Friday, October 28, 2016

Nosh 38: 'Denial,' 'Miss Hokusai'

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.

APPETIZER: Reviews of Denial and Miss Hokusai

Who can deny that “historian” David Irving is a jerk? A Royal Navy officer’s son, the boy admired Adolf Hitler. His Fuhrer fondness caused a public scandal in college. He went on to write about WWII from Hitler’s viewpoint (his mastery of German did not save him from many errors of fact). And then Irving became the world’s most famous, anti-Semitic doubter of the Holocaust – a stain not bleached by his helping to expose the fake “Hitler diaries” (largely to embarrass a more worthy historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper).

Irving remains alive at 78, still rather ruggedly handsome. But, given his sordid character, it’s no wonder that in Denial the famously homely Timothy Spall plays him like a hybrid of Dracula, Dick Nixon and Spall’s rodent-faced Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter series. Quite fine as Churchill in The King's Speech, Spall as the cocky Irving comes off as a scowling, deluded gargoyle. In court he faces the American historian he foolishly slandered, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). Her team of London legal eagles, led on film by Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott, must prove that Irving knowingly lied and ignored facts, to a judge who is one very hard brick of Britannic cheese.

The tense story, scripted by David Hare from Lipstadt’s book, plays up Weisz’s use of a flat, almost grating American accent, high contrast to the verbal brandy of the Brits. There is too much obvious counterpointing of English formality and cool, “manly” logic to her volatile feelings. They refused her wish to call Holocaust survivors to testify, but the bond held.

The verdict is now history, satisfyingly. Irving never recovered, and has been reduced to hawking Nazi memorabilia (maybe Donald Trump can recruit Irving to ghost his political memoirs). Director Mick Jackson keeps it humming, a chill visit to Auschwitz is haunting, and Wilkinson is wonderful as the lawyer who needs frequent wine to lubricate his brilliance and his conscience. Denial digs into its story with insight, but this year’s Holocaust movie remains, certainly, Laszlo Nemes’s amazing Son of Saul (see Nosh 6, below).

Miss Hokusai
I can be lukewarm about Japanese animé, or Japanimation. So much beauty and imagination! But also too much quirky plotting, gory violence and sentimentality about big-eyed cuties. Forget such flaws with Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai. Loosely using history, Hara’s gorgeous film is about O-ei, daughter of the great painter Hokusai. It takes place in 1814 in Edo, the future Tokyo.

An artist, under her father’s haughty thumb and masterful brush, O-ei has spunk and talent. Her standard task is to ink female figures, but she’s a virgin and the old man declares that she lacks sensuality. We follow her self-questioning growth as artist and woman. Hara offers amazing vistas, an imperious concubine, a Godzilla-like Buddha, dreams, ghosts, a huge fire, fear of sex and death, and a seduction with a surprise finish. O-ei’s blind little sister is a big-eyed peg for pathos, and yet handled with such subtlety and tender emotion, why crab about it?

This may well be a masterpiece (only a savvy Japanese viewer could say for sure). What held my fascination, along with the wonderful depiction of an era before capitalist Japan Inc., is the silky, brush-like fluency of Hara’s feel for emotional changes in a family, the kind that here shapes art on paper and film. When he tops a river excursion with a surging homage to master Hokusai’s immortal “Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” he has earned it. For a glimpse of the beauty, see the end of this Nosh. 

SALAD (A List)
My favorite 12 Films About Trials and Lawyers:
Twelve Angry Men (Lumet, 1955), The Trial (Welles, 1962), The Confession (Costa-Gavras, 1970), Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950),  To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962), Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957), Compulsion (Fleischer, 1959), My Cousin Vinny (Lynn, 1992), The Letter (Wyler, 1940), Reversal of Fortune (Schroeder, 1990),  Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, 1959) and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Rothemund, 2012).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Chosen by Orson Welles to play Helen of Troy in a 1950 Paris show, young Eartha Kitt remembered being escorted by him at dawn back to her hotel, with Orson spouting yarns and Shakespeare. He also staged fancy cast lunches, where “he ordered everything for us from soup to nuts (and) wanted a bit of everything” from everyone’s plates. Welles never, she believed, had to pick up the tab. (Quotation from Barbara Leaming’s great Orson Welles: A Biography).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Tony Perkins’s commercial smash was Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho: “Norman’s unity with his dead mother was a warped X-ray of Tony, who even invented some dialog. Personal subtext came forth screaming: ‘She had to raise me all by herself, after my father died. I was only five.’ Despite his mimetic skills, Perkins refused to do Ma Bates’s voice, perhaps sensing the arrival of a campy career trap.” That fear was correct. (From the Anthony Perkins/The Trial chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.    
O-ei makes Edo her own, in Miss Hokusai (Gkids, 2015; director Keiichi Hara, cinematographer Koji Tanaka)

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.

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