Monday, January 2, 2017

This Week's DVD Releases


Denial **½

At the nasty center of the otherwise dutiful Denial is a slimy, self-aggrandizing upper-class blowhard of a bigot who believes he has every right to circulate hateful and hurtful falsehoods to his followers — including white supremacists and Neo-Nazis — without suffering consequences or being called out for his actions.

That might sound somewhat like déjà vu to anyone who followed the recent presidential campaign. But apparently the notion that a lie repeated often and loudly enough will somehow magically become a fact is not a new tactic.

As despicable as the "birther" movement might be, the historical event that is being negated in this morally-charged legal procedural is a whopper way beyond the usual pale: That Adolf Hitler never ordered the extermination of six million European Jews during World War II. In other words, the Holocaust didn’t exist.

I doubt the filmmakers, including seasoned director Mick Jackson (whose varied resume includes 1992’s The Bodyguard and 2010’s HBO biopic Temple Grandin) and screenwriter David Hare (The Hours) knew that their timing would be so perfect eight years ago. That’s when they began adapting American academic and author Deborah E. Lipstadt’s first-hand account of the 1996 libel lawsuit brought against her by British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving.

But despite two terrifically nuanced performances by its male leads and a good try by its somewhat miscast female star, the simmering dramatics behind Denial never quite reach a satisfying boil of righteous indignation and justice served that was felt in 2015’s similar Spotlight, the expose about the uncovering of the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandal.


The film opens with the first public encounter between Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, exuding intense intelligence yet too soon turned into a bystander) and Irving (Timothy Spall, greedily soaking up the attention and grandly oozing smug know-it-all-ness from every pore). The bluntly outspoken Queens native is appearing at a speaking engagement at Emory University in Atlanta, where she teaches Jewish studies, for her new book on Holocaust deniers. A scheming Irving, along with several video-shooting cohorts, crashes her lecture and tries to engage her in a debate. When she refuses to indulge him, Irving grabs center stage by offering $1,000 — money in hand — to anyone who can show that Nazis killed Jews by gassing them at Auschwitz.

Soon after, Lipstadt learns that Irving is suing her and publisher Penguin for libel after labeling him a Holocaust denier in her work. That leads to a trial held in England, where — unlike the States — defendants are guilty until proven innocent. The burden of proof is on the good guys, which essentially means that the author and her legal team must somehow provide evidence that the Holocaust really occurred — no easy task since the Nazis made sure to destroy signs of their horrific genocide.

The story is primarily told from Lipstadt’s Yankee fish-out-of-water point of view — underlined by her heavy accent and rust-hued perm — a choice that ultimately keeps the audience at bay as well. Rather than having a single defense lawyer, the British legal system with its wigs and robes requires a solicitor (Andrew Scott, best known as Moriarty on TV’s Sherlock, as a defamation expert who once represented Princess Diana in her divorce and is tasked with coming up with the strategy) and a barrister (Tom Wilkinson, who singlehandedly elevates the third act with a towering display of human resolve, dedication and decency as a libel expert who presents the argument in court). But other specifics about the case cause Lipstadt even more consternation. She won’t be testifying even though Irving is acting as his own representative in court, no living Holocaust survivors will be called as witnesses (to save them from being humiliated by Irving, we are told, but you have to believe they have withstood far worse) and the lone decider of the verdict will be a judge instead of a jury.

While the lawsuit attracted rabid press coverage around the world, don’t expect a depiction of the kinds of colorful behind-the-scenes shenanigans that drove TV’s hugely popular The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Much like Lipstadt, viewers aren’t privy to the inner workings of the defense except in dribs and drabs. True, Irving comes up with a sort of catchy slogan akin to O.J. lawyer Johnny Cochran’s most memorable phrase, "If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit." In this case, it’s "No holes, no Holocaust" — referring to the supposed lack of rooftop openings for the Nazis to drop poison pellets into gas chambers at concentration camps. The sight of reporters rushing out to call in the headline-ready refrain is meant to have us think that all might be lost. But if that were the case, there would be no reason for this film to exist.

What we do get instead is the rare location shoot in a non-documentary film at the actual Auschwitz. If Jackson does anything right, it is his solemn treatment of the visit made by Lipstadt and her lawyers to the site. First seen in the pre-dawn darkness with a blanket of snow and eerie pockets of fog, it is one of the few times that Denial vividly drives home what is at stake in this lawsuit. Add to that the footage of mountainous piles of shoes and eyeglasses encased behind glass as part of an exhibit, and it is difficult not to be at least partly invested in the movie’s outcome. These scenes, and the look of utter repulsion that washes over Wilkinson’s face as he refuses to make eye contact with Spall’s Irving while delivering his final verbal coup d’etat, are the saving grace of a film that too often denies its audience a chance to feel the same.


Blair Witch
In 1999, the now-defunct Artisan Entertainment introduced horror fans to The Blair Witch Project, a film so unique in approach and intent that it became an immediate art house sensation. In a marketing blunder that underestimated the differences between cult horror and its mainstream counterpart, Artisan expanded The Blair Witch Project into multiplexes and the rabid admiration accompanying its limited release turned into a vicious backlash. The distributor subsequently invested in a dreadful 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows, which fared so poorly at the box office that it seemed to bury the legend of The Blair Witch in a deep grave. Apparently, however, Adam Wingard (V/H/S) never forgot the impact of the original and, when given the opportunity to make a sequel, he leaped at the chance. Unfortunately, although Blair Witch owes much to the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, it’s an inferior production. This is as much a result of stylistic and narrative choices as it is a reflection of how the horror landscape has changed in the last 17 years.

When The Blair Witch Project was released, the concept of first-person "found footage" was relatively unheard-of. Although technically not the first of a kind (the dreadful Cannibal Holocaust owns that medal), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s low-budget romp through the woods popularized it. At the time, however, the horror field wasn’t oversaturated by these first-person movies. It was unique and exciting. The filmmakers went to great lengths to create a background story (including a fake website) that duped many viewers into believing that the events depicted in The Blair Witch Project actually happened.

For Blair Witch, although Wingard pays lip service to this, there’s no follow-through. Indeed, in 2016, it wouldn’t work. We accept from the beginning that this is fiction. The title card is problematic, however. It announces that the footage in the movie was (like in The Blair Witch Project) assembled from remnants that were found in the woods near Burkettsville, Md. By aping the way the first movie began, however, the filmmakers effectively inform us that none of the characters are going to make it out alive. That, in turn, saps a lot of the suspense. We’re watching a group of dead men and women walking. In The Blair Witch Project, everything was so creepy and mysterious that it didn’t matter. Here, we know the routine and there are times when the path to the end feels more like a slog than a journey.

The first half-hour is setup. The leader of this exploration into the Black Hills Forest is James (James Allen McCune), the (much) younger brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue. Convinced that a YouTube video shows a glimpse of his sister, he recruits his filmmaker friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and two other buddies, Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), to tag along. They are all wired for sound and video with tiny ear cameras, more traditional hand-helds, and even a drone to provide "helicopter shots" for Lisa’s planned documentary. Along the way, they meet up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the couple who unearthed the YouTube footage. They wander into the forest and immediately begin violating "haunted woods" movie rules: (1) Watch where you’re walking if you’re barefoot, (2) Never venture far from camp in search of fire wood, and (3) Set up a rotating watch-person during the night.

Things get creepy fast, although the result, with all the shaky-cam activity and loud noises (replacing the more subtle and effective sound work of The Blair Witch Project), is less frightening than it is confusing (and, for those afflicted with motion sickness, stomach-churning). Every time the lights go out, it sounds like King Kong is crashing through the forest, knocking over trees along the way. Eventually, there’s a betrayal within the group that leads to a reduced number of characters. After that, there are some odd time-travel and reality-bending elements. One character’s injury allows us to experience a hard-core gross-out moment. As for the ending … it resolves nothing but goes on forever. Blair Witch starts to overstay its welcome around the 60-minute mark and, by the time it fades to black at about 85 minutes, we’re more than happy to have things done. The final 15 minutes drag — we know everyone’s going to die, we know they’re going to leave behind footage, so why not get on with it? Protracted shaky-cam wandering around in a haunted house with uneven lighting doesn’t make for compelling viewing.

It’s an interesting thought-piece to speculate whether this movie might have worked better had it replaced The Book of Shadows as the first sequel since it’s similar in many ways to the original. But this is 2016 and not 2000 and the horror genre has moved on. Found footage has evolved from being edgy and interesting to being an overused joke. Jump scares (which Blair Witch relies on too often) have become the province of the lazy filmmaker. Perhaps for someone who never saw The Blair Witch Project, this might represent an adequate scary movie. But for those who have seen Myrick and Sanchez’s calling card, regardless of whether they loved it or hated it, Blair Witch will seem more like a pale homage than a new chapter to the saga.

Other New Releases This Week
Operation Avalanche **½ While the movie balances a spirited celebration of America’s space race ingenuity with a satire about the cleverness of mass deceit, it’s hard to ignore the one thing it understands implicitly: whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, a well-crafted image can sell anything.
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life ** It’s a so-so film with jarring tone changes and a plot that sputters before a predictable ending. But there are moments of inspiration and authenticity.

RATINGS
**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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