Film reviews: Foxcatcher | Into the Woods

Steve Carell (left) and Channing Tatum star in Foxcatcher. Picture: Contributed
Steve Carell (left) and Channing Tatum star in Foxcatcher. Picture: Contributed
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Bennett Miller specialises in making movies about the price of success.

Foxcatcher (15)

Directed by: Bennett Miller

Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave

Star rating: *****

In Capote he explored the debilitating psychological cost to Truman Capote of investigating and writing his seminal true crime novel In Cold Blood. In Moneyball he examined the literal cost of buying wins in baseball by turning a story about statistics into a thrilling denunciation of the meaningless nature of sporting mythology. In his new film Foxcatcher he combines elements of both, using a bizarre incident involving the 1988 American Olympic wrestling squad and their millionaire benefactor John du Pont to deliver a sad, unsettling and tragic tale about the pathological pursuit of success in a country that values wealth and power above all else.

Starring Steve Carell as du Pont, the film homes in on the disturbing relationship he formed with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a gold medallist from the Los Angeles Olympics who, at the time, lived somewhat in the shadow of his more successful and more beloved older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). As the film opens, Miller sketches out in brutally bleak and economical fashion the lie behind all endlessly parroted Olympic platitudes about striving for greatness and achieving success: Mark, gold medal around his neck, is seen delivering a stilted and awkward pep talk to a bunch of school children for a meagre fee of $20, money he then uses to buy instant noodle soup that he slurps alone in his sparse apartment. It’s a portentous start to the movie and the mood never lightens, even when Mark, who spends his days sparring in grim gyms with his brother in preparation for the next Olympics in Seoul, is summoned by du Pont to his Foxcatcher ranch in Philadelphia and offered a great new job coaching the team in state-of-the-art facilities.

The ominous atmosphere is necessarily intensified by the introduction of du Pont, and Miller spends an age before delivering his first close-up of Carell, whereupon he reveals the prosthetic nose that gives his familiar visage a weird, eagle-like profile. Though done to make Carell look more like the real du Pont, it’s an oddly appropriate look, not least because that’s how du Pont actually views himself, even referring to himself as “Eagle” as he explains to Mark that he’s an American patriot determined to use his family’s wealth to reclaim his country from those who seek to destroy it from within. He’s an odd bird in other words, and if the film’s symbolism is literally on the nose that’s because du Pont is so delusional: his chosen sport for expressing his patriotism is, after all, strangely redolent of an economic and social system that thrives by choking the opposition into submission. Go Team America!

At first, Mark willingly adheres to du Pont’s machinations, but du Pont also wants Dave on the team and Dave, who enjoys a settled family life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and young children, isn’t so keen to uproot everything for the chance of a relatively high-paying position. “You can’t buy Dave,” Mark tells du Pont, and the news is greeted as if it’s an alien concept. “I want to win,” comes the eventual reply. What follows is strange and creepy in the extreme as du Pont becomes more obsessed with Dave, spurning Mark in the process, who becomes almost a surrogate son in the film, all too easily led, and too crippled with self-loathing to stand up for himself in a meaningful way.

Though the end-point of this story is widely known, and has been especially widely reported in articles about the film (not least because the real Mark Shultz recently denounced Miller in a bizarre rant on social media), Foxcatcher’s impact is more intense the less information you have about the outcome. Suffice to say that Miller uses the horrifying conclusion to emphasise how disconnected money made du Pont from the real world and in this he’s aided by a strong turn from Carell. Even in his comic roles, he has frequently hinted at a kind of darkness (Seth Rogen’s character was only half-joking in The 40 Year Old Virgin when he told Carell, “I kinda thought you were a serial killer”), but here he plunges head first into the headspace of someone more realistically disturbed and unpleasant than he’s played before and he’s utterly credible.

Similarly, Tatum brings real pathos to Mark; sadness practically sweats from his every pore as he struggles to make sense of the position he’s found himself in. As such, Foxcatcher is not an easy watch. Its oppressive atmosphere is draining, and Miller’s formalistic approach is so carefully judged and controlled it almost wills us to tap out. But that sense of discomfort is sometimes a price worth paying when a film aspires to be more than mere entertainment, as this one surely does.

Into the Woods (PG)

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp

Star Rating: ***

With Frozen returning some quality to the movie musical and Maleficent proving the box-office worth of live-action fairytales, this adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s 1986 Broadway hit allows Disney to capitalise on the success of both with a plot that weaves the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood into an all-singing deconstruction of the genre. That concept might not sound quite as radical a big screen proposition as it might once have done (Shrek did this in a non-musical form well over decade ago), but the notion of a live action musical with stars that can actually sing – as opposed to the auto-tuned horror shows, jukebox musicals and tuneless epics (well, Les Misérables) we’ve been assaulted with in recent years – is certainly refreshing.

Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella, inset), James Corden (as the Baker) and Meryl Streep (as The Witch) are more than up to the task of wrapping their tonsils around Sondheim’s notoriously tricky wordplay, as is Emily Blunt in the slightly unsatisfying role of the Baker’s wife, whose yearning for a child drives a large part of the plot, until she’s summarily dismissed when a spot of infidelity enters proceedings. Other plot strands – Jack selling his cow for some magic beans, Cinderella making her pre-midnight dash from the ball, Little Red Riding Hood on her way to Grandma’s house – repeatedly converge in the titular woods, a place of enchantment, peril and Johnny Depp as a zoot-suited Wolf. Looking like Jack White in his latter-day White Stripes get-up, but singing like Johnny Depp in his Sweeney Todd phase, he’s mercifully constrained to a cameo’s worth of lascivious show tunes.

Lyrically and thematically, Into the Woods isn’t particularly geared towards really young kids who’ve been belting out Let it Go while watching Frozen on repeat all Christmas. But there’s fun to be had for a slightly older crowd. It’s certainly amusing to see a Disney movie featuring Cinderella’s stepsisters mutilating their feet to squeeze into her glass slipper. Ditto a dance-off in which rival Prince Charmings (Billy Magnussen and a very game and hilarious Chris Pine) cavort around a waterfall, bearing their chests while warbling about how hard it is chasing unattainable love.

Unfortunately, while Marshall is good at getting the story going through song, he loses control of the plot in the final act, introducing a subversive twist late in the film with too little time to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Still, while Into the Woods doesn’t quite solve the problem of how to do a satisfying modern musical, it’s a dance step in the right direction.

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