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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Carell’

One of the nice things about our semi-regular trips to the cinema is the opportunity for some proper, high-quality discussion and debate afterwards. Last week, for example, Olinka and I had an interesting talk about the concept of normality and what it really means – should it carry a positive or negative connotation? And then today we emerged from the theatre, this time accompanied by our Contemporary Conflict Consultant (she did an MA in modern geo-politics, or something – we just call her Con-Con).

‘So,’ I said, ‘If you had to choose between being ruled by an idiot or a monster, which would it be?’

‘Neither.’

‘You have to choose!’

‘But they’re both bad!’ said Olinka.

‘Yes, but which is worse?’

‘They’re both worse than each other,’ said Con-Con, who may have an MA but probably wouldn’t last long in a philosophy seminar.

In the end they sort of refused to answer the question, which I thought was telling. The movie to provoke this unusually intense wrangling was Adam McKay’s Vice. Ten or fifteen years ago McKay was well-established as a director of smart, silly comedy films, but since then he has reinvented himself as one of the most ferociously political directors working in the Hollywood mainstream – almost like a non-documentarian analogue to Michael Moore – and has done so to some acclaim. Vice continues this, and is probably his most partisan piece of work to date.

Vice tells the story of the career of Dick Cheney, whom you may or may not recall was the Vice-President of the United States under George W Bush. You may very well not recall; the film suggests this may be part of Cheney’s dark genius. Cheney is played by Christian Bale at his most chameleonic – for most of the film he virtually disappears under layers of prosthetic make-up. We first meet the future Veep in the early sixties as a hard-drinking scumbag, kicked out of college for his bad behaviour. His intimidating wife Lynne (Amy Adams) decrees that Cheney shape up or she will leave him.

From this point on the film rattles through the early part of his political career – an internship in Washington, where he forges a long-lasting alliance with his mentor-cum-ally Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), then a stint as White House chief-of-staff, election as a Congressman, then Secretary of Defence under the first President Bush. A presidential run is contemplated, but Cheney decides against it. However, could a second act in his career be lurking on the horizon…?

Well, of course it is, and – the film posits – Cheney eventually becomes the real power behind the throne as Vice-President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), quietly gaining control of key areas such as energy, defence, and foreign policy. Following the September 11th attacks, Cheney and his cohorts see the opportunity to launch the invasion of Iraq they have already been preparing for. Various things follow which I hope you are already familiar with: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS, and much more. Did I mention that this is at least partly intended as a comedy film?

Doing a bio-pic of someone who is still alive is not entirely unheard of, especially when the person is in the later stages of their life and most likely not going to make any more notable contributions to posterity. What makes Vice somewhat noteworthy is that most biographical films tend to be upbeat, or at least fairly non-judgmental, certainly when their subject is still alive. This film is different. Dick Cheney is presented as, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, an utterly ruthless sociopath fixated on the acquisition and use of power for its own sake. (Bale notoriously thanked ‘Satan’ for inspiration when he won an award for this role recently.) One key moment in his political development comes when a perplexed Cheney asks Rumsfeld what it is they actually believe in as politicians. Rumsfeld walks off practically screaming with laughter. Cheney, the film suggests, achieves this and facilitates many atrocities through the deployment of tortuous circular logic (America has declared it does use torture; therefore the use of stress positions and waterboarding cannot, by definition, be considered torture) and an Orwellian misuse of language (‘enemy combatant’ rather than ‘prisoner of war’; ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’). He also makes full use of people’s tendency to ignore big, complex, abstract problems and fixate on whatever’s in front of them, like a reality TV show.

As with The Big Short, McKay’s last film, there is some quite challenging material here, the sort of thing that might make audiences switch off, and so McKay works intensely to keep the film surprising and blackly entertaining. Bale’s performance as Cheney is a masterclass in understated, underplayed menace, but Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are both essentially off the leash as Rumsfeld and Bush – Rumsfeld emerges as a kind of demented rodent, while the film sticks with the notion that Bush was a clueless figurehead for an administration basically run by Cheney: Rockwell plays him as a hapless, baffled lightweight. Some big performances here, and it does make me wonder about (and, to be honest, eagerly anticipate) the inevitable movie concerning the Trump administration we’re bound to get, probably sooner rather than later. How can any movie do that particular circus justice? One can only hope The Jim Henson Company have kept their diaries free.

Elsewhere the film cheerfully toys with the standard forms of conventional cinema in a way which seemed to me to be very clearly indebted to Monty Python in places – there’s a fake ending at one point, complete with its own credits. You do occasionally get a sense of the film stretching a bit too far for its effects, though – Jesse Plemons’ narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what was going through the Cheneys’ minds as they contemplated Dick becoming the VP, so the film opts to fill the gap by inserting a cod-Shakespearean sketch with the couple considering their options a la Macbeth and his wife.

‘This probably won’t play well with the Republican base’, you may be thinking, and the film indeed seems to anticipate this, including another sketch-like moment where one character complains he’s appearing in a film with a liberal bias and then gets into a fight with someone with an old-fashioned attachment to facts (meanwhile two onlookers ignore the developing brawl as they discuss the latest cool movie trailer to drop). But this seems more like a joke than a serious attempt at redress. One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is to suggest that, despite everything else he’s responsible for, Dick Cheney did have at least one mitigating quality, one moral principle – only to reveal that, in the end, he knowingly abandoned even this. Even so, the film does allow Cheney the last word – Bale-as-Cheney addresses the camera and justifies his actions in a manner that is not only difficult to easily dismiss, but also serves as a reminder that we are all to some extent complicit in the crimes committed in our names.

The disputed election in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq a few years later already feel like something out of the history books, but Vice is also careful to establish the part that Cheney and his generation played in creating the conditions which enabled the current slow-motion disaster in American politics. Trump and Pence appear in archive footage; they actually find footage of Ronald Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’; Cheney’s role in changing the law to allow partisan news services such as Fox News to come into existence is touched upon. There is much that is still timely in this film, even if it feels more like a howl of disbelieving anger than any kind of suggestion as to how to make things better.

This is a ferocious film, very funny, and full of ideas and energy with some terrifically entertaining performances. It’s also quite frightening and more than a bit dispiriting, which makes it an odd package, to say the least. I’m not sure it’s likely to change many minds, but I think it will be an educational experience for many people, and a roller-coaster trip through recent political history. One of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there’s really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan’s Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we’ve had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe, the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

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The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind…

I’m not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it’s coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King’s burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It’s quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King’s relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers’ Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it’s more or less non-stop. What’s interesting, though, is that the film-makers don’t really seem interested in vilifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it’s just Carell’s performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I’m aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it’s just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who’s a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who’s depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film’s story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that’s Wikipedia’s job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

Then again, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it’s also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

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Oh well, let us move on and roll the dice for this year’s Woody Allen movie: because, let’s face it, you’re never completely sure what you’re going to get from Allen these days. The odds of something on a par with Sleeper or Annie Hall are, let’s be honest, vanishingly small, but with a bit of luck you might end up with a Blue Jasmine or (I am reliably informed) Midnight in Paris. You would probably receive something along the lines of Magic in the Moonlight or To Rome with Love and not feel too disgruntled about it. But there is always the grim possibility of another Irrational Man or Whatever Works lurching onto the screen.

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It probably goes without saying that Allen’s Cafe Society finds him in familiar territory, primarily being a Jazz Age romance for which he has managed to secure another of his stellar casts. The film is set in the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a well-brought-up New York Jewish boy from a fairly humble background who decides to move to California and seek his fortune there with the aid of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who is a successful agent. Possibly this strikes you as a surprisingly felicitous family connection, given the whole humble background thing; I know it did me.

There’s something slightly odd about the plot of Cafe Society: usually it’s pretty straightforward to give a quick indication of the set-up and a suggestion of what the central axis of the plot is, of what the main driver of the action is – the central conflict, if you will. But every time I’ve tried to give an indication of what the film’s about I’ve just found myself describing the whole plot, quite possibly because there’s nothing to suggest what’s going to happen next from one scene to the next. I’m not suggesting that the film is a chaotic, plotless shambles, because there is a logical sort of development of scenes and characters (well, up to a point), it’s just not clear until the very end what the story is actually supposed to be about.

Or, to put it another way, this is another film which feels like a first draft, and sorely in need of a good edit and polish. One of the more memorable scenes is an encounter between Bobby and a first-time call girl, which does not go entirely to plan – it’s more funny as an idea than in reality, and sticks out primarily because it is so incongruous, adding nothing to the main story. So what’s it doing in the movie?

You could say the same for a lot of the film. The story eventually settles down to being about Dorfman’s complicated romantic entanglements with two women, both called Vonnie (played by Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively), as he makes the rather unconvincing transition from being a go-fer at a Hollywood talent agency to suave man-about-about-town and night club manager in New York City’s underworld.

Now, there is potential here for a rather affecting story, as Dorfman and his first love meet each other again and reflect on how their lives could have gone differently: the stuff of a mature, thoughtful, bittersweet drama. Some of this indeed gets realised, primarily because of a rather good performance from Kristen Stewart. I’d only previously seen her in the Twilight movies, which may not have left me with the best impression of her abilities, but here she is genuinely affecting and natural; you can quite understand why men keep falling in love with her the first time they meet her. In fact I might go so far as to say that Stewart’s performance is the main reason to see this movie: Carell and Lively really don’t get the material they deserve, and Eisenberg is… well, everyone goes on about how Eisenberg is the natural latterday performer to serve as Woody Allen’s avatar in these movies, but I don’t really see it myself. Eisenberg never quite has that hapless quality that makes Allen such an appealing screen presence – instead he just comes across as a bit smug, somehow.

But the stuff about the romance too often gets shoved out of the way in favour of by-the-numbers routines about Jewishness and a dead-end subplot about Dorfman’s gangster brother (Corey Stoll). Sometimes these come together to produce one of the film’s funnier moments – ‘First a murderer! Now a Christian! What have I done to deserve such a son!’ cries the mother of a Jewish gangster on learning her boy has converted on the way to the electric chair – but on the other hand this is just getting in the way of what the film is supposed to be about. I suppose you could argue that Cafe Society is making some kind of point about how the movie business and the criminal underworld are actually quite similar, but if so it goes largely unarticulated.

To be clear, Cafe Society is not one of the very bottom-of-the-barrel Woody Allen movies, but neither is it likely to be seen as a return to form or a late-period classic. It’s fairly well-mounted (though clearly done on a low budget), but it either needed to be a much bigger, sprawling family saga taking place over a much longer running time, or to focus much more closely on the central relationships. As it is there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s trying to do both: at times it feels like a film which has been savagely cut down in the editing suite, with a voice-over filling in rather too many details of the story.

If you follow the career of Woody Allen, you know what to expect these days: the films are probably not going to be great, it’s just a question of how good the script is at the point when Allen has to take it in front of the camera. In this case the script is just about okay, and the film passes the time relatively pleasantly, but you are likely to have forgotten most of the detail by the time next year’s offering makes an appearance.

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As you may or may not know, I spent most of 2007, 2008, and 2009 in distant foreign countries, pretty much unable to keep up with news (as opposed to today, of course, when I live in the heart of the United Kingdom and actively try to avoid the news). And occasionally, when I would pop home for a visit, this meant that things everyone else took for granted left me completely baffled.

I distinctly recall one conversation, following a series of news reports which left me puzzled. ‘Mother, what’s this credit crunch thing everyone keeps talking about?’

‘Ah, well, yes. It’s about debt. Apparently some banks lent more than they should have and…’ She trailed off. ‘Well, basically it means the economy’s going to collapse.’

‘Oh. What, really?’

‘Yes, it’s to do with… it’s to do with… oh, ask your father.’

I don’t believe I did, though. We consider ourselves so much more developed than our distant ancestors, whose understanding of the forces affecting their lives was supposedly so limited, and yet we blithely wander through life happily conceding that the workings of the global economy – which is really every aspect of every economy, everywhere – are so arcane and complex they’re beyond the ability of normal people to make any sense of. We leave it to the experts, because we believe – and this may largely be the result of the experts themselves telling us so – we have no other option.

Striking a ferocious blow against this orthodoxy is Adam McCay’s The Big Short, a subversive macro-economic comedy drama about the origins of the credit crunch and the financial crisis which we all so casually refer to as though it were an earthquake or a tsunami or some other unavoidable Act of God. It isn’t, it wasn’t, and the film has a damn good try at explaining just why.

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The film opens in the mid-2000s, with the banking sector heavily based around the exploitation of bonds based on the housing market: said market being considered utterly rock-solid, the definition of a safe bet. However, free-thinking hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) actually takes the time to check out the underlying mortgages on which the system is founded, and discovers they are deeply suspect. He predicts that the housing market is going to collapse within the next few years and adopts what, in the eyes of his colleagues and superiors, is an insane strategy – investing money based on the assumption that an economic crash is going to happen.

Word of Burry’s activities reaches a number of other traders, primarily the amoral Jared Vennett (Ryan ‘Goosey Goosey’ Gosling) and the professional skeptic Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and they come to realise that Burry seems to be right – a field trip to Florida reveals it’s quite normal for exotic dancers to have upwards of half a dozen mortgages on a handful properties, all of them dependent on a steady stream of refinancing opportunities to function, with the local mortgage lenders happy to brag about the fact they’ll lend money to anybody, any time, regardless of their ability to pay.

Also catching wind of the unbelievable truth are a couple of neophyte traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrack) and their veteran mentor (Bradley Pitt), whose investigations lead them to the same conclusions, and the same course: trying to ‘short’ the market by effectively investing in its failure…

On paper, The Big Short looks like a movie with a potential taste/tone problem (well, it looks like a film with a number of potential issues, if we’re honest, but we’ll come back to some of the other ones in a bit). This is basically the story of how a motley crew of weirdos, cynics, whizzkids and chancers made vast quantities of money out of a global disaster – so why are we supposed to care about people who are basically profiteers from misery? Shouldn’t they all just be eminently punchable human beings?

Well, the film dodges this bullet rather adroitly, mainly by stressing the characters’ knowledge of the impending collapse’s implications and their own sense of guilt (Brad Pitt procures for himself the speech which makes the situation painfully clear), and there are a number of scenes showing them attempting to raise the alarm on what’s coming, only to be dismissed out of hand. And it’s hardly as if it’s the characters’ fault.

I suspect that if the makers of The Big Short want you to take one thing away from this film, it’s a deeper understanding of the fact that the financial crisis was not some freak, random event, but the result of systematic greed, corruption, stupidity, and fraud in the banking sector, on an almost inconceivable scale. Tens of millions of people around the world lost their jobs, homes, savings, and, yes, lives – because the financial markets engaged in a profit-obsessed conspiracy of active deception and ostrich-minded wilful ignorance. Across the entire world, one – one! – banker did jail time as a result, for a minor offence. And there is every sign of the whole thing starting to happen again. You should be angrier about this.

At first glance, Adam McCay is a very odd choice for a film like this – McCay is normally associated with rather broader, more populist projects, directing the Anchorman films and being one of the writers on Ant-Man – but closer scrutiny of his CV will reveal the closing credits of 2010’s The Other Guys, at which point a offbeat, knockabout comedy appears to be hijacked by the Occupy movement: a five-minute infographic presentation detailing the costs of economic crime accompanies the names of the cast and crew.

Here, McCay does a fine job of turning what could have been a rather dry and worthy story into something with some life and energy. In addition to extracting winning performances from a strong cast and marshalling a not-especially straightforward story, he gives the film a really subversive, tongue-in-cheek edge. Early on, the number of references to sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps, and so on, starts to rack up, and Gosling’s narrator correctly guesses the viewer may be beginning to feel a bit confused and/or stupid. Never mind, he says: ‘Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.’

And, lo, the rising Antipodean star duly appears, covered in suds, to deliver a quick (and somewhat profane) expository info-dump, direct to camera. It’s a very funny scene and a brilliant conceit, and one which the film repeats several times with different celebrities. (I have to say that I’m still baffled about much of the finer detail, to the point where I’m actually reading the book the film is based on in an attempt to make sense of it all.) The Big Short‘s willingness to break the conventional rules of film storytelling gives it an anarchic feel and a sense of fun that suit its anti-establishment, crowd-pleasing mission statement.

In the end, though, I think The Big Short may prove just a bit too radical to do well in the awards season, considering it’ll be in contention with more traditional pieces of film-making. But in the end, though, I think this isn’t just a good film made with style, but an important one, too, that uncovers a number of uncomfortable truths about the way we live now. Calling it essential viewing is probably overstating things – but not, I would say, by much.

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There has been some fuss in sections of the media about the fact that this year’s Oscar shortlists are not as ethnically varied as many people would like to see. If you ask me, it’s no good complaining to the academy itself about this sort of thing, they can only respond to the films that people are making (the obvious parallel would be with complaining to the weatherman about there not being enough sun). It’s just easier and more rewarding to take a pop at Oscar than actually get the movie studios to implement change, because – for whatever reason – the films that are currently being made appear rather skewed in favour of certain demographics.

I’m not just referring to ethnicity, either: last week I saw the brilliant Whiplash, in which there was only one notable female character, and the least significant of the film’s four leads. And more recently I went to see Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which again is a film dominated by men. It’s a tricky question: Whiplash and Foxcatcher are both superior films, the existence of which doubtless benefits the world at large, but I appreciate the validity of the pro-diversity argument in general. It may simply come down to the fact that most senior figures in the film industry are men, and a lot of the time it’s men who decide which film they and their friends go to see.

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As films go, Foxcatcher is more about masculinity than most, though it initially looks like it’s going to be addressing the issue of class in America. Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a gold-medal-winning wrestler who as the story opens is eking out a fairly miserable existence, trying to prepare for upcoming competitions, feeling himself very much overshadowed by his elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a champion wrestler, but also a successful coach and family man. (I should point out that this film deals with what I believe is technically called Graeco-Roman wrestling, the competitive discipline featured at the Olympics, not the muscle-bound clown soap opera which formed the springboard of the careers of people like the Rock.)

Things change for Mark when he is invited to visit the palatial home of John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of the richest men in America and an avid wrestling follower – this despite the icy disapproval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Du Pont proposes that Mark come to live on his estate, where a state-of-the-art training facility has been constructed, and they work together to prepare for the upcoming 1988 Olympics. Du Pont believes together they can bring about not just a sporting but a moral revival of the USA, and Mark eagerly buys into his ideas.

What follows is a strangely engrossing personal drama, with many peculiar twists and turns along the way. As you may have gathered, this is based on a true story, but not one with which I was at all familiar. I did know there was a murder at some point in events, but I’d no idea who was going to kill whom or why – and while the murder is obviously the key event of this saga, one of the things that makes it so shocking is the fact it appears to be almost wholly unpremeditated: a random, chaotic act of insanity. But that equally makes it unsatisfactory as the culmination of a developing plotline, and as a result Foxcatcher feels unresolved, somehow.

What is certain is that the film works extremely well as a character study, not just of John Du Pont but also Mark Schultz. There is perhaps the vaguest echo of the glazed intensity of Brick Tamland in Steve Carell’s performance, but for the most part he is playing (and underplaying) it utterly straight: to the point, in fact, where Du Pont becomes a bleakly funny character. ‘Eccentric millionaire’ is much too cheery-sounding a term for a man who, to put it mildly, seems to have severe issues, not least with reconciling his passion for wrestling with his position in one of America’s most senior families – something not helped by his mother’s ill-concealed contempt for the sport.

Equally troubled, in a different fashion, is Mark Schultz – a man only fully able to express himself physically, and frustrated by this, and his sense of his own inferiority to his brother. The collapse of his parents’ marriage may also have fed into his various issues, and it’s entirely understandable that he should initially have fallen so completely under Du Pont’s spell. Channing Tatum plays him extremely well. I’ve never really been able to decide what kind of actor Tatum is in the past – is he just a kind of good-looking jock action-hero or romantic lead, or does he have real acting chops in there somewhere? Foxcatcher proves the latter: this is a properly accomplished performance. Ruffalo is also very solid in a somewhat less demanding role.

Vanessa Redgrave is really only in a couple of scenes in quite a long film, and the same is true of Sienna Miller who plays Dave Schultz’s wife: I’m actually a little unsure why they bothered recruiting such well-known names for what are comparatively minor roles. The rest of the film is about men, and masculine relationships – Mark’s relationship with his brother, but also the quasi-paternal bond he develops with Du Pont. There is quite a lot of man-on-man hugging in this film, and apparently Mark Schultz did complain about the homo-erotic undertones he detected – but there’s bound to be an element of that, not to mention some comedy, in any film with quite as many men in unitards grappling with each other as this one.

Foxcatcher is a measured film and a thoughtful one, and the various scenes of people wrestling with each other are not exactly what you’d call action sequences. As a result, I’m not entirely surprised it has proved more popular with critics than audiences. I’m not sure it is honestly what you could call a great film, but it certainly contains some great performances.

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With the possible exception of an American horror movie, I am less likely to see an American comedy than any other type of film. This is mainly because it seems to me that the funny American film is in a state of advanced homogeneity, with all of them sharing the same sort of tone and approach, not to mention the fact that they draw upon the same very familiar pool of actors. Nearly every major release seems to be produced by Judd Apatow, as well. None of this would be a problem if it were a kind of homogeneity I actually had much time for. But I don’t. So there you are.

However, if we’re looking at it in those terms, I shouldn’t really have enjoyed Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy back in 2004, because it is a very broad Apatow-produced comedy featuring various members of the usual crowd – Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, and so on. And yet I really liked it; enough to buy the DVD (albeit using a money-off voucher), enough to be mildly pleased at the announcement of a sequel, and – apparently – enough to actually go and see Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (Though the fact they shot a bespoke commercial to run before the Doctor Who 50th anniversary show may also have been a point in the film’s favour.)

Anchorman2_Poster

Comedy sequels tend to be pretty odd beasts – the whole basis of a sequel is essentially ‘more of the same’, but repetition is, of course, the death of comedy. Long-running comedy franchises tend to be based around characters who can go anywhere and do anything, either as individuals or ensembles. Anchorman is, you would have thought, fairly limited by the fact that it’s about a newsreader. So how does the new film perform?

After some scene-setting shenanigans, the story proper opens with a clinically upset Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) on the skids and on the bottle, working at a sea-life park. Once a journalistic titan, Ron is in a bad way, his personal and professional lives both having fallen apart. However, hope glimmers when he is offered a spot on America’s first 24-hour news channel – is this a chance to re-forge the legend of Ron Burgundy?

Well, of course it is, provided he can reassemble his crack news team of sports reporter Champ (David Koechner), roving investigator Brian (Paul Rudd), and semi-sentient weatherman Brick (Steve Carell). What follows is essentially a relentless shotgun satire directed against any hapless target that wanders into range: fast food restaurants, cat photographs, race relations, rolling news channels, Australian media tycoons, and so on, interspersed with character bits for Ron and his team.

I was watching the first Anchorman on TV the other night and, as usual, trying to work out what made it so funny – was it the loving pastiche of 70s values and fashions? Was it the deadpan skills of the performers? Was it the fact that – despite the film not being scripted as such, but improvised by a gang of people messing about in front of a camera – it was built on a firm structural basis? And then I realised it was none of the above. Both the original Anchorman and the new one are funny because they are knowingly, defiantly, enormously silly.

Most of this film is simply ludicrous on every level – but it’s a knowing sort of ludicrousness, one that’s carefully judged and not all that far from actually being ironic. There’s a sight gag about Ron bottle-feeding a… no, better not spoil it, not to mention another scene where an astonishingly big-name star in an uncredited cameo turns into a… no, don’t want to spoil that one either. I usually avoid movie comparisons like the plague (I have people on the payroll to do that kind of thing for me, after all), but there are scenes in Anchorman 2 which would not seem entirely out of place in a Monty Python project.

However, what is telling is that the producers have a very strong idea about what their real strengths are: Ferrell and most of the others are consistently amusing, but it’s telling that when the film feels the need to get really big laughs, it wheels on Steve Carell as Brick Tamblyn. Carell is, by a very long way, the funniest thing in an extremely funny film – one is almost tempted to wonder how long it will be before Brick gets his own spin-off movie, but I’m not sure the character would support one. One of the less successful plotlines in Anchorman 2 sees Brick embark on a torrid romance with the equally brain-dead Chani (Kristen Wiig), and the results are more weird than consistently funny: Wiig almost seems to be trying to find some emotional reality in her character, as opposed to the glazed inscrutability that makes Carell’s performance so hilarious, and it does feel as if scenes from a very off-beat art-house movie have been spliced in by accident.

What’s slightly surprising, given how riotously absurd most of the story is, is that this actually seems to be a film attempting to make serious points about the modern media: there is a lot of satire of the news networks and the fact that they are making news much more than simply broadcasting it; the populist and conservative bias of most of these channels comes in for some heavy stick as well. This is not done with an especially light touch, and this gives some parts of the film an almost preachy quality which I wasn’t sure I cared for. Then Brick came on again and made me laugh until I hyperventilated, so that was okay.

Even so, there’s a third act segment which felt to me like a genuine misjudgement – earlier in the film there are some slightly edgy gags about attitudes to race and domestic violence, but the whole point of them is that Ron and his friends share stupidly unreconstructed values. We’re laughing at them, not at jokes about punching women or all coloured people being drug dealers. Later on, though, there’s an extended series of jokes about disability which didn’t seem to have that quality of distance which made them acceptably ironic. It’s not that big a deal, and the circumstances involved are as ridiculous as the rest of the movie, but it’s still a distinct wobble.

Nevertheless, this is still a very funny comedy. It reminded me a lot of the second Austin Powers film, in that it’s largely a more confident and more polished version of the original, with the key moments and gags you remember from the first one being retooled and expanded upon this time around. That proved to be a very limited strategy when it came to producing a long-running franchise, of course, and I can imagine McKay and Ferrell thinking very carefully about whether to return to these characters yet again. For the time being, though, that’s not a problem: Anchorman 2 is as inventive and as charmingly deranged as its predecessor.

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Probably due to my (ahem) international lifestyle over the last five or six years and the resulting bevy of friends scattered across continents, I am an inveterate user of a prominent social networking site. You know, the one invented by the guy who was in the thing a couple of years ago? The one that had the thing about the other thing when it thinged recently?

Well, as you can probably imagine, this means I am much accustomed to ridiculous and vaguely offensive adverts popping up in the fringes of my eyeline, mostly offering to sell me things I don’t feel I need, expand parts of my body the proportions of which I am currently quite happy with, or fix me up with people who are, quite obviously, not only way out of my league but probably playing a different sport entirely. Recently one of these appeared – or so I thought – announcing that ‘Keira is seeking a friend for the end of the world’, accompanied by a sombre headshot of Miss Knightley of that ilk. Was this another dodgy dating site or something to do with Mayan calendar 2012 nonsense? My bemusement only increased when the distaff version started popping up, featuring Steve Carell.

It turned out none of my ideas was remotely accurate as this was in fact a rather underwhelming advertising campaign in support of Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which stars Carell and Knightley. This is one of those self-consciously indie-ish movies which wanders across genre borders – mainly it’s a comedy-drama, or possibly a dramedy, but almost certainly not a coma.

The tone is set by the opening scene, in which a car radio announces that the last-ditch space mission to deflect an incoming asteroid has totally failed and that all human life and civilisation will be utterly annihilated in only three weeks, the announcer then seamlessly going on to introduce The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’.

The wife of middle-aged everyman Dodge (Carell) takes this opportunity to leave him, leaving him in something of a quandary as to what to do: as he’s a life insurance salesman, it’s all gone very quiet on the work front, and as he only actually got married in order to avoid dying alone, he’s understandably disgruntled at being dumped this way.

Unimpressed by the wild behaviour displayed by his friends as the end draws closer and society starts to break down, he becomes much closer to his neighbour, Penny (Knightley). Then Penny (who is a Kooky Free Spirit From England) reveals that she received a letter meant for Dodge some time earlier. The letter is from the love of Dodge’s life, who reveals she still has feelings for him. Dodge is appalled that he didn’t discover this sooner and the duo strike a deal – if Penny helps him find his true love, he will put her in touch with someone with a private plane who can get her back to England to be with her family at the end.

Well, it’s about an odd couple on a road trip, what do you think happens? It’s probably fair to say that Steve Carell and Keira Knightley would not be high on most peoples’ lists of sizzling screen couples – probably ranking about the same as a celluloid hook-up between Andy Serkis and Dame Judi Dench – but, to be fair to them, there are hardly any moments in this film which actually make you go ‘Ewww’.

However, this is really a rather strange film, not least because – and this does seem oddly absurd – completely blowing up the world and everyone on it is not that original an idea. It’s become a well-enough-established concept to have its own set of cinematic tropes and conventions, most notably the final flare to a completely white screen which signifies the arrival of the apocalypse. Seeking a Friend for the End  of the World adheres to these quite cheerfully, which inevitably invites comparisons with other films along similar lines.

The set-up and the presence of mainstream stars like Carell and Knightley leads one to expect a black-comedy alternate-ending version of Armageddon, but the movie is much quirkier than this, as well as being a lot less comic. It’s not that it fails to be funny, it just doesn’t try most of the time.

I’m not sure whether this was a good idea or not. While the concept of the movie is an inherently serious one – the looming catastrophe naturally provokes a lot of introspection and breast-beating from characters about their lives and priorities up to this point – I think it might have been better to play the film against the natural tone one would expect. When the film tries to be comic, it’s usually very funny, and these points are not without a certain insight into human nature.

The more serious tone the film adopts as it progresses is reasonably well-handled, with a very good performance from Carell, and a typically brilliant cameo from Martin Sheen (I know, I know: you wait five years for a Martin Sheen movie to be reviewed and then two come along in consecutive weeks), but I got no real sense of the film having anything profound or surprising to say. It’s not boring to watch, nor is it completely unbelieveable, but at the same time I didn’t really care about the fact that all of the characters were shortly about to die.

Nor did I much care about the burgeoning central romance, which really didn’t ring true for me. Knightley’s performance is, if we’re totally honest, variable – she’s okay doing the light comedy and offhand stuff, but when she’s required to become deeply emotional – as she is at a couple of key points – she starts staring off into the distance, doing weird things with her nose and eyebrows, and generally gets caught acting just a bit too often. Maybe this contributed to the fact I felt no sense of sadness or loss that the main relationship was to be so rapidly terminated.

Hey ho. It’s a nicely made film with some good visuals and interesting ideas, but I couldn’t help thinking that all the best parts of this film were comprised of material I’d seen handled better and more intelligently elsewhere: not just the basic concept, but the strained social milieu, the breakdown of traditional morality, and the last-minute romance (even down to its fixation with old records) – all of these seemed to me to be terribly similar to Don McKellar’s 1998 movie Last Night, which I remember being more accomplished.

Still, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an interesting film, even if the tone and focus are a bit messed up, and I certainly didn’t find it objectionable on any level. Nevertheless, I have seen the complete and utter destruction of the world depicted better than this on several occasions in the past, and I suspect I will again in future.

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