Denial (UK, 2016): A fascinating story that could be more at home on TV than on the big screen, Denial rises above pedestrian filmmaking thanks to the power of the material and strong turns by Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner).
The court drama pits American historian Deborah Lipstadt against British rabble-rouser David Irving. Lipstadt accused Irving of fabricating and misrepresenting historic documents in order to support his belief that the Holocaust never took place. Rather unexpectedly, the neo-Nazi icon sued the academic for libel. Since in the UK the burden of proof lies with the accused, Lipstadt found herself having to demonstrate the systematic killing of Jewish prisoners during World War II.
The film is bursting with fascinating info (even when defeat seemed unavoidable, the Nazis went out of their way to hide all evidence of the Final Solution) and serves as a primer on Britain’s justice system. Just as important as the Lipstadt-Irving showdown are disagreements within the historian’s defense team. While Irving’s position is indefensible, the debate over calling Holocaust survivors to the stand is a riveting one.
Denial goes above and beyond to provide a fluid narrative and a traditional climax (a challenge in films based on real events) and not always succeeds. Nevertheless, movies of this substance shouldn’t be dismissed. Three prairie dogs.
Julieta (Spain, 2016): Pedro Almodóvar’s work for the last decade has been hit-and-miss. A telling sign is whenever he abandons traditional structure: His weakest films are his most indulgent (I’m So Excited, Broken Embraces). I’m happy to report Julieta is one of his best efforts, up there with All About my Mother, a movie that shares a similar DNA.
Julieta unfolds as a mystery within an enigma. We first meet the title character (Emma Suárez) as she bails from moving to Portugal with her boyfriend. Soon we are informed the reason is her estranged daughter. Extended flashbacks reveal how young Julieta (the stunning Adriana Ugarte) came to meet the father, a fisherman, and how her entire existence has been marred to a feeling of guilt.
I don’t wish to spoil the surprises Julieta has to offer. Suffice to say the emotional punches are consistent and land more often than not. A soberer than usual Almodóvar depicts guilt as a destructive force that reproduces itself. Julieta’s dad offers a nice counterpoint to the lead character: Move on or become consumed by remorse.
Julieta works in most aspects, except for the over the top, melodramatic score. Not even Greek tragedies call for such violin abuse. Four prairie dogs.
American Honey (USA, 2016): A fairly new phenomenon in American cinema is the portrayal of the impoverished regions of the country. From to Beast of the Southern Wild to Hell or High Water, there seems to be an appetite for social cinema that wasn’t there five years ago.
American Honey falls in this category. It’s a character study (another anomaly in American cinema) with sociocultural undertones, simultaneously hard and compassionate towards millennials. Star (impressive debut of Sasha Lane) is a teen on the run from an abusive home. She joins a group of adolescents who roam across the southern states selling magazine subscriptions. While they maintain the illusion of free living, the collective is ruled with iron fist by Krystal (a terrific Riley Keough) and the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Star and Jake begin a clandestine relationship, placing the newcomer in an awkward and potentially dangerous position.
Director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) pushes the envelope further than expected and ties the proceedings to a feeling of hopelessness. American Honey is never boring, but it’s hard to justify a 163-minute length. The film is challenging, but compulsively watchable. Three prairie dogs.
It’s Only the End of the World (Canada, 2016): I think I have Xavier Dolan figured out. Because of his early start as a director, he only trades on emotions. Rationality or any thinking matter have no place in his movies. This is all well and good for a couple of films, but the continuous praise has stunted his evolution. His latest is frankly unbearable. The most impressive francophone cast imaginable (Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Nathalie Baye) is wasted on having them yelling at each other. Also, they play no recognizable human beings. Only Dolan’s stand-in -Gaspard Ulliel- survives this smorgasbord of overacting, mostly by staying quiet. One prairie dog.
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