Archive for December, 2014

Film: “Foxcatcher”

December 22, 2014

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Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, may be a docudrama about a famous murder case, but it is also – thrillingly! – a film about sports. That the two films never quite unify into a single artistic statement should not diminish its achievement. I’ve never seen a film that so powerfully conveys the appeal and intimacy between men in a competitive contact sport.

Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, an honor shared with his older, somewhat smaller brother, Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo. Their parents were divorced when Mark was just two, and the brothers had no attachments except each other; their mutual passion for wrestling leading, eventually, to their becoming champions. The story begins in 1987, when Mark is contacted by John Du Pont, of the chemical dynasty, who wants to subsidize Mark’s training for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. As portrayed by Steve Carell in an amazing, career-changing performance, Du Pont is an emotionally frigid, controlling egotist who has obsessively devoted his life to two passions, wrestling and ornithology. An amateur wrestler himself, he collects young wrestlers for “Team Foxcatcher”, after the family estate, with himself as self-styled coach and “mentor”. Du Pont eventually persuades a reluctant Dave to join his brother at Foxcatcher to coach the team, bringing his wife and two children with him.

Strong dramatic momentum is achieved in the triad relationship of the two brothers and Du Pont, who deliberately encourages mistrust and resentment between them. Mark is especially vulnerable, as he has seen his brother raise a family and settle into a normal life, while he is uncomfortable with any social contact outside of training and competition. Even those unfamiliar with the case will not be surprised by the conflict’s violent resolution. The impact is blunted, however, because Du Pont is such a withdrawn and isolated figure that you’re never quite sure of his motives. He is so obviously unbalanced that his crime seems almost arbitrary, based on a moment’s misguided resentment. In that sense, the story seems merely a clinical study of a diseased mind, and is devoid of tragic dimension.

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No, my enthusiasm is more for the wrestling, which is what I suspect drew Miller to the story in the first place. It’s one of those rare instances where the background scenes are what the viewer leaves with, while the main story, while absorbing, is more conventional. I sense that Miller was so inspired by the sheer physical beauty of the sport that he wanted to convey its excitement as pure cinema. Brilliantly photographed, by Greig Fraser, the matches become a primal struggle between combatants. Each assesses his opponent’s mental powers as much as his strength. Training demands a continual refinement of technique, so that, with one swift grasp of his opponent, he can defeat him in seconds. The close-ups are so powerful because the head is the real target of the contest. First the takedown, then forcing the head and shoulders squarely against the gym floor. Really, very few sports films, even the classics of boxing like Raging Bull or The Set-Up, are able to show the concentration and mental agility that is so crucial to victory. And the anguish of the loser who, when struggling to break a hold, is slowly immobilized.

If not groundbreaking like the wrestling scenes, the story leading to the murder is always watchable, and often compelling. The performances are perfection itself, and Miller has shown more confidence with each film. Tatum, remarkably limber for his bulk, takes us deep within the man’s emotional insecurity, which even Olympic gold can’t dispel. Ruffalo is equally fine, and totally convincing on the mat, although his role is less developed. Carell is so good that, if you’d never heard of him before, you’d think he was a great actor but have doubts about whether he could do comedy.

Two straight dramatic scenes stand out. In the first, Carell and the Foxcatcher team are celebrating a championship victory. He leads a congratulatory toast to the group. Suddenly he stops and, reeling dizzily, falls to the floor. The team rises in alarm, and converges around him. But it’s just a prank. He grabs one of the men by the leg, tackling him, and the group responds with delight and relief. It’s a wonderful scene. We see that Du Pont is not just a figurehead leader, that he has brief moments when he can actually enjoy people on a human level.

Perhaps, but not if they’re female. I don’t remember any movie about a group of young men where the female sex, or sex itself, is so conspicuous by its absence. Siena Miller, playing Dave’s wife, is barely allowed even a moment, and the only other female part is Du Pont’s invalid mother. But Miller plots her role brilliantly. Vanessa Redgrave – beautiful, majestically ancient – has just one speaking scene, in which she tells her son that wrestling is a “low sport”. But then comes the payoff scene. Du Pont is coaching the team in the gym, when the door opens and his mother is wheeled in to watch him silently. Continuing without even a blink, the defiant son demonstrates a hold. While nothing goes wrong, we sense that he knows a forbidden border has been crossed. Then, in a tiny gesture, she signals to be wheeled out and, in doing so, has banished him.

Film: “Nightcrawler”

December 5, 2014

 

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Jake Gyllenhaal

The star of the film is Jake Gyllenhaal. But we don’t get our familiar image of him. Tense, lean, with enormous eyes, it is unsettling to see him here. He plays Lou Bloom, a man of about thirty who has been driven – by what? – to achieve success at any cost. And he has no idea how. Then, after he sees a man with a TV camera at a grisly traffic accident, a man who actually sells the pictures by phone while he’s walking back to his car, Lou decides this work is for him.

We learn that Lou has gifts that give him an advantage: he is a psychopath and a narcissist, not held back by human empathy. He will exploit the public’s appetite for the lurid, the shocking, the most violent images that capture the highest ratings on TV news. He will team with – and manipulate – two people to get to his goal: Nina, a station manager played by Rene Russo, who uses Jake’s increasingly violent photos to advance her career, and Rick, a homeless Hispanic street kid played by Riz Ahmed, who sees Lou as his only chance to escape the gutter.

As written and directed by Dan Gilroy, this is a well-made, suspenseful film with a gripping climax. I would have to recommend it just for the quality of the acting and its absorbing story. But it leaves a sour taste. Bloom is one of the most repulsive lead characters I’ve ever seen. He is brilliant and relentless, and seems to have pre-thought the slam-shut response to any objection to his behavior. Gyllenhaal is demonically good, and the extent of Bloom’s success as a purveyor of human suffering is disturbing, yet believable.

But, in a very real sense, it is also offensive. Unlike Network, which portrayed an audience driven by real anger at its powerlessness, the TV audience here is just a bunch of sadists. Their appetite is for the most bloody, lurid and horrible images of pain and death, with or without context. While Bloom and Nina both exploit the public’s appetite, they seem totally disconnected from it. Theirs is a behaviorist skill, like the training of white mice. Gilroy implicitly condemns the TV news audience for feasting on the gore, but he shows their exploiters as bemused puppet-masters, coldly distanced from the rest of us.

In the first place, I don’t buy it. Success and power for its own sake doesn’t explain Bloom’s exceptional, intuitive skill at marketing this particular product. It requires a lifelong erotic fascination with it, something the filmmakers do not dare to show. David Cronenberg’s films, most notably Crash, leave no doubt about his relation to his subject. The music, photography, and especially his actors’ rapturous enjoyment of pain, whether of others or themselves, sends home the message that the director partakes of those same passions himself, if not to that degree.

Nightcrawler cops out on this point. As creepy as Bloom is, his lust for success is oddly asexual. In fact, when he tries to maneuver Nina into becoming his mistress, the scene, well-written until that point, stops the movie cold.

The public’s taste for the depraved is an appalling mystery, but is embedded deep in human experience. Gilroy shows it to us, often entertainingly, but backs away from analysis or insight. In doing this, he seems to share Bloom’s own perspective. From his superior position, he knows how to exploit the audience for this film, who will pay for a ticket to see it.


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