Foxcatcher is our pick of the week…

Into the new year with some words from one of film’s maverick creators…

- - -

That was the week in which…

David Cronenberg (pictured, above) questioned the changing nature of the film critic. 

“I think the role of the critic has been very diminished, because you get a lot of people who set themselves up as critics by having a website where it says that they’re a critic,” he commented. There are, he added, legitimate critics affiliated to publications and websites, but also “all these other people who just say they’re critics and you read their writing and they can’t write, or they can write and their writing reveals that they’re quite stupid and ignorant.”

He defines legitimate critics as those who “have actually paid their dues and worked hard”, but also notes that such easy access has allowed some strong but otherwise undiscovered writers to reach an audience. As much as there’s some truth in his argument – you won’t need to search for long to find an example of which he derides – it’s undermined by mankind’s innate need to form an opinion. Regardless of the writer, a review is by its very nature an emotional response to an experience that has at least attempted to be argued in a cerebral manner. Of course you can quibble with the author’s credibility, but it’s much harder to truly define what makes such an opinion incorrect.

Regardless of a writer’s strengths, or otherwise, film criticism has evolved beyond the gatekeeper idealism of the past in which a tiny minority commanded the entire field. Now, film criticism is an eclectic field of indistinct noise, with the film industry legitimising forms as varied as an in-depth Sight & Sound-style deconstruction of a film’s cultural context, technical qualities and ultimate value as a piece of art, right down to a celeb tweeting: “whiplash was propa sic GO SEE IT lol.”

Just as importantly, readers aren’t stupid. They can judge just how much credence to give each source, and that’s if they give any reviewers any credence at all. In the wider promotional context, the review seems to act as an almost subliminal guide to quality: if the TV ads and the posters on the Tube and famous names on social media and the big magazines and the specialist bloggers all say a film’s good, it’s hard not to subconsciously accept that as received wisdom. It’s a marketing tool which complements the wider promotion of a film: the booming trailers, the interviews, the glossy red carpet reports, the months of speculation and anticipation.

In that respect, reviews clearly have value. At the same time, if you hate a film you’re not going to be swayed by any review, regardless of whether it’s a cerebral and witty argument from an expert source or a vulgarian posting 140 steaming turd emojis on Twitter. In that sense, we’re all equal: we’re all worthy of consideration or we’re all wasting an inordinate amount of time.

- - -

The Big Film: Foxcatcher

The big American sports movie is often reliant on tropes that trickle into cliché: typically, a rags-to-riches underdog becomes the champion having overcome some chronicle cocktail of personal demons, addiction and self-destruction.

Foxcatcher isn’t that movie. Yes, it’s centred around philanthropist John du Pont’s efforts to bring wrestling gold back to the States at the 1988 Olympics with champion brothers Mark and David Schultz at the helm as figureheads and coaches. The main competition on display, however, seems to be a one-man contest as du Pont wages psychological warfare on Mark, the quieter of the two siblings.

The performances of the three leads represents Foxcatcher’s strongest trait. As du Pont, Steve Carell plays against type in the most extreme of fashions as a cold master of manipulation; a patriot possibly plagued by mental health issues. It’s a stunning reinvention, weakened only by the lingering suspicion that his prosthetic nose sparks latent memories of Facejacker. Somehow, Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz) trumps him with the same kind of deeply scarred beefcake masculinity that he exuded way back in A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. Mark Ruffalo also excels as David, albeit in a role that is comparatively restrained.

Foxcatcher possesses some big moments – notably Mark Schultz’s grim binge-and-purge in a desperate attempt to hit a competition’s maxing weight limit – but generally its drama percolates around the increasingly fragile psyche of its core characters. That solemn pacing surely isn’t helped by the lunatic emptiness of du Pont’s surroundings: clearly a man who can buy everything but companionship.

Moneyball director Bennett Miller balances the solemn tone with intensifying anxiety as the film edges towards its chilling denouement. As a whole, its ponderousness conflicts with the energy of its emotional manipulation, leaving a gripping curio in place of an expected masterpiece.

- - -

Also Out: Into The Woods

Love them or hate them, musicals are big business. The latest stage musical to be adapted for the screen is Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway hit Into The Woods – in a Disney production that’s surprisingly subversive.

Rob Marshall directs this all-singing, all-prancing cynical swipe at traditional fairy tales. Weaving together several familiar Brothers Grimm stories with an original central plot about a childless baker and a witch’s curse, and setting the action in one shared catalytic location (the woods), Into The Woods has plenty going on.

Pacing such a convoluted story is no mean feat – and that’s reflected. You’re regularly pulled into the action and then yanked out as the story, punctuated by musical numbers, stutters along, spending too long on some chapters and zipping through others.

What it does do well is humour. James Corden and Emily Blunt together do a good job of grounding things – it’s their delivery that’s key. The rest of the casting is almost pitch-perfect, with Anna Kendrick as the brunette, independent anti-Cinderella; Meryl Streep on delectable Death Becomes Her form as the vain, self-obsessed – but likeable – witch; and Chris Pine as an insincere Prince Charming. Plus, an eyebrow-raising cameo from Johnny Depp as the lascivious wolf of the Red Riding Hood fable is laudably near-the-knuckle.

At times, you’ll want to jam your fingers in your ears – if this wasn’t Disney, you’d swear all that shrill trilling was deliberately (read: subversively) cacophonous, but with echoes of The Princess Bride and Roald Dahl’s brilliant Revolting Rhymes poems, Into The Woods is a fun, self-aware, satirical romp that turns old-fashioned fairy story morality on its head to send a refreshingly modern message. Words: Kim Taylor-Foster

- - -

Also Out: Erebus: Into The Unknown

In 1979, Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus while embarking upon a sightseeing voyage over Antarctica. Dispatched to crash site were a team of New Zealand police officers: their prior experience hardly the ideal grounding for such a major incident in a particularly challenging environment.

Depicted with the combination of contemporary interviews and reconstructions that have typified every TV docu-drama from 999 to Paranormal Witness and running at a scant 69 minutes, Erebus: Into The Unknown is as modestly structured as any of its small-screen cousins.

The experiences of the recovery crew are given precedence over the investigation of how the plane’s apparently safe route could result in such tragedy – an approach that heightens the film’s emotional impact. Collectively, the police officers are young men who approach the situation with a seesawing mix of understandable naivety and utter nervousness. Balancing organisational detail with draining levels of commitment, their efforts are all the more inspiring given their lack of preparation. Such were the horrors that they faced, they’re still visibly traumatised by the experience almost three decades later.

Although not as electrifying unpredictable or as elegantly crafted as preeminent documentaries such as The Imposter and Touching The Void, Erebus: Into The Unknown is an efficient account of a remarkable story.

- - -


Adam Deacon was arrested after failing to show up in court to face charges of harassing Noel Clarke. Their beef seems have originated after Kidulthood / Adulthood creator Clarke took offence at Deacon appropriating the “hood” suffix for his urban parody Anuvahood. In Clarke’s defence, it can’t be much fun seeing someone having so much success by laughing at your work. On the other hand, as Deacon argued to Time Out: “No-one’s got any rights to the word ‘hood.’ You’ve got Robin Hood, Little Red Riding Hood.” 

The UK’s first weekend box office of the year was conquered by Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything (pictured) with a £3.75 million gross. The Slayer-referencing haunted house sequel The Woman In Black: Angel Of Death was the second highest new entry at #4 with over £2.4 million taken, followed by Birdman at #7. Despite the festive season being well and truly over by last weekend, plenty of people still went to see Dude, Where’s My Donkey? and Get Santa.

Finally, it seems that Marvel’s designer spent less than 10 minutes working on the first poster for Ant-Man:

- - -

Words: Ben Hopkins, except where indicated

More Clash Film content

Buy Clash Magazine
Get Clash on your mobile, for free: iPhone / Android


Follow Clash: