VICE – movie reveiw

VICE

Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Adam McKay
Screenwriter:  Adam McKay
Cast:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Lily Rabe, Alison Pill, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry, Justin Kirk
Screened at: DGA, NYC, 11/23/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
Vice - Poster Gallery
Adam McKay is nothing if not a patriotic critic of United States policy.  With his adaptation of “The Big Short,” he took on the folks who gave us the worst recession since the Great Depression.  With “Revolt of the Yes Men” he and his fellow directors struck at corporate crimes for Big Business’ efforts to fight climate change.  “Anchorman 2” showed the man’s ability to make a light movie just for fun, though he is probably critical of any newscaster who came after Walter Cronkite.  Now he does it again with a satire that has elements of Michael Moore’s hard-hitting humor but tempered in his depiction of former Vice President Dick Cheney to such an extent that you might think at times that he is simply neutral about the man’s “accomplishments.”  “Vice” is a most delightful description of Cheney and his times beginning in 1963 and ending with the closing of the Bush administration where he watches the Obama inauguration from a wheelchair, pretending for the photographers that he is not completely disgusted with the afternoon’s activities.

As played by Christian Bale, who gained forty pounds for the role (not a wise choice considering that this could put him in league with the Veep who had five heart attacks), Cheney influences President George W. Bush to such an extent that journalists and pundits believe that he is not just the man behind the throne but the guy who is actually serving as President of the United States.  Cheney is a master manipulator, using his street smarts to get Bush to give him more power than any preceding Vice President ever enjoyed.  In fact he had been so aggressive in his determination to influence American foreign policy that he may have made the big decision to move troops from Afghanistan into Iraq, the kind of mistake to which the U.S. had become accustomed–not such our policy toward Vietnam but dating back to colonial days when patriotic countrymen strung up those dreadful witches.

Though his approval rating when he left office was 13%, you’ve got to wonder where the people who became the rank and file of the Tea Party were. Surely more of us, particularly in the red states of course, are willing to defend anything the Republican Party does, even tolerate a serial liar and womanizer simply because the person occupying the Oval Office is doing what they want him to do.  Cheney himself notes that like Nixon, he believes that anything the President does is ipso factor legal.

McKay, who wrote the script as well as directs, reaches back to 1963 when the Nebraska-born, Wyoming-living politician attended Yale and later the University of Wyoming getting a graduate degree in Political Science.  McKay brings us to the Nixon and Ford administrations where he pushes his way into getting appointed as White House Chief of Staff, then in 1978 becomes the sole Wyoming representative in the House where he is reelected five times, then Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush presidency.  He has time even to become the CEO of Halliburton which, by coincidence no doubt, won many government no-bids contracts to supply war needs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It’s little wonder that when he resigned from Halliburton—whose stock rose 500% at one point—he was given a separation sum of $22 million.

Much is made of the domestic life of the man.  He is given hell by his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) during the early years of their marriage for being a drunk and getting into bar fights, but soon enough he shapes up to watch his star rise and see the pride that Lynne takes in him.  His wife, surprisingly, does not want him to accept an appointment from Bush to be his running mate since the job is considered ceremonial—or in more colorful terms as John Nance Garner once put it, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”  Little did Garner realize that a manipulator of the sort that Cheney was could actually set policy, which would be officially announced as the thoughts of the President.  The only character who shines as much as both Bale and Adams is Steve Carell, a busy man indeed, who can emcee an evening of Saturday Night Live and now just as effectively portray Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

About the Michael Moore comparison: the most comical scene occurs when Bush (Sam Rockwell, who is truly funny to nobody’s surprise) tries to coax Cheney into becoming his running mate.  Cheney resists, telling POTUS that instead he could recommend a slate of people he considers worthy.  Little does Bush realize that Cheney is playing him, acting coy in order to make demands that Bush give him more policy-making power than any Vice President had before him.  Cheney is  mum on the issue of gay marriage, which a conservative Republican would surely oppose.  Could it be because one of his two daughters, Mary, is an open lesbian now living in Virginia with her wife Heather Poe?  And could that explain why Cheney broke rank with most of his fellow conservatives by supporting gay marriage?  If only the man were that decent and not the one who supported waterboarding and other methods of enhanced interrogation!  Never mind that Mary’s sister, during her own campaign for Wyoming’s rep in the House, insists that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Ah, politics.

Even serious matters like Cheney’s heart attacks are choreographed with wit.  When the Vice President falls to the floor and an ambulance is called, that’s the usual way.  In two other cases he stands with colleagues and announces casually and almost ironically that they should call the hospital.  When Cheney gets the heart of a man who dies in an auto accident, instead of praising the hero’s family he says that he is proud to have “my new heart.”  If Cheney is truly the man with the most influence on foreign policy during the Bush administration, he deserves censure for the loss of life of our fighting team and for 600,000 mostly civilian deaths in Iraq.

This is not the first satiric movie about Cheney but arguably the most incisive and best acted.  Oliver Stone directed a biographical drama using Richard Dreyfus to impersonate Cheney; in “Who is America” Sacha Baron Cohen pranked Cheney into signing a makeshift water board kit.  Ultimately you might agree that Cheney is so out of touch with common decency that you don’t need to pen a satiric book or a broadside on the screen.  He is his own caricature.

123 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

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  • To search for a review, click the three bold horizontal lines near the upper left corner.  In the search box, enter the movie’s title, or director, or screenwriter, or principal actor, or opening date, or even a key word.  Reviews by Harvey Karten are from select movies from February 2017 to the present.

INVISIBLE LIFE – movie review

INVISIBLE LIFE (A visa invisível)
Amazon Studios
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Screenwriter: Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, Karim Ainouz based on a novel y Martha Batalha
Cast: Carol Duarte, Juilia Stockler, Gregorio Duvivier, Fernanda Montenegro, Barbara Santos, Flavis Gusmao
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/9/19
Opens: December 20, 2019

Invisible Life

Sisterhood is powerful. That’s a good slogan for our own time but had a different meaning in the 1950s. With “Invisible Life,” director Karim Aïnouz follows up on his “Praia do Futuro” about a doomed relationship to reveal the long story of two sisters who cannot get enough of each other but who are separated in Brazil’s famed city of Rio never to meet again. An American watching the picture can’t help thinking that the fifties, which despite prosperity marked a dull, conventional era in the U.S., has its reflection in the manners of a family in Brazil.

The film feature two women whose bond is obvious in the opening scenes when sisters Guida (Julia Stockler), now twenty years old and Euridice (Carol Duarte) now eighteen, making it all the more tragic that they are fated to be separated by Manuel (Antonio Fonseca)a mean-spirited father whose tyranny, supported by a patriarchal society, is unchecked by man’s passive wife Ana (Flavai Gusmao).

In one fateful night, Guida sneaks out of the house to attend a dance club with Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes), a Greek sailer. Euridice, a classical pianist, looks forward to traveling to Vienna to audition for a conservatory, an ambitious plan especially considering the need to travel by ship to a far-off city. Believing that she will marry her Greek boyfriend, Guida discovers that Yorgos (Nikoas Antunes), after making her pregnant, is off to find more sexual conquests. Guida returns home to a father who, seeing her daughter with child, disowns her and throws her out of the house. What’s more her conservative dad lies, telling her that Euridice had gone to Vienna. Little do the two young women realize that they may never cross paths again.

Guida, having no skills and no home, becomes a sex worker, mentored by an older hooker Filomena (Barbara Santos), who becomes her lifeline given the absence of her own family, while Euridice fares just a little better, having married a brute of a man via arranged marriage from her father, who sees that the young man has money and can treat her well. While Guida does marginally well, her sister, refusing the numb life of church, children and home, has a barrier put in the way of her feminist ambitions.

A Hollywood movie would doubtless have the two women find each other, surely by the close of two years or more. In one clever twist, the desire of the two sisters to meet is thwarted by a creative ploy, leading Euridice, now in her seventies or eighties, ultimately understanding why she is unable to meet up with her long lost sister. Yet director Aïnouz and her co-writers Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, adapt the novel by Martha Batalha to show the resilience of the two women, a trait that might make you think of how #Me Too people have spoken up, leading to the firing of major celebrities. A musical score that include Chopin and Liszt, and cinematography that brings out the period nature of the piece, help to make this film the obvious choice of the film people in Brazil to set up this candidate for end-year awards.

141 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

BOMBSHELL – movie review

BOMBSHELL

Lionsgate
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: Charles Randolph
Cast: Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Morrison, Nicole Kidman
Screened at: Park Ave, NYC, 11/10/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

In “Bombshell,” Charlize Theron delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Megyn Kelly, a larger-than-life lawyer best remembered for her aggressive questioning of candidate Donald Trump who replied when she cited Trump for calling women dogs, pigs and bimbos, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” This is the kind of programming, perhaps, that made Fox the number one cable news program in America. The picture as whole, though, is directed in a pedestrian way by Jay Roach, whose “Trumbo” was a devastating look at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who in 1947 was blacklisted for his leftist political beliefs. Except for a documentary-style run showing events during past years, “Bombshell” follows a chronological trajectory, the style used by documentary filmmakers, but Michael Moore could probably make a doc with more biting satire and a boatload of humor that is largely missing from this film.

Roach uses a screenplay by Charles Randolph, whose “The Life of David Gale” is generally considered a flub but whose “The Big Short” is a dynamic piece of muckraking exposing financers on Wall Street who actually hoped that their clients would be unable to pay their mortgages. The current movie is anchored by three women, all blondes with fine figures, which Fox demands of its frontline news people. Charlize Theron serves as first among equals in the role of Megyn Kelly, who turned to journalism after a career as a corporate defense attorney and was included in the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people. Her career town a sharp turn downward following her accusation that Roger Ailes, here played by John Lithgow complete with the jowels and triple chin of the news boss from the second floor and who is so large that he needed a walker to get around. Kelly accuses the late Roger Ailes of trying to kiss her on the lips, noting that Ailes freely told her that she has to play ball with him behind locked doors if she wants to unlock her career with Fox.

As Gretchen Carlson, Nicole Kidman portrays the journalist and author, also called by Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world in 2017. Like Kelly, she accuses Ailes of harassment, shown here almost desperate in her goal of attracting the testimonies of other women who had been approached by the news boss in similar unsavory ways. She is perhaps the person most able to show that her testimony is not simply lies in order to collect a fat paycheck, suing Roger Ailes directly rather than Fox News, and signing up some twenty additional women with similar tales of sordid behavior.

For her part Kalya Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie, is stunned when called into Ailes’ second-floor office, eager to move up to “the front of the line” in news broadcasting, only to be commanded to life her skirt higher, and “no, higher,” “higher,” by Ailes, sitting comfortably behind his large desk, his breath seeming to come in greater spurts as Kayla, with considerable ambivalence, does what she is told.

The performers are made up to look quite like their real-live counterparts in much that Saturday Night Live has been able to disguise Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon (also appearing here as a closeted lesbian) as KellyAnne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton among others. Malcolm McDowell gets a small but important role as Rupert Murdoch, the boss of bosses stationed on the eighth floor of the Fox building (filmed by Barry Ackroyd in Los Angeles). Though a big supporter of Ailes, even he turns against the man, refusing even to appear with him to announced Aiels’s dismissal from Fox, though he did hand over a handsome severance check, sending him off on a lavish party.

Fox News, with the slogan “Fair and balanced,” is clearly within the Republican-conservative view of politics, favoring free trade, an anti-abortion platform, and strong family bonds. Hypocrisy abounds, however, beyond the purview of this film, as accusations mounted up against Fox News Latino vice president Francisco Cortes who tried to coerce Tamara N. Holder into performing oral sex, Bill O’Reilly, whose show sporting combative, right-wing propaganda, is canned with the network’s settling with Juliet Huddy, including the firing of Fox sports president Jamie Horowitz.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B-

 

A HIDDEN LIFE – movie review

A HIDDEN LIFE
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno, Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhauser, Ulrich Matthes
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/9/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

A Hidden Life Movie Poster

In the novel “Middlemarch,” George Eliot praises those of us who do good without getting our fifteen minutes of fame: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Among directors who take this expression to heart and project to their audience the lives of such people, you can scarcely find one more qualified than Terrence Malick. The master of meditative movies is back with his best offering in eight years, having wowed his (admittedly) relative small audience with “The Tree of Life,” the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956 wherein an adolescent boy is conflicted by his mother and father’s opposing ideas of upbringing.

With “A Hidden Life,” Malick takes us back to the 1940s, focusing his lenses on a family of six on a farm in St Radegun, Austria (filmed on location), a vista of compelling beauty framed by the Alps, complete with trees that rustle in the wind and brooks that flow without impedance. In a story based on real events, Franz Jägestätter (August Diehl) lives with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter, his mother-in-law, and his three young daughters. Franziska appears to have influenced him to the wonders of religion, a loving woman who cannot embrace her husband enough, who joins in the fun of mock chases with the little girls. He will later prove that he did not remain a hidden life, for his momentous decision to refuse to swear loyalty to Hitler who had annexed Austria threatens to cost him his life. A conscientious objector who nonetheless reports to an induction center where he refuses to raise his arm in a salute to Hitler, he suffers the hostility of all members of his farming community outside of his family. He would be punched spit upon, lectured by the town mayor, and altogether ostracized by these simply Austrian fellows who ecstatically welcomes the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.

Much of the three hour presentation is bound to tax the patience of some in the audience who might not be aware of the types of movies that Malick regularly makes. In this case, though the people in the story are all German speaking, ninety percent of the dialogue is in English, and not so much the dialogue of the people but instead that of their narrated thoughts. During the first segment of the movie, some in the audience will be wondering: When will something happen? Instead we see the daily, monotonous, grinding work of the people, threshing without the aid of modern equipment, cutting the wheat with scythes and harvesting with the aid of a donkey and a cow. The writer-director gives us a splendid picture of what farming was like some eighty years ago, later to contrast that with the brutality of the Nazis given almost complete authority over their Austrian prisoners.

You can’t say that when the Germans heard of this “traitor” who refuses to fight for the fatherland, they just hoisted him up on the gallows. Several military officers did their best to get him to sign a loyalty oath and take his chances on fighting. There was even some expectation that he would be exempted as were some farmers. Even in the end, when condemned to death, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz), one of the elderly judges on the military court, counseled that his protest would not mean a thing; that it would not stop the war or hinder the war effort in the slightest. Franz would probably agree. Though he probably lacked much education, his ethical choice was influenced not by consequentialism (make your ethical choice by the results that would ensue), but more by deontology (do the right thing even if by consequence it did not matter).

Since the church declared him a martyr and later beatified him, and since Malick made a film about him, the German judge was obviously wrong. It’s not clear from “A Hidden Life” what was in Franz’s background that made him the only farmer to refuse to serve the Führer, but by the conclusion of the three hours, we have a solid picture of the daily, natural life of small-town farmers contrasted with the brutality of the war effort. Diehl and Pachner anchor the film in their stirring roles, the latter showing how far a wife would go to stop her man from being a martyr, while Diehl demonstrates the absolute determination to resist.

This is a film that Malick fans will find irresistible.

180 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE – movie review

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Portrait de la jeune fille en fej)
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Céline Sciamma
Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noemi Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/4/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Now that Céline Sciamma’s film has been tapped by the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Cinematography, you may be even more curious to find out just how good the movie is. Be assured: it is excellent in every way, from the unusually authentic acting, to the Pinteresque pauses that define the two principal characters’ dialogue; from the composition of the scenes, each one serving as a potential painting in itself; to the remarkable isolation of the scenery shot on location in the French province of Brittany. Sciamma follows up on her previous film “Tomboy” about a ten-year-old girl who presents herself to other children as a boy named Mikhael with her current entry, about two women who are not tomboys but who broaden their concept of sexuality in similar ways.

The title of the film is also that of a painting executed by Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and depicts the sexual awakening of a previously closeted woman who had spent her early years in a monastery. The action, which takes place in 1760, opens as a number of men row Marianne out to the island, complete with her painting gear—which she recovers when it had left the boat and is floating in the water by jumping right in and taking it back. Except for an additional segment of the film that shows bewigged men looking at paintings in a museum, there is no sign of masculinity to be found. This is strictly a study of women, focusing on the way that a liberated Marianne and an isolated woman about her age are ablaze with desire, though spending a fair amount of time before throwing off resistance to action.

How did this lesbian relationship begin? Marianne, who makes her living by receiving commissions from rich and titled women for portraits, shows up at the home of a countess (Valeria Golino), observing a portrait of her sponsor painted by Marianne’s father years back when the countess was a young woman. Yet the countess’ daughter Hèloise, having refused to sit for her own portrait, is reacting to the suicide of her sister who had been pledged by her mother to a rich Milanese man. To ease the way for Hèloise’s eventual surrender to the proposed painting, Marianne has been told to pretend she is merely a walking companion, during which time she understands that Hèloise is enraged by the thought of marriage to a man she had not met.

In a subplot, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), the housekeeper who does embroidery, is pregnant, desperate enough to abort the fetus to go to an abortionist who uses an undisclosed poison to separate the unborn from its mother.

Gratefully the soundtrack is almost bereft of music, the kind of distraction that ruins so many Hollywood movies whose directors do not trust their audience to know when to cry and when to feel joy. As the two women go about walks on the beach, heading back to the quarters to work on the portrait, they are filled with desire. Hèloise begins to ask Marianne whether she had ever “known love,” asks how it feels, and yes, succumbs to the mutual urges of the two women. Their tsunami of forbidden emotions is palpable, the two offering a shower of sparks to display their mutual love. At one point Hèloise even allows her dress to catch afire, taking her good time to put it out.

“Portrait” received not only a best cinematography award from the prestigious NY Film Critics Circle but has been blessed by a best screenplay citation at a Cannes Festival. Photography and screenplay and direction aside, nothing would have come of this film were it not for the passion of the two actresses evoking forbidden love at a time that might surprise moviegoers who believed that lesbianism was created in the 20th century.

121 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-

MAKING WAVES – movie review

MAKING WAVES: The Art of Cinematic Sound
Cinetic Media
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Midge Costin
Screenwriter: Bobette Buster
Cast: Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, Murray Spivak, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola, Ryan Coogler
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: October 25, 2019

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019)

I’ll bet you thought that when the two sides clashing in Mel Gibson’s movie “Braveheart,” or the sound of jet fighters blasting away in the sky came from, well, the two sides clashing and the sound of jet fighters blasting. This may have been the case in 1927 when Al Jolson starred, singing away in “The Jazz Singer,” a microphone either attached to his jacket or held aloft a couple of feet over his head. But now sound, which the folks in “Making Waves” indicates, counts for fifty percent of the emotional content of a movie. We hear often that movies are a visual medium, but that axiom appears to ignore that without sound, we’d be back in the days of silent movies, which depended almost exclusively on visuals including those squiggly words we relied on. How could you get excitement from a movie dealing with World War I, made in 1917, when you don’t hear the rat-tat-tat of the trenches?

Take a look at some of the blockbuster movies of the last ten years, no even father back, and you’ll notice the names of a few principal actors, some performers with secondary roles, and then a slew of names of the crew that sometimes goes well over one hundred. Sound and sound editors, Foley, these are people behind the scenes who are recognized only at awards time. When you hear their names mentioned during Oscar celebrations, you probably think they constitute nothing but filler until the hosts get with the real awards. Without their fifteen minutes of fame on the stage, nobody outside the profession had ever heard of them, yet directors depend on them to follow their instructions. They are indispensable, having far more technical knowhow about sound than those in the director’s seat.

This brings us to “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” which is not only an education but quite an entertaining one. Don’t worry: there will not be a quiz on the technical details you see, unless you are taking courses in Film, a major that is growing in popularity these days.

Probably most of us had never seen a silent movie which is not really silent but whose sound comes from actual orchestras inside the theaters, even sound effects that are made to order right on the premises and which, after the run of the movie is over, disappear into the next film. To record dialogue from such characters as King Kong, the sound people did not record ape sounds but synthesized the vocals by recording an assortment of zoo animals. “Star Wars” has awesome sound, no matter whether films like these are within your own taste in movies. Ben Burtt got tapped for the sound job because the master, Walter Murch, was unavailable. Stereo sound is what helped to make the movie “The Beatles” as great as it is.

“Apocalypse Now” emerges as the film whose sound easily accounts for fifty percent of the excitement. Guns, planes, soldiers marching, all get their sound not from themselves but from the volume created by the sound people. Summing: this film is combines entertainment with enlightenment so well that one hopes that people from other branches of the industry will share their expertise with us. Maybe we will finally find out what the Best Boy and the Gaffer really do.

94 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

DARK WATERS – movie review

DARK WATERS
Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the NY Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/1/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

Dark Waters - Poster Gallery

The state of West Virginia is politically as red as a hooker’s lipstick. Even its Democratic senator Joe Manchin votes with Trump sixty-one percent of the time. In one sense you can’t blame the folks who live there. They are in a state that immediately brings to mind the term “coal miners.” People who have served in that dangerous job for generations are running out of options now that coal has been displaced by other energy sources, and they think that Trump will bring back their jobs. The small farmers as well, a generally conservative segment of society, are mostly Republicans, though they have been thrown under the boss by Trump who is fighting a losing trade war with China, the largest customer of their soybeans. Small farmers and others in the state were awakened when the lies and evil deeds of one corporation, DuPont, caused havoc with their land, their cows, and with the very health of the God-fearing human beings who live there. Like the cigarette companies who have known for decades that their product causes cancer, DuPont, a chemical giant, dumped thousands of tons of toxic waste in landfills surrounding the farms knowing that the stuff is carcinogenic. Todd Haynes, whose “Safe” takes on the plight of a housewife who develops an extreme sensitivity to chemicals, is in his métier, dealing now with an entire people afflicted with the carcinogenic sludge thrown at them by DuPont.

How does a corporate attorney whose white shoe firm defends big corporations manage to dedicate seventeen years of his life to fighting a giant industry? We’re not exactly sure but we do see that Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is incensed by what is being doe to the little guy beginning when a farmer in Parkersburg, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), barges into the Cincinnati law office requesting, or rather demanding, that Rob take the case. At first Rob is aghast that this fellow seeks out him of all people, but Wilbur has been referred to Rob by the lawyer’s grandmother. That’s a good enough start. For the rest of the story, Rob’s firm, particularly its managing partner Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), is at first hesitant, then going whole hog to support him. Later on as the case drags on for seventeen years, Tom is not so sure, but he does cut Rob’s pay four times because clients are no longer willing to work with him.

Supported by his pious wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) who later regrets what her husband is doing—ruining his health, losing money that keeps the increasing brood of children happy—she becomes almost ballistic as she sees her compulsive partner’s health deteriorating. DuPont does what big corporations do when sued. Though they sometimes settle, this times DuPont fights with its team of corporate lawyers against the farmers. The rest of the movie deals with the year-by-year accumulations of road blocks that the chemical giant puts in the way of the plaintiff. In one instance, responding to a discovery motion, DuPont sends some fifty large boxes of document to the law office.

The culmination of the story should not be a surprise, because this narrative film is based on actual events in which DuPont agrees to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the people whose health has deteriorated because of the carcinogenic chemical PFOA, which since 2013 is no longer being used to manufacture Teflon. If there is an element of John Grisham in the story—that best-selling author often finishing up with ironic endings (e.g. an insurance company that has lost a case files bankruptcy, shafting the plaintiffs), it is that many of the plaintiffs have died from exposure to PFOA.

Mark Ruffalo’s performance is spot on. The make-up department has increased his weight as the story moves on, Ruffalo’s puffy face brought on perhaps by the way his determination to dedicate half of his life to the case upends his need for physical activity. In the tradition of Norma Rae, Matewan, and Silkwood, “Dark Waters” is a strong, sober inclusion in the David-and-Goliath category of fights against the evils of companies that have known that they are wrong and have refused to admit their guilt.

126 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

LITTLE JOE – movie review

LITTLE JOE
Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jessica Hausner
Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, David Wilmot
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/15/19
Opens: December 6, 2019

 

Take a ride on the New York subway. Look around at the people surrounding you while pretending you’re looking at your smartphone. Do they seem particularly happy? If not, do they seem really depressed? Not usually. Would you be surprised to find out that a large number of your fellow New Yorkers are taking anti-depressants? In other words, people who take Prozac or the older medications like Elavil are acting relatively normal in public. They are not “different” people zombied out by their medication from the way they were before swallowing the pills, but Jessica Hausner, who directs and co-wrote “Little Joe” appears to warn us that Big Pharma is out to get our money and willing to take away our personalities as well. Then again we don’t really know what her point is since nothing in the story takes a firm stand.

The people in this film who have become affected by a feel-good flower have not particularly changed their character. They are not pod people. Nor are they carrying on as though they have just downed a couple of ecstasy pills at an all-night party. The changes that they undergo are subtle, which makes Hausner’s treatment a lot more nuanced than that taking place in your typical horror movie. By contrast think of how different they become in Jordan Peele’s excellent “Get Out.”

In one sense, this is good. “Little Joe” does not go over the top with horror tropes but rather makes the changes in personality almost too subtle to notice. On the other hand, since the people do not change much, what’s the big deal? Is this enough of a warning that we are too dependent on happiness pills? Not by my reckoning.
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Vienna-born director Hausner, whose terrific “Lourdes” in 2009 focuses on a wheelchair-bound woman attaining a miracle by going to Lourdes, films in Krems an de Donau, Vienna and Liverpool putting Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) front and center. The pixie-ish redhead is dedicated to her work in Planthouse Biotechnologies currently experimenting on a flower whose aroma can make people happy, provided that they are affectionate with the plant and water it regularly. In fact the hundreds of flowers laid out in the opening of the film do appear to respond well to human beings, opening their petals as though they were Venus flytraps that have just digested a scrumptious meal of caterpillars.

However the plant has not yet been approved by the necessary government agencies leading Karl, the boss (David Wilmot) to warn his crew about excess optimism. In violation of the rules, Alice takes a plant home, one of a species that she has named Little Joe in honor of her 13-year-old son Joe (Kit Connor). She becomes alarmed when Kit, who has never expressed a wish to live with his father who is Alice’s ex-husband, falls under the influence of Little Joe and suddenly wants to move out and live with his dad. Is he changing because he is going through puberty, or because of the influence of the petals?

For her part Alice is being pursued romantically by her lab partner Chris (Ben Whishaw), rejecting one of his advance but reconsidering later. Is that change of heart an effect of the Little Joe? We in the audience need to interpret that and several other aspects of the movie. As we can see, the biotech workers who have been in contact with the flowers have not changed, although they may, like those of us who take antidepressants, be trying to act their regular selves. If Géraldine Bajard, who co-wrote the script with the director, wants us to see noticeable transformations, why be so subtle as though shrugging off all the melodramas inherent in other sci-fi movies?

One character, Bella (Kerry Fox), had returned to work in the lab having been on leave after a suicide attempt. She has a nice sheepdog which she brings to the lab, a sweet, obedient fella who had suddenly turned vicious, ignoring Bella’s commands and threatening to bite her. She decides: “This is not my dog.” Is the dog acting strange because he senses that Bella is not the same woman? And why isn’t Bella, despite her mental illness, made as happy and content as the others?

These questions may be to the credit of the writers and director, or on the other hand may be so inconsistent and vague to warrant audience confusion and frustration. Finally is it supposed to be terrible that depressed people change their personalities for the better under the influence of Big Pharma? At least one person is happy even without the use of Little Joe, and that would be Emily Beecham who won the award for Best Actress at Cannes.

105 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – C+