Category Archives: Film

Foxcatcher

foxcatcherI couldn’t see all the Oscar nominated films before the winners were announced, Foxcatcher being one I pushed to the side. Not so much into wrestling and I wasn’t too enthusiastic about seeing Steve Carrel in a drama. If you had a similar thought, I’ll suggest that you see it at some point, its excellent.

The story of John du Pont (of du Pont chemicals fame) turning his estate, Foxcatcher, into a Olympic wrestling training camp is both interesting for the retrospective, true story and for the shockingly amazing acting from Carrel.

This is an intentionally slow moving character study of both John du Pont and the Schultz brothers. du Pont,  a wealthy business tycoon, turns his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher, into a training camp for 1988 Olympic wrestling contenders. Throughout the film you see du Pont has a strained relationship with his constantly disapproving mother which serves as motivation for him constantly trying to win her approval. Even with business success behind him he had to go further to show he was a leader in the large.

The Schultz brothers were both Olympic gold medalists, the younger brother, Mark, living in the shadows of his older brother, who was also his trainer. Mark, with reservations,  accepts du Pont’s offer to move to Foxcatcher for training, perhaps in attempt to assert his own identity. After the move, and recruiting more Olympic trainees, du Pont starts to exhibit odd behaviour. People tend to overlook odd and potentially destructive behaviour from the wealthy set, the path of least resistance is to label it with ‘eccentric’. Unfortunately, in this case, eccentric behaviour leads to tragedy.

Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum are excellent portraying the Schultz brother, Ruffalo in particular bearding up and changing his demeanor to an almost unrecognizable state. However, both are completely overshadowed by Carrrel. Makeup and loads of prosthetics helped but Carrel nails both the solemn isolation and dysfunctional motivation behind du Pont’s character, which ultimately lead to his demise.

If you’re interested in character studies in general or just curious about this notorious tragedy, particularly the strange evolution of emotional and psychological factors between du Pont and the Schultz brothers, Foxcatcher is an excellent watch.

 

 

Predestination

predestinationI’ll warn you straightaway, Predestination is a mind-bending film. For those looking for linear, passive entertainment, carry on.

*** Spoiler Alert
*** Long Post Alert

Whenever time travel is introduced into a plot, it opens the story progression to many different paths. Swallowing the notion that someone could travel back in time to meet a younger version of themselves is challenging but appealing. Go ahead and suspend that disbelief now, since situations become very complicated very quickly.

You’re first introduced to Ethan Hawke’s character, The Agent, an agent of the super secret government entity responsible for going back in time to stop crime. The Agent is initially sent back to the 70’s to stop a bomber from destroying a 10×10 block area of NYC. In the 70’s he poses as a bartender when he meets John. John tells the bartender a story about how he used to be Jane, a person born with both sexes, raised as a woman but later changed to a man after some complications with a pregnancy. John relays his disgust at having to become man after the pregnancy resulting from a brief romance with a man who left abruptly. The Agent recruits John to travel back in time to the 60’s to seek revenge on the man who left abruptly, John accepts.

In the 60’s John meets his former female self, Jane. This is where the complications arise and I might add, it gets a little creepy. John and Jane have a brief affair before John leaves abruptly with The Agent back to the 70’s,  Jane finds out later, back in the 60’s shes pregnant. She has a little girl the following year, who The Agent kidnaps, travels back in time to the 40’s  and leaves at an orphanage .

The Agent, back in the 70’s, foils the plot of The Bomber but doesn’t kill him. Instead he pushes a violin case towards him, which turns out to be a time travel device, which The Bomber uses to escape to the 90’s.

The Agent, travels forward to the 90’s to find The Bomber, aged and still plotting more destruction. You’ll notice The Bomber looks like an older version of The Agent. That’s because he is. The Agent kills The Bomber, his older self.

If you haven’t pieced it together, here’s how it works. The Agent has to kill The Bomber because The Bomber wants to stop the cycle. The cycle? Yes,  remember Jane, she gives birth to a girl. That girl is Jane herself. When The Agent kidnaps the infant Jane and transports her back in time to the 40’s, he is returning Jane to her correct birth year.  Jane grows up, becomes John and they produce another Jane. John becomes The Agent and The Agent becomes The Bomber. Yes, that’s right, they are all the same person.

Why does The Agent continue the cycle when it would be easy to kill of an earlier version of himself or just let The Bomber carry out his mission? Because he is told by The Agency that its his destiny and purpose and if he doesn’t it will wreak havoc on the world, hence the title – Pre-destination. This dredges up a timeless philosophical question – Do you have free will and even if you do, does exercising your free will change your fate?

Premise and philosophy aside, the acting is stellar. Ethan Hawke nails the nuances of The Agent and Bomber, the weary reluctance to continue with his ‘destiny’ playing tug of war with his accepted purpose. However, Hawke is absolutely outdone by Sarah Snook, who is extraordinary playing Jane and John. Makeup and wardrobe helped to create John, but she had mannerisms, vocal tone and range of man. She beautifully projected rage and vengeance as John, while occasionally letting the confusion and abandonment of Jane out as a historical reminder. The transition period from Jane to John, gaping plot holes notwithstanding, was absolutely riveting. For me, Snook gave an Oscar-worthy performance.

Whether you’re a fan of cinematic puzzles created by the injection of time travel and non-linear story lines or you just want to see a phenomenal performance from Sarah Snook as both a man and woman, Predestination is a good watch.

 

 

 

Booth At The End

booth-at-endInteresting setup. The Man sits with a tattered notebook in the last booth inside an innocuous diner. People stream in constantly to meet with him, each wanting something they feel they cannot get on their own. The Man makes deals with these people; after consulting with the notebook, he gives them a task. They report back on their progress and if they complete the task, their wish is fulfilled. The Man tells them their wish may still be granted if they don’t complete the task, but there is no guarantee in that case.

Caveat Emptor echoes loudly when you hear the wishes. Likely you’ll raise an eyebrow to the spoken requests versus what these people actually want.  In the beginning you might believe The Man has an uncanny knack for enabling people to help themselves. However, as the stories evolve, intersect and the effects of carrying out their tasks have some undesirable effects, you might think something more sinister is in play. I was never certain which was the case but that is likely the point – it depends on your perspective; whether you believe in fate, that you make your own opportunities or something in between.

A young girl wants to be prettier, her task is to rob a bank. To prepare she buys a gun and starts learning about how to carry out the crime. In the process she meets a young man who robs banks and they develop a relationship. The young man, coincidentally, is the son of another of The Man’s clients, a police officer who wants to catch a bank robber, who is, as it turns out, his son. The young girl? She changes her wish after meeting the young man, since really what she wanted was to be in love, she was only using looks as a means to that end.

There isn’t much in the way of cinematography since the entire piece takes place in the diner. You never see The Man’s clients execute any of their tasks, you only hear the details when they report back. Xander Berkeley does a great job as The Man, stoically handing out some gruesome tasks, seemingly knowing the outcome beforehand. Berkeley’s road-weary expressions and the detached ambivalence in his voice give one the sense that he has been facilitating wish delivery for far too long. His marked reluctance to answer questions from the increasingly curious Waitress, speak to The Man having unfulfilled wishes himself.

Post-watch I learned Booth at the End was originally released as a 2-season set of webisodes by FX. I streamed them  in movie form from Amazon but I think Amazon’s offering was just Season 2.  Also interesting, Berkeley’s real-life wife, Sarah Clarke, both of whom anchored several seasons of 24,  makes an appearance as a nun who loses her faith and to restore it, she must become pregnant.

If you’re in the mood for a cinematic puzzle involving multiple, overlapping story lines, all  which pose  philosophically interesting questions with no definitive answers, Booth at the End is a good watch.

Rush

RushIn high school one of my friends was a car nut. She and I were born on the same day and within the same hour, alike in many ways but different in this one. I drove a beat-up hand-me-down Toyota well into 6-figure miles, she drove a pimped-out, mid-70’s Impala with a custom paint job, $3000 stereo and hydraulic lifts. She bought it used and non-functional, did her voodoo car magic and would later enter it and win prizes at car shows. Later in life she married a race car driver, a hobby she happily embraced.

Something about the need for speed and danger.

This film, Rush, a biography of two Formula One racers, reminded me of her. I didn’t know much about Formula One and I knew absolutely nothing about James Hunt and Niki Lauda, the two racers who, in the 1970’s, would go to unimaginable extremes to win. Facing probable death from one slightly imprecise decision was just the training-wheels fear to overcome to get to the real fear – losing. The film depicts the two as on-track enemies, off-track friends, one using the other’s success as motivation to become better.  Lauda, who makes an appearance at the end of the film, admits Hunt was one of the few men he respected and the only one he envied.

Chris Hemsworth stows his Thor hammer away and does quite well as James Hunt, playboy race car driver extraordinaire. His easy good looks made him suitably cast as the fun-loving party boy but there was a countermanding single-purpose intensity in Hemsworth as he took to the wheel. Daniel Bruhl also shines as Niki Lauda, showing the methodical and calculated counterbalance to Hunt.

Cinematography is excellent here, stationary ground-level shots juxtaposed with car-mounted shots some filtered with gauze to give you the feel of being a mask-covered race car driver yourself. Frames from different perspectives go by quickly to accentuate what is indicated by the title – a rush, a pure adrenaline rush.  It almost makes me want to try driving a race car, almost.

Rush is good watch for anyone interested in the armchair speed and danger experience of a race car driver or for those interested in a character study of an outlier friendship based on obsessive competition.

Force Majeure

forceI don’t speak French, so I don’t know the meaning of ‘Force Majeure‘ from the language perspective. However, in law, the term is used contractually to represent events beyond the control of both parties, neither of which can be held ultimately responsible.

I see the carryover of the term in this film when a Swedish family on ski holiday comes face to face with an avalanche. Dad turns and runs, Mom and Kids just hunker down. As it turns out they weren’t in any real danger since the ‘avalanche’ was of the controlled variety and they were perched high up on a patio overlooking the ski runs. But the white-out effect of powdered snow obliterating visibility and the thunderous sound of snow rocketing down the mountain side were unnerving. That, in an instant, Dad flees, as a self-preservation instinct, without considering his family’s welfare has darkly comic and widespread effect. The majority of the film focuses on emotional side-effects of this one event.

The cinematography is situationally brilliant; the omnipresent white of the snow, the pervasive images of machines making powder, grooming the slopes, the skiers queuing up and riding lifts constantly against the white background creates a mood of isolation. Emotionally, this is what occurs; Dad becomes isolated in his feelings of guilt while he tries to retrospectively justify his actions, Mom becomes isolated in her feelings of abandonment, Kids become isolated in fear of losing their family unit as they see Mom and Dad argue.

I almost turned this film off 30 minutes on since the premise was ridiculous. These small events occur and life continues. At least that was my upbringing – process, discuss, decide, move on. And do it quickly, since in my quintessentially NYC family, the statutes of limitations on any disagreement are very short.  But I realized the film was making a point about how some people in similar situations tend to focus on and examine the minutiae of emotional fallout rather than processing the results and reconciling.

Considering this was a dark comedy, acting was good in balancing a drama with humour, but it was not stellar. The standout for me was Dad, who had a propensity for morphing into a man-child, curling up in an emotionally charged ball of frustration and having a proper tantrum.

If you’re into quirky films making a statement about how people sometimes get stuck in the details and those details become the momentum forward, Force Majeure will appeal.

 

Big Hero 6

big6Usually I loathe Disney films but this one is good.

In a future San Francisco, a teen robotics prodigy is in awe of his older brother’s work at the robotics research farm. Younger brother secures an internship after demonstrating his micro-bot tech. Shortly thereafter, older brother meets with an untimely demise, which wasn’t an accident. Younger brother, with the help of other teen robotics prodigies and a hilarious ‘personal care robot’ named Baymax, set course to avenge the wrong. Naturally they create some tech, giving each a different super-power.

Marvel comics action meets Disney’s signature aw-shucks emotional feel and a new trilogy is born.

I liked this animation piece mostly for its interesting visuals of San Francisco, which had distinct Japanese architectural detail – San Francisco meets Tokyo. There’s some expected light humour from the robot Baymax, as it runs through a clinical care program spouting out helpful dialogue completely out of context. It won the Oscar for Best Animation Feature and its worth a view, but I’m not sure I agree with the Academy’s choice. Go figure.

American Sniper

sniperI waited a while before seeing this film; two reasons. First, I think I burnt out on the slew of post 9-11 war films like Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and I knew this would be more of the same. Secondly, and more importantly, since the story is based in Texas about a Texan and I live in Texas, I knew every detail already. The six degrees of separation phenomenon is exceedingly efficient here in the Lone Star state.

If you don’t know the story of Chris Kyle, I’ll summarize. He was Texan who trained to be a Navy SEAL and sniper. His job – cover the asses of the soldiers on the ground in Iraq. He was good. So good, in fact, during his 4 tours of Iraq, he earned the title ‘Most Lethal Sniper’. Likely this title prompted him to write his autobiography, ‘American Sniper’, which was subsequently turned into this film by Clint Eastwood. When Kyle returned from his last tour, he started counseling other vets having trouble integrating back into their stateside lives. It was one of those vets who ‘allegedly’ shot and killed him in 2013.

‘Allegedly’, since the trial in this case just started last week.

Eastwood deserves credit here for telling Kyle’s story with balance and compassion. He weaves together details of his youth and motivation for becoming a SEAL, along with some tense ‘on-ground’ moments in Iraq, his desire to be on the ground with Marines rather than perched on a rooftop and the side-effects it had for his family back home. In the final scene, Kyle leaves with a vet and in slow motion we see them get into a truck and the camera switches back and forth between them and a slightly concerned look on his wife’s face. Roll credits. A good production choice, to me, since the details of what followed that scene are omitted and, back in real life, currently on trial.

Bradley Cooper has come a long way since Hangover. Beefed up and bearded, he looked like Kyle and he even managed to nail his Texas accent perfectly. My grandfather , who was Navy in WW2, used to tell me there are soldiers and then there are warriors. Soldiers do their job then come home to their families. Warriors visit their families then come back to their lives on the battlefield. Kyle was a 4-tour warrior who eventually found a way to integrate his family and be happy. Cooper does an amazing job portraying a warrior struggling to reconcile his life on the battlefield with his life in back home in Texas.

In the theatre, as the credits were rolling, I looked around. Not a dry eye in the house, no one was engaged in post-film discussion, no one was concerned about checking new messages on their phones. Whether or not this happens on a national scale is speculative but locally this film continues to make a huge emotional impact on its viewers, which is likely what Eastwood intended.

Whatever your viewpoint on war and guns, I recommend American Sniper for its Eastwood production style, a career-defining performance from Cooper and to gain insight into why men like Chris Kyle do what they do.