Reel Reviews


A-III – adults


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Truth prevails

A prominent attempt to erase one of history’s most notorious genocides – and the possible strategies for defeating that effort – are explored in “Denial” (Bleecker Street).

Director Mick Jackson’s fact-based drama recounts the case for libel initiated in 1996 by English writer David Irving (Timothy Spall) against American historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). In her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” Lipstadt had labeled Irving a Holocaust denier. Following the appearance of a British edition of the work, Irving sued both Lipstadt and her U.K. publisher.

Lipstadt believes that passionate testimony from survivors can prove the existence of the Holocaust and win a difficult trial in which, under British law, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Her expert lawyers are determined to bore in instead on the false theories espoused by Irving, a churlish self-taught historian of World War II who’s gone over to the dark side.

Sourced from Lipstadt’s 2005 memoir, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, David Hare’s script mostly avoids courtroom histrionics in favor of delineating how the defense arguments were constructed. He also shows how Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University in Atlanta, misunderstood her legal team’s tactics nearly to the end of the trial.

The big break in the actual proceedings, held in London in 2000, was Irving’s misguided decision to serve as his own prosecutor, rather than use barristers to represent him. An additional advantage was gained when, in keeping with the rules of evidence, the defense was given access to Irving’s diaries, compiled over 20 years.

The film’s emotional heart is in quiet scenes filmed at the Auschwitz death camp, where Jackson takes care to show melting snow on barbed wire as if the fences are weeping. Here, too, Lipstadt recites the traditional funeral prayer of Ashkenazi Jews.

The camp, of course, offers its own indisputable testimony in the form of its gas chambers. But lead barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who’s been taking notes on how the executions operated, uses the setting to observe that the lack of a complete scientific investigation of the death machinery has given a foothold for cranks like Irving. They insist that Zyklon B, manufactured as a pesticide, was used only for delousing, not mass murder.

There’s no real question of how the trial will end. Spall plays Irving with bug-eyed malevolence. Irving even goes so far as to turn up at one of Lipstadt’s book readings to heckle her and announce that he’ll give $1,000 in cash to anyone who can prove that Hitler intended to slaughter Jews.

To keep control over the testimony and deny Irving a forum for grandstanding, Lipstadt’s lawyers refused to put either their client or any survivors of the Holocaust on the stand. In response to Lipstadt’s pleas for a contrary approach, solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) admonishes her, “A trial, I’m afraid, is not therapy.”

“Denial” makes a powerful point about moral as well as intellectual truth. Gainsayers of the worst horrors will always be with us, but they must be fought at every turn.

The film contains detailed discussions of atrocities and a single rough term. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

‘Queen of Katwe’

A-II – adults and adolescents


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Triumph of mind and spirit

The glorious “Queen of Katwe” (Disney) applies the traditional formula of an uplifting sports drama to the real-life story of a Ugandan chess prodigy.

The film then goes in unexpected directions to expose the scars horrific poverty can leave on the human soul.

The principal characters are all presented obliquely as Christian, and Phiona Mutesi’s (Madina Nalwanga) first exposure to chess comes through a sports ministry. But religious faith and practice aren’t really shown here.

The hero is Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary and former soccer player who starts a chess club in an abandoned church in Katwe, a shantytown outside Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.

He turns down an opportunity to pursue a lucrative career in engineering so he can teach the village children a skill that will enable them to expand their minds. “This is a place for fighters,” he tells them.

Phiona is illiterate, since her widowed mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a vegetable peddler, can’t afford to send her children to school. Her older sister, Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze), has temporarily escaped the shantytown squalor by living with an older man who provides her with money that she passes on to Harriet.

Phiona’s introduction to chess is a simple explanation from another girl who tells her what each piece does, finishing with “They all kill each other.”

Phiona’s an outcast even among other poor children; they’ve decided that she smells bad. She faces further scorn any time she defeats a boy.

In adapting Tim Crothers’ book The Queen of Katwe, director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler don’t attempt to explain the vagaries of chess, other than to demonstrate, in one scene, Phiona’s particular talent with three-dimensional thinking. Instead they concentrate on her relationships with the people around her.

The scrappy poor kids of Katwe eventually take on wealthy, educated youngsters at a college tournament, and from there on, Phiona’s exposure to the outside world grows. It’s accompanied by a sudden outbreak of low self-esteem, however, as she realizes that her life has had severely limited possibilities.

From this point on, the story picks up speed as it observes the sports-film formula. Phiona has a major defeat at a Russian tournament, suffers from despair, successfully wrestles with her inner demons and steels herself for future victories.

There’s no condescension to the poverty, which is shown matter-of-factly – and without a trace of self-pity. The result is a remarkably inspirational movie about the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

The film contains references to cohabitation. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

Monthly List of Recent Film Ratings (June 2015)

CNS classifications: A-I: general patronage; A-II: adults and adolescents; A-III: adults; L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling; O: morally offensive.
MPAA ratings: G: general audiences. All ages admitted; PG: parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13: parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R: restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian; NC-17: no one 17 and under admitted.

The Age of Adaline, A-III (PG-13)
Aloha, A-II (PG-13)
Avengers: Age of Ultron, A-III (PG-13)
The Awakening, A-III (R)
Begin Again, A-III (R)
Chappie, L (R)
Child 44, A-III (R)
Cinderella, A-I (PG)
The D Train, O (R)
Danny Collins, A-III (R)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent, A-III (PG-13)
Do You Believe?, A-II (PG-13)
Dream House, L (PG-13)
The DUFF, A-III (PG-13)
Ex Machina, O (R)
Far from the Madding Crowd, A-II (PG-13)
Focus, L (R)
Furious 7, A-III (PG-13)
Get Hard, O (R)
The Gunman, L (R)
Home, A-I (PG)
Hot Pursuit, A-III (PG-13)
It Follows, O (R)
Jupiter Ascending, A-III (PG-13)
Kingsman: The Secret Service, A-III (R)
The Last Exorcism Part II, L (PG-13)
The Lazarus Effect, A-III (PG-13)
Little Boy, A-II (PG-13)
The Longest Ride, A-III (PG-13)
Mad Max: Fury Road, L (R)
Marie's Story, A-II (not rated)
McFarland, USA, A-II (PG)
Monkey Kingdom, A-I (G)
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, A-I (PG)
Pitch Perfect 2, A-III (PG-13)
Poltergeist, A-III (PG-13)
Project Almanac, A-III (PG-13)
The Pyramid, A-III (R)
Run All Night, L (R)
San Andreas, A-III (PG-13)
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, A-III (PG)
Seventh Son, A-II (PG-13)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, A-I (PG)
Tomorrowland, A-II (PG)
The Trip to Italy, A-III (not rated)
True Story, A-III (R)
Unfinished Business, O (R)
Unfriended, O (R)
The Water Diviner, A-III (R)
Woman in Gold, A-II (PG-13)

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops