Vudu

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters (2019)

As the title suggests, Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters is no light piece of fluffy escapism, and its tone and weight feel even darker and heavier given the current state of the world. It is a film that forces you to confront sickness, death, and corruption head-on, like Robert Bilott, the protagonist of the story, convincingly underplayed by Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, you will be both disturbed and riveted.

The film opens on a warm night in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1975 when a trio of teenagers sneak onto private property, shuck off their clothes, and take a dip in the lake. A few seconds later, they are swiftly kicked out by the authorities, two men in a small power boat bearing the name “West Virginia Containment Services.” The men are in the midst of spraying a mysterious chemical onto the water’s surface as one of them shouts to the other, “Turn off the beam, fool!”, referring to the boat’s spotlight. Whatever they’re doing, it’s meant to be a secret.

 

Cut to 1998 in Cincinnati, where Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), a recent partner at the corporate law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, is paid an unexpected visit by a farmer from Parkersburg seeking his help. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) 

DARK WATERS AT A GLANCE

This frightening, powerful true story of DuPont Chemical’s poisoning of a small West Virginia town features a strong performance from Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers the truth.

 

PICTURE

The film is well made, but relies on a blue filter effect that’s distracting and ultimately unnecessary.

 

SOUND

Composer Marcelo Zavros’ score is particularly effective. 

claims that DuPont is poisoning his farm’s creek and thereby killing the animals—and he has proof. He needs a lawyer, though, and he wants Bilott, whose grandma lives in Parkersburg. Only problem is that Bilott defends chemical companies, he doesn’t sue them.

 

Bilott refuses at first, but a nagging curiosity brings him to Tennant’s farm in West Virginia, and what he sees there cannot be unseen—190 dead cows, people getting sick, and a mysterious landfill belonging to DuPont. Bilott eventually takes the case, as he is the only lawyer willing to face the juggernaut chemical company. Dark suspicions and alarming evidence begin piling up, as does the paperwork Bilott must sift through to uncover the horrible truth. It will take him many years to find it, and at what cost? His career? His family? His life?

 

Mark Ruffalo gives one of his best performances as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, which is the title of the New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich from which the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) is adapted. The supporting cast is equally strong and includes Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp (heart-breaking as Wilbur Tennant), and Anne Hathaway, particularly compelling as Bilott’s wife, Sarah.

 

The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is effective and in one scene, the use of the John Denver hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was particularly eerie juxtaposed with the film’s grim circumstances.

 

The look of the film, however, is its one weak spot. Nearly every scene is layered with a blue filter, used in an effort to manipulate the tone of the film, to make it feel somber and serious. The effect is overbearing and relentless. When we first see Tennant’s farm, for example, it is a dreary, blue day, and then when we revisit the farm more than a decade later, it looks exactly the same. The weather has not changed one iota. Did Haynes film it all on the same day using the same blue filter? His film does not need to rely on gimmicks. Dark Waters is an excellent movie; well-shot, well-scored, well-edited and well-acted, and these elements alone give us the tone. No filters necessary.

 

Despite this one qualm, Dark Waters is both frightening and powerful, and stands alongside the best of its genre like Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich. It’s so scary, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing it, you find yourself going through your kitchen cabinets and throwing out some of your non-stick pots and pans. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, 
Dig a Little Deeper.

Apollo 11

What was originally intended as a review has turned into a rant, and for that I apologize. But this needs to be griped about. When Todd Douglas Miller’s new “found footage” documentary Apollo 11 was announced for home video release, I scratched my head over the complete lack of a 4K home version. No 4K disc release. No 4K for Vudu or Amazon or iTunes. No 4K on Kaleidescape, even. The film was, after all, showing up in IMAX theaters. Why limit it to 1080p at home? I shrugged my shoulders, wrote it off as perhaps being due to the low quality of the original source elements, and went about my day.

Then I saw the trailer. In 4K. On YouTube, of all places. And with that, it took me all of thirty seconds to go through the first four stages of the Kübler-Ross model.

 

Denial: I cannot be seeing what I’m seeing.

 

Anger: Seriously? The film looks this gorgeous and we’re only getting an HD home video release?

 

Bargaining: Maybe if I send an angry email to the studio . . .

 

Depression: This sucks. People are going to skip this release because it’s not 4K, which means the studio is going to feel justified in its decision not to release it that way.

To understand why this is a big deal, we need to back up and talk for a minute about the realities of 4K. Most of the movies you buy in Ultra High Definition don’t actually include nearly enough resolution to justify it. Take Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, for example—my nomination for the most visually spectacular film of 2018. It was rendered in 2K resolution (2048×1080). Just a weensy bit higher-res than high-definition, and a long way from the 4,096 x 2,160 pixels that constitute cinema 4K or the 3,840 x 2,160 resolution technically known as UHD. Does that mean you shouldn’t buy Into the Spider-Verse in UHD? Of course not. The high dynamic range transfer is where the real magic of that film happens.

 

The thing is, this is true of most big Hollywood releases—especially those with any appreciable amount of digital effects wizardry. It’s the HDR that makes them worth buying in 4K. Not the pixel count.

 

But Apollo 11?

 

Sigh.

Apollo 11 is one of the handful of cinematic releases this year to actually exist in the form of a true 4K digital intermediate. The bulk of the film—at least the first and third acts—is sourced largely from 65mm military-grade archival footage, which was scanned at an incredible 16K (15360×8640) resolution.

 

Yes, it’s true that the middle passage of the film—the actual journey to the moon and back—is sourced largely from 16mm and 35mm sources, with some high-resolution photography thrown into the mix. But the opening 25 minutes or so, as well as the last 15 minutes or thereabouts, boast some of the most gorgeous imagery I’ve ever seen from the Apollo program, period. And watching in HD (as I did on Vudu), you can tell at times that some detail is being lost in the down-rezzing. The flag on the side of the Saturn V, for example. The faces of the anxious crowds awaiting the launch.

The biggest crime of this HD video release, though, is that one of the film’s most spectacular moments—the launch of the Saturn V—positively cries out to be seen in high dynamic range. You can tell that the burst of billowing fire flowing out of those massive rocket engines is being held back by the limited gamut of the HD video format.

 

Should you skip buying (or at least renting) the film as a result? Absolutely not, especially if you have the slightest interest in the space program. This is one of those rare documentaries that does no egregious editorializing, makes no attempt at historical perspective, adds no commentary except for the news broadcasts of the day or recordings from FIDO and CAPCOM, et al. In tone and content, Apollo 11 has far more in common with those amazing Spacecraft Films DVD archives released a decade and a half ago than something like Al Reinert’s moving documentary For All Mankind

 

In terms of its imagery, though? I’m a veritable Apollo junkie, and I’ve never seen anything like this film. It’s as much eye candy as it is informative documentary, and the fact that it’s Number One asset is being crippled for home video is a crime.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.