Monday, December 22, 2014

Reviews: The Hobbit Part 3, Foxcatcher

I managed to see two films over the past weekend, both very different in tone and scope. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies and Foxcatcher. The performances in Foxcatcher and the CGI wizardry in The Hobbit were the standout achievements in both films.

The Battle of the Five Armies is the third and final film in Peter Jackson's drawn out re-telling of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. In a similar trend he went through with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson has made better films as the series has gone on and Five Armies is the most impressive of the bunch thanks to a lot of action and large scale epic battle sequences. Martin Freeman once again takes center stage as Bilbo Baggins who ends up smack dab in the middle of an all-out war between men, dwarves, orcs and elves over the treasure left behind by the dragon Smaug.

Even before the title credits roll we see Smaug lay waste to the village of Laketown and watch as Bard attempts to slay the Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced beast. The sequence is intense to watch and serves as an appetizer for the main course (the titular battle). Jackson spares no expense in building the action and tension to a grandiose scale (similar to but not quite as emotionally intense as the final battle in Return of the King). WETA Digital does what WETA Digital always does, bringing top-notch computer generated effects that help convey the epic size and scale of the battle sequences. Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) brings a human element to the central Dwarf King of the film. Thorin lets power corrupt him only to find peace before his demise as he reconciles with Bilbo. Ian Mckellan's Gandalf makes his 6th appearance in a Peter Jackson film and ties the various strands of narrative together.

This film is fun to watch and brings the Hobbit series to a proper close. As a whole however, the series is just not as powerful as LOTR and lacks the emotional depth of the previous trilogy. As I watched a similar goodbye sequence to Return of the King, watching Bilbo say goodbye to his dwarf company just didn't affect me the way the parting of the Hobbits did in Jackson's Best Picture film. The heart and soul of the characters is lost a bit in this latest trilogy and makes The Hobbit a far inferior series of films as a result.

Still, it was fun to see Jackson return to the Shire once again for the last time. He ends up tying the end of the Five Armies into the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring with a seamless transition that works well. 4 out of 5 JRs for probably the best of the Hobbit trilogy of films and a fitting farewell to Middle Earth for one of the greatest directors of his generation.

Foxcatcher is Bennett Miller's (Moneyball, Capote) retelling of the true story of Mark and Dave Schultz, USA wrestling brothers who end up befriending and training with John Du Pont, heir of the Du Pont family fortune in the 1980's and 90's. Channing Tatum plays the younger Schultz brother Mark who is first wooed to the Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania by Du Pont (a somber Steve Carrell with a hell of a prosthetic nose) shortly after the Schultzs both won Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984.  Dave Schultz (a gruff looking Mark Ruffalo) initially refuses Du Pont's training offer and decides to stay with his family instead. The movie focuses on the relationship between the three men and the father-son bond Du Pont and Mark Schultz have. I won't get into the real-life tragic event that occurs towards the end of the film so I don't spoil it for those who do not know about it.

Miller's film is pretty droll and bland with limited musical accompaniment and a deadpan delivery from most of his actors. The film does a good job of giving the audience an inside look at the life of a reclusive and wealthy philanthrope, but it really is the performances alone that carry an otherwise slightly boring narrative.  Carrell gives probably his best performance of his career as an ornery individual who tries to live vicariously through the talented young men he trains. He actually comes across similar to the Gru character he voices in Despicable Me. His lack of emotion and empathy for certain aspects of his life is strange and off-putting. Tatum is really solid in his first real dramatic role and brings a sense of passion and eagerness to Mark Schultz. We can tell he's a little reluctant of Du Pont at first but learns to put his full trust in him as he realizes he can be the best wrestler in the world by utilizing the training resources Du Pont can afford. When Mark fails to give his best performance in one of the Olympic Trial events, his ensuing rage within his hotel room is authentic and believable. Channing Tatum has never been better in a film. Ruffalo is solid as well and is very believable as the older nurturing brother.

Overall the movie is not that strong as a whole. Yes, the performances are great, but the movie doesn't really expand upon what happened in the end. The tragic event that occurs just "happens" without explanation, buildup or any sort of follow-on analysis. The motive is very unclear (as apparently it was in real life as well) and the payoff just isn't there. I would highly recommend to wait for video for this movie unless you absolutely want to see it before awards season. Carrell will get an Oscar nomination (and really Tatum should as well). A lukewarm 3.5 out of 5 JRs for Foxcatcher. One of the more muted and strange films of 2014.

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