Director Bennett Miller continues to skilfully probe around the edges of true stories with this follow-up to Capote and Moneyball, although this is a much, much darker tale. Actually, it's such an unnerving series of events that it's not easy to watch, and its characters aren't easy to like. But it's so expertly shot and edited, with startlingly full-on performances from the entire cast, that it can't help but get under the skin and chill us to the bone.
It opens after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and and his big brother David (Mark Ruffalo) both won gold medals for wrestling. But they need help with funding to train for Seoul 1988, and Mark gets a remarkable offer from billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to start a wrestling team at his vast Foxcatcher estate in New England, which is known for the thoroughbred horses managed by John's imperious mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). Aside from wanting to stay home with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids, David doesn't trust John, so Mark heads to Foxcatcher on his own. But John's obsession knows no bounds, and soon he lures David and family to join them.
Initially, John's interest in wrestling feels like a mere eccentricity, a way of creating a team of "thoroughbreds" to rival his mother's prize-winning horses. But Carell cleverly plays the role with an insinuating glint that makes us wonder what he's up to, and his wrestlers see it too, going along with his nutty plans simply because the money is so good. Then the squirm-inducing twists and turns start, as John introduces Mark to cocaine and everything starts to spiral out of control. Nearly unrecognisable with a prosthetic hook nose, Carell is genuinely terrifying because his performance burns so slowly.
Continue reading: Foxcatcher Review
Fans of the Oscar-winning 2006 Irish film Once (and its more recent stage-musical adaptation) may find this American drama a little derivative, but it's a strong story in its own right. This time writer-director John Carney has assembled a starry cast to nicely capture the rhythms of New York's streets. And the songs, while not quite as integral to the story, are gorgeous.
The opening sequence sets up the story from two perspectives, as music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) reluctantly perform at a bar's open-mic night. Both of these people are at their rope's end: always seeking offbeat talent, Dan is on the outs with his record label partner (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def), and wants to reconnect with his estranged wife and teen daughter (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld). Meanwhile, Greta has just been dumped by her rising pop-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), who got his big break from a song she wrote. To stop her moping, her pal Steve (James Corden) encourages her to start singing her own songs. In Greta, Dan sees the kind of artist he longs to make records with, so with nothing to lose the two set out to record her songs at locations around the city for a new album.
Like Once, this is a love story that doesn't actually involve romance: these two people need each other to discover their life's passions. So Ruffalo and Knightley get the chance to create some terrific chemistry without much of a threat that they'll fall for each other. Indeed, each has other fish to fry, as they try to sort out their emotional connections elsewhere. Their flirty friendship plays out in a fresh, effortless way that generates some complex emotions and ideas. Ruffalo is always great at creating these kinds of loose, slightly hapless characters, while Knightley delivers an even more earthy performance, letting her own sparky personality emerge on-screen for the first time along with some serious skill as a singer. And the supporting cast add texture in just the right places.
Continue reading: Begin Again Review
With a strikingly against-type performance from the late Gandolfini, this film gives the romantic-comedy formula a welcome adult spin. Writer-director Holofcener keeps the characters authentic even as she indulges in some rather farcical plotting. And her astutely observational dialog lets the cast members create characters who are funny, flawed and thoroughly engaging.
At a party, massage therapist Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) meets two people who become important in her life. First is Marianne (Keener), whose snappy wit and honesty make her much more than just a new client. And then there's Albert (Gandolfini), an unlikely suitor who charms Eva with his dry wit and warm camaraderie as they share common emotions about daughters (Fairaway and Hewson) who are leaving home for university. But as Marianne moans about her miserable ex-husband, Eva realises that she's talking about Albert. And she knows that if she tells them that she's made this connection, she'll lose both a friend and a boyfriend.
Holofcener takes this simple idea and stretches it nearly to the breaking point. Fortunately, the film's real strength lies in the interaction between these people, and it's easy to identify with their hesitance as they endure a series of awkward moments that feel bracingly realistic. All of the dialog bristles with humour that feels improvised, and Louis-Dreyfus has always been an expert at combining comedy with both underlying strength and fragility (see Veep). Gandolfini seems like a strange match for her, but he plays the role so beautifully that we root for them as a couple.
Continue reading: Enough Said Review
There's plenty of potential for jagged black humour in this suburban comedy-drama, but the filmmakers never take a single risk. So with its soft and simplistic approach, the movie is never as quirky or hilarious as it should have been, or as the filmmakers seem to think it is. The only pleasure in watching it comes through understated touches the gifted cast members manage to inject here and there. And what a great cast!
It's set in West Orange, New Jersey, where two families have been best friends for decades. David and Paige Walling (Laurie and Keener) have two grown children: Vanessa (Shawkat) lives at home while Toby (Brody) drops in to visit every now and then. Across the street are the Ostroffs, Terry and Carol (Platt and Janney), whose wayward daughter Nina (Meester) is home for Thanksgiving. Everyone thinks a romance between Toby and Nina would be wonderful. But as the Wallings try to work out some marital problems, it's David who drifts into a transgressive affair with Nina. Which sends these long-time friendships into spiralling chaos.
The plot is so perfectly suited to a black comedy that we wonder what happened along the way. Director Farino smooths every edge, instead straining for silly farce that leads to some sort of emotional catharsis. But he fails to recognise that these people are all intelligent adults, so the fallout from David and Nina's fling feels contrived and obvious. The script also never makes us feel like they are doing anything besides reacting to their previous relationships: this isn't real love, so why should we care?
Continue reading: The Oranges Review