DARK WATERS (2019) – Somber Story of Dupont’s Negligence Revealing and Grim

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DARK WATERS (2019) starring Mark Ruffalo as an attorney who goes after the Dupont chemical company for knowingly dumping poisonous chemicals into the water supply of a West Virginia town is one somber movie.

It’s grim because one, it’s based on a true story, and two, Dupont’s negligence as described in this movie goes well beyond contaminating the water supply of one small town. With their Teflon marketing for cookware, they knowingly put the entire nation at risk and beyond. Indeed, Dupont’s callousness reached a global scale.

Enjoy your popcorn!

So, yes, DARK WATERS deals with some very heavy subject matter, and it does it in a way that is unassuming and direct. Its style reminded me a lot of another somber movie which starred Mark Ruffalo, SPOTLIGHT (2015), which chronicled the pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church in Boston. Like SPOTLIGHT, DARK WATERS simply allows its story to unfold. It doesn’t get overdramatic or fill its screen time with forced bells and whistles. Its story is damaging enough on its own.

In the mid 1990s attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just made partner at his firm which specializes in representing large companies like Dupont. So, when he is approached by a farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) asking him to represent him in a case against Dupont, Robert tells him he needs to find another attorney.  But Tennant tells Robert he’s a friend of his grandmother’s, and so, out of respect for his grandmother, he pays Tennant a visit.

Robert sees firsthand the damage done at Tennant’s farm. Nearly all his cattle have died, and Tennant wants Dupont investigated because he believes they have been spilling chemicals into his land via a neighboring landfill. Robert agrees to take the case, and as he explains it to his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) he believes it will just be a matter of opening Dupont’s eyes to a mistake made by some of their local workers. They’ll fix the mistake, and that will be the end of that.

Hardly.

What Robert uncovers is that Dupont knew exactly what they were doing, and that their disregard for the dangers uncovered by their own research went back decades. Of course, once he discovers this, he is met by fierce resistance both by Dupont and his own firm who see it as bad business to take on a giant like Dupont. But Robert is undeterred, and he continues to wage his battle against the chemical giant, even as it takes its toll on his family and his own health.

I really liked DARK WATERS, even though watching it was certainly not a pleasurable experience. Quite the contrary, it was as disturbing a cinematic experience as I’ve had in a while. The ramifications of its story reach deep into the heart of its audience as it sheds light on an issue that is still with us today. In short, the “forever chemicals” carelessly dumped into the environment by Dupont are already in all of our bloodstreams. Forever chemicals are those which the human body cannot break down. The damage is already done.

Director Todd Haynes, as I said, does not get in the way of this story, nor does he try to sensationalize it. Even though Dupont is viewed as an “evil company,” the focus throughout remains on main character Robert Bilott and the toll the case takes on him. The emphasis is on the human element, how these chemicals harmed the folks in that West Virginia town, and beyond.

Haynes heightens the direness of the story by filming it in dreary drab grays. The countryside is depicted under cloudy skies. The sun is hardly seen. There’s a cloud hanging over West Virginia, and its name is Dupont.

Likewise, the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, based on a magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, is simple and to the point. And while it doesn’t go out of its way to overemphasize things, it does enjoy some rousing moments, like Tim Robbins’ speech as Tom Terp, where he’s listening to his fellow attorneys at the firm cautioning against taking on Dupont, and then he explodes in anger, saying what Robert has uncovered is a travesty, and that the folks at Dupont need to be called out for their recklessness, that American business is better than that, and that how everyone at that table should be chomping at the bit to take on Dupont.

Mark Ruffalo is excellent at Robert Bilott. He delivers a powerful performance and he does it in a way which goes against what you might expect. He doesn’t deliver fiery emotional speeches or become more energized the deeper he gets into his investigation. No, it’s the opposite. The investigation nearly kills him. Instead of rousing speeches, he speaks less and less, as if the horrors of his findings are overwhelming him into silence. He grows more and more unhealthy, and Ruffalo does a remarkable job capturing the descent that Robert takes, all the while never backing down..

Anne Hathaway spends the first half of the movie in the thankless role of the stay-at-home housewife, but she turns it on during the film’s second half. Whereas Robert is beaten down, Hathway’s Sarah Bilott steps up for her husband, and she enjoys one of the movie’s better moments as she gives Tim Robbins’ Tom Terp a piece of her mind.

Tim Robbins is very good as Tom Terp, the attorney who sincerely wants to support Robert, and says as much several times during the movie, but as the senior partner at the firm, he has to look out for its best interests, which puts him at odds with Robert the longer this case drags on, and it does drag on. In fact, the end of the movie states that Robert Bilott continues his fight even today.

Bill Pullman shows up for a couple of brief scenes as the lively attorney Harry Dietzler, and he enjoys some fine moments helping Robert take on Dupont’s attorneys. And Victor Garber is sufficiently icy as Dupont head Phil Donnelly.

But my favorite performance in the film belongs to Bill Camp. His portrayal of farmer Wilbur Tennant is as authentic as you can get. Plus the character is integral to the story. He’s the man who first contacted Robert, and he’s also the man who speaks the truth throughout. It takes Robert a while to catch on to this, but when he does, he becomes all the more dedicated to helping Camp and his family, who like his animals, have also been diagnosed with cancer.

DARK WATERS is not a fun movie, and it’s not supposed to be. It tells a story that should be viewed and considered by as many people as possible.  And it serves as a reminder of what happens when large companies are allowed to operate unchecked, and more importantly, what can happen when even one dedicated person decides enough is enough and it’s time to fight back.

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FORD v FERRARI (2019) -Thrilling Race Car Sequences Makes This One a Winner

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FORD v FERRARI (2019) is a fun movie to see in IMAX.

With its thrilling race scenes and camera angles that are low to the ground which put you in the driver’s seat, FORD v FERRARI watched in IMAX is a special treat. The thunderous roar of the engines literally shakes your insides, and the larger screen makes sure you don’t miss a single turn. It’s one very exciting movie experience.

FORD v FERRARI is based on the true story of how car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) were recruited by Ford Motor Company to build and race a car that could beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966.

With sales slipping, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) challenges his corporate team to start thinking outside the box to shake things up. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests they need a younger sportier image and that they could learn a thing or two from the ultra popular Ferrari. When Iacocca reveals that Ferrari is bankrupt, Ford offers a merger deal in which the two companies would work together, but Ferrari rejects the offer, instead inking a deal with Fiat. Insulted, Henry Ford II sets his sights on building a race car that will defeat Ferrari, and he says money is no object.

As a result, Iacocca turns to former race car driver and current car designer Carroll Shelby, who against his better judgment agrees to work for Ford. He handpicks Ken Miles as his driver, a decision that irks Ford Corporate, because Miles is viewed as a loose cannon and someone who does not live up to Ford’s conservative image. Complicating matters is Ford’s Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) cannot stand Miles and does everything in his power to remove him from the team, but Shelby is undeterred and fights for his driver all the way to racing day.

As I said, FORD v FERRARI in IMAX was a lot of fun since the larger screen and louder sound really heightened the race car effects.  And yes, the race scenes are definitely one of the reasons to see this one. They’re done really well, as director James Mangold keeps the camera in tight and captures the essence of race car driving from inside the front seat of the car.

I like Mangold as a director, as he’s directed a bunch of movies I’ve really enjoyed over the years, including LOGAN (2017). the superior R-rated Wolverine conclusion starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, the western 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) which starred Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, and way back when COP LAND (1997), which features one of Sylvester Stallone’s better acting performances.

The other reason to see FORD v FERRARI is its two leads, two actors I enjoy a lot, Matt Damon and Christian Bale.

Damon is well-cast as Carroll Shelby, the man who not only uses his talents to build the car that beats Ferrari, but also to keep his team together which is under constant attack by Ford Corporate. This one is called FORD v FERRARI but it could easily have been called FORD v CARROLL SHELBY since more often than not he’s fighting the very company that hired him to get the job done. This is probably Damon’s most satisfying role since THE MARTIAN (2015).

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor who impresses in nearly every movie he makes. Last time we saw Bale he was unrecognizable as Vice President Dick Cheney in VICE (2018), in a role that required him to gain a considerable amount of weight. Here, he had to lose weight again to play the lean and mean race car driver Ken Miles, and as you would expect, Bale is superb in the role. He easily delivers the best performance in the movie.

Jon Bernthal, another of my favorite actors, does a nice job as Lee Iacocca, and he more than holds his own alongside Damon and Bale. Even though Bernthal is known for his TV work, on shows like THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2018), he has a lot of film credits as well in some pretty impressive supporting roles, in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017) and WIND RIVER (2017). Incidentally, the real Lee Iacocca just passed away earlier this year.

Josh Lucas is also very good as the very annoying Leo Beebe, while Ray McKinnon is effective as lead mechanic Phil Remington. Rounding out the cast is young Noah Jupe who plays Ken’s son Peter, and Caitriona Balfe who plays Ken’s wife Mollie. Both are very good.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, as it tells a less straightforward story than one might expect. The real “villain” here isn’t Ferrari, but Ford, the company and Henry Ford II. The only Ford member shown in a positive light is Lee Iacocca. The rest are portrayed as unimaginative bullies who Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles have to circumvent in order to win. In fact, there are times in this one where I found myself rooting for Ferrari.

FORD v FERRARI is not an incredible or astounding movie, as its story simply isn’t thought-provoking or emotional enough to reach that level, but it does feature top-notch car racing scenes and two actors, Matt Damon and Christian Bale, performing at the top of their games, and they’re supported by a talented cast of actors.

The result is a thrilling movie experience that’s the closest thing to being behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans short of actually being there.

Start your engines!

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THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

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ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

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ROCKETMAN (2019) Rocks

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The best part about ROCKETMAN (2019) is that its magical flamboyant style captures the essence of its subject, Elton John, all the while telling a story that is anything but.

The real Elton John is on record as telling the film’s producers who were pushing for a PG-13 rated movie that he hadn’t lived a PG-13 life. The film is rated R and is better for it. This is a no holds barred look at one of rock and roll’s most eccentric performers.

Nearly everything about this movie works.

ROCKETMAN is the life story of Elton John (Taron Egerton). Starting with his troubled childhood where as a young boy named Reginald Dwight he had to deal with parents who didn’t show him affection and worse, abused him emotionally. In spite of them, he becomes a young piano prodigy, and as he grows older he becomes a fan of rock and roll. He also realizes that he is gay.

He develops a strong friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), which is a good thing, because Reggie’s strength is music, not words. His collaboration with Bernie is extremely successful, and once he chooses his stage name, Elton John, there’s no looking back.

The two sign a record deal and travel to the United States for an inaugural tour that instantly catapults John to superstardom. He never looks back. But fame has its price, and drug use, friends’ betrayals, and a family that never is interested in loving or supporting him, take their toll on John until he has a major collapse. But life goes on, true friends like Bernie Taupin never abandon him, and he’s able in 1983 to record another hit “I’m Still Standin” which is symbolic of his victory over the pitfalls of fame.

I loved ROCKETMAN.

Director Dexter Fletcher pushes all the right buttons. The film captures so much of the pain of John’s life and shows how he managed to succeed in spite of these obstacles. There are some truly cinematic scenes in this one. Probably the best sequence in the film is the concert at the Troubadour club in LA. Not only does the scene recreate what John accomplished on that day, on August 25, 1970, but it’s also the moment the film explodes with life. You could feel the theater audience mirroring the emotion of the concert audience in the movie.

There’s also a shot of the neighborhood surrounding the Troubadour that stood out because it looked so authentic, and it turns out that it was. Fletcher took stock 35 mm footage of the street and simply cleaned it up digitally. It’s only a few seconds of film, but it adds to the authenticity of the movie.

I loved the style of the film, which is pretty much a musical fantasy intertwined with a hard-hitting bio pic, which captures the essence of Elton John perfectly.

The acting is phenomenal. Taron Egerton, who before ROCKETMAN was known for THE KINGSMAN movies, EDDIE THE EAGLE (2015) and for his voice work in SING (2016), knocks it out of the park as Elton John. He completely loses himself in the role and becomes the rock and roll icon. It’s the best work I’ve seen Egerton do yet. Considering the big names that were originally associated with this project, actors like Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, and Daniel Radcliffe, I can’t imagine anyone else doing as good a job as Egerton does here. And, he does all his own singing! It’s an exceptional performance.

Jamie Bell is also very good as John’s best friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin. In a world full of insincere people, Taupin’s sincerity sticks out and is welcomed throughout. Bell plays Bernie as a man who loved John very much, but who was friend enough to tell the singer that he didn’t love him in “that way.” I’ve seen Bell in other movies, such as his role as the Thing in FANTASTIC FOUR (2015), and he was also in the exceptional actioner SNOWPIERCER (2013), but like Egerton, this is the best performance I’ve seen Bell deliver.

Likewise, Richard Madden delivers a strong performance as John’s promoter and love interest John Reid, who is pretty much symbolic of all that goes wrong with John’s life in L.A.

And Bryce Dallas Howard is cold and endlessly annoying as John’s mother, as is Steven Mackintosh as his even colder and distant father. Their scenes with their son are among the most emotionally charged in the film, especially the one where John after he has become famous visits his dad and has to suffer through watching the man pour on the love to John’s younger stepbrothers while continually dissing John’s career, showing no interest in it whatsoever. When he asks John to sign one of his albums, he points out that it shouldn’t be made out to him, but to one of his friends, forcing John to cross out “To Dad” and instead write the friend’s name. Mackintosh was similarly annoying on the show LUTHER (2010) where he played DCI Ian Reed and became a real thorn in the side of Idris Elba’s main character Luther in that superior TV series.

I also loved the screenplay by Lee Hall. Not only does it tell Elton John’s life story in a truly satisfying way, it’s also chock full of memorable lines of dialogue. One of my favorite lines in the film is when a fellow rocker gives John this advice, “You’ve got to kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you were born to be.” Which is in many cases true.

Likewise, when John says, “Real love is hard to come by. So you find a way to cope without it,” also smacks of truth.

And there are many more.

And of course the film benefits from the music of Elton John, as his songs pepper the story throughout, with so many of the lyrics capturing pivotal points in John’s life.

About the only drawback I had with ROCKETMAN is I thought at times it pulled back from moments it should have stayed on. Things happen, often emotional and upsetting things, and then it would be on to the next item, rather than lingering on the trauma felt by the iconic rocker.

But other than that, I loved ROCKETMAN. With so many things going for it, and led by a superior performance by Taron Egerton, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

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TOLKIEN (2019) – Unimaginative Look At Imaginative Author Tolkien

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tolkien

For a bio pic about imaginative author J.R.R. Tolkien, TOLKIEN (2019) isn’t all that imaginative.

In fact, it’s slow moving and often dull, but it sure looks good!

Director Dome Karukoski, who hails from Finland, has made a handsome elegant production that hearkens back to the Merchant-Ivory classics of yesteryear, at least in appearance anyway. It’s well-acted by its principal leads, but its script lacks the necessary emotion and imagination to carry its audience through to the end. In short, its 112 minute running time seemed much longer.

TOLKIEN tells the story of author J.R.R. Tolkien, known of course for the epic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it does this by focusing on three phases of his life: his childhood, his time at school where he developed close friendships with a small group of students, and on the battlefields of World War I. While the film intercuts between all three of these periods, the bulk of the movie is spent on Tolkien’s time at school.

It’s at school where Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) meets his three closest friends, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle), and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). The group becomes friends as youths where they declare they will change the world through art, and they stay together as they move on to Oxford where they continue to develop their “fellowship,” a word and feeling that will linger in Tolkien’s mind and heart long after he has finished school.

At home, Tolkien becomes friends with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) who plays piano for their adoptive benefactor. The two become very close and eventually fall in love.

With the start of World War I, Tolkien finds himself on the battlefield, a brutal and unforgiving place that changes his life forever.

I guess.

That’s the thing about TOLKIEN. Its story never really resonates. Part of it is it’s not that captivating a story in the first place. Sure, Tolkien suffered on the battlefields of World War I, and friends were lost, but it wasn’t for these reasons alone that he wrote The Lord of the Rings.

The film hints that this is the case but never really hammers the point home. I mean, there are times on the battlefield where Tolkien hallucinates about dragons and other mythical creatures, but these images are shown fleetingly, and the connections to his later literary work are only implied.

I had a funny reaction watching TOLKIEN. I liked the main characters and enjoyed watching them, but the conversations and situations were so subtle, lifeless, and dull, that in spite of this I was rather bored throughout. It was akin to spending time with people you like but man, was the conversation flat.

Which is ironic since Tolkien was all about words, and here, the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford is superficial at best. It tells its story but without energy, imagination, or inspiration. And as I said, it’s also not much of a story. Tolkien was an orphan, yes, but the film paints a picture of a decent childhood, and he and his friends at school enjoyed quality times together. There didn’t seem to be much adversity.

The World War I scenes make their point regarding the brutality of trench warfare, but it’s all rather sanitized and doesn’t provide the necessary impact to show that such horrific warfare scarred or shaped Tolkien in any major way.

The love story between Tolkien and Edith Bratt is a good one, but again, there wasn’t a lot of adversity to overcome.

I did enjoy the acting, though. A lot.

Nicholas Hoult, who’s been playing Beast in the recent X-MEN reboots, and he’s been doing an excellent job in the role, is superb in the lead here as J.R.R. Tolkien. In spite of the script limitations, he captures Tolkien’s love of words and the arts, and he makes the author a likable person. He embodies Tolkien’s love of learning and quirky intellect, and at times Holt channels a Benedict Cumberbatch vibe with this performance.

Hoult’s performance was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Hoult was also memorable in last year’s THE FAVOURITE (2018).

Lily Collins was also excellent as Edith Bratt. In fact, Collins, who’s the daughter of singer Phil Collins, was probably my favorite part of TOLKIEN. In the film, Edith Bratt is portrayed as probably the person who influenced Tolkien the most. She’s a strong and articulate presence, and Collins does an outstanding job bringing these qualities to life and also being adorable as well. It’s easy to see by Collins’ performance why Tolkien fell in love with her.

For a movie that was strangely devoid of emotion, Edith Bratt was one of the few characters whose scenes were frequently moving, and Lily Collins’ performance was directly responsible.

Strong emotions were few and far between in TOLKIEN. One of the more powerful scenes in the movie comes near the end, when Tolkien sits down with the mother of one of his slain friends, and she admits she never really knew her son. The way Tolkien explains her son to her is one of the more emotionally charged sequences in the movie.

It was fun to see Colm Meaney in the movie in a key supporting role as Father Francis, a priest who Tolkien’s mother left in charge of her sons’ welfare. Meaney of course played Chief Miles O’Brien on both STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999).

And Derek Jacobi shows up briefly as language Professor Wright.

There also just wasn’t a whole lot of connections between Tolkien’s life story as told here in this movie and his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Sure, things are hinted at, and connections are made peripherally, but you have to connect the dots, which isn’t a bad thing, but what is bad is there simply aren’t a lot of dots to connect.

I enjoyed TOLKIEN well enough because I liked the performances and the look of the film, but for a story about J.R.R. Tolkien, it was all rather lackluster and subdued, and not at all an imaginative take on its very imaginative subject.

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THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) – Racial Drama Has the Best Intentions

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best of enemies

THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019) has its heart in the right place.

Its tale, based on the true story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater taking on KKK leader C.P. Ellis in Durham, North Carolina in 1971 over the issue of school integration, in which Atwater succeeded in converting Ellis to shed his KKK beliefs and see things her way, is a good one.

And its message of bringing two opposing sides together to hear each other out and learn from each other is an important one for the times in which we now live. For this reason alone, it’s worth a look, even if it’s not successful in everything it sets out to do.

It’s 1971, and Durham, NC is dealing with racism. The black community struggles to have a voice, as local officials are heavily tied to the KKK, who continue to promote racist attitudes and policies. When the issue of school integration arises, the Durham legislature calls in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to mediate the two sides, and when he calls for Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) to be co-chairs, it’s seen as a crazy move. Neither leader is interested, and Ellis can’t understand why he’s even being asked, but the local officials encourage him to take part, because they fear if he’s not there, then his spot will be filled with liberal voice, so he might as well be there to stop school integration from happening.

As the process continues, and Ann and C.P. eventually engage in a dialogue, each begins to see things from the other’s perspectives, and eventually C.P. changes his mind about the way he views black people.

This story might seem too farfetched if it were not based on a true story.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES has the best intentions. It shows both sides almost to a fault. I was uncomfortable watching parts of this movie which spent much time on a KKK leader, often showing how much the Klan meant to this man. The idea of anything positive associated with the KKK I find repulsive, yet this film gets into how it made a positive impact on C.P. Ellis’ life. Of course, C.P. eventually experiences a conversion, which wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the opportunity to listen to the other side, which is the point—- and it’s a valuable one— that this film is making. For divisions to be overcome, both sides need to come to the table and need to be able to listen to each other.

Sam Rockwell does a fine job as C.P. Ellis, although I enjoyed his performance as George W. Bush in VICE (2018) more. Here, Rockwell plays Ellis as a man who was drawn to the Klan for a sense of belonging. He needed a place to fit in, and it didn’t hurt that he shared their same views of white purity and supremacy. As he listens to Ann Atwater, he is struck by some of the true things she says, like when she points out that he’s as poor as the black folks in town and economically speaking he has more in common with them than with the white lawmakers. And later when she helps his son who has Down’s syndrome, it strikes a chord deep within him.

Rockwell successfully captures this conversion, spending a lot of time looking confused and introspective, and as his eyes become open to the other side, he brings the audience in with him and allows them to know just what it is he his thinking and feeling.

Working against Rockwell here is he played a similar role in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). In THREE BILLBOARDS, Rockwell played a racist cop who also undergoes a type of conversion, although not as clear-cut as the one C.P. Ellis experiences. Of course, Rockwell won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in THREE BILLBOARDS, which is a better movie than THE BEST OF ENEMIES since it had a livelier script and did a better job covering its controversial issues with nuance and gray areas, whereas THE BEST OF ENEMIES plays as more conventional straight-forward drama.

So, as I watched Rockwell here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES, I was reminded often of his work in THREE BILLBOARDS.

Taraji P. Henson is excellent as Ann Atwater, and for my money she gives the best performance in the film. She loses herself in this character, and having seen Henson in other movies, like HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), watching her here in THE BEST OF ENEMIES I often forgot I was watching her and instead believed I was watching the real Ann Atwater.

Unfortunately, as the film goes on, Atwater plays second fiddle to C.P. Ellis, as he gets more screen time than she does. I get the reason, since he’s the character who undergoes the conversion, but it’s a decision that’s not completely successful. For one, it keeps Henson off-screen, which is not a good thing, and two, it presents yet another story where the white guy is responsible for saving the blacks. That being said, the story told here remains a worthwhile one, but it’s a pattern in movies which is noticeable, and it’s not refreshing, and so it works against the movie.

Babou Ceesay is agreeable as mediator Bill Riddick, and Anne Heche, who I haven’t seen in a movie in ages, plays C.P.’s wife Mary, and she’s very good.

John Gallagher Jr., an actor who has impressed me in a variety of roles in such films as 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) and THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016), has a small but important role here as Lee Trombley, a hardware store owner who is sympathetic to black people, and who represents one of the swing votes at the table.

Writer/director Robin Bissell lets the story of C.P. Ellis’ conversion speak for itself. The production, pace, and tone of the film are all rather subdued. There are very few radical moments, places where the film has an edge and makes its audience uncomfortable. We barely see the true ugliness of racism.

The emphasis here is on seeing C.P. Ellis as a real person, and understanding his background and motivation. He is portrayed as a sympathetic character, which for me, for most of this film, was in itself disturbing. Why am I watching a positive interpretation of a KKK leader? And of course, the answer is so we can understand how and why he changes.

The sanitization of the issues does not work to the film’s advantage, however, and at times, especially towards the end, the film lacks oomph when it should have been pulling at its audience’s heartstrings with its story of racial division and conversion.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES means well and ultimately has a positive message and rewarding story to tell, and that is, if people from opposite view points sit down at the same table and listen to each other, good things happen.

It’s a message that needs to be heard, and THE BEST OF ENEMIES at the very least has no problem sharing it.

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