CVIndependent

Mon12162019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

The real-life horrors the DuPont company inflicted upon Parkersburg, W.Va., get a strong cinematic treatment from director Todd Haynes with Dark Waters, an earnest legal drama that skips lengthy courtroom sequences in favor of in-depth looks at those affected—on all sides of the case.

Mark Ruffalo headlines the movie as Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney visited at his posh office one day by Wilbur (Bill Camp), a friend of his family. Wilbur, a lifelong farmer, shows up grumbling like a crazy person, screaming about dead cows and chemicals. Rob dismisses this agricultural Quint from Jaws, gets back to his meeting, and goes about his mostly comfortable day.

However, the encounter with Wilbur eats at Rob; he decides to investigate further and eventually winds up on Wilbur’s farm—where close to 200 cows have perished due to ailments like enlarged organs and tumors.

Wilbur thinks this is happening because of something in the water in the stream. Wilbur is right.

DuPont has been dumping toxic chemicals near Wilbur’s farm for years—ever since the company brought Teflon to the American public decades earlier—and Bilott is very familiar with the company. He’s even friends with Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), a company lawyer. They have cordial discussions about Wilbur and his cows at first, but those discussions escalate into a lawsuit, followed by larger class-action suits, as the people of Parkersburg become aware of the chemical plague that has been infecting their drinking water.

The film works well, in part because it avoids typical courtroom-drama stereotypes. Ruffalo’s Bilott is a well-meaning but flawed guy, and he’s a little slow on the uptake at first. He’s also a bundle of nerves prone to medical emergencies, because he can’t take the pressure. Tom, his boss (played by a strong Tim Robbins), is alternately supportive and demanding—not the typical top-dog-lawyer monster who often resides in these movies. These characters actually have depth.

Ruffalo, who has been making big money as Bruce Banner/Hulk in the Marvel movies, was a solid actor before he went green—and he remains one. He has a WTF? face in this film that says it all, as he encounters one atrocity after another.

Even though much of what really happened in Parkersburg is now part of the public record, Haynes manages to make the movie somewhat of a mystery, with slow reveals as Bilott digs deeper and gets closer to the truth. There are moments that seem innocuous and standard—but are revealed later on to be pivotal.

I’ve known a few cow farmers in my time, and Camp gets all the elements right—but this farmer has the added unfortunate element of raging disgust with a corporation that is slowly killing him and his family. Wilbur’s encounter with a family cow losing its mind is heartbreaking. Anne Hathaway adds extra dramatic heft as Rob’s wife, Sarah, who is trying to keep normalcy in family as her husband goes off on a crusade that seems to be never-ending. She has some of the film’s more intense moments as she plays equal parts supportive and get-your-shit-together enforcer.

Dark Waters will make you think about a lot of things we take for granted—like non-stick surfaces in our cookware, and swimming holes … and where does the water come from? This case was a blight on DuPont, a big company with a lot of problems, another one of them captured memorably in 2014’s Foxcatcher (which also starred Ruffalo).

One of the more shocking true details this film reveals is that most humans have traces of chemicals—like the those that polluted Parkersburg’s waters—in their blood. That’s an eye-opener, as is the movie as a whole. Dark Waters is a stark reminder that there are money-making entities out there that don’t give a rat’s ass about your well-being. That truth is scarier than anything you’ll find in a horror movie.

Dark Waters is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Adam Driver busts out a spontaneous piano-bar rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” in Marriage Story. That alone justifies taking the time to watch the film, now streaming on Netflix.

Fortunately, there are other reasons besides Driver’s surprisingly amazing voice to see the movie … actually, a lot more. Driver and Scarlett Johansson are incredible in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s best movie yet—an alternately searing, touching and hilarious look at a marriage’s end times.

Nicole and Charlie Barber work together in a theater company; she’s a performer, while he’s the director. The movie starts with them deciding to go through a divorce; they promise each other things will remain amicable, and lawyers won’t get involved. Nicole will go to Los Angeles and pursue film acting, while Charlie stays in New York to work on his latest play getting to Broadway. They are determined to share custody of their young son. This will be a pleasant divorce.

Then … well, the lawyers get involved.

Early in the film, you may wonder why these two are getting divorced. They’re both fairly calm about it; heck, you might even think there’s a chance they can pull out of the nosedive and reconcile.

Nope. This director will not be trafficking in easy endings. Baumbach knows two people can really love each other, yet put themselves through a progressive, scorching hell. Nicole tries to remain civil, but Charlie has done stuff that’s going to result in rougher proceedings. Nicole gets herself a lawyer in Nora (Laura Dern, being the best Laura Dern ever); Charlie eventually caves in and gets one, too, in Bert Spitz (a funny Alan Alda) and, later, Jay (an even funnier Ray Liotta).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this film includes the most realistic, earth-shattering, devastatingly honest marital fight I’ve ever seen in a movie. The participants in this scene must have needed some sort of assistance when it was all over. Driver and Johansson do things in this film you will not soon forget. It’s not just the moments when they tear into each other; they do a credible job of letting you know this isn’t simply a case of two people falling out of love: They still love each other, and that’s what makes the vitriol so hard to watch. While Baumbach and his cast definitely show the reasons for the marriage’s failure, the movie allows for you to wish things will get better—even as they are getting far worse. It’s so well written that it’s scary.

Randy Newman puts forth a score that is playful, hopeful and bright, even when the movie goes bleak. It’s almost like the music is there to soften the blows. It’s one of the year’s best scores, and one of the best of Newman’s storied career.

Adding to the amazing supporting cast alongside Dern and Alda is the legendary Julie Hagerty, she of Airplane!, Lost in America, What About Bob? and the vastly underrated Freddy Got Fingered. She plays Nicole’s mom, also an actress, and she’s the funniest part of the movie. Her participation makes the hard stuff go down easier.

I expect there will be a cavalcade of Oscar nominations for this one—and there damned well should be. It’s one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best and most honest films about relationships ever made. Baumbach has gone next-level with Marriage Story—and you won’t soon forget the ballad of Nicole and Charlie.

Marriage Story is now streaming on Netflix. It’s also playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

After a lot of publicity surrounding the digital de-aging of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has arrived on Netflix (it remains on some local movie screens, too), and it’s a very good offering from the auteur. It has a few problems, but the opportunity to see De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci in a movie together under the Great One’s tutelage more than overrides the shortfalls.

The film is based on a book about Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) called I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually the name of the film in the opening credits. Sheeran was a labor-union official and occasional hitman who had ties to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). The film, like the book, claims that he was the actual triggerman in the assassination of Hoffa.

The film covers a lengthy time span: We see Sheeran from his 30s up until shortly before his death in his 80s. He’s played by De Niro throughout—and the much-ballyhooed digital de-aging is mostly a bust. There are moments when De Niro looks perhaps a tad younger than 76, his actual age (he might pass for 58), but it always looks like bad makeup, dye jobs and funky lighting rather than high-tech effects at work. Plus, these digitally enhanced, oddly smooth faces have old voices, and are on bodies with stiff postures.

Distracting effects aside, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are amazing, no matter what age they are depicting. Scorsese has made a nice companion piece to his gangster epic Goodfellas (I consider Casino one of his few missteps); this is an ugly depiction of the loneliness and alienation that results from things like shooting your friends in the head.

Goodfellas had a rather likable, and unintentionally funny, antihero in Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, but none of the main guys in this movie are likable. Sheeran, in particular, is terrible; De Niro depicts the guy as a meathead, a lackey who takes orders from the likes of Pesci’s Russell Bufalino and Pacino’s Hoffa. Sheeran is quietly despicable and evil at his core.

Pacino gives the film a little fun as a blustering, ice-cream-obsessed Hoffa. He’s also the angriest guy in the movie, with Pacino sinking his teeth into many opportunities to go from zero to 100 in mere seconds. Pacino shares a couple of scenes with Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano, one of the men suspected of participating in Hoffa’s eventual disappearance in 1975. Pacino and Graham square off in a way that goes right into the “Best Pacino Moments” time capsule.

The film has an epic scope; it’s 3 1/2 hours long, so I suspect there will be a lot of pausing for bathroom and snack breaks due to its presence on Netflix, and that’s too bad. I think Scorsese should’ve put an intermission in the middle, perhaps choosing a preferred moment for the viewer to gather themselves up for the film’s great finale.

Seeing De Niro and Pesci sharing scenes again—speaking Italian and dipping bread in wine—is a holiday season cinematic gift like no other. This is De Niro’s best work in years, and Pesci gets a chance to play a subdued role in a Scorsese flick, which pays major dividends. He depicts Bufalino as a quiet, polite and extremely dangerous man, and it’s mesmerizing.

With the decade coming to a close, The Wolf of Wall Street remains Scorsese’s best effort of the 2010s—but that’s more high praise for Wolf than a put-down of The Irishman, which is a fine film, even if it comes up short of being a masterpiece. If this is Scorsese and De Niro’s final film together, they are going out on a high note.

The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix. It’s also playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Queen and Slim depicts the worst Tinder date … pretty much ever.

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith star as the title characters, two young people who meet in a diner for a mediocre online date. On their way home, they are pulled over by a cop who racially profiles them—and bad things happen. Queen and Slim go on the run, become social-media celebrities, and yes, start liking each other a whole lot more.

Director Melina Matsoukas’ movie isn’t very original, but the atmospherics are solid, and the performances truly drive the film. Turner-Smith is terrific as a lawyer who finds herself on the wrong side of the law, while Kaluuya brings a sweet sadness to the teetotaling Slim. The film deals bluntly with its subject of police brutality, with both good and bad cops present. There’s no question why this film is being called the “black Bonnie and Clyde,” in that the movie follows many of the same beats as the 1960s classic.

Queen and Slim stands as a decent statement on current civil rights issues, and it’s a nice step forward for Matsoukas as a director.

Queen and Slim is playing at theaters across the valley.

Director Rian Johnson, maker of the divisive Star Wars: Episode VII—The Last Jedi, and also the brilliant Looper, takes a crack at the whodunnit genre—and comes up aces.

Daniel Craig stars as private-investigator Benoit Blanc, mysteriously hired by somebody in a rich family after the strange “suicide” death of their patriarch, mystery-author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, still going strong). There’s something fishy about his death, and his personal nurse, Marta (the awesome Ana de Armas), knows something the rest of the family doesn’t. What transpires is a solid mystery with a fun set of characters featuring a stellar cast, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield and Chris Evans. Everybody has a blast, as does the audience, as Johnson takes the genre and twists it into an entertaining pretzel.

Craig is especially good in a role that allows him to show his comic side, with Shannon and Johnson impressive as a couple of paranoiacs. Above all, the film gives the talented Armas a chance to really shine.

Knives Out is playing at theaters across the valley.

One man puts it all on the line to expose the CIA’s torture tactics post-Sept. 11 in The Report, a film—based on real life—from writer-director Scott Z. Burns.

Adam Driver acts his heart out as Daniel Jones, a U.S. Senate staffer tasked by, among others, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (a droll Annette Bening) to get to the truth about the CIA’s use of extreme interrogation tactics, mainly waterboarding, on suspected terrorist prisoners. Jones (a real guy) basically proved the U.S. was breaking international law, and the film shows how high members of the government and the CIA tried to prevent him from exposing this fact.

While the movie is a decent history lesson, and Driver is good, the film is a bit drab and unintentionally funny at times. Burns doesn’t quite have a grasp on the material here, and the resulting movie should be far more shocking and disarming than it actually is.

The Report is available on Amazon Prime.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, is a beautiful film. It’s whimsical, sweet, complicated and full of warmth—just like that polite guy who used to put on his cardigan for children for many years on PBS.

Who plays Fred “Mister Rogers” Rogers in this movie? Why, Tom Hanks, of course. You don’t get more perfect casting than the world’s most likable actor playing one of history’s most likable guys. The recent reveal that Hanks is an actual sixth cousin of Rogers is no surprise.

Hanks plays Rogers in an honorable way. He doesn’t impersonate the man so much as adapt some of his mannerisms, his winning smile and that slow, concerned cadence in his voice. The performance stands as a terrific homage to a wonderful person.

Actually, Fred Rogers is a supporting player (albeit a mighty important and present one) in this heartfelt movie from director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). The main protagonist is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys of The Americans), a troubled journalist (loosely based on Junod) who grumbles upon getting an assignment to do a profile on the PBS icon—the guy with a “hokey” TV show—for Esquire.

The two at first talk on the phone, but Lloyd eventually journeys to WQED in Pittsburgh, home of the beloved TV show, to see the master in action. Rogers instantly starts interviewing the journalist as much as the journalist is interviewing him, and Lloyd bristles at first. But over the course of the film, Rogers and Lloyd become friends, and Rogers helps Lloyd in his dealings with a dying father (an excellent Chris Cooper); his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson of This Is Us); and his newborn son.

Heller brilliantly frames her film as an episode of the TV show, starting with Hanks delivering the famous welcome song, and then introducing Lloyd Vogel as a friend who needs help. As the characters travel to different cities, those cities are depicted like the train sets that had a presence throughout the TV show. It truly does give one the sense that an episode of Neighborhood is playing out.

Much of the film is indeed fiction; for starters, there is no evidence of the father-son relationship at the center of this film in Tom Junod’s original article, “Can You Say … Hero?” Fictional or not, the handling of the father-son relationship is heart-wrenchingly good, and Junod has acknowledged that the friendship Heller displays in her movie is much like the one he had with Rogers.

I have a new appreciation for Fred Rogers as an adult. He always weirded me out when I was a kid; I was more interested in being entertained by The Electric Company and Sesame Street than by the guy with the sweater. Still, I did watch a lot of his shows before and after my favorites. In retrospect, I realize that Mister Rogers taught me more about life and my fellow human beings than any of those other children’s shows ever did. There was a warmth to the show—a warmth that made a bullied, antisocial younger kid such as me a little uncomfortable, just like Lloyd Vogel in this movie. As I grew older, I lightened up a bit … just like Lloyd Vogel in this movie.

I think a lot of people will feel similarly after seeing this movie. It’s going to open up heads and hearts, and perhaps even make you cry a bit. It’s going to make you love Tom Hanks even more than you do now, if that’s possible. And it’s going to fortify your precious remembrance of Fred Rogers—the sweet guy in the sweater who talked right at you from the TV screen, be it with his haggard puppets or ever-present smile.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing at theaters across the valley.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of this year’s better directorial debuts. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz deliver a real winner with a terrific cast. It’s a strange and funny Southern odyssey with a whole lot of peanut butter, moonshine, epiphanies and—last but not least—wrestling.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, is basically a prisoner in a retirement home, abandoned by his family. Zak has aspirations to be a wrestler—and he breaks out one night on his quest, wearing nothing but underwear. He comes across Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled but goodhearted fisherman who creates a situation for himself after which he must hit the road. The two form a bond and start heading south toward Florida, where Zak’s wrestling school awaits.

LaBeouf, who continues to shine after his career hit a bump, is at his best here opposite Gottsagen, an actor who actually has Down syndrome—and mighty good comic timing. They make a great pair before becoming a great trio when Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, doing a lot to make us forgive the whole Fifty Shades thing), Zak’s caretaker, hunts them down. She takes pity (well, Zak throws her keys in the ocean) and eventually boards the raft toward the wrestling school. It all comes to a wonderfully weird conclusion in what amounts to a great adventure.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is now available via online sources.

For those of you who love cars, but are getting tired of the Fast and Furious franchise’s “vroom-vroom” formula, Ford v Ferrari will be a welcome ode to automobiles going very fast.

It’s the 1960s, and Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) has had it up to here with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and his fast, flashy cars. He and cronies such as Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) are cranky, and they want to send a message to the world that Ford isn’t just about family cars. They also want to win races and appeal to the younger, Baby Boomer demographic with Mustangs and the like.

Enter Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a race car driver who, after a heart condition benches him, becomes a designer and salesman. Ford hires Shelby to design a car that can beat Ferrari in races—primarily the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race

It’s a tall order, and it calls for a crazy guy behind the wheel calling the shots. That guy is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an English-born rule-breaker who can drive a car and instantly know what can be fixed on it to make the thing go faster. His lack of convention causes Ford to bristle; Shelby gets in the middle; and we have ourselves a gripping tale about racing technology, volatile friendships and corporate clashes.

If you are looking for glorious depictions of high-stakes auto racing, you will not be disappointed: Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) films Ford v Ferrari in such a way that you feel every gear shift, hairpin turn and moment when a car could skid off the tracks and cause grave injury. In this sense, the movie tops the auto-movie genre.

If you are looking for powerhouse acting, you will not be let down: Damon and Bale are otherworldly good as two longtime pals who have no problem with occasionally punching each other in the face, yet always having each other’s backs. Letts and Bernthal do well at showing the corporate side of things, while Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe are good as Miles’ wife and kid. Some of the family stuff gets a little clichéd, but the performers, especially the amazing Jupe, elevate the material.

There’s a lot of car talk, and credit goes to writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller for a script that makes the audience feel like it is learning without getting bored or overwhelmed. I walked out of this movie knowing a little more about hot brakes and the ways in which they can kill a driver’s chances to win a race. Just consider yourself warned: The class is long, clocking in at just more than 2 1/2 hours.

This one is going to be in awards contention for sound, cinematography and art direction, as well as the acting categories. There have been previous car-racing movies, but this one puts you in the driver’s seat like none before. If you’ve had the distinct pleasure (or terror, given one’s outlook) of being in a race car at racing speeds, you will know that Mangold and his crew get the sensations right.

The final sequence, involving the 24 Hour Le Mans, is a masterclass on how to make a racing movie right: It’s a superbly conducted balance of the technical and the dramatic. Damon and Bale are giving DiCaprio and Pitt of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a run for the money in the year’s best-acting-duo department.

Ford v Ferrari feels real, authentic and well-researched. It’s a movie that will please race-car fans—and entertain those who could care less about racing cars. It also makes Vin Diesel look like a total poseur.

Ford v Ferrari is playing at theaters across the valley.

While Disney is cooling off on big-screen Star Wars plans after the upcoming Rise of Skywalker, the mega-company’s new streaming service is bringing the Star Wars goodness with a promised multitude of TV shows—the first of which is The Mandalorian.

Ewan McGregor will reprise his Obi-Wan role for an upcoming series—but we have to wait a little longer for that. In the meantime, we get this gem about a bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) in Boba Fett-type armor, set a few decades after the events of Return of the Jedi.

Creator and showrunner Jon Favreau knows what Star Wars geeks want to see. The first two episodes bring lots of sand-planet goodness, with references to everything from Salacious Crumb to … well, I don’t want to give anything else away.

Let this review also stand as a ringing endorsement for the streaming service itself. It’s a treasure trove for lovers of Disney, Marvel, Star Wars and even National Geographic. Netflix has got themselves some serious competition.

The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+.

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