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Movie Review: Foxcatcher

John DuPont (Steve Carell) tries to be a wrestling mentor to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher.

John DuPont (Steve Carell) tries to be a wrestling mentor to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) in Foxcatcher.

Foxcatcher isn’t just simply an Olympic story with a tragically bizarre ending. It isn’t completely a crime story either. It’s about the people involved.

It’s 1987. Mark Schultz is an Olympic wrestling champion who’s about to do a talk at an elementary school substituting for his brother Dave who was expected to be the talker. The school gives him a small payment for his time. Dave is coach of the wrestling gym married with two small children and trainer of Mark. Although Dave tries to be a good mentor to Mark, you could tell something’s eating at him.

One day unsuspectingly, he’s greeted by John DuPont, heir to the E.I. DuPont family fortune. He offers to have Mark train at the Team Foxcatcher gym in Pennsylvania he created to promote wrestling. Mark agrees but John also wants Dave to coach. Dave turns it down because he has family commitments miles away. Despite that, Mark continues on with John coaching him even living in a DuPont guest house which John sometimes visits. The training pays off as Mark wins the World Championships later that year. John is even seen as a mentor to Mark and all the other wrestlers at Team Foxcatcher.

However something’s not right. John wants the wrestling trophies won by Team Foxcatcher to overtake one shelf of horseracing trophies his family have won over the years. Mark and John develop a friendship to the point John gets Mark to use cocaine. John even mentions his mother paid a boy to be his ‘friend’ when he was younger. His mother Jean who’s part of the DuPont legacy of horseracing is disapproving of his coaching wrestling feeling that it’s a ‘low’ sport. Then one day it happens. While Team Foxcatcher’s wrestlers take a day off to watch a Mixed Martial Arts event, John becomes furious especially when Mark insists Dave won’t join team Foxcatcher. John tells him he will get Dave by any means necessary.

Dave agrees to Team Foxcatcher where he even moves his wife and family over there. Mark however is going through self-esteem issues with the mental abusiveness of John and moves away to train for the 1988 Olympics. Just before the Olympic trials, John has his mother Jean escorted in her wheelchair to see what John has accomplished. She leaves in disgust after seeing John give his back to one of his students.

At the Olympic trials, you can tell something is bothering Mark. He loses his first match and in response cries, wrecks his room and goes on an eating binge. Dave is alarmed at discovering Mark in his condition in his hotel room and works to get him to lose weight in time for the weigh-in. As Mark competes on, he notices Dave prevent John from speaking to him. Mark wins the Olympic trials but both he and Dave notice John is absent. He returned home as his mother died. Mark lets Dave know he can’t stay with John and Team Foxcatcher after the Olympics and asks Dave to leave with him even though John created a promotional video of Team Foxcatcher with Dave asked to do a speech. Mark finishes sixth at the 1988 Olympics where he loses his last match 14-0. As he said, he leaves Team Foxcatcher for home while Dave agrees to remain training Team Foxcatcher in exchange for John giving Mark financial support.

It’s 1996. John watches the promotional video with the part of Mark’s speech about John. This would pave way to the depiction of the eventual murder. However the film ends showing what happened to Mark shortly after.

It’s funny how around Oscar time, it’s common to expect that most movies with big Oscar buzz would have some sort of political message or humanistic message. So it was quite natural for me to think that Foxcatcher might be a film with things to say about Olympic athletes or how they’re treated in the US. I don’t think it was but it did present a unique time in Olympic sport. Many older people remember that until the 80’s, you had to be a complete amateur in an Olympic sport. Even if you made a single penny off your sport, you were ineligible to compete at the Olympics. That all changed in the early 80’s when the IOC changed its constitution from allowing only ‘amateur’ athletes to allowing ‘eligible’ athletes to compete and it would be each sport’s respective federation decide who’s eligible. There were some sports like track and field, swimming and gymnastics that were the first to make the transition and the pay and sponsorship money was good albeit not the same level it is today. Wrestling was one of the sports to catch on later. In Mark’s time, wrestlers could not make a living off their sport unless you were also a coach like Dave. In fact I remember a quote from Olympic gymnast Bart Conner: “The big myth is that Olympic gold medalists can get rich off their gold medal. I know a lot of Olympic champions that are flipping burgers.” So it’s no wonder that Mark would find sponsorship from John DuPont and the state-of-the-art Team Foxcatcher wrestling gym a welcome relief.

I don’t even think it’s a statement about rich people in the United States. Sure, John was born into money as the DuPont family have a dynasty going all the way back to the 18th century. Sure, John appears to be spoiled living in the same gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere as his parents. Sure, John has the money to make his dream of being a great wrestling coach come true. Sure, John had a sheltered childhood where he was the youngest of four and had a ‘paid friend’ during his childhood. And sure, John has a mother with a superficial attitude as made evident in her comment of wrestling being a ‘low sport.’ However I don’t feel it’s about the American rich.

What I do feel the movie is to do about are the people. Yes, it’s a crime story but it’s also about the people. John appears to be a person who may have been belittled all his life and dreamed of being a successful wrestling coach or manager. He has written successful books on birds but wanted to become successful as a wrestling coach. This is especially hard for him since his family has a tradition of horse racing. Throughout the movie, we get a sense that he felt that something was missing in him. Even after hiring Dave as the coach, we see friction between the two as they’re both training and managing Mark. Sure, it’s common for two coaches on the same team to have disputes but the disputes make you wonder. In fact that scene where John is watching the video of himself promoting him and his gym just before the shooting may be sending the message he always felt underrespected. Maybe it was because he felt like the misfit of the family. Maybe it was because his family never knew or honored his achievements. We’ll never know. There’s no question he shows his mental illness, especially at the end, but it’s just a wonder if his inferiority complex is what caused him to shoot Dave.

The film is not just about John. It’s about Mark too. The 1984 Olympics was of him and Dave winning gold but the time since then was a struggle. Dave was able to marry, become a father and continue as an athlete by coaching at the same time. He was well to do. Mark was the one who struggled. He lived single in a shabby home, he worked a measly job, he received spare cash from school appearances, he was always living in the shadow of Dave. Even though Dave was never the type of brother that would try to make Mark feel inferior, You could tell it was bothering him in that training scene at the beginning where he gives Dave a bad hit. It was easy for him to see John’s offer as a breakthrough for him but a struggle as he was trying to create his own identity while Dave and John had coaching disputes over him. It seemed more like a threesome rather than him. Possibly even sensing Dave was becoming the apple of John’s eye rather than him. Even after his win of the World Championship, you could tell the whole thing would take a toll on him especially seeing how he had to purge himself at the Olympic trials and struggled to make the team. Eventually it did take its toll right at the Seoul Olympics with his sixth-place finish and the threesome ended there. You can easily understand why when Mark moved out, he wanted to move without turning back.

The highlight of the film was the performance of Steve Carell. In fact even his biggest fans would be surprised to see Steve looking different and acting completely different from the way they’ve always known Steve to act. He embodied John DuPont well in terms of physicality and his mental illness but he also made us feel John’s feelings of inferiority which definitely added to the film. The film also has Channing Tatum’s best acting ever. He also embodies the character of Mark well in terms of his desire to succeed and in terms of his insecurities. Although the film focuses more on the characters of Mark and John than on Dave, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s performance that gives added dimension to a person who is both a coach and a father and tries to do the right thing but ends up an unsuspecting victim in the end. Even supporting performances from Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife and Vanessa Redgrave as John’s mother were done great despite being less than what they should be.

The directing of Bennett Miller was also impressive as he focused on both the story and insight into the people involved in the story. The script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman was also good in taking us to the right events even though it did feel slow at times. Even there, I think they were trying to make a murder story that didn’t just simply tell of the events but also give us portrayals of the characters. It’s not to say they haven’t experienced friction about it. There was a story that Mark felt the film made it look like John had a homosexual attraction to him. I didn’t notice it. Besides I later learned John was married for the first and only time at 45 and the divorce occurred just before he met Mark.

Foxcatcher is more than a murder story. It’s also a portrayal of the people involved in both their desires and their insecurities. Often it did feel more like the film was about who than what.

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VIFF 2014 Review: Li’l Quinquin

Li'l Quinquin is a story of a young French boy and the summer that changed his life forever.

Li’l Quinquin is a story of a young French boy and the summer that changed his life forever.

Last year the first film I saw at the VIFF was a French movie that was three hours long. I’m sure most of you know which one I’m talking about. This year the first movie I see at the VIFF is another three hour long French movie. This time it’s titled Li’l Quinquin and it’s a very different French film.

Quinquin is a young boy growing up on a farm in northern France where his parents for the Lebleu family. He likes playing games with his friends and being bad by razzing people with his firecrackers. He also has a crush on Eve, the girl from the neighboring farm who plays trumpet for the legion and has a sister Aurelie with singing ambitions. It’s the summer and it should be fun time for all the kids in the village.

However the village is hit with shock as one of its people was murdered. Mme Lebleu’s remains were found stuffed in the carcass of a cow found inside a war bunker located near the Lebleu farm Quinquin’s family works. On the case is Commandant van der Weyden: an incompetent officer with uncontrollable facial twitching and a suspicion for certain people like young people like Quinquin. He is assigned to look into this along with his partner Lieutanant Carpentier.

After the funeral for Mme Lebleu–which was bizarrely conducted with a happy organist, Aurelie singing her pop song and the baton team Lebleu instructed twirling at the burial– another murder happens with the remains also stuffed in the cow. This time it’s Mr. Bhiri, the African father whom Mme Lebleu had an affair with. The suspicion continues to grow and van der Weyden pursues others he feel may be linked like Mr. Lebleu and even Mme Campin, the new leader of the baton team who has been known to have an affair with Mr. Lebleu. Meanwhile Quinquin and the kids are still trying to be kids swimming in the ocean, performing during the Bastille Day parade, playing games, Aurelie competing in a local talent contest and winning and Quinquin falling in love with Eve.

Not all of it is innocent fun as two boys of African and Moroccan descent are harassed by Quinquin and his friends. One boy, Mohammed the African who was the son of Mr. Bhiri, is especially harassed. The harassment gets to him as he is interrupted by them as he’s sharing an intimate moment with Aurelie. Meanwhile van der Weyden and Carpentier are being pressed by their superior to find the killer behind all these murders. They try to find out more information like the bunker near the Lebleu farm, the connection with Mme. Campin and even the feudal situation with led to the younger Mr. Lebleu owning Dany, the mentally impaired nephew.

Then things take a turn for the worse in the town. Mohamed goes on a shooting rampage from the top of his house. The rampage ends with him committing suicide. Aurelie finds the news hard to bear. Soon she is found dead inside of a pig. Possibly also a victim of murder. Then Mme Campin is found murdered on the beach but all in one piece. This soon leads van der Weyden to pursue a final answer to who the murderer is. This leads to an ending that is unexpected and anticipated by nobody.

One of the things about this film is that it tries to blend bizarre humor in the midst of what is a grisly set of murders. There are a lot of tragic parts to it but the humor mixes itself into it. The humorous bits seem bizarre at first but later on you think that it did fit the film well and helped make it. I’m unsure what is big in terms of French comedy but it definitely worked well. Even a character like Commandant van der Weyden will remind a lot of people of Inspector Cluseau with his bumbling. One thing about van der Weyden is even with his clumsiness and his twitchy face, he does have a serious side. I think that’s what the focus of the film was: ironies and humor in what is a horrific situation in a town. The humor does fade away after each additional murder happens and as it leads to its conclusion.

The funny thing is how this story of a string of murders intertwines with the life of the little boy Quinquin. Quinquin is just a young farm boy doing what most boys his age do: play games, act tough with his peers and fall in love. He may have been questioned about the murders at first but they don’t begin to affect him. It’s only once those he knows dies within that circle that it does start to change him. Especially since one victim is his girlfriend’s sister. It becomes more obvious later on.

The crazy thing is that the ending is not the clearest. You first think it’s a murder story and we’ll get the answer to who did it at the end. However those who saw it were still left both surprised and confused. Almost as if to debate what the point of the film was. Or maybe the main purpose of the film wasn’t to be about the murders but rather about Quinquin. One thing we notice is how Quinquin only has simple curiosity in the murders or just giving Commandant van der Weyden a hard time at first that is until the victims become people he knows or had somewhat of a connection to.  He didn’t have too much of a connection to Mr. and Mme. Lebleu or Mohamed’s father but he knew Mohamed and he knew Aurelie. He went from a typical boy who liked playing naughty games and just falling in love with Eve to having  his childhood fun end and being the one person who can console Eve. That could be the main theme of the film rather than it being a ‘whodunit’ story.

The film features a wide variety of themes added into the story. One of the two most present is the theme of nationalism with the whole situation happening in the summer especially around Bastille Day. The theme of racism is present as France may be a country with a lot of immigrants from central and North Africa, there’s still a lot of racism and xenophobia especially in the smaller towns. The second is the theme of disabilities or physical awkwardness. Quinquin is a boy with a harelip. Commandant van der Weyden has uncontrollable facial twitching. Dany is mentally impaired and there’s even a conversation between van der Weyden and his superior in a restaurant while a British family with a mentally impaired son is trying to dine. I feel Dumont is trying to add a point here. I’m sure Dumont was trying to add in more points with bodies being found in animal carcasses or even about Aurelie’s song ‘Cause I Knew’ or even the ties of French inheritances but it’s too much to say and will require a lot of afterthought.

Overall this may be a long film by Bruno Dumont but it tells an intriguing story. Actually it’s not really a film but a four-part miniseries compiled as a big screen film. Most outside of France wouldn’t know this was originally on television. Nevertheless Dumont does a great job here by taking a dark story and mixing surprise humor in there but still keeping the story sensitive. I think he aimed for irony in this series. Bernard Pruvost was a great scene stealer as the commandant. He could have easily been seen as a ‘rip-off’ of Inspector Cluseau’ but he didn’t go over-the-top in terms of his character’s awkwardness or his klutziness. He also made his character’s facial twitching look natural as if it was uncontrollable rather than wooden. Alane Delhaye was very good as Quinquin. He was good at playing a child who was natural and not your typical sugar-coated child character. The end especially was the best part of Delhaye’s performance. Lucy Caron was also good as Eve as she was able to go from your typical carefree girl to a girl now hurt. There were additional good performances from Lisa Hartmann, Stephane Boutillier and Jason Cirot.

Li’l Quinquin is an intriguing film to watch despite it being long and despite the ending being unexpected. Actually it does fare best as the miniseries it originally was. Nevertheless regardless of the format, it will keep your attention onto what will happen next.

VIFF 2012 Review: Our Children (À Perdre La Raison)

A movie about a mother scorned is very rare. Our Children is a rare chance to make such a big-screen movie on that subject. The question is does it succeed at making such a movie watchable?

SPOILER WARNING: Many incidents including the ending will be mentioned in this review. So if you want it a complete surprise, please do not read any further.

The film is actually one that begins with the end of the story at the beginning. We see a woman in a hospital bed saying to have her children buried in Morocco. After we see four red coffins being brought onto a plane. Hey, don’t say I didn’t give you a spoiler warning!

We first see a young Murielle in love with a Moroccan medical student named Mounir. He wants to marry but feels he have to have the blessing not of his father but of Dr. Pinget: a Belgian doctor who has helped him out financially and morally to study medicine. The marriage is successful even receiving the blessing of Mounir’s mother. However there’s one catch. Dr. Pinget is to live in the same house. Murielle reluctantly goes along with it. Meanwhile Mounir has to deal with the feeling of animosity from his brother.

Murielle continues on with her job as a teacher and Mounir starts practicing medicine. They have two daughters. They go through the usual ups and downs of having a family. Dr. Pinget is not that much of an interference although he is strict with the couple that he is the only doctor they see. However it’s obvious about Pinget’s control when Murielle is pregnant with her third child. Mounir thinks of moving to Morocco as it would be less stressful with the couple. Pinget is infuriated and takes it as an insult.

The couple do spend time in Morocco and it helps with Murielle as it alleviates her stress. Mounir’s mother even makes her feel like one of the family. Murielle’s sister even falls in love with Mounir’s brother and they marry.

The stress returns to Murielle as she returns back to Belgium. Pinget is back into her life. The stress of managing three children is catching up to her and a fourth child is expected on the way. The stress has gotten to the point she even takes it out on a student who misbehaves in class. On top of that her husband is always under Pinget’s wing and controlling in his own way. She sees a psychiatrist, Docteur De Clerk, who’s very helpful with her psychological condition even after the birth of her fourth child. However Pinget finds out and is very angry towards her, even threatening. It’s then that Murielle finally decides to commit a rash act to ‘end her troubles’ once and for all.

At first when I saw this, I wondered why on earth would someone try to make a big-screen movie about a mother killing her children. It isn’t until later on I read that this film is based on a story that actually happened in Belgium where a young mother couldn’t take it anymore and she killed all five of her children. This movie attempts to parallel that very story. After reading up more on the story of the event, I could see a lot of parallels: the relationship, the doctor that was controlling and how the children were killed one by one.

I think that’s it about this movie. It echoes a common story we hear many times before: a mother murdering her children. North Americans are familiar with the stories of Susan Smith, Tarajee Maynor and Andrea Yates. A story like this is not that common in Europe but it does happen. The thing about this film is that it is done primarily from the mother’s point of view. I think that was the attempt of the filmmakers: to make such a film that people could relate to. I don’t think people seeing this would want to kill their children but I think people could relate to the struggles of young motherhood and someone interloping into their life and having control over what they do. There have been many murder movies where the murderer is shown as a person that possesses dark personality traits that are inside all of us. I think that may be why this story was done; to show the killer that personality traits and weaknesses we too possess.

Also I have to commend the filmmakers for not crossing the line and making it unwatchable. No one wants to see children murdered on a big screen, especially in a story close to the truth. It made a smart move by making it similar as she called the children one by one but kept the killing part hidden off-screen and completely silent. Even in the aftermath, all we see is a house with her phone call to the police. I remember taking an acting course where a teacher said people like simulation as opposed to the real thing. Good to see them holding off there.

The movie does answer some questions but it also opens for other questions too, especially about the murders that story is based upon. Why did she kill her children? I don’t condone murder of any kind but why didn’t she kill the doctor instead? He was the controlling one. I guess I’ll never know and there’s only one person in the world that can answer those questions. Also the position of Dr. Pinget in the relationship. Why was he that controlling? Was it because of Belgian law? Was it because of his belief that since he was a mentor to Mounir, Mornir’s whole family should do everything he says? Was it Mounir’s own feelings of loyalty for all the mentoring he gave him? We shouldn’t forget Dr. Pinget was as controlling to Mounir as he was to Murielle. That question remains unanswered too.

Emilie Duquenne did an excellent job in her acting as Murielle from the young girl in love to the mother breaking down. That scene where she’s behind the car singing a song and breaking into tears is a very powerful scene and was excellently acted. North American audiences are not familiar with Duquenne but European filmgoers know her as the young teen lead in the Cannes Palme d’Or winning Rosetta from 1999. Tahar Rahim was also very good in his role as Mounir, the one caught in the middle. Niels Arestup was also excellent in his supporting role as the controlling Dr. Pinget. Interesting is that Tahar and Niels have worked with director Joachim Lafosse before in the film Un Prophete. The three are back together with something different. Lafosse does a good job in making a normally-unwatchable story watchable not only with his direction but also co-writing the script with Matthieu Raynart and Thomas Bidegain who also wrote Rust And Bone and co-wrote Un Prophete. The directing and writing did a good job in sending the message to the audience through what was unsaid and silent more than most films can send through dialogue.

Our Children is Belgium’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the upcoming Academy awards: one of twelve films at the VIFF that are their respective country’s official entry in that category. The film was nominated for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and Dequenne’s performance won the Best Actress award in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category.

I don’t know if Our Children is really all that watchable of a movie about a mother scorned but it does make efforts to be watchable without losing the story and relatable as far as human emotions go.