband (Tobias Almborg), and their two young daughters (Zozan Akgün and Nelly Jamarani).

Ove’s suicide attempts trigger a series of emotional flashbacks which show us how his parents died at an early age, how he got his job, how he met his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll), and how, in the most vivid and impactful one, how their life was derailed by a tragic accident.

In between these affecting flashbacks in which Ove is well played by the 30-ish Filip Berg, Parvaneh gets closer to the present day ornery Ove and even has him babysit her kids. Then Ove, who has a heart that’s “too big” as we are told on a hospital visit, takes in a mangy cat, lets a teenager who’s been kicked out of his house for being gay stay at his apartment, and teaches Parveneh how to drive.

However, all through this, Ove daily visits his wife’s grave and tells her he’ll be there as soon as he can.

Based on Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel, A MAN CALLED OVE is a lovely look at the life of a curmudgeon. It can get a bit cutesy at times, but its humor and plainspoken unpretentiousness grounds the proceedings. I was greatly amused by Lassgård’s Ove who bemoans who he calls the “white shirts” (corporate bureaucrats), and the “idiots” who are pretty much everyone else who gets in his way.

The film serves as a excellent introduction for American audiences (and me) to Lassgård, who’s an award-winning Swedish actor with an impressive resume of film and television work. Holm’s movie itself has deservedly won awards in his home country and is an international hit – it’s also Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the next Oscars - so don’t let things like subtitles, or weird dislike of foreign films keep you from this charming, uplifting crowd pleaser.

The people who’d pass this up for some lackluster, and uninspiring title at the multiplex are what Ove most mutters under his breath throughout the film: “idiots.”

More later...