Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast acritical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them againsteach other across a variety of categories to determine which is mostdeserving of your two hours. This week, Whiplash vs. Foxcatcher, two films about the ascent to celebrity at the hands of a dubious mentor.
PremiseLast year, writer-director Damien Chazelle made a name for himself winning Sundance Film Festival’s Short Film Jury Award for Whiplash. Now, he takes the concept feature-length to explore the relationship between a young jazz percussionist (Andrew, played by Miles Teller) at an elite New York City conservatory and his conductor and mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew eschews family and romance in favor of his art, guided by Fletcher’s biting tongue and star-making touch. It’s a relationship built on fear—fear of both public and private humiliation, and the internal psychological battle to get to the top. Whiplash sounds a lot like Fame with more psychopathology.
While competitive wrestling, at first glance, might not seem to have much to do with jazz bands, director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher similarly follows the rise to stardom of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), sponsored by a psychotic multimillionaire (John Du Pont, played by Steve Carell). Foxcatcher is semi-biographical, based on the life of Du Pont and his relationship with Schultz and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival and received a Best Director nod in addition to a nomination for the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or award. In this case, reality really is stranger than fiction as the bond between the Schultz brothers and Du Pont reaches a bloody—but not altogether unexpected —climax.Advantage: Foxcatcher
The StudentFrom his star-making turn in the 2010 psychodrama Rabbit Hole alongside Nicole Kidman to last year’s acclaimed performance in The Spectacular Now alongside Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller has affirmed his reputation as “an actor who’s been out-transforming nearly everyone in his generation.” He evolves yet again in his performance as Andrew Neyman, the talented young drummer who catches the eye of abusive conductor Terence Fletcher. The haunting psychology he brings to his character is reminiscent of Robert Sean Leonard’s debut in Dead Poets Society. Combine it with his physical energy and presence as a thoroughly believable percussionist, and it’s a game-changing performance that confirms his place as an actor to watch out of his peers.
Channing Tatum, whose most renowned performances have been in blockbusters like 21 Jump Street, Haywire, and Magic Mike, takes on a whole lot more emotional baggage as Mark Schultz. He’s gone on record about the difficulties of acting out such a complicated relationship with his mentor (Carell) and, like Whiplash, his is a physically as well as emotionally weighty performance. Tatum put his head through a mirror (seen in trailers—his bleeding forehead is very real), broke his hand and burst an eardrum over the course of filming. But, based on teasers thus far, much of his performance seems to be grounded in empty stares and angry grimaces. Expression is important, but his performance doesn’t seem able to carry the film in the same way Teller’s surely does.Advantage: Whiplash
The MentorJ.K. Simmons is one of those actors who everyone recognizes and no one knows. He starred in The Closer alongside Kyra Sedgwick for seven seasons, and appeared as Ellen Page’s wisecracking dad in Juno. But his performance in Whiplash is far darker—he’s a ruthless and offensive conductor and his presence on screen anchors Andrew’s energy and ambition. “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job,'” he explains to his students. He is not a mentor in whom the characters confide—he is a leader they fear, but who drives them to success through emotional (and occasional physical) abuse.
Armed with a prosthetic nose, Steve Carell is nearly unrecognizable as John Du Pont (if the name sounds familiar, it is—Du Pont was heir to part of the eponymous energy corporation’s fortune). An actor best known for his comedic roles, Carell has acknowledged that Foxcatcher is a stark departure from his usual fodder. He is unapproachable, creepy, and definitely evokes the brewing psychological instability of his real-life counterpart. Post-Cannes, he’s already been tapped for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Du Pont, an ornithologist who commissioned documentaries to be made about himself, also created a wrestling training facility at his Foxcatcher Farm where the Schultz brothers trained for Olympic competition. Like Du Pont, Carell’s interactions with his mentees are awkward and cold, preparing the viewer for the dark but not altogether unexpected conclusion of the film. Advantage: Foxcatcher
The SkillPitting high-level male wrestling against professional jazz music isn’t a fair comparison, but we’ll take drums over men in leotards any day. Advantage: Whiplash
The TeamIvy League alum Damien Chazelle wrote and directed both the teaser short for Whiplash and subsequent feature. While relatively untested (Whiplash is his full-length directorial debut), the festival buzz around his film is strong. Producer Jason Blum has dozens of credits to his name, and his Blumhouse production company was established to bring small-budget films out of obscurity. Combined with the tried-and-true indie star power of its cast, Whiplash is poised for a place in the ranks of Juno, Little Miss Sunshine and the other crossover hits of the past decade. And while the team behind Foxcatcher has equal potential, we can only fault it for being less of a sleeper hit. The acting credits alone are sure to bring hordes of fans to the box office, and director Bennett Miller has already received an Oscar nomination for Best Director for 2007’s Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman.Advantage: Whiplash
WinnerWe can’t help but root for the underdog, so while Whiplash and Foxcatcher have equal merits in most categories, it’s the music movie that has us really… jazzed.The Verdict: Whiplash
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