(PG-13; 110 minutes; Participant Media): “Do you have any idea how hard it is to hand over your conscience to somebody else?” asks Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), eyes wide. That’s the fascinating idea behind Mick Jackson’s drama “Denial,” based on a real-life lawsuit argued in a London courtroom in 2000.
Lipstadt, an American historian and professor, was sued for libel in 1996 by British author and Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Refusing to settle the case, Lipstadt went to court – and had to sit quietly while British lawyers (led by Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson) argued her case for her.
It’s one of those stories that perhaps makes a better book than a movie (Lipstadt has written about the experience, in the memoir “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”). The film never finds a distinctive visual language, and screenwriter David Hare struggles to simplify a complex case.
But ultimately “Denial’ works, thanks to its strong cast – particularly Spall, who gives Irving a slightly mad gleefulness, and Weisz, whose smart, tough Deborah chafes against the quiet acquiescence expected of her. And the haunting story at its core speaks loudly. We see devastating glimpses of Auschwitz – the piles of suitcases, glasses, shoes – that remind us powerfully that this case isn’t about one woman. “It’s not for themselves,” Deborah argues to her attorneys, trying to get them to agree to let Holocaust survivors testify. “They want to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it.”
Contains thematic material and brief strong language. Seattle Times
‘Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life’
(PG; 92 minutes; James Patterson Entertainment): “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” captures the all too torturous years of middle school. It's not about children or teenagers, but those awkward in-betweeners. In this story, based on the book written by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, boundaries are, in fact, the enemy.
Directed by Steve Carr, “Middle School” imagines a world in which institutions are evil, principals are tyrannical and all-out insurrection is the answer. It's a fun, rebellious romp that celebrates creativity and outside-the-box thinking, though parents might hope that their children won't be too inspired to copy the elaborate pranks that these characters pull off.
Griffin Gluck plays Rafe, a dreamer and a doodler who is never far from his sketchbook. Though he seems like a nice enough kid, he has a serious aversion to authority. Transferring into his third school of the year, he finds a worthy opponent in the rule book-obsessed principal. Adopting the motto “rules aren't for everyone” (R.A.F.E.), he and his best pal, Leo (Thomas Barbusca), set out to creatively break every rule in the book.
The key to the success of “Middle School” is the casting of comedy heavyweights in the roles of the adults. Lauren Graham plays Rafe's charming single mother, and she's about the only “normal” adult they encounter, aside from Adam Pally, who plays Mr. Teller, the cool homeroom teacher who uses hip-hop to teach about NAFTA.
But the true genius lies in the casting of the villains: Andy Daly as uptight Principal Dwight and Rob Riggle as Rafe's dirtbag future stepdad Carl. Retta plays a fine lieutenant to Daly as Vice Principal Ida Stricker.
Contains rude humor throughout, language and thematic elements. Tribune News Service
(R; 89 minutes; Vertigo Entertainment): In 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” created a look and feel that made it the most important horror film of the decade. Supposedly assembled from college student videos documenting a scary woodlands legend, it created a remarkable sense of Gothic realism. Its inventive hand-held, found footage approach to cinematography and editing gave viewers by the millions a bad case of the creepy-crawlys. It was a surprise smash because it literally went so far off the beaten path.
“Blair Witch,” the second follow-up in the franchise, is better than the first, 2000’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.” While this isn’t nearly as bad, it’s an uninspired disappointment in its own way. Rather than exploring new ground, it sends us down familiar terrain, provoking shrieks for the mercy of a quick ending.
Again, a few students enter Maryland’s Black Hills Forest to investigate its mysterious supernatural history. This time the equipment is different, including millennial updates such as GPS, state-of-the-art walkie talkies and a drone camera for overhead views. The story is different, too. James Donahue (James Allen McCune) has asked his friends to join him on the hike in hope of discovering what happened to his sister years ago.
Despite those era-specific tweaks, “Blair Witch” doesn’t translate the first film into modern terms. It is very repetitious of the original rather than rebuilding it. Copying the first movie – there are an awful lot of nasty stick figures appearing at the campsite – it fails to improve on it.
Contains language, terror and some disturbing images. Minneapolis Star Tribune
Also out Jan. 3
- “Bones: Season 11”
- “Girls: Season 5”
- “Sleepy Hollow: Season 3”
- “The Librarians: Season 2”
- “The Monkey King 2”