Archive for the Biography Category

Red Army

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on February 14, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Red Army photo starrating-3stars.jpgRed Army is a documentary about hockey in the Soviet Union. More precisely, it concerns a nearly unbeatable unit known as the “Russian Five” on the national team. But even more specifically it profiles one member, hockey captain Slava Fetisov. It’s his point of view that shapes the perspective.  The film is essentially a chronicle of how cold war politics played a role in his life.

Most Americans knowledge of US-Soviet hockey centers on what went down at Lake Placid in 1980. Gabe Polsky’s documentary certainly addresses the American hockey team’s victory at the Olympics. However that is presented as merely an aberration in “ the most successful dynasty in sports history.” The Russians won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991. The groundwork was set by coach Anatoly Tarasov. His development of innovative training techniques centered on passing. The intricate maneuvers of the Soviet team are compared to the grace of the Bolshoi Ballet. Their mental strategies correlated to that of a chess player. Indeed watching the Soviet team skate circles around the cruder tactics of the Americans is a startling contrast. Then in 1977, the coach that everyone loved was replaced by former KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov – the coach everyone hated, at least by the athletes. He was even more successful making the Soviet team the most dominant in the world. Despite his accomplishments, he does not come across well. Their life is a nightmare under a totalitarian regime. He puts the players in training camps isolating them from their families for 11 months out of the year. Yet there is a link between his dictatorial methods and the well oiled machine that he elevated under his tutelage. Not surprisingly Tikhonov declined to be interviewed. He died on November 24, 2014 so his voice remains silent here.

Soviet Player Viacheslav Fetisov or Slava, as he is known, is front and center in this documentary. His transformation from national hero to political enemy is the dramatic arc of this tale. He’s a cantankerous old man and director Gabe Polsky doesn’t hide this fact. Right from the start, Slava keeps his interviewer waiting while he fiddles with his cell phone, even flipping him off (and the audience) when asked a question. It’s a defiant behavior that pops up occasionally throughout their conversation. A former KGB agent trying to speak about politics is constantly interrupted by his young granddaughter playing nearby. It’s these unexpected asides that make the account a bit odd at times. Mostly the parallels between sports and politics are highlighted. The rise and fall of the Red Army team with that of the Soviet Union forming the underlying background for everything that happens. Their success was proof “that the Soviet system was the best system”.  Fetisov’s career is profiled with various ups and downs. Through it all he remains a very patriotic fellow despite remaining embittered toward his past coach. Perhaps the “bad old days” of the brutal regimen under which he trained weren’t really so bad in his eyes after all. You’ll understand when you see how this ends.

Mr. Turner

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on January 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Turner photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn Mike Leigh’s world, artist J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) is a buffoon. An uncouth slob who grunts when he’s content and grunts when he’s despondent. An unpleasant beast that possessed a lot of skill but wielded it much in the same way a laborer would paint the walls of a room, with little care for passion or joy. The usual road for a biography such as this would be to present the master as a hero and tempt the audience with his impressive level of talent. There is no question in my mind that Turner was a genius in real life. I’ve seen his art. I knew this going in. What I was expecting was a deeper appreciation for the artist’s craft, technique or style. Oh you silly silly critic, I thought 75 minutes, merely halfway, into this interminable slog. This is a Mike Leigh movie. When has the director ever done what is expected? Unless of course it’s pitching a meandering chronicle with little plot or purpose. Then he sticks to the blueprint with rigid tenacity.

Mike Leigh’s filmmaking method is legendary. His lack of structure is pure catnip to those who worship at the altar of non conformity. In some circles, I suppose that’s the highest compliment I can pay – it’s a Mike Leigh production. The director has long been the cultural zenith for people who hate films that adhere to the norms of storytelling like having a climax or being like, ya know, interesting. Perhaps the lack of preparation has been exaggerated into more of a myth by now. No script. No order. Just a discussion with the actors on where to take the characters. The “story” will happen organically as the actors interact. Only after these improvised acting exercises does the narrative take shape. At least one would hope it comes together. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on that.

Mr. Turner spotlights the painter’s final quarter century of life when his more experimental side was being explored. He’s already in his 50s at the beginning of this tale. Leigh’s aim is to offer little vignettes in Turner’s life that almost subvert the traditional biopic. To Leigh’s credit, he doesn’t elevate his subject, so I guess that’s unexpected in a drama detailing the work of a great artist. The director’s focus is to wallow in the depths of a boorish clown – a man more inspired to shag his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) than to paint great works of art. His biography could hardly be used as a way to learn about the man. An array of historical figures are paraded before the camera with no regard for establishing who they are or why they‘re important. I learned more information from the first paragraph of Turner’s Wikipedia article than I did from this nearly three hour film. But for those who like some facts, Turner is a preeminent British painter, “the painter of light” noted for his gorgeous landscapes. The production’s biggest merit is the cinematography where several cinematic vistas are captured that do convey the picturesque subjects Turner paints. Unfortunately most of Mr. Turner is a limp portrait presenting a repulsive man that happened to create transcendent art. If that’s Mike Leigh‘s idea of an ironic joke, I’m not laughing.

01-11-15

Selma

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Selma photo starrating-4stars.jpgSelma begins with a bang – literally – showing the horrific 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That terrorist act by white supremacists became a catalyst in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement – a spiritual wake up call. The quiet solitude of pretty little girls in their Sunday best, interrupted by the deafening blast is a frightening crime that hangs in the viewer’s mind. It’s an inflammatory start that incites anger over the attack on innocent life. Selma recounts the three protest marches that traveled the 54 mile highway from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. These were to challenge segregationist policies designed to keep black people from exercising their right to vote.

David Oyelowo is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is impassioned yet understated and utterly believable as the heartfelt orator. His addresses to the masses have all the influence you’d expect from an individual responsible for one of the most famous speeches we still quote. Yet his “I Have a Dream” speech never appears here. No Selma concerns the movement King spearheaded that contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. A big part of the film is the relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson (a memorable Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King. The reverend exhorts Johnson to sign the proposed legislation into law. The provisions of which abolished the poll tax and other means of keeping blacks and poor people from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was already in place but King argued it didn’t go far enough. Their back and forth negotiations in the political halls are an interesting and sometimes depressing window into the deal making of the political process. His backroom sparring of words with the President are captivating.

Dr. King is aware that Alabama, under the leadership of Governor George Wallace, had a poor reputation when it came to civil rights. If Johnson comes across as more of a troublesome stumbling block that King needs to convince, George Wallace is the unrepentant racist devil that with whom King cannot reason. The pro-segregationist policies of the governor largely credited by his critics for creating an atmosphere of intolerance. King courts the cruelest nature of man with his civil disobedience. He understands that gentle protests confronted with the expected violent response will show the American populace the need for change. Indeed the first march ends with 600 peaceful citizens attacked by state and local police with batons and tear gas. It’s a galvanizing scene of epic proportions. The result has the desired effect. The horrific sight resounds as a call to action to every God-fearing churchgoer watching TV in the comfort of their own home. The demographics of the next march joining Dr. King is now a mixture of both black and white Americans from near and far.

David Oyelowo is mesmerizing at Martin Luther King, Jr. However it is important to note that the title of director Ava DuVernay’s movie is Selma and not King. For this is not a biography of the man but a chronicle of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. The narrow focus affords the story the consideration needed to handle the detailed issues involved. The account does justice to a very specific moment. The narrative even details the various infighting amongst fellow protestors that don’t always agree with King’s methods. These are enthusiastic people and their passions frequently engage the audience. The drama judiciously extracts raw anger at the trampling of freedoms we take for granted. It’s hard not to get caught up in the blatant disregard for human rights. The police brutality on display resonates even more strongly today. It’s almost impossible to ignore how perfectly this tale corresponds with recent events. The story couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. It makes Selma an even more powerful film.

12-15-14

Big Eyes

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on December 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Big Eyes photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgI confess. It has been a long time since I truly felt pure joy in a Tim Burton film. Big Eyes is the real deal. It has wit, charm and a lighthearted touch. Perhaps that is somehow fitting because the tale concerns the profile of an artist.  Burton – a longtime Keane collector – highlights the life of a personality that for a brief moment, occupied the attention of popular culture.

I must admit that I’ve always regarded Keane’s portraits as a bit cloying. I’m probably closer to the art house snob depicted by Jason Schwartzman than the thousands who genuinely cherished her work in the 1960s. Her output was never validated by the cognoscenti. Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973)  offers a gag where people of the future consider Keane to be one of the greatest artists in history. She paints children in a primitive style, defers to her husband and becomes a Jehovah’s Witness. The production could have easily descended into camp and treated her as an object of ridicule – but it never does. Burton goes out of his way to handle his subject with a respect that is unique and kind of admirable. What makes Big Eyes so affecting is that it embraces the artist with an impartiality that makes me understand it through the “eyes” of someone who legitimately appreciates her work.

Tim Burton’s enthusiasm can present an odd topic with a delightful zest for the uninitiated. Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands are two of the director’s best. Those tales couldn’t have been told better by any other director. They are distinctly Burtonian – if I may create/borrow a word. That’s the director’s passion coming through in every scene. Big Eyes is a gorgeous looking film too. The cinematography pops with the color and carefully arranged sets that give weight to a setting. Beneath that rosy exterior though, beats the thwarted aspirations of a would-be artist. The tale of Margaret Keane springs to life with a vibrancy and compassion that I haven’t seen from Burton in years.

“The ‘50s were a great time, if you were a man”.  That opening line of Big Eyes sets the stage for Margaret Keane’s dystopia. Felt forced to promote a lie that had her locked in a stuffy room while she produced one painting after another. Margaret created hundreds that were then sold under her husband’s name. And boy did they sell. Margaret Keane captivated the fascination of a public who were drawn to her doe eyed waifs. But the story also acknowledges the marketing genius of Walter Keane. Art is often a mixture of talent as well as timing. Walter had a charismatic gift of gab. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz dazzle in their respective roles. The script presents this all in a most appealing way that eschews the campy derision many have for her compositions in exchange for sincere affection. The mentality succeeds as it made me appreciate her style in a way I had never before. Tim Burton clearly identifies with Margaret Keane and his depiction of her comes from a place of love. I had only a cursory knowledge of her work before. Now I have a desire to learn more. With a biography, that’s the highest praise I can give.

12-28-14

The Imitation Game

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on December 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Imitation Game photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDear reader, please forgive my opening tangent. On November 9, 2014, Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay ran the field for a 78-yard touchdown pass, then celebrated his win. Only to find he had prematurely dropped the ball on the 1 yard line. Realizing this, Oregon’s Joe Walker of the opposing team, recovered the ball and ran it back in the other direction for a 99-yard touchdown for Oregon. Joy turned to heartbreak is kind of how I felt watching The Imitation Game. The drama is largely a captivating tale that culminates in such an odd way. The denouement rendered a seemingly easy victory into a crushing disappointment.

Recounting Alan Turing’s life is a daunting task. It has been attempted before: a 1996 BBC production starring Derek Jacobi entitled Breaking the Code and 2011’s Codebreaker, a made for TV movie in the UK. Logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist – Alan Turing was a pioneer. His Turing machine was highly influential in the development of the algorithm and modern day computers. The time period is World War II when the allies are desperately trying to intercept and decode German communications. They utilize something called an Enigma machine that scrambles their communications making them undecipherable. Alan is essentially hired to crack to the code so they can better understand what the Axis powers are going to do next. Watching Alan and his team of scholars study messages in a room isn’t exactly the stuff of compelling viewing but director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) makes the code cracking exciting.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing is the portrait of a fascinating individual. However Turing is a bit of an enigma himself. In flashback we get brief glimpses of his schoolboy days where his socially awkward personality doesn’t quite meld with his peers. Yet he is befriended by fellow student Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) and the relationship sheds some light on Turing’s identity. His antisocial nature carries over into adulthood when dealing with his fellow mathematicians. They’re tasked with breaking the Enigma code. Turing contacts Winston Churchill who places him in charge of the group and then Turning promptly fires two members.  His stumbling association with his remaining peers (Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech) provide a lot of interesting interactions that help us understand Alan Turing, the man. It’s this time at Bletchley Park, the British World War II code breaking station, that the production really takes off. Many of their advances were accomplished under such secrecy that it would be years before the world was made aware of their contributions to the war effort. Alan Turing is a conflicted man and Cumberbatch portrays the nuances of a complicated individual. Keira Knightly is a delight as the only girl on the team. Her considerable warmth is a nice counterpoint to Turing’s troubled disposition. His relationship to his superior, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), is decidedly more tense but the back and forth between him and the prickly Commander provides some of the most delightfully satisfying moments.

The Imitation Game is 3/4 of an extremely entertaining biography. The last half hour gives us a hurried peek into the concluding events of his life. The movie I saw was 1 hour 54 minutes but the final quarter was so rushed it had me thinking the projectionist forgot to load a reel of film. One minute Turing is being lionized for having made “the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.” The next minute he’s being arrested on charges of “gross indecency” due to his homosexuality. From hero to outcast in ostensibly minutes. A title card during the epilogue hastily informs us of the circumstances surrounding his death. Talk about abrupt endings. We’re left wondering why the complete 180 from the government with regards to all his tireless work. Unfortunately the script doesn’t delve into these latter day developments. For most of the run time, The Imitation Game remains a highly polished, beautifully acted picture. That mystifying resolution though. It’s such a supremely frustrating experience. Unfortunately we walk away with more questions than answers.

12-16-14

Wild

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on November 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Wild photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCheryl Strayed isn’t prepared. Shortly into day 1 of her 3 month long expedition she is already thinking, “What have I done?” Her backpack is ridiculously overstuffed. Her hiking boots are too small. She brought the wrong fuel for her cooking stove. She’s hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which runs through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges from the Mexican border up to Canada. Her destination is Ashland, Oregon. Why she has committed to this trek isn’t clear at first, but we assume early on that she isn’t happy with her life.

The film adaptation is based on Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed and published in 2012. There will be inevitable comparisons to Into the Wild, the tale of Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s good reason. Both are true stories taken from best selling novels. Each concerns people of a similar age. Both are about tough redemptive journeys in natural surroundings. The difference is Cheryl Strayed is a more sympathetic character than Christopher McCandless.

You cannot discuss Wild without citing lead actress Reese Witherspoon. She is the focus of every scene. Cheryl Strayed remains a plucky heroine throughout. She predictably rises above adversity, and confounds all expectations. While I think Reese Witherspoon does an admirable job, the depiction of Strayed in her present incarnation doesn’t seem much different from Reese Witherspoon the actress. Granted the life experiences that have compelled Cheryl Stand to make this journey are not the same. And if I may make a candid aside: promiscuous sex and drugs are still clichés. The fact that they actually happened doesn‘t change this. At any rate, the performance essentially feels like I am watching Reese Witherspoon the actress go on a backpacking trip. This doesn’t negate the power of the story, but it makes the transformation seem like less of a stretch. I think we’re beyond the point where the courage to wear no make-up is seen as transmogrifying.

The events wisely unfold in a manner that draw us in. The drama is told in two parts: the present and the past. Recurring flashbacks are a mainstay of the narrative. In days gone by, we meet her mom, her brother, her father, her husband. These relationships shed light on her life and what has inspired this epic journey. In the modern day, we meet various people along the way of her hike. Screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director Jean-Marc Vallée do an effective job at dramatizing the autobiographical account of a woman backpacking a portion of the PCT alone at age 26. Every time she meets someone, we experience the tension she felt, even in situations that ultimately become a positive experience. The dangers, particularly for a woman, in endeavoring this isolated walk through the wilderness is illustrated well. The everyday interactions in her present adventure are often straightforward, but they remain compelling. The overall chronicle is woven together to keenly recount the saga of an individual.

11-27-14

American Sniper

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, War with tags on November 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

American Sniper photo starrating-3stars.jpgMovie adaptation of the memoir written by United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle exists between the taught, tension filled investigation of The Hurt Locker and the overt rah rah jingoism of Lone Survivor. Kyle served four tours in the Iraq War and during that time, he had at least 160 confirmed kills by the Pentagon’s count, but 255 probable by his own calculation. Eastwood touches on his early years but the majority of the picture is devoted to Kyle’s military service, It is an often sobering account of how the most lethal sniper in American military history conducted his business in the Iraq War. As such it is Clint Eastwood’s best film in years.

Bradley Cooper handles the role with seriousness and humility. The actor fleshes out a character with pure sincerity. Although Chris remains a bit inscrutable, his devotion to his purpose and why he does what he does, is clear. The Navy SEAL is shown to be a perceptive man who understands the severity of what he does. His actions have grave consequences. Bradley Cooper looks quite different physically here. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Chris Kyle was a large guy. Bradley Cooper sports a beard and packs on 40 lbs of muscle to become the man. With her reddish brown hair and American accent, Sienna Miller is virtually unrecognizable as well in a fundamental supporting part as his wife Taya Kyle.

Eastwood is effective at contrasting the difference between a sniper’s job from the troops fighting on the ground. To be honest, Kyle takes on this duty as well when he cannot be of help on the rooftops. As a sharpshooter, we are presented with the emotionally difficult decisions he must make from a distance. He weighs the importance of what he is about to do with the lasting results. Is this an innocent civilian or a dangerous enemy that threatens American lives? Not every assassin looks like a human killing machine trained for combat. Warning: the most compelling scene that illustrates this is in the trailer.

The negative effects his service had on his marriage is understandable but they’re the kind of well worn issues oft dramatized. Chris Kyle is a career solider. We understand his desire to keep going back to Iraq. He has developed a reputation as a legend and he is driven to contribute to the cause. Meanwhile his growing detachment from domestic life becomes problematic. He volunteers to return for a total of four separate tours and it weighs heavily on his marriage.  If there’s a mission that keeps him coming back, it is the unfinished pursuit of a Syrian marksman (Sammy Sheik) who is his counterpart on the opposite side. But his wife and kids need him too. This dilemma forms a persistent idea in the second half.

American Sniper is a solid well constructed effort that is arguably Clint Eastwood’s best since Gran Torino. I would support that assertion anyway. But it’s also rather predictable. The depiction hits the familiar beats you‘d expect the bio of a dedicated solider to address. Whether the deadliest sniper in U.S. history is a hero is not even a topic up for discussion. It is just presented as fact. The reverential portrait is a tribute that honors the man. The way this affected his personal life is a key aspect. The ongoing effect that war has on an individual’s psyche as well as his family are thoughtfully addressed, but there’s never anything particularly revelatory added to the conversation.

11-23-14

The Theory of Everything

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance with tags on November 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Theory of Everything photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Theory of Everything is a Stephen Hawking biopic. But more specifically, it is the story of Stephen Hawking as it pertains to his relationship with Jane Wilde, who became his wife. As such it is based on her memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. This makes the tale more than just a mere biography of the scientific genius. It is that to be sure, but the chronicle is also a romantic drama. This is a most unique approach to the profile of a man more famous for being an astrophysicist and cosmologist than for whom he fell in love with. The method humanizes the man in a way that is altogether unexpected.

Most of us know Stephen Hawking after he was stricken with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease), the motor neuron disease that causes muscle weakness and impacts physical function. The brain however remains unaffected. But the production starts well before he was stricken with that ailment. In the introductory scenes Redmayne suggests a socially shy but intellectually confident young man. It is the 1960s and Hawking is pursuing a doctorate in physics at Cambridge. Felicity Jones is stirring as Jane Wilde, the language arts major (medieval Spanish poetry) he meets while there. As the presentation juggles Stephen’s work and illness, she is the romantic connection that unites the two intensifying the already emotional thread throughout his life. An early conversation between Jane and Stephen’s father warning her that she might not be prepared for what is to come is particularly affecting. Director James Marsh inserts beautiful montages that glow with the warmth of people in love. These extravagantly shot interludes could have become glossy affectations. Yet inserted amongst the events taking place on screen, they help to highlight the passage of time and make the film’s visceral high points resonate more clearly.

Any discussion of The Theory of Everything must focus on the lead, Eddie Redmayne. Up until now, best known for playing Marius in the cinematic version of Les Misérables. Granted he was extremely good in that, but somehow I would never felt him qualified to play this part. Oh how wrong I would’ve been. Somehow Eddie Redmayne, who had never suggested a visual similarity to Stephen Hawking before, completely inhabits the role. There have been many many great performances at the movies, but a significantly smaller number where the actor chosen for the part so perfectly resembles the individual in speech, behavior and physicality that you indeed forget you’re watching an actor. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi comes to mind. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is another.

If one is to judge a movie by the way it makes us feel, by the emotion that it elicits, then The Theory of Everything has got to be considered an unqualified success. After the disease takes hold, Stephen Hawking embarks on a transformation whereby the deliberate degradation of his body manifests itself. Slowly, painfully, we watch as this brilliant man succumbs to the affects of this disorder. Actor Eddie Redmayne bends his frame in ways that look as if he truly is suffering from the actual condition. At no time does the performance every feel exploitative,. Nor does his achievement ever read like he is showing off. Redmayne simply is, progressively contorting his body while battling the increasing difficulty with which he is able to speak. Gradually that ability disappears as well. The effect is heartbreaking and yet it is a testament to the strength of will that Hawking had to summon in order to overcome his disability. It is a flawless triumph that celebrates the man’s success with respect and dignity.

11-16-14

Foxcatcher

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on November 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Foxcatcher photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThere’s something very disturbing about Foxcatcher. It’s more than a mere biographical drama. It is a multilayered character study detailing 3 personalities – an expose on humanity so raw, that it becomes uncomfortable viewing. On the one side we have John Eleuthère du Pont, an heir to the family fortune of the chemical company. On the other we have Mark Schultz, Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and younger brother to the even more celebrated wrestler David Schultz.

Foxcatcher highlights career best performances by the three principals. Steve Carrel, outfitted with a prosthetic nose and old age makeup, is unrecognizable as John du Pont. He is a multimillionaire, philanthropist ornithologist and most importantly, wrestling enthusiast. He aims to fund the U.S. team and get Mark to the ’88 Olympics. But he is a peculiar fellow. He lives in the shadow of his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and indirectly seeks her blessing in his endeavors. Regrettably his prodigious net worth obscures his lack of expertise. When she appears at a practice one day, he immediately leaps to his feet, taking control of the class with his awkward directions as she looks on. As he continues to address the class in his mock coaching effort, she exits the room unimpressed. For all his wealth and privilege, an air of melancholy surrounds him. His philanthropic efforts notwithstanding, he is someone to be pitied more than admired.

Mark eats fast food alone in his car. Later he heats instant noodles in his spartan apartment. These scenes are shortcuts that establish a grim milieu. Despite his athletic titles and awards, Mark’s life isn’t that spectacular. Channing Tatum may look like a wrestler but he is cast against type as the callow youth seeking approval. His ever increasing despondency is a concern. Then he is invited by du Pont (Steve Carell) to help form a team to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics at his new state-of-the-art training facility. Schultz jumps at the opportunity. Du Pont wants his brother Dave too, but he is unmoved by the offer at the moment. Family comes first in Dave’s life. When Mark checks into a cottage on his estate, things seem too good to be true. It seems that Mark has finally stepped out from under his more successful sibling, Dave.

Mark Ruffalo has perhaps the most difficult role as Dave Schultz. It is the slightest of the three parts and the least awards bait-y. Yet his positive presence helps alleviate the tension. He conveys such admirable devotion to his younger brother in simple gestures. The brothers engage in sparring fights intended to sharpen their wrestling skills, but even those have a tender intimacy. Their competitive affiliation goes through several stages during the course of the film. Their bond is exacerbated when du Pont makes an offer Dave can’t refuse. As the events unfold to the inevitable conclusion, there is an anxiety that hangs over the surroundings like a thick fog of fear. Sounds like I’m describing a horror movie. Indeed, this rumination transpires not unlike a tale of dread. If you are unfamiliar with the true life story, you should keep it that way until after you’ve seen the production. Though not vital, the saga is best appreciated without prior knowledge.

Foxcatcher is about insecurities, validation and obsession. As such, the dark drama relies heavily on mood. The narrative is quiet, insidious even. As it sneakily unfolds you never quite know where the focus lies. Certainly this is an attack on how wealth can buy standing in arenas to which you don‘t belong. John du Pont and Mark Schultz are two dejected souls that initially needed each other. The screenplay logically makes connections between the various characters and ties them together. As du Pont seeks support from his mother, so too does Mark seeks the same from du Pont. Their interdependence is a portrait of unease. Additionally the genuine fraternal love amongst brothers is contrasted with the oppressive demands that du Pont puts upon Mark. Du Pont is needy to the point of being unstable. His complicated rapport with Mark is rooted in unrealized hopes. Undoubtedly he lives vicariously through the success of these developing athletes. But the full extent of those desires are cryptic and belie a tortured personality. The script subtly hints at things that are implied but never explicitly stared.  Foxcatcher brilliantly handles all of these emotionally complex relationships in a skillful way. Capote, Moneyball and now Foxcatcher – Director Bennett Miller has established a knack for these fables based on fact. It is a deeply troubling film and I mean that in the most profound way.

11-10-14

Kill the Messenger

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on October 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Kill the Messenger photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgGary Webb was an American investigative reporter best known for a series of 1996 articles that detailed CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking into the US. He worked for the San Jose Mercury News, a small newspaper that gained significant notoriety that year when he alleged that drug traffickers in Nicaragua had sold and distributed crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and that drug profits were regulated to fund the CIA-supported Contras. He never asserted that the CIA was actively directing the drug dealers, but rather that they were aware the money was being raised and managed to subsidize them.

The resulting fallout was major. This chronicle suggests that the larger papers were embarrassed that they had been scooped on such a significant news story by a much smaller paper: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times tried to debunk the link between the Contras and the crack epidemic to discredit Webb. The account also suggest the CIA applied pressure on Webb and his family to remain silent. Webb’s key sources then disappeared mysteriously. Others later contended that Webb had lied about what they had said to him. The San Jose Mercury News backed away from the story, then threw him under the bus.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Kill the Messenger turns Gary Webb into a hero. He is presented as a crusader for accountability that divulged a reality that was too hot to handle. As a reporter he had uncovered what he believed to be unequivocal evidence linking the illegal business of crack cocaine in the U.S to the money used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. He simply wanted to unveil that truth. It should be noted that there are still some who contend that Gary Webb was a disgraced journalist. However they will not find that point of view here. Peter Landesman’s script is adapted from Gary Webb’s own 1999 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s 2006 book Kill the Messenger. His screenplay critically indicts both the U.S. government as well as the news correspondents of the day. The competing papers launched a smear campaign against him ultimately ending his career. They do not come out good here and your outrage will rest on how those revelations surprise you.

Kill the Messenger is an interesting tale in two parts. The first half recounts Webb’s discovering the evidence. The second half depicts the aftermath of that story. What makes this so watchable is Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of newspaper reporter Gary Webb. He is really good at getting the audience to like him. We feel the unbearable tension that our hero endures as he is threatened directly and indirectly. The impending sense of doom never seems very far way. We share in his growing fear for his own safety amidst his desire to expose the truth. The best scenes concern him and his family. In particular Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife and Lucas Hedges as his son, provide another facet that gives Gary Webb more depth. They imbue his character with flaws that are somewhat unexpected. After all, we have seen this before. All the President’s Men is an example of the crusading journalist railing against the system. The difference however is where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were celebrated as heroes at the time, Gary Webb was given a much different reception.

10-15-14

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