Naomi Watts on Portraying a Tsunami Survivor in ‘The Impossible’

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

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

Australian actress Naomi Watts gives an emotionally pulverizing performance in J.A. Bayona’sThe Impossible,” a film which chronicles one family’s struggle for survival in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In it, Watts plays Maria, a doctor who is staying with her husband and children in a beautiful resort in Thailand for the Christmas holiday. This vacation comes to a horrific end when the tsunami decimates the country’s coastal zone and separates Maria and her son Lucas from the rest of her family. The role has Watts dealing with her fear of water, playing a character based on a real-life person, and the immense difficulty of shooting in not one, but two giant water tanks.

While at the movie’s press conference which was held at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Watts described playing Maria as being “the most physically, emotionally draining role” she has ever taken on since “King Kong.” Considering she has played such equally draining roles in “21 Grams” and “Mulholland Drive,” that’s saying a lot. After doing “King Kong” she said she would never take on a role like that again, but even she couldn’t say no this script or working with Bayona who made the acclaimed horror movie “The Orphanage.”

Unlike the tsunami sequence in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” the one in “The Impossible” was done with real effects and no CGI. This makes the sequence all the more harrowing to watch, and seeing Watts hang onto a tree for dear life while water keeps rushing furiously by here makes for one of the most emotionally intense sequences in any 2012 movie. In an interview with Steven Rea which was featured on the Philly.com website, Watts talked about what it was like shooting the sequence which itself took four weeks to complete.

“I didn’t know it was going to be so difficult,” Watts told Rea. “They had it all very well prepared – we had allegedly the second largest water tank in the world, and they had these giant cups that we were anchored into . . . so you were just above water level, you could use your head, and you can use your arms so you looked like you were swimming. . . . And you’re on this track, and then a giant wave was coming towards you . . . and then side pumps were shooting more water, and all the garbage and debris. . ..”

“So, it got increasingly difficult, and then we noticed that we couldn’t actually act, or speak,” Watts continued. “We were lucky if we could get one word out, and that word would be ‘LU-CAS!’ It was tough, and then the underwater stuff was even more difficult. That was very scary.”

You have to give Watts a lot of credit not just for the brave performance she gives, but also for how making this movie made her deal with her fear of water. This was not the result of watching “Jaws” several dozen times, but of a near drowning accident she had when a teenager. She related this story to NPR’s Melissa Block.

“When I was about 14, my family emigrated from England to Australia, and we decided to stop in Bali on the way through. And having grown up in England, we were not great swimmers and knew nothing about riptides,” Watts told Block. “Anyway, we got caught in a riptide, and I didn’t know what to do other than swim against it, and got to the point of exhaustion, and then just about gave up. But then my mother, somehow, miraculously found sand beneath her feet and just managed to pull me in. And so, as a result of that experience, I’ve always been afraid of the waves and strong currents, so it’s quite interesting that I ended up doing this.”

It’s very interesting indeed, and it makes you admire Watts all the more for playing this character. After learning about her near-death experience, it becomes clear the fear which crosses the actress’ face onscreen was not at all faked.

Another big challenge for Watts in playing this role was it was based on a real-life person, Maria Belon, who, along with her family, amazingly survived the tsunami which claimed thousands of lives, and she herself suffered some serious injuries which had her at death’s door a few times. It’s always intimidating to portray a person from real life, especially one who’s still alive and has been through an experience we are grateful not to have gone through ourselves. While at “The Impossible” press conference, Watts talked about what it was like to meet Belon.

“Originally when I met Maria, I was incredibly nervous and I didn’t know where to begin. I felt like, I’m just an actor and you have lived through this extraordinary horrendous thing, and I just don’t know where to start,” Watts said of their first meeting. “But we sat there in front of each other for five minutes, she didn’t feel the need to speak and I couldn’t, and then she started just welling up and the story was told just through a look. I started welling up and then we just thought okay, let’s get on with this, and she continued to speak for three and a half hours and time just went by like that.”

“She stayed with me the whole time,” Watts continued. “I don’t just mean physically, but we were connected. We sent emails back and forth, and she would write endless letters about all the details that took place. The thing that she talked about was her instinct and her ability to trust herself which I think we lose so often. I feel like I am full of self-doubt and second guessing which is why this story becomes an interesting one because you wonder how you would deal with this.”

Naomi Watt’s performance in “The Impossible” deserves a Purple Heart as much as it does an Oscar. As an actress, she appears to be plumbing the depths of her soul to pull off roles like this one, and I think she’s one of the bravest actresses working today. While she may be yearning to stay away from roles like this in the future, it’s hard to think of many other actresses who can go to the places she goes to portray raw emotion so honestly.

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Naomi Watts On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.

Steven Rea, “Naomi Watts endured physically harrowing work for ‘The Impossible,’” Philly.com, December 20, 2012.

Melissa Block, “Naomi Watts, Mulling ‘The Impossible,’” NPR, December 12, 2012.

Tsunami Survivor Maria Belon Reflects on ‘The Impossible’

The Impossible Maria Belon photo

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

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

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

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

The Impossible movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impossible JA Bayona photo

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

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

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

The Impossible movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Performances Make ‘3 Generations’ Worth a Look

3 Generations movie poster

I prefer to review movies for what they are as opposed to what I wanted them to be, but with “3 Generations,” this proves to be a bit of a challenge. For the most part, I think it is a sweet and thoughtful movie about transgender issues. But yes, it could have dug deeper into an issue many struggle with in life as this one touches on the family dynamics at play when one member decides to transition to another gender. For many, this is a volatile issue with many psychological scars being inflicted on those who do not deserve to be misunderstood, but director Gaby Dellal and her co-writer Nikole Beckwith at times take this story in a comical direction to where it borders on becoming a sitcom. Still, I can’t help but like this movie for what it is as deals with its subject matter in a sympathetic way and features three terrific performances which alone make it worth the price of admission.

Elle Fanning stars as Ramona who is now going by the name Ray because she sees herself as “a boy with tits.” Ray sees herself (excuse me, himself) as a boy trapped in a girl’s body, and he is determined to undergo gender reassignment to correct this. The main obstacle, however, is getting the consent of her parents to go through with it. His mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), is willing to sign off on the procedure even though her anxiety and concerns over Ray’s decision make her smoke close to a full pack of cigarettes a day. His father, Craig (Tate Donovan), has been out of the picture for so long that Maggie would rather everyone believe he is dead. As for Ray’s grandmother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), she wonders why he can’t simply be a lesbian like her.

At the center of “3 Generations” is Fanning who gives an excellent and heartwarming performance as Ray, and she fully invests in her character’s commitment to changing his identity into something far more acceptable to himself. Watching her is also a strong reminder of how teenagers are brilliant at seeing straight through their parents’ hypocrisy and bullshit to where they threaten to be more mature than those raising them. Whereas the other characters around him face an intense level of worry and anxiety, Ray knows exactly what he wants and shows zero doubt over what he feels he needs to do, and it represents the bravery I wish I had as a teenager.

You can never go wrong with Watts in anything she appears in, and she inhabits Maggie as your average mother; always wanting the best for her child while constantly worrying about the future. Maggie is almost convinced Ray will come to her one day with a beard on his face saying he made a mistake, but she is also the one closest to him willing to grant his wish to become a boy. Watts makes Maggie’s suffering all the more relatable as she reminds us all of how life is all about suffering, but through it all, we can find a happiness which a lot of times feels out of reach.

Sarandon is a wonderful presence here as Dolly who lives with her lover Frances (Linda Elmond), Maggie and Ray all under the same roof in a big apartment in New York’s West Village. This Oscar-winning actress is always great at playing the veteran mother who has seen it all and approaches her daughter’s problems like the pro she is. At the same time, her scenes tend to get overwhelmed by sitcom-like humor which threatens to take away from this movie more often than not. Still, Sarandon won me over as she always does, and the moments with Elmond remind us of the constant struggles couples go through. And by this, I mean any couple.

“3 Generations” works best when it focuses on Ray and his struggle become the boy he was always meant to be. We see him working out trying to build muscle, and he is determined to switch schools in order to get a fresh start in life once his transition is complete. At times, it focuses a little too much on the adults in this situation, and this is even though their concerns deserve our attention as well. While humor does come in handy in stories like these as they can become painfully too real, the filmmakers go a little overboard especially in a scene where Watts and Sarandon try different ways to treat Ray’s black eye.

Yes, this is a flawed movie that should have been better, but I still found myself liking “3 Generations” quite a bit as the performances are strong, and it has some surprises up its sleeve as it heads towards the finish line where we are reminded of how parents are never, ever perfect human beings. It all leads up to a final scene between a mother and her child which brought a real smile to my face as the constant struggles we face in life can lead to moments of true happiness.

Perhaps the transgender community deserves a strong movie than “3 Generations,” or maybe there are several out there we haven’t bothered to watch yet. All the same, I enjoyed this movie for what it was, and for me, that was enough. Still, it is a little hard to believe a family like this can afford such a big apartment in New York. You know the rents out there are ridiculously expensive, right?

* * * out of * * * *

“3 Generations” was originally given an R rating, but The Weinstein Company managed to succeed in getting the MPAA to give it a PG-13 which makes a lot more sense. This movie is certainly appropriate for teenagers, and this subject matter really shouldn’t be off limits to them. Then again, the MPAA has made many mistakes throughout the years, and it is unlikely this will be their last.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman movie poster

Will there be a more perfectly executed movie in 2014 than “Birdman?” It’s hard to believe there will as director Alejandro González Iñárritu succeeds in giving us a truly brilliant movie going experience which combines amazing technical aspects with a strong story and actors who give some of the best performances of their career. Your eyes will remain glued to the screen from start to finish as “Birdman” takes you on a cinematic journey we seldom go on, and you will leave the theater feeling mesmerized and in awe of what everyone managed to accomplish with a budget which is a mere fraction of today’s average blockbuster.

I’m always happy to see Michael Keaton in any movie he appears in, and he is crazy brilliant as Riggan Thomson, an actor who became a star after playing the superhero Birdman in a movie trilogy. As we catch up with him, he is now a washed-up actor whose glory days have long since passed him by. In an effort to restart his career and achieve true greatness as an actor, he decides to mount his own production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a play which is based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. Riggan has put everything he has into this project and has even mortgaged his home to put up the capital for it. It’s hard not to sense his desperation as this play which he adapted to the stage, produced, directed and stars in threatens to become a total disaster.

Suffice to say, things are not going well as one of the cast members gets seriously injured before previews are set to begin, Riggan is trying to repair his relationship with his family while having an affair with one of the actresses, his daughter has just gotten out of rehab and is working as his assistant, and he has just cast a new actor whose ego is every bit as big as his talent. As his stress level increases, he begins to lose touch with reality and soon finds himself haunted by his most famous character who constantly urges him to take matters into his own hands.

Now many are calling “Birdman” Keaton’s comeback movie, but this is not entirely fair. Keaton never disappeared from the limelight, and while his career may not be as hot as it once was when he appeared in Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies, he remains a standout in each film he appears in whether it’s “The Other Guys” or “Toy Story 3.” But with “Birdman,” Keaton gets a role which is more than worthy of his talents, and he makes the most of this opportunity and then some. As unlikable as Riggan may be when it comes to how he treats others, Keaton makes you empathize with him as he tries to do right by himself as the play’s premiere comes at him sooner than he thinks. It’s a tour de force performance, and hopefully it will bring Keaton the Oscar nomination he should have gotten years ago for “Clean & Sober.”

But the real stars of “Birdman” are Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who brilliantly succeed in making this movie look as if it was all shot in one take. They make us feel like we are floating along into these characters’ lives as they struggle to make this play the best anyone in New York has ever seen. Even if you think you can spot where and when Iñárritu cuts from one scene to another, the movie still feels remarkably seamless from start to finish. Some filmmakers value the visual aspects of a movie over the acting or vice versa, but Iñárritu manages to balance out both to brilliant effect, and it makes for one heck of a cinematic experience. Heck, you can’t even help but wonder about what the cast and crew went through while making “Birdman” because there’s no way this could have been a walk in the park for anybody.

It’s impossible to think of an actor other than Edward Norton who could play the infinitely egotistical actor Mike Shiner so perfectly. Director Brett Ratner once described Norton as being someone whose mission it was to save a movie and of how this can be your best asset or your worst nightmare. I couldn’t help but think about what Ratner said as I watched Norton burst onto the scene and insinuate his character into a play about to be previewed to an audience. When it comes to method actors, they can take things too literally and Norton shows just how ridiculously far one can go. It’s one of his best performances to date.

I also loved watching Emma Stone who plays Riggan’s daughter, Sam. Stone has been a fiery actress ever since we first saw her, and you can’t take your eyes off of her whenever she’s onscreen. Stone makes Sam into a wonderfully realized character who is trying to stay one step ahead of what has brought her down in the past, and she gives a riveting performance which shows just how far her range as an actress can stretch. While she may not have been able to save “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (in all fairness, no one could), she is a truly unforgettable presence here.

Other great performances in “Birdman” come from Naomi Watts who plays the amazingly insecure actress Lesley, and I have yet to see her suck in any movie she appears in. Andrea Riseborough, who stole a number of scenes from Tom Cruise in “Oblivion,” is wonderful as Laura, the actress Riggan may or may not have gotten pregnant. Zach Galifianakis takes on an unusual role for him as Riggan’s best friend and producer, Jake, who goes through hell in order to get this play off the ground. And then there’s Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who still has feelings for him even as he continues to do her wrong. Ryan never disappoints, and I love how she finds the good in Riggan when no one else can.

“Birdman” is the kind of movie which makes seeing movies on the big screen a sheer necessity. It challenges the realm of cinema to show what can be accomplished, and it gives us quite the kind of ride movies should be taking us on in a much more frequent way. In a year overwhelmed with tent pole franchises and a barrage of superhero franchises, this movie stands out as brilliantly unique and impossible to dismiss or forget.

* * * * out of * * * *

St. Vincent

St Vincent movie poster

Leave it to “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Murray to play the ultimate sad sack loser whom you manage to find some empathy for. Other great actors have played this kind of role to great effect like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, and Billy Bob Thornton, but I am convinced after watching the movie “St. Vincent” that no one does it better than Murray. Even if the character he plays appears to be an irredeemable jerk, Murray still makes you see there is at least one redemptive quality in this infinitely cynical soul.

Murray plays the Vincent of the movie’s title, but he doesn’t look anything like a saint when we first meet him. We see him getting liquored up frequently and betting on the horses, and he clearly he has more luck getting drunk than he does at gambling. Then he comes to discover he is beyond flat broke (there is such a thing) as he borrowed money against his house to an alarming degree, and a local bookie named Zucko (Terrence Howard) informs him he has a serious debt to pay.

We watch Vincent dance all by himself to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” and we can’t help but wonder if he cares if anyone loves him in the slightest. In case you haven’t noticed, Vincent is not the nicest person to be around.

As his troubled times ramble on, Vincent suddenly discovers he has some new neighbors which include the recently divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). They don’t get off to a good start as their moving van accidentally hits a tree and damages Vincent’s fence and his “antique” car. Vincent doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in giving them a warm welcome as he is in getting reimbursed for the damage done, but when Maggie finds herself forced to work long hours, she has no choice but to let Vincent babysit Oliver while she’s away.

Vincent’s idea of taking care of Oliver includes going to the racetrack where his luck with the horses changes dramatically, and he teaches Oliver to defend himself which comes in handy when he has to get back at the school bully. Now these are not the kind of things you teach a child, but it helps break the ice between them to where they come to enjoy each other’s company.

Murray does not need to win an Oscar to show us all what a great actor he is because we have known this for years now. His performances in “Rushmore,” “Lost in Translation” and “Groundhog Day” show just how far his range stretches, and he does wonders with a character we would be quick to hate in real life. Even when “St. Vincent” becomes a little too sentimental for its own good, Murray never fakes an emotion and we feel for him regardless of how he treats others. The sad look in his eyes speaks volumes and tells us what we need to know about Vincent without him having to spell it out for everyone.

It’s also nice to see Melissa McCarthy in a good movie for a change. Ever since her brilliant supporting turn in “Bridesmaids,” she has been stuck doing solid work in bad movies like “Identity Thief” and “Tammy,” but here she is served by a good script and a role which allows her to take a more serious turn. She’s wonderful here as Maggie, a single mom who’s doing the best she can under difficult circumstances, and she scores some funny moments as well, especially when it comes to a certain plant.

Seeing Chris O’Dowd play Catholic school teacher Brother Geraghty is amusingly ironic as we last saw him as a very anti-Catholic character in “Calvary,” and he is wonderful to watch here. As for Terrence Howard, he has this brilliant ability to take stock characters like the angry bookie and make them seem not the least bit cliché, and his performance as Zucko is yet another example of that. And then there’s Naomi Watts who knocks it out of the park as pregnant Russian stripper Daka, and she gets the accent down perfectly.

But seriously, the performance I was most impressed with in “St. Vincent” was Jaeden Lieberher’s as Oliver as he gives us the perfect example of a child who can see right through adult hypocrisy. It’s such a genuine and unforced performance to where Lieberher inhabits Oliver more than plays him, and he makes this young man come across as smarter and far more mature than the adults around him.

“St. Vincent” was written and directed by Theodore Melfi, and he travels through the familiar “Scent of a Woman” territory to where you have a good idea of where this movie is heading. As I said earlier, it does get a little too sentimental at times, but Melfi throws some interesting twists into the mix I didn’t see coming. I also like how Oliver fights off the school bully and then becomes really good friends with him. It’s not often in movies that you see something like that happen.

When it comes down to it, “St. Vincent” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is very well made and features some truly memorable performances. Will Murray get an Oscar nomination for his work here? Probably not, but that’s because he gives a subtle performance the Academy never appreciates enough. Regardless, he continues to turn in one great performance after another, and his work in this movie is just the latest example.

* * * out of * * * *