REVIEW: ‘Foxcatcher’

Carell and Tatum

Bennett Miller has only directed a handful of feature films: Capote, the stark, ominous true-crime  story behind gay author Truman Capote’s efforts to write his masterpiece, In Cold Blood; and Moneyball, about A’s manager Billy Bean’s formula for for turning a last-place ball club into pennant champs. Combine the catchwords of both those films: True-life, gay, sports, crime, murder, even one-word title … all elements that emerge, in various levels, in Miller’s newest effort, Foxcatcher. It could — should? — be the perfect confluence of topic and talent. But while there’s no denying the craftsmanship and sincerity that goes into the film, it’s also difficult to shake the sense that there isn’t enough undergirding its tone, its artistry, its seriousness.

The film is based on actual events that, while shocking at the time, haven’t lived on in popular culture like they might have. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) hasn’t lived well off the glory of a gold medal, remaining in the shadow of his more legendary older brother David (Mark Ruffalo). Then one day the eccentric billionaire John DuPont (Steve Carell) calls on him: How would Mark like to join Du Pont and his band of merry athletes at his Foxcatcher estate to train for the next Olympics? Du Pont fancies himself a world-class coach and sports benefactor — equal parts Bela Karolyi, Vince Lombardi and Tex Schramm, but it’s apparent to everyone but him he’s merely a world-class creep. Du Pont — remote, humorless, socially awkward, patently sexually repressed and lacking in any self-awareness — is a professional dilettante, a dabbler who has found the homoerotic world of pro wrestling as a weird outlet for his need for masculine physical contact. He writes laudatory speeches about himself for others to deliver. He creates a seniors wrestling league so that he might win a trophy. He commissions a documentary about himself and dictates the outcome. (It is not, in the world of the film, totally his fault. He is part of a profoundly disconnected family that has a history of making documentaries about themselves. The rich really are different from you and me.)

Tatum and Ruffalo

You know — both because pre-opening press mentions it, and the tone of the film practically projects its ominous outcome from get-go — that Du Pont is a brittle twig who will snap and commit a seemingly senseless act of violence, a crime made more tragic because of its pointlessness. You hope that the goal of the movie will be to provide context — to frame the crime and make it seem less random than inevitable. You want to, if not assign blame, figure out not just what happened by why.

And that’s where Foxcatcher fails. Indeed, it never even comes close.

There are many images and a spooky vibe that linger after the film ends, but what you never get is a sense of purpose. Miller has made a haunting story that doesn’t haunt you, a tragedy with no flawed protagonist to sympathize for. The film, like John Du Pont, is a cypher.

Miller has allowed all the artists involved so much latitude to create that he seems to have forgotten his role is to unite them together. I venture to guess that half the below-the-line budget was spent on singlets, nose putty and false teeth: Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo are all made the physically transform for their roles, getting seemingly lost in the characters, the way Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Capote. But Hoffman had a deceiver’s heart at work behind the scenes; you could tell what he was thinking. Carell is a wall of unfathomable mystery, like the patients in the criminally-insane wards of bad horror movies. You can’t understand him, just observe him. All of which keeps everything perpetually on the surface.

The actors are all quite good at their impersonations: Tatum is lurching and damaged, and you feel for him as an inarticulate man daring to find a form of expression that makes sense to him; Ruffalo’s big-brother pal-ness feels lived in, his accent authentic; and Carell is sometimes so strange that it gives you gooseflesh. But their characters, like the pacing and tone of the film, never alter. Miller’s preoccupation with silences and stillness begins to feel like a cheat, a substitute for figuring out these characters and really providing insight. (The horrible events for which the entire incident is remembered occur in the final minutes of the film, with only a few post-script paragraphs to inform us of what eventually happened. Wikipedia is more informative.)

Foxcatcher has a distinct European air to it, not unlike Capote, but without the passion that European films usually find simmering beneath. It’s OK to be cold, but to make the audience care, there has to be a spark of humanity. This film never generates that kind of heat.

Two and half stars. Now playing.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Gay-interest, Texas films score with Independent Spirit Award nominations

‘Love Is Strange’ nominees Alfred Molina, John Lithgow and Ira Sachs.

The Film Independent Spirit Award nominations came out today, and films with gay content or interest — and one biggie from Texas — figured prominently.

Among the gay-interest films were Love Is Strange, about a late-middle-aged gay couple transformed by their marriage. The film was nominated for best feature, leading male John Lithgow, supporting male Alfred Molina and the screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. Gay African-American filmmaker Justin Simien was nominated for best first feature and best first screenplay for his race comedy Dear White People.

Julianne Moore was nominated for leading female for Still Alice, about a woman ravaged by Alzheimer’s, in the drama by gay filmmakers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. Foxcatcher, which opens in Dallas Wednesday (and which I review here in the morning), received the Special Distinction Award.

Among the other nominees are Austin-based director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which scored noms for best feature, director, film editing, supporting female (Patricia Arquette) and supporting male (Ethan Hawke). Strangely overlooked? The title actor, Ellar Coltrane.

The excellent Birdman, with Michael Keaton as a movie star making a serious stage comeback, had the most nominations, for best feature, director, leading male (Keaton), supporting male (Edward Norton), supporting female (Emma Stone) and cinematography. It has some lesbian content as well.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Cocktail Friday: The Versace Sour

Image_20194bIn our Holiday Gift Guide this week, we include the dazzling designer bottle of Disaronno amaretto liqueur as a good item. But here’s a little follow through on it: How to turn the contents into a smashing drink, the Versace Sour. And what gay doesn’t like to be in Versace?

1 part Disaronno amaretto

2 parts biano vermouth

2 parts lime

Prosecco

Blue Curacao

Making it: In a shaker, mix the amaretto, vermouth and lime juice with crushed ice. Pour into a Versace highball glass and top with a splash of prosecco (or cava, or champagne) and a drizzle of blue curacao. For added drama, top with gold flakes.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Liquid Zoo set for soft opening Friday in former Drama Room space

ZooWe’ve had enough of your Drama! Yep, the Drama Room closed nearly two years ago, and the space has remained vacant … until now. New owner Nell Scarborough has taken over and rebranded the space as Liquid Zoo.

The new club will feature pool, darts, shuffleboard and karaoke every night, with Wayne Smith performing host duties on Wednesdays and Saturdays, plus Bingo Thursdays, Trivia Wednesdays, Open Mike Tuesdays and poker three nights a week. There will be a full kitchen in time for the official grand opening in January, but until then, enjoy a limited menu.

And enjoy it sooner than you might expect: Liquid Zoo goes live tomorrow evening (Friday, Nov. 21)  at 6 p.m. Head on by for free food, drink specials and giveaways.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Gay entrepreneur pitches product on ‘Shark Tank,’ but we wrote about it first

Nick-TsengNick Tseng is justifiably excited about his upcoming appearance on ABC’s reality series Shark Tank: The Dallas-based engineer co-created the consumer product called the Kitchen Safe, and hopes to woo one of the millionaire investors to fund the product further. (Nick can’t say what happened on the already-recorded show, but you’ve gotta figure he wouldn’t be hosting a viewing party if it was a total disaster. But ya never know.)

But if while you’re watching the show (it airs Friday on WFAA at 8 p.m.) the Kitchen Safe seems familiar, well, that’s because you read about it here first. It was more than a year ago we profiled Nick in Dallas Voice, and so we’re very excited to see how far the product has come. (We tried it out; it was pretty cool.)

Will fellow Dallas Mark Cuban get behind the craving-crushing Kitchen Safe? Tune in the find out!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Black Tie Dinner recap: Hansen kills it

DSC_9058 cropsmSaturday’s Black Tie Dinner was noteworthy in part because, for the first time in a long time, there was no keynote speaker announced to anchor the night. There as a lineup of guest appearances, sure, but the biggie? Never happened. (Organizers had one in mind, but negotiations couldn’t be finalized at the last minute.)

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a major speech. There was.

Although he was listed merely as making a “special appearance,” WFAA sports anchor Dale Hansen ended up delivering what many present felt was one of the best addresses to a Black Tie audience in memory. He got at standing ovation. And he deserved it. (To the organizers’ shame, Hansen wasn’t even part of the exclusive Speakers’ Reception where VIPs could have their photos taken with celebrities. Now everyone who was there wish they had one to put on their Facebook page.)

Hansen, of course, caused a sensation earlier this year when, after Michael Sam came out as gay prior to the NFL, Hansen took to the airwaves to chastise those who questioned his decision. It was a spirited, slightly chiding argument in favor of being a straight ally from a tall, burly, older-male sports nut — exactly the kind of ally we need because, like Sam himself, it destroys stereotypes. Hansen touted his status as an old-school liberal in Red State Central, and voiced hope for the future — “perhaps not in your lifetimes, and almost certainly not mine,” he sighed … but eventually. Gay rights are inevitable. Equality is a necessity.

Hansen was introduced by another out athlete, Jason Collins (Sam was not present at the evening), in what got the dinner started off in the right direction.

The rest of the guests were excellent as well, from Alex Newell‘s searing vocals to Dana Goldberg‘s side-splitting comedy routine (and surprising deftness as the live auctioneer) to Ted Olson’s speech (oddly, David Boies was present at the reception but ducked out before the dinner — kinda not cool, Dave) and Steve Grand‘s … well, grandness.

The photo of Dale here is by Cassie Quinn. Check out more of her photos from the night here.

See video of the evening by Barry Phillips and Brenna Hemminger here.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Review: Kitchen Dog’s ‘The Arsonists’ becomes a farce of the mind

ARSON6Gottlieb (Max Hartmann) is an unscrupulous businessman in such denial, he doesn’t worry a bit that a key employe he cheated out of a future committed suicide because of the betrayal. He’s happily removed from the realities of how hard life is for the 99 percenters, clucking his tongue that a group of arsonists appear to be targeting the wealthy. How do his peers allow themselves to be so deceived by criminals?

Until one day, Joseph (Jason Kane), a brutish thug, shows up on his doorstep with a ludicrous sob story and, via intimidation and guilt, wheedles his way into Gottlieb’s life to plan yet another act of terrorism … just for the hell of it, apparently.

The late Swiss intellectual Max Frisch made his rep as a playwright 60 years ago with The Arsonists, but this newish translation — getting its regional premiere from Kitchen Dog Theater — gives ample legroom for theater companies to make of it as they wish. In KDT’s case, they’ve turned it into a vaudeville — a farce of the mind that relies on stabs of original music, word play and subtle psychology to burrow under your skin about the nature of society and man’s capacity for self-deception: “They can’t be arsonists — they don’t have matches,” Gottlieb reasons before turning over his Zippo to a scary crew of villains (which now also includes Michael Fererico, who has perfected the art of turning whiny nebbishes into intense comic foils).

This is prime real estate for director Tim Johnson to trod over, combining his affection for absurdism with dark insights into the psyche that can be arresting between blurts of laughter. The cast is top-notch, including Jenny Ledel as a passive-aggressive maid whose frustration with her employer mirrors the audience’s … and her inability to show him the light reminds us that sometimes, mankind is simply beyond helping itself.

Now playing through Dec. 13. KitchenDogTheater.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Cocktail Friday: Big Ginger

2 GINGERS_BIG GINGER 2014With fall upon us, a liquor I begin to enjoy more and more as the weather chills is whiskey. Here’s a simple colder-clime drink to swig with a dog in your lap and a sweater on your back.

2 parts 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey

Ginger ale

Lemon and lime wedges

Making it: Simplicity is key here — add the whiskey to a pint glass with ice, top with ginger ale (to taste), garnish with a squeeze of lime and lemon.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Advocate names Putin its Person of the Year

December 2014 - Vladimir Putin LOIt’s just the first week in November, but The Advocate magazine — the long-standing publication about gay issues — has just released its December/January edition, in which it picks its Person of the Year, and this time out, it’s Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

Not exactly a powerhouse in favor of gay rights, but that’s not the point.

Like Time magazine, The Advocate selects its winner based on his or her influence in gay life and newsworthiness … for good or bad. Time famously selected Adolf Hitler its Man of the Year in 1938, to great controversy. This fact isn’t lost on The Advocate, which placed its title over Putin’s face … in a way intentionally reminiscent of a Hitler moustache. (You can read the story here.)

While I respect the boldness of the choice, Dallas Voice tends to be more positive (and more local). We will select our LGBT Texan of the Year based on the out Texan who has made a positive impact on gay issues. The winner will be revealed on Dec. 12.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Movie review: ‘Interstellar’

In Christopher Nolan’s newest sci-fi extravaganza, Interstellar, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is carefully explained: The closer you approach the speed of light, the slower you age relative to humans on earth. Well, I have a corophoto 1llary to this quantum hypothesis: The closer you come to Interstellar, the more likely it will seem that all activity slows … to … a … grinding … halt.

That’s surprising, considering how jam-packed with noisy activity this three-hour (yes!) adventure film is. There are rocket launches, beautiful trips through wormholes, breathtaking by-the-seat-of-your-pants landings and countless other mind-bending trips through Nolan’s inventive and VFX-fueled brain. Truth be told, though, Nolan has never been much of a storyteller. He’ll spend lots of time acclimating us to characters, then rush headlong through complicated technical points essential to the plot. (Does anyone but him really understand Inception?) Interstellar eases us into its story. We’re never told exactly when it takes place (though apparently later in this century), but eventually we learn that the earth is becoming a desert and mankind will die off unless other habitable worlds are colonized. Matthew McConaughey, a widower with a clingy daughter (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain), is chosen to lead the search alongside Anne Hathaway.Much of the mechanics of the mission are disregarded, though it’s altogether possible they were stated plainly but the editors deemed it far less important than Hans Zimmer’s intrusive score and pulsating sound effects that effectively drown out even the internal dialogue in your head. It’s a sonic assault.

Nolan makes a lot of peculiar choices: There are near countless shots of the outside of the spaceship, but usually seen only from the same angle along the length of the fuselage — it’s like having a window seat on an airplane and trying to figure out what your journey looks like from the outside. He also resorts to some heavy-handed imagery (a potential savior of the species named Mann? Really?).

Ultimately, though, Nolan is less interested in the science than in the humanity. The development of McConaughey’s character — across time and space — is poignant and highly emotional. But last year Alfonso Cuaron got us there in half the time (82 minutes!) with Gravity, while Kubrick explored the position of humankind in the universe a generation ago with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Interstellar isn’t as good as either of those films, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. “Good” may be the enemy of “great,” but don’t write it off entirely.

Three stars. Now in wide release.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones