Q&A with Foxcatcher’s director Bennett Miller

With the award season upon us, one of the names that’s been showing up in film sites/blogs list of Oscar frontrunners is the psychological drama Foxcatcher. The film has been screened in various film festivals in the US and internationally, and finally it’s opening this week in the Twin Cities. Earlier this month, I had the chance to sit down with director Bennett Miller when he’s in town as part of a press tour around the country promoting the film.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Photo courtesy of Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Foxcatcher marks Miller’s third film following the critically-acclaimed Capote and Moneyball, and this one is also based on a true story of pro-wrestler brothers Mark & Dave Shultz and their sponsor, millionaire John du Pont. The film stars Channing Tatum as Mark, Mark Ruffalo as Dave and Steve Carell as Du Pont. During our interview, Miller gave us insights into his atypical casting choices, working with producer Megan Ellison (founder of Annapurna Pictures who happens to be the daughter of Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle), the origin of the film + the years it took to get it made, and how Tatum was his only choice for Mark Schultz.

The roundtable interview took place at The Grand Hotel Minneapolis, so this excerpt includes questions from two other interviewers, Eric Henderson (EH) from CBS Radio and Paul McGuire Grimes (PMG) from Twin Cities Live & Paul’s Trip to the Movies Blog. My questions are marked with my initials, RM.

[There are major plot points being discussed,
so consider this a spoiler warning if you have not seen the film
]

PMG: So I just have to have to say that I really enjoyed the movie. It’s think it’s very chilling and suspenseful, and I love the character buildup in it. I’ve noticed that all four of your movies are all based on true stories. Is that something that you look for? Are you more inspired by real life events that you like to dig into and research or is it just mere coincidence?

Miller: I honestly don’t know. I mean I don’t look for it. I don’t tell people “Oh I’m looking for a real life story.” It just happens that way. I like real life stories. Real life stories, at least for me, they all have to have an allegorical quality. They add up to something more than just the story. I try to do these stories because you can see more into them. You can treat the real life story and examine the real story with cinema in a way you cannot examine it with any other medium. So, compared to news coverage or another form of journalism, a film can actually do something in the exploration of the truth of events that “non-fiction” formats can’t. Cinema can capture and shine a light in areas where nothing else can.

PMG: How did you first hear about this story? Did you read Mark’s book or was it a script you came upon?

Miller: A total stranger approached me at an event and handed me an envelope that I would learn contained newspaper clippings about the story.

PMG: That seems a little creepy, but…

Miller: A little creepy, but that’s how it happened. I then set about exploring it and researching it, getting drafts done, and the screenplays.

RM: How long ago was that?

Miller: That was eight years ago. 2006.

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Photo courtesy of Zimbio

RM: I just have a quick question about casting. How did Steve Carell come into being cast as John du Pont. And also related to that, Vanessa Redgrave?

Miller: Well. Steve Carell’s agent threw his name into the mix, and I can’t take credit for having been the first to think of it, but it did make a certain kind of sense, in part, because nobody expected John du Pont to murder Dave Schultz. You don’t want an actor in that role who you would expect to murder somebody, and it’s exciting when an actor breaks out of what’s expected of them. I just had a lot of confidence that he had it in him. I thought it was just a question of him getting the right opportunity to do something like this.

PMG: I think you have a real good knack for doing that. I mean, Jonah Hill and Chris Pratt in Moneyball gave performances I don’t think anyone expected them to give and now he’s [Hill] doing The Wolf of Wall Street. I think you definitely have something do with that. And now with Steve Carell, you have him to do this side that we have never see him do before and it’s fascinating and it’s brilliant to watch him do this.

Miller: Yeah or there is a tendency to restrict people to opportunities that only allow them to do things similar to what they have done before. So, I think it’s probably true that most people are capable of far more than they get the opportunity to prove, but as it happens in this industry, there is a strong tendency towards derivation.

PMG: Do you ever get resistance from the studio or anyone saying “I don’t know if you want to cast Carell in this” or do they just kind of give you the free reign to do it?

Miller: Well, it was [producer] Megan Ellison, so no. She’s just very supportive and pretty certain. Had it been another studio, perhaps, it would be very possible.

EH: What is the working relationship with her? I mean she’s really a superstar right now in the field.

Miller: It’s ideal because ultimately her interest is the same as the filmmakers. And filmmaking is a tricky industry because it requires partnerships with financiers whose interests necessarily are not identical to the creative interests.

EH: Which is sort of mirrored in the film itself, kind of, the financial aspect of it.

Miller: Which is, I think, one thing that was interesting to her, you know, but those interests rarely are 100% harmonious and compatible. In the case of Megan, I think ultimately what she wants more than anything else, the biggest consideration and the governing principles that the movie is everything that it can and should be. She cares more about that than anything. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the financial side or it’s not that she’s reckless about or ignorant of that, it’s just that she cares about the creative aspect more. It makes for a very ideal partnership with filmmakers I think.

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Miller directing Vanessa Redgrave – photo courtesy of Zimbio

RM: It’s kind of fascinating to me that the two female characters, the mother and also the wife of Dave Schultz, are both played by British actresses and they are also not who I would expect to play those roles which enhance the roles themselves.

Miller: It’s a coincidence that they are British. Although Sienna [Miller] is half American, her father is American. Why wouldn’t you expect those actors? Which actor would you expect? Which actor is cast in a role that makes common sense?

RM: Well, I don’t know now that I’ve seen it. I mean, now I can’t imagine anyone else playing them. On the top of my head, I kept thinking maybe somebody like Amy Ryan maybe, for the role of Dave Schultz’s wife. But I thought Sienna did a great job. And Vanessa Redgrave can pretty much do anything.

Miller: She [Redgrave] is so good. I think of everybody she seems to make the most natural sense, and she’s probably playing closest to her strengths compared to the other actors.

EH: One actor we haven’t really mentioned yet is Channing Tatum. I think right now we haven’t come up with a word like “McConaissance” yet. Clearly, he’s on the verge of that or is even in the mid of it. Was he an actor you wanted specifically for this role from the get go?

Miller: Yeah, totally. I offered the part to him eight years ago.

EH: So based off of Step Up?

Miller: No before that. It was based off of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006). I saw that film, never having heard of him before, and I offered him the role before there was even a script. I got a meeting with him and said I was intending on making this film, and walked him through it, and he hopped on eight years ago. Things took a while, and things sort of unraveled. I couldn’t get the movie made, so I moved on to Moneyball and then came back to it. I bumped into him and said I was still planning on making this film if he was interested.

EH: And of course by that time his Sabermetrics score, or whatever, had gone up considerably.

Miller: It had. If you would have based that projection on just Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, you probably would not have imagined the turn that his career did, the kinds of movies that he did. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, they’re just so different. But it was Guide to Recognizing Your Saints that gave me the confidence that he was right for this, to the point where I didn’t even have a second choice.

PMG: I like that his character, unlike Carell’s, you know a lot about his character, he’s vulnerable and he brings those aspects apart. We don’t see that a lot from him. There’s a very different side, and it’s a wonderful performance from him. Hopefully, people see that and trust him more than the other roles he typically gets.

Miller: I hope so. I think they will. Again, he’s another one because of his qualities he tends to get used for particular things and he becomes known for that. I don’t see him to be any better suited to do rom-coms than he is to do something like this. In some ways, I think this is much more closer to what his natural vernacular would be as an actor.

PMG: Can you talk a little bit more about the filming style? There are a lot of wide shots where you let the camera sit and watch all of the images come across, very dialogue free, you just watch the characters. There’s a lot of improv on the set, correct? Can you talk a little bit more about that and the idea behind that?

Miller: The improv or the wide?

PMG: Both. Did they both play into each other?

Miller: The wideness, the steadiness, deliberateness of the style, the austerity of it, I would say is meant to concentrate you and sensitize you to the subtleties of what’s happening.

PMG: And it works.

Miller: The “dialogue-less-ness” of the film similarly, I think, draws you in and sensitizes you to pay attention to what’s not being spoken in the times when there are words so the style hopefully helps you process a film that’s communicating on different frequencies. There’s lots going on…

PMG: That‘s not said.

Miller: Exactly. As far as the improvisation goes, it’s actually linked to that as well and as much as we’re looking for ways to express things in the way that people express things inadvertently, so you can have the same words and one reading will reveal one thing and another will reveal something else and to really make that work, sometimes, or often times, it proves most effective to really just experiment and see what happens. There’s a scene when the two brothers are warming up at the beginning of the movie where they wrestle and it gets out of control.

It was scripted, more or less, but I decided to shoot it like a documentary and ask them [Ruffalo and Tatum] to start the scene much earlier than the scene had been conceived to start. When I watched the footage and assembled the first cut of that, it became clear that we learn about these two guys, who they were, and who they were to each other and the rivalry, and the reverence, the competitiveness, and the love, it’s all in there. I was able to cut something like twenty minutes of scenes.

Foxcatcher_Carrell_TatumEH: Speaking of things left open to interpretation, I’ve read some online debate now about this too, there seems to be a thread of sublimated homosexuality going on in the character of John du Pont. Is that one of those things you had in the back of your mind or was it inadvertent?

Miller: Sublimated, I would say … I don’t think that anything ever became explicit.

EH: The only shot where I questioned was the midnight training bout between Carrell and Tatum.

Miller: That kind of stuff really happened, though, so I think that’s how it expresses itself. But it’s never quite admitted that that’s what happening there.

EH: It would be a politically tricky parallel to draw, I imagine, to insinuate a connection between du Pont’s sexuality and his violent act.

Miller: I would have no problem if I thought that’s what happened. I think what happened is what we show what happened. The bigger issue is that thematically you’ve got a character who is fundamentally incapable of admitting and accepting who he is and he, himself, living in the shadow of his ancestors.

EH: Exceptionalism.

Miller: Yeah and trying to live up to some inherited role or a concept of an inherited role or something like that but the truth of his inadequacy, the truth perhaps of his sexuality, the truth of his leadership abilities, or lack thereof…

EH: Or that his mom’s children as horses essentially.

Miller: Right.

Miller_FoxcatcherCastRM: So I think that’s why he identifies with Mark maybe because you know he felt like Mark was always under Dave’s shadow too.

Miller: Mark was susceptible to that and he understood that I think. I also think each saw the other, Mark and du Pont, as an answer to …

PMG: The void that they had?

Miller: Yeah. Somehow the other one was the answer you know, to validate each other.

RM: They thought they could complete each other or something?

Miller: Or together that this guy, who he is, and that he would ally himself with me, is the form of validation that I want. Meaning, both of those characters I think thought that.

RM: There are so many favorite scenes, but the one that stood out to me was the one in the chopper where Mark and John were trying to say “Ornithologist. Philatelist. Philanthropist.” and Mark just couldn’t get it, and they just keep repeating those three words. I thought there was something eerie and that they were snorting heroin…

Miller: Cocaine

(Everyone chuckles)

Miller: They would never do heroin.

RM: Right. I am just wondering, what is the most challenging scene? Are there any for you that were just tough to get down?

Miller: That scene turned out to be pretty easy just because Steve Carell somehow conjured up what happened and he improvised that. That just came out of him. Often it was the simple scenes that you trip up on. The big dramatic intense scenes like when Channing beats himself up and wrecks the room and gorges. Big scene in the script. Big scene in one take. Only one take. Some of the other quieter scenes end up being the most difficult. The simpler they are, the more unforgiving they are.

PMG: Can you talk a little bit more about the research process? Did you get a lot of support from the Schultz family or even the du Ponts about what happened?

Miller: The Schultzes very much so. Mark Schultz, Nancy Schultz, Nancy’s kids. Dave Schultz was somebody who had a thousand best friends, and I feel like most of them came out of the woodwork to support us and put their trust in us. I spoke to law enforcement officials, people who participated in the siege, cops who lived on the estate. I spoke to a few du Ponts who gave us a little bit of insight, but they weren’t around too much. And, of course, wrestlers, the wrestling community.

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Miller and his Foxcatcher cast at Cannes

EH: So, how mind-blowing to win at Cannes? [Long pause] I mean, you beat Godard!

Miller: Oh ok I might’ve… that’s so American of you.

EH: And I’m sure Godard would say the same.

Miller: Right. It’s very nice to be regarded by your peers. [Another long pause.] I mean, that’s really what it amounts to. I wouldn’t call it “mind-blowing.” It was more humbling.

EH: You strike me as someone who might be more humbled.

Miller: It’s humbling and the overwhelming feeling is gratitude and even some kind of debt. You want to live up to people’s hopes for this medium. It’s a very difficult thing to work. It’s a complex thing. Anyway, it felt nice.

RM: Congratulations!

Miller: Thank you.

PMG: It’s a wonderful movie. I’m excited to see what other people have to say once it opens, and the praise Steve gets, and Channing, and Mark, who we didn’t talk about, but is always fantastic.

RM: He is indeed fantastic here.

Miller: Oh I thought we did talk about him. Yeah, he is the heart of the film.


Foxcatcher opens in limited release today in the Twin Cities.
Check out the trailer below:


Hope you enjoyed the interview. Have you seen Foxcatcher? If so, what did you think?

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November Blind Spot: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

RebelWithoutACausePosterI chose this film because for some reason I had never seen any James Dean film. It seems that some of Hollywood’s legends have escaped me, as I had just seen Marilyn Monroe’s and Bette Davis’ films for the first time recently. It’s also my first time seeing Natalie Wood, though I have seen her previously in various clips of West Side Story. Strange that both leads died tragically and prematurely, in fact, Wood’s drowning death is still unsolved to this day. Per IMDb, two other cast members also died under tragic circumstances: Sal Mineo was stabbed to death whilst Edward Platt committed suicide.

This film was nominated for 3 Oscars (including 2 acting nods for Wood and Mineo) and ranked #59 amongst 100 Greatest Films by AFI in 1998. Even before seeing the film, I’ve seen what Dean looked like in his iconic white t-shirt and red leather jacket. I wonder though if he had become such an influential cultural icon if he hadn’t died at the peak of his career at the young age of 24.

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The one thing I noticed right away as the film opens with Dean’s character Jim Stark lying drunk on the street is that he’s way too mature to play a high school teenager. Sure enough, I learned later that he’s already 24 when he got the role. Yet somehow Dean’s able to capture that brooding teenage angst that becomes his signature performance. No doubt even today’s young male actors wants to imitate Dean’s style and swagger that one either has or doesn’t. But Jim’s not smug nor cocky, there’s actually a layer of vulnerability about Jim and all that malaise stems from a deeper longing that’s left unfulfilled.

This films isn’t just a commentary on the foibles of youth but I think it has a good message for parents, especially parents of teens who desperately need guidance as they navigate the complexities of their young lives.

“What do you do when you have to be a man?”
– Jim repeatedly asks his father

Jim’s parents are in constant fights that often ends with his mom winning the argument. In fact, it’s shown time and again that his dad just can’t stand up to his domineering wife. Early in the film, one of the cops (played by Edward Platt) actually sympathized with Jimmy whilst he was booked at the police station. For a while I thought he’d be a good mentor for him but then he sort of disappeared for most of the film.

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There’s an interesting relationship between the school bully Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) and Jim who’s his target. The switchblade fight following Buzz slashing Jim’s car’s tire is wonderfully-filmed and packed with tension. I read that the actors wore chain mail under their shirt as they used real blades during that scene. What’s interesting is that for being called a *rebel*, Jim is actually a really nice guy who wants to do the right thing. Even when Buzz called him ‘chicken,’ something that really aggravated him, he’s still able to control himself instead of going completely berserk as I’d imagine a lot of teens would do under the circumstances.

[Spoiler alert – in case some of you still haven’t seen this one]

Now, what does baffle me is the bit involving the tragic car accident that killed Buzz. His jacket sleeve got caught in the car door handle which prevents him from jumping out of the car before it goes over a cliff, but wouldn’t you think that he can still hit brakes as soon as he realizes he can’t open the door? I don’t know maybe I’m missing some crucial piece of info here. Were the stolen cars been rigged so that the brakes don’t work??

[End of Spoiler]

In any case, that’s a small quibble in an otherwise intriguing drama. I have to admit though, if it weren’t for Dean’s performance, I don’t know if the film had been as interesting. He’s definitely the best thing of the film even though I’m not as captivated by him the way I was with other Golden Age actors, especially Gregory Peck. I do get his appeal however, there’s something so beguiling about that devil-may-care attitude and those chiseled cheekbones & piercing eyes are certainly matinee-idols material.

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Natalie Wood on the other hand, seems miscast here as the supposedly wild teenage girl Judy. I read that director Nicholas Ray initially didn’t feel right about casting her either. Plus some of the scenes of her with her dad comes across as creepy and bizarre to me, I’m really not sure what that’s about. I wonder if someone feistier like Elizabeth Taylor, Dean’s co-star in Giant, might’ve been a better fit. Sal Mineo (who looked a lot like Ralph Macchio) is quite good as John aka Plato, a forlorn young boy from a privileged family who idolizes Jim. Plato’s looking for a father figure and somehow he finds that in Jim who obviously is lacking an adequate parental figure himself. Right from the start, there’s a strange parallel between the two as Plato was also arrested the same night as Jim. Given the strict Hays Code at the time, the homosexuality factor is never mentioned, but it’s glaringly obvious that Plato has a thing for Jim. Two other performers worth mentioning here is Jim Backus who played a key role as Dean’s father and there’s a very young, baby-faced Dennis Hopper in a small role as one of Buzz’s inner circle.

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The third act is both tender and intense. Knowing that they’re hunted by Buzz’s friends, Jimmy and Judy’s romance blossomed as they hide out in an abandoned mansion. There’s an odd threesome going on between Jim, Judy and Plato as they sort of acting out a fantasy of being a family, with Jim & Judy as the parents and Plato as the child. I really had no idea what’s going to happen in the finale, a lot of scenarios are playing in my head as to what’ll become of Jim. I’m not going to spoil it for you but I found myself quite moved by Dean’s impassioned performance. If I wasn’t sure about Dean’s appeal initially, by the end of the film, I totally got what the fuss was about him and why he’s become such an icon. It’s really too bad he died so young and I can’t help thinking how eerie it is that the film that he’s best known for contains a scene of a fatal car accident.

Overall Rebel Without A Cause is a well-crafted piece with beautiful, evocative cinematography by Ernest Haller (who won an Oscar for his work in Gone With the Wind) that somehow helps convey the mood of a given scene. Even seeing this six decades after its release, there’s a timeless quality about it as the social themes are still relevant that today’s teens can relate to. Having seen this, now I’m curious to check out Dean’s other films, I think I will put Giant in my Blindspot list next year as I also need to see a Rock Hudson film.

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Check out my previous 2014 Blind Spot reviews


So have you seen Rebel Without A Cause? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review – Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (2014)

AshleyBanner

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I saw Mockingjay: Part 1 on opening night and I hate to admit it, but I was a bit disappointed. Granted, in my opinion, the source material wasn’t as engrossing as the first two books, but, still, I had such high hopes going into the film. Director Francis Lawrence came into THG series with such gusto, partly because he had something to prove, given the criticism of the first film. In Catching Fire, the storytelling was tight and engaging – almost leaving no room to catch your breath and leaving you on the edge of your seat. However, with the return of his sophomore film in the series, it fell short and felt flat. Here are my gripes…

SCS Pandemic
SCS or Shaky Camera Syndrome has got to stop. When done well and/or in moderation, it’s slightly annoying. But, when the majority of the film makes you feel like you’re on a Tilt-A-Whirl, it’s A) very distracting from what’s actually happening on screen B) makes me want to vomit and C) very annoying. I get some DPs want to make you feel like you’re in the action, but this is an adaptation to a YA novel – not Saving Private Ryan. The only reasons I’d actually want to feel like I’m in the film is if Daniel Craig is starring opposite me in the next Bond film, or it has anything to do with Jamie Fraser. Then, yes, throw me all the way into the film.

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Pacing
In my opinion, splitting the last novel in to two films was a mistake. It could have been easily attainable as one solid film. The first 45 minutes of the film is almost a complete snooze-fest. I was growing restless and I could hear my fellow audience members constantly shifting in their seats as well. Create some drama! You’re in a technically advanced district who’ve survived underground in a bomb shelter. That’s some pretty good material. Nope. Everything is bland, lackluster and efficient. Even Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) looked bored. Which leads me to my next point…

Lighting
I understand Katniss and gang spend a majority of their time underground, but the lighting was atrocious. In some cases, you could barely see the actors and their expressions because of 1) SCS and 2) poor lighting. Again, this district has created a self-sufficient system, throw some pizzazz into the environment!

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Miscellaneous gripes
I had some major eye roll moments and one was the unveiling of Katniss’ Mockingjay suit. By right, she is a strong heroine, who thinks for herself, is handy with a weapon and actually cares about casualties of war. HOWEVER, “they” still felt the need to sexualize her by creating a molded breast plate. Seriously? It completely defeats the purpose of who Katniss is and what she stands for. Although, the rest of the suit is pretty sick. 

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Mockingjay, both the film and novel, brings a bit more insight to Gale and Katniss’ convoluted relationship. Gale is finally a contributor in the story, rather than a spectator. Regrettably, there’s something different about how Gale appears on paper versus film. I never realized this before, but Gale, or Liam Hemsworth, is a rather pathetic character. I had an epiphany last night and likened him to Chewy from Star Wars. He’s a big lug who isn’t very useful, causes problems and awkwardly hovers over Katniss. What’s more is, Gale makes Katniss feel bad about how she deals with her PTSD. Wow, Gale, you’re a regular stand up guy.

Alright. I’m done moaning and groaning. Now, on to what I did like.

Julianne Moore
When it was announced that Julianne Moore would be playing President Coin, I was skeptical. However, I thought her performance of the cool, collected and secretive leader was spot on. At first she appeared to be sympathetic to the horrors Katniss faced, but as the film went on, she slowly started to reveal her true colors. Everything about her portrayal completely reflected the collective attitude of the ominous District 13. Coin makes tough decisions and doesn’t apologize if a few people get hurt along the way. She’s a dictator, through and through, and will do anything to see the perseverance of her people.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman with Julianne Moore

Comic relief
As heavy as THG films are, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the snippets of comic relief thrown in. Effie, who doesn’t actually appear in District 13 in the novel, is essentially a POW in the film. So, it was a fantastic move to involve her in the story. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) somehow manages to downplay the atrocities and hardships surrounding her, and make minor issues, like clothing, hairstyle and makeup seem like the biggest problems in the world.

MockingjayPartI_Effie

Plus, you get to see her wearing a jumpsuit. It’s worth it. I just LOVE her! Another happy surprise is the inclusion of Buttercup the Cat (the right one). On cue, she hisses at Katniss during the perfect moments, and provides comedy only a cat can bring: trying to catch light from a flashlight. And, obviously, it wouldn’t be a true HG film without the witty, playful banter between Katniss and Haymitch.

Okay, so obviously the movie wasn’t all bad. I’m just calling it like I see ‘em. I remember when I left the cinema last year there was an unmistakable buzz and energy from the crowd. Not so much this time around.

This film was a means to an end to prepare the audience for the epic conclusion…next year. My favorite film is still Catching Fire but we’ll see how everything comes together for Part 2!

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Have you seen Mockingjay Part I? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Casting News Roundup: Chris Pratt, Rosamund Pike, Keanu Reeves & Mel Gibson + Andrew Garfield

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Boy I’ve been meaning to do a post on casting news but for some reason just never got around to it! Well, I might make this more of a weekend bi-monthly series as there’s never a shortage of casting news :D

Chris Pratt to star in graphic novel adaptation Cowboy Ninja Viking

Pratt_CowboyNinjaVikingLook at the smirk on this guy! When I read the description of the graphic novel created by writer A.J. Lieberman and artist Riley Rossmo, I think Chris Pratt fits the role nicely. Per Collider, The story revolves around an assassin with Multiple Personality Disorder who possess the skills of a cowboy, a ninja, and a Viking, and works for a secret government program. Pratt is to play the protagonist Duncan, and I think it’ll be fun to see him manifest into those three different personas. No director is attached yet, though some names including Marc Forster was circling the project at some point, seems that this project has been in development for some time.

Rosamund Pike joining Charlie Hunnam in ‘The Mountain Between Us’

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One of the year’s breakout female star probably has a slew of offers coming at her. I kinda wish she’d be cast in the lead instead of co-lead with a male actor. In any case, sounds like she’s joining Charlie Hunnam in an adaptation of Charles Martin’s book of the same name. The story revolves around two people who survive a plane crash in the mountains where they are forced to trust each other and find safety while badly injured. Rosamund Pike plays a successful writer who’s flying East to get to her much anticipated wedding, whilst Hunnam plays a surgeon on his way back East after a medical conference for a slate of surgeries he has scheduled for the following day. So based on the book description in Amazon, it’s kind of like a romantic version of Alive and perhaps The Grey, I guess I could see the casting work for the story though I’m not sure about this one until I see at least a trailer.

Keanu Reeves in Talks to Star in Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Panopticon’

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Though Keanu never really left Hollywood, seems that he’s sort of got a career resurgence following the success of John Wick. I’ve always liked the guy so more Keanu casting is awesome in my book ;) So he’s been cast in the sci-fi thriller Replicas which sounds right up his alley: After a car accident kills his loving family, a daring neuroscientist (Reeves) will stop at nothing to bring them back, even if it means pitting himself against a government-controlled laboratory, a police task force, and the physical laws of science themselves. (per The Wrap).

Well, seems that he’s also in talks to team up with Tarsem Singh in an action thriller The Panopticon, but the premise seems wholly generic to me: “The Panopticon” follows a seemingly ordinary man who receives a mysterious package containing a pre-recorded message from himself, warning that the world is about to end and only he can save it. He must race against the clock to piece together the puzzle before time runs out for mankind. Meh, I’m kind of tired of this ‘one man left on earth to save the world’ premise. It’s so stale, derivative and hackneyed that it’s REALLY hard to actually make a good film out of it. But then again, John Wick‘s premise isn’t exactly groundbreaking either but the film still turned out fresh and fun. Judging from Tarsem’s past work though, it’d probably be more of a visual feast than an absorbing story.

Boy, Keanu is one busy dude. Per The Wrap, he’s recently wrapped Eli Roth‘s “Knock Knock” and the courtroom drama “The Whole Truth,” and he’s currently filming the indie “Daughter of God.” Oh and supposedly he’s also working on Bill & Ted‘s 2?

Mel Gibson to direct Andrew Garfield in a WWII drama?

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Now this last one is intriguing to me as Mel Gibson hasn’t directed any film since Apocalypto nearly a decade ago. Regardless of how you feel about the actor/director, I think he’s a talented filmmaker.

DesmondDoss_HacksawRidgeI’m curious about his next project which is a WWII drama based on the true story of Corporal Demond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the US congressional Medal of Honor by President Truman. Per Comingsoon.net, Doss was drafted into World War II at age 23. Raised a Seventh-day Adventist, he refused to kill or carry a weapon and, as such, became stationed as a medic. The center of the story is likely to focus on 1945′s three-month military assault Operation Iceburg, also known as the Battle of Okinawa. “Hacksaw Ridge” was the name given the location of a particularly brutal two-week confrontation wherein United States troops faced off against Japanese soldiers on the rocky cliffs of Okinawa.

If the deal went through, Gibson would reteam w/ Braveheart‘s screenwriter Randall Wallace who co-wrote it with Robert Schenkkan. Look-wise, Andrew Garfield seems to have the right physique and age to play the role and I think it’d be good to see him in something that’d really display his versatility as an actor.


Ok so what do you think of any of these casting news and/or the projects mentioned above?

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FlixChatter Double Reviews: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again

Neither one of these two indie films were even on my radar but I’m sure glad I got to see them!  Beyond the Lights is currently out in select theaters and Begin Again are now available on VOD.

Beyond the Lights 

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The first time I learned about this movie was when I saw a photo of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in full S&M getup with purple hair and I thought, is that the actress from Belle? I absolutely loved her in that movie so she’s definitely the main draw for me to see this.

The film introduces us to the protagonist Noni Jean when she’s in her early teens. Raised by her driven & ruthless single mother Macy (Minnie Driver) who took her to various talent contests, it’s apparent that failure is not an option for her. Fast forward over a decade later, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has blossomed into a Rihana-like pop star on the brink of superstardom. She’s just won a Billboard Music award as part of a hip-hop duo with Kid Culprit (played by real life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). Noni is seemingly at the top of her game, being touted as a hot new artist with fans and paparazzi and throng of fans hot on her trail. But the pressure of fame drives Noni to the point of self destruction, as the more famous she becomes, the more she feels invisible. Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a young cop who’s assigned to be her security that night saves her just in the nick of time. ‘I see you,’ he says, and somehow that gives Noni just enough hope in her to keep going.

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Noni and Kaz are inevitably drawn to each other, and it’s no brainer that the two end up together. Some people compare this film to The Bodyguard but I honestly never thought of that movie the entire time I was watching this. For one, the relationship between the two characters are more on equal footing as Kaz isn’t technically working for Noni here and Noni herself isn’t quite in the same level as Whitney Huston’s character who’s already reached superstar status.

Though at first glance this film may appear as a romantic drama, it’s actually so much more than that. Yes there are romance and romantic scenes, but it’s all part of Noni’s journey of self-discovery and being able to stand on her own two feet. It’s also a commentary on the image-obsessed music industry that exploit female sexuality to sell records. The outfits that Noni wear in the movie would make even Lady Gaga blush [or maybe not], there’s one particular outfit where her upper body is only covered by a string of chains and nothing else. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that Noni is metaphorically and literally in chains, the fact that she’s always in the shadow of her rapper partner and is also controlled by her mother within an inch of her life.

BeyondtheLights_StillsBy the same token, Kaz’s life is in a way also controlled by external influences who push him for a political career. He’s also got an ambitious police captain father (Danny Glover) with his powerful allies and the pressure is getting to him as well. It’s an interesting parallel life story but the movie is more about Noni, which is truly the beating heart of the movie.

Mbatha-Raw is astounding in yet another career-making performance that shows her acting chops and versatility. Noni requires a tremendous physical as well as emotional commitment from the actor, and the British actress totally owned her role. I certainly hope she’ll get some kind of recognition come award season and that Hollywood continue to cast her in prominent roles. I also love the casting of Minnie Driver here, who I think is an underrated actress. Though I don’t agree with Macy’s actions, I don’t see her as a *villain* and the film does give us a glimpse into her character’s motivations.

The film itself is not perfect, there are moments that feel awkward or too schmaltzy. Pacing also feels a bit off as some scenes feel more drawn-out than they should be. The scene of Noni & Kaz on the plane makes me cringe, and Nate Parker‘s constant shirtless scenes also feel gratuitous that it made me laugh. That said, I’m impressed by Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s direction and the story kept me engaged and fully-invested in the main character. Last but not least, the music is definitely the highlight here, thanks to Mark Isham‘s emotive score. The song Blackbird holds a special meaning to Noni and by the time she sung a rendition of it towards the end, I wanted to get up and cheer for her!

This film seems to be under most people’s radar but I really hope that people would give it a look. I know I’d readily watch this again and the soundtrack is definitely worth buying!

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Begin Again

BeginAgainBnrThis movie wasn’t even on my radar until fairly recently, and I haven’t seen Once yet which was Director John Carnet‘s critically-acclaimed debut. Well, I like Carney’s storytelling style and he’s assembled a great cast to tell the story.

Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a distressed record producer of an indie label who’s been having a very bad day. Clashing with his business partner that leads to him losing his job and feeling estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter, he ends his day at a bar to drink his woes away. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley‘s Greta is nursing a broken heart having just split from his musician boyfriend and was dragged to perform a song by his BFF in attempt to cheer her up. Well it’s not exactly a meet cute, but you know that their encounter somehow would change their lives profoundly.

BeginAgainStillsThe film is told partly in parallel between the two characters, giving us a glimpse into their lives and how they intersect. The acting felt so natural and right away I connected with the two leads and their journey. This might be one of my fave Keira Knightley‘s performances and nice to see her portraying a plain and relatable girl, a role she seems to relish and have fun playing. Ruffalo is a reliable and charming actor and he’s just so likable and endearing here even at the moment of a life crisis. He embodies an artistic and idealistic guy who can *see* and feel music so deeply and he’s so convincing at it. The film took us on a ride with Dan & Greta sharing music on their iPods and hanging out together around NYC (which could double as the city’s tourism video). Music is infused throughout the film and so there are lovely musical moments here. Two of my fave scenes are featured in this week’s music break, but there’s also a fun one when the group play on a rooftop.

I LOVE the spontaneity and adventurous spirit as Dan assemble a group of amateur talents to make up a band for Greta and the recording process in various places – in an alley, rooftop and even a subway station – is fun to watch. This movie is so enjoyable and engaging that I even tolerate seeing Adam Levine playing a douche bag (convincingly, natch) but I have to admit he’s pretty decent here and I could see why they cast him. James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld also lend memorable supporting roles as Keira’s BFF and Mark’s daughter respectively, though Catherine Keener is a bit underutilized. Overall though, this is Dan and Greta’s story and both Ruffalo and Knightley shine in their roles.

The finale isn’t tied up in a neat little bow which I think gives the story even more poignancy, the way Roman Holiday was to me. Of course parts of me want a happy ending, but the more I think about it, I like it the way it is and there’s a genuine element of surprise when things don’t go as you expect it. I can’t recommend this movie enough, and trust me folks, you won’t be disappointed!

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Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?

Interstellar on IMAX 70mm VS. Standard 70mm

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Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar is now in theaters and it might be the most divisive film that I could remember in a long time. Some loved it (including yours truly), some didn’t care for it and others just thought it’s way too long and/or boring. That’s what great about films, we all have different opinions about them and if we all like the same thing then the world will be quite boring.

Since Nolan is a huge proponent of film, Paramount and Warner Bros. decided to release the film in 6 different technical formats, it maybe the first time in history that Hollywood studios had released a film in so many formats. Here are the different formats the film was released in:

  • IMAX 70mm with aspect ratio switching between 2.39:1 and 1.44:1
  • IMAX Digital with aspect ratio switching between 2.39:1 and 1.90:1
  • Standard 70mm with constant aspect ratio at 2.20:1 (my favorite aspect ratio and I use it for my mini home theater)
  • Standard 35mm with constant aspect ratio at 2.39:1
  • 4k and 2k Digital with constant aspect ratio at 2.39:1

As you can see the studios spare no expense when it comes to pleasing Nolan and of course us the paying customers. Since I saw the film on IMAX 70mm and standard 70mm, my review will only cover the two formats and which I think is the better viewing experience.

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I first saw the film on IMAX 70mm, Nolan shot over an hour of footage with IMAX cameras and I think this might be the best IMAX presentation I’ve seen yet. Although I have to admit that some early scenes bothered me with the quick switching back and forth of the different aspect ratios, thankfully that problem went away as the film progresses. To me digital presentation cannot match 70mm’s bright and vibrant color, the contrast and black levels were so much better too. I forgot how much I miss seeing film’s texture since so many movies today were shot and presented in digital form. Two sequences in the film that just blew me away were the tidal wave in the water planet and when they tried to dock the space ship to the main one, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who have yet to see the film but for those who saw it, you know which scenes I’m referring to.

[Ruth’s note: I found this photo posted on a tweet that seems appropriate to include on this post]

Seeing those sequences on the tall 7-story screen and bright color of 70mm, I felt like I was in the movie with the actors. With so many scenes ripped right out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I now know what it must’ve have been like seeing Kubrick’s masterpiece for the first time on the big screen back in those days.

Another reason why I love seeing this film on IMAX is the loss-less surround sound. Nolan mentioned that he really want the audience to be part of the movie so he and his sound designer created the most immersive surround sound I’ve heard since Gravity, it’s really too bad that he didn’t use Dolby Atmos for this film. I’m planning to see this film again on IMAX 70mm because it’s truly was an experience.

So a couple of days later, I’ve decided to go see the film again, this time on a standard 70mm screen. For anyone who wants to know more about 70mm, you can go here. Alas, their website is horrendous looking, but I got in touch with the site’s owners and told them I’m willing to redesign it for free, so once I have some downtime from my full time job, I’m going to redesign that site and it will look much better! Anyway, back to 70mm, the format was quite popular back in the 50s and 60s, some of the epic films from those eras were filmed in this format including Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, Patton, Cleopatra and much more. Heck even Quentin Tarantino will shoot his new flick The Hateful Eight in 70mm, so I can’t wait to see that.

The local theater here in MN is one of the only 9 in the whole country that’s currently projecting Nolan’s picture in 70mm so it’s definitely a treat to have experienced it. Also, I haven’t been back to this theater in over 20 years because they stopped showing films in 70mm. Unfortunately though, the viewing experience wasn’t as immersive as it was on IMAX. The smaller 2.20:1 screen didn’t really give the visual grandeur like on an IMAX screen but I still love the rich color and brightness of 70mm. Also, this 70mm theater uses an old DTS surround sound and it just couldn’t hold a candle to IMAX’s lossless surround sound.

InterstellarIMAXSo my recommendation is if you want to see Interstellar like it’s meant to be seen, please see it on a true 70mm IMAX and if there’s a standard 70mm theater near you, you might want to check it out too. Of course I understand not many people are able to see it on these formats since there aren’t a lot of IMAX and 70mm theaters around. Nolan said in an interview that if the audience felt like they were part of an experience in his film then he succeeded, that I totally agree with. Sure the film has its flaws and some of the scientific mumble jumble didn’t really make a lick of sense to me but it’s still one heck of a ride.

Final Scores:
IMAX 70mm 5 stars out of 5
Standard 70mm 4 stars out of 5

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So which format did you see Interstellar in? Are you a fan of seeing films on IMAX?

Music Break: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again

This past week I saw two wonderful music-themed films and the soundtracks have been playing in my head since. So I figure why not feature both of them in one post since I’m planning to post a double review of them later in the week.

Both films feature a female protagonist and both stories offer interesting commentaries on the music industries from two VERY different spectrum. So take a listen at my favorite tracks from both films …

BeyondtheLightsPosterThis one is my absolute favorite… it’s emotive and stirring, especially when it’s sung by Gugu Mbatha-Raw‘s Noni towards the end of the film. It’s a defiant song that becomes the unofficial anthem for her at a pivotal point in her life. I love love the melody of the song and the beautiful arrangement by Mark Isham, it’s perhaps one of my favorite songs of the year so far. I was already so impressed by Gugu in Belle, but she totally blew me away here. Her transformation into a pop-star persona is incredible, and she clearly has the vocal chops to actually be a recording artist for real!

This second one is pleasant but more familiar, perhaps because it’s written by Diane Warren, who’s responsible for so many movies’ romantic ballads. It’s performed by Rita Ora.

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I knew there’ll be some awesome music featured in this one, as Margaret already featured them in her Soundtrack Wednesday post. I still want to feature ‘em again here, especially the two soulful ones sung by Keira Knightley. I had no idea she could sing so well and with such raw emotion. I LOVE this scene when Mark Ruffalo‘s character first saw her singing in a bar and his reaction to her singing is so endearing.

I had to include this awesome video posted by Interscope Records. It’s a cute & poignant scene featuring Keira and James Corden as they record a song together as a voice mail message. The melody is wonderful but the lyrics are so moving and really, who can’t relate to a broken heart? We’ve all been there, if only I knew how to turn my feelings into such beautiful music!


Hope you enjoyed the music break! Have you seen either one of these films?

FlixChatter Review: Disney’s Big Hero 6

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I had never even heard of this film before until I saw the first trailer with a robot resembling a fluffy Pillsbury doughboy and I was immediately won over. My pal Prairiegirl who isn’t normally into animated features suddenly couldn’t wait to see the movie. There’s something so captivating about the big, puffy marshmallow creature and its backstory definitely appeals to both my brain and my heart.

The film starts out with two brothers, Hiro (Ryan Potter) and Tadashi (Daniel Henney), as Hiro’s participating in a back alley robot fights in a town called San Fransokyo. Tadashi thinks Hiro’s just wasting his genius potential with all fun and games, and he takes his younger brother to the robotics lab at his university. There Hiro’s introduced to Tadashi’s brainiac pals: Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Fred (T.J. Miller)… and Baymax. He may look like nothing more than a big fluffy toy, but Baymax is actually an advanced personal healthcare bot that’s been Tadashi’s passion project for years. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain?” Baymax asks in his soothing mechanical voice, and he won’t deactivate until the patient is satisfied with his care. Tadashi hopes that his creation will help millions of people some day.

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The lab visit inspires Hiro to want to enroll at the school, and he worked tirelessly to come up with an imaginative thing on his own to wow Professor Callahan (James Cromwell), head of the robotics program. Just as Hiro reaches a milestone with his own creation of microbots, the film soon takes a tragic turn at the university. It’s following a personal loss that Hiro forms an unlikely friendship with Baymax, who in turns help him find out just what really happens at the university expo that night.

The second and third act of the film pretty much become an action adventure as Hiro gets help from Tadashi’s friends to find out who took Hiro’s microbots. These swarms of tiny robots that can link together to form any kind of shape/arrangement is evidently something that can easily be manipulated for both good and bad purposes. Now, I didn’t know Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comics until after I saw the film. So that explains the superhero-flavor of the action sequences, and the quirky band of heroes definitely remind me of the Guardians of the Galaxy team, yet another lesser-known Marvel heroes. The third act with all the high-flying adventure is beautifully crafted, but it also feels a bit too frenetic and familiar. I have to say that it’s the hilarious moments between Hiro and Baymax that truly made the movie for me. The scene at the police station and a set of plastic tape featured in the trailer is even more hilarious!

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I kind of wish the movie spend more time with Baymax in his um, birthday suit as it were, he’s far more adorable than when he’s wearing a protective metal suit that makes him look like a bloated Iron Man. The process of getting him into the suit is absolutely hilarious though, but just the way Baymax looks lends itself to slapstick hilarity, especially when it’s running out of battery. It’s a hoot to watch just watching the thing move or do simple things such as walking up the stairs or cuddling Hiro’s fat kitty. It also provides for genuine emotional moments that doesn’t feel forced at all. He’s programmed to heal and he more than delivers in terms of both physical and emotional remedy. As I’m watching it, I’d want my own personal Baymax. His big fluffy hug alone would guarantee to boost your morale no matter how crummy your day’s been.

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Disney’s done it again. In the past five years, it seems that they’ve managed to somehow match Pixar in crafting a story that’s not only highly entertaining but with a high emotional quotient as well. I have to say this is one of the most fun I had at the movies this year, rivaling The Lego Movie early in the year. The 3-D visuals are incredible – the quality of animated features these days have been amazing and it just gets better and better. The aerial view of the city in the flying sequences are jaw-dropping-gorgeous and worth seeing on the big screen.

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I love how the story inspires kids to explore their imaginations and relish their youthful creativity. But it’s how much it appeals to the heart that leaves a lasting impression on me. Altruistic notion is not uncommon in the age of superhero stories, yet when that moment appears here, the sense of loss feels all too real. But then again, I’ve found that animated features can be as poignant and moving as any live-action dramas, if not more.

Kudos to directors Don Hall and Chris Williams for making a character that’s so easy to root for, and a movie that’s both delightful and inspiring. The voice cast are great too, and they’re refreshingly diverse as the ethnicity of the characters have been changed from the comics version. I could easily watch this again and I don’t mind seeing the sequel that’s surely to follow. So Baymax, I’m definitely VERY satisfied with your care :)

4.5 out of 5 reels


Have you seen this one? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

Musings on Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR

InterstellarBannerI’ve been a big fan of Christopher Nolan‘s work, in fact I’ve seen all of his work and they’ve pretty much range from great to fantastic. I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar like most movie fans, but to be honest with you, for whatever reason, a couple of weeks before the film opened and as the hype reaches its tipping point, I started to feel… indifferent. In any case, I went to see it Saturday night anyway and instead of a straight review, this is more of my reaction to the movie… what I like and don’t like about it, so pardon if I’m rambling a bit…

The film is essentially about a small group of people going on a space travel adventure to save mankind. Well that’s the elevator pitch version anyway, but at the heart of it is a father/daughter relationship that transcend through space and time. I don’t remember seeing a specific year mention but the story is set in the future when the earth as we know it is dying, food is scarce as dust bowls continually wipe out farm crops. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a widower & former NASA test pilot who’s now taking up farming with his father in-law and his two kids, Tom & Murphy. Cooper hasn’t quite given up his space aspiration as when he and his kids spotted a drone flying close by, Cooper gets all giddy and drives through those supposedly precious corn fields to chase after it.

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I discussed some crucial plot points here, so beware if you haven’t seen the movie

It’s perhaps one of the only truly joyful moment in the film, and it’s obvious that his 10-year-old daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) shares his enthusiasm for science and space. Soon Cooper is reunited again with NASA in its secret hideaway. How did he get there? Well apparently a dust storm through an open window spells out the coordinates of its location in morse code. Say what? Well, that’s just one of the mind-boggling things about this movie and we’re just getting started. When Cooper gets to NASA, the elder professor Brand (played by Michael Caine, natch) tells him of a possible solution to humanity’s crisis and that is they’ve got to find a sustainable planet on the other side and Cooper is the only man for the job. Hmmm, wouldn’t you think that if he’s truly the only person for this crucial mission, NASA would’ve sought him out instead of waiting for him to somehow stumbles into their base? I mean, Cooper lives pretty much just down the road and they know he has the skills to pilot their ship.

Following the NASA encounter, the film doesn’t waste any time to shoot Cooper into space. Discussions about this movie would likely involve wormholes and black holes which frankly go way over my head, but there are a plethora of plot holes as well to contend with. The one I mentioned in the above paragraph is just one example. Apparently famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have been tweeting about the ‘Mysteries of #Interstellar’ which you can find here. I kept nodding as I read each tweet, especially the one where Cooper cracks his helmet on one of the planet’s he visits and he’s even able to remove his gloves during a fight. Wouldn’t you think the Planet’s air is toxic to the human body??

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Now, plot holes in sci-fi movies are common, in fact, it’s kind of inevitable… I mean it’s ‘fi’ for fiction after all. Interstellar does have the appearance of being grounded in realism however, in fact, Nolan hires a real astrophysicist Kip Thorne in building the Black Hole for the movie and to ensure the depictions of wormholes and relativity are as accurate as possible. But yet, one doesn’t need to be a scientist that a close proximity to the black hole would’ve killed those astronauts instantly and thus that planet being so close to such black hole, which Cooper’s team dub Gargantua, simply cannot exist. I have to admit though, it’s been fun reading about all the stuff that don’t make sense in Interstellar. It seems that with a lot of Nolan’s movies, analyzing it is as fun as watching his movies.

That said, I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride. And what a ride it was. The imagery and visual effects is nothing short of tremendous. It’s something that I’ve come to expect from Nolan’s team, and they did not disappoint on that front. Everything is so meticulously-crafted. Though I’ve seen a lot of spaceships in other sci-fi films, I’m still in awe looking at all the details of the Endurance ship and all the other set pieces. Instead of his usual collaboration with Wally Pfister (who was busy making his first film Transcendence), we’ve got Hoyte van Hoytema in charge of cinematography. The Dutch-Swedish cinematographer impressed me greatly with his work in HER, but he’s outdone himself here with his astounding work. The earth landscape rivals the beauty of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but it’s the visuals of the outer space and the barren alien planets that’s really breathtaking. But whilst the film’s scenery is truly a feast for my eyes, my ears aren’t so lucky. Hans Zimmer‘s score is often so loud to the point of irritation and it drowns out all the dialog, especially during the NASA visit where Brand is giving Cooper a tour. Perhaps it’s intentional, as this article points out, but really, I wouldn’t care about the thematic significance when my ears are hurting, y’know. I listened to the soundtrack later on and really enjoyed it, though I still love his work on Nolan’s Batman films more.

InterstellarStill5Sometimes I feel that perhaps I’m not smart enough to get Nolan’s movies… let alone TWO Nolans working together. Christopher and his brother Jonathan ‘Jonah’ Nolan collaborated on the script as Jonah originally developed it for Steven Spielberg who later passed on the project. To say that Interstellar is discombobulating is quite an understatement. I LOVE using that word whenever I get the chance to, but I don’t necessarily enjoy being in a constant state of bewilderment. The entire sequence involving Matt Damon is completely lost on me, not only did Damon’s casting completely take me out of the movie – “What’s Jason Bourne doing here?” “Wait, is this Elysium 2.o?” – the whole storyline of Dr. Mann wanting to kill Cooper felt preposterous to me. So he goes space crazy, okay… but I really didn’t expect the sudden villain-y scenario here and it’s a subplot I could do without.

I haven’t quite recovered from Mann’s um, riddle and Nolan’s already hit me with another as the film seemingly raced towards the finale once the film passed its two hour mark. I was totally baffled by the sequence of Cooper and the robot TARS inside some kind of a tesseract portal, supposedly built by ‘future us’ [as Cooper said during his frantic mumbling] which implies there’s advanced humans in existence by then who could build such a thing. Suddenly Cooper discovers it’s him who’s actually the *ghost* that haunts Murphy’s and knocks stuff off her bookshelf. There’s too much to digest here that my mind wander a bit, admiring the gorgeous scenery of that fifth dimension portal or whatever the heck that is. The whole time I kept thinking ‘how did they do that?‘ Then suddenly Cooper is floating again in outer space and before you know it, he gets rescued and wakes up in a whole new earth. O-kay…

When I wasn’t scratching my head pretty much the entire time, there were moments that I winced at the constant sobbing scenes that reminds me of Spielberg’s schmaltz-fest War Horse. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a genuinely emotional moments. I was quite moved by the father/daughter relationship in various points of time, the tearful goodbye and the reunion come to mind, but at times, I felt like I was deluged by over-sentimentality. I don’t know, maybe Nolan felt he’s got a reputation of being a cold or emotionally-detached that he went a bit overboard trying to refute that?

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[End of spoiler section]

Fortunately, the actors are more than up for the task to bring the humanity aspect of this space drama. McConaughey is a convincing everyman here, that I’m willing to overlook his Southern accent playing a character supposedly being from the Midwest. He has an effortless chemistry with Foy who plays his young daughter. My second favorite performance is Jessica Chastain as the older Murphy, not only she resembles Foy but she carries the same sensibilities and stubbornness displayed in her younger self. I’ve never been a big fan of Anne Hathaway but I think she acquits herself well, even delivering such a such a mawkish speech as “Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space” referring to her long lost love Dr. Edmund who went on a previous NASA mission. I’ve mentioned how I feel about Matt Damon above, I really wish they’d cast someone less famous & less ubiquitous than him. Michael Caine is always reliable, though they totally botched the aging process of his character [aka he basically doesn’t age at all in 23 years!]. John Lithgow and Ellen Burstyn both delivered a memorable performance despite their brief screen time.

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The longer I mull over it, the more I feel that Interstellar is a film I appreciate but not love. It’s not because it’s too confusing because I have loved other films I don’t completely understand, Nolan’s own Inception being one of them. It’s just that in the end, I just don’t feel as much connection with any of the characters and their journey. Despite all that crying in the film, overall the film didn’t tug my heartstrings as much as I had hoped. Heck I was more affected by the relationship of the robot Baymax and its protagonist Hiro in Big Hero 6, that movie was so joyful and emotional all at the same time. Speaking of robots, I thought TARS is a hoot and perhaps as memorable as any of the human characters. And hey, for once the robots are actually loyal to the humans whilst the main enemy of man is ‘Mann’, get it? ;)

The film has been called overly-ambitious and that its intellectual reach exceeds its grasp. I can’t refute either of those points, but I still have to give props to Nolan for making something bold and audaciously cerebral. I’m not just talking about dazzling us with jaw-dropping visuals but in the way he challenges viewers with stupendous and imaginative ideas. I appreciate that Nolan never asks us to ‘check our brain at the door’ or dumb stuff down to make things more digestible. But at the same time, there is also such a thing as having too many ideas and themes to process in a single film. There’s perhaps enough substance here to warrant say, a miniseries. The movie is nearly 3 hours long but it’s still not enough time to focus on one of those ideas, the result is sensory overload that threatens to suck the joy out of what’s supposed to be a piece of entertainment. I might revisit this film again later when it’s out for rental and perhaps I’d have a different opinion then.

Interstellar_TARSThis is one of the longest musings I’ve done in a movie, which is funny as I originally wanted to do a mini review of it but it proved to be impossible as there’s so much to say. Despite my gripes and what a lot of reviewers have said that it’s a beautiful-but-flawed film, I still urge you to see it. It’s the kind of film that’s meant to be seen in as big a screen as possible, as some of the sequences shot using IMAX camera are simply stunning. However you feel after you see it, Interstellar is still a worthwhile experience and it also makes for a fun discussion/reading afterwards. The Nolan brothers are certainly one of the most powerful siblings working in Hollywood today. Even if this one isn’t quite a masterpiece, they’re still a force to be reckoned with and I still look forward to what Chris Nolan will come up with next.

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So, that’s my thoughts on Interstellar. Do you agree/disagree? I’d love to hear what you think!

David Mamet Double Feature – Part 1: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

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Greetings all and sundry!

DavidMametWhile becoming more and more ensconced in the wonders and vagaries of apartment living. I’ve taken some time to fall back on one of, if not the best and most prolific writers and directors of the 1980s, 90s and contemporary times, David Mamet. Who started small. With screenplays for the stage, occasional episodic television. Then grinding out larger endeavors and stowing them away until the stars budgeting were properly aligned (The Verdict, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Things Change. Homicide. The Untouchables). Between award winning stage productions (Speed The PlowOleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross, Vanya on 42nd Street) to keep heath and home in comfortable order.

Best known for his more recent works, like Glenngary Glen Ross. It is well past time to shine a spotlight on his earlier works. Not too well known for Writer/Director’s trademark colorful profanity and fully developed characters, though easily showing a gifted novitiate’s touch with the force and beauty of words. Used to deflect, shroud or divert attention from the topic, or “McGuffin”. While cleverly taking around it. A very neat trick, if pulled off without a hitch. And in this first offering. That talent is displayed boldly in six foot tall Neon!

So, allow me a few moments of your time. To introduce or hopefully, reacquaint those reading with!

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The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

This first offering comes ten years after Mr. Mamet premiere film, ‘House of Games’. And carries on the Writer and Director’s penchant for the confidence game. Though, on a higher level of subtlety, trade craft, tricks and potential payoff.

Which begins with a chartered jet whisking whisking premiere engineer and numbers cruncher, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott. Underplaying with a neophyte’s near wide eyed abandon) off to the Lower Florida Keys and Archipelago, St. Estephe. Vacation paradise. Home of crystal waters, immaculate beaches and plenty of free time after a meeting with Joe’s boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) and George Lang (Ricky Jay). To talk about Joe’s recently discovered “process” that will make all at the meeting incredibly rich!

The meeting goes well, but not as well as Joe had hoped. with no mention of immediate reward for his many after work hours of calculations and discovery. A bit disconsolate, Joe walks out to the beach. Where a dark haired, attractive woman (Rebecca Pidgeon) offers to take Joe’s photo. With a lone seaplane riding the waves in the distance. The photo is taken. The woman leaves with a promising smile. And a voice states. “I’ll give you a thousand dollars for that camera.”

The owner of that voice is tall, tanned, comfortably, yet expensively dressed. Immediately giving off an aura of danger and mystery. Perhaps, someone who is indulging paranoia? Or is more than politely concerned about his privacy.

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Julian “Jimmy” Dell. More than comfortably rich. Living on wisely invested family money. With friends and connections in Massachusetts and Manhattan. Slowly, subtly befriending Mr. Ross. Revealing glimpses of his laid back worldliness by asking a favor for his sister. Would Joe be so kind as to deliver a wrapped and packaged book once Joe is back in New York?

Joe agrees, but is cautious of Drugs and Customs. Opens the package and tears the cover of a book on tennis. Joe scours high and low for a duplicate. With that accomplished, Joe keeps the torn copy in hos office. Finds her austere, old money digs. Only to be told that she has flown off to Spain. Joe and Jimmy cross paths and Joe explains over drinks at Jimmy rather swank loft. Talk turns to money and Jimmy mentions a Swiss account. Jokingly asks if Joe has one? And sets up an account with the Suisse Banque Nationale for a paltry sum. Protected by a password, “Paddy”.

A dinner at Jimmy’s “Club” fares badly. Since Jimmy’s guest is not a member. Words are exchanged in the darkly oiled and paneled anteroom and bar. Joe fills out what he believes is a membership form. Jimmy loses his patience and a cheaper eats are sought. Joe is also off put to discover that the dark haired, attractive Susan Ricci is a newly hired secretary with Joe’s firm. Who seems just a bit more interested in Joe and his skills than necessary.

Sensing something is amiss. Joe calls the FBI. And a meeting is arranged with Agent Pat McCune (Felicity Huffman) whom Joe had seen down in St. Estephe. Sharing a drink with Susan. Who is well aware of Joe’s situation, process, others interested in it. And Joe’s meeting with Jimmy at the Central Park Zoo the next afternoon. Wheels turn. Plans go into effect for an earlier with with other agents. And Joe being wired and briefed on what to do. In the Zoo’s far off men’s room. With Ed O’Neil (Married With Children, Modern Family) in charge. Doing the talking, Giving a brief history of “The Spanish Prisoner” as one on the oldest cons in the world. Where the mark is “lured in to get the money and the girl. And gets neither”.

Joe is in the middle of a slight variation. And is to listen to Jimmy’s proposition. And say “No.” Which makes things very interesting, afterwards. Joe is taken by the hand. To Jimmy’s now vacant, much smaller loft. And the bar to Jimmy’s “Club”. Is nothing more than a very elegant and expensive cloak room. The Feds and local cops continue snooping and discover that the process is missing. A large sum of money is now in Joe’s Swiss Account. And the “membership” to Jimmy’s club was a document seeking political asylum in Venezuela. Requiring only Joe’s signature.

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If joe wasn’t going to play along before. he is now. Damnably implicated for high crimes and being the fall guy for the murder of George Lang. Not sure if Susan is working for Agent McCune. Or vice versa. Joe returns home to his apartment. Where Susan is waiting, Having called in sick. And seeking a way out. Airline tickets are arranged for Logan Airport. Since local airports are probably being watched. While Joe showers and cleans up.

The noose starts to tighten slowly, As Joe detours around police check points. Susan picks up the tickets and a change in plans is made. The Boston ferry to Montreal. And a flight from there to Venezuela. Joe doesn’t want to. But has little choice. Stepping aboard at the last moments. As members of the FBI and Marshal Service discreetly make themselves known before a final showdown with Jimmy and Susan.

I’ll leave the tale right here for now.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

A circuitous tale well told. With the love and care and slow revelation of being caught in the web of a con. By one who loves the nuance and give and take of making others take the next step in their own possible destruction. Borrowing a page from Roman Polanski. In letting the audience see and hear only what the director wants them to see and hear.

Spoken in a language of vagueness, Without specifics, but heavy hints of intimation. Skirting the borders of legality and illegality. As though the principals of the cast are worried about wire taps and hidden microphones. In other words. Mamet doing what Mamet does best. And making the film much better because of it!

With a television and stage heavy cast giving great mysterious depth to their spoken words. Intriguing and alluring on one side. Opposite comfortable and confident on the side of the law. And even that is up for grabs!

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Cinematography by Gabriel Beristain is exceptional. On location in the Florida Keys. Well decorated sets and about the Central Park Zoo. And editing by Barbara Tulliver is inspired. Lingering on the beauty od St, Estephe. While giving equal balance to shadows and tension in several tetes a tetes with Mr. Campbell and Ms. Pidgeon. Solidly aided by an occasionally ethereal, dreamlike percussion, tubular bell, reed and brass sound track by Carter Burwell. That keeps the mystery and tension slowly rising through the merry chase.

What Makes This Film Great?

Campbell Scott underplaying his character wondrously. As he treads the edge of playing a Grade A Sap. With the stalwart belief that he has done nothing wrong. And just wants to make a nice sized chunk of the large rewards his “process” will bring about. An every man. with every man dreams. Until things seriously go awry.

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The beginnings of a clutch of secondary actors who will grace several later Mamet efforts. With card sharp Ricky Jay, Ed O’Neil and an aspiring, just starting out Clark Gregg (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in short or cameo scenes. Though it is Rebecca Pidgeon who dives right into her role as a carefree Femme Fatale with polish, style and the allure of more.

While comedian, Steve Martin surprises across the board as master juggler and bad guy Jimmy Dell. A total cypher. Never tipping his hand as to whom he’s working for. Fronting serious cash to keep the game afoot. Is he in it for himself? His crew, which may contain Agent McCune? An unnamed foreign entity? Others? We’ll never know. As he delivers a performance that made me wish he would never have slipped back into comedies!


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Agree or Disagree? The Floor Is Open For Discussion.