Saturday, March 7, 2015

The dance...


There’s a part of me that wishes that Bennett Miller would direct a film about Mark Schultz’s Twitter rampage over his direction of ‘Foxcatcher’, because I have a feeling that that film would be more entertaining than this one was.  That isn’t to say it would be a better film, because ‘entertaining’ has very little to do with quality, but there is something almost stagnant about ‘Foxcatcher’ that makes it hard to fully invest in.  Some have called this glacial, but I was rooting for this because slow and brooding and cold and detached are qualities that I’m not always turned off by, when they serve the purpose of the film, and Bennett Miller has infused these qualities into his last two films (mostly in ‘Capote’), and I was a big fan of both.

This was hard to watch.

The story behind ‘Foxcatcher’ is a truly intriguing one.  Since the film’s release, despite the critical reception and initial adoration from the film’s subject, Mark Schultz, Schultz turned to accusing the film of being largely fabricated and misleading.  How much of his ranting and accusations I actually believe is debatable and fluctuates from day to day, since so does his attitude towards the film itself.  But, I’m not unaware that film often fabricates for dramatic effect, and so I know that this is not ‘the whole truth’ but more an interpretation of the truth. 

This doesn’t bother me.



The story told is that of the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, who are wrestlers at different ends of the spectrum.  Dave is respected and lauded, a family man who loves what he does but knows that place in which it should all be put.  Mark is alone and feeling defeated, a man who stumbles along in the shadow of his more charming brother, who lives his life in a lonely stumble towards a greatness he wishes to achieve but sees as something sorely out of reach.  The pair shares a bond that keeps them within arm’s reach but that bond isn’t enough to keep them securely close.  Then a strange presence asserts itself into their lives in the form of John du Pont, an eccentric millionaire who is struggling with his own demons (an unsupportive and disapproving mother) and sees a chance to achieve his own idea of greatness through the use of these brothers.

Initially reaching out to Mark, and offering him the chance of a lifetime (a nice paycheck and full use of his gym with the power to handpick is own training team), du Pont claims to be only interested in seeing USA take the Gold in the 1988 Olympics, but below the surface brims a madness that festers with each passing day.

Unfortunately, the madness is lost in translation, at least for me.

There are themes painted within the fabric of this story that feel achingly universal and, if manipulated in the right manner, could have really taken this to another level of storytelling, but I found a large facet of this film to be somewhat dead, which only caused the concentrated and intentional ‘cold’ tone of the film to become increasingly overwhelming and distracting. 


My problem was Steve Carell.

Carell took a risk.  He took a plum role, that of an eccentric and manipulative and borderline (is it really borderline?) crazy man and played him VERY low-key.  This is a character that could have easily been given a very hammy and elaborate portrayal, which would have been a disaster of sorts as well, but it is also a character that was ripe for just the right amount of pathos under the surface to bring him to screaming life and create a man who haunts our dreams.  Carell is just there.  He raises his head at an awkward angle and talks around that beak of a fake nose with the slow drawl of a mentally challenged person and peers out of his dead-eyes with the look of an actor trying desperately to prove that he can handle this.  Sadly, he couldn’t handle it, and because of that this man becomes less of a haunting figure and more of a stain on a film that could have made a richer impact had the climax felt more authentic within the fabric of the story itself.  When du Pont snaps and actually shoots Dave, it feels anticlimactic despite being such a harrowing moment.  Carell fails to really portray much of anything, other than a checklist of ‘trying to act serious’.  Carell has handled serious before, but this was out of his depth.


It doesn’t help that both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are so organic in their portrayal of the Schultz brothers that every time they share the screen with Carell, his flawed performance takes center stage.  Together they are remarkable, their weight shifting in ways that show a true commitment to their characters, a true understanding of the ‘dance’ they must dance in order to portray these men with such believable accuracy.  Separate, they are just as good.  Ruffalo has such natural charm that his subtle turn comes to life with such urgency, such naturalism.  You believe him every step of the way.  He also has the very best scene in the film, that interview scene, which says so much; SO MUCH!  Tatum lumbers around with a performance that, on the outset seems very one-note, and yet there is something extremely grounded behind those eyes, unlike Carell.  You can see the ache, the heartbreak that rests behind the broken man who just wants something more.  The hotel scene, after he loses his first match, is a remarkable moment of an actor actually filling in all the gaps of a person’s every single thought. 


This man, this ape, this machine; such crushingly brutal honesty in his desperation to be better than he is.

Bennett Miller directs ‘Foxcatcher’ with a specific tone in mind, and it’s clear from the first few sequences.  The fog completely suffocates the scenery and develops a character all its own by becoming this weighty presence that lingers over every scene.  The problem is that the haunting nature of the cinematography and score and lingering shots (it’s so tragically beautiful to watch) is interrupted by a performance that should have playing into the atmosphere and given it heft, but instead he drops it and allows Miller to do all the work, and he simply can’t carry this all the way on his own.  Because of this, the film feels more stagnant and lifeless than chilling and haunting.


The reception of ‘Foxcatcher’ has been somewhat divisive.  I truly expected to be a champion of this film, based solely on my reaction to the story itself and to my reaction towards Miller’s past work, but sadly I’m not in this film’s corner.

C.

24 comments:

  1. "That isn’t to say it would be a better film, because ‘entertaining’ has very little to do with quality, but there is something almost stagnant about ‘Foxcatcher’ that makes it hard to fully invest in."

    I fault Bennett Miller for everything as to my distaste for this movie. I can agree that this is a beautifully shot film, and I don't always dislike slow pace. In fact, I love it sometimes. Sati brought up Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" in her review of this one. That's a film I love that shares a great deal in common with this story. The difference is that fog you mentioned. I felt weighted down by Foxcatcher and all its haunting. Plus, it just doesn't have that literary quality in the dialogue like "Jesse James."

    I felt like the whole movement and feel of this movie hurt the actors' performances, most notably Carell's. He did a fine job in my opinion. He played it right. I especially loved the creepiness from that helicopter ride scene. But it wasn't enough to make me believe him.

    Like you, I just don't think this movie was meant to work for me. I think a lot of people liked the heavy feeling it evoked. I just felt uncomfortable...in a bad way.

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    1. Yeah, I know a lot of people who loved this...but I just couldn't. I did notice the dialog and wasn't very keen on most of it, for it felt underthought in a lot of areas, but I actually appreciated Miller's direction...it just felt dampened by Carell's performance to me. He just wasn't chilling. But, then again, I know many who loved his performance.

      I also know many who hated it.

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  2. I was disappointed in this as well. I really liked both of Miller's previous films, particularly Moneyball since it surprised me by making baseball and statistics neither of which I usually find compelling quite involving. Additionally I'm familiar with the specifics of the case since it all happened very close to where I live, was a huge scandal at the time which I followed in the papers. So my expectations were high, perhaps too high.

    It certainly sounded good with that cast, besides the main three Vanessa Redgrave as Carell's mother was an added inducement but after the initial set up my attention drifted. I agree that Steve Carell didn't seem to have a grasp on the character and the make up did most of his work. I like him and thought he was great in Little Miss Sunshine but perhaps he was overwhelmed by the prosthetics, whatever it was he didn't have a handle on the Dupont. I don't understand the nomination, Channing and Mark, who deserved his, acted rings around him. Also I really hope that Vanessa Redgrave was required to act that frail. She's usually such a vibrant presence it was painful to see her so feeble.

    Bennett's studied pace was also a problem. Unlike Moneyball he didn't utilize the sport's inherent struggle or why Dupont was drawn to it to further the story. It was all looking at it from a remove. I didn't hate it I just didn't care.

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    1. Yeah, I'm in your boat of 'didn't hate it/didn't care'.

      I felt like the approach to the sport was less of a problem because this never felt like a film about the sport, more about the people in the sport, and his handling of both the Schultz brothers was proof of that. You felt the desperation to be something great flow through Tatum's every pore. He bleed this character. That was the problem with Carell's handling fo du Pont for me...you never felt like you even understood him at all, and so his eventual actions feel removed from all intention. It just doesn't mesh.

      A more capable actor, a better performance, would have made Miller's direction work, to be honest.

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  3. I thought Carell nailed it and did exactly what the direction Miller chose for the story demanded - du Pont has done some really crazy stuff they didn't show in the movie because instead of portraying his madness they chose to protray his awkwardness and loneliness. Carell really plays this guy as a true outsider, someone who has been misunderstood and lonely his whole life. And it plays so well with the murder scene because ultimately du pont shoots him because of jealousy that Dave belonged and so many people including Mark loved him. I thought it was all spot on and the fact that Carell had to portray that solitude first and madness second was so difficult yet for me he nailed it.

    What did you think of that scene that infuriated Schultz so much? When they wrestle in the middle of the night? I didn't think it was shown as some sex act that was happening, perhaps for du Pont it was a sex act but they didn't insinuate Mark was gay. And what did you think of Redgrave?

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    1. I found nothing sexual about any of the depictions here, least of all Mark. Schultz's freakout seems all the more strange after seeing the film for myself. I saw nothing but a desperation of be better, to be appreciated and respected from Mark. Even the depiction of du Pont felt firmly asexual, nothing but an oddity about his actions.

      Redgrave was sorely underused. I wanted more of her, but her few moments were golden!

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  4. Excellent write-up. I haven't seen this film but the issues you talk about are the issues I sensed and hope they are not so. I will see this film because of all the hoopla surrounding it. Every time I see a scene with Carrel, whom I like, I felt his performance fell flat

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    1. There are many people who really loved this one, so I urge you to see it for yourself.

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  5. I liked this film -- and Carell's performance -- much more than you did, but this is an excellent review; your points are well argued.

    I thought Carell's performance was right on the mark. I don't know much about the real DuPont, but I loved the way he was creepy, in an appropriately subtle way, but mostly we saw his social ineptitude, isolation, and despair.

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    1. Thanks Irene! It just proves that film can be different things to different people, but that doesn't mean that we can appreciate points raised.

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    2. That's one of my favorite aspects of being in a blogging community like this. ;-)

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  6. Ahah, interesting that you pointed out Mark Schultz’s Twitter rampage over Bennett Miller's direction of ‘Foxcatcher’, I doubt that he'd ever want to have anything to do with this story now. I actually thought Carell was good in his understated way about portraying DuPont and there's actually an eerie quality about him throughout, like he's a time bomb that could go off at any moment and it surely did.

    I do agree that this film just wasn't entertaining. I realize it was well-made and I appreciate some aspects but overall it's just so somber that I'd never want to see again. Ruffalo is excellent as always, that interview scene alone speaks volumes about how his character feels about DuPont.

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    1. Yeah, I have no desire to watch this again, although I may some years from now, just to reevaluate.

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  7. You've really taken the words out of my mouth on this one, I felt the same way. I appreciated Foxcatcher for what it was, and thought Ruffalo and Tatum were fantastic, but I didn't enjoy the film, and I wouldn't want to watch it again either. It's odd, really!
    - Allie

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    1. Yeah, the parts just came together in an odd and unfulfilled way with this one.

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  8. I agree on the suffocating atmosphere of the film and the disappointment with Carrell's performance. It was as though he was working off a checklist of "creepy rich guy" mannerisms - stilted speech? Check. Prosthetic nose? Check. Squinty eyes? Check. Slightly altered, loping walk? Check. Obvious mommy/daddy issues? Check. There was nothing interesting about the way he played the character AT. ALL. And given how good he usually is, I was really hoping for something interesting/surprising. Ruffalo and especially Tatum far outshone him. I was blown away by Tatum here - I expected the great physicality, but you're totally right about there being something in his eyes throughout that just pierces right through into the soul of this guy. Incredible, indelible work.

    I thought Miller did a great job of tightening the tension like a vice grip in the film's third act - so much so that even though I knew what was going to happen, I was still shocked when it finally did. But the heavy portentousness of the first two-thirds dampened my enthusiasm too much for me to really like it.

    Mark Schultz's twitter rampage is so homophobic it's scary: He came out as vehemently against the film RIGHT AFTER tons of articles were published about the film's homosexual undertones (mostly relating to the airplane scene and Mark's subsequent frosted-tip makeover). Then, after apparently talking with Miller again, he went back to his original position, which was that the film was great. He was reacting to others' reaction to the film and his portrayal therein, NOT the film itself. Basically the biggest "ALL STRAIGHT MAN HERE - NO HOMO" ever. For what it's worth, I totally agree that the film was intoning something "unsavory" and probably homosexual about Mark and DuPont's relationship, but thought it was clearly the filmmakers' interpretation, not necessarily a reflection on what actually happened.

    It's an interesting film, but not a great one. Possibly not even a good one, outside of the acting.

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    1. Yeah, the more I think about Tatum's performance, the more I'm convinced it was one of the best of last year. He was just incredible. And I'm with you on Miller's direction. I feel like he was doing everything right, but there was something about the disconnect with his direction and Carell's performance that, for me, worked against one another.

      Schultz's rampage was incredible to watch for all the wrong reasons.

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  9. Miller's direction was almost perfect (like, if Dolan gets in for Mommy, Nolan is out and Miller stays in my lineup), but I had problems with the editing and Carell. The film felt much too long, and Carell was very hit and miss for me. Other than that, the tone was so precise, and Tatum and Ruffalo (who just missed my lineup) were terrific. I thought the anticlimactic shooting felt right, given the film's tone. Really surprised the Academy embraced such a divisive film, though.

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    1. Yeah, there were some moments that lingered too long, but I almost blame them on Carell too...like he did nothing truly engaging or interesting with this performance, so his scenes tended to just lay there rather flat. I feel like, if he had been replaced with someone who could nail this, then everything Miller did and the editing itself would have all worked brilliantly.

      I am surprised with the Academy's embrace of the film, especially considering it's rocky run with the critics/guilds.

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  10. I would 100% watch Miller's adaptation of Schultz's Twitter tantrum. lol. I think he could really capture the category 5 butthurticane that Schultz got himself in.

    That being said, I liked this one. It was very slow, but I thought it worked. Carrel did a wonderful job in my opinion, especially for what we're used to seeing from him. All three main actors were great.

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    1. LOL, someone needs to do something about that Twitter meltdown...even if it's a 30 minute doc :-P

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  11. I didn't think this film was necessarily terrible, but WOW, was it slow and I agree with you on Steve Carell. His performance did feel like a checklist. I think he should've been an Oscar nominee for 40-Year Old Virgin. But of course, we all know their relationship with comedies. I also agree with you about Ruffalo and Tatum. Ruffalo was heartwrenching and Tatum was a real force of nature.

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    1. Yup! It wasn't terrible, but it could have been great given a series of tweaks.

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