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🎬 #35 Is Tone Everything?
Tone for me is what gives you that certain feeling you feel when you see a film or remember it. Even beyond story points, it’s the tone of the film that lingers in your mind or heart, even if you can’t quite express exactly what makes it that way.
Unlike the words of a script on the page or even the choice of lens or the film stock, or the art directional palette, tone is something that you can’t point at on a reference board and say that’s it. Even photographic reference doesn’t quite nail it. It almost emerges as a byproduct from the careful choices of all the tools filmmakers can use.
That’s what makes it so impressive to me, that filmmakers can conjure it up. Knowing that this lens capturing this style of performance, with a sound design that emphasises silence, will make the film feel like this and not like this. It’s almost like magic, a delicate feeling that filters through to the audience without them even really knowing. Both this week’s films are made by a director who I think is a great conjurer of tone but not in an obvious way - he’s someone you might not even think of when you think ‘tone.’
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: FOXCATCHER
2014 Dir Bennett Miller
Having recently revisited the film, I realised how impressive it is in terms of capturing a mood. A sense of impending doom clings to the film like the mist that shrouds the Du Pont compound. And it does this without resorting to obvious emotional trickery. There is a momentum of ‘creep’ to the film, from the first frame to the climax, an unsettling feeling that things can not end well, nor even start well. And it’s flawlessly maintained, without being one note. The first meeting of the brothers in particular is a scene that does so much with so little. An example of all parties involved making something so grounded, yet so brilliant.
The story is that of the unlikely patron of American Wrestling, John Du Pont, and his interest in two of the sport’s biggest figures. He welcomes pro wrestlers and brothers Mark and David Schultz into his opulent home, and hopes they will help him make it the place to train for the USA wrestling team and a home from which future champions will emerge. Like his Mother’s thorough bred racehorses, he wishes to establish a stable he can call his own, a stable for his country’s wrestlers.
As Bennett Miller said himself there is just something off about this true story - the idea itself is kind of absurd. If it wasn’t a true story and instead originated as a whacky buddy comedy, even with the same cast, you could see it. A simple tonal flick of the wrist and you could have something totally different. And here the importance of tone comes right to the forefront. Instead Miller and his team have created a brooding, almost chamber piece of a film that showcases the strange relationship between athlete and sponsor. What the search for greatness, and the isolation of wealth can do to people.
From the lighting to the performances, everything is low key, natural, uncomfortable in its realism. Particularly in one scene where Du Pont, played by Carrell, play fights with his athletes. Miller stages scenes with a beautiful ordinariness, an austerity that makes the wealth of the environment the brothers find themselves in feel pallid. And when we do cut to the brightness of the wrestling practice spaces, they pop. The alien-ness of the two worlds meeting made even more impactful.
The entire film is a three-way wrestling match, between the three leads, a war of friendship, fatherhood and brotherhood. A journey of people trying to regain power and honour, through wrestling.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 14 mins of my precious life watching this? Miller and his cast and crew create a uniquely riveting tale of ambition and power, with an incredible performance by a barely recognisable Steve Carrell in this true life story of what happens when you get lost in your own world.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple, YouTube and Sky Store.
Fact: Director Bennett Miller was handed newspaper clippings of the story by a stranger who recognised him and said [rightly] you’ll want to make a movie about this. That stranger has an Executive Producer credit on the film.
FILM TWO: MONEYBALL
2011 Dir Bennett Miller
Moneyball might be one of those films you see pop-up while casually browsing a streamer and dismiss it, maybe because it seems like a classic ‘sports’ movie, maybe it looks too Hollywood, maybe Brad Pitt is just too handsome and so you think it’ll somehow be of that ‘ilk,’ handsome lovely athletic people getting what they want, easily. But it’s none of these things.
Miller brings the script by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin to life with that undersell that he has, even the moments of ‘triumph’ are handled with a muted approach. The reality of winning being that it feels like nothing has changed after it. It’s a realism that feels true and underplayed. Maybe it comes from the fact that his first film was a documentary but he has a knack for creating an atmosphere that feels utterly believable, even when it involves multi-million dollar sports teams and stars.
The film follows Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, as he tries to literally change the game by creating a winning team on a much lower budget than the heavy hitters. He hopes to achieve this with the help of player analysis and economic theory - personified by the brilliant Jonah Hill. The only other character who believes in what they are trying to do.
There’s a rawness to the Pfister’s cinematography, a rawness to the performances and at times they have that difficult to capture, patter of reality. The uncomfortable vibe that comes when people are in conflict, and not just film ‘conflict’ but the real thing. The unease that can haunt the hallways of a workplace when two people don’t see eye to eye.
A tone of longing permeates the film. A romanticism of the sport that exists despite the stories basis on numerical and technical analysis. It’s like filmmaking, there’s a lot of technical planning and thought, a lot of engineering, but it’s all in the spirit of trying to capture something, to create a feeling in the audience - a tone that is unique.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 13 mins of my precious life watching this? Pitt and Jonah create a double act that is captivating and emotionally compelling without being cliche, an excellent script and Miller’s handling of the material creates a film filled with restrained heart.
*Available for free on Netflix and for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple, YouTube and Sky Store.
Fact: Spike Jonze makes a brief cameo as Beane’s ex wife’s new partner.
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