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Film Review


Foxcatcher is a dark and riveting tale of the privileged and the poor, and may be the best American film of the year. Bennett Miller, an American director who has some substantial films under his belt, Capote (2005) and Moneyball (2011), has turned out a powerful film about an American tragedy. It is a dramatic story that unfolded in the late 1980's in Pennsylvania horse country. This was home to the du Pont family, some of America's earliest and richest aristocrats. The du Ponts initially made their fortune manufacturing gunpowder during the Revolutionary War, then went on to develop explosives and chemicals. Even with many descendants, the family is still one of the wealthiest in America.

John Eleuthere du Pont, born in 1938, was raised in privilege and became interested in the natural sciences. He discovered several new species of birds, authored a number of books on birds, collected seashells on a huge scale, and created the Delaware Museum of Natural History to house his collections. He also had a world class collection of stamps, paying nearly a million dollars (in 1980) for the British Guiana penny black. His mother was very much a society figure, divorcing when John was quite young, and became known for her horse farm. John grew up in this riding and fox hunting milieu yet somehow became interested in wrestling and decided to put together a team that would represent the United States in the Olympics. After his mother died, he built a substantial training facility on the farm, and began recruiting wrestlers whom he thought had Olympic potential. He called his team, Team Foxcatcher, and gave them housing, nonstop training, and other support. Two of them, brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz, had already won Olympic golds. The subsequent story was widely publicized, but best not to refresh your memories before seeing this film.

Miller opens with Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum) being paid $20 to talk to high school students, and we follow him as he heads home, stopping at a cheap fast food joint, to get something which he wolfs down in his tiny sparse apartment. He has hardly said a word, and seems depressed and disconnected from life. But then he gets a call from a stranger, stating that the caller is representing John du Pont, and Mr du Pont would like to meet him. We next see Mark in du Pont's helicopter, landing at the farm, and being escorted into a palatial house. Mark is stunned by the scale and opulence. Steve Carell, playing John du Pont, walks in, and begins to talk to Mark, asking him to join a team he is putting together. Carell is brilliant here, playing a man accustomed to privileged, yet very reserved and uncomfortable in his own skin, and beginning to unravel.

Du Pont also wants to recruit Mark's brother, Dave, beautifully played by Mark Ruffolo. Dave, the older brother, is married with young children, coaching at a college. Dave is genuinely caring for his younger brother, who just doesn't having the life skills that the older brother has. In fact, Mark says very little throughout the film, yet conveys his emotions through very expressive facial gestures. Foxcatcher is essentially a three character film with all three actors giving their performances of a lifetime. The scenes between du Pont and Mark, and Mark and Dave, are worth the price of the film alone. In fact, this as good as you will ever see on a screen, and clearly headed for the Academy Awards.

The cinematography is outstanding, mostly done on location, with panoramic shots of the rolling Pennsylvania countryside intercut with many interior shots. The interiors are sometimes grand, but often they are fluorescent lit gyms or tiny apartments. Early on, the film has some excellent archival footage, probably 1920's, of riding events and fox hunts which set a tone and illustrate the life of the very rich. The camera work excels as well with many extreme closeups of the main characters. Miller gives us a very atmospheric film with the underlying tension never easing. The wrestling component of the story might suggest a guy film, but in fact it is a brilliant exploration of class conflict, brotherly love, and mental illness. I was very moved by this powerful film and expect it to become an American classic. Foxcatcher opened last week at the Kabuki and the Metreon, but does not seem to be playing anywhere else here in the Bay Area. It will likely open more widely in January. Running time: 134 minutes.

Many readers wondered why no film reviews over the past few months. We were in Prague and Budapest all of October, and swamped the week we returned. But began catchup on films, and those I thought outstanding are: Gone Girl, Birdman, Force Majeure, Whiplash, and two documentaries, Pelican Dreams and Citizenfour. The latter about Edward Snowden. Citizenfour was particularly impressive, but left me anxious and depressed about the extent of government surveillance. Have a great Thanksgiving (check your turkey for NSA bugs) and be sure the weekend includes some films on the big screen.

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