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

1 Comment

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

Scorsese Influences + Clown Makeup = Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

1 Comment

CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Wigham, Marc Maron

Director: Todd Phillips

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: R for Inappropriate Laughter and Shocking (in Many Senses) Violence

Release Date: October 4, 2019

Can’t a man just get attention for wearing a wonderfully colorful suit without having to also go through the trouble of becoming an unpredictable, violent criminal? With his forest green shirt and tie, goldenrod vest, and maroon jacket and pants, Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime has never looked better than he does in Todd Phillips’ Joker. That outfit is a welcome bit of unique playfulness in a film that easily could have been a thoroughly dark slog. I’m very ready to embrace Joker’s continued relevance as a style icon, but as for what this particular origin story has to say about him, I’m a little conflicted, though generally impressed by everything that made it to the screen.

All new Joker portrayals now live in the shadow of Heath Ledger’s rendition in The Dark Knight, which I, and many others, consider to be the epitome of the character. That chapter may be the best way to tell a Joker story, but it’s not the only way to tell a story about a villain, and by corollary, it’s not the only way to tell a Joker story. But the prospect of a Joker origin is nonetheless concerning, as his most striking power lies in the nihilism matched with his thoroughly ambiguous beginnings. Ledger played him like an elemental force who was somehow also a human being even though it felt like he sprung from nothingness. Any origin would seem to be the antithesis of that, no matter how much mystery Joaquin Phoenix might bring to his performance.

Ultimately, though, Joker somehow mostly works despite all this baggage. That’s mostly because by the end it rejects its own origin story, or at least the one-to-one explanation of “difficult upbringing = supervillainy.” True, Arthur Fleck, the man behind the persona in this iteration, has been beaten around by a thoughtless society that doesn’t understand him, but his propensity for violence isn’t about revenge or the fame that comes with notoriety, or at least not only and not primarily those things. No, he just has an insatiable appetite for crime, the more shocking and well-timed the better. He gets his first lick almost by accident, when he protects himself against some fratty Wayne Enterprises employees with a pistol that a co-worker lent him. From this moment on, you can see the euphoria rising within him as he begins to shed any desire for normal human connection.

I am thoroughly impressed by Joker‘s craft, though I’m a little hesitant to embrace it fully. That’s not out of any discomfort with the message of Arthur’s transformation. It’s clear that he’s not meant to be emulated, despite how intoxicating his act can be once fully embraces his true self. What’s really nagging me is that this is a film that is a little too indebted to its influences. The premise is very much “What if Joker, but Taxi Driver?” Although, unlike Travis Bickle, Arthur isn’t interested in cleaning up the streets so much as making them his own. That’s different enough that Joker can fairly say that its overall tapestry is a new creation, but it never breaks fully free of its constituent parts. It’s like one of those magic eye posters, but in this case you can see the individual pieces whether you’re looking close or from a distance.

Joker is Recommended If You Like: It If Every Movie is a Direct Response to Taxi Driver

Grade(s): 4 out of 5 for the Craft/3.5 out 5 for the Message

This Is a Movie Review: Jennifer Lawrence Goes Deep in the Graphic Spy Thriller ‘Red Sparrow’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox

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

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey, Mary-Louise Parker

Director: Francis Lawrence

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Nudity as Power, Pleasure, and Disgrace; Spycraft Violence; and Slice-and-Dice, Pounding Torture

Release Date: March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow is the latest spy story that hinges on a final act revelation of a mole. the logic (or lack thereof) of such a twist is something I often can’t make heads or tails out of. The narrative-consuming part of my brain just is not that wired that way. But as far as I can tell, this particular mole’s exposure does pass the plausibility test, though it is not especially impactful. But Red Sparrow’s intrigue thankfully goes beyond any straightforward conception of traitors and double agents. In fact, it questions and pokes at (without quite fully deconstructing) the entire concept of double agency when it involves someone who seems to be an ideal fit for the job but does not want anything to do with professional deception.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and then faces the crisis of how she will be able to continue to take care of her widowed mother. So her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her to become a spy at the Red Sparrow School, which essentially requires its trainees to sacrifice their entire identities to the Russian government. Meanwhile, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) gets mixed up with Dominika as he hunts down high-level Russian spies. (He is temporarily suspended after making a huge mistake out in the field, but that does not affect matters as it much as it seems like it is supposed to.) Nash and Dominika’s motivations appear to match up, but of course there is that age-old question: can opposing sides truly trust each other when working together? In this case, the answer actually does appear to be yes, and a more pressing question is: is it possible for individuals to get what they want when insidious bureaucratic forces are pulling the strings everywhere?

Fundamentally driving Red Sparrow and several of its characters is the idea that the Cold War never really ended (it just broke into many pieces, as one of them puts it). That may sound a little over-the-top for a film aiming for some degree of verisimilitude, but then you see what former KGB agent Vladimir Putin is up to, and all the alleged Russian hacking in foreign elections, and on second thought, maybe this does not sound so farfetched at all. Even if it did, it would be perfectly legitimate to put something insanely conspiratorial on film. The problem is that we have seen this sort of cinematic Russian subterfuge plenty of times before.

That familiarity is overcome a decent amount by Charlotte Rampling, whose performance sets the tone for the state of modern Russian spycraft. She is the headmistress of the Sparrow School, and she insists that you call her “Matron.” We have seen this sort of officious, beat-you-down-and-re-mold-you character in plenty of other iterations, but Rampling brings a level of camp and matter-of-factness hitherto unseen. Not only, in her parlance, is every person “a puzzle of need,” but also so many people today are “drunk on shopping and social media,” which would normally sound irritatingly reductive but comes off as venomously delicious when she says it.

Red Sparrow’s most lasting impact is derived less from espionage and more from its examination of human behavior and interpersonal power dynamics. There are several scenes featuring graphic torture and nudity (including rape and attempted rape), and they do not come off as simply exploitative, because they are there to elucidate the effects they have on individuals. It is heavily implied that Sparrows are really groomed from birth to give themselves over entirely to the government. They are indoctrinated that their bodies are not their own, that they must give themselves up to give their marks exactly what they want in service of a greater power. Dominika, while in many ways an ideal recruit, never fully gives in. She decides that she is willing to make her body available, but she maintains a level of resistance. When naked, she asserts her power, which is resonant in the Me Too era (and eternally so) and metatextually, it works as a statement from Lawrence, herself a victim of a nude photo hack, that she will work this intimately only on her own terms. Thanks to her steely performance, Red Sparrow works as a defense of the dignity of every individual human being.

Red Sparrow is Recommended If You Like: The Americans, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oppressed women taking control, Oppressed citizens taking control, Frightening headmistresses, Torture scenes with a purpose

Grade: 3 out of 5 Floppy Disks

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Molly’s Game’ Has Jessica Chastain Deliver What Must Be a Record-Setting Amount of Dialogue in Aaron Sorkin’s Directorial Debut

Leave a comment

CREDIT: STX Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, J.C. MacKenzie

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for the Vices That Surround Poker and a Brutal Assault Scene

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (Limited)

Effective poker strategy usually involves plenty of silence, so a poker film would seem to be an odd fit for the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, one of the most verbose screenwriters of all time. But don’t fold on him just yet, because Molly’s Game isn’t about the poker but rather the woman running the game. And a lot of talking has to be done behind the scenes to get to the point where you can stay silent behind the cards. And let’s just say Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) talks (and does) a lot to get to be the big kahuna running a high-stakes underground poker ring. From near-Olympic skier to lowly assistant to self-made millionaire, she lives quite the whirlwind. The tabloids call her the “poker princess,” but give a queenpin the respect she deserves and don’t saddle her with a patronizing nickname.

The players at Molly’s games consist of Hollywood hotshots and Wall Street bigwigs, and that high-profile money moving has the FBI thinking she might be involved with drug running and tax fudging. So she turns to smooth-talking but upright lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her. He’s a bit pricey, though, and her assets are not exactly currently liquid, so she appeals to him on the basis of personal credit. Much of the film is a frame story of Molly filling Charlie in on the details of her life. Because they are reading dialogue written by Sorkin, Chastain and Elba have to deliver about four times as many words as they would in an average movie. Both are more than up to the task, Chastain especially, as she also has to deliver a ton of voiceover narration on top of her on-screen dialogue. It’s an electrifying story, but with nary a second of silence, plus frenetic editing on top of that, it is a bit exhausting, or at least it was for this viewer.

While Molly’s story will take you through the gauntlet, you can also vicariously thrill to the stories that her players bring to the table. Several of them basically have their own mini-movies going on (that Molly narrates, natch). You end up feeling that you know enough about their tells and pressure points that you could come in and win a few hundred grand against them even if you’re a complete novice. Especially memorable is Michael Cera with an effortlessly cool vibe unlike anything he’s ever given off before. He fully inhabits “Player X,” an anonymized version of an actual famous actor. (Some quick googling reveals he is essentially playing Tobey Maguire, or some amalgam of Maguire, Matt Damon, and maybe a few others.) It’s a career highlight for him and representative of the film’s emphasis on affirmatively filling out the clothes you wear in poker and in life.

Molly’s Game is Recommended If You Like: Poker movies, Poker competitions, Women Taking Control of Their Own Narrative

Grade: 3 out of 5 Spreadsheets

This Is a Movie Review: Christian Bale Gives It His Grimmest in the Dour, Distressing ‘Hostiles’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Lorey Sebastian/Yellow Hawk, Inc.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ben Foster, Bill Camp, Stephen Lang

Director: Scott Cooper

Running Time: 127 Minutes

Rating: R for Western Hostility

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)

Christian Bale excels at playing men who are forced into carrying the weight of a profoundly demanding mission, whether by their own volition or due to leverage someone else holds over them. The Dark Knight’s “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now” is basically that status as personal credo. In the 1892-set Western Hostiles (Bale’s second collab with his Out of the Furnace director Scott Cooper), he plays a much more reluctant protagonist, an Army captain forced to deliver a Cheyenne chief and his family back to tribal lands, under threat of losing his pension if he refuses. He looks like he hasn’t bathed in years; that stink and his impressive mustache tangibly represent the brunt he is under.

Ergo, Captain Bale (Captain Joseph Blocker is his character name) is filled with a lot of hostility, and he is surrounded by a lot of low-grade or full-blown hostility, whether it be from his fellow soldiers, the suicidal widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was recently slaughtered, his Cheyenne transports, or the natives that ambush them. We might have our winner for Most Accurate Title of the Year right here.

While nobody in this film is particularly heroic, I do worry that its portrayal of Native Americans hearkens back to a more racist tradition of Westerns. The opening scene presents a group of Comanches at their most savage. For no clear reason, they burn down a family’s home, skinning the father’s scalp and mercilessly killing him and his two young daughters. I am sure that some natives were actually this brutal in late-19th century frontier America, and I do not mean to say that I think that Hostiles is implying that all of them (or all of this particular tribe) were this awful. But the fact that this worst version is all we see of them and that this portrayal is presented so bluntly is concerning.

At least we can appreciate at the aesthetic pleasures (or anti-pleasures, really) with fewer moral qualms. If you ever wanted to see Ben Foster tied up in the cold, muddy rain at night, Hostiles is the film for you. Cooper’s designs for how icky and uninviting nature gets without modern amenities is thoroughly harsh. Lovingly so, even (at least the crafty attention to detail is loving). You’ll probably want to shower afterwards, in a cathartic sort of way, or if you’re a 19th century fetishist, you’ll run right out and find the closest available barren lands.

Hostiles is Recommended If You Like: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood at their most rugged

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Hostiles

This is a Movie Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Jima (Atsushi Nishijima)/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman, Bill Camp, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Bluntly Presented Gore and Nudity

Release Date: October 20, 2017 (Limited)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ specialty as a writer and a director of actors is strange and disturbing dialogue delivered bluntly and clinically. Given the setting and characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it makes a kind of sense that this behavior is typical (due to a combination of professional desensitization and psychopathy), but it is never not unnerving. It works to provide a sense of foreboding for what initially presents itself as a slice-of-life tale that will soon give way to a domestic thriller. But really, what we are being primed for is much more sinister and much more terrifying and in fact qualifies as full-on horror.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a cardiac surgeon who takes under his wing Martin (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a patient who died on his operating table. Martin seems interested in medicine himself, spending significant amounts of time shadowing Steven in the hospital. Steven invites him over to the house for dinner, where he charms his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), becomes friendly with his son Bob (Sunny Suljic), and grows romantic with his daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffey Cassidy). The Murphys seem to notice Martin’s odd behavior, but they never fully acknowledge it. For a while, it seems that this film is just taking place in a world of lunacy, where announcing statements like “our daughter just started menstruating last week” are perfectly natural to declare in public. But once Steven recoils at Martin’s mom’s (Alicia Silverstone) attempt to seduce him by aggressively licking his fingers, it becomes clear that this is terrifying for both the audience and the Murphys.

The foreboding is realized hard and unsettlingly, as Bob and then Kim become paralyzed from the waist down without any clear physical explanation. Martin reveals in great detail to Steven what is going on, apparently confirming that he is the source of this ailment. He could be poisoning them, but it is so supernatural that “hex” or “plague” would be a better word. The obvious motivation here is revenge for the death of his father, but Martin’s unflappably flat speaking voice makes it impossible to get a perfect read on him. Lanthimos may or may not be speaking in metaphors; if so, I am not sure what the message is, but if not, the film is disturbing enough that it works on its own terms.

Ultimately, though, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might end up too untethered from its starting point to be an unqualified success. Indeed, it begins to lose me around the point that Steven is firing a shotgun at his family with a bag over his head. That particular scene – and others like it – are filled with fantastic tension, but they feel like Lanthimos is just filling his thirst for demented horror set pieces instead of focusing on the premise he has already established. Maybe that dissociation is the point, but sometimes the heightening of scares can use a firm direction.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Recommended If You Like: The inexplicableness of The Happening but not the cheesiness, The Lobster, Funny Games

Grade: 3 out of 5 Bleeding Eyeballs