Foxcatcher

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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 

TBT: Cool Runnings (1993)

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East Tennessee weather, Jamaican me crazy. It’s been unseasonably warm these past couple of days even for our standards. As I’m blogging today I’m sitting outside in shorts and t-shirt in February, and the thought just crossed my mind that today’s entry is twice as appropriate. We have a movie that will not only warm the hearts, but one that should warm up the body after watching nearly a fortnight of winter Olympic competition — a movie about the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. Even though these winter games are my preferred version, I really am not a fan of the cold, and I’m really slacking on my winter activities as of late. I haven’t skied in nearly two years. And I sure as hell have never been in a bobsled, or know anyone who bobsleds for sport or as a career. So what, exactly, drew me to this throwback? Simple. This is supposedly a classic sports story, one that would fit my February theme and also one that should appeal to me because it’s the winter Olympics. And, after last week’s letdown, I figured I should seek out something with a little more appeal, something that everyone knows or at least has heard something about. 

Today’s food for thought: Cool Runnings

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Release: October 1, 1993

[YouTube]

Four young men from the tropical island of Jamaica learn to bond with each other as they make history in their bid to become the nation’s first Olympic bobsled team.

If you’re a director taking on the task of crafting a sports drama, you are well aware of the nature of the challenge you’re up against. It’s no secret that this genre is rich in cliché, steeped in emotional manipulation, and burdened by an ever-deepening track of a formulaic storyline. Those who appreciate these kinds of films are able to overlook the pitfalls because if there’s one thing they do right, its that they remind us that sometimes real-world events play out in a dramatic fashion that can sometimes surpass the drama that fictitious films provide. As great as the next Christopher Nolan saga may be, there’s escapism in recounting the amazing feats performed by “ordinary” people (read: those who do not spend their lives in the performance arts). If you’re that director or that actor involved in the sports-moment recreation process, you have a wonderful opportunity and responsibility to cause audiences to sit back and think, “Wow, imagine that.”

Cool Runnings is a film that checks all of the boxes as far as opponents to the genre are concerned: it’s really cheesy, the story is nothing if not predictable, and the script won’t come close to receiving any nominations from stuffy high-brows. However, this is a film that has a chance to win over even the most judgmental of film snobs. John Turteltaub’s film is not only a great deal of fun, it’s soulful.

Talented track athlete Derice Bannock (Leon) has his Olympic dreams quickly dashed during a qualifying 100-meter race when he is tripped up by the small, quiet and unconfident Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis) and fails to pass the finish line. However, he’s not quick to give up hope entirely when he bumps into a large man by the name of Irv Blitzer (John Candy), a two-time Olympic bobsled winner who was teammates with Derice’s father a good many years ago. Derice’s fierce determination and genuine likability slowly — and here’s the manipulative aspect coming into the fold — but surely convinces the recently-turned-bookie to put together an unlikely team for a shot at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The team is required to have a total of four, so Derice drafts Junior and the other track athlete involved in the tripping incident, a hard-headed jock named Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) to round out the numbers.

Often times in films that have such an extraordinary set of circumstances unfolding the director’s greatest challenge — ignoring the avoiding sports cliches (which is damn near impossible to begin with) — is setting up a premise that will not only make sense, but that will fit the blueprint of a 90ish-minute movie. Given the odds against team Jamaica in these winter games, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine this movie potentially clocking in at over two and a half hours, considering the vast amount of detail Turteltaub could have injected.

Opting for a fast-paced and heartwarming experience set to the beat of an inspirational tone, he opted to exclude a great many developments that may have occurred in reality in order to suit the Disney image. This results in a few of the major moments in Cool Runnings coming across as contrived and seemingly underdeveloped. While it’s ludicrous to think that the same four men who were unable to control a slapped-together chunk of metal down grassy Jamaican hillsides are the same four who experience a modicum of success and glory at the ’88 Winter Games in the vortex of tight competition, the film is bolstered by lovable characters who make every step of the way a pleasure to take.

John Candy is as per usual a delight as the boys’ coach and team leader, a man with an axe to grind since his last Olympic attendance was blemished when it was revealed that he placed a weight at the very front of his sled, causing his Gold medals to be taken away and his reputation to become permanently tainted. With this young and obscure team from Jamaica he now finds redemption. He must overcome obstacles of his own when he discovers that one of the qualifying judges of this event is none other than his former Coach, Kurt Hemphill (Raymond J. Barry), who initially disqualifies the team out of spite. Cue the requisite inspirational speech moment in which Coach manages to sway the judging panel decision in Jamaica’s favor. It’s one of many moments that could have used some more work, but it satisfies enough

So the cynics can have their opinion. Cool Runnings isn’t perfect. Not by a long shot. But taking place of technical complexity and innovation is a vibrant, beating heart. Performances delivered by a largely unknown cast give off vibes of clever improvisation, although they likely were working from a less-than-impressive script. Doug E. Doug’s Sanka is especially memorable and together with a decent character arc provided for Lewis’ Junior, the essence of this highly improbable escapade is evident and also sufficient to consider this sports drama a successful one.

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3-5Recommendation: This section seems pretty obsolete for Cool Runnings, because I feel like I’m the last person on Earth who has seen this film. That said, if you haven’t yet, please change that. It’s a great time and makes you yearn for the days when we had films with John Candy in them. (I believe this was his third-to-last big screen appearance before his tragic death in 1994.) And I haven’t said it yet, but. . .GO TEAM JAMAICA!!!

Rated: PG

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme; get on up, it’s bobsled time! Cool Runnings!”

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

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

30-for-30: The Price of Gold

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Release: Thursday, January 16, 2014

[ESPN]

Why? Why? Why. . . .wasn’t there more security in the building at the time of the incident?

In this relatively high-profile documentary, we are entreated to an inside look into the lives of two gifted female figure skaters — Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan — and how their worlds would ultimately intersect in dramatic fashion prior to the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, which took place in Lillehammer, Norway.

Academy Award-nominated director Nanette Burstein, whose filmography includes feature films such as Going the Distance, The Kid Stays in the Picture and a documentary spoof on The Breakfast Club called American Teen, takes on the responsibility of revealing the truth of what happened behind the curtains — literally — following Nancy Kerrigan’s practice skate session the evening of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan, having barely left the ice, was assaulted by an unidentified man and clubbed across her right knee with a police baton, rendering her unable to skate for the competition and quite possibly for the upcoming Olympics.

ESPN’s latest 30-for-30 couldn’t have had better timing, what with the Sochi Games a mere three weeks away. Burstein’s work here is all the more impacting thanks to the (okay. . .yes, intentional) scheduling of its airing. Centering around an exclusive interview with Tonya Harding with a variety of other interviewees both current and past, The Price of Gold buries its head into the controversy and tries to establish who was responsible for the attack. It has other goals as well, such as verifying whether or not this could have been an attempt by Harding’s camp to improve her odds of winning the gold medal, and showing how this singular event came to be the catalyst for a resurgence in the event’s popularity.

The two skaters both came from humble beginnings — Harding much more so, as she was born into a poorer family that could barely afford her to go to the skating sessions she attended as a child. Her mother, an abusive alcoholic, never truly supported her daughter’s passion. Kerrigan, on the other hand, while certainly not from wealth, grew up in a slightly more privileged family and as the documentary expands, we get to appreciate the subtle differences in the two athletes. (Naysayers be damned, this is an athletic sport.) But Harding found it much more difficult to rise to the top in her sport as her reputation for being the skater from the wrong side of the tracks never really helped her image.

As Tony Kornheiser (a personal favorite sports analyst of yours truly) points out, figure skaters are the dainty, precious commodities corporate America is interested in seeing achieve Gold medal status, if only because they represent the red, white and blue. Nevermind the fact that these are extremely young girls pushing their bodies (and minds) to their absolute limits. With the Olympics being the largest stage imaginable for any competitor, the slightest sense of anything out of the ordinary occurring in the weeks and/or months leading up to the event potentially can spell disaster. No one could have seen anything like this coming, though.

Like most (if not all) 30-for-30 documentaries, there’s no special, winning formula to the proceedings. Its structure is quite linear. Tracing the developmental stages of these girls’ careers and their relative trajectories heading into the Games, the focus is primarily on Harding, seeing as though Kerrigan declined to be interviewed. Frequent cuts back to the chat with the 43-year-old reveal her reactions now to the events being described and depicted in archived footage in the meantime. One cannot help but feel that some part of her perhaps deserved what was coming. One does not get the strongest sense that this was an innocent skater terrorized by a media storm; yet one cannot dismiss the sense of sorrow they feel towards a woman caught in constantly abusive environments.

Her first marriage to Jeff Gillooly continued the pattern of physical abuse and emotional fragility — hardly the picture of a world-class figure skater. This image she carried with her became such a burden that when the incident occurred, her name was instantly linked to it. But, as it turned out, the national opinion wasn’t so prejudicial.

The Price of Gold is jam-packed with fascinating footage. Burstein has done quite a job assembling a story that nitpicks through what can only be considered one of the most controversial and bizarre occurrences in Olympic history. . .in sports history. Quite likely, there will never be a Games quite like the 1994 Winter Olympics again. However, she is lacking one critical piece of the puzzle — an up-to-date conversation with the other side: Nancy Kerrigan. Though it would be harsh to consider it a misstep considering Kerrigan’s understandable resistance to being thrust back into the spotlight and talking about her own blemished history — and the documentary can’t be considered biased because of this — the end product does suffer a little bit as a result.

Imagine the juxtaposition of these would-be conflicting interviews. The depth of perspective. We get a little taste of that from the footage taken back in the early to mid-90’s, but there is so much more to speculate about how these two people have grown and changed since. There are interviews from the Kerrigan camp (her current husband gets some camera time) but it’s just not the same. We have to believe Burstein tried her best to get her involved, but at the end of the day, The Price of Gold falls just short of gold and lands on the second-highest podium position because of one simple trip up.

Such is the nature of competitive skating, too. Now here’s a photo gallery of what figure skating looks like to those who don’t partake in it:

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And here’s just an awesome pic of Tonya (right) getting her clock cleaned when she started boxing.

Click here to read more 30-for-30 reviews.

3-5Recommendation: For anyone interested in learning more about the backstory, The Price of Gold is quite valuable. It’s surprisingly digestible and enticing (particularly for sports fans who don’t necessarily buy into figure skating as a “legitimate” sport), with the interviews with Harding and others being at the top of the list of reasons you should see into this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

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

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