Martin Freeman on Playing Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit’

Martin Freeman The Hobbit photo

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

He’s made a name for himself on BBC television shows like “The Office” and “Sherlock,” and he had the lead role of Arthur Dent in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But now actor Martin Freeman gets his biggest role to date as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” This character was previously portrayed by Ian Holm in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but Freeman now has the privilege of playing Bilbo in a movie which takes place sixty years before that trilogy’s beginning.

When it comes to portraying a character who has been played by a well-known actor in previous films, the task can seem quite daunting. Any actor in this position usually has to deal with a shadow hanging over them as their performance will always be compared to what came before. Holm’s Bilbo, however, functioned more as a cameo in “The Lord of the Rings” movies as he was only in them briefly. Furthermore, Freeman more than makes this role his own as he takes Bilbo from being someone who’s just minding their own business to someone willing to risk their life to help others. Still, you had to wonder if Freeman spent a lot of time studying Holm’s work in the previous films. Eventually, he cleared this up with Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub of the Collider website.

“I’ve watched the films again, obviously in more detail before I came to this. I looked at Ian’s (performance) more when I needed to. Again, I don’t really know how much I should say, but there were points where it was relevant for me to look very closely at Ian’s performance,” Freeman told Weintraub. “But generally, no because I think we’re quite good. I know why I was cast; do you know what I mean? Because I think we’re not that dissimilar, physically or whatever else. I think if I was, I don’t know, Jeff Goldblum or someone, then I might be thinking right, hang on, if he’s the older me I’d better attend more to something else maybe. Well, grow, for a start. But no, ’cause I think I was always trusted with it.”

“All I was told, which I think was flattery, and probably bollocks, was you are the only person to play it. So, I thought, well if they think that, then I’ve got to trust that,” Freeman continued. “And there’s only so much you can run with someone else’s thing. It’s very helpful in the way that it’s brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it’s a beautiful establisher of that character and a very loved one for obvious reasons. But it can also hamper you if you’re thinking, like in the barrels, if there’s even part of me thinking, how would Ian have done this, then I’m fucked. So, I’ve got to let that go. I’ve always been mindful of it because I’m familiar with it. But I think the work for that connection was done in the casting of me, rather than what I’m then going to do on top of it.”

In an interview with Colin Covert of the Toledo Blade, Freeman described Bilbo as being neither “the main guy in the room” or an “alpha male.” Looking back at “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” this gave the actor a great starting off point as he has to take this character from being a timid and rather pompous man to one who acts selflessly. Freeman really gives an exceptional performance as Bilbo’s transition from a self-centered person to a warrior of sorts feels seamless and subtle. You never consciously catch the actor trying to shift his character in a certain direction because it all seems to come about naturally.

One of the movie’s pivotal scenes comes when Bilbo meets up with Gollum who is again played by the brilliant Andy Serkis. This scene was actually shot in the first week of production and apparently took a whole week to film. When it comes to CGI characters, the actors usually have to play opposite something or someone which isn’t there. Fortunately for Freeman, Serkis was there on set to give life to Gollum, and he talked with Meredith Woerner of i09 about what it was like working with Serkis.

“Andy feels real,” Freeman told Woerner. “Obviously he doesn’t look like Gollum, strictly speaking, but he’s being Gollum. And I’m an animal of the theater and you’re used to using your imagination. You don’t have to use your imagination that much when you hear that voice and see the physicality and you think, oh there’s Gollum. There’s a man or a creature that wants to eat me. It didn’t feel very cheated at all. Gollum is such a beloved character. There’s a special place in people’s hearts for Gollum, I think. People who love the books and the films are delighted he’s in this, I think.”

Seriously, Martin Freeman gives a pitch perfect performance as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” to where you wonder if he and Ian Holm were actually separated at birth. This bodes well for the next two movies in Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, and it will be interesting to see where Freeman takes this character from here.

One other thing; Freeman made it clear how Leonard Nimoy’s song “The Legend of Bilbo Baggins” did not play a big part in his research for the role.

“It helped me enjoy that three minutes of listening to it,” Freeman said of the song. “I’m still baffled by it.”

SOURCES:

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Martin Freeman Talks the Ring’s Impact on Bilbo, Being a Favorite for the Role & a Lot More on the Set of THE HOBBIT,” Collider, October 25, 2012.

Colin Covert, “Q&A; with ‘Hobbit’ Martin Freeman,” Toledo Blade, December 17, 2012.

Meredith Woerner, “The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman on dwarves, Gollum and Leonard Nimoy,” i09, December 16, 2012.

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‘Deadfall’ is an Effective Thriller with Strong Performances and Beautiful Cinematography

Deadfall movie poster

Deadfall” is a riveting thriller which held my attention from beginning to end, and sometimes that’s all I ask of certain movies. This one came out under the radar back in 2012, premiering on VOD first and then debuting in a few theaters, and it is no surprise in didn’t catch on with audiences as a result. But while it may not break any new ground in the crime drama genre, and I did have a couple of issues with the script, I did admire the performances from the entire cast. Also, director Stefan Ruzowitzky does strong work in keeping the level of tension high throughout the proceedings, and this is enough for me to give the movie a solid recommendation.

“Deadfall” opens with Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) driving through a snowy landscape while on their way to the Canadian border. They have just robbed a casino which didn’t go exactly as planned (things like that never do), and their situation gets even more precarious when their car crashes which forces them to split up. The car crash which opens the movie is a hair raiser and pretty nasty, and it reminded me of how deer are more fascinated with oncoming headlights than they have any right to be.

Meanwhile, Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison and is contemplating the possibility of meeting up with his parents June (Sissy Spacek) and Chet (Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. But things get bad for him as well after he accidently injures a former colleague severely, and he ends up on the run rather than run the risk of going back to jail. While driving through blizzard conditions he comes across Liza who is shivering due to the lack of warm clothes, and he quickly saves her from freezing to death. From there, you know all these characters’ paths will eventually cross with one another by the movie’s end.

The first thing I want to point out is how beautiful the cinematography in “Deadfall” is. It was shot in Canada and director of photography Shane Hurlbut does incredible work in capturing the snow’s beauty as well as how unforgivingly punishing it can be. Even as I watched this in a very nice air-conditioned screening room, I found myself wanting to put my jacket on. This became even more so while watching poor Olivia Wilde walk through a blizzard while wearing a miniskirt. After watching her in “Deadfall,” you cannot say she is not brave actress.

As for the performances, the best one was given by Eric Bana as Addison. The actor has left an indelible impression on us in movies like “Chopper,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Munich,” and he makes Addison a very charming bad guy. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Addison’s a psycho and someone we would all be best to keep our distance from but you can also understand why some of the characters in “Deadfall” hang out with him a lot longer than they should. Bana proves to be very unpredictable in the role, and you can never be sure at certain times if he’s going to be naughty or nice.

Wilde also delivers a strong performance as Liza, and she once again proves what a fiercely intelligent actress she is. Throughout “Deadfall,” we watch as she takes Liza from seeming like a lost girl to becoming a person whose confidence in their self continues to build. The relationship Liza ends up developing with Jay helps start the process of freeing her from Addison’s Svengali hold, and Wilde creates a fascinating portrait of a woman who manages to come into her own by the movie’s end.

Charlie Hunnam, best known for his work on the television show “Sons of Anarchy,” looks appropriately tough in the role of Jay. As we watch him getting released from prison at the movie’s start, he looks more than capable of boxing any opponent into complete submission. But the strength of Hunnam’s performance comes from those shades of vulnerability which his character cannot keep hidden. While prison has made him hard, it has not robbed him of his soul. Jay has made some foolish mistakes in his life, but Hunnam makes you care about him to where you cannot help but be deeply involved in his plight.

Kate Mara is also very good here as police officer Hannah, but she is unfortunately saddled with a father who treats her poorly because she’s a girl. Treat Williams plays Hannah’s dad, but while he’s always good, his character feels like an unnecessary addition to “Deadfall.” All we see him do is talk down to his daughter even when we can tell she is absolutely right about everything she sees going on. It’s the stupidity of characters like which really gets on my nerves.

You also have to give credit to Ruzowitzky for taking the time to cast Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay’s parents. It’s astonishing to realize these two actors have never worked together before, and they bring an authentic down to earth flavor which helps ground the movie’s story in a reality we can recognize. Kristofferson’s part is a little underwritten, but it’s still fun to watch him here.

“Deadfall” ends on a somewhat frustrating note as there are a lot of loose ends left over and the fates of certain characters are left unresolved. Still, I found it to be a very entertaining movie thanks in large part to the terrific performances of the entire cast. And yes, the cinematography was incredibly beautiful, and especially for a movie which cost only $12 million to make. It alone reminds me to bring layers of clothing the next time I visit a blizzard-ridden city as I have been spoiled by the sunny California weather for far too long.

* * * out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEFAN RUZOWITZKY FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED.

Olivia Wilde Discusses Playing Liza in ‘Deadfall’

Olivia Wilde in Deadfall

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

Olivia Wilde might seem like just another pretty face in Hollywood, but she continues to give the characters she plays a strong intelligence they might not otherwise have. If you look at her performances in “Tron: Legacy” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” you will realize she has put a tremendous amount of thought in how she approaches her roles to where you leave the theater incapable of forgetting the effect she had on you. The latest example of this is “Deadfall” in which she portrays Liza, the sister of Addison (Eric Bana) whom she is on the run with after a casino heist gone wrong.

Deadfall movie poster

For Wilde, the role of Liza represented a huge departure for her. She had just finished playing Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley on the television show “House,” and Liza took her in a completely different direction.

“Liza was so different from anything I’d ever played before, and I think I was really attracted to playing someone a little more broken,” Wilde said to Sophie A. Schillaci of The Hollywood Reporter. “I had spent many years on ‘House’ playing this very tough woman. I had played tough women in movies, and I realized that was something I was gravitating toward because it’s probably something I aspire to. But I’m interested in exploring people who really don’t have their act together completely.”

At the beginning of “Deadfall,” Addison and Liza’s car crashes in the snow which forces them to separate and go on the run towards the Canadian border. Liza, wearing little more than a miniskirt, almost freezes to death until former boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam) rescues and later starts up a relationship with her. I got to attend the movie’s press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and it was fascinating to hear Wilde talk about the relationships Liza had with each of these men and how deeply they affected her.

“Well I think with Addison she’s a perpetual child, she’ll always be his little Liza,” Wilde said. “So that established what the dynamic was like in that she’s very dependent on him. She’s terrified of him and yet she is still very drawn to him. But the romance between Jay and Liza allows her to be a woman, and you really see her coming into her own. So naturally in the writing they were very different relationships, and that kind of did the work for me.”

There was also the question of how deep the relationship between Addison and Liza went. At the start of the movie they look to be as close as a brother and sister can be, but as the story continues it looks like there is a lot of sexual tension between them. While it is not entirely clear if their relationship is an incestuous one, a kiss the two share at a Thanksgiving dinner seems to imply there might be. This led Wilde to talk more about the research she did for this role.

“That (kiss) kind of underlined the tension between them,” Wilde said. “I heard someone say that the relationship between passion and rage is very close, and there’s a violence to our upbringing in our lives that I think could just easily fall over into sex. It was really helpful to read about incestuous relationships and to know quite a lot about how that tends to happen, and yet it’s a very subtle part of the film. There are only one or two spots where it’s hinted at, and I’m glad we didn’t over explain it because it does leave it a bit of a mystery, but it adds so much to the story.”

All actors need to take the time to research the similarities and differences between them and the characters they play. For Wilde, it made her realize that her life could have been much different if she was more like Liza in “Deadfall.”

“I feel very lucky to not be Liza,” Wilde told Jay Stone of the National Post. “It makes me really appreciate having a very loving family and healthy upbringing and not having been abused. It’s a horrible problem that exists in many families. One of the reasons we’re doing this as actors is to reflect humanity, to show these types of people on screen and bring light to them in a certain sense.”

We’re going to see a lot more of Olivia Wilde in the future. Up next for her is “The Longest Week” in which she stars opposite Jason Bateman, “Black Dog, Red Dog” with James Franco and Chloe Sevigny, “Her” directed by Spike Jonze, and “Drinking Buddies” which is the project she is most excited about being a part of. As long as Wilde continues to bring that same level of thoughtfulness and intelligence she brings to movies like “Deadfall,” we will have so much to look forward to.

SOURCES:

Sophie A. Schillaci, “Olivia Wilde Sheds Her ‘Tough Woman’ Image for ‘Broken’ Character in ‘Deadfall’ (Video),” The Hollywood Reporter, December 7, 2012.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with the Cast and Director of Deadfall,” We Got This Covered, December 7, 2012.

Jay Stone, “Deadfall’s Olivia Wilde feels ‘lucky not to be Liza,'” National Post, December 7, 2012.

Tsunami Survivor Maria Belon Reflects on ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible Maria Belon photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was conducted back in 2012.

I can’t begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it was to be sitting across from Maria Belon, a Spanish doctor who, along with her husband and three sons, miraculously survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Her story of survival is the focus of “The Impossible,” and she participated in a roundtable interview which I attended with several others. Belon may not see herself as a hero, but seeing her so lively and upbeat even after the horrific ordeal she endured is nothing short of inspiring.

In “The Impossible,” Belon is portrayed by Naomi Watts in a performance full of strength and raw emotion. We watch as Watts struggles to make her way to safety in the aftermath of the tsunami which decimated the coastal zone of Thailand, and it’s unnerving to see the injuries her character received which include a nasty gaping wound on one of her legs. Despite this, Belon said “nothing happened to us” (her and her family) because they survived. So, when J.A. Bayona, director of “The Orphanage,” came to her wanting to make a movie about the tsunami, she had to ask why.

Maria Belon: Why our story if we survived? Why in a story full of pain and full of loss pick up our story in which nothing happened? But then we understood that it was the only way of explaining the others’ pain was picking up a story of a family which nothing happened to.

The Impossible movie poster

For Bayona, the story of Belon’s family’s survival helped shed a light on the devastation left in the tsunami’s wake. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and “The Impossible” never ever loses sight of this. But more importantly, it is a story about many people and what they suffered. It is not just about this one family. Belon made this clear when asked if it bothered her how her family was being portrayed by English actors instead of those of Spanish descent.

MB: I am fed up with this question all the time. This movie is not about nationalities, not about races, not about colors. It’s about human beings. One of the conditions we put is that there should be no nationality for the family. I don’t care if they would be black, brown or green skin. I wouldn’t care about anything.

Belon said she was involved in the making of “The Impossible” for several years and did have a say in the film’s casting. When Bayona asked Belon who her favorite actress was, she replied Naomi Watts because of her performance in “21 Grams.”

MB: When I saw her in “21 Grams” I thought (gasp) what is this woman about? When he (Bayona) told me that Naomi is going to portray Maria, I was like okay, then I’ll go around the world to the other end and I hide. I don’t want to meet her; I don’t want to disturb her.

But despite her fear she might jinx Watts, Belon did eventually meet the Oscar-nominated actress, and the two spent a lot of time together on the set. Belon said they talked a lot about life, being moms, being lucky, death, loss and just about everything else as well. Clearly, these two women developed a very strong bond with one another that is unbreakable.

One of the most powerful moments from the interview was when Belon talked about what she called the gifts the tsunami gave her. A natural disaster like this seems to take away much more than it could ever possibly give, but you have to admire her for finding any upside in the midst of such immense tragedy.

MB: This is one of the gifts the wave gave me: I don’t care about myself anymore. I only appreciate the moment. I don’t think about the past anymore, I don’t take photos of any memories, and I don’t plan anything for the future. I only have now.

But although Belon survived the tsunami, she said she “almost died three times.” Once while hanging on the branch of a tree with her son Lucas, and two other times in the hospital. She admitted to being tired of struggling to stay alive, but it was the appearance of her husband which kept her going.

MB: When I saw my husband, I was like ‘good! Now I can rest. He was so nice when he said, I didn’t come here for that!

As for her three boys, Belon did give us an enthusiastic update on where they are in their lives. Lucas is now 18 years old and training to be a doctor, and she described him as being “immensely brave.” She said what he took from the experience of the tsunami is how there is never enough of what you can do for others. Thomas, now 16, is at a school where he studies half the time and does community service for the other half, and he is also working as a lifeguard in Wales. As for Samuel, 13, she said he is wondering whether being a firefighter or a policeman would be the best way to help people. Overall, they have all come out of this experience wanting to help others.

I myself asked Belon if she has been back to Thailand since the tsunami, and if work still needs to be done to repair the damage left in its wake. She replied there is still a lot of work which needs to be done especially with the orphanages and the widows. Many of the buildings have been repaired, but the souls of those who were left without parents and loved ones still need a lot of mending.

Watching “The Impossible,” you come out of it feeling like you survived the tsunami along with these characters. I shared this thought with Belon who said of course as this was part of the movie’s overall design.

MB: When we had discussions with the director and we spent hours and hours talking about the film, I said’it’s unfair to come back from one of those experiences with so much presence you get that you don’t give back. I told Bayona that it’s a bit difficult, but you have to make people go under the wave, and they said, “WHAT?!” I said sorry, that’s the only way. You go under the water, you drown and you almost die and you come out of the cinema and say (gasp), I’m alive!

“The Impossible” is one of biggest box office hits in Spain’s history, and Belon is thrilled with the response it has received as she is with the film itself. She is not sure what she’s going to do next, but she did express interest in returning to work as a doctor. Even after all she has been through, she made it clear she’s not afraid of the water and said “it wasn’t the ocean’s fault” for what happened. She has also come out of this horrific situation with a no-nonsense attitude.

MB: I only do what I enjoy. If there’s something I don’t enjoy, I quit. I did this (the movie) because I enjoy it. If somebody would like to do something that I don’t like then I will just go, “Sorry, I don’t like it (laughs).”

Maria Belon may not be a hero, but considering what she has been through, you cannot help but see her as a tremendously inspiring person. We’re all glad she’s still with us to tell her story, and it is a story which will hold you tightly within its grasp.

“The Impossible” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ Director J.A. Bayona Talks About Making ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible JA Bayona photo

Spanish film director Juan Antonio Bayona, or J.A. Bayona for short, made a name for himself in 2007 with the horror movie “The Orphanage.” It earned him the respect of his fellow Spaniard Guillermo Del Toro who helped produce the film, and it became a big box office hit worldwide. These days he is known for directing “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” which is expected to be one of the biggest hits of the 2018 summer movie season.

Following “The Orphanage,” Bayona was offered a number of movies to direct including “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but he was really interested in doing something far more challenging to take on. Bayona found the challenge he was looking for with “The Impossible,” a movie based on the true story of a family that survived the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. What Bayona accomplished showed him to have great skill in getting strong performances out of an incredibly gifted cast, and he staged a tsunami scene so horrific, it puts the one in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” to utter shame. The movie proves to be a cinematic experience as brilliant as it is gut wrenching to watch, and you won’t be able to ignore Bayona’s talent after you have seen it.

Bayona was at the Los Angeles press conference for “The Impossible” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California back in 2012, and I was fortunate enough to attend his roundtable interview. We all thanked him for making this film which we agreed was one of the very best of the year.

The Impossible movie poster

Question: This is a great movie. Did you realize the scope of it when you got involved? Did you realize how inspiring it would be to moviegoers in general?

J.A. Bayona: Well it was getting bigger and bigger as much as we were getting into it. The first impact we had when we heard Maria (Belon’s) story was very emotional, and we wanted to figure out where that emotion was coming from. Even though it is a tough story and we’re talking about a tragedy, the emotion was coming not from a dark place. It was something that was coming from the way these people gave to the other ones in the worst moment. So, I thought that was very powerful and it was a very beautiful idea of approaching that. But then you talk to Maria and you realize how much suffering there is still nowadays. They call it “survivor’s guilt” even though she doesn’t like to call it that. She will talk about survival suffering because she doesn’t feel guilty for anything she did, but it’s really that there is a lot of suffering. I thought that would be interesting to tell the story of this family going there and then going back home and not talking about a disaster in a compassionate way and where you only talk about whether you live or you die. There’s a lot of gray space in the middle. From the very first meeting that we had we agreed that this was not just the family story. It was the story of many people, but the whole ending talks about that; how do you go home to the real world when your real world disappears? I like to see the film tell the story about the end of innocence. They don’t feel the same anymore, they lose the sense of security and their life is not the same anymore.

Q: How big of a challenge was this movie for you?

JAB: Well of course there was a huge challenge in the technical aspects of the film, but for me that was exciting and I was not worried about that. The real challenge was how to portray the story of the people who were there and how to give the big picture of what went on there and being respectful of the time.

Q: How much the movie was real and how much what was done with CGI? The movie looks very real even though some of those effects were probably done digitally.

JAB: Well it had to be like that because the story was very simple in reality so it could look like a visual effects movie. It had to feel real all the time. We did a lot of things for real like practical shooting and practical effects, and we also used a lot of CGI for greeneries and digital composition. But the great thing is to always mix several techniques so there’s a moment where everything gets lost so the audience doesn’t know what they are watching.

Q: Was anything done to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie or in trying to conserve resources?

JAB: Everything these days is now very regulated, so you have to be very respectful. For example, in shooting the water sequences in Spain the waters had to be darkened with a coloring used for food because that water had to be sent back again to the sea. Everything had to be natural. The water had to be decidedly desalinated before it got sent back to the sea.

Q: Did you think about shooting the movie in another country other than Spain, or was it always your intention to shoot there?

JAB: We did it in Spain because we found this huge water tank which is the second biggest in the world I think. So it was the perfect place to shoot all of the water sequences and once we finished with that we went to Thailand and we shot in the same places the tsunami took place in.

Q: The sound design in this movie is incredible, especially in the opening sequence. The screen is black but you already feel like you’re underwater. Can you tell us more about the sound design for this movie?

JAB: One of the things that I soon realized is that the characters didn’t have time to stop and think about what was happening. Everything was so fast that we had to deal more with emotions and sensory details. I was intellectualizing the sequence a lot with the actors, but in the end in front of the camera everything had to be sensorial and about the emotions. Sound has a great role in the film, and I talked a lot with Maria about the sounds and she was telling me for example that the sounds of the wave reminded her of the engine of the plane. This is the moment where I had the idea of starting with the sound of the engine because the movie was already starting and finishing on a plane. The way the plane sounds at the beginning and at the end is completely different, and that sets the behavior of the characters of how they go to Thailand and how they came back from Thailand. The sound of the way was very interesting. It sounds wilder underwater than on the surface because that’s where the danger was with all the debris and all the things which were dangerous for the people who were in the water were underwater. Maria was telling the also about the bloody birds, and I said, “What do you mean by the bloody birds?” She told me, “Once the water receded and we were completely alone in the debris and the devastation I started listening to the birds singing like nothing had happened, and I hated them at that moment because nothing happened to them.” This gave me the idea of how nature goes back to normal and that puts the characters very close to reality at the time, so of course we played a lot with this sound and with the music. It’s very interesting to see how music plays a lot with things that the characters can find the words to explain. I remember the moment when Maria was being dragged by this old man, and she sent me a message that was four pages of all these things that she felt in that moment. And in that sequence you only have a man dragging a woman so I focused only on Naomi’s eyes and I put some small music in their going up slowly, and only with that Naomi’s performance and only with their eyes and seeing the connection between this woman and this man. Using some notes of music, I was able to try to create a thought provoking experience in the audience, and that deals a lot with the four pages that Maria sent me.

Q: When this project began it was intended to be a Spanish production with Spanish actors, but then it became this huge thing. When did you decide to make this change?

JAB: Well we wrote the script in Spanish and we soon realized that 80% of the dialogue was already in English because people had to talk in English to be understandable to each other. Also I didn’t want to put the accent on nationalities because I wanted to portray all the people on the same level. I wanted to portray all the people like people, no nationalities. So it felt natural to go to English-speaking actors because first of all to finance a movie like this you need important names, but most of all I never wanted to put an accent on nationalities. If you see the film, they never say where they are from. All the time they talk about going back home. I wanted them to be very universal like a wide canvas so you can project yourself in there.

“The Impossible” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital, and “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in theaters on June 22, 2018.

 

‘Men in Black 3’ Has as Much Heart as it Does Laughs

Men in Black III poster

Ten years between sequels is almost too long for many franchises to remain relevant, but “Men in Black 3” proves to have been worth the wait. While it doesn’t quite reach the inventive heights of the original, it is easily better than the last movie which didn’t stay in the audiences’ collective consciousness for very long. This sequel has a good dose of humor, excellent casting, and is more emotional an experience than I could have expected it to be.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as MIB Agents J and K, and their relationship is as cantankerous as ever. This time they are pursuing an intergalactic criminal named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) who has just escaped from a prison on the moon and prefers to be called “just Boris.” But while in pursuit, Agent K suddenly disappears and no one seems to remember J having him as a partner. The new boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson), informs J that K has been dead for forty years, and she deduces from J’s refusal to believe, as well as his sudden thirst for chocolate milk, that there has been a fracture in the space time continuum. This leads J to discover how Boris traveled back in time and K in the year 1969. Upon being made aware of how time travel does exist, and has long since been rendered illegal, J ends up going back in time to save his partner and help him do what he should have done years ago, kill Boris.

Time travel has always been a tricky plot device in science fiction movies, and it hasn’t always been used well. However, it gives “Men in Black 3” an edge as we have come to know these characters over the course of a few films, the first which came out in 1997. Seeing Smith get transported back to 1969 gives the movie endless possibilities and story lines to follow, and director Barry Sonnenfeld explores as many of them as he can.

At 106 minutes long, “Men in Black 3” is the longest movie in this franchise and certainly feels like it too. The previous entries had a more economical running time and went by quickly, but this one takes its sweet time getting started as there is a good deal of exposition for Smith to go through before he travels back to the past. But once he does, this sequel really hits its stride as he gets to be a fish out of water in a time which was not always kind to African Americans.

Smith is still great fun to watch as Agent J, constantly improvising terrific one-liners as he explains to people why an enormous fish broke out of a Chinese restaurant (his explanation for this is classic). His boundless energy people know him best for is still very much intact as he deals with situations which, in any other case, would be completely unbelievable. But Smith is smart as he doesn’t play everything for laughs, and certain revelations about his character come to light which forever change his perception of the things he has been led to believe.

Agent K as a character has always presented Jones with a welcome opportunity to have fun with the straight-laced persona he is best known for in movies like “The Fugitive.” What’s great about his performance in this sequel is how he shows the deep sadness which lingers in those eyes of K’s even while his line delivery never betrays any sort of emotion. While his appearance in “Men in Black 3” proves to be a more of a cameo than anything else, his presence is always felt even when he is not onscreen.

But the best thing about “Men in Black 3” is Josh Brolin who gives an inspired performance as the younger version of Agent K. He nails all of Jones’ mannerisms perfectly and succeeds in making the character his own. Like Jones, Brolin gives off some of the most wonderfully dry expressions and reactions which have made this character so much fun to watch from one movie to the next.

Some of the newest members to the “Men in Black” franchise include Emma Thompson as Agent O who steps in as the leader of MIB after the death of Zed (Rip Torn who played the character in the two previous MIB movies). Thompson has a brilliant moment where she has to speak in a ridiculous sounding voice, and seeing her do it with a straight face is a wonderful reminder of how brilliant an actress she is.

Bill Hader from “Saturday Night Live” also shows up here as Andy Warhol who turns out to be another MIB agent and is tired of being all artistic and stuff. It’s a small role but Hader makes the most of it and is a delight to watch as always. Alice Eve is as delectable as can be as the younger version of Agent O, and she makes the audience want her to get it on with K just so he can loosen up.

As “Men in Black 3’s” main antagonist, Jermaine Clement (best known for “Flight of The Conchords”) is terrific as an inherently dangerous alien whose main flaw is taking his nickname of Boris the Animal a little too seriously. While he doesn’t quite compare to Vincent D’Onofrio’s bug alien from the first movie, he is easily an improvement over Lara Flynn Boyle’s character from “Men in Black II” which never left much of an aftertaste. Clement infuses Boris with a dark sense of humor which keeps him from becoming like any other alien the MIB Agents have fought previously.

Sonnenfeld fills the screen with a lot of visual gags which will make you want to see “Men in Black 3” more than once. The passing of time between sequels has given planet Earth a whole new set of aliens including Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. When it comes to going back to the 60’s, he never goes for the obvious gag. He also makes better use of man’s mission to the moon than Michael Bay ever did with “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”

But what makes this sequel work so well is how deep it gets into the relationship between Agents J and K to where the audience comes to realize how much of a part they play in each other’s lives. For fans who have watched Smith and Jones from the beginning, seeing their relationship get defined in a whole other way makes for an especially fulfilling cinematic experience. This is especially commendable for this movie as it was reported to have begun production without a completed screenplay.

“Men in Black 3” shouldn’t work as well as it does since it’s the third movie in a franchise as filmmakers at this point are usually out of fresh ideas of where to take the action. But while it might seem best relegated to the 1990’s where it started, there is still enough energy and creative work in this movie series to keep things going for another sequel. After watching this, a “Men in Black 4” does feel like a welcome possibility.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Avengers’ Was Well Worth The Wait

The Avengers movie poster

So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.

“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.

This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.

What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.

Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.

The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.

It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.

But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.

Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…

The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.

Exclusive Interview with Leslie Zemeckis about ‘Bound by Flesh’

Leslie Zemeckis headshot

With her documentary “Bound by Flesh,” Leslie Zemeckis has reopened a part of history many have either forgotten about or never knew about. It focuses on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became stars in sideshows and were generally viewed as freaks of nature. Throughout their lives they were subjected to abuse by their handlers and kept out of public view in fear of losing their monetary value. But when they finally got their freedom, life became even worse for them as they didn’t know how to deal with the ways of show business, and they eventually lost everything and entered a life of poverty.

What’s great about Zemeckis’ documentary is how it forces you to look at the Hilton sisters as human beings as opposed to oddities to be gawked at. I got to talk with Zemeckis over the phone about “Bound by Flesh,” how she first became aware of Daisy and Violet, and of the research she did.

Bound By Flesh documentary poster

Ben Kenber: This is a fascinating documentary. I didn’t know about the Hilton sisters at all, and they suffered through quite a miserable existence. “Bound by Flesh” deals with them as “freaks,” but it also deals with them as human beings which I really liked. What they go through is not unusual for people who don’t know the ways of show business.

Leslie Zemeckis: Good, I like that.

BK: How did you first find out about the Hilton sisters?

LZ: When I was doing my first documentary, “Behind the Burly Q” about burlesque I had read someplace that they were in burlesque briefly, so that kind of intrigued me and I put a little bit about them in the first film. Then I read Dean Jensen’s biography about them (“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”), and just over time, while I was editing my other film, I kind of became obsessed by their story. But also taking into context of the time they lived and what the carnival was and what circus life and sideshows were, we don’t have that today. There’s really almost no animals even left in the circus, so we’re kind of bringing to light and exploring what that world was that they lived in.

BK: In regards to the historical footage that you were able to include in this documentary, how did you go about researching this subject?

LZ: Every which way I could. I did the research myself so that I’m familiar with the names and dates, and I knew that they were, in their day, photographed a lot. They were interviewed and they had done a lot of newsreels, so I actually went to a news real company in New York and I sorted through their files, and because I knew the names that they were involved with, I found some footage that hasn’t been seen since the 30’s. It probably never would’ve (been discovered) because it doesn’t have their names on that little 3 x 5 index card. I found that within 10 minutes of searching.

BK: On the surface and outside the fact that they were conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet really looked like normal people and very innocent in a sense.

LZ: Well they were. It was a double-edged sword by them being so protected and kept away from other people that they were innocent. But then when they were out on their own they didn’t have the skills to deal with people or their career or money really, and that’s why they were taken so badly advantage of.

BK: You find yourself rooting for the twins to get freedom from their handlers, but once they do get their freedom they are thrust into a world they don’t have any control over. They are not prepared for it at all.

LZ: Yeah, it was a little bit of a curse maybe to get their freedom.

BK: I got a big kick out of the logos because they look like they came out of a schlocky B-movie from the 50’s. Who designed the logos?

LZ: Well it was my idea because they were in B-movies like “Chained for Life” and their story, when you talk about it, is so headline; kept in chains and held captive and all that. So I wanted to add an element of that for fun, but there really is a deep story behind it and my editor Evan Finn designed all that because he’s brilliant.

BK: Regarding the sound clips, were they created for this documentary or was it a combination of archival footage and actors redoing them?

LZ: It was actors redoing them, but that was their (the twins’) words. In both “Behind the Burly Q” and then this, I wanted the sisters to tell the story. I want people to tell their story instead of me imposing on it for the audience, so I used their words. I didn’t write those words. Those were what the sisters said.

BK: It definitely felt like their words. Who were the most fun or most informative to talk to when it comes to your interview subjects?

LZ: Well I just thought it was a little amusing that I had James Taylor and Phillip Morris (laughs). We would just laugh about it. I mean where else are you going to find “characters” like this? But they were all very charismatic, knew their history and I loved and loved talking to them and they loved it too. They loved that era, they loved the sideshow and they love the circus.

BK: Was there anything that you wanted to include in this documentary that you were not able to for one reason or another?

LZ: No. I would’ve liked to of had more footage of them, but I am super happy with what I found. I wanted people to see their movement. I don’t believe there’s any footage of them performing live in vaudeville, but I was really pleased with what I did find.

BK: The Hilton sisters did appear in “Freaks” which is now considered a classic, but when it first came out it was treated as very controversial and off-putting. It’s interesting to see how people initially reacted to the movie when it was first released.

LZ: It’s a disturbing movie, but what’s funny is that the twins actually aren’t in it as much as you would think. But the film has value; it’s in the National Archives. It’s just a world that is no longer.

BK: Are there still any sideshows still performing today?

LZ: Not really. There’s so little “born freaks,” but to me I equate it, and it’s not PC of course to go stare at people, with watching reality TV. Everybody sits in their home and it’s okay to watch the Kardashians comment on their physicality, and I think we still have a form of the sideshow. It’s just changed to reality TV. All forms of entertainment just change. They stay but they change. We just now do it from our home.

BK: There’s something to be said for the twins living as long as they did because the lifespan of conjoined twins is not good.

LZ: Right and they were generally very healthy throughout their lives.

BK: The choice of music was interesting because some of it goes outside of the times the Hilton sisters went through. How did you go about choosing the music, or did you just leave that to your composer (Oliver Schnee)?

LZ: No, I don’t leave anything to anybody (laughs). It’s too much of my baby. I certainly didn’t compose it. He (Oliver Schnee) was brilliant, but I didn’t want it to feel like you’re just watching this period piece that has nothing to do with today. It’s still hip, they were hip, and I wanted the music to reflect that.

BK: Going back to the voice cues, those were done by Lea Thompson and Nancy Allen. How did you manage to get them involved in this documentary?

LZ: Well I knew them so I was familiar with their voices, and they both have a similar quality with each other which I felt would work with the sisters. They also have a very light, optimistic voice. I was so lucky to get them. They were similar enough that I thought they sounded like sisters.

 

A big thank you to Leslie for taking the time to talk with me about “Bound by Flesh” which opens us up to a part of history that has been forgotten for far too long. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

‘Flight’ is Not What I Expected it to Be

Flight movie poster

The advertisements for Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” are actually quite deceptive. It almost looks to be a mystery movie as we wonder if Denzel Washington’s character of Whip Whitaker was drunk or not when he crash-landed the commercial airplane he was flying. Whip ended up saving a lot of lives, but is the company which owns the airline he flies for trying to make him take the blame so they can reduce their loses? Looking at the commercials and trailers for “Flight,” it looked as if the film was being sold as a relatively easygoing cinematic affair. However, it turns to be something far more complex and ambiguous than what Hollywood is used to putting out.

“Flight” isn’t a mystery in the slightest, but instead a character study about a man who is overwhelmed by his addictions and has yet to be honest not only with others, but most of all with himself. From the start, we can see Captain Whip Whitaker is one messed up dude. Waking up in his hotel room after an evening tryst with stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), we see him drink some beer, smoke a cigarette, and arguing with his ex-wife over their son’s school tuition while snorting some cocaine. All of this happens before he puts on his uniform and heads over to his plane to get ready for takeoff.

Whip clearly has no business flying an airplane under these conditions, but fly it he does. When a malfunction suddenly forces it into a vertical dive, he manages to roll the plane over to where he’s flying upside down, and he does so just long enough to stabilize the descent and land it in an open field. Next thing Whip knows, he is waking up in a hospital room only to discover the real nightmare for him is about to begin.

It says a lot about the star power of Washington and Zemeckis that they could get a movie like “Flight” made today. Made for only $30 million, far less than what it cost for Zemeckis to make “The Polar Express” or “A Christmas Carol,” this is more of a character driven drama from the 1970’s as it gives us a main character who is not particularly likable, and yet we are compelled to follow him all the way to the movie’s end.

What I loved about the screenplay by John Gatins is how it revels in the ambiguity of its characters and the situations they are stuck in. We know Whip was far from sober when flying the plane, and yet we cannot help but wonder if his heroic act can somehow excuse his personal sins. His lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, terrific as always), tells him how ten other pilots were placed in flight simulators which recreated the event, and of how they ended up killing everybody on board. But there is one big difference between Whip and all those pilots: they were all sober.

We can always count on Washington to give us some of the best performances in movies today, and his work in “Flight” is unsurprisingly superb. It’s also the riskiest role he has played in a long time as his character is far from likable and apparently determined to drive everyone who tries to reach him away. Heck, Detective Alonzo Harris from “Training Day” almost seems like a nicer person than Whip as Alonzo tried to have his partner killed, but we always find ourselves rooting for Washington no matter which character he plays, and he does an exceedingly brave job in uncovering this character’s wounded humanity for all of us to see.

I do have to say, however, how amazed I am at the enormous amount of alcohol Whip consumes throughout the movie. Any normal person would have likely experienced liver failure long before this story reaches its final act.

Much has been said about how this is Zemeckis’ first live action movie since the year 2000 when he made “Cast Away” and “What Lies Beneath,” but people should really take note of how this is the first R-rated movie he has directed since “Used Cars” and that one came out in 1980. Having made so many films largely geared towards the whole family, it’s tempting to think he was no longer in a position to helm one with such complex characters and issues. But with “Flight,” Zemeckis does some of his most memorable work behind the camera in some time. There are moments where he paints some dramatic strokes broader than they need to be, but he never once shies away from the ambiguous nature and fascinating questions which Gatins’ screenplay elicits. He also does a brilliant job in one crucial scene involving a minibar in a hotel room, and the suspense of it had the audience I saw the movie with absolutely enthralled. And, of course, he stages a very frightening plane crash that tops the one he put together in “Cast Away.” Even from the safety of a movie theater, this sequence is truly harrowing to sit through, and its images hang over the rest of “Flight” like an ominous shadow.

Another superb performance comes from Kelly Reilly who plays Nicole Maggen, a former photographer trying to free herself from the throes of a nasty heroin habit. Reilly may be best remembered for her role in the deeply unsettling horror film “Eden Lake,” and her portrayal here feels very honest in how she presents an addict’s day to day struggle to stay clean.

There’s also a number of other terrific supporting performances to be found here from actors like John Goodman who looks to be channeling Jeff Bridges’ Dude character from “The Big Lebowski” for his role of Harling Mays. Goodman provides the movie with its much-needed scenes of comic support, and he proves to be as entertaining here as he was in “Argo.”

Bruce Greenwood, who increasingly lends the movies he appears in a strong integrity, is also really good as Whip’s longtime friend, Charlie Anderson. Also showing up in a small but pivotal role is the great Melissa Leo whose sweet voice can’t hide her relentless pursuit of the truth as FAA investigator Ellen Block.

I didn’t think I’d see another movie in 2012 other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” which offered an equal amount of complex characters in ambiguous situations. As a result, “Flight” turned out to be a big surprise for me as it challenges viewers in ways a strong dramatic film should. It offers us yet another great Denzel Washington performance, and it reminds us of what a terrific director Robert Zemeckis can be regardless of whether or not the characters in his films are computer generated.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ is One of 2012’s Best Movies

Silver Linings Playbook movie poster

I always wonder about people who have been diagnosed with a psychological problem like bipolar disorder. Some of them have a tremendous zest and passion for life which makes me begin to wonder if it’s even fair to say they are sick. Everyone else gets so beaten up and run down by life to where it robs the smiles off their faces, and yet people like Pat Solitano, Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook,” seem so inspired by everything around them. Despite Pat’s problem, I came out of this movie desperately wanting to feel the way he feels as it seems like such a waste to become so infinitely numb to everything and anything in life.

Of course, Pat’s boundless zest for life has come at a huge price for him. “Silver Linings Playbook,” which comes to us from writer and director David O. Russell, starts off with Pat being released from a mental institution after being locked there for eight months. It turns out Pat was a former school teacher who went off the deep end one day upon coming home and finding his wife Nikki in the shower with another man. Pat did not take this well to put it mildly, and he went ballistic on the guy in a way no one will ever quickly forget.

Now that Pat’s been released, he is forced to move back in with his parents (played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) as he has lost his home and job, and his wife has since moved away and filed a restraining order against him. Pat is determined to move his life forward in a positive direction and win Nikki back, but he is still troubled by the discovery he made all those months ago. It also doesn’t help that a certain Stevie Wonder song, the same one played at Pat’s and Nikki’s wedding, was playing on the stereo when Pat found his wife at home but not alone. The song acts as a terrible trigger for him, and you feel his excruciating pain whenever it starts playing near him.

Cooper is best known for his work in “The Hangover” movies, but this role really shows the kind of actor he is truly capable of being. Cooper makes you sympathize with Pat’s sincere intentions to be a better person even when he flies off the handle for unexpected reasons. Just watch him go ballistic after he finishes reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” From start to finish, Cooper is a dynamo as Pat, and you relish in the joy he gets from playing this character.

Cooper is also well matched with Jennifer Lawrence who provides a passionate and fiery turn as Tiffany. Now a widow after her husband passed away, Tiffany speaks her mind bluntly and without apology, and it is clear she is still coping with a devastating loss. Lawrence blew us away with her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” and her talent as an actress has never been in doubt since. She more than rises to the challenge presented to her in “Silver Linings Playbook” in creating a character who on the surface is not exactly pleasant, and yet she still lets us see the wounded humanity which Tiffany’s tough exterior cannot hide.

The film also features a number of terrific supporting performances as well. Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in a long time as Pat’s father who is as hopeful for his son’s recovery as he is for the Philadelphia Eagles to win every single football game they play. Jacki Weaver, best known for her Oscar nominated performance in “Animal Kingdom,” also lends strong support as Pat’s mom. There are also some inspired turns from John Ortiz as Ronnie and Anupam Kher as Dr. Patel, and even Julia Stiles shows up as Tiffany’s sister Veronica.

But one supporting performance which really stands out in “Silver Linings Playbook” is Chris Tucker’s as Danny, Pat’s friend who leaves the mental institution only to find he’s not really allowed to just yet. Not only is this the first movie Tucker’s done in a long time without “Rush Hour” in the title, but he also dials down his manic comic energy to give a surprisingly naturalistic performance. Tucker is a lot of fun to watch here, and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast without ever upstaging anybody.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick, and it is the perfect fit for David O. Russell. His films, whether it’s “Flirting with Disaster,” “The Fighter” or even “Three Kings,” deal with complicated characters who are trying to salvage what is left of their souls so they can move on to better things. This one is no different as Pat and Tiffany need each other to get past the traumas which have come to define their lives in the present. Russell presents their story in a way which never feels the least bit formulaic, and he never ever takes the easy way out with these characters.

What I’ve come to love about Russell’s movies is how they feel alive in a way most don’t. With “Silver Linings Playbook,” you are watching lives unfold in front of you, and it is directed to where you experience what’s happening instead of just watching it. Regardless of the problems these characters face here, there is something strangely positive and fulfilling in seeing them overcome all which is holding them back. It is also exhilarating to watch characters so filled with passion and a love for life, and this film is full of them. This is really one of the most entertaining and enjoyable movies I saw back in 2012.

* * * * out of * * * *