Film Spotlight: Denial

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Guest Review: DENIAL (2016) by Cinemusefilms 

The nature of truth and the power to manipulate it have long been contentious themes in history and cinema. The outstanding film Denial (2016) resonates loudly in today’s post-truth world where power is often used to create alternate realities. It is a film that portrays denialism as a dangerous and perverse form of moral corruption, something that may be contained but can never be eliminated.

The story is based on the celebrated 1996 legal case fought between eminent academic Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust Studies, and David Irving, a historian of Nazi Germany. A book published by Lipstadt (Rachael Weisz) accuses Irving (Timothy Spall) of being a Holocaust denier and falsifier of history, and Irving sues for defamation. In the British justice system, the burden of proof is on the accused so Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust did happen to establish that Irving is a liar. She engages a top legal team led by senior barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) who insists that neither Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors should present testimony against Irving because of his history of promoting himself by humiliating victims. Lipstadt and her lawyers visit Auschwitz to gather evidence of the existence of gas chambers but the bulk of the story is played out on the legal battlefield at court.

Modern audiences are desensitised to the atrocities of war. It is glorified in movies and video games and feeds the entertainment and amusement industry. Today’s filmmakers struggle to find ways of remembering the Holocaust without alienating viewers. The extraordinary Son of Saul (2016) takes audiences right into the flames, whereas Denial (2016) explores the moral issues in a courtroom. In reality, this was a high-stakes legal battle that could have potentially delegitimised the entire history of the Holocaust. It is an outstanding achievement that this film can capture the tension and the burden of moral responsibility carried by the Lipstadt legal team.

The casting and characterisation in this film are brilliant. Rachael Weisz’s American brashness presents a stark cultural contrast with the conservative traditions of British justice. She convincingly portrays a principled academic and scholar of truth, showing restrained emotion beneath her loathing for Irving’s anti-Semitism. Tom Wilkinson gives a masterful portrait of wisdom and conviction, while Timothy Spall plays Irving with subdued Satanic malice. The other support cast makes up a strong ensemble. The narrative unfolds at a sweeping pace and the script is both intelligent and instructive in the legal nuance of courtroom manoeuvers. The footage of Auschwitz is emotionally harrowing and the film treats its subject matter with utmost reverence.

If you want light entertainment, do not see this film. It is for audiences prepared to confront the dark side of humanity as well as those interested in the intricacies and triumphs of the British legal system. But more than that, it’s an essay on the nature of truth in history and it exposes the moral abhorrence of those who manipulate facts to suit their prejudices It is also a warning that manipulators of truth will always be among us. 4/5

Director: Mick Jackson

Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall

Thanks, RICHARD, for contributing to my blog today! 

L13FC: U.S. Civil War Films

cindylucky13banner-1Welcome guests, and my co-host Pete from England, who has a genre passion for the U.S. Civil War. “I claim to have seen almost all of them during my 64 years such as Buster Keaton’s The General(1926), Gone With The Wind (1939), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne leading the Union to victory, in the 1959 epic.” Those are some popular ones, but Pete’s knowledge about this genre is impressive. Ask him anything.

Pete and I talked about how we should approach the subject. What makes a great war movie? Is it the accurate reenactments like Gettysburg (1993)? Is it the band of brothers who provide an insight into the situation like Glory (1989)?  Perhaps it’s the personal stories of those caught up in the crossfire? Maybe the most memorable Civil War stories include all of these elements.

 Pete says: 

Ang Lee might not be your first choice to direct a film about the American Civil War, but his wonderfully sensitive film Ride With the Devil (1999) emerged as one of my favourites of the genre. Instead of focusing on one major battle, or concentrating on the issues of racism, slavery, or state’s rights, it looked at a totally different part of the war, the bitter border conflict between Kansas and Missouri, neighbouring states on different sides of the conflict.

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Tobey Maguire grew up to give a surprisingly good performance, as the young Confederate who soon becomes disillusioned with the pointless killings, and just wants to get away to a quiet life. British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers delivers a memorable turn as the villain of the piece, all smouldering gaze, and hate in his eyes. This group of Confederate raiders, known as Bushwhackers, fight against the neighbouring Union sympathisers in Kansas, nicknamed Jayhawkers. They hide out during harsh winters, and use the support of friendly local people to give them shelter, and bring them food. Yet they constantly argue amongst themselves, diverse characters wanting to lead the group down different paths. The action sequences are few and far between, but all the more convincing for that.

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When they decide to join the notorious Confederate officer William Quantrill, he leads them on his fateful raid into Kansas, to attack the Union town of Lawrence. Here Lee really gets to flex his directorial muscles, with panoramic shots of the epic battle in which 200 civilians and soldiers were massacred by the victorious Confederates, and intense scenes that follow in the aftermath.

This may not be the first Civil War film you think of, but it is undoubtedly one of the best.

 Cindy’s Thoughts:

I’m still jealous of author Charles Frazier whose debut novel about the Civil War was a literary sensation in 1997. Cold Mountain was successful because it had something in it for everyone. Civil War battle scenes; complexity in the plot with the allusions to Homer’s, The Odyssey;  and the universal themes of survival, loneliness, and love. The novel contained a kaleidoscope of quirky characters. Then came the movie version in 2003. What a sensory treat!

The assembled cast was a dream team: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Ray Winstone, Kathy Baker, and Ethan Suplee. While everyone did their part well, I was most impressed by Renee Zellweger who won a Best Supporting Oscar for her performance as Ruby. Add the period details of the 1860s, the rolling hills of an Appalachian setting, the distinctive bluegrass sound intrinsic to the culture, and the changing seasons to film–what could be better than to film the black and white of winter on the mountain ledge with black crows and black coats approaching around the bend?–it sure aided the director, Anthony Minghella, to create a cinematic masterpiece.

 Eccentric characters intersect the lives of two lovelorn protagonists Ada and Inman played by Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Ada is a young Charleston socialite and companion to her dying father. Educated beyond the expected norm, her life is free to pursue reading, needlework, drawing, and the piano. When her father dies, she is left to fend for herself on the 300-acre farm. Enter Ruby, a forceful young wildcat the neighbor hires to aid Ada in the running of the farm. Ruby is the opposite of Ada. Uneducated, self-reliant, and assertive, she is a perfect foil to Ada. The two become a dynamic duo, a feminine force of efficiency.

Inman is a wounded deserter after surviving the Battle of Petersburg. He walks for hundreds of miles to return to Cold Mountain, NC, back to Ada. Along the way, he meets philosophers and oracles. A blind man imparts wisdom. An old hag surrounded by her herd of goats rescues Inman and nourishes him back to health. What makes the movie outstanding are the guest performances by powerful actors. Each vignette showcases an ethical dilemma. Take Natalie Portman’s character who appears as a single parent whose baby is dying. Alone in her cabin, she faces invasion and rape. She is completely convincing and her situation is heart-wrenching. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays one of his best roles as a decrepit preacher whose lustful passions get him into a lot of trouble. He’s the comic relief showing the absurdity of man. He’s hysterical.

What’s your favorite Civil War film? What’s an image or scene that has stayed with your over the years? 

The Lucky 13 Film Club: 1930s British Female Protagonists

 

WELCOME to the discussion this month as we feature three period films set in 1930s Britain. They share comedic elements, great costumes, and illustrate the economic relationship between the classes. Thanks to my friend Ruth at FLIXCHATTER, who agreed to co-host.
Ruth’s observations 
It seems that I have a fascination with the English class system and films/series about the upper crust world of nobility and their servants are in vogue again thanks to Downton Abbey. But perhaps there’s always an interest in such topic, as Upstairs/Downstairs series was popular in the 70s and remade again in 2010. Gosford Park is one of the most famous cinematic study of the class system in the 1930s, but with an Agatha Christie mystery thrown in. Julian Fellowes (the mastermind behind Downton Abbey) won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
The cast alone makes it a MUST see for me, with the who’s who of British cinema: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Clive Owen, etc.  It seems that no English class system story is ever complete without Maggie Smith as what else, an upper class snob of course. 
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The first time I saw this film over a decade ago, all of the class system stuff went over my head. I only remembered the costumes and set pieces, but this time around I focused more in the story and the relationships of the characters. The film is more about the servant/master relationship than an actual plot, so the murder mystery is more of a red herring plot device in the story. Over the course of a weekend, we watch the interaction between the upper and servants class, there’s really no real protagonists or villains, just people across class dynamics. It’s as if we, the audience is eavesdropping on a weekend gathering, as the film drifts into one conversation to the next. The most interesting character is that of Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who holds a big secret and came to work at Gosford Park with a certain agenda. 
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As for Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, the film is focused on a pair of servant and employer, Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) and Miss Lafosse (Amy Adams). The very thing that separate them, the wide financial gap and class structure between them, is what also brings them together. Miss Pettigrew ends up becoming Lafosse’s confidante and personal friend which gave her access into the exclusive and private world of high society. The romance involving the two main characters also stretch across class and financial hierarchy, as one of Lafosse’s suitors is a penniless pianist (Lee Pace) and Miss Pettigrew is drawn by a successful fashion designer who’s in a tumultuous relationship with a snobbish fashion maven.
Besides the class structure theme and that it takes place in a short period of time, what these two films have in common is the beautiful 30s costumes and the fun use of 30s music. It also has two gorgeous actors in English accent singing at the piano: Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park and Lee Pace in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. 
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Cindy’s thoughts 
Being Julia:
Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) is the ingénue whose ambitions to become a star has her hopping from bed to bed like a crowned piece on a checkerboard. Her sneeze scene during rehearsals is masterful. So, too, is the underrated Juliet Stevenson as Evie, Julia’s personal everything–maid, confidant, and bouncer. Sir Michael Gambon is the deceased mentor-director-tyrant who follows Julia around like a Shakespearean ghost. He is the voice of reason and provides the Oscar Wilde wit. Wiser than his parents, pensive Tom Sturridge plays the son Roger, and Jeremy Irons is the dull husband who manages Julia’s temper tantrums.
Being Julia feels like a revived version of All About Eve (1950) combined with the absurdity of a Billy Wilder comedy. It is filled within the shell of a play-within-a play and mounded with a meringue of stock characters and clichés.  You’d be tempted to write off the film and declare it a muddled mess. I suggest it’s a well-acted farce. 
Roger to Julia: You have a performance for everybody. I don’t think you really exist.
Julia is the performer who never leaves the stage. Neither do many of the characters from the three films. Gosford Park, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Being Julia represent women and men such as Henry Denton, the male ingénue in Gosford Park, or Tom Fennel from Being Julia who present a facade to their audience while hiding behind their insecurities or ambitions. Sex is their payment for protection or advancement.
What is important to performers like Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) is to maintain the semblance of Britishness. With Julia, her blue-collared background is a topic of gossip. Henry Denton is American practicing to be Scottish. Homeless Miss Pettigrew pretends to be a social secretary. The theme of appearance verses reality creates comical ironies via bad accents or class jumping. The luscious costumes worn in the three films function as armors of deceit and shape their personas. These characters bumbling through their deceptions are entertaining to watch. The annoying voices and melodramatic posing given by Annette Bening and Amy Adams are necessary. Playing foils, Frances McDormand and Kelly MacDonald give breath to their characters; they offer the normality to sustain the plot and provide comedic contrasts.
Since a misstep of impropriety had adverse economic effects, such as the situation Elsie (Emily Watson) discovered in Gosford Park when she spoke out of turn as a servant, with a culture devoted to behaving well or else, who didn’t wear a mask to hide their true selves? How ironic then, that sex, a most indelicate act for a non-married woman in the 1930s, for ingénues like Delysia Lafosse  or Avice Crichton, sex is a way to ensure power and economic freedom. For Julia, who attained stardom, she clings to her position and knows her desirability is the key to her success. For a young man like Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) to desire her sexually, sex affirms Julia’s sense of identity. It might also explain why snobby Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), sitting at the top of the British social class, finds actors and the entertainment industry disreputable. Of course, Constance is acting, too, for she is broke and her lifestyle is in peril. She’s too old to confirm her position by sexual means; she must rely on the compassion of her brother who administers her allowance. Begging in fur and jewels. Irony, indeed.
Sex plays a large role in the three films–what are your thoughts on it?  Which of the three films did you like the most?  Do you see any interesting revelations about culture? What do you think of the functionality of costumes or how contrasts and irony create wit?  0001-60259980

Lucky 13 Film Club: The Revenant

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Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio

I am ready. Tom at http://www.digitalshortbread.com is ready. The Revenant is January’s topic on the 13th and everyone is welcome. I have daydreamed that Leonardo DiCaprio has called method actor and friend, Daniel Day-Lewis, to ask him about how to win that elusive Oscar. We have all heard the stories of DDL’s intense strategies to become the character. So Leo has eaten and climbed into raw carcasses, shivered in the cold, and been mauled by the bear. Some movie buffs like me are wondering if his dedication to the role will pay off. Add to the mystique of the film like director Alejandro González Iñárritu love for the tracking shot (Will he win 2 years in a row?) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (him, too) filming in natural light with the Arri Alexa 65 camera. Check out this interesting article by Matt Giles in Popular Science found  HERE.  The trailers alone assure me I will be dazzled by the natural setting. Filmed in Alberta Canada and Argentina? Yes, it will be a beautiful film but will the screenplay written by Mark Smith & EGI be solid?

I’ve read Michael Punke’s account of Hugh Glass, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, and the movie adaptation has an added subplot of Glass losing a son, thereby creating the motivation behind the revenge. This usually incites objections from purists who don’t like their history altered. Movies and books telling the same story are two texts, two different art mediums; I believe “based on a true story” means “swallow this with tablespoon of salt.”  As long as the historical climate is realistic, the merging of facts with fiction is a delicate balance of inspiration stressed by the author’s personal preferences. 

I recommend you check out this interview of Leo, go see the movie, and drop by on the 13th to add your opinion of this year’s surefire contender during award season. Thanks, Tom, for co-hosting this month’s discussion. 0001-60259980

The Revenant and History

Punke's novel is a page-turner
Punke’s novel is a page-turner

Michael Punke’s historical novel, The Revenant, is a true page-turner accurately depicting the historical climate of 1822 on the American frontier and the Missouri River. It highlights the true account of frontiersman, Hugh Glass. In preparation for seeing the film with a limited release on December 25 and a wide release date of January 8, it is the January topic for the Lucky 13 Film Club. Would you be interested to volunteer as a guest conversation opener about an aspect of this film?

Before watching the film, I wanted to read the book. The prose of the grizzly attack is gripping as the bear slashes Glass’s throat, nearly scalps him, and leaves gashes on his back which become infected with maggots. This is the debut novel from international trade lawyer, Michael Punke, and his descriptions are impressive.

DiCaprio as Hugh Glass
DiCaprio as Hugh Glass

Abandoned by fellow crew-mates, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass sets out and crawls 350 miles to regroup at a fort before setting out to seek his vengeance. From the trailer, it looks like the script will include Glass’s lost son and this motivation propels Glass as avenger. I’ve never had a problem with film adaptations taking liberties. They are two separate texts I critique independently. I do recommend the book; it’s a quick, satisfying read. 4.8 out of 5

With Tom Hardy playing the antagonist Fitzgerald and Alejandro G. Iñárritu directing, the trailers suggest a realistic approach to the cinematography and has me itching to see it on the widescreen. You can read more about the film including watching the trailers found HERE.

History

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In September, strong storms rolled through our Arizona valley. We live on top of a hill and when the lightning struck, the water pump blew and in spite of surge protectors, all our electronic components fried. A decade of pictures, the manuscript of my first novel, and all my files were gone. Yesterday, three bolts hit our hill. Yes, history repeated itself in a matter of a month and destroyed all that we had replaced.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were roughing-it in Colorado, camping. When the frost dampened our tent, and we shivered inside our heavy sleeping bags, and the coyotes started howling right next to us, I felt vulnerable and exposed and wished next time to stay in a lodge because I missed the comforts of home. Last week, our landlords informed us they were selling the house, and we needed to vacate the premises as soon as possible.

I study and teach history for a living. And what it has taught me about the present is how temporary life is. Our relationships alter, our jobs and goals change. Dreams pursued are either squelched, missed or acquired. We humans are in a constant state of transition. Whatever we build, crumbles. Whatever we think we own, evaporates. Stuff is just stuff. Ready or not, time marches on.

Survival stories like The Revenant remind me how easy I have it today than in 1822; to complain about my “bad luck” seems ludicrous. Books and films of history remind me how noble our ancestors were. How they survived despite the odds or how tragic their deaths. I don’t have maggots crawling out of my back after being pulverized by a Grizzly. This sounds disparate, but it helps cool the sting when I am standing in line to buy another computer and television.

Lucky 13 Film Club: The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for Best Actress as Eleanor of Aquitaine. James Goldman won an Oscar for adapting his own play. John Barry‘s score won for Best Score. It’s 1182 and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is the scene-chewing roaring lion passionately defending his kingdom while three sons vie for the crown and a sour wife is his greatest adversary.  Ultimately, it’s a love story between a husband and wife whose bitter disappointments in each other flail out to those around them. Their manipulations tarnish the relationships between their three sons. Betrayal is the prominent theme. My heart goes out to son number one, Richard, played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins and Alais, the pretty pawn by Jane Merrow.  

As a conversation starter, I focused on the CINEMATOGRAPHY by Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Great Gatsby, Never Say Never Again). It helps when you film at the gorgeous locale of Wales and England. The sweeping battle scene on the beach was impressive with black horses and sardonic son number 2 (John Castle) looking on.  Even in winter with barren trees and frosty glens and a cold castle, the wide angles were beautiful. However, I think his use of close-ups provide a balanced contrast and interesting angles. For example, I liked Eleanor at her dressing table having a monologue in a mirror. The turn of a skeleton key in the dungeon door. The shocked face of Richard behind the curtain as he learns his lover has betrayed him. The face of King Henry on his knees out on the ramparts and the camera pulls away from his face as he looks up to the stars. Did you like the cinematography? How about that pulling back technique Slocombe employs?  Did you find it distracting? 

Please welcome KATE LOVETON who has a great blog and where she shows off her creative writing talents. This was her idea to form a film club where we could discuss with one another a topic and a film. Kate focused on the DIALOGUE, a huge part of the success of the film:

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What a pleasure it was to watch this intelligent film once again. There is so much to like about “The Lion in Winter,” and many aspects worthy of discussion:  staging, costuming, the score.  Best of all is the excellent acting and crisp, often biting dialogue.  It is by turns witty, wise, searing and venomous.
Henry II and Eleanor, once lovers, are now old-age combatants; rather than swords, their weapon of choice is the tongue – and each employs it well. When asked by his mistress how his wife is, Henry (who has kept Eleanor locked away in a nunnery for ten years) responds corrosively, “Decaying, I hope.”
Ah, but Eleanor gives as good as she gets.  She tells Henry’s mistress, “Henry’s bed is his province. He can people it with sheep for all I care. Which, on occasion, he has done.”  Ouch!
Confronted with the treachery and sodomy of her offspring, Eleanor, a master of understatement, dryly remarks, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
I think my favorite line was uttered by Henry after he’d locked his conniving sons up in the wine cellar. (Henry apparently has a talent for locking up family members). His mistress asks where Henry’s sons are. “The royal boys are aging with the royal port,” he replies.
If Henry and Eleanor are masters of waspish dialogue, their sons are masters of deception and murderous intent toward one another. When one of her sons pulls a knife on the other, the would-be victim whines that his brother was carrying a knife. The wearied Eleanor remarks, “Of course he has knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!”
Just so… and now it is 2015, and we are still barbarians.
Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole employ just the right shadings of tone to convey sarcasm, anguish, fear… and the underpinnings of sexuality. Hepburn’s Eleanor is a dangerous woman… and yet beneath the vinegar and venom, one gets the impression that she still burns for Henry. Her lust no longer physical, it plays itself out in verbal jousting.  Her love is a deadly thing. Hepburn makes us pity and admire her indomitable Eleanor, even when we most dislike her.
And Henry? O’Toole does a masterful job. It was a revelation to me to see O’Toole as the expansive, bellowing, manipulative Henry. He chewed up the scenery… yet he never made Henry a clown. When Henry realizes just how estranged his boys are from him, he stumbles away and cries out, “I’ve lost my boys.” In that moment, my heart went out to him.  He never really had them to begin with.

Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the dialogue and cinematography?

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