Denial (2016)

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To the untrained ear, English actress Rachel Weisz’s New York accent—her character hails from Queens—is entirely convincing in Denial. Streep-worthy one might say. She also looks quite the part, as academic author Deborah E. Lipstadt, Ph.D., a positive shock of bright orange hair boldly announcing the acclaimed historian before anyone has so much as shaken her hand. But it’s Weisz’s complete and deliberate characterization—impassioned, tightly wound, a little bit unsure of herself—that makes Denial another memorable showcase for the talented star of The Lobster, The Deep Blue Sea, and The Constant Gardener (for which she won her Oscar). Lipstadt’s 2005 book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, provides the material for Mick Jackson’s somber courtroom drama: In 1996, English writer David Irving (a scarily incendiary Timothy Spall, hair slicked over and cheeks puffed out) brought a libel lawsuit against Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books, claiming defamation of character. In her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt refers to Irving as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” As English libel law puts the burden of proof on the accused, it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team, fronted by solicitor Anthony Julius (played by Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton QC (Tom Wilkinson; barristers are the ones who get to wear the powdered wigs), to prove less that the Holocaust actually happened and more that Irving’s writings and research were essentially, consistently, and purposefully flawed. Going up against the repellent Irving (Spall creates a bona fide monster in the dock) proves tough enough, but Lipstadt’s counsel’s insistence on not putting any Holocaust survivors on the stand—since Irving’s Hitler-loving antisemite would humiliate them—causes some additional intra-team conflicts. The film’s ending feels a little sedate and somewhat truncated, since David Hare’s restrained script downplays theatricality in favor of process, but it’s an intriguing watch nonetheless, with Weisz, Scott, and Wilkinson all solid in defense.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Tower (2016)

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Rotoscoping—an animation technique by which motion picture footage is drawn or painted over—was invented in 1915 by pioneer animator Max Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman). It’s not clear what the first feature-length rotoscoped movie was, since definitions of “feature film” vary and many rotoscoped works (among them China’s very first animated movie, Princess Iron Fan, from 1941; Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (1977), American Pop (1981), and Heavy Metal (1981); and South Korea’s 2008 romance Life is Cool) all claim to use the technique “extensively” rather than “exclusively.” The first digitally rotoscoped film—using MIT computer scientist Bob Sabiston’s computer-assisted “interpolated Rotoscoping” process—was Richard Linklater’s Waking Life in 2001, and the results are generally amazing (Linklater would use the process again five years later with A Scanner Darkly). Equally amazing is Tower, directed by Keith Maitland, which uses a combination of rotoscoping, live action, and historical footage to revisit the tragedy that unfolded on August 1, 1966 when Charles Whitman took the elevator to the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower and began shooting people indiscriminately, killing sixteen and leaving three dozen wounded. This dark chapter in American history is brought to life using first-person accounts of survivors and eyewitnesses, as well as of those who risked their lives to save others that day. Maitland massages his material seamlessly, with the juxtaposition of the vibrant rotoscoped footage with the archival material especially powerful, delivering flesh and blood characters we care about, despite the two-dimensional rendering. Tower mourns the dead as much as it heralds the heroes, without whom there would have been an even greater loss of life. It’s a vibrant and compelling document, one which takes the art of rotoscoping to dizzying new heights.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

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Clocking in at a little over 17 hours, Transformers: The Last Knight is so unnecessary a motion picture that even the good folks at Rovi (“the most important company you’ve never heard of,” according to the Business Insider) were hard pressed to generate a palpitating plot synopsis. Here’s the best that regular contributor Jason Buchanan could come up with: “The Transformers leap into action once more in this sequel from Paramount Pictures and director Michael Bay.” Lose the production credits from that already thin description and you’ve got a perfectly underwhelming seven-word précis cum promotional campaign: “The Transformers leap into action once more.” Sort of makes you want to miss the whole metal fatigue-a-thon, doesn’t it? Perhaps now would be a good time for me to mention that I gave Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) the full complement of stars (out of four) and I rarely give a movie that many—just eighteen four-star movies in some 840 reviews, in fact. Anyway, Hasbro’s “robots in disguise” franchise has had its ups and downs in the ten years since the original film debuted, of course. The first one in the series was a real surprise, the perfect popcorn movie, a bubblegum blockbuster that sported wonderfully-drawn characters (including a runcible chihuahua!), crackerjack special effects, and a director in complete control of his medium. By comparison, 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was always going to pale (and pale it did; ‘Fallen proved to be right). Compared to T:ROTF, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) could only look good (i.e., better) and look good it did. I believe I bagged Transformers: Age of Extinction (from 2014) after half an hour due to colossal boredom. Age of Exhaustion you mean. So, how does Transformers: The Last Knight (hereafter referred to as T5) stack up? Does T5 prove to be a satisfying conclusion to all this metallic mayhem? Nope.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

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“Did she? Didn’t she? Who was to blame?” The opening lines of Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel are voiced over a dramatic helicopter shot of a craggy Cornish cliff face by English actor Sam Claflin.
     Claflin plays Philip, a young and naïve Englishman who comes to suspect that his older cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) might have murdered his wealthy guardian for the spoils of his sizable estate. Then he meets Ambrose’s “torment” and is instantly smitten… but his suspicions remain. At the film’s conclusion, however, these questions—did she or didn’t she—remain unanswered… but you’ll know that if you’ve ever read the book by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, and the short stories “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now”) on which the film is based, or seen the earlier 1952 screen version which starred Richard Burton and Olivia DeHavilland.
     Like Philip, we’re left guessing as to whether or not the herbal infusions—or “twig soup” according to his leathery housekeeper—cousin Rachel regularly brews up contain deadly laburnum seedpods. Writing from Philip’s point of view, du Maurier admitted that when writing the novel she became so beguiled by her female protagonist that “…she could have poisoned the entire world, I would not have minded.”
     The film’s most dramatic, heart-stopping moment comes when Philip is galloping along the cliff path that winds and weaves a little too close to the edge of those imposing Cornish bluffs. Otherwise the drama is more of the mood-driven, cat-and-mouse variety—creaking floorboards, skulking at keyholes, suspicious absences and illicit rendezvous, quickly changing weather patterns, black lace veils and Irish Wolfhounds, and much smoldering passion, not all of it reciprocated (Philip’s strong feelings of sexual entitlement are particularly uncomfortable, especially in the bluebell bedding scene).
     Beautifully photographed locales and a delicate piano score highlight Michell’s deliberately ambiguous, finely-acted film, which also stars Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen as Philip’s godfather and Holliday Grainger (The Finest Hours) as his daughter, Louise Kendall, who has long carried a torch for the foolish Philip. Weisz’s performance is spot on as the inscrutable Rachel, shadowy and bewitching, with Claflin convincingly besotted.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Some Like It Hot (1959)

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Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is the perfect screwball comedy, a giddy gumbo of gangsters, gowns (Oscar-winning ones), and girls, only two of the girls—Josephine and Daphne, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon with impeccable comic timing—are guys, speakeasy musicians on the lam after witnessing a mob hit by “Spats” Colombo (George Raft) and his entourage of hatchet-faced goons. Luckily for saxophonist Joe (later Josephine) and bull fiddle player Jerry (Daphne, rejecting Joe’s initial suggestion of Geraldine), talent agent Sig Poliakoff is looking for a couple of girls to play with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators for three weeks down in Florida, providing the perfect cover for our “sultry heroines.” Things get far more complicated than they ought when Joe falls for knockout Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe, just perfect), the band’s flask-nipping ukulele player/vocalist, attempting to woo her as hard-to-get petroleum magnate Shell Oil Junior via some quick changes of wardrobe and an absurd Cary Grant inflection. Daphne, on the other hand, is hit on by Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown in a closing line-stealing performance), a frequently-married millionaire with a yacht and unresolved mommy issues. Sparkling dialogue (courtesy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), deft direction, beautiful black and white photography (to help downplay the male leads’ gender-changing makeup), and fully-committed performances from Curtis, Lemmon, and Monroe make Some Like It Hot a comedic gem to treasure time and time again.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Thirst (2009)

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Leave it to the South Koreans—and Oldboy’s Chan-wook Park in particular—to inject new blood into the seemingly eternal vampire oeuvre. Thirst (aka Bakjwi, literally The Bat) hits closer to home than most with its moral corruption pretext: following a failed medical experiment attempting to counter a life-threatening disease, a blood transfusion turns a devout, ascetic priest into a hedonistic, plasma-crazed bloodsucker—think the central protagonist in Julia Ducournau’s Raw only on an all-liquid diet. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho, of the marvelous Memories of Murder and The Host) is joined in his carnal cravings by Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim) after he liberates her from her despicable, abusive family. A victim of domestic slavery, Tae-ju soon wants to become as one with her lover-redeemer. Stylish and sexy—very sexy in fact—with a deliciously bent sense of humor, Thirst is as entertaining as it is engaging. Bloody, yes, and sensual both in its imagery (snow falling like eiderdown, floor tiles bloodied with graceful velvet, huge skeins of brightly colored silk stacked high and dry) and its erotic couplings (with both leads excellent), it carefully chronicles the slow transition from giver to taker with beautifully-crafted scenes that positively pulse with symbolism. Thirst is a palpable experience, and another strong showing from the ever-reliable Park.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Odd Thomas (2013)

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Poor Anton Yelchin (1989-2016), who died way too young in a freak car accident outside his home in Studio City, California. He is best known for playing navigator and mathematical prodigy Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek reboot series, his authentic Russian accent providing much of the film’s lighter tone (last year’s Star Trek Beyond was dedicated to him). Less well known, but equally perfectly cast, is Yelchin’s title role performance in Odd Thomas, an adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel of the same name by Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy (not the recent one with Tom Cruise but the 1999 one with Brendan Fraser). In the film, Yelchin plays Odd, a regular guy with a regular girl in a regular town but one who’s saddled with the unfortunate ability to see bodachs, creepy metallic see-through sirens that congregate around hapless saps, portending death. Odd’s awfully cute, as is his gutsy girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn (played by Californication‘s Addison Timlin), and the film’s tone feels just right. Oddly, Odd Thomas plays more like a comic book than some comic book adaptations of late and, as such, is over-the-top fun. It’s also a delightful showcase for its young and extremely likable star—the phrase “Capten on ze bridge!,” with Yelchin’s devoted delivery, will remain a classic.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com