“Embrace the grind” – someone, once upon a time talking about wrestling
I never wrestled. I am a lapsed jiu-jitsu white belt though. Jiu-jitsu was tough, way too tough for me both mentally and physically. Wrestling wears you down and not a whole lot of people can hack that. This is what wrestlers refer to as the grind, and being able to embrace it as the quote above suggests, is a badge of honour.
Foxcatcher (2014), well half of it, is about the grind. The first half of the film very much embodies the notion, embracing and reflecting the psychological and physical approach that wrestlers are so fond of talking about. Mark Schultz, played with a depth many didn’t think he had by Channing Tatum, is a superstar wrester. An Olympic champion. But even wrestlers at the pinnacle of their sport, embrace a working class aesthetic. Part of this is financial reality. The sport pays next to nothing, and like so many Olympic sports, is only in the broader public consciousness once every 4 years. But it’s also the sweaty, physically brutal aspect of the grind. Tatum has that raw physicality of a developing athlete and is able to embody, both in looks and performance, that pure athleticism.
Watching the film at times feels like a physical experience. So much of the brotherly relationship between the characters played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum is conveyed through physical contact, the way they warm up and grapple. The working class aesthetic of wrestling as well is captured by this physical approach to the film. Part of that is the fact we more or less see the events of the film from the perspective of Tatum’s Shultz who as a character encapsulates the arc of an athlete. All he ever really known is that athletic path of grind and ups and downs. He knows nothing else, so that is the only real way that he can express himself and engage with those around him.
The second half of the film is more a psychological thriller, or to be more precise a psychological portrait of Steve Carrell’s John Du Pont. His deep-seated creepiness and mommy issues are explored and played out, without ever resorting to an over the top expository approach. The reaction of Du Pont to these failings is an insatiable desire to be considered a ‘great’, physical and masculine presence. So he surrounds himself with the Shultz brothers who are that above all. His attempts to mirror their impact on the world around them are comical, but they also make Foxcatcher an exceptionally dark journey. It is so disconcerting to witness sequences of the frail DuPont trying to coach wrestling. Aching to fit in and impress despite his clear mental and physical limitations. It is here that the two aspects of the film seep into one another. DuPont sees the grind and physical contact of wrestling as a way to deal with or play out his psychological foibles.
It is in the early stages of the film’s second part that it is weakest. Tatum’s Mark Schultz abruptly transforms from a driven, world class athlete, to a drunk and drug addled bum, exaggeratedly tending to DuPont. The distinctive, overt depiction of the homoeroticism of the relationship between Mark Schultz and DuPont strongly recalls Behind the Candelabra (2013). It is hard not to feel this complexity between the two men could not have been depicted in a more muted and dark manner, which would have been more in keeping with the rest of the film stylistically.
Much has been made of the performances in Foxcatcher, and with good reason. However if anything, Steve Carrel’s turn is the least impressive. It’s still a great performance, and he manages to overcome the shock of his physical appearance and truly inhabit the role dramatically, to a really high level, much more so in my opinion than Eddie Redmayne managed in The Theory of Everything (2014). The hook nose and off-putting voice never distract from the character and the psychological force that he brings to the film. I changed my mind repeatedly through the film as to which of the three leads delivered the standout performance. It has to be Tatum though. He takes a character that could have almost been a simpleton and makes it something exceptionally complex. Mark Ruffalo is equally as good as both of them, in a role without the focus of the other two, but who is in a large part responsible and a part of basically all that happens in the film.
Verdict: Foxcatcher is essentially a film about masculinity. That is a description that would generally turn me right off a film, but here with the astute direction of Bennett Miller and three exceptional performances, there is a cutting incisiveness to that notion, filtered equally through athletic pursuit and psychological descent. It’s at times a brutal and slow thematic exploration, but it is a film that will creep up on you with its quiet brilliance and uniqueness. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Adventure Time is one of those shows that has been popping up on my radar for a while now from a range of unexpected sources. Ostensibly a kids show, I kept seeing praise on twitter especially from comic writers, as well as mates in my day to day life telling me how good it was. So I decided to check out Season 1 to see if the hype is justified.
It is. The series follows Finn the Human and Jake the Dog as they search out eclectic adventures in the land of Oo. The vibe is hyperkinetic, assaulting you with a delightful and disparate range of stories, characters, colours, songs, themes and fable-like messages to ponder. Likewise, the sense of humour is both great and varied. Everything from fart jokes to more incisive material undermining storytelling tradition, gender roles and even prison policy takes centre stage. But the overarching theme of the humour is that there isn’t really one, it’s all very scattershot and warped. As with all the best TV for kids, or at least with some intention of attaching young viewers, there are numerous lessons being taught here. Gratefully though they are genuine and perhaps the least twee sketching of the nature of good vs. evil I have seen. At the core of this, from which all the randomness spews out of, is the relationship between Finn and Jake. It’s a tops ‘best friends’ dynamic that feels exceptionally real to life and as such I could see a lot of kids getting a lot from that vision.
On the surface, the major trait of the visual style is big, bold and simple. That stuff is great, but dig a little deeper and the creativity only deepens, with the ol fashioned film title cards and classic filmmaking shots weaved in. Often the voice acting on kids shows is a bit of an afterthought, slapped on as bland as possible so as to not distract from the pretty pictures. Not so with Adventure Time where each character’s unique persona is conveyed more through their voice than anything else. They also have the ability to reduce my wife to a crying fit of laughter, as evidenced by basically the entire first episode featuring Lumpy Space Princess. Actually my minimal, and rather selfish, criticism of the show mainly consists of the fact that LSP is absent for a long stretch of the season. Though on a more objective level, I think that does feed into a rather flat section through the middle of the series where a lack of focus on the delight of the vast number of supporting characters results in a slight dip in enjoyment levels. Throw Princess Bubblegum in there too as a character that goes missing for long stretches, her strong female leadership character and level of geekiness is missed as much as LSP’s over the top hilarity.
Verdict: This is such a unique show compared to what was around when I was a kid, which makes me happy that the current media environment allows creativity like this to be not only made, but widely seen. It is hilarious, with a distinct depth to the adventure that will charm viewers of all ages. Oh and also, the ‘one shot’ behind the scenes featurette on the DVD (well at least the Aussie Madman release) is my favourite extra ever. Pint of Kilkenny
Nobody embodies the concept of a political sportsman more than Muhammad Ali. Dispensing with most of the sporting aspects of his life, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013) examines the political stances and impacts that this incredible athlete brought to bear on the twentieth century.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali is a very good example of cinema as biography, a subgenre of documentary that is generally pretty blandly done. The advantage that this film has is that it zeroes in on a very specific aspect of its subject. As such, the fact a minute approach brings so much new knowledge to the viewer (well it did for me in any case) that it is hard to keep up at some points. Ali’s early life and background are quickly sketched in. There is not a whole lot of detail, but there is more than enough to establish where he came from and how that influenced what was to follow. The optics for example of his early career, when Ali was ‘owned’ by 11 crusty old white dudes; or the fact that Cassius Clay was a white man who lived a couple of generations before Ali. The film chronicles Ali’s conversion from the “slave making religion” of Christianity to the “slave breaking religion” of Islam. Director Bill Siegel wisely digresses through this period to paint some really informative background of the history of the Nation of Islam as well as the splits that tear at it, most notably the one involving Malcolm X. This is then brought back to the focal point of the film by examining the huge impacts that Ali’s choice of religion had on his public perception in America. Just like the colour of Jack Johnson’s skin decades earlier, Ali’s allegiance to the Nation of Islam became something for the white American status quo to rail against. Though that is not to say that many in the African American community weren’t also perturbed by Ali’s choice and wished to see him fail because of it.
The other major focus of the film is on the refusal of Ali to join the war in Vietnam when drafted. It seems like a fairly defensible position now. But when it was made back then, by an African American Muslim no less, it was seen as a gross affront to the ‘American way of life’. The very fact that Ali was deemed unfit to continue as heavyweight champion of the world and banned from the ring, would actually partially feed into what made him so iconic in years to come. With a young family to support, Ali went on the road, speaking and honing his skills. Gradually over this time he developed the swagger and bravado that would characterise him as an athlete and which continues to inspire copycats, especially in combat sports, to this day. Again, it is impossible to not consider the lens this trash talk must be viewed through, coming from an electric African American athlete, a convert to Islam and a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam.
Verdict: As an athlete, and a person, Ali was a revolutionary dude and incredibly ahead of his time. The Trials of Muhammad Ali effectively explains why Ali was so revolutionary by digging down into a lot of the detail around his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. A must watch for and fans of sports and politics. Pint of Kilkenny
February was a bit of a quieter month for me, but it is nice to have the good flicks taking precedence over the bad here. Though there were some definite disappointments, the combo of powerful docos, silly sci-fi and staunchly feminist drama won the day.
- Wild (2014), Jean-Marc Vallee – Whilst this film occasionally overdoes it tonally and stylistically, it’s still a sorely underrated film in my book. Both Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern are arresting, with the former taking the audience on that huge fuckin trek with her. The concept/cliché of life as a journey is encapsulated totally and satisfyingly in this film. The last five minutes of this are genuinely, painfully good. So much so they slap you in the face and remind you why you love cinema and just how powerful it can be.
- Citizenfour (2014), Laura Poitras – An exceptional film. It’s tempting to laugh at one point when a character refers to the goings on as like something out of a le Carre novel, but it’s so true. Poitras has masterfully marshalled a huge story into something digestible, with no shortage of filmmaking craft involved. She conveys the danger Snowden is taking on and the gravity of what he is revealing. She also creates a portrait of heroes for this age in Snowden, Greenwald and even herself.
- Troll 2 (1990), Claudio Fragasso – The hype is real! All I can really say is that if you’re a ‘good bad’ movie aficionado, then this is as good as they come.
- Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist (2014), James Erskine – This has so much more personality and insight compared to Alex Gibney’s recent Lance Armstrong film. Quiet poetic and scientific about cycling it also examines the magic that Pantani, a true throwback, bought to a sport at its lowest ebb. He was an instinctive artist in a scientific, analytical age. The film pushes a very pro-Pantani narrative, but it also captures the human, vulnerable side of him in a pretty universal way. An examination of what happens when a person’s one true passion is taken away.
- Jupiter Ascending (2015), Lana and Andy Wachowski – There’s something about the Wachowskis’ vision that I’m a big fan of. This is silly a lot of the time. But it’s also big, old-fashioned and bloody fun sc-fi more of the time. It looks great and grand too, though it lacks the thematic depth of the best of the genre. On the level of a thrill ride though, it’s exhilarating with a unique kind of innocence to it. Seriously though, what the fuck was with Eddie Redmayne’s performance. So off the mark and awkward it bordered on the unwatchable.
- The Good Wife Season 3 (2011), Robert and Michelle King – This is a show that continues to get better and better. Some aspects of this season work better than others. The hero/villain dichotomy set up between Peter and Alicia is a lot more satisfying than the incorporation of Eli’s PR firm into the main storyline. It buys into some racial norms, whilst subtly subverting some gender ones. Again the characters are where this is really at. Diane, Kalinda and Peter all get more to work with this season. Noth is excellent as Peter, a character delightfully hard to read, part idealistic, part menacing.
Not Worth Watching:
- The Theory of Everything (2014), James Marsh – It’s difficult to imagine a stuffier or more obvious reading of the Hawking tale. Suffers from being neither a biopic or a romance. Well it tries to be both, but is neither. Worst of all, it will make you feel absolutely nothing. Redmayne is obviously very good. But he’s more a mimic than an actor truly inhabiting the role. If anything, Felicity Jones is better. A pretty awful effort.
- Piranha (1978), Joe Dante – I cannot believe I didn’t like this. The opening sequences are the stuff schlocky dreams are made of. Boobs, military test sites and hellacious looking creatures. But it’s relatively slow and bleaker than I like my B movies. The body count is huge, including heaps of kids, and the filmmaking is perhaps a little too good, so I feel bad about that. Too many unnecessary kills and not enough B movie cheese.
- The Interview (2014), Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – As far as contemporary comedies go, this is ok. But it’s still not particularly good. I enjoyed the first half more. There were some genuine laughs and some of the political points were actually kind of interesting. But once it hits North Korea, it gets overly puerile, silly and well, bland. Despite the absolutely epic brouhaha it caused, this is pretty run of the mill stuff.
- Life of Crime (2013), Daniel Schechter – This, based on an Elmore Leonard novel, is a pretty dire effort. The costuming and music are really reaching for the aesthetic of a period piece. The whole film is reaching really. For that slight comedic, gangstery tone. For something for the really excellent cast to actually work with. To be a good ol’ fashioned farce. It fails at all of these things and just feels really soulless and inauthentic.
If you only have time to watch one Wild
Avoid at all costs The Theory of Everything
It is always so interesting to see an auteur take on subject matter generally considered the stuff of genre cinema. Stanley Kubrick pretty much made a career out of it, whilst Jim Jarmusch has shown he is not afraid to do it previously with films like Dead Man (1995). It is in that context that Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) hit last year, to some pretty universal critical love (I saw it pop up very high on a number of top 10s).
As you would expect given the director involved, this is a pretty unique take on the vampire film. It functions as an interesting reinterpretation of the vampire mythos, filtered through love story. The focus is on two vampires, Eve played by Tilda Swinton and Adam played by Tom Hiddleston. They live in Tangier and Detroit respectively, but maintain a grand love between the two of them, content to live apart so that they can explore their individual passions. These passions are initially set up a little too simply, one likes music the other books. But over time they inform and seep into their characterisation making it a much more satisfying aspect to their construction. From this base Jarmusch builds his narrative, weaving the two separate strands closer together. There are fleeting appearances by other characters, Mia Wasikowska as Eve’s sister, Jeffrey Wright as a good source of hospital blood and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe (yes that Marlowe), though this is really all about Swinton and Hiddleston. All three of those supporting performances are unsurprisingly excellent, though with minimal to do, as the development of the supporting characters did not seem to be much of a focus of the film.
I mentioned Dead Man earlier and just as in that film, music is a major focus and accompaniment to the narrative of Only Lovers Left Alive. Adam is obsessed with music, his living space cluttered with vinyl, guitars and antique high level stereo equipment. His obsession gives an insight and genuineness to the character. This is a passion of course which has been developed and honed over centuries of living. The choice of tunes, a lot of fuzzed out style rock, shredding guitars over an almost abandoned Detroit and plenty more, is intensely creative as is its matching with the images on screen. It is hard to overstate how good the use of soundtrack is in the film. And it seems to align perfectly with Jarmusch’s manner of shooting, which situates the characters in really interesting places in the frame.
Verdict: For me, the film had some definite weaknesses in terms of narrative and minor character development. But the supreme use of music and soundtrack single-handedly makes this a film that deserves to be watched and re-watched. Pint of Kilkenny