[Toxic Chemical] Double Feature: Dark Waters + The Devil We Know (doc)

I know lots of people have been watching all kinds of epidemic-related movies lately given the Coronavirus outbreak. Apparently Contagion, Outbreak, etc. have gained popularity in rentals, as well as in torrent downloads!

Well, my hubby and I actually decided to watch something equally grim and also proven to be quite lethal. It started with my husband who watched parts of the documentary The Devil We Know with his co-workers, so we decided to make that and the feature film version, Dark Waters as a double feature.

Directed by Stephanie Soechtig, The Devil We Know documentary uncovers one of the biggest environmental scandals of our time. It focuses on a group of citizens in Parkersburg, West Virginia taking on a powerful corporation, DuPont, after they discover it has knowingly been dumping a toxic chemical known as C8 into the local drinking water supply. PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) chemicals is found in Teflon and many other products that have become a staple to Americans, so obviously it’s a hugely lucrative business for DuPont. Workers at the DuPont plant had given birth to deformed children, suffered from cancer caused by the toxic chemicals, AND local farmers lost many of their herds because of it. The scariest part is, C8 is apparently found in the blood of 99.7% of Americans!

It’s scary that the term ‘the devil we know’ is actually in one of the documentations in regards to the scandal, as DuPont knew how dangerous C8 chemical was to humans for decades. In fact, even after 3M informed DuPont that PFOS causes liver cancer in rats, and 3M began phasing out PFOS and PFOA in 2000, DuPont still refused to do likewise.

One of the most heart-wrenching individuals featured in The Devil We Know is Bucky Bailey, whose mom worked in the Teflon sector of DuPont when she was pregnant. Bucky was born with one nostril and one eye lower than the other, enduring multiple surgeries since he was an infant. It was so devastating to watch him fearing that his own child would be born the same way, that’s just one of the shocking stories of victims impacted by this horrifying chemical contamination.


We actually watched Dark Waters first before we watched the documentary the next day. The film centered on Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense attorney who took on an environmental lawsuit against DuPont. Starting in the late 90s, the film chronicled Bilott’s relentless legal battle despite being initially reluctant to do so. A farmer from Parkersburg, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who knew Bilott’s grandmother, came into his law office and gave me numerous VHS tapes of his recording of his cows all dying mysteriously, suffering from bloated organs, blackened teeth, and tumors.

There’s such a consistent dread in the film that almost made you feel sickened by the toxic chemicals and the audacity of the DuPont executives. Bilott is also featured in The Devil We Know documentary, and though Ruffalo’s mannerism don’t seem to resemble the real attorney, I think he captured his passion and tenacity. Bilott risked a lot to take on this project for about 20 years, including his own job and his family. The strain in his marriage is palpable as he began to get dragged deeper and deeper into the case while DuPont remained defiant. Anne Hathaway played his wife Sarah, and Anne is quite effective here in a memorable supporting role.

As with many dramatizations, there are some things the film embellished, you can read more about the truth vs fiction here. The film is directed by Todd Haynes, who I have to admit is an interesting choice, but I think he did a pretty good job. It’s more of a slow-burn drama that shows the arduous David vs. Goliath battle. I certainly came away feeling furious that such a thing was allowed to happen, amazed that such dangerous substance wasn’t regulated by the EPA, and horrified how companies like DuPont managed to get away with practically everything. I mean, the $16.5 million fines from EPA, even the hundreds of million in case settlements, are really just a drop in the bucket for a company that earn tens of billions a year selling products with PFOA.

Both the doc and dramatic feature are eye-opening and unsettling, but both get the message across about this environmental scandal. Dark Waters isn’t quite as gripping as Michael Mann’s The Insider however, which carries a similar theme about a whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (played brilliantly by Russell Crowe) going against the huge tobacco companies. Still, I highly recommend these two films and they work perfectly as a double feature!


Have you seen either the film or the documentary? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review – AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the release of AVENGERS: ENDGAME as an event, at least to fans of the MCU. If you don’t know what that acronym stands for, but yet you’re curious enough to finally check out just what the fuss is about, I suggest watching a few Marvel movies first in order to fully appreciate what’s going on in this movie. There are 21 MCU movies up until this point, broken down in three phases. ENDGAME, as the title suggest, is the cumulation of the most of the heroes’ journey.

As I was watching the movie, I thought about how much I have come to care about these characters and what they have gone through. Since the release of Iron Man 11 years ago in 2008, there have been multiple new characters being introduced, but in the end, the film pretty much focused on the original six Avengers who survived Thanos’ snap in Avengers: Infinity War. Now, I know there have been calls NOT to spoil the major plot points, though it should go without saying for every movie. FlixChatter readers know I’m very careful about spoilers. That said, it’d be tough to review this film without potentially revealing some key things, so if you prefer to go into the film completely blind, you should stop reading this now [consider yourself warned].

The movie clocks in at 3 hours 1 minute. It’s perhaps the longest superhero movie ever, but there’s just SO much to cover. It actually goes by relatively fast, but that’s not to say there aren’t any slow moments. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is organized in phases, this movie is comprised of three specific ‘chapters’ if you will. The surviving superheroes (and a powerful new ally) only have one thing in their mind, that is to go after Thanos. It’s quite amusing to see the supreme villain is actually living a rather domesticated life, seemingly not losing much sleep after wiping out half of all living creatures. I’m not going to say how that ‘avenging’ business goes, but the movie then jumps ahead five years.

The second act is perhaps the slowest part of the movie, but I feel like the quieter moments are necessary. Naturally those who survived the snap are in mourning, some have lost more than others… some lost absolutely everything they hold dear. It’s not something people can just move onward and upward, not even those as mighty as the Avengers. As Steve Rogers said in the trailer, ‘Some people move on, but not us.’ Some are dealing with this new ‘post-Thanos snap’ era better than others. One could say they’re all dealing with an intense case of PTSD. Rogers is shown in a therapy session, while Hawkeye and Thor are dealing with this trauma in very different ways. I actually love how this movie is playing with our expectations of certain characters. Let’s just say, some of their um, evolution, for a lack of a better word, is truly amusing and not at all what I expected.

Themes of loss, anguish, regret, vengefulness, sacrifice are all we expect in a film that promises to be ‘the end of the line.’ Those themes are explored well here by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, brought to life brilliantly by Joe & Anthony Russo. By this time, most of the actors have convincingly embodied their characters. Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Jeremy Renner who made up the original six are particularly strong here, with Josh Brolin’s Thanos as the perfect villain. This movie has plenty of genuine emotional moments without being too heavy handed. It’s dark at times without being too brooding or overly gloomy. In fact, there are plenty of funny, witty scenes that provide the perfect levity to balance out the heartbreaking moments.

I’m glad my bladder held out well despite the three-hour running time, so I didn’t miss anything. I have to say though, the level of satisfaction this movie is would depend on how much you care about the characters that have been carefully crafted in the past decade. By the same token, if you’re not familiar with the previous movies, especially the previous Avengers movie, you’d find this movie utterly discombobulating. Even I find the plot rather convoluted and some things don’t make any sense. But most movies involving SPOILER ALERT (highlight if you want to read) time travel, especially involving quantum physics, is bound to be a head-scratcher. Yet that plot device also allows for backstory for certain characters, a walk down memory lane for others and perhaps even a farewell of sort given that the ‘end is near.’ If I were to nitpick however, I find the action spectacle in its finale to be too bombastic for me. It’s a problem for most superhero movies that even the best ones can’t seem to overcome. Fortunately, the Russos remain focused on the characters and what they have lost/stand to lose, which keeps the story grounded despite some overblown action sequences.

We all have our favorite character(s), and mine happens to be the first Avenger. My heart constantly went pitter-patter wondering what’s to become of Captain America. I have avoided reading all the incessant fan theories, and I’m glad I did. Part of the journey is the end. This movie delivers on that premise and it completes many of the characters’ arc in such an emotional way. It also lives up to the ‘whatever it takes’ premise as the Avengers face one impossible odds after another. Thor’s line ‘because that’s what heroes do’ was delivered facetiously in Thor Ragnarok, but here it holds a whole new meaning.

What made the MCU franchise so successful and gratifying to fans is that there’s a unifying thread throughout the movies. Yes, there are parts that have continuity problems–I mean what happened to Wanda aka Scarlet Witch’s Russian accent after Avengers: Age of Ultron?? But in the grand scheme of things, the storylines are so tightly-interwoven that by the time they all assembled in Endgame, we know just how high the stakes are for these characters. It also helps that earth mightiest heroes have a worthy adversary to fight against, which in and of itself is quite a feat. For a movie with such a compelling premise and a humongous build-up, it would be a shame if the payoff is weak. Thankfully that’s not the case here and for that I’m grateful. I’m also glad I packed tissues as it’s an emotional roller coaster of the best kind. Endgame made me laugh out loud one moment, then bawl my eyes out the next.

The film is an artistic and technical marvel. The set pieces are great, which is to be expected for a film of this scale. Alan Silvestri, the original composer of The Avengers, delivers rousing music with his iconic score, but it also sounds perfectly melancholy when it needs to be. What a bittersweet and worthy send-off for a bunch of beloved characters. I don’t even mind watching it again before its theatrical run is over, it’s THAT good.

Bravo to the Russos once again for completing a satisfying finale to such a behemoth franchise. There must have been an enormous pressure on them to deliver and I think, all things considered, they did an astounding job.


What do you think of AVENGERS: ENDGAME? Let’s hear it!

FlixChatter Review – THOR: Ragnarok (2017)

It’s been almost two weeks since I saw Thor: Ragnarok and I’m still giddy thinking about it. In fact, I had just seen Justice League two nights ago and honestly I’d rather write about the latest Thor movie, and this is one I’d readily watch again.

Let me preface this review with the fact that I’m a huge fan of its director, New Zealander Taika Waititi, ever since I saw What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople a year later. Those two rank as one of my favorite films of all time. In fact, even with an all star cast that includes my personal cinematic heroine Cate Blanchett, I’m most excited about Thor: Ragnarok because of Waititi. And boy did he deliver!!

It opens with our Asgardian hero, sans his Mjölnir hammer, being chained by a creature named Surtur who plans to destroy Thor’s planet by fulfilling the propechy of Ragnarok. Chris Hemsworth is definitely much more comfortable in the role, having played Thor half a dozen times by now. But here he gets to show off his comic chops as well. He manages to escape, gets his Mjölnir and fighting mojo back and he returns to Asgard. It’s always a hoot seeing Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (I actually like him more than Thor from the previous films). I’m not going to spoil it for you but what he discovers there is one of the most comical bits of the movie. Let’s just say Taika made a great use of a famous A-lister that could’ve played like an SNL skit if it wasn’t handled properly. Love seeing Sam Neill making a quick appearance too.

The following scenes takes Thor and his half brother Loki to earth, trying to figure out the wherebouts of his father. The scenes involving them and Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is funny stuff as well, peppered with Taika’s brand of quirky humor. As it turns out, it itsn’t just Loki who wants to take over the rule of Asgard, and this time she wouldn’t stop at that. With a name like Hela, of course she wants to rule the entire universe and unleash hell! Miss Blanchett relish on the opportunity to be a sexy, leather-clad, rockstar-ish goddess from hell, with another easy-on-the-eyes actor from Down Under Karl Urban as her lackey. Yes she seems to be purposely chewing the scenery but it works, and it’s fun to watch.

It’s clear the two brothers are no match for Hela and so Thor gets banished to a planet of scraps where his next crazy adventure begins! The new characters Taika introduced here, Valkyrie (bad-ass Tessa Thompson), the Grandmaster (the eternally amusing Jeff Goldblum), a rock creature Korg (voiced in a hilarious high-pitched voice by Taika himself) are all memorable! Even Rachel House (who was hilarious in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) got some hilarious one liners in the movie. I LOVE Valkyrie and Korg I wouldn’t mind seeing more of both of those characters in future Thor movies or even a spin-off! I also love seeing Idris Elba back as Heimdall, who became the loyal guardians for Asgardians. This is perhaps my favorite ensemble cast of all superhero movies.

I read that Taika has always wanted to make the latest Thor movie more comedic, whilst making some creative updates the character and its universe. Well he certainly’s done the job smashingly well! Yep, the term ‘Hulk Smash’ would apply to this movie and all the scenes with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), both as Bruce Banner and the big green creature, are massively entertaining. Everyone seems to be having a blast making this and it shows. But just because it’s chock full of hilarious bits, it doesn’t mean there’s no plot here. The story actually holds up and there’s even some nice moments between Thor and Valkyrie that points to her past as Asgard’s defender. There’s a hint there might be something less-than-platonic between these two and you know what, I’d welcome it! It’s certainly more interesting than Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane.

I’m glad that Marvel once again took a chance on an indie director (following the success of the Russo brothers with the Captain America movies) and Taika Waititi is one of recent filmmakers I discovered who I REALLY want to see making it big. I love that he pushed for more Indigenous representation in his films. Apparently he hired many Aboriginal crew members and the film was shot in Australia. There are quite a few in-jokes for Kiwis and Australians, like the Aboriginal flag colors and the spaceships named after types of Holden, Australian-made cars. My relative actually owned one of those when I was growing up in Indonesia!

SPOILER ALERT! (highlight to read) I don’t know if anyone else noticed this but the plot has a bit of social commentary about how the White people conquered a lot of the Indigenous land. When they’re inside the Asgardian palace, Hela said something about the dark history of Asgard… how Odin used to conquer different planets and wanting to rule the universe, with her by her side. But then Odin gained a conscience and became a benevolent ruler, thus banishing Hela because she didn’t share his vision. She said ‘where do you think we got all of this gold from?’ When I heard that, it sounded like a commentary about colonial privilege, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being the ‘stolen generation’ and white Australians living on someone else’s land. Even the Grandmaster’s line ‘slaves is such a harsh word, I prefer “prisoners with benefits”’ sounds like a sarcastic jab against people calling an awful thing differently as if that would actually lessen its awfulness.

Well, I’m curious if people notice those things or not. One thing for sure, this has become one of my all time favorite movie, not just my favorite Marvel movie. The actions scenes are definitely fun to watch. There are bombastic fight scenes but they don’t feel overlong or overdone like in some other superhero movies. There’s even an entertaining spaceship chase and of course the Thor vs Hulk battle promised in the trailer is still epic and fun! That ‘friend from work’ line is one of the many quotable quips from Taika Waititi’s movies I’d use again and again.

You would think it’d be tough to live up to the super fun trailer w/the rousing Led Zepellin’s Immigrant Song, but the movie manages to do just that… and then some! So yeah, Thor doesn’t just get a spunky new haircut but Taika gives him a whole new attitude and refreshing new take on his franchise. The funniest bits in the trailer is still hilarious in the movie, there’s so much joy and laughter in the whole theater. Like a joyful, thrilling amusement park ride, you can’t wait to get on it again as soon as it’s over!


Well, what did you think of ‘THOR: RAGNAROK’? Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

FlixChatter Double Reviews – Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Ted’s Review

I have a confession to make, I’m not a big fan of the first Avengers film, I enjoyed it for the most part but when I watched it again on Bluray, I found it kind of dragging. So going into this gigantic sequel, I had no high expectations for it. Well color surprise because I think Age of Ultron might be my favorite Marvel film to date, I’ll know for sure when I see it again in a few days.

Things kick off right away when the movie opens; our superheroes are in the middle of a battle with the bad guys. The sequence was quite impressive; director Whedon decided to reintroduce each of the heroes by showing skill set and that they’re now working as a team. They successfully retrieved Loki’s scepter from Baron Wolfgang von Strucker and before it returns to Thor’s world, Stark and Banner decided to create an AI called Ultron without telling the rest of the team. After the events of the first film, Stark wanted to protect humans from another alien invasion. Of course every time when some geniuses create a super intelligent machine, it will take over its masters and that’s what happened here. I think most people have already seen the trailers and clips of the movie so I’m not going to discuss its plot. For this review I’ll go over the goods, there are plenty of them and not so good about this sequel.

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The goods: Whedon really improved the action sequences in this one, along with the opening sequence; there are three other set pieces that I thought were quite excellent. The fight between Hulk and Iron Man in the Hulkbuster armor was spectacular. The midway action sequence where Capt. America was fighting with Ultron and Black Widow on the motorcycle chasing them was eye-popping. Finally the entire climatic battle with Ultron’s minions was just fun to watch. I didn’t care for the 3D effects in the first movie but here all the 3D worked, clearly Whedon shot each sequence with 3D in mind.

Instead of focusing on one character, Whedon was able to give each of the heroes equal screen time and they’re bantering are still amusing to me. All the actors appears to be quite comfortable in their respectively role. I wasn’t sure if the addition of Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch would work in the story but they turned out well.

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I also have to mention the sound design, the movie was recorded in Dolby Atmos and it’s my favorite surround sound right behind GRAVITY. If there’s a theater that has Dolby Atmos near your time, please see it there. I don’t tend to recommend seeing movies in 3D but I was quite impressed with 3D effects in this movie. So see it in 3D and Dolby Atmos if possible.

The not so good: I didn’t care for the romance with between Hulk and Black Widow, it kind of dragged on too long and just didn’t work for me. I expected Ultron to be this super menacing villain but he kind of turned out to be bland, just the usual AI villain that we’ve seen many times before.

Despite my quibbles I still think this is a perfect summer movie that delivers everything you’d expect to see in a tent pole picture. I can’t wait to see it again.

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Ruth’s Review

It seems that Ted and I have the opposite reaction in regards to the two Avengers movies. I actually loved the first film, I even made posted 10 Reasons why I think The Avengers rocks and gave it a 4.5/5 rating. I remember being massively anticipating it, following all the buildup from Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, there’s still a sense of novelty of seeing ALL of the Avengers assembling on screen fighting a menacing villain Loki hellbent to rule earth and beyond.

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This time, I have to admit I wasn’t terribly excited for Age of Ultron. Despite all the hype, I just couldn’t muster the excitement I once had for the last Avengers movie.  That said, I figure I’d still have fun with it and maybe I’d end up loving it. Well, I wouldn’t say the movie wasn’t devoid of fun. It actually started off with a thrilling action sequence and there are some funny moments peppered throughout, but overall it’s just not a movie I’d remember in a week or so, and certainly not something I’m eager to watch again.

Ok let’s start with the good. I still have to commend director Joss Whedon for somehow not making a huge mess out of having sooo many characters in a film (11 characters total) and having to somehow give each of them adequate screen time as well as making them work as a cohesive team. All things considered, I think he did a smashing job. The scenes of the team working or playing together are the main highlights for me. I feel like they care about each other and look after each other when one of them get hurt. It genuinely feel like a team whose loyalty is tested by a new deranged enemy.

I especially enjoyed that whole Mjölnir-lifting-attempt scene where each Avenger tried to see if they could lift Thor’s mighty hammer. The look on Thor’s face when Chris Rogers tried his luck is perhaps the funniest of all. That’s absolutely hilarious and one I’m sure I’d watch over and over again when someone has posted it on Youtube. Other than that, I honestly can’t think of a moment where I actually cheered or having any kind of strong emotion towards what’s happening on screen.

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Gif Source: MTV.com

I have to say that the villain Ultron himself was okay, despite the run-of-the-mill storyline of human-created AI that ended up wanting to destroy humanity. We’ve seen that plot in a plethora of sci-fi movies and explored in a much deeper way in films with a tiny fraction of Age of Ultron‘s budget, yet somehow James Spader’s able to inject some wit and humor into that mechanical character. At least he’s more interesting than a Transformer robot, even if he’s nowhere as fun to watch as Loki was.

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As for the bad, well it’s simply an overloaded and overstuffed movie from the get go. It’s as if they didn’t have too many characters already, they added even more! I suppose Marvel have to pave the way for Phase 3 and beyond, so perhaps they’re planning a standalone movie for Vision (Paul Bettany), who looks like something out of the Body Worlds exhibit with a red cape. There are also the Maximoff twins, who were experimented on by of one of Hydra cohorts Strucker in an Eastern European country of Sokovia. Out of the two, Elizabeth Olsen fared better than Aaron Taylor-Johnson who came across so weird and awkward. Their *Russian* accent are laughable but they’re just so underwritten, though to be fair I think every character here suffers the same treatment. The Quicksilver character in X-Men: Days of Future Past was far more fun and memorable.

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I’d say that the biggest misstep of them all is the tacked-on romance between Bruce Banner (Hulk) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow). I didn’t care for that cheesy and entirely-unnecessary subplot and their scenes are so cringe-worthy that it took me out of the movie. Natasha was sharing some of the backstory of her dark childhood, and it would have been a rather emotional moment but I just couldn’t get into it as the corny romance thing was distracting me. I like both Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, but they seem to have a more effortless chemistry off-screen during interviews than in the movie.

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I think people expecting a bunch of action in a big tentpole movie won’t be disappointed. For me, it’s more fun if I actually care about the characters and the universe presented here. As it is now, it’s just one huge bombastic film, in fact the whole fight sequence of Hulkbuster vs Hulk was so loud and verbose it reminded me of the final battle in Man of Steel. With so many characters all fighting for relevancy, the movie feels disjointed and abridged at times. The backstory of some of the characters also didn’t gel with me and felt forced and extraneous. Even the most adept filmmaker like Whedon surely was overwhelmed so I don’t blame him that he’s not going to do the final Avengers film. The Russo brothers certainly have a challenging task ahead of them to direct Avengers: Infinity War, and because Hollywood is all about the bottom line, of course it will be another two-part movie.

Oh, I have to mention that I saw this in 2D and the theater I was in had a pretty terrible surround sound. I wish I had seen it in a theater with Dolby Atmos as I still love the soundtrack, this time done by Brian Tyler & Danny Elfman. I doubt that seeing it in a better-equipped cinema would fix the weak script however. It also pains me to see Andy Serkis practically wasted here.

You could say the superhero fatigue is getting to me, so that certainly plays a factor in my enjoyment of this film. I can’t say I’m excited for more Marvel movies, except for Captain America: Civil War because I actually care about the Capt and his relationship with his friend-turned-foe Bucky, aka The Winter Soldier. Compared to the second Captain America movie, this one just felt bland and forgettable. It’s amazing how all that star power and an astronomical budget ($250 mil) only amounts to this, but then again, more is often just more, not better.

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Well, if you’ve seen this movie, what did YOU think? 

2014 Recap: 10 Favorite MALE Performances of the Year

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Well, now that I’ve posted my Top 10 Movies of the year and picked my Top 10 favorite FEMALE Performances and Top 10 Film Scores of the year, I’m finally down to my last 2014 Recap list. It’s quite a crowded category, more so than the female counterpart, as obviously there are more roles for men as there are for women on any given year. But I’m still picking only 10 on the main list, and another 10 15 on Honorable Mentions (there are just too many to keep it to just 10). Naturally these are performances from films I got a chance to see last year. So in case you’re wondering where’s Jake Gyllenhaal, Eddie Redmayne or J.K. Simmons, well I haven’t seen Nightcrawler, The Theory of Everything nor Whiplash.

Same w/ the ladies, this list is in alphabetical order, as it was tough enough to narrow ’em down to 10, let alone ranking them. So here goes:

1. Steve Carell – Foxcatcher

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It’s one of those transformative roles that all actors are privileged to get but not everyone can pull it off. Well, I always think that Steve Carell is a much more versatile actor than people give him credit for and Foxcatcher‘s director Bennet Miller said during our interview that “…it’s exciting when an actor breaks out of what’s expected of them.” But it takes so much more than just putting on a fake nose to create a convincing character. I’ve seen him in serious roles before in Little Miss Sunshine, but took his dramatic potential up several notches here, displaying disquieting menace and creepy demeanor I’ve never seen before. As I’m writing this, I couldn’t help recalling his earlier role as Evan Baxter in Bruce Almighty, yet I couldn’t fathom that they’re played by the same actor!

2. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game

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Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing an eccentric genius on screen. But apart from being British and a brainiac, Alan Turing couldn’t be more different than his Sherlock persona. Cumberbatch effortlessly captures that brilliant intellect and that arrogant, dismissive attitude towards the world around him, but he also convincingly conveys Turing’s inner tumult. The final scenes where Turing is treated as a social outcast is the film’s most heart-wrenching moments. All the pain, anguish and utter despair is palpable on Cumberbatch’s face but without a moment of overacting. It’s no doubt the actor’s shining hour, a personal best even amongst his already impressive resume.

3. Chris Evans – Snowpiercer

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In a year when he’s truly coming into his own as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America in its sequel, Chris Evans also emerges as a capable indie leading man. Certain actors often become stuck to play certain roles because of how they look and I think Evans is one them. But Evans is more than just a pretty face & a hot body, even if his role choices are questionable at times. I saw that he has dramatic chops in Puncture but this is an even more complex role – not to mention a better-crafted film overall – and he gets to show what he can do as an actor. As a conflicted rebel leader with a dark past, Evans displays an unusually somber, soulful and heartfelt performance. I’d love to see him tackle more dramatic roles like this in the future, he certainly has it in him.

4. Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Whilst Carell is comedian playing a dark role, the normally-serious Ralph Fiennes got to do the opposite. It’s such a thrill to see him being so goofy here, and he seems to relish in the character’s inherent zany-ness. Apparently Wes Anderson wrote this role specifically for him, which I think is an inspired choice that absolutely paid off. His deadpan delivery is really fun to watch here, and he has that effortless elegance about him too that fits the role of the legendary concierge M. Gustave.

5. Tom Hardy – Locke

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It takes an actor of a certain charisma to hold your attention for 1.5 hour long when all you see is him inside a car the entire time. But charisma can only go so far without the skills, but thankfully, Hardy’s got both. This is the first film with him in the leading role, after seeing him stealing scenes left and right in films like Rocknrolla, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises. He was a co-lead (with Joel Edgerton) in Warrior, an intensely physical role that he offsets with layers of vulnerability. As a man grappling with one VERY stressful night of his life, his body is barely shown the entire movie, so he had to rely on his eyes and facial features to convey every single emotion. Suffice to say, he delivered with aplomb. It’s a mesmerizingly-nuanced performance that confirms my opinion that Hardy as one of the finest actors working today. Seems that he’s only just getting warmed up.

6. Michael Keaton – Birdman

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One of the highlights of 2014 cinema for me is definitely seeing the perpetually-underrated Michael Keaton getting a career resurgence. I’ve been a fan of his for as long as I can remember, as he’s the kind of actor who can tackle hard-hitting drama as well as silly comedic roles effortlessly. In Birdman he gets a chance to tackle both and he relish in that opportunity. He’s been garnering kudos left and right and he’s the one I’m rooting for the entire award season. The fact that there are many similarities between his character Riggan and his professional acting life certainly adds a dose of amusement as well as authenticity to his portrayal. Keaton infused Riggan with such depth and genuine pathos that even during some of the film’s most bizarre scenes as Riggan descend into madness, he’s always emotionally engaging.

7. James McAvoy – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

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If only you more people had seen at least one version of this romantic drama, even just to see how good both lead actors are. McAvoy’s co-star Jessica Chastain is on my Top 10 list of Female Performers from the same film. I’ve been a fan of James McAvoy since Atonement and the Scottish actor has since done an amazing job balancing big blockbusters like X-Men: First Class to small indies like this one. He’s an instantly likable actor who I vehemently believe is more talented than people give him credit for. What I love about McAvoy is that there’s always such a natural way to his acting that you instantly believe he’s that character. Here he wears his character Conor like an old shoe, a man desperately trying to somehow regain his lost love. There is a moment in the film where Conor is alone in an empty apartment and he reminisce on his marriage that is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s a shame that AMPAS doesn’t even notice this film as both Chastain & McAvoy’s marvelous performances are certainly Oscar-worthy.

8. Edward Norton – Birdman

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Another highlights from Birdman and why this is truly one of the best films of the decade is seeing Ed Norton in a role worthy of his talent. It’s definitely a scene-stealing role in a film that’s already jam-packed with fine performances. Just like his co-star Keaton, Norton did a brilliant dramatic and comedic turn as a self-absorbed diva of an actor who’s more comfortable in his own skin when he’s on stage. All the scenes of him and Keaton are truly the film’s highlights as both actors not only baring their skin down to their underwear, but they also bare themselves emotionally. It’s too bad that he probably won’t win an Oscar again this year, but I sure hope the three-time Oscar nominee won’t be wasted playing second/third banana in subpar movies like Bourne Legacy ever again.

9. David Oyelowo – Selma

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I’ve made my quibbles known about one of the egregious snubs of this year’s Oscar. But if there is justice in the world, this wouldn’t be the last we see Oyelowo’s name being mentioned during cinema’s award season. Even in bit parts in a myriad of movies ranging from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Help, Jack Reacher, etc., I always notice his performance. He finally got to shine in a prominent supporting role as Forrest Whitaker’s teenage son in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which also deals with the Civil Rights Movement. It’s interesting that a year later he got to play the key figure in that historical movement, a role that I read he’s been dreaming to play for some time. Oyelowo didn’t just get Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mannerism and speaking style right, it’s more than just a brilliant impersonation but he truly embodied the role. What’s more, he portrayed Dr. King as not just a heroic figure but as a man, flawed and plagued with doubts just like any regular person would. He is just as convincing as a powerful and persuasive orator as he is in the quieter scenes that demand subtle nuances. I can’t wait to see what Oyelowo will tackle next.

10. Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher 

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Is there anything Mark Ruffalo can’t do? I feel like I’ve been missing out as for whatever reason I didn’t really pay attention to him until recently. I was going to list his performance in Begin Again but technically that’s a 2013 film, but man what an astounding display of versatility. His role as an Olympic pro-wrestler David Schultz in Foxcatcher couldn’t be more different than a distressed & disheveled record producer in Begin Again but he’s utterly believable in both. Ruffalo’s role is actually the least flashy compared to Steve Carell’s and Channing Tatum’s, but his character is no doubt the heart of the film. It’s a role that demands the perfect amount of nuance and subtlety and Ruffalo pulls it off wonderfully. The video interview scene alone when he’s asked to describe Carell’s character is simply masterful, I remember marveling at how good his performance was as I was watching it. I think that might’ve been what earned him his second Oscar nomination.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

I truly didn’t expect to see some names would end up on this list. I honestly have never seen Tyler Perry nor Zach Galifianakis in anything other than clips of their movies, but they definitely left an impression on me in their respective films. There are some big breakthroughs here too, especially Dan Stevens and Chris Pratt, garnering a lot of buzz in their successful starring roles. There are also some perennial favorites of mine who definitely still got it (Keanu Reeves), as well as a brand new actor I’ve never seen before. Manish Dayal‘s like the male counterpart of Gugu Mbatha-Raw for me and I hope to see him more movies! As for Guy Pearce, I sure hope that he will get the recognition he deserves one day as he’s simply a phenomenal actor.

Here they are in random order:


Thoughts on these male performances? Which one(s) of these stood out to you from the past year?

FlixChatter Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

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This film is what you’d call a quiet suspense type of film, brimming with unsettling tension throughout even when there’s barely any action going on. The film starts with the two pro-wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, respectively) as they practice in a gym. It gives us a glimpse into the relationship of the two of them and how Mark is a doting older brother to his rather tetchy younger brother. It’s also apparent that Mark is the better wrestler, though both are Olympic champions. The film then takes us into the process of how Mark ends up living in the large estate of millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) who wants to coach Mark and his team for the 1988 games in Seoul.

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Carell underwent quite a physical transformation for the role, wearing a prosthetic nose and made up to look older. But not only that, he also altered his mannerism and even tone of voice that he’s barely recognizable here. To say he looks creepy is an understatement, and the whole set up certainly gets under your skin. Both Mark and John are two people who have been living under someone else’s shadow, which feeds into their insecurity, anxiety and in the case of John, paranoia. I actually read the story of this case prior to watching the film, but it didn’t ruin the experience for me as it’s more of a character study than a plot-driven film. The story focuses mostly on the odd and unsettling relationship between Mark and John for the first two acts, but by the time Dave becomes part of an unlikely trio in the third act, things got more sinister that lead to an eventual tragic event.

There’s a homoerotic undertones between Mark & John that’s deliberately kept vague. It’s left up to the viewers’ interpretation as to why later on Mark act as if he was betrayed, that it must’ve been something that cuts really deep for him to go 180 in his behavior towards John. I remember feeling as if I missed something here and it’s a bit frustrating. There’s also very little dialog in the film, which can be used to great effect, but that at times I feel that the film is a little too austere to really be emotionally engaging.

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This is the kind of film that truly rely on the skills of each actor and the three leads are more than up for the task. Carell obviously is the revelation here. Comedians can often be quite effective in serious roles and I know Carell has dramatic chops when I saw him in Little Miss Sunshine. But he took it up several notches here, displaying disquieting menace and creepy demeanor I’ve never seen before. Tatum’s good here in a taciturn role and you could say it’s quite a transformative performance for him as well as I’ve never seen him looking so dour. Ruffalo is a reliable actor and his character Dave is definitely the character I sympathized most here. Miller calls him the heart of the film despite him having the least screen time out of the three. He’s a natural choice for playing someone who’s got a thousand best friends, as Dave is revered on the wrestling and cherished by those who knew him. Vanessa Redgrave‘s appearance is basically a cameo but it’s a key scene that show how much John is so desperate of his mother’s love and approval. I’ve mentioned in my interview with the film’s director that Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife seems an unlikely choice but I think she’s fine in the role, though she wasn’t given that much to do until the finale.

Bennett Miller‘s direction style is so matter-of-fact that it sometimes feel like a documentary. But yet I feel it’s lacking a sense of time as I’m not sure when things happen from the time the characters first met to the time the violent incident occurs. For example, I read about the 48-hour standoff between John and the police, but in the film it felt more like 48 minutes. It also suggests that John’s mother’s passing directly led to the brutal finale, whilst in fact the two events are years apart. The slow pace also feels tedious at times, especially in the first act, and apart from a couple of amusing scenes, the mood is somber and grim throughout.

I must say that as much as I admire Foxcatcher, it’s not an enjoyable film and far from being a feel-good film. It’s one of those films one appreciate but not necessarily love as I couldn’t quite connect with any of the characters. Still, I’d recommend it for the amazing performances of the three main actors and it’s quite a fascinating tale of an American tragedy involving one of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families.

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Has anyone seen this film? I’d love to hear what you think!

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?