Todd Haynes Heads Down to ‘The Velvet Underground’

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The Velvet Underground (CREDIT: Apple TV+)

Starring: The Velvet Underground, Nico, and Friends

Director: Todd Haynes

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Rock ‘n’ Roll Language, Sex, and Drugs

Release Date: October 13, 2021 (New York)/October 15, 2021 (Apple TV+)

What would you hope to get from a Velvet Underground documentary directed by Todd Haynes? I imagine that’s what potential viewers of the documentary appropriately entitled The Velvet Underground are asking themselves. It’s certainly a question I asked myself before watching. After all, Haynes and Lou Reed’s crew are both known for doing things a little differently in their respective fields. So I’ll use this review to let you know what I was thinking and then how the movie lived up to or didn’t live up to those expectations. (I guess that’s what movie reviews usually are!)

Considering this pairing of director and subject matter, I expected something a little off-kilter. After all, Haynes’ last music-focused cinematic effort was the sort-of biopic I’m Not There, in which several distinct actors more or less played Bob Dylan. The focus with The Velvet Underground is a little more straightforward, but only when compared to how weird Haynes has been in the past. This is mainly a talking heads doc, but there’s fun in filling out the frame, with liberal use of split-screen providing the visual cortex much more to process than a simple camera on somebody’s face. Interview clips are paired with archival footage, lending the presentation a dollop of free-associative flair.

Overall, The Velvet Underground the documentary feels like a history lesson presented by the band members themselves, or as much as that can be the case with a few of them having passed. If, like myself, you’re not already a Velvet Underground expert, you’ll come away learning some new factoids, like how much Lou Reed cared about de-tuning the guitars and that their collaborator Nico made a splash in the Fellini film La Dolce Vita. Those are the sorts of takeaways that are typical of music documentaries, though less typical of Todd Haynes films. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. I knew from the jump that this wasn’t trying to be another I’m Not There, and that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be that; instead, it can do something like capture the droning energy of the Velvet Underground classic “Venus in Furs,” and it proves itself perfectly capable of pulling that off pretty well.

The Velvet Underground is Recommended If You Like: Rock ‘n’ Roll history, General transgression, Detailed epilogues

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Boots of Leather

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

This Is a Movie Review: Wonderstruck

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CREDIT: Roadside Attractions

Todd Haynes tries his hand at crosscutting concurrent (but not contemporaneous) narratives with the lovely Wonderstruck. The 1927-set and 1977-set portions ultimately converge around the Museum of Natural History in ways that are more than just thematic and geographic. Are the mechanics that get us there smooth or perfunctory? I for one find it satisfying. The earnest performances and fastidious pastiche-y touches go a long way in that regard. I am also impressed by the communication with, between, and around the deaf characters. Here’s the big question: was I wonderstruck? Yah.

I give Wonderstruck 7 Wolf Visions out of 9 Miniatures.

This Is a (Quickie) Movie Review: Carol

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carol

“We’re not ugly people,” Carol Aird pleadingly, but assuredly, insists to her husband during a custody fight that threatens to turn nasty. Carol is a thoroughly humanistic examination of the affair between a shopgirl and a housewife in 1952 New York, and the men in their life who struggle to understand them. It is about identity: the internal challenges to find your own and the external challenges to live it out. It mostly keeps it cool, in a manner that viewers who are not already fully attuned to director Todd Haynes’ restrained style might struggle to fully embrace. But when Cate Blanchett delivers the “ugly people” emphasis, Carol finds the winner’s circle.