"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Lady MacBeth : A Review

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!****

My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SKIP IT.

Lady MacBeth, written by Alice Berch and directed by William Oldroyd, is the story of Katherine, a young woman in 1860's rural England, stuck in a stifling marriage and a suffocating culture. The film stars Florence Pugh as Katherine, along with Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton and Naomi Ackie in supporting roles. 

Lady MacBeth has all the trappings of an art house gem, an exquisite period setting and costumes, a breakout performance from a talented young actress and a political sub-text of female empowerment in the face of a controlling patriarchy. Sadly, Lady MacBeth is not the sum of its parts and winds up being little more than a pretender to the art house crown. 

The biggest problem with Lady MacBeth is that it tries to do too much, too fast and goes too far. The reason period pieces like this work is because they set up constraints upon the characters in the form of cultural customs and traditions, and they force the characters to struggle against or break free of them. The cinematic drama is born and bred in that struggle. That is why people loved Downton Abbey for example, or Netflix's recent hit The Crown, those shows put the restraints of tradition upon human emotions and yearnings and we all watched to see the characters resist against them. The problem with Lady MacBeth is that those traditional and cultural obstacles are too easily discarded, ignored and overcome, rendering the struggle against them dramatically impotent and entirely moot. 

The first third of the film is very compelling because those cultural hindrances are front and center and are a cross that seems unbearable for Katherine. Her confinement to her husband's house is palpably stultifying. Director Oldroyd makes the interesting choice to shoot all of the indoor scenes as static shots to effectively enhance the rigid sense of emotional suffocation. Oldroyd also wisely contrasts this static indoor approach with hand held shots when Katherine finally goes outside, indicating her sense of freedom and abandon.

But then the train goes off the rails in the latter two thirds of the film when the narrative unravels as the traditional reins upon Katherine aren't simply loosened, they disappear completely. The film rapidly deteriorates from there when all of the tension and drama those constraints brought with them dissipates entirely. The art house ship is scuttled at that point and a rather predictable and conventional film takes its place.

The one bright spot in the whole endeavor is the discovery of Florence Pugh. Pugh, who is vaguely reminiscent of a young Kate Winslet, has stardom written all over her. She is a beautiful woman, but her beauty never overshadows her talent. She is blessed with the skill of being able to convey her character's intentions and vivid inner life with the slightest of glances. Pugh is a charismatic and powerful screen presence who exudes an intelligence and strength that few young actresses possess. I am willing to bet that she has a most stellar career in front of her.

The rest of the cast are all eclipsed by the supernova that is Ms. Pugh. Cosmo Jarvis plays the love interest but is entirely of no interest. Naomi Ackie is given a rather thankless job of having to portray a character that is so poorly written it is difficult to reconcile. And Paul Hilton's Alexander is so terribly one-dimensional he might as well be twirling his mustache whenever he's on screen.

I was ready to go all in on the ride of Lady MacBeth, but the film made the fatal error of not grounding it's story in a consistent reality, and thus the entire exercise seemed a rather empty and fruitless endeavor that became harder and harder to buy into. I was very disappointed with the film, but on the bright side found solace in Ms. Pugh's sublime performance despite it all. 

My recommendation is to skip Lady MacBeth entirely. Even watching it for free on Netflix or cable would be a waste of time as the film neither reveals nor illuminates anything of worth or substance. It's a shame, for if the filmmaker had screwed their courage to the sticking place, maybe the film could have been elevated to the art house throne. Instead, Lady MacBeth took the easy and cowardly route of the ordinary and won its hard earned exile from artistic relevancy. 

©2017

The Theory of Everything: A Review

****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS NO SPOILERS!! REPEAT…THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!****

The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim), is the story of famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, his wife Jane, his battle with motor neuron disease and her efforts to care for him. The film, written by Anthony McCarten, is based upon Jane Hawking's memoir "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen".

The film stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking. Redmayne's performance as Hawking is worth noting. He does an incredible job morphing himself into Hawking physically. He looks uncannily like the famed genius as he shrivels and contorts in his wheelchair at the mercy of this awful disease that ravages his body. I can't help but think though, that The Theory of Everything should have been called The Imitation Game because Redmayne's performance seems more like an imitation than acting. When I was a young man (or at least younger man) studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, I had a very interesting discussion with one of the phenomenal teachers there one day about the predicament and potential difficulties of playing an actual, well-known person. This teacher said something that has stayed with me ever since, she said, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the least sincere form of acting". I mean, if imitation was acting, Frank Caliendo and Rich Little would have trophy cases filled with Oscars, but it isn't and they don't. This teacher's voice kept ringing in my ears as I watched The Theory of Everything. This is not entirely Redmayne's fault though. The script is so two-dimensional that, like a black hole, no light, or life, or genuine humanity can survive in it. So Redmayne's obvious hard work is all for nought, and his physical transformation rings hollow because there is no authentic life within in the script.

Felicity Jones does as well as she can with what she is given, and is an extremely appealing presence throughout the film, but again she is terribly short changed by an underwhelming script. She does bring an unmistakable charisma to every scene she inhabits though, and I very much look forward to seeing her work with more substantial material than this in the future.

Visually, the film uses a minimalist approach in trying to convey the big, complex thoughts on time and space that made Hawking such a world famous figure. For example, using the spinning cream in a cup of coffee as a visual cue for Hawking to think of the vastness of the universe and how it all could have started. I think this approach is a fatal error for the film. The story of Hawking would have been much better served if they had chosen to make a film in the vein of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which would tell Hawking's story by using the medium of film to it's fullest advantage by showing us Hawking's unique view of the world, through his eyes. It also would be a great opportunity to use film for it's greatest strength, the ability to show us something that we can only imagine, and barely at that, the big bang and the beginning and expansion of the universe. Instead we get visuals that are flat, ordinary and stale, as is the storytelling.

After the film ended my friend, the inimitable Lady Pumpernickle-Dussledorf, looked up Stephen Hawking on wikipedia and after reading commented, "Stephen Hawking's wikipedia page has more dramatic tension than that entire movie". Wise woman that Lady Pumpernickle-Dussledorf. The most frustrating thing about the film, is that there is such rich source material there, if only someone had the courage to really delve into it. Hawking is a fascinating character, and his life is beyond remarkable, so to have his story reduced into the most pedestrian and simplistic of films is irritating if not downright maddening.

As is often the case with biopics, and is most definitely the case with biopics this year, making a film about someone still alive or someone whom people have a direct interest in protecting their legacy, is a sure fire way to make an ordinary, mundane and dull film. Examples of biopics this year being artistically constricted by people with a vested interest looking over the filmmakers shoulders include but are not limited to,  Foxcatcher and American Sniper. I have written before about the difficulty of this situation for actors, directors and writers, in two previous posts, The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part One, and The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part Two. Sadly, I think both of those posts hold relevancy for The Theory of Everything, which is another in the long line of films to fall prey to the dangers of deification.

In conclusion, The Theory of Everything is an ordinary film about a very extraordinary man. It is nothing more than a paint by numbers, standard biopic. There is no life, no energy and most importantly no humanity in the entire film. A life like Stephen Hawking's deserves better, and so do we.

© 2015

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .

 

American Sniper: A Review

***** WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! THIS IS YOUR ONE AND ONLY SPOILER ALERT!!****

 

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, is the story of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and is loosely based on his book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.  The film follows Chris Kyle's exploits on the battlefield in Iraq and his struggles with his family and PTSD back on the homeland.

I admit that after seeing the trailer for American Sniper I was excited to see the film. The trailer was really well made and brought with it a palpable tension. But, as with many films, the trailer is considerably better than the actual film. The film itself, just like the trailer, starts off with Chris Kyle prone atop a building in Iraq, contemplating whether or not he should use his sniper rifle to shoot a young boy and woman who threaten US Marines with a Russian grenade off in the distance. The film then deviates from the trailer and we go into  extended flash back scenes which show Kyle's boyhood, his young adult life, his work as a cowboy, his joining the Navy, his SEAL training, his meeting his wife and then his wedding. This is all shown to us in order to give us context for who Chris is and how he got to be that way. After twenty minutes of this exposition, we come back to Kyle atop the roof with his sniper rifle and his pending decision. He shoots and kills both the boy and his mother, his first ever kills. 

Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle and is as good as he's ever been. He fully inhabits the role from top to bottom. His physicality, his Texas drawl and his energy are all spot on. Cooper's performance, without question, carries the film. There are two scenes in particular, where Cooper rises above his already very good performance to be truly transcendent. The first scene is where he has another Iraqi boy in his sniper sights as the boy picks up an RPG and points it at unsuspecting US troops. Kyle talks to himself telling the kid to drop the weapon, he doesn't want to kill another child. Just as the boy is aiming the RPG and Kyle readies to squeeze the trigger, the boy drops the weapon and runs off. Cooper's use of breath once he no longer has to decide whether to shoot or not, is brilliant. He lets out a guttural grunt of relief at being spared the damage to his psyche and soul that most assuredly would have come with killing another child, justified or not. The second scene is when Chris has returned from the war for the last time but has not told his family yet. His wife calls his cell phone and Chris answers sitting by himself in a bar in the states. He is detached and shut down, but his wife Taya tells him his kids miss him and want to see him, and once again Cooper masterfully uses his breath to show the torment and grief that lives deep in Kyle's soul, as he lets out an uncontained weep and wail and tells Taya that he is coming home. These are easily the two best scenes in the film and are highlights of not only the film, but of Bradley Cooper's career. That is the good news about American Sniper. The bad news is that the rest of the film never lives up to the at-times stellar work Bradley Cooper does in it. Sadly, the film never rises above being a standard biopic and run-of-the-mill war movie. Besides Cooper's strong performance, there is nothing remarkable about the film at all. Visually the film is dull and generic. The script is tedious and unoriginal, the dialogue stilted and occasionally cringe-worthy and the supporting actors are, for the most part, considerably below par. The end result is the film looks rushed and cheap.

For any war movie, the battle scenes need to shine in order for the film to distinguish itself. With American Sniper, the battle scenes all look flat, stagnant and lack any texture at all. The battle scenes look like something you'd see any night of the week on an episodic television show. When you consider some of the great war films that have been made, whether it be Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private RyanThe Thin Red Line or Black Hawk Down, just to name a few, and how visually creative, powerful and unique those films are, American Sniper is so visually listless as to be embarrassing in comparison.

Another thing that needs to be done for a war film to be successful is that it must attach us to a group of warriors and accurately describe and detail the unique camaraderie inherent in the warrior culture. The camaraderie in American Sniper rings false and feels contrived. Eastwood attempts to create a sense of familiarity in order for us to feel we know and care about the other SEALs in Kyle's graduating class and on his team, but we never really connect because these characters are nothing more than indistinguishable blurs. We may care about them as US servicemen, but we don't care about them as individuals or in relationship to Chris Kyle. They end up being simply cannon fodder for the film.

As for the script and the story, director Eastwood chose to use standard Hollywood narrative tools to make the story more palatable for American audiences. For instance, he chose to make an enemy sniper named "Mustafa" Chris Kyle's main foil throughout the battlefield parts of the film. The Mustafa character is only mentioned in passing in one paragraph in Chris Kyle's book, so this is a distinct creative decision to make him such a prominent character in the film. Eastwood also uses a character named "The Butcher" as another foil and symbol for the evil and brutality of America's enemy in the war. In the book, the "Butcher" character doesn't exist at all. Eastwood must have felt he needed to give the enemy in Iraq a face and a name in order to make the Iraq war segments more coherent and digestible for American audiences, not unlike what the Bush administration did in selling the actual war to the American public by making it about "Saddam and Osama". It worked for Bush and company in persuading the American public, but it fails Eastwood because he isn't selling a product (war), he is trying to create a great piece of intimate art and you can't do that by rolling out tired Hollywood storytelling devices, stereotypes and cliches.

There are two other fatal errors by Eastwood in the film. They both deal with endings. The first is the final battle scene and the second is how he ends the film itself. The final battlefield scene is nothing short of an artistic debacle, and seems to be transplanted from another film, and it certainly isn't from Kyle's book. In the sequence, Kyle takes a near impossible sniper shot from over a mile away that takes out his nemesis, Mustafa. Here Eastwood, for the first time in the film, uses a visual effect, a slow motion of the bullet as it leaves the rifle, which feels like it is taken from any number of hokey action movies from the last ten years (I am thinking of Wanted et al).  All of this happens while a sand storm and jihadis close in on Kyle and his squad. In the heat of this dire battle Chris decides to use a satellite phone to call Taya and tell her he is done with war and is coming home.  This sequence is so unwieldy and preposterous as to be comical. It belongs in a Mission: Impossible sequel and not in an allegedly true to life, gritty war movie. And instead of the sandstorm being symbolic of the loss of our national bearings in Iraq, it just comes across as being optically muddled and metaphorically befuddling. There are much more visually coherent and impactful ways to make that important point, which gets lost with Eastwood's approach.

Then there is the final scene of the film, which is very manipulative and grating. In it Kyle says goodbye to his family as he heads out to help a former Marine suffering from PTSD. In reality, this former Marine would tragically shoot and kill Chris Kyle and his friend at a shooting range that day (this is not shown in the film). In the movie scene, Taya Kyle tells Chris how proud she is of him, his kids all love him and he is finally healed and whole. It is obviously a fantasy sequence where everyone gets to say what they had hoped to say and hear what they hoped to hear and Chris' journey is neatly tied up, his martyrdom awaiting him in the form of a shady looking veteran right outside the door. Taya Kyle even has a feeling, call it a sixth sense, about this nefarious fellow waiting for her husband…then we fade to black. I understand wanting to do all that for the family, but this isn't a home movie. The final scene rings so hollow, phony and forced that it could have come right out of a Lifetime movie of the week. It is all too neat and clean and perfect (and also not how events actually played out in real life), so much so that it actually diminishes the impact of Chris Kyle's tragic death. How much more gut wrenching would it be if Taya Kyle didn't get to say all those things to her husband? What if Chris wasn't healed and whole before his death? What if he wasn't finished yet? What if he didn't get to say goodbye to his kids? That would have been a way to really emphasize the shock and horror and tragedy of Chris Kyle being so unexpectedly killed in suburban Texas after having survived four combat tours in Iraq.

Those two critical scenes are not well done, but they aren't the only missteps. There is a scene, the 'garage' scene, where a former Marine approaches Kyle back in America while his car is getting fixed and thanks Kyle for saving him back in Iraq. This could have been a really great scene, and Cooper is wondrously uncomfortable in it which is really interesting to watch, but the other actor's work is so disastrously abominable and false that it is cringe-worthy, and because of that the scene loses any dramatic impact it might have had with even a mediocre actor in that role.

Which brings me to the supporting acting. The work of the supporting actors, particularly in the 'stateside' scenes, is positively dreadful. The actor (whom I will not name) playing Chris Kyle's father is absolutely appalling, and the actor (whom I will also not name) playing Kyle's brother is so unconscionably atrocious it is downright shocking. I kept wondering, why does Chris Kyle's brother not have a Texas drawl when his father and Chris do? Also, why couldn't they find the brother a dress blue uniform that actually fit instead of being three sizes too big? The child actors who play Chris and his brother when they were young, well, they are just children, so at least they have an excuse…but boy, they are not good at acting.

So the question becomes: why are all of these supporting and smaller roles so poorly done? Well, Clint Eastwood is well known for being a minimalist in regards to how many takes he will do. That is a good and bad thing. It is good because when you do fewer takes you stay on schedule, and when you stay on schedule, you stay on budget, and when you stay on budget they let you keep making movies. The bad part is, the acting suffers. So when you are giving great actors, like Sean Penn for instance in Mystic River, or Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, or Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself in Unforgiven, fewer takes, they are able to adjust their approach and keep knocking it out of the park due to their talent and skill, but with lesser talents, their performances flounder and feel rushed and out of rhythm with the rest of the film. The supporting actors in American Sniper are really abysmal, and it is not all their fault. They weren't there everyday getting the feel for the pace of the work (like Cooper was), they weren't getting the rhythm down, they showed up and had to shoot and then did two takes and it was over and they go home. It is a tough gig, but man, regardless of the reason or who is to blame, the supporting cast did a very poor job and the film suffers greatly for it.

There is one exception in regards to the supporting acting, and that is Sienna Miller. Sienna Miller does her best to bring life to the terribly written character of Taya Kyle, Chris Kyle's wife. Her work is admirable, and her American accent is very well done (which is not always the case when the Brits take it on) but the part only allows her to hit two notes: sassy and weepy. It is such a hollow and empty character that Miller should be credited for giving her all to it in a Quixotic attempt to bring some semblance of life to the character, but sadly there just isn't enough there for life to exist.

One issue which may have been a major reason why the film turned out the way it did, is that Eastwood didn't set out to make a great piece of drama, he set out to canonize Chris Kyle. This canonization of St. Chris Kyle, patron saint of 'Merica, is an example of deification, which is an all too common problem when making a biopic, particularly a biopic of someone who has died and who's family is involved in the making of the film. (I have written two previous blog posts on deification which you might find of interest. The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part Two, is more relevant to the American Sniper conversation, but feel free to read them both. Links :  The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part Two  , The Great Man Theory and the Dangers of Deification Part One  ) I recently read where Chris Kyle's father told Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper that if they dishonored his son he would "bring hell down on them". I understand Mr. Kyle's desire to protect his son's legacy, which has been called into question for some dubious claims his son had made, not the least of which was that he claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura out for making disparaging remarks about SEALs. That tale was adjudicated in the courts and found to be untrue, but Eastwood and Cooper needed to be more loyal to artistic truth than to any man, alive or dead. A great failure of the film is that it really is nothing more than propaganda (propaganda being defined as "the spreading of ideas, information or rumors for the purpose of helping a cause or person"), not just propaganda for a distinct version of America, the war and a certain view of the world, but more specifically it is personal propaganda for Chris Kyle and his 'legacy'. That isn't a bad thing in and of itself, some people love propaganda and some propaganda can be terrifically entertaining. But you can't make great art and propaganda at the same time. So American Sniper is not great art because it is propaganda, and it isn't great propaganda because as a film it isn't even remotely well crafted, either in the directing, the writing, or besides Bradley Cooper, in the acting. 

As a result of this creative 'deification' of Chris Kyle, a lot of really compelling issues and ideas get pushed aside in order to maintain an agreed upon version of Kyle's legacy. For instance, in the film when Chris Kyle is a young boy, his father tells him that there are three types of people in the world..sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs. The sheep are too weak or stupid to protect themselves or even admit that there is evil in the world, the wolves are evil and prey upon the sheep, and the sheep dog protects the sheep from the wolves. Mr. Kyle tells Chris that he raises only sheep dogs. This story propels Chris Kyle through his life and his Navy career. An interesting topic to explore would be that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between a sheepdog and a wolf. If the sheepdog goes to someone else's country and kills people, is he still a sheep dog or is he a wolf? Does Kyle's film nemesis Mustafa think of himself as a sheepdog and Kyle as the wolf? Don't all the people fighting for the enemy tell themselves the same story about sheepdogs and wolves and see themselves as sheepdogs? And don't they have a stronger case for being the sheepdogs since they are the ones being attacked and invaded? That brings up another topic which would be intriguing to explore which is that Chris Kyle never ever has any doubt, be it in his mission or the justness of his cause. His faith is entirely in his own virtue and the righteousness of his country. Something that obviously eluded him in his lifetime, is that this faith, this lack of any doubt, is something he has in common with his enemy. The jihadi, whether it be "The Butcher" or Mustafa, is blindingly positive he is righteous and sees any doubt of the righteousness of his cause, by himself or anyone else, as a crime against his faith, his mission, his God. In the film, Chris Kyle's fellow SEAL (a one-time seminarian) had creeping doubts about the mission in Iraq, and after this SEAL is killed, Chris Kyle tells his wife that the SEAL's doubt in the mission is what got him killed. This conviction and lack of doubt is most assuredly an asset in a war zone, but how well does that certitude translate to peace time and a normal, functioning family life? That would have been a fascinating issue to explore.

Someone once said, 'Without doubt, there can be no true faith'. This struggle to hold onto surety is dramatically fertile ground which I wish the film had explored more deeply. For instance, there is a scene in the film where Chris Kyle is interviewed by a psychologist about his PTSD and the doctor asks him if he has any regrets. Kyle quickly answers that he only wishes he could have saved more Marines. I found this an interesting answer, only because there isn't the slightest bit of introspection from Kyle, and he seems blind to an obvious solution to protecting Marines which Kyle has never contemplated. If he had just stopped to think about it, one good and undeniable way to save more Marines would be to not send them into Iraq in the first place. Though that thought would never have occurred to Chris Kyle because he could not allow doubt about the mission to enter his mind. For Chris Kyle, doubt is death. In this way, Chris Kyle was like the jihadis he so masterfully killed in Iraq, he was a 'true believer'. The thing about the 'true believer' is that deep down, his faith isn't so true, because he cannot grapple with doubt. Thus his faith is one of compulsion and force, not one of reason and logic. American Sniper never had the artistic courage for this, and other deeper explorations and that is a shame because it could have been so much more than it was.

Regardless of what American Sniper isn't and what topics it avoids, it still could have been a great and entertaining movie as it was, a straight up biopic and war film. Sadly, it fails at this attempt because it gets the basics wrong. The basics being the visuals which look pedestrian and cheap, the script which is clumsily written and the acting, which, with the notable exception of Bradley Cooper, is amateurish. After the heart pounding trailer, I went into American Sniper with elevated expectations which the film was unable to meet and so I left the theatre exceedingly disappointed with the film.

Once upon a time, Clint Eastwood directed one of my favorite films of all time, Unforgiven, which would have been an excellent blue print to follow in making American Sniper. The regrets and impact of a life of violence upon the human psyche and soul is a vast and rich topic on which to meditate for an artist, which Eastwood proved in Unforgiven, but with American Sniper he chooses to avoid those difficult questions and instead makes a garden variety biopic that is little more than a commercial for the family approved legacy of Chris Kyle. It certainly isn't the worst film ever made, so if you are a fan boy or a flag waver, and there is nothing wrong with being either of those things, then this film might be for you. But if you are a cinephile or thinking patriot, then your time would be better spent elsewhere.

FOR FURTHER READING ON THE TOPIC OF THE REAL-LIFE CHRIS KYLE, PLEASE CLICK ON THIS LINK TO MY BLOG POSTING Truth, Justice and the Curious Case of Chris Kyle

 

ADDENDUM: THE FILM WHISPERER SPEAKS...

After reviewing a film, I am often asked…"okay smart guy, if you are such a god damn genius, then how would you make the film?" So… here is the answer to that question...how could they have made American Sniper (as a straight forward biopic war movie) a better film? Here is my prescription: you start the film with Chris and Taya Kyle's wedding. You have about five to seven minutes of wedding stuff (The Godfather starts with a wedding…remember!?!?). You meet his family and in the form of toasts at the wedding they tell stories of Chris' childhood. You have his SEAL classmates give toasts telling of Kyle's SEAL training and friendships with team members. You have an intimate scene of Chris and Taya having a quiet and profound moment together. Then after establishing the people in Chris's life, and his relationship to them, you put him on the roof in Iraq behind his sniper rifle aiming at the woman and her son. Then you spend the next hour of the film showing every single confirmed kill, all 160 of them, that Chris Kyle ever made. These are not elaborate set-ups and wouldn't bust the budget. Quite the opposite. You just have a shot of Kyle in various locales and then have a shot through his scope at what he sees and you see each person he shoots drop and Kyle's reaction to it. You do this over and over and over, with some interactions with Marines and soldiers he is protecting thrown in, and his 'door to door' work as well, until his first tour is over. Then you show him back home with Taya as she is pregnant and then with the newborn. Chris never speaks in these 'at home' segments, he is detached and preoccupied. The Iraq segments of the film should be especially vibrant, both visually and with sound, in direct contrast to the 'at home' sections, which are washed out and nearly silent. Then back to Iraq for tour two and more sniper kills from Kyle, interspersed with his lively interactions with fellow SEALs and Marines. Then back home for more detached domesticity…and so on and so forth until his final kill at the end of tour four and his return home for good. 

This approach would show how grinding and relentless the work of war is for the men who wage it, and the true impact of that assault on Chris Kyle's psyche, senses and soul. The audience would be rubbed raw from watching an hour of non-stop, methodical killing of 160 men, women and children. Then we transition to back home permanence and the struggle to get back to normal. It would seem as foreign to the viewer as it must have been for Chris Kyle. We then spend the next twenty minutes having very tight and intense scenes between Chris and Taya as they do the hard work of recovering their marriage, family and a sense of normalcy. These would be great scenes for Cooper and Miller to really dig in and have some fantastic acting moments as they fight for their relationship and family. This conflict is resolved when Kyle relents and goes to a psychiatrist who diagnoses him with PTSD and then tells him how he can help other servicemen suffering from the same ailment. Now we get into the final forty minutes or so of the film, which should be spent showing Kyle having very deep and meaningful conversations and interactions with PTSD sufferers. You have one or two guys in particular who we get to know and we see how Kyle's work impacts them and transforms them. So we see the tangible good Kyle did for others and how he helped himself by helping them. This gives us a true picture of Chris Kyle being healed and whole. Then you have Kyle and his close friend leave an empty house, Taya and the kids are out and Kyle has to leave the house without saying goodbye, and they go and meet a another young man with PTSD and they have a long drive to a shooting range and we see Kyle helping this guy as he has helped the other men we've met. At the end of this long drive and a profound conversation, Chris, his friend and the young man get out of the truck at a shooting range and you see from a long distance the young man pull a gun and kill both Kyle and his friend. Then, in the final scene, we see Taya with the kids, out at the mall or something, and her cell phone rings, we see her answer but don't hear anything. We see her crumble in horror and grief as she obviously gets the news of her husband's murder. Fade to black, scroll the news footage of Chris Kyle's funeral procession and memorial at Texas stadium.

Doing the film this way maintains Kyle's 'legacy' much more than the Eastwood film does. It doesn't make him another action hero, it makes him an actual human being, who excelled at war, struggled to recover his balance once returning from war, and then found himself once again being of service to others. That is how you make a financially and artistically successful Chris Kyle biopic. Back up the Brinks truck and prepare your Oscar speech Mr. Cooper and Mr. Eastwood and maybe even Ms. Miller. Sadly, this isn't what happened. Oh…and Hollywood studios, please wise up and contact me, The Film WhispererBEFORE you shoot these films,  and you will save yourself a lot of trouble, and make yourself a lot of money and win yourself a lot of Oscars. I am currently available and my rates are reasonable…for now.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .

 

Whiplash : A Review

**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL AND FINAL SPOILER ALERT!!**

Whiplash, written and directed by newcomer Damien Chazelle, and starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, is one of the best, if not the best film of the year. The film tells the story of 19 year old Andrew Neiman (Teller), an aspiring and ambitious jazz drummer in his first year at the acclaimed Shaffer Conservatory, and his relationship with the school's infamously demanding conductor, Terence Fletcher (Simmons). 

The film is nearly impeccable in all areas. First time director, Chazelle, masterfully creates and maintains a palpable tension throughout the entirety of the story. The storytelling is so streamlined and efficient that there is not one wasted scene or even a wasted moment. Every single moment is built upon the previous and builds toward the next. 

The performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are unquestionably brilliant. Both actors deserve, at a minimum, Oscar nominations, as does Chazelle for the script and his direction. Watching this film and their performances in it, reminds me why I love cinema and acting as much as I do. This is one of those films which gives me hope that exquisitely sublime acting can still matter, and that artistic films of tremendous quality can overcome a business model and public that more often than not discounts them in favor of mindless big-budget retreads and sequels.

Miles Teller as Andrew

Miles Teller as Andrew

Miles Teller as Andrew, plays the awkward teenager, struggling to fit in and make his way in the world, so perfectly that it is, at times, uncomfortable to watch. There are no seams to Teller's performance at all, he simply inhabits Andrew in all his discomfort, desperation, need, ambition, sweetness and ugliness. Teller never makes a false step by veering into sentimentality or manipulation. He so thoroughly brings Andrew to life in such a genuine and organic way that Andrew feels familiar to us and so we recognize him from our own lives, as maybe our son, a brother, a desperate friend or God forbid…ourselves. The skill and power of Teller's performance binds us to Andrew so that we cringe with him, celebrate with him and deflate with him through all of his ups and downs. 

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher has an energy that is so concentrated and direct that it is palpable. He pulsates with a focused ferocity and cutting brutality that is as magnetic as it is repulsive. His performance is, like Miles Teller's, the work of a master craftsman. It is specific, precise and distinct yet irresistibly dynamic. When Simmon's Fletcher unleashes his wrath, those around him only pray that he doesn't direct that energy at them, and when he directs it at someone else they put their head down, keep their mouth shut and thank the good Lord that it's the other guy getting it and not them. Fletcher is a cruel bully who emotionally, physically and mentally abuses all around him, but by the end of the film he is proven to be not only vindictive and vicious…but effective. Simmons makes this ferocious and callous man Fletcher a real person, so that even in his remorseless brutality to those around him, we never feel he lacks passion or doesn't care…it is just what he cares about and if it's too much, that is in question. Fletcher is interested in transcendent greatness, and will do most anything to see it form before him, including destroying those who lack the skill, and more importantly, the will, to be great.

"The Destroyer of Worlds"

"The Destroyer of Worlds"

The Fletcher character reminds me of the quote from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds." Fletcher is death, the destroyer of Andrew's world and the world of all artists who aspire to exalted greatness. Fletcher is destroyer to Andrew's ego, his self-image, his worldview, his hopes and his dreams. All those things must be destroyed in order for Andrew, and all artists, to complete the hero's journey and become, not just a man, but a god who walks upon the earth. Andrew must leave his father, and his father's approach to the world (settling for 'good enough') and embrace Fletcher's (the unrelenting search for greatness), even if it is through spite and vengeance toward Fletcher, in order to complete his hero's journey. Andrew must be emptied in order to find the greatness that lives deep with him. Fletcher is the one who destroys Andrew's self and leaves him bloodied and broken in front of the world, and in that naked humiliation, at his lowest point, devoid of everything, Andrew is able to discover the greatness that was hidden within him all along. It is his anger and hatred at Fletcher that at first brings the needed vitality to birth this newfound greatness, but once it breathes the air of life and becomes manifest in the world, Andrew's anger and rage towards Fletcher fades and he is left in a state of near religious ecstasy as he becomes one with his drums in musical precision, passion and perfection. 

The Artists Struggle.

The Artists Struggle.

Whiplash works not only as a straight forward story of a young man coming of age as an artist and overcoming obstacles to do so, but it is also a great mythical tale of the hero's journey into the sacred ground of the gods and the gatekeeper who protects that sacred ground. Andrew is, of course, the hero on the journey, and Fletcher is the gatekeeper, be it the dragon, or Cerberus or the Sphinx, who puts all initiates to the test, and only those who pass his grueling gauntlet will be allowed into the inner sanctum of the gods where the treasure of golden music resides. Andrew must answer all questions posed to him, and survive all tests Fletcher-dragon puts to him, in order to even be considered for entry into the revered ground. And even after passing the tests, it isn't until Andrew releases his old self, symbolized as his being son to his father, and he walks away from his father and takes the offensive against the tyrannical Fletcher-dragon, is he able to prove his courage and worth and gain entry into the sacred land of the gods, where Apollo, Greek god of music, or Saraswati, Hindu Goddess of music, or Dionyssus, god of religious ecstasy and ritual madness, is conjured and made manifest in Andrew's playing. He then stops playing the drums, and the drums start playing him, the music and Andrew, are in the hands of the gods now, and the music that is a result of this mystical and supernatural intercourse is gloriously divine.

Blood must be spilled as a sacrifice to the gods of greatness.

Blood must be spilled as a sacrifice to the gods of greatness.

The hero's journey that Andrew embarks on is the same journey that all artists, be they musicians, actors or writers must go through. In my experience as an acting coach and teacher, the struggle I most often see is that of aspiring actors being unable to truly empty themselves and lose their old self in order to embrace the new self that is waiting for them if they only would have the courage to make the leap towards it. In working with actors, I am often reminded of the 'oedipal' section of The Doors song "The End" in which Jim Morrison sings of killing his father and fucking his mother. So many actresses I have seen need to kill their father, symbolically of course, to free themselves from the fear of his judgement, in order to become great. Actors need to kill their mothers (and fathers) in order to stop being sons, in other words children, and start being men.  Like Andrew, sons are always on the defensive, but when they 'kill their fathers', like Andrew did in walking away from his father, they are then free to go on the offensive, which is where freedom lies.  It has been my experience that the overwhelming majority of both actors and actresses lack the courage and the will to symbolically kill their parents, and their work suffers as a result of it. Parental judgment, whether real or imagined, can, and almost always does, destroy the freedom needed for artistic greatness to flourish, and leaves in it's wake the lesser choices of entertaining and performing. Thus all artists who strive for greatness must at some point kill their parents, again symbolically, in order to be free and empty enough to enter the hallowed ground of the gods where true greatness lies. Only once an artist kills their parents will they be able to complete their hero's journey by slaying their own personal Fletcher-dragon. This is the story of Whiplash, and it is the story for all of us who answer that most divine of calls, the sacred call to be an artist.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .

BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): A Review

"The two hardest things in life to deal with are failure and success" - author unknown

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a former star of the fictitious superhero "Birdman" franchise films, who is on the downside of his career and tries to reignite it by adapting, directing and starring in a stage version of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the staging of the play, of Riggan's life and his descent (or further descent) into madness.

Besides Michael Keaton in the lead, the film boasts a stellar cast of supporting actors including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis. All of them turn in solid and sometimes spectacular performances. Norton in particular is really great as Mike Shiner, a stage actor intensely committed to his craft and work. 

Keaton is the best he has ever been in the lead role of Riggan Thomson. He effortlessly captures Riggan's desperation, emptiness and regrets, both professional and personal. Keaton emanates Riggan's frantic need to be famous, important, respected and loved (both by others and himself), and that reeking stink of desperation seeps through his every pour and envelops and follows him wherever he goes.  Keaton as Riggan is both charismatic and repulsive at the same time, no easy feat, and he carries the film with the power of his performance as a man running out of performance power.

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" - Mike Shiner

The symbolism of having Keaton play the lead is undeniable. Keaton has been identified for decades by his portrayal of Batman in the first few Tim Burton Batman movies of the 80's. In many ways, Keaton's once promising career never fully recovered from being Batman. His wallet certainly never suffered from playing the Caped Crusader, but his artistic soul, instincts, reputation and career most assuredly did. Keaton, just like Riggan Thomson, had not only lost his artistic soul, but he had also lost the thing most precious in the entertainment industry…cultural relevance. Riggan's staging of a 'comeback' play is on one level, an attempt to save his artistic soul by returning to the birthplace of acting…the theatre, and doing a work by Carver, a writer who once encouraged a young Riggan to really pursue being an actor. But as the ice cold theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (brilliantly played by Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan, "You aren't a real actor, you're a celebrity". Ouch…the truth hurts, as they say, because on another level Riggan proves Tabitha right, by using his return to the theatre as just a way for him to get some temporary artistic credibility (Mike Shiner's aforementioned 'prestige') in order to return to cultural relevance, and thus fame ('popularity'). Of course, the same could be said of Keaton, who in returning to a smaller, independent, art-house type film, is trying to re-ignite not only his long lost acting credibility (prestige), but also his fame and cultural relevance (popularity). Keaton has gotten nominated for a Golden Globe and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination, which brings with it prestige. So this film may work for him on both the prestige and popularity counts. Time will only tell how things play out, I certainly hope he doesn't fling himself out of a high-rise window.

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What is fascinating about Birdman is that it plays with the multiple ways in which reality is perceived from an artists (or at least an actor's) point of view, and lets all of those various realities mix together to help the viewer try and understand why Riggan is so out of and off balance. His world and his perception of the world never settles down enough for him to stand firmly upon it and claim one reality as his own, so he stumbles from one perception of reality to the next, never fully understanding any one that he inhabits.

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Riggan has a sign up on his dressing room mirror which reads, "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing". This is a bit of wisdom that Riggan is never fully able to integrate into his psyche. Riggan, like most famous people, or formerly famous people, is stuck between being an actual human being and being a human creation. Is he defined by what people are saying about him on Facebook, or how many twitter followers he has? Is he defined by what the critics say of him? Or of what studio heads think of him? Or of what films roles he is offered, or how many awards he has won, or how much money he makes? Or is he defined by his past success as Birdman, or has his past success as Birdman actually become a failure and does that define him? All confusing stuff but it can be boiled down to this…there are two questions that famous people, whether they be actors, reality stars, cable news talking heads, politicians or general wannabes wrestle with on an everyday basis…1. what do people think of me? and 2. what do the really important people think of me?….and not always in that exact order.

The artist is not spared in the distorted perception of reality discussion either. Edward Norton's Mike Shiner is a successful broadway actor, the quintessential stage actor. He is so lost in his art that he is unable to actually be a real, live person anywhere except on stage in front of an audience. He is so committed to his art in fact, that the only time he has been able to get an erection in the last six months is on stage in front of a live audience during a performance of Riggan's 'comeback play'. He is self aware enough to know that he is a disaster area of a human being, but is so cocksure as an actor that he is willing to overlook the 95% of his life off-stage in order to 'shine' for that 5% of the time he is on stage. The artist, along with the fame hungry star, can lose their balance in the search for their validation of choice. As Mike Shiner puts it, "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige". Shiner is the artistic shadow of Riggan, and in turn, Riggan is the shadow of Shiner, both distorted by their quest, one for popularity, one for prestige. Flip sides of the same coin.

"I do not like the man who squanders life for fame; give me the man who living makes a name" - Emily Dickinson

The lesson to take from Birdman, (and a life in the acting business) is that fame is a disease. The pursuit of it is an act of the insane. With fame comes a deep moral and ethical decay and rot. The world of the famous is filled with corruption, depravity, self-loathing and paranoia. When a person attains fame, they cease to be a human being, and morph into a soul-less product. Just like any large corporation, be it Exxon, Time-Warner or Goldman Sachs, the famous may have legal 'personhood' but they are not actual human beings.  This is the sickness of fame. It strips those who have it of their human being-ness, and that is why it strips those of us looking upon them of our humaneness. We project all of our hopes and fears upon them, often all at the same time. When a person is so inundated with all of these projections, they can't help but be overwhelmed by them as if by being struck by a tsunami. Their true selves get obliterated, and the person they were, for good or for ill, vanishes, and is replaced with a new self, that is false and manufactured. The only antidote to the disease and addiction of fame is to actively work against it and to cultivate a grounded life and a sense of true self. Fame as an off-shoot of being genuinely talented, is difficult enough, even when it is vigorously shunned, but fame that is a result of  sheer ambition and force of will that is pursued to fill a desperate psychological need or satiate a malignant narcissism, is an act of madness that will most assuredly result in self immolation. Birdman lays that hard truth bare for all to see, and it is a lesson that America would be wise to learn in this age of the reality television star and the celebration of the minimally talented.

"Whatever begins, also ends" - Seneca

As much as I enjoyed Birdman, and I genuinely did, there is one major flaw, and in some ways it undermines the entirety of the film. The ending is terribly bungled, so much so that it leaves me scratching my head because they actually had the chance to end it perfectly twice and let those endings pass and instead settled for a muddled and bewildering ending that scuttles the interest and brilliance that leads up to it. The film ends with Riggan jumping out a hospital window, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) entering the empty hospital room and not finding her father and seeing the window open she goes to it and looks out. First she looks down, as if to find his body splattered on the sidewalk, when she doesn't, she then looks up…and sees something and smiles. We don't see what she sees, but I would assume that Riggan has become The Birdman, or a legend and now resides among the stars or something along those lines. He has become immortal at last. That ending is fine in and of itself, but it doesn't work because in the context of the film, there were not one but two different endings leading up to it, thus altering and undermining the final beat of the movie. The first aborted ending is when Riggan is on stage with a real gun and not the prop gun of the play, and holds it to his head and pulls the trigger in front of a packed house on stage. The screen goes black. The film could have ended there and people would have left talking about it. How people will literally (and figuratively) kill themselves for fame and stardom. This is a major theme running through the American psyche at the moment and numerous films are exploring the subject, from Whiplash to Foxcatcher to Birdman. The 'shooting yourself on stage' ending leaves us talking about those type of issues and our celebrity and fame infected and obsessed culture as we leave the movie theatre and for days and weeks after. 

The second ending comes right after the first, we come back from a black screen following the shooting to find Riggan in the hospital, he survived, but he shot his nose off. He has literally (and figuratively) cut, or in this case shot, his nose off to spite his face. On the other hand, he is on the cover of all the newspapers and the hot topic on television, everyone is talking about him, and even giving him great reviews. He is back to relevance, both artistic and fame-wise, prestige and popularity. He sits in bed thinking about it all, the madness of it, the hell that was fame when he once knew it, the road that lies ahead of being back in-the-mix of the decadent, vicious, vapid and vacant world of hollywood and pop culture. Keaton is brilliant in this scene, he captures Riggan's conflicted feelings and fear perfectly. It would have been an absolutely fantastic way to end the film, with just a close up of Keaton as he hears that he IS BACK ON TOP, and seeing what that really means to someone who has lived through it before and knows he won't live through it again this time, and how empty and toxic the prize he has just won really is. Cut to black…prepare Oscar speech. But again, they didn't do that, they instead have a few more minutes of the film which just aren't necessary and which undercut the brilliance that preceded it and disrupt and alter the rhythm of the film. I have been trying to figure out why the decision to end the film where they did was made, it is baffling. It isn't a more 'hollywood' ending, in fact it is still an 'art house' ending, just a more muddled and less coherent one. And of the three artistic endings it could have used, it is without question the weakest. 

As a result of the unskillful ending of the film, I had the experience of finding the film to be…well...forgettable. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the experience of watching it in the theatre, and it is also not to say that it isn't a good film, it is to say that by faltering at the end the film does not end up staying with you for very long. You don't walk out of the theatre and talk about it for hours. You don't think about it and mull it over for the following days and weeks. The film had the chance to be a sumptuous feast if it had gotten its ending right, but instead it lurches from one false ending to the next, which ultimately, like chinese food, leaves you hungry twenty minutes later.

In conclusion, Birdman is a very good film that I really enjoyed watching, with solid and sometimes spectacular performances by the entire cast, but it misses out on being a great film by not getting the oh-so-critical ending right, and that is a terrible shame. As I said, I did enjoy the film, but I do wonder if 'normal' people, in other words, 'non-actors' or 'non-entertainment industry' people will enjoy it quite as much as I did. But with all that said I recommend you go see it, if for no other reason than to get a glimpse into the madness of the life of being an actor, or even worse...a successful actor.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .

FOXCATCHER and the Problem of Perspective

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WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!! READ NO FURTHER IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN A FOXCATCHER VIRGIN!!

In January of 1996, John du Pont, heir to the massive du Pont family fortune, shot and killed Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Dave Schultz in front of the house Schultz lived in with his wife and two children on the sprawling du Pont family compound. I remember when this incident occurred and watching the national news stories about it, which were heightened because of du Pont's famous family name and tremendous wealth and Dave Schultz's standing as an American Olympic hero. After committing the murder John du Pont locked himself in his home and refused to come out. It all had the shades of a sort of O.J. Simpson type of situation. The stand off with police lasted two days before John du Pont was apprehended. It was a riveting, fascinating and incredible story. The one thing I remember most from watching the story unfold in real time was asking myself the question, why would a guy with so much money and power, the things we are taught to value the most here in America, throw it all away by killing an olympic hero? What was the real story? It was a compelling mystery and I always thought that answering that question would make a great movie. Which is why I was so excited to see the story made into the film Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller and starring Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

In the film, Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, an olympic wrestler and Dave Schultz's younger brother, Mark Ruffalo plays Dave Schultz and Steve Carrell plays the eccentric John du Pont. The main focus of the film is the odd relationship between Mark Schultz and John du Pont who is one very strange wrestling enthusiast and philanthropist.

Since nearly twenty years had passed since the murder, I had forgotten the majority of the details of the crime, and only vaguely remembered the basics of the story, and upon seeing the film I realized I had mis-remembered a lot of the actual story, so consequently I was surprised by how the story played out. Usually being surprised by a film is a really good thing, but in the case of Foxcatcher, the reason I was surprised was also the reason the film fails, and that is because the film has a gigantic problem with the basics of storytelling perspective. To illustrate my point I have to give away the end of the film, so even though I've already given a SPOILER ALERT at the top, here is your final SPOILER ALERT. 

The biggest issue with the film is that it never comes to terms with it's perspective problem. The film is shown from Mark Schultz's perspective. We see everything play out from his point of view. Miller uses the camera to show us what Mark sees through his eyes, and we hear what Mark hears, we experience the world as Mark experiences it. This technique creates a connection between the viewer and Mark. We empathize with him, we root for him, we project ourselves onto him. The choice to do this is a really critical error in telling this story. The filmmaker had basically four perspectives to choose from in telling the story. There was Dave Schultz's perspective, John du Pont's perspective, Mark Schultz's perspective and there is the 'God' perspective, where the audience sees everything and knows everything. Miller chose Mark's perspective, which to me is the weakest perspective to choose of the four because in reality, Mark is a secondary character in the story, but in the film they make him the main character. The main characters in the real-life drama are Dave Schultz and John du Pont. They are also the more interesting characters. That is not to say that Mark isn't interesting, it is just to say that he isn't AS interesting as Dave Schultz and John du Pont.

An example of how Miller establishes that this is Mark's story, and why he shouldn't have, is one sequence where Mark, who at this point in the story has turned against his one time benefactor du Pont, must work out extra hard prior to a weigh-in in order to lose the twelve pounds he gained in a self-loathing binge the night before, in order to be allowed to wrestle. In the sequence Mark rides a stationary bike in the bowels of an arena trying to sweat out the weight while brother Dave encourages him. Then we see du Pont enter the hallway in front of them and Mark is obviously unhappy to see him, so Dave intercepts du Pont before he can get into ear shot of Mark and he has a conversation with him. Just like Mark, we don't get to hear that conversation, we only get to see it occur through Mark's eyes and through the glass of the door. That would have been a great scene to watch and listen to. The older brother protecting his little brother from the strange du Pont, but also keeping du Pont happy because du Pont was Dave's benefactor at this point too, and Dave has a wife and young kids to feed. We don't get to see that scene up close or hear it at all, that is the choice director Bennett Miller made. That is okay, and could have worked in the film if the actual, real-life story turned out another way, with du Pont shooting Mark instead of Dave (which is what I thought would happen since I mis-remebered the true story and since the film was showing us everything through Mark's perspective), or with Mark at least being present for the shooting. But it didn't. In the end, when du Pont shoots and kills Dave, Mark is all the way across the country when it happens, and entirely off-screen.  In the climax, we see everything that Mark couldn't see after spending two hours seeing only what he could see, and on top of that, we are never even allowed to see Mark's reaction to the news of the murder. We never get any closure with the story because we have been forced, through the choice of the director, to project ourselves onto Mark for the first two hours of the film, now in the final act of the film, we are abruptly and jarringly pulled from that perspective and thrown into the "God" perspective of seeing all. The film ends with Mark in an arena about to go into an octagon and compete in an MMA fight, but as the scene begins he sits backstage waiting to go on. I kept thinking someone would come up and say "Mark, phone call" and he'd go to a pay phone and get the news that the creepy du Pont had killed his brother, but we never got that.  That scene never happens and it is such a massive mistake on such a basic storytelling level that is is absolutely shocking. The ending of the film undermines the entire choice to use Mark's perspective to tell the story. It makes absolutely no storytelling or filmmaking sense. Never getting to see the impact of Dave's death on Mark is not only a truly baffling filmmaking decision, but an unforgivably wasted opportunity.

Part of why that is a wasted opportunity is because it would have been a great scene to see Channing Tatum sink his teeth into. I must admit, I have never really understood the Channing Tatum phenomenon. I know women go crazy for him, but I just don't get it (not surprisingly), and I have never seen him be anything other than passable in terms of acting on film. I don't think he's terrible, I just don't think he's ever been very good, or much of anything for that matter. But to his great credit, he does a really good job as Mark Schultz, and I would've appreciated seeing him tackle the scene where he learns of his brother's murder. What I did really admire about his performance was that he fully committed to the part physically. He had a very distinct gait and carriage and even transformed how he held his jaw and forehead. When you are Channing Tatum, you don't have to do stuff like that. He could have just gotten all ripped physically and been a piece of eye candy, but instead he decided to actually become another person and inhabit a character. I commend him for the hard work and putting thought and time into it. It is a sad thing to say, but an actor actually committing to their work and doing their job is worthy of praise in the Hollywood of today.

Mark Ruffalo is fantastic as the older, and more successful, brother, Dave Schultz. His complicated relationship with his younger and more emotionally fragile brother Mark is a really rich and layered piece of work. We don't get to see too much of his relationship with du Pont, which is a shame because it really would have been fascinating to see him handle the eccentricities as deftly as possible while trying to keep the money train flowing in order to provide for his family. Again, another wasted opportunity that is all the more glaring since the majority of the film is undermined by the final fifteen minutes. I think using Dave's perspective to tell the story would have been a much wiser storytelling choice and also would have let us see much more of the subtle and intricate performance that Ruffalo delivers.

Steve Carrell's work as John du Pont is good but I have to say, through no fault of his own, it feels incomplete. Carrell embraces the oddities and eccentricities of du Pont, and there are lots of them, and he believably transforms himself into the character, but once again, the choice of using Mark's perspective to tell the story robs us of the chance to really get to know du Pont, to get into his head and to understand him on anything other than a surface level. I would have loved to see just a single scene of John du Pont by himself in a room, for instance. Carrell is much more than just a comedic actor, and I would have really loved to see him get the opportunity to do more with such a fantastic part, but sadly the script does't permit it and the film suffers for it. A really fascinating film would have been one told from John du Pont's perspective because he is the real mystery in all of this. The film never really even approaches the topic of why, exactly, John du Pont killed Dave Schultz. I have done a bunch of reading on the murder since seeing the film, and the more I read about it, the more obvious it is that the story of John du Pont, and the twisted and dark world residing in his head, is the real treasure that the filmmakers should have gone after.  But I guess they didn't have the courage to reach for that brass ring. Their film is so much the lesser for it.

Foxcatcher is one of those films that really could have been great. It is a fascinating story with really unique characters and is populated by a cast of very talented and interesting actors. It has all sorts of intriguing issues boiling just underneath it's surface…America's corruption, moral decay, and hypocrisy, class warfare, the degradation people will sink to in order to get money, fame or success.  But sadly, the film, not unlike John du Pont the man, is a failure, and not unlike the murder of the great Dave Schultz, I think it is a senseless and tragic waste.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .