Foxcatcher (2014)

2015 #136
Bennett Miller | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The director of Capote returns with another true-crime tale. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) feels overshadowed professionally by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), so when John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir of the richest family in America, offers his support in the run up to the 1988 Olympic Games, Mark eagerly accepts. Moving to special facilities constructed on the Du Ponts’ Foxcatcher estate, Mark soon finds himself in an odd symbiotic relationship with John, which turns increasingly sour when Dave is finally persuaded to join their team.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I was too young to be cognisant of events surrounding an Olympic Games held 27 years ago (the story’s climactic events actually occurred a few years later, but still), but I didn’t know what striking event happened at the end of Foxcatcher, just that something did. That tension — knowing something significant happens, but not what it is — lends the film a little air of the thriller. However, that angle is something entirely brought by myself (and anyone else who doesn’t know the story). The film itself is ‘just’ a character drama.

Fortunately, it has three leads who are up to carrying a narrative of that nature. In a rare dramatic role, and lumbered with a hefty prosthetic noise, Carrell’s John Du Pont almost feels like a caricature rather than a plausible human being… but apparently the film has actually toned down how odd the man was, so what are you gonna do? It’s a memorable performance none the less. Tatum is an understated lead, demonstrating he’s a better actor than you might expect as he displays emotional complexities in a man who doesn’t seem especially emotionally complex. Showing a character struggling with feelings he probably doesn’t quite understand is quite a feat, especially when it’s not explicitly conveyed in dialogue, so applause for Tatum there. Ruffalo, meanwhile, provides typically strong support, embodying a wrestler — right down to a very specific, unusual way of carrying himself — from the guy who plays Bruce Banner rather than the Hulk.

Unfortunately, for all their effort, the film is a little lacking in insight. Reading up some afterwards, it seems no one knows the true motivations behind the aforementioned surprising events, so it’s left to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and director Bennett Miller (for whom this story was something of a passion project), to posit any explanations. They do this subtly, leaving it up to the viewer to read what they want — or can — into everyone’s actions. However, it’s an issue that some facts have been bent to make for a more succinct narrative, making one wonder if anything the film may suggest is consequently wide of the mark.

As it finally shakes out, Foxcatcher is a solid movie, and certainly worth a look, but only really for the performances and the passing interest of finding out what happened, if you don’t already know.

4 out of 5

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

2009 #94
Sidney Lumet | 122 mins | TV | PG / PG

Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express is arguably Agatha Christie’s most famous novel, perhaps because of its widely-known twist ending, or perhaps because it’s inspired in part by a high-profile true story, or perhaps because of this multi-Oscar-nominated all-star adaptation.

The plot is the stereotypical Christie set up: a group of fairly well-off people find themselves in a confined setting, one is killed, a sleuth works out who. This time it’s a train rather than a luxurious mansion, but the basics are there. This isn’t a criticism — I enjoy a good Christie adaptation as much as everyone else who’s kept the current TV incarnation on air for 21 years (and counting) — and here at least Christie has a number of twists to her usual style. As mentioned its launching point is a true story, the Armstrong kidnapping and murder being based on the Lindbergh kidnap of 1932 (just a couple of years before the book was written); the snow-bound train’s location (very apt after our recent weather) is certainly different to a stereotypical country estate setting; and then there’s the infamous ending.

I won’t spoil it here, just in case anyone doesn’t know it. Some are very critical of this particular denouement, labeling it an unsatisfactory cop-out that doesn’t make sense. Neither of these things are true. It is not reliant on an extraordinary coincidence — it might look that way at first, but the full explanation reveals it to be anything but — and there are numerous clues along the way as to what it might be, even if some are more thematic than the actual red herrings that almost lead Poirot astray. It’s a shame that knowledge of the ending is quite widespread these days, though that’s perhaps inevitable for a 76-year-old story. Still, I’ve done my bit.

In the lead role, Albert Finney’s Poirot may have received an Oscar nomination and, more importantly, been approved by Christie herself (according to some; according to others, she wasn’t impressed), but he now pales in the inevitable comparison with David Suchet’s definitive portrayal of the Belgian detective. Suchet has defined Poirot in a way few other major franchisable characters have been (Connery may be widely accepted as the best Bond, but there are plenty who’d choose Moore, Craig, Dalton and Brosnan, and you may even find someone who likes Lazenby; equally, Sherlockians may divide themselves between Rathbone and Brett, not to mention Cushing and hundreds of others). He has the advantage of being able to perfect the role across hundreds of hours of television, but nonetheless stands proud as the high-watermark that others can only try to reach (even those who played the role 15 years earlier).

Finney’s version is more obviously comical than Suchet’s. Where humour in the latter is derived from his serious fastidiousness, Finney plays it more for laughs; where Suchet seems almost solemn in his investigations Finney frequently bursts into laughter. It’s a broader interpretation of the character, one that ultimately lacks subtlety. At least Finney is thoroughly subsumed in the role, which means that after a while one does become accustomed to it.

The rest of the cast are well suited to their roles. Ingrid Bergman won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, though one wonders if it was a weak year for the category as her part is miniscule and not particularly memorable. Elsewhere, famous names such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Michael York, and many more, round out a truly star-studded ensemble where each has but a small part to play. It must be relatively easy to attract big names to Christie adaptations — as the TV series still do — when the author is so beloved and the amount of time required to shoot is (for a guest star) so small. Best here, perhaps, is Martin Balsam as Poirot’s friend Bianchi, who’s treated to several good scenes, not least the series of interviews where after each he confidently declares “it was them!”

As a standalone film, Murder on the Orient Express is a skilled effort (I can’t comment on its quality as an adaptation because I’ve never read the book). For a viewer so familiar with Suchet’s interpretation of the character, however, even an all-star cast can’t quite remove the feeling that it’s not quite right. The Suchet-starring adaptation of this particular case has been filming recently, hopefully for broadcast later in 2010 (though knowing ITV we could have to wait as long as 2012), but even though it’ll have the definitive Poirot leading its cast, this film leaves a lot to live up to.

4 out of 5

(Originally posted on 15th January 2010.)

Agatha (1979)

2008 #62
Michael Apted | 100 mins | TV | PG / PG

AgathaThere are no giant wasps in sight as Vanessa Redgrave’s Agatha Christie goes missing for eleven days in December 1926, and Dustin Hoffman’s journalist tries to track her down. While the frame of the story is true, the reasons behind Christie’s disappearance, and what occurred during it, aren’t known — which makes it fertile ground for speculation. Sadly, a fantastical plot about jewel thieves and shapeshifting aliens is much more exciting than the down-to-earth mystery we’re offered here.

It’s easy to see the attraction of Christie’s disappearance: it’s a real-life mystery about arguably the greatest mystery author ever, with enough unusual events surrounding it to make it extra suspicious and a long enough gap for something significant to have happened. But while the idea is initially exciting, when it comes to retelling it there isn’t a great deal there — the facts of her disappearance are just the ‘before & after’, amounting to little more than an abandoned car, an assumed name and some amnesia. Unless one invents something to fill those missing days, there’s little to tell (she went to a hotel and forgot what happened, essentially) — so, of course, this film fills in the gap. With a murder mystery, naturally. Sort of, anyway.

To be honest, I found it a tad confusing for the most part. While the initial setup is well handled, showing what drives Christie to run away (consciously or not) and the beginning of the police search, it begins to flounder once the plot slides into its fully fictional phase. Hoffman’s journalist, who had been hoping to interview Christie, manages to stumble across her at the hotel, where he pretends not to know who she is, while she… has health treatments… It’s only at the conclusion, when Christie’s plan begins to come together, that one realises there was a plan at all. It’s a shame the revelation comes so late because it’s actually not that bad a plot, and makes for quite a neat and almost plausible (providing you can accept Christie as a potential murderess (sort of)) explanation for everything.

The performances do nothing to raise the film. Redgrave is lumbered with little to do, mostly wandering around looking dazed. Her performance is decent but the material she has is lacking. Hoffman, on the other hand, is just flat, while Timothy Dalton’s sneering Colonel Christie sadly barely features. On a more technical level, the police investigation subplot is disappointingly forgotten halfway through, and everything is shot with too little light. Sometimes the latter is effective, such as during a train journey where occasional flashes of light illuminate Christie’s uncomfortably blank face, but at other times it merely obscures events. (It’s possible this is just the print, of course.)

Christie’s disappearance remains a fascinating mystery, though in all likelihood the true causes were either very internal or mental health related — not the easiest thing to depict in a movie, especially when your audience is likely expecting a thriller. Agatha has a game stab at weaving an interesting tale into the gaps in the facts, but by the end I was wondering if a straightforward biopic mightn’t have been a better idea.

3 out of 5

Wilde (1997)

2007 #90
Brian Gilbert | 112 mins | TV | 15 / R

WildeStephen Fry leads a starry British ensemble in this biopic of poet, novelist, playwright and genius Oscar Wilde. The film focuses not on Wilde’s literary achievements and public life, but on his private relationships with various men, and in particular his obsession with the young Lord ‘Bosie’; of course, eventually, all of these things collide.

Fry is perfectly cast as Wilde and Jude Law is suitably horrid as the spoilt, stroppy and thoroughly dislikeable Bosie, whose selfishness brings about Wilde’s downfall. Also worthy of note is the ever-excellent Michael Sheen in a smaller but vital role; he’s a criminally under-acknowledged actor.

4 out of 5