I Have One Important Thing to Say About ‘The Witches’ (2020)

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The Witches 2020 (CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Codie Lei-Eastick, Kristen Chenoweth

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: October 22, 2020 (HBO Max)

There’s one thing I really want to mention about the 2020 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It’s something that caught me by surprise, and I was happy to have it. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I had seen the trailer ahead of time, but I still would have been delighted by it nonetheless. I’m talking about Chris Rock’s narration! I had no idea he was playing the older version of our hero (who’s named Hero). But oh yeah, I totally approve of the flavor that he added to the mix. And at the end when we got a glimpse of him in the flesh, I was thrilled to see what he’s up to now. The rest of the movie is mostly more-or-less standard kids adventure fare. I would have hoped for something a little weirder from Bob Zemeckis taking on Roald Dahl. Maybe I missed some hidden weirdness!

Grade: 5 Giant Chickens Out of 3 Mice

Mark Ruffalo Relentlessly Wades Through Some ‘Dark Waters’ to Expose the Soullessness of the Energy Industry

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CREDIT: Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, Bill Pullman, William Jackson Harper, Louis Krause

Director: Todd Haynes

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Effects of Chemical Poisoning

Release Date: November 22, 2019 (Limited)

The “little man takes on a big bad corporation” biopic subgenre is a resilient go-to for anyone in the mood for making muckraking and/or inspirational cinema. It’s also in turn a ripe target for parody, which might make some potential viewers skeptical about the filmmaking merits of something like Dark Waters in 2019. But those concerns should not be the biggest deal in the world when this movie is sending us the message that a company has released poison that is probably present in every currently alive being on the planet. And we can trust that this message will be delivered with conviction and persistence, as the main character is played by Mark Ruffalo, who embodies that sort of relentless energy both in his personal life and onscreen (especially in 2015’s Spotlight). So while some of the speechifying may be a little overwrought, it’s nice to be reminded that we all ought to treat our fellow human beings with dignity instead of following the demands of the almighty dollar.

The crux of the story turns on just that sort of crisis of conscience. Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) is an attorney who has just made partner at a Cincinnati law firm that specializes in representing companies in the energy industry. One of their clients is DuPont, and as Rob’s story gets started, he thinks he’s just helping DuPont assuage the concerns of a West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp) whose livestock has been dying off en masse in nasty fashion and believes that the chemical company is to blame. Instead, Rob discovers a systematic cover-up that has been killing off not just animals but almost an entire segment of human society. It takes a couple of decades to set things aright, and as we see, that is a profound burden for any one person to take on.

Rob’s wife Sarah is played by Anne Hathaway, and accordingly, I found myself wondering if Dark Waters is one of those movies in which a thoroughly qualified actress is relegated to just “The Wife.” I do wish that she had more to do, but not in the same way that I’m bothered when a titan of industry or a lunar explorer neglects his family. Rather, I wish that Rob would unburden himself and let the people in his life help him out a bit (Sarah is also an attorney after all, though we meet her as a stay-at-home mom). This film’s most pertinent storytelling technique is how it portrays the stress of singularly fighting a mammoth opponent. Rob develops a hand tremor that looks like it might be a symptom of Parkinson’s disease. It isn’t quite that serious, but it does convey the alarming possibilities of not allowing yourself to be supported. Let’s look out for each other, so that the Rob Bilotts of the world don’t have to pick up all the slack and nearly kill themselves in the process.

Dark Waters is Recommended If You Like: Conviction (2010), Spotlight, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fluorocarbons

Mini-Movie Review: ‘The Hustle’ is Too Loud and Outrageous to Pull Off a Satisfying Con

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CREDIT: Christian Black/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Oliver

Director: Chris Addison

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Crude Makeup Jobs and Exaggerated Appetites

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Successful movies about con artists pull cons on their audiences, and we thank them for it, because that is how they derive their entertainment value. So as someone on the hunt for entertainment value, it is my solemn duty to sadly report that The Hustle (a gender-flipped remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) struggles mightily to keep its viewers guessing. There are very few surprises along the way until the very end, and you’ll probably be able to surmise the big reveal if you’ve seen the original, or if you’re just savvy enough with the genre. So that leaves Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson to do what they can by bouncing off against each other, which they do by leaning way too hard into their typical character types. Let’s put it this way: this is a movie in which someone eats a French fry that’s been dipped in toilet water, and there’s no good narrative reason for it. If that tickles your funny bone, then good on you, but it’s not especially relevant to any con job.

The Hustle is Recommended If You Like: Sticking raunchy humor into a genre where it might not fit

Grade: 2 out of 5 Sob Stories

This Is a Movie Review: Meet the ‘Ocean’s 8’ Heist, Same as the Old Heist

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, James Corden

Director: Gary Ross

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Indulgent Behavior That Might Be Incriminating

Release Date: June 8, 2018

I am always wary of crime flicks in which the criminals are the protagonists and get away with it. Sure, cinema can be escapist fantasy, and I trust that most audiences understand that the glorification of illegal behavior does not make it okay in real life. But there is a moral component to movies, so this genre needs to be careful about the messages it sends out. That is what most concerns me about Ocean’s 8, much more so than whether or not it is a good idea to have all-female spinoffs or if these ladies would be better off assembling for some original concept (it is at least theoretically possible to have both, after all). We can rest assured that Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock) heist is mostly a victimless crime, although maybe a few millionaires take a hit. There is no sense, though, that this is a matter of acting on behalf of the little guy to stick it to the 1%. The underlying message is basically that you do what you do because you’re good at it, and that cavalier attitude is not exactly ruinous, but it can be mighty discomforting if you think about it.

But if we can allow ourselves to revel in the fantasy for two hours, does Ocean’s 8 deliver the entertainment that it is designed to? It takes a while to get going, with a rather sluggish pace as Debbie assembles her crew. And it does not help that we have seen these character types before: the tech expert, the street scam artist, the suburbanite trying to hide her criminal past. But once the plan gets going, the pace clicks along nicely. The heist itself – get celebrity Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a famous necklace worth millions at the Met Gala, swipe it off her and replace it with a convincing facsimile – is adequately innovative. As everyone carries out their jobs, the cast comes alive, with Hathaway in particular having a blast. And it pulls off the third act moments that make you go, “They did it. Those magnificent bastards pulled it off!” There are the moments when we learn what really went down that we didn’t see at the time, and then here comes a new major character who helps the ladies wrap it all up in a bow. Nothing is getting reinvented, but the gears are still turning smoothly.

Less interesting, and much more perfunctory, are the connections to the Ocean’s franchise at large. A few vets of Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen pop in for cameos, which might spark thrills of recognition. Much is made of Debbie’s connection to her brother, the supposedly deceased Danny, that is meant to go beyond, “Hey, remember this character you already love?” There are some ideas about genetic destiny that are worth exploring more in depth, but Ocean’s 8 mostly plays these moments as just a toast to its forebears. Acknowledgement of one’s predecessors is generally a good idea, but you need to take it a step further if you want to truly slay.

Ocean’s 8 is Recommended If You Like: All the typical heist film beats, Suspending your moral compass for two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Blind Spots