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20/20 Filmsight - Film Criticism by David O'Connell

 
Film Criticism by David O'Connell

I'm a Sydney-based film reviewer that loves to review local screenings and film festivals. Want me to cover your event? Email me at cibbuano ~AT~ orble ~DOT~ com.


Foxcatcher

February 19th 2015 02:00




In the astute hands of director Bennett Miller, the sensational true story retold in Foxcatcher (2014) is never sensationalised. The three main players at the centre of the drama are all fascinating character studies. Firstly, Steve Carell’s John du Pont, the obscenely wealthy man lacking the only qualities he ever really wanted: sporting talent, and the ability to impress his stern, withering mother (Vanessa Redgrave). DuPont’s chief obsession was wrestling, seen by his mother as a “low sport”, far beneath the dignity of the family name – a name entrenched in a rich history of equine endeavours.

From the matter-of-fact introduction of DuPont, it’s clear that there’s something ‘off’ about the man; he’s an eccentric philanthropist whose interest in utilising the brothers, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and older sibling Dave (Mark Ruffalo), to head his wholehearted support of the American push for Olympic gold in 1988, proves to be a case of exorcising personal demons. Mark, facing a crossroads in his life, meekly surrenders to the prospect of a fresh start at du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania, whilst Dave, initially, can’t imagine uprooting his family’s life interstate. Long-held bitterness, jealousy, and resentment shape the trio’s interactions over time in always interesting ways. With intimations of unresolved sexual yearnings added to the mix, the film expands into a consistently mesmerising portrait of desperate obsessions.

What most distinguishes Foxcatcher is Miller’s downplaying of the material; Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye’s screenplay provides much of its tension from an accumulation of slowly evolving scenarios between the central trio. The film is wonderfully understated in all aspects. There’s an economy of words and sound, from the tense interplay between Mark and Dave whose brotherly trust and connection becomes compromised, and the ever-so-slightly skewed contributions of du Pont. Miller often allows him to hover on the edge of obliqueness, his words sometimes giving the feel of being meant for somebody else. On a secondary level, Rob Simonsen’s score is expertly crafted too; his orchestrations are mostly pared back to offer what is an often sparse, chilling clarity of musical accompaniment.

Carell, so often hamstrung by one-dimensional comedic roles that offer only a reverberation of physical and verbal tics as amusement, immerses himself into this character like never before. Yes, the prosthetic facial enhancements are distracting and pointedly shaped for unnerving effect in many set-ups, but the motivations of du Pont remain curiously impenetrable over time; the whole effect gives the film a compelling sense of unpredictability. Tatum gives perhaps his finest performance to date as the inarticulate Mark, whilst Ruffalo is never less than brilliant. Even in what essentially is an underwritten role, he exudes a rare command in balancing Dave’s rough-diamond strength with fragility. The man remains a class ahead of most actors in American cinema today.

As good as Foxcatcher is, it’s not without minor flaws. The understated nature of Miller’s aesthetic means that greater depth is sometimes sacrificed for meaningful absences of detail. This will be seen as a lack of substance by some, but there’s a strange beauty to be extracted from tantalising questions that don’t betray easy answers. One scene, in which the introduction of drugs leads to a seismic shift in a relationship, does feel like a rare false and incongruous note; it emerges from nowhere and seems to run against the grain of where this same relationship was headed. These minor quibbles aside, Foxcatcher proves to be another outstanding piece of cinema from the gifted Miller who completes a stunning trifecta after the peerless Capote (2005) and the ridiculously entertaining Moneyball (2011).









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The Gambler

February 5th 2015 01:37



Director James Toback has long had a fascination with self-destructive types - individuals whose temperament and talent are undermined by a corrosive knack for dragging themselves into a downward spiral that reconstitutes their lives. From his debut Fingers (1978), in which Harvey Keitel’s brilliant pianist gets mixed up with a criminal element, to his fascination with Mike Tyson – which led to a film version of the ex-boxing champs’ one man show Tyson (2008) – Toback has been unafraid to venture into dark territory in telling his slanted, often unconventional tales.

Toback’s first produced screenplay was The Gambler (1974), a James Caan vehicle about a helplessly compulsive risk-taker whose debts mount up in line with his scorn for the consequences. The film, directed by Karel Reisz, has long since faded into oblivion but it’s now been revived for the inevitable remake by screenwriter William Monahan whose credits include an Oscar win for The Departed (2006). British director Rupert Wyatt, after his success with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), was given the nod to helm the update and he’s done an excellent job arranging a compelling, disintegrating world around nihilistic anti-hero Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg playing the Caan role). Bennett's a literature professor whose waning passion for his field of expertise is only revived when placing his life in jeopardy through high-stakes gambling at an exclusive underground club.

Bennett is scornful of life in general and dismissive of all talent that can never reach the heights of genius. His own mediocre novel is case-in-point in relegating himself to the league of also-rans. He attempts to point his one talented student, Amy, played by Brie Larson (so good in 2013’s Short Term 12), into fulfilling her talent. He has a strange, barely believable relationship with her that develops into something more. This is either complicated or enhanced by the fact that she’s witnessed the result of his darker impulses while conveniently moonlighting as a waitress in the gambling club.

The gambling scenes themselves are wonderful – both suspenseful and discomfiting, the potential for dangerous, if inevitable outcomes, breathing life into what are brilliantly staged sequences. Beyond the images are the colourful array of money-lenders and wheelers and dealers, all of whom are given wonderful slabs of dialogue to chew on, especially John Goodman’s imposing Frank, though there’s enough meat on the bone for Michael Kenneth Williams and others to savour as well.

On one hand, it’s almost impossible to like Bennett: he’s morally as well as financially bankrupt, disconnected emotionally from his mother (a juicy small role for Jessica Lange), with a carefree attitude that, beyond its contrivance, is also vaguely alluring. We should hate this man and yet in the hands of Wyatt, Monahan and Wahlberg (who gives one of his most interesting performances in years), we’re able to see a disparaging, alternate version of the world that we can relate to – one in which we too are victims to a hideously deformed apathy and carelessness. Monahan’s dialogue is regularly whip-smart, even when it approaches mild abstraction - especially so, perhaps, as this is often when it most accurately reflects the defining characteristics of The Gambler (2014), a tale that most definitely walks and talks to its own beat.











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American Sniper

February 3rd 2015 06:53



The true story of the marksman credited with the most kills in American military history was never going to reach the screen without treading through troubled waters. The political dimensions of America’s involvement aside, there’s the issue of wading into the very grim, exceedingly grey line of moral purgatory in which such a man must exist to carry out his duties. On paper there seemed such potential for a penetrating, deeply unsettling exploration of Chris Kyle’s internal battles and motivations. The final product however, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), falls way short of its target however, dealing almost exclusively in wearied clichés and leaden symbolism, reducing Kyle to a translucent figure whose complexities remain hidden from view and disappointingly unexplored.

Bad omens abound in the film’s early scenes. A childhood flashback is meant to be encapsulation of how the young Chris’s intestinal fortitude is forged by the lesson-bearing words of his father at the dinner table on the night he beats a schoolboy senseless for whipping his young brother. There are three types of people in the world according to dear old dad – sheep, wolves and sheepdogs…………….thank God for Americans and their uncannily innate ability to neatly quantify the parameters of so many human characteristics. It’s an awful scene and clumsily handled by Eastwood in the way of many similar scenes in his films involving young actors whose abilities are seemingly not tested or stretched beyond a single take. Gran Torino (2008), and the less than stellar work from its two young first time actors, comes to mind. At the conclusion of dad’s speech in which he assures his boys that becoming a sheep or wolf as they trek into manhood is unacceptable, we see the affirmative nod and look of certainty on young Chris’s face. Again, it’s risible stuff and the film never really recovers, shedding credibility as early on as it does.

Eastwood’s casting too is deeply suspect. Other than Bradley Cooper – who is by no means wholly convincing as Kyle especially with his often indecipherable Southern accent – the men strewn around him on the battlefield are wretched stereotypes in continual dress-up mode. Not a single man exudes the authority of his post, rendering null and void any attempt at creating a living and breathing reconstructed world. The battle scenes are a series of fabrications loosely and poorly structured. Their ultimate goal is to illuminate cause and effect; to allow perfunctory glimpses into the psyche of Kyle as he battles his personal demons. But where are the fresh insights, the profound truths beyond the obvious ones mined by a thousand other war films? The soldier-warrior returns home between tours and is unable to cope with the horror of war. His domestic life suffers, as he becomes withdrawn, robotic, emotionally stunted. His wife resents him, they teeter on the edge. Surely these men deserve a deeper, one that looks for investigative angles beyond the fall-back clichés?

Kyle was obviously a complex, remarkable individual, on one hand a cold-blooded marksman whose conscience was eroded with each kill, and yet possessed with the resolve to serve his country’s needs, whatever they are, never wanes. American Sniper is devoid of suspense beyond a couple of brief scenes in which Kyle’s scope hones in; two in particular, involving a woman and children, are especially contrived, though effective. Little else sticks in the memory however; the film is plodding, one-note and obvious in almost every way. Sienna Miller tries valiantly as Kyle’s suffering wife but her role is as thankless as they come: the poor put-upon woman who falls in love with the wrong man – after meeting him, it must be stressed, in the first of the only two ways it’s possible for men and women to ever meet their prospective partners according to the unwritten laws of American cinema: 1. In a bar, or 2. With eyes meeting across a crowded dance floor.









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Favourite Films of 2014

January 27th 2015 07:01
34
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Birdman

January 14th 2015 05:46
31
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Mr. Turner

January 7th 2015 03:45
21
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Maps to the Stars

December 17th 2014 03:33
22
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Nightcrawler

December 10th 2014 03:36
33
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20,000 Days on Earth

December 5th 2014 03:40
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Force Majeure

December 1st 2014 04:58
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