REVIEW: Foxcatcher

12 11 2014

FoxcatcherTelluride Film Festival

In the opening minutes of “Foxcatcher,” a quietly quotidian montage details the routine of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz, a wrestler living and training modestly in spite of winning gold at the 1984 Olympic Games.  The sequence concludes with him stepping behind a podium to address a less than captivated audience of elementary school students, and he begins with the line, “I want to talk about America.”

This opening remark appears to be a harbinger portending a film where director Bennett Miller will talk at us about America.  Ramming any sort of message down our throats, however, seems the last thing on Miller’s mind.  The deliberately paced and masterfully moody “Foxcatcher” provides a trove of discussion-worthy material about the dark underbelly of the world’s most powerful nation.  What Miller actually wants is to talk with us about America.

Miller works deftly within the framework of E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script, which itself feels beholden to no convention or genre. They slowly parse out information on the characters of the film, providing disturbing details and abnormal actions that do not lend themselves to easy explanation. “Foxcatcher” thrives on small moments that do not seem incredibly consequential as they occur, though their cumulative effect is quite the knockout.

The film crafted by Miller is not one of conventional capital-A “Acting.” It’s performance as being, not as much doing. While the talented trifecta of Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo still has plenty of events to live out, they function best as the shiniest components of a larger tonal machine. Miller expertly employs them to highlight the sinister undercurrents running beneath the eerie, brooding surface of “Foxcatcher.”

His proclivity for cutaways and long-held takes has a tendency to turn the characters into specimens, but such an approach also solicits active examination.  The film’s co-leads, Tatum and Carell, each carry themselves in an unconventional, magnified manner that invites peering past their appearances.  What lurks beneath are truly tormented men, each seeking a symbolic meaning system to bring them fulfillment.

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REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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REVIEW: Anonymous

28 04 2013

I know I’m always calling for directors to expand their horizons and try different kinds of movies to see if any surprising realizations result.  So I really hope this doesn’t come off as hypocritical, but Roland Emmerich should really just stick to apocalyptic disaster movies like “Independence Day” and “2012.”

I applaud the director for trying a conspiracy theory flick that actually plays like – gasp – drama, something that would appear to be totally out of his wheelhouse.  It’s far bolder a choice than, say, Michael Bay, whose “Pain and Gain” literally just appears to be a micro version of “Transformers” without those pesky anthropomorphic robots.  But now that we’ve found out that Emmerich is not capable of meeting the demands of something this serious, he should just go back to blowing up culturally iconic landmarks with his regular gusto.

Anonymous,” an exploration of the not-so-hotly debated question of Shakespeare’s authorship of his famous plays is pretty much a failure from the get-go.  I couldn’t keep up with any of the characters, which is a problem in a movie with many of them.  The relationships were fuzzy, and on top of that, alliances and allegiances were never clear.  For a movie on a human scale, these are basic necessities that need to be established.

Sometimes I zone out when watching movies but can pick up enough context to still follow the basic plot and direction of the film.  Such was not the case with “Anonymous,” surprising in a cast that included Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, and Oscar-winner Vanessa Redgrave.

I just thought it was a big, fat messy ink blot of a movie.  However, I bear no animosity for Roland Emmerich attempting to do something out of the ordinary.  There are many things “Anonymous” is not, although perhaps the only positive thing on that list is that the movie bears little to no resemblance to “2012.”  C-1halfstars

REVIEW: Letters to Juliet

7 12 2010

The Italian countryside has got to be the single most beautiful place in the world.  Apologies to Amanda Seyfried, but “Letters to Juliet” is a romance (not even comedy) that doesn’t deserve to feature the gorgeous country in its background.  Given the quality of the script, the disillusioned lover played by Seyfried should be traversing back alleys to find the long lost love of Claire (the graceful, ageless beauty Vanessa Redgrave).

Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy “Romeo & Juliet” gets a fairy-tale romantic twist here as Sophie (Seyfried) ventures to Verona for her pre-wedding honeymoon with her all-too-occupied fiancé (Gael Garcia Bernal).  A journalist, she discovers the secret behind the letters left for the fictional Juliet in the wall of her house.  They are answered by the “secretaries of Juliet,” yet one letter manages to stay lodged behind a rock.  Sophie takes it upon herself to answer it personally, finding Claire and her well-groomed grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan).  Believing her love is still out there, they embark on a journey to find her Romeo.

From then on, all originality goes out the window and formula takes over.  Charlie and Sophie have the typical romantic arc: hate turns to not hate, and somehow not hating someone means you are in love!  If love in real life was like it is in romantic comedies nowadays, what a depressing world it would be.

Poor Claire for having to put up with their sudden infatuation in denial, and poor Vanessa Redgrave for having her name on this movie.  While it’s certainly darling that she got to make a movie that had echoes of her own life, no Academy Award winner deserves to star in something like this.  Apart from Redgrave, I struggle to find much good to say about this movie.  Italy and Amanda Seyfried look good, perhaps?  Or maybe that I would have really liked this movie if it was the first romantic comedy I had ever seen?

As Taylor Swift’s song goes, “It’s a love story, baby just say yes.”  When it comes to “Letters for Juliet,” maybe you should say no (unintentionally another Taylor Swift quote).  C-