Skip to main content

Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.

Foxcatcher
(2014)

(SPOILERS) I really liked Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, a hard sell of a baseball tale (not a sport I have any interest in; I prefer rounders) dramatising a controversial system for assembling winning teams rather than taking the usual tack of following the glories of the players themselves. Foxcatcher, another true-life sports tale, is much less successful. On paper it sounds like a no-brainer; Olympic athletes, rich dynasties and murder. But somehow Miller’s film wears its fascinating subject matter down, becoming an inscrutable and distancing piece that resists its compelling potential.


1984 Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, all protruding Neanderthal jaw), not-so-little and not-so-bright brother of also Olympic wrestling champion, coach and family man Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo, exploring a really bad hair day for his art), lives in his older sibling’s shadow, so jumps at the offer by John E du Pont (Steve Carell, a walking nose prosthesis, not that he needed one in the first place), heir to the du Pont family fortune and unparalleled wrestling fan, to come and join his Team Foxcatcher where he will be paid handsomely as he trains for the World Championship. It sounds like a great deal, but that’s not factoring in what a complete weirdo John du Pont is.


Dave initially refuses to join his brother, and du Pont, still attached to the apron strings of his frail mother (memorably played by Vanessa Redgrave), embarks on a peculiar friendship with Mark, one where he wakes him in the middle of the night for intimate wrestling bouts and seeks validation for his own pitiful attempts at wrestling and leadership. He also asks to be called Eagle, or Golden Eagle, or John, or Coach; Mark continues calling him sir. After a sniff of proffered coke, Mark’s own training regimen comes unstuck, his hair gets highlights and he starts pigging out. Then his enchantment with his generous benefactor is fatally broken after du Pont strikes him one day (hanging out with the rest of the team at the chalet where he stays, presumably seen as snub by du Pont). Soon after this, Dave arrives, and Mark’s departure is set in stone.


What precisely leads du Pont to shoot Dave repeatedly one wintery morning isn’t clear from the film (“Do you have a problem with me?” he asks before firing), probably because it isn’t clear to the makers just what made du Pont tick. It may be a combination of Dave’s respectful indifference to the lauded and yes-sir status du Pont is used to, or it maybe that he has lost Mark; Miller establishes homoerotic undertones (denied by the real Mark) to the relationship, while du Pont has Mark call him the father he always wish he had in a big speech.


Even with events compressed and altered as they are (in reality, Dave was shot eight years after Mark left Foxcatcher), Bennett and writers E Max Frye and Dan Futterman seem content not to attempt to illuminate. Indeed, they remain remote to the story and aloof from the characters. Sometimes such an approach can serve a narrative, but here, where the central duo is so unrelatable (Dave is only ever peripheral to the main plot, even when he moves to Foxcatcher), there needs to be something more.


Both Tatum and (particularly) Ruffalo are very good, but Dave’s dim watt passive aggression makes for a difficult protagonist (again, this is seems to be a choice made by Miller, as the loner of the movie was really a party guy). Ruffalo brings his ever-present empathy to bear in spades. Carrell’s a different story. It’s difficult to tell if he’s essaying an unknowable man, or just hiding behind prostheses and an impenetrable demeanour. Either way, du Pont is never other than a caricature. At times this even passes into familiar Carrell territory, an excruciating comedy without the laughs (most notably trying to impress his mother by ordering the team).


The picture plods along unhurriedly and there are no heated exchanges, confrontations or dramatics that might inform du Pont’s murderous act (he eventually died in prison). Again, sometimes this sort of slow burn can be hypnotic, but here it’s tiresome. It doesn’t help that, with its unapologetic ‘80s milieu, Foxcatcher is an aesthetically unwelcoming picture. One comes away agreeing with the snobby du Pont matriarch that “It’s a low sport” (not that fox hunting’s anything to be proud of), even as a backdrop to the events depicted here. More than that, even a cursory glance at the real story suggests the tack taken by Miller (who spent a year editing the picture, so presumably encountered hiccups along the way) might not have best suited the material.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).