Foxcatcher – A Review

Bennett Miller directs Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in the psychological drama Foxcatcher. It is a story based on the life of mentally unstable heir to the Du Pont family fortune, John E. du Pont and his association with the Olympic wrestling heroes the Shultz brother.

Bennett Miller last took on the world of baseball in Moneyball and made a surprisingly entertaining movie from a story based on the dry world of player statistics and the mechanics of putting together a winning team. And with the Oscar winning Capote under his hat it was no surprise that my expectations were sky high from Foxcatcher, especially after the moody, creepy and intriguing trailers first hit the web. The end result unfortunately an indulgent and dull exercise at story telling.

If it took E Max Frye and Dan Futterman 8 years to put the script together it feels like the running time of the movie lasts just as long. I am all for moody methodical deconstruction of a character and the inherent drama involved. But with Foxcatcher the story telling is so staccato and the characters so two dimensional that it verges on being unbearable.

Steve Carell plays John E Du Pont the eccentric billionaire who offers Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz a sponsorship and a place to come and live at the Foxcatcher ranch as he trains for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark’s brother Dave is played by Mark Ruffalo who is the only character who makes sense in this travesty. The story seems to suggest sibling rivalry in the eyes of Mark as he feels he is always in Dave’s shadow while Dave loves his brother unconditionally. There have been suggestions of a homosexual undertone to Du Pont and how he felt about Mark but I failed to see any. Carell’s Du Pont is certainly creepy but there is no depth to it, the one scene that stands out for me though was when Du Pont puts on a show for his own mother by delivering a pep talk – that to me the essence of Du Pont’s eccentricities, he is still a boy trying to win the approval of his own mother. The spiralling out of control of Mark and his anger towards Du Pont when he invites Dave at Foxcatcher seems abrupt at best and unbelievable at worst. Sienna Miller plays Dave’s wife and is for most parts unrecognizable and an almost unnecessary character.

The movie is scored beautifully by Rob Simonsen with an almost atmospheric soundtrack that seems to be always present but entirely unobtrusive. And the wide shots of the Foxcatcher ranch in the different seasons by Greig Fraser are beautiful as well. There is huge potential in the story with all the underlyin tension between the brothers, the patron and the benefactor and the two men competing to play the father figure, but all of that potential is blown to bits by an uninspired screenplay and overlong quite moments when nothing happens and you fail to stifle a yawn of two. The reason why Moneyball was so good must have had something to do with Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zallian because here Miller is let down by the screenplay.

I saw this before the Oscar nominations were out and am posting the review after the fact. Seeing Bennett Miller nominated for best director seems unfair to me. Having seen and loved Nightcrawler and The theory of Everything I would happily swap him for Dan Gilroy or James Marsh in a heartbeat.

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Into The Woods – A Review

Rob Marshall directs Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden and Anna Kendrick with a host of other stars in Into the Woods an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s hugely popular stage musical by the same name. The musical takes popular children’s tale of Cinderella, Rapunzel,Jack and the beanstalk, the little red riding hood and mashes them together to tell the story of the characters after the happily ever after.

James Corden and Emily Blunt play the baker and his wife who live next door to the witch Meryl Streep. The witch tells the baker and his wife that they cannot have kids because of a spell she cast on his father many years ago and that she would help them lift the spell if they help her make a potion before the blue moon. For the potion the baker and his wife must find 4 things from the different fairytale characters, cow as white as milk from Jack, a cape as red as blood from little red riding hood, hair as yellow as corn from Rapunzel and slipper of gold  from Cinderella.

The four main characters played by Blunt, Corden, Kendrick and Streep take up the most time on screen and are brilliant both individually and also together bouncing off witty, banter-y songs of each other. The opening number where the witch speaks of her garden was one of the highlights for me. Another song featuring 2 brothers, both princes, one to Cinderella and one to Rapunzel, both preening peacocks each trying to out-do the other is by far the most guffaw-inducing number of the movie. Chris Pine channels his inner Elvis and is at his charismatic best. Often I have found Pine to be too broody for my liking but here as the posturing prince charming he has perfect comic timing and the smolder to suit his princely ways.  Meryl Streep is the goddess at whose altar I pray, so it should come as no surprise that I love her in everything she does. But here as the witch she is mesmerizing both as the old ugly one and the young beautiful one as well. I saw an interview with Sondheim where he spoke of Streep being able to bring color to her singing and I wondered what he meant. But when you hear her sing “Stay With me” to Rapunzel you want to get up on your feet and give her a standing ovation as would be customary in a stage show. She is majestic and I wish she does more musicals. Kendrick sure has the pipes as does Blunt, but the standout for me once again is Daniel Huttlestone as jack who first shone bright on the screen as Gavroche in Les Miserables. He bounces around with boundless energy up and down the beanstalk trying to buy back the cow he sold to the baker.

Sondheim’s musical was much loved when it first appeared on stage some 30 years ago and admired for its witty sense of humor and intelligent songs. Bringing him onboard they have kept the essence of the original story alive and the humor carries through. However the first act is stronger than the second and it suffers a little bit due to overcrowding and trying to tie up loose ends with the stories. Having said that I wish a little more attention was paid to the beautiful Crishtine Baranski as Cinderella’s evil step mother and the story of Rapunzel and her mother the Witch been fleshed out a little more.  There is always a little more to the fairy tales than it meets the eyes and Sondheim writes that beautifully. The story of Little Red Riding Hood played by Lilla Crawford and the Wolf played by Johnny Depp ends up being a creepy story of a pedophile wolf who stalks Red. Depp chews up the scenery in the brief appearance and is brilliantly creepy as Mr Wolf. It is a story of the consequences of wishes. Each of the characters wishes for something but then when the wishes come true they are unable to come to term with the consequences of the events that unfold. They lie, steal, cheat and run from all they wished for. This is a story with many layers which are ripe for peeling away with multiple viewing. It is not a child’s version of the fairy tale but a more grown up one only if you looked closely. However having said that there is something in it for everyone, even the kids because as fairy tales themselves they are told beautifully.

This is a truly amazingly crafted movie with wonderful singing by all its stars. The production is lush and detailed and Coleen Atwood’s costume design very fairy tale worthy. This is a movie for all ages and worthy of being enjoyed in a theatre. I hope you are as lucky to have an excellent audience as I did who laughed at the right moments, clapped generously and sang along with the credits.  Take your family Into the Woods and enjoy a Musical done well.

On a side note this will be Meryl Streep’s 19th Oscar Nomination and very likely 4th Win. To those who roll their eyes at the mention of her name go watch Into the Woods and then tell me if anyone else could’ve been a better Witch, wild and erratic yet restrained and vulnerable. Take a bow Ms Streep.

The Theory of Everything – A Review

James Marsh directs Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. The movie is an adaptation of the book by Hawking’s first wife Jane Hawking and looks at the remarkable life of the noted theoretical physicist, his staggering achievements in the face of a debilitating disease. But make no mistake this isn’t a movie about science and the black holes and gravitational singularities but it is a love story, an intimate look at the nearly 30 years of Stephen and Jane Hawking’s marriage and the ups and downs that they go through.

James Marsh is known more for his exhilarating documentary Man on Wire and the equally fascinating documentary on a chimpanzee that was snatched from his mother and raised in a human society. But his control on the subject matter at hand here is adept and he infuses warmth and genuine human emotions in the relationship dynamics between the lead pair. From the very first frame to the very last this is a celebratory picture of the love that undoubtedly saved Stephen Hawking from would the doctors in 1963 predicted to be a heavily crushing defeat in the face of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The lead pair turns in phenomenal performances which carry the entire film. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is full of wit, charm and charisma first as the lanky geeky Cambridge PHD student and then as the wheelchair bound yet iconic theoretical physicist. It is almost impossible to separate the Redmayne Hawking from the public persona of Hawking himself. He comes off as someone who is not bound by the limitations of his disease and someone who is a source of inspiration for millions around the world as a person who overcame an impossible hurdle and contributed so greatly to the world of science. Even behind the prosthetics and the Equalizer program to relay his voice via a computerized program Redmayne never ceases to amaze. He is as fiercely independent and alive from the inside that one would expect a man like Stephen Hawking to be. Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking couldn’t be any more perfect. She is the sweet and loving as the Cambridge student who catches the fancy of Hawking and strong willed and formidable as the partner who refuses to walk away when Stephen breaks the news to her of his illness. She underplays the dotting wife who is herself struggling to keep pushing through the difficulties in such a believable manner that you do feel for her even when you know it is Stephen who is going through much worse. Her vulnerability around Jonathan played by Charlie Cox and the restraint with which she manages to push back the feelings she has for Jonathan are beautifully portrayed. The dynamics between Stephen, Jane and Jonathan are very telling in two scenes in particular the first one where they meet for the first time at dinner and the second when Stephen goes to Jonathan to ask him to continue helping Jane. It is a sensitive subject matter dealt with dignity and gravitas.

Visually the movie is plush in sepia tones and it lends itself beautifully to the love story being told. The music by Johann Johannsson is a beautiful companion to the story. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten who adapted Jane Hawking’s book “Travelling to Infinity : My Life with Stephen Hawking” is rich with humorous undertones and the final scene where we see a flashback of the events of Stephen’s life in reverse order coming to an end at the first instance he laid eyes on Jane is a stroke of genius as it ties in with the theories of Hawking and how he believes that there should be one elegant equation which can tell us of the moment of the beginning of universe or the beginning of time itself.

To me this is beautiful movie which tells the story of a very real struggle and the thumping triumph that the love between two individuals enables them to overcome insurmountable odds. It features two of best performances of the year. Felicity jones is a revelation and Redmayne is an absolute joy to watch as Stephen Hawking. This is a small movie by a relatively small player in the politics of awards but if there is any justice it should be Redmayne who should walk away with the best actor award this year and not Cumberbatch or Keaton. Do not miss this movie.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – A Review

Alejandro Inarritu directs Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in Birdman or The unexpected virtue of ignorance set in the world of New York’s Broadway theatre and tells the story of a washed up actor in a Mise en abyme setting.

Riggan Thompson played by Michael Keaton is a once-famous actor known for his starring role as the Birdman-the superhero in 3 movies. Long gone are the days of box office successes and adoring masses and Riggan finds himself irrelevant and artistically unsatisfied and decides to adapt a well-known and much respected playwright’s show for Broadway which needs him to find a suitable actor to fill the playbill after the current actor is injured in an accident while on set which Riggan believes was caused by him. In walks Edward Norton’s Mike a much loved theatre darling with a raging ego and a surety in his craft which seems to threaten Riggan. What enfolds is the backstage and preview shenanigans as Riggan tries to put together a show which a part of him says will resurrect him in the world of performing arts while the other voice nags at the back of his head. The cast is supported by Naomi Watts who plays Mike’s wife/partner and Andrea Riseborough who plays Laura Riggan’s girlfriend and co-actor. Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter and Zack Galifianakis who plays Jake Riggan’s lawyer and backer of the show, these two play a very understated but crucial supporting role which keeps this story moving forwards.

I had a major challenge with Innaritu’s Babel and found it to be an incoherent mess with a background score that was at odds with the story telling. Here too Innaritu seems to be working at a schizophrenic pace and creates an atmosphere that is so claustrophobic that it almost becomes too much to bear but then as the story starts taking shape and things start becoming a little clearer you start to appreciate the atmosphere and the almost off-beat drum score which seems to be reflecting Riggan’s state of mind and it comes together in sync only towards the end when Riggan delivers the climax at the end of his opening night. Michael Keaton is brilliant as is Edward Norton, their back and forth and their uninhibited exhibitionist portrayal of the insecurities, the vanities and the delusions that make up an actor is what carries the film. The Birdman alter-ego sequences are a genuine suspension of belief as you question yourself what the hell is actually going on and Innaritu doesn’t dumb it down for the audience to make them realize that Riggan isn’t telekinetic but plain delusional.

There is however a problem of pacing as the initial preview pieces take way too long to establish the plot points that they need to and it takes forever for the story to pick up steam, and for a movie under 2 hours it is criminal. But this is easily overcome by the dark humor and the brilliant commentary on the state of the movies today. A number of important arguments are made in the due course of natural conversations between the characters, the most relevant ones are about the cultural genocide where everything is driven by the superhero franchises and the big weekend opening numbers and the conversation that Sam has with Riggan who seems to be holding onto a romantic’s notion of what it means to be culturally relevant and to scoff at social media without understanding the power it provides and the need for its existence. It is here that the movie really succeeds. Emanuel Lubeziski’s work behind the camera is frenetic and filled with the same anxious energy that Riggan seems to possess and it takes you in to the actor’s headspace and the way he utilizes every nook and cranny of the St. James theatre it just opens up the world that exists both front and back of the stage.

Watch this movie if you want to get an insight into what drives actors, the big stars and the burnt out ones alike. What it for an incredible and unrelenting 2nd and 3rd act where Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton all shine bright and luminous. Michael Keaton just moved to the top of my list of actors who should take home the gold on 22nd February.