DENIAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Mick Jackson

Written by: David Hare

(based on the book HISTORY ON TRIAL: MY DAY IN COURT WITH A HOLOCAUST DENIER by Deborah E. Lipstadt)

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Mark Gatiss, Andrea Deck & John Sessions

It’s Fall and that means potential Oscar contenders are hitting theaters week after week. DENIAL definitely seems to be aiming for some Academy Award nominations. Big name cast giving solid performances? Check. True story that’s being adapted for the big screen and contains sensitive subject matter? Check. Themes that were relevant back in the day and seem sadly just as relevant today? Check. DENIAL has all the basic ingredients for an awards-centric drama and there’s no denying that the film is good. It’s an interesting, emotional true story told in a classy, dialogue-driven manner. This movie is filled with talking heads and heavy moments, but it also occasionally ventures into by-the-numbers storytelling and clichéd dialogue.

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Historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) has written a book about Holocaust deniers. After dedicating a few harshly worded paragraphs towards revisionist historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), she’s shocked to find that the disgraced Irving has filed a libel suit against her in England. Whereas the USA has an “innocent until proven guilty” standpoint, U.K. libel cases lay the burden of proof upon the accused. Therefore, Lipstadt and her large legal team face an uphill battle to prove that Irving knowingly distorted history to fit his ideology. In other words, they have to prove that the Holocaust happened in court against the most “academic” Holocaust denier in the world.

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DENIAL is a courtroom drama that features one of history’s biggest atrocities on trial. The step by step legal process is shown as Deborah and top lawyer Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) gather whatever evidence they can to prove that gas chambers were used to exterminate Jews during World War II. Surprisingly, this is easier said than done…because the Third Reich went out of their way to eliminate evidence of their inhumane actions. Legal strategies are examined in scenes of advocate Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) devising a less-is-more approach. This latter area puts DENIAL in a unique position because we never get a passionate verbal stand-off between Lipstadt and Irving in the courtroom. Instead, this is a battle of wits, ideas, and history. Points are made about how we know the Holocaust happened and positions that deniers usually take, informing the viewer as well as retelling an unbelievable true story.

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Performances are mostly solid across the board, though the script’s dialogue can occasionally be heavy-handed and cheesy. Rachel Weisz’s fake New York accent fades in and out, but she seems to have gotten the general gist of the real person she’s playing. After seeing interviews with Lipstadt, Weisz captured the woman…even if her accent is a bit shaky and some lines are eye-rollingly corny (e.g. a conversation where she talks about how she always knew there was a big event looming in her future). Tom Wilkinson steals the show as a Scottish lawyer who seemingly always has a bottle of wine in his hand. Wilkinson’s scenes with Weisz and his passionate questioning of Stall’s Irving stick out as the film’s best bits.

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As egocentric revisionist historian David Irving, Timothy Spall is perfectly despicable. You’ll find yourself wishing that you could jump through the screen and give him a piece of your mind, but that’s exactly what people like David Irving feed off of. The film makes a point to show what a horrible, racist, anti-Semitic jerk he was/is and how ridiculous the entire libel lawsuit was from the get go. Though many other supporting characters pop in and out (a seemingly unbiased judge and a 23-year-old lawyer on her first case), Adam Scott is captivating as Lipstadt’s advocate and has one hugely passionate moment.

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Besides Weiz’s so-so accent and noticeably corny dialogue, DENIAL’s main fault is that the film feels like it’s by the numbers. This story is retold in a basic straightforward manner that doesn’t fully take advantage of the actual events, though solid performances and powerful moments still manage to elevate it above a mediocre courtroom drama. This film isn’t bad or bland. On the contrary, it’s a compelling movie driven by fantastic acting. I just felt like there should have been a bigger emotional impact left by the time that the end credits began to roll. If this story speaks to you and you’re in the mood for a well-acted courtroom drama, DENIAL is worth watching.

Grade: B

SNOWDEN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone

(based on the books THE SNOWDEN FILES by Luke Harding and TIME OF THE OCTOPUS by Anatoly Kucherena)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans & Nicolas Cage

I’ve been looking forward to SNOWDEN for a while now. Though director/writer Oliver Stone has suffered a mediocre slump in his output, this controversial story seemed like the kick in the pants that he needed to reinvigorate his filmography. This movie was originally supposed to be released on Christmas 2015, but for some reason it was delayed until May 2016, until it eventually was postponed until September. SNOWDEN has finally hit theaters with minimal promotion, mixed reviews, and a handful of screenings per theater. There’s a positive side to this though. My Tuesday night showing was sold-out and audience word-of-mouth has been extremely positive. Remarkably, this biopic doesn’t choose a side in the conflict, but rather presents points that Snowden might be a hero, a traitor, or a bit of both. This political thriller leaves that aspect for the viewer to decide.

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In June 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaked classified documents to the press that exposed government surveillance programs that infringed on the civil rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. This led to treason charges and a hot debate over security vs. freedom that still hasn’t fully been resolved in the public eye. This film spans from 2004 to 2013 in showing Snowden’s injured exit from the military, experience in the CIA, relationship with his girlfriend, and time in the NSA that ultimately pushes him to sacrifice everything to deliver information to the public.

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Whether you think he’s a traitor who deserves execution or a hero who should be celebrated, this film presents itself as a balanced character study of Edward Snowden. Though I’ve seen reviewers claim that this movie merely rehashes real-life events and nothing more, I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative when the events are incredibly interesting and troubling. This cinematic version of Edward Snowden is grounded on a human level thanks to a heavily developed relationship with his opposites-attract photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that certainly doesn’t change here as he becomes Edward Snowden. From the mannerisms to the distinct way of speaking, I forgot that I was watching Levitt. He’s that good. Shailene Woodley (who’s had dramatic ups and angsty downs) gives her best work to date as Lindsay Mills. The quality performances don’t end with those two though, because Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto are great as three journalists with Snowden confidential info. Scott Eastwood shows up as a temperamental NSA employee. Timothy Olyphant plays a smarmy CIA agent. Rhys Ifans shines as Snowden’s mentor and “friend,” which makes later scenes even more intense to watch. Finally, Nicolas Cage delivers his best performance in a decade with five minutes of screen time as a CIA instructor.

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SNOWDEN’s narrative is non-linear, opening with 2013’s fateful meeting of journalists and then flashing back to 2004. The film progressively shifts between Snowden’s interviews with the three reporters back to his progress through the CIA and NSA. This makes for a captivating experience as Stone is cramming nine eventful years into just over two hours. It’s also interesting to watch the past timeline catch up with the 2013 wraparound. Though Oliver Stone’s visual style can occasionally be a bit much (did we really need a lovey-dovey scene projected onto Snowden’s hotel window?), SNOWDEN also weaves in actual footage and news clips. There are clips of both current presidential candidates voicing (unsurprisingly) negative opinions about him, pieces of actual news stories from the leak and Obama’s reactions to the fallout. Be sure to stay through the first half of the credits for extra tidbits.

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Though it also functions as a dramatic biopic, SNOWDEN plays out like a paranoid thriller that’s made even more intense by this story being factual. We’d be naïve not to think that the NSA is still up to stuff and that we’re still being watched on a daily basis. However, Stone’s film wisely presents fuel for both sides of the argument. There’s talk of the modern battlefield being everywhere, but also about the sacrifice of freedom for security. It’s a huge gray area with no easy answers and the film doesn’t choose a side. Instead, Oliver Stone’s return-to-form is sure to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled, could inspire new feelings towards one of America’s most controversial figures, and may make you paranoid enough to put a Band-Aid over your webcam.

Grade: A

CHAIN OF FOOLS (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Pontus Lowenhielm & Patrick von Krusenstjerna

Written by: Bix Skahill

Starring: Steve Zahn, Salma Hayek, Jeff Goldblum, David Cross, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, David Hyde Pierce, Kevin Corrigan, Orlando Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle & Craig Ferguson

Slapstick humor, witty dialogue, bullets and ancient Chinese coins all come together in CHAIN OF FOOLS. Utilizing a style that’s more than a little reminiscent of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, this directorial debut was dumped into a handful of theaters upon its release and then found slightly more success in other countries. There a lot of qualities to enjoy in this under-the-radar, oddball heist comedy. These include: an ensemble cast of quirky characters, clever intersecting storylines, plenty of goofy laughs, and a catchy alternative rock soundtrack. It may have a few noticeable flaws, but CHAIN OF FOOLS is a blast of dark laughs, unique characters and smart plot twists.

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Thomas Kresk (Steve Zahn) is a down-on-his luck barber, whose life drastically changes when shady criminal Avnet (Jeff Goldblum) walks into his shop and a simple haircut doesn’t go as planned for both the criminal and the barber. With the aid of his best friend Andy (David Cross), a mentally unhinged scout leader, Kresk finds himself in possession of three rare Chinese coins that are worth a fortune. Things get more complicated when a poorly educated gangster (Kevin Corrigan) enters the picture, along with corrupt rich guy Bollingsworth (Tom Wilkinson), teenage hitman Mikey (Elijah Wood), and sexy cop/Playboy model Kolko (Salma Hayek). Soon enough, Kresk and Andy find their get-rich-quick scheme is going up in smoke and will be lucky to make it out alive…let alone with the coins in hand.

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CHAIN’s main draw comes from the titular fools themselves, as portrayed by a large ensemble cast of big names and familiar faces. As Kresk, Steven Zahn is playing his usual typecast lovable loser…except with a bad mullet and barber jacket. Jeff Goldblum is clearly having a blast as straight-faced, twitchy Avnet and effortlessly steals the spotlight from the other cast members around him. Part of the reason that Goldblum winds up with so many good laughs is that he plays his part seriously, while everyone around him is goofing off like there’s no end. It’s like throwing a GODFATHER character into a wacky spoof and simply witnessing what follows.

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Even though Goldblum makes off like a bandit with a bag full of scenes, David Cross steals most of the show as borderline psychotic, socially awkward timber scout Andy. Cross frequently had me laughing and small details about his character get funnier the more I think about them. On a slightly lesser note, Tom Wilkinson is too exaggerated as Bollingsworth, while Elijah Wood’s angsty teenage hitman Mikey receives a few memorable moments. Salma Hayek is essentially playing the bland romantic interest and occasionally makes her way into other scenes as her clueless detective slowly gets close to the truth. David Hyde Pierce shows up for two minutes as Bollingsworth’s personal assistant, while Orlando Jones seems wasted as a transvestite caught up in the illegal proceedings.

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CHAIN OF FOOLS keeps itself interesting through a non-linear narrative that frequently takes us from one character to another and then back and forth in time. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, but these sudden shifts aren’t necessarily hard to follow. The film packs a lot of plotlines and characters into slightly over 90 minutes, so there’s never a dull moment…even if the main story can seem a tad cluttered. Indeed, some of this movie’s laughs are a direct result of flashbacks and reveals that slowly lay out the comical details of a character’s past. One of the film’s funniest scenes was a well-executed flashback that served as a big long visual joke. Even though the jumbled timeline seems integral to its charm, CHAIN OF FOOLS would likely remain just as entertaining if it were told in a straightforward manner. It’s a well-written movie that occasionally reaches beyond its grasp.

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In addition to feeling slightly overcrowded, CHAIN OF FOOLS has a lot of style, one might argue a bit too much. These “cool” details include: cartoony sound effects (lending to the over-the-top slapstick), title cards that introduce each main character with a tagline, and narration from Zahn’s bad barber. A couple of these touches (mainly the overuse of sound effects and title cards that add nothing to the story) seem a bit forced and awkward, detracting from some of the enjoyment packed into the fast-paced 98 minutes. Still, the pros far outweigh the cons in this quirky crime-comedy. The writing is clever. The characters are unique. It’s an all-around entertaining, funny film in the vein of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. If that sounds up your alley, then CHAIN OF FOOLS will likely satisfy your cinematic craving.

Grade: B

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexuality

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Directed by: John Madden

Written by: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton & Tom Wilkinson

I’ll address the elephant in the room first. A lot of people feel that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE stole the 1998’s Academy Award for Best Picture away from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, thus some backlash has generated against this film (similar to backlash that’s generated against TITANIC and FORREST GUMP). While I definitely don’t think that everyone will enjoy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I will say that it enraptured me from the first frame and was a hugely entertaining experience as a whole. I imagine that the film will work a similar spell upon fans of Shakespeare’s work and 16th century period dramas. The film is a romantic comedy that succeeds in being more than just a stereotypical chick flick (though it does contain a few well-worn clichés), but rather a beautiful love story featuring one of history’s most famous influential writers.

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The year is 1593 and William Shakespeare is a struggling playwright trying to make his way in London. Though he has a way with words, Shakespeare is encountering a particularly nasty bit of writer’s block as he tries to construct a new comedy (titled ROMEO AND ETHEL, THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER). Through a few passing circumstances, Romeo finds a muse in the lovely Viola de Lesseps, a royal woman with a penchant for plays. In a forbidden friendship and secret romance, Shakespeare constructs his most famous play. We see how inspiration, tragedy, and timeless love hits William as his relationship with Viola evolves.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was shot on a budget of 25 million and that seems nearly impossible given the film’s sheer beauty, attention to detail, and elaborate costumes on display. The Elizabethan setting comes to colorful and dank life (depending on the scene) as every piece of jewelry and grimy smudge of dirt shines on the camera. Not once, does it ever appear that this film was shot on a sound stage. Instead, it makes me question as to whether director John Madden used a time machine to shoot this film in 16th century London. It looks that friggin’ good. The spectacle alone is worth watching, but that’s far from the most enjoyable aspect of this film.

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The cast includes many big names (some of whom weren’t nearly as famous as they are today). Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as William Shakespeare and exudes the kind of eccentricity that one would assume the brilliant playwright had on a daily basis. Gwyneth Paltrow is great as Viola. Though the character was invented purely for the purposes of this film, I couldn’t help but see her as one of those rare nobles with a deep appreciation for the theatre. Colin Firth is fantastic as a pompous jerk with his eye on Viola. Though he’s in a small role, Ben Affleck is enjoyable as an actor who takes his craft very seriously. Imelda Staunton and Geoffrey Rush serve as two very different types of over-the-top characters. While Rush is a grimy theatre owner, Staunton serves as Viola’s kindly nurse. Tom Wilkinson has an enjoyable part as a thuggish brute who slowly develops an appreciation for theatre over the course of the film. Finally, Judi Dench is phenomenal as Queen Elizabeth and seems born to play the role.

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The screenplay isn’t immune from common tropes that show up in every romantic comedy. These mainly include problems that stand in the way of Shakespeare and Viola’s true feelings for each other as well as an ending that probably got more than a few people to cry in the theater. I also didn’t buy one of the sillier sequences that really stretched plausibility midway through. However, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE feels very much like one of Shakespeare’s comedies that happens to star the playwright and other historical figures. In that sense, it’s truly a brilliant film. I especially enjoyed the use of Christopher Marlowe (another acclaimed playwright who lived during the Elizabethan era). The plot itself weaves elements of both ROMEO & JULIET (obviously) and TWELFTH NIGHT into a love story that feels familiar, but beautiful and touching all the same.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a cinematic treat for those who adore the bard’s work or enjoy romantic comedies in general. This is definitely not your average “chick flick,” though it has some familiar clichés. Instead, the film is a very clever, well-crafted love story about a real-life writer who penned clever, well-crafted love stories among other brilliant plays. The performances are outstanding from everyone involved. The period details are fantastic. The movie has impeccable comedic timing and a genuine heart behind all of the emotions on display. This might be an obvious way of stating it, but SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a creation worth loving.

Grade: A-

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Action and Violence

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Directed by: Brad Bird

Written by: Josh Appelbaum & Andre Nemec

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov & Samuli Edelmann

Of all the series I’ve covered for 2015’s summer movie releases, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was the one that I was least enthused about. I had never seen any of the Tom Cruise blockbusters until about a week ago and (aside from the second film) I’m very glad that I finally took the plunge into the franchise spawned by a 1960’s TV series. The 1996 original is the epitome of big, dumb popcorn entertainment. 2000’s sequel was too concerned over style and weighed down by a bad screenplay to be any fun. 2006’s third installment easily surpassed both films to become an outright great movie. So five years after that second sequel, director Brad Bird delivered MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL. Where does this fourth film sit? It’s somewhere snuggly between the first and the third.

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Ethan Hunt is doing time in a Russian prison, but IMF extracts him for another seemingly impossible task. This time around, Ethan and his team are being sent into the Kremlin to retrieve files on a terrorist known as “Cobalt.” Unfortunately for them, the mission doesn’t run as smoothly as planned (do they ever?) and the Kremlin is bombed by the very terrorist they were looking for. Ethan and his team members make it out alive, but tensions between the USA and Russia have risen to a level where IMF is disbanded. It’s up to Ethan and his small band of former IMF agents to take down Cobalt, prove their innocence, and retrieve nuclear codes before the unthinkable occurs.

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You might notice that plot sounds a bit generic this time around, almost as generic as your typical spy thriller a.k.a. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. However, it’s all in the execution. Director Brad Bird (who is most famous for his animated work) knows exactly how to pull off a “been there, done that” script in a way that feels fresh. He throws a number of suspenseful scenarios and the most grandiose action to grace a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though number three is still my favorite for a variety of reasons, the action is definitely most exciting and ridiculously awesome in GHOST PROTOCOL. We get intense chase scenes, fights while the stakes are at the their highest, and Tom Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building with a pair of faulty gloves. That last scene ramps up unbelievable levels of tension and is bound to make those afraid of heights wet their pants. Though the formula of making the action even more over-the-top with each entry can easily backfire, it works well for the fourth MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

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As far as the performances go, Tom Cruise is back in true action hero form as Ethan Hunt. Whatever you may think of his personal life, Cruise shines as this memorable agent always facing off against impossible odds. Though previous characters pop up for cameos, Simon Pegg is the only other big name to return from any of the previous films. He serves as the obvious comic relief, but does a damn fine job of it. Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner are new additions to the M:I team, but pull their weight. Renner is especially enjoyable in his role as an analyst turned amateur agent. While the good guys are worth rooting for, the villain is super bland this time around. It seems like the filmmakers knew that they would never be able to top Hoffman’s arms dealer, so they went in an entirely new direction. While I liked the concept of this nuclear extremist (played by Michael Nyqvist of the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), he simply doesn’t have much dialogue or enough screen time. I knew he was a baddie and that’s about all there was to his character. He just seems a little anti-climactic when compared to his competition in the series, even the moronic villain in M:I 2 is slightly more fleshed out in comparison.

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GHOST PROTOCOL stands as the second-best MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though it suffers from clichés and a boring villain, the fourth film in the franchise manages to up the excitement and entertainment through crazy action and solid suspense. If you’re a fan of the first three films (or even just one and three, like myself), then GHOST PROTOCOL should be right up your alley. This leaves me excited for the fifth (and supposedly final) film in the franchise coming on July 31. So far, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is three for four and those aren’t bad odds.

Grade: B+

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