Archive for the Drama Category

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

Inherent Vice

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Inherent Vice photo starrating-2stars.jpgOh Paul Thomas Anderson! It’s getting harder to believe that you were the auteur behind that masterpiece of yours, Boogie Nights. In 2007 you came close with the brilliant There Will Be Blood. At least you’ve always been interesting. Even The Master had that “processing” session that Lancaster Dodd administered on Freddie Quell. Now you’ve gone and released Inherent Vice, a happily incoherent, meandering head trip in the life of an LA private eye.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is that laid back private investigator. Let’s just say he loses focus pretty easily. He’s visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) who wants him to investigate a paranoid sounding plot against her current boyfriend, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Apparently his wife is trying to have him committed to a mental institution. But that’s really only the beginning. Along the way Doc meets a overzealous LAPD detective (Josh Brolin) that injects a spark of life amongst all the sleepy “far out man” attitudes. As Doc’s strange case becomes stranger, the narrative grows foggy. The point becomes less and less clear. That, my dear reader, IS the point. The cast list balloons to include speaking parts for over 25 actors I think. Frankly I lost count. These people intersect, reconnect and, in one particularly indelible scene, have sex. Shasta seemingly leaves the story at one juncture, but her return is, shall we say, (ahem) memorable?

Inherent Vice is an aimless trudge through the fog of a marijuana haze. That’s to be expected with a movie adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Nobody has ever turned a Pynchon book into a movie before. I mean Gravity’s Rainbow is kind of famous for being un-adaptable, So I’ll give Anderson credit for trying. Some will champion its mystifying merits. Translation: Inherent Vice is an acquired taste.  One’s enjoyment will partially rest on how much you value a plot in a 2 ½ hour film. The atmosphere is so drugged out you could almost get high by association. I couldn’t find much to enjoy in these shenanigans. And that’s all this is. A bunch of half baked gags. Pun intended. Any story that weaves in characters named Puck Beaverton, Japonica Fenway and Bigfoot Bjornsen obviously isn’t meant to taken seriously. Add a cultural 1970s LA milieu which finds room for the Aryan Brotherhood, the Manson family murders, an Asian massage parlor and something called Golden Fang which could be a secretive Chinese syndicate or simply an alliance of wealthy dentists. That tongue in cheek attitude is good for a few scattered laughs I suppose.  Inherent Vice is an “experience” to be sure, but I’ll pass on taking a second hit.

12-18-14

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

Still Alice

Posted in Drama with tags on December 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Still Alice photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgStill Alice feels like something you’ve seen before. It’s rather straightforward in its construction. The narrative documents the degradation of a woman‘s mental faculties from a condition. Judi Dench in Iris, Gena Rowlands in The Notebook, Julie Christie in Away from Her. We have seen this affliction depicted before. Here, however, it affects a younger woman diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. To heighten the stakes, she’s a brilliant academic at the peak of her career. Julianne Moore has always been known for her portrayals of women who must endure traumatizing experiences and Still Alice is no exception.

The production is most successful as a document of the illness itself as it impairs Dr. Alice Howland. Julianne Moore portrays a professor at Columbia University whose area of expertise is linguistics. If anyone can be labeled with a highly developed cognitive ability, it’s her. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland pen a screenplay they adapted from Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel. Initially the effects manifest itself in little “senior moments” that had me thinking that I might actually have early onset Alzheimer’s. It attempts to depict how the disease affects her family as well as the individual. The way her various family members react and adapt to the unsettling news isn‘t foreseeable. Husband (Alec Baldwin) and oldest daughter (Kate Bosworth) don’t want to confront the reality. Meanwhile her youngest and more independently minded daughter (Kristen Stewart), is a more accepting.

Still Alice is a beautifully acted film with a stunningly sincere performance by Julianne Moore at its center. She is what sets this mostly conventional tale apart. Moore genuinely conveys the helplessness at losing your memory while still being aware of what’s happening. At one point she records a video message directed at her less cognizant future self. Her shocking directions are absolutely chilling in their matter-of-factness. And yet there’s an ostentatious air about the production that keeps us at a distance. Alice and her WASPy family are the picture of a privileged life. She and her husband are an educated, wealthy couple with 3 attractive adult children, polite well mannered in their exquisitely decorated Manhattan brownstone. She’s just turned 50 though with her gorgeous face, she doesn’t look it. All of this almost scientifically designed to make the tragedy of her ultimate predicament even more emotional. Still Alice is perhaps the most empathetic presentation of the helplessness an individual afflicted with alzheimer’s truly feels. To that end, Julianne Moore renders an extraordinary achievement in a drama that sits comfortably in the sudsy water of a sentimental tearjerker.

12-08-14

The Babadook

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on December 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Babadook photo starrating-5stars.jpg“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” That odd sentence launches the scariest children’s picture book I have ever seen. The edition appears rather mysteriously on a shelf in little Sam’s bedroom. He brings the dark red volume to his mom to read one night after she encourages him to pick a bedtime story. It’s about a mysterious man in a top hat that will terrorize you the more you deny his presence. As she turns the pages the images literarily leap from the text. No paranormal trickery here. It’s merely a pop-up, but the black, white and gray illustrations are tactile and thick. Given their rudimentary shapes, the pictures are as if rendered by a youngster. This only heightens their ability to convey dread. They haunted me in a way I’ve never experienced. A book lying on your doorstep isn’t scary in and of itself, but in this film it’s alarming.

The chronicle appropriates standard horror tropes (i.e. the boogeyman, child in peril, dark spaces, flickering lights) but utilizes them to suit a tale that feels fresh. Amelia’s husband died tragically in car accident many years ago. However his death continues to linger on. Amelia is a single mother raising their now 6 year old son Samuel. He seems to have an overactive imagination. He’s constantly plagued by visions of an imaginary monster. His teachers are exasperated by his conduct. He has been a disruptive presence at school but this has also been a problem at home – particularly at night when he has difficulty sleeping. He has even gone so far as to build homemade weapons to protect himself and his mother.

The Babadook doesn’t rely on lazy scares by ratcheting up the soundtrack with loud sounds. Nor does it capitalize on disgusting sights. It intelligently exploits our anxieties and the unknown. I felt physically uneasy by the time we reached the climax. In that style, one influence on the movie might be Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. A lot of themes are addressed. There’s the obvious ghostly terror of the Babadook – this shadowy figure that is terrifying in the manner he‘s depicted. But there’s this mother child relationship as well. They form a strong bond throughout the picture. She is raising a son (Noah Wiseman) that exhibits some behavioral problems. Meanwhile the boy is trying to guard his mother from supernatural forces that threaten her. Their relationship forms an underlying subtext that elevates this drama to something deep and poignant. Both of the principals are exceptional but Australian stage actress Essie Davis is a revelation. Her emotionally powerful portrayal as Amelia, his mother, compares favorably with great horror performances from Mia Farrow and Ellen Burstyn. I didn’t expect to actually be moved by the events of the plot, but that’s exactly what happened. The Babadook is a film that ranks high with the very best of the genre.

12-01-14

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

Beyond the Lights

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Beyond the Lights photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgShowbiz melodramas get a bad rap. Rags to riches stories are a cliché but they’re a good one. An emotional drama detailing the rise to fame from humble beginnings to massive exposure can be captivating. It’s why the 1937 film A Star Is Born has been remade twice, so far that is. Warner Bros. has plans for another remake. It’s also why the chronicle can be seen as the blueprint for a host of other movies that happen to have female leads: Funny Girl, Mahogany, The Rose, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Bodyguard, Dreamgirls. Now add Beyond the Lights to that list. It’s not the most innovative work of art, but it does take something hackneyed and update the model with enough flair for the 2010‘s.

What elevates Beyond the Lights is the acting, particularly of the lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw, This is the second time I’ve seen the aspiring actress in 2014. She was also the star of Belle which came out in May. If these two roles are representative of what is to come, we are witnessing the arrival of an exciting new talent. Here Gugu plays Noni Jean, a rising R&B singer that has just had a hit with heavily tattooed white rapper Kid Culprit (real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). The song is called “Masterpiece” and it’s steadily climbing up the charts with her featured performance. Gugu actually does her own singing when performing, although other artists perform the background music.  “Fly Before You Fall” for example is beautifully sung by Cynthia Erivo. The soundtrack is mostly written and produced by R&B super-producer Terius “The Dream” Nash.

All would seem right in Noni’s life but she is not happy. A attempt at ending her own life is failed by a handsome cop (Nate Parker) assigned to guard her. Kaz Nicol has political ambitions that should preclude his association with the racy pop star.  Minnie Driver is Noni’s agent and stage mother, Macy Jean. A fiercely loyal but overbearing presence in her life that puts her daughter’s career first and her own well being second. At times Macy seems so driven by success as to be inhuman, but you can see the desire she has for her daughter to be successful. She’s been there since the beginning and it’s her “us against the world” mentality that humanizes Macy. A touching early moment is when young actress India Jean-Jacques (Noni as a little girl) sings “Blackbird” at a talent competition. Her mom is a most exasperating character, but it’s obvious she does love her daughter.

Beyond the lights is a tale that inhabits the contemporary R&B realm of artists like Rihanna. Noni feels pushed by her domineering mother into fronting a hyper-sexual image with which she doesn’t feel comfortable. Her musical style sports vocals that are technologically enhanced by Auto-Tune and deep percussive bass. She wishes to retreat to a more simple style of her artistic idol Nina Simone. These portraits of the music industry often lambaste the pre-fabricated, highly choreographed pop star, but one look at the Top 40 will show that is what people want. As her momager’s behavior widens the divide between them, Noni escapes to a island resort. Here the narrative takes on a poignancy I didn’t expect. Lamenting the way people are marketed for a mass audience is old hat, but Gugu renders her sorrow with distinction. As she literally strips away the long colored strands of straight hair woven into her own, she symbolically reveals her true self. Her subsequent triumph of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” in a karaoke bar becomes a declaration. It’s an affecting transformation and Gugu makes the metamorphosis seem fresh and new.

11-19-14

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

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