Posts Tagged ‘Steve Carell’

Film: “The Gift”

August 19, 2015
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Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in “The Gift”

When I read about the plot of this film, I was intrigued because it sounded like a remake of one of my favorite films of recent years, Chuck and Buck, written by and starring Mike White. It turns out there is a resemblance in the setup: a young married couple is visited by a creepy guy who went to school with the husband years before, and complications ensue. Actually, there’s not much resemblance, although, like White, writer-director Joel Edgerton cast himself in the role of the creepy guy. But the earlier film is a charming comic fable, while The Gift is a goose-bump shocker that slowly uncovers a crime from the past. And, despite flaws, the premise works. I was creeped out for sure, but also entertained and satisfied.

It begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) arriving in Los Angeles, where they have bought a home near Simon’s new job. Simon had grown up there, and has scored a top position because of his expertise in cyber security. The move is also a fresh start for the couple, who hope to start a family after Robyn’s miscarriage the year before. The positive mood is sustained, or so it seems, when Simon is recognized by Gordo, a schoolmate from high school, who seems delighted to see him again. He heartily welcomes Simon’s return, and is soon stopping by with gifts for the couple in their new home.

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Rebecca Hall as Robyn

Gordo’s overly friendly actions soon become suspicious, however, especially his “stopping by” just when Robyn is alone and Simon is away at work. Although Simon is mildly annoyed, Robyn seems sympathetic because Gordo is clearly a sad misfit with miserable social skills.

This setup is a little slow since we’re expecting Gordo to reveal sinister motives, and likely psychotic tendencies, as we’ve seen in so many other films. But then there is a sudden shift in tone, and the film bends into a different, and unexpected, psychological thriller. This shift occurs in one scene – the most crucial in the film – when the couple accept Gordo’s invitation to dinner. Gordo gets a phone call and, without further explanation, says he has to leave briefly because of an “emergency” at his job. But once the couple is alone, Simon reveals just how much he distrusts Gordo, and that he is convinced he has designs on Robyn. Simon’s sudden hostility is fierce and defensive, and it has the effect of preparing the audience for the revelations to come: just what did happen between these two “friends” that Simon is trying to hide.

There are at least two surprise twists that get the blood racing before the powerful conclusion. But, as my readers should expect, some glaring plot gaps should not be ignored: a major character is drugged, and falls unconscious, but there’s not a clue as to when or how the drugging occurred; a lie is spread that ruins a person’s life, but no legal recourse is ever mentioned; and, most glaringly, how is it that a professional security expert takes absolutely no measures to protect his own home? Finally – and I’m no spoiler here – the deserved retribution is simply not as devastating as it used to be because of recent medical advances.

Another quibble: although Bateman is superb in the crucial scene mentioned earlier, the fact is that he is basically miscast. The second half of the film calls for reserves of rage and menace that are simply outside of his range. If he was looking for the kind of career altering triumph, like what Steve Carell did in Foxcatcher, it doesn’t work.

Edgerton is fine, however, even though the role is underwritten and sketchy. But Rebecca Hall is in the most three-dimensional role, and she is the reason the film works so well. Her transformation from passive yuppie-type innocent to disillusioned and resentful wife is totally convincing, and gives the story emotional heft.

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: “The Way, Way Back”

June 25, 2014
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(left to right) Zoe Levin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Liam James

This summertime comedy from last year tries to plug-in to the “coming of age” meme that sends adults back to the time, when they were young, that will be remembered, fondly, for the feelings and experiences they think actually happened, and wish they could experience all over again, even though, at the time, they destroyed countless pillow cases with their teeth while they hurled muffled screams into the darkness.

Oops, sorry! Seems I got carried away a little. Actually, TWWB deserves a review less distorted by this critic’s painful past because there’s some genuine skill and solid entertainment to be had, even if all of the parts don’t quite fit together.

The kid coming of age here is Duncan (Liam James), 14, who goes on vacation near Cape Cod with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Their neighbors are hard-partying types, especially Betty (Allison Janney), who has a daughter about Duncan’s age. We see early on that Duncan hates Trent, who is a surly and malicious type, although Pam tries to smooth things between the two, with no success.

Duncan relieves the tension by hanging out at Water Wizz, a theme park whose main attraction is a large water slide. The manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), has sympathy for the troubled, quiet Duncan, and is able to get him out of his protective shell with his easy-going, slacker attitude. Duncan takes a job there, and develops confidence in himself, which, ironically, makes him defy Trent even more.

The conflict leads to an explosive public confrontation at a party one night when Duncan accuses Trent, correctly, of having an affair with a beautiful neighbor (Amanda Peet). Pam is humiliated and torn, but she decides to stay with Trent. In an effort to save their relationship, Pam and Trent decide to cut the vacation short. Duncan is devastated because he will have to part with Owen, who has become a father-surrogate for him.

The film concludes, uneasily, with not one but two discordant endings. In the first, just as the family is leaving, Duncan breaks free and runs to Water Wizz, with Pam and Trent running after. He embraces Owen and, in a symbolic rite of his independence, teams with him in a dangerous, and unprecedented stunt on the water slide, to rapturous applause from the crowd. Then, in the second ending, as Trent drives the family away, Pam moves away from him to sit next to her son in the back seat, as if silently announcing that the relationship is over.

That second ending leaves a sour taste that pervades the whole film. I don’t think first-time director-writer team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash ever resolved this right through the final script. Steve Carell’s performance is wildly off-base, and it darkens the tone of the film whenever he’s onscreen. If he wanted to show he has the chops for Ibsen and O’Neill, he succeeded. He makes Trent a very unpleasant but still fascinating man, and the dynamics of his relationship with Duncan could make for a sturdy, dark drama, like This Boy’s Life. Unfortunately, that second ending seems more of a lead-in to the real and unseen climax of the film, one which is likely to be violent and end up in Juvenile Court.


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