‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Rambo: Last Blood’ is a Disgrace to This Franchise

Rambo Last Blood theatrical poster

Okay, let us cut to the chase: “Rambo: Last Blood” is a disgrace to the long-running franchise. Sylvester Stallone is back as former Army Special Forces Officer and Vietnam veteran John Rambo, but I really do not recognize the character here. Whereas the previous installments observed Rambo as a soldier trying to deal with a violent past, this one instead treats him as just another guy out for bloody revenge. This does not even feel like a “Rambo” movie as it starts off like “Taken” and eventually turns into a mediocre “Death Wish” flick with a ridiculous amount of “Home Alone” thrown in for good measure. Heck, even if Stallone still had the mullet and a bandana or two on hand, my opinion of this godforsaken sequel would be no different.

Ten years have passed since the events of the fourth “Rambo” movie, and our hero has long since taken over his father’s ranch in Bowie, Arizona. While he still deals with PTSD which he combats with an endless supply of anti-anxiety medication, he has found a measure of peace with his adopted family of Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) who manages the ranch with him, and her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) who has just graduated from high school. His close bond with them helps to keep his demons at bay, but as he goes through the underground tunnels which he built under his property, those Vietnam flashbacks keep haunting him to no end.

Soon after these characters are introduced, we are quickly reminded of what curiosity did to the cat. Gabriela gets word her biological father, Miguel (Marco de la O), is alive and living in Mexico, she becomes determined to seek him out and gets answers as to why he left her and her late mother behind. Both Rambo and Maria strongly encourage Gabriela not to seek him out as he is a cold man with no heart or conscience, but she defies them both and drives across the border on her own. Instead of a heartfelt reunion, she is drugged by enforcers of a Mexican drug cartel who turn her into a sex slave. As you can expect, Rambo finds out what has happened and heads out to Mexico to bring her home, and much ultraviolence ensues in the process.

Like I said, “Rambo: Last Blood” starts off as another “Taken” movie as our hero goes after a loved one abducted by those who have no respect for life, but while Liam Neeson’s character had a “unique set of skills,” we know Rambo’s will not be so refined. In the end, many of us come to the “Rambo” movies for the action as it is brutal and visceral to take in, and the red band trailer for “Last Blood” ensured its target audience there would plenty of carnage to take in and enjoy. However, this sequel is quickly weighed down by an overwhelming amount of exposition which slows down the proceedings to a sluggish pace, and this is regardless of the fact it has a running time of 89 minutes.

Stallone wrote the screenplay along with Matthew Cirulnick, and it is filled with clunky dialogue, stereotypical villains and a wealth of plot holes you could drive a Mack truck through. But what stuns me is how Stallone leaves us hanging way too long for the scenes where Rambo lays waste to his enemies with a blood vengeance. How long has this character been with us? That’s right, since the 1980’s. So, what is the point of having these cartel members beat the crap out of him early on when we know he can take them on single-handedly? Oh yes, so we can get introduced to an independent journalist named Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega, completely wasted here) to nurse him back to health, give him background information on his adversaries, and then later warn him how nothing will change regardless of what he does.

Seriously, “Rambo: Last Blood” is such a missed opportunity. Instead of dealing with foreign enemies, it would have been more interesting to see him fighting those of domestic origin. There should be no denying white supremacy is a bigger threat to America than anything outside of our borders, and the Stallone would have ended up with a far better sequel if he went in another direction. With Rambo back in America for the first time since “First Blood,” I would have loved to see how he would have dealt with how backwards this country has become. Soldiers who fought for America’s freedom are not the least bit happy about this, and I doubt Rambo would be either.

When we reach the movie’s last half, it descends into a “Death Wish” sequel which would have been better off going straight to video. Plus, as we watch Rambo go over diagrams of the family ranch, preparing traps and transforming weapons and bullets into something far more deadly, it started to feel like the third “Home Alone” movie we could have gotten with Macaulay Culkin had he played Kevin McCallister as a grown up. Seriously, I kept waiting endlessly for Stallone to say, “This is my house! I have to defend it!”

Heck, “Rambo: Last Blood” would have been more ridiculously entertaining had Stallone spent his time reciting dialogur from “Home Alone” as the stuff he comes up with here is simply pitiful. Just close your eyes and think of what Stallone would have looked and sounded like had he said the following:

“You guys give up? Or are you thirsty for more?

“This is extremely important. Will you please tell Santa that instead of presents this year, I just want my family back. No toys.”

“Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.”

“Is this toothbrush approved by the American Dental Association?”

Many have called this sequel “Trumpian” as it deals with Mexicans in a very negative way, and the level of xenophobia “Rambo: Last Blood” has to offer is impossible to ignore after a while. The villains of this piece do little to paint Mexicans in a flattering light, and they are presented as a bunch of one-dimensional schmucks who we should do nothing more than despise and hate. But by not making them a bit more complex to where we can see them as individuals instead of as stereotypes, this just blunts the joy we could possibly get when Rambo makes chop suey out of them.

There is even a scene where Rambo drives his truck straight through a fence placed on the U.S./Mexico border, and I cannot help but think Stallone is subversively saying Donald Trump should get his border wall. At the same time, it has already been established how Rambo can build underground tunnels which can go on for miles. If Trump is to get his needless border wall, there is no doubt in my mind Rambo could dig a tunnel right under it all by himself.

Directing “Rambo: Last Blood” is Adrian Grunberg who previously directed Mel Gibson in “Get the Gringo” and served as first assistant director on Gibson’s “Apocalypto.” Taking this account, I came into this sequel assuming Grunberg would provide us with dozens of action scenes riddled with blood, gore and carnage since he was under the tutelage of a filmmaker who holds nothing back when it comes to ultraviolence on the silver screen. But when we finally get to the climactic showdown, Grunberg ends up giving us a lot of rapid-fire editing which keeps us from fully experiencing the violence on display. Yes, there are moments where human heads are turned into grotesque works of art which would have had Jason Voorhees saying, “Wow! Even I didn’t think of that!” But the action moves so fast to where it is almost impossible to fully see everything going on, and this had me walking out of the theater deeply frustrated.

And there is Stallone himself, who comes in and goes out of this sequel looking like a barely animated zombie with a faint pulse. Watching him here, it became clear just how much he values the legacy of Rocky Balboa more than John Rambo’s. With “Rambo: Last Blood,” he basically sells this iconic character out and gives us something which is about as bad as the many direct-to-video movies he has been churning out whenever he is not involved in a major Hollywood production. If this is to be the last “Rambo” movie, it is a real shame as even a character as jingoistic as this one deserves a far more respectful curtain call. When all is said and done, this is as necessary a sequel as “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles” was (which is to say, not at all).

At this point, I would much rather see Stallone make another “Rocky” movie instead of one with Rambo. Furthermore, I hear he is in talks with Robert Rodriguez to make a sequel to “Cobra.” Or maybe he would better off making a sequel to his arm-wrestling film “Over the Top” as Johnny Carson joked it would instead be about thumb wrestling. Even that sounds better than another “Rambo” movie.

Shame on everyone involved in the making of this sequel. Shame.

* out of * * * *

 

Jennifer Lopez on Playing Leslie Rodgers in ‘Parker’

Jennifer Lopez in Parker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Jennifer Lopez has been so deeply involved in the music business for the last few years to where it is easy to forget she is also an actress. Now that her stint on “American Idol” is over, she gets the opportunity to be an actress again in Taylor Hackford’s “Parker.” In it she plays Leslie Rogers, an unsuccessful real estate agent and recent divorcee who has been dealt an unlucky hand in life and is forced to live with her overbearing mother Ascension (Patti LuPone) almost against her will. While “Parker” itself is not a great movie, it allows Lopez to give her best performance since she acted opposite George Clooney in “Out of Sight.”

The part of Leslie Rogers came to Lopez while she was filming a season of “American Idol,” and it made her realize what was missing from her life at that point. In talking with Nina Terrero of NBC Latino, she explained how she was drawn to “Parker’s” screenplay, and being on the set of this movie made her realize how much she wanted to go back to doing this kind of work.

“To be honest, I had been doing music, releasing two albums,” Lopez said. “And when I got the chance to do this movie between two seasons of ‘Idol,’ I realized how much I really missed acting; I hadn’t done enough of it over the past few years.”

“When they offered me a third season of ‘Idol,’ I just had to say no,” Lopez continued. “I made the decision that I was going to go back on tour and after that focus on film for the next few years. It’s just the perfect time in my life with the things that I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced. I have so much to offer as an actor at this point in my life. I’m going to make music and I’m going to focus on my artistry.”

Filming “Parker” came also came around the time Lopez was divorcing from her husband of seven years, Marc Anthony. Now many have been quick to dismiss Lopez’s performance here as they have gotten so used to seeing her being so glamorous whenever she is in public. Regardless, she has been through a rough and tumble time, before and after she became famous, which people in general are not quick to acknowledge. She explained this in more detail during her interview with Terrero.

“We’re both human beings who’ve gone through hard and difficult times,” Lopez said of the similarities between herself and her character. “At this particular time, she’s recently divorced, a little desperate. When I was filming this role, I had similar feelings. I had recently decided to divorce and it was hard to get out of bed and go to the set every day. I knew what those feelings were, to feel your world was falling apart.”

Hackford himself had zero hesitation about casting Lopez in “Parker.” While it might seem rather odd to see this particular superstar playing a down on her luck character, Hackford had known her long enough to be aware of how she had to fight hard to get to where she is now. He made this clear to me during my one-on-one interview with him.

“I know who that person is, she’s for real,” Hackford said of Lopez. “You see the glamorous person out there in the world of entertainment, rich and famous and a lot of times you get a bad rap because people are jealous. But Jennifer’s the real person. She was a dancer and they can just work and work and work.”

“I trusted the fact that she was good, but I didn’t realize how good she is. She’s a fantastic actress. She walks on the set, she frees herself of all of that Jennifer Lopez stuff and she embodies the character,” Hackford continued. “You tell Jennifer a note and BANG! It’s there in the next take. Not partially there, it’s there. You think, my God she got it, she understood it. Now part of that’s me because if you can’t explain what you want, how do you expect someone to do it? But the other part of it is she’s got an instrument that is real and very developed. She’s a much better actress now that she ever was before, and she’s also gone through some things in her life. She’s got some miles on the treads of those tires, and ultimately she’s incorporated that. I think she’s terrific in this movie.”

Still, Lopez did show some hesitation in her scene with Jason Statham, who plays Parker of the movie’s title, where she has to strip down to her underwear to show him she is not wearing a wire. Even though Lopez said she spent a lot of time eating right and working out before filming this sequence, she is no less nervous about doing stuff like that today than when she first started out in movies.

“Doing scenes like this one are so nerve-wracking,” Lopez said. “You have to get mentally ready because it’s a vulnerable state, being in front of a crew having to do a scene like that. My heart beats getting ready for it, but you know at the end of the day it’s part of the job.”

Now many may still not be willing to give Jennifer Lopez the credit she deserves for her performance in “Parker,” but this will end up saying more about her critics than it will about her. Lopez actually proves to be quite believable as a divorcee who is trying to put her life back together with varying degrees of success, and she proves to be one of the things in this movie which actually works. At this point, her career can go in many different directions, and she is excited about the opportunities which are ahead of her.

“I always want my fans to be happy with what I do,” Lopez said. “But I don’t want to choose my projects based on what I think will please them. I choose projects that are I can excel in and that are real, not stuff that’s fake or forced. I don’t consider genre so much as having a great script, great director and great actors to play off of. Doing an intense drama scene can be as much fun as a romantic comedy. I enjoy all of it!”

SOURCES:

Nina Terrero, “Jennifer Lopez talks ‘Parker’ and her return to acting: ‘I have so much to offer,’” NBC Latino, January 22, 2013.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Taylor Hackford on Parker,” We Got This Covered, January 25, 2013.

‘Rambo’ (2008) Brings Back an 80’s Action Hero, and Leaves a Ton of Blood in its Wake

Rambo 2008 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008 back when this film was released.

With Sylvester Stallone having revived one of his most iconic characters with “Rocky Balboa,” it was only a matter of time before he brought back John Rambo. From “First Blood” to “Rambo III,” the ex-Green Beret was forced to deal with hostile elements which kept him from putting his violent past behind him, and now he is back after a two decade hiatus during which I am guessing this character finally found a way to silence his demons for longer than a couple of years. But when he starts wielding his knife or bow and arrow, the blood starts to flow like a river, and it’s a fast-moving river to be sure!

We catch up with Rambo in “Rambo” as he is living a life of solitude in Thailand where he catches poisonous snakes and sells them, and also drives his boat up and down the river. He has completely divorced himself from the world and its major concerns and, no surprise, he would rather not go back into combat again. To so will have him be reminded of who he really is and of what he cannot escape from. Then along comes a group of missionaries who try to hire Rambo to take them upriver where they can help those who are living in terror of the Burmese army which has no remorse for their suffering. Before you know it, the army descends on the village they are working in, and they wipe out just everybody including babies. Those who survive the onslaught are taken hostage by the army which is led by a vicious general who seems to be devoid of just about every emotion other than hate.

After all these years in development hell, I kept wondering who John Rambo was going to fight this time around. There were rumors he would take on the Taliban or some cult in America. Stallone’s inclusion of the Burmese army is an interesting choice as I am not sure how aware people are of the atrocities they have inflicted. “Rambo” starts off with some documentary footage of the army and the decaying corpses they leave in their wake. While it may seem exploitive to some that Stallone would use this footage here, it effectively sets up how dangerous and cold-hearted these villains are and will be throughout. It succeeds also in anchoring these antagonists in a believable way, and it makes them all the more threatening. Stallone is smart not give us a bunch of cartoonish 1980’s villains here as it would simply take away from the story and turn it into the kind of action flick which has not aged well.

Stallone directs here again as he did with “Rocky Balboa,” and this is the first Rambo movie which has him in front of and behind. It is hard to think of another individual who could have directed it as he knows the character so damn well and so much more than just about anyone else. It is also important to note that, along with “Rocky Balboa,” this is the first time Stallone has directed any movie in about 20 years. Some get rusty when they are away from the director’s chair for too long (we are looking at you George Lucas), but Stallone looks to have stepped back into this position without having missed a beat.

And speaking of action, “Rambo” is overwhelmed with it If you thought the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” was exceedingly violent, wait till you get a load of this film. Rambo does not just blow away his enemies, he eviscerates them in such gory detail to where Dario Argento would be in awe of what Stallone has pulled off here. The ex-Green Beret also slices and dices better than Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, or even Michael Meyers ever could. He eviscerates, decapitates, disembowels, and hits his targets with absolute precision and without hesitation. Many have called this the most violent movie ever made, and this may very well be true.

My guess is since this is the first Rambo movie made in two decades, Rambo has been laying low and not causing any trouble. As a result, he has had all this tension building up inside of him for a long, long time. Now had this movie came out a few years after “Rambo III,” then maybe he would not have battled his enemies in such an immensely gory fashion. But since he has been out of action for so long, it somehow makes sense he is slightly angrier than usual when he gets stuck in situations like this. In other words, do not piss him off after a long stretch of time where he has not done any hunting.

Many of the characters we see here do come across as one-dimensional, and this quickly reminded of Stallone’s limitations as a writer. There is a group of mercenaries who are led by one loud mouth Australian who would happily be anywhere else had he not been paid so much for this one job. These characters, however, are redeemed by the end of the movie as they fight for something as opposed to just the dollar. Also, some of the dialogue is unintentionally laughable, but thank goodness there is not too much of it here.

Among the actors teamed up with Stallone is Julie Benz who plays Sarah, the woman who wins over Rambo by meeting him at his level of morality. There is no sex here as Rambo looks to have become too much of a monk to where one wonders if he will ever be sexually active again (“no time for love Dr. Jones!”). But in the end, romance really has no place in a movie like this.

“Rambo” is also helped by a stupendous music score by Brian Tyler who more than honors the themes the late Jerry Goldsmith first brought to this franchise during its humble beginnings. It more than matches the furious pace of the action unleashed on us here, and gets at the deeper feelings of all the characters, especially Rambo himself. Tyler’s score here adds tremendously to the experience of watching this movie.

“Rambo” is not as good as “Rocky Balboa,” but it does deliver as an action movie. In fact, it has set the action bar so high in terms of onscreen deaths to where it will be a complete surprise if any other film in 2008 comes even close to topping its carnage. Anything is possible, but still.

* * * out of * * * *

‘3 From Hell’ – Rob Zombie’s Vision of Madness and Mayhem Continues

3 From Hell theatrical poster

I have no shame, nor should I, in admitting just how much I liked “The Devil’s Rejects.” While Rob Zombie’s first film, “House of a 1000 Corpses,” showed him to have a strong visual style and good taste in actors, it paled in comparison to the movies which inspired it. “The Devil’s Rejects,” however, showed him taking a number of cinematic influences and making them his own, and what transpired was a nasty grindhouse film which never pretended to be anything other than what it was. As a result, “3 From Hell,” was one of those 2019 movies I was most excited to see. How was it? Read on my fellow readers…

When we last saw Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), they were going out in a blaze of glory as the police riddled them with an endless supply of bullets while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” played over the soundtrack. They had reached the end of the line, or so we thought. As “3 From Hell” begins, a newscaster played by the great Austin Stoker informs us they somehow miraculously survived the lethal shootout by police, and they now have a lengthy trail to look forward which will determine their ultimate fate.

Now we can agree there is no way those crazy bastards could have survived such a shootout without at the very least a bulletproof vest. Still, perhaps back in the late 1980’s, when “3 From Hell” takes place, medical science was advanced enough to where gunshot wounds could be treated more effectively. Then again, Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding are known as the devil’s rejects, and I guess Satan still does not have enough room for them in hell any more than he does for business criminals. Street criminals on the other hand…

Anyway, the three killers are sentenced to either life in prison or death by lethal injection, but we all know they are not going to stay there. Thanks to Otis’ half-brother Winslow (Richard Brake), Otis and Baby escape their confines and head out on the road to inflict bloody mayhem on both the innocent and those who they believe “wronged” them. As you can expect, there is plenty of blood, gore and carnage on display as one bullet or stab wound is not nearly enough to take down a human being here.

One sad thing about “3 From Hell” is how briefly Sid Haig appears in it. This is because he was in ailing health when production started, and it was determined he would not able to participate as a result. Watching Haig here is heartbreaking as he is clearly not in the best shape, but Zombie still does right him and writes one hell of a monologue which Haig performs to brilliant effect as he yells out loudly, “I’m just a clown dancing to the sins of mankind.” Listening to Haig here reminded me of what Augustus Hill once said on an episode of “Oz:”

“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds, huh? Our souls, huh? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it’s that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages. Put its own kind in cages.”

Still, I have to say “The Devil’s Rejects” is a hard film to top, and “3 From Hell” proves this to be the case. This follow up does not have the same level of sadistic glee, nor does it have the kind of lethal antagonist which “Rejects” had in William Forsythe’s character of Sheriff John Quincey Wydell. When the Otis, Baby and Wilson are forced to deal with a Mexican gang, they also appear here by accident to where their threat does not register strongly enough with us.

But just when “3 From Hell” looks to be an unnecessary sequel, I did find myself admiring Zombie’s subversive ways as he plays around with how people see serial killers from the outside. We watch fans of the Firefly family as they are interviewed on television, and they seem them instead as folk heroes who they believe have been wrongfully convicted. While we may want to criticize these fans for worshipping the wrong people, Zombie is very clever at illustrating how we are deeply fascinated by certain people who have performed the most heinous and unforgivable acts on others. While we say we are not, there is that part of us which is even if we do not admit it. Just like Mercedes Ruehl said in “The Fisher King,” the devil is a lot more interesting.

There is even a scene where we are watching footage of Otis and some fellow prisoners (one of them played by Danny Trejo) being led to work in a field, and this same footage also shows Otis escaping and killing a prisoner in cold blood while the camera continues to roll. Now this is not something which should be shown on television, but stations still do this every so often, and we are drawn to this footage even if we know better than to watch it. With “3 From Hell” and its predecessors, Zombie makes us see how drawn we are to pure evil even as we openly despise it.

While Zombie was forced to shoot this sequel on digital instead of film, he along with cinematographer David Daniels and editor Glenn Garland succeed in making it look as grungy as your average grindhouse picture from the 1970’s to where I honestly thought this was shot on film (the end credits revealed otherwise). However, the CGI blood does leave little to be desired even if the filmmakers did what they could to make it look real.

In addition to a strong film score from Zeuss, Zombie provides us with another great soundtrack to put his grisly images to, and it includes such classic tunes as Slim Whitman’s “The Devil is Singing Our Song” and Suzi Quatro’s “The Wild One.” He even uses Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a key murder scene, and I admired him for daring to do so as this song has already been used to unforgettable effect in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” and a classic episode of “The Simpsons.”

As expected, the actors revel in portraying their politically incorrect characters and do so without any shame. Moseley may very well have given his best performance as Otis in this sequel as he gives the character more dimension you might expect him to have. And while she looks to chew the scenery a bit too much at times, Sheri Moon is a blast to watch as she brings a surprising degree of vulnerability to Baby. As we see her being held in captivity, Sheri makes us see how prison life has had a harsh impact on Baby’s mental state, and it was never a particularly stable mental state to begin with.

I also have to give Richard Brake a lot of credit as he is stepping into an ensemble which has long since established its own rhythm. But as Winslow, he manages to fit in perfectly with Sheri Moon and Moseley, and he makes this character stand out in his own uniquely maniacal way. The scene where he grins ever so slightly as Otis pounds a man’s face in with the butt of his gun gives this film one of its most chilling moments, and it shows how fearless Brake is in portraying such an amoral human being.

I did my best to keep my expectation in check when I came into “3 From Hell” as “The Devil’s Rejects” was always going to be hard to top. The fact it is not the equal of its predecessor is not a surprise, but there is still much I admired here, and I have no problem saying I enjoyed what Zombie had to offer audiences this time out. No, it is not for everybody, and there are scenes of sheer brutality which will have certain audience members dashing for the exit. But for those who like especially intense horror films, I felt this one delivered.

Could there be a fourth film in this franchise? I suppose, but at some point the devil has to make room for these three as well as all the criminals on Wall Street who continue to get away with far too much.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Ad Astra’ is an Enthralling Cinematic Experience

Ad Astra movie poster

The title of this movie is Latin for “to the stars,” and boy does co-writer and director James Gray ever take us there in “Ad Astra.” Like “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian,” this is the rare science-fiction film which deals with the possibilities of space travel from a credible perspective, and it is a feast for the eyes throughout. While the human drama may be lacking, I could never ever take my eyes off the screen for a single second as this is a study in enthralling entertainment.

Brad Pitt, in his second great performance of 2019 (the other as Cliff Booth in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut who is able to keep his heart rate at a stable level even during the most strenuous of circumstances. In many ways he is the perfect astronaut, but his ambition to travel to the final frontier comes at a cost as he is emotionally distant from others around him, particularly his wife Eve (Liv Tyler, in a nearly wordless performance). When we see Eve dropping her keys on the counter before leaving the house, it is enough to tell us how good their relationship is going (which is to say, not at all).

Roy is also living in the shadow of his legendary father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of deep space travel who later disappeared into the far reaches of our solar system without a trace. But as Roy recovers from a catastrophic accident which sends him into a terrifying freefall he barely survives, he is told there is evidence his father may still be alive, and he embarks on a voyage to the outer edges of the galaxy to see if this is indeed true.

“Ad Astra” is said to take place in “the near future,” but considering all the flying spaceships we see here, this future is not all that near. One of the opening shots has Roy working near the top of what is called the International Space Needle, and it gives us an astounding moment of vertigo when we realize just how far this structure goes. This scene proved to be a quick reminder of when Felix Baumgartner made his record-breaking jump from a helium balloon above Earth’s stratosphere to the ground below, and it was both a terrifying and exhilarating moment which I watched as it happened. It is also the first of many spectacular images we are made to witness in this film.

Even though this story deals with technology of the future and space travel, the production design gives everything we see here an earthbound quality as spacesuits looked to have changed only so much throughout the years. It is quite fitting “Ad Astra” is being released in the same year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon. The suit Neil Armstrong wore looks much like the one Pitt suits up in here, and along with the designs of the spacecrafts and controls designed to fly them, this makes everything we see here all the more believable to where nothing ever feels far-fetched.

Gray has crafted the story which he concocted along with Ethan Gross into a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and a Terrence Malick film. Like “Apocalypse Now,” this movie is not about the destination as much as it is about the journey. And like the average Malick cinematic experience, the move is paced in a slow and deliberate manner, and we get to hear Pitt provide a narration which encapsulates everything going on in his mind as his perfected astronaut ways are put to the test in ways he cannot see coming. This may put off some audience members who will find the film to be ponderous and a slog to sit through, and this is even though it barely runs over two hours. For myself, however, I felt this made the experience of watching “Ad Astra” all the more enthralling as we are sucked into a place the majority of us have only seen from a safe distance.

Yes, “Gravity” is still the ultimate outer space movie to where I had to admire Gray’s attempt to make “Ad Astra” in the wake of it as he could only hope to at best equal what Alfonso Cuaron pulled off. Like Cuaron, Gray not only captures the beauty of outer space, but also of its unforgiving nature. We are quickly reminded of how, in space, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure and no oxygen, and this adds an extra level of intensity to the proceedings as everyone here looks to be on a suicide mission.

But one thing I have to give Gray extra points for is how he portrays the psychological dangers of traveling through space. We all know how physically dangerous space travel can be, but many movies fail to illustrate how the mind can be almost irrevocably impaired the further we travel into what Captain Kirk called “the final frontier.” We watch Pitt as his character suffers through emotional turmoil which no mood stabilizer can offer him respite from, and it is emotionally draining to watch.

Pitt for the most part underplays his role here as his character starts off as emotionally withdrawn, but who eventually opens up to see what is most valuable in life. As Roy struggles to get closer and closer to where his father is believed to be, we see him getting increasingly desperate to find answers we know are being kept from him, and this forces him to make drastic decisions which will affect not only his sanity, but the lives of those around him. Like “Apocalypse Now,” “Ad Astra” is about a man on an obsessive journey, and many lives will be lost on the way to the final destination.

I also have to take my hat off to Tommy Lee Jones who, even though much of his performance comes across in video transmissions of a mission gone awry, shows Clifford’s transition from a loving father to an overly ambitious astronaut who is devalued the things in life he should have held most dear to his heart. When we see Jones in the film’s third act, he is just devastating to watch as he shows how Clifford knows all too well the damage he has left behind on Earth to where he is uncertain if he can live what he has done.

As serious as “Ad Astra” is, there are moments of levity and sardonic humor throughout as Roy’s arrival on the Moon shows it to have long since been taken over by corporate interests. There are fast food joints like Subway and delivery services like DHL on display, and it makes perfect sense how Roy could fly there only on Virgin Atlantic. Nothing is cheap in space either as a blanket and pillow pack costs $125. Gray’s vision of the future is meant to be one of hope, but I could not help but be reminded of a piece of dialogue from “Fight Club:”

“When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.”

I was also amused to see how “Ad Astra” serves as a “Space Cowboys” reunion of sorts as, in addition to Jones, actors Donald Sutherland and Loren Dean also co-star here. I am almost tempted to call it a sequel to “Space Cowboys” as Jones plays astronauts in both films who end up far, far away from Earth. But while Clint Eastwood and company left him alone previously, now we have a new set of characters determined to find him.

Still, there is something which keeps me from calling “Ad Astra” a masterpiece, and it is a deficit in the human drama department. I am not about to say the human element is weak, but I came out of the theater feeling like it could have been stronger than it was. Perhaps there was a degree of predictability to this film which kept me from being completely enthralled by it. In some ways, it reminded me of “Tron Legacy” as both films deal with a son looking for his father who has long since lost himself in a realm which is not easily reached. As a result, I felt I knew where this story would end up heading, and this blunted the emotional impact to a certain extent.

It is always a bit frustrating when a film comes ever so close to being a masterpiece but does not quite reach that milestone. Regardless, it would be foolish to dismiss “Ad Astra” for its faults as it is still a visual spectacle which demands your attention in a theater with the biggest screen and best sound available. Along with ace cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Max Richter, Gray has crafted a motion picture which makes you believe we can travel farther than we already have. At the same time, he also makes us see how the most valuable things we could ever find in our lives are not an infinite distance away, but in front of our very eyes.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘We Own The Night’ Has Surprises Up Its Sleeve

We Own The Night movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

We Own The Night” was written and directed by James Gray, and this is the first movie of his I have seen. His previous movies include “The Yards” and “Little Odessa,” and looking at the cast and stories behind those two makes me believe he is more drawn to character driven works. Those kinds of movies threaten to be a dying breed in cinema today, and it is nice to see there are some who are determined to see them still make it to the silver screen even as Hollywood is more obsessed about the latest franchise or blockbuster at their disposal.

From the outside, this movie looks like another Cain and Abel story with two brothers on opposite sides of the law. There is Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), an officer of the New York police department who, as the movie begins, is getting a promotion. He is clearly following in his father’s (Robert Duvall) footsteps, as he is also a cop. Then you have Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) who is also a Grusinsky, but he keeps his mother’s maiden name for his own business ventures. Bobby runs a nightclub which is owned by the Russian mafia, and he revels in the partying and drugs which come along with it. He also has a girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), who dotes on him endlessly.

So, the movie starts off as a story where it looks like one of the brothers is going to kill the other one, and I think this is what kept me from rushing out to see it when it arrived in theaters. From what I had seen in the advertisements, it looked like a story I had already seen far too many times before. I was afraid it was going to be “Backdraft” but with cops instead of firemen. But as the movie went on, it took a number of left turns that broke through all the clichés which threatened to stand in its way. Just when you think you know where things are going, it goes in another direction and keeps you guessing as to what will happen next.

Obviously, Gray has seen a lot of movies from this genre, and he is seriously intent on subverting the expectations of the audience throughout. Not to give anything away, but there is a serious event which occurs early on. Preceding that, Joseph leads a narcotics raid on Bobby’s nightclub which completely infuriates and embarrasses Bobby. They end up getting into a physical confrontation the next day and go their separate ways, but then that serious event happens, and it changes everything and everybody. The person it ends up changing the most is Bobby. He ends up putting his life on the line to right the wrongs which have been inflicted upon his family, and soon his job as a nightclub manager becomes almost completely irrelevant. From there, he moves over to the other side of the law. It’s like the scene where Hugo Weaving waves that sword in front of Viggo Mortensen’s face in “The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King” and says, “Become who you were born to be!”

This is a purely character driven movie which treads through very familiar waters of many other movies of this genre. At the same time, everything felt fresh and involving to me. A lot of this is due not just to the writing and direction, but also the actors. Joaquin Phoenix has long since escaped the shadow of his famous brother River (he is still missed), and he continues to give one great performance after another. From “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line” to this, he opens himself up completely on an emotional level which makes him all the braver as an actor. He makes you sympathize with a character who starts off as selfish junkie only interested in his own needs and desires. As the movie goes on, he manages to convince you thoroughly of his desire to do good, and to right the wrongs of his sins.

Mark Wahlberg has also put in some strong performances over the past few years as well. He is a guy who has been on both sides of the law, and he managed to come out of the negative elements in one piece. This is a guy who brings his life experience to each role he plays, and he makes you almost completely forget he was Marky Mark and rocking out with the funky bunch years ago. These days, he is the go-to guy for these kinds of roles, and you never doubt his believability as either a good or bad guy.

Then there is Robert Duvall, and he is an actor who cannot seem to do any wrong, and he still never gives us any less than the best of what he has got. There is a moment in this movie where he reacts to an event which has befallen to one of his sons. His reaction to it is not one which can ever be easily faked. It looks from a distance like what he does is easy to do, but it is not. Trust me, you will know the moment when it comes up.

This movie has a number of very intense moments as Bobby goes deep into undercover work and puts his life on the line without even thinking about the consequences. There are action sequences near the end which prove to be very suspenseful and keep you on edge of your seat. There is also a car chase which, while it may not rank among the best ever, is very well done and expertly staged. Seriously, this motion picture was full of surprises throughout.

“We Own The Night” is not quite a great movie as it does tread familiar ground without adding much freshness to it, but it is very well-conceived to where there is no doubt the amount of thought and time Gray put into its making. It is also a movie which cannot be boiled down into one sentence as the story touches on many themes, and that is one of the highest compliments I can pay to any filmmaker these days.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Noah Segan Talks About Playing Kid Blue in ‘Looper’

Noah Segan in Looper

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

While Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt get top billing in Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” one actor in the cast to keep an eye on is Noah Segan who plays Kid Blue. Segan previously worked with Johnson on “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom,” and it turns out the writer/director wrote the part of Kid Blue with Segan in mind. While his role might seem small, Segan took his time to develop the character, and he is bound to leave a very memorable impression on audiences as a result.

Kid Blue is an assassin like Levitt’s character, and he loves wielding his six shooter which makes him look like a cowboy along the lines of Billy the Kid. While audiences will see Kid Blue as being one of the villains of this film, Segan sees the role a bit differently.

“I play an antagonist, I wouldn’t want to go so far as to call him a villain,” Segan said. “A little spoiler: nobody is that good in this movie. Everybody is some form of bad and has some villainous traits; some for better reasons than others. I would say the easiest comparison is if you’re ready for a cat-and-mouse game between Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, get ready for me to be the bulldog chasing both of them.”

What people will remember best about Kid Blue is how he is always carrying with him an old-fashioned six shooter gun. The character loves to show it off as it makes him look like a bad ass, but he is also famous for accidentally shooting one of his feet off with it. Segan took the time to describe the gun his character loves to wield in more detail.

“The Gatmen Gun, the gun that I use, is a very modern take on another classic weapon: a single-action revolver,” said Segan. “It isn’t a Colt 45, but the same thing that people carried in the Civil War and in the Old West; very elegant, perfectly made revolvers that, in the case of ‘Looper,’ happened to use ammunition usually reserved for big game hunting. Our bullets, that are a .45-70 caliber bullet, are not put into handguns. They’re made for giant rifles that are designed to take trophies home, or shoot at a tank. Rian found this company that makes these sort of novelty, single-action revolvers in this caliber and then had them adjusted for the Gatmen, and had them powder-coated black. In my case, I had mine chromed out with a flat-sight and a wooden grip reminiscent of a western gun that my character would want to use.”

What makes this especially interesting is “Looper” takes place in the year 2044, and yet Kid Blue seems to be stuck in a past which no longer exists. During a press junket for the movie which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, Segan talked of the contrast between the future this character lives in and how he emulates famous ones from history.

“I’m playing someone in the future who is obsessed with the past which is a big theme of the movie overall,” said Segan. “In my case, it’s very aesthetic. Having things you can touch, having blue jeans in the future, having cowboy boots in the future and my revolver in the future, it’s stuff that’s real easy to look at and play with. There’s a scene in the movie where I roll a cigarette with real rolling papers and smoke that. There’s something very tactile and something that almost doesn’t even exist today. It was very helpful, but everything that was there felt that way.”

It also turns out Kid Blue is actually Segan’s nickname in real life. His friend Paul Sado ended up introducing him to a 1973 movie called “Kid Blue” which stars Dennis Hopper, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Lee Purcell, and Peter Boyle. After watching it, Segan said it became his favorite movie.

“There’s humor in the film, but it’s about change. It’s about adulthood and it stuck with me, and people started calling me Kid Blue,” Segan said. “Rian Johnson sent me the first draft of ‘Looper’ years ago. I opened it up and there it was on whatever page – Kid Blue. I called him up, and I said, what’s that? He said, ‘that’s you.’ It really works with this character. It’s a guy who’s sort of a bumbling diligent failure. In ‘Kid Blue,’ Hopper plays that up for comedy, and in ‘Looper,’ I sort of play up for pathos. I’m unimaginably trying to emulate Dennis Hopper.”

Noah Segan proves with his performance in “Looper” how there are no small roles, only small actors. On the surface it might seem like his character of Kid Blue is nothing than a one-dimensional bad guy, but Segan makes him much more than what was on the page. This is a testament to his preparation for the role which was thought out well and very creative. On the basis of his performance, it is certain we can expect many more from Segan in the near future.

SOURCES:

Samuel Zimmerman, “Q&A: Noah Segan on guns, gore and style of ‘Looper,’” Fangoria, September 28, 2012.

“Looper” press junket at Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, September 25, 2012.

Chase Whale, “10 Things ‘Looper’ Star Noah Segan Told Us About ‘Looper’ Star Noah Segan,” Film.com, September 25, 2012.

 

Anna Kendrick on Playing Beca in ‘Pitch Perfect’

Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

She has been a fixture of the “Twilight” movies and got an Oscar nomination for her role in “Up in the Air,” but now Anna Kendrick gets one of her biggest roles to date in the musical comedy film “Pitch Perfect.” In it she plays Beca who aspires to be a famous Los Angeles DJ but is instead made to attend the college her dad teaches at as he does not approve of her career choices. While there, she comes in contact with the school’s all-girl singing group known as The Bellas and in the process becomes its newest member. Kendrick talks about how she went about preparing to play Beca and of what the singing rehearsals were like.

The screenplay for “Pitch Perfect” was written by Kay Cannon, and Kendrick said she found it to be “so unbelievably surprising and subversive.” Just when Kendrick thought she knew where the script was going, Cannon ended up doing something which completely surprised her. When talking about Beca, Kendrick described her as a loner who is the audience surrogate for the craziness which ensues in this movie.

“You get to be kind of repulsed by this aggressively geeky world at the beginning of the movie and then fall in love with it while Beca does,” said Kendrick. “The interesting thing to me about the idea of a character that on paper is supposed to be what really ‘cool’ is, when you bring it to life, breaking her down and making her seem less cool, because that’s when I think the audience really connects with her. I don’t think you can just say, ‘Hey audience, this is a cool character so you’re supposed to like her.’ For me, I fall in love with characters when they’re out of their element or are uncomfortable and you really feel for them in a knee-jerk sympathetic way. So, I had a lot of fun trying to make Beca less cool. It’s fun to take a girl who fancies herself a little bad-ass and kind of embarrass her.”

For Kendrick, the role of Beca also allowed her to revisit her musical theatre days where she started out as an actress. She sang onscreen before in the movie “Camp,” but being the lead in “Pitch Perfect” made her understandably nervous as this was something new for her. Still, her love of singing and dancing made the experience of making this film all the more fun.

“One of the things I was really insistent on was that whenever I’m singing alone in the movie, I’m singing live on set,” Kendrick said. “Because I think something is a little bit lost in the recording studio, and frankly I’m just not good in the recording studio, like I don’t know how to do that. I think I’m just… I’m used to singing in front of people and singing in a recording booth was a little isolating and sterile. So, I was looking forward to the days when I got to sing live. Somebody would just blow a pitch pipe and then I would do the thing.”

Kendrick also confirmed she and the other actresses in “Pitch Perfect” did go through sort of an acapella boot camp, but it wasn’t as bad as it may sound. It consisted of singing rehearsals, and the only real problem after a while was the shoes everyone wears for the performances proved to be very uncomfortable. They were told by the production team how their shoes were “like sneakers,” but Kendrick made it clear “they’re like heels is what they’re like” and everyone ended up getting some serious blisters.

Of course, “Pitch Perfect” did have its drawbacks for Kendrick especially when it came to singing pop songs like “The Sign” by Ace of Base over and over again. After having sung this song so much, she hopes to never hear it again as it now haunts her dreams. She did, however, look at singing Miley Cyrus’ song “Party in the USA” as being important to Beca’s evolution in the film.

“I think that scene was brilliant because it’s such a painfully corny song that Beca should hate, but it’s a telling moment,” Kendrick said. “Is she going to pretend to be too cool for school, or is she going to go along with it and bond with these girls? I love that she’s willing to embarrass herself out of love for these new friends that she has.”

On the surface, “Pitch Perfect” looks to be a sort of “Glee” wannabe and cheesy beyond repair, but so far audiences have fully embraced it as a very entertaining movie. Kendrick has already left us with a number of terrific performances, and her role as Beca is yet another noteworthy addition to a resume which will continue to grow.

SOURCES:

Jen Yamato, “Anna Kendrick On ‘Pitch Perfect,’ Singing Onscreen, And How Being ‘Aggressively Dorky’ Paid Off,” Movieline.com, September 26, 2012.

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Anna Kendrick Talks PITCH PERFECT, Singing Live on Set, Interacting More on Twitter, Her Love of Reddit, and More,” Collider.com, October 5, 2012.

Sharon Knolle, “Anna Kendrick, ‘Pitch Perfect’ Star, On ‘No Diggity,’ ‘Fraggle Rock’ And Ace Of Base,” Moviefone.com, October 4, 2012.

Ewan McGregor on Surviving ‘The Impossible’

Ewan McGregor in The Impossible

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

While we endlessly applaud Naomi Watt’s emotional powerhouse of a performance in J.A. Bayona’sThe Impossible,” there’s no leaving out Ewan McGregor who is every bit as good. McGregor stars as Henry, husband to Watt’s character of Maria and the father of three young boys. After the Thailand beach resort they are staying at is laid waste by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Henry goes on a desperate search for Maria and his eldest son Lucas who are separated from him in its aftermath. McGregor convincingly portrays a man physically and emotionally battered by this horrific tsunami which destroyed thousands of lives, and he gives the movies of 2012 one of its most heartbreaking moments with a cell phone call back home.

I got to catch up with McGregor at the Los Angeles press day for “The Impossible” which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. While there, he said what made him want to do the movie was the script by Sergio G. Sánchez which he described as “an amazing read.”

“I didn’t know that it was a true story when I read it but I was grabbed by how there was something very honest and true about it,” McGregor said. “So, when I found out that it was a true story, it wasn’t a surprise. Some of the lines of dialogue were very extraordinarily accurate and powerful.”

Now whereas Watts got to meet Maria Belon, the tsunami survivor her character was based on, McGregor admitted he did not get to meet his real-life counterpart before shooting began. While this might have put the actor at a disadvantage, he was still able to use his imagination for the role and did get the opportunity to talk to other survivors as well.

McGregor in real life is the father of four girls, and we could not help but wonder if he thought about what he would do if they were caught up in the tsunami. Acting sometimes has you asking questions you may not want to know the answers to, but those questions are still hard to ignore. McGregor’s performance feels so emotionally honest to where it seems like he did ask himself that question, but when we asked him if being a father affected his work here in any way, he made it clear to us what his acting process is.

“Well I suppose you’re always acting from two things: your imagination and your experience in life. But it’s not very nice to think about those things and I tried not to make myself think about my kids because I wouldn’t do that,” McGregor said. “But I had these great little boys, these three fantastic kids that Naomi and I were lucky to work with. I was able to think about them and we created this family that I believed in, and it felt that there was a reality to what we created that I was able to use. I just thought about them really and how desperate it would be to be in that situation.”

Speaking of which, McGregor considers his role in “The Impossible” to be the first film where he explores what it is to be a parent. Now while he may have played a dad in other movies, none of them spring to mind as quickly or are anywhere as memorable as this one. McGregor talked about this in more detail with Damon Wise of The Guardian and told him the only other film he could think of where he played a dad was “Nanny McPhee Returns.”

“I’ve certainly never made a film that felt to me like an exploration of that, of what it means to be a parent and that love you have for your kids,” McGregor told Wise. “This is something I’ve been experiencing for 16 years of my life, and it’s not in my work really anywhere. I thought – albeit a really extreme version of that – it was a nice way to look at that specific and unique love you have for your kids.”

“The Impossible” has been criticized in recent months for focusing more on an English family when the real-life family which inspired this movie was Spanish, and for also leaving the Thai people on the sidelines. Those who have seen the movie, however, can verify this criticism is not true and is deeply unfair to the filmmakers who have made a movie which is actually about many families and not just one. McGregor, in his conversation with Wise, was not the least bit surprised by this criticism and went on to describe it as being “not very clever.”

“The truth is it’s a story about this family, this western family, who are on holiday there. And that story is many, many people’s story,” McGregor explained. “But to say that it doesn’t tell the Thai people’s stories … Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her. It’s one of the most moving scenes in the film, really. In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping. Most of the survivors we spoke to had nothing but amazing things to say about the Thai response to the tsunami, in that they mobilized themselves very quickly.”

Ewan McGregor’s defense of “The Impossible” speaks volume of how emotionally involved he became with the film’s story, and it resulted in one of the very best performances he has given to date. Whether or not he gets serious Oscar consideration for his work, you will never be able to forget the impact he has on you here. And once again, the scene where he’s on the cell phone will break your heart.

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview With Ewan McGregor On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.

Damon Wise, “Ewan McGregor: ‘The Impossible is my first film about being a parent,'” The Guardian, December 27, 2012.