Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay--Part 1

      “War is over, If you want it”  John Lennon, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"

                        Review by Ken Burke

                                   The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1
                     (Francis Lawrence)

The sci-fi saga of Katniss Everdeen continues as the rebellion grows in Panem 
against the tyranny of President Snow with her as the Mockingjay, a symbol of independence.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

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What Happens: To fully understand what’s going on in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 movie, you need to have some background from the first two installments (The Hunger Games [Gary Ross, 2012; review in our April 6, 2012 posting], The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [F. Lawrence, 2013; review in our November 26, 2013 posting]) or the original Suzanne Collins trilogy of books (with this “final” movie broken into 2 parts—come back in November 2015 to see how it all concludes—emulating the “squeeze-as-many-eggs-from-this-golden-goose-as-possible”-strategy, inspired by similar expansions of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises’ final chapters and the even-more-egregious “split-one-book-into-3-movies”-strategy of The Hobbit [with Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies finally arriving on my birthday this year; thanks, mate, how thoughtful of you]), which I’ll spare you a repetition of, but if you need them you can look here for the books' summary—but heed my Spoiler Alert for how Mockingjay finishes—or to these links for the first and second movies (if you want more details than I’m about to give you on Mockingjay—Part I you can complete your Wikipedia-wallowing at this site—I know that this Web-based-collective-resource gets some flack from its detractors for being biased, incomplete, or sometimes just plain wrong about certain statements, but I think you’ll find all of these accounts to be intensely-documented and certainly accurate in at least their plot summaries of The Hunger Game movies so far).  What I will tell you is that life continues to be chaotic in somewhat-near-future-Panem (comprising much of what we know as North America; if you want more details on this aspect of our ongoing-story you can consult my Catching Fire review, which also offers a lot more details on the last episode’s plot than I’m going to bother with regarding the current one) as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and other survivors from the 75th Hunger Games debacle (Beetee [Jeffrey Wright]—a wizard at penetrating the Capitol’s cybersecurity so that rebel broadcasts can contradict the official “party-line”-video-brainwashing—and trident-swinging-warrior Finnick Odair [Sam Claflin]), along with Katniss’ mother (Paula Malcomson) and sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), her long-time-friend/occasional-romantic-attraction Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), her Hunger Games mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson)—forced to sober up in District 13’s Spartan surroundings where no recreational drugs are allowed, everyone dresses in jumpsuits, readiness for the eventual rebellion is the constant order of the day—similarly-distressed fashion-consultant Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), horrified at the monochrome underground world she’s retreated to, and Capitol-traitor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman—damn it’s good to see you again, even in this silly situation; I hope you're back for at least part of Part 2, although in original footage rather than recycled outtakes) find themselves in the underground city that houses the remains of the long-supposed-destroyed-rebels of District 13.

 However, Panem President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) refuses to dignify his opposition with that term, calling them instead “criminals” or “radicals,” as part of this movie’s ongoing deconstruction of how politically-based-propaganda can be well-manufactured by both sides as a conflict of ideas fuels the conflicts of armies.  Despite Katniss’ initial rejection of District 13’s leader, President (I guess the 13ers consider themselves to be the legitimate government of Panem) Alma Coin’s (Julianne Moore) request that this previous Hunger Games Victor become the Mockingjay, the inspirational-symbol of Panem’s growing revolutionary sentiment, Katniss changes her mind when she sees how her District 12 home was reduced to rubble in Snow’s revenge for her part in destroying the previous Games (only 915 of 10,000 in the District survived, thanks to Gale’s rescue actions) and when she learns that fellow-Victor (and now lover) Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is a captive dupe of the Capitol’s Panem-wide-broadcasts calling on the various strikers and mercenaries to get back in line as well as appealing to Katniss to aid the central government’s attempts to restore law and order necessary to prevent the country from falling again into the kind of anarchy that destroyed pre-Panem society.  The rest of Mockingjay—Part 1 deals with attacks on the Capitol, the unsuccessful attempt at retaliation on the hidden armaments and occupants of District 13, the liberation of Peeta and the other captured Victors (Finnick’s love Annie Cresta [Stef Dawson], rebel-for-any-cause Johanna Mason [Jena Malone]), culminating with the shock—Spoiler Alert reminder—that Peeta’s been programmed to understand Katniss as a dangerous enemy who must be killed so we end Part 1 with him strapped to a bed, thrashing around for escape, as we wait for a year for this to all come to closure.

So What? For me, the most significant thing about this part of The Hunger Games is the depiction of how both sides in a battle for a society’s future play the other as the mindless aggressors, bringing havoc to what each faction considers to be their vision of the country’s destiny (not unlike the recent U.S. elections where the rhetoric focused on imminent crisis and need for new, bold leadership before various catastrophes accumulate to take down our hallowed way of life).  In Mockingjay—Part 1 we see how Katniss may be a wily survivor in the manipulated-Hunger Games-battle-environments but she’s genuinely just a skilled-archer-teenager whose goals in those previous contests were only to protect her sister from having to compete in the first one (2 combatants are chosen at random from each District; Prim met that fate but Katniss intervened by volunteering to take her place), then in the second she was just trying to work cooperatively with several other combatants rather than kill them (as she had to do the first time) to bring the slaughter to a halt (but with a goal of getting Peeta rescued instead of herself if circumstances required it); she agrees to be the spokesperson for the rebellion but with demands that the Games-captives be freed from Capitol confinement and pardoned for seeming to be in league with the government, so ultimately she’s still more concerned for Peeta’s welfare than for the success of the resistance movement (at least until she sees firsthand the wanton destruction of her previous District 12 life), which makes her much more of a pragmatically-decided/rationalization-based-hero than a dedicated-from-the-very-fiber-of-her-being-warrior-against-evil, as with, say, Wonder Woman (finally coming to the big screen in 2016 as part of the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie [Zack Snyder]) or The Avengers(Josh Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting) Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson, also in Iron Man 2 [Jon Favreau, 2010] and Captain America: The Winter Soldier [Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, 2014; review in our April 10, 2014 posting])—although you might chalk that up to the differences between the futuristic sci-fi and fantasy genres in terms of situations, motivations, and physical abilities of the characters, but still we constantly get the sense in Mockingjay—Part 1 that Katniss is always struggling to rise above the fear, panic, and desperation of her situation of truly becoming a soldier overthrowing a ruling system that she detests rather than simply a lone woodland ninja, protecting herself and those close to her but more out of desperation than any sense of committed rebellion.  (Which gets us into dangerous, historically-weighted-gender-based-considerations about the protagonists in action-based-struggle-against-oppression-stories, even if Katniss is the creation of a female author: Gale comes off as a fierce opponent of the Capitol’s desecration of human dignity in the various subjugated Districts [as does President Coin, a complete-no-nonsense-leader who resists retaliation against the Capitol’s attack on District 13 in hopes of keeping her resources hidden, to be used more effectively when the rebels have a better option of inflicting serious damage on their adversaries], while Katniss spends a lot of this movie having nightmares, crying over the hurt and confusion she feels, and resisting a leadership role in generating armed resistance against the Capitol for fear it will result in retaliation against her beloved Peeta.)

 Thus, she’s a washout trying to act in studio-produced-videos encouraging District citizens to further the rebellion (just as Dave Schultz [Mark Ruffalo] could barely force himself to cite delusional-benefactor John du Pont as “a mentor” in the obnoxiously-self-aggrandizing-doc about du Pont in Foxcatcher [Bennett Miller; review in our November 19, 2014 posting]) but does eventually find her PR voice for awhile when she’s flown on location to the ruined remains of District 12, then starts to lose it again as she waits in quiet desperation for news of the raid to free Peeta (I’m assuming she was never considered to join that liberation team, both because she’s not really a trained soldier and because her vested interest in the success of the operation might have compromised its results).  So, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 furthers the story of how Katniss, along with her near and collective companions (especially the ones who destroy the dam feeding power to the Capitol), continue to increase their opposition to the well-dressed-fascists who subjugate their citizens in the name of “security” and “freedom,” but it does so in a stretched-out/played-for-time-manner intended to force us to pony up another huge payday next year (this opening weekend proved to be the largest of 2014 so far in the domestic market with $123 million taken in—although not up to the level of the $150+ openings of the previous 2 Hunger Games movies, yet Part 1 reached that goal in the international market with $152 million more from 85 countries not named U.S.A. or Canada), along with undermining the sense of dedication and inspiration that we’d hope to get from a primary, awe-inspiring, take-no-prisoners rebel leader by showing her resolute most of the time in only her very personal need to rescue Peeta.  It makes for an interesting sociological comment on the rhetorical manipulations that feed all segments of a society—not just the ones we’re supposed to understand as corrupt and evil—as well as the plausible reluctance of a young ordinary citizen to suddenly become the face of a revolution, but for something that’s intended as part of a rousing-action-movie-franchise this part of Mockingjay seems to mock its own existence with the expectation that we’ll just patiently wait for it to explode in its 2015 finale (or maybe be satisfied this fall/winter with the humongous clashes to come when The Hobbit wraps up is own overblown-intrusion on our time and wallets about a month from now [you’re welcome, if you like, to read our previous reviews of those Tolkien-adapted-lead-in-movies in our December 20, 2012 and December 17, 2013 postings]).

Bottom Line Final Comments: I can only hope that this monetarily-based-fascination with pushing trilogies (or final chapters, as with the Harry Potter saga) beyond their needed length will subside a bit after the uniformly-critical-coolness to this unnecessary-extension of what was originally just 1 book in the Hunger Games trilogy (these for-profit-narrative-extensions amusingly remind me of what was consciously intended as parody by Douglas Adams in his hilarious 5-volume-trilogy [?] of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, published 1979-1992); however, given the money made by this franchise and the others that have adopted a super-size-attitude, I assume we’ll see more of this sort of absurdity rather than less.  As for how The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 succeeds on its own merits, it’s not at all unwatchable (especially for a chance to see Hoffman again, as well as to contemplate whether we’re now getting Katniss with her long hair frequently flowing, rather than so often being in braids, as a means of helping audiences distinguish her from Shailene Woodley’s cropped-hair Tris Prior in the now-ongoing-alternate-futuristic-sci-fi-teenagers-save-the-world Divergent franchise—which may be better than The Hunger Games [or not], but I chose to not invest in another one of these repetitious-time-consumers [the first one, directed by Neil Burger, came out in spring 2014; next is Insurgent (Robert Schwentke), set for 2015, followed by the TWO PARTS (!) of Allegiant in 2016 and 2017], although comments on this other series are certainly welcome), but it seems more like a postmodern commentary on the marketing of ideas and products (including itself) than the best use of Katniss Everdeen as an inspiring-role-model for female teens and young women who constantly find depictions of themselves in action-based-movies to be in secondary positions relative to the commanding males who dominate their stories.  Certainly Katniss is justifiably angry and sincerely rebellious when she cuts a “rise up” promo in the rubble of her former home (or when she joins in with Gale, using some high-destruction-arrows to shoot down jets ordered by the Capitol to bomb a hospital full of wounded District 8 dwellers), just as she’s worried sick about the rescue of Peeta (then even more disturbed when she encounters him again, only to find him reworked into an obsessed assassin), but even though she’s right that there’s no one else for Coin and her team to call upon for the kind of media-awareness that Katniss possesses given her Districts-wide-coverage in the previous Hunger Games, she soon finds out that there are other impactful spokesmen for the incubating revolution when she sees how powerful a presence Gale presents when he does a long broadcast about the invasion of District 12 and his efforts to save as many of his neighbors as possible (all of this done not just to recruit rebels but also to flood the Capitol’s airwaves during the stealth rescue of Peeta and the others, but it sure showed male Gale as being as convincing and soul-stirring as was Katniss in her short spots—maybe even more so—giving her [and us] reason to question whether she’s up to properly reasserting herself as the supposed-central-figure in stabilizing all of this futuristic chaos when Mockingjay—Part 2 lands just in time for another tsunami of holiday cash a year from now).

 In the meantime—well, at least for the next 10 minutes or so—I’ll wrap up this snide review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 with my standard use of a Musical Metaphor to put the specific cinematic evidence in question into final perspective.  While I could go back to my “War Is Over” title material taken from a famous John Lennon anti-war-song (on the 1975 Shaved Fish compilation album of his solo singles released to that point in the U.S. [except for “Stand By Me,” also out earlier that year]) I may save that one for Mockingjay—Part 2, when I assume Panem's civil war will erupt, then truly be over.  For now, though, I’ll offer you 2 tunes from Lennon-colleague Bob Dylan, whose “Gates of Eden” (from the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album) at (a live version recorded at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, England on May 7, 1965) tells of the kind of breakdowns in a society-on-the-edge-of-collapse that often leads to civil war—restorative or not—while “Masters of War” (from 1963's The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) at warns of how such angry-social-upheaval-attitudes can be corrupted into propaganda toward an outwardly-directed-enemy (such as how our Cold War fear of the U.S.S.R. helped promote and support the very sort of “military-industrial complex” that war-hero-turned-President Dwight Eisenhower warned us against in his farewell speech to the nation in January, 1961).  War within Panem becomes inevitable when a central government that promotes stability only through the subjugation and exploitation of its citizens—where the elite are encouraged to ignore the injustices meted out to the vast majority of the population by the monstrous diversion of “games” where young people must kill each other in order to survive and bring extra food to their undernourished Districts—finally requires such rulers to impose themselves in a frightfully-physical-way upon anyone who defies their authority.  The existing episodes of The Hunger Games have set up the unchallenged case for retaliation by these downtrodden people, constantly plied with Orwellian logic and “Big Brother” video intrusions into their lives—although we really didn’t need the ongoing redundancy of such illustrations in Mockingjay—Part 1 except to stall the plot and increase tension for the big payoff next year—so now the stage is set for the tyrants to be overthrown by a war more justifiable than what Dylan rails against.  If you can curb your enthusiasm for this finale (even as The Hunger Games wrap-up will butt up against the late-season-2015 return of an even-more-successful-rebellion-based-series, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens [J.J. Abrams]), Lionsgate studio will rejoice in the opportunity to market it to you, just in time for the real battle to begin in our present society, the 2016 Presidential election, to which all candidates will assume that the Hunger Games’ slogan, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” applies only to each one of them.
Catch-Ups from Past Reviews
 Here are a few final additions to recent Two Guys in the Dark reviews, mainly inspired by my frequent contributor and for-all-practical-purposes -the-other-guy-in-the-dark, Richard Parker, of San Antonio, TX (sorry, Pat, but we’ll make history someday when we get something of yours posted here).  The first concerns Interstellar (Christopher Nolan; review in our November 13, 2014 posting) and the frequently-voiced-complaints that you can’t hear what the actors are saying at times because their dialogue is somewhat inaudible, especially in contrast to the foregrounded-Hans Zimmer-soundtrack (there’s not a problem with conflicting aural presence in Professor Brand’s [Michael Caine] death scene when he reveals the truth of the Lazarus Mission voyages to Murph Cooper [Jessica Chastain]; there it’s just a matter of Brand speaking so softly as he’s losing consciousness that only a few words are easy to catch unless you’re a lip-reader).  Nolan now admits that he mixed the soundtrack purposely to obscure dialogue at times, which forces audiences to extract information from the scene from other elements, requiring us to invest ourselves more in the experience rather than just having it all handed to us as we’ve become accustomed to over the last century by the standard methods of Hollywood entertainment filmmaking (Nolan’s using a general tactic with films done from the various Realist perspectives more so than the mainstream Formalist tactics of mainstream studio fare, but to say more than that here would require a full-blown-film-history lecture which I’ll save for some other time).

 Next, Richard led me to the fact that Stephen Hawking now has a Facebook page (only since October 7, 2014, yet he’s already gotten over 2 million likes; Two Guys in the Dark started ours back on May 30 of this year, but so far we’ve gotten only 118 likes [when I began writing this we had 119 but someone bailed out before I could get it posted; I guess I upset incoming-Senate-Majority-Leader Mitch McConnell one time too many] so maybe we need to start including more mathematical equations about black holes—if we could ever figure out how to write one) where you can find some short comments from him that are relevant to Interstellar and The Theory of Everything (James Marsh; review in our November 19, 2014 posting).  I had occasion to see The Theory … again a few days ago, which now prompts a couple of additional comments although not a reconsideration of my “mere” 3 ½ of 5-stars-rating-decision (despite the excellent, Oscar-nomination-quality-acting of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones).  First, at least as the film presents it, we should find no surprise that Hawking chooses time as his dissertation topic because he assumes he has so little of it left according to his initial medical diagnosis.  Second, previously I forgot to mention what’s probably the key image of the film (I wish I had resources to share it with you), shots of Stephen on the stairs in his home (which lead up to his living quarters) on the night of a celebration with Jane and some close friends following the acceptance of that doctoral project, where he’s retreated in response to the difficulty he’s now having with the simple matters of eating and drinking; while he’s there we get angles looking down on him from the second floor, then the reverse angle of him looking up at infant Robert behind a baby gate, with the scene showing both father and son as prisoners of sorts of their current physical conditions but one that Robert will grow out of even as Stephen will get worse, to the point where he can no longer even crawl up and down those stairs.  Third, given the Interstellar mention noted above with its evocation of Hawking's black-hole-research (and the crossover reality of Nolan’s physics collaborator, Kip Thorne, also being a close friend of Hawking’s and a minor character in The Theory …), I find it interesting that the first thing Hawking types into his new computer-speech-device are the opening lines from the “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” song (written in 1892 by Harry Dacre), also sung by the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)—a touchstone film for Interstellar—as it was devolving back to its primitive state as it’s being deactivated by astronaut Dave Bowman.  (Faithful-correspondent Parker has also led me to a 2004 BBC docudrama simply called Hawking, in 6 parts on YouTube beginning here—I’ll ask you to find the others on your own if you like—starring Benedict Cumberbatch which you also might be interested in, although I admit I haven’t had time to watch it yet but will soon.)

 Lastly about The Theory …, in regard to an early scene where Stephen is rousted out of bed by a classmate friend in order to attend their academic advisor's weekly seminar, then quickly scribbles the correct equations to 9 of 10 difficult physics problems on the back of railway schedules (he didn’t have any other paper available and probably ran out of room to do the last one) just before running off to class, it reminds me of a story about one of my grad school roommates, David Paredes—a law student—who was also rolled out of bed one evening by debate teammates in order to participate in a mock trial which apparently David pulled off brilliantly in a completely spontaneous manner, so it’s nice to know that I once knew someone who at least approached Hawking’s superb mental level, something that I can only admire from an I.Q. distance (not that I’m dumb—although I can’t prove that all of my readers would agree with that—but I feel myself to be clearly on a different plateau from the likes of them).  However, one person’s brilliance may simply be another person’s disinterest, just as one film critic’s anathema on screen may be another’s “best of the year!”  I bring this up again (just as I did in my review of The Theory …) to reiterate the point that, unlike some of my reviewer-colleagues, I try to avoid absolute decisions that a given cinematic experience is clearly this or that but prefer to acknowledge that it impacted me in a certain manner while others may find it better or worse (although in most cases my ratings are on par with either the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritics decisions, sometimes both in the rare cases where they match each other [the Metas are often about 10-20 points lower]).  I liken this to my recent attendance at Justin Timberlake’s concert at the Oakland (CA) Arena (November 22, 2014) where I admired the elaborate staging (especially during the second half when the front part of the stage moved all the way to the back of the hall so that the singers and some of the musicians were finally as close to those of us who paid for cheaper seats as the first half had been for those who anted up considerably more for tickets; my ever-fetching-wife, Nina, gets credit for this iPhone photo above and for getting me to the concert) and professionalism of all of the music and dancing but just have to acknowledge that I’m about 20-40 years older than most of the audience (wrong gender as well), wasn’t anticipating having to stand up all night to even see above my enthusiastic-fellow-attendees, and just am not the right listener for music I perceived as repeated-tempo, repeated-lyric songs (I’m sure my parents felt the same way about the 1960s British Invasion).  Similarly, I may well not be the ideal audience member for what James Marsh (and Jane Hawking) was aiming at in The Theory of Everything, which doesn’t make it a lesser film for many who see it (including the Tomatoes critics who gave it 80% compared to my 3 ½ of 5 stars) but for me it just represented a lesser approach toward the work of Hawking and his seemingly-luminous-importance than what I think could be achieved if it had not been constrained by working primarily from his ex-wife’s memoir.

 To close out these catch-up-comments, in looking over some recent postings on the Facebook page of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, I came across a couple of items relevant to Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller; review in our November 19, 2014 posting) that contribute to what I was saying about this film.  In Bernard Boo's interview with Miller at his Way Too Indie website, he cites the director as saying, “The style of the film is designed to desensitize you [so that you notice] all sorts of subtleties that are occurring beneath the surface in these performances. Part of that is silence. Silence has a way of magnifying and amplifying, sensitizing us. It’s also a very difficult thing to face because we like to feel the silences in an attempt to masquerade against something that we are uncomfortable with. Within this film, for example, there are moments where the silence just exposes and shines a light on something that might not be comfortable to look at.”  Then, Jeffery M. Anderson notes the following in his Miller interview from the November 21, 2014 edition of the San Francisco Examiner: “The style also showcases the wrestling in a very clear way, highlighting months of training that Tatum and Ruffalo put in to appear like Olympic gold medalists. Miller tells a story about ‘Saturday Night Fever’ in which John Travolta showed up to an early cut of the film, saw his dancing had been chopped up into myriad shots, and insisted it be put back into a few wide shots.”  (These comments about the power of silence in a soundtrack, along with wide shots vs. editing to convey certain aspects of a given film—with the wide ones being especially effective in showing the acrobatic/athletic/graceful abilities of dancers, physical comedians, and sports characters while the more actively-edited-scenes help build motion, rhythm, and impact in action-based-stories—also brings to mind another link I found in the SFFCC postings, one that compares images from 2 of modern cinema’s great masters, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, just for the power of the individual images alone—but with these shots taken away from their original scenes we lose the cinematically-stylistic-precision associated with Kubrick [more of a Realist depth-of-field/long-take/following-action-master for me, as shown in 2001: A Space Odyssey  (1968)—now we’re back to Interstellar associations—despite the grand cut between the flung animal bone and the spaceship] and Scorsese [more of a Formalist in his structuring through editing and visual-emphasis within shots—exemplified by the marvelously-brutal-fight-scenes in Raging Bull (1980)—despite his use of fabulous tracking shots through environments as with the opening of Goodfellas (1990)].)

 OK, enough diversion from what wasn’t worth writing about in the newest installment of The Hunger Games.  I’ll be back next week after digesting my annual Thanksgiving over-indulgence with reviews of something new.  11/25/14—11:15pm 
Well, hell!  I thought I was done composing this week’s posting material but some other ideas—along with watching very troubling news reports from the last couple of days—tell me that I can’t stop just yet.  Against the backdrop of ongoing concerns about Ebola, ISIS, immigration reform, governmental inability to function, and now the nationwide controversies, protests, and at-times-out-of-control-responses to the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson after his fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO last August, I just can’t pretend this all isn’t happening.  However, Two Guys in the Dark is a site devoted to film and related cultural analysis more so than an Op-Ed page, so I’ll attempt to be neutral on the events generating the crises shaking our society right now, trying instead to finish this posting with a little more music that I find appropriate to the situation.  In fact, my reconsidered-ending-self-dialogue started with the combination of my writing a bit about Martin Scorsese and wondering if I might add one more Musical Metaphor here, which naturally led me to that eternally-compelling-tune that he and I have both overused already, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (from the 1969 Let It Bleed album), at (shot in Amsterdam, 1995; Lisa Fischer’s vocals are really on fire along with Mick’s, even if the video quality is far from ideal), with its disturbing lyrics (available for you here if they may be hard to understand when sung; this video uses the album cut, with Merry Clayton stoking her own fire as the added vocalist) relevant to the fictional chaos brewing in The Hunger Games movies and the real-world-disturbances we face that keep reminding us that at times it seems we’re just “a shot away” from our own civil war, even if it’s not as official as the one we suffered through many generations ago (actual rebellion seems closer to happening in Thailand, where life has imitated art as protesters against their military-coup-rulers have started using the 3-finger-Mockingjay-salute, possibly at their own peril).  However, I’d like to provide music to lighten the mood some as well, even though this last chosen song also comes from a time of nationwide protests, anti-war-sentiment, race riots, and a destructive “cultural gap” that I lived through firsthand between Nixon’s Silent Majority and those of us who naïvely thought we could change the world with good vibrations, so in honor of trying to soften culture-clashes through laughter along with noting the Thanksgiving-timing of this posting, I leave you with Arlo Guthrie’s epic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” at (which I’ve also used a couple of times before and likely will again during this time of year)—from the 1967 Alice’s Restaurant album—in hopes that its attempt at bringing humor to events that speak to much larger substance than the garbage-dumping depicted in the song might lighten our respective moods a bit at a holiday time when the goal should be to share love, comfort, and material surplus with each other, easing our too-frequent-tensions whether they result from micro- or macro-level conflicts.  With wishes that the national situation will be a little calmer next week—maybe including some strategies for directions to emerge from our ongoing societal fog—I’ll broaden John Lennon’s original goal from our long-ago-back-at-the-beginning-of-the-review-title and add my desire for close-to-home-wars to be over as well.

If you’d like to know more about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 here are some suggested links: (47:29 interview with director Francis Lawrence and actors Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Sam Claflin, Donald Sutherland, and Natalie Dorme—be aware that while the video quality is quite nice here the audio in this clip is very poor—likely not an official clip from this press conference or if so a horrible embarrassment—so you’ll have to strain to hear clearly what anyone is saying but if you can make good sense of it you might find value in it … maybe … so I’ve included it here)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Theory of Everything and Foxcatcher

         This Review Is Inspired by Real Events
                        Review by Ken Burke
                                 The Theory of Everything (James Marsh)
A biography of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, based on a book by his ex-wife; it’s more about his humanity and their relationship than his complex cosmology studies.
                                                   Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Tense drama, based on the true story of famed amateur wrestling stars, Dave and Mark Schultz, and their tragic relationship with “coach” John du Pont of rich-family fame.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.

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 This week I’ll offer you a combo review of 2 films related, in my opinion, by 3 connections:  (1) They’re both based on first-hand-accounts of actual events, with many of the specific people portrayed still alive to see what’s become of their depictions so that influence may play into the films’ final versions, (2) From what I've learned by reading brief historical reports about their contents, both films compress and rearrange reality a good bit in the service of drama (not unusual at all in based-on-fact-features) so don’t use either one as Cliff Notes for essays on the people who serve as their main characters, and (3) Neither film will help you really understand what’s newsworthy-important about their leads but both are emotionally-effective in getting to why some of these people cared about the others in their stories so deeply—along with some very impactful acting in both that may well lead to Oscar nominations for some members of these casts.  With that in mind, I’ll somewhat stir my comments together but keep them mostly separate, with Spoiler Alerts flashing brightly, because The Theory of Everything is starting its expansion into wider distribution nationwide while Foxcatcher is just beginning its rollout, not coming to many markets until later this year (I was fortunate to see it at a press screening this week, just before it opens in San Francisco on November 21, 2014).  Now, with all that in mind, on with the show!

What Happens: In The Theory of Everything we follow the life of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) from the beginning of his Ph.D. program at Cambridge in 1963 (with all of the men sporting their proto-Beatle haircuts) to an unspecified time toward the present (although he’s presented as a new graduate student in the film, when he actually began his advanced work in 1962, so don’t expect either of the cinematic stories this week to be completely dependable in their chronological accounts because both have been shaped to fit the dramatic needs of their somewhat-fictionalized-scripts; where I know anything of fact vs. docudrama that might be of useful commentary, I’ll toss it in), but we know that we’ve made it at least into the 1990s because of the mentions of his (1988) book, A Brief History of Time, his (1990) separation from first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), and subsequent second marriage (1995) to his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake)—at the end of the film he’s shown having an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, but all I know about that is his acceptance of the Companion of Honour distinction from her in 1989 (and reported refusal of a knighthood, possibly at the same time).  This script (by Anthony McCarten) is based somewhat on Jane Wilde Hawking’s 1999 memoir, Travelling (British spelling) to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, so what we get is shown largely from her perspective, therefore the extensive Hawking resumé of macro-physics hypotheses, proofs, and awards is minimized in favor of the emotional bond, then final fragmentation of such between these “star-struck”-lovers who meet at a huge party with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” appropriately playing in the background (although I don’t know how much Jane’s book gets into her ex-husband’s scientific explorations; she may well have a much better idea what he’s talking about most of the time than I do—despite my attempts to fully comprehend what he’s exploring in A Brief History of Time and other presentations of his that I’m aware of—as she’s got a Ph.D. of her own in Romance Languages, specialty in Medieval Spanish Literature [from Cambridge as well, but that’s left vague in the film just as there’s precious little about her private life that I’ve found on the Web except for this article and this one that challenge much of the film's detail—if you’d prefer to get Stephen’s account of his life, he has his own book, My Brief History (2013), which you can access through his official website, among other sources]).

 Within this cinematic framework, though, what we learn is that Stephen’s life just into his graduate studies was given a 2-year-final-sentence when he was diagnosed with motor neuron (neurone in the U.K.) disease (a term related to or used interchangeably with ALS); he and Jane married soon thereafter (1965, with him stating he wanted to make the most of his remaining time pursuing his research, her wanting to share their quickly-established-mutual-love as much as possible); he succeeded in gaining his doctorate (1966) with a theory about the universe’s Big Bang-beginning coming from a black hole’s singularity (if you want to know more about these areas of his research, you might start with the links in the opening paragraph (after the boilerplate reminders) in my review last week of Interstellar; honestly, for all of its perceived shortcomings in the minds of some critics [few of them physics experts], Interstellar offers a lot more detailed, verified cosmology than does The Theory of Everything—I’ll also note that I was stunned to see Hawking gain acceptance of the dissertation based on the originality of chapter 4 after his committee raised what seemed to be notable problems with chs. 1-3; by the time my dissertation committee was finally willing to accept my work I’d cleaned up all of their complaints, even to the style of arrows used in my diagrams); their children (Robert [played by Lottie Hamilton, Rufus Taylor, Oliver Payne, Tom Prior at various ages], Lucy [Delilah Sexton, Raffeilla Chapman, Sophie Perry], and Timothy [Sam Houston, Finlay Wright-Stephens], born between 1967 and 1979) were a source of joy for them but also a burden for Jane as she attempted to juggle motherhood, graduate study, and increasingly more caretaking for Stephen as his physical condition (but not mental acumen) deteriorated, leading her to seek solace in her church choir where she developed a very-interested-but-mostly-platonic-relationship with choir director Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), who became a strong family friend (with implications that Jane was sharing a tryst in a tent with him when the family was camping in France during an invited ceremony for Stephen, with her husband off at the ceremony suffering a pneumonia attack, requiring the insertion of a tracheal tube that cost him his remaining natural speech ability until it’s replaced with computer-and-synthetic-voice-support); then as Stephen’s fame grows while Jane’s exhaustion increases in parallel he finds more attraction to nurse Elaine (his sexual functions—and apparent related interests—weren’t compromised by his disease like the rest of his body) so the initial-dreamy-relationship is severed, allowing Jane to later marry Jonathan while maintaining friendship with Stephen and custody of their children (he’d eventually divorce Elaine as well, an area not addressed in the film).

 Foxcatcher is also based on actual events which have been juggled a bit for on-screen-dramatic-purposes but does convey the essential conflicts in the lives of the Schultz brothers, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and Mark (Channing Tatum), from Palo Alto, CA, 2 of the all-time-best amateur wrestlers (no Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker, Bret Hart, Rattlesnake Steve Austin, The Rock, Brock Lesner, or John Cena antics here; all the on-mat-clashes in this film are pure Greco-Roman: takedowns and control of your opponent are what get you victories rather than submission holds or chair shots done out of the view of the eternally-distracted-referees, as in WWE scripted events).  However, the timelines are a little muddy, even though the script is based on Mark’s journal, with input from him and Dave’s widow (I did warn you about Spoilers, but as with Hawking’s life there’s not much of significance about the events presented in Foxcatcher that aren’t easily available through an Internet search or in the many print publications that originate these films’ contents) throughout the filmmaking process (they were reportedly supportive of and moved by the final result on screen when it premiered last spring at the Cannes Film Festival).  When we first meet the brothers in 1987 we’re quickly made aware that they both won Olympic gold at the 1984 L.A. games but now older-sibling Dave seems to be a coach at Wexler University in Wisconsin (assuming I got that name right at the press screening; using a penlight for notetaking is heavily frowned upon, so no bets are being placed here on my memory—I did look up Wexler but found only this fake, satirical video, made at the Austin School of Film from my hometown in central Texas, although at times Dave coached at Stanford, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Mark is scraping by with $20 speaking appearances at local elementary schools and ramen noodle dinners while both continue to train for the next round of high-level-championship-competitions.  At this point, an unsolicited offer arrives from John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), of Pennsylvania's pharmaceutical-heritage/richest-family-in-America fame, who wants Mark to join his Team Foxcatcher (named for the family estate, implying the du Ponts’ award-winning-traditions of horsemanship which his mother, Jean [Vanessa Redgrave], values much more highly than her wacko-son’s fascination with the low-life-sport of wrestling, in her opinion).  Despite John’s arrogant control of his overworked team (and slim credentials as a coach), he’s impressed with Mark’s physical abilities; likewise, Mark finds in John the sort of nurturing-father-figure that he missed growing up in divorced-parent-circumstances, although he emulates his new-found-“father” too much in adopting his drinking and cocaine habits (he also grows his hair longer, blonding it a bit as well, attempting a sort of Northeastern surfer look, I guess).

 Prior to the upcoming 1987 World Championships in Clermont-Ferrand, France, Dave is brought in as an assistant coach to help guide his brother to gold at those matches and then at the 1988 Olympics at Seoul, Korea (although Dave didn't actually come to Foxcatcher until 1989); Mark cruises through the 1987 competition but is stunned to lose his first match at the 1988 Olympic trials, after which he goes on a furniture-demolition-and-eating-binge in his hotel room, forcing Dave to push him through a body-assaultive-purge-and-exercise-program to get Mark’s weight back down to the legal level, after which he goes on to win his bracket (he also got gold at the 1985 Budapest World Championships, another unmentioned-fact/streamlining-sacrifice in this film’s version of history, just as is the reality that Dave won many more world-class-championships than his brother but that’s not noted either—you get the impression that Dave never won anything after the 1984 Olympics [although he ran the full-medal-gamut while Mark’s were fewer but all gold).  That’s not enough for du Pont, though, who not only wants Mark to take Olympic gold again but also gets himself involved in middle-aged-tournaments (although that happened after the events of this film, not during them as shown) so that he can further claim leadership for his Foxcatcher charges (reminding me of how at times in the past WWE owner Vince McMahon has put himself in the ring so that he can be seen as physically equal to his stable of testosterone [and probably steroid]-fueled employees).  None of this pays off in the  Seoul Olympics, though, as du Pont insists on being in Mark’s corner, only to see him lose, then move away from the Foxcatcher compound upon returning to the States.  Dave stays on, though, trying to build a stable life for his family until one day du Pont shows up at Dave’s living quarters, senselessly shooting him to death in front of his wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller)—an event that occurs in 1996, although the film makes it seem like it’s closer to Mark’s 1998 departure.  That’s about it for the plot, although we learn in closing graphics that Mark now coaches in Oregon while du Pont died in 2010 from illness while in prison for third-degree-murder (he was acknowledged by the courts to have mental illness, although not insanity [an extenuating factor in the charges], but that’s not noted in the film, nor is the fact that Team Foxcatcher at du Pont’s estate wasn’t established until after Mom Jean’s death in 1988 which further throws into confusion what’s depicted in director Miller’s version of these events [this article (may be a slow download) and this one might help straighten out some of the confusion]).  You can tell that du Pont’s at best obsessive, at worst deranged, from what we do see of his fierce command of his wrestlers and casual waving around of firearms, his ego-driven-clashes with his mother (he’s trying to move out of her shadow just as Mark is trying to move out of Dave’s, despite their true sharing of brotherly love), and his chasing of her prize horses out of their stables just after her death—he also had quite a varied career outside the gym, with a Ph.D. in natural science from Villanova U., plus ornithologist work and some publications about birds, as well as interests in philately (stamps), philanthropy, and various sports including the modern pentathlon (all of which is acknowledged in the film in a scene where he tutors Dave on how to introduce him properly at a gala affair).  The actual end of Foxcatcher shows a little bit of Mark reduced to competing in one of the bloodthirsty Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches (an event that he won by default by injuring his opponent).

So What? The main purpose of The Theory of Everything (beyond showing how an intense love for another person can sustain someone like Jane whose life must become focused on caregiving more so than her own needs—to the point of daily spoon-feeding of meals and aiding with all necessary bodily functions) seems to be in helping us mere mortals understand how even a man considered by many to be the smartest person on Earth still resembles the rest of us in needing to share a fulfilling life with a loving companion (as well as having sexual cravings that apparently were better fulfilled by Elaine than Jane—at least for awhile), needing to find a sense of purpose in one’s existence (in Stephen’s case, probing the mysteries of the universe in a manner that doesn’t require God as the ultimate answer), and needing to be open to awakening possibilities, even those that challenge previous accomplishments (in the film, Hawking says his Big Bang-from-a-black-hole-singularity-concept was a mistake, as he pursues the idea of a boundless universe, one that doesn’t require a beginning nor end [although that position hasn’t negated the largely-accepted-scientific-acceptance of a Big Bang as the start of the cosmos as we understand it, just as Albert Einstein called his early belief in a cosmological constant that keeps the universe in equilibrium against the crushing force of gravity to be his “biggest blunder,” although current theory now supports such a phenomenon to explain the expansion of our constantly-growing-space-time-field; read this if you really want to know more about this concept, although the details approach Hawking-level-comprehension-requirements, so this version might be more accessible to those of us whose highest intellectual achievement is attempting to write film reviews]).  There’s also a more subtle agenda of supporting Jane as the “wronged spouse” in her marriage to Hawking with her largely-successful-avoidance of Jones’ charms—employing her own “cosmological constant” to resist his gravitational pull—while her husband becomes the one to abandon her, as well as a recurring theme of showing Hawking opening up to the idea of God as his work becomes more complex, a situation desired by religious Jane (and likely helpful in making this film more attractive to those who prefer divine guidance to speculative science for their ultimate answers, especially in a dream-sequence-scene at a public lecture where Stephen has a flash of fantasy about miraculously shedding his disease as he confidently stands up and walks [despite Hawking very recently re-affirming his position as an atheist]).  While you can find countless other movies that delve into “the power of love” (my second passed-on-temptation in this review to break away into a slimly-related-but-unnecessary-popular-song-sideways-move; let me know if this restraint on my part enhances your reading experience or not) that holds people together, even in times of great adversity, The Theory of Everything does help us understand that being uniquely gifted isn’t necessarily an automatic pathway to success, that life will find ways to block even the most astounding opportunities, thereby requiring additional reserves of grim determination (in this case, on the part of both partners in the Hawking marriage) to find satisfaction against horrific challenges (also in this case, helped along by enormous good fortune as Stephen has lived about 50 years longer than medical science [but not God?] has been able to predict).

 Similarly, in Foxcatcher, we see in gruesome detail how success doesn’t come easily just because a person has superb physical talent or massive wealth.  The Schultz brothers possessed enormous ability on the wrestling mat but no amount of training, medals, or admiration from their peers was enough to guarantee a decent living based on a sport that earns neither the income nor the public awareness of other athletic activities that involve balls, pucks, or padded gloves (except in the highly-scripted-domain of pro wrestling, but even there few “superstars” make it to the big paydays, while those who do are chastised as not being real competitors because—while their bodies do suffer constant abuse and their unintended injuries can be quite damaging or even fatal—they’re acknowledged as entertainers working in a low form of soap-opera)Foxcatcher makes very clear the reality that gifted athletes who want to excel in the kinds of sports that are only noticed by the general public every 4 years or so depend on making constant personal sacrifices during their competitive years, as well as on the generosity of someone like John du Pont to provide for their material needs during all of those long months of training.  However, even du Pont in this case is also unfulfilled, despite all of his material advantages, because he’s not able to find enough personal satisfaction in all of the intellectually-related-activities that his wealth allows him to indulge in while he yearns to be one of those gifted sportsmen that he takes under his “tutelage,” even though he has little to share as a coach.  Beyond those abstractions-given-a-face, Foxcatcher is also a very intensely-researched, physically-demanding-acting-challenge (Tatum and Ruffalo trained for months to be able to duplicate the successful moves of the Schultz boys on screen, in order to respect those achievements and to honor grapplers who give so much of their lives to this largely-ignored-sport; Tatum said in the press materials: “This has been the most painful movie I’ve ever done.  I never want to wrestle again.”), but, as a film, one that requires some patience and understanding on the part of the audience because there are few bold dramatic moments here, rather lots of scenes of preparation for matches that are over quickly with some backflip suplexes being the most active of the moves as 2 wrestlers struggle for point-based-dominance.  A more overt dramatic presence in the film, though, is the deteriorating-sanity of du Pont, a self-deluded, psychotic man who demands respect he hasn’t earned, constantly putting a chill on any room that he occupies.  When Foxcatcher premiered at the May 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Bennett was chosen as Best Director, an honor easily appreciated when watching the meticulous manner in which he manages to command our attention even in a story that largely consists of a lot of inter-family-psychological-struggles (biological brothers vs. an imposing pseudo-stepfather), a few brief competitive victory scenes, and the constant wait until the unmotivated-but-cruel-killing of Dave which quickly brings the whole thing to a halt.  Either you’ll appreciate the nuanced performances of the 3 male leads (and the brief spark of icy distain that Redgrave uses to corral Carell in their one direct confrontation or her silent visit and abrupt departure when she goes to his gym to see her son’s obsession) or you’ll feel distanced from a long-ago-tragic-news-story that’s simply been given its surrounding (if rearranged) details. Foxcatcher is very disturbing, so you might just want to walk away from its vicious conflicts.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Just like with most docudramas, you can’t trust either The Theory of Everything or Foxcatcher to teach you fully-reliable-history-lessons, although you can pursue Jane Wilde Hawking’s book (noted above, and compare it to various ones written by her ex-husband—especially the autobiographical My Brief History, also previously noted) and/or Mark Schultz’s 2014 Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold, as well as writings by people not directly involved in the events depicted in the films under consideration this week to see what insights you can gather into these events from our recent past, even as many of the participants are still alive to continue elaborating upon what these filmic depictions have offered about aspects of their lives (if you wish to find clarity in a research methodology short of buying, then reading, full-length-books though, I wish you well as it took a good many Internet searches for me to verify what was really going on in some of these situations, especially concerning Foxcatcher).  What you can trust, though, are the performances in each of these films, which are already creating Oscar-buzz for Carell and Redmayne in the Best Actor category, although Jones deserves strong consideration for Best Actress, Tatum should definitely be in the mix for Best Supporting Actor (although he probably has more screen time than Carell, but, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972], Carell truly commands every scene he’s in, plus studio strategists will likely try to avoid pitting their own personnel against each other [even though there were 3 of the 5 Best Supporting Actor nominees in 1972 from The Godfather—but none of them won], so I assume Tatum will be touted for Supporting), while the directors and films might be in final considerations in their categories as well.  (Marsh especially makes nice choices in using “distressed” home-movie-type-footage to show major transitions in the Hawkings’ lives—marriage, childbirth, a family outing to the beach accompanied by Jonathan—then at the end of the film he quickly rewinds us through major scenes [with the action in reverse as well, as if Memento (Christopher Nolan [in case I haven’t referenced him enough already with Interstellar], 2000) were taken to its logical extreme] back to the beginning at Cambridge, in the same manner that Stephen said he needed to hypothesize time running backward to understand how the universe came about.)  Carell has to contend with whether that fake nose helps hide his appearance enough to distract easily-generated-audience-associations with his established-comic-persona or whether it’s comic enough in itself to become an unwanted distraction (with that beak, you can see why he’s inadvertently chosen “Eagle” as his nickname); however, nasty nose comments aside, such a prosthetic schnozz didn’t keep Nicole Kidman from her Best Actress Oscar as Virginia Woolf for The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002), so we’ll see how this all plays out in a couple of months (those who’re annoyed by du Pont’s proboscis in the film, though, should be relieved that it’s only the size depicted here; from what I’ve seen of the real guy’s honker it was even larger, although most shots are head-on [try searching "John du Pont photos"] which somewhat minimizes the impact).

 Likewise, Redmayne does a marvelous job of transforming himself into Hawking’s increasing physical deformity without becoming exaggeratedly-pathetic about it, but Academy voters, if they show any sense of memory like I’ve done in watching this mesmerizing performance, might be tempted to compare it to what Daniel Day-Lewis achieved in his Best Actor-Oscar-winning-role in My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (Jim Sheridan, 1989).  There’s no reason why 2 talented thespians can’t be honored for similar triumphs in portraying actual people struggling against their physical impairments, but voters might be swayed by a “been there, done that” attitude, as they might also with the Kidman/Carell nose consideration (I “knows” that sounds a bit silly, but when I look back over some of the yesteryear winners nothing seems to be too silly to be true when those ballots are cast).  As for how I’m swayed on these films, I’m in awe of the lead acting in both of them but not as fully invested in how the stories play out as I should be if I were considering either of these for Best Picture contenders.  In the case of The Theory of Everything, I’m right in line with Metacritic’s 72% positive rather than Rotten Tomatoes 80% (details on both in the links below) and the effusion offered by my local colleagues.  Unlike with how I explained last week that the overall experience of Interstellar or the superb acting of Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013; review in our August 16, 2013 posting) was enough to elevate these films into my 4-star-status (still short of the supreme 5’s, as with The Godfather), I just don’t get that blown away by Redmayne’s very strong performance (which may well be enough to get him Oscar gold this year, although there are many other possible challengers that I’ve yet to see) to bring the whole film up to the heights for me that others are seeing in it.  I accept it as being charming, insightful, and inspiring, but the emphasis on the personal trials of the Hawking family just didn’t hold up enough for me, especially with the “God is in the details” subtheme motivated by this story being told more from Jane’s perspective; maybe that’s a failing on my part for wanting a different film about Stephen Hawking, but I doubt I’ll get another one now so this just doesn’t leave me as resolved as I’d like to be about this man’s motivations and discoveries cinematically-captured (as I was with better understanding 13th Amendment-politics in Lincoln [Steven Spielberg, 2012 ] where I find another case of a lead performance [Day-Lewis again] raising the total experience above any qualms that I might have had with minor aspects of the content).  I realize that the filmmakers were limited in many respects by what rights they had to depictions of events as presented in Jane’s book (rather than anything Stephen might have written), but heart-as-cold-as-a-black-hole-me was constantly hoping for just a bit more than what The Theory of Everything sincerely set out to deliver.
 Similarly in my offerings of restrained praise, with Foxcatcher (illustrated by this photo which is just a bit off—because of the unintended connection of Redgrave’s head to the chandelier above her, conjuring up a slight association with Queen Elizabeth II so that she can get into both of these plots—just as I think the film is slightly off in its impact) I respect the invested effort, I’ve learned a great deal (especially with my background research explorations) about a tragic situation that eluded me back when it was current news, and I have great admiration for the acting achievements that draw such distinctly-complex-personalities-yet-presented-in-subtle-manners for the main roles, but I just came away feeling somewhat removed from what I saw, as if I can appreciate what I’ve experienced, say “Damn, that’s sad for all concerned!,” then move on as if I haven’t really been too invested in it (again, maybe this is more my problem than anything to do with the film as others will perceive it), so in both cases here I’ve got a lot of acceptance with what I see but not enough resonance with it (compared to Interstellar, which could objectively be charged with many more “problems” but for me was overall a more gripping experience, even as that film pales in its inevitable-comparison to clearly 5-star 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968]—for that matter, Miller succeeded a lot better for me with Capote [2005], another gruesome situation with inspired acting but one that continued to haunt me long after the screening, as it must have for To Kill a Mockingbird-author Harper Lee because, according to press materials, she noted to Miller that his earlier film was “a demonstration of fiction as a means toward truth” [regarding elements he’d invented about Capote and his research for his 1966 non-fiction-classic, In Cold Blood], which was his intention for Foxcatcher as well, even though it didn’t fully get there for me).  For you, in any of these cases, different results may prevail.  To conclude these (possibly overly) critical comments, I’ll offer my usual Musical Metaphor, this one intended to speak to both The Theory of Everything and Foxcatcher.  I’ve decided to go a bit more allusively-metaphorical rather than content-obvious this week with Carol King’s “Sweet Seasons” (from the 1971 Music album) at (with added lyrics and visuals), especially in its acknowledgement that, just like in these films, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose And most times you choose between the two Wonderin’, wonderin’ if you have made it” (one place the Schultz brothers hoped to have made it was on du Pont’s Foxcatcher estate where they could “watch the seasons runnin’ away,” but for them Team Foxcatcher proved to be no sweet “life in the open, A life in the country,” instead becoming a site of mental and physical horror).  But, despite the darker undertone implied about these very serious, passionately-made films, the song also has an uplift in tone and lyrics which I hope will give you a buoyant bounce until next we meet, likely mulling over much less substance as we explore the latest chapter in diversionary-science-fiction, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 (Francis Lawrence).
If you’d like to know more about The Theory of Everything here are some suggested links: (6:05 comical interview with Stephen Hawking by John Oliver from HBO’s Last Week Tonight)

If you’d like to know more about Foxcatcher here are some suggested links: (what comes up first is the same trailer noted just below; after it plays click just beneath it and more options will open up for you) (short interview with actors Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.