The award season movies are coming thick and fast this month, what with the wonderful Birdman and The Theory of Everything released last week and another three due to roll out in the next fortnight and this gem joining the throng from today. God, it'd nearly cause you to forget all about the big-budget franchise horrors which lie lurking in the long grass from Easter onwards.
Based on a truly bizarre true story, Foxcatcher features three outstanding central performances while director Bennett Miller moves the story forward with such skill that you think you're watching a particularly strange psychodrama unfold, rather than a dramatisation of actual events.
In fact, Miller has excellent previous on that score, having helmed the fine Moneyball (a sports movie which people who knew nothing at all about baseball could follow) and the Oscar-winning Capote, both of which had real people and incidents at their core.
Beginning in 1987, we're introduced to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) a gold medal winner in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Los Angeles Olympics who's about to give a talk to a class of schoolchildren about his achievements.
Shy and somewhat tongue-tied, Schultz only really comes alive when he's training or competing and is in complete contrast to his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), himself a gold medallist in the same sport, who's happily married to Nancy (Sienna Miller) and has two small children.
With the World Championships imminent and the Seoul Olympics looming, out of the blue Mark receives a call from a representative of John du Pont (Steve Carell), the only son of one of America's richest families.
It emerges that du Pont is obsessed with wrestling and proposes that Mark help set up a training facility at his Foxcatcher estate with a view to shaping the destiny of the US Olympic team.
Mark agrees and is immediately ensconced on the grounds of Foxcatcher, handsomely paid but unsure of just what's driving du Pont.
The audience is also unsure of the benefactor's motives. Even behind prosthetic nose and teeth, Steve Carell exudes a sense of creeping dread.
He's clearly rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams but also completely insecure, given that the du Ponts come from some of the oldest money in the States and he feels that he hasn't earned his life of luxury.
There are hinted-at issues with his ageing mother Jean (an imperious Vanessa Redgrave) and also the growing feeling that his intentions regarding Mark might be leading to a different form of wrestling.
Once the usually disciplined younger Schultz's form dips, hardly helped by heavy drinking and cocaine use in the company of du Pont, Dave is brought in to kick everyone back into shape and the film moves into a tussle between the two older men. It's a classic scenario played out against a sporting backdrop which, as in the case of Moneyball, you don't really need to know too much about.
All three leads are superb, with Carell outstanding as a man whose increasing bizarre behaviour and interest in weaponry hints at what may lie ahead while Ruffalo is great as usual, giving the film its moral centre.
Tatum too is no mere pretty boy hunk here, giving a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a working class kid clearly out of his depth in a world of privilege which could be snatched away on the whim of a paranoid narcissist. Foxcatcher is most definitely worth getting to grips with. Rating: HHHHH
INTO THE WOODS
(Musical. Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Christine Baranski, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Johnny Depp, Annette Crosbie,Tracey Ullman. Directed by Rob Marshall. Cert PG)
I must admit that after the horror that was Sweeney Todd the prospect of this adaptation of another Stephen Sondheim musical filled me with a sense of sheer dread. Sung-through musicals can be an ordeal at the best of times, tending towards bad light opera on far too many occasions, but Into the Woods came as a very pleasant surprise. For Into the Woods Sondheim and his regular librettist James Lapine have effectively mashed up a bunch of familiar fairytales, maintained the dark undercurrent from the original stories and thrown them all together in a magical realm.
The opening title number is a stunning piece of intricate wordplay and fiendishly clever rhyme schemes, as the various characters are introduced in an elongated sequence which is nothing short of dazzling.
So, we have Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) bemoaning her lot at the hands of her stepmother (Christine Baranski), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) off to visit her grandmother (Annette Crosbie), Jack (Daniel Huttlestione) sent to market by his mother (Tracey Ullman) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) locked in her tower.
At the heart of the story though are a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), eager to have a child but unable to do so due to an ancient curse placed by a witch (Meryl Streep) who sets them four tasks in order to lift it.
Blunt and Corden pretty much steal the show here, balancing pathos and humour (Blunt really is a marvellous comedienne) to great effect and that's in the face of plenty of grandstanding from other cast members. Johnny Depp raids the costume box yet again to play a lascivious Big Bad Wolf but is mercifully despatched not too far into proceedings while Meryl Streep gets to have a ball and gets a big production number to boot.
Director Rob (Chicago) Marshall has, by all accounts, trimmed some of the grimmer story twists and excised a handful of songs from the stage show but, not having seen it, that didn't bother me in the slightest.
Into the Woods is a delight, not least when Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen belt out the hilarious duet Agony as a pair of vain princes. Great fun altogether. Rating: HHHHI
(Action. Starring Liam Neeson, Forrst Whitaker, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell. Directed by Olivier Megaton. Cert 12A)
The original Taken was a genuine surprise and quite an entertaining movie to boot. Sure, it was as dumb as a truckload of Tallafornia contestants and didn't make a jot of sense storywise but it did feature Liam Neeson's unlikely emergence as an action hero.
Good God, there's Oskar Schindler shooting a woman in the leg in order to put the frighteners on her husband - deadly! Alas, as a result of Liamo's antics in The A-Team, fending off homicidal wolves in The Grey and generally being a badass in two or three films a year since Taken the novelty has long worn off, the nadir of his late blooming as a hard man coming with this pile of tosh.
This time out we have a braindead rehash of The Fugitive, with former CIA man Bryan Mills (Neeson) framed for the murder of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen), going on the run pursued by the LAPD's Detective Frank Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) while his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) flits in and out of the story.
Cartoon Russians, an obvious villain and unwatchable action sequences make for a depressing cinema experience And is anyone actually 'taken'? Oh yes: the audience. Taken for mugs. Rating: HHIII