MONSTROUS mentors and the price of followings one’s dreams seem to have been recurring themes in this year’s London Film Festival.
They’ve certainly been at the heart of two of the best and most talked-about films in the programme: Foxcatcher (* * * * *) and Whiplash (* * * * *).
The former features Steve Carell on dark and disturbing form in the true story of John du Pont (Carell), a wealthy, self-styled American patriot who took it upon himself to fund the American wrestling squad in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Homing in on the bizarre relationship du Pont forms with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a gold medalist from the Los Angeles Olympics who nevertheless continues to live in the shadow of his more successful and more beloved older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), the film – the latest from Moneyball director Bennett Miller – is more of a demoralising sports movie than an inspirational one.
As du Pont’s myriad insecurities feed off Mark’s, what follows is sad and unsettling: a strange and tragic cautionary tale about the pathological pursuit of success.
Whiplash, by contrast, offers a funnier and more obviously entertaining take on the toxic mentor/student relationship, but one that also goes to some dark places. Indeed, while this tale of a drumming prodigy’s somewhat masochistic relationship with his teacher at first seems fairly rudimentary, albeit always beautifully crafted and brilliantly acted, it eventually subverts expectations in its final third to become truly special.
The key to the film’s success is JK Simmons’ gruff, profane turn as Fletcher, a Charlie Parker-obsessed teacher with a drill sergeant’s desire to break his pupils to see if any have within them what it takes to be great. As he repeatedly takes apart Miles Teller’s Buddy Rich-wannabe Andrew, he’s horrifying and hilarious, with the film in turn doing a good job of conveying what it means to bleed for one’s art.
Bleeding for one’s art features prominently in Birdman (* * * * *) too, which was unveiled earlier this week in the festival’s “Surprise Movie” slot. Starring Michael Keaton (in a clear nod to his Batman days) as the veteran star of a superhero movie franchise making a last ditch bid for artistic credibility on Broadway, it offers a frenzied, ingenious spin on the let’s-put-on-a-show nature of a backstage drama.
With director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s roving camera making the action appear to be unfurling in a single, continuous shot, his up-for-it cast – which includes Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts – taps into the chaotic energy this elicits.
The film ultimately reveals itself to be a delirious slice of meta-fiction that both sends up and sincerely explores the monstrous egos and thin-skinned mania that drives people to perform.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for Michael Winterbottom’s similarly experimental The Face of An Angel (* *). Inspired by the Amanda Knox trial and the sensationalist media coverage surrounding it, the film fictionalises the case and then tries to comment on the impossibility of finding an objective truth by casting Daniel Bruhl as a filmmaker hanging around Sienna, Italy trying to figure out how to make a film about it.
It’s an interesting idea in theory, just not in execution – the depiction of the creative process far too tedious and pretentious to illuminate anything meaningful about the way fiction and reality intersect.
Seen on 10/11.10.14