30-for-30: The Prince of Pennsylvania

The Prince of Pennsylvania movie poster

Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jesse Vile

The Prince of Pennsylvania, a collection of testimonials about the life and times of Pennsylvania-based professional wrestlers who were wooed by eccentric millionaire John du Pont with promises of pristine training facilities and room-and-board to go along with the unique prospect of honing their skills without distraction, will go down as one of the most chilling additions to the ESPN family of films.

This is a film inspired by the perspective of a Philadelphia native who had only heard about the fatal shooting of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, older brother of (also gold medalist) Mark Schultz, by word of mouth and through news articles. It was almost like an urban myth, how the benevolence of a local millionaire had completely — and rather quickly — deteriorated into paranoiac and violent behavior; how a self-proclaimed ornithologist/philatelist/philanthropist became a cold-blooded murderer.

Director Jesse Vile, whose debut feature Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet was very well-received in 2012, knows his proximity to the event isn’t the driving force. Underpinning the emotional heft is the interview with Mark Schultz, a man with remarkable stoicism considering the kinds of things he has to talk about here. Naturally, his words are the most valuable to us as he’s unquestionably the source most directly affected, but other former teammates and even du Pont’s ex-wife help give the story its shape.

A pattern begins to emerge. Accounts recall a major change in du Pont’s behavior in the early-to-mid ’90s, almost a decade removed from Team Foxcatcher’s success at the 1984 Olympic Games in which the Schultz brothers both won their gold. Not that the guy was exactly ever ‘normal.’

Du Pont, the youngest of the four children of William du Pont Jr. and Jean Liseter Austin, wasn’t so much a born competitor as he was bred into one. Like the thoroughbreds trotting around the sprawling hills of Liseter Hall Farms, he knew no other life than trying to be better than someone else. Over time, his determination to be the best at something developed a state of mind that remained simultaneously unstable and vulnerable, susceptible to misinterpretation.

Case in point: when he approved Dave Schultz, the amiable, beyond talented brother to come to his exquisite training grounds and mentor Mark, du Pont struggled to accept the shift in the power dynamic, a shift he perhaps perceived and exaggerated. Du Pont insisted on being called Coach, and insisted on taking on members of his own team to feel as though he were a pro athlete himself. To anyone else this was plain self-denial and delusion, but to him these were all small victories. He had to win the battles as well as the war, though his behavior rarely suggested to anyone he was a General of anything.

While speculation as to what was happening in his mind will likely never run its course — du Pont might just be the walking definition of an enigma — The Prince of Pennsylvania‘s willing to try to delve into the physical reality, turning cameras to the trees and surrounding vegetation as voiceovers describe the man as becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea that there was someone (or something) on the property wanting to kill him. Lingering shots of du Pont staring off into the distance, surrounded by nothing but the walls of the mansion, are eerie and distressing.

Bennett Miller’s Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher may have covered the same ground only a year ago but the documentary has a much more personal feel to it. Miller’s interpretation of events broadened the scope of what was happening at the farms to make a commentary on the nature of patriotism and national pride, using du Pont’s off-kilter worldview to lead viewers to a place they perhaps never wanted to go but had to if they were to understand the kind of situation wrestlers like the Schultz brothers had gotten themselves into. The drama has been remembered more for the prosthetics and the intensity of performances, and although Mark Schultz publicly criticized Channing Tatum’s portrayal of him, it will still make a great companion piece to this documentary, and vice versa.

The stories of both Dave Schultz and John du Pont are likely to haunt the Newtown Square area for some time. They’re both tragic and difficult to reconcile. Dave had his life taken away without reason or warning, and the man responsible will always look reprehensible by comparison. But the fate of a man who only had friends his mother paid for and whose success was measured by what kinds of trophies he could amass on a mantlepiece is pretty difficult to process as well. Du Pont died in a prison cell at the age of 72 in 2010 having been convicted and declared mentally ill but not insane. He was born into isolation, the same place where his life ultimately ended. The inconspicuous manner in which he died doesn’t quite compare to the wrongful death he himself caused, but it does prove the end of an arc that was only ever trending downwards.

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Recommendation: Dark and deeply rooted in emotion, The Prince of Pennsylvania serves as fascinating albeit upsetting insight into the infamous events surrounding Team Foxcatcher. As the Hollywood production proved, one doesn’t need to be a follower of the sport to appreciate the story. This doesn’t quite carry the dramatic heft of that big budget production, but it carries a weight all its own that is impossible to ignore. A great watch for those interested in getting a better idea of what this situation was all about.

Rated: TV-PG

Running Time: 50 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.heavy.com 

Foxcatcher

foxcatcher-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: E. Max Frye; Dan Futterman 

Directed by: Bennett Miller

Enigmas like paranoid-schizophrenic John Eleuthère du Pont prove it was prudent for both Steve Carell and the Americanized The Office to bid adieu to one another. Of course, that transition was as much a matter of inevitability as the tragedy we traipse toward in Foxcatcher, but a fog of doubt descended quickly in the wake of the departure of one of prime time television’s most ridiculous characters. What comes next? What do you hope to achieve, Michael Scott?

Obviously the answer ‘to be the best in the world’ won’t suffice. In this grim and isolated setting Carell has a funny way of suggesting that this has actually been the goal for some time now. At the very least, there brims beneath a haggard physique this desire to be taken more seriously; that’s if taking next year’s Oscars by storm is out of the question.

Carell hooks up with New York native Bennett Miller (whose directorial CV includes 2005’s Capote and 2011’s Moneyball) along with the incredibly versatile Mark Ruffalo and an ever-more watchable Channing Tatum on the set of the inauspicious Liseter Hall Farm — some 200 acres of land acquired and later expanded upon by the wealthy Du Pont family, a prominent American clan built primarily upon the manufacturing of gunpowder. To say Carell portrays the mentally disturbed, socially repressed heir to the Du Pont family fortune would be a criminal understatement. Carell keeps the beak (okay so it’s exaggerated a bit) but dispenses with the comedic charade and his warmth as a basically decent human being. It’s in the way he slowly, deliberately breathes and speaks in an entirely unnatural cadence that defines this as a tour-de-force performance you won’t want to miss.

Meanwhile, Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo) Schultz are accomplished wrestlers, both having won Gold medals in the 1984 Olympics in Seoul, although older brother David is the vastly more celebrated athlete. You’ll have a difficult time recognizing Tatum in this fragile, downbeat portrayal of a younger brother trying anything to make his life work for him. He’s categorically not the same actor I was introduced to in 21 Jump Street. Ruffalo effects a gentle soul whose family life trumps what he does for a living. Though his stoutness suggests he won’t ever be taken down easily, his willingness to abandon psychological sanctuary for the opportunity to rise to the top once more just isn’t present. It is in Mark.

Miller’s uncompromising vision requires everyone to dig deeper than they have ever before. Even Vanessa Redgrave, who plays matriarchal Jean du Pont and gets all of three lines to speak. For at the heart of Foxcatcher exists a profoundly troubled mother-son relationship; whereas Jean has prided herself on a tradition of equestrian excellence — Foxcatcher Farm is a thoroughbred racing stable after all — her son wishes to coach and inspire a group of young men into Olympic training and medal contention.

John’s desperation to be validated by his own blood yields his cruel treatment of two athletes he essentially stalks and coerces into a game of psychological abuse and manipulation. He says he would love to see America soar once again — this trio of the Schultz brothers and Coach du Pont would surely be a force to be reckoned with even during the Olympic trials — but what he really means is that he would love to see his mother smile at him. Just once. A pat on the back could go a long way. But Jean declares the sport to be ‘low,’ and something she wishes to not even recognize, lest it be the downfall of the Du Pont legacy. The irony is seated before her during one of the film’s more revealing scenes.

Regrettably Sienna Miller, as David’s wife Nancy, and Anthony Michael Hall feel a tad underused, though they aren’t the centerpiece. The moral of this story: Tatum and Ruffalo are heartbreakingly good. They unquestionably appreciate the significance of whom they represent here. They’re two of the most decorated wrestlers in history, winning more NCAA, U.S. Open, World and Olympic titles than any other American brother duo who took to the floor. The circumstances are ripe for tragedy. Miller certainly capitalizes, creating a quiet, slow-burning thriller that refuses to compromise intensity for Hollywood glitz and glam. There aren’t too many films out right now that will make you feel quite as uncomfortable with such little violence or bloodshed depicted.

Credit that to the fact that this all actually took place. Now that’s a chilling thought.

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4-5Recommendation: Foxcatcher is a harrowing experience that deserves a much wider release than it has received. A slow roll-out of one of the best-acted dramas of 2014 is just not the way this beauty of a film should have been treated yo. Of course, I ain’t got no say in the matter. But if we could scrap, like 1,000 screenings of that stupid The Interview flick and replace it with something much more substantial and meaningful, you won’t find me complaining. I don’t think I need to mention performances anymore here, so rather what I’d recommend is checking this one out for a solid — if slightly contrived — recounting of an American Dream shattered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “A coach is a father. A coach is a mentor. A coach has great power on an athlete’s life.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com