CLEMENCY**** Nation behind bars


What’s the Story?
A portrait of a prison warden (Alfre Woodward from Twelve Years a Slave) who, after witnessing twelve executions, is struggling to keep in touch with her humanity. She’s become an emotionally empty functionary, drifting away from her husband and, increasingly lonely, with anyone else for that matter. She’s become the embodiment of the heartless, inhumane system that she works for. The story parallels her living death with that of a dead man walking: a (wrongly) convicted felon struggling to fend off despair and fight for clemency even as he readies himself for execution.

What’s it All About?
The story seems to take its inspiration from John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me”. Bernadine, the warden, is a diminished person, going through the motions of living in what clearly is a diminished nation. The idea is signaled from the beginning when a strapped-in convict’s last words are his recital of the Lord’s Prayer  (“…forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us”) No clemency here, as the un-forgiven, trespassed-upon convict is brutally, clumsily executed by the authorities. The law and order of the jungle, of an eye for an eye. Bernadine, who seems to exhibit human emotion only when she’s ether drunk or dreaming, seems to share a symbiotic link with the state’s next victim (Aldis Hodge) – a petty criminal wrongly accused of murder –. They’re both alienated from the comfort of family, immeasurably lonely, and incommunicatively walled off from the world in their own separate yet similar ways. Both jailer and jailed are victims of a system that degrades and dehumanizes its citizens. The difference is that he has a troop of believers and supporters who love and fight for him. She has only her alienated and despairing husband. But the supporters’ love and – Wendell Pierce- her husband’s sense of fealty are all in vain. Such decency, such belief, such desire for forgiveness and clemency can never make headway in a world thus diminished.

Why Should I see it?
Alfre Woodward’s stunning performance offers us the bi-focal vision of a woman whose main expression is one of blank nothingness, even while we see the emotional hysteria beneath the blankness. It’s an extraordinary feat. She’s a riveting screen presence. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu’s script is a masterpiece of underwriting. She avoids the kind of grandstanding big moment speechifying that a less confident writer would have thrown in. And her understated directing is comfortable to let the story unfold in its own time…carry it own inherent drams, without the need for tricks. It’s a story of compelling real people who at the same time stand in for bigger themes of the idea of the nation
Thoroughly captivating

CLEMENCY. Writer/Director: Chinonye Chukwu. With Alfre Woodward, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce. Cinematographer: Eric Branco

 

DA 5 BLOODS***Seriously Flawed


DA 5 BLOODS, Spike Lee’s newest (out on Netflix) is both intellectually exciting and maddeningly bad. It’s a thoughtful, passionate look at how America tries to come to terms with the staggering failure of Vietnam (or the American War as it’s known there) when “some poor hungry people in the mud” (Mohammed Ali) ran the mighty US Army outta town. In Mr Lee’s eyes, perhaps that war was the genesis of the deep seated need to “Make America Great Again”
It’s also the absolutely nonsensical story of four black Vietnam vets, plus a son (Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors,Clarke peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr) who revisit the country intent on finding the bones of their beloved leader (Chadwick Boseman) and a chest of gold they’d found and buried there…somewhere in the jungles of ‘Nam (because, you know, armed only with a map and a metal detector, it’s a piece of cake to journey into the forests you saw once fifty years before under heavy gunfire and with pin-point accuracy unearth what you buried there. Robert Luis Stephenson made more sense)

It’s nonsensical not because the story of vets revisiting the country in search of answers and redemption is far fetched; ridiculous because on a human level, on the level of fiction, nothing is credible. Spike Lee’s authorial hand tilts the scales of character and story so firmly in service to his philosophical thrust that the simple artistic mandate of creating a willing suspension of disbelief is violated pretty much from the get-go.

There is a grand bloody finale, dramatizing the mental war that for so many of its ancient warriors (on both sides) simply cannot end. And an extended soliloquy on the part of MAGA loving, PTSD crippled Paul (Delroy Lindo in an acting tour de force) in which he morphs into another crazed version of Kurtz, is magnificent.

And thank goodness I’d soldiered on through the preceding two hours of senseless rubbish. Like the four vets, at least there was some redemption.

At least it’s rubbish from a thinking imagination. Lee wisely eschews the fakery of Scorsese’s de-ageing process of The Irishman and keeps his protagonists the same age when we see flashbacks of them in the theatre of war.

It’s his signifier of the symbolic grammar of his approach. As though they are now what they were then. Or, as the story would have it: as a nation, we’ve (America) not changed. And the – haunted- search for redemption is really a search for the forgiveness of a shared guilt. The cache of buried gold also suggests the treasure of principles (the plan was to use the gold for the betterment of humanity) they left behind. As though they could somehow disinter those values they once shared and regain their pre-lapsarian sense of honour (There’s even a nasty snake sinking its fangs into our demented Adamic hero).

The idea that America’s present Trumpian purgatory was catalyzed by a national fall from grace in the Gulf of Tonkin is intriguing. Pity Mr Lee’s writing team couldn’t shape a story that could make humanly credible his Promethean thesis

 

Da 5 BLOODS. Dir: Spike Lee. Writers: Danny Bilson (Company of Heroes), Kevin Wilmott (BlacKkKlansman) and

Spike Lee. With: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock, Melanie Thierry. Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel (Extraction). Production designer: Wynn Thomas (Shaft)

 

 

 

ONLY THE ANIMALS****


WHAT A DELICIOUSLY well structured, seductively engaging movie…about murder, deception, obsession and passion.

If that sounds quintessentially French, it sure is.

The story loops forward and backward in time so that the initial scenes (a young man on a bicycle with a goat strapped to his back in an Abidjan (Ivory Coast) slum; a woman gone missing, lost somewhere in the blank whiteness of a snow choked northern France: a pretty young Insurance agent who leaves the family home one morning to visit one of her clients with whom she proceeds to have oddly disengaged sex.)

How are they all related? How do these disparate incidents and people interconnect? Why is the woman making out with this man who is clearly not interested in her? Is her husband aware of her infidelity (as he claims to be) and if so, why is he so indifferent to it? Who is this woman that’s gone missing? And what does all of this have to do with the young man on a bike in central Africa?

Like any good murder mystery, the sordid details of the often bizarre entanglements of the central characters slowly come into focus.

And what characters they are: the insurance agent, Alice (Laure Calamy), denied the passions of her husband seems desperate for the affection of (any?) other. Her husband, Michel (Denis Ménochet) is surly and withdrawn, living a dark secret life in his farmer’s office behind the shadow of his penned sheep and the glow of his computer. Her -Alice’s- equally surely lover, Joseph (Damien Bonnard)- another perennially hay dusted farmer – is equally withdrawn and still in shock from the death of his mother (whose body he, apparently, kept hidden until it decayed. As one does.) We are introduced to the story of the missing woman, Evelyn (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi). She is a married, fourty-ish, wealthy executive, whose loveless open marriage opened her up to flitting dalliances. She isn’t looking for love; just hot sex. But the dalliance she tumbles into bed with (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) is in search of love, not just sex. A bad combination. And our youth in Africa (Guy Roger N’Drin) ) is just a small time hustler, out to make his mark; and perhaps earn the love of the mother of his child.

In his conversation with the local voodoo shaman, the young African man is queried about his understanding about love. “Love,” informs the shaman “is giving what you don’t have. Anything else is just pleasure”

Aah, pleasure. These characters lie, cheat, steal and murder; all in the name of love, but maybe simply in service to pleasure. Where there is (physical) passion, the emotional charge is always in a one-way direction. It’s as though the givers and the receivers of love simply can’t align. For despite the lubricants of (a lot of) sex and (smatterings of) money, where there is love, it is never mutual.

It’s a very clever, intricate plot…so nice to indulge in a movie where the director (Dominic Moll) has made the effort to minimise the often gaping loopholes and to reel in his audience so that revelation upon absurdist revelation, the slow striptease unraveling of the mystery, becomes such a delight.

 

ONLY THE ANIMALS. Dir: Dominic Moll. Screenplay: Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand (From the novel by Colin Niel). With: Denis Ménochet, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Valerie Bruni Tedeschi, Guy Roger N’Drin. Music: Benedict Schiefer. Cinematographer: Patrick Ghiringhelli

 

 

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS*****definitely, decidedly, unreservedly, now


AT THE DEAD centre of this thoroughly engaging movie, the stoic, unmoving visage of the central character, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan in her first movie) cracks. This naive, determined, innocent girl, in response to questions about her sexual experiences – and in particular about forced, coerced sex – never, rarely, sometimes, always, can no longer hold it together. For a moment, the blank defensive wall of her private world opens up, just long enough for us to glimpse the scars within.

The story follows the secret (from her family) journey of pregnant Autumn and her bff, Skylar (Talia Ryder…who starred in Matilda and soon to be seen in Spielberg’s version of West Side Story) to New York, the big, alien, hostile big city. She’s in search of an abortion. The two friends rarely exchange words: this is a friendship deeper than any words…an almost intuitive union. It’s a union of love and companionship and protectiveness that’s set in direct contrast with the other union, which resulted in the child growing within her.

The men we meet are all sleazy, sexually predatory. They embody the contrast between the emotional trust and tenderness of these two girls v the physical danger (of the city, of the men they know, of the protesters outside the abortion clinic, of the future perhaps) they must learn how to handle.

Throughout their odyssey, they drag around an old wheelie suitcase. It contains clothes – which are never used – and that seems to grow heavier with every passing hour. They drag it up steep stairs, run with it through the rain, and hoist it up to be checked by security guards. It’s a lovely symbol of the baggage they, everyone, must drag through life. It’ll weigh you down, the story suggests, if you let it.

Filmed in a rough and ready, seemingly artless, cine verity style, we follow these two teenagers over the few days they spend, living from hand to mouth, snatching moments of sleep in public waiting areas, scarfing down cheap Chinese buns and simply eking our the few dollars they’ve scrabbled together.

The entire movie focuses intimately on the faces and gestures of its two principals. Their faces carry the movie. And they’re both superb. The protagonist, Sidney Flanigan, reminds me of Saoirse Ronan in the tremendous expressiveness of a blank face. Her friend, Talia Ryder, believable empathetic and supportive, is a fresh, stunningly beautiful face. Stardom awaits.

The English critic Peter Bradshaw wrote that a good movie must combine and balance the intellectual the emotional and the visceral. By those standards, this is a sure fire five star winner.

After its short ninety minutes, director/writer Eliza Hittman leaves you in no doubt what it must be like (the terror, the danger, the reserves of strength needed) for the naive small town girl to brave a world that is at best indifferent and at worst, physically threatening.

And God knows what dangers their return ‘back home’ await them.

On last word on this movie: It was written, directed, scored, shot, cast, designed, costumed, sound designed and co-produced by women!

 

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES NEVER. Director/Writer: Eliza Hittman (who is also an editor, actor, production designer and producer) With: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder. Cinematographer: Helene Louvart.

 

 

 

THE ASSISTANT*****


THIS IS A stunningly original and thoroughly engaging examination of the shared corporate omertà that kept (keeps?) the likes of Harvey Weinstein in power…over his cowed employees and over the flow of women dazzled by dreams of fame.

The story follows a day in the life of Jane, the eponymous assistant (Julia Garner from Ozark). She is withdrawn, insecure, clearly highly competent and increasingly concerned by the predatory reach of her boss. Said boss, some sort of mega powerful studio executive, is never seen. He’s simply “he”…a malign force-field hidden behind closed doors, heard only in muffled conversations and belligerent shouts. We see groups of people come and go, seeking his direction, his approvals and, for the young women, his entry ticket -they hope – to stardom. Their jobs are clear-cut: to serve his every whim. Total compliance is the only route to career growth, not to mention job security.

For everyone, from the lowliest (the assistant, Jane) to the most senior, depend entirely on him. As Jane’s father tells her, “It’s a great job. You’re fortunate to have it”. In other words, work hard, see nothing, say nothing. This is how – this- business functions.

The camera is focused almost entirely on the expressive face and the actions of Jane’s daily duties and her barely concealed and growing rage. It follows her as she answers his calls (including to a distraught wife), manages his travel and appointments, executes the menial tasks (of photocopying, cleaning up the messes left behind after conference meetings, even neatly stacking dozens of hypodermic syringes). One of her jobs also is to clear away the evidence of his dalliances (a dropped bracelet here, a lost earring there). Her job is even to safely conduct the naive young things to the expensive hotels he accommodates them in…a mutual accommodation of sorts.

As the day progresses and the story arcs to its distressing conclusion, the viewer is left in no doubt that the defences he’s built around his reputation are total. And the only hope is that, as the oleaginous head of HR (Matthew Macfadyen) tells her, “You’ve nothing to worry about. You’re not his type”

The brilliance of this quiet (with its sound design of only natural sounds and voices), understated (and inexpensively produced) movie is the incisiveness of director/writer Kitty Green’s observations, and her astute decision to let the story carry its own potency. There’s no false or heightened drama. There are no cathartic speeches, no overt expressions of outrage or demonstrations of conscience; just the hum drum banality of office life, office gossip and the casual acceptance by everyone that this is all par for the course.

She may be the focus of the tale, but in a sense they’re all assistants, passively assisting in the continuity of abuse that you reveal at your own peril.

Chilling

 

THE ASSISTANT. Dir/writer: Kitty Green (Casting Jon Benet). With: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh. Cinematographer: Michael Latham

 

 

 

MOVIE SHORTS. Misbehaviour and Extraction


MOVIE SHORTS
A new style movie watching…from my couch

MISBEHAVIOUR
The Plot:
It’s the twin stories of the rise of feminism and the cracks in the 1970 Miss World contest (previously an all White affair). The parallel stories are told through the eyes of the two principal characters: Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), one the early feminist leaders, and Jennifer Hosten, (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the Grenadian who won the beauty contest . Sally is a quiet, conservative woman/wife/mother/student of conscience who finds herself the unwitting spokesperson for the fledgling movement as it barrels its way toward a huge, televised disruption of the beauty contest, starring Bob Hope.

The Idea
The movie examines the common thread that links racism and sexism: both accepted expressions of a patriarchy dominated status quo. Both of course still dominate a status quo that’s still patriarchal. But the movie celebrates the huge personal courage and moral principle It took to make these first hugely publicised moves

Why You Should View It
It’s a gripping drama that’s nicely directed (by Phillipa Lowthorpe) and vastly entertaining. Uptight Sally (Knightley), egged on by her outlandish side-kick and rabble rouser, Jo (Jessie Buckley from Chernobyl) are compellingly watchable. Their relationship (A sort of feminist version of a buddy movie) is engaging, their characters feel real and there are enough nicely observed moments of patronizing sexist behavior, exemplified by a reptilian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), to boo hiss at.
As Miss Grenada, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is bland. The part feels underwritten, as if though thematically convenient, her character (probably accurately) lacks the angst and moral outrage of Sally.
It’s not a major movie…skims along superficially on multiple issues. But it’s a fun watch

EXTRACTION (Netflix)
The Plot
An emotionally wounded, alcoholic mercenary – his daughter has died- (Chris Hemsworth) is called our by his sexy handler (Neha Mahajan) to rescue the kidnapped son of a wealthy Indian drug dealer. The child is incarcerated in a heavily guarded mansion in Bangladesh

The Idea
Even the most ruthless, savage killing machine can have a conscience and a human heart (OK I’m struggling here)

Why You Should View It
If you like non stop kinetic action, lost of mayhem, and terrifically well choreographed car/truck/motorcycle chases in heavy Bangladeshi traffic (by director Sam Hargave; stunt coordinator of various Avenger movies), then this is the film for you. The body count is very high (I lost count, but it’s well over a hundred) and it’s fun to see Thor pretending to bleed just like a normal person.

 

 

 

 


NOW THAT WE’RE all home bound, and a few select movies have come out on early streaming, here area few I caught up with:

LE MANS 66
THE PLOT
Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and ace driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale) are contracted by the Ford Motor Company, eager to inject some spunk into its boring brand. Their no-expenses spared mission is to rebuild both the brand and the Mustang into a lean, mean super-fast machine that can take on and beat Ferrari’s mastery on the track.

THE BIG DEAL
It’s a wildly entertaining, ahem, ride, driven by director James Mangold (Logan), written by Jez Butterworth (Spectre) and John Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) and piloted by his two top gun stars, Matt and Christian. The nub of the story pits the pure, macho, literally death-defying competitive mania of the Shelby Team (of Shelby and Miles and their crew) against Enzo Ferrari’s unbeatables. This sporting ‘purity’ is contrasted with the Ford world of compromise, commercialism and committees. The real challenge Shelby and Miles face isn’t just outracing Ferrari, but retaining their integrity in the grubby world of Ford marketing.

They want to race the perfect lap. Ford just wants to sell more cars.

And beneath the sweat and the speed is a movie about the endurance of friendship (or what Hollywood prefers to macho-up with the term, “Buddy movie”). Here are two life-long friends, whose entire, and entirely meaningful, and unwittingly hilarious, conversation is ALL about cars, chassis, gear boxes and RPM’s.

Gear up for a delightful ride

THE INVISIBLE MAN
THE PLOT
Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) is the emotionally and physically battered wife of a maniacally controlling Optics genius husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After escaping, her fear of being tracked by him is alleviated by news of his suicide. Of course he’s not dead. Just invisible. And he’s found out where she lives

THE BIG DEAL
There’s a great new trend in (low budget) high concept horror (Us, Get Out etc). They combine all the chills you’d expect rom the horror genre while delivering equally chilling insights into society and human behaviour. The focus of the hold-your-breath shivers of The Invisible Man is the all too common reality that battered wives/women is a crime invisible to society.

Despite being ‘dead’, Cecilia knows he’s there. Initially she can feel his presence…that strange, hair-raising tingle you get when you feel the presence of another (There’s a wonderful moment when we can see his frosty breath next to her). And then this presence gets (much) more heavy-handed. And no one believes her. She must be mad. She’s depressed. She’s on drugs etc.

Just how much does a woman need to get beaten up for someone to believe her?
The answer: when men start to get beaten up too.

Elisabeth Moss is the hugely impressive centre of the story. Her multiple levels of expressiveness focus and channel our anxiety, our nervousness, our blind terror and finally the “fuck you” determination to get even

Leigh Whannell’s directing (and writing) avoids the usual clichés of the horror genre (even if he did direct Insidious: Chapter 3). He lets the terror of an invisible stalker speak for itself.

And there’s a wonderfully clever ending.

 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE*****The Face of Excellence


THIS IS BY far one of the year’s best movies.

Set sometime in the early eighteenth century on a remote island in Brittany, the story follows the brief encounter (a scant two weeks or so) between and artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Héloise (Adele Haenel).

Marianne has been commissioned – by Héloise’s mother (Valerie Golino) – to paint her daughter’s wedding portrait, she having been promised to a wealthy Milanese bachelor. The simple enough task is fraught with problems: Her mother fears that Heloise, who refuses to be painted, will yield to the same fate as her sister (who had been promised to the Milanese bachelor) and kill herself. Marianne’s task therefore is to complete the commission covertly under the pretence of being a “walking companion”.

The mission begins auspiciously when, as she approaches the island on a small boat, in choppy waters, Marianne’s crated canvases fall overboard. The artist immediately leaps into the dark sea to rescue them (And the sea as symbol of death and survival is an image that threads the movie). Having struggled with them up to the vast, dark, suffocating house of her patron and subject, we next see Marianne naked in front of a fire drying out herself and her canvases. The symbolism is clear: the artist and her canvases are co-joined. So that what’s on the canvas is never just a record of an external world; it’s always an expression of a deeper internal reality.

As she begins to forge a relationship with Heloise, secretly sketching fragments of her – her hands, her ears, her turned face etc.- she begins her wedding portrait in the privacy of her room. It’s finished soon enough. And it’s of a beautiful woman for sure; and is clearly a likeness of Heloise. But, a likeness to a subject does not a portrait make. It looks only tangentially like her, having entirely failed to capture her spirit.

Art that is based on dishonesty and pretence will always be lacking.

Slowly as a relationship develops, dishonesty is replaced with a growing trust. Marianne ‘fesses up that she’s there, not as a paid companion but as a paid artist. And with honesty comes a growing bond and a growing intimacy between the two women. Their romance evolves outside the prison-like house and blossoms in the new-found freedom (from her convent, her mother, society) that Heloise begins to experience.

And we, the audience, experience the emergence of their affection through the gaze of the camera, just as they begin to pay close attention to each other. Marianne’s observing artist’s eye begins to notice every tic and nuance of the other’s emotions. It is a loving, almost symbiotic, gaze that is mirrored by Heloise, who also begins to observe with equal acuteness, the hidden ‘tells’ of her portraitist. The parallel observing eye of the director’s camera frames the increasing tenderness with which each of the two women gaze upon the other. There are long close-ups of each of the two protagonists as they listen and talk and simply look at each other.

It’s as though the movie were staking out its claim that close observation – of the face…of the soul – is at the heart of love. And as the bond between the two women grows richer and more intense, the quality of Heloise’s portrait, reflecting the artist’s honest emotional truth, grows in both physical and psychological accuracy. At the beginning of the process, Marianne noted to Heloise that she never smiled (There is a long history of the potency of the smile in portraiture). By the time their love is acknowledged, Heloise can barely stop smiling.

Their love is directly contrasted with the ‘love’ of their maid (Luana Bajrama), whose relationship has left her pregnant and in need of an abortion. Will such loveless-ness be the plight of the soon to be married Heloise?

Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) punctuates her story through a series of portraits of Heloise, each signifying an emotional milestone. This is a love story signalled through art. The first portrait we see is one, executed by a previous artist, with the face scrubbed out. This, from an artist who simply couldn’t come to terms with the passions of her subject. But as Marianne grows more fondly familiar with Heloise and her portraits grow more aesthetically and emotionally accurate, she is moved to sketch a more intimate scene of her recumbent lover. This one, their shared secret, is the ultimate portrait…where the subject is not just that of Heloise, but of their tremendous love. There is one last portrait, obviously painted at a later date, and kept private for the gaze only of the artist. It is set on a dark background; Heloise is standing gazing out at the viewer. Her dress is on fire. Is she unaware that it’s on fire? Or is the symbolism of passion only apparent to her enamoured painter?

This is such a refreshingly well-done movie; as the style – honest, gentle, un-rushed, erotically but never exploitatively charged – so well synchronises with the story of the movie. The French seem to have mastered the storytelling of love so well. No apologies. No mawkishness. No embarrassment. No irony.

Just love

 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE Dir/Writer: Céline Sciamma. With Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino. Cinematographer: Claire Mathon. Production Designer: Thomas Grézaud. Costume Designer: Dorothée Guiraud. Composers: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini

 

 

 

DARK WATERS**** A Clear Winner


THIS JUST IN: 99% of us have Teflon, that easy to clean, non-stick, quasi magical substance of so many sauce pans. It’s all inside us. Oh, by the way, Teflon is a carcinogenic. Teflon is made of a chemical compound known as PFOA or C8. It has been conclusively proven as a cause of multiple cancers, as well as kidney, liver and thyroid diseases. Not only will it kill you, it can lead to horrible newborn deformities.

And this miracle of science was all brought to you by Dupont. That uber powerful, uber profitable company knew about this decades ago. Their own people were dying. Other companies who had done the research (The Dow corporation) had warned them of the problem. And their senior executives had recognized the danger. What did they do about it? Fuck all. They kept on manufacturing their miracle frying pans. They dumped their killer chemicals into nearby rivers. They put waste material into drums and buried them, where they stayed buried…until the drums began to leach into the water supplies. And children’s teeth began to fall out; and their kidneys began to fail; and the cattle on their ranches began to die in spasms of pain.

Dark Waters is the tremendous, angry movie that lays bare the moral vacuum at the heart of the company (A stand in for so many others, from the cigarette companies to big oil to those multiple others that hide behind their corporate lawyers, their lobbyists, their PR spinners, their bought politicians). It follows the personal crusade of Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) as he grows more involved, more alarmed and more obsessed by the rancid criminal rot at the heart of the corporation.

Rob’s a young, nerdy, rising corporate defence attorney at a major legal corporation. It was his grandmother who recommended him to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp: Joker) one of her neighbours. Wilbur’s an old farmer whose land abuts that of a Dupont dumping ground and whose herd is being poisoned.

In a sense the plight of the farmer and his ailing community poisons Rob’s own conscience. He grows increasingly obsessed and blindly committed to a seemingly quixotic crusade (of taking on the power and money of corporate America). It is a poisonous obsession that impoverishes him, destabilizes his marriage and ruins his health. And all the while the company layers legal stonewalling, with bribery and payoffs and physical attacks on his clients, to intimidate him and close him down.

Dark Waters suggests we’re all shaped by two fundamentally different kinds of forces. On the one hand there’s the force of the immense strength of the big corporation, fuelled by the shared and amoral conviction that making money is its own justification. And there’s a deeper strength: that of the individual, unbowed in the face of enormous odds and armed with an unbeatable moral force. This is more than Dupont v Rob the crusading attorney. It’s the clash of the faceless corporation v the faces of the very people it presumes to serve. Profit v people.

The idea that’s twice repeated in the story and initially voiced by the ailing farmer and then reiterated by Rob is a simple one. He says, “The system is rigged. They want us to believe that it’ll protect us. But that’s a lie. We protect us. We do. Nobody else. Not the companies. Not the scientists. Not the government. Us”

And you wonder why the Americans have such a deep-seated need to arm themselves against the state?

As he has done in all his movies, director Todd Haynes (Carol, Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven) engages you with the compellingly credible humanity of his protagonists to illuminate and involve you with the issues he’s seeking to investigate; in this case, that of corporate malfeasance. He structures his story via a series of discoveries as seen through the naive eyes of his protagonist, Rob, who, like his audience, aren’t familiar with the nuances of chemistry. With Rob, we learn of and discover what PFOA is; we’re taught to understand how carbon molecules bond; how they repel water; and how that destroys us. We’re with Rob as he wades through a smokescreen of documents to unearth proof upon proof of the company’s prior knowledge of harm. Haynes doesn’t so much tell us a story as involve us as his ally; his co-conspirators.

As Rob, the always dependable Mark Ruffalo – who is on screen for almost the entire movie which he co-produced – is tremendous. He manages to skilfully convey the mania of being myopically obsessed and sleeplessly driven without ever losing his audience by seeming crazed. Ruffalo put on the pounds for the role to become an awkward, schlubby everyman. (And almost as it to put behind him his Hulk alter-ego by offering us a new-look kind of superhero).

As his long-suffering, increasingly fraught wife, Anne Hathaway is – after the disasters of the unwatchable The Last Thing He Wanted, Oceans Eight and Serenity- surprisingly convincing. She’s a low-keyed but powerful presence; a woman torn between her loyalty and love and the existential terror of facing the abyss at the heart her errant husband’s impossible mission.

This is a movie that leaves you “mad as hell” (And certainly for me personally as I was involved in the con of re-crafting the company’s image away from its -compromised- promise of “better living through chemistry” to the ennobling idea of “miracles of science”. We shifted the attention away from Teflon to Lycra. Fool me once…)

So to the good news: As a result of the heroism of Rob Bilott, the carcinogenic substance PFOA has been removed from all Teflon coatings at the mandate of the US EPA (environmental protection agency)

So now we’re all safe.

And you believe that, do you?

 

DARK WATERS. Dir: Todd Haynes. Writers: Matthew Carnahan (21 Bridges) and Mario Correa, based on Nathaniel Rich’s New Your Times article. With: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber. Cinematographer: Edward Lachman (Carol)

 

PARASITE ***** Brilliance from Korea


THE ENTIRE THESIS of this superb movie is encapsulated in a -farcical- visual pun: a grindingly poor, if inventively intelligent, family live almost underground…below the sight lines of the city (South Korea). No matter what they do, they just can’t escape their situation. They’re doomed to remain invisible. Upward mobility is literally impossible.

The exaggerated visual landscape of the movie contrasts the two worlds of the uber rich with the uber poor. We shift from one family’s dark subterranean ghetto (into which all the shit of the city flows) to the other – mirror – family’s vast, bright, fortress-like ‘castle’. Their castle of wealth is impregnable to the incursions of the poor. But, like the city without, it too harbours dark subterranean worlds, unknown even to them; worlds and lives fated to bubble up to the surface, like the destructive storm that batters the city and the we’ll-laid plans and carefully protected lives.

The story turns when Ki-Woo, the son of our poor family (Choi woo-Shik) – the parasites of the tale – is encouraged by a friend to deputize for him as the private English teacher to the daughter of our rich family . The friend also gifts Ki-Woo a rock that will supposedly bring them wealth and prosperity (Only magic or superstition can help?) He’s clearly talented, but doomed by the immutable social structures that exist, rock or no. Nevertheless, thanks to his, equally talented sister (Park so-dam), he forges the necessary documents and fabricates a credible persona. It’s the key that gains him entry into their bubble of wealth. Bit by bit, in often hilarious sequences, each of the family members (mom (Hye-jin Jang), dad (Kang-ho Song) and the sister) manages to con entry into the intimate, upstairs, world of these gullible rich.

There’s no question where Director Bong Joon Ho’s loyalties lie. His poor family, the Kim’s, are warm, funny, loving and tenderly knitted together. No matter their con, we’re on their side. The initial dark, basement scenes are lit by their familial love and cynicism. By contrast the bright world of the rich family, the Park’s, never shines with comparable familial tenderness. Relations between husband (Sun-kyun Lee) and wife (Yeo-jeong Choi) are respectful but stiff (even their – fully clothed –  lovemaking seem functional but passion free); their children (also a boy and a girl) are certainly cherished…if in a cold, formal way.

The problem lies with smell. To the rich, the poor smell bad. No matter how well they pretend to be other (more respectable) people, they smell wrong. Perhaps this is another one of director Bong’s (who also directed the fabulous and strange Okja) puns. The rich family begins to smell a rat.

And as the movie evolves from darkness to light, the tone turns from light to dark. What starts as farce and absurdist comedy morphs into mayhem and nightmare. This is storytelling at its most brilliant. Bong layers symbol upon symbol as his excoriating critique of his society is made tellingly powerful in this worldly fable of social heartlessness. This is Korea as stand in for the world. It is to be contrasted with Ken Loach’s Sorry I Missed You; his accurate if numbingly literal parochial essay on the English welfare system.

Art needs to take you out of the world in order to confront you with the world, as Parasite does so well. Otherwise it’s just a Guardian Long Read

 

PARASITE. Dir/writer: Bong Joon Ho. With: Kang-ho Song. Sun-kyun Lee. Yeo-jeong Jo. Woo-sik Choi. So-dam Park. Cinematographer: Kyung-pyo Hong