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Schultz reviews: ‘Dark Waters,’ ‘The Irishman’ & ‘Playmobil: The Movie’

Schultz reviews: ‘Dark Waters,’ ‘The Irishman’ & ‘Playmobil: The Movie’

Carl Schultz


“Dark Waters” Distributed by Focus Features, 126 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 22:

There’s a scene in the 1976 political drama “All the President’s Men” in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward need to request from a Library of Congress staff member every checkout slip processed in the past three years in one of the largest libraries in the world.  

“I’m not sure you want ‘em,” the sympathetic librarian tells them, “but I got ‘em.”  And in the next shot, the camera slowly pans upward to see the two reporters beginning to sift through tables and tables filled with hundreds of thousands of library checkout slips, in an attempt to find a single clue which will help them to solve the mystery behind the Watergate break-in.

There’s a similar scene in “Dark Waters,” the new fact-based legal thriller from Focus Features now playing in movie theaters across the United States. The in scene, the intrepid attorney played by actor Mark Ruffalo requests from the gigantic DuPort chemical conglomerate records of research material related to the manufacture of one specific compound.  

In reluctant compliance with the request — as well as an effort to discourage any future investigation by the government — DuPort sends the attorney dozens and dozens of packing crates filled with records. And with a sigh, Ruffalo as the attorney hunkers down in his law firm’s conference room to begin the Sisyphean task of examining the hundreds of thousands of documents, one by one.

Both scenes are important to their pictures’ narratives, enormously revealing background touches in unusually engrossing movies. The purpose of the segments is plain — that any result, is desirable enough, is worth working for.

If “Dark Waters” and 2000’s “Erin Brockovich” were playing as a double feature at a drive-in theater, you might feel compelled to leave halfway through the second movie . . . no matter which picture played first. But sometimes surface resemblances can be misleading — while the two pictures have similarities and both are informative and richly entertaining movies, a major difference is that the older picture’s conclusion is more satisfying . . . mostly because the events of “Dark Waters” are still playing out.

Adapted by screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan from writer Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” in “Dark Waters” a successful and upwardly mobile attorney for a prosperous corporate legal firm places his carefully-plotted career on hold to help a rural farmer pursue a complaint of a local refinery’s waste water is poisoning his cattle . . . and discovers that the case leads to the highest echelons of corporate America.

If neither DuPont nor Teflon are among the sponsors for this year’s Academy Awards broadcast, don’t be surprised to find Mark Ruffalo’s name among the Best Actor nominees for his role in “Dark Waters.” Ruffalo is the rare performer who puts his money where his mouth is — a dedicated social activist as well as a gifted actor. When the actor combines the two pursuits, people tend to take notice: 2015’s Academy Award-winning “Spotlight” is an example. In “Dark Waters,” Ruffalo seems to be trying hard to blend into the ensemble — after adding a few pounds to portray the real-life Robert Bilott, the actor resembles Oliver Platt — but his talent, and his social conscience, shine through in every scene.

“Dark Waters” is good, solid, smart motion picture entertainment. You have to work a little to keep up with the plot development — this is one picture for which your ninth grade chemistry will come in handy — and the picture’s conclusion isn’t completely reassuring. The ultimate message is as sobering and troubling as it is inspiring: ”THEY don’t protect us — WE protect us.” But if you think about it, that’s what Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and the other founding fathers were telling us all along.

Supporting Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway disguised in a succession of unflattering black wigs is wasted in a nothing role as Ruffalo’s brittle wife, but the reliable old pro Bill Pullman has fun in a showy little role as a seasoned and wiley small-town country lawyer who’s amused to find himself taking on big business for the first time in his career. And ubiquitous supporting player Bill Camp has the role of a lifetime, so persuasive as the crusty West Virginia rancher whose problems set the plot in motion that the viewer might well mistake him for the real deal.

Directed by Todd Haynes, “Dark Waters” is earning superb reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 97% from Rotten Tomatoes and 93% from Metacritic. The picture’s been gaining momentum at the box office — originally placed into a limited release pattern in only five locations across the United States and Canada, the film expanded into 94 theaters during its second week and entered the Box Office Mojo charts in 18th place. Now playing in 2012 theaters across the U.S. — about half the number as, say, “Frozen II” — the picture has risen to an impressive sixth place in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

“Dark Waters” is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, and strong language.

“Playmobil: The Movie” Distributed by Pathe Distribution, 99 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Dec. 6:

Playmobil is a line of children’s toys, a collection of plastic figures and accessories manufactured by the Brandstatter Group of Zimdorf, Germany, — sort of a German equivalent of the global phenomenon surrounding the popular Danish Lego building blocks. Lego building blocks, you’ll recall, are the basis of a series of genuinely funny, entertaining and enormously profitable animated pictures, including 2014’s “The Lego Movie” and its 2019 sequel, “The Lego Batman Movie” in 2017 and “The Lego Ninjago Movie” that same year.

Maybe you can see where this is going. Although the above information might seem relatively random, it seems to be the essential, driving force behind “Playmobil: The Movie,” the new motion picture from Pathe Distribution now opening in theaters across the United States and Canada.

Directed by 17-year Disney animation veteran Lino DiSalvo in his feature filmmaking debut, in “Playmobil: The Movie” an orphaned boy sneaks out at night to visit a toy museum which features a Playmobil exhibit, with his overprotective older sister in pursuit. When they’re magically transported into a series of Playmobil worlds, it’s up to the sister to rescue them both . . . with help from a helpful food truck driver.

With a maudlin, pandering script seemingly cobbled together by newcomers Blaise Hemingway, Greg Erb, and Jason Oremland from elements and plot ideas discarded from other, better movies, “Playmobil: The Movie” is plainly produced to highlight the various and diverse styles, motifs, and products manufactured by the Playmobil Company — western, fantasy and science fiction among them.  

But with none of the wit and style of the delightful features in the Lego pictures, let alone the seemingly endless series of masterpieces released by the Disney/Pixar Studios, the Playmobil people have produced something about as compelling as a 99-minute television advertisement for their company . . . which is essentially what the movie is.

Featuring the voice talents of Anya Taylor-Joy, Gabriel Bateman, Jim Gaffigan, SNL’s Kenan Thompson and Daniel Radcliffe, with a few original songs written and performed by Meghan Trainor and Adam Lambert, “Playmobil: The Movie” is earning abysmal reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of just 24% from Rotten Tomatoes and a weighted average of 25% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes in delivering their verdict states, “Much like the toys it advertises, ‘Playmobil: The Movie’ seems sadly destined to be regarded as a superficially similar yet less desirable alternative to the competition.”  

Released into 2,337 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Playmobil: The Movie” grossed less than $1 million during its opening weekend, leading the online entertainment website The A.V. Club to remark that “STX is dropping (the movie) into U.S. theaters the weekend after Thanksgiving without press screenings, giving it the authentic discount-bin appearance of a toy store going out of business.”

“Playmobil: The Movie” is rated PG for some action sequences and naughty humor.

“The Irishman” Distributed by Netflix Streaming Service, 209 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 27:

There’s a well-known story in theatrical circles, an actual incident which occurred early in the career of actor Robert DeNiro, during the 1960s. The young DeNiro was performing in an off-Broadway play in a small New York City theater, and a couple of people in the audience were carrying on an animated conversation, apparently oblivious to the drama onstage.

When the conversation in the audience finally became a distraction to the actors performing, DeNiro did the unthinkable: He broke character, stopped the play, stepped to the foot of the stage, and addressed the audience.

“Here’s the deal,” DeNiro said, “This is a theater. We’re the actors; you’re the audience. We talk, you listen. If you get that straight, you can stay.” And then the actor stepped back into his character, and the actors resumed the play uninterrupted.

Now considered among the very best actors in the world, entire books have been written over the years about DeNiro’s method of acting . . . but that anecdote might describe the actor’s style as effectively as entire volumes of artistic analysis — ”We talk, you listen.” The anecdote might also go a long way toward explaining the kind of roles he’s played over the years, or at least the ones for which he’s best-known — quiet, inarticulate, unassuming men who through necessity or a struggle for survival gain enormous power . . . often through unexpected and seemingly spontaneous explosions of violence.

Both qualities — the minimalist approach to the art of acting and the tendency toward unexpected violence — are on display for nearly the entire three-and-a-half hours of “The Irishman,” the new movie from director Martin Scorsese now playing on Netflix. Adapted by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian from attorney and prosecutor Charles Brandt’s narrative nonfiction book “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa,” Scorsese’s “The Irishman” tells the story of Frank Sheeran, a delivery truck driver and combat veteran of World War II who becomes a mob enforcer, a bodyguard to Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa . . . and eventually, at least according to Sheeran, Hoffa’s executioner.

During the sunset years of the cinematic career of Robert DeNiro, the actor has acquired a sort of natural gravity in his acting style. It’s a quality DeNiro has implied all throughout his storied career as a film actor. Even as the disturbed and repressed Vietnam veteran who turns to driving a hack to occupy his sleepless overnight hours in 1976’s “Taxi Driver” — an earlier collaboration with Scorsese — DeNiro portrayed during his climactic eruption of carnage a sort of operatic grace which eluded other actors of his generation, a generation which included Sylvester Stallone, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford and Jeff Bridges.  

Now, as Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman,” when DeNiro talks, we listen because his very presence seems to imply more than his words: His countenance alone suggests enormous power, and impending violence. Part of what makes his killings in the picture so terrifying, and so sickening, is that they’re committed so casually: When murdering an associate, DeNiro as Sheeran displays no more emotion that a man tying his shoe or brushing lint off his jacket. In his role, DeNiro talks and we listen because we’re afraid not to.

Making his entrance about an hour into the picture, actor Al Pacino as labor leader Jimmy Hoffa puts his storied natural charisma and magnetism to good use, and also adopts a sort of easy gregariousness and avuncular charm we’ve rarely if ever seen from him before — a new color in the actor’s cinematic palette.  Although the actor’s never been noted for sharing the screen with children, in “The Irishman” Sheeran’s preschool-aged daughter adores Pacino’s Hoffa even as she’s intimidated and terrified of DeNiro as her father . . . and it’s easy to see why. Unthinkable in Pacino’s classic performances in “Serpico” or “Dog Day Afternoon,” his Academy Award-winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” or even in “The Godfather” pictures, the actor’s sense of compelling magnetism makes the child’s devotion persuasive.  

A real scenery-chewer in recent years (for such a powerful and influential actor, it’s amazing how many of Pacino’s films seem to go straight to video, and then to the dollar stores or the discount bin at Walmart), Pacino resumes his more familiar overacting and screaming only later in the picture, after Hoffa is imprisoned in 1964 for bribery and fraud. The Teamster boss manages for a while to run his empire from behind bars, but must eventually relinquish his power in 1971 as part of a pardon agreement with the Nixon Administration to get out of jail. Stripped of his power and his mob-supplied muscle, Pacino’s Hoffa must use his own form of intimidation in an attempt to reacquire his influence over the Teamsters: His obstinate behavior — and his screaming — are part of the reason the mob sanctions his execution.  

The celebrated, and reportedly prohibitively expensive, “de-aging” effects which proved so underwhelming and unimpressive in the recent Will Smith science fiction action film “Gemini Man” prove to be a considerable distraction in Scorsese’s picture. Used to allow the 76-year-old DeNiro and the 79-year-old Pacino to inhabit their characters as much younger men, the process in practice causes the actors to seem as if they’re wearing masks of their younger selves — their faces seem disproportionately large for their heads. If you’ll remember Pacino’s grotesque, prosthetics-laden appearance as the comic strip character Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty’s 1990 version of “Dick Tracy,” you’ll get the general idea.

Moreover, the actors do not significantly modify their acting styles to accommodate their younger appearances: The decades might’ve been removed from their faces, but DeNiro especially still moves with the stiffened deliberation and practiced caution of an older man. Appropriately, the de-aging grows more persuasive, or rather less-distracting, as the movie unfolds and the characters grow older.  

The effect overall is employed most successfully on actor Joe Pesci. As the younger Russell Bufalino, Pesci simply revisits his familiar rabbity persona from “My Cousin Vinny” and “Goodfellas” and gradually grows more subdued, incrementally acquiring the gravity of the older mobster until by the film’s later scenes he’s assumed more or less his own actual natural physical appearance. Pesci’s is a virtuoso performance, expensive de-aging effects or not. “The Irishman” is Pesci’s first onscreen motion picture role in nearly a decade, since the unsuccessful 2010 drama “Love Ranch.” You don’t realize how much you’ve missed him until you see him again,

Age not diminished the ability of Martin Scorsese to create cinematic art: With “The Irishman” the director at age 77 seems more than even to have adopted the credo of the legendary filmmaker John Ford — just point the camera toward the action, and shoot. It’s a rudimentary style Scorsese employs for nearly the first three hours of the picture. Like 1990’s “Goodfellas,” “The Irishman” almost resembles a series of random scenes seemingly building to an unknown climax. Only during the final 40 minutes, before the viewer even realizes what’s happening, does the picture change gears to become lyrically insightful, profoundly moving, and even poetic, a cinematic equivalent to fine literature.  

“The Irishman” is one of a small handful of movies — ”The Godfather” is another — that only after the final scene unfolds reveals itself to be a motion picture classic. The picture is notable, even momentous, through the strength of its cinematic heritage alone — Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino. But through the contributions of Zaillian, the supporting cast, the creative staff, and the technical personnel working together under Scorsese’s direction, “The Irishman” automatically becomes one for the library, the missing link between “On the Waterfront” in 1953 and The Godfather Saga.  

From D.W. Griffith’s “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” in 1912 — usually named as the very first gangster film — through the movies of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the 1930s and 1940s, the Godfather pictures, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and even the previous collaborations of Scorsese and DeNiro, all seem to have been pointing to “The Irishman.” More than a gangster picture, more than a movie, more than art, “The Irishman” is history passing.

“The Irishman” is rated R for pervasive language and strong violence.

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