Monday, November 24, 2014


It may be fair to say that the Golden Age of the cinematic Western has passed. Studios and filmmakers seem to avoid anything with cowboys, Indians, and six-shooters…and we’re lucky to see two or three films set in the Old West per year. Maybe it’s because the Western has been a tad over-exposed on the big screen in the past 100 years, but that doesn’t mean its potential for good storytelling has also passed. Riding into town to explore that potential is director Tommy Lee Jones and his adaptation of THE HOMESMAN. 

In the Old West, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a fiercely independent frontierswoman, volunteers to take three women who have lost their minds (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) across the frontier back East to receive proper care. Mary Bee enlists the help of a drifter named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to assist her. 

Based on the novel of the same name, THE HOMESMAN is a bit of a twist on the standard Old West tales of families pushing westward across the frontier in search of a new life. Here, the travelers must head back east, facing dangers left and right, while coping with each other in what amounts to a road-trip style movie. THE HOMESMAN goes a bit episodic as Mary Bee, Briggs, and the three insane women encounter dangers such as wild Indians, food shortage, and the harsh weather…along with dealing with each other, but it flows together nicely and makes for some compelling storytelling. Tommy Lee Jones, acting and directing, spends a great deal of time setting up just how hard it was to live and travel in those days…everything from simple cooking or going to the bathroom is explored and there is a tremendous sense of realism wrapped up in legendary Old West storytelling. 

Where THE HOMESMAN beings to go off the trail is with the editing. Some oddball flashbacks appear here and there exploring the episodes of insanity the three women had before being exiled back east. While these flashback episodes are startling and disturbing, they appear in odd places and are very jarring, and they ultimately have no real bearing or impact on anything happening in the present; as viewer you’re patiently waiting for some sort of payoff that never comes. On top of that, there is a mid-movie twist which turns the entire story upside-down which is only about one-half effective. Although the purpose of the incident is clear, it doesn’t make sense at all for the character in the middle of it. Maybe that’s a fault of the novel THE HOMESMAN is adopted from, but the incident is so outside of an established character it makes zero sense. You almost have to wonder if Jones would have been better off ditching the novel and doing his own thing.

There is still a lot to enjoy in THE HOMESMAN.  Jones paints a beautiful looking picture of the Old West and his lens always has something stunning to capture. Jones’ patient nature pays off as things unfold naturally and slowly as they would in those days. 

In front of the camera, Jones is spectacular as the frontiersman who may or may not be all there in the noggin. Hilary Swank is excellent even though her character is a little one-note and doesn’t evolve at all. The real stars of the show are Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter…who as the three insane women do some serious emotional and physical work. The rest of the cast pops in and out like extended cameos thanks to the film’s episode-by-episode nature; the appearances by Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Corbin, and Evan Jones are all excellent. 

After all the nutball choices in the editing and with the characters, the finale settles down a little bit but then goes weird again, making for a head-scratcher by the time the credits roll around. THE HOMESMAN rides into the sunset strongly with great performances and magnificent visuals, but falls off the horse in the important dismount. 


Friday, November 21, 2014


In 1996, the unlikely partnership between eccentric Philadelphia millionaire coach John du Pont and two Olympic wrestlers would end in tragedy; a tragedy that would make headlines and become well-known across the country and in the sports community. Nearly 20 years later, the incident is all-but forgotten…until now; thanks to director Bennett Miller’s FOXCATCHER. 

Paranoid schizophrenic millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) invites Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to move to his estate to train. While Mark uses the opportunity to step out of the shadow of his more successful brother David (Mark Ruffalo), du Pont becomes determined to bring the two together. 

FOXCATCHER is the latest in the new age of sports films which is not very concerned with what happens on the field of battle. Much like Bennett Miller’s own MONEYBALL (2011), the film spends very little time on the wrestling mat, and instead makes the space between characters the true battlefield. FOXCATCHER is all about the dynamic relationship between du Pont and the two brothers and how they affect and use each other. In the early goings, Mark uses du Pont’s offer as an opportunity to be his own person and to not be mistaken for his older, more successful brother. In return, du Pont uses Mark and his new wrestling team as a way to achieve notoriety and fame…and to step out of the shadow of his disapproving mother. Things take a twist when du Pont lures David to the training facility (nicknamed Foxcatcher Farm) and Mark finds himself falling back into the role of the jealous, younger brother. 

There is a lot going in FOXCATCHER, and director Bennett Miller handles it all delicately and perfectly. His three main characters circle each other like a fox around a prey, only before striking they stick up for each other before the big betrayals. There is a constant atmosphere of dread hanging over the film, and it always feels like there is about to be something big slamming down right around the corner. Miller keeps us on the edge without pushing, and only shoves when absolutely necessary. 

Miller films everything in a bleak, almost hopeless-looking palette, which adds to the grimness of the film. His pacing is deliberately slow with no overabundances of blaring music or over-dramatic acting. There is dryness to the film thanks to the look and to the straightforward dialogue. It’s a very realistic take, and those looking for a rousing sports drama may walk away disappointed. 

With so much time being spent on the characters, it gives the cast more than enough time to prove themselves, and prove themselves they do. Steve Carell is absolutely mesmerizing as du Pont. His dead-eye stare is chilling and his death-like voice goes right through you. He is a main character, a villain, and a predator all at the same time and Carell just vanishes inside of it all. Channing Tatum doesn’t have to do a lot other than act like a lumbering meathead (which he does perfectly), but where he really deserves credit is in the physical performance with his body language and facial expressions…and he too vanishes inside the role while putting on the most impressive work of his young career. Mark Ruffalo is brilliant and nearly makes the film his own, while Vanessa Redgrave makes the most out of her limited screentime as du Pont’s mother. 

For those who are familiar with the story of John du Pont and the Schultz brothers, the ending is well-known…but can still be outright shocking thanks to a brilliant build-up. Bennett Miller has put together a strong and engaging character study in FOXCATCHER, one that hits close to home not only because of it being based on a true story, but because the characters are so real and so close to ourselves. It is raw and beautiful, simple on the surface yet complex underneath…and it will sneak up on you. 


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: Everything You Need to Know About FOXCATCHER and THE HOMESMAN

This weekend, two of the most anticipated films of the year and possible Awards-gobblers arrives in theatres. Here is everything you need to know about FOXCATCHER and THE HOMESMAN. 


What is this about? – FOXCATCHER is based on the true crime story of millionaire coach and paranoid-schizophrenic John du Pont, who murdered Olympic Wrestling Champion Dave Schultz at his Foxcatcher Farm outside of Philadelphia in 1996. 

Who stars in this? – Steve Carell, mostly known for his comedic roles in ANCHORMAN and BRUCE ALMIGHTY, plays du Pont. He is joined by Channing Tatum (21 JUMP STREET), Mark Ruffalo (THE AVENGERS), Vanessa Redgrave (ATONEMENT), Sienna Miller (FACTORY GIRL), and Anthony Michael Hall. 

Who is directing? – FOXCATCHER is directed by Bennett Miller, who has helmed CAPOTE (2005), and MONEYBALL (2011). 

What to expect? – Bennett Miller’s last two films were Oscar darlings, so we can certainly expect quality filmmaking. In CAPOTE, Miller explored the dark depths of humanity and gained the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar. In MONEYBALL, Miller explored the hidden side of pro-baseball. FOXCATCHER seems to be channeling both of those films, and it will be interesting to see if Miller can pull some serious, grown-up performances out of usual village-idiots Tatum and Carell. And for what it’s worth, FOXCATCHER took home Best Director at the famed Cannes Film Festival this year. 


What is this about? – Set in the Old West, in independent-minded woman transports three insane women across the frontier with the help of a low-life drifter. 

Who stars in this? – Tommy Lee Jones plays the drifter, and he is joined by Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, William Fichtner, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT) and Miranda Otto (THE LORD OF THE RINGS).

Who is directing? – Tommy Lee Jones takes a seat in the director’s chair in his first big-nuts film production. 

What to expect? – Tommy Lee Jones has dabbled in directing before with some TV projects, so while it may be easy to pick on the rookie, the man has over 40 years of film experience in which he worked with and beat the best. In that time he must have learned something and now the time has come for him to let the world know what he’s learned. The cast, which reads like an Oscar all-star team, is clearly top-notch and will certainly help Tommy along in his new frontier.  In recent years Westerns have been a hard sell to the general public and to the Academy, as it’s possible the glory days of the genre have long since passed. But a great Western is still possible. The genre seems to call for a gentle touch; the type that only comes with experience. 


See the trailer for FOXCATCHER HERE
See the trailer for THE HOMESMAN HERE

Monday, November 17, 2014


In theory, making a movie about a person’s life should be an easy task. If the person’s life story is well known or well documented, connecting the dots or taking the story from A to Z should practically take care of itself. The trouble in that approach is that if the story is too well known, the movie can wind up being perfunctory and boring. The trick to make it work and work well is to find the human element or the true heart of the story and to stick with it. Such is the task for director James Marsh as he tackles the life story of famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. 

Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmanyne) fights through a debilitating disease which eventually leaves him without movement and speech. With his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) at his side and despite his physical limitations, Hawking tirelessly works and publishes his theories on the origins of the universe…even when his marriage is tested. 

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING right away avoids any of the old clichés of the standard biopic by starting the story during Hawking’s collegiate years. There is no monkeying around with scenes of him as a child having daddy issues or messing around with lost loves. Director James Marsh immediately gets down to business getting to the story; he right away gets to Hawking as a brilliant student who falls in love and excels mentally despite his body failing him. Just as Hawking was fascinated with the concept of time and the makeup of the universe, Marsh builds a fascination around his story which has a familiar, yet incredibly fresh feel. 

The science that Hawking grapples with is on full display when it needs to be. Hawking works hard to prove his theories on black holes, relativity, and singularity…but all that science by far does not bog down or derail the film. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING slowly transforms into a love story; this is all about Stephen and Jane and how they affect each other through the years…and there emerges the human element that is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. If this film were the Solar System, the scientific elements would be the planets…spinning around the radiant heart, or Sun. 

James Marsh does some exquisite work in bringing his film to life. Things are photographed beautifully, and his gentle touch in the intimate and not-so-intimate moments is perfect. Marsh also uses Hawking’s theories on the universe as metaphors for his character’s lives, and it works so well it blows the mind. 

For as great as the film is composed, it all seems small compared to the outstanding, stupefying, mesmerizing, tearjerking and stunning performance of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. Redmayne is brilliant and charming during the early goings of the film even before his character’s body begins to fail…and when it does, he proves his worth was one of the best actors working today. Redmayne contorts his body in such ways that must have painful to do, and he somehow transmits his charm and charisma even when his speech gets worse. Felicity Jones matches Redmayne in stride, and the supporting cast of David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Charlie Cox, and Simon McBurney are all excellent. 

For those of us who are even slightly familiar with Stephen Hawking, the finale leads us right where we expected to be but is very much worthwhile because the trip was so full of heart. Much like the universe, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING has many levels working at once…and shines brighter than any star.


Friday, November 14, 2014

A Reel Review: CAMP X-RAY

For the most part, the movies have avoided anything having to do with the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which was used to hold detainees suspected of terrorism after 9/11. Diving into those surroundings takes boldness and bravery, along with the important task of finding a human story worth telling. Enter CAMP X-RAY. 

Pvt. Cole (Kristen Stewart), is assigned to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp as a guard, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ali (Peyman Moadi), one of the detainees. 

CAMP X-RAY doesn’t exactly blaze new ground in military dramas with its plot; a soldier befriending the enemy is nothing new, but in these surroundings it turns into a great idea. This is a world not long after 9/11, when anyone who is even suspected of the lightest link to terrorism is detained with little to no hope for release.  The detestment the soldiers have for the detainees, and vice-versa, is up-front all of the time, not only because they have to keep the enemy alive, but because they hold them responsible for having to live in an ugly place so far from home. Director Peter Sattler spends a lot of time setting up what life is like for the soldiers and the prisoners; lives of monotony, boredom, and great isolation from the rest of the world, and it really doesn’t take long to feel empathy for both sides. 

At the heart of it all is the friendship forged between Cole and Ali. The film smartly avoids any of the old clichés of beauty-and-the-beast or KING KONG and doesn’t get sappy or overdramatic, but instead keeps the dialogue and the relationship on a very grounded and real level. The two characters hate each other for different reasons, but in their isolation they find common ground and it’s a great watch to see that territory explored. With Cole on the outside and Ali in the small cell, CAMP X-RAY is very much in the spirit of Hannibal vs. Clarice and it knows it (one character even mentions the famed film), but never feels like a parody or an outright copy. 

Director Peter Sattler makes it look he’s going to explore themes of war, power, and even sexism…but only seems to go so far. Great questions are raised like a great professor in a classroom, but like a poor class of dumb students, no answers are given nor are they explored fully. It’s shallow storytelling thematically, and it almost makes the film forgettable by the time the credits roll. On top of that, the main narrative often gets sidetracked by a sub-plot concerning Cole and a male soldier in the harassment area, but even this only goes so far; it feels like filler and the issue seems like it gets forgotten about since it never gets resolved. 

There is still a fair amount to enjoy in CAMP X-RAY, and most of that is from two spectacular and stunning performances from its two main actors. Kristen Stewart is surprisingly good; playing the cool and disciplined military soldier with a hint of loneliness perfectly. Peyman Moadi starts his time in the film as a villain but manages to turn himself into a very likeable character. Stewart and Moadi have great chemistry together despite always being separated by an iron door with a small window, and both make the best out of the difficult acting situation. 

The finale doesn’t go for any sort of whopper of an ending neither thematically or emotionally, which has us leaving CAMP X-RAY feeling a little hungry for more. This is worth a visit for great performances and a few good ideas, but it is a few great thoughts short of a repeat visit.