A legal drama about the biggest corruption scandal you’ve never heard of, Dark Waters tells the story of lawyer Robert Bilott’s twenty year long fight to expose chemical manufacturer DuPont’s decades of knowing and unapologetic poisoning of a town, a country, and the entire world. Visited by a West Virginian farmer named Wilbur Tennant, whose livestock and falling prey to unusual medical conditions and dying, Bilott – a corporate lawyer who works to help chemical companies pollute within the law – files a lawsuit, and slowly begins to uncover the company’s secrets.
For José, it’s a film that fits neatly amongst director Todd Haynes’ previous work, which often focuses on power relations and the struggles of the oppressed, sidelined or disenfranchised. For Mike, it might be a new Spotlight, another film about the exposure of vast, historical, institutional wrongdoing. But don’t believe the trailer that makes it look all blood and thunder – Dark Waters, though compelling and dramatic, is a slow burner, methodical and careful, and with a scope that looks beyond the details of the law. The town of Parkersburg, WV is shown in portrait, with shots evocative of Depression-era photography, and Bilott is an interesting character, a man who appears uncomfortable within his own body, whose determination to uncover the truth grows alongside his paranoia that something bad will happen to him, and whose relationship with his wife is a constant that is reframed intriguingly in the film’s final movement.
Dark Waters is a fascinating, intelligent, complex thriller that gives its themes room to express themselves and is full of details and moments that speak to entire inner lives and ways of thinking. Make sure you see it.
(Mike would also like to apologise to Bucky Bailey, one of DuPont’s most unfortunate victims and perhaps the film’s central emotional tentpole, for referring to him as Bucky Barnes, who is the guy from the Avengers films who sports a prosthetic arm and does nothing interesting.)
A big one. The Marvel Cinematic Universe closes a chapter – kind of – with Endgame, a three-hour behemoth that concludes stories that have been told over 21 films in 11 years. It’s elegiac, both of its characters’ fates following the end of Infinity War, and of itself, offering a good deal of fan service to its vast, devoted audience, some members of which have grown up knowing nothing other than the MCU as the dominant mode of cinema. We take our time to discuss it in a two-part podcast.
The first part is, as usual, recorded upon our return from the cinema, the film still ringing in our ears. We saw it in a packed screening, the room filled with excited fans from whom the film elicited exactly the vocal and rich emotional responses that bring such occasions to life. Though three hours is a demanding duration by anyone’s standards, and could certainly be seen to speak to a certain self-importance, the film makes very good use of its time, particularly in the opening hour, in which we are given copious time to understand the ways in which the world has changed following Thanos’ fatal snap, and the remaining Avengers’ responses to it all. We discuss whether the Russo brothers, the film’s directors, offer much by way of creative visuals – to Mike, the film’s visual core is simply about scale, while José remarks that some of the compositions appealingly evoke comic book panels. Mike brings up the way the MCU overall has to some degree always been about competition between Iron Man and Captain America, and how Endgame concludes that both in the story and metatextually, giving Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans respectively their own emotional moments.
The second half, recorded three days later, largely builds on a roundtable article in the New York Times, in which five of their pop culture writers discuss both Endgame itself and the MCU’s impact on cinema culture over the last decade. It brings up a number of interesting subjects, particularly those that consider the MCU as a cinematic phenomenon rather than the specific content of the stories themselves.
So. It’s a big film and a big podcast to go with it. We found it worthwhile to take our time to think over some of the cultural issues the MCU raises, and as for arguing about this character or that scene, well, sometimes it’s fun to indulge.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Now You See Me: The Second Act (John M. Chu, 2016)
I rather liked Now You See Me; and I love caper films, magic, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Morgan Freeman. But all of that together didn’t add up to liking Now You See Me: The Second Act. Daniel Radcliffe is a very unsatisfactory villain; that he’s often paired with Michael Caine in the frame invites comparison and only highlights his shortcomings: one can see that Radcliffe is giving a performance that’s been thought through but Caine still squeezes more out of one tired look or the way he says ‘bastard’ than Radcliffe does from his whole frantic performance. Moreover, the camera woozes about all over the place. And the cons have to be painstakingly explained as an addendum at the finale. It wasn’t painful to watch. And there was a moment where one of the wonderful card-trick set-pieces was revealed, where the guy behind me said ‘Ooohh that’s so sexy’. But it could have been so much better. The inclusion of Chinese elements (language, location, casting) as a way of catering specifically for that market I have mixed feelings about: it could be enrichingly multicultural or it could seem a cheap commercial gimmick. Here it feels the latter. Too bad.
The Legend of Tarzan (David Yates, 2016)
Will anyone care that The Legend of Tarzan is terrible?: Christoph Waltz is the villain and Alexander Skarsgard swings half-naked from trees on IMAX. The filmmakers have tried really hard to resolve issues of racial representation. It’s everywhere evident. But they’ve failed, again; and it might just be that they are insurmountable if one takes Edgar Rice Burrough’s world as a given. This is all a fight against the King of the Belgians enslaving the peoples of the Congo; so its got a historical basis which neatly creates a villain whilst leaving a history, not to mention an analysis, of British colonialism untouched and neatly off the hook: the racial politics are, at best, contorted. Margot Robbie is acceptable but doesn’t shine. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz is Waltz. Djimon Hounsou looks and acts better than both. But Hounsou’s performance and Alexander Skasgård swinging half-naked from a tree do not compensate: the film is terrible.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (Mandie Fletcher, 2016)
I loved Ab Fab the movie. It’s trashy, inconsequential, uneven but with great jokes and many real laugh-out-loud moments. Like the show, but with everyone looking 20 years older and the film making that it’s central issue. When discussing the film with friends, I was surprised that so many of them took issue with Jennifer Saunders. She’s shy and stiff and awkward and not a natural performer. But she makes that funny to me. This is the type of film where Joan Collins appears in multiple cameos as herself, all trying to look 25. If you can’t see the humour in that, or in the film actively responding to internet rumours that Patsy might really be Patrick, stay home. If you think Kate Moss drowning in the Thames might make front pages internationally and care about Jean-Paul Gaultier, this film is definitely for you.
Badlands (Terence Malick, 1973)
A real treat to be able to see Badlands again in a gorgeous print at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham: the landscapes, the tone, Sissy Spacek: all were better than I remembered; and Martin Sheen wasn’t as bad. I first saw it when I was a teen and then found it dull and unexciting. I have seen it since, but on a small screen, and the effect of the landscape also passed me by. It’s simply gorgeous in this print and on a big screen; it affects you viscerally in a way that it hadn’t me when seen on a TV monitor. I learned to appreciate it as I got older but didn’t really love it until now. It is definitely a serial killer road movie. Spacek not only looks the part so terrifically but she does tiny gestures, lovely, that flesh out a performance ever so beautifully and that are communicated clearly and powerfully on a big screen. I’m still uncertain about Sheen. Personally, I don’t find Spacek falling for him so quickly is credible: his tightly worked-out but pinched and slightly contorted body, his lack of height, which no careful staging can conceal; his age. Why he falls for her is clear; the reverse isn’t quite. I took it as a conceit of the film; something one simply decides to accept. Sheen is interesting because everything he does is good but I can imagine other people being more effective in that part (for some reason Jan-Michael Vincent, then a hot up-and-coming star but not nearly as good an actor, is the first to come to mind as better casting; someone with a real sexual threat that doesn’t need unexpectedly shooting people to convey it); a fascinating oral history of the film in GQmentions that Don Johnson and Robert De Niro were also mooted for the part. All then had the sexual threat and the charisma that Sheen lacks here. On the other hand, this is all speculative. Sheen is a wonderful actor and is better than good here. And really, it’s all quibbling. Badlands is a work of poetry and a truly great movie.
Based on the famed ‘Zodiac Killer’ who operated in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and whose murders remain unresolved, David Fincher’s film has fantastic set design, marvelous mise-en-scène and complex story-telling. Gyllenhall is adequate as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist who begins to detect a pattern to the killings. Where the film really breaks down is with Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime reporter who Graysmith enlists in his quest to solve the murders. Downey Jr. is becoming the ‘Greer Garson Of Our Day’: everything he does is meant to incite a round of applause, he can’t seem to get over the cuteness of each of his actions, and there’s an implicit gracious bow to each part of his performance, like a toreador after each pass of the cape; all extraordinarily grande-dame-ish and irritating. In spite of Mark Ruffalo, fascinating as always, the casting rather sinks what is otherwise a fantastic movie: gorgeous to look at, marvelously plotted, rather dankly elegant, and with a searing visual intelligence. A film that sadly and ultimately remains unsatisfying but which every film buff should see.