Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews. 05 Mar, 2020
THE WAY BACK ***1/2 (108 minutes) M
Doing battle with the demon drink is a theme that has long provided rich fodder for films, and it does so again in a moving tale of depression and redemption as an alcoholic is offered a shot of getting his shattered life back together.
The power of booze to derail a person’s future is vividly demonstrated through the sorry tale of Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck). Once a promising high school basketballer, a family tragedy has driven him to the bottle, or rather the can, dozens of which fill up the shelves of his fridge.
A job in construction pays the bills but his family life is a mess. Estranged from his wife, his sister tries helping out, but she’s too often at the wrong end of his temper.
Out of the blue comes an offer to coach the basketball team at the Catholic school where he was a much-lauded champion, and where his name still festoons its trophy cabinets and walls. The sight of them once filled him with pride, now they fill him with the shame of wasted potential.
The school’s team did well for a few years after his departure but it’s now the loser of the league. The players are an undisciplined, unmotivated rabble in dire need of leadership and inspiration.
What better calling could Cunningham pray for to provide structure for his empty life and purpose for his bruised soul? And as life continually teaches us, who better to provide inspiration than somebody who needs it themselves? The sight of seeing people be inspired can itself be inspiring.
It’s a wobbly road for Cunningham, of course. His love of swearing is a prominent problem for his God-fearing, rule-loving supporters at the school who do their best to guide him on his road to victory.
Affleck has made no secret of his long-standing drinking problems and the experience seems to have informed his authentic, often ugly portrait of a man teetering on the event horizon of complete collapse. It’s a searing, raw performance, easily Affleck’s best since directing himself in 2012’s Oscar-winning Argo.
The film does have an unapologetically religious element, though director Gavin O’Connor (he did the sports films Miracle and Warrior, and directed Affleck in The Accountant) never pushes it beyond its proper place in the bigger drama of Cunningham’s quest for redemption.
The film falls squarely into the genre of value-added sports films where people “find” themselves through the revelatory rigours of competition.
Many of these films have spiritual elements – think Rocky, Chariots of Fire, Field of Dreams – with the message that all people, no matter how distressed, can be reached and redeemed.
The Way Back also belongs to that long line of noble films to tackle the destructive evils of alcoholism, the eternal – and oh-so-true – message being that there is no problem a person can have that can’t be made worse by trying to drink it away.
Hence, there is a degree of predictability to the film, its narrative contours holding fairly close to the conventions of the genres dealing with sport and alcohol.
This, however, does not detract from the gritty, honest quality of the film or from the veracity of the things it has to say about self-control, self-awareness and self-respect – those three things alcohol robs you of, as the history of booze-related films have explored over and over.
DARK WATERS ***1/2 (127 minutes) M
Anybody who has even a passing familiarity with good lawyer films know how large corporations don’t tend to come out smelling all that sweet once justice has been served.
It’s almost become a cliche, yet so many of these films are based on often harrowing true stories where companies use their might, size and incalculable wealth to fend off, quash and silence ordinary folk who dare to make a fuss.
That tradition continues in Dark Waters, an absolutely ripper legal drama about one lawyer’s battle against the megalithic DuPont chemical company.
Based on the New York Times article The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, the decades-long tale takes flight in the 1990s when unassuming Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) reluctantly takes an unscheduled meeting with a farmer armed with a box of VHS tapes.
The claim by cattle farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) is that the tapes prove his water is contaminated, and that DuPont is responsible.
It’s a hard call for Bilott, whose firm makes its living defending big companies and arranging settlements with the aggrieved. But as the farmer is friends with his grandma who lives in the area, he does some off-the-book reconnaissance and is shocked at what he discovers.
Bilott then embarks on a long and winding road of discovery that initially has the support of his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), who acknowledges the principles of corporate citizenship, and at obvious odds with DuPont, whose lead legal guy (Victor Garber) feigns concern.
As the case heats up with more and more cases being uncovered, the enormity of Bilott’s battle takes vivid physical form. Upon asking for documents from DuPont he receives a roomful of boxes stuffed with files.
The tactic (which we’ve seen before) is to intimidate and overwhelm, but it backfires. Driven by his dogged persistence and hunger for the truth, Bilott begins going through each box, allowing him to learn more about the length and depth of DuPont’s misconduct than anyone.
Blessed with strong, restrained direction from Todd Haynes (making an impressive, overdue move away from gay-themed films such as Far From Heaven and Carol) Dark Waters is a compelling legal procedural nailed by a great central performance by Mark Ruffalo.
In contrast to the sensation and histrionics we usually associate with top-flight legal dramas, Ruffalo portrays Bilott as an understated, meek, bookish soul who prefers prosecuting his case with reason, facts and an unrelenting belief not just in the truth, but in making a corporate giant do what’s morally right.
While the proverbial David & Goliath conflict at play here is a common dramatic template at the heart of many legal dramas – Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, Class Action, The Rainmaker, The Verdict – the distinguishing feature that marks Dark Waters is the methodical, measured pacing, which really draws you deep into the story.
There is also, admittedly, a dark fascination in seeing how flagrantly giant companies mess with people’s lives, acting with apparent impunity and disregard for public health. As an expose about corporate malfeasance, the film is especially topical and timely given the findings of the recent banking inquiry.
We also see the personal toll Robert Bilott’s crusade exacted on his home life, his health and his marriage. It is a tad surprising to see an A-list actress such as Anne Hathaway in a relatively small but important role as his wife. She doesn’t get that much screen time, but Hathaway puts in a punchy performance.
The only real quibble is how the film wraps things up a little quickly once Bilott hits the courts and begins putting DuPont executives through the wringer. It would have been good to have a few more minutes of him in full flight in court and at the deposition table. Yes, it is possible for a critic to carp about a two-hour drama not being long enough!
Along with cool, moody cinematography suggesting an eternal winter, the film is spangled with subtle, effective period touches such as internet searches on Alta Vista, firing up Windows 2000 and complaining about bad signals on vintage mobile phones.
So soon after Richard Jewell, Dark Waters is yet another laudable example of how proficiently and promptly American cinema embeds the fortitude and courage of its heroes onto the big screen. The trend has really taken hold over the past decade and has producing some top-line, fact-based films.
And it’s interesting, if not telling, to see that while the film has been the subject of conjecture about how fairly it portrays DuPont, there hasn’t as yet been any legal action.
Dark Waters seems to have popped up suddenly, so here’s hoping it finds the discerning, adult audience it deserves.
HONEYLAND **** (86 minutes) M
The art of observational documentary is in full flourish in Honeyland, an outstanding example of anthropological cinema by directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov who take us into the harsh lives of folk who work lands that are remote and unforgiving.
In the rocky mountains of North Macedonia Hatidze Muratova eeks out a meagre living for herself and her aged, invalid mother by harvesting honey from several precious beehives.
It’s a bitter, hard life; she lives without luxury or electricity, a battery-powered radio being her only mod-con, provided she can get a signal from her home-made antenna, which is a metal plate hammered onto one end of a pole.
Her only joy seems to be going to markets to sell her wares. It’s barely enough to get by, but she gets by.
Then the new neighbours move in to the shambolic homestead next to her. They, too, want to make honey, along with raising cattle and growing corn.
They bring friendship but also disruption to Hatidze’s life. The neighbour’s plan to make commercial amounts of honey and their bees are likely to attack her bees.
Also, the father does not seem especially skilled in the art of protecting his many children from the many bee stings that inevitably come from such proximity.
And there are bees all over the place. We see a bee land on a toddler’s head, crawl up along the side and deliver a nasty sting. There’s a disturbing shot of a girl with a bloated eye because of a sting. The kids are constantly waving them away, which doesn’t stop the stinging. One boy even reaches breaking point when his father forces him to work the hives with no protection.
The directors and their small crew, including two cinematographers, spent three years filming, amassing some 400 hours of footage. From such a mound of material they have sculpted a visually rich portrait of poor working people whose connection to modern society is tenuous.
The compositions are often beautiful and artistically lit, especially on faces in close-up. This is in perfect contrast to what they are unobtrusively capturing.
There is no narration and much of the dialogue isn’t subtitled, allowing the film’s visuals to tell the stories of these people with impressionistic flair.
We often hear about the healthy benefits of rural life, but it’s got to be said that whatever the benefits supposedly are of having all that fresh, clean mountain air to breathe, the ageing process does not appear to be one of them.
Revealed early in the film is the year Hatidze Muratova was born. Either it’s a mistake or testament to how a hard life of bee-keeping can really take it out of you.
DOWNHILL * (86 minutes) M
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus star in a witless, pointless remake of the marvelous 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure about a father who abandons his family when an avalanche interrupts their skiing holiday. Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – it took two directors to make this? – squeeze a couple of laughs out of their leads, but the attempt to deal with the morals of the moment is dire. Inaccurately described as a black comedy, Downhill has neither the bite nor the daring to deserve that over-used term.
ESCAPE AND EVASION *1/2 (95 minutes) MA
You certainly can’t argue with the good intentions of Escape and Evasion, an Australian film that tries ever-so-hard to address the plight of returned soldiers while delivering a dramatically driven action thriller.
Regrettably, good intentions do not automatically make a good movie. Escape and Evasion certainly strives to be potent and punchy, but scatty direction, implausible action sequences, thin production values and dashes of cringeworthy melodrama keep it from hitting the marks it is so obviously aiming for.
Seth (Josh McConville) is a special forces soldier who has returned from active service in Myanmar. He’s the only survivor of a covert mission that went very wrong, both for his team and for himself.
Estranged from his wife and daughter, he lives alone in a shack with nothing but horrific flashbacks and a loaded pistol for company.
What he experienced has given him a crippling case of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though he fights to keep sane so he can be allowed to continue seeing his daughter Lizzy (Jessi Robertson, another child actor doing good work in a not-so-good film).
Yet his memories of battle haunt him, creating hallucinations that strike him down while in public.
He is contacted by Rebecca (Bonnie Sveen), a journalist whose brother Josh (Hugh Sheridan) was one of the men lost in the jungle. She wants answers to questions he doesn’t want to hear, yet he feels a connection with her that offers some solace in his loneliness.
Eventually he opens up about what’s locked in his head and the film cuts to the longest in a series of flashbacks that fully explains what happened to him and his men, and why he has such trouble sleeping.
To give him his due, McConville does a fairly good job portraying a soldier afflicted with PTSD, and kudos to writer/director Storm Ashwood for having the fortitude to make a movie with the suffering of returned Australian soldiers at the heart of its story.
If only it was a better film.
There is some very shaky acting in Escape and Evasion, with Rena Owen’s turn as a tough senior military official being especially unconvincing.
And while McConville has his big moments showing a man in deep trauma, he is far less effective in domestic scenes with his family. Supposedly ridden with anxiety, he comes over as a bland brute rather than somebody deserving of sympathy or who seeks understanding.
The film is blighted by haphazard direction and all-too-obvious movie references that often make Escape and Evasion feel like Apocalypse Now-Lite.
The over-use of a film reference is an issue we saw with the recent Australian family film Go!, which drew too much from The Karate Kid. As with that film, at some point in the making of this film somebody should have complained that the borrowing was too obvious for the audience to take, and to think of something fresh.
As for the dialogue, many scenes contain clunky exchanges that sound like they’re taken from the page in the screenwriter’s notebook headed “what this movie is about”. It comes over as lazy exposition.
There is also an awkward sex scene that just doesn’t work, on any level. Unless, of course, one of the participants is an idiot.
Whatever woes beset the drama, the film gets into real trouble in the jungle.
Things are fine early on, yet at one point the film’s desire for realism suddenly evaporates and we get one of those battles where the enemy can’t seem to hit anything – not even with heavy machine guns – while our heroes can’t miss anything, regardless of whether they’re taking aim. It’s just poorly staged action.
The film has plenty of other lapses in plausibility and examples of shoddy acting, the bar fight scene, for instance. These all point to the film being a case of a good idea poorly executed.
And we’ve seen this before.
Given how far we are into the 21st century it is worrying that we are still seeing Australian films that look and sound like they went into production too soon, or with too little money – or both. We had more than enough of those in the 1980s and ’90s.
And here’s a footnote: the film refers to a psychiatrist named “Freud Lacan”. It’s meant to be a joke but it’s just another example of something in the film that should have been red-lined.