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foxcatcher

Foxcatcher (2014) 3.97/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Drama, Sport
Duration: 134 mins
Director: Bennett Miller
Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

When a billionaire dilettante, John du Pont, attempts to build a reputation as a wrestling coach, he persuades the more vulnerable of the Olympic champion Schultz brothers, Mark, to lead his new team on his family’s Foxcatcher estate. As du Pont insinuates himself into Mark’s life until the latter withdraws, the disturbed misfit refocuses his attempt to lure the older brother, Dave, to Team Foxcatcher to the ultimate detriment of both siblings.

Based on actual events, Bennett Miller’s flagellating drama is a cognitively murky examination of the loneliness and exasperation of unfulfillment, from both human and more extreme perspectives. Changing Tatum becomes the focus for the former as the insecure and confused young man who has lived in the shadow of his older brother’s heroics. It’s a revelatory turn from the former model as he distills all the raging emotion of his character into a dangerous simmer. Representing the psychotic end of that personality’s spectrum is Steve Carell in an outstanding turn against type. Bloated with rabid inferiority issues and deranged paranoia, he’s unrecognisable as the insidious du Pont. But rounding off the cast as Dave Schultz is Mark Ruffalo and it’s the performance we always knew was coming from this consistently impressive actor. With rather limited screen time, given the first two acts’ focus on the other two characters, he gives this story the emotional grounding it desperately needs. It’s a touching not to mention commanding piece of acting that should consolidate his reputation as one of the best actors working today.

Telling a distinctly unusual tale, Foxcatcher offers much in the way of psychological intrigue and it curiously compels on those terms alone. Flush with revealing symbolism and set against Rob Simonsen’s (Moneyball) thoughtful score, it’s another starkly polished film from Miller in which he spends much of his time laying an immaculately composed canvas for his drama. But, while there’s plenty of it, it unfortunately needed more traction. Whereas Miller was aiming for a pensive touch, his directing instead feels a tad aloof. With such strong characters, we needed to see more of their human side. And in the case of Ruffalo who still managed to imbue Dave Schultz with all manner of deeply impressive personal touches, embracing that side to the story might well have paid dividends. As it stands, Foxcatcher remains an affecting work but not one that will bear too many revisits.

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Side Effects (2013) 4.29/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 106 mins
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum

The only thing more impressive than the number of films Steven Soderbergh has churned out these last few years is the quality of those films. In Side Effects, Jude Law stars as a psychiatrist whose professional reputation is put in jeopardy when one of his patients (Rooney Mara) murders her husband (Channing Tatum) while taking a new anti-depressant he prescribed. When the prosecution ask him to declare that she was legally aware of what she was doing he takes the riskier option of supporting her defence that she was in fact sleepwalking in a medicine-induced state. But as his personal life and practice begin to crumble under the weight of outside scrutiny, his own investigations reveal something else.

Side Effects is a deep black psychological thriller immensely sophisticated in its construction and elegantly directed. The plot is sharply devious twisting away from the audiences’ expectations right up to the final scene but maintaining a fascinating edge of mystery that thoroughly engrosses the audience. However, what’s most impressive is how Soderbergh manages to delve into the mindset of his female protagonist and paint a chilling picture of depression as he goes. That the script is (by Hollywood standards) informed and respectful of the different dimensions to the disorder makes this all the more substantial and that he and Scott Z. Burns seamlessly weave each of these dimensions into the plot is just plain showing off. The film even manages to take an oblique look at the culture of psychopharmaceutical use by tying a rather perceptive commentary into the main trust of the narrative.

This all works on a number of levels because not only does it capture the nuances of depression but through Mara’s insightful and penetrative performance, it sets a comprehensively dark and haunting tone to the proceedings. These tones are mirrored in the equally impressive Jude Law’s desperation as the mysterious net closes in on him. Alongside the two strong central performances, is a devilish Catherine Zeta Jones whose delicious cadences and overall presence lends to Soderbergh’s angular approach in rich and rewarding manner.

From a directorial point of view, Side Effects has all the hallmarks of Soderbergh’s slickest films as he overlaps dialogue and scene repeatedly in the early stages to tell the backstory more swiftly and again in the later stages to let the audience catch up. Burns’ script is his usual brand of personally and technically informed dialogue and he moves the complexities of the plot forward with deliberate pace. Despite this, Side Effects is a far slower movie than most will expect and though it accentuates the moodier tones to the story, it will not float everyone’s boat. Furthermore, the darkness of the earlier scenes while also integral might repel those looking for a straightforward thriller. But if you stick with it and take Soderbergh and co. up on their invitation to dig deeper, there are unconventional rewards to be unearthed. Clever in its simplicity, powerful in its execution and respectful of its subject matter, Side Effects is a tour de force in movie thrills and directorial class.

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Haywire (2011) 3.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.7
Genre: Action
Duration: 93 mins
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Gina Carano, Bill PaxtonMichael Douglas

Steven Soderbergh turns his hand to the action genre and combines the staples of that genre (fights, chases, guns, and lots of colourful bad guys) with his arty style of desynchronised dialogue, angled shots, delayed cuts, and general polished production. Think Oceans Eleven with knuckledusters! The good news is it works like a charm and given this entire project is a critique of the brainless modern action movie template, it’s all the more satisfying to hear the popcorn brigade deride it for having the temerity to interrupt action sequences with something a little more pensive.

Muay Thai champ Gina Carano headlines as an elite black ops mercenary fighting, kicking, and running for her life through Europe and the US while trying to piece together the clues to who in her agency has set her up. The plot is well developed and populated with terrific characters, each one tougher than the next. Furthermore, shot as it was on location in Dublin and Barcelona where the actual backstreets of those cities are used to splendid effect, Haywire counts as a hugely authentic and grittier action bonanza than anything we’ve seen since the Bourne trilogy (purposefully not counting the fourth film). The plot is explicated with a technocratic dialogue even more opaque than in those films but this gives it a Kuleshov-like functionality allowing the audience to project all sorts of intrigue onto it and the wider plot. There are also some genuinely funny and unique moments of physical comedy lightly sprinkled throughout the film and acting as well timed breathers from the ass-kicking roller coaster.

Of course, set up as an alternative to your more typical 21st century mind numbing actioneer, Haywire was always going to stand or fall on its action sequences. To simply say it does the former would be to vastly understate the case because the action choreography and execution is jaw dropping. Carano is outstanding with the physical stuff but it’s the design, pretext, and shooting of those sequences that’s so special. Soderbergh intrigues the audience with a disciplined and ultra composed build up to each fight with the various spies sent to work with and/or kill Carano and the actors who play them, enriching the drama no end. These amount to a series of tasty cameos with Michael Fassbender’s blistering appearance as Carano’s Dublin contact being the show stopper. Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Aragano do very well given their even more limited time though Channing Tatum’s endless muttering makes hard work of his speaking scenes. Ewen McGregor returns to form as Carano’s slimy boss and counts as the only other cast member with a significant amount of screen time.

Haywire isn’t perfect. Soderbergh tends to over-edit some of the Barcelona and New Mexico segments so as to unnecessarily truncate them. This ironically makes them feel longer, dragging as they do in a similar fashion to the director’s earlier feature The Limey. These annoyances are brief in the context of the overall film though and that same directorial patience when channeled in less ponderous ways during the Dublin and New York segments gives us some thrilling set-pieces including one of the most inspired chase sequences we’ve seen in years.

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