It’s that time of the year – awards season. This is when the studios release movies that make them look less like money making businesses and more like purveyors of art and culture. This is when we see the results of actors being asked to take roles that are not going to pay the salary they normally demand but that give them the chance to flex their acting muscles. Ironically, if they win or even get nominated for a Bafta, Palme D’or, Golden Globe or Oscar their agents will be sharpening their negotiating skills.
Almost every adult release comes with tag line proclaiming that you will be treated to a “Masterpiece” an “Unforgettable” or even a “Life Changing” experience. This is a review of two movies. Both are relatively low budget, both are award contenders, both are primarily character studies and both have famous actors playing against type the difference is one is very good indeed the other isn’t.
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
Based on a true story this tells how John E DuPont (Carell), the heir to a fortune derived from arms manufacture, becomes the patron to the Foxcatcher Wrestling Team. His main aim being to win gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The name is derived from the enormous family estate within which the training camp is based. He enlists the services of Mark Schultz (Tatum) who along with his older brother David (Rufallo) had won gold in the previous Olympic Games. Although initially he wants both brothers David is a happily married family man who does not want to forsake his homely lifestyle to move to the complex.
Mark on the other hand is a lonely man living in the shadow of his brother and is only too pleased to be seduced by the opportunity to shine and earn more money than he could ever have dreamt of. Given the responsibility to run the team Mark begins to flourish and an uncomfortable father/son relationship is formed between himself and his strange reclusive benefactor.
DuPont introduces Mark to the lavish world of high society including the dubious pleasures of cocaine. It doesn’t take long for the over indulgence to take hold and although he wins the World Championships DuPont becomes determined to woo David Schultz to join as the team coach to ensure their chances of gold in the Olympics.
Unsurprisingly money talks and David is moved complete with family to the estate. As Mark witnesses the bond being forged between his brother and DuPont he is overcome with jealousy and refuses to train with the team and chooses to move away.
The lack of supervision and self –esteem inevitably leads to Mark’s failure at the Olympics and he leaves wrestling to follow a career in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). David remains at the complex training wrestlers. Rather than give away the climax of the film suffice to say there is a devastating conclusion to the tale.
Let me get to the good bits first.
Steve Carell is magnificent in a role within which, due to prosthetics, he is almost unrecognisable. You never see him as the likeable comedy actor we know and love. He is cold detached and wholly unpleasant throughout. The supporting cast especially Vanessa Redgrave as DuPont’s disapproving mother all hand in great performances. The only exception being Channing Tatum who is capable of so much more than this film allows him.
Unfortunately the bad totally outweighs the good.
This film is dull. I mean really really dull so dull that even the wrestling bits are boring. It runs for two hours fourteen minutes and it seemed so much longer. The script is laboured and sparse; there are lots of long silences and reaction shots. There is no character development. We get a brief insight as to why DuPont is the way he is but only a very brief insight. We never get any back story on the brothers at all. Why was Mark so closeted? It is hinted that he may have been gay but this angle is never explored. The denouement of the story is never explained and I had to research outside material to find out exactly what happened at Foxcatcher. If you want to see what a good actor Steve Carell is go see it, however if you are prepared to take my word for it then you can avoid 134 minutes of tedium.
Rating 2 out of five stars
If you liked this you will also like: Moneyball, Field of Dreams, The Wrestler, Rocky 1,2,3,4 & 5, Raging Bull.
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis & Emma Stone
Very rarely a film comes along that almost defies a genre! Birdman is such a film. Is it a comedy and drama – a “dramady”? Is it a fantasy and allegory – a “fantagory”? It is perhaps all of them but one thing is certain, it is unique.
Even the plot is ironic.
Riggan (Keaton) is a washed up actor who had gained massive fame and fortune by playing the superhero Birdman, after turning his back on his on-screen alter ego in the 90s he has struggled to gain respect and success as a legitimate actor – of course Michael Keaton famously played Batman some 25 years ago and has also failed to emulate that success.
In order to revive his flagging career he risks all by financing, producing and directing a dramatisation of works by feted short story writer and poet Raymond Carver.
The story follows the events starting from one day before the public previews up to the glittering Broadway first night. Due to an “accident” the male co-star is hospitalised at final rehearsal and is replaced by theatrical golden boy Mike (Norton) who just happens to be the live-in lover of his female co-star (Naomi Watts). Mike challenges Riggan’s acting “chops” and a violent antagonistic relationship ensues pushing both men to the very edge.
Everything conspires against the success of the project including a threat from the most feared and respected theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) to close the show immediately it opens by giving a damning revue. Throughout all this Riggan’s manager and best friend Jake (Galifianakis) desperately tries to “firefight”. And just to complicate matters further he also employs his daughter Sam (Stone) as his assistant. She is just out of rehab and carrying plenty of baggage and attitude.
When you read the above you could be lead to think this is just a character lead black comedy but nothing could be further from the truth. The direction is incredible using what appear to be lengthy “tracking” shots to make you feel immersed in the action. The soundtrack comprises almost entirely of staccato jazz drumming that should be annoying but just adds to the atmosphere.
Then there are some fabulous fantasy scenes where the reality between Birdman and Riggan becomes very blurred indeed. In fact you are seduced into believing that nothing at all is what it seems there is even a supernatural element that in some ways put me in mind of “Fight Club”.
As I’ve been writing this the Golden Globes winners have been announced. Birdman has won for best screen play and Michael Keaton has won for best actor in a comedy or musical. These awards are so richly deserved. The script positively sparkles and crackles and the acting throughout is utterly outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Emma Stone who was nominated in the best supporting category but unfortunately lost out. In one particular scene between her and Keaton she is literally blisteringly good.
If you are looking for a simple feel good movie this is not for you but if you want to be stimulated, enthralled and dazzled by a classic of modern cinema you will be richly rewarded.
Rating 5 out of 5 stars
If you liked this you will also like: Fight Club, Nightcrawler, The Game, Gone Girl, Black Swan, Angel A