REEL MEN, REAL MEN, PART ONE: Foxcatcher, Rosewater and The Imitation Game


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Warning: SPOILERS
imitation oneIt’s November, which means we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, are fast approaching awards season, which in turn means distributors, producers and studios are bringing out a bunch of stunt performances, or as we vulgarly call them in the vernacular, bio-pics, to qualify for the Academy Awards (among other competitions).
And this year is not only no different, it may actually set a record as it’s quite possible that three of the five female nominees for best actress Oscars will be for movies with characters based on real people and the male category may have up to four.
So please join me for the first installment of Reel Men, Real Men.

 

Foxcatcher is a movie about a poor younger man with daddy issues who becomes entangled in the life of a wealthy older man with mommy issues. The filmmakers seem determined to raise all the goings on to the level of Greek tragedy, but I’m not convinced it comes close to anything remotely Sophoclean.

 

foxcatcherThe basic premise is that Mark Schultz, former Olympic gold medal winner, is training for the next summer games, but is having to do it on less than a working class budget. With no help from the U.S. government or any sports organization, Mark is glad to take up the offer of John du Pont (yes, of those du Ponts) and move to the aristocrat’s country estate (called Foxcatcher, hence the movie’s title) and train for the next set of trials, all expenses paid.

 

But John has serious mental issues and when Mark’s brother David gets involved, Mark and John’s relationship deteriorates until…well, I won’t tell you. If you were around then, you already know. If you weren’t, well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out.

 

John is played by Steve Carrell with a nose that forces him to constantly tilt his head back and say his lines with a rough nasality (it’s not fair to Carrell, but I kept thinking of Pauline Kael’s comment that Sandy Dennis made an acting style out of post nasal drip).   He slowly plods from place to place; even when running he never seems to get anywhere.

 

Mark is played by Channing Tatum in what appears to be some sort of cheek implants that make him look somewhat like the Geico cavemen. When Mark first arrives on the scene, he comes across as somewhat dimwitted (he reminded me of Mike Mazurki in Murder, My Sweet—I half expected him to ask John to help him find Velma). In fact, Mark seems so mentally slow at first, it’s somewhat startling when one learns that he actually graduated from college.

 

Both actors give startling and strong performances. Carrell always showed promise as an actor after his deft performance as the suicidal gay uncle in Little Miss Sunshine. But here he really disappears behind that false nose and stiff posture, showing little sign that he was ever a funny guy.

 

If one wants to argue that it is little more than a stunt performance, I’m not sure I could argue. But still, there’s something about Carrell’s impersonation that leaves a lasting impression.

 

Perhaps most surprising is Tatum’s performance as Mark. Tatum has always been a welcome addition to any movie. In many ways, he’s like Mark Wahlberg, more than pleasing to look at, a charismatic screen presence, but having an acting style whose most notable aspect was an underplaying which was often hit and miss in its effectiveness.

 

I mean, when you think of Tatum and Wahlberg, the word “deep” never really leaps to mind.

 

Yet here Tatum surprises with dark, brooding looks of inner torment. It’s rare that I feel like there is something going on inside of Tatum when he acts, but here he generates great empathy as he crumbles under the psychological manipulations of his father figure and mentor.

 

Both characters, though, tend to lumbar around the screen when they walk, John stiff with age and Mark having a somewhat simian gait as he saunters down long hallways and across broad fields. And when the two speak, they tend to say their lines in slow and measured rhythms.

 

For me, this deliberate and dawdling way of acting seems to have seeped into the direction of Bennett Miller (or vice versa). In the past, Miller has given great energy to such films as Capote and Moneyball, but here, the action feels like it’s moving like molasses, at times sapping all vigor from the material (if there was ever any there, which I’m not certain of).

 

The screenplay is by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman and though both have more than impressed in the past (Frye with the wonderful Something Wild and Futterman with the compelling Capote), they don’t bring a lot of life to the story here.

 

Something just seems to be missing, something a bit indescribable perhaps, and some scenes feel left on the cutting room floor (early in the film, David absolutely refuses to move to Foxcatcher and train wrestlers for du Pont; then suddenly, out of nowhere, for no reason ever shown, he and his family are flown in to the shock of younger bro Mark).

 

And when all is said and done, I have to be honest and say I’m not really sure why the movie was made, what fascinated the filmmakers about the characters.

 

There’s a lot of talk about America and the founding fathers and our country’s character and values and one gets the feeling that the movie is intended to be some sort of commentary on the state of the United ones (it takes place near Valley Forge, for god’s sake, which I guess, is supposed to be symbolic in some way), but if there is something going on here, I have to be honest and say I’m just not sure what it was. I didn’t quite get it.

 

And so we have a movie that sort of lopes around like John and Mark, moving very slowly and not really going or getting anywhere.

 

With Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz; Vanessa Redgrave, mesmerizing as always, in an almost blink or you’ll miss her cameo, as John’s mother; and John Hughes’ alumnus Anthony Michael Hall as du Pont’s assistant Jack;

 

rosewaterRosewater, the story of Maziar Bahari, a journalist of Iranian background jailed unjustly in his ancestral country for being a spy, is the first film by writer/director Jon (The Daily Show) Stewart. It’s a sincere and earnest dramatization of the character’s nightmarish captivity. I’m not persuaded, however, that it ever became anything more than that.

 

I feel guilty saying such a thing. Bahari spent 118 days in prison in solitary, being interrogated, to be polite (the more accurate term might be mind fucked) constantly. I don’t want to diminish what happened to him, or trivialize it in any way. But the film just never comes together in all that satisfying a way.

 

The story begins with one of the bigger structural clichés that has become increasingly popular as of late: it opens on a scene about a third of the way through the movie, then, via text on screen, announces that it will now go back eleven days to show how Bahari got to where he did.

 

In the state of the art, this is called a grabber scene and is often used when the filmmaker has so little faith that his story will be inherently interesting, he has to create some sort of fake tension in the beginning to convince viewers to stick with the film through the early parts.

 

(This isn’t the only structural cliché—it ends with a voice over to tell us what the whole thing means in case we missed something, usually meaning that the filmmaker never quite found the most satisfying way to resolve the story.)

 

It’s not that Stewart doesn’t use some interesting tricks here and there to keep the movie flowing. There’s a lot of exposition in the beginning and there’s one pretty neat section where information is shown CGI’d into various shop windows as Bahari walks down the street (the editing is often rather witty).

 

But overall, Rosewater feels more like a story that is worthy of being told, but not one where the filmmaker has quite figured out the most aesthetically compelling way of doing it. In other words, as reportage it’s often very interesting, but as art and drama, I’m afraid that it’s a bit too often on the dull side.

 

There are times when there are suggestions that something really different and original could have been made of Bahari’s terrible tale. One of the reasons given for the reporter’s arrest is so brilliantly Kafkaesque, one wonders why Stewart chose not to pursue this style of story telling overall (especially since this type of humor is reflected in such a method to his madness way in his comedy series…or maybe, for some reason, that is the reason).

 

Early on, as Bahari is covering the 2009 Iranian elections, a Daily Show comedian, Jason Jones, asks Bahari to participate in an interview for a segment of the show. Jones pretended to be a spy and asked Bahari the typically ridiculous questions that one usually asks in such a situation.

 

When Bahari is arrested, one of the first things his interrogator uses as proof that the journalist is working to overthrow the government is that he openly met with an American secret agent, the interrogator not only having no idea what The Daily Show is, but obviously not in possession of a sense of a sense of humor.

 

Franz K. would be in seventh heaven over such a nightmarish situation (one can almost see him hitting his head and going, “OMG, why didn’t I think of that, it’s bloody brilliant). And there are some nice early scenes of absurdity to match it (Bahari was also accused of working with Newsweek, an obvious CIA front—his lecture on the anachronistic nature of magazines is a small gem).

 

But the story soon starts drifting with no strong focus. Stewart seems not to have found a solid way of showing Bahari’s arc (possibly because there really isn’t one) and he resorts to such devices as having Bahari’s late father and sister appear to him so that Stewart can have something, anything, going on in solitary.

 

But the emotional core here seems vague and never really makes an impact on the viewer. There’s just not a lot of forward momentum.

 

The second half of the movie picks up a bit, mainly because Kafka again comes to the rescue. Bahari’s interrogators double cross him, promising that he will be released if he makes a propaganda video. He does, but they don’t let him go.

 

At that point, Bahari catches on to the reality of his situation and, turn about being fair play, he starts mind fucking his captors back. These are the strongest scenes of the story, especially when Bahari becomes Scheherazade and starts telling his interrogator absurd stories of fake sexual escapades and that the reason he roams the world is not because he’s a reporter, but because he’s a sex addict and can’t stop traveling from massage to massage.

 

At that point, his interrogator goes glassy eyed and begs to hear more. He’s so stupid and paranoid and afraid of his own voice, you almost feel sorry for him, realizing that he is trapped in his small world and he will never have a life beyond what he is living now.

 

Well, you’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t so evilly banal.

 

Not long after that, Bahari comes to realize, first, that contrary to what he thought earlier, the world is desperately working on getting him released, and, second, that his interrogators are really amazingly stupid creatures. With that, it finally dawns on him that he in many ways has all the power and can torture them as much as they tortured him and drive them up the wall by doing such absurdities as elegantly dance to a song that only he can hear in his mind.

 

But this lasts for only a couple of scenes and it’s hard not to feel that these aspects of the story are seriously underused. And one can’t help but wonder how marvelous the film might have been if Stewart had gone in this direction rather than the rather stolid, solid, safe, and dry approach used here.

 

With the popular Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mama También, Amores Perres, Bad Education) as Bahari, doing the best he can with what he’s given. The marvelous Shohreh Aghdashloo with her Lizabeth Scott throaty voice as Bahri’s mother (you can see all the pain and anger deep in her eyes). And Kid Bodnia (who first came to fame outside his home country with his role in the original version of Nightwatch; he played the Josh Brolin part) as the interrogator, called Rosewater because of a type of toilet water he would wear.

 

The exhilarating music score is by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings Howard Shore).

 

imitation twoWhen the U.S. does biopics, they tend to be more on the sincere and earnest side (see Rosewater and Foxcatcher above, an approach dating all the way back to The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola).

 

When the Brits do biopics, their screenwriters never met a quip they didn’t like and the characters seem to speak in nothing but staircase wit.

 

I suppose that makes sense in many ways. While the English have, in their literary background, Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maughm, Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw (who almost created the sub-genre, the comic biopic), we, on this side of the ocean, have Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets.

 

And The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum (a Norwegian director who made his name over here with the exhilarating thriller Headhunters) and written by Graham Moore (a solid first feature) is certainly following in the footsteps of its British predecessors.

 

For this story of Alan Turing, a mathematician and logician who broke the German intelligence code Enigma and helped the Allies achieve victory over Hitler and was subsequently brought down for being gay, is middle brow entertainment of the finest sort.

 

Its plot has been perfected to a formulaic polish with all the mortises and tenons joined with the skill of a first rate craftsman, and has characterizations and dialog that are sparkling, clever and sharp, with more than a drop of droll along the way, that fit as if it had all been tailored on Saville Row.

 

No, there are no real surprises and you can see most of the twists coming. But it’s also too well crafted for you to care. It’s never less than entertaining and in the end, never less than heart breaking.

 

Turing, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an…wait for it, wait for it…oh, never mind, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s a touchingly empathetic performance. Cumberbatch, of course, has made something of a career playing neurotic and off kilter characters (most notably in Sherlock Holmes; yeah, like you had no idea), but here he brings something a bit deeper and darker to the portrayal.

 

Kiera Knightly portrays Joan Clark who falls for Turing and almost marries him. I have to be honest. I never think I’m going to like Knightly and I don’t know why. There is absolutely no rational reason for this, because whenever I see her, I just can’t get enough of her perky tomboyishness. And here it is no different.  She’s just so damned ingratiating.

 

The rest of the cast is filled out by a group of usual suspects: Match Point/Watchmen Matthew Goode and Allen Leech, the upstart chauffeur from Downton Abbey, are two of Turing’s fellow workers. Charles Dance, of Game of Thrones, plays a similar roll here as the imperious head of the operation. And Mark Strong, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Sherlock Holmes (the Robert Downey one) and Kick-Ass, is the MI6 go between.

 

All give solid and witty performances.

 

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. I saw The Imitation Game all the way back in early October at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Thought it was a great film. I heartily recommended it in my review.

    I thought your review of it was excellent as well. Loved that line about the sparkling,. clever and sharp dialogue, with a drop of droll that fit as if it had been tailored on Saville Row.

    Superb writing.

    As for Charles Dance, if you get the opportunity have a peak at him from 30 years ago, when he starred in the TV Series The Jewel in the Crown made from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet of Books.

    Dance was dashing then, and now, 30 years later, as Commander Denniston, still is.

  2. I also enjoyed, not to mention impressed by, your review – like the gentleman above you, I loved the “with a drop of droll” line – you write screenplays per chance? Well done, Howard, I loved this movie and found it extremely entertaining, an excellent piece of filmmaking.

So tell me what you think.

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