#MovieTalk Just Mercy & Dark Waters Reviews

I’m not gonna talk about the thing cos everyone’s talking about the thing and there isn’t anything I can really add to that discussion. Listen to the scientists and strategists, spare a thought for healthcare workers on the front lines, donate to food banks and shelters. Don’t be assholes.

I’m gonna talk about movies. What a bizarre time to peek behind the curtain of Big Money Hollywood. It started with Bond 25 nixing its premiere next month (so much for my birthday plans) and shifting all the way to November. After that the box office dominoes toppled one by one and essentially there won’t be any new releases for the next couple of months. Unprecedented doesn’t even begin to describe it. I saw an estimate of a $20bn hit to the industry. Who knows? Deadline just reported that Universal Studios will be releasing “The Invisible Man”, and “The Hunt” on VOD THIS WEEKEND! They are scrambling to figure out some kind of stopgap but no one can say for sure what the immediate future is going to look like.

So instead I’m going to look at the recent past, at some of the movies from last year or early this year that I didn’t cover here. For starters: 2 very strong movies that got lost in the awards season rush, both powerful, real-life legal dramas in the form of “Just Mercy” starring Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx, and “Dark Water” starring Mark Ruffalo.

“Just Mercy”: My brother and I took my mom to see this stirring drama about the early career of lawyer, activist and human rights champion Bryan Stevenson. I gotta say my mom is the polar opposite of me when it comes to movies; she can go years without watching a single film! Oh she might dabble in the occasional episode of scripted TV but feature-length movies are a no-no. Yet whenever we’re together I always try to get her to see at least one. Last time it was Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”, which she still brings up to this day. I wasn’t sure how she’d respond to “Just Mercy” as I hadn’t seen it myself and it definitely started slow, you know, exposition-heavy. But everything seemed to lock in place once Michael B Jordan’s young idealistic lawyer makes the trip to death row and meets Jamie Foxx’s guarded, broken down lifer, Walter “Johnny D” McMillan.

And then it gripped you. And broke your heart. Enraged and invigorated you as it broke your heart again and again. Michael B Jordan is solid, if too straightforwardly heroic; Jamie Foxx reminds us why he has an Oscar and could scoop another one up tomorrow. Brie Larson is woefully underutilized, mainly as a sounding board for Michael B., but the two performances that stayed with me were in supporting roles, Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan, both playing convicted killers with much fuller arcs than the main characters. Not one false note in these two transfixing performances.

Now a good legal drama will shine a light on real-world injustice and get you to where the lawyer in the film is trying to get the jury by the third act. “Just Mercy” does something more, something brave and unexpected: it forces questions about human dignity for those we consider monsters. The ones who are rightfully convicted. The actual guilty murderers languishing on death row.

Back in the ’90s, Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile” took on that same challenge and remains one of the most affecting prison-set films of all time (even without the literal “magical negro” stuff). What Destin Daniel Cretton examines in “Just Mercy” isn’t simply if a man is guilty or not but then if he is guilty, does his inhumane act make him unhuman? Does it become okay for society to disregard him as such? The question matters because it’s at the heart of the work Bryan Stevenson has done over the years through the Equal Justice Initiative and it’s one we rarely consider.

(The end scroll for this movie is crushing and honestly kind of terrifying.)

I thought “Just Mercy” was really solid. My mom however absolutely loved it and asked, as we left the theater, if I thought it was too late for her to become a civil rights activist. I can’t think of a more glowing review.

“Dark Waters”: You might think this was designed merely as an Oscar vehicle for Mark Ruffalo, who’s absolutely great in that scruffy, dogged Mark Ruffalo chasing a bone kinda way. On the surface, it appears to be a familiar story about important things we assume we know and an outcome that feels inevitable. I’m guessing this is why it was mostly overlooked by viewers, lost in the glut of awards season contenders. What a shame as it turned out to be one of the top tier films of this genre, detailing a true story that’s almost unbelievably insidious and yet ever so relevant that I left the theatre feeling sick to my stomach.

Yes, megacorporations are heartless and only care about the bottom line. They are nasty machines that will steamroll any obstacles that get in the way of their profits. Even when they lose they don’t actually lose and the little guy doesn’t stand a chance. But what if the little guy is millions of people? Tens of millions? What if the little guy is 7.2 billion people?

“Dark Waters” starts with some dead cows on one small farm, and a single corporate lawyer’s conscience. He works for the company being sued but the farm is in his hometown, just up the road from where he grew up. He wants to help the farmer out, prove to him that he’s being paranoid and the manufacturing company he represents, Dupont Chemicals, has nothing to do with dead cows, so the lawyer agrees to look into it.

That description alone doesn’t sound at all unfamiliar as a set up and yet it plays like something new. Uncharacteristically, I went into this film not knowing who was in it beyond Ruffalo or even who directed it, and had to resist the urge to pull out my phone and check as early as 5 minutes in. Something about the way it was staged, the calmness and confidence of the pacing, it didn’t feel mechanical. It felt… human. Casting the excellent Bill Camp, one of the finest character actors working today, as the stubborn, distressed farmer is textbook but he’s used so lovingly, so honestly. The whole movie plays truthfully in a way that keeps it grounded even when the surprises are larger than life. I wasn’t angry at characters. I was enraged at real-world people, at the EPA, at Dupont Fucking Chemicals which KNOWINGLY used cancer-causing chemicals in its miracle everyday household items (from non-stick pans to wax paper to water-resistant coating on showerheads, and virtually everything in your house)… and they did this FOR DECADES, only finally banning the cancer-causing agent in 2013 after suffering calamitous, multi-hundred million dollar defeats in court.

No surprise then that this story is so excellently handled by Todd Haynes who’s probably best known for his Oscar-winning films “Far From Heaven”, “Carol” or that bizarre Bob Dylan biopic where he’s played by multiple different actors. Essentially he’s an auteur and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of my absolute favourite things is when an auteur takes on a genre film like this. Auteurs basically don’t give a fuck about whether or not they’re making a box-office success; their primary concern is staying true to their vision. 85% of the time it means a film that’s only going to be enjoyable to a handful of cinephiles or stans, but every now and then you’ll get Stephen Soderbergh doing a hesit film and bam “Ocean’s 11”, or Darren Aronofsky doing body horror and voila, “Black Swan”.

While “Dark Waters” isn’t as showy as those two, it is a superbly crafted legal drama, an important film that retells a very ugly truth, wrapped around one man’s decades-long quest to bring accountability to the often callous, hazardous, mass manipulations of the big manufacturing world.

Next time I’ll cover multi-award winning war spectacle “1917” and my favourite undiscovered gem from last year, Japanese family dramedy “Shoplifters”.

Jah bless and be kind when you can. This whole shit’s a fucking mess.

P. S.- “The Invisible Man” was unexpectedly good, wasn’t it? Like I really didn’t see it coming but they found a way to make it current and interesting and surprising and clever and fun. Elizabeth Moss is such a fucking boss actress.

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Written by Rich Wagaba (2)

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