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The real-life horrors the DuPont company inflicted upon Parkersburg, W.Va., get a strong cinematic treatment from director Todd Haynes with Dark Waters, an earnest legal drama that skips lengthy courtroom sequences in favor of in-depth looks at those affected—on all sides of the case.

Mark Ruffalo headlines the movie as Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney visited at his posh office one day by Wilbur (Bill Camp), a friend of his family. Wilbur, a lifelong farmer, shows up grumbling like a crazy person, screaming about dead cows and chemicals. Rob dismisses this agricultural Quint from Jaws, gets back to his meeting, and goes about his mostly comfortable day.

However, the encounter with Wilbur eats at Rob; he decides to investigate further and eventually winds up on Wilbur’s farm—where close to 200 cows have perished due to ailments like enlarged organs and tumors.

Wilbur thinks this is happening because of something in the water in the stream. Wilbur is right.

DuPont has been dumping toxic chemicals near Wilbur’s farm for years—ever since the company brought Teflon to the American public decades earlier—and Bilott is very familiar with the company. He’s even friends with Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), a company lawyer. They have cordial discussions about Wilbur and his cows at first, but those discussions escalate into a lawsuit, followed by larger class-action suits, as the people of Parkersburg become aware of the chemical plague that has been infecting their drinking water.

The film works well, in part because it avoids typical courtroom-drama stereotypes. Ruffalo’s Bilott is a well-meaning but flawed guy, and he’s a little slow on the uptake at first. He’s also a bundle of nerves prone to medical emergencies, because he can’t take the pressure. Tom, his boss (played by a strong Tim Robbins), is alternately supportive and demanding—not the typical top-dog-lawyer monster who often resides in these movies. These characters actually have depth.

Ruffalo, who has been making big money as Bruce Banner/Hulk in the Marvel movies, was a solid actor before he went green—and he remains one. He has a WTF? face in this film that says it all, as he encounters one atrocity after another.

Even though much of what really happened in Parkersburg is now part of the public record, Haynes manages to make the movie somewhat of a mystery, with slow reveals as Bilott digs deeper and gets closer to the truth. There are moments that seem innocuous and standard—but are revealed later on to be pivotal.

I’ve known a few cow farmers in my time, and Camp gets all the elements right—but this farmer has the added unfortunate element of raging disgust with a corporation that is slowly killing him and his family. Wilbur’s encounter with a family cow losing its mind is heartbreaking. Anne Hathaway adds extra dramatic heft as Rob’s wife, Sarah, who is trying to keep normalcy in family as her husband goes off on a crusade that seems to be never-ending. She has some of the film’s more intense moments as she plays equal parts supportive and get-your-shit-together enforcer.

Dark Waters will make you think about a lot of things we take for granted—like non-stick surfaces in our cookware, and swimming holes … and where does the water come from? This case was a blight on DuPont, a big company with a lot of problems, another one of them captured memorably in 2014’s Foxcatcher (which also starred Ruffalo).

One of the more shocking true details this film reveals is that most humans have traces of chemicals—like the those that polluted Parkersburg’s waters—in their blood. That’s an eye-opener, as is the movie as a whole. Dark Waters is a stark reminder that there are money-making entities out there that don’t give a rat’s ass about your well-being. That truth is scarier than anything you’ll find in a horror movie.

Dark Waters is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

White supremacist Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), after being raised on a doctrine of hate in a skinhead camp, has a change of heart when he finds love with a single mother (Danielle Macdonald).

Of course, putting a skinhead past behind you—especially when you’ve opted to tattoo your face with hate images—is not an easy thing. Writer-director Guy Nattiv, basing his film on Widner’s true story, does a nice job of showing that redemption sometimes comes at a high price.

Bell is great here as Widner, as is Macdonald as the woman who manages to love him even though he’s a complete asshole. The film feels like a distant cousin of the Edward Norton-starring American History X, although it doesn’t have the artistry of that movie. Still, the movie is a solid story, well-acted—and proof that Bell is a bigger talent than his resume shows.

The supporting cast includes Bill Camp as the leader of the skinhead camp, and Vera Farmiga as the leader’s nurturing yet classless and evil wife. Blink, and you’ll miss a quick appearance by Mary Stuart Masterson as Agent Jackie Marks. She acts like she’s in a different movie, but it’s fun to see her all the same.

Skin is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Fine performances bolster Wildlife, Paul Dano’s excellent directorial debut. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early 1960s, is sometimes uncomfortable—just as it’s supposed to be, considering the subject matter.

Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical life in Montana. Mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), stays at home while dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Mom helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life; money clearly could be an issue if life takes a wrong turn.

Then comes that wrong turn.

When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown takes place. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, while Dad spirals further into depression.

When Jerry announces that he will be joining a firefighting team—despite almost no firefighting experience—Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay at high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of running away from their problems and basically abandoning them, while Jerry sees his move as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.

The stage is set for the best performance of Mulligan’s career, as Jeanette shows signs of insecurities and mental-health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs; Gyllenhaal is also amazing. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic, with Jerry digging fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.

Dano (who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan) does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing all of this through the eyes of Joe. We see the love both Jerry and Jeanette have for their son, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things—like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem with her son—that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likable, even as they are going off the rails.

Bill Camp also gives a fantastic performance as local businessman Warren Miller (no relation to the ski-film dude), whom Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent-enough guy, discussing poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe—even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe is spying Warren’s naked ass through the crack of his door as he approaches his mother.

One of the more impactful scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he uncomfortably stares at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming disaster. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.

All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile, and Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a level of villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream: “Adolescence is truly kicking my ass.”

Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress honors, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is somebody to keep watching, as is Dano as a director. Wildlife is loaded with talent—talent that is put to good use.

Wildlife is coming soon to local theaters.

Published in Reviews

Director Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is an uncompromising, brutal Western. It makes Clint Eastwood’s classic, somber Unforgiven look like Mary Poppins.

Christian Bale turns in another spellbinding performance as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker. Joe—a quiet, tired, jaded soldier—is spending the closing days of his military career in 1892 capturing and imprisoning Native Americans. He has fought many battles, seen many atrocities, and committed many of his own.

When aging and terminally ill Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is granted freedom by the president of the United States, somebody who knows his dialect must be chosen to escort him and his family back to Montana. Joe is the best candidate for the job … but it’s a job he doesn’t want: Joe fought against Yellow Hawk and witnessed him murdering his friend many years ago. The idea of leading a man he sees as the worst of murderers to a graceful death in Montana doesn’t appeal to him; in a scene as tense as any other filmed last year, he says so to his colonel (Stephen Lang) and a stuffy bureaucrat (Bill Camp, who occupies one of the few characters in the film that qualifies as cartoonish). This scene makes it clear that Joe is going to rank among Bale’s best performances … and the movie has barely begun.

Actually, Cooper establishes the unrelenting darkness of the film before the title credit. Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is seen teaching her young children what adverbs are as her husband tends to their farm. In an instant, Rosalie’s family life is decimated by Comanche bandits, who kill her husband and all of her children.

Joe, having no real choice but to lead Yellow Hawk to his homeland (his colonel threatens his pension), reluctantly sets out on the journey with the dying chief, the chief’s family (which includes the terrific Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) and a handful of soldiers. He then stumbles upon a destroyed Rosalie and her dead family at their burned-out homestead. He takes her into their traveling party—a gesture that possibly starts to awaken a decent human being within himself.

Cooper, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids sermonizing, and opts for a film that takes its sweet time delivering its message. The movie is far from predictable, and nobody in the cast is safe. That cast includes soldiers played by Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird), Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) and impressive relative unknown Jonathan Majors. Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused) is a true standout as a longtime fellow soldier of Joe who is battling “the melancholia.”

Adding to one of 2017’s greatest—and most underrated—acting ensembles is Ben Foster, who shows up late in the film as Charles, an imprisoned soldier handed off to Joe mid-journey. It’s Joe’s job to lead the murderous Charles to the gallows; in an undeniable way, Charles represents the horrors of Joe’s past ways. It’s no surprise that this results in more than one tensely acted scene between Foster and Bale.

Pike, who hasn’t done much since her bravura performance in Gone Girl, shows devastating grace and beauty as the mother who loses everything. She makes Rosalie a true symbol of human resilience during harrowing times. Studi is pure brilliance as Yellow Hawk, saying everything with his majestic, chiseled face. He has a moment with Bale near the film’s end that is heartbreaking and beautiful.

How Max Richter’s haunting soundtrack failed to garner an Oscar nomination is beyond me. Also delivering top-notch work is cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who has helped make one of 2017’s better looking films.

Bale deserved an Oscar nomination for his work in this film. Joe is the sort of complicated, wounded character at which he excels, and Bale’s work with Cooper (they also partnered on Out of the Furnace) continues to be one of cinema’s more compelling partnerships.

While Hostiles is far from a fun time at the movies, it’s an essential film for those who like their history served with a fair share of truth and tragedy.

Hostiles is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews