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REVIEW: Foxcatcher (2014) February 29, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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FOXCATCHER

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Wrestling is one of the most ancient, and, arguably, one of the the most basic sports. Its simplicity might explain why it doesn’t seem to be well-suited for modern concept of sports entertainment and why its eventual success can’t be imagined without some sort of artificial spectacle like North American pro wrestling. Wrestling in its basic and “pure” form, which could be found among serious Olympic athletes, seldom attracts Hollywood filmmakers. When it does, it is usually due to connections to some bizarre true life stories, like the one that inspired creators of Foxcatcher, 2014 drama directed by Bennett Miller.

Plot begins in 1987 when the viewers are introduced to Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum), talented wrestler who three years ago won gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. Despite that and despite the support of his older and equally successful brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo), Mark experiences difficulties in training and doesn’t prepare well enough for eventual appearance at next year’s Seoul Olympics. Unexpected solution for those issues comes in the form of John E. du Pont (played by Steve Carell), heir of du Ponts, one of the oldest, richest and most influential families in America. He invites Mark to his Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania where he would train together with other wrestlers. Mark is at first impressed with John’s generosity and gradually develops friendship with his benefactor; Dave, on the other hand, declines invitation to Foxcacther, prefering to spend time with his wife and children. As the deadline for Olympics draw near, Mark begins to see some disturbing details in John’s behaviour, including incidents of unprovoked verbal and physical violence and cocaine use. While Mark begins to distance from John and contemplate leaving, Dave finally relents and comes to Foxcatcher, thus paving the way for unexpected tragedy.

Foxcather, at least on first glance, looks very much like many of those end-of-the-year films designed to impress AMPAS voters with great acting performances. The most impressive of such performances is given by Carrell, an actor who became star by playing comedic roles. His portrayal of John du Pont is something quite different; helped by impressive make-up and prosthetic nose that make him almost unrecognisable, he delivers a chilling and menacing portrait of a character made out of hypocrisy, arrogance and bullishness. Carell plays probably the least likeable, but also one of the greatest characters of his career. Tatum, who often has to deal with thankless, is here given a material more suitable for his talent. Mark Schultz is quiet, emotionless and, at the beginning, rather naive young man who seems almost destined to become a victim; when he begins to notice that everything is not all right and that he should actually do something about it, the change is portrayed gradually and convincingly. Ruffalo is also very good as his older, more experienced and sincerelly well-intentioned brother.

Script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman should be praised for developing plot slowly and allowing viewers to make their own conclusions about characters. This subtle approach prevented them from offering simplest, but dramatically unsatisfying explanation of John’s actions in form of repressed homosexuality. Foxcatcher doesn’t go that route (that would burden the film with unnecessary cliches) and instead leaves the nature of John’s true feelings towards wrestlers both ambiguous, painting the picture of much more complex causes of psychopathy. Part of it is in the glorious past of John’s family and high standards he could never hope to achieve, and part is the troubled relationship with old mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who appeared to love her horses more than her son.

Foxcatcher, on the other hand, fails to put its plot and character in broader socio-political context. There are some hints of Reagan’s 1980s America being a bleak place dominated by greed, corruption and hypocrisy of those who would later be known as “1%”. Motive of Cold War as patriotic justification for morally or otherwise questionable practices is not properly used. And, finally, the shocking, violent ending actually happens year after the other events portrayed in the film; the connection between such finale and actual plot is almost non-existent. Foxcatcher might feature some impressive acting, but it nevertheless looks unfinished.

RATING: 6/10

Fighting (2009) November 20, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Hard economic times have struck today’s world, and even the Hollywood is forced to acknowledge those realities. At least, this is one of the impressions given by the opening scenes of FIGHTING, 2009 drama directed by Dito Montiel.

Young protagonist Shawn MacArthur (played by Channing Tatum), who came to New York in order to pursue American dream, is forced to make ends meet by selling cheap counterfeit merchadise on the street. This kind of activity brings many risks and in one of such incidents MacArthur is forced to display his fighting abilities. This leaves good impression on Harvey Borden (played by Terrence Howard), quiet street hustler who tries to make a name as a street fight promoter. He approaches young man and becomes his manager, trying to use his talents in the sleazy world of professional bare-knuckles street fighting. MacArthur gradually make his name and some money, but soon he has to confront some ghosts of his own pre-New York past.

While the opening scenes of the film suggest something like an honest portrayal of social realities of contemporary New York, FIGHTING soon reveals itself to be nothing more than formulaic and not particularly formulaic sports drama. Dito Montiel, former punk rocker with a troubled street past, was supposed to give this film, which purports to expose “dark underbelly” of New York and its illegal fighting scene, some “street credibility”. His talents, however, couldn’t hide the series of cliches, including the bet scheme subplot and romance that appear to be obligatory for many films of the same genre. Audience also might have some trouble suspending their disbelief, since the protagonist happens to be played by an actor who looks more like a fashion model than tough street fighter.

Ironically, casting appears to be the only thing that makes this film watchable. Terrence Howard, one of the best character actors of contemporary Hollywood, again shows great skill by making his character of soft-spoken, quiet and dignified street hustler much more impressive than the rest of film.  Another hidden gem is Altagracia Guzman who gives great does of humanity to the role of overprotective grandmother of protagonist’s love interest Zulay (played by Colombian actress Zulay Henao). Their efforts, however, can’t compensate for the increasingly annoying defficiens of overcliched and utterly predictable script which makes FIGHTING look much longer than its 93 minutes of running time. Although watchable, this film has already lost its fight against descent into cinema oblivion.

RATING: 3/10