Thursday, March 5, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: FOXCATCHER (2014) and THE CAPTIVE (2014)

(US - 2014)

It couldn't have been that difficult to put together a riveting true crime drama about the events leading up to the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz at the hand of billionaire philanthropist John du Pont. Du Pont, played here by a prosthetic nose attached to Steve Carell, was the heir to the Du Pont chemical company fortune who dabbled in all sorts of professions--he was best-known as a respected ornithologist who published several books on birds--but had a passion for wrestling. In 1986, Du Pont contacts Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), the younger brother of Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both of whom won gold medals in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics, about running a training facility for potential Olympic wrestlers at du Pont's Foxcatcher Farms compound in Wilmington, DE. Mark, depicted as a bit of a dumb lug, has grown tired of living in Dave's shadow, and since Dave is contractually tied down to his college coaching gig, Mark sees this as his chance to establish a legacy of his own, even though, as he constantly has to remind everyone, "I won a gold medal, too." A father-son bond forms between du Pont and Mark, though their relationship gets rocky, especially once Dave eventually joins the Foxcatcher team at du Pont's insistence, though it's not helped by du Pont's increasingly erratic behavior, including firing a gun in the gym and goading the impressionable, eager-to-please Mark into recreational cocaine use.

Director Bennett Miller (CAPOTE, MONEYBALL) and screenwriters E. Max Frye (SOMETHING WILD) and Dan Futterman (CAPOTE) play entirely too fast and loose with the facts of the case, so much so that it's hard to say which is the most egregious offense. It could be that the film seems to portray the events as taking place from 1986 to just after the Seoul qualifying tryouts in 1988, when in fact, the time period was 1986 to 1996. It could be the depiction of Mark leaving Foxcatcher after du Pont and Dave become chummy and Mark falls out of du Pont's good graces, when in fact, there was no sibling rivalry in regard to du Pont because the Schultz brothers didn't live or coach together at Foxcatcher--Dave moved his family to Foxcatcher a year after Mark quit following his last falling out with du Pont. It could be du Pont's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her disapproval of his wrestling fixation and the creation of Foxcatcher Farms, but in fact, she died before du Pont even created Foxcatcher Farms. Dramatic license is to be expected, but it's very vague exactly what the filmmakers are trying to show here. Essentially, it's about a rich, manipulative, socially inept weirdo whose mother had to buy friends for him when he was a child, and his codependent relationship with a none-too-bright wrestler who was tired of getting the leftover table scraps of his more popular brother. It's about a guy who develops an obsession with coaching wrestling so he can both please his disapproving mom and finally get a chance to be one of the guys, even if he has to drive a wedge between two loving brothers to achieve it. Except that du Pont didn't drive the brothers apart. FOXCATCHER is smoke-and-mirrors Oscar-baiting at its most cynical, starting with the stunt casting of Carell. Sure, it's a dramatic departure for a guy generally known for comedy, but since everything about FOXCATCHER is empty and meaningless, there's nothing there beyond the distracting fake nose. It's mind-boggling that this received five Oscar nominations, including acting nods for Carell and Ruffalo, who's good because he's Mark Ruffalo and he's always good, but this is hardly a standout performance in his career. Miller's direction and Frye & Futterman's script were also nominated, while the one legitimately great thing about FOXCATCHER--the revelatory work of Tatum--went ignored. In a textbook example of an internalized powderkeg of a performance, Tatum almost single-handedly makes the inexplicably feted FOXCATCHER worth enduring for 134 excruciating minutes. It's these kinds of performances that go unnoticed by awards outfits because they're too subtle and low-key, not like Carell acting all creepy with a ridiculous phony schnoz. FOXCATCHER is proof positive that Tatum can act, but otherwise, it's one of the worst awards-season prestige films in years. (R, 134 mins)

(Canada - 2014)

Coming quickly on the heels of his utterly superfluous West Memphis Three chronicle DEVIL'S KNOT, the once-great Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan continues his decade-long slide into irrelevance with the maddeningly uneven THE CAPTIVE. With only 2008's ADORATION showing signs of the Egoyan of old, the filmmaker has spent most of his time over the last ten or so years making documentaries and short films as passion projects while keeping food on the table by directing commercial thrillers like WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (2005) and CHLOE (2009), an erotic thriller that felt 15 years old the day it was released. Egoyan tries to have the best of both worlds with THE CAPTIVE and while the film has its moments, it just doesn't work as a whole. Most of THE CAPTIVE is made up of the same kind of fractured, non-linear narrative that old-school Egoyan fans will recognize from his 1990s masterpieces EXOTICA and THE SWEET HEREAFTER. In the outskirts of Niagara Falls, ON, 21-year-old Cass (Alexia Fast) was abducted eight years earlier by Mika (Kevin Durand) and kept in a locked basement room. Mika allows her webcam access to function as a "gateway," luring other young girls into a vaguely-defined underage kidnapping ring. Cass' separated parents, Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) and Tina (Mireille Enos) are shells of what they once were, and Tina blames Matthew for Cass' disappearance (he stopped at a bakery to get a pie for dessert that night as 13-year-old Cass was taken while lying down in the backseat of his truck). The cops, led by crusading Dunlop (Rosario Dawson) and hot-headed Cornwall (Scott Speedman), seem pretty set on the idea that financially-strapped Matthew is behind Cass' disappearance, at least until Dunlop herself goes missing after a benefit dinner for a charity organization that helps victims of child sex trafficking.

All of this plot is parsed out in bits and pieces as Egoyan jumps around the eight-year timeline. It gradually comes together like it does in his best work, and in that best work, attentive viewers begin piecing the puzzle and marveling at Egoyan's expert story construction and devastating emotional impact. THE CAPTIVE has the puzzle part down, but not so much the expert story construction and the devastating emotional impact. Once the pieces are in place, Egoyan doles out one ludicrous and often laughable contrivance after another. Mika is one of these limitlessly wealthy psychos who has the time and the technological wherewithal to plant cameras in the rooms of an entire floor of the hotel where Tina works, for the sole purpose of leaving Cass' childhood trinkets and mementos--a hairbrush, an ice-skating trophy, baby teeth--in plain sight for her to see, taunting her from afar as he watches her on a row of monitors on a control panel at his mansion. It doesn't help that, as in DEVIL'S KNOT, Egoyan has directed Durand to go hammy, playing Mika broadly and completely unbelievably. Like Sharlto Copley in Spike Lee's remake of OLDBOY, Durand doesn't even seem to be in the same movie as the other actors, looking like an anachronistic, erudite David Niven/Errol Flynn-type and behaving like a cartoon character, but somehow never drawing attention to himself and never becoming a suspect, even though he visits one other busted member of a pedophile ring in jail. Also, when Dunlop is roofied and taken from the gala benefit, she's at the same table as Mika and a strange woman (Christine Horne) in an obvious wig, and nobody seems to notice that the guest speaker is stumbling and bumbling and needs to be helped out of the building and into a waiting limo by this mystery woman. Is there an entire secret society of child abductors in this town? And are they less interested in pedophilia and more focused on using high-tech surveillance to spy on their parents and the cops?  How in the hell does Mika have remote access to turn on the webcam on Cornwall's laptop so he can spy on Cornwall and Dunlop discussing their investigation? If Egoyan were ever to direct an episode of LAW & ORDER: SVU, it would probably look a lot like THE CAPTIVE, right down to the detectives standing around the office and chiming in with bits of exposition as the camera moves around them. The only thing missing is Dunlop calling in Richard Belzer's retired John Munch to consult on the case. Witness this stunning exercise in textbook Dick Wolfery:

Detective 1: "Maybe there was a watcher."
Detective 2: "Or watchers."
Detective 3: "A whole new class of freaks."

More than a little reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve's PRISONERS, THE CAPTIVE could've worked one of two ways: as a total throwback, give-the-arthouse-nerds-what-they-want Atom Egoyan film (fixtures like Bruce Greenwood and Egoyan's wife Arsinee Khanjian have minor supporting roles!) or as a ludicrous-but-just-roll-with-it multiplex thriller, where the contrivances and the silliness could've been easier to overlook, and a moment like Cornwall, one of the most unjustifiably cocky cops you'll ever see (he's always wrong!), finally getting clocked by an enraged Matthew would've served as a real crowd-pleaser. But Egoyan is just lost. He comes up short at both ends of the spectrum and seems to have no idea what he's doing or who his films are even for anymore. Egoyan is too smart to let the rampant stupidity of THE CAPTIVE's second half even happen, especially after making such a concerted effort to present the first half as quintessential Egoyan. I'm a sucker for depictions of cold, snowy, desolate Canada and the film does succeed on that front, and Egoyan does get two strong performances from Reynolds and Enos, both of whom seem to dominate the "smart" portions of the movie, but THE CAPTIVE is yet another sign that a slumping Egoyan desperately needs to locate his apparently abducted mojo. (R, 112 mins)

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