A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Foxcatcher” 12.21.14

Director Bennett Miller has only done 3 films up to this point in his 16-year career. But any serious film-goer or movie connoisseur understands the impact this evidently very talented and gifted young filmmaker has had on the rest of the entire film landscape and community. He has an undeniably assured approach to craft and is an A rate storyteller. In many ways he reminds me of the Coen Brothers with their almost storybook-like approach in the way their stories are told. Though without the Coens’ smaller-indie leanings or sense of obscurity. Miller is maybe the most accessible independent filmmaker that works mostly out of the studio system. With the growing popularity of other directors to make films that seem hip or cool, seemingly fitting for our times, what separates Miller from this crop is that he has a classic Hollywood style in the way in which he tells his stories. The sole exception being his brilliant debut, a documentary shot in black + white about a young New York City tour guide by the name of Timothy “Speed” Levitch called “The Cruise” (1998). I first saw “The Cruise” after hearing from believe it or not of all people, Edward Norton, who listed it as one of his top 5 favorite films of all time. It was around this time that I saw Miller’s second film and first feature film – the Academy Award winning “Capote” (2004), which arguably featured one of if not the best acting performances of the last decade by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. One that would garner him both an Oscar nomination and win for his spellbinding performance. The film also got nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director (Miller), and Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener) categories. It was a landmark achievement for the then 37-year old Miller, and brought him praise and accolades from the entire film industry at large. Then came in what I still consider to be Miller’s finest work to date (prior to seeing this film) 2011’s “Moneyball”, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies about the game of baseball. Like “Capote” it too garnered several Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt – in one of my still favorite roles of his second to only “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)), and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill). Miller once again established himself as one of the most sought after directors in that within his only 2 feature films to date, he’s received more Academy Award nominations than any other director over the course of just 2 films. Which is an amazing achievement in and of itself. The difference between Miller and more traditional Hollywood Oscar bait directors is that Miller doesn’t seem to have a care in the world other than that of his own for the type of material in which he chooses to explore. Both “Moneyball” and “Capote” are films that inhabit another time and place, tackling themes that one could look at as still being prevalent today, but in worlds seemingly unfamiliar to the ones in which most of us exist in. And while some people felt like “Moneyball” was more of a “feel good film”. If you really read between the lines and underlying subtext there’s nothing cheery or happy about it. After waiting only 3 years between his last film and this, it almost felt like a treat in that we were being given another film from a director who seems to take considerable amounts of time (6 years if you average them out) off between them. Knowing my love for everything Miller has come out with up to this point (all 3 films of his have fallen in the “A” range for me) it was inevitable that I would be one of the first in line to see his next release, and I made a point of seeing it opening weekend.

Based on a true story the film first introduces to one its 2 main leads – a former Olympic gold wrestler named Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum. Mark seems to be in a bit of a slump, as he wants to train and continue his career in Wrestling. But he essentially has no way of supporting himself outside of living off of his about to run out of money that he earned several years earlier, all the while picking up small, humiliating jobs like talking to schools about what it means to be a former Olympic gold winner. He then by a matter of chance gets a phone call one day by John du Pont, played by the almost unrecognizable Steve Carell, complete with a prosthetic nose, teeth, and hidden under layers of makeup. Du Pont’s family is one of the wealthiest families in the country and have been for generations, and he has an enormous estate where he trains his Olympic Wrestling team that goes by “Team Foxcatcher”. Coach du Pont gives Mark the opportunity of a lifetime to come join his team, with full privileges to everything he could have possibly imagined in his wildest dreams. A guest house that would put any other guest house to shame, top class training facilities, and as much money as he could ever want. Mark has an older brother David (played by Mark Ruffalo), another former Olympic gold winner, who also happens to be Mark’s Wrestling coach. Not wanting to pass up a golden opportunity Mark takes up du Pont’s offer to join Team Foxcatcher. On the surface the offer seems too good to be true, but as Mark begins to train and win bouts he slowly starts to rebuild and regain the confidence he once had that went missing. Not to mention that through this process he starts to form a special bond with Coach du Pont and begins to look up to him as not only a mentor but a father figure. Though as the movie unravels we get to see that there’s a lot more than what meets the eye. And the mentor/peer dynamic starts to take a dramatic turn. As does the addition of David who also after some serious convincing, agrees to come work for Coach du Pont and join Team Foxcatcher so that he can train with his younger brother. Also like his brother he has an apparent drive to be the best again. And also like his brother he is convinced that only Team Foxcatcher can help bring him to the top. But at what expense and to what lengths will the brothers go under the increasingly suspicious and paranoid Coach du Pont?

This film wound up falling slightly below my expectations which admittedly were set pretty high. The first thing I think that needs pointing out are the very solid performances by the film’s two brothers – Tatum and Ruffalo, both of whom give career best performances. I will say this about the acting though, for all the Awards hype around Steve Carell being the second front-runner for Best Actor behind Michael Keaton in “Birdman”, I thought the other 2 actors outshined him. Carell’s character reminded me somewhat of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in Miller’s “Capote”. However whereas Hoffman really shined acting-wise underneath his mostly physical performance, Carell doesn’t quite achieve a fraction of the same level of acting with his performance. Don’t get me wrong it’s a very fine one indeed. But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I felt like I wasn’t really watching all that much going on underneath the prosthetics, fake teeth, and makeup. As his performance came much more from the outside than in. A truly great performance, certainly an Award nominated one, should have you thinking that there’s no one else out there could have played the role other than that specific actor. And I didn’t really feel that way about Carell here. But that aside, both Ruffalo and Tatum (who I’m starting to gain a lot more respect for as an actor) really were the stand outs and both give knockout performances that one can really only sit back and admire at. The story itself has a lot to say about the abuses of wealth and power and how some people abuse them in selfish ways to try to gain what they want, when in actuality they’re so blinded they can’t see the impact that their ways have devastating effects on others around them. Both the relationships between the 2 brothers Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo), as well as that between Mark and Coach du Pont, are very complex and well depicted. Miller also adds an almost “Capote”-like restrained approach to the proceedings. There’s a a certain stillness about it all and at times it felt clinical in the way it looked at and portrayed its subjects. Music is essentially non-existent until the drama heightens in its last act. Within this approach though Miller captures some beautiful establishing shots of the team training in different environments along with picturesque shots at both dusk and dawn around the du Pont estate. It’s a calculated, assured piece of directing that shines through in almost every frame and shot, and it becomes obvious why he took home the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Films Festival. The few criticisms I had of the piece is that it felt tediously slow at times, like you’re waiting for something to happen outside of the central storyline of depicting the downward spiral between mentor (Carell) and mentee (Tatum). While those scenes were good in terms of context in building and driving the story, I felt like they could have trimmed down that portion a bit and the end result would have still been just as effective. Also, and this might be the most important thing I have to say about it, was that it was incredibly sad. So much so at times that it made a lot of the film borderline uncomfortable to watch. At least it felt that way to me. It’s a feel and tone that permeates throughout the film, from beginning to end, and is chock full of scenes that are bleak, tragic, and excruciatingly painful to watch. Do I think it needed to be in order to tell the obviously tragic true story? Well, maybe it did if it was trying to stay true to the story of showing exactly how the events unfolded. I just personally had a hard time with how Greek tragedy-like sad it was. While we watch one character get so psychologically damaged that his mental state slowly declines until there isn’t a semblance left of himself. While also watching another one of the other character’s reveal his true identity of the utterly despicable and deplorable man that he is. So for those reasons, even despite the stellar acting from its 3 leads, it becomes a bit tedious and too dark at times. Which I often times really enjoy. But when the feeling and tone is so despairing from beginning to end, it makes it very difficult for me to recommend it to anybody outside of the looking to be unapologetically challenged and wanting go to that really dark place. But if it’s something that you can endure and sit through despite that, what you’ll find is a compelling and thought-provoking story, with at least 2 of the better performances I’ve seen this year, and a pretty solid 3rd one as well. It also includes a shocking climax that had myself and everyone else in the audience gasping in their seats, not quite knowing what to do or think once the end credits rolled.

[B]

 

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Birdman’ or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) 11.15.16

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is perhaps maybe the single most influential filmmaker on my becoming a film student and how I view film. More than any other filmmaker I’ve written about on this blog up to this point. I didn’t really get into looking at film as an art form until I was around 18 years old, in 1999, when I took a film class my senior year in high school that was being offered for the first time. I remember vividly the teacher telling us that first day that we needed to be prepared to “never look at film the same way again”. It was that same year I really starting delving into films by directors who would go on to become some of my favorites – people like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. To name just a few. Then, a year after, just when I was really starting to formulate a film vocabulary and started developing a taste in what I liked or didn’t like, a film came out by a young director hailing from Mexico City, Mexico named Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu called “Amores Perros” (2000). It completely took me by storm and seemed to encapsulate everything I loved about the medium that I had learned about up to that point. It had an multi-thread, interwoven script about 3 well developed central characters, all of whom were interconnected as if by a mere act of chance. It brimmed with energy and was explosively violent shot with an assured sense of immediacy at times (just re-watch the opening 10 minutes and prepare to have your jaw gape) while switching gears and becoming incredibly patient at others. But most importantly, and what Innaritu went on to continue to explore in a lot of his work to come following, it focused on people facing life’s ultimate challenges (2003’s “21 Grams” and 2010’s “Biutiful”) from all walks of life all over the world (2006’s “Babel”). And in by watching and re watching those films it’s almost as if I started to develop my own sense of “cultural language” in film. Because Innaritu was and is one of the first international/foreign filmmakers to explore universal themes that affect almost everybody on a global scale. So it didn’t matter if his stories were set in Mexico, the US, Morocco, Japan, or Spain. Each film had an undeniably human element to them which I really connected to and identified with. Though many Innaritu detractors complained about his films being too depressing, too dark, too grim, and feeling all a bit too similar, which I guess I always felt like I could see but personally looked at his films as something deeper and uniquely different from one another. Then enter 2012-2013, and reports started to come in from film circles that Innaritu’s next project was going to be something that fell more into the comedic realm. A total 180 from his trademark stark and bleak dramas. One that would be set in New York City and star Michael Keaton, an actor who I had almost practically forgotten about since his heyday in the 1980’s where he played Batman in the Tim Burton version (1988) and who I couldn’t recall having seen in anything since Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). Though as was with any Innaritu film the level of excitement and anticipation for his next release was unprecedented.

The film opens to us taking a look at a levitating man (played by Michael Keaton), who seems to be preoccupied in some form of meditation. He sits in front of a mirror in a dressing room and has one of those internal dialogue monologues that give us some back story about who he is. A sort of has been once famous movie actor in a trilogy of films called “Birdman”. Soon after he is interrupted by his lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianakis) that his scene in his writing, directing, and acting in play is about to start, and we’re then introduced to a few of his actors (one of whom is played by Naomi Watts) as well as his freshly out of a stint in rehab daughter played by Emma Stone. An unexpected accident occurs, and with only 3 nights left until opening night of the play, he is forced to find a stand in. Enter Edward Norton’s character, who acts as said stand in, and who Galifianakis’ agent promises will double the size of his audience. Which his fledging play seemingly needs. We also meet his current lover (played by the ravishing Andrea Riseborough) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Can this be the comeback play his career so desperately needs? Or has his time come and gone and his resurgence as an actor be a complete and total failure?

“Birdman” winds up being a cinematic and theatre lover’s wet dream (as I so eloquently put it as the house lights in the theater and credits started rolling). It has more energy, more snap, crackle, pop, bang, and more ingenious elements encompassing it cinematically than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s director Innaritu’s masterpiece and has some of the most confidently assured and inspiring camera work that I’ve seen from any filmmaker in years. The way in which he zooms, zips, and swirls around every corridor and crevice of the theatre in which 95% of the film takes place in, is nothing short of a revolutionary feat. He captures it with the utmost authenticity depicting what the theatre scene is like through filming it with a mightily and very impressively minimal amount of takes and edits which makes the entire film feel like one long tracking shot. Which is a true testament to the art and craft of theatre. As anybody who is versed in the both the theatre and feature film medium knows that the major difference between the two forms understands that in the theatre there is no room for mistakes. Which comes across in the film and gives it a sense of urgency like the theatre which is executed perfectly on screen. Augmented by the dazzling cinematography by Emmanuel Luzbecki, fresh off his Oscar win from last year’s stunning “Gravity”. The whole affair is also brought to life by the incredible jazzy sounding and bopping score by Antonio Sanchez. Never mind the acting and performances, all of which are exemplary, but particularly that of Michael Keaton, which is sure to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and possibly put him in the frontrunner position to win. His borderline real life self-referential bravura performance proves to us all once again that actors don’t ever necessarily lose their gift, they just become older and are replaced by younger talent making it harder and harder to find a great script that suits them. And this character fits Keaton perfectly like a glove. Edward Norton is almost equally as impressive as a narcissistic, vain, and completely full of himself actor, also who’s aging, and who also seems to know underlying that his time is running out. Expect some awards buzz and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here as well as he is nothing short of dynamite. I also have a newfound deep respect and admiration for Emma Stone, perfectly cast here as Keaton’s post-rehab daughter/assistant, who really shines and proves why she’s considered to be such a talented and sought after young actress. Everybody in this rich ensemble piece really seems to bring the razor sharp screenplay by Innaritu and his writing team come to life. I could go on…and on…and on to talk about it’s satirical comment on the nature of celebrity and mental illness, dark comedic undertones, rich underlying symbolism, and ambiguous ending. But I’m afraid this would turn into something that looked more like a thesis than a film review. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu – you have finally made your masterpiece at 51 years old and 14 years into your career. With a film that should garner Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director (Innaritu), Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Cinematography (Luzbecki), Original Score/Screenplay, and Editing. This is hands down one of if not the best film of 2014. And a landmark achievement for both director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and star Michael Keaton. In a film that’s sure to explode over the next few months and catapult both of their careers into exciting new territory.

[A]