William Friedkin and Guests on Making ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’

To Live and Die in LA

Director William Friedkin declared “To Live and Die in L.A.” to be one of his personal favorites of his career when he dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The film was being shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and it played as a double feature with “The French Connection.” But while Friedkin was scheduled to be there, he brought along two of the movie’s stars as surprise guests: William Petersen who played Secret Service Agent Richard Chance, and Darlanne Fluegel who portrayed his “girlfriend” and informant Ruth Lanier.

With “To Live and Die in L.A.,“ Friedkin worked with casting director Bob Weiner who had also worked on “The French Connection.” With this film, Friedkin didn’t want any stars and could only consider no-name actors as the budget was only $6 million. In a sense though, casting unknown actors was a plus for this film as the characters they play walk a thin line between good and evil, and having recognizable stars might affect how this came across.

Known these days for “C.S.I.,” it was a shock to realize that “To Live and Die in L.A.” was Petersen’s first lead role in a movie (he previously had a small role in Michael Mann’s “Thief“). Weiner discovered the actor when he was playing the lead in a Canadian production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Petersen said he hadn’t done any movies nor did he have an agent at the time. All he knew about Friedkin was the films he directed, and they met in New York to do a scene together. But Petersen didn’t ever get around to finishing when Friedkin interrupted him to say, “That’s good enough for me. You got the part!”

From there, Petersen said he didn’t know what to do. Excited as he was for the opportunity, he was already scheduled to be in another play soon and wasn’t sure how to go about negotiating with Friedkin or the studio. It didn’t even occur to him he would be making $400 a week! So, he ended up talking with John Malkovich, who knew him from Steppenwolf, to get advice on what to do. Later, Petersen went back to Friedkin saying he wouldn’t be able to play Richard Chance due to his prior theatrical commitment. To this, Friedkin told him, “No problem. We’ll wait for you.”

Now how cool was that?! Seriously, how many other directors, let alone movie studios, would wait on an actor who is not even an established name yet? Considering the sheer charisma Petersen exudes onscreen just from one look on his face, it makes perfect sense why Friedkin waited on him before he started production.

Although he was used to doing theater more than film, Petersen said he found making “To Live and Die in L.A.” a “freeing, fun experience” and thought all movies would be exactly like it. This, of course, got a good dose of laughter from the audience as we know they are not. Despite the long hours on set, Petersen was never tired at day’s end.

In researching his role, Petersen worked with Gerald Petievich, the former Secret Service Agent who wrote the book this movie is based on, and with criminals including actual counterfeiters. This led Friedkin to tell the audience how Petievich ended up getting a counterfeiter paroled from jail just so he could create the fake money they needed. Friedkin even admitted he passed so many fake bills to where he concluded the government’s money was worthless and only paper. Some kids of the special effects supervisor were not as lucky as they ended up taking some of the fake money to buy candy, and a Treasury Agent got called on them in ten minutes flat.

Fluegel was shocked about getting a part in “To Live and Die In LA,” and she created one of the film’s most unforgettable characters. She said working with Petersen was “so easy,” and they both agreed there never was a moment between them which didn’t feel real. We always hear these stories about how actors don’t like doing sex scenes and how awkward they can get, but Fluegel said they were actually easy to do. She also made it clear neither of them actually had sex onscreen even though it looked like they did. When they worked together, everything always flowed perfectly.

But one great behind the scenes story Petersen told was when they were at the airport and Chance was chasing down John Turturro’s character of Carl Cody. This had Petersen jumping on top of the moving walkway while in pursuit, but in rehearsing it, security came over and told him and Friedkin it was against safety regulations and didn’t want him to do that again. Petersen, however, was insistent as it was easier for him to jump on top, and it worked better for the scene. So, when security was out of hearing range, Friedkin told Petersen to jump on top anyway when he said action, and that after he said cut, Friedkin would yell at him not do it again, making it look like he didn’t forget what security said previously. Once again, Friedkin does movies his way regardless of the warnings others throw at him.

Like several of William Friedkin’s movies which came out after his heyday with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” was not a big hit when first released. It was only after its debut on video and DVD when it gained a cult following which has gotten bigger and bigger over time. Seeing it on the big screen was a blast, and it deserves to be ranked alongside the best movies of Friedkin’s career. Besides, this is much more preferable to watching him pick his feet in Poughkeepsie.

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Empire of the Sun

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Empire of the Sun” is one of the few Steven Spielberg movies which has eluded my watching it for far too long. I remember when it was released back in 1987, and my brother and I watched a documentary on its making. What we saw did not make it look like the typical Spielberg crowd-pleasing movie people had come to expect from him back then. It also dealt with a young boy who is separated from his parents, and separation anxiety was a HUGE thing for me back in the 80’s. But with it now at its 30th anniversary of its release, and having the opportunity to see it on the big screen at New Beverly Cinema in 35mm, the time had come to give what is largely considered to be one of Spielberg’s more underrated films a look.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, “Empire of the Sun” takes us back to the days of World War II where we meet Jamie Graham (Christian Bale in his film debut), a young schoolboy who lives a privileged life with a wealthy family out in the Shanghai International Settlement where he sings in the school choir, rides his bicycle everywhere and anywhere, and has a love of airplanes which knows no bounds. A key shot for me comes early on when we see Jamie taking some food out of an overstocked refrigerator which is filled with goodies as it shows how easy things come to this young lad to where he can boss the Japanese maid around like his parents do.

Of course, this all changes when the Japanese invade the settlement following their bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Jamie and his family are forced to flee their home and escape with their lives. In the process, Jamie gets separated from his mom after he picks up his metal toy airplane which he dropped on the ground, and he is forced to fend for himself as he is swept into a conflict far beyond anything he could have imagined.

When it comes to “Empire of the Sun,” it was no surprise to learn David Lean was originally going to direct this adaptation as Spielberg certainly made it look like a Lean movie with scenes filled with crowds of people struggling to survive in life during wartime. Spielberg ended up putting together scenes which must have made Lean proud as it brings to mind the epic shots the director pulled off in his masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” Today, most of those shots would have been accomplished with the use of CGI effects, but “Empire of the Sun” was made back in a time where they weren’t so readily available.

Watching this movie reminded me of how brilliant Spielberg is at taking us back to a day and age many of us were not alive to see, and he does it so vividly to where we can never doubt his authenticity to the period. Spielberg has visited the era of World War II time and time again to amazing effect whether it’s the Indiana Jones movies or “Saving Private Ryan,” and he never seems to miss a detail in the process.

And then there’s Christian Bale who made his film debut in “Empire of the Sun,” and he brings to this role the same kind of intensity he would later bring to his work in movies like “American Psycho” and “The Fighter” among others. I could never take my eyes off of him as he takes Jamie from being a privileged young man to one who struggles for even the smallest reward like a Hershey chocolate bar. Was there another young actor who could have pulled off such a brave and emotionally honest performance as Bale does here? I think not.

Another great performance to be found here is from John Malkovich who plays Basie, an American ship steward stranded in Shanghai who befriends Jamie in his most desperately hungry state. Basie looks to be the Han Solo kind of character who befriends a young innocent who has yet to learn how cruel the world can be, but he turns out to be more of a manipulator than a hero in the making. Malkovich makes Basie into a fascinating study of someone who seeks to benefit themselves more than anyone else, and he constantly leaves you wondering if his character can rediscover whatever humanity he has left.

In addition, there are fine performances from Miranda Richardson as a neighbor of Jamie’s, Nigel Havers as a doctor who desperately tries to teach Jamie about humility, Joe Pantoliano has some choice moments as a companion of Basie’s, and Burt Kwouk, best known as Cato from the “Pink Panther” series, shows up in a small role which he is almost unrecognizable in. Heck, even Ben Stiller shows up here as an American soldier. Seeing him at first is a bit disorienting as he has since become a big comedy star to where he now seems out of place here, but I’ll chalk that up to one of the disadvantages of watching this movie at a later date.

Looking back, I feel “Empire of the Sun” was Spielberg’s first real foray into darker material which would soon pave the way for films like “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich.” While it feels like he was taking baby steps here, as those aforementioned films proved to be much darker than this one, it was a giant cinematic leap for him to tackle something like this back in the 80’s.

Still, part of me wonders if he played a little too nice with the source material. Being that this was an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, the same writer whose controversial books “Crash” and “High-Rise” were adapted into deliriously dark motion pictures by David Cronenberg and Ben Wheatley, I can’t imagine “Empire of the Sun” was any easier of a book to read. Ballard wrote some pretty dark stuff, and it makes me wonder just how dark his novel “Empire of the Sun” was compared to Spielberg’s film.

All the same, “Empire of the Sun” is an amazing achievement to watch today as he managed to pull off many epic scenes long before the use of CGI effects. Part of me wishes I had watched it when I was younger as it would have had a more powerful effect on me emotionally, but better late than never with a film like this. Along with cinematographer Allen Daviau, composer John Williams, writer Tom Stoppard and editor Michael Kahn, Spielberg created a World War II epic which stands out among the most memorable of them all, and it deserves more attention than it received upon its release thirty years ago.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Matt Shakman on ‘Cut Bank’

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Matt Shakman has had quite the journey through show business so far. He started off as a child actor doing commercials, and he played the role of Graham “J.R.” Lubbock, Jr. in “Just the Ten of Us,” a spin-off of “Growing Pains.” From there he went to Yale University where he studied theater, and while there he directed several plays. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, he founded the Black Dahlia Theatre which American Theatre Magazine later called one of “a dozen young American companies you need to know.” Eventually, this led to him directing television for such shows as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Mad Men” and “Fargo.” Now, he makes his feature film directorial debut with the thriller “Cut Bank,” a film noir along the lines of “Blood Simple.”

Cut Bank” stars Liam Hemsworth as Dwayne McLaren, a former high school football star who is desperate to escape his hometown of Cut Bank, Montana. Then one day, while filming a video for his girlfriend, he witnesses the town’s mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) being shot to death. From there a scheme is uncovered where some people look to get rich very quickly, but it all comes to spiral out of control in horrendous ways. The movie also stars John Malkovich, Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Stuhlbarg.

I got to speak with Shakman over the phone about “Cut Bank,” and he discussed what it was like working with actors like Malkovich, Thornton and Stuhlbarg, how he managed to shoot the movie on 35mm film, and he spoke of how he went from being a child actor to a theater and television director and now a film director.

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Ben Kenber: I read you approached this movie as a play more than anything else.

Matt Shakman: Yeah, I tried to cast actors who I’ve always admired and put together kind of like a rep company. In a way, I could imagine doing the movie again and everybody switching parts. They’re all so great and talented and versatile. So yeah, I definitely considered it like I was casting a play.

BK: Of all the actors you cast in this movie, John Malkovich was the first one you went to. What made you start with him?

MS: I’ve been a fan of John Malkovich onstage and onscreen, and he’s a personal hero of mine because he founded Steppenwolf. I’m a theater guy and I founded a small theater in Los Angeles, and I look up to Steppenwolf and the guys who started that. I just thought, here’s a guy who is from Southern Illinois who sort of felt like he knew this world, and yet we haven’t seen him play this small-town guy in a really long time maybe since “Places in the Heart,” and he’s brilliant in that movie. He’s come around to do great but larger than life characters in so many films. So we reached out to him and he really responded to it and he had personal experience with the town of Cut Bank. He actually worked there one summer putting himself through college. He worked on the trail crew at Glacier National Park and knew the town of Cut Bank very well, so he had a strong personal connection to it. He did a beautiful job playing a guy who really feels sort of overwhelmed by his own decency which feels really believable in that small-town world.

BK: Watching “Cut Bank” brings to mind other movies like “Blood Simple” or “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.” When it came to making this movie, were there any clichés or cinematic tropes you were looking to avoid?

MS: You mentioned some films that I love, “Blood Simple” being one in particular. I think that blend of dark comedy and thriller stakes is something to aspire to, and we tried to do our best in that same kind of world. Also “The Last Picture Show;” the idea of the small town and the guy who wants to get out of it, that’s always been a big inspiration for me. A lot of 70’s crime thrillers were inspirations as well. We went and shot 2 perf, 35mm to give it an extra grainy look so we could evoke some of the Sergio Leone films of the 70’s as well. So, those were just some of the inspirations.

BK: I love that you got to film this movie in 35mm. Was it hard to get the opportunity to shoot in that format?

MS: Definitely. We had to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to pay for it. The cost of doing film had gone up so much because the labs were shutting down everywhere, and you couldn’t get the same deals that you would get before. Kodak was really cutting the price on film to try and keep people shooting film, but we were just on the other side of that curve where they realized uh-oh, nobody’s shooting film anymore so we need to get whatever we can get out of the people who will be using our stock. I love it. I wish I could always shoot on film. It’s really just a much better way to do it.

BK: That’s what I have been hearing from a lot of filmmakers. There are still a lot of things you can capture on film you can’t on digital film.

MS: Yeah, there’s a mystery to film that I think is important, and we were shooting a lot of days here where film has a real advantage. The argument can be made that when you should at night, having something like an Alexa can bring certain advantages in terms of less light needed and more range. But I still think that nothing really touches film.

BK: Among the performances in “Cut Bank,” one which stands out in particular is Michael Stuhlbarg’s as Derby Milton. He had the lead role in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” but he’s almost completely unrecognizable here. How did you go about directing him?

MS: Michael’s a genius and a total chameleon, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw him in “The Pillowman” (a play by Martin McDonough) on Broadway. He stole the show there and I think he’s been stealing every show everywhere he does ever since, so I was so thrilled when he agreed to come on board and be a part of “Cut Bank.” I sent him a bunch of references and pictures I had, one of which was a Chuck Close painting, which we both really liked a lot. He sent me a few references as well which inspired him, and we built this guy together through lots of phone conversations and exchanging images. Eventually we came up with what Derby looks like now which involved all sorts of trickery from wigs and fake teeth and contact lenses and coke bottle glasses and fingernails and all that. But he’s a great actor and he’s very thoughtful. He’s very smart and he goes deep into the character, and I thought he did a beautiful job.

BK: Yes, this is a character that could have easily been turned into a stereotype, but Stuhlbarg gives Derby a uniqueness I don’t seen many other actors giving the character.

MS: Definitely. Derby is a really fascinating guy even though he is the antagonist of the film. He’s probably the most reasonable person in the movie and what he ends up doing and the body count that follows him really is unnecessary if people were as reasonable to him as he is to them.

BK: It’s great how you made the town look vast, but at the same time anybody who has lived in a small town like Cut Bank can definitely relate to it feeling like a prison and wanting to break free of it.

MS: Exactly. That kind of modern western feeling of being trapped in this little frontier town with the gates of the port closed, and the idea that anything beyond those gates is terrifying is best to be ignored is what the town has to confront. By the end they are able to turn around and head into an uncertain future, but the whole experience of the film is opening up that town.

BK: What were the biggest challenges of making “Cut Bank?” It takes place in what is said to be one of the coldest places in America, but you actually filmed it in a time of year when it was exceedingly warm.

MS: We shot in Canada and Alberta and in the town of Edmonton, and that’s very close to Calgary where I shot “Fargo.” I’ve been there when it was the coldest part of the year at minus 40, and I’ve been there when it was the hottest day on record, so I’ve seen the full cycle from super cold to super-hot and it has its challenges. Certainly, there are some scenes in the movie, especially in the junkyard trailer where Bruce Dern is, where we were shooting in the middle of really, really hot summer days in a metal tin can covered in black fabric to make it look like it was nighttime. Everybody was sweating. It was pouring off of them. It was miserable and I felt terrible, and you can still see in a couple of shots in the movie how red everybody’s face is when they are in that junkyard trailer. So it did have its challenges like no air-conditioning, and you just kind of roll up your sleeves and do the best you can despite the elements. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

BK: I got a kick out of Bruce Dern’s character here. He’s been around for a long time, but his career has gone up another notch thanks to his work in “Nebraska.” What did Bruce bring to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He’s a live wire (laughs). I loved Bruce Dern. He’s incredibly alive as a performer. He describes what he’s doing as dancing in a way, and I think he absolutely is truly that, a dancer. He’s playing with it almost like jazz as he goes and that’s wonderful. He’s never going to do the same thing twice. He does throw in some bits of improv as he goes, and a lot of wonderful things ended up in the film that were all of his own devising. He’s a bit of a mercurial, charismatic guy and he has the best stories in the world. He remembers everything that has ever happened in an illustrious way, and it’s incredible to hear. He tells stories about everyone from Hitchcock to Spielberg, etc. He’s in one of my favorites also from the 70’s with “The King of Marvin Gardens.” It’s a pleasure to get to work with somebody who’s a legend like that.

BK: Billy Bob Thornton also stars in the movie, and he’s played a lot of unforgettable small-town characters. What would you say he brought to this movie that wasn’t in the script?

MS: He really does understand this world. He’s from a small southern town which is such a different thing from the prairie town in the film, but it has the same kind of heartbeat. Billy Bob, like Malkovich, is just one of my heroes. He’s a great writer and a great director and a great actor, and I had the pleasure of working with him on “Fargo” as well. He’s just an incredibly good person and very smart, and whenever he had notes we would talk about the script and you knew you were getting notes from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. He always had tremendous things to say and just made everything better.

BK: There is a scene between Liam Hemsworth and Oliver Platt where Liam looks at Oliver and realizes that this is the person he will become like if he throws all his moral values to the wind. Would you say that’s the case?

MS: Yeah, he’s very interested to know what’s the big city is like, and here in the person of Oliver Platt is the big city. I love Oliver Platt. He’s great and he brings this incredible urbanity and charm and intelligence to it. But yeah, he represents the big outside world in all the positives and all the negatives.

BK: James Newton Howard scored this film. How did you manage to get him on board?

MS: Through his generosity. He does these just giant movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Maleficent,” and then “Nightcrawler” which is a smaller movie but certainly a big profile film. Getting him to come and do our tiny little film was entirely because he is just a lovely, generous person. I reached out to him, we had a mutual friend in common, and sent him the script and made my pitch about what the film would be about, and he really liked it and wanted to come on board. He devoted tons of time and energy to it, as much energy as he puts into his other big films, and he really cared and did a lovely job.

BK: “Cut Bank” is being distributed by A24 Films which has become a great company for independent films to get behind. What did A24 bring to this project that other distribution companies might not have brought to it?

MS: God bless A24. Their taste is great and eclectic. They are picking up movies that are very different from each other, but are all really worthy. I was so thrilled when they wanted to release “Cut Bank.” They’re a great group of people who really care. They are very supportive of the movie. They have devoted a lot of energy and great taste to their marketing and ad campaign with the artwork they are doing. They have left no small detail unnoticed. They are really on the ball and I’m really thrilled to be a part of a company that has released everything from “Under the Skin,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Spring Breakers” and “A Most Violent Year.” It’s a really great roster of movies and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot “Cut Bank” in?

MS: 27 days for “Cut Bank,” which is fast for a movie that is 93 minutes long, so we were jamming and going quickly. I thought this would be a little more luxurious compared to my TV days as TV is famous for being quick, and I was wrong. Doing an independent film is actually faster than doing TV. We were out there shooting outside of Edmonton and small towns. We were building our entire world from the ground up and going into practical locations which added extra challenges, so time was not a commodity we had a lot of. We had to hustle and go as fast as we could to try and get it all done in time. There was a lot of different locations, there was a lot of night work, and we were shooting at the time of year when the night is the shortest. We only had about four hours of darkness every night so we had to be really careful about how we structured everything, and we ended up shooting all night long in order to have the time to shoot all the night stuff.

BK: Does working that fast help you creatively?

MS: It can. Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s true that when you’re forced to compromise, you sometimes end up with a solution which is better than what you were trying to accomplish to begin with. Everybody bonds together and tries to get everything done. You’ve got a short amount of time so everybody knows it’s game time, and that brings out the best in everybody.

BK: You started out as a child actor. How would you say you evolved from being a child actor to a director?

MS: It was definitely part of my life when I was young, and I had some experience being on the other side of the camera and understood about hitting marks and what the actor’s process was like. But then I left that behind and went off to school and had a normal experience in college and did a lot of theater and found my way to theater directing. My path was more direct from theater to directing plays to directing television and to directing film than really from the acting experience, but I’m really grateful to have had that background and the experience of being an actor because it helps. When speaking to actors, I understand what they are going through and what their process is like.

I want to thank Matt Shakman for taking the time to talk with me about “Cut Bank” and his career. “Cut Bank” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Deepwater Horizon

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It appears director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are on their way to completing a trilogy of movies which aim to show audiences how Americans stand up and take care of their own during the most trying of times. In 2013 they gave us “Lone Survivor” which dramatized the unsuccessful United States Navy SEALs counter-insurgent mission Operation Red Wings, and before 2016 ends we will get “Patriots Day” which deals with the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent terrorist manhunt. But before that we get “Deepwater Horizon” which focuses on the offshore drilling rig of the same name which exploded in 2010 and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. As you can expect, it is a riveting motion picture which provides audiences with a visceral experience even though we know how the story will end.

Wahlberg portrays Mike Williams, one of the chief rig workers on Deepwater Horizon, and as the movie starts we see him spending precious time with his beautiful wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter. Before he leaves to go to work for a couple of weeks, Mike’s daughter shows him a science project she is working on which involves poking a hole in the bottom of a Coke can and then stuffing it up with honey. But, of course, it explodes all over the family dinner table as it foreshadows the terrible disaster which is yet to come.

Berg does great work portraying the working environment these oil rig workers endure on a daily basis as their work is always dangerous, and their animosity towards the executives of BP and Halliburton, a company whose name has long since become a four-letter word, is completely understandable. While these workers aim to do their job safely, the execs are eager to increase their profits as the drilling schedule has fallen behind by forty days. Profit always seems to reign supreme over the rights of the workers who might never reach the level of the 1%, and this is further proof of how the 80’s never left us.

The foreshadowing of the explosion becomes a little too much as Berg employs Steve Jablonsky’s music score to an unnecessary degree. Jablonsky’s score booms way too much as we watch the beginnings of this explosion which emanate far below the ocean’s surface. It alerts us way too early that a natural disaster is about to occur, and this could have instead been a time where we could have seen proof of how silence is golden because, as Gary Oldman’s character from “The Professional” said, we like these quiet little moments before the storm, and that’s regardless of whether or not it reminds us of the Ludwig Van Beethoven’s music.

When things do go horrifically bad on the rig, Berg captures it in a way which feels horrific and almost unbearable as he captures the disaster with a lot of handheld footage. When the main pipe goes bust, it’s not like your average disaster movie where things go out of control but in a not so dangerous way. Bodies are flung with full force against metal railings, and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to feel how painful the deaths and injuries on display are. To say what happened here was a natural disaster is an understatement as the chemicals underneath the earth’s surface make their way to the surface to where it feels like planet is having serious revenge on us.

Wahlberg is an actor who can authentically portray a blue collar worker without any movie star swagger. With a role like Mike Williams, he never ever lets his ego get the best of him or tries to show off in some obnoxious way. You may never lose sight of the fact you are watching Mark Wahlberg on the big screen, but he always succeeds in portraying a character who spends his days doing hard work for an honest living. Not many actors of his stature can pull that off these days.

Then we have Kurt Russell, a veteran actor you can never ever go wrong with, who plays Jimmy Harrell, the man who is very serious about ensuring the safety of his workers. The oil company’s profits may suffer, but that is the least of Jimmy’s problems. Russell makes it clear from the get go where Jimmy’s priorities lie, and you never doubt him for a second. Even when Jimmy suffers greatly from the rig’s explosion to where one of his eyes is swollen shut, which quickly reminds us of Russell’s role as Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” he is still infinitely determined to ensure the safety of his workers.

Another standout performance to be found in “Deepwater Horizon” comes from Gina Rodriguez who plays Andrea Fleytas, an oil rig worker prepared to do what’s necessary to save lives but is stopped by the men who somehow think they know better. Rodriguez throws herself into the role to where you never doubt her for a second, and it makes you all the angrier when she is admonished by her superiors who are afraid to make decisions under pressure. She certainly knows her way around an oil rig better than her beat up Mustang.

As for Kate Hudson, she does fine work with an underwritten role. As Felicia, she has to be stuck at home and worried sick about her husband and the situation on the rig, so we only get to see so much of her in this movie. However, her role is an important one as she puts a human face on those who have to suffer from a distance. Besides, it is so nice to see Hudson in a good movie after she appeared in the cinematic monstrosity that was “Mother’s Day.”

But the biggest star of “Deepwater Horizon” is Berg as he thrusts into a real life story with gusto and intensity. As a director, he has never been one to give us a decent time at the movies. Whether it’s “The Rundown,” “Lone Survivor” or “The Kingdom,” Berg wants us pinned to our seats and gasping for air. He achieves this once again with “Deepwater Horizon,” and in the process pays tribute to those who lost their lives while doing their jobs. It makes me look forward to his next movie, “Patriots Day,” all the more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *