WWE: FastPain (2015)

★★★

Ouch. See that pain chipping away at your lower back? That’s the unwanted product of a pothole-filled Road to WrestleMania. WWE could’ve smoothed over the tarmac last night. HA! Wishful thinking, I know. Instead, whoever drove the car through Fastlane — sorry, WWE Fastlane — just rolled down the window and marked a big, black line under weeks of dreadful storytelling post-Royal Rumble.

Let’s recap. When Daniel Bryan returned from injury before the Royal Rumble and announced his involvement in the rumble match itself, the story that made the most sense at that point was Bryan versus Brock Lesnar. The talented, hard-working fan favourite against the dominant, viscous monster. Roman Reigns went on to win the rumble and that was that. Fine. From then, the next two months should have been spent building up Reigns as a credible and respectable threat to Lesnar, with Daniel Bryan nowhere in sight. Two RAWs later, Bryan’s in the title picture.

With one section of the audience rooting for Bryan and the other rooting for Reigns, the only justifiable scenario coming out of Fastlane should have been a triple threat match at WrestleMania 31 — where every fan who had invested emotion into either Bryan, Reigns or Lesnar would still have that same investment come March 29th. Fastlane is over and we’ve now got a WrestleMania main event involving a babyface who half of the audience won’t cheer for and a monster heel (one probably leaving the company) who half of the audience will applaud vociferously. And last year’s WrestleMania headliner — and opener, because Bryan is that good — is totally directionless with only five weeks to go until this year’s WrestleMania.

Fastlane - Bryan and Reigns

Sure the Royal Rumble was a royal shambles but at least the outcome, the end result on the night, made sense. Roman Reigns winning the Royal Rumble match worked from a story perspective. It wasn’t the best story they could have told but it was still a perfectly decent route to venture down. Daniel Bryan’s inclusion in the rumble match was the spoiling factor. The booking sucked, not the premise.

Fast forward to Fastlane and the whole scenario is a mess. We’ve had Royal Rumble winner Reigns gladly give up his ticket to stardom for a match against Bryan; Bryan being offered the chance to main event WrestleMania by his good buddy Triple H (you know, the same guy who fought tooth and nail to keep D-Bry out of the main event last year); and Brock Lesnar out doing some gardening because they haven’t been able to do much with him without an opponent. Ignoring the obvious story complications, the supposed vindication for Reigns versus Bryan doesn’t even make sense. Daniel Bryan — the ultimate underdog — should not be the guy who is used to get the much bigger, much stronger Roman Reigns over.

Reigns defeated Bryan clean at Fastlane and then the two shook hands. Bryan poked his opponent’s chest whilst saying, and I quote, “you better kick his ass,” referring obviously to fellow booking this rubbish. IWC smark marky markers everywhere, that is our cue to start cheering Roman Reigns. Be civil guys. The match was excellent and it’s absolutely logical therefore for people to bemoan complainers such as myself. We did get to see a brilliant match after all. But the issue is how the match came to fruition, the repercussions of the match and the likelihood that we’ll see booking disasters similar to this one again in the future.

I’m not going to defend Reigns much because I don’t think there’s much to defend. Yes, he done very well last night and, yes, he absolutely could be a big star. But as of this moment, he’s not that good. He’s not WrestleMania headliner/opener good. He’s not even WrestleMania headliner good. The match at Fastlane was great because Daniel Bryan wrestled in it and Roman Reigns just about managed to keep up. If the Samoan Boss Man had wrestled Sheamus, or Orton, or even Cena, I really don’t think the bout would have been half as entertaining.

Fastlane - Hand Shake

Fastlane was a bit of a dud show in general. The crowd weren’t on great form — no Slammy for you Memphis. Randy Orton’s return was one of the high points and I’m looking forward to seeing his match against Seth Rollins at WrestleMania. Orton isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but he does tend to have excellent matches with smaller guys (Christian, Bryan and Rollins himself all spring to mind). Bray Wyatt delivered the most exciting moment of the night as he finally called out the Undertaker. This one has a ring-load of potential. Check out Inside The Ropes for some genuinely thrilling thoughts on how to book that programme, and lots of other top chat too — they’re always on the ball.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Sting and Triple H. I never watched WCW so the whole ‘defending the honour of a now defunct promotion’ angle doesn’t resonate with me at all. Hey, if they’d waited a few more years Sting could have showed up looking to defend the honour of a lifeless TNA. Kidding. The worry for me is that Sting versus Triple H will play out much like Brock versus Triple H did at WrestleMania 29. There is still time to generate more buzz.

However, it looks like there won’t be enough time to rescue Roman Reigns before the big showdown, at least not fully. If booked correctly, he could have had an army of followers vying for him to win the title. Now at least half of that army are too busy mourning Bryan’s mistreatment. As for the bearded warrior — he’s the most popular guy in company, but we shouldn’t let that silly insignificance get in the way of any undermining that needs to be done, right?

He literally is the Boyhood of wrestling: under-appreciated by those inaccessible elites but loved for his authenticity and talent by us lowly peasants. I’m off to watch the WWE Network and buy a Sting t-shirt.

Fastlane - Bryan

Images credit: WWE

Foxcatcher (2015)

★★★★★

Foxcatcher PosterDirector: Bennett Miller

Release Date: January 9th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Sport

Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo

You could single out any number of attributes and relate them to Bennett Miller’s directorial portfolio, but depth wouldn’t be one. The New Yorker has created four films since 1998 and, at a rate of one film every four or five years, Miller obviously doesn’t take job choices lightly. After a seldom seen documentary feature called The Cruise (1998) and his critically acclaimed biographical drama Capote (2005), Miller tried his hand at exploring the inner workings of American sport on the big screen. Moneyball (2011) was polished and affecting, but never set out to irritate because it was never meant to be that kind of story, just as baseball isn’t that kind of sport.

Foxcatcher, on the other hand, is that kind of story. Whereas Moneyball told a consumable tale that reflected the everyday popularity of baseball, Miller’s latest piece bathes in the sweaty discomfort and disassociation of wrestling. It’s uncensored, but subtly so. It’s damn good too.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an amateur wrestler. We first meet him as he somewhat timidly relays semi-encouraging words to a less than half full hall of school children. Perhaps timidness is the wrong adjective. Mark isn’t necessarily a shy person, but his inability to open up is reflected in his distanced demeanour. All he knows is an everyday, basic existence. And amateur wrestling. Tatum excels as the hard-boiled grappler, his physicality more than matched by a powerhouse emotional range that develops alongside the story. He hobbles as you’d imagine a wrestler would, and wears sweatpants and an unforgiving exterior in and out of the gym, unlike the more outgoing Dave.

Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) is Mark’s older brother, the man Mark is filling in for during the opening scene. Dave is also an Olympic champion and, for one reason or another, the more popular brother. Ruffalo brings an awkward charm to the role; we’re instantly drawn to him as he graciously interacts with American wrestling officials, Ruffalo dragging his toes as he shakes hands as if to highlight an inert clumsiness. The siblings train shortly thereafter, and Foxcatcher unleashes its first taste of the brutish sport — as Dave gets the better of Mark the latter lashes out, emphasising Mark’s simmering displeasure towards his overshadowing older brother.

Both men receive the opportunity to head up an all-American wrestling team at Foxcatcher farm, funded by John du Pont (Steve Carell). “Du Pont, a dynasty of wealth and power”, are the words that echo from a History Channel-esque montage about the rich family. Mark accepts, aspiration outweighing alertness, whereas family man Dave rejects. Though the film breeds an air of morbidity from the outset, it really kicks into gear upon the arrival of a terrifying looking du Pont. The three primary actors deliver wholly, but it is Carell’s skin-crawling turn as the internally maniacal financier that’ll stick in the memory and continue to probe long after the final pinfall. Assisted by facial prosthetics more suited to the latest House of Wax horror instalment, Carell maintains false poise that’s ready to burst. He’s devilish and utterly detestable.

Miller’s film teases the inevitability of chaos bred from a relationship between the three men, but refrains from delivering on the fact until the final act. Much of the first hour and a half of Foxcatcher instead focuses on the relationship between du Pont and Mark, a partnership that is clearly on iffy terrain from go. Their first face to face meeting at the farm is one of a catalogue of tension filled moments; du Pont sells his wrestling project to Mark (the multimillionaire wants to foster a gold medal batch of grapplers) under the guise of honour and patriotism. Rob Simonsen and West Dylan Thordson’s score is noticeably absent here as we hang on du Pont’s every word in tandem with Mark.

Although the screenplay relays a number of striking lines — “Horses are stupid. Horses eat and shit, that’s all they do” is a particular stand-out that comes from the mouth of du Pont, breeder of amateur wrestlers — the piece doesn’t necessarily rely on words to succeed. Rather, it’s about tension and ambiguity and the toxic atmosphere burning the three men involved. The overarching moodiness serves a purpose, but it is also a necessity given the real life framework. Foxcatcher resembles David Fincher’s Gone Girl in many ways, though the Gillian Flynn-penned film alleviates tension via brief moments of humour, unlike Foxcatcher. This incessantly serious approach works given the context, and Miller’s tactful management of the potentially tricky sullenness is a true masterclass in pressure-building on screen.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it’s unsurprising that the camera refuses to shy away from raw moments — shots are dynamic when showing matches and totally still otherwise. Greig Fraser’s cinematography effectively positions the audience in amongst any wrestling and as such captures the fleshy warring in full flow. Both Tatum and Ruffalo ought to be commended on their very immersive abilities, and it’s also worth noting the most horrifying celebratory expression in recent memory from Carell after a victory.

The culmination is game of pawn playing, a deliberation of moral values, and of blind understanding. Three men are at the forefront, their rapport with each other and with amateur wrestling challenged. Foxcatcher might only be Bennett Miller’s fourth film in almost 20 years, but it is absolutely his most accomplished.

Foxcatcher - Carell & Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images credit (©): Sony Pictures Classics