Archive for November, 2014

Foxcatcher: Off by a Nose—Movie

November 27, 2014

Save for an Oscar-worthy performance by Channing Tatum, “Foxcatcher” is hugely disappointing. Directed by Bennett Miller and written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, “Foxcatcher” is based on the true story of John du Pont, of the du Pont family, and his obsession with coaching a world-class wrestling team.

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Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark (Channing Tatum) Schultz are brothers who won gold medals in wrestling in the 1984 Olympics. Dave, married with children, is the older brother who retires to coaching after the Olympics, while Mark still has hopes of making the ’88 Olympic team. Mark lives very lonely, solitary, meager existence and there seems to be something slightly off…something naïve… about him. Out of the blue Mark gets a phone call from one of John du Pont’s assistants inviting him to du Pont’s Pennsylvania Foxcatcher estate for a meeting. Curious, Mark flies out to meet du Pont (Steve Carell), who tells Mark of his plans to sponsor and coach a wrestling team—one whose participants will make it to the ’88 Olympics. He wants Mark to join and help with the training. Mark has no better offers so he accepts. Right off the bat du Pont starts to plant seeds of doubt about Mark’s relationship with his brother, telling him that it’s time to step out of Dave’s shadow. Increasingly Mark warms up to du Pont and seems to feel real affection for him. Du Pont seemingly takes Mark under his wing, and among other things, introduces him to cocaine. Mark is very much the introvert and the coke doesn’t’ do much to help with his personality or his sport. Frustrated with the team’s results in competitions, du Pont brings Dave and his family out to Foxcatcher to train the team and Mark begins to fall increasingly out of favor with du Pont. Interestingly enough, once Dave is at Foxcatcher, he and Mark reconnect and as Mark begins to lean on Dave for moral support, the two resume their once close relationship. But Mark’s relationship with du Pont crumbles and the two eventually part company.

Much has been made of Carell’s performance as du Pont….that he disappears into the role. Not really. When all is said and done, it’s Steve Carell with a big nose. Unlike some biopics, aside from wrestlers and possibly citizens of Pennsylvania, most people have no idea of what John Du Pont looks like. No reference is made to his nose in the movie…so why give Carell such a huge prosthetic one. It actually becomes a distraction and doesn’t help Carell’s one-note, monotone, lifeless performance. Channing Tatum is another story all together. His performance is remarkable…possibly even career-altering. Mark Schultz may seem simple, but there is more to him than meets the eye and Tatum manages to portray all of his layers. Although a man of few words, through Tatum’s soulful performance, he speaks volumes. As Dave, Mark Ruffalo brightens the screen every time he makes an appearance. We don’t learn much about Dave, but Ruffalo makes us like him.

Bennett Miller did outstanding work with “Moneyball” and most especially “Capote.” However, in “Foxcatcher,” he doesn’t seem to grasp du Pont’s essence. Why was he the way he was? Why wrestling? Why the Schultz brothers? Why did it all go wrong? Who really was the man behind the nose? These questions are left unanswered and make for a fairly unsatisfying story.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

Force Majeure: Strong Wind Blows—Movie

November 16, 2014

If ever a family needed a vacation from their vacation, it is the “Force Majeure’s” Tomas’ and Ebba’s family. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, “Force Majeure” raises the question of what one does when someone they love doesn’t react the way in which they are expected to react, especially in times of stress. How do others feel about that person? How does that person feel?

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We meet Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children on a family vacation in an idyllic French Alps setting. They seem like any normal family with normal problems. Like many young couples, Tomas and Ebba are trying to figure out how to keep their romance alive with children in the mix. Life as the family knows it comes to a screeching halt on the second day of their vacation. The family is eating lunch outdoors when all of a sudden it appears that an avalanche is approaching and the unthinkable happens. When the snow settles all is well physically, but emotionally things are not the same and it’s not certain that they every will be again. How Tomas and Ebba reacted to the potential tragedy becomes a bone of contention between them. Ebba cannot bring herself to forget or forgive. In her eyes, what Tomas has done is so unthinkable that she brings up the incident to a new friend they’ve just made on vacation for her reaction and again to friends, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius), who are staying at the same resort.

Östlund has put together a well-crafted story and assembled a terrific cast to tell it. Johannes Bah Kuhnke as Tomas is absolutely fantastic. His character’s reaction to what he’s done…or hasn’t done…feels very real…at times over the top, but somehow still very genuine. Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba is also outstanding as the betrayed wife. The look of disappointment in her eyes is palpable. Their children, played by real-life brother and sister, Clara and Vincent Wettergren, seem very authentic in their feelings toward their parents. “Force Majeure” is one film in which the family just behaves like a family. As comic relief, Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius are extremely funny. One almost hopes they get a film of their own.

Östlund has done an excellent job with all the little touches…most especially the bathroom scenes. You watch Tomas’ and Ebba’s relationship go down the drain, literally,  just by the increasing ferocity in which Ebba brushes her teeth. “Force Majeure” is beautifully shot. The snow, the setting…if it wasn’t for the ugliness behind the beauty, it would make you want to hop on the next plane over.

Considering this is a joint production of Sweden, France, Norway and Denmark, much of the dialogues is in English. Even if that wasn’t the case, it would matter not. The acting, the story itself, will have you skipping right over the captions…”Force Majeure” is that good.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Interstellar: Doesn’t Rise to the Occasion—Movie

November 10, 2014

Thank goodness for television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the “Twilight Zone,” and their plots revolving around portals and dimensions, or else many of us would have no idea of what is going on in much, particularly the last quarter, of “Interstellar.” Who knew TV could be so educational? In all seriousness, “Interstellar” is not all that easy to understand or hear, for that matter. More about that later. Directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Christopher and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, “Interstellar” is beautiful to look at and boasts a very strong cast. However, when the film is over, it seems as if the overly complicated plots (and yes, plots) could be boiled down to the Beatles’ song, “All You Need is Love.”

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“Interstellar” opens with an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) talking about her father and the days when she was a young girl. Then we go back in time to those days set in the not too distant future. Thanks to drought, blight and dust storms, food is in very short supply and there is good reason to believe that the planet will not be able to sustain itself much longer.

Former NASA test pilot turned farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is a widower who lives with his children, 10-year-old Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and 15-year-old Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and his father-in-law, Donald (John Lithgow). Murphy is much more like the scientist part of her father and they have a very close connection. One night the two accidentally discover the secret NASA headquarters where a Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and others, chief among them, his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), are trying to find another planet on which humans will be able to live. Brand, who is Cooper’s former professor, decides to take advantage of Cooper’s special skills. To go further would give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that a good portion of the remaining film takes place in space.

Matthew McConaughey is outstanding as the farmer/pilot. It’s unfortunate that his Lincoln car commercials premiered before this film because some of his dialogue and delivery sound like they come directly from those commercials. However, much of “Interstellar” falls on McConaughey’s shoulders and he carries the weight well in spite of that distraction. He’s very convincing in all the many facets of his character’s personality. Jessica Chastain is very good as the adult Murphy. She has very emotional scenes, some of them absent any dialogue, and she shines in all of them. But Chastain is no match for the actress who plays her as a young girl. Mackenzie Foy is simply terrific and her scenes with McConaughey are really at the film’s core and they are amazing together. The one minus is that Foy bears no resemblance to Chastain, in fact looking much more like Anne Hathaway. Hathaway turns in a fine performance as McConaughey’s traveling companion, although her role calls for her to be a tad too emotional at times. Michael Caine’s role is small, but his scenes near the film’s conclusion are great. The film features what’s been called a cameo appearance by an actor who is critical to “Interstellar’s” plot (if you’re a reader of the tabloids, this actor is won’t be much of a surprise). He provides a good performance even though it’s not always clear what his character is doing or why.

Hans Zimmer’s score is extremely good, but its use is horrific. The music is simply too loud which makes portions of the dialogue impossible to hear. The same can be said for much of the film’s special sound effects. Louder does not mean better, especially if it’s blotting out what could be important conversations. Much of what is being said is hard enough to understand without the added burden of not being able to hear.

It’s clear that Nolan was going after something big. Unfortunately, despite the spectacular visual effects and some good acting, the unnecessarily overly complicated, hard-to-hear “Interstellar” falls short.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Keaton Soars—Movie

November 4, 2014

After viewing “Birdman,” the first words that come to mind are, “Welcome back, Michael Keaton! Where have you been?” Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu with screenplay by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, “Birdman” is not a perfect movie, but Michael Keaton is…he literally soars in his role.

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“Birdman” is the story of the once shining movie star, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), most famous for his “Birdman” superhero movies, who’s now trying mount a comeback via Broadway and showing everyone that he’s a real actor. He’s turned Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, into a play and is directing and starring in it. When one of his co-stars is injured during rehearsals, he jumps at the chance to replace him with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a Broadway darling, whom he knows will fill seats. However, while Riggan is willing to share the stage and spotlight with him, he later realizes that he’s not necessarily emotionally prepared to handle the other baggage that comes with Shiner.

Riggan has literally bet the house on this play. How he’s able to concentrate on anything is a mystery. Fighting not very successfully the urge to drink, he’s constantly hearing Birdman’s voice in his head…imagining that he has Birdman’s telekinesis powers…or is he imagining? But when Birdman talks to him, as much as he might hate being known as only Birdman, we can see that it’s a love/hate relationship with the character. Truth be told, he walks a little taller when Birdman speaks to him.

In the days leading up to opening night, we meet other characters important to Riggan…chief among them, his two female co-stars, Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Laura is Riggan’s much younger girlfriend who wants to be more. Lesley is a seasoned actress who can’t believe she’s finally making her Broadway debut. Added to the mix is Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter, a recovering drug addict, who’s serving as his production assistant; Jake (Zach Galifianakis), the play’s producer and Riggan’s long-time friend; Sylvia (Amy Ryan), Riggan’s ex-wife; and Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), the all-important New York Times theatre critic who tells Riggan in no uncertain terms that when she threatens, “I’m going to kill your play,” she really means it.

“Birdman’s” cast is phenomenal…wonderful actors all. “Birdman” is one of those rare films in which each actor seems perfectly suited for his or her role and where each is 100 percent successful in that role. Michael Keaton is just fantastic as the beleaguered actor. You can see the sheer panic in his character’s eyes and yet when he’s on stage, he seems totally at ease and in control. Keaton’s work with Emma Stone is exceedingly good. Stone, herself, gives a spectacular performance as the daughter trying to understand and support her father while striving to take care of herself at the same time. Naomi Watts is terrific as the actress so thrilled to be on the stage. Her scenes with Edward Norton and Keaton are really outstanding. Zach Galifianakis gives a very restrained performance as Riggan’s voice of reason. For once he is actually acting, rather than playing yet another buffoon, and he’s first-rate. Leslie Duncan’s NYT’s critic is scary, she’s so fierce. Duncan simply nails the snobbery and protectiveness her character feels for what she considers “real” theatre and genuine actors. Finally there is Edward Norton, who is just amazing. There’s such an energy about him and his character that when he’s on screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.

“Birdman’s” script is extremely clever and will definitely get you thinking the next time some former big name star hits the Broadway stage. The film’s musical score works beautifully with the film, often featuring a jazz-type drum beat, similar to that of “Whiplash,” behind many of its scenes which serves to heighten the film’s tension. The movie is shot in such a manner that it feels very claustrophobic as the actors run down the theatre’s hallways. It’s one of the rare films that has a real vibe of what it’s like backstage.

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” does have some unanswered question and lets you draw your own conclusions on some issues. But what it does do, through Michael Keaton, is provide an outstanding look at what it’s like to make a comeback…in this case both figuratively and literally.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

 


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