Movie reviews: Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Taken 3

Foxcatcher *****
Into the Woods ****
Taken 3 **

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher (15A) is set during the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, when Olympic champion wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) abandons his brother and trainer David (Mark Ruffalo) to sign with Team Foxcatcher, which is sponsored by billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell).

 

In theory, du Pont’s purpose-built training facilities should allow Mark to achieve his true potential at the Seoul games, in the process reminding the world — or so du Pont argues — of America’s innate superiority, but John du Pont makes for a particularly sinister Svengali, and soon Mark and David find themselves embroiled in a battle for Mark’s soul.

Bennett Miller’s film is a gripping drama in which the increasingly impressive Tatum puts in a superb physical performance, his hunched wrestler’s stance giving him a hulking, simian appearance.

Permanently perplexed by the world beyond the wrestling ring, Mark Schultz is a malleable man moulded by John du Pont, but the du Pont portrayed here — the character is given a fabulously creepy reading by Carell — is himself a complex man composed of failed ambition, physical and social inadequacy, and what appear to be latent sociopathic tendencies.

What transpires is an engrossing tale of mutual dependency, substance abuse, outrageous self-delusion and a growing sense of incipient tragedy, all of it underpinned by regular references to great American achievements — du Pont makes regular references to George Washington and his exploits at Valley Forge in particular.

An elegy-of-sorts to a ‘lost America’, but one which also highlights the fallacy of mythologising history, Foxcatcher is a compelling exploration of a nightmarish take on the American dream.

Adapted from the award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, Into the Woods (PG) offers an inventive twist on the traditional fairytale story. Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) must gather four magical items, according to the Witch (Meryl Streep), if the curse that has left them childless is to be lifted.

 

And so the pair go into the woods in search of a slipper, a lock of hair, a cow and a red hooded cloak, their adventure braiding together the fairytales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), the movie thrives on its subversive reading of the familiar tales — poverty-stricken Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), for example, repeatedly runs away from the ball and her Prince Charming (Chris Pine) because she is not entirely sure she’s comfortable with the wealth and splendour of the palace, while Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is a rather more assertive young woman here, to put it mildly, than the old stories give her credit for.

For all the post-modern humour, however, there are still hints of the dark morality fables of Charles Perrault et al, such as when the predatory Wolf (Johnny Depp) serenades Little Red Riding Hood with an ambiguous song about his hunger for tender flesh.

There are few stand-out sing-along tunes, it’s true — most of the dialogue is delivered through song — and a dark final act arrives as something of a surprise given the irreverently comic tone that has gone before, but excellent performances from Blunt, Pine, Corden, Crawford and Streep make Into the Woods a very enjoyable spectacle indeed.

Liam Neeson returns as Bryan Mills in Taken 3 (12A), the endlessly resourceful ex-government operative who rescued his abducted daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) in Taken (2008), and then repeated the trick on behalf of his wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) in Taken 2 (2012).

Framed for murder by Balkan criminals, Bryan goes on the run, pursued by LAPD detective Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker). Can Bryan prove his innocence, and also take his revenge on those who are trying to destroy him?

Written by Luc Besson and directed by Olivier Megaton, Taken 3 is a disappointing finale to the Taken series — the first was implausible but thrilling, the second was bonkers enough to be fun, but this outing is a stale rehash of the previous movies, which depends heavily on Bryan’s Houdini-like capacity to escape from impossible situations in order to keep the wildly improbable plot on track.

Neeson is as gruffly charming and likeable a presence as ever, even if his credibility as an all- action hero has grown less persuasive in the past few years, and the always dependable Forest Whitaker provides a solid anchor for the story’s wilder excesses.

For the most part, however, this is a by-the-numbers thriller that limps rather than sprints to its inevitable climax.


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