‘Milk’ Celebrates the Life of a Man Who Opened Doors For Many

I keep hearing about how Sean Penn wants to retire from acting and just direct from now on. He keeps saying he never really enjoys acting, so it has to make you wonder why he would keep doing something he doesn’t enjoy. But after watching him give another great performance in “Milk,” I would really like to believe he really enjoyed playing the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk despite the role’s emotionally draining moments. Penn gives us a man who loved life and smiled more often than not. Whether you are gay or straight, I am sure you would have like to have known the real Harvey Milk as he always seemed to be in the best of spirits no matter what he is doing.

Milk” is a longtime dream project of Gus Van Sant, and it looks at Harvey before and after he became America’s first openly gay man ever elected to political office. It follows him from when he moves from New York to the Castro district of San Francisco and the numerous political races he ran in. It culminates with his and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at the hands of Supervisor Dan White. But don’t worry, I have not given anything away. The movie is an intimate character piece of Harvey as well as those closest to him as he fought for equal rights for all homosexuals in San Francisco and the rest of America.

It was actually quite prophetic that “Milk” was released in the same year California witnessed the depressing and infuriating passage of Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in the state (it was later ruled unconstitutional in 2010). In the movie, we see Harvey and his friends fighting the good fight against Proposition 6 which was enacted by then California Senator John Briggs with the objective of banning gay men and women from teaching jobs in California public schools. Back then, people foolishly believed there was a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia which was and still is total crap. “Milk” came out at a time when the fight for gay rights was still far from over.

The majority of the action takes place in San Francisco in the Castro market. Anyone residing in or familiar with the history of Castro will see it is to San Francisco what West Hollywood is to Los Angeles. Harvey ends up opening a little camera shop with his lover Scott Smith (James Franco), but he is not greeted with open arms from the local merchants as they are convinced that, because he is gay, he will be closed down in record time. From there, Harvey decides to run for public office in order to find a voice for those who never had one before.

Van Sant does a great job of recreating 1970’s ever so vividly on what must have been a very tight budget. He also successfully interweaves television footage of the time with the actors to where it is not at all distracting. But his biggest accomplishment here is he does not turn Harvey Milk into some sort of superhero, and instead he treats him as a regular human being with flaws and all. Harvey helps those in need of help as much as he can, and he does this to a fault. His political life eventually overtakes his personal life and creates heartbreaking difficulties in his ability to maintain a loving relationship. He is encouraged to give up running for political office after he loses for a second time (he ran for office 4 times before he won), but with each election he makes a bigger impact with more and more voters.

Van Sant was originally planning to make this movie with Robin Williams in the lead several years before, but it did not work out. At first, it almost seems a bit odd to have Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, but after the movie is over, you realize there is nothing odd about it at all. Penn gives this role an utterly gleeful spirit which I do not often see in his other performances. Most roles he plays are of characters in the pit of despair or of those so cynical about the world that it takes a battering ram to get through the traumatized psyche to get a genuine sense of feeling. This may very well be his most cheerful performance since he played Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Penn really captures the spirit of what made Harvey so special, that he wanted to help people and gays around him come out of the closet.

Aside from Penn, there are other great performances to be found. James Franco plays Harvey’s lover, Scott Smith, and he is excellent as he creates a link to Harvey which can never be broken, ever. Franco matches Penn step for step in showing the highs and lows of a relationship between two loving people who struggle constantly to make things work between them.

Another standout performance comes from Emile Hirsch who plays street hustler Cleve Jones, and Harvey ends up encouraging him to help run his campaign. Hirsch gives Cleve a spirit and a determination which can never be easily broken, and he shows no shame in whom he is nor should he.

Other great performances come from Alison Pill who plays campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, a proud lesbian who helps Harvey finally win an election. Diego Luna is also heartbreakingly good as Harvey’s second lover, Jack Lira. An emotionally high-strung man with needs greater than anyone, let alone Harvey, can ever satisfy, Luna holds the screen strongly as he carefully illustrates his character’s constantly unsteady state of mind.

But another truly great performance in “Milk” comes from Josh Brolin who portrays Supervisor Dan White. Ever since 2007, Brolin has made a name for himself with terrific performances in “No Country for Old Men.” With his role as Dan White, he never goes the route of simply demonizing this man whose crime is still absolutely unforgivable to so many. Along with director Van Sant, Brolin gives us a complex portrait of a man brought up through a strong religious background, and who ends up getting so caught up in it to where it blinds him to the deep dark hole he keeps digging for himself. In a sense, his outcome is tragic in its own way, and when you find at the end credits how he ended up leaving this earth, there is no cheering. There is nothing but pity for the man who got a much too lenient sentence thanks to the so called “Twinkie defense.”

You don’t come out of this movie wanting to forgive Dan White for what he did, but the filmmakers never try to make you hate him. Besides, I am not sure Harvey would have wanted anyone to hate him either.

Van Sant succeeds in making “Milk” a largely uplifting motion picture without resorting to manipulative tactics in an effort to tug at your feelings or with an overwhelmingly emotional film score which begs you to shed tears. Truth be told, composer Danny Elfman does a great job of creating music which supports the characters and the movie without ever overdoing it. Van Sant is also served well with a tremendous screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, and he introduces us to the wonderful people in Harvey’s inner circle and makes each one a unique individual worthy of attention.

If there is anything which disappointed me about “Milk,” it is the archival footage of Anita Bryant featured throughout where she talks about how she sees homosexuality as a sin. Anita speaks of how the word of God must be directed, and she is clearly one of many people who have completely misinterpreted what the bible says about homosexuality. The one scene I kept waiting for was when she got a pie thrown in her (even God knows she deserved that). The fact this footage was not shown here was a bit of a letdown.

The real triumph of “Milk” is in how Van Sant makes you see what an inspiration Harvey was to so many people. The movie starts out with him saying, as he is about to turn 40, that he has done nothing with his life. By the end, both Van Sant and Penn make it clear he did so much and is still a huge inspiration to many more than 30 years after his assassination. Come to think of it, he may even be more of an influence to people in death than he was in life.

Many may end up not seeing this movie either because of their misplaced religious views, or because we know it will end with Harvey Milk being murdered. But “Milk” is not a movie about how Harvey died. It is a movie about how he lived, and of how his life is worthy of celebration. His courage did so much for people, and it is still needed in the darkest of times. This was a career high for Van Sant and Penn, and it was one of 2008’s best movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Bonnie and Clyde

I went into “Bonnie and Clyde” with the same mind set I had when I sat down to watch Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I figured the passing of time dilute the immense power it possessed upon its initial release. Plus, already knowing the basic story, I felt I was more than prepared for the movie’s most controversial elements to where I did not think I would come out of it particularly disturbed.

But in the end, none of that mattered. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” still is an extremely unsettling horror film, but “Bonnie and Clyde” isn’t far off in the shocking department. It’s a brilliant character piece which follows the exploits of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as they make their way across America robbing banks, and of the people they pick up on their journey. It was also one of the first films to come out of the New Hollywood era in how it portrayed sex and violence in a much more visceral fashion. More than 40 years later, it still packs a powerful wallop, and nothing has taken away from its accomplishments.

Yes, this is another one of those movies “based on a true story,” a major pet peeve of mine as this term typically signals another real-life story undone by clichés and Hollywood formulaic conventions. This term, however, is not seen in the opening credits which is a major plus. Instead, we are presented with snapshots of the title characters which, while from a time long since past, feel very vivid. By introducing these two infamous people in this fashion, we are already drawn into their reality without questioning it much. I wish more movies today would try this tactic more often as it has me believing I am about to watch something out of the ordinary.

“Bonnie and Clyde” jumps right into the action as we come upon Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) listlessly resting in bed and clearly bored with her life as a waitress. When she suddenly spots the mischievous Clyde (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car, she is immediately smitten and jumps right out of the house to join him. While in town, Clyde tells her he robs banks, and she questions just how serious he is. Clyde ends up proving it to her by robbing a store across the street, and he proudly shows off the loot he absconded with. From there, these two are on the run and crazy in love with one another.

What is shown onscreen likely doesn’t resemble complete historical accuracy, but Arthur Penn’s true aim was to present a more romanticized version of these two individuals who were as passionate as they were dangerous. The story takes place in the middle of the Great Depression when families lost much of what they owned, and criminals were treated like celebrities. This becomes apparent when Bonnie and Clyde hide out at an abandoned farmhouse when its owner comes by for one last look. It turns out the bank took his farm from him heartlessly, and the two bank robbers no longer see him as a threat but as someone who was thoughtlessly wronged. When they tell him they rob banks, the farmer sees them like they are coming to the rescue of folks like him. Now does any of this remind you of anything we are going through in this day and age?

But don’t mistake the romanticism of “Bonnie and Clyde” as being the same as glamorizing the criminal lifestyle. While Beatty and Dunaway look fabulous in their costumes, which quickly became fashion statements of the time, the violence shown here is harsh in its senseless brutality. The movie marked the first time a character got shot at and killed all in the same frame, and even today it is still shocking to watch.

This brings me to another big accomplishment of this classic film; the screenplay makes us empathize with these characters. Brilliantly written by David Newman and Robert Benton, with Robert Towne on board as a special consultant), the screenplay sucks us completely into the lives of these criminals to where we don’t get much of a perspective outside it. Now in real life we have the common sense not to be around these people, but the appeal of being so close to those who are considered famous is more enticing than we ever care to admit. Bonnie and Clyde are criminals, but we are seduced by their desire to lead a life that unrestrained by legal boundaries and filled with a strong desire to feel alive. Seriously, this devilish desire exists in all of us as everyone has a dark side.

With Beatty, I have long since gotten so used to seeing him as one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen. But watching him as Clyde wiped this image away from my consciousness for two hours, and I was instantly reminded of what a great and charismatic actor he was and still is. He must have had the time of his life playing this gleefully law-breaking criminal because it shows in his face throughout. Beatty inhabits Clyde with a wild abandon, fully accepting of the path this character has taken in life with little to no remorse.

Watching Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, it’s easy to see why this movie turned her into such a big star. Now I don’t just mean her first scene where she stands naked in front of her bedroom window as she stares seductively down at Beatty. What struck me was how she brought a fantastically crazed energy to Bonnie as she fearlessly takes this character through a throng of deeply felt emotions. Whether she is in sheer ecstasy or utter frustration over her circumstances, she fully inhabits Bonnie to where it’s impossible to catch her acting.

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked one first movie roles for the great Gene Hackman who plays Clyde’s never-do-well brother, Buck. It’s immensely entertaining to watch him imbue Buck with such a combustible lifeforce, and it makes me miss his work on the big screen all the more. Seriously, he deserves a better cinematic swan song than “Welcome to Mooseport.”

I remember Michael Pollard from “Tango & Cash” in which he lent Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell his state-of-the-art van which they, unsurprisingly, destroy. As getaway driver C.W. Moss, I can’t help but wonder if he got typecast as a car expert or mechanic on the basis of his performance here. Whatever the case, I loved how he got all sucked into the fame this bank robbing duo were obsessed with, and the look of fear and confusion on his face when things go horribly wrong reflects our own. Like him, we slowly realize just how deep into the muck we have gotten ourselves into.

Estelle Parsons, who plays Buck’s wife, Blanche, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Regardless, I have to say though I was with Bonnie in wanting to shut Blanche the hell up because she was constantly yelling throughout the whole film, and I can only take so much of that. Still, you have to admire just how far Parsons went with her character. If Blanche and Buck ever had a son, it would have looked and sounded a lot like Bill Paxton’s character of Hudson from “Aliens.”

“Bonnie and Clyde” also marked the film debut of Gene Wilder, and he gives the movie some of its funniest moments as Eugene Grizzard. When the gang steals his car, Eugene promises his girlfriend he will tear them apart. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned, and watching Wilder’s expressions throughout reminds us of what a brilliant comedian and actor he was.

Arthur Penn was not just looking to make an average gangster movie, nor was he showing violence for the sake of it. Even back in the 1960’s, there were already several movies like this one, and he had to find a way to make it stand out from the pack. By giving us the combustible elements of sex and violence, he made “Bonnie and Clyde” a true classic for the ages. There are never really and good or bad guys to root for or against here, and by its viciously bloody conclusion, we are emotionally drained at all we have witnessed. Whether or not you feel justice was served, you still can’t escape the feeling of loss presented here.

This movie certainly has had a huge influence on many other movies I deeply admire like Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” or even Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” The combination of sex and violence remains a potent one in some of the best films ever made, and I would like to think “Bonnie and Clyde” was the first one to make this clear to audiences.

I apologize for taking way too long to sit down and watch this one, but in retrospect, it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Patty Hearst’ – Based on a True Story, But in a Good Way

I have always been fascinated by the story of Patty Hearst, of how she was kidnapped by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) in an effort to get some of their comrades released from jail. How she later joined the SLA in their fight against what they perceived as a fascist police state fascinated me even more. When I first heard about this event, probably around the same time the movie was released, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can someone who was kidnapped by people with guns suddenly join up with her captors? Can someone be changed into a completely different person in a situation like this? Taking all this into account, I wonder if makes sense we should prosecute someone for crimes they committed after being brainwashed and sexually abused by their captors. It’s such a strange story, and one ripe to be made into a movie. Thank goodness the story of her ordeal ended up in the hands of the great Paul Schrader, famed screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Blue Collar,” Affliction” and “First Reformed.”

Yes, “Patty Hearst” is based on a true story, but this movie was made back in 1988 when that term actually meant something. Is this movie factually true to what happened to her in real life? I don’t know and, quite frankly don’t care. Movies based on a true story always have moments which are fictionalized or changed for dramatic effect. It is too easy to brand movies like these as “a lie” or “factually incorrect” to what actually happened. Movies cannot play a real story out the same way it did in real life because there has to be a structured story in place which takes you from point A to point B. In the end, the filmmakers need to be respectful of the facts, but they can’t just do it the same exact way it all happened. Besides, people will accuse the filmmakers of being too faithful to the original material, and this makes it all seem like a no-win situation. People making these kinds of movies are going to get attacked one way or the other, and there is no way around it.

“Patty Hearst” stars Natasha Richardson in her breakthrough performance as the title character, and the movie starts with her walking around the campus of UC Berkeley, giving us our first glimpse of her as a person. In a voiceover, she takes the first opportunity of many to break down preconceptions that may have of Patty Hearst who is the granddaughter of the famous publisher William Randolph Hearst. From the start, she makes it clear Patty was never spoiled and had a happy, normal childhood. These opening moments show how nothing could have prepared her for the kidnapping which would come to define her life.

What makes this movie so effective is the way Schrader manages to tell the whole movie almost entirely from Patty’s point of view. As a result, we end up experiencing what she goes through as she is thrown into the trunk of a car and driven off to a place where she is imprisoned in a tiny closet. Spending most of her time in this claustrophobic space, she becomes completely disoriented. Throughout, she is met by soldiers of the SLA who shout their beliefs at her, and she is made to believe she is the enemy. These moments are presented with the actors acting in front of a blindingly white backdrop which gives us a strong feeling of displacement as even we don’t know where we are. What keeps Patty going through this is her gnawing fear of being buried alive, and of her need to survive.

The fact Patty ends up joining the SLA in their “revolutionary” fight makes sense as it is presented here. Having been cut off from those she loves and being exposed to a whole other set of people and ideas, what choice could she have had? Seriously, it’s not like she had much of a chance to escape. In the end, the SLA is basically a cult, and like all effective cults, they broke down Patty’s spirit until there was nothing left. Everything from her life up to that point was made to seem false, and she had no way of believing otherwise. Her captors offer her a choice of joining them, or to go home. But by going home, Patty interprets this as being killed or even worse, being buried alive.

From there, the movie shows Patty going from terrified hostage to being a soldier for the SLA. The moment where her blindfold is removed and she is finally given a chance to look at her captors is actually a beautiful moment as it is made to seem Patty is now surrounded by people who are more loving than they are threatening to her. It is also a relief for the audience as we too are now out of the claustrophobic state of mind to where our eyes are wide open. From there, we are with Patty every step of the way to even after she is arrested and incarcerated for her involvement.

What really powers “Patty Hearst” is the performance of Natasha Richardson which is nothing short of remarkable. She takes Patty from being a helpless and frightened hostage to a believer, and then she takes her to being a martyr where she is broken down but given a chance to build herself back up again. In spite of all the media coverage this case was given back in the 1970’s, Richardson gives us a Patty Hearst who can be seen as a person with a heart, and not just as a blip on the popular culture landscape. She nails every emotional moment of Patty’s evolution truthfully, and she is utterly fascinating to watch throughout. In the movie’s final shot, it is just her face we see as she seems at peace with herself and of what she needs to do to show the world the truth of what she has been through, and she gives this movie the exact note it needs to end on.

In addition, Richardson is surrounded by remarkable character actors who have since become better known following this movie’s release. Among them is Ving Rhames in a pre-“Pulp Fiction” performance as Cinque, the leader of the SLA. Ving makes Cinque an intimidating force which you believe can hold all his followers at bay with even a little bit of effort. In effect, Cinque is the glue which holds the SLA together.

Also in the movie is William Forsythe, a terrific character actor who plays Teko, a most faithful follower of the SLA who tries to hold the movement together when its leadership suddenly falls apart. Frances Fisher, who would later co-star in “Unforgiven” and “Titanic,” plays Yolanda who ends up in a power struggle with Teko over the direction in which the SLA is poised to take. Through these two performances, we see how easily a group can quickly disintegrate when there is no real leader to keep them focused and together as a whole.

But of my other favorite performances comes from Dana Delany whose role as Gelina is a lovely delight. Gelina’s thinking is clearly warped beyond repair, but she presents Patty with the only real kindness she gets during her captivity. As Gelina, Delany gives us a character as giddy as she is dangerous to those around her.

There is also Jodi Long who plays Wendy Yoshimura, an SLA member who becomes disillusioned with the movement and of what they are trying to accomplish. Seeing the damage done, she is now more prepared to give up rather than face a pointless fire fight with the “pigs.” I really liked Long’s take on the character, and she gives us a strong human being who does not bend easily to the threats made against her.

“Patty Hearst” also features one of the most unique film scores I have ever heard. Composed by Scott Johnson, it is a mixture of both electronic elements and woodwind instruments, and the score helps Schrader in creating a disorienting environment which we and Patty are forced to endure against our will. I cannot think of another film score I can compare this one to. It was Johnson’s first and only movie score ever, and it was out of print for years. In 2007, however, it was finally re-released through Tzadik Records.

This material is perfect ground for Schrader to cover as a filmmaker and a screenwriter. From Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” to George C. Scott in “Hardcore” and to Nick Nolte in “Affliction,” Schrader has long since been endlessly fascinated by individuals who are so alienated from the world around them to where they have long since descended into madness. Patty Hearst, as Schrader shows her here, does not become alienated from the world by choice, but by force, and her dire circumstances of joining a movement she has no business being in makes us wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. We never get to see the world outside of Patty’s point of view, so when she is brought back into reality, we are made to feel as bad as she does when she is made into a martyr in everyone’s eyes.

The movie got a mixed reaction when it was released back in 1988. From watching the movie’s trailer, I imagine moviegoers may have been expecting something more action packed when they walked into the theater. But what “Patty Hearst” really proves to be is a character study, and an endlessly fascinating one as well. While some may find this movie dull, I loved how it got into the inner workings of the SLA, and it made sense of how someone could be forced to join a group they never would have in a sane state of mind. How you view this movie may very well depend on what you are expecting from it.

I really liked what Schrader did with the story and characters. Had this story been in the hands of another director, it may have come across as more exploitive than anything else. Schrader, however, has far more on his mind than playing with all the titillating facts of this case. Throughout, he explores the evolution of a person who goes from being a victim to becoming a participant who later became a pariah, and he gets under the skin of his subject in a way others were unable or unwilling to do.

But what makes “Patty Hearst” work so effectively is the mesmerizing performance of Natasha Richardson. With her entrancing beauty and natural talent, she makes us want to follow Patty to the end of her journey. Whether we agree or disagree with what Patty did, we empathize with her and are forced to look at ourselves and wonder what we would have done in similar circumstances.

Richardson was so great to watch here, and she makes me want to watch this movie again and again. It was so tragic that we lost her at the age of 45, and years later we are still mourning her death. She left us with a great volume of work which deserved even more chapters than it was given.

After all these years, we still miss you very much Natasha.

* * * * out of * * * *

Ray Liotta on ‘The Iceman’ and How He Does Not Just Play Villains

Ray Liotta in The Iceman

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

While Ray Liotta has played a wide variety of roles throughout his long career, he is still best known for playing bad guys or characters on the wrong side of the law. The perception of him being typecast as a bad guy may continue with “The Iceman” in which he plays real life mob boss Roy DeMeo, the man who hired Richard Kuklinski (played by Michael Shannon) to kill dozens upon dozens of people. But while at “The Iceman” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, Liotta reminded us there is way more to him than just playing evil characters in movies.

Critics and audiences see Roy DeMeo as the latest in a long of mob characters Liotta has played throughout his career, but that’s actually not true. Liotta was quick to point out DeMeo is only the second mob character he has ever played, and that Henry Hill (his character from “Goodfellas”) wasn’t even in the mob but was associated with it. But whether he’s playing a good or bad guy in a movie, his decision to take on a role is always based on one thing.

Ray Liotta: (It’s) the script, the story, what they’re saying, how they’re saying it. Henry in “Goodfellas” just beat one person up and the character I played in this (“The Iceman”) whacked people left and right, wasn’t afraid of anybody, where Henry was a little more timid. So, the script just dictated it to be different. It’s really the script, whatever the script tells you, and that’s why you have to make the right choice. If it seems too similar to something else then it’s better to stay away from it, unless you want to do something that’s similar.

During the roundtable interview, one person mentioned how he loved the Liotta’s work on the television show “Just Shoot Me.” Liotta actually made guest appearances on two episodes as himself, and he ended up falling for Laura San Giacomo’s character of Maya. Truth be told, he has appeared in many comedies over the years such as “Date Night,” “Observe and Report,” “Wild Hogs” and “Bee Movie.” When asked if he would like to do more comedy in the future, Liotta replied he certainly would.

RL: Yeah, I would like to. It’s just getting people to see it. I’ve got different scripts that I’ve been trying to do for years and it’s just really hard to get money, and everybody’s a creature of habit. I just did a movie with the Muppets, me and Danny Trejo, and we’re just singing and dancing with the Muppets and it was so much fun. I’ve done it. It just has to come along. It takes a while to change people’s opinions. I’ve done over 80 movies and there’s been a few where I’m funny and nice, but you can’t expect people to see everything.

So far, Liotta has had the opportunity to work with a lot of great directors like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Carnahan and Ridley Scott. Working with them has left him with many great memories and given him a strong idea of what he wants from a director which is a great passion for the work of making movies.

RL: It’s much better that way. The best directors that I’ve worked with have the most passion about make-believe situations, and I mean obsessively so. I remember in “Goodfellas,” Marty (Scorsese) every day would have to tie my tie because he wanted it to look a certain way. The best directors know top to bottom what’s going on. I’ve always been taught by what Da Vinci said, that he saw the Statue of David in the marble and chipped away the excess. You know what you’re going to do going in.

“The Iceman” takes place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and it is tempting to think doing a period piece like this is like time travel. We always hear about actors getting lost in the moment when they are on the set, and we like to think this happened here since the actors were all dressed in the clothes and driving the cars of that era. Liotta, however, was quick to shoot down this perception as he pointed out there was always something to remind everyone they were still existing in the present.

RL: You’re looking at that, you’re doing your scene, and then you turn around and there’s the crew with their beer bellies and shorts,” Liotta said. “So, you don’t get like that lost in it in terms of that.”

Liotta also made it clear he has no problem auditioning for a role, and that he is still asked to audition for parts from time to time. You would think an actor in his position wouldn’t have to audition anymore, but even he had to do so for the Brad Pitt movie “Killing Them Softly.” But like the smartest of actors, Liotta clearly sees the process of auditioning as a chance to perform.

RL: It didn’t bother me at all. If that’s what’s gonna take then fine. I don’t mind it all. I always liked it, and if I didn’t get something, I couldn’t wait for the next audition just to say, alright you’ll see! There are a few movies I have to do that for and I don’t care. If I want to be in that movie and if that’s what I have to do that then that’s what you’ve got to do… no matter how stupid it is.

Listening to Ray Liotta at “The Iceman” press day was a reminder of just how much he has accomplished as an actor after several decades in show business. His career continues to have a longevity many would love to have themselves, and while many may still yearn to see him play the bad guy in the next movie he does, Liotta is clearly not limited to playing just those kinds of roles. His range extends far beyond what he did in “Goodfellas” and “Unlawful Entry,” and this is something we should not have to be reminded of.

Michael Shannon on Playing the Notorious Richard Kuklinski in ‘The Iceman’

Michael Shannon in The Iceman

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

Thanks to his unforgettable performances in “Bug,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Runaways” and “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon has long since become one of the best character actors working in movies today. It’s fascinating to watch him go from playing one kind of role to another which is completely different from the last, and his range as an actor has kept him from getting easily typecast in ways most actors cannot help but fall victim to. Now he takes on perhaps his most challenging role yet as the cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.”

Based on, yes, a true story, Kuklinski was convicted in 1986 of murdering 100 men for different crime organizations in the New York area. At the same time, the movie shows him to be a loving husband to his wife Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) and their children. We would later learn of his crimes in more detail in Anthony Bruno’s book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” as well as in James Thebaut’s documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.” The documentary is especially interesting to talk about as Kuklinski described his various crimes without a hint of remorse. His only true regret was the irreparable damage he did to his own family, and it is this confession which ends up bringing him to tears.

Shannon was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for “The Iceman” press day, and he took the time to talk with me and several others about his experience making this particular film. He described the role as being very frightening, came to make some discoveries about the character which he didn’t see coming, and he admitted a truth about Kuklinski we are understandably hesitant to say out loud.

Michael Shannon: This is a very intimidating part to play. This character is so far removed from my own personal experience, and to try to play the part with any authenticity was a very daunting challenge. Sometimes I think I’m alone in this regard, but then sometimes I think maybe other people feel the same way and they’re just afraid to say it, but I actually kind of like the guy when I was watching the interviews. I think people are very adamant about, he’s a psycho, he’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s remorseless and so on. The fact of the matter is when you’re watching him in those interviews, he’s been arrested, he’s been caught, he’s not going to kill anybody else, his entire life has been ruined and he’s going to rot in jail until he dies. What good is it going to do him to cry on camera? It’s really none of our business, and in a way we’re all being peeping toms on this guy’s pretty cruddy life at this point. I looked at him as a pretty empathetic figure. If you look at his childhood at least as it’s described in the books that I read, it was absolute torture. He was tortured and it was very sad. So, these poor unfortunate parents created this monster, and he didn’t know how to… He wanted to be something other than he was. He even says it in the interview, he says it in the movie. He says, “This would not be me. This would not be me.” So, for all the people who say that he’s cold-blooded, why would he be saying that then? I found him a very sad, lonely person, and I felt like he deserved some sort of exploration into why he wound up the way he wound up.

Indeed, it’s hard to completely hate Kuklinski as he is presented in “The Iceman” as a devoted family man, and life had dealt him a bad hand which left him little in the way of skills to make a normal career out of. He did have a set of rules he set down for himself which dictated he did not kill women or children, and most of the people he killed were criminals and degenerates who weren’t doing society any favors. At the same time, it was not lost on Shannon or any of us that Kuklinski needed to be arrested and brought to justice for the murders he committed, but to dismiss him as some one-dimensional bad guy is to miss the bigger picture.

MS: This enterprise of making movies about people seems to be in service of trying to understand them, and that’s what I tried to do. He dropped out of school and he had a very low opinion of himself. I don’t think he thought he was a great person, and I think he was fighting lot of demons.

Shannon said he never talked to Kuklinski’s wife or any of the family members in preparation to play him, but this is understandable considering the subject matter. To ask them to participate in the production of “The Iceman” would be like asking them to relive a nightmare they may still be trying to wake up from. In terms of research, Shannon ended up relying on other resources.

MS: I did talk briefly to (Anthony) Bruno, the author who interviewed him. He talked with me for ten minutes and he told me the story of the first time he went to interview him and how just horrifying it was to be in the same room with him. He made the interviewer sit with his back to the door and Kuklinski would sit and look through the window, so Kuklinski knew when there was somebody out there like a guard or whatever and the interviewer didn’t. There was nobody that knew him that wanted to be involved with this I don’t think.

In the end, “The Iceman” is not out to change anyone’s mind about Kuklinski as a person. People have long since made up their minds about this man who murdered so many, but there is no denying Michael Shannon is a fantastic actor who continues to give one great performance after another. As Kuklinski, he allows us to peek inside this man’s twisted psyche to see the human being underneath all the notoriety, and it makes for a truly compelling portrait of a man whose name will forever live in infamy. Up next for Shannon is “Man of Steel” in which he will play Superman’s nemesis, General Zod. Like all of you, I can’t wait to see him in that superhero flick.

 

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.

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.

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.

‘The Informant!’ Puts a Comedic Spin on an Insanely True Story

The Informant movie poster

“This film is based on real events, but not everything you’ll see is real, some are a fabrication. So there!”

-opening disclaimer

The Informant!” is not just your typical corporate corruption film in which the main characters are on a mission to uncover the truth and expose wrongdoings. The movie is really about getting to the truth of who Mark Whitacre is. As the film goes on, we find he is not only being dishonest to everyone around him, but also to himself. Whitacre ends up being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder which makes clear how far his mental health has unraveled. Soderbergh gets us to trust Whitacre along with Damon, and the rest of the movie involves us getting deeper into his psyche. Whitacre doesn’t just deceive his employees, he deceives the audience watching this movie as well.

Much has been said about how Damon went all Robert De Niro (or Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale) on this role by putting on 30 pounds and a mustache to play Whitacre. But he more than succeeds in bringing an everyman quality to this role which is not at all easy with a star like him, known for his good looks (the term actor fits him better anyway). It certainly sets his character apart from Jason Bourne, who Whitacre is clearly not like (he does liken himself to James Bond though). Damon has never been given a role like this before, and it should be considered further proof he is a better actor than many give him credit for.

Soderbergh’s decision to give “The Informant!” a comic tone is an interesting choice, and it is a reminder of how he is still one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today. Earlier in 2009 he gave us one of his indie film experiments, “The Girlfriend Experience,” which starred Sasha Grey. While this one was done on a bigger budget, my understanding is he shot it almost as fast (30 days to be exact) perhaps because the studio wasn’t sure if people would see it or not. Looking more closely at the script, this could have been Soderbergh’s “Michael Clayton,” but he had taken this story, the kind we see in the papers every day, and made it into something a little different. While the tone is a bit inconsistent throughout, and you are not sure of how amusing the film is meant to be, that may be the whole point of this cinematic endeavor.

The humor throughout is very dry, and it sticks in your throat for good reason. Whereas everyone here looks like they are having a blast with the material, you have to remind yourself once in a while that “The Informant!” is, yes, “based on a true story” and that Whitacre’s conviction gave him a prison sentence three times longer than those he exposed. This may be one of those movies designed to thwart expectations as it has been promoted and advertised as a full out comedy. Still, it is not meant to be a laugh a minute comedy like “Airplane!

When all is said and done, “The Informant!” really belongs to Damon as much as it does to Soderbergh. As Whitacre, Damon never looks like he is just acting or simply doing an impersonation. This is also clearly not a performance that stopped at the physical appearance, but one which really gets into the inner trappings of this bio-chemist’s mind. From start to finish, we keep hearing Damon’s narration about the little things he knows and what he makes of the people around him. I somehow figured this would all lead to a big realization at the film’s climax, but it really illustrates the deteriorating state of Whitacre’s mind. Damon actually makes you empathize with this man even while he comes across as a Bernie Madoff in training.

I also have to say that for the life of me, I cannot remember the last time there was a character which inspired so many dead or befuddled stares from other people. It’s like every single character he comes into contact with has at least two or three moments where they look at Whitacre with their jaws dropping all the way to the floor. Have you ever seen another movie where so many characters look like they are about to say, “Excuse me? Would you mind repeating that? YOU WHAT??!!”

The two actors who end up giving Whitacre the most dubious glares throughout “The Informant!” are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. Both play off of Damon perfectly, and their expressions mirror our own as we come to discover the secrets of Whitacre’s ways at the same time they do. Bakula gives us a coolly collected FBI agent instead of the intense and easily aggravated ones we see in these movies. But not to worry, he does lose his temper eventually. McHale proves to be even drier here than Bakula, and at the movie’s end, he still cannot figure out if Whitacre has been completely on the level with him. Then again, Whitacre probably can’t figure that out either. Someone once said if you believe in a lie so much, it eventually becomes the truth, and this proves to be Whitacre’s biggest affliction.

The seriousness of the story is offset by the wonderfully breezy music score by Marvin Hamlisch which treats the goings on as a bizarre farce that goes further out of the hand than anyone could have imagined…and then it gets even more bizarre from there. Even as the situation becomes increasingly serious with the walls closing in on Whitacre, Hamlisch’s score remains surprisingly upbeat throughout. Along with the retro opening credits, it’s almost like Soderbergh was trying to give the film a 1970’s look even though it takes place in the 1990’s.

So, while it’s not quite a great movie, “The Informant!” does have a lot going for it, and it is very inventive in how it presents this morally corrupted yet well-meaning character. While Whitacre may think he’s like Tom Cruise’s character in “The Firm,” he is nowhere as lucky as him. Perhaps a more dramatic motion picture could have been made about this man’s life, but none would be anywhere as entertaining as Soderbergh’s.

SO THERE!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

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

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *