Jamie Foxx on Saddling Up For ‘Django Unchained’

Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

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

It was a role originally meant for Will Smith, but after watching “Django Unchained” it will be hard to think of any actor who could have played Django better than Jamie Foxx. The Oscar-winning actor came from the world of comedy where he has done hilarious work, but he continues to impress us with one terrific dramatic performance after another in films like “Collateral,” “Ali” and “Any Given Sunday.” The role of Django is one of the biggest and most challenging Foxx has taken on, and he convincingly takes this character from being a helpless slave to becoming a slick bounty hunter in splendid fashion.

When it comes to working with Quentin Tarantino, he’s always ready to show his actors movies they can base their characters on. Foxx was no exception to this, and Tarantino got him to watch Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western “Django,” a movie which serves as one of “Django Unchained’s” biggest inspirations. It starred Franco Nero as a coffin-dragging gunslinger who comes into town and gets caught up in a feud between the KKK and a bunch of Mexican bandits. While talking with Rebecca Murray of About.com, Foxx explained what impact watching “Django” had on him as well working with Nero who has a cameo in “Django Unchained.”

“I was like, wow, it was amazing. And then to actually have the original Django in the movie. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he was the biggest star on the set,” Foxx told Murray. “For him to give his blessing, and I think it really follows true to it and I think that’s what’s going to be the pleasant surprise to people, that it’s a Western and that it stays along the lines of a Western that happens to be in the backdrop of slavery. Slavery almost becomes secondary at a certain point because at the beginning it’s traditional, slave. Then once he becomes this bounty hunter, that’s the backdrop. Now it’s about revenge and about getting this girl, so he stayed true to that and that’s cinematic.”

While at the “Django Unchained” press conference, Foxx made it clear he was ever so eager to work with Tarantino on it. He had no qualms about playing a slave, and what attracted him to the role was Django’s uprising. Movies have always been an outlet for the artists who make them and the audiences that watch them, and Foxx explained what makes this one particularly cathartic.

“When you see movies about slavery…we never get a chance to see the slave actually fight back, actually do for himself, and in this movie there are a lot of firsts,” Foxx said.

Despite the fact it is a genre movie and a revenge fantasy of sorts, “Django Unchained” does deal with America’s dark history of slavery. Tarantino never sugar coats it for mass audience consumption, but then again, why should anyone? It’s an ugly part of the past we’d like to ignore, but it needs to be acknowledged so we can learn from it in the hopes of never repeating it again. As a result, the movie has been greeted with controversy over its subject matter and the frequent use of the n-word with many people (and not just Spike Lee) complaining loudly about it. But Foxx, in an interview with Keith Staskiewicz of Entertainment Weekly, said he is not surprised at the strong response “Django Unchained” has been getting and doesn’t think anyone else should be either.

“You know it’s going to be controversial!” Foxx told Staskiewicz. “That’s what’s been blowing my mind, people saying, did you know this was going to be controversial? It’s like, come on man! Did you read the script? Why would Quentin Tarantino do anything that wasn’t controversial? What movie of his have you seen where you went, oh, this is a Hallmark Movie and rated G? That’s not what you sign up for. You don’t sign up for that.”

Still, Foxx admitted it was a tough movie to make considering part of it was shot at the Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana. It was at this same plantation where slaves were made to work, and they suffered and toiled under brutal conditions. Being there must have been deeply unsettling for everyone involved in the movie’s making, and it certainly had a strong impact on Foxx which he wasn’t about to ignore.

“It’s tough shooting when you’re in plantation row and that’s where your ancestors were persecuted and killed, and we were respectful of that,” Foxx told Staskiewicz.

Regardless of the controversy, “Django Unchained” proved to be one of the most entertaining movies of 2012 thanks to Tarantino’s clever screenplay and direction, and also because of the sensational performances from the cast. Jamie Foxx can add Django to his roster of great screen roles in a career which still has many more to be revealed. Foxx also made a very good point about the film’s subject matter to Adam Edelman of the New York Daily News which people really need to think about.

“Every two, three years there is a movie about the Holocaust because they want you to remember and they want you to be reminded of what it was,” Foxx said. “When was the last time you seen a movie about slavery?”

 

SOURCES:

Rebecca Murray, “Interview with Jamie Foxx from ‘Django Unchained,'” About.com

Matt Donato, “Interview With The Cast Of Django Unchained,” We Got This Covered

Keith Staskiewicz, “‘Django Unchained’: Jamie Foxx on portraying slavery and filming on an actual plantation,” Entertainment Weekly, December 14, 2012.

Adam Edelman, “‘Django Unchained’ star Jamie Foxx: ‘Every single thing in my life is built around race,'” New York Daily News, December 14, 2012.

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Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

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

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.

Matthew Goode on Portraying Such an Evil Character in ‘Stoker’

Matthew Goode in Stoker

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

Matthew Goode’s performance as the enigmatic Uncle Charlie in “Stoker” brings to mind the one Joseph Cotton gave as Charlie Oakley in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” Both men show a pleasant and courteous exterior, but there’s something in their eyes which tells you they are really twisted. Goode has delivered many strong performances in movies like “Match Point,” “Watchmen” and “A Single Man,” but it’s going to be impossible to forget him after seeing him playing a very frightening sociopath in this one.

Now playing a character as evil as Uncle Charlie has got to be a lot of fun for actors, but at the same time they really can’t judge a character like this too much. Once they do, they fail to portray them in a truthful way and their performance eventually rings false. Goode, in an interview with Nigel M. Smith of Indiewire, however, made it clear he was not about to fall into the same trap.

“I’m not a method actor; I think that would be rather exhausting on this sort of a project. But I don’t judge the character; I think that’s safe to say,” Goode told Smith. “You’re conning yourself between action and take. I don’t think about it too much, I just do what you have to do. You know there’s a camera in your face, and there are times when you can just get completely lost in it and the take is over. Then sometimes it’s very choreographed and you have to get your head in there to match with someone’s eye line, and I love that. I love the technique.”

“So with a darker character like this, it’s quite fun,” Goode continued. “It’s something that’s very different to who I am. I’m not a sociopath and I don’t go around strangling people. It’s just like kids playing. That’s really what our job is. We haven’t grown up.”

The other important thing to remember with a role like this is not to play it as evil. Yes, Uncle Charlie is evil as can be, but to portray just that one side of him would make for a very boring performance. You have to look at this character like you would any other and examine their wants, needs and motivations. In doing so, you will give yourself different areas to explore, and your performance will be all the better for it. In talking with Katie Calautti of Spinoff Online, Goode explained how he went about preparing to play Uncle Charlie.

“You can’t just play bad,” Goode told Calautti. “I wouldn’t even know how to start playing bad, or what that even means – it’s so two-dimensional. So you have to find some sense, despite his despicable acts, some kind of psychological truth of why. And director Park (Chan-wook) talked about bad blood and the idea that there was a predisposition within the family bloodline to want or need to commit these acts, and where does evil come from, is it nature or nurture? And for me they’re all very lonely, isolated characters. So I felt like, as much as this is a coming-of-age story for Mia (Wasikowska’s) character, Charlie’s kind of trapped in the past.”

The best scene in “Stoker” comes when Goode joins Wasikowska on the piano, and the two engage in a duet which can be best described as beautifully intense. Watching these two actors duel with one another while pounding away at those black and white keys was exhilarating, and it was the one scene from this film I wanted to know the most about. Karen Benardello of We Got This Covered was at the film’s press conference and asked Goode what it was like shooting this particular scene.

“It became liberating in the end,” Goode said. “I hadn’t played the piano in 20-odd years. So coming back into the fold of the piano, it was unbelievably daunting. Luckily, I don’t have a bad-sized hand, so I didn’t have to leap or anything like that. But it was hard work, but it was great working with Mia. We learned about three quarters of it, because some of it was just too hard, and too much going on with both hands. But we were able to fake some of that, and he was able to shoot the whole thing from whatever angle he wanted. We kind of recognized that in the vocabulary of filmmaking. When someone starts playing, you think, is he actually playing that? (laughs) He was able to dip down, and you go, they are! It’s not a trick on the audience, so it was nice.”

Hopefully Matthew Goode’s performance in “Stoker” will help burn his name into our collective consciousness because every moment he is onscreen is filled with a rising tension which never lets up. While he doesn’t let you in on all his character’s secrets, you know he is like a snake waiting to strike. He has already worked with a number of well-known directors such as Woody Allen, Tom Ford and Zack Snyder, but Goode makes it clear how a lot of the opportunities which have come his way so far have been the result of sheer luck.

“I’m not the person who’s able to pick and choose their roles,” Goode said. “But I know that Nicole [Kidman], for example, has said that she’s interested now – there might be a film in the studio system, but she loves independent film and she thinks that’s much more where her desires are, and the films she kind of likes. And so I think she is able to say to herself, ‘I like to choose projects not only based on the material but also the filmmaker,’ which is wonderful for her. And I think I just happen to have been quite lucky in the fact that the material that I gravitate towards or the people that have thought I am going to be better suited to it – because it’s not my choice, they’ve picked me. I’ve been lucky as hell, and the parts have been quite varied.”

 

SOURCES:

Nigel M. Smith, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode On the Joys of Playing a Sociopath and Working for Park Chan-Wook,” Indiewire, March 5, 2013.

Katie Calautti, “‘Stoker’ Star Matthew Goode on Evil, Parenting and, Yes, Belts,” Spinoff Online, March 1, 2013.

Karen Benardello, “Interview with Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode And Chan-wook Park On ‘Stoker,'” We Got This Covered, March 8, 2013.

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.

Olivia Wilde Discusses Playing Liza in ‘Deadfall’

Olivia Wilde in Deadfall

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

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

Deadfall movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOURCES:

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

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

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

‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

nightcrawler movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

David Gordon Green Captures an Authentic Reality in ‘Joe’

Joe movie poster

One of 2014’s most underrated and overlooked movies was “Joe.” Directed by David Gordon Green, who just directed the incredibly successful reboot of “Halloween,” it stars Nicolas Cage in one of the best performances as Joe, an ex-convict and a foreman for a small tree removal crew in Texas. One day, Joe is met by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old drifter who has just moved into town with his wayward family, and he ends up giving the young man a job on his crew. However, Gary’s father is an alcoholic bastard who beats up everyone and anyone in his path, and this presents Joe with the choice of finding redemption in his life or meeting his maker by putting an end to this vicious situation Gary has been tragically caught up in.

For Green, “Joe” represents a return to his independent roots where he made his mark with films like “George Washington” and “All the Right Girls.” As a result, he ends up capturing a reality of life which is not easily captured in other movies as we watch characters native to the state they live in trying to get by in life. Green ended up hiring non-actors to play certain roles as he wanted to capture the realism of the environment these people live in.

I was lucky enough to attend the press junket for “Joe” held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the website We Got This Covered, and I asked Green what it was like capturing the authenticity of these people and where they live. More importantly, I was interested in finding out if capturing this authenticity was easier or harder to accomplish in this day and age where we are bombarded with an endless number of “reality shows.”

David Gordon Green: That’s a good question. We live in a world with reality television so it’s less surprising to see a camera on the street corner to see a production. Certainly, a lot of us who frequent the Los Angeles area don’t even bat an eyelash at some production that’s closing down a street and taking us on a detour. I kind of like that the production element can be that much more intimate because the mystery has been dissolved a little bit. When I was a kid you would watch a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a movie and it would blow your mind learning the steps of folly and the art form behind it. Now I think everyone has a good, clear concept of that. There’s not that obsession with that. It’s also a world where people know where the lines of documentary, reality TV and fiction/narrative filmmaking are starting to blur a little bit. I actually think there are a lot of values there. Some of the great performances are documentary performances. You see a movie like “Grizzly Man” and you’re like, if only I could take Timothy Treadmill, I could make an amazing script for him. In that way it’s become a lot easier and it’s just about trying to market a film to be appealing to an audience. Trying to get a movie that emotionally connects with an audience and invites them into a world that does have an authenticity. It does take you to difficult places but has enough of an emotional honesty and levity to be able to be something that you want to look at and an attractive quality within the cinematography and music that brings you in and makes you feel fulfilled. All of these technical elements that come in make it a rewarding experience and not just the dramatic hammer coming down to tell you their melodrama, but really to open up insight into the characters and their revelations to each other.

With those comments, I hope audiences take the time to discover “Joe” as it is a movie deserving of a bigger audience than it ended up getting in 2014. While many think Cage makes nothing but bad movies these days, this one reminds you of what a great actor he can be given the right material.

Ti West and Gene Jones on Preparing for ‘The Sacrament’

The Sacrament movie poster

You may not know who Gene Jones is, but odds are you have seen him in at least one movie he has co-starred in. Many know him best for his role as the gas station owner who is subjected to one of Anton Chigurh’s terrifying coin tosses in “No Country for Old Men,” and he also appeared as Wild West Barker in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and co-starred in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” But after watching him in Ti West’s “The Sacrament,” it will be impossible to forget who Jones is as he gives us a character who seems sweet on the surface but is really a vicious devil in disguise.

“The Sacrament” follows a couple of reporters as they travel out to a commune located out in the middle of nowhere to find one of a long lost relative. Upon their arrival, they discover the commune is a technology-free zone called Eden Parish, and they meet Father (played by Jones) who is the leader and treats his loyal followers with tremendous warmth and care. But when these outsiders arrive, he quickly sees them as a threat and eventually convinces his followers to take a sinister course of action which leads to an unspeakable tragedy.

The press day for “The Sacrament” was held at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and many who worked on this movie, be it in front of or behind the camera, participated in an informative press conference. Among those there was West who told us he wanted to audition Jones after seeing him play a pharmacist on “Louie.”

Ti West: There’s a scene where there is a woman waiting in line and asking all these inane questions to the pharmacist who’s not paying attention, and Louie (C.K.’s) waiting behind her and he’s getting bored. And then Gene eventually turns to her and is like, “Have you had a bowel movement today and was it soft?” And then she gets uncomfortable and then that’s the scene, and I was like, “That’s the guy.” So, what we did was that we tracked him down and then I asked him to do a quick audition. Most of the reason I asked him to do the audition wasn’t so much to see if it would be any good. I just wanted to see if he would not be into the material. So I knew that if he did the second audition that he wasn’t going to be uncomfortable with the subject matter like that because you never know if you don’t know people. Gene likes to say that the first audition wasn’t very good and that’s why I asked him to do a second one which is not true. But there was enough from those, just seeing him do it, to know what I had thought was going to happen was going to happen.

The plot of “The Sacrament” was largely inspired by the 1978 Jonestown Massacre when Jim Jones made the followers of the Peoples Temple commit mass suicide. When Jones first appears onscreen as Father, you can’t help but be reminded of Jim, especially with those sunglasses he’s wearing. But in describing his preparation to play Father, Jones shot down our assumptions of what he did to prepare for this role.

Gene Jones: It’s less than one day in Father’s life, and not a typical day. So, I didn’t do any Jim Jones research about what he read and how he interacted with people on a daily basis. What I tried to do was be a guy who was so nice, you would leave your family and you would leave your country and go with this guy. I never met Ti until I stepped onto the set. I did audition for it, but it was a video audition. Actually it was two auditions and Ti commented on those, and those comments gave me the freedom to go where I wanted to go which was in the direction of being so damn trustworthy and so avuncular and nice. A phrase that popped into my head a few weeks ago when I was doing one of these (press conferences) was I wanted to show you somebody who was evil but not mean. Somebody who believed absolutely poisonous things but was the nicest fellow you ever met.

West said when he first met Jones in the flesh was when he arrived at the movie’s set located in Savannah, Georgia. Jones’ first big scene was when he does the interview with the two reporters, and it involved a lot of work and memorization on his part. West was more than prepared for things to go wrong as he described this scene as a “massive undertaking,” but we all felt his astonishment at how things actually turned out.

Ti West: It’s the kind of production day that you dread because it’s a night shoot, there’s 200 extras, it’s 12 pages which is like six times more than anyone wants to shoot in a day and there’s just so many moving parts, and it was cued up to be a disaster. I remember on the very first take I hadn’t told the extras what to do yet, and you’ve got to keep in mind that the extras are just there for one night to be in a movie. They don’t know what the movie is about and they haven’t read the script. They are just like, “Yeah we’re in a movie!” They’re all seated and you figure that some of them aren’t going to be good and will have to move them around, but before we do any of that let’s just wing it. Let’s just try one where Gene comes in and we’ll tell them to cheer. He can come in and then start talking to A.J. (Bowen), and its 12 pages so if the lines get screwed up we’ll stop and then we’ll do it in chunks, and this is how we are going to get through this night. Well on the very first take, Gene came in everybody went crazy. He sat down, did a 17-minute unbroken take without dropping a line, got up, everybody cheered and he walked out, and all of the reactions from the extras were their genuine reactions. They weren’t me feeding them things to do because I just wanted to assess the situation, but the assessment of the situation was we don’t need to do anything because Gene nailed that so effortlessly, and then all the extras chimed in perfectly. Gene had figured out how he was going to do it, and all I had to do was just capture it.

Jones’ comment on how the extras fueled his performance was great because he made it sound like he was doing a play more than making a movie.

Gene Jones: I loved, loved the congregation, and there’s little variations each time you shoot. They were tuned to that and I didn’t have to say, “Give me an amen somebody.” They would give me an amen. They would just give it to me and they would nod, and it was just alive. It was like talking to a group of friends. They all chimed in and they were great.

In a business which can be so ridiculously youth-oriented, it is nice to see an actor like Gene Jones defy the odds. If this were a studio movie, executives would have probably forced Ti West to cast a young adult who was more demographically desirable. But in the end, there are certain parts only actors of a certain age can pull off, and this is one of them. Jones succeeds in giving us a villain for the ages as Father draws people in with ease and then destroys their lives for the most selfish of reasons.

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

Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Ti West, A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz about “The Sacrament” for We Got This Covered.