Knives Out

27 Nov

 

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“Knives Out” is a good, old-fashioned whodunnit with a healthy serving of droll comedy. Yes, comparison to classics such as “Murder by Death” (1976) and “Clue” (1985) are apt. That first film had Truman Capote, Peter Sellers and Peter Falk (not to mention the voice of Fay Wray) among its eye-grabbing cast; here we have Chris Evans trading his “Captain America” duds for J.Crew gear as a slack, spoiled preppy, as well as Michael Shannon – who, as General Zod in another universe, could have been Cap’s foe, Jamie Lee Curtis, dandy Don Johnson, Toni Collette and the impeccable Christopher Plummer. The real centerpiece, however is Bond boy Daniel Craig as a private gumshoe named Benoit Blanc who, while not quite Clouseau wacky, is imbued with scads of quirk, overconfidence and a twangy, near-Southern drawl. It’s such a radical departure, you can’t stop gawking at Craig in every scene he’s in.

The film, shot in and around Boston, marks something of a changeup too for director Rian Johnson, who’s done everything from quirky indie (“Brick” and “Looper”) to big budget blockbuster (“Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi”). Living in a quaint New England manse, renowned murder-mystery scribe Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) celebrates his 85th birthday and then dies when his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling’s comely virtual love interest in “Blade Runner 2049”) gets his medications mixed up. Is it suicide, an accident, Harlan acting out one of his plots or something more nefarious? 

That’s the game afoot, and while it’s not particularly grabbing in its own right, there’s a rich potpourri of bloodsuckers who stand to benefit from Harlan’s departure and are thus prime suspects, be it his snarling son, Walt (Shannon), in charge of the publishing empire; his sister, Linda (Curtis), married to the self-righteous Richard (Johnson); their aloof son, Ransom (Evans); or Joni (Collette), wife of Harlan’s late son, who still holds a prominent perch. It’s not the plot providing the fun as much as the rubs of the twee and the entitled coming off with biting satire. Harlan is so dignified and magnanimous you can almost hear him bellowing from his grave as his blood squabbles around the remains.

As the crew stays around to hear the reading of the will, Craig’s Blanc sleuths about with varying degrees of success, but endless dry wit. The script by Johnson does what it needs to,. with just the right amount of red herrings, plot twists and deft humor. The best is the family’s insistence on the inclusion of Marta as “one of them,” yet none can remember if she’s from Colombia, Ecuador or Nicaragua. It underscores the absurdity of the insincerity of the well-off. In consumption, the film may be a touch overbaked – in length, and holding itself a little more grandly than it should – but still, as served, it’s great holiday entertainment if you just want to feast, fill up and let someone else take the wheel.

Dark Waters

27 Nov

‘Dark Waters’: Corporate lawyer finds a cause in redemptive tale you may have heard before

By Tom Meek

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Who knew Todd Haynes, the man behind such curios as “I’m Not There” (2007), “Safe” (1995) and “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) would settle down for a by-the-numbers courtroom drama? Sounds improbable, but “Dark Waters” proves it so. Any quirky touch you might hope for or expect from Haynes, check that at the door.

You can think of “Dark Watters” as akin to “A Civil Action” (1998), a serviceable true-life legal chase plumbing the evils of Big Chemical poisoning the residents of a working-class enclave who lack the resources to fight back. That film dramatized the leukemia-linked cases against W.R. Grace not too far north of here in Woburn, back in the early 1980s; “Dark Waters” steps into something deeper and more sinister as the folk of a small West Virginia town raise a fist against DuPont for dumping teflon into their water supply.

“Dark Waters” catches its swell mostly from its impressive cast, namely Mark Ruffalo on point as Robert Bilott, a big time corporate lawyer who one day in 1999 has an incensed farmer (Bill Camp, wonderful in a limited yet pivotal role) show up at his Cincinnati office with a box full of videotapes. Turns out that vociferous aggie, who goes by the name of Wilbur Tennant and knows Bilott’s grandmother, has evidence not only of mad cow disease (literally – cows so on the edge, they go berserk and charge) but a freezer full of frozen mutant organs that would give even David Cronenberg reason for pause. Piqued by Tennant’s pleas and taking it as an opportunity to pop in and see his nana, Bilott takes a drive to Tennant’s farm to see the mass bovine graves and denizens with black-stained teeth. A bigger rub facing Bilott as he begins to dig is the fact his law firm has represented DuPont, and powers begin to amass against him from inside. His higher-up (Tim Robbins) is intoxicated by big dollars but possesses a left-leaning sense of social justice; his pedagogical diatribe in a tightly packed conference room feels so out of place and so over the top that it nearly flips the film on its head. 

As you can assume, “Dark Waters” follows a fairly well-worn path. The David vs. corporate Goliath drama has become something of a cinematic staple. Besides “A Civil Action,” “Silkwood” (1983) and “Erin Brockovich” (2000) told against-all-odds struggles of the little guy against nefarious corporate powers seeking to keep the truth at bay and. Those films were also helmed by competent veterans changing it up (Mike Nichols, Steven Soderbergh) and got knockout performances from their stars (Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts). Ruffalo here is pretty impressive as well. As the case wears on for decades, with seeming victories turned into setbacks, the burden – financial mental and professional – is recorded in Bilott’s face as it grows heavier and chubbier, his hair thinning and edged with gray. The sense of weariness and ruin is palpable, hammered home by Bilott’s dutiful wife (Ann Hathaway, nearly unrecognizable in a Carol Brady bob) trying to hold the family together. The best, however, is Camp’s cantankerous old bull, unrelenting and ready for one more fight. At first his fire-and-brimstone rants seem like that of someone who’s not quite right. He’s not: He’s sick, and one quick scan of Parkersburg, West Virginia, illuminates his righteousness and the evils of loopholes that allow corporate entities to knowingly effect the death of nearby residents.

Waves

21 Nov

‘Waves’: In haze of dazzling Florida sun, tragedy threatens to pull a family under

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Like the entity of its title, “Waves” moves in crests and crashes, mostly that of the fates and emotions of its characters, and the profound and lingering impact of those actions. Wunderkind filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha,” “It Comes at Night”) immerses us in the ebbs and flows of life of an African American family in South Florida in a way that feels like cinéma-vérité, but the beginning and end – a girl riding a bike along a serene esplanade – bookends the film with poetry and purpose.

Following that scene of tranquil innocence, we jump into a car full of teens joyriding across a bridged expanse, the sky above and water below both impeccably blue as music blares on the radio. The camera, seemingly hung disco ball style from the roof of the SUV, swirls around and around as we catch glimpses of happy faces singing along and legs, arms and heads lolling out the window. It’s a scene of pure, energetic joy, but glorious and uplifting as it is, there’s an imminent undercurrent of fragility and peril.

Two of the teens, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Alexis (Alexa Demie, from the TV series “Euphoria”) make a tumultuous pair. When it’s good, it’s great, but ripples in the relationship lead to bigger ramifications. Tyler’s a rock star of a wrestler with a shot at a college scholarship, something his controlling father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), drills into him on a daily basis, making him do extra weight training after practice and breaking down his technique ad infinitum – after one or two of these life coaching lecturers, you too will want to slip away to your room. The first setback for Tyler comes in a potentially career-ending shoulder injury that leads to the use of alcohol and drugs to cope. Then Alexis mentions the words: “I’m late.”

How that conundrum is wrestled with (and it takes wildly unexpected turns) arrives early in the film; then there’s a dramatic focal shift to Tyler’s kid sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who struggles in the aftermath but ultimately finds comfort and romance in the company of Luke (Lucas Hedges), another wrestler and something of a goofball romantic despite having his own issues (mom died when he was young, and he’s estranged from his father).  For all the natural and architectural beauty Shults finds in South Florida – the setting for other notable recent indie greats as “Moonlight” (2016) and “The Florida Project” (2017) – it is not the happy place it appears to be on the outside.

Like “Moonlight” – and comparisons between the films are inevitable, though they are very different – the matter of race in “Waves” is not embossed or underscored. But it’s there, subtly and provocatively. About the most overt the film gets is when Ronald, who along with his wife (Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry, “Hamilton”) has provided the children a spacious and nurturing environment, tells Tyler solemnly, “ We are not afforded the luxury of being average. Got to work 10 times are hard just to get anywhere.” It lingers.

Of “Waves,” not enough can be said about the cast. Brown’s prideful patriarch commands the screen so throughly that I can’t imagine he’s not in the Best Supporting Actor conversation come year end; but the whole tsunami of emotions doesn’t crest or swell without Harrison Jr., seen this year in “Luce.” His once hopeful character goes through a gantlet of external and self-imposed torment – a bravura performance from such a young actor who has to hit such a wide range of emotions, so high and so low, and something he takes to the mat each time, giving Shults’ middle American saga its brine and soul.

Interview with Trey Edward Shults

21 Nov

The three-film secret of Trey Edward Shults: Keep it personal, even during the apocalypse

 

Trey Edward Shults on the set of “Waves” with actor Sterling K. Brown.

The films of Trey Edward Shults are haunting in their immersive ambience and enigmatic narratives, but they’re also – to date – deeply personal, if not autobiographical. In his debut, “Krisha” (2016), Shults explored the effects of addiction on the family surrounding the user, reflecting how Shults’ immediate family had been affected by addiction and alcohol abuse over the years; even his near post-apocalyptic chiller “It Comes at Night” (2017) was a means for Shults to work out the grief of losing his father to pancreatic cancer. 

Themes of addiction and struggles with an estranged and dying father are also part of Shults’ latest, “Waves,” in which young African American wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), in a tumultuous romantic relationship in addition to struggling against his controlling father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), turns increasingly to drugs after an injury that threatens to sideline his promising athletic career and shot at college. Meanwhile, Luke (Lucas Hedges), another wrestler on the team, struggles to reconnect with his his dying, distant father. 

“I’m both Tyler and Luke,” Shults said in an interview with the Day, “and [their] girlfriends are something like my girlfriends. The parents are somewhat based on mine – primarily Luke’s dad – but Brown brought a lot to the role of Ronald.”

The story revolves primarily around Tyler’s family members, who happen to be black. “I wanted to tell a tale that was both universal to what all families go through, but also show the challenges a black family faces that white people don’t,” said Shults, who is white, and wrote in collaboration with Harrison Jr. At one juncture in the film, Tyler’s dad tells him that because they are black, they need to work 10 times as hard to take a step forward, and then there’s the one lone hateful drop of the N-word – just one, but it resonates. 

“I just knew I wanted to work with him again after ‘It Comes at Night,’” Shults said of Harrison Jr., whose experiences described in long “mini therapy” talks between the director and actor helped “Waves” take shape. Harrison Jr., who was also in “Luce” earlier this year, delivers a nuanced and complex performance that is bound to elevate his stock.

Shults, on his third film at only 31, got into filmmaking somewhat by happenstance when visiting his aunt, Krisha Fairchild – yes, the star and title character of his debut – in Hawaii, where she got him a job working on commercials. That led to an encounter with Terrence Malick, who was there filming his documentary “Voyage of Time” (2016); Shults, just 18, stepped in as a film loader for the shoot. Seeds for “Krisha” were sown quickly.

“That film changed my life,” Shults said. After “Krisha” won the Grand Jury and Audience awards at South by Southwest, buyer and distributor A24 was was hungry for more. “I had a version of ‘It Comes at Night’ before I shot ‘Krisha,’ and A24 wanted to know what else I had.”

As for what comes next, “I’m not sure,” Shults said.

“Maybe live a little? I put everything I had into this film,” he said, “and now I’m just a blank slate.”

The Irishman

15 Nov

‘The Irishman’: De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel – Scorsese saga gets the ol’ mob back together

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Al Pacino edges Robert De Niro by one with eight Oscar nominations, but De Niro has taken home two of the coveted gold bald statues to Pacino’s one. The pair are two of the greatest actors of a winding-down generation who, in “The Irishman,” the latest from mob movie maestro Martin Scorsese, get a shot at putting a crowning jewel on their storied careers. Both had parts in Frances Ford Coppola’s timeless “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), in which De Niro played the youthful version of Vito Corleone (gold statue numero uno) and Pacino played his future son, Michael – and the two were never onscreen together. Some 20 years later they shared the screen as cat and mouse in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995) with Pacino’s dogged cop getting the better of De Niro’s quiet criminal. Here, where the two play real-life mob enforcer Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), there’s a something of a payback. (To do full and accurate accounting, the icons took a hit for their part in the tepid 2008 cop drama “Righteous Kill.” Not that you needed to know, but.)

Much will be made of the (near) three-and-a-half-hour runtime of “The Irishman,” but it goes by in a blip as it hops around a 50-year period, with much of the focus on the Hoffa years – the early ’60s to 1975, when the labor lord went missing. The cause and culprit remain an American mystery, though Scorsese and his talented screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) work from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” to offer up a theory with strong conviction (Brandt’s book was based on interviews with Sheeran, who died in 2003). The implied question of the book’s title is a polite way to ask a tough guy if he does hits; a casual “yes” is how De Niro’s Frank responds in the film. Continue reading

Interview with Local Filmmakers of “The Rabbi Goes West”

15 Nov

‘Rabbi Goes West’ on mission to Montana, filmmakers following to close out festival

 

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North Cambridge resident Gerald Peary knows a lot about film. He’s been a critic for more than 40 years and a film studies professor and curator for more than a quarter-century, and is about to premiere his third documentary feature, “The Rabbi Goes West,” Sunday night at the Somerville Theatre. The film – co-directed with Peary’s wife, Amy Geller, it follows a Chabad rabbi who moves from Brooklyn, New York, to Bozeman, Montana – closes out this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, playing this week and last at the Brattle Theatre and other locations.

The reason for 34-year-old Chaim Bruk’s relocation is a mission to bring his brand of Judaism to the American West by placing a mezuzah (an encased prayer offering) on the door of every Montana Jew – not a large population. Along the way Bruk encounters resistance from within the Jewish community, and more frighteningly, threats from neo-Nazis.

“I wanted to make a film which spoke to my Judaism,” Peary said. “I’m the most secular Jew, who doesn’t attend synagogue but knows who all the Jewish writers, athletes, et cetera, are. I asked myself, ‘What do I like about Judaism?’ I like mezuzahs – the scrolls put up on Jewish doorposts including inside a verse from Deuteronomy. Having a mezuzah on your door tells the world you’re Jewish, and it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to Hitler, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. ‘Jews are here!’”

“The Rabbi Goes West” co-directors Amy Geller and Gerald Peary.

“Anyway, I read on the Internet about a Hasidic rabbi who has a pledge to put a mezuzah on the door of very Jew in the state of Montana – that’s 2,000 Jews in a state 14 times larger than Israel. I called up Rabbi Chaim Bruk in Bozeman, Montana, and he invited Amy out to film him putting up mezuzahs. The rest is our movie,” Peary said.

Geller co-directed “The Guys Next Door” (2016), a documentary about a gay male couple raising daughters, and Peary said he was delighted to work with a partner who is a “brilliant, talented producer first, and second, knows documentaries inside and out.”

“She was also incredibly demanding about our film,” Peary said, “never letting go of any facet of the movie until she felt it was perfect.“ During production, Peary said most nights they would discuss and argue about the film over dinner and while going to bed. “That was all exhausting,” he said, “but if the movie is really good, it’s because of the intensity of our collaboration.”

Over the years, Peary has penned for several alt-weeklies in the area (“Real Paper” and “Boston Phoenix” – both sadly defunct), taught film studies at Suffolk University and continues to run the Cinemathèque program at Boston University and contribute to The Arts Fuse. His first film, “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” (2009), which Geller co-produced, served as something of a bittersweet elegy for iconic film critics Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris (both died in the short years following) and poetically pondered the fate and value of film criticism. In 2015, his “Archie’s Betty” explored the roots of the comic book town of Riverdale in Haverhill, where Archie creator Bob Montana had attended high school.

Peary doesn’t think making movies affects what he writes when easing back into the critic’s chair – something Ebert also did, having famously penned Russ Meyers’ bit of 1970s kink, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

“Everyone making movies has endless hardship stories, especially about the financing part in a country which doesn’t support the arts in any way. But it’s ultimately what’s on screen that counts, and only what counts,” Peary said. “I’ve always been a tough critic with high demands for cinema, and I remain that way.”

The Report

15 Nov

‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie‘The Report’: It’s CIA ‘enhanced interrogation’ put to post-9/11 test in page-turner of a movie

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Scott Z. Burns has been mostly known as a screenwriter on such Steven Soderbergh projects as “The Informant!” (2009), “Contagion” (2011) and “Side Effects” (2013). Here, in this dark delve into recent U.S. misdeeds, Burns not only writes but takes the director’s chair, with Soderbergh as producer. The simplistic title “The Report” represents something more complex and foreboding – “The Torture Report,” with that middle word crossed off as soon as it spills across the screen in the opening credits. The report in question concerns waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, and is deeply redacted by the CIA.

If you haven’t seen “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there’s a scene early on demonstrating the use of the interrogation techniques. It’s throughly unpleasant, and“The Report” dials the discomfort up from a 9 to, say, an 11. The film begins with U.S. Senate aide and researcher Dan Jones (Adam Driver) consulting with a lawyer about possibly treasonous charges against him for “relocating” a CIA document, then winds back to when Jones, who toiled in counterintelligence after college, lands on the staff of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and is tasked to lead a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee probe into the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11.

It’s mostly a paper trail chase, but a riveting one – think “All the President’s Men” (1976) replete with a mini-me version of Deep Throat. Jones and his team are granted access to documents in a secure basement vault on CIA turf, but no documents are to leave the chamber, and Jones and associates aren’t allowed to interview any of the operatives involved. Meanwhile Feinstein (Annette Bening), solemn and serious, applies pressure to agency leaders under the Bush and Obama regimes, finding the desire for it all to go away is clearly bipartisan.

Through documents (which lead to dramatizations of events) we learn of contractors James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), slithering sorts and former military intel who sell a fictitious (or composite) CIA honcho named Bernadette (Maura Tierney) on enhanced interrogation even without proven results. From the PowerPoint presentation alone, viewers’ eyebrows will raise, but for Bernadette it’s a key weapon in the war on terrorism – Geneva Conventions be damned. As a pair, Mitchell and Jessen are something of a disturbing chuckle, lapping up taxpayer-bought scotch aboard jets and going about their business like Kidd and Wint in the Bond flick “Diamonds are Forever” (1971). Through it all Tierney’s dutiful top cop promises results to her higher-ups and sits and watches the heinous shenanigans (naked men being beaten and sleep deprived by heavy metal music played at eardrum-bursting levels) with cold steely resolve, forever waiting.

The definition of “torture,” as explained in the film, is complicated: It turns out that if you can extract information that can save lives, how you got it doesn’t matter; if not, enhanced interrogation is a human rights violation, and you’ll be left out to dry. Burns orchestrates some nice juxtapositions in setting: Most of the film takes place in dark, windowless rooms, be it that basement vault where Jones and crew toil away in, the subterranean hellholes on foreign soil where Mitchell and Jessen perform their dirty deeds or the soulless conference room on Capital Hill that serves as a boxing ring for Feinstein and CIA Director John Brennan (Ted Levine).

From top to bottom, the performances impress. Bening shines as the fiery Feinstein demanding accountability, and Linda Powell brings similar intensity as loyal Feinstein staffer Marcy Morris; John Hamm adds rational cool as Denis McDonough, the Obama chief of staff trying to hold the middle ground. Of course, the film hangs from Driver’s dogged research wonk, whose focus and commitment to the task and idealism is imbued with a heaviness and signs of fraying over the long-fought years. Words matter – in this case, a very specific one.