Terrence Howard On His Future As An Actor and ‘Dead Man Down’

Dead Man Down Terrence Howard photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place in 2013.

It was so infinitely cool to hang out with actor Terrence Howard during the Los Angeles press day for “Dead Man Down.” Hearing him speak was endlessly fascinating because, on top of being an actor, he is also very knowledgeable on the subjects of science and the Bible, and his intelligence has led him to make a number of interesting choices in the roles he has played. Throughout the interview, he talked about how he chose to portray crime lord Alphonse Hoyt and what the future holds for him as an actor.

Now when you hear about crime lords in movies, you usually expect actors to give scenery-chewing performances which are way over the top. But at the same time, many actors fall into the trap of making these characters seem like comic book characters as opposed to fully developed human beings. The beauty of Howard’s performance in “Dead Man Down” was that it was never over the top, and he allowed himself to portray Alphonse in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In his conversations with the film’s director Niels Arden Oplev (who made the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“), Howard came to realize he wouldn’t be playing the same old crime lord we have become all too familiar with.

Terrence Howard: That man (Oplev) told me, “I’m going to change your life. I’m going to make you a bad guy that nobody has ever seen before,” and he gave me all the tools necessary to accomplish it. I think he’s a genius for that. What he did in creating these characters where all of them were compromised from the start was a beautiful, beautiful thing. There’s no good guy, there’s no bad guy in the movie. Everyone makes a crucial mistake in trying to make you pay for what you did yesterday with the resources of today.

Having seen “Dead Man Down,” I couldn’t agree with him more. Alphonse Hoyt is a bad guy, but he is also a very complex character who cannot be dismissed as a one-dimensional villain. Even the characters played by Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace are in a morally gray area as they have suffered tragedies in their own lives and are out to get revenge in the worst way possible. Howard compared the characters to another movie he co-starred in.

TH: It’s like “Crash;” everyone was a bad guy somewhere along the way. Even Ryan Phillippe’s character, who was the good guy, ends up doing something terrible at the end of it. I think that’s what cinema’s about. it’s supposed to teach you about humanity and the choices that we’re making whether it’s good or bad, and the audience can watch and hopefully gain some type of understanding of how to place the stumbling blocks of yesterday in a way on the path that they become stepping stones for those that will follow us. We are all still one person even though we see each other as separate individuals.

During the interview, Howard made it very clear to us that Alphonse was not born a bad guy. While his character leads a life of crime, we come to understand he never meant to go down the dark path that he did. This may not make any of his deeds in “Dead Man Down” forgivable, but it helps us to understand where he came from. Howard talked about how he saw the character at length and how his own personal experiences came to inform his performance.

TH: He (Alphonse) wanted to fit into society. Now mind you, he was part of a disenfranchised social group as a young black man, and in being a light-skinned black man growing up in the 70’s, black people didn’t appreciate him and didn’t like him and white people didn’t like him. When I was a kid, I was called a no nation motherfucker because I couldn’t hang out with black people and I couldn’t hang out with white people, so I had to find some type of foundation within my own family group. When I went down to Brazil, I found my family because everybody looks like me there. My character just wants to be accepted; he wants to be respected. He’s like Michael Corleone who said, “I tell you within five years we are going to be complete and above board. Just give us those five years and all of the businesses are going to be respectable.” That’s what he’s hoping, but Michael Corleone was never able to achieve that because you cannot gain peace by creating problems for someone else.

It’s natural I suppose to assume Howard based his character on another crime lord or that he did research on kingpins from history, but he actually found inspirations from other surprising sources. Among them were a story by writer Khalil Gibran and the story of King Saul and of how he had been anointed to become the King of Israel but was later denied this honor.

TH: When King Saul thought too much of himself and began to break God’s laws, King Saul had the kingdom ripped away from him. Now instead of accepting that and repenting, he fought against the anointed of Jehovah in fighting David, and therefore he had this evil spirit that was always following him, and he knew that he was going to fall and lose his place. That’s a hard place to exist in. But then Khalil Gibran told this story about the criminal, and in the story of the criminal was a young man strong of body and nature who had gone and knocked on the doors to go to work, but people told him ‘well you need education’ and they closed the doors. So, he went to the schools and they said well, you need money, and therefore he went out to beg and they said you’re a strong man, you’re lazy. So, he ended up on the top of a mountain and he looks down and is angry in his heart, and at that moment a lightning bolt strikes a tree and this club falls on him. He’s angry at God and he raises a club and says, “I asked and it was not given. Now I shall take with the strength of my arm,” and he then descended into that city and became the most notorious criminal of all time. Then two years later, a new Amir took over the city and made him the chief of his army and they dominated and desolated that city, and Khalil Gibran made a beautiful commentary that “of good men do we turn criminals out of our inhumanity towards each other. So, it was a combination of those things and a little bit of King Ahab because he refused to take direction from Jehovah also. There’s a lot of people that made Alphonse.

There are rumors Howard is thinking about retiring from acting, and this is a surprise because he still looks like he has many great performances left to give. He did not say he was going to retire, but I quickly came to respect his reasons for why he is considering it. Howard did not set out to be an actor for fame, wealth and glory, but instead to better himself as a person.

TH: I had a conversation with Sidney Poitier where I asked him, are you gonna do another movie? And he said, “No I don’t want to do an impersonation of myself anymore.” I may have 10 years left in my life and I don’t want to waste it doing something I’ve done before. If I can’t learn from a character, if I’m just going in and taking from a bag of tricks and choices, I don’t want to do it. It’s pointless for me because I have to grow as a human being and I don’t want the safe road. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed working as a chemical engineer for New York when I graduated college. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed in Cleveland, Ohio and been a contractor. I think I have greater things that I can contribute to the world of education and science than just as an actor. Now acting pays a lot, but I feel like I’m walking on water for tips as an actor because I know how to do it. I want to achieve my purpose as a human being and the reason I was put on this planet, so I will follow the course. As a sperm, if I knew which way to go and knew how to do it, I wouldn’t have gotten there because I would’ve been bored with it. But because I didn’t know where I had to go and I had to trust my instincts, I beat a half billion of my own brothers and sisters and hijacked my mother’s body and Terrence Howard has come to be. I like following the river as it flows.

Well, here’s hoping Terrence Howard doesn’t retire from acting for a very long time. While there is no doubt as to how smart a human being he is and of how much he can give in other areas of life, he continues to give one great performance after another. Howard also infuses each role he takes on with a strong intelligence, and it was endlessly fascinating to hear him talk about the things he knows as well as his role in “Dead Man Down.”

Advertisements

Thomas Jane on Playing Todd Parker in ‘Boogie Nights’

Boogie Nights Thomas Jane photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This is from a Q&A which took place on October 5, 2012.

Actor Thomas Jane was excited to be a guest at New Beverly Cinema as the theater presented the first day of their Paul Thomas Anderson movie marathon. One of the movie’s being shown this evening was “Boogie Nights” which served as Jane’s big acting breakthrough, and in it he plays dancer Todd Parker who becomes a dangerous friend to the characters played by Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly. During a Q&A which was moderated by Brian McQuery, Jane talked about how he prepared to play Todd and of what it was like working with Anderson.

One audience member asked Jane if he prepared a certain voice or walk for when he played Todd, and he replied he usually took the script for “Boogie Nights” to this theater he was working out of in Los Angeles where he could get his fellow actors to play all the other parts. It was there where Jane did a lot of experimentation which led him giving the role his own interpretation.

“I’d bring in funny glasses, do my hair crazy and try all this different stuff like bringing in a flowered shirt to wear,” Jane said. “I didn’t have any clue about who this guy was. I just knew that I was trying to find him, and then it just clicked in one day. I think it was the voice and just doing the scenes in my little theater off of Hyperion and Melrose. The first thing I found as an actor was the way Todd talked, and once I found that then everything else happened with the role.”

Jane first heard about “Boogie Nights” from casting director Christine Sheaks who had sent him the script which she said was “pretty amazing.” Upon reading the scene where Todd, along with Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild, go to rob a drug dealer, Jane said he was especially interested in playing Todd. Then, after doing an improvisation with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in front of Anderson which lasted about fifteen minutes, he was cast in the role.

Looking back at shoot, Jane recollected much of what went on was improvised on set, and he attributed it to Anderson’s jazz-like direction.

“One thing that’s notable about the way Paul Thomas Anderson works is the freedom he gives to his actors,” Jane said. “We did have lines to say and stuff, but if you had an idea at the moment or a line to throw in or if something happens by mistake, he always encouraged that spontaneity and that freedom. That was what was so fun about working on ‘Boogie Nights.'”

When asked if he had any stories about the actors he worked with, Jane came up with a great one about Burt Reynolds. He talked about the scene where Wahlberg gets into a fight with Reynolds over wanting to shoot his sex scene now instead of later, and Anderson told Jane to fuck with Reynolds and “get in his face” once Wahlberg ran away. So, Jane started messing with Reynolds like Anderson asked him to and even pushed him, and Reynolds ended up kicking Jane right in the nuts.

“He thought the take was over and I was some punk actor getting in his face,” Jane said of Reynolds. “Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t tell Burt Reynolds that we were doing a little improvisation after the scene was over! To his (Reynold’s) credit, he gave me a bottle of champagne in my trailer the next day and he actually turned out to be really cool.”

There was also a lot of talk about the scene at the drug dealer’s house when Cosmo kept throwing fire crackers all over the place. It turns out the actor playing Cosmo was actually a friend of Anderson’s, and the fire crackers were not originally in the script. However, it got Anderson the reactions he wanted so he just put it into the movie. But since the scene was shot over several days, Anderson had to find other ways to keep the actors on their feet.

“The first day was all fire crackers, but then we had to recreate that over the next three days,” Jane said. “After the first twenty or thirty fire crackers go off you’re kind of over it, but then you can’t hear anymore. So, Paul brought a starting pistol in and he used a starting pistol for a while and then that got old. I remember he brought in a big couple of boards and was whacking those together. That was a brilliant scene because all that stuff made the tension so high.”

Thomas Jane has come a long way from his hungry days as an actor, and seeing him strut his way onto the screen in “Boogie Nights” showed us a star had arrived. For him, talking about this movie at New Beverly Cinema was very special as he said he got his film education there. He also remembered when Sherman Torgan was running the theater back then and of how he let Jane in for free, and that popcorn and candy bars served as his nightly dinner for a time.

Jane has since moved on from “Boogie Nights” to make a successful acting career for himself, and he still has many great performances left to give.

Dwayne Johnson on Getting Pumped Up for ‘Pain & Gain’

Pain and Gain Dwayne Johnson

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

Many like to laugh at athletes who decide to try acting because while they may excel in their chosen sport, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be equally successful on stage and screen. Dwayne Johnson, however, has proven to be an exception as he keeps getting better and better with each movie he appears in. In “The Scorpion King,” he proved to have a strong screen presence which would serve him well in future movies like “The Rundown” and “Fast Five,” and he gave one of his best performances to date in “Snitch” as John Matthews, a father who goes undercover for the DEA so he can get his son out of prison. Now he stars in “Pain & Gain,” Michael Bay’s action comedy based on the Miami New Times articles about the Sun Gym Gang who kidnapped a rich businessman in the hopes of extorting him for money so they could live the American dream.

Johnson plays Paul Doyle, an ex-con who has clearly spent hours upon hours in the prison gym. A former drug addict, Doyle has since become a born-again Christian who yearns to do good in life. Still, when his friend Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) comes to him with a plan to kidnap spoiled rotten businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), Doyle cannot resist the pull towards a life of crime.

“Pain & Gain” plays around with Johnson’s image as a bodybuilder, but in an interview with Erin O’Sullivan of Yahoo Movies, he explained there was something more than the physical training which made him want to play this character.

“I was really fortunate because I was coming off of ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation,’ and I was coming off of ‘Fast & Furious’ at that time too. So, a lot of those projects supported and fostered the type of training I was doing,” Johnson told O’Sullivan. “The biggest thing with a movie like this — the biggest departure (for me) was the vulnerability and showing this type of vulnerability, and playing a character who is easily influenced and who’s just out of prison and looking for salvation.”

The movie has garnered quite a bit of controversy as it is said to be based on a true story which involved a brutal kidnapping, torture and murder. The survivors of the Sun Gym Gang’s crimes have been very open about their opposition to “Pain & Gain” as they don’t want the audience to sympathize with the characters played by Johnson, Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie as they are all based on real life killers. None of this was lost on Johnson who told Colin Covert of the Star Tribune he said a prayer every day for the victims of the gang’s crimes and explained how the story hit close to home for him as he lives in Miami where the crimes took place.

“The story rocked our city. It was a crazy time for us down there then. It’s painful for many people to remember it even to this day,” Johnson told Covert. “It’s been a passion project of Michael Bay’s for years, and he had a very clear idea of how to present it; a kind of ‘Pulp Fiction-y,’ fast-moving version that shows what boneheads these criminals actually were. Of course, whenever there is a story based on actual crimes, you have a responsibility to tell it in a way that’s respectful, we were fully aware of that.”

Now you’d think after doing several action movies in a row that Johnson would have all of the muscle and physical training he’d ever need, but even on a movie like “Pain & Gain” which cost only $25 million to make (way below the budgets of Bay’s “Transformers” movies), the actor and pro-wrestler still had a strict training regimen to follow. Johnson discussed his training schedule with the website Bodybuilding.com, and it makes you wonder how he found any free time to work out.

“My routine for this film was training six times per week with George Farah (an IFBB professional bodybuilder and trainer). Many people who go on Bodybuilding.com know who my strength and conditioning coach is. I also have a training coach in Dave Ramsey,” Johnson told the website. “This was a hell of a prep. For a movie like this, that revolves around the world of bodybuilding and the culture of bodybuilding-that we love, by the way, and that we grew up on-the prep was a good 8-10 weeks, six workouts per week, training twice per day. I did my cardio in the morning.”

According to USA Today, Johnson added 12 to 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot 4-inch body, and he maxed out at 250 pounds. As a result, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that he recently had emergency hernia surgery even though it was attributed to the WWE match he wrestled in last month. To all this, Johnson said the following:

“When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. When you’re older, you have to start listening to your body.”

Over the past few years, Dwayne Johnson has proved he can handle comedy, drama and action with equal success, and he’s become one of the true bona fide action stars in movies today. We look forward to seeing him again in “Fast & Furious 6” as Luke Hobbs, and he also has “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” to look forward to as well. At this point there should be no doubt, for an athlete turned actor, that Johnson is the real deal.

SOURCES:

Erin O’Sullivan, “‘Pain & Gain:’ Mark Wahlberg & Dwayne Johnson Talk Bulking Up for Action Movie,” Yahoo Movies, April 20, 2013.

Colin Covert, “Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson talk about new Michael Bay movie ‘Pain & Gain,'” Star Tribune, April 24, 2013.

‘Pain & Gain’ Exclusive with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson,” Bodybuilding.com, April 22, 2013.

Bryan Alexander, “Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg pumped for ‘Pain & Gain,'” USA Today, April 25, 2013.

‘Private Eyes’ by Hall & Oates – My First Vinyl Album

Private Eyes album cover

Hall & Oates’ 1981 album “Private Eyes” was actually the first vinyl record I ever got which I could call my own. Years ago, my mother offered to buy me and my brother one vinyl record each, and we were both really excited at the prospect of having one of our own since our parents owned several dozens of them, many of them by Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles (they have great taste in music). I don’t remember exactly why my mom did this. Maybe we were well behaved or something (a rarity for the two of us as kids).

Anyway, my brother got this KTEL album (remember those?) called “Radioactive‘ which featured popular songs of the moment from Devo (their cover of “Working in a Coalmine” is one of my favorites), REO Speedwagon, Rick Springfield and Blondie among others. “Radioactive” was the equivalent of those “Now That’s Music” CD’s which get released every other month, but the music on this particular album was excellent and never groan inducing, and it was a good selection by my older brother.

But for me, my choice was clear from the start, and it represents one of my most decisive decisions at a video or music store.

I first got exposed to “Private Eyes” when I was in Kindergarten thanks to my friend Matthew who lived down the street from me in Marietta, Georgia. Matthew had the album on cassette and we kept listening to the title track endlessly, and when those claps came into play, I made it look like I was punching myself. This made the two of us laugh hysterically, and we didn’t listen to much else on the album at the time. That one song seemed to be enough for the two of us.

But later, we started to listen to “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” which I had heard on the radio, but I didn’t realize right away it was also on the “Private Eyes” album. Cool, I thought, this tape must have a lot of good songs on it. Sure enough, it did! Just before I got the album on vinyl, “Did It in A Minute” became Hall & Oates’ latest hit song. Getting “Private Eyes” at that point seemed like a do or die mission in retrospect. Come to think of it, it was!

I still have a lot of memories from listening to this definitive Hall & Oates album after all these years. My brother and I were dancing without a care to these songs, especially to “Did It in a Minute.” This was back before we both became saddled with those inhibitions which more or less came to define the adults we are today. Sometime later, my family moved from Marietta, Georgia to Thousand Oaks, California, and “Your Imagination” started playing on KIIS FM, back when Rick Dees was the morning disc jockey. I thought it was a very cool song, and I later realized it was also on the “Private Eyes” album as well. For me, this album now seemed so magical because it had so many great songs on it, and if there was a song I heard on the radio which I liked, it had to be from this album!

“Private Eyes” was just an infinitely fun album to listen to, and this is still the case more than 30 years after its release. It is one of several records from the 1980’s I can never get sick of listening to, and it always brightens my mood whenever I put it on. Hall & Oates went on to become a dominant musical duo during the 80’s with this album as well as “H2O” and “Big Bam Boom,” but neither of those albums, despite having some awesome tracks, could hold up as well as “Private Eyes” did.

Of all the songs here, I still think the best one is “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” While the other songs might seem stylistically dated, this one feels timeless and could fit in with the music of today. For a time, it was the ring tone on my cell phone, and when went off in the office I used to work in, a fellow colleague remarked about how Hall & Oates once auditioned for Smokey Robinson. Robinson ended up not hiring the duo, and he later admitted it was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

Of course, I don’t want to leave out other songs like “Did It in a Minute” which ends the first side of the record. A great up-tempo song, it was one which got me really excited about life when I listened to it (I was 5 or 6 at the time, so what did I know?). Going onto the second side, we have “Head Above the Water” which proves to be an appropriate selection to listen to during aerobic exercises. Lesser known songs like “Tell Me What You Want” and “Some Men” resonated strongly for me even when I didn’t understand the lyrics. Then again, it took me a long, long, long time after the first grade to really pay attention to a song’s lyrics. The music itself was all that mattered to me at the time.

I always kept wondering about John Oates though. Daryl Hall was always the most prominent of the duo, and John seemed to be there mostly as backup. I wonder if Mr. Oates ever got seriously resentful of Mr. Hall in a “Fatal Attraction” kind of way. But they are still together, so I guess it never got quite that bad. John, however, proved he is every bit as good a singer on songs like “Mano a Mano” and “Friday Let Me Down,” a song title which would have a depressing significance on me during my adolescent years. It didn’t even matter how I had no idea what “Mano a Mano” meant (it would be several years before I took my first Spanish class) because the song itself has a catchy rhythm which every decent 80’s song needed to have.

It should also be noted how Hall & Oates were a big hit on the R&B charts with their music back then, and this was a rare feat displayed by what some would call a “white act.” While many of us today may laugh at white people doing what others simply saw as “black music,” this musical duo was never seen as a joke, and they were respectful of the influences which inspired their musical choices. The song “Looking for a Good Sign” was actually dedicated to the original lineup of The Temptations, a huge influence on their work. The duo would later perform with two of the vocalists from The Temptations on the “Live at The Apollo” album.

“Private Eyes” is not an album with any big theme to hold all these songs together. It is not a concept album like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” an album which took me many years to fully appreciate. In the end, “Private Eyes” is still an endlessly entertaining album which can never be construed as boring, and it holds up really well. I still love listening to this album to this very day, and it remains one of my favorite albums of all time. Considering how it was my first vinyl record, it will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Years later, I did purchase the remastered CD of “Private Eyes, but I do still have the original vinyl record in my possession. Believe me, I will never get rid of it. Ever.

 

Music Review: ‘Houses of the Holy’ by Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy album cover

With “Houses of the Holy“, Led Zeppelin gave the world one of its greatest albums. Filled with a variety of unforgettable songs, it takes you on a musical journey which very few albums are able to do these days. It’s also the first album which they did not name after themselves, a curious habit Peter Gabriel picked up on when it came to naming his first three solo albums. It also captures the band at a key turning point where they began experimenting with sound designs which they used to great effect here and on future releases.

This sound experimentation is immediately apparent on the album’s first track “The Song Remains the Same”. Listening to it, you might think Jimmy Page was playing three guitars at once and using his toes to play at least one of them. Either that or he’s riffing off on his double-necked Gibson guitar. The song’s title is indeed ironic because even if this one does remain the same, nothing the band has done previously can easily compare. You can feel Page’s excitement as he layers one of his guitar licks on top of another as he creates rapturous dimensions which surround Robert Plant’s passionate vocals.

The other great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is it has the band exploring a variety of musical styles. Most of their albums up to this point were inspired by blues music, and with this one they almost leave that genre completely in the dust.

The second track, “The Rain Song,” has them playing one of their many great love ballads. Then there’s “The Crunge” which has them grooving obsessively to the funkiest beat imaginable, and it’s one of their most entertaining tracks as well as the kind you never want to end even if Plant never finds “that confounded bridge”. Along with the band exploring reggae music with “D’yer Mak’er” and even experimenting with doo-wop on the last track, “The Ocean”, you can tell every band member had the greatest time recording this album.

Some of the best Led Zeppelin songs have the listener feeling like they are on a journey, and this is definitely the case with “Over the Hills and Far Away” which makes you want to run through the fields. Plant is at his most beautiful here vocally as Page eases us in with his acoustic guitar before throttling into gear with an electric one. This is one of the musical numbers you feel like you are flying high in the sky more than anything else.

But the great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is how each band member make their unique contributions really stand out. When people think of the band, Page and Plant are the first people who come to mind. But then there’s the late great John Bonham who remains unrivaled as the greatest drummer ever, and I still cannot think of another who can match his genius. John Paul Jones never seems to get the same amount of respect as everyone else, and this is a shame as his bass playing here is what really drives the power of these songs, and the riffs he pulls off are truly thrilling.

With “The Crunge” and “The Ocean”, you can feel each band member coming together as one. No single person steals the show from the other on “Houses of the Holy,” and realizing this makes this album all the more enjoyable. Everyone here is on the same page (no pun intended) when it comes to their individual contributions, and you can feel the band’s joy as they perform the music.

Years after its release, “Houses of the Holy” continues to find new generations of listeners who love the music as much as we do, and Led Zeppelin continues to outlast the musical fads Beck sang about in “The New Pollution.” As much as fans want to see the surviving members reunite for another world tour, they don’t need to as their music remains as popular as ever. With this particular classic album, Led Zeppelin expresses an eagerness to stretch beyond their safety zone and explore avenues of creativity they had not previously tapped. It remains one of their best efforts, and there is no doubt future generations will come to love it as much as we do.

‘Dark Phoenix’ is the Worst ‘X-Men’ Movie Yet

Dark Phoenix movie poster

“X-Men: The Last Stand” has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the “X-Men” franchise. The Brett Ratner-directed take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was sharply criticized by both fans and critics, and it took quite the beating from everyone it seemed including Bryan Singer who left the “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” and Matthew Vaughn who was set to direct this one before dropping out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” helped wipe the slate clean by altering the timeline to where the events of “The Last Stand” no longer existed. And let’s not forget the scene from “X-Men: Apocalypse” where characters were walking out of “Return of the Jedi” which they felt paled in comparison to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Jean Grey ends up saying, “Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” Please do not try to convince me this was not a jab at “The Last Stand.”

Now we have “Dark Phoenix,” the twelfth installment of the “X-Men” franchise, and it aims to give audiences a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It also marks the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a long-time screenwriter in this franchise and someone eager to make up for the mistakes made in “The Last Stand.” With this being the last installment of the 20th Century Fox-produced “X-Men” franchise now that Disney owns Fox and plans to incorporate these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has to be the penultimate sequel of the bunch, right?

Nope, not a chance. With “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg has given us the worst “X-Men” movie yet. While has a strong cast and excellent special effects to work with, the narrative is badly conceived, the screenplay is muddled, characters actions are ill-defined, and it features the blandest set of villains this franchise has ever had. While these movies have in general proven to be tremendously entertaining, I walked out of this one feeling very indifferent to it as the whole project feels inescapably dull and anti-climatic.

It’s a real shame because “Dark Phoenix” gets things off to a good start as we learn how Jean Grey came to be more or less adopted by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her mutant powers inadvertently get her parents killed in a nasty car accident. From there, the story moves to 1992 when the X-Men fly into outer space to rescue astronauts after their space shuttle is damaged by a solar flare. But in the process, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) absorbs the solar flare in her body and looks to have been killed. But after being rescued, she appears to be just fine, and soon she realizes her psychic powers have been amplified to an infinite degree. It’s like the scene in “Wolf” where Kate Nelligan wakes up Jack Nicholson after he’s been asleep for 24 hours. She asks how he is feeling and Nicholson, with a Cheshire cat grin, replies, “I feel ah… Good!” Yes, and so does Jean until the two separate personalities within her begin to fight with one another and leave a lot of damage which will have insurance agents scratching their heads in disbelief.

From there, everything in “Dark Phoenix” feels routine to the point where I got increasingly weary while watching it. We have been done this road before in the “X-Men” franchise before, and Kinberg fails to bring anything new or fresh to this material. This installment also lacks the powerful emotion which made the best “X-Men” even more enthralling than they already were. A major mutant character is killed off in this one, but this death was already spoiled in the trailers to where the loss feels hollow.

Jennifer Lawrence, who returns as Mystique, does have one good scene in which she chews out Professor Charles Xavier for getting caught up in all the celebrity hoopla foisted upon the X-Men for their heroic efforts they have done. She is quick to remind Charles how the women have at times been the most heroic of the bunch to where she wonders if X-Men should instead be called X-Women. Yes, score one for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements!

Other than that, Lawrence and other actors like Nicholas Hoult and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom return as Beast and Storm, don’t look terribly interested in reprising their roles. Things get even worse as alliances keep shifting back and forth and in ways which seem completely contrived. There was also plenty of laughter throughout the press screening I attended, and I have no doubt most of it was unintentional.

Then there are the villains of this piece, the D’Bari who are a shape-shifting alien race intent on obtaining the power Jean Grey now has. They are led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, completely wasted here), and they are some of the most banal antagonists in recent cinema history. All of them look as though the life has been completely sucked out of their bodies to where I can’t help but say they each had too many Botox treatments. This alien race leaves very little to the imagination, and they are far from memorable.

Coming out of “Dark Phoenix,” I spent a lot of time wondering how something which came with a lot of promise could have gone so terribly wrong. It also makes me feel sorry for Kinberg as I have no doubt he came into this project with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is always paved with them. Everything here feels very tired and ill-thought, and having Magneto (Michael Fassbender) come back into the action after someone close to him has been killed made my eyes roll as this has always been the case with this character. Didn’t Magneto learn anything from the previous two installments?

What also infuriated me is that “Dark Phoenix” does not provide Quicksilver (Evan Peters) with a rescue scene set to a classic 1990’s song. “Days of Future Past” had this supersonic character saving his fellow mutants to the 1970’s song “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, and “Apocalypse” had him doing the same thing to the tune of the Eurythmics’ 1980’s classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I came into “Dark Phoenix” expecting Quicksilver to do his hypersonic rescue thing to a 1990’s classic song, but no such luck. It could have been something by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or perhaps Nine Inch Nails (“Head Like a Hole” would have been a great choice). Heck, they could have even used “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg.

It’s no secret of how troubled the production of “Dark Phoenix” was. Thanks to poor test screenings, the entire third act had to be reshot. Its release was delayed a number of times as a result, and even though Kinberg describe the reshoots as being a “normal” process for any movie, none of them helped to salvage the cinematic mess we have here.

This is also the first “X-Men” movie not to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as he had played the character for the last time in “Logan.” Indeed, Wolverine is the missing link here as his romance with Jean Grey gave the story much of its emotional power. This same level emotion is seriously missing here as we reach a conclusion which is never really in doubt. Then again, having Jackman romancing Sophie Turner would have seemed a bit strange.

For the record, I liked “The Last Stand,” but I have also never read the Marvel comic books it was based on. Had I done so, perhaps my feelings on Ratner’s film would have been different, but I still found it to be an entertaining ride from start to finish and with emotion to spare. Even if it paled in comparison with the first two “X-Men” movies, it still fared much better than the prequel which came after it “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and I did not care for that one much. While I know fans and filmmakers were eager to see a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” come to fruition, the fact this is a complete failure makes it a stunning disappointment and the first real letdown of the summer 2019 movie season. Fans of the franchise will still go out to see “Dark Phoenix,” but the most fun they will have is in analyzing everything wrong with it.

My only hope with “Dark Phoenix” now is that it can drum up interest in the long-delayed stand-alone “X-Men” movie, “The New Mutants.” That one has seen its release delayed for over two years, and 20th Century Fox can only hide it next to the Lindberg baby for only so much longer.

* ½ out of * * * *

Olga Kurylenko Talks About Losing Herself in Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’

 

To The Wonder Olga Kurylenko

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

While former Bond woman Olga Kurylenko gave a compelling performance in “Oblivion,” she gives an even greater one in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.” As Marina, a European woman who moves with her American boyfriend Neil (Ben Affleck) to Oklahoma, she is fascinating to watch as she goes from being deliriously happy in love to becoming emotionally devastated when their relationship turns sour. Seeing her dance her way through a sterile drug store to becoming so upset at how bad things get makes you see what she is capable of as an actress.

Going from a big budget science fiction film like “Oblivion” to a low budget “art film” like “To the Wonder” was clearly a study in contrasts for Kurylenko, and she joked about how she at least had a trailer on the set of “Oblivion.” She went out of her way to discuss the differences between the two films to Sheila Roberts of Collider while at the “Oblivion” press conference, and it’s one of the few instances where we get a good look at how the secretive and elusive Malick works with his actors.

“It was very different. They couldn’t be further apart from each other,” Kurylenko said of “Oblivion” and “To the Wonder.” “In Malick’s film, for example, there was no script and that’s the difference. Here, with ‘Oblivion,’ the script was very detailed and very precise. The way Malick worked with us, he never rehearsed, and he was actually against any rehearsal.”

“Malick just throws actors in, but there is a backstory and again lots of conversations,” Kurylenko continued. “The way I built my character was by talking with Terrence all the time. We just spoke, spoke, spoke. I had a little homework to do before I started the movie. I had to read three Russian novels: ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘The Idiot’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ Those are very tiny little novels (laughs). After that, I didn’t really need to read a screenplay. We just spoke. There were discussions about what I drew from the books, how we can compose the character, what similarities there are between Marina and different female characters in those books, and that’s how the character was born. It was a mixture of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Terrence Malick.”

Kurylenko describes working with Malick on “To the Wonder” in even greater detail in an article she wrote which appears on the Black Book website. In the article, she makes her experience seem incredibly vivid as she describes how free spirited she became while on set. Once she and Malick had their discussions about the character, he let her run wild and encouraged her to find that elusive thing he called “the Wonder.” What is “the Wonder?” Well it sounds like the deep fascination we have with the ways of nature, and we constantly lose our fascination with that in our busy lives and continued dependence on technology. Anyway, from what Kurylenko wrote, it sounds like she was both eager and ever so desperate to find it.

“Terry smiles and I jump, twirl, run, and jump again,” Kurylenko wrote. “He claps, ‘more, more, more, like a rabbit!’ But then the Wonder suddenly goes missing. I scream and run into the house-throwing things, breaking things. It rains pretzels and cereal and there are more screams, but now they’re not mine, they’re Neil’s, and I’m laughing wildly and crying-my Marina is hysterical, unstable. I collapse on the floor and I wipe my tears from his shoes and kiss them. I ask, ‘Why do I do this? I want to be good, so good, but sometimes I suddenly feel possessed.’ And I beg forgiveness.”

“I receive pages every morning, sometimes ten, sometimes more,” Kurylenko continued. “They’re not exactly a script. Whether one exists or not is a complete mystery, but the words are (excuse my poeticism) rather like a breakfast for the soul. And every morning it’s a feast! If I digest the sense of what the pages contain, the nature of Terry’s words will shine through my eyes while we’re filming, and I won’t even need to speak. Every sentence is filled with such deep knowledge of the soul.”

One great thing I learned while looking into the making of “To the Wonder” was how Kurylenko always stayed in character even when the cameras were not rolling. Some actors believe their work stops when they have no lines of dialogue to speak or when the camera isn’t focusing on them, but any great acting teacher will tell you your work never stops even when the day is done. Kurylenko understands this perfectly, and she told Liz Braun of The Toronto Sun how this made “To the Wonder” more physically challenging for her than “Oblivion.”

“It was exhausting, because I was the character even when the camera didn’t film me — you have to be with Terrence because you never know when he’s filming you, and he doesn’t like rehearsals,” Kurylenko told Braun. “Terrence is someone I utterly admire and love. I trusted him completely, because he made me do somewhat ridiculous stuff. I never said no. I did everything, and I was dancing, moving through nature, walking constantly.”

While it may seem inconvenient for Olga Kurylenko to have two movies out at the same time as one might bury the other at the box office, the upside is both of them show the range she has as an actress. We cannot deny Kurylenko is a very talented actress, and it will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. Her role in “To the Wonder” might be a once in a lifetime opportunity, but hopefully more of those opportunities will come her way very soon.

SOURCES:

Sheila Roberts, “Olga Kurylenko Talks OBLIVION, Flying the Bubbleship, How Her Bond Experience Helped Her with Action, and More,” Collider, April 13, 2013.

Olga Kurylenko, “Olga Kurylenko on Terrence Malick and Filming ‘To the Wonder’-In Her Own Words,” Black Book, April 11, 2013.

Liz Braun, “Olga Kurylenko compares ‘Oblivion’ and ‘To the Wonder,'” The Toronto Sun, April 17, 2013.

 

 

Music Review: ‘If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It’ by AC/DC

ACDC If You Want Blood Youve Got It cover

While it may be more fun to watch them in concert, AC/DC’s first live album, “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It,” will still have music fans grooving to the relentless beats of this infamous Australian hard rock band. The album cover shows Angus Young impaled by his own guitar while original lead singer Bon Scott stands behind him with an incredibly demonic look on his face. It’s their ever so subtle way of telling the listener they are about to hear some nasty rock and roll their parents don’t approve of, and they ain’t about to apologize for that in the slightest.

This album was recorded while the band was on their “Powerage” Tour back in 1978, and it captures them as they begin to find an audience outside of their native Australia. Included on it are songs from “High Voltage,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Let There Be Rock” and, of course, “Powerage.” Things get off to a fantastic start with “Riff Raff” as Angus commands the audience’s attention with his lightning quick guitar licks. The listener will be unable to keep his or her feet still while listening to it.

Angus, one of the greatest rock guitarists ever, makes himself known with his amazing solos on songs like “The Jack” which captures the band’s love of blues music. By the time he gets to “Let There Be Rock,” one can’t help but wonder how he finds the energy to keep going full throttle without breaking any strings on his guitar. Listening to him play away is thrilling, and it’s easy to believe he could pluck away at any six-string guitar ever given to him even while he sleeps. There’s no getting sick of his amazing talent.

But the other band member who deserves as much attention here is the late Bon Scott. Scott sounds magnetic as he holds his own with Angus and the rest of the band. This was his next to last album with AC/DC (the last being “Highway to Hell”) before his tragic death in 1980. With all due respect to Brian Johnson who took over lead vocals when the band recorded “Back In Black,” Scott had a better vocal range and always sounded like he was having the time of his life onstage while singing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation” or getting the audience to chant “HIGH” during the band’s performance of “High Voltage.”

The rest of AC/DC makes their presence known as well throughout this live album. Angus’ brother Malcolm Young plays a mean rhythm guitar which Angus can improvise off of endlessly. Cliff Williams’ bass guitar is supremely powerful and keeps the audience revved up during “High Voltage” and “Let There Be Rock.” And finally, there is drummer Phil Rudd who pounds away on his set and keeps everyone else in line as Bon sings and Angus lets loose on a solo which he sounds like he cannot fully control (not that it’s a problem or anything).

Actually, this is one of those live albums which could have been a double album if the band allowed it to be. While it’s great to hear the AC/DC rocking away on these songs, fans will miss other favorites like “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” or “T.N.T.” Unlike most other live recordings, this one feels surprisingly short and could have gone on for much longer. The band must have realized this years later on when they released double live albums for “AC/DC Live,” “Let There Be Rock: The Movie – Live in Paris” and “Live at River Plate.”

Listening to this live album again in its remastered edition, the sound design is incredible. Fans will feel like they are at the concert while they are listening to it, and they will be able to picture Angus doing his Chuck Berry two step move across the stage throughout. AC/DC remains a powerhouse of a rock group after an amazingly long run. “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It” showed how full of potential they are when in front of a live audience, and hearing it again proves none of that potential has ever been wasted in the service of rock and role music.

Music Review: ‘Are You Experienced?’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Are You Experienced album cover

After all these years, “Are You Experienced” remains the definitive album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It features some of Hendrix’s most well-known hits such as “Purple Haze,” “Manic Depression” and “Foxy Lady,” and many of these songs still prove to be as popular with today’s generation of music fans as they were when this album first came out in 1967. It continues to make its mark in popular culture in movies like “Wayne’s World,” and “Purple Haze” remains one of those songs with misunderstood lyrics like “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky.” Many still think Hendrix is saying, “Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

“Purple Haze” opens the album with a burst of infectious energy that captures the listener’s attention and never lets it go. Hendrix’s guitar playing remains legendary, and he has a sound which is instantly distinctive. When he starts playing, the listener can tell it’s him twanging away. No one ever has to guess who is playing when his songs come on the radio.

When listening to the next song “Manic Depression,” listeners may wonder if Hendrix actually understands what manic depression is. With its relentlessly upbeat tempo, depression has never sounded or felt this good, and Hendrix is inviting the audience to experience it with him. It also shows how “Are You Experienced” didn’t peak with the first song.

“Are You Experienced” does have some slower songs which seduce the listener ever so gently with their elegant beauty. “May This Be Love” has Hendrix letting loose without blowing your stereo speakers out, and his level of improvisation is extraordinary. Even more beautiful, however, is “The Wind Cries Mary” which is truly one of the best love songs ever recorded. While the latter was originally released as a B-side, it was included on the album’s North American edition.

There’s also a wealth of musical experimentation going on here as Hendrix and his collaborators, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, play around with what can be accomplished on a rock album. “Are You Experienced’s” lone instrumental track of “3rd Stone from The Sun” is a sonic psychedelic journey with the band playing against slowed down or distorted voices as the listener is plunged into a voyage where the destination remains unknown. While not all of what’s being said makes sense, something still pulls us music fans in throughout.

Perhaps the album’s most experimental track is “Are You Experienced?” which has the band playing back their instrument recordings at times backwards. Here’s another song that takes the listener on a journey and keeps propelling them forward past the point of no return. That monotonous piano key that is tapped on throughout never becomes annoying as this is not a song nor an album generations of music fans can tear themselves away from, ever.

But let us not forget “Foxy Lady”, of which filmmaker Penelope Spheeris made brilliant use of in “Wayne’s World” when Garth strutted over to his dream girl to the song’s rhythm. The song’s power is the kind which most musicians today can only dream of duplicating, and any lady as foxy as this one will not be heading to their nearest exits. This is straightforward rock and roll at its most classically groovy!

As much attention is paid to Hendrix and his accomplishments, no one should forget the contributions of Mitchell or Redding. In making this album, the guitarist was determined to work with some of the best musical artists he could find, and he lucked out with these two. Mitchell is a drum player who is not as well-known as others from the era this album was made in, but he proved to be as good a drummer as Keith Moon of The Who. Redding’s bass guitar provided a great rhythmic force which rock music needs to keep the beat going. They both easily match the playing power Hendrix brought to this particular project of his, and this album is all the better for it.

Like many of the greatest rock albums ever, “Are You Experienced” was made to break the rules of music as they were always meant to be broken. While other bands may have had to sacrifice power to make everything balance out in their musical compositions, this was an album which proved they didn’t always have to do that. It was re-released in recent years in a new digitally remastered version which sounds better than ever. Now is as good a time as ever to pass the music of guitar god Hendrix on to a new generation as few other guitarists these days can match his genius.

Anthony Mackie on Playing a Criminal Bodybuilder in ‘Pain & Gain’

Pain and Gain Anthony Mackie

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

While much of the attention on Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” has been focused on Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, there’s another actor in the cast audiences are taking notice of as well: Anthony Mackie. The Julliard School graduate made his movie debut opposite Eminem in “8 Mile,” and he has since gone on to give memorable performances in the Best Picture winners “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Hurt Locker.” “Pain & Gain” is one of several 2013 movies Mackie will be appearing in, and he does not appear to be suffering from a shortage of roles in the slightest.

In “Pain & Gain,” Mackie portrays Adrian “Noel” Doorbal, a bodybuilder and personal trainer who works with Daniel Lugo (played by Wahlberg) at the Sun Gym in Miami. Lugo ended up recruiting Doorbal to help him kidnap rich businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) so they can steal his money and live out the American dream. In an interview with Billy Donnelly of the website Moviefone, Mackie recalled being blown away by the script when he first read it and couldn’t believe it was based on a true story. The actor also took the time to explain how his character differs from the ones played by Wahlberg and Johnson.

“What I love about Doorbal is that he’s the grounding force of this movie,” Mackie told Donnelly. “Everybody else does this crime so they can move into a nice neighborhood and sleep with strippers and buy sports cars. When everybody else got a sports car, he got a minivan. When everybody else blew their money on all kinds of random shit, he got married and bought a house. So, he is the true testament, the epitome of wanting to have the American dream. And I think that’s why the character works so well. Because he’s logical with every aspect of it. But in real life? He was the henchman. He was the dude who was cutting the body up and killing people and doing all the crazy stuff that Mark’s and Dwayne’s characters couldn’t do.”

For Doorbal, living the American dream means having a nice home, a loving wife, a dog and a white picket fence. Compared to Lugo and Paul Doyle (played by Johnson), he is not as greedy in his desires even though he’s every bit as guilty of the crimes they all committed. While talking with Brennan Williams of The Huffington Post, Mackie explained what playing this character had to offer him which others in the past had not.

“I have never portrayed a character in this vein before,” Mackie told Williams. “He was so dynamic and so convoluted. And I’m, for some reason, at this point in my life am really interested in people justifying their wrongs. I feel like there’s so many people that do awful things in their day-to-day life, but some kind of way in their minds, they can justify them. And that was something that I’ve become so interested in. So, I wanted to explore that in a movie. And this movie came at the right time for me to do that.”

Now a lot has been said about the weightlifting and intense workouts Wahlberg and Johnson had to endure for “Pain & Gain,” but Mackie was not an exception. Furthermore, Mackie said he and Wahlberg worked out together every morning and that they were very competitive with one another. They would constantly challenge each other to see who could bench press the most weight, and Wahlberg got to where he could lift almost 400 pounds. Mackie detailed both his workouts and the strict diet he stuck to while making this movie.

“Bodybuilding and weightlifting is more of a lifestyle than anything else, so the diet part was easy because it was just about staying focused and staying on your regimen,” Mackie said. “It wasn’t like I had to eat anything or I couldn’t eat anything. It was all about putting together what nutrients I needed day-to-day to get enough of one thing or another in my body. So, it was fairly easy for me. I ate a lot of lean protein like turkey and chicken. I got my carbs from sweet potatoes. So, it became easier as time went on. But I tell you what, after three months of doing that, I don’t want to see a piece of turkey or chicken for a long time.”

Actually, one big issue Doorbal quickly has to confront at the movie’s start is his use of steroids. He uses them to enhance his body structure, but they end up rendering him impotent and made a certain part of his body horrifically small. We all know by now how steroids are incredibly bad for your body when they are abused, but during a press conference for “Pain & Gain,” Mackie explained what his research into steroids taught him.

“From what I understand, it depends on what type you take,” Mackie said. “When doing research, they just talked about all kinds of stuff, and you cycle on this stuff and you would be very surprised at how very easy it is to get caught into it. But there ain’t no lovin’ when you’re juicin’ (laughs). That’s the message I get from the movie; if you want some lovin,’ put down the needle!”

From here, Anthony Mackie has a lot to look forward to as he has “Runner, Runner” coming up in which he co-stars with Justin Timberlake, and he is set to play Falcon in the superhero sequel “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” While Doorbal took the wrong path in life in pursuing his dreams, Mackie did not make that same mistake and he is now one of the busiest actors in Hollywood today. In fact, Mackie made it very clear what his version of the American dream is.

“To not go to jail,” Mackie said. “I grew up in New Orleans at a time where everybody was getting killed or going to jail, so my goal in life was to go to college and not spend one night in a jail cell.”

He has succeeded in doing just that.

 

SOURCES:

Billy Donnelly, “Anthony Mackie, ‘Pain & Gain’ Star, on Excess, the American Dream, and ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier,'” Moviefone, April 26, 2013.

Brennan Williams, “Anthony Mackie Talks ‘Pain & Gain,’ And Filming ‘Runner, Runner’ With Justin Timberlake,” The Huffington Post, April 26, 2013.

“Anthony Mackie on his Lil’ ‘Pain & Gain’ Pickle,” eurweb.com, April 12, 2013.

“Anthony Mackie, Vivica Fox & More Talk ‘Pain & Gain’s’ American Dream,” Eurweb.com, April 30, 2013.