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Tue04072020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

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.

Published in Reviews

The Marvel universe gets its most grandiose chapter with Avengers: Endgame, a fitting successor to last year’s Infinity War—and a generous gift to those of us who like our movies with superheroes in them.

When we last saw Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), he was a survivor of the dreaded Thanos (Josh Brolin) finger snap, a universe-altering occurrence that took out half its living creatures and provided that tear-jerking moment when Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and many others turned to dust.

Endgame picks up where that action left off, with Stark floating in space and keeping a video journal of his inevitable demise, as he’s run out of food and water. Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper) are among the other survivors, dealing with the repercussions of so much death on Earth.

There are tons of questions this movie needs to answer in its three-hour running time. Where’s Thanos? Where’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? Is Tony permanently marooned in space? What’s been going on with Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) during all of this Thanos hullabaloo? Is everybody really dead? Does Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) still have his Walkman in the Great Beyond?

Good news: The movie answers many of these questions and more thanks to another well-balanced screenplay and a crack directorial job from the team of Anthony and Joe Russo. When you leave Endgame, you’ll feel satisfied.

How do I really talk about any of this without becoming the Spoiler King? I can tell you that the movie is the second one this year that borrows a lot from Back to the Future Part II (after Happy Death Day 2U). I can tell you that the Hulk undergoes a fantastic wardrobe change. I can tell you that the New York Mets, my favorite baseball team, has been decimated by the Thanos snap, not unlike when Fred Wilpon took over sole ownership of the franchise in 2002. I could tell you that Rocky Raccoon comes face to face with his creator, Paul McCartney, and eats his foot, but that would be a lie.

I can also tell you, no lie, that it all zips by in a spectacularly entertaining way—and that very little of it misses the mark. There are a few moments when it’s evident that all of the stars weren’t physically together, with their presence pasted together through the power of special effects, just like that lackluster season of Arrested Development during which all of the cast schedules didn’t align. This is a forgivable offense; there’s no chance you are going to get a cast this size all in one room at the same time. Help us, CGI.

In the middle of all the action and plot developments, Downey delivers another soulful, endearing performance, well beyond anything you would’ve expected from a Marvel movie before he started showing up in them. Chris Evans continues to rock, something that truly began with Captain America: Civil War. Hemsworth and Ruffalo continue to explore more-humorous variations of their characters, and both are a total crack-ups.

Are the Marvel movies anywhere near finished with Endgame? Don’t be silly. James Gunn just got his job back as the director/commander of the Guardians of the Galaxy; Captain Marvel is just getting started; and Spider-Man’s next adventure will enter your face before the summer is done.

Have some of the more-popular story arcs within the Universe reached their conclusions? Maybe. I’m not telling. Set aside three hours, and get some answers yourself.

Avengers: Endgame is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The Avengers team takes a swift kick to their (remarkably muscular) collective ass from a super-baddie named Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, the best blockbuster you will see at the movies this year.

While Marvel has been on a nice roll lately (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War), the last “Avengers” movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was a misguided, boring dud. This third installment (the first of a two-parter, with the second being released next summer) lets it all hang out with a massive collection of characters and a true, scary sense of impending doom.

There are many, many storylines at play servicing so many superheroes and villains. Infinity War feels like the Magnolia of Marvel movies in that it takes all of those storylines and balances them in a cohesive, entertaining manner. The film is 2 1/2 hours long, but it’s never close to boring.

The balancing act is performed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the team that made Civil War such a winner. The magic of that film carries over into this one, which picks up directly after the end of Thor: Ragnarok. That film ended with Thor and his fellow Asgardians feeling somewhat triumphant despite losing their planet while defeating emo Cate Blanchett. A mid-credits scene saw their ship coming into direct contact with one owned by the mighty Thanos (Josh Brolin).

In one of the great motion-capture achievements, Brolin is the best of monsters—one who manages just enough of a sensitive side that he falls well short of stereotype. At one turn, he’s obliterating planets and torturing horrified people under his large feet. Then he’ll shed a tear that shows there’s a big, obviously misguided heart pumping in his Infinity Stone-seeking chest. He’s much more complicated than your average CGI character.

I won’t go into the whole Infinity Stone thing, other than to say they’ve played a part in many past Marvel films—and they all come together and show their purpose in this movie as Thanos adds them, one by one, to his Infinity Gauntlet. Each time he gets another, a palpable sense of dread builds.

The gang is pretty much all here, so it’s easier to tell you who doesn’t show up in this installment: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) are nowhere to be seen, but Hawkeye, Ant Man and a newish Marvel superhero will play into the next chapter.

Robert Downey Jr. continues his magnificent trek as Tony Stark/Iron Man, who is trying to arrange a wedding and babies with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) when yet another apocalypse begins. Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) continue their streak of weird humor after Ragnarok while Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America) continues to smolder after the events of Civil War. Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) provides the sensible-guy arc, and has some of the movie’s best scenes with Stark.

Tom Holland continues his joyful portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy join the fray with a welcomed—and quite substantial—contribution, especially from Zoe Saldana (Gamora) and Karen Gillan (Nebula), estranged daughters of Thanos. Some of the best banter in the film happens whenever Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) encounters an Avenger trying to out-cool him.

There’s a lot at stake in this movie—perhaps too much for one film. That’s not necessarily a complaint, but a slight sense of overload and an abundance loose ends keep Avengers: Infinity War from being a masterpiece. Hey, maybe it’ll get an upgrade to “part of a masterpiece” next summer, when the next chapter plays out.

For now, get thee to a big screen, and be prepared to have your face melted with superhero/bad guy greatness. It’s dark; it’s funny; it’s thrilling; it’s action packed; it’s fantastically performed ... and it’s just Part 1.

Avengers: Infinity War is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

They were smoking some wild shit and licking frogs when they put together Thor: Ragnarok, a film so nutty that it easily surpasses the Guardians of the Galaxy films as the screwiest offering in the Marvel universe.

When you hand the keys to the Thor franchise over to a director like Taika Waititi, you know you are going to get something bizarre—and Waititi doesn’t disappoint. Waititi is the New Zealand comic actor/director responsible for the hilarious vampire faux documentary What We Do in the Shadows and the funny family drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople. There’s really nothing on his resume that screams, “Hey, let’s have this guy direct an action packed, highly expensive Thor film!” but he got the gig, so there you go. Sometimes the wild card pays off.

Borrowing from a host of Marvel comics (including the famed “Planet Hulk” storyline), the hallucinogenic plot drops Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on a crazy garbage planet where everyone is bent on around-the-clock, violent entertainment, and led by Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, finally getting a worthy high-profile role outside of a Wes Anderson film—that was a long drought). The Grandmaster shaves Thor’s head, dresses him in gladiator gear and throws him into the ring for a weaponized bout with his prized competitor.

That prized competitor would be the Hulk, who has been held captive on the planet for the past couple of years. He’s been nothing but the Hulk the whole time, with Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) trapped inside him. Thor and Hulk have a battle royale for the ages, followed by some great scenes in which the Hulk actually speaks. (Ruffalo provides the voice, and this is the first time in the recent Marvel films where Lou Ferrigno isn’t providing Hulk’s growls.)

There’s also a whole other, apocalyptic subplot in which Thor’s long-lost sister Hela (a striking and devilish Cate Blanchett, decked out in black) is causing major havoc on his home planet of Asgard. Blanchett is now high in the ranking of Marvel movie villains. She’s played a baddie before, but never this entertainingly.

Thor’s mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes it into the mix, siding with his brother in the war for Asgard, although he’s still not 100 percent trustworthy. Waititi wisely plays upon the comic notes from Loki’s past Avenger films and makes Loki, more or less, a clown in this movie. It works beautifully.

The great Tessa Thompson plays Valkyrie, an Asgardian-turned-trapper for the Grandmaster who has a slight drinking problem. Karl Urban gets perhaps his best role outside of Star Trek as Skurge, an Asgardian who becomes Hela’s right-hand man; he boasts a collection of stuff that includes an infamous exercising tool.

To say the result of all this is trippy is an understatement. The movie looks like Thor meets Boogie Nights (minus the porn) meets The Lord of the Rings. It scores high marks in the fantasy genre realm while being one of the year’s funniest movies—and that’s high praise. Most of the cast members get to demonstrate both comedic and action chops, and the film never feels off balance. Goldblum, thankfully, gets to riff most of his dialogue, Goldblum-style. It all feels very improvised and loose.

As far as moving the stories of Thor and Hulk forward … in this respect, the movie spins its wheels. Ragnarok is largely a standalone, expensively silly curio that looks great and distinguishes itself without worrying much about connecting to plot threads in other films. It does do that (stay for the after credits scene), but it does so without being too obvious

This is not a problem. These are comic-book movies, and sometimes (like with Avengers: Age of Ultron), they can take themselves a little too seriously. Ragnarok embraces its insanity and takes it to highly entertaining, WTF? levels.

No, I don’t want to see this happen with every Marvel movie, because it could get tired and gimmicky. But, say, with every fourth movie, why not let a rogue director go crazy with some Avengers? It certainly works here.

Thor: Ragnarok is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Spotlight stands as one of the all-time-great films about newspaper reporting; the story at its center is remarkable.

In 2001, Spotlight, an investigative division of The Boston Globe, gets tasked with investigating child-molesting priests. What starts as a few cases grows to cases involving almost 90 priests in the Boston area alone—none of them criminally prosecuted.

Special kudos go to Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, the real reporter who helped bring the story to the public. Ruffalo captures the spirit of a hungry reporter without resorting to any clichés. His Rezendes feels like the real thing; a moment when he loses his temper is one of the better screen moments 2015 has to offer.

He’s not alone in the brilliant category. Michael Keaton is terrific as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Spotlight editor who suddenly finds himself and his staff up against a powerful Catholic Church. Rachel McAdams is totally convincing as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, while Liev Schreiber gets his best role in years as head editor Marty Baron.

The film also co-stars Stanley Tucci, John Slattery and Billy Crudup. They, and everything about this film, are first rate.

Spotlight is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

When Avengers: Age of Ultron wrapped, I realized a terrible thing for a fanboy like me: I had just watched almost 2 1/2 hours of stuff that did almost nothing for me. It was a big blur, intermittently interrupted by half-interesting moments.

In other words: It was boring.

You can’t accuse director Joss Whedon of “second verse, same as the first” with Avengers: Age of Ultron. He and his team definitely went for something different with this sequel to one of the greatest blockbusters ever made. Perhaps it would’ve been OK to retain more of the good humor, campiness and non-cluttered thrills that made The Avengers such a gas.

Ultron is flat. Nothing of any real consequence happens; there are just a bunch of scenes teasing future Marvel movies, and some action sequences that lack clarity. With the exception of an interesting smackdown between Iron Man and the Hulk, the action sequences feel repetitive.

The “Ultron” of the movie’s title is a series of robots with an artificial-intelligence program initiated by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark, thinking he can create a security force that will save the world, gets a little ahead of himself, forgoes the approval of his fellow Avengers—with the exception of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)—and starts the program, only to discover that A.I. can sometimes mean Absolute Insanity. The program goes AWOL and produces the anti-human Ultron.

Voiced by James Spader, Ultron is a one-note villain that lacks personality, unlike Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and other recent comic-book villains. He’s not a formidable bad guy, in part because he’s just a CGI creation voiced by an actor. All of the great Marvel and D.C. villains are usually a little more human, while Ultron comes off as a third-rate Transformers Decepticon. Yes, Spader has a menacing voice, but he’s no James Earl Jones.

On the other hand, the Vision—a good-guy offshoot of the same program that produces Ultron, more or less—is far more interesting. Played by Paul Bettany, the Vision is a welcome addition to the roster. Bettany’s likeness is actually used in the Vision, and he looks cool.

Also new are Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Scarlet Witch does the mind-control thing, which Whedon illustrates with a visual that looks like mist surrounding her victim’s head. This reminded me of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy and her red-mist, mind-controlling pheromones in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. When it comes to comic book movies, it is never a good thing when something reminds you of Batman and Robin.

Quicksilver is potentially fun, but Johnson’s incarnation is not as interesting as that of Evan Peters, who played the part in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The film plays with the notion of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk having an affair. We get a couple of scenes with Black Widow managing to get the Hulk to calm down, and a little bit of Ruffalo and Johansson sort-of flirting, but the subplot doesn’t go anywhere. While the original Avengers was a terrific showcase for the Hulk, the latest mostly loses the big green guy in the shuffle. Also, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) now has a wife, in a failed effort to raise his character above least-interesting Avenger.

If you are an Avengers fan, you’ll have to see Age of Ultron, because it sets up a series of other films, and you might find yourself lost when watching future movies like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok or Black Widow: She Will Never Have Her Own Movie … What Gives?  

As for Whedon, perhaps he was the wrong man for this gig. The sequel goes for a darker tonal shift—a sort of Empire Strikes Back for the Avengers. The result is one of the year’s most crushing cinematic letdowns.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Steve Carell disappears into the role of John du Pont, the real-life crazy rich guy who took it upon himself in to shoot and kill one of the wrestlers on a team he created.

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are heartbreakingly good in Foxcatcher as Mark and David Schultz, two Olympic gold medal-winning siblings who, unfortunately, worked for du Pont when he had his breakdown. Down on his luck and living on ramen noodles, Mark gets a call from du Pont, who invites him out to his Foxcatcher farm. Mark finds a sense of purpose working with du Pont, and eventually summons his brother and his family to Foxcatcher.

What follows is a descent into insanity for the attention-starved du Pont, who lives under the chastising eye of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and is obsessed with controlling others. The madness eventually ended with the death of one of the brothers, and du Pont living his final years in prison.

Carell is amazingly good here; one only needs to watch a few minutes of the real du Pont on YouTube to know he nailed the characterization. Tatum and Ruffalo are equally good as the confused brothers.

Mark Schultz is currently protesting director Bennett Miller’s portrayal of him in the film, and he might be in the right on a few aspects of that portrayal. Still, Foxcatcher is a great film that will leave you with an appropriately sick feeling in your stomach.

Foxcatcher is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical The Normal Heart, based on his play with the same name, offers up some of the best acting you will see in any movie or TV show.

Mark Ruffalo plays Ned Weeks, a character Kramer loosely based upon himself. He’s a gay journalist with a blasé attitude about love and life. When visiting a party at Fire Island in 1981, one of the revelers falls to his knees, coughing, on the shoreline. In this moment, Ned and his friends are introduced to AIDS.

What follows is a history-based dramatization of what happened to a group of men and doctors trying to raise AIDS awareness against a backdrop of citizen indifference and political blocking. The film addresses the controversial stance taken by New York City mayor Ed Koch, with the Weeks character proclaiming that their (allegedly) closeted gay mayor and politicians like him were essentially out to murder the gay population.

Ruffalo is astoundingly good here, as is Julia Roberts as a lone doctor screaming in the wilderness for people to identify the illness and find a cure. Both performers have moments in this movie that are better than anything else they have ever done.

The same can be said for the likes of Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, BD Wong, Matt Bomer, Alfred Molina and Joe Mantello. Kitsch is especially good as Bruce Niles, a friend of Weeks who essentially becomes his adversary as Weeks’ protesting tactics become more and more controversial.

HBO was already a leader in gay cinema with And the Band Played On (1993) and the amazing Angels in America (2003). This further establishes them as a leader in bold, important cinematic projects.

Who needs movie theaters, right?

Published in TV

For those of you hankering for another magician movie after The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, here it is!

A Las Vegas magician act called the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) concludes a show by seemingly robbing a bank in France through teleportation. An FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol detective (Mélanie Laurent) investigate—and we snore.

Morgan Freeman is on hand as a man who makes a living debunking magic, as is Michael Caine as a millionaire bankrolling the Horsemen. It all amounts to nonsense, with the a lot of swirling cameras and stupid fights involving playing cards and paper cuts.

The big reveals are silly, and much of what happens on the magic side is never explained. Meanwhile, Eisenberg delivers one of the year’s more annoying performances.

Now You See Me is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews