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.

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.

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

The Impossible JA Bayona photo

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

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

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

The Impossible movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek Make a Jailbreak in ‘Papillon’ Trailer

Papillon 2018 movie poster

Anyone remember “Papillon,” the 1973 prisoner drama starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman? Based on the autobiography of the same name, McQueen starred as Henri Charriere, a safecracker who is framed for murder and given a life sentence in the penal system in French Guyana, some of it spent on the infamous Devil’s Island, a location which more than earned its name. Well, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom has decided to remake “Papillon,” and it is set for release this summer. With its first trailer now having been released, one has to wonder if this particular remake of a Steve McQueen movie will have been worth the trouble. I mean, we all saw what happened to Alec Baldwin when he remade “The Getaway.”

Whereas the 1973 had a brutal palette of colors to work from, the trailer starts off with a beautiful image of Henri (now played by Charlie Hunnam) walking outside of the Moulin Rouge with his girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson), and it all looks like something out of a dream. This dream, however, is soon shattered when the police break down Henri’s door and arrest him for murder. From there he is sent to the notorious Devil’s Island where he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek in the Hoffman role), a counterfeiter whom Henri offers to protect if he can help him escape.

The jail, as I see from the trailer, does not look like a particularly inviting place, but then again, no jail ever does. At the same time, it almost looks a little too clean compared to prisons from cinema’s past. As portrayed in the 1973 original, Devil’s Island was the most brutal of locations and one you wanted to keep as far away from as humanly possible. But in this remake, Devil’s Island almost looks like the Hilton in comparison. Furthermore, the big question I have is, how will this remake compare to one of the most brutal prison films of all time, “Midnight Express?” Every other prison film pales in comparison to that one, and watching it makes you see how smuggling hashish out of Turkey is probably not such a good idea.

Hunnam has the unenviable challenge of playing a role originated onscreen by Steve McQueen, a task almost too daunting to undertake. Still, he has proven to be a tough cookie in the past, whether it was on “Sons of Anarchy” or in “Pacific Rim.” Rami Malek, one of the stars of “Mr. Robot,” is currently seeing his stardom rise up to the heavens with the upcoming release of the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which he portrays Freddie Mercury. Both actors prove to have a good chemistry at work here, so this makes me a little more eager to check out the movie as a result.

Whether or not it was a good reason to remake “Papillon,” we will find out the answer for ourselves when Bleecker Street releases the film this August. Please check out the trailer below.

Argo

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After the one-two punch of “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Ben Affleck should not have to prove what a great movie director he is. But for those who, for some utterly bizarre reason, still believe they need further evidence to support this conclusion, I give you “Argo.” His third movie as a director tells the story of how CIA specialist Tony Mendez went about trying to extract six U.S. diplomats out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. It proves to be a very intense experience watching this movie, and I also got a huge kick over how it skewers Hollywood and the business of making movies as well.

I loved how Affleck really went out of his way to make “Argo” look like a 70’s movie. He even included the old Warner Brothers logo (referred to as the “Big W” logo) which preceded the studio’s movies from 1972 to 1984. I’ve really missed this logo for the longest time.

Anyway, when Iranian revolutionaries ended up storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six diplomats manage to evade capture and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, back in the United States, the State Department has learned of the escapees and their predicament, and they start looking for ways to get them out of Iran. It is Mendez who comes up with the idea, after watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” on television, to create a cover story of how the six are actually filmmakers from Canada who are scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. This looks to be one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of movies, and it would have been fun to watch for all the wrong reasons had it ever been made.

The scenes where Mendez goes to Hollywood are among my favorites in “Argo” as he works with movie business veterans who are keenly aware that lying to others is part of their job description. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are priceless as make-up artist John Chambers and film producer Lester Siegel, and they are given great pieces of dialogue to speak throughout. The lines Arkin is given are especially biting:

“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”

The tension is then ratcheted up tremendously when Mendez heads over to Iran to prep those six diplomats on how to get out of the country alive. You feel their collective anxiety as they become fully aware of how one little slip up will get them quickly executed in public view, and you are with them every step of the way as the walls continue to close in on them. Emotionally speaking, “Argo” is the first movie I have found myself crying after in a long time, and the tears I cried were from sheer relief.

“Argo” is based on a true story and, while this remains a serious pet peeve of mine, this is one which needed to be told. It wasn’t until 1997 that this rescue operation was declassified for all the world to know about, and it speaks a lot about how two countries can come together in a tough situation (in this case, the U.S. and Canada). Yes, portions of the story were fictionalized for dramatic purposes, but that’s always the case so just get over it.

Affleck casts a lot of great acting veterans in “Argo,” and kudos to him for doing so. I’ve already mentioned Goodman and Arkin, but you will also find Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and Philip Baker Hall doing terrific work here as well. As for the diplomats, they are played by such actors as Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan among others, and they all are uniformly excellent.

In addition to directing this movie, Affleck also stars as Mendez and gives a particularly understated performance. I know we all love to pick on him as an actor, but he’s a better one than we give him credit for. Not once does Affleck try to steal the show from the actors around him, and his work is commendable as acting and directing a movie at the same time can be a real pain in the ass.

“Argo” has more than earned its place among the best movies of 2012, and it makes clear that Affleck’s success as a director is no fluke. This is a guy who has seen the heights of success and the utter embarrassment of failure, and he has come out the other side of it all proving he is a great talent whether he’s in front of or behind the camera.

Be sure to stay through the end credits as well as there is information you will need to hear about this true story.

* * * * out of * * * *

Hacksaw Ridge

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I want to start off first by applauding director Mel Gibson for using the term “A True Story” as opposed to “Based on a True Story” when he starts off “Hacksaw Ridge.” You all know how much I have come to despise the term “Based on a True Story” as it has long since lost its meaning, and I have to give credit to Gibson for altering this phrase here. As a director, you know he’s not about to take the easy way out or give us something which feels emotionally false. This continues to be the case with “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort in ten years.

This movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who joined the Army in World War II to serve as a medic. The only thing is, he joins as a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon of any kind into the battlefield. At the Battle of Okinawa, he succeeded in rescuing 75 wounded soldiers without firing a single shot, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts which went above and beyond the call of duty.

Desmond is played as a young adult by Andrew Garfield, and he is very deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. From start to finish, the British-American actor imbues Desmond with an unshakable faith in a higher power, and I never saw this faith waiver for a single second. Seeing him square off with a fellow soldier who assumes he is a coward for not picking up a rifle is fascinating as Garfield’s eyes emit a hard-won bravery the others around him only think they possess. This even comes across as he pursues Nurse Dorothy Schutte (the luminous Teresa Palmer) as obsessively as Dustin Hoffman chased Katherine Ross around town in “The Graduate” to where you wonder if anything could stand in Desmond’s way at all.

We all know Gibson is a devoutly religious person, and not just because he made “The Passion of the Christ.” Indeed, “Hacksaw Ridge” could have easily looked silly if it took its subject far too seriously or tried to indoctrinate us or push some agenda, but Gibson doesn’t make those mistakes. The director treats Desmond with the respect he deserves, and he was clearly determined not to make him look like a joke. Desmond was the real deal, and he found the perfect actor to portray him in Garfield.

Gibson also wades through a wealth of war movie clichés which do take away from the final cut, but the scenes are elevated by a number of strong performances from a well-chosen cast. Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame (“Welcome to Rivendale, Mr. Anderson”) is a big standout as Desmond’s father, Tom. Being a war veteran himself, Tom has seen the vicious damage it has done to the soul and the psyche. Weaving makes Tom more than the average abusive drunk you see in cinema as he shows his character’s pain over the memories he can’t drink away, and of the terror he wishes to keep his sons from experiencing themselves.

Rachel Griffiths provides the yin to Weaving’s yang in her performance as Desmond’s mom, Bertha, who enforces in her son the importance of God’s commandments, especially the one which states “thou shalt not kill.” She also gives Bertha a strong gravitas which Garfield benefits richly from as the movie goes on, and you can see how her presence remained a strong one in Desmond’s life.

Then there’s Vince Vaughn who gives his best performance in quite some time as Army Drill Sergeant Howell. While his work may pale in comparison to R. Lee Ermey’s brutal performance in “Full Metal Jacket,” at least Vaughn invests Howell with a strong dose of human you wouldn’t often expect characters like these to have in war movies.

But the real meat of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes in the last section during the battle sequences. Now Gibson might not be able to match Steven Spielberg’s powerful realism when it came to those unforgettable opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but he tops him when it comes to bloody carnage. Bullets fly everywhere, limbs are blown off and guts are laid out for rats to chew on. This should be no surprise as this movie comes from the director of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” and like those movies, it features a protagonist who has to wade through body parts and blood in order to receive any kind of salvation.

Along with director of photography Simon Duggan, Gibson gives us some of the most visceral and best war movies I have seen in a long time as he shows you the damage war leave in its wake as well as what it does to the souls of those in the front line. It also gives a real-life superhero who selflessly risked his life to help those who could no longer help themselves. While certain sections are undone a bit by an innate corniness which comes with unavoidable clichés, Gibson gives us a war movie for the ages which, in the wrong hands, could have become silly and heavy-handed, but in his, it becomes a celebration of a man who saved so many without even firing a bullet.

“Hacksaw Ridge” had been in development hell for 14 years, and the rights to it were at one point in the hands of Walden Media which wanted to turn Desmond’s story into a PG-13 movie. Something tells me this would have been a mistake as sanitizing the struggles of war would have been an insult to those who fought for our freedoms. Yes, this is an ultra-violent motion picture, but for good reason. Could we have appreciated what Desmond without having a clear view of the chaos he and other soldiers put themselves into? I think not.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Kyle Patrick Alvarez about ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

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Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes us back to the year 1971 when psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted the infamous experiment which had 24 students playing the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison located in the basement of the school’s psychology building. Things start off well, but the experiment soon goes out of control when the guards become increasingly abusive to the prisoners, and Zimbardo is unwilling to stop their brutality as he is infinitely curious to see what it will produce. Zimbardo was out to test his hypothesis of how the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. The experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, but it ended after 6.

What results is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences from the year 2015 as a cast of actors including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, and Logan Miller find themselves caught up in the experiment’s grip to where the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Whereas previous films have observed this experiment from an academic standpoint, this one observes it from an emotional one.

I got to talk with Kyle while he was in Los Angeles to promote “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” His previous films as writer and director were “C.O.G.” in which a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm, and “Easier with Practice” which tells the tale of a novelist going on a road trip with his younger brother to promote his unpublished novel.

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Ben Kenber: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most movies you don’t watch as much as you experience.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: I’m finding that out, yeah (laughs).

BK: There are only so many movies you can say that about. “Deliverance” is a good example of that.

KPA: I was really humbled. When the movie first played I think the first question at the Q&A was, “Did you feel like this movie was an experiment on the audience?” I was so taken aback by the question not in a negative way, but because no one had seen the movie before. I was actually working so hard to not overburden the audience with the story. We even tempered it down a lot. They were stripping guys by the end of day one. I think by the end it’s supposed to become burdensome to watch, and I embrace it now that that’s the reaction, but I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. So the first time the movie screened I was like. okay, it is playing this way to people and I know I can just embrace that now which is good. I hope not every movie I make is like that, but hopefully the movie earns it and then people appreciate the challenge of the experience of watching it.

BK: I remember hearing about this particular experiment while I was in a psychology class in college, and we even watched a documentary about it as well. The one thing that stood out to me the most was when the prisoners started saying “prisoner 819 did a bad thing,” and they kept saying it over and over. I kept waiting for that moment to come up in this movie.

KPA: Oh yeah. I felt like that was one of the really iconic things that you hear. You can hear it over and over and over again in your head, and I think we even joked at one point that they could release a teaser that was just that over and over again. That was interesting to me. As I read the script I had all these things that seemed larger than life, and when you read about it or saw the footage you’re like oh these things really did happen. The Frankenstein walk, to me, is so bizarre and so odd, yet it’s a real thing. To try to make a film that embodies that sort of spirit was hopefully the aim.

BK: This movie is “based on a true story,” but you didn’t use that phrase at the start of it. I was glad you didn’t because this phrase has long since lost its meaning.

KPA: I kind of fought for that a little bit actually. My whole argument was that marketing is going to say it no matter what. I’m a firm believer that you want the movie to stand on its own regardless of marketing, but at the same time I just don’t know anyone that would go to a movie called The Stanford Prison Experiment and not know anything about it and not know it was based on a true thing. I talked about it when I first got involved in the film that “based on a true story” means nothing anymore. The movie I was using for an example was the one where Eric Bana plays a cop who is hunting demons in New York City (“Deliver Us from Evil”), and the trailer says it was “based on a true story.” There are demons in New York; we know this as fact, right? There are not people who hunt demons in New York. Maybe there’s someone who said he does once, but that doesn’t mean it is based on a true story. So, it just doesn’t mean anything to people anymore and it doesn’t carry any weight or value. I tried to think of some other vernacular it could be. I didn’t want it to be like this is a true story because then that says everything in it is true, which is a lie. As soon as you make a movie on anything, nothing in it is true anymore.

BK: With movies based on real events there are dramatic liberties taken, but with this one it sounds like that wasn’t entirely the case.

KPA: I think we reduced the dramatic liberties quite a bit. I think if you look at a movie, for example, like “Lincoln” which takes voting public record and changes it. I don’t mean to slam the film, I like the film quite a bit, but when they’re voting they change the numbers to make it more suspenseful. I don’t think we took any liberties anywhere near that extreme. Maybe some people who were in the experiment could argue that it wasn’t really that intense or something like that. Others may argue that the intensity comes from putting the camera in their faces or the artistic representation of it. Two of our biggest liberties are when Ezra (Miller) and Brett (Davern) escape the prison. In real life the guy really did take a panel off. He was a guitar player and took the panel off with a sundial, broke the lock and I think they tried to open a door, but a guard was there and admonished them and told them that they had to fix the lock. We added an extra couple hundred feet. When we were doing that we said that we were gonna add this chase sequence because the movie needs to breathe and open up a bit. I thought Tim (Talbott) had done a really good job with that in the script. But then when Phil (Zimbardo) comes around and the other guys, there’s a reason we never see them touch them because they didn’t. That was where we were embellishing a little bit for the sake of the narrative, but we’re not abandoning the fundamentals of what this experiment was about. Those guys did not touch them or physically harass them so we didn’t show that, and having Phil involved was a really good and constant reminder of what those fundamentals are that we shouldn’t change. The ending, when they called it off, actually Phil and Christina kind of said that they needed to call this off and they came up with a plan to do it professionally. For me, you show that and there is an anti-climactic nature to that. I think the emotions are real and that they were being felt, and we just put them in at different times for the ending. I was really interested in making a film that could hold up. If you sit down and watch the documentary “Quiet Rage,” you will go oh, that is actually pretty similar. I didn’t want to make a movie that would replace that or replace “The Lucifer Effect.” I wanted to make a film that would work in tandem with those where it would feel like you could gain something a little more emotional and different than if you just did the academia side.

BK: The actors are all fantastic in the movie and they each give very intense performances. Watching them made me wonder if the movie was an experiment on them.

KPA: In a weird way, I almost wish I had this story to make interviews more exciting about these kids became their characters and I became like Zimbardo. But the truth was I think I was actually overtly aware of that potential, and actually it would have worked so hard against us. If you ask any of the guys, they will say that they had a lot of fun. You only have two options: either go down the path where everyone has fun and everyone gets along, or you gotta push it to go really extreme. I am not a big manipulator. If an actor wants me to manipulate them I will work with that, but on this film it was one of those things where it’s like when the camera’s rolling we’re on, and when it’s off be respectful. Some guys might need more space and might want to stay in character a little bit more, but it never took on the form of the experiment. We did spend two and a half weeks in that hallway, and we were sick of the hallway. We were ready to be done. Sure, some feelings were created, but I told them everyone every day that this is like a soccer game where we all shake hands at the end. So if something is going on that you’re not comfortable with, just say it. I said that probably more to the guards than the prisoners, but once it came down to doing those few physical things in the movie the actors loved it. Nick and Ezra had worked together before so they already respected each other, and they would just run through their scenes and had such a blast. For me, in a weird way we actually worked against that, and I think consequently the actors look back on it very fondly. I also think we got, for the nature of the movie and the tight shooting schedule, better stuff from them because they just felt more invigorated. I would just love to be able to build a career out of actors having good experiences. That’s my favorite party of the process, working with actors. I admire what they do so much because I never could, so it’s honoring that by working to each person. But this is the first time I ever did an ensemble piece and it was a little more about telling them hey this is what it’s going to be like, hey it’s not going to get out of control, guards you are going to follow the script and if you want to push something a little bit more than we’ll talk about it as opposed to unleashing them. There have been previous iterations of this project where that had been the aim where they try to create this potboiler environment where the actors really lose it, but I think what you get with that is more of a machismo quality. I jokingly refer to it as the David Ayer effect. I like his movies so it’s not a slam on them at all, but he’s making testosterone and there’s no doubt about it. I actually was more interested in making the inverse of that. The set was like a frat house, but the aggression was coming from a more complicated place. There wasn’t any actual physical violence. When you look closely at the movie there is no drop of blood other than one or two moments. No one was physically hurt, and so we were really careful to honor that while still creating tension.

BK: One interesting scene is when Ezra Miller’s character gets arrested as part of the experiment. He treats it like it’s no big deal at first, but then the cops slam his head on the car and his mood changes instantly.

KPA: They really did get real cops and they said arrest these guys like they are really criminals. This is something we didn’t have the money to shoot, but they actually took them to the police station and fingerprinted them and booked them and took photos of them and everything. They really put them through this simulation and it really got to them. The cops were really putting paper bags on their heads. Someone criticized the film once saying that they used too much on the nose imagery from Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the bags. I was like no, no, no, Abu Ghraib just did the same exact thing.

BK: It seems like certain audience members need to be reminded that the Stanford Prison Experiment took place long before Abu Ghraib.

KPA: Oh yeah. It’s one of those stories that’s too bizarre to be true. It’s hard to accept that it was true. I knew there was no way to succeed 100% on this but I tried to work the hardest to make a film that didn’t just always say, “Well it really did happen.” That’s not enough of an answer when you make a movie like this because you have to make the audience feel like it could have happened. I wanted it to be like, “Well I understand why it happened.”

BK: By the time the movie gets to day three, it feels like we have been with these guys for a month.

KPA: Yeah (laughs), that’s how they felt too. They really did not know how many days had passed. They weren’t sleeping which I think was the biggest thing. You can go 36 hours without sleep when you start to legitimately lose your mind, and I think that’s a huge part of what happened.

BK: The Stanford Prison Experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up being shut down after 6 days. Some have said that it wasn’t because the experiment wasn’t successful, but that it was too successful. Would you say that was the case?

KPA: I think once you talk about success of the experiment you start to bring into the question its true purpose and its ethics. I was really interested in pushing questions of things like that in the movie. At the same time, I didn’t want to fall into the question of, was this okay? People are still arguing the exact same things, so I figured we are never going to solve this. 40 years later people are still arguing whether this experiment succeeded or not or whether it should have never have ever been done in the first place. What we do know now is that the experiment would never be allowed to happen today. It was military financed. Partly because of the experiment, there are so many more checks and balances in place. When I first sat down with Billy (Crudup), one of the things he said was, “How could everyone be so naïve to not realize this would happen?” And I said, “Well of course, they could have because it hadn’t happened yet.” Now it’s easier for us to go, “Well, of course, it would have gone wrong. What were they thinking?” They were doing experiments like this all the time; simulations or recreations. This was just part of what psychologists were doing at the time. This was the time it just really imploded.

BK: That’s a good point. Ever since then we have a better understanding of the power dynamic between prisoners and guards more than ever before.

KPA: Yeah, and that’s why I added a line at the end when Billy is talking to the camera. He says, “There was no sense of precedent. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” I thought that was a really important element.

I want to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Selma

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Had “Selma” been released a number of years ago, people would probably just see it as another movie which chronicles a historical moment which has long since passed us by. But with all the upheaval in places like Ferguson, Missouri where violence against people of color is increasing substantially and the Voting Rights Act having taken a very unnecessary hit, this movie could not be timelier. What we see in “Selma” now feels like prologue as the fight for equal rights continues on to this very day. By now we should very well know we’re not living in a post-racial society.

“Selma” takes us back to the year 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and several others led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to obtain equal voting rights for African Americans. It was tough times indeed as Dr. King faces an uphill battle with everyone including President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who is not quick to pass a Voting Rights Act as he is still dealing with civil unrest in the South which he is desperately trying to get under control. But King knows this is not an issue that can wait much longer to be addressed.

I have got to start off by saying David Oyelowo is a powerhouse in his portrayal of Dr. King, and he holds our attention completely from the very first moment he appears onscreen. It should be noted how Oyelowo campaigned for this role for seven years and managed to keep it even after the original director, Lee Daniels, departed the project. I have seen Oyelowo do memorable work in movies like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Lincoln” and “A Most Violent Year,” but I couldn’t find a trace of him in “Selma.” It felt like I was really watching Martin Luther King Jr. resurrected and walking among us again. Not once does Oyelowo succumb to doing a mere impersonation of the man who had a dream we still want to see become a reality. There’s a saying that in the theater you play a character and in film you are the character, and Oyelowo is definitely the man here.

The other big star of “Selma” is its director Ava DuVernay who brings this ever so important story to life so vividly. Granted, in some ways her presentation of the 60’s feels a little routine, and some scenes feel one-sided when they shouldn’t. Her portrayal of the marches, however, is appropriately devastating as she makes you feel ever blow inflicted by those afraid of change. These scenes do not leave the mind easily. King and his supporters are determined to protest in a non-violent way, and it’s hard not to feel for them when their supporters are being beaten senselessly. Deep down you want to see them fight back against the brutality even though we’re aware to do so will be giving the opposition far more ammunition than they deserve.

“Selma” also features a wealth of great performances from actors like Oprah Winfrey who channels her inner Sofia (the character she played in “The Color Purple”) for her role as Annie Lee Cooper who, at the movie’s start, is cruelly denied the opportunity to register to vote. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson as he adds layers to the former President which the screenplay doesn’t always give him. Tim Roth also turns in a strong performance as George Wallace, the always welcome Wendell Pierce is excellent as Hosea Williams, and Dylan Baker is ever so effective as J. Edgar Hoover to where I ended up trying to remember the actor’s name while watching this film.

Another performance worth giving special note to is Carmen Ejogo’s as Coretta Scott King. Ejogo played this role previously in the 2011 movie “Boycott.” She and Oyelowo have a great scene together when she questions him about his alleged infidelity, and no music score is needed to empower it as DuVernay wisely focuses on the actors for all they are worth. Watching these actors here makes for one of the most compelling scenes I have seen in any 2014 movie.

Is “Selma” accurate to what actually happened in history? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. All that matters to me is that it is true to the spirit of the facts more than anything else. We are beyond the point where we should expect movies “based on a true story” to be completely accurate to what actually occurred because dramatic considerations have to be taken into effect. While some argue Johnson was more open to King’s request for voting rights than he was shown to be here, there’s no denying the one most passionate about this issue was King himself. Whether or not this movie fails on a historical accuracy level, it does succeed on a dramatic one.

Having said all this, I kind of wished “Selma” didn’t paint a number of its character in such broad strokes. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” which observed its characters, regardless of color or nationality, with a lot more thoughtfulness and dimension. The fact that “Selma” doesn’t quite succeed in doing this is a bit frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the powerful effect the movie will have on those who take the time to see it.

“Selma” doesn’t just take us back to an important period in history; it reminds us of the things we as Americans should be fighting for. The movie shows many people of different races and religions joining Dr. King in this fight for an equality no one should have to fight for in this country. But here we are years later, and it turns out the fight is far from over. Once again, we have a lot to learn from history.

* * * ½ out of * * * *