Richard has a look at the new movies coming to theatres, including “Knives Out” with Daniel Craig and a cast of n’ere do wells, the Disney+ revamp of “Lady and the Tramp,” the odd couple picture “The Two Popes,” the corporate legal drama “Dark Waters,” and the thought provoking “Queen & Slim” with CFRA morning show host Bill Carroll.
The only thing big and green in Mark Ruffalo’s new film “Dark Waters are the hulking wads of cash a major corporation is willing to pay to cover up an ecological disaster.
Based on true events, Ruffalo plays corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott, a native West Virginian now working for an upscale Cincinnati firm. He makes a living defending big companies but when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a friend of his grandmother shows up complaining that chemical giant Dupont is poisoning his livestock, Bilott is at a loss for words. “I defend chemical companies,” he stuitters. “Well, now you can defend me,” replies the plainspoken Wilbur.
Bilott knows the farm. As a kid he rode horses and milked his first cow there and even though the he doesn’t think he can help, he agrees to have a look. On the land he finds horrifying things. 190 cows dead, many born with birth defects and tumors. Wilbur is convinced that runoff from a nearby landfill is responsible. What was once a pastoral paradise is now a poisoned plot of land.
To paraphrase the famous John Denver song, country roads lead Bilott back home to place he belongs, defending a farmer done wrong by a conglomerate more concerned with profit than people.
“Dark Waters” is about accountability. Bilott spends more than a decade of his life, putting his health and family life at risk to take a corporate Goliath to task for their irresponsible behavior. Ruffalo does a good job at portraying the Bilott’s decline as he is worn down by the tactics of his foe, the impatience of the people he is trying to help and his inability to force the power brokers to play fair. It humanizes a story that otherwise would be a high level legal procedural.
Director Todd Haynes shoots the story in drab tones that echo much of the colorless work—i.e. cataloguing the mountain of paper sent over by Dupont in the form of discovery. It doesn’t make for a compelling looking film but it helps set the scene and tone. Fighting back isn’t glamourous work. It’s about late nights, crappy food and a constant feeling of exhaustion.
“Dark Waters” isn’t a thriller. From the first frame there is no question about who is guilty. The question here is how guilty and will they ever pay for what they have done? It is geared to outage and infuriate, to underscore that the big guys don’t always win. It is marred by a leisurely approach and some paper-thin characterizations, but the David and Goliath story is compelling.
“Life of Crime” is slickly made but blandish adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel “The Switch.” As usual Leonard’s bad guys are more interesting than the straights. The trick here is figuring out who the bad guys are.
Jennifer Aniston is Mickey, the trophy wife of the abusive and corrupt Frank Dawson. Outwardly they have the perfect marriage, but at home trouble is brewing. At home, at least when Frank isn’t off doing “business” at his hideaway in the Bahamas, tending to his girlfriend Melanie (Isla Fisher) and off shore bank accounts.
When two low-rent criminals, Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) kidnap Mickey they hadn’t counted on Frank using their plan as a quickie divorce. No ransom, no alimony. Cue the double crosses and intrigue.
The major selling point here is the dialogue. Leonard was a master of the backroom criminal dialogue and here they have the good sense to keep most of his snappy words intact. Hawkes and Bey are particularly adept at delivering the goods, mouthing the words as if they were Leonard’s illegitimate children. Robbins is convincing as the sleazy land developer and Fisher is a femme fatale in the making. The weak link is Aniston, who seems like she might have calibrated her performance for the similarly plotted “Ruthless People” rather than a down-and-dirty crime drama.
Like many of Leonard’s stories “Life of Crime” tends to favor the characters who live on the down low. Hawkes and Bey—despite their association with a neo-Nazi (Mark Boone Jr.)—are treated as the sensitive heroes of the piece, while everyone else is playing some sort of game. It makes for interesting character dynamics but doesn’t sit as well here as it did in “Get Shorty” or “Out of Sight.”
Tim Robbins has a reputation as being one of the most politically aware actors in Hollywood, so it is no surprise that he would team up with Phillip Noyce, an Australian director known for making bug budget action movies like Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, but of late, has concentrated on smaller more socially aware films.
Set in 1980, Catch a Fire tells the real life story of Patrick Chamusso, (Derek Luke), an apolitical oil refinery foreman at the Secunda oil refinery in rural South Africa who turns to radical politics after being imprisoned and tortured for a plant bombing he did not commit.
Robbins plays Security Branch Colonel Nic Vos, head of a government anti-terrorist task force who isn’t afraid to use force to coerce a confession from his prisoners. Chamusso’s wrongful arrest and subsequent torture pushes him to retaliate, join the outlawed ANC and commit an act of sabotage that lands him in the brutal Robben Island prison for a decade.
Catch a Fire succeeds because of the complexity of the two leads. Derek Luke is winning as Chamusso, who like the hero of Hotel Rwanda, another recent film set in Africa, morphs into a rebel after seeing first hand the misuse of power. When we first meet the straight-as-an-arrow Chamusso he’s a simple family man who wants to maintain the status quo. He wants to have a good job, to buy his wife nice things, raise his kids and stay out of trouble, but those wants are stripped away when Vos enters his life. Luke gets under Chamusso’s skin, believably showing how a man can change when pushed to the limit.
Robbins rides a fine line between playing Vos as a monster, someone who tortures people and breaks the rules in the name of law and order, and an ordinary foot soldier in what he perceived was a civil war. He humanizes Vos, allowing the viewer to look beyond the surface and see him for what he is, a flawed patriot.
Working from a strong script by Shawn Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo who ran the military wing of the ANC, and aided by a marvelous soundtrack of South African freedom songs, Phillip Noyce has delivered a movie that takes advantage of his experience making big budget thrillers, but never lets the action overwhelm the film’s core message of fighting against oppression.