Wednesday, October 26, 2016

DENIAL (2016)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson
DIRECTOR: Mick Jackson
GENRE: Docudrama

In 1996, American academic/historian Deborah Lipstadt was sued for libel by British historian David Irving for characterizing him in her book as being a holocaust denier. Among other "Nazi friendly" assertions, Irving had maintained that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Despite the damning nature of his stated positions, Irving sued for damage to his reputation, essentially denying that he was a denier.  Denial is the docudrama of the ensuing trial, which took place in Britain in 2000.

Given the subject matter, I was expecting fireworks, but for the most part, Denial is as staid as the British courtroom where most of the "action" takes place. He-said-she-said. The fascination that does exist revolves around the larger issue: By having to defend her statements about Mr. Irving, Lipstadt essentially has to call the holocaust as a witness to prove its own existence.

In preparation for the trial, Lipstadt and her team visit the real Auschwitz--a desolate looking place that time has softened into a haunt for ghosts. You must use your imagination now--not hard to do--to conjure up the unspeakable depravity of what took place there. It's a sobering moment.

It's a pedestrian turn for previous Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, as Lipstadt. When she's pleased, she's bubbly. When she's perturbed, she's frowny. But there's no nuance or subtlety of emotion. And an inordinate amount of time is spent drinking wine with her chief defense strategist, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). Maybe it was real wine. Wilkinson gives a more fleshed-out performance as he calls the shots for Lipstadt's defense strategy. Timothy Spall, as David Irving, is pompous and jowly, and comes off as being more obnoxious and annoying than villainous.

Conspiracy theories abound. Social media is crawling with them. 9-11 was an inside job. The moon landing was fake. The Sandy Hook massacre was staged. On and on. Few of them ring of credibility to the logical mind--the JFK assassination notwithstanding. It appears obvious that there was more to that than just a lone malcontent named Lee Harvey Oswald. But compelling evidence is in play there. The holocaust denier is a breed apart. He tries to tell us that we didn't see what we saw in all of the ghastly newsreel, documentary, and photographic evidence that exists. Not only does he insult our intelligence, he aligns himself with a dark energy that needs to fall back into the cesspool of history from whence it came.

I was expecting more HEAT in Denial...something on the order of what I just felt in penning the preceding sentences. But for the most part, it left me cold.

Grade:  C +


Finally, Tim and I disagree! (But not by much.) I went to this film, curious to know how holocaust deniers rationalize their beliefs. And right at the beginning, Rachel Weisz as Professor Lipstadt points out the four explanations deniers give. The one that really made my eyes pop? It was a publicity stunt promoted by the Jews to promote Israel. (Are your eyes popping now, too?)

I knew going in that Denial would be a courtroom drama but I found the subject matter so preposterously fascinating that I never got bored. I also learned a lot, not just about holocaust deniers but how different the English legal system is from ours. There, you're basically guilty until proven innocent. All of the actors involved did admirable performances but I especially admired how fanatic Timothy Spall was David Irving -- whose rabid intensity out-Hitlered Hitler's.

On a personal note, a few nights later I was having dinner with some friends and mentioned Denial in passing. One of them then told me about an interview she'd read in Hadassah Magazine where Rachel Weisz talked about the fact that all her own relatives perished in concentration camps.

Talk about art imitating life!

Grade: B+

Monday, October 10, 2016


Rated:  R

STARS: Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Haley Bennett, Edgar Ramirez
DIRECTOR: Tate Taylor
GENRE: Thriller

Watching a film adaptation of a book you've read is different than if you were totally unfamiliar with the story. Since you know all the plot elements, you pretty much are just looking to see how true the film is to the source material. We can say that The Girl On The Train, starring Emily Blunt, is a lot more faithful to the best-selling book by Paula Hawkins than any of the married characters in the story are to each other, with a couple of notable exceptions.

Rachel  is a lush of the first magnitude. A furtive alcoholic who blacks out and can't remember a thing about what she did the night before. In the book she's overweight and no longer terribly attractive. In the movie she's Emily Blunt. So there's the first change. They do a pretty good job of making her look haggard and stressed out, but she's still Emily Blunt. So who was going to put more butts in the seats--Melissa McCarthy or Ms. Blunt? The bottom line is still king.

Rachel drinks because of her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), who is now happily married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). She got fired from her job due to her drinking, but rides the train everyday from the suburbs to Manhattan to keep up the appearance of still being gainfully employed. (In the book it's London--that's the second notable change.) Along the route Rachel passes a house where a happy looking couple are frequently observed getting frisky on their back balcony. She entertains fantasies about who they are and what they are like. One day while riding by she sees the woman in the arms of another man. Rachel is shocked and disillusioned. Then the woman, whose name is Megan (Haley Bennett), disappears. There is a police investigation. Megan's husband, Scott (Luke Evans), becomes a suspect. But who was the other man Rachel saw Megan with on the balcony? She's going to get to the bottom of it (before she bottoms out herself). It's the stuff that taut thrillers are made of. 

Emily Blunt, surrounded by a cast of relative unknowns, turns in a gritty performance--one of her best. But as The Girl On The Train speeds toward its gotcha conclusion, much of the nuance of the characters in the novel is left at the station. 

Grade:  B 


From my perspective, the best thing about The Girl On The Train is Tim's review. Well done, Timoteo! There's always a danger of turning off an audience when the main character is so unlikable. And Emily Blunt's character is definitely not someone you'd want to befriend. Until the very end when the wife of her ex husband's boss, played by Lisa Kudrow of "Friends" fame, reveals a shocking truth.

Quite honestly, I went to this film with the wrong attitude, convinced that it would never be as good as the book. And I was right. That's the second danger with making a movie from a hit novel. Author Paula Hawkins' best seller was such a literary blockbuster that expectations about the movie version were unrealistically high. Even though screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, wrote one of my all-time spooky film favorites (Secretary with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal), many of the scenes in this thriller dragged on endlessly.

As I watched the final credits roll, I at least felt a frisson of recognition when I realized that the actor who played Emily Blunt's ex, Justin Theroux, is the current husband of Jennifer Aniston. My advice? Read the book and forget the movie...

Grade: C -