Foxcatcher


Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

(2014) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Daniel Hilt, Bryan Cook, David Zabriskie, Frederick Feeney, Alan Oppenheimer (voice). Directed by Bennett Miller

The making of a tragedy doesn’t necessarily unfold the way you’d expect. Sometimes there is a slow build in which there is a feeling of inevitability (but only when you look back). Most times it appears suddenly and without warning, turning lives and families upside down.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling from the 1984 Olympics but that doesn’t buy many groceries. He is subsisting on ramen, wrestling practice with his brother Dave (Ruffalo) who is a coach at the local college which supports his budding family including wife Nancy (Miller). Then Mark gets a bizarre phone call from one of the richest men in America – well, one of his flunkies – John DuPont (Carell), who wants to meet with Schultz. Mark doesn’t really have anything better to do so he heads out there.

It turns out that John, a kind of diffident, odd duck of a man has a thing for wrestling.  A big thing. He also has a bit of a patriotic streak. America’s wrestling program is chronically underfunded with facilities that can only be called archaic. DuPont wants to change all that, building a state-of-the-art world-class wrestling facility on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark, who doesn’t get enthusiastic about much, is enthusiastic about this. He pleads with his brother to come on board, but Dave – who like Mark underwent a vagabond-like childhood, moving from place to place – doesn’t want to put his children through the same thing and refuses to uproot them to move to the countryside outside of Philadelphia. Mark goes it alone.

Other wrestlers are brought on board but Mark is clearly DuPont’s favorite and when Mark wins the world championships that year, DuPont is clearly thrilled, taking Mark’s success as his success. In turn, Mark looks up at DuPont as a father figure.

Things begin to go sour though. DuPont introduces Mark to cocaine and Mark soon becomes addicted, skipping out on practices and showing up high or drunk. DuPont is concerned and brings in Dave to help right the ship, but Mark is clearly in an unhealthy place. Can his brother help pull the budding superstar out of his downward spiral in time for Olympic glory in Seoul?

This is clearly a morality play, as Bennett Miller’s two previous movies have been (Capote, Moneyball) but it’s also at the same time more than that. When you look back on it after having seen it, you’ll understand that there is also a randomness to the events, none of which would spell out the conclusion. In fact, Miller suggests, life sometimes isn’t a succession from A to Z. Sometimes it leaps around and ends up at Z after having gone from C to E to Q, followed by a stint in Chinese and Arabic characters, numerals and symbols.

There is a kind of chill in the look of the film, from the stark apartment Mark lives in at the beginning, the snow-covered farm in winter, even the somewhat antiseptic look of Foxcatcher itself. John DuPont tends to bottle up his emotions, often staring into space, wanting to say something, catching himself, and saying something else. The coldness of the film is a reflection of DuPont himself, and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story is also a reflection of DuPont, who speaks in a very deliberate manner.

What stands out here more than the story are the performances. Carell has been getting Oscar buzz since the film’s festival premiere and is almost a lock to get a nomination next week and, in my opinion, deservedly so. He underplays DuPont rather than overplays him, making him kind of the ultimate straight man, prone to eccentricities and never quite sure if he’s the butt of the joke or not. He is also a very wealthy man and he is used to being treated with deference. He is also a bit of a lonely boy, having had no friends other than those his mother (Redgrave) paid for. He is desperately trying to please her, but she thinks wrestling is “low” and he thinks that horses, which she has spent her life raising and riding, are “dumb.”

More surprising (and less talked about) are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum, who at one time was more of a pretty boy than an actor, has delivered the best performance of his career. I have to admit, he’s been getting steadily better and here he blossoms, showing that he can be as good an actor as anyone. There’s a scene where his frustration boils over in a hotel room and, furious at himself for not turning in an acceptable effort at least as far as he’s concerned, begins slapping himself in the face before graduating to pounding his fist on the walls and eventually, smashing his head into a mirror (which was ad libbed by the way – Tatum was initially not supposed to go that far). He has a kind of simian profile and at times a thousand yard stare that is positively chilling.

Ruffalo has in many ways the toughest job of the three. Dave is likable, supportive and charismatic. He makes it clear why everyone loved Dave Schultz who knew him – and plenty of people who didn’t. In many ways it’s kind of a white bread role but Ruffalo gives it depth and meaning. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Drama Golden Globe and has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, but at the Globes ran into the J.K. Simmons buzzsaw from Whiplash and likely will again but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful performance and in most any other year would be a clear Oscar favorite for the win.

Foxcatcher is a fairly dark film and might leave you feeling down, but there is something about it that carries a touch of the resilience of the human spirit. One character in particular escapes the alluring snare of Foxcatcher the training facility and ends up becoming better for it. This is definitely a movie that demands to be seen, particularly by those who are lovers of good movies, and it is definitely one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. No foreshadowing of final scenes which makes them even more shocking to those not familiar with the story.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe too laid-back and slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The glasses that Ruffalo wears in the film are Dave Schultz’ actual glasses, given to him by Schultz’ widow Nancy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Imitation Game

The Adventures of Tintin


The Adventures of Tintin

Tintin maps out his next move.

(2011) Family Adventure (Paramount) Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Tony Curran, Gad Elmaleh, Mackenzie Crook, Daniel Mays, Kim Stengel, Sebastian Roche, Cary Elwes, Phillip Rhys, Ron Bottitta, Joe Starr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The children of Europe may be more familiar with Tintin than the children of the United States but growing up he was a favorite of mine and my sister’s. Created by Hergé (the nom de plume of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi) in 1929, Tintin became a European sensation and a symbol of Belgian national pride until his run came to an end in 1976. Tintin continues to be hugely popular across the pond and while he did make some impact here in the States, his popularity is essentially centered in Europe.

Tintin (Bell) is a young reporter with a nose for news and an aptitude for trouble. He and his dog Snowy are roaming a local market when a model ship catches Tintin’s eye. When he buys it, a pair of gentlemen attempt to buy it away from him with one giving him a dire warning about danger from people “who don’t play nice.” That proves to be true.

The two buyers turn out to be Sakharine (Craig), a professorial and urbane villain and Barnaby (Starr), an Interpol agent who gets shot on Tintin’s doorstep. Tintin’s detective buddies, Thomson (Pegg) and Thompson (Frost) are on the case but they seem more interested in finding a serial pickpocket (Jones) than anything else.

Shortly thereafter Tintin gets kidnapped by Sakharine’s flunkies Alan (Mays) and Ernie (Crook) and brought aboard a dilapidated freighter where Tintin meets Captain Haddock (Serkis), the nominal master of the vessel whose ship has been stolen by Sakharine who paid off his crew and the crucial piece in the puzzle of the location of a fabulous pirate treasure and a centuries-old grudge.

This movie has been long-gestating with Spielberg, a long time avowed Tintin fan. Spielberg approached Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings movies to see about creating a CGI Snowy; Jackson in turn persuaded Spielberg to go the motion capture route (although ironically Snowy is a CGI creation). Jackson, also a Tintin fan from childhood, remained involved as a producer, a role he will exchange with Spielberg when the sequel is made once Jackson is through filming the two Hobbit movies he’s currently involved with.

Motion capture has had a checkered box office history with such films as The Polar Express, Beowulf and Mars Needs Moms. Tintin is already a box office success after doing tremendous business in Europe where it was released in late October 2011. American box office has been, in its first weekend of release somewhat tepid although it was never expected to be greeted with the same enthusiasm it was elsewhere in the world.

The look and feel is very much of an Indiana Jones film (which kind of brings Spielberg full circle) with a side dish of The Goonies and a heaping helping of Pirates of the Caribbean. Some people dislike motion capture because of the lifeless look of the human characters (whose faces are often masklike and the eyes lacking spark) but that’s not a problem here; the facial expressions are realistic and there are even times that you forget that you’re watching something generated by a computer.

Spielberg took great pains to make sure the characteristic look of the Hergé drawings are retained here, but they are certainly given three dimensions and are fleshed out (the opening credits, reminiscent of Spielberg’s Saul Bass-esque opening credits on Catch Me If You Can, look more truly like the original comics) which has also caused some purists to grouse.

The plot isn’t anything fans of the series will be unfamiliar with. It might be old hat for some, but to me anyway it never gets old to see an intrepid reporter up to his eyeballs in danger, beset by goons and involved in thrilling chases as they seek a fabulous treasure. This is what the old serials were all about and why I love them so much (and I’m not alone in that).

Bell makes an enthusiastic Tintin and does his job adequately; Serkis, however as the bumbling and alcoholic Captain Haddock is absolutely amazing. He is alternately comic relief and pathos, a man who lives with the burdens of his ancestry on his shoulders and finds himself lacking. There is a good deal of subtlety in his performance that is surprising in a film like this.

The point of this movie is entertainment and on that score it delivers big time. Kids are going to love this movie even if their sights are set on movies that have gotten more hype on the Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Tintin may not have the cache in the kid community that Shrek or Pixar might have but once kids give it a chance, they are going to be delighted. Adults will also find this fun and energetic enough to keep their interest. This isn’t quite as good as, say, Hugo but it makes for a great holiday movie to take your kids to.

REASONS TO GO: Nonstop action and adventure and the motion capture is photorealistic enough to make you forget from time to time that you’re watching computer-generated images.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little long and might be too intimidating for little kids.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some action-adventure violence, a fair amount of drunkenness on the part of Haddock and some smoking here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg became a fan of Tintin after a review comparing Raiders of the Lost Ark to Tintin piqued his interest enough to investigate the artwork. He has had the rights to the series since 1983; this is the first time he has made a movie based on a comic book character and is also the first animated feature he has directed.

HOME OR THEATER: I think this should be seen in the theater if possible and yes, in 3D if you can.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)