Thursday, 29 January 2015

FILM REVIEWS: FOXCATCHER/THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING



Lose weight, win an Oscar. Gain weight, win an Oscar. Play a physically challenged role, win an Oscar. Play a mentally challenged (but not full retard) role, win an Oscar. It's a cynical way to view the art of acting, where the body is as much an instrument as the face and voice, but it's also undeniable: roles requiring physical transformation garner attention.

Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything, both contenders this awards season, are two very different films but the performances at the centre of both revolve around physical transformation.

In Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher (Roadshow Films), a chilly, almost hermetically-sealed drama, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave; Olympic wrestlers who each won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Both actors give very physical performances, and not just in the scenes of actual wrestling training and competition.

Tatum, always a fine physical specimen, is here muscular in a granite kind of way, so much so that it effects the way he walks; stiff-legged and always front on. And even when he is still, his bottom lip juts out and his eyes are laser-focused on nothing, as though a hulking statue pondering its own existence.

Ruffalo, too, has transformed. He walks with a dragging of his feet as though always sidling up to an opponent, and when he stands, his body appears to lean in two different directions -- the top half forward, the bottom half back -- as though the years of wrestling have literally bent him out of shape.

Steve Carrell has also transformed for his role in Foxcatcher, and not just from comedic to dramatic actor (always worth an awards vote or two). As John Du Pont, millionaire heir to the Du Pont chemical empire, he sports a very noticeable proboscis (a fake nose will also get you awards attention). One doubts his nose is the reason he likes to be called 'The Eagle' by his friends (of whom he appears to have none); more likely the obliviousness and vanity that comes with the absolute power of old money and being surrounded by 'yes' men.

It's perhaps the same reason Du Pont decides he wants to train the US wrestling team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and why he brings first Mark then David Schultz to his Foxcatcher Estate, a decision which you just know isn't going to end well. If you don't already know of the events which unfolded at Foxcatcher Estate in January 1986, Miller's icy, foreboding tone -- not to mention the foreshadowing introduction of a gun earlier in the film -- will have you suspecting that the story doesn't end with a medal ceremony in Seoul.



There are no guns in The Theory of Everything (Universal Pictures), a terribly British true-life drama, but you know exactly where this tale of the love between one of the greatest minds in human history, Stephen Hawking, and his wife, Jane, a doctor in her own right (and from whose book, Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the screenplay is adapted), is headed.

Directed by James Marsh, better known for his documentaries including the Oscar-winning Man On Wire (2008), and the brilliant Project Nim (2011), The Theory of Everything charts the relationship between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) whilst simultaneously following Hawking's battle with the debilitating motor neurone disease.

Given two years to live when first diagnosed in 1962, Hawking goes on to write several books about time and the creation of the universe as well as father three children with Jane. Jane's own studies, into medieval Spanish poetry, are sidelined as she sublimates her intellectual (and sexual) desires to care for Stephen and raise their family.

Jones, a fine actress (see the wonderful Like Crazy (2011)), brings depth to the stoic Jane but not surprisingly, it is Redmayne's physical and, yes, transformative performance which is the film's centre piece (and the spearhead of its awards season campaign). Apart from looking remarkably like a young Stephen Hawking, Redmayne twists and turns his body from head-to-toe; a progression of contortions as the disease gradually takes everything from him -- including his voice, lost to a tracheotomy following health complications -- bar his beautiful mind.

Yet The Theory of Everything is as warm and fuzzy as Benoit Delhomme's cinematography, and not nearly as gnarly and complicated as its hero's (and heroine's) battle must have been. That's a shame, specially since Marsh's Project Nim was an unflinching yet humane look at a hero also at the mercy of forces beyond his control. (And no, I am not comparing Hawking to a chimpanzee.)

The performances in both Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything are all fine, with varying degrees of greatness even; the less obvious performances of Tatum, Ruffalo and Jones easily overlooked, however, by the more show-y ones of Carrell and Redmayne. At least we can be thankful that neither man, in his pursuit of that golden statuette, went full retard.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

MOVIE TIX GIVEAWAY: THE GAMBLER



Jim Bennett (Academy Award®-nominee Mark Wahlberg) is a risk taker. Both an English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Bennett bets it all when he borrows from a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams) and offers his own life as collateral. Always one step ahead, Bennett pits his creditor against the operator of a gambling ring (Alvin Ing) and leaves his dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy mother (Academy Award®-winner Jessica Lange) in his wake. He plays both sides, immersing himself in an illicit, underground world while garnering the attention of Frank (John Goodman), a loan shark with a paternal interest in Bennett’s future. As his relationship with a student (Brie Larson) deepens, Bennett must take the ultimate risk for a second chance…

To celebrate the release of THE GAMBLER, we have 5 double in season passes to be won. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed (@TheLennoXFiles) for your chance to win. Note: Competition open to Australian residents only.

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Monday, 26 January 2015

FILM REVIEW: STILL ALICE



Icon Films Distribution

The mind is a terrible thing to waste. It's an equally terrible thing to lose, particularly if your intellect is integral to who you are, your vocation and how you engage with the world on a professional and personal level.

Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, has a beautiful mind -- but it's slipping. Forgotten appointments, becoming disoriented whilst jogging on campus, and not being able to recall the word 'lexicon' during a seminar are indicators that something is not quite right.

Alice (Julianne Moore) suspects a brain tumor but the diagnosis is worse: early onset Alzheimer's disease. Ironically, the disease will see Alice's cognitive condition decrease at a faster rate to other sufferers because of her higher I.Q. Still Alice, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from a novel by Lisa Genova, charts the progress of this disease and Alice's mental decline in a rather straightforward, melodrama-free study.

While her husband (Alec Baldwin) and grown children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish) are devastated by the news (the disease's genetic factor has implications for all three children) and are fully supportive, this is very much Alice's story and journey. And the directors couldn't have asked for a more effective conduit than Julianne Moore.

What could so easily have been a 'disease of the week' telemovie is elevated by Moore's restrained performance. Watching the light gradually fade from this bright woman's eyes as the disease takes its toll and every day words, her children's names and her very identity are misplaced or erased from her memory is difficult to watch. And Moore conveys it all without histrionics; Alice withdraws into herself, diminishing physically as well as mentally.

But she is still Alice. In the film's most powerful scene, the former professor gives a speech at an Alzheimer's conference where she gives word to her daily battle to remember and reclaim who and what she is. While it may not appear to be the case, Alice, the real Alice, is there; trapped on the inside looking out.

If we are nothing more than the collection of our memories, do we cease to exist when we no longer have access to or the ability to recall those memories? The ability to remember who we were, what we achieved and whom we loved? Still Alice takes an unblinking look at the insidious nature of Alzheimer's disease, the gathering yet silent storm, with Julianne Moore as our emotional weathervane.

Monday, 19 January 2015

FILM REVIEW: WILD



20th Century Fox Films

Not quite 12 months ago, Mia Wasikowska, four camels and a dog packed up and headed into the Australian interior on a journey of self discovery and an exorcism of personal demons. That film, Tracks, directed by John Curran, was based on the bestselling memoir by Robyn Davidson who undertook that perilous trek in the 1970s.

In 2010, Cheryl Strayed walked out of her life and on to the the Pacific Crest Trail, undertaking the 1100-mile trek in a similarly challenging journey of self exploration and exorcism. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) and also based on a true story and personal memoir (adapted by Brit author Nick Hornby), shares many themes and ideas with Curran's film but it is very much its own undertaking.

For one, the film's two heroines couldn't be more different. Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) is the polar opposite of Davidson's loner; the American forced to a fork in her road following the death of her mother and 'love of her life' (Laura Dern) and her subsequent downward spiral of extreme and extrovert behaviour (drugs, casual sex with random strangers, divorce). She needs to get her life back on track, and walking away from it all seems to be the answer.

As Cheryl undertakes the trek, which she is amusingly unprepared for -- too much of the wrong equipment and ill-fitting shoes -- we see glimpses of her life pre and post-grief: her happy but by no means idyllic childhood, where she, her brother and mother survive the wrath of a drunken, abusive father; her mother's illness; her self-abuse as a coping mechanism following her mother's death; the collapse of her marriage (Thomas Sadoski plays the husband); and the friend who is there to catch and slap her when she hits rock bottom (Gaby Hoffmann, pulling BFF duties again after Obvious Child).

Like his 2011 film Cafe de Flore, Vallee tells Cheryl's story through editing; a hallucinatory collage which eventually connects the dots of Cheryl's life as it unspools before her, stream of consciousness-like, as she struggles with her emotions and the elements on the Pacific Crest Trail. (If Tracks gave us too little access to its heroine, her thoughts, feelings and motivations, then Wild arguably gives us too much.)

Witherspoon (a producer on the film, and having a good year after also producing David Fincher's Gone Girl) gets her meatiest screen role since winning the Best Actress Oscar in 2005 (for Walk The Line), and there's similar buzz around this performance and not just for the superficial 'de-glamming, vanity-free' nature of the role: Witherspoon embraces the role of this headstrong though not entirely logical woman who, unprepared for the hardships of her adventure, is bruised and bloodied both literally and metaphorically.

That Strayed survived, got her life back on track and published a successful memoir (Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail) is testament to her own strength but also her grieving process: grief is a personal thing and there is no right way to experience it.

Similarly, if you saw -- and loved -- Tracks, there's no reason not to go along for Wild too; each film is as personal and rewarding for the viewer as the journeys were for their respective heroines.