Wrestling for Meaning

This week on The Screen Addict: The frustrating chilliness of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, going bigger and better with Interstellar, the beginning of The Hunger Games’ end, an exciting piece of James Bond news, and more.

Foxcatcher sets a fine table, but the meal disappoints
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Most movies made in the style of Foxcatcher might be described as “bold,” particularly for a major awards season release. However, in this case, director Bennett Miller’s style might be more aptly described as “reticent.” The film is made up almost exclusively of long takes, music is used rarely, and the dialogue mostly consists of characters talking around the major problems at hand. In some ways, that’s the right way to go. Foxcatcher is a film about internal conflicts yearning to become external, and yet the three men at the center of the story—well, at least two in particular—refuse to let that happen. They quietly stew for the better part of two hours, until it all finally explodes in an act of unexpected violence. This escalation is sold reasonably well, thanks in particular to the performances, but the story’s ultimate impact is muted by Miller’s deliberate direction. It isn’t boring, but it feels empty—an immaculate surface in search of a point of view.

The standout here is Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler coming off a gold medal at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. His brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also won the gold, but he also gets most of the attention. Mark seems destined to play second fiddle forever, until he gets a call from the impossibly wealthy John Du Pont (Steve Carell), an odd man who has developed a fascination with the sport of wrestling. Mark is invited to live on Du Pont’s Pennsylvania estate, called Foxcatcher Farm, and spend his time training. He and John develop a close relationship, both motivated by a need for admiration, but it all starts to fall apart once Dave decides to join them.

Miller is a fantastic director of actors, as has been seen before in his previous efforts Capote and Moneyball. (His process is described quite well in this Mark Harris piece on Foxcatcher’s production.) Tatum is the real standout here, adding another character to his list of lovable lugheads, though this is undoubtedly the darkest variation of that type. He is able to communicate so much with just a simple facial expression, and it’s fascinating to watch as his time at Foxcatcher Farm slowly poisons him. Carell’s performance has gotten (and will continue to get) a lot of attention, but the genius of it seemed to come and go for me. Something about it felt a bit too calculated, but I don’t think it’s as much on Carell as the rather obvious makeup he’s dealing with. In his best moments he disappears. In too many others, you can see the performance as it’s happening.

He might have been able to more frequently blend in if the movie wasn’t so inordinately dependent on the actors. They perform admirably across the board, but Miller doesn’t do much in the way of turning these performances into anything bigger. That’s not to say Foxcatcher looks bad—it’s often downright gorgeous. The film just doesn’t engage with the story or characters like it should, instead choosing to passively watch as a series of interactions and moments play out. The restraint makes sense on a superficial level, but in practice, too many scenes just sit there on the screen. For every moment that clicks, and there are several, a few too many more just feel as though they’re biding time. It’s clear that Miller gives his actors a whole lot to chew on during the filmmaking process. In the case of Foxcatcher, the audience isn’t quite so lucky.

Revisiting Interstellar
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In my thoughts on Interstellar two weeks back, I mentioned that I would quickly jump at the chance to see it again in IMAX. Well, that’s precisely what happened this past weekend. I ventured down to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to experience it at the invitingly-named Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, located inside the National Air and Space Museum. As you would expect, this place has real, 70mm IMAX, none of the digital IMAX garbage that seems to be taking over shopping mall theaters everywhere. (I might expand on the sad state of modern theatrical projection in an upcoming post. I’ll also talk about children and how they are unwelcome on my lawn.) Not only did the film look as stunning as you might expect in that format, but I also found myself loving the content of the film much more than I did the first time. If you recall my post two weeks ago, I went through a laundry list of complaints I had with the movie, but I felt a lot of those evaporate away with this viewing. I still have issues with how Nolan goes about telling the story—particularly in the final hour—but the spectacle, the performances and Hans Zimmer’s incredible score all hit me in ways they didn’t the first time around. This is a film that may work just fine in any format, but it’s only at the peak of its powers when you allow it to truly, and literally, overwhelm you.

Other new releases
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–One of the dumbest trends in Hollywood right now began with the Harry Potter series, when it was decided to split the final book (The Deathly Hallows) into two films. One could argue this was a necessary choice, considering the sheer amount of plot that had to be covered. However, everyone else saw only the financial impact of this decision and decided to jump on board, story be damned. The Twilight films did it to great box office success, and now The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is the latest example. It follows precisely the arc you expect from films like this: it establishes where all the characters are at this point in the story, reestablishes this a few more times, and then ends only when things start to get interesting. It’s a shame, because this series had a lot going for it through the first two films, and in this instance it has to constantly stall just to drag things out to feature length. Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic, obviously, and whenever anything actually happens you’re reminded of the best moments from the first two installments. But once the credits roll, you snap back to the reality that you just paid entrée prices for an appetizer.
–I’ll use this space to talk about two more movies that aren’t “new,” per se, but I definitely saw them in the last couple months, so there. The first is The Judge, the Robert Downey, Jr. wannabe prestige picture that justifiably came and went without much fanfare. Strong performances aside, this is as obvious and forgettable as these types of movies get. The destination is obvious from the first frame, but director David Dobkin sure takes its sweet time getting there.
–Another bad recent release: The Equalizer, in which Denzel Washington kills a lot of Russian mobsters at a Home Depot. It’s a dumb, potentially campy premise about vigilante justice, but Antoine Fuqua can never find the right tone, and it all becomes quite tiresome after a while. Washington is legitimately great as always. Few people make being a movie star look so effortless, but it’s been a while since he’s found a movie worthy of his talents.

Christoph Waltz vs. 007?
Actor Christoph Waltz attends the UK premiere of Django Unchained in central London
We now move on to news that made me feel not unlike a preteen girl who just found out One Direction will be putting on a private concert in her living room. For months, there have been rumors that the next James Bond film—tentatively titled Bond 24, because it is a James Bond movie and there will be 24 of them—will see the return of terrorist organization SPECTRE from litigation hell, and, above all, that means one thing: BLOFELD BACK.


Be afraid.

Ah, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The occasionally bald, cat-loving supervillain who appeared in six canonical James Bond films and is best known as the big bad of the Connery/Lazenby era. Due to an ongoing legal dispute with Kevin McClory, which would take a whole other blog post to fully explain, the character and the concept of SPECTRE was taken away from Eon Productions. Last year, Eon was able to settle with the McClory estate, and now both SPECTRE and Blofeld are free to return to the main series. The speculation began as to whether this would happen in Bond 24, and just who might be the actor to play Bond’s most famous nemesis. One early rumor was Chiwetel Ejiofor, of 12 Years a Slave fame, but apparently that idea lost momentum a while back. However, now it sounds as though Eon has found its new Blofeld, and it couldn’t be more obvious: Christoph Waltz.

Waltz has all the characteristics you’d ever want from a Bond villain, including qualities that he’s shown off particularly well in his two collaborations with Quentin Tarantino. Unnecessary speechifying is a crucial part of such a role, and does the idea of Waltz lecturing a restrained James Bond about his master plan not sound incredible? This whole thing might even make too much sense, and for that reason some might be disappointed that Eon didn’t think a little more outside the box. But when something appears to be this perfect a match, how do you pass it up?

By all accounts, Waltz has already signed up for Bond 24, but there is no official confirmation that Blofeld is actually his role, despite the assertiveness of several reports. In fact, one story I saw suggests that the producers might pull a Star Trek Into Darkness and try to hide Waltz’s true character. If they do follow through on that, it would be dumb, considering that was one of the silliest things about that movie. Just get out in front of it and be honest about the role. Wouldn’t something like this be more likely to get people excited?

Classic of the Week
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It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Michael Mann, but he is about to make his long-awaited return in January with the cyber thriller Blackhat. With that in mind, let’s look back at what might be Mann’s most widely acclaimed movie: Heat. There’s nothing terribly complex about the plot, which follows the rivalry between professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and the cop chasing him (Al Pacino). The film becomes great in the way Mann turns this premise into a three-hour epic, full of his signature atmosphere and skill for shooting the city of Los Angeles. It helps that he has two of the best actors of their generation working at the top of their game, and the famous coffee break scene—in which the two finally come face to face—provides the perfect breather before the chaos of the final hour. It’s quite literally everything you would want a movie like this to be, and every cops-and-robbers thriller since has been living in its shadow.

Trailer of the Week

Throughout its production, I have been unable to muster much of an opinion on Jurassic World, the latest attempt to revive the Jurassic Park franchise. It seems like a universe that had already run its course after the first movie, let alone the two sequels that had very little of interest to offer. Also, this project’s director, Colin Trevorrow, is unproven to say the least. After the release of the first trailer today, I still haven’t been able to shake my apathy. I’m all for the continued rise of Chris Pratt, obviously, but it doesn’t look like much beyond what I expected it to be. This is a blatant attempt to hit audiences right in the nostalgia bone, only with an added reliance on CGI, which looks pretty ugly here. It’s still early in the postproduction process, obviously, but we’re not exactly off to the best start. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised, but I’m not sure this movie has anything to offer that I haven’t already seen three times before.

New to Video or Streaming
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Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer has been available on home media for a while, but since it was just recently added to Netflix, I thought I’d give it a mention here. This is a dark, thrilling, funny and surprisingly complex piece of work that takes its premise and runs with it as far as possible. The class symbolism is obvious—the wealthy live in luxury at the front of the train, while the poor barely survive in the back—but Bong never lets his themes overwhelm the entertainment. Snowpiercer hits the ground running and keeps chugging along (pun intended) until it reaches its twisty but effective conclusion. This was a film buried by The Weinstein Company and relegated to a limited/VOD release, but it already seems destined to become a cult classic. Now that it’s on Netflix, you have no excuse. Unless you don’t have a Netflix account, in which case you should ask your parents for their password. Get their HBO Go account info too while you’re at it.

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