Tag Archives: drama

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.

Parasite

18 Oct

‘Parasite’: What’s rising from the basement? Another squad eager to fight in the class war

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Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who plumbed issues of economic disparity in “The Host” (2006) and “Snowpiercer” (2013), is back at it in “Parasite,” where we meet the haves and have-nots – the Parks and the Kims – and the shit starts flying.

We catch up with the Kims first, living in a shabby basement apartment where they fold pizza boxes for a buck and scam Wi-Fi from those above. They live hand to mouth until the enterprising daughter of the clan, Ki-jung (So-dam Park, sassy and excellent) lands a job as an art therapy tutor to the Parks’ young, eccentric (and demanding) son, who was traumatized in first grade by something emerging from the lowest level of the Parks’ sleekly palatial, very Scandinavian home. A host of opportunities emerge. Ki-taek’s older brother is ensconced tutoring the Park’s daughter. The mother supplants the Parks’ longtime housekeeper. And what if the patriarch of the Kims could get a job as the Parks’ driver? Neat idea, but they already have a chauffeur. The resolution is a pair of soiled panties left in the back of the Benz for Madame Park, quite OCD and repressed, to get her gloved mitts on.

The Parks, for all their wealth and stature, are 120 percent unaware that their new battery of employees know each other. It’s a happy coexistence for a good while; then the Parks go away for a long weekend and the Kims move in and make the place their own, emptying the liquor cabinets and pretty much turning the sparkling, spartan palace into a squatter’s paradise. It’s also when that something in the basement rears its head and the movie goes from a tense 5 to a frenetic 11.

Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” famously nearly ruined by disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, was about class stratification – those in the cramped dingy rear of the post eco-apocalyptic train eating soylent-ish green squares until they rise up and storm the gilded front, where champagne and sushi are fed to the 1 percent. Here, as with Jordan Peele in this year’s “Us,” Bong once again lets his message bubble up steadily yet subtly, ever pointed and tugging at the corner of the frame.

The culmination is as shocking, provocative and thoroughly entertaining (and resonant) as in “The Host,” which stormed the minds and hearts of critics and filmgoers the way the mutant beast did the urban landscape along the Han River. Beyond the impressive efforts of the ensemble cast, not enough can be said of the superbly composed framing by Kyung-pyo Hong (“Snowpiercer” and “Burning”), especially the wide shots of dingy urban alleyways, littered with refuse and Escher-like ascents. It’s a complete effort all around, and the kind of follow-up folks were hungry for after “The Host.” By returning to familiar themes and (untraditional) family values, Bong has again latched on to the collective mindset with a deft touch of the outré.

Pain and Glory

16 Oct

 

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Reconnections abound in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, one of his most intimate and personal films in years. Given it’s about an aging movie director struggling with physical ailments and the last chapter of his life, “Pain and Glory” is clearly, deeply autobiographical and something of Almodóvar‘s “8½” (1963). The title embraces physical and emotional pain as well as reflection on past “glories” with the dim but beating prospect of perhaps one more to come.

Longtime Almodóvar collaborator (and alter ego) Antonio Banderas, looking quite Clooney-esque with a salt-n-pepper beard, plays Salvador Mallo, a cherished film director who lives alone in Madrid, hobbled by chronic disorders and lament. It’s painful to watch him get in and out of a cab. In a voiceover we get the tick list of afflictions: asthma, sciatica and tinnitus – and to illustrate the point, Almodóvar launches into animated anatomy lesson to let us know just how nasty a fused disc can be.

Salvador’s relief comes through a restoration re-release of one of his past glories (the film’s title “Sabor” translated is “Flavor” or “Taste”). The prospect has him track down the lead actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), from whom he’s been estranged for years over Alberto’s use of heroin on set – which is ironic, as during their reconnection Salvador starts using heroin to ease his emotional and physical pain, and ultimately gets hooked. With the big re-release looming, we flip back in time to a young Salvador (Asier Flores) and his mother, Jacinta (an elegant and graceful Penélope Cruz), living humbly in an alabaster “cave” apartment where, during the day, Salvador tutors an illiterate young man named Eduardo (a wide-eyed, handsome César Vicente) in exchange for tiling, painting and freshening up the dingy al fresco abode. Also in the present, there’s the specter of Salvador’s former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a similarly majestic aging lion who now lives in Buenos Aires and has a female partner. Federico and Edmond, we learn, are the inspiration for much of Salvador’s work (though maternal themes run almost as deep in Almodóvar‘s works as LGBTQ and raw, sexual desire, i.e., “Volver” in 2006, “High Heels” in 1991 and “All About My Mother” in 1999).

Given the construct, it should come as no surprise that “Pain and Glory” is a deeply internal film rooted in melancholy and rue, and you feel the title’s emotional signifiers palpably. Banderas, so soulful and integral to the film, gives the performance of his career and should be rewarded for it come awards season.

Those looking for some of the outrageous graphic shock Almodóvar’s been known for (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” in 1989 or “The Skin I Live In” in 2011) may be somewhat disappointed – though there is a long, ogling penis-envy shot, which, while it makes sense in context, feels a tad off from the rest of the film. I’m not sure where the Spanish auteur goes from here; he faltered some with “I’m So Excited!” (2013) while trying to rekindle the raucous, ribald zing of past (and personal favorite) classics such as “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom” (1980) and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988), but with “Pain and Glory” there’s a sense of coming full circle. All the ends connect – but not how you might expect. It feels like a warm and complete closing from a man in full.

The Goldfinch

14 Sep

‘The Goldfinch’: Tartt adaptation never soars, but tale’s also not as bad as it’s been painted

 

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With waves of discontent rolling out of the Toronto Film Festival, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Goldfinch” seems poised to join “The Bonfire of the Vanities” as one of the great miscues of transposing popular contemporary literature to the big screen. Having seen it for myself, I’m not so sure that’s the case; it’s got its share of flaws, but that’s mostly because it tries to pack in too much (the 800-page novel is a lot to bite off) and Tartt’s central theme about the lingering burn of grief gets lost, as does a sense of character and character motivation.

The most rocked in Crowley’s sea of emotional turbulence is its dour anti-hero, Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, “Baby Driver”), who gets hit with a lot of bad shit but mostly caroms passively from one frying pan to the next, his fate and actions shaped by that of others. The film moves in a series of times shifts that transition seamlessly and are most effective in their early stagings around the young Theo (Oakes Fegley, of “Pete’s Dragon,” excellent here) seeking security and a sense of home after his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at The Met. Dad (Luke Wilson) happens to be missing (abandoned the family, whereabouts unknown) so Theo moves in with the family of a fellow New York City prep school friend (Ryan Foust), where the family matriarch (a staid and elegant Nicole Kidman) comes regularly to Theo offering kind and compassionate coos.

Given the heft and span of Tartt’s work, there’s a lot of moving pieces – perhaps too many. Theo’s stay in the in Barbours’ flush Manhattan doesn’t last long; dad reappears; and then there’s Carel Fabritius’ painting of the title that looms over every frame and drives the plot with celerity as it nears conclusion.

Fans of the novel may have greater cause for disappointment, but the film’s never boring. Though long, it’s also riddled with enough bad-situation-gone-worse scenarios and compelling, human-touch moments to hold the audience’s attention, not to mention that it’s shot by Roger Deakins, a 13-time Academy Award nominee and once winner (“Blade Runner 2049”); to say it looks good would be an understatement. The acting also really anchors Crowley’s uneven interpretation. Elgort, given the least to work with, has enough natural charisma – like Kidman – to push the role further than the script by Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) dares, and one’s coming-of-age heartstrings get tugged by the chemistry Fegley’s young Theo has with Foust’s chum, as well as a feral young Russian immigrant (Finn Wolfhard, alluring with a moppish head of hair and porcelain skin) whom Theo meets in the Vegas desert. The whole New York side of the story (then and now) get a warm avuncular embrace by the presence of Jeffrey Wright as an antiques dealer who mentors Theo. His reflective compassion and Kidman’s grace against indignity buoy each scene they’re in. Like the chained bird in Fabritius’ painting, Crowley’s screen adaptation is hindered from taking flight – by its ambition, scope and eddies of emotional indifference. The pieces are there, but they don’t cohere, resulting in more of a warble than a melodious song of grief.

Ray & Liz

11 Sep

‘Ray & Liz’: Harrowing rewind to a childhood where the guardians are ones to watch out for

By Tom Meek

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Photographer turned filmmaker Richard Billingham reworked a photo exhibit he did about his parents and childhood as material for his first feature. If that sounds somewhat bland, consider Billingham’s profession and know that the film is shot in close, aesthetic framings that make such mundane acts as smoking a cigarette or drinking a shot of rotgut enigmatic and alluring. Also know that Billingham grew up under grim conditions in a seedy housing project in Dudley, near Birmingham, England. The film is staged and shot in the same locale. The fact it’s so autobiographical and steeped in neglect and emotional abuse only makes “Ray & Liz” all that much compelling (and hard) to drink in.

The saga of Ray and Liz–as well as a young Richard and his younger brother, Jason–is told in three time shifts. We catch up with Ray (Patrick Romer as the older Ray), a bird-faced man who lives in spare, one-room apartment high up in the projects, where all he does is lie in bed or drink. We never see him leave his apartment; he’s delivered bourbon and rye that are put carefully on a side table so Ray can perch on the edge of his bed and binge. He imbibes so vampirically and rapaciously it’s chilling–I’d take Ray in a drink-off versus a platoon of fraternity boys on a spring break bender. 

More chilling–yes, more chilling–is the dial-back to the 1980s, to a larger flat on a lower level of that project where Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) chain smoke and pretty much demand that the boys (Jacob Tuton and Callum Slater) steer clear and remain quiet or else. A tattooed and ring-adorned (think brass knuckles) Liz bears the countenance of a deeply perturbed bovine ready to charge at the first sight of red; an analogy that comes to life after Ray and Liz unwisely leave toddler-aged Jason in the charge of a cognitively challenged relative named Lol (Tony Way, nailing a complex part with nuance and verve) who, at the goading of manipulative neighbor (Sam Gittins), hits Ray’s liquor stash. When Ray and Liz return, Lol’s vomited all over the apartment and passed out as a naked Jason, covered in shoe polish, runs around with a knife in hand. It doesn’t matter that the dubious interloper may be responsible; Liz’s unquenchable wrath, and its manifestation on the helpless Lol, is a scene that will not soon leave you.

There’s another shift–unlabeled, without overt anchoring, because there’s no need in a film so intimate and even claustrophobic–to a 10-year-old Jason again at risk. It pales by comparison, though it’s unnerving to learn that Ray and Liz manage the boys primarily for welfare benefits. The reunion with the older Ray, higher up, living the sot good life, is at once bleak and empowering the way “Leaving Las Vegas” was back in 1995. What’s wrong with a man doing what he loves, right? The win here is Billingham’s artful delivery–think of the texture painter Julian Schnabel brought to “Before Night Falls” (2000) and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)–and a domestic horror story, told with earnest insight. I’m not sure where Billingham will go next, but I’m there with rapt anticipation.

Ophelia

27 Jun

A new feminist slant on a bard classic

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A feminist reenvisioning of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Ophelia” assumes the POV of Hamlet’s betrothed (the heroine of the title) and boldly begins with a “Sunset Boulevard”-esque opener; us hovering above the protagonist’s body floating in a body of water as their voiceover from beyond tells us how they got there and why. It’s an alluring grip, but not necessarily one that holds as tight as that 1950 classic starring Willam Holden and Gloria Swanson.

Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein, the perspective pivot might tweak some Shakespearean loyalists but for others, it may also pique bard interest—after all look what Tom Stoppard did with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The burden of success for such a high dive attempt ultimately comes in the execution, and while Claire McCarthy’s production is big, lush and gorgeously shot (by Denison Baker) it doesn’t quite stick it. On the plus side, the tragic tale of deadly familial parlor games finishes with some smart, surprising twists and the whole feminine slant feels timely and appropriate given the state of sexual politics and equality these days.

The casting too is something of a minor coup, with Daisy Ridley (Rey in the current “Star Wars” trilogy) donning auburn locks in the title role, Naomi Watts as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude and Clive Owen as the snaky manipulator Claudius. George MacKay add a fresh face in the role of the Danish prince though it’s mostly in the corners of the frame, though the scenes with Ridley—and there’s not enough of them—posses the kind of rich ripe chemistry found in the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann productions of “Romeo and Juliet.” Though the role of Claudious is deepened with more backstory here, Owen is mostly held in check by his character’s singular duplicitous mode. Ridley and Watt on the other hand, are gifted more full bodied characters that expand, bond together and lift what threatens to become a production over leaden with plot and expectation. To that end, MacCarthy and her screenwriter Semi Chellas (“Mad Men”) do keep all the pieces successfully (if precariously) in the air, and handle the flips from the known to the new, with respectful diligence.

Overall “Ophelia” delivers bewitching intrigue and charm. It takes bold chances and mostly succeeds—a big part of that being Ridley’s subtly sizzle. Her Ophelia’s not too far from Rey in “The Force Awakens” (heroines of ‘common’ origin forced to the center of an epic conflict spurred by greed and tyranny) but in a Shakespearean yarn you can’t hide behind massive CGI FX and Yoda speak, her range and confidence will have casting agents think of her for—just about anything. McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) too should likely see her stock rise, the composition is assuredly sharp and authentic, though the slight modernistic infusion into the period score, distracts more than it adds anything new.