Thursday, November 28, 2019
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Marielle Heller from Tom Junod’s book and staring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, Chris Cooper as Jerry Vogel.
Picture Fred Rogers, alone, in the dark, sitting at a piano. Taping has concluded of a recent episode of his celebrated kids television show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (1968-2001). The crew has left. The set is empty. Rogers sits down at the piano. He absently plays a few notes. . . Then, suddenly, he pounds with both hands the lower register of the keyboard. The dissonant crash is startling. Fade out.
That’s about as close as we get to whatever inner discords mark the otherwise sunny and saintly nature of Mr. Rogers.
(He’s already admitted, earlier in the film, that a two-hand crash on a keyboard helps him cope with life’s troubling realities.)
People attending A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD may be forgiven their confusion at encountering a story that’s more about a magazine journalist, Lloyd Vogel, assigned to write for Esquire a character profile of Rogers, than it is about Rogers himself. They’ve fallen victim to the marketing of the film which cleverly conceals this disproportion. And that was my own growing confusion—even consternation—as I watched. For more than half the movie we’re caught up with Lloyd’s personal and emotional problems: He’s not happy with his responsibilities as the dad of a new baby and he hates his dad. The movie seems to have jumped the tracks from Mr. Rogers’ table-top neighborhood, which the film repeatedly references, and entered another reality. We ask questions: Do I care about Lloyd’s problems? Wouldn’t I rather know more about Mr. Rogers? Why is this movie keeping us at a distance from him?
How you respond to those questions determines your take on this film. I predict many viewers will begin to squirm, wondering, Where the hell is Mr. Rogers??? Aside from devoted performances by Tom Hanks, a tense Matthew Rhys, and, particularly, the admirable Chris Cooper, the few scant scenes showing Rogers “ministering” to Lloyd’s anxieties and traumas with a handful of homilies about love and forgiveness and a minutes of prayerful silence while dining with Lloyd—and “ministering” properly describes Roger’s delicate counseling of the man—fail to convince. Lloyd comes away redeemed, newly accepting his paternal responsibilities and forgiving his ailing father’s sins.
I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. We never can get close to a saint, says a character early in the film. We have to be content with a few scenes of him playing on the set of his table-top neighborhood, crouching behind his beloved puppets, performing a piano duet at home with his wife (the music is Schumann’s Bilder von Osten), enjoying a serenade on the subway by fellow passengers, and dispensing crooked smiles to one and all. And, oh yes—there’s his visit to Lloyd’s terminally ill father: “I asked him to pray for me,” Rogers tells Lloyd later.
But what echoes in our ears is that crash of notes from Rogers’ piano.
Even in a table-top world, the dissonance is troubling.
Thursday, November 21, 2019
When the Greek hero Theseus ventured into the center of a maze, he found a dreadful monster, the Minotaur. There was a fight. Theseus emerged victorious. Now, let’s leave myth behind and consider a contemporary situation: Picture an ambitious young corporate lawyer, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), crouching on the floor of a warehouse, surrounded by piles and piles of boxes, files, and notes. This is his Maze. At its center he finds something just as monstrous—a beast we know by name of DuPont. There’s nothing mythical about this monster. It’s a chemical giant suspected of manufacturing products that are poisoning hundreds of thousands of people. Our young hero takes up the battle. And the winner is... ?
DARK WATERS is based on the true story of a legal tussle between the citizens of the town of Parkersburg, Pennsylvania and a “minotaur” known as the DuPont company. DuPont owns the town. It employs its people. It’s also devouring its citizens: Its nearby factories are poisoning the livestock, the people, the wells and rivers. Something is in the water. Lawyer Bilott, while shouldering his way through the maze of documents, finds references to a mysterious substance called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which turns out to be a form of ammonium salt used as surfactant in the emulsion polymerization of PTFE. It’s a likely carcinogen.
Its best-known product is known today as Teflon.
It coats our pots and pans, our clothes, our carpets. We eat it, we wear it, we walk on it.
Mark Ruffalo lends his quietly charismatic gravitas to the crusading Robert Bilott. He places his firm in jeopardy when he leads the charge against DuPont. While negotiating the legal procedures, delays, deceptive practices arrayed against him, the town around him is dying. His family life suffers. Indeed, he is succumbing to the ills he is endeavouring to expose.
As the latest entry in films investigating social, political, and corporate corruption—just a few months ago, we had Official Secrets, about a whistleblower exposing a conspiracy behind America’s invasion of Iraq—DARK WATERS wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no questioning its crusading zeal and its passionate commitment. Like Robert Bilott, it is driven by what amounts to a monomania. We are drawn into its maze and we hate the Monster at its center. Yet, if we pause and pull back for a moment, we might question its black-and-white depiction of corporate corruption. There’s little room for ambiguity. Teflon and its related products are in all of us, and it’s only a matter of time before we all are affected. We’re scared to death. And the movie offers us little consolation.
Later, out of the theater in the daylight, the movie’s dreadful message behind us, we might pause and do some investigating on our own. We can cruise the internet to see if the ills laid at the door of Teflon are based in fact. Warning: If you do this, you find that Teflon is dangerous, that it’s not dangerous, that we don’t really know.
No matter. The Monster bides its time.
Dark Waters opens in Kansas City theatres on Friday, December 6th.
Thursday, November 7, 2019
Written and directed by Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. Starring Edward Norton as Lionel, Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, and Bruce Willis as Frank Minna.
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is not only one of the best films of the year but it features an amazing performance by director-writer Edward Norton.
The term “gumshoe” not only describes the genre of this neo-noir detective story but it also pertains to our gum-chewing protagonist, Lionel, whose nickname, “Motherless Brooklyn,” was conferred upon him as an orphan boy. Afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, Lionel chews gum to stabilize his errant, erratic thought processes. Indeed, Tourettes is not just a gimmick but an important element in the storyline. It not only inflects Lionel’s speech with unpredictable non-sequitors and bursts of profanity, but also fuels his obsession with detail and order, which eventually enables him to sort out the byzantine complexities of the murder mystery at the story’s heart.
When we first see Lionel, he’s picking at the loose threads of the cuff of his sweater. A perfect representative anecdote for the relentless way he picks apart the loose threads of the plot’s puzzle and weaves the strands back into a coherent solution.
Lionel works for a smart detective named Frank Minna. When Frank is killed during an aborted investigation, Lionel sets to work to solve and avenge his mentor’s death. As he seeks out suspects and suffers periodic ambushes from bad guys (a standard trope in detective noirs), he uncovers rampant corruption in the mean streets of New York City. At the center of the maze of corruption is Moses Randolph, a power-hungry builder who razes lower working-class districts and erects bridges in his unrelenting drive for power and influence. The resemblance between Moses and President Trump is obvious from the start. A racist and sexist sociopath who cares nothing about human values, Moses declaims, “I don’t obey the rules, I’m ahead of them.”
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a wonderful, albeit unheralded surprise. Here is a New York City in the late 1950s rich in period detail. As is proper to all urban noirs, Lionel’s odyssey takes from glitzy City Hall to seedy back alleys, trash-strewn streets, and smoke-filled jazz joints—all important scenic characters on their own.
In one of the finest onscreen performances of the year, Edward Norton invests his Tourettes-afflicted character with an endearing, even delicate deadpan charm and sincerity. A weirdly comic tone prevails; and we never know when a sudden outburst in speech or behavior will disrupt the action, either exposing him to danger or propelling him further into the secrets of the convoluted plot. The affinities between MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and other classic noirs, particularly Chinatown and The Two Jakes, are apparent enough and have been commented on by many critics. So, let’s leave that alone and just savor a film that is whip-smart and visually delectable in its own sordid majesty.