Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
November, 2016


This fascinating film is the true story of a libel law suit in Britain that had important consequences.  Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) in her book on Holocaust deniers condemned the work of David Irving, a self-trained World War II historian whose passion for defending Adolph Hitler made him a prominent Holocaust denier. He claimed that there never were death camps and crematoria, and further claimed that holocaust survivors were frauds in the pay of Israel to make money.

Unlike America's similarity to British law (from which our system derived), the British law regarding libel has permitted many well-heeled people to haul authors into court demanding damages. In the United States, free speech laws are far more defended, as one interesting case shows.

An American author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, who runs a think tank in New York, wrote a book called Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed, and How to Stop It (2003). The book accused a wealthy Saudi businessman of funding al-Qaida. This man, Khalid bin Mahfouz, sued her in a British court and because she didn't show up in court, he won huge damages and the demand that her book not be sold in the UK and all extant copies must be destroyed. His huge fortune intimidated her from lawyering up in a British court.

Ehrenfeld was astonished.  She does not live in England and the book was not published there, so she wondered why Mahfuz did not sue her in an American court where she could defend the truth of her book. He did not do so because the UK has now become the refuge of rascals who have created an industry attacking free speech. This is called Libel Tourism.

Happily, Ehrenfeld was able to solicit the help of the New York State Legislature, which took up her defense and passed a bill called the Libel Terrorism Protection Act (Rachel's Law). The US Congress took up the issue and passed the “Speech Act,” which passed the House and Senate unanimously, and President Obama signed it (2010). It prevents US courts from enforcing British libel rulings.

Denial follows the case in which another American author (Lipstadt) was sued by the notorious David Irving who made a living out of writing World War II history that presented a defense of Hitler and the Nazis. He claimed Lipstadt's book defamed him and he wanted damages and destruction of her book. The burden of proof, unlike that in the US, was on her to prove that he deliberately falsified and lied. British law permits people to have genuine beliefs, even when obnoxious. She would have to prove that his falsifications were deliberate.

Her British legal team (with the wonderful Tom Wilkinson playing Richard Rampton, her attorney) did not want her to take the stand nor could she bring in any holocaust survivors. The team had seen how the theatrical David Irving (Timothy Spall) has humiliated other holocaust survivors in other court challenges.

The film is marvelous. It is enlightening to see how a crack team of British lawyers can thread their way around a well-intentioned law with very bad consequences.  Justice is not served by this law, but this team played it very cleverly. Irving, like other narcissists and bullies, could be played by a wily attorney.  Deborah Lipstadt was well served.

Doctor Strange
I wouldn't think of missing a movie that has Benedict Cumberbatch in it, but I do regret seeing this one. The story is a comic book fantasy, which would be all right with me, except that this one removed my normal defenses.

The story is that a brilliant neurosurgeon, arrogant and very rich, Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) stupidly drives his sports car so fast that he loses control of it. He awakens in the emergency room, finding that all the bones in his hands (as well as other parts of his body) have been broken. Although he slowly heals, his hands are not healed enough for the delicate surgery that he performed as a neurosurgeon.

After exhausting all the miracles of western medicine, he sets out for the mysterious east, where he hopes to find another sort of wisdom that could heal him. He arrives in Katmandu, a crowded city that does not have even a safe water supply. My credibility flagged; this is no place to get healed. But then he finds a mysterious portal where a woman of several hundred years of age (played by the marvelous Tilda Swinton, completely bald, introduces him to a hidden world of magic and cosmic conflict where he is transformed from surgeon to superhero.

From that point on, the film becomes a whirling nightmare of psychedelic special effects that made me dizzy, missing entirely the delight that people report from an LSD trip.
There will be enthusiastic admirers of this film, but most will be decades my junior. I was not pleased.

Movies have been obsessed with the fear (and sometimes fascinating possibilities) of our first galactic visitors. There have been many movies for almost a century now that regard such visitors as menacing, the assumption being that with their technological genius at space travel, they would be as scornful of us as the Conquistadors were of the Native Americans.

Over the past half- century, we have also had a few movies about aliens arriving to save us from ourselves, unify us and, warn us to stop those actions that threaten the destruction of our planet.
The most difficult part of making such a movie is imagining what other sentient beings might look like, usually assuming some sort of variation on the human being. Star Trek did this, providing characters who were obviously human but had surface differences: wrinkled foreheads, strange colors, etc.

Arrival is the best film I have ever seen dealing with an alien visit, in this case, space ships looking like whales, twelve of them, hovering over 12 different countries of the world. When they do not immediately show aggression, each of the involved countries tries to figure out how to communicate with these obviously non-human arrivals. With their obvious technological skill, we know that they must be rational. The military and their governments are in charge of this project, concerned that there might be aggressive motivation from which they would have to defend the planet.

The US military, to their great credit, demonstrate their excellence in putting together two teams assigned to break the communications code. One, Linguistics Professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), with astonishing courage, takes on the communications project by trying to establish symbolic means, written languages, to begin the contact. The second team is headed by a mathematician, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who approaches the project also using symbolic language, numbers. Forest Whitaker plays the very wise army colonel who heads the entire effort and who, with great tact and empathy, encourages and protects the two academic team leaders.

Being something of a linguist myself, I did have a great laugh when linguist Louise Banks demonstrates the ambiguity of translations by asking the literal translation of the word “war” in ancient Sanskrit. The literal definition is “desire for more cattle.” Indeed, that was probably the origin of war, along with “desire for the other tribe's women.” War's origins were much more humble than what we think of today.

A subtext in this film is the difficulty of linguistic comprehension between and among human beings themselves.  It is not only the aliens with whom we need to communicate.
This film is fascinating, beautifully executed, and moving. I will go back to see it again. For execution of this remarkable movie and the acting (particularly that of the wonderful Amy Adams), I see Academy Awards consideration.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
How can you go wrong with a film based on the writing of J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series) that takes us back to a time 70 years before Harry Potter's school days at Hogwarts? I was prepared to be enchanted.

Alas, I was not. There were plenty of imaginative creatures who get loose from a satchel, lots of witches and wizards making things explode, and the usually excellent Eddie Redmayne, a wonderful character actor, in this film mumbles without moving his lips, leaving me without a clue of what he said.
I think this film is too scary for young children, and too noisy for a nap for grownups.

Rules Don't Apply
A film about the infamous Howard Hughes should be interesting if one looks at both his genius and his madness. In this film, however, Howard Hughes is played by Warren Beatty as an opportunity to play a very crazy guy. The film also offered a number of cameo roles to some of Hollywood's most famous stars, which seemed very generous of them in this rather awful movie.

The film follows the careers of two young people who share religiosity, an aspiring actress, Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Hughes chauffeur Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich). They are obviously made for each other, but cannot pursue their passions because Marla is one of many young women under contract to Howard Hughes and Frank is forbidden to have any relationship with this girl. What belongs to Hughes belongs to Hughes!

I did not find any of these characters interesting enough to care about. And I found it incredible that a virginal girl who had never touched alcohol could get drunk and seduce the repulsive Hughes, getting pregnant from this single contact as well.  Baloney! No real motivation for this nonsense.
Beatty is on the list for best actors this year.  Bah, Humbug.

Finally, a movie to delight after a season of pretty sad fare. I had flashbacks of my favorite film, Casablanca, in this World War II thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Pitt plays Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence officer working for the British is parachuted into Morocco where he is to meet with a French agent, Marianne Beausejour, where they are to pose as a married couple of Vichi French supporters of the Third Reich. Their assignment is a dangerous one, the assassination of a Nazi ambassador and a ballroom full of locals.

Their pretense at being a married couple becomes real when they fall in love and return to London, marry, and have a baby girl. Then suspicion falls on Marianne; is she a Nazi spy? If she is, her husband must kill her.  Herein lies the rest of the story: Max's  mad attempt to get at the truth.
This was a very well written film, and the actors had chemistry. I am so happy that some old fashioned movie making still exists.  Not everything has to be “edgy.”

Many young people who see this film will be amazed that at one time, not that long ago, it was against the law in a number of states for people of different races to marry. This film is the story of one such couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who lived in Virginia and were arrested  for living together as married, even with a legal marriage license from another state. Virginia was not having it! They would not have to face a prison term if they moved out of Virginia. They did, had three children, but Mildred desperately missed her close-knit family and hated living in a city, missing the life in the countryside.

When they tried to return to Virginia, they were once more arrested, and this  time, the ACLU took up a law suit that went quickly to the Supreme Court. The Court, in a landmark ruling, ended miscegenation laws in all these states, making it American law that people may marry whom they please. (Of course, this was long before same sex marriages were even considered, but the law paved the way.)

The acting of Edgerton and Negga was lovely, endearing, and believable. Richard Loving was a believable working class White man, a careful bricklayer, whose only sin was loving his Black wife and children. Negga was a simple wife and mother, delicate and seemingly frail, who had a spine of steel. She was the one  brave enough to understand the consequences of suing the state of Virginia and perhaps creating new law.

It is a lovely film, with only the complaint that it was longer than needed. A little more cutting would have been welcome.

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