Mike at the Movies

Denial (PG-13) ****

Rachel Weisz and Tom Wilkinson (Richard Rampton) team up as a noted historian and a noted British attorney in the film version of a famous trial of Holocaust denier David Irving. Irving (Timothy Spall) sued Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) for libel in a British court. That’s where the frustration for an American audience (and for Lipstadt) begins. Under British law, the person sued must prove their case that the plaintiff lied, rather than the defendant using the truth as a defense.

Weisz does a superb job of suffering in silence under the pressure of her own conscience and pleas from Holocaust survivors to be heard at her trial. Her team of British attorneys wisely keeps the focus on Irving, who argued his own case. Wilkinson as the lead defendant’s barrister presents a picture of a dedicated jurist whose trick of not looking at Irving throughout the trial gets the plaintiff on edge and plays a part in his destruction. Irving was, you see, an anti-Semite of the first order, as proven in his books and in the evidence before the court. He preached his denial gospel in the U.S. for some years before being totally discredited in this trial.

The 32-day trial never saw Lipstadt as a witness. Her acquiescence to her circumstances is shown in two symbolic acts: her failure to bow to the judge at the start of the trial and her bowing to him at its end.

Irving unwisely assented to a trial without jury that deprived him of what he really wanted: more publicity for his views and more book sales. Irving’s defense of himself against racist charges gets positively Trumpian as he talks about employees with “fine breasts and good attitudes” instead of their race, which is the real issue. In fact, his desperate attempts at justifying what he can’t bring himself to admit makes him seem stunningly contemporary.

The verdict of the court in Lipstadt’s case ruined Irving’s career as a “historian,” and he is most frequently mentioned as “an historical writer” these days. He has attempted to reclaim his position as a WWII expert on several occasions in several places to constant controversy, bans on public appearances and abject failure. The movie deals with him honestly and portrays him as a huckster without principle who used specific and limited knowledge to make a phony career. Does that sound familiar? This is a superb, thoughtful film, worthy of your attention.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (PG-13) ***

This film was a real surprise. It is a typical Cruise/Reacher film in that you have a ton of chases and fights, but this chapter turns into a feminist manifesto, led by the comely Cobie Smolders (of “How I Met My Wife”) as Turner, Reacher’s contact in the military. Reacher has to keep repeating to everybody he meets that he is no longer in the military (he retired as a major) but they still call him “Sir” though Turner calls him “Reacher.”

The plot is really one of revenge: Officers have been brutally murdered. A secret entity headed by an evil military officer and his former military thugs do the heavy lifting and are dispatched by Reacher first. Patrick Heusinger is the main baddie, called merely “The Hunter,” but he seems to have an apparently full supply of flunkies who die before him.

A simple plot of revenge turns into something else when Reacher learns of a possible daughter he didn’t know he had. Samantha (Danika Yarosh) is a well-cast sulky teen, but she is also a quick learner in martial arts and self-defense. She is taught, not by her ostensible father, Reacher, but by Turner, another feminist touch.

Whereas in the first Reacher film one of the puzzles was why Turner and Reacher didn’t get it on—they’re both very single and attractive—the scriptwriters let them get much closer this time around while keeping the tease going.

Racing through several countries, the film ends up in New Orleans during Mardi Gras (of course), which makes the final chase scenes even more improbable than they usually are. How Reacher and Turner find a fleeing Sam and the bad guys in the crowds has to be magic because the chases make no sense.

Another plot device is a lowly sergeant who seems capable of finding out information even the CIA would have trouble finding. She is pure plot device and nothing more.

Smulders has aged well—her face is stronger, her body in hard trim and her physical skills well coordinated with Reacher’s. However, I will never completely understand how a highly-trained operator such as Reacher can get in a foot race with bad guys and have his female accomplice keep up with him upstairs and down and over and under fences and all. Turner chews out Reacher for assuming she’s not able to keep up because she’s a woman, but she is also not a highly trained special ops soldier like Reacher.

The rhetoric is grand and the purpose noble but it still beggars the senses to accept it all. Nevertheless, it is unusual enough to hear feminist defense in a Cruise movie and to give such a large amount of time to the feminist point of view. There are hints of more Reachers to come, but no promises. In the meantime, this is an average, acceptable but certainly not ground-breaking chase movie.

Keeping Up With the Joneses (PG-13) ***

The gags are fast and subtle—perhaps too fast and too subtle for best effect—in this domestic spy drama featuring an extremely attractive cast. Zach Galifinakis as Jeff Gaffney an HR specialist with a high tech firm and Isla Fisher as his wife, Karen, get mixed up with new neighbors Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) who clearly are not what they seem. Then again, they are, if you take them as they look: an extremely handsome couple with an international background, oozing in sophistication and good taste. That is true of them, but they also kill people and blow up things in their work as agents.

There are several funny scenes to absorb. One is at the Cobra Club that features snake dishes, one of which bites Jeff after its head has been cut off. Gags are often hard to hear, they fly past so fast.

Exhibiting her high fashion super-model body in a woman’s dressing room, Natalie reassures Karen that she’s normal: “Just because I don’t have to moisturize doesn’t mean I’m perfect.”

There are numerous chases, one of which leaves a high performance Mercedes looking like Swiss cheese. The chase itself is very funny and fast-moving and highly improbable, as is the entire film. Gags fly at mind-bending speed and they get more complicated as we learn that Tim and Natalie are not on the same page about the glamorous life of the spy. He wants to quit. At one point Natalie loses her patience with a pair of captives and barks: “Can we please just waterboard them?” Gadot is long, lanky and perfectly modelish and Hamm is Hamm with his funny side showing.

Jeff pleads with his captors: “I’m not a spy. I’m a soccer dad.” He also chooses an unfortunate cover name: Bruce Springstine [sic]. It all comes together in a frantic finale that will not leave you gasping from laughter but you will probably find yourself smiling broadly as it all winds down.

Inferno (PG-13) **

Dan Brown’s plots are Byzantine enough to begin with but, teamed with Ron Howard’s devotion to close-ups of everything, this film is all but unwatchable. Tom Hanks is his usual flagrantly over-talkative Professor Langdon and Felicity Jones (Sienna Brooks) is a stunning accompaniment to his running away from the Carabinieri, the W.H.O., the associates of a psychopathic scientist named Zobrist (Ben Foster) and a pack of police dogs at one point, and doing it flawlessly through the halls of Florence museums, parts of Venice and anywhere else he ends up (like Istanbul).

The ridiculous nature of the film is exhibited several times: inscriptions from Dante and others are in English, Langdon has a long-recurring head injury that spooks his memory so the usually reliable professor cannot even remember his middle name—and then there are the plot twists and the rapid transitions from Florence to Venice to Istanbul that are made as if seats were already reserved on the necessary planes—and all this in the tightest possible focus so all objects and action are blurred or obscured by passing extras. It was, to this viewer, physically upsetting and mentally boggling. I won’t give away the biggest twist. The change is so strange that it seems like Brown ran out of ideas and decided to go a totally new way.

Langston meets an old love, Elizabeth Sinskey of W.H.O. (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and people are killed without us knowing who they are, why they were cast in this film or what their function is. It is an ungodly mess and I lost patience with it about two thirds of the way in. I’m sorry as I like Hanks and he and Sienna had chemistry once in a while, but the close-ups tried to make me believe there was more to this film than there was. It is an exotic thriller with a basic, boring plot: try to find the secret bomb that will destroy the world before time runs out. Sound familiar? It is far TOO familiar in this case.

Ouija: Origin of Evil (PG-13) **

Ugh. A movie with an obvious gimmick—a Ouija board—which is placed in the hands of a séance scammer (Elizabeth Reaser as Alice Zander), aided and abetted by her daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). ‘Nuff said. The younger daughter, Doris, gets hooked and ends up causing all sorts of mayhem in the Other World. Her dead father (Michael Weaver) is already there and it soon becomes apparent that Evil Spirits want the rest of his family to join him. Mom (Alice) is delighted to discover that they are in touch with the spirit world for crass reasons: “We can actually do what we’ve been telling people we can do.”

The local widower/priest, Father Tom (Henry Thomas), tries to hustle Mom and beat the Devil in one fell swoop, but when his eyes begin to glaze over—a sure sign of possession as we all know—we begin to wonder at his wisdom in hustling the Good Widow. The spooks multiply, the plot gets further and further lost, and ultimate disappointment is yours for no extra cost. Pretty much a total waste of time and certainly not for the youngsters because of standard horror elements such as bad lighting and loud sounds that preface each scary moment.