Tuesday, September 30, 2014

VIFF Reviews: Wild; Foxcatcher

I'm attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, featuring over 350 films over 16 days. I'll be seeing less than a dozen of these films, and I'll record my reviews and reflections here. I was present for the opening gala at the Centre for Performing Arts and viewed two biopics about unstable individuals struggling with the consequences of their decisions, featuring Oscar-worthy performances from their lead actors:

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee): Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee follows up Dallas Buyers Club with the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her journey from heroin addiction to freedom via the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1000+ mile hike from the border of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. Cheryl is portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in what is sure to be an award-winning performance of physical and emotional weight. Told in a series of flashbacks as Cheryl reflects on her choices, circumstances, and what brought her to make the rash decision to embark on such a grueling journey, Wild is directed in a manner to embody the scattered, reckless, and emotional nature of Cheryl. There are lots of fits and starts, quick cuts and edits, followed by long moments of quiet as Cheryl treks across the wilderness. Cheryl is a parallel to the backcountry where she journeys--beautiful and rugged, wild and delicate. It's a surprisingly funny film too; Cheryl's outbursts and silly determination made the audience often. Whether she's throwing her boots off a cliff, attempting to put on her enormous backpack, or being interviewed by a "journalist" for the "hobo news," Witherspoon fills Cheryl's journey with both humor and pathos.

Witherspoon's performance is laudable, yet it's Laura Dern as her spunky and joyful mother who caught my attention, reminding me of a more grown-up Poppy from Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky--she embodies proven optimism on the far side of pain. A single mother trying to make the most of raising two children on a waitress's paycheck, she never quite falls into the common trope of the "wise fool." She has a simple philosophy on life, and simply wants to choose happiness over cynicism, hope over despair. Brief flashbacks to Dern dancing in the kitchen or sitting with closed eyes in the warmth of the sunset are comforting contrasts to Cheryl's darker memories.

While God isn't a central figure in Wild, he's quietly present in the midst of Cheryl's pain. In one scene, Cheryl and her younger brother pray for their mother's health, with Cheryl taking on the classic prayer posture of closed eyes and folded hands. Her brother chides her for her attempts at spirituality. Neither seems to take the prayers too seriously at first. Yet in a few moments, both are quietly offering their prayers and hopes into the atmosphere, hoping their wishes for a miracle will be answered. When that miracle never happens, Cheryl's response to God is one of rage, screaming a hearty "f**k you" into the heavens. There are a lot of these middle-finger moments with Cheryl; she's got quite the vocabulary for expressing her pain and frustration, shifting from poetry to cuss words with seamless ease. Take caution: Wild is difficult film to watch sometimes, and Cheryl's downward spiral involves addictions to sex and drugs.

As I think of the similarly gritty Dallas Buyers Club, I think Vallee focuses his films on characters who are pushed to the edge of darkness by their own unhealthy choices, then find unique and determined ways to pull themselves out of the darkness. There is a theme of individualism in both films--both Cheryl Strayed and Ron Woodruff are singular personas making the most out of terrible circumstances, taking it upon themselves to fix their problems. They rarely rely on outside help, and when they do, the focus still remains on the individual arc. While there are quirky and beautiful secondary characters who end up playing significant roles and giving powerful performances (Laura Dern in Wild, Jared Leto in Dallas), these are individual journeys, one man/woman's dogged fight against what life has thrown them. Yet the light of hope is brightest only in contrast with our deep valleys of brokenness, and Cheryl's journey from her valley of death into freedom is both compelling and affecting. Wild is a remarkable film, and a solid opening to VIFF.

Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller): Foxcatcher is a filmmakers' film. Excellent direction, a compelling and well-crafted script, phenomenal breakout performances, and nary a bad scene in the whole movie. I'd encourage the viewer to go in cold to the film, with as little knowledge of the true events Foxcatcher is based upon. A brief summary will suffice: two brothers and Olympic wrestlers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively), find themselves caught up in the dream of wealthy sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carrell), who wants to win another gold medal for America. Over time, this triangle of relationships becomes more complex and volatile, leaving none unscathed.

Director Bennett Miller is an expert in crafting fascinating biopics about bizarre real-life stories and the determined, exceptional men who lead them. Capote earned plenty of award nominations and gained Philip Seymour Hoffman his only Oscar for his performances as the titular eccentric author. Moneyball was more accessible, following Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he took the Oakland Athletics on a journey towards a potential championship through unconventional methods. Miller's first film, the 1998 documentary The Cruise, follows the quirky Tim Levitch, a New York city bus tour guide whose passion for the Big Apple is palpable. Foxcatcher fits perfectly in this vein, expanding the singular determined eccentric protagonist to three. There is also something distinctly American about each of these stories. From a passionate exposition on the largest city in the United States, to a biopic on one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century, to a heart-warming story on America's favorite past time and sport, to a political satire and thriller disguised as a sports movie (du Pont declares they are winning gold for America)--Miller clearly has something to say about the American dream, its strengths and weaknesses, its glory and its shadows.

The three leads are phenomenal in their portrayals of Mark, Dave, and John. I never thought I'd say this, but Channing Tatum might have the strongest performance of the lot, despite Steve Carrell's chilling transformation into du Pont, prosthetic nose and all. While the performances are excellent, the script doesn't allow us to truly know each man and their motivations, to see inside their heads and understand why this particular story unfolds. As I was exiting the theatre after the screening, the world that came to mind was aloof. Distant and cold, watching Foxcatcher unfold was akin to entering an unknown museum to look at the artwork--it may be beautiful to behold, but I was never fully engaged with the characters. Mark is mostly silent, communicating in grunts and wrestling moves. John is downright creepy. Dave is the most relatable, a family man who cares for his little brother; yet even his motives for staying at Foxcatcher farms are never understood.

Foxcatcher is disturbing, amusing, powerful, and detached. It's at once a sports film, a thriller, a family drama, and a political satire. I have no doubt it'll earn plenty of attention when award season rolls around, and those awards will be deserved. Yet Foxcatcher, for all its merits, never fully captured my attention or my heart. Du Pont, for all his dreams of winning gold, never won me over to his vision.

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