A Most Violent Year
by Philip Price
As you allow “A Most Violent Year” to slowly sink in the first theme you recognize is truth. Complete honesty is the way Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) chooses to conduct himself and throughout the entire running time of the film it is difficult to decipher whether or not he is a corrupt man who wants to believe he is good or if he genuinely strives to be honorable. With this kind of reciprocal psychology constantly battling within Abel, Isaac is able to dig in and deliver a performance that continues to prove his excellence while also anchoring the film with the bigger ideas that director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost”) is intending to convey. Within Abel Morales, Isaac finds a man who we don’t get much insight on up to the point that we meet him. He is an oil distributor, he is attempting to acquire a piece of real estate that will do nothing but expand his business and his control on the market, but to reach this point of seeming solidarity within his business and personal lives he will have to make choices not akin to his way of thinking; choices influenced by the time period Chandor has chosen to place these characters in. In not really knowing the mentality of this character and only having it slowly revealed to us over the course of two hours, we are kept in a constant state of suspense with Isaac at the steering wheel taking us only as far as Abel is willing to bend his morality. It is an interesting take on what could have easily been a more “Goodfellas” or “Scarface” inspired film, but rather than make this about the mob or about being a gangster as we generally think of them we are given this idea on what it truly takes to get what you want, to earn real respect. There is plenty to like and admire about “A Most Violent Year” and its methodical sense of storytelling, but it can’t help but feel somewhat scattered in getting the sum of its parts to come together and deliver a wholly satisfying conclusion. Chandor clearly knows what he is doing and is somewhat of a master at putting the pieces in place and building the tension, but it is the payoff where things don’t necessarily feel as compelling as one might expect. Given the grace and precision with which he puts these pieces in play I expected more from the third act, but in a film full of atmosphere and subtly great performances, it is hard to complain at all.
Set in 1981, New York City’s statistically most violent year with rampant violence, decay and corruption taking over aspects of everyday life, we are introduced to Abel and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) as they attempt to close on the aforementioned real estate deal with the Jew who currently owns it. They meet at the site, an abandoned bay where oil rigs sit with nothing to do while vacant trailers where dock managers once presided over their crews are trashed and deserted. It is funny to think now of what once was to this thriving adult in 1981 who wasn’t thinking as much ahead as he was in the moment, but that is only a small caveat of the intended backdrop Chandor alludes to with his setting. In order to secure this deal Abel must deliver a hefty sum of money that he would normally be able to rely on his bank for. With incidents surrounding the robbing and stealing of his trucks and his drivers pushing him to allow them to carry handguns, not to mention the city district attorney (David Oyelowo) coming down on him and his company for questionable business practices, the thirty day wait for the loan to be approved and the papers signed becomes even more of a white knuckle waiting game. It is in this amount of time that we see the inner-workings and dealings of what it takes for Abel and his more willing to break the law other half, Anna (Jessica Chastain), do what it takes to keep their American dream afloat. Their singular task is to capitalize on the opportunity in front of them, but as we are delivered more information as Abel talks to his associates in trying to solve the issue of his trucks getting robbed and his product being sold to his competitors we are privy to the backdoor dealings necessary to reach the point of peaceful and prosperous results. “A Most Violent Year” is all about the struggle with which it takes to reach this point of comfort and the amount of inconvenience and distress it takes to get there. In lining up this tale of ambition it makes a point of feeding how compromising a man must be in order to reach the point of never being so again.
Atmosphere is key to Chandor’s film as cinematographer Bradford Young (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Pariah”) and the director give us more to appreciate than most films in visual cues and references alone. When taking the title into consideration one might expect a fair amount of brutality, but only every so often does the film escalate to all-out physical attacks. When the physicality is present is when the film shows how effective it is at making these more heightened moments all the more meaningful and exciting by allowing the more disturbing violence to exist in the exchanging of words and lies amidst the truth our protagonist swears by. I bring up the pacing of these small moments into the bigger action set pieces to discuss the integral sense the environment plays in it all. Chandor has set his film during this specific year for clear reasons, but he didn’t necessarily have to. It is in the way he crafts his images, darkly lit and framed like the crime dramas of the decade it is set within, that bring us into the world these characters populate. Their tan peacoats and Ray Bans with the all brass ornaments that decorate their square homes dressed with patterned couches never interfere with the dark overtones of the material but rather bolster the lost world atmosphere of it all. Chandor makes this familiar but strange land seem something of a mythical, almost untouchable status that we will never be able to re-visit and he is right for doing so. He wants Abel to feel untouchable, to feel so invulnerable to everything going on around him that placing him in this time period sets him apart from the more seemingly cynical mentality of today. It’s not cynicism or narcissism driving this man, but it is purely a quest to prove his roots and naysayers wrong, to show that he can come from nothing and build an empire to which he will be hailed as king of and admired by his peers for doing what they could not. Were this to be set in present day that separation wouldn’t exist, but it is in Chandor’s concise decisions and detailed direction that the 80’s setting not only emphasizes a lost way of life, but a crucial disconnect to which the audience still admires the characters even if we never really get to know them.
“A Most Violent Year” is one of those movies I can appreciate, but will likely never have the desire to sit through again. Funny enough, you could say the same of Chandor’s previous film. “All is Lost” was a captivating experience that placed us in the middle of pure isolation with the silence forcing us to question the big themes of the film. Chandor’s latest is drastically different, but is still incredibly restrained. In almost every aspect this is true – from the images we’re allowed to see, the subdued and haunting score that compliments the atmosphere further and even the central performance from Isaac. There is one scene in particular where Isaac’s Abel storms into the apartment of one of his drivers looking for him and only finding his Hispanic wife. The two swap an intense set of words, but the catch is that they speak in Spanish the entire scene. There are no subtitles presented and so it is up to the audience (if they don’t know the language, obviously) to interpret what is being said. Because of the power of the performances we understand the implications being made and Isaac is simply exceptional in peeling back the many facets of Abel the deeper we get into the plot. I would have loved to see more of Chastain’s electric co-lead and the movie certainly could have used more of her presence. We are only given glimpses of just how well the juxtaposition of these two mentalities works within their marriage, but for as much as Chastain’s Anna influences her husband’s decisions she is absent for much of the negotiations. This underwritten sense is unfortunate as this could have truly been a role that allowed the talented actress to chew some serious scenery. There are a handful of fantastic scenes such as the one mentioned above that fully capture the time period, the attention to detail and the superb acting that all merge to create the pitch-perfect mood of the piece, but unfortunately it never feels it adds up to be more than admirable as much as it wants to feel cutting. Still, by virtue of its cast and credentials alone this will strike most as an interesting film and I will no doubt come to appreciate the film for its technical achievements and reserved approach that deals as much in the details of its plot as it does in the perception of what it takes to achieve that American dream we so desperately believe has always been just out of arms reach.
by Julian Spivey
ABC aired its Countdown to the Oscars: 15 Movies That Transformed U.S. Cinema special on Tuesday, Feb. 16 and like most of the ABC entertainment specials of its ilk it too was quite the mess.
The special set out to rank the 15 most influential movies in American cinema history choosing films for their importance to the future of both film and society. Host Robin Roberts said at the beginning of the program that the list wasn’t necessarily a ranking of the greatest movies of all-time, but rather most influential and it’s an important distinction to make because it gives valid reasoning for leaving films like “Casablanca” and “The Godfather” off of the list.
However, ABC – as they have done on similar lists before – still screwed things up royally. The biggest complaint was a rather egregious one that makes the network look rather imbecilic when it comes to formulating an influential films list … it didn’t include Orson Welles’ incredibly important and much copied in style and direction 1941 film “Citizen Kane” – a film so important that it’s topped the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American films both times the list has been compiled despite there arguably being more popular films like “Casablanca” and “The Godfather.”
The film that topped the ABC list was George Lucas’ 1977 science fiction blockbuster “Star Wars,” which is arguably not even the most influential Sci-Fi film ever (Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which also made the list, could take that cake). There’s few who will deny the movie’s spot on the list though.
However, a film like John Hughes’ 1984 teen flick “Sixteen Candles” appearing on the ABC list when “Citizen Kane” does not really goes a long way in proving the list to be absolute trash. Sure, you can understand the point the list is making in its inclusion of “Sixteen Candles” in the importance the film had in bringing real teenage stories to the cinema – but one of the 15 most influential of all-time? Give me a break.
If “Citizen Kane” isn’t one of the most influential films of all-time – if not the most influential – how come it’s taught in absolutely every film class? How many film classes have you ever seen “Sixteen Candles” taught in? I seriously doubt it’s ever appeared in a single one. Hell, it’s not even John Hughes’ best teen flick – it’s just his first.
I’ve always cared more about performance and script in film than actual directorial style and that’s why I can’t explain the importance of “Citizen Kane” as well as those who care about such things as mise-en-scene can, so it’s better to let somebody like Filmsite’s Tim Dirks do that. I will say the film is actually somewhat underrated when it comes to performance and script with so many focusing on the, for its time, innovative film techniques. But the film has basically inspired and taught every filmmaker who’s come after it and if that’s not influential I don’t know what would be. Perhaps, “The Breakfast Club”?
Countdown to the Oscars: 15 Movies That Transformed U.S. Cinema Complete List:
#15. “Toy Story”
#14. “Sixteen Candles”
#13. “A Hard Day’s Night”
#11. “Lillies of the Field”
#10. “The Godfather Part II”
#9. “I’m No Angel”
#8. “Easy Rider”
#7. “The Birth of a Nation”
#6. “A Streetcar Named Desire”
#5. “2001: A Space Odyssey”
#3. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”
#2. “Gone with the Wind”
#1. “Star Wars”
by Philip Price
The worst thing about “Blackhat” is simply how forgettable it is. The fact the title is something of a hacker term, unrecognizable to the common consumer and doesn’t spark much interest makes it something of a task to even get people interested, but when the film itself turns out to be tedious and rather dull, the case is only worsened. It might have been better had the film gone out under the name, “The Untitled Michael Mann Project,” but then again, audiences have been somewhat dissonant with the well-regarded filmmaker as this will mark his third film in a row where expectation likely doesn’t meet reality. Since discovering the director for myself in 2001 with “Ali” and being riveted by his follow-up, 2004’s underappreciated “Collateral,” I’ve always looked forward to what he has to say next. Most will know him for helming “Heat,” “Last of the Mohicans” or even “Manhunter,” all of which were interesting to go back and watch after seeing “Collateral” and experiencing the evolution of his style all at once, but with “Blackhat” the director seems to be on autopilot. A black hat is essentially a fancy word for a hacker or someone who violates computer or internet security maliciously or for illegal personal gain. In the film, both our protagonist and our antagonist are classified under this title, but one is looking to redeem himself while the other is simply in it to see how creative he can be in order to get away with more than a few major crimes and terrorist acts. Mann clearly wants to bring his style and sense of storytelling to a topic that is both relevant and lightly documented. This is obviously a fine enough goal to have, but the final product is little more than a standard police procedural with a topical twist. With that, one walks away from the film feeling unmoved as none of the characters are completely endearing and while their plight can become interesting at points it in no way resonates or leaves an impression, but rather washed over me with an attitude of being unimpressed or indifferent to anything the villain was doing because they (the good guys) already knew they’d eventually outsmart him. This isn’t exactly what you might call fun though and so we (the audience) end up feeling the same way as our intended heroes – unimpressed and indifferent because we’ve experienced and seen this movie so often before.
The film begins by taking us on a stroll through the inner-workings of a computer. Completely navigating the world of a full CGI environment Mann seemingly wants these opening moments to give the audience an immersive look into the world of his main characters and what their brains detail every day, but instead it looks more like something akin to a nineties show on Fox Kids Saturday mornings. Eventually making it out of the computers, we realize the actual point of seeing ourselves through the information highway was so that the hacker, or “black hat” could set off a nuclear explosion in China. This is obviously big news and puts into motion the events that become the main narrative as an investigative team is sent in to figure out the source of the attack and to apprehend the culprit before he can strike again. Sounds familiar, right? It is, but Mann wants to make it a detective story for a brave new world and unfortunately that sense just doesn’t come through in his effort. The investigative team is led by Dawai (Leehom Wang), a Chinese defense officer of some sort that is proficient in his knowledge of computers and an expert on cyber attacks. He takes his sister, Lien (Wei Tang), who I’m still not sure how she figures into being necessary to the United States, where they meet with U.S. Department of Justice member Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and convince her they need Dawai’s number two man on the job if they want to make any real progress. It just so happens Dawai’s number two is his MIT roomie Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) who is now a convicted hacker serving fifteen years in prison for hacking into something and bankrolling himself and a few of his friends. That’s what I gathered anyway, his past motivations aren’t clearly defined and what we should expect from him coming out of prison is all but uncertain. Hathaway is furloughed and sets up a deal where if he catches the baddie he is free forever and if not, then he’ll willingly serve out the rest of his sentence. Players are in motion, start the clock.
It would be nice if the film were actually as straightforward and direct as that previous sentence, but instead the screenplay is where we find “Blackhat” running into most of its trouble. From the beginning we are unfamiliar with who these people are in their daily lives and what they might bring to the table of the main plot, much less what exactly they’re doing in order to crack the case. Computer/hacker jargon is thrown around with little explanation while Hathaway is the only character we feel we really get to know and most of that is simply because he is the clearly defined lead and not necessarily from Hemsworth’s performance. That isn’t to say Hemsworth puts forth a bad performance, he is perfectly fine here and contrary to popular opinion I kind of like the idea of this against type persona portraying what we generally perceive as the stereotypical nerd behind a keyboard. Hemsworth, putting on something of a northeastern American accent, brings his bulk to a role that requires a bloody brutality, but is of course of more importance for his intelligence and insight. The actor has an inherent credibility in his presence and therefore we buy into not only the idea that he could serve as a gifted hacker and person of interest, but that he also has the brawn to physically take on the bad guys in some of the only real moments of tension here making the more explicit violence in the film all the more believable. If anything, Hemsworth is the film’s greatest asset. Not faring so well is the supporting cast, mainly Wei and Leehom who are brought in so abruptly with no definition of who they are individually or where their relationship is at as siblings that where the film builds to has less of an impact and simply exists on the basis of their inherent relationship. In short, while Davis is always reliable and is especially endearing here as a sassy ally, the script muddles the character development to the point that we don’t care how carefully placed each step in the investigation has been set-up, but rather realize that since the character arcs are essentially non-existent there isn’t much to care about.
Furthermore, a director such as Mann should have realized this, if not while shooting at least while editing the film. His vision is clearly present all over the finished product as his digital cameras move in to their intimate angles and capture the facial expressions of his actors with such a veracity that we feel we’re there with them, but this matters little when we don’t fully care about them or understand their motivations and predicaments. If the cast of characters had been trimmed down to the essential Hemsworth, Davis, Leehom and Holt McCallany, who plays a U.S. Marshall and the only character I somehow came to care about, while cutting the love story completely between Hathaway and Wei then we would have experienced a better realized, a more focused film. At two hours and fifteen minutes “Blackhat” is also half an hour too long and in cutting the romantic angle, allowing more time to flesh out the necessary characters at the beginning and then diving head first into the main objective of finding out why this hacker garnered $74 million in cash and is still writing code then we might have had something worth sitting up for. I’m not here to say what the movie should have been though, I’m simply here to discuss the film we did receive and unfortunately, despite all its well-pedigreed factors, “Blackhat” lives up to the stigma of January being a dumping ground for studios. At the risk of sounding like I completely hated the film, I will say that some of what Mann has going on here becomes of interest and I understand that the love story exists to set-up the complexities of the latter half of the film. But in allowing this underdeveloped relationship into the narrative it also allows the film to devolve into this standard man-on-the-run tale that doesn’t care what its mission is and could be anything, but just so happens to deal with cyber terrorism. The film allows the genre to define it when the film should in fact elevate the genre. It’s clear what Mann wanted to accomplish with this film and as much as one would like to commend his efforts, even those who don’t see hundreds of movies a year will no doubt find “Blackhat” a lackluster action/crime/drama that doesn’t live up to its potential.
The Wedding Ringer
by Philip Price
Writer/director Jimmy Garelick and star Kevin Hart know what they have on their hands with “The Wedding Ringer.” It is clear from the first moment Hart shows up on screen and they wear it on their sleeve with a badge of honor. In what is essentially a mash-up of “Wedding Crashers” and “I Love You, Man” as well as any other movie you’ve ever seen with “wedding” in the title there is nothing innovative or unconventional about this film, but it has its laughs and that’s all that really matters. With that, the film breezes through its expected beats with a carefree tone and consistent laugh factor that kept the audience I saw it with rolling (granted, they did get to see it for free). Still, this is a film that not much was initially expected of and, if anything, solidified the fact that studios were definitely trying to mold Hart into the next Adam Sandler as here the comedian is blatantly ripping on the title of Sandler’s 1998 hit. Sandler is currently experiencing something of a slight drought in bankability and so the studios have moved in on who else they might turn to and Hart has proven a winning candidate so far. The man will allow them to throw together slapdash efforts of films that will turn huge profits on minuscule budgets year after year while trusting that the on-set riffs and improvisations are enough to satisfy audiences need for laughter. Yes, “The Wedding Ringer” is no doubt a film put together by a committee to appeal to as many people as possible and yes, it is predictable, slightly sexist with a cast of male chauvinist pigs at the core and never aspires to be more than it has to be, but in initially setting its bar so low it doesn’t have as hard a time surpassing that bar. I realize this isn’t high art, but it’s not intended to be and so, for what it’s worth, I found the film to be highly entertaining, extremely funny at parts and a raunch aspect that serves to ease the fact this is little more than a rom-com from the perspective of the fellas. “The Wedding Ringer” is what it is and if you buy a ticket knowing that, you’ll get what you want. I wanted a mindless comedy and that’s what I was given so consider me a happy customer, Mr. Hart.
Last winter I gave Hart’s R-rated effort, “About Last Night,” something of a lower grade than it probably deserved, but I wasn’t sure if what I’d seen was an anomaly yet. He’d already given us a generic PG-13 January release in “Ride Along” (which naturally will spawn a sequel) and followed it up with the disappointing “Think Like A Man Too,” but with allowing “The Wedding Ringer” to go with a hard R-rating the studio has given both Hart and director Garelick (which makes me want to quote Zoolander every time I type it) the opportunity to create something more in line with their own sensibilities. For this, we should be thankful, as otherwise this would have been as broad and generic as something starring Jennifer Lopez. That would be a waste not only of Hart’s comedic talent, but of the rather wonderful supporting cast that has been collected here. Our story centers around Doug Harris (Josh Gad, voice of Olaf in “Frozen”) who is playing the lovable but socially awkward groom-to-be. He seemingly has two problems on his hands in that 1.) he has no friends and therefore no best man or groomsmen and 2.) he is engaged to a girl out of his league who may or may not be settling with the lovable loser. With less than two weeks to go until he marries the so-spoiled-you-can-hear-it-in-her-name Gretchen Palmer (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), Doug has to act fast. When his wedding planner (Ignacio Serricchio) realizes the depths of Doug’s predicament he refers him to Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart), owner and CEO of Best Man, Inc. Jimmy’s company provides flattering best men for socially challenged guys in need. As Doug is in need of not only a best man, but a full wedding party complete with six groomsmen Jimmy will have to pull off a job known as “The Golden Tux,” a stint never before attempted. You can see where things will likely go from here, but that doesn’t matter as much as the chemistry between the players and there is plenty of that to spare.
The core of the film is the unexpected budding bromance between Doug and his fake best man, Jimmy. Addressing this relationship first and its inevitability is to speak to the camaraderie quickly set-up by Hart and Gad. Per usual, Hart is something of a spastic ball of energy that bounces from one scene to the next and spits out one-liners so fast you can hardly comprehend them if you’re not in the right mind-set. Gad, on the other hand, has a certain something about his subtle comedic stylings that make him a kind of perfect model for the straight man to Hart’s big presence. This has been a long time coming for Gad it seems as he first appeared on the scene in “21,” but stole the show as Jake Gyllenhaal’s brother in “Love & Other Drugs.” The guy knows how to balance solid comedic timing as he can play the awkward loser complimented by his physical appearance, but has the unique ability to transcend that facade and create a legitimate “one of the dudes” persona that we believe as a credible melding of attitudes and interests when the remainder of the motley crew of groomsmen show up. Gad and Hart work well together and while Hart is still essentially playing the same guy he always does, Gad somehow pulls more weight out of the otherwise typical performance by giving Hart something real to react to. Gad forms a fully functioning member of society with a clear arc, a real backstory that effects his day to day and a deep-seeded need to just relax that infiltrates this character. There isn’t much to think about in “The Wedding Ringer,” but Gad subtly brings unexpected layers to Doug and in turn requires more from our lead than he might have usually put forward. It is a good look for both Gad and Hart and to that point, I wouldn’t mind seeing them on screen together again. This relationship is only enhanced by the inclusion of the rest of the groomsmen that include Kip (Alan Ritchson), Lurch (Jorge Garcia), Reggie (Affion Crockett), Endo (Aaron Takahashi), Bronstein (Dan Gill), Plunkett (Colin Kane) and Otis (Corey Holcomb).
There is little time wasted in this lightning-quick comedy as the main characters are established, the major dramatic question is set and within the first half hour we are well on our way to the first “big” scene where Cloris Leachman is present to basically catch on fire. It is this mentality in both the directing and writing that Garelick operates best by letting his actors take the script and use it to their advantage. There are clearly scenes that have been given precedent over the ones that are necessary to move the plot along, but these are the scenes that will stand out for their ability to be “of the moment” rather than doing anything to necessarily add to the narrative (Put the weed in the coconut!). You could make excuses that these scenes are set-up to build the friendship between our two leads, but this could be done in more proficient, relevant ways. Isn’t it more fun to see a car chase, a backyard football game with senior citizens and a dance off though? I thought so, at least in this context. While Garelick still has much room to grow in his directing style as this could have literally been made by anyone (with the aforementioned car chase scene serving as a prime example of the amateur approach) he at least provides a clear intent as far as tone in his visual representation of the well-defined characters he has written in his screenplay with Jay Lavender (“The Break-Up”). It is the combination of the cast that really allows the jokes from the otherwise well-worn premise to rise above the mediocrity it could have so easily become. The remainder of the ensemble that includes the likes of Olivia Thirlby as the obligatory love interest for Jimmy, Mimi Rogers and Ken Howard as Gretchen’s overbearing parents and Jenifer Lewis as Jimmy’s secretary/wise old lady guide blends well together to create a world where the likes of Whitney Cummings as an annoying bridesmaid and Jeffrey Ross as a wedding singer all make sense. Like I said, this isn’t high art and you of course shouldn’t go in expecting such, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time with this and that I’d mind watching it again because I would … right now if I could.
by Philip Price
It is difficult to fathom exactly what is going on in director Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” The characters here are hesitant to let you into their worlds let alone their heads. As an audience member, we feel as if we’re watching from the outside in on the situation at hand, never knowing the motivation of anyone as each seem to live in this world of fear. Whether it be John du Pont (Steve Carell), Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) or even Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), each possess a fear of either coming to terms with logic and the abnormalities of their situation or the fear of losing control. While the Schultz brothers are vastly different from one another they both come to understand the oddities of their circumstances at Du Pont’s Foxcatcher farms. Du Pont, on the other hand, is little more than a mystery to everyone around him. Mark comes to the heir of the Du Pont family fortune early and allows the stranger things about his mentor to slip through the cracks because he shows a belief in him that no one else has ever extended. Still, despite the relationships that evolve and the dynamics that come to the surface we never feel as if we can see why these characters are the way they are. Every line of dialogue though is used to peel back a layer of the characters and reveal something more about the backstory that has made this person who they are today. It is a technique that Miller uses most effectively allowing us to constantly crave more from the film while only giving away what it wants you to know so as to not poison the ambition of the project with unsatisfying conclusions. Whether you know what is coming or not you are riveted by the procedural nature of the film as it methodically chronicles the rise and fall of a friendship never believed to be genuine and the repercussions of the falling out of that paid for affection. “Foxcatcher” is a strange film filled with strange people, but it is all the more fascinating for it. It is a film I feel I could go on writing about for days and discussing at even greater length as I know each time I re-visit it I will only find new things that only highlight what I might have barely took note of before. It is a cold film, one that will at first seem off-putting for it, but the more you think about it the more the inhumanity produced by the circumstances it chronicles eats away at you.
Based on a true story, “Foxcatcher” essentially tells of the relationship between an eccentric multi-millionaire and two champion wrestlers. Mark Schultz was a 1984 Olympic Gold Medal winning wrestler who, after going to great lengths to win for his country, had come to be little more than disregarded. He went from being recognized on a worldwide stage to making speeches for sixth graders and eating Ramen Noodles in his small apartment. Mark is defeated while only craving more and hoping to make a return to the games in 1988. His fortune seems to change for the better when he is invited by the wealthy Du Pont to move on to his estate and help form a team to train for the Seoul Olympics. Du Pont knows little of the craft of wrestling, but with his money and new state-of-the-art training facility he is accustomed to getting what he wants. Schultz jumps at the chance seeing it as the opportunity to finally be free of the shadow of his more revered brother, Dave. Du Pont, on the other hand, sees backing Schultz as his own opportunity to “coach” a world-class wrestling team. Du Pont has a clear goal in mind as he seeks to not only build a world champion wrestling team, but more a larger collection of achievements that he can stick in his mother’s trophy room so as to possibly win her approval. In order to do this, in order to accomplish what he himself is unable to do he must buy those who can do it for him and trick them into believing he is as royal and dignified as he believes. Thus, the initial attraction to the timid Mark offers a head he can play with and possibly still bring around his brother. It is when Du Pont’s unpredictable personality becomes fixated on Dave, the most level-headed person in the film, that Mark goes into a downward spiral and Du Pont begins to lose control. It is Du Pont’s need to feel included, to feel necessary or to feel some type of connection that he can’t seem to grab onto. After Dave reinvigorates Mark to fight in the games and with Du Pont having already placed Mark on the backburner it is here the eccentric millionaire grows more fearful of not copacetically achieving his goals giving way to the real tragedy of the story.
“I think there are a few psychological issues we need to take care of,” John du Pont mutters at one point in the film. This feels like a massive understatement given the amount of head games being played here. It also brings us to what is most impressive about Miller’s film in that he successfully conveys every element of who is playing what angle while never fully letting us into the minds of the characters. We can evaluate these people, sure, but we don’t know them which is all well and good because we don’t necessarily want to. In prying these guarded, but exploitative performances from his actors, Miller is able to keep a consistently intense, but quiet tone about his film where everything is boiling right under the surface. As Du Pont, Carell is something of a revelation. We’ve never seen the actor in such a form before either physically or mentally. Du Pont is certainly the most guarded character here having never been allowed to let anyone in due to the fact he could trust no one growing up as he did and was only undermined further by the truths he came to learn as an adult. Everything in his life he’s had to buy with his excessive wealth and he’s grown accustomed to positioning those he needs something from in a head space of them needing him in return. We understand Du Pont’s reasoning, but we never get a full picture of what is driving the man. Sure, he wants to feel respected by not only his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), but his peers and yet that doesn’t seem enough to justify this fear and incompetence inherent to his state of mind. Mark is very much the same in this regard of having low self-esteem. As Mark, Tatum plays the wrestler as something of a muted monkey with what we at first perceive as a heart of gold. As things progress and Mark is given his moment to shine he becomes more vulnerable and overly dependent on the approval of his new mentor when he should in fact be gaining confidence. Confidence is what Dave has that neither John nor Mark can seem to muster in the effortless way Dave exudes it. It is through the amalgamation of these three men and their wants and needs from one another that the drama is born.
I firmly believe you could drop me in at any point in this film and whether it be the shot selection, the performance, the understated music and tone or simply the themes and ideas at play that there would be something substantial to talk about. Miller was said to have labored over the film for a much longer period of time than any filmmaker should probably be allowed and it shows. Miller has also discussed how his first edit of the film was four hours and fifteen minutes which presents the only weakness of the film. The necessities are here, everything from how Mark Schultz gets from A to Z, but it is also clear Miller isn’t one who likes to paint a picture where he hits his points directly on the nose. He likes to allude to them, hint at them and leave openings for his audience to take it as they wish. He is a director of subtleties and in this final cut (which runs only two hours and ten minutes) it almost feels he’s been forced to cut out the cushioning of what adds to the more direct scenes that have been left as the complete film. The editing here is made to be of a disciplined nature so as to reflect the mentalities of the brothers at the heart of the story, but it is in certain spots that we feel there is more to tell, more to reveal which in turn creates the guarded facade of the film. This doesn’t necessarily make the version that’s been released any less effective, but in seeing what Miller has been able to present in this form it certainly adds intrigue as to what his full vision was for this harrowing and grandly somber tale. It is not in the description of a critic to discuss what could have been though and so, still, in taking what Miller has given us with “Foxcatcher” I cannot help but remain in awe of every aspect. From the elaborate production design that has been draped in dull and gloomy color tones to the ominous, but hard-edged soundtrack by Rob Simonsen that is sparingly used, there is something about the film you can’t quite pinpoint but continue to be fascinated by long after the credits roll. Du Pont becomes fueled by paranoia and fears the alienation he spent millions to avoid forcing him to do the unspeakable and that Miller captures his own paranoia and constriction in every scene of his film makes for as gripping an experience as any other I’ve had at the movies this year.
by Philip Price
They say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you agree with that line of thinking than you will likely be disappointed in the latest from director Paul Thomas Anderson. At nearly two and a half hours, it is a mess of a masterpiece that begs for you to dissect every scene and every line of dialogue as well as how the actor speaking a said line conveys the meaning of their dialogue. Do we place this kind of importance on the film because it does indeed come from a filmmaker with the unique status of Anderson? If it came from a lesser known director would the awaiting audience be as accepting? It's hard to say and it hardly matters because no one else would ever make films like the ones Anderson crafts. Like his other six features, “Inherent Vice” is wholly a concoction of the director’s singular voice and style. From “Boogie Nights” to “There Will Be Blood” and “Magnolia” to “The Master” Anderson has demonstrated an eclectic range that gives each new film a dynamic all its own. It has always been clear his sentiment is slightly off-kilter, but he has never made anything as loopy or goofy as what we have here and somehow it seems as if this is the truest representation of the person Anderson actually is. As much as “Inherent Vice” fits perfectly into Anderson's diverse filmography it is the way he has approached the project that stands out more than anything, maybe even more than the finished product itself. Set in Gordita Beach, Calif. in the summer of 1970 as Vietnam rages on and the ‘60s come to a screeching halt the director infuses his film with this aesthetic by consistently relying on the style of limited camera movement and the framing of shots to capture specific angles that immediately conjure up references to films of the time period in which his film is set. From the attention to detail to the technicolor texture of the images and more forward to the seemingly blind, but no doubt highly calculated preciseness of not seeming to give two shits Anderson delivers a film that, on the surface, seems to make little sense at all. And yet, as one begins to dig deeper and break down the whole of the film into single scenes, individual moments and certain pieces of dialogue it somehow makes more sense even if that bigger picture is all but lost. While “Inherent Vice” isn't and won't be hailed as Anderson's greatest work, it is easy to see it becoming the one his loyal fans end up returning to most often.
Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon “Inherent Vice” tells the story, mainly, of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix); a private investigator whose ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), comes to him in the beginning with the story of how major real-estate mogul and current beau Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is the subject of a scam. Mickey's wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her own lover on the side want to have Mickey admitted to a mental health institution and Shasta is hoping Doc will help her spoil this plot. At around the same time Doc comes in contact with Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) who asks him to find out the whereabouts of Glen Charlock, who also happens to be one of Mickey's bodyguards. In his pursuit and after a series of unfortunate events Doc ends up being questioned by local LAPD hard ass and arch-nemesis Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Bigfoot informs Doc that Charlock has been shot and killed while both Wolfmann and Shasta have disappeared. From here on out we follow Doc on what becomes a series of disparate seeming events that are able to somehow still enhance the world in which this takes place while involving us in Doc's thought process even if we don't really understand much of what's going on. Doc takes on another case involving Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) as she hopes to find her believed to be dead husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), still alive. Doc has a few drinks with his lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) in order to find out more about the "Golden Fang," an old sailing ship suspected of bringing mysterious goods into port, and upon which Mickey and Shasta are rumored to have departed. He is reunited with Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), a runaway Doc returned to her parents on a previous occasion who is currently having an inappropriate relationship with her doctor (Martin Short). He stays informed on the city's current status of his cases by sleeping with district attorney Penny (Reese Witherspoon) while all being sporadically narrated by Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) who I'm still not sure how she ties into everything else.
There is a small moment in “Inherent Vice” where one character looks up to another after they've been rambling on about who knows what and asks, "So, you're here about?" which is only met with the response of, "good question." It is a sentiment that is wondered again by the viewer countless times throughout as the massive ensemble cast gives way to scene after scene where we have little idea as to how or if this certain event ties into the bigger picture. While I haven't read the source material and am not familiar with the writing style of Pynchon, the fact he's only given Anderson the rights to adapt what is considered the most commercial of his works tells me much of the structure and isolated tendencies of the plot. While Anderson has always had the need to pull his features slightly to the left in terms of inherent oddities he is only drowning in his own desires with Pynchon providing the template. Just as much, if not more than the immersive aesthetic and vibrant stylings of the director though are the performances of this large cast that compel us to stick with the infrequent narrative. As Doc, Phoenix turns a complete one-eighty from his previous lead in an Anderson film and gives us a dope smoking, sometimes inept investigator who is somehow able to still elicit a sense of empathy from the audience due in part to his consistent streak of bad luck. In essentially every frame of the film, Phoenix anchors the tone by being completely present in the moment. It would be easy to see Phoenix come at the character with little regard for who Doc is given he is on something of a high one hundred percent of the time, but it takes a fair amount of skill to give an impassioned performance that is meant to feel careless. Phoenix has always had this aura around him as if he disregards anyone and everything, unable to take a thought seriously unless he himself has it and while that makes seeing his more emotionally involving work all the more revealing this facade only builds with his portrayal of Doc that is amped to the max by the lunacy he exudes under many a circumstances. Other standouts include Brolin and Wilson as they are solid performers who add to the ongoing story while many of the others contribute little more than cameo appearances, with Short's being especially entertaining.
I admire the hell out of anything Paul Thomas Anderson decides to put his mark on and here his boldness to not adhere to any given structure or formula, but rather to simply do as he sees fit making even a story as broad as this one all his own is instantly appealing. “Inherent Vice” is a movie I enjoy the more I think about it after the fact. I loved being a part of the world and interacting with the characters even if I still have no idea what I really thought about the film itself at the time I was experiencing those things. So, how does one even come to a final verdict? It is hard to say and ultimately so subjective in terms of this type of art that it truly doesn't matter. The film is gorgeously realized and beautifully photographed in a sense that the hugely complimentary score feels more coherent than the story being told. My immediate reaction was one of wondering whether or not Anderson had tried too hard to put his own spin on a rather straightforward tale. With many of his other films, when I've finished watching them (especially for the first time) I've felt a moving, insightful experience come out of it and while I initially thought of “Inherent Vice” as an adventure I didn't know if it felt as wholly engrossing in the way Anderson's films typically leave me. Allowing a little bit of time to pass though, one can't help but to continue thinking about the film and the choices made in creating it. One begins to realize the details of the plot are of little importance and that the real emphasis here is placed on the people and this semi-paradise where everyone is just trying to make it work yet nothing and no one seems able to work together. This is not strictly the story of a hippie P.I. at the dawn of the seventies, but more a portrait of a specific moment in certain people’s lives with nothing necessarily profound to say about the state of existence or what these characters are finding significance in. They are only looking for a path. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how I feel about the film as it is certainly one I'd love to watch again and again; one where I may not ever know what exactly is going on, but where I will always be excited to see what comes next.
by Philip Price
The thought of Reese Witherspoon, the sweet and petite blonde from New Orleans made famous by broad comedies like “Legally Blonde” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” playing a down on her luck hitchhiker dealing with a past that includes drug problems and excessive fornication with the dealers of those drugs isn’t one that immediately meshes well. Despite “Academy Award Winner” being inscribed above her name every time she takes on an Oscar-bait role such as this, there still seems a very confined set of types we expect the actress to play. For some reason, I don’t expect Witherspoon to be a very versatile performer and though her actual person is no doubt much more interesting due, if for nothing else, to everything she’s accomplished, there is still such a specific on-screen persona I expect from her. As many actors before her looking to fulfill something more in their careers by challenging themselves or just to simply add depth to their filmogrpahy, Witherspoon breaks away from what is expected of her and completely embraces this necessary journey her character goes on, warts and all. In many ways it is refreshing. Witherspoon has been stuck trying to figure out where to go with her career after winning her Oscar for “Walk the Line,” semi-afraid of doing romantic comedies again, but finding comfort in them while love stories never stray far from her grasp. “Frozen” and “Maleficent” have both been huge hits for Disney, but more importantly they have raised the idea over the past year that not all love stories have to be about the romantic relationship, but more the love of what else enriches our lives. While “Wild” is nothing like either of those films, it keeps this kind of love story in mind and is executed in such a way that we come to appreciate the journey of the character realizing this factoid. “Wild” is a character study, but it is not a film that rests solely on the performance of its lead. Witherspoon is more than capable and fully immerses herself in the ever changing state of mind her character Cheryl Strayed must have experienced as we go on this journey with her, but more than that director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) has crafted a fully realized film around her.
Set mainly in 1995, “Wild” tells the story of Strayed who decided to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) alone. We receive no precursor to this decision but instead are dropped immediately into the excruciating decision to take on this mammoth challenge. As the film opens and Witherspoon’s Strayed sits atop a cliff with a picturesque view we are brought in closer to see the brutality that lies within the beauty. Blood has soaked all the way through her sock and the nail of her big toe literally hangs on by a thread. Why would someone who clearly hasn’t conditioned herself for such a journey and is a novice in the ways of hiking and surviving off the land put herself through such a painful and perilous experience? We can guess at what the causes might be from any number of common human trials, but what is refreshing when discussing this film in particular is that Vallée understands we all have problems and much of his audience that will sit down to walk alongside Strayed have been through many of the same things. In recognizing this commonality the director builds the backstory of the character by interweaving details of her past into the main narrative in non-linear fashion. We don’t always know how what we are watching will piece into the bigger puzzle, but as it builds and as we see the strands coming together the intersecting stories are realized in a sincerely compelling fashion. There is much to discuss in the way of details that line the motivation for Strayed’s thousand-mile hike, but more than anything our heroine is doing this in an attempt to heal herself. Preceding her time on the PCT was years of destructive behavior that tore apart relationships but was done in reaction to other relationships failing or ending. While the film itself is very specific in its emotions and the events necessary to tell a full story, it is able to subtly touch on bigger themes and if not outright discuss them at least bring them into the viewer’s mind which is why I appreciate the film more than I necessarily enjoyed it.
There is nothing wrong with the film itself and it in fact becomes more interesting and, as previously stated, compelling the more the layers are pulled back on Strayed’s past, but on a basic level is the film anything more than a redemption story? No, not really. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this and I don’t have a problem with the real-life Strayed becoming well-renowned and optioning her written memoirs for movie deals as I’m sure her physical and emotional journeys are all the more enthralling and captivating on the page, but as a film it doesn’t feel as personal and thus retains the familiarity of a movie we’ve seen many times before. The one thing that can make all stories different, no matter if the overall objective of the plot is the same, is the approach of either the director or in cases such as this, the storyteller. This unique voice is what no doubt allowed Strayed’s story to stick out to publishers. I haven’t read the source material from which screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”) based his screenplay, but while the main narrative feels as if it is being stretched thin in order to cover the required running time of a feature film if not a little more so that the film might carry more weight and be considered substantial, it is the gravitas that the flashbacks bring and the way they are conveyed that gives the character real voice here. Strayed was a woman who came to the realization of just how many mistakes she’d made in her life. There is a whole issue with the idea of who Strayed thinks she is versus who she actually is or who we perceive her to be that lingers throughout the entire film, but from a general audience perspective it is clear the makers leaned on us wanting to know why this woman so strongly desired to wipe her slate clean that she’d go through with the most literal act imaginable to symbolize that. In order to make that reasoning meet the emotional expectation, besides the editing, one needs sincere and moving performances for such short summations and this is where Witherspoon, along with Laura Dern, really deliver.
The film, more than anything, is the story of the type of love that exists between a mother and daughter. It talks about the ever-evolving relationship between the two as the daughter grows into her own person and the mother becomes the older, guiding figure that child assumed they were from birth. Witherspoon’s Strayed grows from seeing her mother abused to seeing her liberated by leaving her father yet having nothing more in her life besides her children. Strayed prods and pulls at her mother in one flashback about how she can even smile in such a state as Dern exudes an appreciation for life in a fashion her college-aged daughter can’t fathom. Strayed wasn’t always a lost cause, but moments such as this give more weight to events that lead to a grieving process that in turn lead to a rebellion of everything Strayed worked her entire life to build. Going on this journey through the PCT is her needed recovery from that rebellion and it is no doubt because of her self-perception that she does indeed matter (the opposite mindset of most children raised in fractured homes who turn to drugs or sex as a way of escape) that allows her this redemptive trek. The interesting ideas the film touches on are those of the challenges facing a woman to simply walk out of her life. Much is made of the fact there are so few female hikers or female hobos, as one observer likes to refer to Strayed. Women are made to be the mothers and wives, the ones who inherently are given more responsibility in their pre-ordained roles that makes it harder for them to take a break from things or rather just walk away. Strayed realizes this as she watches her mother have no control of her own life for periods of time. This not only forces Strayed into what seems to be a well-balanced relationship, but one that allows her to keep herself planted firmly in the driver’s seat of her own life. Still, at the time of her hike Strayed was newly-divorced, had no permanent address and no idea what her life might hold for her afterwards. She never saw herself as a lost soul, as someone whose personal trauma forced her into this lifestyle, but rather always a worthy opponent to life. Even if the film has a muddled way of dealing with these ideals versus the world’s ideas it is empowering enough to feel her sense of accomplishment as the credits roll even if some of her comfort relies on excuses we all have to make.