Tag Archives: real-life

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.

Trail by Fire

17 May

‘Trial by Fire’: On death row after arson trial, but he finds a new hope (if not a new story)

 

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Anti-death penalty films tend to land far and wide. There are hits (“Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile”) and misses (“The Life of David Gale”), much of it hinging on degree of subtlety vs. preachy, manipulative overtones. Sure, the talent involved matters, but so do tenor and posture. “Trial by Fire,” from Edward Zwick (“Glory” and “The Last Samurai”) lands closer to the “Dead Man Walking” side of the field than sermonic foul territory. It’s something of a nifty crime drama too.

Adapted from David Grann’s haunting 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” plays us for our stereotypes the way a courtroom might. Two days before Christmas 1991, in a poor Texas ’burb, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a man with a bedraggled mullet, pentagram tattoos, no job, no education and several run-ins with the law on his record, watches his house go up in flames with his three baby girls inside. Later that night he’s drinking at the bar and playing darts, reveling in all the donations that have rolled in. 

It’s not pretty, and next comes sordid details of his marriage (wife Stacy, played by Emily Meade, was at work at the time of the fire). It all comes out in the courtroom after investigators examining the remains of the charred house – one expert articulating, “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence. Fire creates evidence” – deem it an arson-engineered death trap and charge Willingham with the crime. 

As the film sets it (or us) up, Willingham’s guilty as hell – and just like that, off to death row he goes. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher plays with time and our sensibilities as it goes along. Willingham’s trial lawyer seems competent during the initial defense, but not so in a rewind, and then there are the shifting accounts from eyewitnesses (we saw what they saw, and they tell it differently on the stand). It’s enough to cast doubt but not enough for a retrial. Willingham and the film get a big boost when Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert (not the “Eat, Pray, Love” author), a compassionate single mother with two teens, embarks on a letter-writing relationship with Willingham and jumps in on his defense. 

O’Connell, a British actor (“Unbroken”) whose stock should rise in the wake of “Trial by Fire,”  does an affectingly palpable job of selling us on his transformation into a more educated and balanced person behind bars. Meade and Dern are likewise commendable. It’s a heavy film with a heavy agenda that lets us know that Texas executes five times as many death row inmates as the next death penalty state, and Project Innocence gets rolled in too. It’s not overtly (and unnecessarily) manipulative until late in the game. Its points about the weaknesses of the justice system are provocative and real considerations to deliberate. 

Little Pink House

11 May

‘Little Pink House’: After finding her home, she has to fight to keep it from Big Pharma

 

The title alone will have many thinking of the the seminal John Cougar Mellencamp song that 35 years ago was so ubiquitous and infectious. This similarly named film (“House,” though, not “Houses”) won’t have the same lingering resonance – and rightfully so, as the reedy true-life saga never quite finds its pulse and purpose. Events unfold during a time Y2K concerns soared and 9/11 rocked the nation. Neither of those history-defining moments makes it into the film to detract from the slow-building drama taking place in the sleepy seaside town of New London, Connecticut, not too far from historic Mystic, the anchor port for the taut little comedy, “Mystic Pizza” that in the late 1980s launched the career of Julia Roberts.

If you’re wondering if any of this seeming free associations has a payoff, it does – sort of – as “Little Pink House” shares the trappings of “Erin Brockovich,” another true-life tale about an iron-willed woman who fights the good fight, taking on bureaucracy and big money against all odds. That 2000 film garnered Roberts a Best Actor Oscar.  Continue reading

A lump of coal and a fruitcake

25 Dec

‘Unbroken’ and ‘The Gambler’: Directors, cast don’t quite sell two true-to-life tales

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Few probably gave much heed to the actual words of Sony execs in emails unearthed by the now notorious cyberattack launched (purportedly) by North Korea. Just the spectacle of smug Tinseltown backbiting itself was enough, as big-ticket stars such as Adam Sandler were debased along with Angelina Jolie, who was tagged as “talentless.”

122414i UnbrokenThe Jolie slam gave me pause. She’s always conducted herself in ways that have invited ridicule (her blood vial marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, the incestuous podium posing with her brother and the weird, estranged relationship with dad, actor Jon Voight). But how could the woman who won an Academy Award (for “Girl Interrupted”) and made an impressive directorial debut with “Blood and Honey” – a provocative, Bosnian-Serbian updating of “Romeo and Juliet” – be “talentless”? Continue reading