Better Living through Chemistry

Dark Waters

by Hope Madden

Todd Haynes hasn’t written one of his own films since 2007’s I’m Not There, a biopic that refuses to fit neatly into that genre (making it a perfect fit for its subject).

The director’s collaboration with other writers has been both sublime (Carol) and spotty (Wonderstruck), the content sometimes feeling as if it simply is a mismatch for his own often gorgeously subversive vision.

So, yes, it’s a bit of a shock to witness the filmmaker who depicted Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia via Barbie dolls (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) tackle the blue collar true story of a corporate defense attorney who grows a conscience and hits DuPont Chemical where it hurts the most.

Shooting again in southern and central Ohio, Haynes turns in the buttery glamour of Carol for a grimmer image of America.

Dark Waters sees Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a good guy who also happens to be a corporate lawyer. I guess he’s proof those two concepts need not be mutually exclusive.

A keep-your-head-down kind of colleague, Bilott is confronted at work by a friend of his grandmother back home, a curmudgeonly West Virgina farmer (Bill Camp) who is offering VHS proof that his cows are being poisoned.

The corporate lawyer in Bilott wants to ignore this problem. The salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner in him cannot.

Few actors play the scrupulous good guy as reliably or believably as Ruffalo, who leads the film with a quiet, fragile dignity.

Anne Hathaway co-stars as Bilott’s conflicted wife Sarah. It’s a small and somewhat thankless role for the Oscar winner, but she gives it some meat and, better still, a much needed edge that strengthens the film.

She’s not alone. William Jackson Harper (Midsommar) continues to prove that he’s really good at playing a dick. Meanwhile, veteran “that guy” Camp offers a perfectly off-putting, guttural performance. A number of other sharp turns in small roles, including those by Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham and Victor Garber, help Haynes shade and shadow what could easily have become a paint-by-numbers eco-terror biopic.

He can’t entirely break free, though, and Dark Waters in the end—however stirring, informative and timely the tale—feels far too safe to be a Todd Haynes film.

What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.





Exposed in the Light

Spotlight

by Hope Madden

The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal – phenomenon, really – is a difficult cinematic subject to handle with integrity. It is so overwhelming in scope, in horror, in tragedy, in sociological impact and culpability that a clear eye and an even hand in storytelling can be almost impossible. Luckily, filmmaker Tom McCarthy chose to tackle the topic with his magnificent film Spotlight.

His inroad is the 2002 Boston Globe story that exposed systemic, generations-long abuses in Boston and the surrounding areas. With understated grace and attention to the minutia of journalism, Spotlight sidesteps melodrama at every turn, never glorifying its reporters or wallowing in the lurid.

A superb ensemble – Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schrieber, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, and Stanley Tucci – draw you into a film with more insight than could reasonably be expected from its two hour running time.

An outsider (Schrieber) takes the helm of the Globe and wonders why the paper hasn’t spent more time on an allegation of priest pedophilia. As he learns how tough it can be to be an interloper in Boston, his native reporting team faces similar problems. But they take on the story, uncovering something so widespread and so high level it’s hard to fathom.

How did it happen? Why would these children allow it and why would they and their families keep quiet? How did the church keep it quiet? How widespread is it? Why are there so many predators in the priesthood? How exactly did such an epidemic go unreported and unaddressed for so very long?

McCarthy, writing with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), offers thoughtful consideration to the suffering, the cover-up, and the general societal culpability. “If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.”

Spotlight also poignantly grieves the loss of faith – the inability to separate faith from institution – that haunts not only the victims, but those confronted with the systemic cover-up and enabling of the abuse.

After a couple of questionable turns (The Cobbler, for instance), it’s great to see this excellent filmmaker back at the top of his game. This is as observant a film as you will find, delicately crafted and brimming with sincere, multi-dimensional performances. It is required viewing.

Verdict-4-5-Stars





Trading Olympic for Oscar Gold

Foxcatcher

by Hope Madden

Sibling rivalry, loneliness, competition and madness fuel director Bennett Miller’s award-worthy true crime tale Foxcatcher.

The film follows the events that unfolded as Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz, and later his older brother, gold medal winner Dave (Mark Ruffalo), get involved with sinister millionaire John du Pont, who’s looking to bankroll 1988 US Olympic competitors.

Tatum performs as we have simply never seen him before, a fact that may be outshone by the other two quite amazing performances. Tatum has proven himself a facile comic talent, but his dramatic skills to this point have been lackluster at best.Yet here he brings a brooding, insecure competitor to life in every facet of his performance.

The always excellent Ruffalo is likewise stellar as the more congenial, more talented of the brothers, and the two together create a realistic sibling bond, one as desperate for the other’s approval and help as he is to finally best him; the other a tender, protective mentor.

Joining them, Steve Carell is revelatory as John du Pont. Never transparent, offering no easy answers, equal parts monstrous and pathetic, Carell creates an enigmatic and unseemly presence that haunts the screen. His graceless chemistry with all cast mates creates an uneasy tension in every frame, though his scene with a marvelous Vanessa Redgrave is particularly intriguing.

One thing you can expect from a Bennett Miller film is his meticulous attention to the setting. Miller creates such rich yet understated contexts that the drama unfolding within that environment cannot help but feel authentic. Whether it’s small town 1959 Kansas rocked by murders in Capote or Billy Bean’s world of low rent MLB wheeling and dealing in Moneyball, Bennett shows such respect for the settings of these true tales that the stories immediately take root.

Foxcatcher benefits from his measured touch – from the spare score and the film’s unusual pacing to the embedded, inescapable symbolism he mines of the relationships and the sport of wrestling. It all contributes to a building sense of unease that befits the tale.

Miller may go unnoticed as the maestro behind the weird onscreen magic, but his faith in unproven talent alone is reason to hail him one remarkable director.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Fall Preview Countdown

 

Football, honey crisp apples, leaves to rake – you know what that means? It means the cinema will turn from alien invasion bombast to thought provoking, character driven awards bait. Hooray!  Here are the ten fall movies we are most excited to spend time with between now and the holidays.

 10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Sure, it’s another blockbuster and hardly the kind of adult, autumnal fare you’ll find on the balance of the list, but we don’t care. We’re as geeked for Katniss’s next step as any 13-year-old girl. Director Francis Lawrence took the franchise into ingenious new territory with Catching Fire and we are eager to see where JLaw and team can take the political maneuvering next.

9. Fury (October 17)

Brad Pitt returns to Nazi Germany, but don’t expect the dark comedy of Inglourious Basterds. Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) is at the helm of what is being described as a brutal but honest look at WWII.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OGvZoIrXpg

8. Whiplash (October 23)

The always spectacular J. K. Simmons and talented, young Miles Teller join forces in a cymbal-crashing boot camp for musicians. Buzz for this one is great, and we love Simmons, so we’re ready to rock and roll.

7. Men, Women & Children (October 17)

Jason Reitman made his first major misstep this year with the syrupy mess Labor Day, but we are optimistic he will recover with this ensemble drama about how technology is changing our personal landscapes. Co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) should help.

6. Rosewater (November 7)

Jon Stewart writes and directs this true story of a journalist imprisoned and tortured for simply reporting on Iran’s 2009 election. Clearly a topic close to Stewart’s heart, we are eager to see if he can do at the helm of a film what he’s managed to do with his comedy show: articulate the people’s need for unencumbered journalism.

5. Birdman (October 17)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu takes a break from heady, heartbreaking drama (Biutiful, 21 Grams, Amores Perros) for something lighter and a bit more meta. Onetime Batman, current struggling actor Michael Keaton plays a struggling actor once known for his role as a superhero. We are in.

4. Foxcatcher (November 14)

Steve Carell has gotten notice for an unforgettable and surprising turn in a true crime drama co-starring Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) has done no wrong so far in his career, and we are intrigued to see where he takes us next.

3. Interstellar (November 9)

Because Christopher Nolan. If he’s directing, we’re in line for tickets, so this space exploration/wormhole business starring Matthew McConaughey (hey, he’s been a good bet lately, eh?) sounds like time well spent.

2. Gone Girl (October 3)

Who else would we line up to see no matter what? David Fincher, who helms this gritty crime drama about a missing wife and a husband who looks guilty. Ben Affleck stars, which is not always his strongest suit, but we’re betting on Fincher.

1. St. Vincent

Bill Murray plays the aging, boozy whoremonger next door who lends a hand to the neighborhood’s new single mom (Melissa McCarthy) in need of a babysitter. What could go wrong? We will be on hand to find out.





Once More, with Less Feeling

 

Begin Again

by George Wolf

 

Okay, let’s talk about Begin Again without mentioning that other movie that it will really remind you of…

Nope, can’t do it.

You’d be tempted to call it “Once for the multi-plex” even if you didn’t know both films come from the same writer/director, John Carney.

In 2006, Carney’s tender, heartfelt treatment made Once a wonderful tale of two musicians in Ireland telling their love story through song. It became an indie hit that won an Oscar and spawned a popular stage musical, but now it seems Carney wants to trade nuance for bigger box office while his new characters disavow musicians who do just that.

He moves the musical setting from the streets of Dublin to the boardrooms of New York, with Mark Ruffalo starring as Dan, a well-known record executive who’s career has seen better days. He stumbles into a bar just in time to hear Greta (Keira Knightley) being coaxed onstage to sing an original song,

Dan instantly hears a hit, and wants to record her, but Greta is gun shy. She’s still hurting from her breakup with Dave (Adam Levine), who has left her behind and become a superstar with soulless pop versions of her songs.

Greta agrees to a demo CD but there’s no budget to speak of, so they decide on a musical tour of the city, recording live with a full band at various locations around NYC.

Begin Again is aggressively likable. It’s all about winning you over you with popular actors, constant positivity and pleasant-yet-forgettable songs that are recorded in one take. Knightley even handles her own vocals, and she does just fine.

Of course she does! That’s how fairy tales work!

Look, as feel good movies of the year go, you could do much worse than Begin Again. It’s often charming. But there’s no escaping the irony in the “homemade” nature of Greta’s demo.  Carney used similar tactics for Once, and came out a big winner.

Now, like Greta’s ex, Carney has big money behind him, but too little soul in the finished product.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 





Please Put Your Pants On

Thanks for Sharing

by Hope Madden

In 2010, Stuart Blumberg wrote a film that frankly depicted the crisis of a loving but stagnant marriage upended by infidelity. Though it may have been the intrigue of “new era family” that piqued audience interest in The Kids Are All Right, it was the talented cast and the casually insightful writing that made the film worth seeing.

In fact, Blumberg has made a career out of clever scripts that take a familiar approach to an unfamiliar topic, such as  The Girl Next Door, the teen romance between a shy young man and his porn star neighbor.

For his directorial debut he pulled from a screenplay he co-wrote with Matt Winston. Thanks for Sharing offers a romantic dramedy about sex addiction.

The great Mark Ruffalo anchors the cast as Adam, sex addict. Adam’s been sober for 5 years, thanks in part to the salty wisdom of his sponsor, Mike (Tim Robbins), though he’s having trouble with his new court-appointed sponsee Neil (Josh Gad), who isn’t taking the program seriously.

Complications arise for all three addicts, who face temptation anew as life asks them to juggle adversity and addiction simultaneously. The film is refreshingly clear on the point that overcoming addition is harder than most movies make it out to be.

Credit Blumberg once again for his script’s candor. Every character is gifted with sharp dialogue that does more than shape the role; it articulates profound difficulty of overcoming this particular problem. This cast takes advantage.

Ruffalo finds humanity in every character, and his take on Adam’s wobbly sense of control is touching. Gwyneth Paltrow offers another strong turn, and both actors benefit as much from Blumberg’s bright dialogue as the film benefits from the duo’s easy onscreen chemistry.

Though Robbins delivers a lot of the film’s funnier lines, Gad brings schlubby humor while sparring with a charmingly vulgar Alecia Moore (taking a break from her day job as pop star “Pink”).

Unfortunately, Blumberg the director is less confident than Blumberg the writer. He’s too uncomfortable with the tension he creates, switching from one storyline to the next when things get dark and confining his characters with predictable, tidy formulas.

It may be impossible to watch a film about sex addiction without remembering Michael Fassbender’s scarring performance in 2011’s Shame. While that film wallows in the filth and self loathing, Thanks for Sharing dips a toe and quickly hoses off. For a man who’s made a career of exploiting the mundane inner workings of naughtiness, he should be more comfortable getting a little messy.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvituQpwkfI





Nothing to See Here

Now You See Me

By Hope Madden

In the fall of 2006 we saw back to back films about magicians – The Illusionist and The Prestige. I remember thinking, really? Why?

Well, with just two months separating the release of The Incredible Bomb about Burt Wonderstone from this weekend’s Now You See Me, it’s hard not to scratch your head again at Hollywood’s insistence on our interest in magic.

At least Prestige and Illusionist were half decent films.

Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson lead a group of magicians who seem to pull off a bank heist during their show, and promise more of the same. Mark Ruffalo turns into the Hulk and smashes up their hall of mirrors.

If only!

No, instead he teams with Inglorious Basterds’s Melanie Laurent – an INTERPOL agent – to prove there’s no such thing as magic and that these guys are plain old crooks.

Unless it’s all an illusion…

Cons, comeuppance, love and daddy issues crisscross with lackluster acting to keep you from wondering whether Michael Caine (who was also in The Prestige. Of course he was!) or Morgan Freeman have milkier eyes. They’re both getting quite old. Maybe they should turn down one or two of the films released in any given year. Perhaps see an ophthalmologist.

They both certainly deserve better than this undercooked mess, directed by style-over-substance maestro Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Clash of the Titans). With his characters talking incessantly about sleight of hand, you’d think Leterrier might employ that particular tactic on his own. Maybe razzle dazzle us while the con happens right under our noses.

Instead, perfectly ludicrous tricks and schemes are re-enacted without regard to plausibility. Rather than lifting the curtain to unveil anything tricky, the approach only uncovers some very lazy filmmaking.

Wasting a cast that has accumulated a combined 3 Oscars and another 4 nominations is a trick in itself, but aside from Harrelson’s natural charm, nothing about the performers impresses. Workhorses Freeman and Caine come closest to delivering something akin to acting. When push comes to shove, the usually impressive Ruffalo is badly miscast, Isla Fisher flails against hideous dialogue, and Eisenberg phones in just another turn as a hyper-intelligent dick.

And on top of it all, they play magicians.

Seriously, who gives a shit about magicians?

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNfiXZzmhjw