Movie Reviews - 2016 postsThursday May 18, 2017
Movie Review: Denial (2016)
So the Holocaust still happened. Good to know.
I’m not sure who “Denial” is supposed to appeal to. The protagonist, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), is unlikeable; her advocates, the solicitor/barrister team of Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson), aren’t given enough screentime to be interesting; and overall there’s just not much drama. Most of the drama, in fact, is provided by the unreasonableness of the protagonist, who favors emotional arguments in court over legal ones—but even this kind of drama only goes so far. Let’s face it: Hollywood, with its love of happy endings, isn’t going to make a movie in which a Holocaust denier wins.
Some background: In 1996, David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British scholar on Hitler and a recent Holocaust denier, sued Lipstadt for libel for the depiction of him (as a liar, etc.) in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust.” He sued her in British court, where libel laws favor plaintiffs. In U.S. courts the onus is on the plaintiff to prove libel, while in British courts it’s on the defendant to prove it wasn’t. So she and her team have to prove Irving a liar. Which they do. Many times over.
The scenes in the courtroom are supposedly taken verbatim from the trial transcript. Would that the rest of the movie was; we might have had something. As is, there's nothing. Seriously. There's no depth to any of the characters, there's little drama, we don't even get a clear idea of what about the Holocaust can be proven and what can't. When in doubt, writer David Hare (“The Reader”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) simply send Lipstadt out jogging. I think we get four or five such scenes. It’s not an answer. To anything.
The creepiest thing about all of this? Many of the user reviews of the film on IMDb.com have been written by obvious Holocaust deniers. Some samples, without copy-edits:
- “I was not a Holocaust Denier ever but after watching the movie I became one. Not because of the historical facts exposed in the movie but I saw how the whole Holocaust saga had been hijacked by Jewish agenda.”
- “Irving,a famous best selling author,started having problems getting book contracts after the academic Deborah Lipstadt wrote about him giving him the Orwellian label of “denier”. He began to be blacklisted and his income was suffering and his response was to seek some justice.“
- ”David Irving is an extremely intelligent, well educated man. His work is very, very well researched. That is why they felt compelled to make this (really bad) movie about him, to try and discredit him."
What a shame a better movie slamming them and their man wasn’t made. They deserve it. They need to crawl back under their rocks and stay there.
Movie Review: American Pastoral (2016)
In May 1997, I gave “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth a mixed review for The Seattle Times and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Oops? Nah. I still think I got it right. I think the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees do what the Academy does with the Fondas and Pacinos and Scorsese of the world: Here’s your award for the lesser thing because we forgot to give it to you for the greater thing. The greater thing for Roth was “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Portnoy,” and the Zuckerman trilogy, particularly “The Ghost Writer.”
The complaint I had about “Pastoral” is the complaint I would have about subsequent award-winning Roth novels, including “I Married a Communist,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America.” The subjects were fascinating: mid-century American puritanism/fascism. I just thought Roth’s writing talent had diminished. He replaced dialogue with diatribe. He got boring. Roth of all writers.
But shouldn’t that bode well for the movie version? The subject is still in place, after all, and the filmmakers—writer John Romano (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) and first-time feature director Ewan McGregor—can replace the diatribe with dialogue. In a way, they have to. It’s a movie.
But they blew it with the casting—particularly McGregor casting himself as Seymour “Swede” Levov. The towering, broad-shouldered, Jewish-American athlete of 1940's Weequahic High in Newark, New Jersey, was suddenly replaced with a tiny Scot.
The story is pretty much the same. It’s the tension of generations and decades. It’s the story of the political pendulum and how we keep swinging it, or on it, or getting cut by it.
The leftist corrections of the 1930s led to the McCarthyism of the early ’50s, which led to left-wing radicalism of the late ’60s and early '70s, which led to Reagan—who began to dismantle the leftist corrections of the 1930s. That’s my summation. Here, the ’50s is less Red Scare than idyll. It’s the American Eden from which we find ourselves banished. By both time and inclination, apparently.
In my review for The Times, I wrote:
The Swede seeks the American dream but gives birth to the American nightmare: a stuttering daughter who, in the counterculture ’60s, blows up their small-town postal station as a protest against the Vietnam War. It’s as if Mel Brooks sired Robert Redford, who sires Squeaky Fromme.
Or: It’s the first-generation American giving birth to the All-American giving birth to the anti-American.
In both novel and movie, the father, Lew (Pete Riegert), is loud, opinionated, very Jewish, and interesting; half the time I wanted to follow him around. The son is blond and bland, beautiful and dutiful. The daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning) starts out ultra-sensitive, becomes desensitized through politics, then, after all the trauma and tragedy, returns to the ultra-sensitivity of Jainism. She goes from crying about the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk half a world away, to killing her neighbors, to not wanting to harm microbes. So how did that second step occur? That’s the question the movie skirts. It just happens. She’s young and full of rage and easily indoctrinated into radical Weather Underground-style politics.
But this leads to a problem: We never really care about her, so we don’t really care about her father’s frantic search for her. He’s an innocent searching for innocence in a dirty world, and finding a dirty world. Shocking.
Turns out all the women around the Swede are all horrible human beings. His daughter commits acts of terrorism. His beauty-queen wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), retreats into facelifts and blankness and affairs with lesser men. His daughter’s radical colleague, Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry, quite good), connives and taunts and spreads her legs for Swede. Meanwhile, his daughter’s shrink (Molly Parker—always playing someone you want to punch in the face) not only gives horrible advice but hides Merry and directs her to the underground ... where she is repeatedly raped and abused.
The only decent woman in the entire movie is Swede’s assistant at the Newark glove-making plant, Vicky (Uzo Aduba, “Crazy Eyes” from “Orange is the New Black”), who sticks by him through it all. But even she has that odd moment when they’re handing out coffee and nosh to National Guardsmen during the Newark riots and she lectures the teeniest soldier on his responsibilities. She replaces dialogue with diatribe.
The Swede’s story is bookended by the 45th class reunion of Weequahic High—where Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), learns what happened to the idol of his youth—and the Swede’s funeral a day later. As Zuckerman is giving his thoughts via voiceover, a taxi pulls up, a blonde-haired woman gets out, and, as the camera follows her from behind, she slowly makes her way to the casket. Everyone stares. Is it or isn’t it?
Doesn’t matter. It doesn't resonate either way. If it's Merry, what does that mean? That she forgives her father? For what? That she forgives herself? Why? That she’s come to dance on his grave? One final act of self-renunciation? Who is she? In the end, a pawn in the game. Less the radical left’s than Roth’s.
Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
History may be written by the winners but art is usually written by the losers: the guys who don’t score touchdowns, don’t hit homeruns, don’t get the girls. The guys who do these things? They usually terrorize the guys who don’t throughout junior high and high school, then wind up the one-note villains in their stories. Art is the ultimate revenge of the nerds.
With “Everybody Wants Some!!,” writer-director Richard Linklater offers a slight corrective.
The movie has been labeled a kind of spiritual sequel to Linklater’s classic “Dazed and Confused” (1993), which was about kids on the last day of school searching for a place amid mid-1970s anarchy and Texas testosterone. It’s got jocks, nerds, and everyone in between. This one is mostly just the jocks: a Texas university baseball team during the four days before the start of school in 1980. Remember Mitch, Linklater’s surrogate, the long-haired scrawny pitcher? Well, he’s back, more or less, in the form of Jake (Blake Jenner), our eyes and ears throughout “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Good news: He looks way more like a jock than Mitch ever did. Bad news: He’s boring.
We don’t mean to brag, we don’t mean to boast
The movie opens with Jake driving his muscle car, albums in the backseat, “My Sharona” blaring from the tape deck, to the off-campus housing where the baseball team lives. These guys spend their afternoons in perpetual competition with each other—playing Nerf basketball and ping pong, flicking each other’s knuckles—and their nights in search of booze and girls. Each night it’s a new place: first a disco, then a country bar, then a punk rock show, finally a theater gathering. For all their faults, they’re equal opportunity party animals.
And it’s not just Mitch/Jake. We get echoes of other “Dazed” characters:
- Mitch’s mentor, Randy “Pink” Floyd, is split into two characters: McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the top jock, who can cut a lobbed baseball in two with an axe, and Finnegan (Glen Powell), the witty, cynical soul of the team, who, if he doesn’t exactly take Jake under his wing, at least recognizes in him someone who gets the joke.
- Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the California stoner, hooks up with Slater (Rory Cochran), the Texas stoner. And just as the latter delivered a famous monologue about how Martha Washington was “a hip, hip lady” and the weird shit going on with a dollar bill, so Willoughby talks up how humans used to be telepathic and attempts to reclaim that skill with his stoned teammates. (Doesn’t work.)
- Jay (Juston Street), the weird, full of himself Detroiter, is a bit like Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion. Except here he’s eventually welcomed into the fold.
That’s one of the things I liked about the movie: the camaraderie of it all. These guys are ultra-competitive assholes but there’s a bond there. You’re on the team, you’re on the team.
Jay starts a bar fight, the others back him up, even though they can’t stand him. (There’s a nice touch when McReynolds moves to join the brawl and one of his teammates yells, “No, you fucking stay!” You protect your stars.) During batting practice, Jay is acting an asshole and tossing laser beams—until Reynolds takes him deep. Afterwards, Jay attempts to apologize (“Uh... nice hit”), and McReynolds tells Jay, “We’re cool.” And they are. After practice, Jay is with them at the creek, one of the team.
Some of the funniest lines comes from freshman catcher Plummer (Temple Baker), sleepy-eyed and slope-shouldered. At one point, he and three other guys are walking around campus, and he’s wondering who these guys are with their backpacks:
I know what we’re doing here. We’re playing baseball. ... All of these people. Never being more than some dude doing some job. Just like everybody else.
For some reason, that line has a “Diner” feel to me. It’s Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick saying, “You ever get the feeling that there’s something going on we don’t know about?”—but it’s the single-celled version of that. Fenwick knows he doesn’t know, and would like to know. Plummer knows he doesn’t know ... and can’t fathom. He’s repulsed. Repulsed, I should add, by the life he’ll eventually lead: some dude doing some job.
I also like this from the first day of class:
Plummer: Who’s this fuck?
Jake: I think that’s our professor.
Plummer: This guy?
Plummer: No shit.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these lines become as oft-quoted as those in “Dazed and Confused.”
But we like hot butter on our breakfast toast
What grinds the movie to a halt, sadly, is the romance between Jake and Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the theater major. They have a few OK conversations, and I like her line about theater being “Having the guts to look fucking stupid”; but overall I found both of them pretentious in a way the dumb jocks weren’t. Don’t know if that was Linklater’s goal or if it just turned out that way.
Linklater, being Linklater, gets the details right—from “My Sharona” to “Rapper’s Delight” to Space Invaders to pinball machines. He makes stupid jock language fun: “Play like you got some fucking semen in your sack, brum.
The movie even ends similarly to “Dazed.” There, Mitch puts on the headphones (against the drone of his parents) and drifts off after an all-night party. Here, Jake puts his head on his desk (against the drone of the professor) and drifts off after a four-night bender. It just doesn’t resonate as much. We care about Mitch, and Mike, and Slater, and Randy. They have vulnerabilities. These guys? They’re cocks of the walk. And a cock is only interesting for so long.
Movie Review: Silence (2016)
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is long, beautifully photographed, often silent, and mostly pointless.
Two 17th-century Jesuits from Portugal, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), hear about the torture and killing of their fellow priests in Shogun-era Japan—which is resisting the conversion of its people by any means necessary—as well as the supposed apostasy of their mentor, Father Ferriera (Liam Neeson), who, it is rumored, has not only renounced Christ but taken a Japanese wife, and ... they don’t buy it. They demand to travel to Japan to see and possibly rescue their mentor.
Everyone in the audience: “Bad idea.”
The rest of the movie, 2 hours and 40 minutes worth, is about what a bad idea it is.
Fire and water
We’ve already seen some of the torture—the modern-day crucifixions at the hot springs, in which scalding water, drip by drip, is poured onto the priests—but our guys haven’t, and they’re somewhat naïve. They’ll soon lose that. Along with everything else.
They’re guided to the coast of Japan by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a begrimed, half-mad Japanese they meet in Hong Kong, who lost his wife and family years earlier. In flashback, and in a test we see repeated throughout the movie, officials demand that they prove they’re not Christians by stepping on an image of Christ. Kichijiro does, the rest of his family doesn’t; so he goes free and they’re wrapped in hay and burned alive on the beach. For all that tragedy, Kichijiro winds up almost a comical figure in the movie: ready to traduce the priests and renounce Christ one moment, then unable to live with himself and scurrying back for absolution.
In Japan, the Jesuits are greeted gratefully and reverently by the villagers, who, it turns out, are often better Christians than they are: feeding, sheltering, sacrificing. But word gets out, and officials, led by the grunting Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and the initially silent, increasingly creepy Inoue (Issei Ogata), descend. Rodrigues has already counseled the village elders to step on the image of Christ to save themselves, and they do. But it’s all so easy. So Inoue changes the rules: They must spit on the image and curse the Virgin Mary as a whore. This they cannot do—except for Kichijiro, of course. The other three are tied to crosses and left to die of exposure and/or drowning with the coming tide That’s basically most of the movie: die by fire or water. Pick your poison.
After the two priests split up, we follow Rodrigues, who is betrayed by Kichijiro, captured, and broken down over months and years. Rather than kill him, and thus martyr him, the officials kill helpless Japanese because he’s not submitting to their will. At one point, from a distance, Rodrigues sees Garupe on the beach sacrifice himself for his flock, who are wrapped in hay, rowed into the ocean, and tossed overboard to drown. Garupe swims to save them but is drowned himself. Rodrigues cries to the heavens at the injustice.
That’s one of the oddities for me. Given the alternatives, Garupe’s death isn’t bad: It’s for a cause and doesn’t involve bodily torture. Yet there’s Rodrigues, crying to the heavens. This happens often. Rodrigues’ emotional reactions don’t quite mesh. At one point he seems to go mad—briefly—and I’m not sure why. Were scenes cut?
Eventually, Rodrigues comes face to face with Father Ferriera and learns that all the rumors are true: a wife taken, Christ renounced. Then Ferriera tries to convince Rodrigues to follow the same path of apostasy. We get more torture of others. Meanwhile, despite Rodrigues’ fervent prayers, God is silent.
But God, or at least Scorsese, gets in the last quiet word.
Silence vs. Waiting
At the very end, after Rodrigues’ conversion, and after he and Ferriera become, in essence, border agents for the officials—ensuring that no Christian icons, not to mention Christians, make it into the country—and after Ferriera’s death, and while Rodrigues himself is dying, once again we hear Rodrigues’ complaint about God’s silence. But then we hear another voice telling Rodrigues what he can’t hear: That He was never silent; that He was always next to him; that He suffered along with him. It’s the voice of God.
That’s an answer to the dilemma, I suppose: God hears, we can’t. It’s not a bad answer for someone like Scorsese, who once considered becoming a priest, and who has grappled with religious issues in both life and on film (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Kundun”). It may even be true. But it’s not particularly satisfying to a secularist like me.
A more satisfying rationale comes from someone I know, Craig Wright, a playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and minister, who, 20 years ago, wrote a song called “Heaven,” in which the singer asks the same question Rodrigues does. Except the metaphor is different: not silence but waiting:
All we would like to know
Is why you kept all of us waiting
When you knew
That you would never be coming at all
The answer, an alley-oop, doesn’t come via an 11th-hour deus ex machina, as Scorsese’s does, but through the singer’s own thought processes:
Or is this waiting
What you meant
When you said
That thought turns the bad into the blissful. “Silence” doesn’t do that for me. The final shot of Rodrigues, dead and stuffed into a barrel-sized Japanese coffin, but still, unseen, clutching the homemade crucifix in his hand, is that ... redemption? It indicates the Japanese didn’t break his spirit. Just everything else.
Movie Review: Frantz (2016)
At first I thought he’d killed her fiancé (and their son) during the Great War, and that’s why this almond-eyed, sensitive Frenchman was visiting the grave of Frantz Hoffmeister in Quedlinburg, Germany in the spring of 1919. But after he told them the story about meeting Frantz in Paris before the war—seeing the Louvre together, and Manet’s painting of the man “with his head back”—and you realize the grief he’s feeling and the secret he still seems to be keeping, I wondered “Maybe they were lovers?”
Turns out it’s Door #1.
I liked “Frantz” a lot but didn’t quite love it. The French academy seems to feel the same way. It was nominated for 11 Césars and won one: cinematography.
It’s based on the 1932 Hollywood movie “Broken Lullabye,” directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which was based on the 1925 play by Maurice Rostand, L'homme que j'ai tué, or The Man I Killed. Both earlier versions focus on the French soldier seeking absolution, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney, “Yves Saint Laurent”), but “Frantz,” written and directed by François Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “8 Femme”), and filmed in black and white, makes the smarter decision, I believe, to focus on the girl, Anna (Paula Beer), the fiancée to the dead soldier. It adds mystery. It makes us wonder what the Frenchman is up to.
I was pulled into the post-Great War world right away. Anna buys flowers, looks at the new dresses in the shop window but walks away, down the street, past the two former soldiers who comment on how pretty she is, and into the cemetery ... where she finds flowers already on the grave of her fiancé. She asks a caretaker about them, and he says they were placed there by a Frenchman. Then he spits in contempt. “Right,” I thought. “That hatred doesn’t go away.”
Anna is still living with Frantz’s parents, Dr. and Frauline Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber), and being pursued by Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), who offers little but financial stability. Like much of the world at this point, she’s engaged to the dead.
The mystery of the Frenchman, and his connection to Frantz, wakes her up. She opens up, particularly to him, even as he seems wary of her, forever backing off. We get a beautiful scene where he agrees to play Frantz’s old violin for the family, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20, and Ozon allows color to creep back into the film. It’s a bold move but it works. When Adrien faints, the world goes to black-and-white again. Eventually he tells Anna the truth: He was the French soldier who killed Frantz; he’d come to Quedlinburg to ask forgiveness. In the wake of this revelation, she turns cold, refuses to forgive him, but maintains the illusion of “Frantz’s friend” for the Hoffmeisters. He returns to France.
The second half is all Ozon—it wasn’t in the play or the original movie—and it doesn’t quite work.
Anna’s despair is so great—the man she was falling in love with killed the man she loved—that she tries to drown herself. A local saves her. Bedridden, she begins to contemplate settling for Kreutz when Mrs. Hoffmeister dismisses the notion. They had hoped, she says quietly, that Anna might wind up with Adrien. Caught in the illusion of “Frantz’s friend,” maybe even beginning to believe it herself, Anna travels to Paris to find him.
Some good moments. Manet’s painting in the Louvre turns out to be “Le Suicide,” and she worries Adrien has taken his own life. Through the hospitals she discovers the suicide-death of Rivoire. At this point I thought the movie would be bookended by Anna’s graveyard visits: first her fiancé, then the man who killed her fiancé. But that Rivoire turns out to be a colonel who lost his legs. She finds her Rivoire living in a country estate, with a prim mother and a fiancée of his own, Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing, looking like Marion Cotillard’s not-as-pretty younger sister). Anna agrees to stay but, mirroring his fainting spell, she flees an evening piano recital. The next day at the train station, Anna forgives Adrien for Frantz’s death, while Adrien reveals that he’s getting married mostly for his mother, and Fanny, but not himself. They finally kiss, and for a moment he tries to change the course of events but she tells him it’s too late. We last see her back in the Louvre, at the Manet painting, telling another young mustached man that she likes the painting because it makes her want to live.
Shape of things to come
“Frantz” is gorgeously photographed, and has a deliberate pace and seeming simplicity. Another scene I loved is when Dr. Hoffmeister confronts Kreutz’s pro-German meeting group, who condemn his friendship with the Frenchman, saying: We celebrated when we slaughtered them and they celebrated when they slaughtered us. We cheered the death of children.
Stotzner is magnificent as the doctor—his bedrock gravitas, his searching eyes—and Beer is quite lovely as Anna: her neck; the way she moves. But the ending doesn’t resonate. More, what drives the plot, Adrien’s need for forgiveness from the family of the man he killed, is, to me, so monstrously selfish that I lost interest in the character. When it turns out he’s living on a country estate, my contempt doubled.
It’s worth seeing, though. I'd like to see more movies like it. Hovering in the background throughout is not only Frantz (as palpable a presence as Rebecca in “Rebecca”) but the war to come. Even if “Le Suicide” makes Anna want to live, we know she will live long enough to see more death than she can imagine.