Melissa Leo & Josh Lucas – The Most Hated Woman in America

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Interviews

In 1964, Life magazine called Madalyn Murray O’Hair, atheist activist and founder of American Atheists, “the most hated woman in America.” The year prior, O’Hair was involved in the historic U.S. Supreme Court case that declared Bible reading unconstitutional in American public schools.

Thirty-two years after the landmark ruling, O’Hair, at the age of 76, along with her son Jon, and granddaughter Robin, were murdered and dismembered in San Antonio, Texas, after an attempt was made to extort money from O’Hair’s organization.

If the violent crime in 1995 is not something you’re familiar with, the recently-released Netflix drama “The Most Hated Woman in America” revisits the life of O’Hair and explains how she became one of the nation’s most outspoken leaders of atheism and how that led to her death at the hands of convicted felon David Waters.

The film stars Academy Award-winning actress Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”) as O’Hair, and actor Josh Lucas (Hulk) as Waters. During an interview with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month, Leo and Lucas were more than open to discussing the admiration they both have for O’Hair and the religious freedom she fought for her entire life.

“I can’t imagine what this country would be like if every person educated through the public-school system had been indoctrinated over these years in that way,” Leo, 56, said. “We would live in a Christian nation, and that would be very terrifying to me.”

While some would argue that O’Hair attempted to force her own beliefs on others, Lucas, who describes O’Hair’s story as a “phenomenal mess,” thinks she was helping protect all religions.

“She was telling everyone that they have the right to do whatever they want,” Lucas, 45, said. “That’s what this country was established as and that’s what this manic struggle from an ideological perspective has been ever since. This country has always been at war with itself in that way.”

For Leo, the answer to how the U.S. was established is an obvious one that should not be ignored. It’s an ugly history that this country will never heal from, Leo said, unless it is recognized a lot more than it has been in the last 500 years.

“It will always go back to the genocide of the first nation’s people, on which this country is based,” Leo said. “White people came here seeking religious freedom. There is a contradiction there that, until it gets spoken about, will never change and only worsen.”

As for his own personal religious beliefs, Lucas said making “The Most Hated Woman in America” has challenged him to question his relationship to God, spirituality, and humanity, especially during a transitioning political climate that is currently instilling fear in people nationwide.

“The world order is changing,” Lucas said. “It has led me to ask myself more directly about who I am and what I want in my life. What I keep coming back to is that human beings are both divine and diabolic at the same time, which is exactly what these characters are in the film.”

Leo hopes an introduction to these characters, especially O’Hair, will reignite dialogue about religious freedom in the U.S. Whether you agree or disagree with her belief system, she would like people to realize that O’Hair transformed this nation for the better.

“She had the kind of flaws most people have” Leo said. “If she had been less vilified as ‘the most hated woman in America,’ maybe she wouldn’t have had to say, ‘OK, I’ll show you that I am!’ I think Madalyn got in her own way, but no more so than most human beings.”

Snowden

September 19, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Directed by: Oliver Stone (“Savages”)
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald (“The Homesman”) and Oliver Stone (“Savages”)

As one of the best documentaries of the last several years, “Citizenfour” was an endlessly fascinating fly-on-the-wall account of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on surveillance that the government was doing. Regardless of the audience’s opinion, the footage was unassailably mesmerizing as history, agree with it or not, was being made. It’s a film that didn’t necessarily need a dramatizing, but as a person, Snowden could stand to be understood and explored. Unfortunately, that’s where the blunt hammer of director Oliver Stone comes in.

Rising through several government agencies, computer analyst Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) notices that the government is gathering information from its own citizens, with access to personal communication, webcams, and more. Torn about what to do, and with his relationship strained, Snowden makes a decision that could land him in jail for treason.

It will probably annoy some viewers, but Gordon-Levitt’s voice work is actually remarkably close to how the actual Snowden sounds. It’s a good performance, in a film of pretty solid performances all around. Shailene Woodley’s character being a strong personality is more of a testament to her capabilities than the way she is written, which can often seem to flip flop from scene to scene.

The most interesting stuff in the film is seeing Snowden slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together and feel drawn to let the public know what was actually going on. There’s a certain psychology behind the decision making and an awakening of a conscience that is touched on, though perhaps not explored enough. The parts of the film that are straight out of “Citizenfour” really seem to drag, however, as it is a re-enactment of something that is not only so recent, but not really adjusted for any type of dramatic effect.

As one might expect, a movie about Edward Snowden directed by Oliver Stone is not exactly an unbiased affair. Stone is very clear in his position about how he sees Snowden. While it is never quite preachy, one of the most fascinating parts about the story of Snowden is that there’s a real, honest debate and divide around the country about the appropriateness of his actions. Presenting the information and letting the public decide for themselves was the crux for the decision that Snowden made. Without that debate, the movie feels extremely one-sided and doesn’t allow audiences to make their own decision.

“Snowden” isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it is one that is riddled with problems. It is painfully boring in parts, and it is anything but neutral. The fact of the matter is, “Citizenfour” is such a compelling film, and a better representation of this story, that the dramatization falls way short of the goals. The decision to show Snowden’s actions through the lens of his personal relationships really hurts a film that could have been an exploration into why the biggest whistleblower in history did so. It’s a shame that the character of Snowden isn’t more interesting.

Prisoners

September 26, 2013 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”)
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”)

While it’s script might transform from intriguing police procedural into something that could be described as controlled chaos, director Denis Villeneuve 153-minute long drama is effectively tense. Anchored by a raw and powerful performance from Hugh Jackman and a solid contribution from Jake Gyllenhaal, this film about two young girls who are kidnapped confronts some extremely hard-hitting themes and scenarios that would make any parent shudder. Things get messy as the film spirals to a conclusion, but there’s no way you’re going to move unless you know how it all ends (even though you technically don’t).

Olympus Has Fallen

March 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”)
Written by: Creighton Rothenberger (debut) and Katrin Benedikt (debut)

Yes! Yes, Gerard Butler, “Olympus Has Fallen” is exactly the kind of film you should be making nonstop! Enough with the horrible romantic comedies. They absolutely do not work with you in the lead, and society is general is worse off for having to experience them. Stick to action and we’ll all be golden, okay? Even if the screenplay is utter crap. We can deal with that as long as there are some cool explosions and fistfights and such.

In “Olympus Has Fallen,” Butler stars as Mike Banning, a dedicated Secret Service agent tasked with protecting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), First Lady Margaret Asher (Ashley Judd), and their young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). After a terrible accident leaves Banning disgraced, he is moved from the President’s detail and reassigned to a desk job at the U.S. Treasury. Eighteen months later, when a rogue C-130 gunship soars over Washington, DC, mowing down citizens and law enforcement alike in a hail of bullets, Banning springs into action. The target is the White House (code named Olympus). When the building is taken by foreign terrorists, Banning slips inside and becomes the last hope for saving President Asher–and the nation itself.

If you aren’t the kind of moviegoer who can sit back and let the testosterone and jingoism of a political action film just wash over you, then “Olympus Has Fallen” makes an easy target for scorn. The script from first-timers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt is overflowing with action movie cliches and is unashamedly aping “Die Hard.” Butler delivers another meathead performance, complete with an American accent as shoddy as the special effects on display. And Morgan Freeman (as the Speaker of the House pushed into action when both the President and Vice-President are held captive) is clearly phoning it in after having played roles like this seemingly dozens of times. Throw in unstoppable super-weapons, genius computer hackers, and a sneering foreign villain along with everything else and you’ve got the recipe for Generic Action Movie #876, right?

Well, yeah. But in spite of it all, it still works. The “what if?” scenario of the White House succumbing to a terrorist assault is juicy stuff, and it’s hard to get tired of Butler tossing out curse-laden one liners while stabbing bad guys in the brain. And as the Secretary of Defense, Melissa Leo is having a blast as she gets to spit foul-mouthed venom in the face of her captors. When she’s dragged down a hallway screaming the Pledge of Allegiance (as corny as it may be), it’s hard to not be on the edge of your seat waiting for Butler to come to her rescue and put a bullet in someone’s face.

Conviction

October 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver
Directed by: Tony Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss”)
Written by: Pamela Gray (“Music of the Heart”)

Rarely do we see a brother and sister relationship like the one we get in “Conviction,” a true story based on the life of Massachusetts resident Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), who in 1983 began an 18-year mission to help exonerate her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) from a wrongful murder conviction.

While the film manages to keep this devoted relationship at the core of the narrative and never skulk into areas of over-sentimentality, the emotional tug-o-war during Betty’s life-long journey is as conventional of a biopic as they come. Without Swank and Rockwell there at the forefront to enhance the script’s more standard choices, the Waters family story might have been better fitted for an updated “60 Minutes” news report.

It takes two years for police to officially arrest Kenny, put him on trial, and ultimately give him a life sentence for the murder of a local woman. Once in prison, Betty makes a deal with her brother after he attempts to take his own life. She promises if he never attempts suicide again she will do everything it takes to become a lawyer and find a way to clear him of the murder charges.

Eighteen years is condensed into nearly two hours as we watch Betty, a high school dropout, start by earning her GED then bachelor’s and eventually make her way into law school. There she meets best friend and voice of reason Abra Rice (Minnie Drive), who stands by Betty and her seemingly impossible goal.

But as most people who know how this story actually ends, Betty, with the help of Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), is able to find the evidence she needs to prove Kenny’s innocence after she passes the bar exam. Supporting actresses Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis play adequate antagonists; Leo as a corrupt policewoman with a grudge against Kenny and Lewis as a vindictive witness who lies during her testimony.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss”) from a script by Pamela Gray (“Music of the Heart”), “Conviction” is a timely drama that will spark debate about the justice system and spotlight an organization like the Innocence Project that has since facilitated the release of over 250 wrongfully-accused individuals.

Aside from its good intentions, it’s the combination of Swank and Rockwell that are the saving grace of a film that is simply missing some key uplifting moments. Even with a hopeful ending (a conclusion controlled for Hollywood standards since the real-life story is much more tragic), “Conviction” is only somewhat successful in adapting a story ripped straight from the headlines.