SERGIO (2020) – Moving Bio-Pic of U.N. Diplomat Sergio de Mello Speaks to the Value of Diplomacy

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Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in SERGIO (2020).

SERGIO (2020), a Netflix original movie, tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian born United Nations diplomat who at the height of his career went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to monitor elections, an effort that unfortunately met with tragic results.

SERGIO stars Wagner Moura in the lead role as Sergio de Mello. Moura, who starred in the Netflix series NARCOS (2015-2017) as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a charismatic actor who was outstanding as Escobar. He’s similarly effective here as Sergio de Mello. He carries this movie, and his performance is one of the main reasons to see it. He plays De Mello as a career diplomat who was very good at what he did, brokering peace deals between hostile parties, and who puts his career above all else, even at the expense of missing valuable time with his two sons.

Directed by Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries, SERGIO doesn’t tell its story in linear fashion. It jumps back and forth through time, showing different key points of de Mello’s life and career. It’s a style that ultimately works, even as the pacing sometimes lags.

When de Mello brings his team into Iraq, he is met with resistance by the United States, especially from U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) who warns Sergio not to stray from U.S wishes, that he’s there to support the positions of the United States. Of course, de Mello disagrees, arguing that the United Nations is an independent organization and as such is not beholden to any one country.

When a massive bomb strikes the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, de Mello finds himself trapped underneath all the rubble, and it’s here where most of the story unfolds, as he thinks back to events which brought him to this moment in time. A big part of his story is his romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film chronicles how they met and shows how they eventually end up working together for the U.N., and she is there that day at the U.N. headquarters when the bomb goes off.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura share a wonderful chemistry together. Even though SERGIO is intended as an historical drama, really, its love story is one of the best parts of the movie. De Armas and Moura electrify the screen when they’re together, and their love story only adds to the sadness of the tragedy in Iraq.

Ana de Armas is a really good actress who has appeared in such movies as KNIVES OUT (2019), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and HANDS OF STONE (2016). She’s also slated to star in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020). For me, up until now, de Armas’ most prominent role was as the holographic Joi in BLADE RUNNER 2049, but I think she’s even better here in SERGIO.

Brian F. O’Byrne adds fine support as Sergio’s friend and right hand man Gil Loescher, who also is trapped with Sergio under the rubble of the bombed building. And Bradley Whitford in a small role is sufficiently annoying as U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer who comes off as the bully on the block, in effect saying do what the U.S. wants or else. His most telling line is when he tells Sergio “welcome to the big leagues” implying that Sergio is out of his league in Iraq and only the U.S. knows how to handle such a difficult situation.

Craig Borten wrote the screenplay, based on the book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save The World by Samantha Power, and for the most part it does a really good job of fleshing out Sergio’s story.  After you have watched this movie, you will have an understanding and an appreciation of who Sergio de Mello was and what he meant to the world. The film also touches upon what the absence of de Mello has meant to the world since that time. Borten also co-wrote the screenplay to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), a script which earned him an Oscar nomination.

The major drawback of SERGIO is at times with its talky scenes it plays much more like a television show than a movie. It doesn’t really have a cinematic feel to it, and while it is a Netflix original, it was intended to play at the theaters as well, plans which were changed because of COVID-19.  Last week I reviewed the Netflix original movie EXTRACTION (2020), and that film definitely had a cinematic feel which would have been right at home on the big screen. I can’t say the same for SERGIO.

And at times the pacing slows down somewhat.  But these are minor issues. Overall, SERGIO is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

It enjoys some really powerful emotional moments. One of the best is when Sergio talks to a woman in Timor in a private meeting. It’s such an authentic yet quiet moment. It is one of the most moving sequencs in the film. The scenes in Iraq also work, recalling that chaotic volatile time. And all the scenes between Moura and Ana de Armas are lively and romantic, and really lift the story to a type of love story that I wasn’t expecting. Their scenes together are all exceptional.

SERGIO is a moving drama that tells the important story of Sergio de Mello, a story that is even more relevant today as the world continues to shift away from the value of diplomacy. Sergio’s life and sacrifice is a testament to the power of what one can achieve through diplomacy, and sadly to what happens when those efforts are stamped out by acts of violence.

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LOST GIRLS (2020) – Story of Serial Killer Victims Not As Powerful As Book On Which It Is Based

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Amy Ryan and Thomasin McKenzie in LOST GIRLS (2020).

LOST GIRLS (2020) is a Netflix-original movie based on the nonfiction book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, which chronicled the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer. I read this book when it first came out, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read this past decade.

Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery is a meticulously researched and compelling read that tells the story of the victims and their families, a fascinating narrative made more so by the fact that the killer remains at large.

Now comes the movie LOST GIRLS, and since I had been so impressed with the book, I was eager to see this one.

In LOST GIRLS (2020) it’s 2010, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mom who works two jobs to support her two daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) a senior in high school who is hoping to be able to afford community college, and Sarra (Oona Lawrence) who’s in middle school and struggling with mental health issues. When Mari’s oldest daughter Shannan, who doesn’t live with them but does send money to them regularly, fails to show up for a promised dinner date with the family, Mari shrugs it off, but when Shannan’s boyfriend calls Sherre, something he has never done before, looking for her, and when she doesn’t respond to her messages on her phone, Mari begins to worry.

Getting no help from the police, Mari investigates on her own and learns the shocking truth that Shannan worked as a prostitute and was last seen in Oak Beach, New York, a private community on Long Island. She also learns some very disturbing facts, like her daughter made a 911 call screaming for help, and the police didn’t arrive on the scene until nearly an hour later. Shannan reportedly ran screaming down the streets of Oak Beach, and no one claimed to have seen or heard anything. Also, the security camera footage on those very streets from that night was erased, a camera controlled by the man who would later become a person of interest.

Mari makes her presence known to the local police and eventually is able to engage in face to face dialogue with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) who pleads with her to remain patient, but she has no intention of doing so. Eventually, the remains of several bodies are found in the woods around Oak Beach, and it’s determined that a serial killer has been at work.

The victims’ families get together and form a support group and eventually hold a vigil on the streets of Oak Beach, all in an effort to memorialize their daughters’ lives. Mari makes the point that she wants them remembered as daughters, sisters, and women, not as prostitutes.

While the police do step up their investigation, Mari is there every step of the way, prodding them, and pointing out their shortcomings, like calling them out for refusing to search the densely wooded swamp area behind the main suspect’s house.

I wish I could say LOST GIRLS the movie was as hard-hitting and as moving as the book, but it’s not. It makes its points, but it does so briefly and without much depth. The film is short, clocking in at 95 minutes, and as such never really gives the subject its due.

I was able to fill in the blanks because I had read the book, but I wonder if folks who haven’t read the book would be able to do the same. The book was exhaustively researched. The reader really felt the scope and magnitude of what these families were going through, what it must have felt like to have daughters murdered and the police doing little about it. The book also chronicled in detail the police investigation and the problems it faced, mostly due to ineptitude. The movie focuses more on Mari and her one on one meetings with Commissioner Dormer. The scope just isn’t the same.

The book was haunting. For the longest time afterwards, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The movie is much more superficial. It has its moments, but there are far too few of them.

Amy Ryan is excellent as Mari Gilbert. She gives a powerful performance, and as we learn that Mari is driven by the guilt of her past, how she couldn’t handle Shannan as a child and gave her up to a foster family, Ryan shows us the scars of the character and how she uses them to find the strength to be the mother she wanted to be when her daughter was still alive. When Dormer says that Shannan’s fate is not on her, she replies tellingly “I’m her mother. It’s all on me.” It’s one of the film’s more powerful moments. I wish there had been more of these.

This is one of Ryan’s strongest performances to date, adding to the quality work she has already done in such films as THE INFILTRATOR (2016) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015).

Thomasin McKenzie is one of my favorite young actresses working today, as she has delivered some powerhouse performances in films like JOJO RABBIT (2019) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Her role here as middle daughter Sherre is much more limited than her roles in the aforementioned movies, and as such she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie, which is too bad, because she’s a great talent.

Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the tired and weary Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. While he wishes Mari would just go away, he never really tells her to do so, and in the movie anyway, seems sympathetic to her requests. We also learn immediately what kind of predicament he’s in, because at the outset, we are privy to a phone conversation in which he’s told point-blank that if he doesn’t downplay the serial killer angle he will lose his job.

I enjoyed Lola Kirke’s performance as Kim, a sister to one of the victims and a fellow prostitute. Her conversations with Mari are some of the better ones in the movie, and you almost get the sense that Mari feels like she’s talking to Shannan when she’s giving advice to Kim.

Dean Winters plays a smug and uncaring police detective and sort of stands in as the face of police incompetence here. And Reed Birney does a wonderfully creepy job as the outwardly “oh so helpful” Dr. Peter Hackett who for a long time was a major person of interest and suspect in the case. The scene where he puts his hands on Mari’s shoulders will give you chills. We just saw Birney in THE HUNT (2020), and he’s been in a ton of movies and TV shows.

The screenplay by Michael Werwie based on Robert Kolker’s book is not really a strength of this movie. It tells the story it has to tell, in that it gets in and gets out without any fluff, but it also doesn’t dig deep. It’s all very superficial, and without having read the book, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another serial killer story, albeit one based on true events. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of the victims and their families, and while the movie goes through the motions to say as much, there are few moments where it really tugs at your heart and makes you feel their plight and pain.

In the book these families go through hell. In the movie, scenes cut away and finish long before they should. Sharper dialogue would have gone a long way towards bringing these families’ stories to life.

Liz Garbus directed LOST GIRLS, and the result is an efficient production, and it’s all competently handled. I didn’t, however, get a strong sense of place. Oak Beach should have been a setting so disturbing I could smell the death there, but the camera never gets anywhere that close to make me feel that way.

And there simply are not a lot of heightened emotional moments here, which is surprising considering the subject matter.

Still, I recommend LOST GIRLS. It tells a disturbing story, one that needs to be told, but it does it in a way that may leave you with more questions than answers. As such, if you see this movie and feel you want to learn more, I highly recommend the book  Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Unlike the movie, the book is thoroughly comprehensive and as such is an incredibly moving and tragic read.

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RICHARD JEWELL (2019) – Clint Eastwood’s Take on Atlanta Bombing Hero-Then-Suspect A Good One

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Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, and Paul Walter Hauser in Clint Eastwood’s RICHARD JEWELL (2019).

RICHARD JEWELL (2019) has a story to tell.

A story about how a man’s life was nearly ruined by an aggressive press and FBI investigation that both got it wrong when they accused him of being a terrorist bomber, releasing the story to the national media before the facts had been ascertained, in effect convicting him before he was ever charged.

This of course is based on the true story of what actually happened to Richard Jewell, a security guard who was falsely accused of the terrorist bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

RICHARD JEWELL tells this story well, and it does this with its talented cast and with Clint Eastwood at the helm. Eastwood, who is 89 – let that sink in for a moment—, continues to amaze, making films at an age long after most people have retired. Sure, his last couple of movies were misfires, THE MULE (2018) and THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), but his three movies before that were all exceptional, SULLY (2016), AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), and JERSEY BOYS (2014). Of course, Eastwood’s entire body of work is nothing short of astonishing, as he will be remembered as both one of the screen’s finest actors and directors, and I think he’ll be remembered more for his work behind the camera than in front of it.

With RICHARD JEWELL, Eastwood has made another quality movie, well worth your time.

When we first meet Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) he’s a supply room clerk who’s rather odd and even a bit creepy in the way he lingers around people when he talks to them. He strikes up a friendship with one of the attorneys at the office, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) when he stocks his desk with Snickers bars. When Bryant asks him how he knew he liked Snickers, Jewell tells him he saw Snickers wrappers in his trash. Jewell also tells Bryant of his dreams to have a career in law enforcement.

The movie jumps ahead ten years, and Richard is working as a security guard at a local college, but because of his aggressive take on the position, he is fired. He next takes up a temporary security guard position at the Atlanta Olympics. Richard so wants to succeed in law enforcement, that he takes everything he does extremely seriously, and so while covering the Olympics, he’s always on the lookout for suspicious people and bags, and when he finds one lying on the ground, he alerts the police, and they tell him it’s probably harmless, but he insists they call for the bomb experts. They do, and it turns out he was right: the backpack contained a bomb, and before it can be defused, it goes off.

But because the evacuation had already started, the casualties were much lower than they would have been. When news breaks that Richard was the man who first found the bomb, he becomes an instant celebrity, and he’s hailed as a hero. But the FBI receives a call from Richard’s former college employer who had fired him, and he tells the FBI that based on his experience with Richard at the college, he fears Richard may be the type of person seeking attention, and it’s possible he may have planted the bomb just so he could play the hero.

The FBI agrees, feeling Richard fits the profile of someone who would go to extreme lengths to become a hero, and they quickly name Richard as their top suspect. Meanwhile, aggressive reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) in search of an angle, seduces information out of FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) who tells her they suspect Richard Jewell. Scruggs writes and publishes the article in the newspaper naming Jewell as the prime suspect, and the story goes national, enraging the FBI because they hadn’t even started their investigation. It also causes a media sensation, and the next thing Richard knows he’s being labeled a terrorist, the press surrounds his home and follows his every move, and the FBI brings him in for questioning.

Richard then turns to the only attorney he knows, Watson Bryant, a man he hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, but Bryant remembers Richard, and he agrees to take his case. The rest of the movie follows Bryant’s efforts to clear Richard’s name and attempt to undo the guilty verdict which the media had already delivered.

The strength of RICHARD JEWELL is that it does a terrific job telling its story while not politicizing it. Both the press and the FBI do not come out of this smelling like roses, and yet the film doesn’t espouse any of the delusional “enemy of the people” or “deep state ” fears which exist today. That’s because director Eastwood and the screenplay by Billy Ray, based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner, both show how easy and normal it would be to mistake Richard’s odd enthusiasm for law enforcement for something more sinister. Heck, just listening to him speak, he sounds weird enough to be guilty. Then again, what does a guilty person sound like? And that’s the point the film makes. In spite of appearances, you still can’t charge a guy without any evidence.

Which is one of the more amazing things about this story. The news about Jewell erupted in the news cycle without a shred of evidence behind it. Jewell was never charged because except for his “profile” there was nothing that was found that implicated him in the crime.

The acting is superb.

Paul Walter Hauser is captivating as Richard Jewell, an odd duck who is so dedicated and sincere in his quest to become a law enforcement officer that he sounds ridiculous to those who don’t know him well, hence fueling the fire and the notion that he has something to hide. However, both the movie and Hauser make Jewell’s portrayal clear: he may be an oddball, but he’s not guilty. In this regard, the film works well. The audience knows full well that Richard is innocent. Yet, suspicions about him are certainly understandable based on his personality. The problem was the press leaked the story before it had any corroborating facts. The only fact they had was the FBI had named Jewell as their prime suspect, which was true, but what followed was a trial in the media that all but confirmed Jewell’s guilt even as he remained uncharged by the FBI.

Hauser played a similar role in I, TONYA (2017), as Tonya Harding’s one-time body-guard, except in that movie he was an oddball who did carry out sinister intentions, hiring the guys who attacked Nancy Kerrigan.

As attorney Watson Bryant, Sam Rockwell is excellent as he always is. He’s one of my favorite actors working today, and I often see movies just because he’s in them. In fact, the main reason I saw RICHARD JEWELL was because Rockwell was in it.  Just look at his last three performances, for example. He stood out as Nazi Captain Klenzendorf in JO JO RABBIT (2019), as KKK member C.P. Ellis in THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019), and as George W. Bush in VICE (2018). And oh yeah, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as racist cop Dixon in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017). And all of these roles were very different. Rockwell is as versatile as he is captivating on-screen.

Here, as Watson Bryant, he takes Richard’s case not only because he needs the business, but because he likes Richard and believes in him. In one of the better scenes in the film, after a bitter argument, Watson asks Richard why he chose him as his attorney, and Richard says he chose him because all those years ago he was the only person there who didn’t make fun of Richard, slur his intelligence, and fat shame him. He was the only person there who took time to talk to him.

Kathy Bates is fantastic as Richard’s dedicated mother. Bates knocks it out of the park when things spiral out of control ,and she laments she doesn’t know how to protect her son any longer. The pain she experiences is palpable. Her speech to the media towards the end of the film where she pleads for President Clinton to clear her son’s name is one of the more emotional scenes in the film.

Olivia Wilde as newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs and Jon Hamm as FBI agent Tom Shaw add solid support, and Nina Arianda stands out as Watson’s loyal assistant Nadya Light, and she gets some of the better lines in the movie.

While the sequence featuring the bombing at the Olympics is suspenseful, RICHARD JEWELL is not a suspense thriller but a drama documenting what happens when there is a rush to judgement in the media. It nonetheless make for some compelling storytelling.

I liked RICHARD JEWELL a lot.  With his 41st film in the director’s chair, Clint Eastwood continues to cement his legacy as one of film’s greatest directors. He frames this story in clear understandable fashion, and he gets the most out of his actors. The result is a movie that both makes its point that facts matter, that media leaks and FBI bias are problematic, and that portrays Richard Jewell in sympathetic fashion so that his plight is understood and believed.

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THE IRISHMAN (2019) – Scorsese’s Latest A Showcase for De Niro and Pacino But Not Among Director’s Best

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I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, so it goes without saying that I’m somewhat biased towards Scorsese’s latest movie, THE IRISHMAN (2019), which stars both De Niro and Pacino.

In short, I really liked it.

That being said, as much as I liked it, it’s not one of my favorite movies of the year, nor is it one of Scorsese’s best.

How could it be? With films like TAXI DRIVER (1976), RAGING BULL (1980), and GOODFELLAS (1990) in his canon of work, he’d be hard-pressed to match the quality of those masterpieces. Of course, there are a lot of folks out there right now who claim that he has, that THE IRISHMAN indeed ranks as one of Scorsese’s best. I didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, I enjoyed some of his other latter releases better, films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), HUGO (2011), and THE DEPARTED (2006).

THE IRISHMAN chronicles the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) whose lifelong association with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) led him into a relationship with teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). And while Frank and Hoffa became lifelong friends, Frank’s mob ties led to his involvement with Hoffa’s infamous disappearance.

THE IRISHMAN is long and sprawling, clocking in at a whopping three hours and twenty-nine minutes. Produced by Netflix, in addition to its limited theatrical run, it also premiered on the streaming service, and since I’m not made of money, I opted to watch it inside the comfort of my own living room on Netflix rather than pay for a movie ticket.

It takes its time telling its story, but to its credit it never drags or comes off as boring. I pretty much enjoyed every one of its 209 minutes. The story itself, told in flashback by a very old Frank Sheeran as he looks back at his life, covers events over three decades, from the 1960s to the 1990s, with a lot of the film occuring in mid 1970s. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt, is as compelling as it’s comprehensive. The story is fascinating throughout and the characters convincing. Of course, it helps that it’s based on real people, and that it’s being acted by giants of the field.

Zaillian has an impressive resume, having written the scripts for such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Much of the hype surrounding THE IRISHMAN regarded its special effects by Industrial Light and Magic. Since the story takes place over so many years, rather than hire actors to play these characters at different ages, Scorsese decided to use a combination CGI and motion capture effects to film the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino at these different ages. The results are a mixed bag. I thought the changes made to the actors’ faces by far was the best. I have little to complain about here. However, both De Niro and Pacino are in their 70s, and so while their faces looked younger, their bodies and their movements did not. To me, they always appeared like older actors portraying younger men, in spite of the digital enhancements to make them look younger.

As expected, the acting in THE IRISHMAN is powerful throughout. Robert De Niro delivers his best performance since his supporting role in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), and his best lead role in years, for me, since RONIN (1998). In fact, watching De Niro in this movie was by far my favorite part of this film.

Al Pacino is also excellent as Jimmy Hoffa, and he enjoys many fine moments as well.

One drawback, however, is that both De Niro and Pacino here are portraying characters who are not Italian, and yet they’re surrounded by the Italian mob. I found this distracting and had a difficult time buying their take on non-Italian characters here.

THE IRISHMAN also features notable performances by acting heavyweights Joe Pesci— who came out of retirement to make this movie— and Harvey Keitel. Ray Romano also delivers an impressive supporting performance as mob lawyer Bill Bufalino.

As much as I liked THE IRISHMAN, I can’t place it up there with Scorsese’s best. It’s fascinating and compelling but rarely disturbing. For a mob movie starring the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, that’s saying a lot that you can watch this film without breaking into a nervous sweat.

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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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A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019) -Curious Style Reveals the Potency of Mister Rogers’ Message

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Matthew Rhys (Finalized);Tom Hanks (Finalized)

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019) is a curious movie, and as much I like Mister Rogers, and the performances in this film, I’m not sure it entirely worked for me.

Check that. It did work for me. Just not as smoothly as I expected.

The film tells the story of a magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who’s earned the reputation of being a cynic and writing unflattering pieces on the people he interviews. As a result, his editor assigns him to write a brief piece on TV’s Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) who as it turns out is the only subject they reached out to who agreed to be interviewed by Lloyd.

As Lloyd interviews Rogers, he’s struck by the man’s consistent sincerity and caring, so much so that he doesn’t believe it, and he sets his sights on trying to prove that Rogers isn’t the real deal. This mission doesn’t last long. Instead, Rogers flips the agenda, and it’s Lloyd who’s revealing his past, his innermost hurt dealing with his relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who left his family when Lloyd was a boy, leaving him and his sister to care for their dying mother. In effect, Rogers provides all the information Lloyd needs for his interview not by answering questions, but by asking them, and by doing the things he’s known for doing. It takes Lloyd a while to pick up on this, but when he does, he realizes the truth about Rogers, and he does so because in the course of their interviews, Rogers changes Lloyd’s life.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD tells a serious story, but it does not play out like a standard drama or biography. Instead, the entire film is framed as if it’s an episode of Fred Rogers’ series MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Indeed, it opens just like the show does, with Rogers entering the interior of his TV home, and as he explains to his audience his prop for the day, Picture Picture, he reveals a photo of Lloyd and begins to tell Lloyd’s story. And the film unfolds from there.

As much as I appreciated the originality of this style, sometimes the line was blurred between fantasy and reality. Like when later in the film Lloyd finds himself on the show, reduced to the size of one of the puppets. Clearly, this is a dream Lloyd is having, right? Then again, the movie is framed like the show, so—. Thought-provoking to be sure, but also simply flat-out odd. Which is what I meant at the outset that I’m not sure it entirely worked.

Some moments do work. Like the scene at the diner, where Rogers asks Lloyd to sit with him in silence for one minute, to pray with him for those in need, and as he does this, the patrons in the diner notice and also stop talking. And then Rogers looks right at the camera, and the shot holds— we’re talking sixty seconds in real-time, folks— and the implication is clear: he’s looking at the people in the theater, the point being that they should be doing the same. Again, supporting the notion that A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is like one big Mister Rogers episode for adults.

And then there’s the ending. Earlier in the film, Lloyd asks Rogers how he handles the pressure of being Mister Rogers, and Rogers doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he speaks of the different ways people can handle pressure, and one of the ways he mentions is pounding the piano keys on low notes really loudly, and he demonstrates this to Lloyd by pretending to do so right there. He doesn’t directly answer the question or say that he himself is stressed, which frustrates Lloyd in the interview. But later, as the film ends, and Rogers’ work is done, and Lloyd has benefitted from Rogers’ intervention, and the final shot of the show is wrapped, Rogers says farewell to his crew, but he remains on set until everyone is gone.  In the silence of the empty set, he sits at a piano and pounds those low keys. As he said earlier in the movie, he’s human, and not a saint.

Tom Hanks nails his performance as Mister Rogers. He captures Rogers’ mannerisms and persona to a tee, and there are times when he’s a perfect match. However, even an actor with Hanks’ superior talent has his work cut out for him because Rogers is such an iconic figure that it was rare that I ever truly felt I was watching Rogers on-screen. Instead, I was aware that it was Hanks playing Rogers. I don’t think this is a flaw on Hanks’ part. Rogers is such a genuine presence that’s it’s difficult to see anyone else but him saying and doing the things he said and did.

Matthew Rhys is excellent as Lloyd Vogel, and he delivers the most effective performance in the movie. Of course, in fairness to Tom Hanks, Hanks has the tougher job here, playing Fred Rogers. Nonetheless, Rhys perfectly captures Lloyd’s pain and cynicism. In fact, throughout the movie, I related mostly to Lloyd, who in spite of his biting personality comes off as a real person throughout, so when he’s shaking his head about Rogers’ upbeat and offbeat shtick, he seems like the real person and Rogers the oddball. And yet Rogers’ work is a process, and so as the story goes on, and Lloyd realizes this, he and the audience as well, is won over and understands that Rogers may be an oddball, but he’s the real deal. Rhys captures Lloyd’s journey and transformation perfectly.

Chris Cooper has been one of my favorite actors for years. He’s good in nearly everything he’s in. Probably my all time favorite Cooper role is when he played Jake Gyllenhaal’s father in OCTOBER SKY (1999). He’s back playing another troubled dad here as Lloyd’s father Jerry who spent his life being a jerk and now as he’s dying he desperately wants his son’s forgiveness but can’t seem to get it. He’s got one of the best moments in the film when he laments that it’s only as he is dying that he’s figured out how to live. Cooper nails the role.

I also really enjoyed Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd’s wife Andrea. She gets one of the best lines in the movie when Rogers calls them on the phone and refers to her by name, and as she hands the phone to Lloyd says in a starstruck tone, “Mister Rogers knows my name!”

Director Marielle Heller makes the bold decision to film this story like an episode of the iconic children’s show, and for the most part, this works. That being said, the parts that work best really are Lloyd’s moments, which are removed from the show, so, in a strange way, while it’s a clever decision, I’m not sure it completely helps this story. The argument can be made that it would have worked even better with a straight dramatic construct.

The screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is based on the true story of the real-life friendship between journalist Tom Junod and Fred Rogers. It does what it sets out to do, in that we see the power of Mister Rogers through his actions and the effect they have on Lloyd Vogel.

I liked A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD well enough, but as a fan of Mister Rogers, I did enjoy last year’s documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018) more.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD features superior acting and reveals the potency of Mister Rogers’ message in a drama that unfolds like an episode of his iconic TV show. It’s definitely worth a look, even with a style that sometimes gets in the way of the story it’s trying to tell.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HUSTLERS (2019) – Strippers Turned Thieves Makes for Compelling Storytelling

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hustlers

Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu in HUSTLERS (2019).

HUSTLERS (2019) tells a story that’s difficult to dislike: a group of former strippers band together to steal back from the Wall Street types who benefitted from the stock market crash of 2008. And better yet, it’s based on a true story.

Combined with lively performances from its main players, and a script that’s insightful as well as comical, and you’ve got a winner of a movie in HUSTLERS.

HUSTLERS follows the story of Destiny (Constance Wu) who dances at a strip club, struggling to support herself and her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho). Things are tough, until she meets fellow dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who takes her under her wing and teaches her how to become a better dancer along with the ins and outs of the business.

Suddenly, life is good, and Destiny is making more money than she ever had before, until September 2008 when the stock market crashed and Wall Street clients simply weren’t dishing out free-flowing cash any longer. Eventually, Ramona hatches a plot with Destiny and two other fellow dancers Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to scam their clients. As Ramona explains, it’s what these men did to everyone else, and so when they steal from these men, they’re just getting the money back from them.  So, they set up a scam where they drug their clients to the point where they don’t realize that the women are stealing from their credit cards.

There’s a lot to like about HUSTLERS. The cast, for starters, is on top of their game. I really enjoyed Constance Wu in the lead role as Destiny. Combined with the sharp writing from screenwriter and director Lorene Scafaria, Wu creates a three-dimensional character with Destiny. We see firsthand the frustrations in her life, from being unable to land even a retail job because of a lack of experience, to her desire to do well for grandmother, who raised her after her own mother abandoned her. Wu also was enjoyable in the lead role in last year’s romantic comedy CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) but I liked her even more here.

Jennifer Lopez is equally as good as Ramona. Hers is the strongest personality of the group, driven by the need to care for those around her, even as she fails to see just how risky their racket is becoming. Lopez delivers the most energetic performance in the film.

And both Keke Palmer as Mercedes and Lili Reinhart as Annabelle are also excellent. I especially enjoyed Reinhart. She displayed a presence on screen that attracted attention even when sharing scenes with Lopez and Wu. Her running gag—literally— of throwing-up whenever she got nervous was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Reinhart plays Betty Cooper on the TV series RIVERDALE (2017-2019).

I also really enjoyed the script by director Lorene Scafaria, based on the magazine article by Jessica Pressler. The writing is perceptive and playful, and some of the situations are laugh out loud funny, although never ridiculous or silly. For instance, the sequence where they have to transport their naked unconscious client to the hospital is a keeper.

It also does a nice job with the drama, taking the time to really tell the stories of its two main characters, Destiny and Ramona. You understand where both these women are coming from, and you feel comfortable looking the other way when they swindle their clients.

The pacing is good, and the dancing scenes both frisky and eye-popping. Scafaria does as masterful a job behind the camera as she did writing the script.

The film also enjoys a lively music score.

In my neck of the woods, HUSTLERS didn’t really receive much fanfare or promotion. It just kind snuck into theaters. You might want to catch this one before it sneaks out.

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