First Man

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018

→IMAX

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

While First Man is only a small step into a different genre for director Damien Chazelle, the way he tells the story of the Moon landing may well represent a giant leap for fans of his previous, more emotionally-driven work. The historical reenactment is uncharted territory for the maker of dream-chasing dramas Whiplash and La La Land, yet the obsessive, single-minded pursuit of a goal makes it feel thematically akin. Told from the point of view of Neil Alden Armstrong, First Man offers an almost purely physical, visceral adventure. Strap in and hold on for dear life.

For the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk I left a movie exhilarated and fulfilled but also a little jelly-legged . . . and A LOT concerned about the state of my ears and the quality of service they would henceforth be able to provide. I guess what I am saying is that the movie gets loud, but that’s underselling it. In intermittent yet unforgettable bursts First Man comes close to overwhelming the unsuspecting moviegoer with its sonic power. All that style isn’t just for show, though Oscar surely will come a-knockin’ on Chazelle’s door next February. By way of audial and visual disorientation he creates an immersive experience that makes us feel our vulnerability, our loneliness and limitations on the final frontier.

It’s apparent from the stunning opening scene that Chazelle intends for us to feel this one in our bones rather than our hearts. A brutal tussle between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his X-15 rocket plane which keeps bouncing off Earth’s atmosphere sets the stage for the challenges to be faced later. This early chaos provides a formal introduction to the physicality of First Man, while reaffirming the mythology around the actual man. How he survives this ordeal is a feat in and of itself. Once back on terra firma the deconstruction of that mythology begins. Guided through seven tumultuous years leading up to the mission itself, we gain privileged access to Armstrong’s domestic life — that which became all but sealed off completely to the public after the Moon landing — as well as a better understanding of events that paved the way for an American victory in the space race.

In First Man there isn’t a lot of love being thrown around, whether it’s Armstrong’s awkwardness around his family when it comes to saying goodbye, or the way the public has come to view NASA and its affinity for spending money and costing lives. Working through the troubleshooting days of the Gemini program (1964 – ’66) before moving on to the more technologically advanced but still flawed Apollo missions, First Man has less time for romanticizing and fantasizing. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and America needed to know: how many astronauts are expendable in the interest of getting one over the Russians? All the while Gosling’s traditionally Gosling-y performance doesn’t allow us to get particularly attached to his character. All of these factors contribute to a rather disconcerting experience as we never get very comfortable on Earth, never mind in a coffin built out of aluminum and traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

The film isn’t without its moments of raw emotion. An early scene depicts the tragic loss of two-year-old daughter Karen to cancer, and for a brief moment Neil Armstrong is in shambles. Logic and reason have completely failed him. Claire Foy is excellent as wife Janet, who becomes the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate while her husband grieves in his own way by burying himself in math and physics homework. But even her tough exterior sustains serious damage as time goes on and both NASA and Neil’s lack of openness with her as well as their two sons becomes ever more a source of frustration. Our feelings more often than not align with hers.

Elsewhere, Armstrong’s aloofness is noticed by fellow Apollo hopefuls Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who each befriend him to a certain extent but are never quite able to crack the code of really getting to know him. His fears, his doubts. His favorite men’s magazine. His aspirations beyond walking on Earth’s lonely satellite. (As an aside, several of the astronauts from the Apollo missions went on to pursue political careers, but Armstrong went the other way, withdrawing from public life and even refusing to autograph items when he learned his signatures were being forged and that those forgeries were being sold all over the globe.) Stoll is a bit more fun as the extroverted Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon — the inventor of the Moon bounce, if you will — though he hardly inhabits the man in the way Gosling does.

Adapted from the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is a story of ambition delivered in blunt fashion. It isn’t a sexy, glamorous tale of fame or even nobility. This isn’t a story about a nation claiming its stake on a distant, lifeless rock. Nor is it about mankind advancing itself, despite what was said when boot met Lunar soil. This is an account of what it cost one man, one civilian, to get to the Moon. And the physical stresses, while pronounced in the film, are only a part of the deal. Often Linus Sandgren’s camera harries the subject rather than deifying or celebrating him. Certain angles rob the guy of personal space while tracking shots of him heading towards some vehicle or other give the impression of the paparazzi in constant pursuit. Neil’s always on the move, busy with something, and inquiring cameras need to know.

First Man is certainly not the film a lot of people will be expecting, be it the distance put between the audience and the astronaut or the scenes Chazelle chooses to depict (or not depict). Flag planting or no flag planting, this feels like the story that should have been told. It feels like a privilege to have experienced it.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon

Recommendation: First Man uses a typically enigmatic Ryan Gosling performance to create an altogether lonelier feeling historical drama. In retrospect, the release comes at an odd time. Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, so I’m not sure why First Man is coming out right now. Not that a few months makes that much of a difference, when you have a dishearteningly large percentage of the public believing A) we never went or B) the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Fair enough, I guess. Those with a more open-mind, however, are strongly encouraged to experience First Man in IMAX. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”

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Stronger

Release: Friday, September 29, 2017

→Theater

Written by: John Pollono

Directed by: David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green’s tribute to one of the survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is a cathartic experience. Though it treats its subject with respect and dignity, the film holds nothing back in its depiction of a life suddenly and violently interrupted. Technically, Peter Berg beat Green to the punch by breaking cinematic ground on the event with his Patriots Day late last year, but it’s the latter whose film leaves the more lasting impression.

Stronger manifests as the cinematic memoir of Jeff Bauman (played by a mop-haired Jake Gyllenhaal), based upon his written account which was published on the one-year anniversary of the bombing. As such, Green is given the freedom to tell the story like it is. His direction remains sensitive but above all committed to telling the blunt honest truth. As the movie ratchets down into an intensely personal journey that brings audiences through a turbulent period in a young man’s life, it also poses some difficult questions about what it means and how it feels to be considered a real-world hero.

As we come to appreciate, surviving trauma is just the first step. Moving on is like learning to walk again — and in some cases, it literally is learning to walk again. The best of Stronger, much like Patriots Day, unfolds in the aftermath rather than in the anticipated verisimilitude of the carnage that turned sidewalks into MASH units (though there’s much less ‘action’ in the former than the latter). The crux of the drama revolves around attitude and how it shapes one’s perception of reality. Bauman became an overnight hero to the people of greater Boston when information he provided helped the FBI bring one of the two Tsarnaev brothers to justice. His detailed description of the man he saw near the finishing line came only hours after waking from surgery which required the amputation of both his legs above the knee.

Bauman’s journey to find his best self necessarily means having to endure his worst. The film doesn’t try to pretend the hero always does heroic things, and that kind of honesty tends to move you, and not to the concessions stand either. But the story wouldn’t be as effective without performances to carry the weight or the bravery to tell that truth. Gyllenhaal‘s trademark commitment to the craft makes so many of the images down the road to both physical and mental recovery simply unforgettable. This could be career best work (from an actor I keep saying this could be career-best work from, every time I see him in a movie).

But really, I mean it this time. Maybe.

As Bauman, he’s a potential front-runner for MVP of the early Oscar season — once an ordinary Bostonian, a humble deli-counter worker at Cahstco who, like so many in this great American hahbah town, prioritizes his Red Sox over everything, especially his actual socks and even Sunday service. The character may be less flagrantly strange than many of his fans are accustomed to the actor portraying, but that doesn’t stop Gyllenhaal from throwing himself headlong into the role. His Zest for Life Meter is 100% into the green when we first meet him, an upbeat and outgoing young man who enjoys social commitments, even though he’s not so much of a fan of the capital-C commitments life often requires.

Just ask Erin (Tatiana Maslany), his many-times-before ex-girlfriend whom we meet at the bahh early on, to which Jeff defects early from work to catch a game. There we witness a demonstration of his gregariousness, as he convinces the entire room to donate to the cause for which Erin will soon be running in the upcoming race. But if clothes really do make the man, his natty attire says at least something about where he is in life. He vows to start changing his priorities by showing up at the finishing line and cheering on Erin the next day, though Erin will only believe it when she sees it.

The cruel twist of fate that intervenes reestablishes personal connections in ways that are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Family comes together, but more often than not it’s in a physical, bodies-filling-the-room sense. The pros and cons of instant celebrity are meanwhile examined as Bauman’s right to privacy vanishes in the same overnight period. The sacrifice comes largely at the behest of his opportunistic mother, who increasingly embraces the spotlight on behalf of her son. Ma’s portrayed by Miranda Richardson in a performance that rivals both Maslany and Gyllenhaal in terms of intensity and emotional complexity. She rounds out the trio of most compelling performances, but support also comes from Clancy Brown as an emotionally distraught father overwhelmed both by what has happened to his son and what is going on with the Red Sox at the time (that season they’d go on to win the World Series, FYI).

The thing about the Jake Gyllenhaal Effect is that it makes neglecting other meaningful contributions too easy. A rising Canadian actress, Maslany turns in a performance that truly stands toe-to-toe with her male counterpart. She’s to Gyllenhaal what Felicity Jones was to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Her portrayal dives well below the surface of what is flattering and pretty; her version of Erin comes equipped with her own set of ambitions, fears and flaws. As we watch a relationship once again sour, we’re offered a window into the past. We learn that sometimes emotional healing is more challenging than the physical. The neglect Erin suffers is proof positive that moving on is one process that does not occur overnight.

It’s also a reminder of the devastating, pervasive and often long-lasting effects psychological ailments like PTSD can have, and not just on the person directly suffering from them. Screenwriter and playwright John Pollono reinforces the message by including a scene that honors the good samaritan who ultimately saved Bauman’s life on that fateful day, whose efforts were captured in a now iconic photo — one of the triggers for millions to become emotionally invested in Bauman’s recovery. Though the man was presented on news networks as ‘Carlos,’ the guy in the cowboy hat, he appears in the movie as a beacon of hope — a broken man whose life story is something Bauman needs to hear.

Even if listening doesn’t change his day, much less his outlook on life, the simple act of listening is what is crucial. It’s a big step forward in trying to understand what it means to be “Boston Strong,” and nowhere is this evolution better illustrated than in the contrast drawn between Bauman’s two public appearances. His first, at the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, is presented as a claustrophobic confrontation that does nothing other than provide shell-shock. At this point in time he’s unable to hear what’s being screamed at him. By the time he’s throwing out the first pitch for the Sox’s 2014 home opener — and maybe it’s something about the cool spring air — something has changed, something beyond the rich cinematic textures. Something pretty profound.

Turns out the hero doesn’t need a cape. A simple thumbs-up has the same effect.

Recommendation: Arguably career-best work from Jake Gyllenhaal makes Stronger the movie about the Boston Marathon bombing you need to see. Both this and Berg’s films are worthy of your time, but because of the intensely committed performances it is Stronger that becomes the more impactful, more enlightening experience. I love a good story about a modern-day, real-life hero and this is one of the best we’ve had lately. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

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

30-for-30: Angry Sky

30-for-30 Angry Sky movie poster

Release: Thursday, July 30, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jeff Tremaine

Tom Petty wrote a song once called “Learning to Fly.” One lyric in particular stands out: ‘Coming down is the hardest thing.’ The song’s harmless of course, but that part of the chorus seems hauntingly apt for the experiences of one Nick Piantanida, amateur parachute jumper and all-around daredevil in the 1960s.

Angry Sky features the New Jersey chutist’s three attempts to break the world record for highest sky dive, using a manned balloon that would achieve a height of 123, 500 feet (20+ miles) above the Earth. On each attempt something would go wrong and, tragically, the problems only became more complex and life-threatening with each effort.

Because of the malfunctions, Piantanida never technically accomplished his goal of becoming the first person to jump from the stratosphere. However he did set the standard for highest manned balloon flight, a record that stood until October 2012, when Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, backed by Red Bull in an event that has to be seen to be believed, successfully broke the sound barrier by falling 24 vertical miles.

Jeff Tremaine is once again on hand to deliver a story about sensational extreme sports enthusiasts, constructing an adrenaline-spiking piece that, while never revolutionary in its delivery, puts a very human spin on a story and subject matter that seems alien to anyone else not caught up in the culture and science of this kind of boundary-pushing thrill seeking. Tremaine interviews family, friends and colleagues who reflect back on the life of a man who could never be convinced not to do the thing he was trying to accomplish.

In some senses Piantanida could be viewed as a selfish individual. Attempting such a jump, not once but three times over the course of a year, necessarily carried with it the implication that he may be saying goodbye to his wife and three children on each occasion. The drama builds in such a way that it’s impossible to ignore a sense of egotism and impatience over becoming world famous.

Angry Sky has little interest in demonizing anyone. Its purpose doesn’t amount to calling someone crazy (even if he is). Like any documentary with its head in the right place, it aims to explore the things that make a person complex. You could make the argument he is a man of simple pleasures, always seeking the most powerful adrenaline rush possible.

But we’re also introduced to a guy who never quite grasped the concept of team sports. He could have been a great basketball player but he had to do things his own way. He joined the Armed Forces after high school and earned the rank of corporal. Afterwards he got into rock climbing, and with a friend established a route up the north side of the 3,000-foot Auyántepui, the mighty Venezuelan plateau over which Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, spills.

Tremaine manages to straddle the line between being specific with the information he chooses to keep and appealing to a broad audience. Skydiving is a rather obscure sport yet he knows it’s a pool well worth wading into. Piantanida’s story may be the first (and it may ever be the only) documentary on the sport in this film series, but that question, the one we’re all thinking — what makes a person want to put themselves at such a risk? — more than justifies the film’s existence. Why so high, Nick? Why so high?

Baumgartner also briefly features, and though he doesn’t say much, he offers some context for the ambitions of this young man. If his iconic free fall a mere two years ago was enough to take away the world’s collective breath — and it really was quite the incredible thing to watch — remember some guy had tried to do this with much less technology nearly a half century ago. Yeah, that was Nick Piantanida.

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Nick Piantanida about to attempt a world-record skydiving jump

Recommendation: Obscure, but fascinating. Story may well appeal to more extreme sports junkies than any other group but it’s one of the more interesting stories detailing how a strong personality and danger-courting pursuits often go hand-in-hand. Well worth a watch if you’re into action sports. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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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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gettyimages-52027827

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.

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In the Heart of the Sea

big fish

Release: Friday, December 11, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Charles Leavitt; Rick Jaffa; Amanda Silver

Directed by: Ron Howard

From the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and into the heart of the sea Ron Howard has steered his cameras in an altogether new direction, facing the unenviable task of crafting a cinematic event based around the circumstances that inspired 19th Century writer Herman Melville’s most famous fiction.

Less an adherence to the motifs found in ‘Moby Dick’ and more a voyage of its own epic proportions, In the Heart of the Sea finds Howard massaging a much darker story involving the brave (or stubborn) seafaring captain, first mate and crew of the Essex who were destined for destruction when they set out in search of another payday in the form of whale oil, only to be thwarted by a deep sea-dwelling monster. It’s a film in which adjusted expectations will likely accommodate a more enjoyable experience, for this is more blockbuster than serious drama; more Greatest Hits than a standalone album.

In 1820 Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, an experienced whaler and affable, capable man, feels like he’s earned the right to become Captain of the Essex, but thanks to bureaucracy and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker)’s status as heir apparent to the family legacy, he’s relegated once more to First Mate despite being promised otherwise. So the journey starts off with a barely disguised undercurrent of tension and gradually destabilizes as what was already going to be a protracted trip eventuates into more than a year at sea, as the inexperienced Captain Pollard fails to find the goods. At the time, small communities like Nantucket were dependent upon whale oil for lighting and energy and returning to shore empty-handed was not an option.

After months scouring the Atlantic to little avail, Pollard decides to explore the Pacific in an attempt to change their fortunes. While resupplying in Ecuador, they learn of an undisturbed region of whales that apparently harbors a particularly hostile and large white whale. The crew of the Essex dismiss the story as a myth only later to discover both parts of the story to be true. And they are of course attacked, marooned on a remote island and finally left floating for days on end with scant water or food supplies. It gets to a point where the remaining survivors must resort to cannibalism. Indeed, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And when the going does get tough, Howard’s gritty epic truly gets going. Sea is less about showmanship — interpret that as either a reflection of character or performances from a recognizable cast — as it is about establishing atmosphere. Wisely he provides some semblance of humanity before rendering the participants steadily maddening creatures. The squabbles between Chase and Captain Pollard couldn’t seem more trivial after the whale attacks. There’s a tremendous sense of loss, of unrelenting despair in this nautical epic, qualities almost antithetical of Howard’s typically uplifting, inspirational fare. Morbidity and suffering suits him though.

A staunch believer in the power of storytelling, Howard this time surprisingly foregoes establishing memorable characters — don’t expect any Niki Lauda‘s or John Nash‘s here — in order to make room for a familiar but powerful framing device involving Brendan Gleeson’s aged Tom Nickerson, the last living survivor of that crew. In modern-day (well, Nantucket 30 years later), a thoroughly depressed and alcohol-dependent Tom reluctantly relays the tragedy to a curious Melville (Ben Whishaw) who in turn wants to recount the saga in his writing for to make a name for himself.

Regrettably, the sporadic jumps back to present-day tend to rudely interrupt our seafarers’ plight. Sea has a difficult time sustaining momentum and if it is to aspire to great heights as a blockbuster, as it clearly wishes with a mammal of this magnitude so convincingly rendered, it needs to more judiciously use these transitions. Points also deducted for the crowbarring in of a parallel to man’s contemporary dependence on land-locked crude oil. The topic certainly seems relevant, but the film almost certainly would have been better off without the mention.

Despite borrowing the narrative backbone of the 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick novel ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,’ this is a Ron Howard picture through-and-through. It boasts breathtaking cinematography, wherein you’ll find the extent of its romantic tinges. There’s little room for romance in a story this dark, save for the way this beautiful whaling vessel is captured by two-time collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. It’s also a passionately crafted and seriously considered production that may not always fire on all cylinders as other entries have in Howard’s rich back catalog, yet there’s something undeniably classic about its mythical qualities.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 4.07.05 AM

Recommendation: Powerful, moving, handsomely crafted epic with tremendous special effects to boot, In the Heart of the Sea is destined to satisfy more devout Ron Howard fans. It might be a more flawed creation than say Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind or last year’s Rush, but if we’re making those comparisons we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment in the same way this ill-fated crew set themselves up for disappointment going for 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “They looked at us like we were aberrations. Phantoms.”

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

Beasts of No Nation

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Beasts of No Nation represents another first for the mecca of online streaming media that is Netflix, becoming its first original feature-film debut, and a potent one at that.

Despite voluntarily sacrificing potential business, major theater chains such as AMC, Regal and Carmike are throwing a hissy fit and refusing to screen the picture, deeming its online availability a violation of their exclusive 90-day release period. Too bad for them. While the convenience Beasts presents to anyone with a Netflix subscription suggests it will be readily consumed by the masses, its thoroughly brutal subject matter is likely to put it at odds with a great many subscribers. This is a film of almost impenetrable darkness, fabricated out of the stuff of real-life nightmares reminiscent of the Darfurian and Liberian conflicts. Needless to say it takes some courage to watch, at least without pausing.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s harrowing probe into a war-torn, nameless West African nation finds a young boy named Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah in a brilliant and heartbreaking debut role) falling into the clutches of a rebel army led by Idris Elba’s sadistic Commandant after Agu flees into the dense forest away from violence recently visited upon his town, violence that has just claimed the lives of his older brother and father. His mother and younger sister manage to make it onto a cramped bus bound for the nation’s capital. Beasts is so consistently bleak that although we never see the pair again, we may as well assume they don’t make it there alive, either. I suppose it would help to be more positive and just assume the opposite, but who really knows.

Fukunaga’s uncompromising vision finds much success in a lack of structure, in unbridled chaos; this is a film centered around child soldiers committing war crimes that grown men would be desperate to forget for the rest of their lives. In fact, that’s one of the subtler tragedies evoked by the quite incidental fate Agu meets when he’s plucked out of the lush canopy by an intimidating man surrounded by kids of varying ages and threatening countenances. Watch how quickly the boy is stripped of his innocence. One particularly gruesome scene suggests Agu loses it in one fell swoop, yet this ‘initiation’ merely marks the beginning of the fall.

Beasts is somewhat aimless in its traipsing through endless overgrowth and through towns just like the one Agu and Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a mute boy with whom he bonds, have been ripped away from, yet there’s a method to Fukunaga’s madness. And that is indeed it — madness. The Commandant takes great pleasure in his propagandistic leadership, while the film zeroes in on the specific relationship he has with his newest recruit. We learn through Agu’s eyes how everyone else has been similarly brainwashed, convinced that it is the war that has done this to them and their families. The leader (who apparently always looks “all right”) has merely saved their lives and now they must avenge what has been lost. (Of course, he’s not a true malefactor without having ulterior motives, like earning a long-sought promotion, which, in effect, demonstrates the degree to which the guy actually cares about his troops.)

Beasts, which was not only written and directed by Fukunaga but produced and framed as well, manifests more as an unfeeling, journalistic observation than a damning political statement. There’s a part where the group is patrolling an open road and gets passed by a vehicle carrying what are obvious outsiders, armed with cameras and looks of horror as Agu and Strika flank Commandant while mimicking his thuggish comportment. However intentional the parallel is remains unclear, but our status as third-party to these atrocities puts us in that vehicle from which we look on, helpless to do anything. The neutrality works insofar as it allows the violence to unfold frankly and from all angles, much of it being dispensed by our tortured protagonist.

But that same neutrality clashes with the internal monologue Fukunaga inserts at sporadic intervals; Agu expressing on more than one occasion how he doesn’t remember time passing, that he fears God is no longer paying attention to him. His thoughts come infrequently to the point where they interrupt rather than compliment the perspective driven by camera angles and a focus on the dynamic between the follower and the leader. Regarding the latter, it helps that Elba is absolutely outstanding in this vile supporting role, but it’s a shame he all but disappears from the frame somewhat surprisingly. Fukunaga leaves just a little too much interpretation up to us by failing to bang his gavel and sentencing the bad guys to whatever fate they deserve.

Would a less ambiguous conclusion have made Beasts an easier watch? Of course not. And it wouldn’t have made the film any easier to forget. But it might have helped crystallize just what we’ve gained by trudging through two hours of hell. All the same, this is a project that displays great confidence in delivering gut punches by focusing on an oft-overlooked aspect of war, and a part of the world that doesn’t receive the attention it ought to. Filmed on location in Ghana, this is a beast of a film.

Recommendation: Not exactly an easy watch, Beasts of No Nation represents a grim reality that mainstream films have for too long ignored. Granted I don’t think the concept of child soldiers perpetrating war crimes makes for an easy pitch, so good for Fukunaga for committing to it and for involving a quality actor in the British thespian. Amazing performances all around, in fact. If you’re strong-willed, you shouldn’t let this one pass you by. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

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

30-for-30: Guru of Go

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Release: Saturday, April 3, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Bill Couterié

When Loyola Marymount University’s Hank Gathers dropped to the hardwood without warning, his teammates and close friends thought he was fooling around. It was a fair assumption to make given the charismatic player’s inability to take anything seriously off the court. But an irregular heart rhythm wasn’t anything to joke about. After the frightening event he was put on medication in an attempt to control the condition, but as the combined pressures of being in the West Coast Championship Tournament along with his greatly reduced efficiency on the floor due to the prescribed drugs began to mount Gathers’ overwhelming confidence in his ability to overcome anything foreshadowed tragedy.

On Sunday, March 4, 1990 in the WCC semifinal against the Portland Pilots Hank collapsed again after a blistering drive to the basket for a slam dunk. This time he wouldn’t be getting up.

Documentarian Bill Couterié presents an emotional but restrained film that pays tribute to the obscenely short lifespan of a talented college player whose prospects of going pro were more than decent. However, Guru of Go centers around the controversial fast-break playing style (known nationwide as ‘The System,’ where the team would run virtually non-stop the entire game) enacted by LMU head coach Paul Westhead and how this may have played a role in the premature death of the school’s star player.

One of the more common criticisms leveled at the game by non-fans is that too many points are amassed for the individual shots to really mean anything. However you feel about the scoring system in basketball, there’s a caveat to bear in mind: no one scored more than Westhead’s squad during the 1990 season, who averaged 122 points per game. Though it’s an outdated style of play for LMU, particularly in the wake of that tragic game, some aspects of ‘The System’ have survived generations of play. After all, modern basketball has adapted to a much faster pace, played with superstar athletes who exist in many fans’ minds as gods and goddesses. In Westhead’s mind ‘The System’ is a thing of beauty, an application that has defined who he is as a coach and the teams he’s implemented it with over a 40-plus-year span. Most recently that would be the WNBA team the Phoenix Mercury. He currently is the only head coach to claim both an NBA (with the Los Angeles Lakers) and a WNBA title (with the Mercury).

Guru of Go, in such a brief running time, makes time for interviews with Gathers’ former LMU teammates, his brother Derrick, and Coach Westhead, while setting up enough context at the beginning for viewers to get a feel for the time and place in which this particularly talented athlete — undoubtedly the pride and joy of the Californian college of the late ’80s — ran into one of the most brutal game strategies ever implemented. ‘The System’ was designed to condition LMU to be able to strengthen as the game clock ran on, whereas typical teams unaccustomed to running so much would by and large be weakening. It really was a beautiful concept, but was it too much for players, even ones as talented and seemingly built to last like Hank Gathers?

Couterié briefly delves into the ugly reality following LMU’s strong run in the college championship tournament when the Gathers family sued both the school and Hank’s doctor for negligence. While this side of the story may have deserved further examination, Guru of Go is clearly aimed at lifting spirits rather than drowning viewers in sorrow and finger-pointing. In some way, the questions left unanswered in this documentary serve to add to the legacy of Gathers. How could such a triumphant player go down so suddenly? Of course life is not fair, but this is one example of how sobering that sentiment really can be.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

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3-5Recommendation: If you find yourself a fan of college basketball I doubt I need to recommend this important bit of film to you. You either have it lined up to watch at some point or have already seen it, possibly many times. Guru of Go comes highly recommended to anyone wanting to know a bit more about the landscape of college basketball in general. (I knew zilch about Loyola Marymount, personally, so that was cool.) The story of Hank Gathers and Coach Westhead’s approach to the game is not one to miss. 

Rated: N/R

Running Time: 60 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone.]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com;  www.marsreel.co 

TBT: Titanic (1997)

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Welcome boys, girls. . . . and all others, to another sappy, tear-filled romantic edition of Throwback Thursday. (I know, gross, right?) The whole idea behind today’s post is about being subtle. . . . . . as subtle as a 40-foot-tall iceberg protruding from the chilly North Atlantic water. As subtle as that scene where Jack paints a picture of Rose. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I know all of you are just chomping at the bit to read something mushy and heartrending. (I know I am!) Well, you certainly get it here in James Cameron’s preposterously successful, epically-imagined, prodigious smash-hit, a.k.a.

Today’s food for thought: Titanic.

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Getting that sinking feeling since: December 19, 1997

[VHS]

Like an aftershock ripping through L.A. the power of James Cameron’s great water-bound tragedy strikes me today with a force seemingly laying dormant since my first viewing. When I was a wee lad and watching this gigantic mess unfold for the first time (‘mess,’ in this case being a huge compliment) I am pretty sure I hated Titanic for its prioritizing of love over visual spectacle. I wasn’t into critiquing movies of course but I already resented Cameron for turning what I saw as a simple disaster film into a needlessly saccharine romantic epic.

Ah, behold this wonderful thing called hindsight. I would never have described the whirlwind courtship between Jack Dawson (Leo) and Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) then as genuine, truly tragic, or even ‘good;’ before puberty hit me like a ton of bricks I was frequently annoyed by sappy stuff on TV and in films and would just as quickly dismiss the love angle as stupid and pointless as I would the overall experience as a waste of my time as well as of its own potential. Looking back, that’s just too dismissive. I realize now that the only valid argument I do have against this iconic work has everything to do with the movie running over three freaking hours long. It was one of the first films I was aware of actually having its own intermission. (There’s a throwback for you.)

Silly little Tom — Titanic wasn’t a movie; it was an experience. Accidentally or not, it burgeoned into an industry unto itself. Back in the day you couldn’t hold a conversation without being obligated to eventually talk Titanic. Those who were opposed, either ideologically or merely put off by its overwhelming popularity, seemingly had more on their minds than those who went with the explicit purpose of getting their Romeo and Juliet fix. Simultaneously one of the highest-grossing films of all time (adjusting for inflation, it ranks fifth behind cinematic trivialities like Gone with the Wind and Star Wars), and doing battle with William Wyler’s Ben Hur as one of the most Oscar-friendly films ever made, taking home 11 of its 14 potential golden statues, Titanic granted its Captain passage into the theretofore uncharted waters of the billion-dollar club in terms of worldwide gross. Statistics sort of speak for themselves though, so what about the emotional state it left us all in? (Now I can say ‘us’ because I too am a believer.)

I’m only now coming around to accepting that what the young starlets accomplished was indeed a good thing for this world, and I can’t imagine what it was like for the ’90s teens swept up in their own fantasies of being with the then-Hollywood heartthrob in those frigid North Atlantic waters. How they would gladly take his place in the water. Or at the very least, help him climb on to the door (come on, that thing is not going to go under with two small people on it). I can time and again look to Titanic for a number of examples that support the cliché how it may indeed be unhealthy to take one’s entertainment so seriously.

When you have Celine Dion belting out a tune at a wine glass-shattering pitch I guess I shouldn’t be taken aback by the phenomenon of entire blogs being devoted to Jack and Rose. Is there any more damning evidence of me softening in my late 20’s than the fact that her voice, those lyrics, rather than annoying me actually haunt me? There’s (and yes, I’m going to say it) something epic about her song, some part of it that has never quite left my body since I first heard it as that wee lad. I can’t recite much beyond the chorus, but seriously — why does that matter? It’s impressive that after all of this time passed, there are elements and aspects to Titanic that I’m finding more and more intriguing, and more crucial to the general health of romance in contemporary film.

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There’s a reason the passionate romance outweighs the sinking of the ship. Jack and Rose living on in cinematic infamy, their reward for being so damn good-looking and inseparable. Superglue fails to provide the kind of bond that these two were able to form and in such a short amount of time. I suppose jealousy and envy could apply to me as a youngster when I watched these two steam up a car window and proceeded to fast-forward though this bullshit, though I think it’d be more accurate to say I just didn’t appreciate the gravity of this blossoming romance. Now, I can’t see another duo encapsulating, at the very least, the sheer joy of being young and carefree out on the open waters. No two performers would be Jack and Rose like Leo and Kate were Jack and Rose.

I’m not sure what you call it when a ship pulls a total 180 in the water and heads back in the opposite direction, but that’s exactly what has happened with my outlook on this voyage. There’s style and beautiful cinematography to ogle over, but these things I’ve never had an issue with. Titanic looks and feels classy in every way it possibly can. But today Cameron’s decision to place the star-crossed lovers front-and-center has finally struck me as not only appropriate, but creative. It’s the only way to bring millions of viewers on board the ship, as well as into the lives of many a doomed seafarer who had plans of arriving in the Big Apple.

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4-0Recommendation: A tragedy of R.M.S. Titanic-proportions, James Cameron’s vision just has to be applauded. As if I need to endorse this thing. Seriously? Why is this the second film in a row here where I pretty much don’t need to write anything in this section? Actually, it’s kind of nice. I don’t have to do this extra work now. Cool.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 194 mins.

TBTrivia: After finding out that she had to be naked in front of Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet decided to break the ice, and when they first met, she flashed him.

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

TBT: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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It’s a little difficult to outfit TBT with a ‘romantic’ theme without turning the spotlight on *the* romance movie. . . or at least without recognizing one of cinema’s most popular, ill-fated couples. I’m sure if I were to ever nominate the Baz Luhrmann adaptation as the romance film to end all romance films I could expect to see that comment box at the bottom fill up with many an impassioned, even hateful, hurtful comment. I probably wouldn’t blame them either. It’s kind of a mystery as to why I’m going with this one but sometimes spontaneity is just what this blog needs. While this modern approach is hardly a patch on old Will’s play I think there are one or two interesting elements worth talking about with

Today’s food for thought: Romeo + Juliet.

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Seriously, these two have been kissing since: November 1, 1996

[VHS?]

Since the dawn of time, man has always . . . .

No. There’s absolutely no way I’m going that route. But at a certain point doesn’t the mere mentioning of the names Romeo and Juliet in any kind of discussion feel like a cliché in itself? There’s really no point in going through this post by ticking off the usual boxes: the quality of the overall experience, the effectiveness of its major elements (cast, setting, score, editing, etc.), any of its lingering effects . . . yadda-yadda.

I’m much more keen to talk about what I think the big man (no, not God — Shakespeare . . . which, for some, I guess the two could be interchangeable) would think of what Mr. Flamboyant has done with his timeless examination of two of the strongest human emotions, love and hatred. Would the world’s greatest writer take offense in knowing how many times his ideas have been revisited? Revised? Butchered (or just a little battered and bruised)? Would he spin in his urn knowing one particular film starred a version of Leonardo DiCaprio prior to him becoming one of the great thespians of the 21st Century? What about the concept of integrating ye olde dialogue — the stuff we largely accept now as archaic and impractical — into a modern context, would William approve or would he face-palm from beyond the grave?

Ignoring some factors only we modern audiences are likely to criticize — why couldn’t Leo be as good then as he is now? — there are a few tweaks that the great playwright maybe wouldn’t “get.” Take for instance the hallucinogenic Romeo takes at a party which sets him on a collision course with a most tragic fate. “Ecstasy? What, pray, is this ecstasy of which you speak? Doth thou hold no interest in retaining logic, for very little of it is produced in thinking one can swallow thine own happiness in a physical manner. Return this ‘ecstasy’ from whence it came; scrub this fantasy from the deepest recesses of thou perversed mind! Me be damned to mine own coffin, I do believe the kids got fucked up on wine.”

Oh, but Good Sir I must retort: the spirit of Romeo and Juliet still lives! Just because wine has little place in Verona Beach, that does not mean this city has no place for love. In fact the heart beats ever stronger for a couple as mesmeric (and pretty) as DiCaprio and Danes. The Capulets and Montagues are still fiercely at war with one another, through staunch ideological differences of the seedy mob-world variety. Ted/Caroline and Fulgencio/Gloria, in this day and age now tied in with the mafia who have ‘legitimate’ business competition, still hate each other. And their hatred is almost proportional to the intense feelings their offspring hold for something that is apparently forbidden: seeing past a rivalry and accepting the individual for who they are. Good Sir, that has been a sentiment echoed throughout the ages, and it does more than just enhance this modern adaptation of arguably your greatest work. Blind devotion comes to define the picture, as it ought to.

This, despite other, more notable deviations. You should rest easy knowing that even if Luhrmann wanted to swap out a couple of Capulets for some Montagues (and vice versa) the essence of this complicated family dynamic isn’t distorted or diminished. I don’t claim to understand why he wanted to make some name changes, but if anything it helps to distinguish this one particular entry from the legions of other versions. There are no friars here, nor swords. We have public officials and more advanced weaponry to not only elevate but contextualize this timeless drama.

Romeo + Juliet certainly is more lavish in its design, more heavy-hitting in its violence and yet more relatable in terms of Lords and Ladies being unable to sweep the dirt of the past aside in order to allow for even a single flower to grow. It’s a testament to the strength of your writing, Good Sir, that even a bizarre and controversial decision to modernize a film while retaining the original dialogue and basic story structure can still make us feel that our own hearts have been poisoned too.

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3-5Recommendation: Not everyone may see this is as a worthy adaptation, but I certainly do. It’s also one of the only things Baz Luhrmann has produced that I’ve really felt suits his particularly colorful style. Romeo + Juliet doesn’t particularly add anything significant to the ever-increasing canon inspired by the play, but its devotion to the spirit of the classic, combined with a fresh environment is enough to set it apart from other, much duller attempts. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest taking a look. If nothing else it’s funny to see a few familiar faces in this before they really blew up (looking at you in particular Leo, and also Paul Rudd, who plays Juliet’s would-be suitor, Dave Paris).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 120 mins.

TBTrivia: Apparently Natalie Portman was originally cast for Juliet Capulet, but after watching some of the footage, it was deemed that the age difference between Leo and her was great enough to make the romance not only unbelievable, but it gave the appearance as though Romeo was quote, molesting her in several scenes. So they recast it for Claire Danes. There. Much less molesting.

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Photo credits: http://www.cinematerial.com; http://www.film-grab.com  

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.”

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