The Martian

October 2, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels
Directed by: Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”)
Written by: Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield”)

In recent years, director Ridley Scott has gone from Oscar-nominated visionary director, to that guy who made that movie where Cameron Diaz copulates with a car windshield, among other recent cinematic atrocities. It’s a cold streak that, save for the unfairly over-criticized but still average “Promethus,” has firmly moved Scott out of the list of prestige directors. “The Martian,” which is adapted from one of the best received novels of the last few years, tests the theory that perhaps Scott still has the talent and just needed some help tapping into it again.

During a storm on a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and separated from the rest of his crew. Presumed dead, the crew takes off and heads back to Earth. Hours later, Watney wakes up realizing he has been stranded on Mars. With no communication, no clear way to let people know he is alive, and limited supplies, Watney is forced to find a way to stay alive and get in touch with Earth before he runs out of resources.

The sprawling cast of “The Martian” is impressive, with strong supporting turns from actors like Jeff Daniels and Chiwitel Ejoifor. The film, however, belongs to Damon. Displaying why he is the movie star that he is, Damon devours every second of screen time he gets. Watney is a character that, despite his situation, stays in relatively good spirits, which is a testament not only to the character design, but to the nuances of Damon’s performance as the sarcastic botanist.

The other star of the film besides Damon is the screenplay by Drew Goddard. Filled with tension and artfully told through the use of video logs, Goddard is able to bring life and humanity out of isolation. Perhaps the greatest quality of Goddard’s fantastic script is its use of humor. “The Martian” is legitimately funny, largely thanks to the way Damon’s smart-ass, witty character is written, but is even successful with a few sight gags. It adds a level of levity to an otherwise serious situation, keeping the film engaging, thoroughly entertaining and striking a tonal balance between drama and humor that few movies are able to accomplish. It also helps bring out the best in Damon, who delivers his dialogue with comedic ease. He radiates charisma.

Another great quality of the screenplay is how time is split between Damon on Mars and NASA back on Earth. There are little pockets of parallel storylines that unfold and keep things engaging, primarily between Watney’s ingenuity and NASA trying to avoid a PR catastrophe. It’s edited well enough that neither story goes untold for too long and each is fascinating in its own light.

“The Martian” is the total cinematic package. It’s humorous, gripping, intelligent and extremely entertaining. It could have possibly use a touch more of an emotional pull, especially in terms of what is at stake and relationship building, but that feels like a nitpick considering everything else that “The Martian” masterfully accomplishes. Welcome back, Ridley Scott. Perhaps next time you should make sure you bring Goddard along with you.

Gangster Squad

January 12, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”)
Written by: Will Beall (TV’s “Castle”)

As enjoyable as director Ruben Fleischer’s 2009 film “Zombieland” was (and to a lesser extent “30 Minutes or Less” in 2011), his foray into the criminal world of the 1940s with “Gangster Squad” is far from having the entertainment value a cast of this magnitude demands. It’s a glossed-over crime drama that feels like it’s been pulled straight from the Sunday funnies.

Hamming it up for the camera is two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn as gang leader and former boxer Mickey Cohen (an over-the-top role much like Al Pacino played in “Dick Tracy). If you need to know anything about Mickey, it’s that he owns everything in the Chicago area. You want guns? Go to Mickey. You want drugs? Mickey’s your man. You don’t play by the rules? Guess whose sending his tommy gun-toting goons to fill you with holes. Mickey.

On the right side of the law is Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who is given the task of recruiting a team of renegade police officers to do what very few lawmen would be brave enough to do: cross Mickey and his thugs and shut down his mob syndicate. Nevertheless, Sgt. O’Mara (with the help of his concerned wife, who “hand picks” the men she feels would best suit the job; a ridiculous notion) finds his men. They include Officers Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his right-hand man Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the latter of whom has started to bed Mickey leading lady Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) because he can.

Aside from wishing it could be just as enticing as Brian De Palmas’ 1987 film “The Untouchables” (or any other acclaimed film in the genre of the last 75 years for that matter), “Gangster Squad” is not much more than a collection of talented actors playing dress up in their parent’s closet. Although the story based on true events, it’s diluted by Fleischer’s style-over-substance approach, which worked well in “Zombieland,” but not so much here. Will Beall’s screenplay also leaves much to be desired in character development. Each member of the skeleton crew Sgt. O’Mara fashions together is thinly-written.

What is a bit meatier, however, is Fleischer’s eye for ultra violence, which is bountiful throughout “Squad”  but ultimately gives the narrative minimal boost. If Fleischer and Beall focuses as much attention to the relationships and characters arcs as they did ripping a guy in half between two classic cars, “Gangster Squad” could’ve been a contender…at least in the amateur ranks.

Michael Peña – End of Watch

September 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In the action thriller “End of Watch,” Chicago-born actor Michael Peña (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) plays Mike Zavala, an LAPD police officer who is targeted, along with his partner Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), by a Mexican drug cartel after they come across a violent crime scene. During an interview with me, Peña, 36, discussed what made his role unique and what it was like to do his research with real cops.

You’ve played other law enforcement characters in your career. What did you see in David Ayers’ script that led you to believe you wouldn’t just be rehashing something you’ve done before?

I don’t even remember the last time I played a police officer. One was a Port Authority officer in “World Trade Center,” but I didn’t do a lot of policing. This actually felt like the first time I played a cop. In “Shooter” I was an FBI agent who didn’t know much. [Officer Mike Zavala] was a completely different person with a different attitude and swagger. It’s like he owns the streets. He makes sure he protects everybody. He’s a maverick. He doesn’t mind confronting danger.

Something I really liked about your character and Jake’s was that you’re not these cliché hot shot young cops who think they’re invincible. I really felt both characters really understood their mortality and that the next call they answer could be their last. Did you feel the same way?

Yeah, I felt like we didn’t want to sensationalize anything. We wanted the acting to be very, very real. We wanted people to relate to it. The acting had to be very natural just because of the style of the movie. Sometimes if it’s a grander movie, you can go a little bigger with your performance. But in [“End of Watch”] you just have to live life. You have to be a three-dimensional person. To do that, we had to rehearse a lot. We rehearsed for four months. It was like a Sidney Lumet film. It’s a lot of dialogue for an action movie.

Yeah, the chemistry between you and Jake is probably the best I’ve seen all year on the big screen. During those scenes where you guys are talking and joking around like friends, how much of that dialogue was in the actual script and how much leeway did David give you to play off one another?

It was like 98 percent scripted. There is really only one scene we improvised. [Director] David [Ayer] would encourage it, but after a while even he would be like, “OK, that’s enough of that.” He’s such a great writer I’d rather keep his writing.

Were you able to research your role by hanging out with any real cops?

Yeah, it felt like we went on 30 ride-a-longs. The cops actually have a banter that I never knew about. That was a big revelation. There were a couple of dudes from the Sheriff’s Department that were instrumental in our research. They were on their game. They finished each other’s sentences. They really had this brotherhood.

What’s the most interesting thing you saw on the ride-a-longs?

I saw people shot in the arm and in the face and in the stomach. Usually that’s not the kind of thing you get to see every day. I remember there was a woman who was beat up and didn’t want to press charges against her husband. I also learned that if you are in a family who is like a “gang family,” you’re trained to hate the cops. Meanwhile, there are a lot of other people who are cool with the cops. There are a lot of cops out there that really care about the neighborhood and want to prolong the goodness of that neighborhood and protect it against evil.

Would you consider this the most physical role you’ve taken on?

I think so. I had to spar two or three times a week. I had to work out like five times a week. I had to go on weapons training. It felt like a full-time job for four months. By the time the fourth month came along, I was ready to shoot it. I felt like I had already shot the movie in my head. I did a lot of visualization. That’s what happens when you hurt for four months. When you put that much time and effort and think about how the audience is going to relate to it, it becomes a special movie for you.

I’m really excited to see what you’re going to do with your portrayal of Cesar Chavez. Can you give us an update on that production and what your focus has to be like going into a role that is so iconic to so many people?

We attacked it in a different way. [Director] Diego Luna didn’t want to do “Gandhi.” I think cinema is changing. It’s not as grand as it was before. Chavez was a simple man. The only thing he kept was his purpose in life. I had to gain like 30 lbs. and learn the accent and have a bunch of wigs. It’s not really going to look like me, to be honest with you. I literally had to talk to like 1,000 people. There is one speech of his I really like where he announces his fast. It’s nerve-wracking.

End of Watch

September 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick
Directed by: David Ayer (“Street Kings”)
Written by: David Ayer (“Training Day”)

Hollywood is no stranger to cop-centered entertainment. In comedy, there’s the buddy cop formula where often an uptight by-the-books cop is paired up with an nontraditional, sometimes buffoonish one and hilarity occasionally ensues. There’s also the story of the hard-nosed crooked police officer dipping into illegal activities such as last years “Rampart.” But beyond the reality trash-TV of “Cops,” you don’t often get a glimpse into not only into the daily routine of seemingly regular policemen, but the relationships and bonds that form within the brotherhood.

“End of Watch” follows LAPD officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) through their days as partners patrolling the streets of Los Angeles. One day, they discover something that places them in the middle of a life-threatening drug cartel and they must work together to protect each others lives.

The film features a pair of dynamite performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena, which without a doubt rank among the best of their respective careers. While the performances stand strongly on their own, their on-screen chemistry is as strong as any duo seen on the screen in the last few years. Throughout the entire film, it feels as if you are watching not only work partners, but legitimate best friends and brothers interact with each other. Not only do their dramatic scenes play off well, but Gyllenhaal and Pena are able to effortlessly joke around and goof off with one another. In fact, “End of Watch” is surprisingly funny, evoking buddy-cop style comedy in its most humorous moments.

A large section of the camera work of “End of Watch” comes from a handheld camera, under the explanation that Gyllenhaal’s character making a movie for a project in his film class. While the rationale might be a touch flimsy, the usage of this particular camera work adds a visceral and gritty dimension to the film, which makes it feel less gimmicky overall than a typical “found-footage” movie. Director David Ayer is also certainly not afraid to show graphic violence, including several scenes with disturbing imagery that is perhaps heightened in its impact by the intimate home-video quality of the cinematography.

Extremely raw and realistic, emotionally charged, tense and often funny, “End of Watch” is a wholly satisfying movie-going experience. It is able to overcome its lack of intricate plot by combining a unique visual presentation, a compelling and authentic day-in-the-life storytelling style, and two actors symbiotically elevating the quality of the material. Without question, “End of Watch” is a cut above most action cinema and one of the best cop movies in recent memory.

Michael Peña – Tower Heist

November 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Actor Michael Peña admits he’s not quite sure if he’s gotten funnier throughout his career, but his film choices over the last two years are proof he’s trying to show off his comedic chops.

After roles in comedies like “Observe & Report” and “30 Minutes or Less,” it seems like Peña is getting the hang of the techniques and timing that can trigger laughter. Just ask Peña’s 3-year-old son, who thinks his daddy is the funniest man on the planet.

“Whenever I say the word ‘poo poo butt’ he thinks that’s just way too funny,” Peña told me during an interview for his new comedy “Tower Heist.” “He’s like, “Oh, did you just say poo poo butt again?!’ He thinks I’m the coolest dude ever because I say poo poo butt.”

While “Tower Heist” doesn’t boast poo poo jokes, Peña is doing all he can to get the same kind of laugh-out-loud reaction from moviegoers. In the film, he plays Enrique Dev’reaux (AKA the Puerto Rican Mohican), a newly hired bellboy at a high-rise New York City hotel who teams up with his fellow employees to steal back the money taken from them by a crooked Wall Street investor.

During our interview, Peña, 35, talked about the two men who inspired his character Enrique and what he thinks about Eddie Murphy as a comedian.

So, I got the Puerto Rican Mohican on the phone. That has a nice ring to it.

Yeah, that was actually Brett [Ratner’s] idea. I had something else, but he came up with a much better idea for that.

“Tower Heist” marks your second comedy this year after “30 Minutes or Less.” I’m guessing after you did “Observe & Report” and some episodes of “Eastbound and Down” the comedy bug bit you.

Yeah, for sure. I always wanted to get into comedy. I remember when I first signed with [my talent agency], I told them I had a dream of doing comedy. I didn’t know if I was good at it, but I definitely wanted to try. They did get me a couple of auditions with directors.

So, have you found yourself getting funnier over the years?

I don’t know about that. Since I’ve had a kid, dude, I will literally do anything to make that little son of a gun laugh.

What do you do to make him laugh?

I kind of do this one little voice of – God, I forgot the little red guy’s name.

Elmo.

Yeah, Elmo! I do this little Elmo voice that he just absolutely loves.

What was it about your character Enrique Dev’reaux that you liked so much?

Well, I remember when I was doing the movie “World Trade Center,” and I would go to this coffee shop around the neighborhood I was staying. There was this guy at the coffee shop that would always be talking and talking and talking. I’d be trying to order a coffee and he’d be talking and talking every morning. He’d be like (in a New York accent), “Yo, that’s what I’m talking about. Know what I’m sayin’? Know what I’m sayin’?” He would do all that talking and would literally say nothing.  I thought that would be an awesome character to portray. Some of the character, though, wa also based on Brett, like his energy and his vibe. It was cool to mesh the two characters.

You’ve done that before where you take someone you’ve met in your life and create a character out of their personality. Is that something you’re always paying attention to – the people you meet on a daily basis?

Yeah, I mean, if they’re bigger than life and real I do. I feel like I’m a little bit more of a conservative person. Those kinds of characters are interesting to me because they’re not like me. I feel it’s really cool to portray that. It doesn’t always happen. But I do catch myself looking at people and thinking, “Whoa, dude, that’s crazy! How do they get to be like that?” I’m just like a kid interested in imitating grown-ups.  I had this favorite uncle. His name was Narsico. He would was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met in my life. I definitely would imitate him as a kid.

You’ve worked with some big-name comedians in the past like Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen. What was it like being on set with someone as iconic as Eddie Murphy?

Well, first of all, I think Eddie is a fantastic actor. He’s been doing it forever and I think he’s paved the way for a lot of people and changed the game around with “Beverly Hills Cop” and all those things. It’s kind of hard not to be in awe with this guy while he’s doing his thing. Of course, I have to concentrate and do my own thing, but while you’re shooting you realize, “Wow, this guy is a star for a reason.” He’s so talented. He does what he does and does it so well.

What would you say your favorite Eddie Murphy movie is?

Shit, that’s a tough one. Um, I would have to say [his stand up specials] “Delirious” and “Raw.”

How do you think he’s going to do hosting the Oscars in a few months?

I can’t wait. I think it’s going to be an event. I think it has all the potential to be something completely memorable. Brett’s said it before, but all the best hosts have been comedians, like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson and those guys. I think the sky’s the limit with Eddie Murphy.

“Tower Heist” has a few timely themes with a story centered on a white collar crime that affects a group of hard-working people. How much of that do you think will resonate with the audience or is it more about just having fun with the characters and situations?

No, I think that is another reason I wanted to do this movie. You have the characters that you can really relate to and really love. I think that’s what makes a really cool comedy. If you didn’t have that, I think it would still be a cool comedy. Would it be as good and would you get the talent you wanted? I don’t know. I definitely think it’s an asset with all the shit that’s going on right now.

If you ever found yourself in a situation where the livelihood of yourself and your family were in jeopardy, do you think you might be able to knock over a bank or a convenient store to put food on the table?

I think I would just work or have something saved up. I don’t think I would ever do that, to be honest with you. That’s almost like taking other people’s money. But in TV Land and Movie Land, absolutely.

OK, so you don’t have to admit anything to me that will have the FBI knocking on your door, but have you ever stolen anything before? A pack of gum? Cable?

(Laughs) I did, man, when I was a kid, but I got caught. I was stealing a Snickers and the guy was like, “What are you doing?!” and I was like, “I don’t know! I’ll buy it!” That was the last time I did anything like that. I think it’s good for me to feel bad even for attempting to do something like that. I don’t think it’s in my nature.

Well, have you ever had anything stolen from you before?

Yeah, well, I remember in my neighborhood in Chicago, I lived on 16th and California and it wasn’t the nicest of neighborhoods. I remember having my first bike for exactly one hour. I went to the park and this group of big kids jumped me and took my bike. I was like, “Aw, man. Where’s my bike at?”

How difficult was it to watch Ben Stiller smash up that Ferrari in the movie and did you get a whack at it like your character wanted?

Nah, I tried to get a whack at it. I love that they kept that line in the movie. I was like, “Yo, let me take a whack at dat!” That was one of my favorite scenes to do in the movie. When you read it, it definitely seems like a tough scene to pull off. I think it was a really important scene and Ben did a good job. I didn’t think you had to get too jokey with it, but at the same time he was really able to bring it and really say F-U to the guy.

I don’t know about you, but with Matthew Broderick in that scene, all I could think about was the similar scene in “Ferris Buller’s Day Off” where Matthew, once again, witnesses the demise of another red Ferrari.

Yeah, I was actually quoting Matthew Broderick to Matthew Broderick. For too long apparently because he told me (in a surprisingly dead-on impersonation of Matthew Broderick), “Michael, OK, you can stop now, Michael.”

What did you think about the idea that Universal had about making “Tower Heist” available On Demand only three weeks after it hits theaters. Do you think we could see this happening with movies in the future?

Oh, man, that question is way above my pay grade.

Well, as a movie fan, would you like to see new theatrical-released movies at home?

Ah, I’m old-school about that. I love going to the theater. I go to movie theaters all the time. I’m a huge fan of it. It’s a weird thing watching movies with strangers. It’s such an experience for me. I think sometimes you have to keep doing that. There is a certain mystique about watching movies in a theater. They seem bigger than life.

Tower Heist

November 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck
Directed by: Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour 3”)
Written by: Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s 11”) and Jeff Nathanson  (“Rush Hour 3”)

Can anyone remember the last time comedian Eddie Murphy was actually funny? No, voicing an animated donkey with a love for waffles doesn’t count. I’m talking about Murphy debating boxing greats in “Coming toAmerica” or hustling his way into a swanky suite in “Beverly Hills Cop.” Hell, I’d even take him parodying Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood during his “Saturday Night Live” days if it would help me forget “Norbit.” Wherever you were in the 80s, chances are you were laughing at something Murphy was doing on screen or on stage. Nowadays, you’d probably have better luck being entertained by his older brother Charlie.

If you believe the hype, however, Murphy’s return to glory comes at full force with “Tower Heist,” a comedy crime caper that originally started as an idea in 2005 for Murphy to team up with a host of other black comedians including Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence. When that overly-ambitious idea fell through, “Tower Heist” became a poor man’s version of “Ocean’s 11” and even enlists “Ocean’s” screenwriter Ted Griffin and supporting actor Casey Affleck. But “Ocean’s” this is not. And while it’s true that Murphy provides his best comedy outing since 1996’s remake of “The Nutty Professor” (I still don’t understand the love for “Bowfinger”), he’s not given as much screen time as you’d think for someone who’s billed so high. Honestly, this is a Ben Stiller movie and Murphy is just coming along for the ride.

Still, the ride has its moments with a solid cast who could easy make an impact off the bench in lieu of George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon. In fact, the diverse makeup of characters and personalities is what makes the movie casually fun, at least for the first half of the heist. In the film, a group of hotel employees plot to take back the money they lost in a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), a Wall Street billionaire and tenant in the high-rise. With little experience in thievery, the team, which includes Stiller, Affleck, Michael Peña (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), recruit “Slide” Dalphael (Murphy), a common criminal with the know-how to exact revenge. Also joining in is actor Matthew Broderick (“Election”) as a former Wall Street investor who goes bankrupt because of Shaw’s shady business ethics.

With every cog in place, you’d think this comedy machine, even directed by industry tool Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour 3”), would run a little smoother. While the setup works well enough, the heist itself isn’t very creative or executed on the page very well. What’s left is an amusing team of misfits bumbling around aimlessly in search of a disappointing payoff more ridiculous than a humanitarian award named after Bernie Madoff.

To a lesser extent, this might be a comeback for Murphy, but until he can stand front and center as the leading man he once was, it’s still difficult to forgive him for the last 15 years (“Meet Dave,” “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “I Spy”). Hosting the Academy Awards this coming February just might be what he needs to prove “Tower Heist” wasn’t a fluke.

The Lincoln Lawyer

March 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe
Directed by: Brad Furman (“The Take”)
Written by: John Romano (“Nights in Rodanthe”)

As far as courtroom dramas are concerned, you’d be hard-pressed to find something as generic as “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Forget about the excitement brewing because Matthew McConaughey (“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) is actually starring in a film that doesn’t require him to remove his shirt or offer up his rugged good looks for an insulting rom com role opposite Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker – as much as everyone would like it to be, this is not a sequel to 1996’s “A Time to Kill.” Instead, “Lawyer” is an overrated, underwritten crime schlock that plays like an irritating Dick Wolf-produced legal TV show. Call it “Law & Order: Luxury Sedan.”

That title might even be a stretch, since the titular vehicle doesn’t make much of an impact in the film besides serving as a shiny prop for the laid-back soundtrack featuring blues, R&B, and old-school hip-hop from artists including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Erick Sermon, and Marlena Shaw. As a suave, street-smart criminal defense attorney practicing in Beverly Hills, Mickey Haller (McConaughey) is chauffeured around town in style inside his vintage Lincoln Town Car.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by crime-fiction writer Michael Connelly (this is the first of four books in the Haller series), Lawyer struggles to find its footing within a cliché storyline reworked by screenwriter John Romano (“Nights in Rodanthe”) and helmed by novice director Brad Furman, whose only other film is the straight-to-DVD armored-truck thriller “The Take.”

In “Lawyer,” Mickey lands the case of his career when he is hired to defend Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled, rich socialite charged with the brutal assault of a prostitute who propositions him at a nightclub. While Louis maintains his innocence (he cries “Set up!” on more than one occasion), Mickey and his investigator friend Frank Levin (William H. Macy) figure out a way to get their client off the hook even after indispensable evidence seems to mount against them.

From here, “Lawyer” becomes part morality thriller, part courtroom drama with Mickey caught in the middle wondering if he’s fighting for a scumbag’s exoneration. Despite McConaughey’s satisfying performance, none of it is very original. The pool of shallow characters (Marisa Tomei as the ex-wife prosecutor; John Leguizamo as a shady bail bondsman; Michael Peña as an ex-client who is now in San Quentin) don’t help us sympathize with our conflicted lawyer, whose character is never fully explored past his slicked-back hair, dog-tired eyes, and vulnerability to the bottle.

Michael Peña – The Lincoln Lawyer

March 18, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Taking about a year and a half off from making movies after his first child was born at the end of 2008, actor and Chicago native Michael Peña, 35, is getting back into the swing of things.

Not only is Peña dodging alien fire in “Battle: Los Angeles” this month, he also has a role in the courtroom thriller “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which stars Matthew McConaughey as an attorney who practices law from the inside of his Lincoln town car. In the film, Peña plays Jesus Martinez, a man sent to prison for a crime he may or may not have committed.

During an interview with me, Peña, whose last wide-release film was the 2009 dark comedy “Observe and Report,” talked about the challenges he faced going back to work after his year-long break and explained why his role in “The Lincoln Lawyer” hit so close to home.

Since the start of your career, I don’t remember you ever having two movies out at the theater at the same time. This week, you’ll have “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Battle: Los Angeles.” Aren’t you worried about a Michael Peña overload?

(Laughs) I actually have three more movies coming out this year, so I hope not. After my year and a half off, I called up my agent and was like, “I want to come back.” They were like, “Uh…It’s going to be a little tough.”

What was going to be so tough?

Just getting back into the game and getting big roles right away. Some of the roles were going to be a bit smaller. Hopefully it’ll remind people in the business that I’m still around.

Was it hard work getting back into it?

Yeah, it’s always hard work. It’s a cut-throat business. Everyone wants your job. There are a thousand guys who want my job. You have to take the good jobs and ignore the ones you’re not excited about. If you’re not inspired by a role, you probably shouldn’t take it.

So, what drew you to the role of Jesus Martinez in “The Lincoln Lawyer?”

I remember when I was younger, I was accused a couple of times for something I didn’t do. I was just walking home from school in my neighborhood and I was picked up and searched and taken to police headquarters and asked a lot of questions. It turned out they couldn’t find anything on me. There was racial profiling here and there. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. That really drew me to this role. It’s a role that packs a punch.

The film was adapted from a novel by Michael Connelly. The last time you were in a movie based on a book was in 2007’s “Shooter.” How do you confront a role that offers more than a screenplay to work with?

I tend to normally not read the book. If you read the book and love it you might want the role to be exactly like it, but then the screenplay could be something completely different. If you read the script on your own and adhere to that, I think it makes for a better movie.

What’s usually going on in your head the week a movie you’re in is about to premiere?

You can have “premiere fever” where everything is fantastic and then six months later it’s not. There are always certain aspects that you like about a movie, so it’s hard to be objective. But I think it’s really important to be honest. I’ve been fortunate enough that only two of my movies in the last six or seven years didn’t turn out the way that I would’ve liked.

What makes a movie successful in your estimation?

It starts off with the script. If the script is awesome then hopefully you also have a really good director. The director to me is almost like your favorite uncle who tells you stories. You can have a favorite story and someone can tell it to you and it’ll be pretty good, but then you have this really talented storyteller who you want to hear it from because it’s that much more exciting.

What lessons do you take from a bad experience into the next project?

If somebody promises you something in the script is going to change, ask them to make the change right then and there. I won’t attach myself to something unless that change is made. That’s why some actors bow out of movies they’ve been attached to.

Talk about Matthew McConaughey’s performance.

What was that Joel Schumacher movie he was in – “A Time to Kill?” He did a fantastic job in that. There was real heart in that role. I think his role in this is the same thing. I wouldn’t mind doing some more movies with the guy.

Something I found interesting about the film was that the antagonist is this privileged young socialite who basically get everything he wants in life. Do you think it’s going to be easier for audiences to root against someone like this especially in these uncertain economic times we are in right now?

I think so, especially with everything that’s happening with the economy and all those Bernie Madoff types that get sent to jail but not for that long. If you go rob a bank you would get sent away for more time. To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think having resentment towards certain people is a good thing for our movie.

Michael Peña – Observe & Report

March 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

For an actor who is known mostly for his roles in dramatic movies like “Crash,” “World Trade Center” and “Lions for Lambs,” Chicago-born Michael Peña has taken a giant step in a different direction for his first comedy feature, “Observe and Report.” In the film, Peña plays Dennis, a flamboyant mall security officer who is second in command to Seth Rogen’s bipolar character Ronnie Barnhardt. Both are on the trail of a man who has been exposing himself to female patrons in the mall parking lot.

During an interview with me, Peña, 33, talked about how he created his curly-haired character and what actors he looks up to in the comedy genre.

Who did you base your character on?

I saw this movie called “American Pimp” by the Hughes brothers. What was interesting [was that] I thought they were actors who were acting like pimps. All of a sudden, I realized that [the actors] really believed that they were full-fledged pimps. I thought it would be hilarious if there was a Mexican dude that thought he was a pimp. I went in for the audition and gave it to [director] Jody Hill and the producers and they liked it enough to actually put me in the movie.

I know you permed your hair for this role. Is that the most you’ve ever done physically to prepare for a role and would you ever do anything drastic for a role you really wanted?

I actually had to lose 30 pounds. for this movie I’m doing in July, which is going to be fantastic. I’m going to be eating grass and rocks for a couple of months. It’s going to be awesome. For “The Lucky Ones” I was down to 160 pounds. I was in really good shape. I’ve shaved my head, grown [my hair out]. This is what I do and I love doing it and I’ll do [anything] especially if it fits the character. It’s not like dress up; it’s more like [becoming] these people. There is a certain kind of enjoyment you get when you become another person on screen.

How did you stop from laughing constantly when making a film like “Observe and Report?”

You pinch yourself. I swear to God, I literally pinched myself in the back, especially when Seth Rogen was making me laugh. Aside from the pinching technique that I’ve acquired, I don’t know how I’m going to get through my next comedy.

How would you describe your sense of humor since this is your first comedy? I sense a lot of sarcasm, so who do you look up to in the comedy genre?
 
[Sarcastically] I think Steven Segal is good. I think Chuck Norris is excellent. Those guys are my idols. I’m also going to have to say Charles Bronson.

The Lucky Ones

September 14, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, Michael Peña
Directed by: Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”)
Written by: Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) and Dirk Wittenborn (“Fierce People”)

Not original enough to make a pro-war statement, and too contrived to make an anti-war statement, “The Lucky Ones” seems comfortable in passing itself off as road trip flick about friendship. It’s unfortunate, however, that the screenwriter’s efforts are impractical and flat.

In “The Lucky Ones,” three U.S. soldiers, Colee (Rachel McAdams), Cheever (Tim Robbins), and T.K. (Michael Peña) meet each other in the airport when they are sent home for leave. While Colee and T.K. are deployed home for 30 days because they have sustain injuries (she’s shot in the leg and he’s nursing a shrapnel wound to his scrotum), Cheever has completed his service in the military and is looking forward to spending time with his family.

As luck would have it, their trip starts poorly when they land in New York and cannot make a connecting flight to their respective cities because of a blackout. Instead of waiting for the airport to reschedule their trips, the trio decides that it would be faster to rent a car and drive cross country to their destinations – St. Louis for Cheever and Las Vegas for the others. Colee’s  plan is to return her dead friend’s guitar to his family in hopes that she can stay with them, while T.K., who is suffering from impotence because of his below-the-belt nick, is looking for a prostitute to help him with his little problem before he goes home to his fiancée in Florida. (I guess streetwalkers don’t live in the Sunshine State).

But when Cheever gets home and finds out his wife wants a divorce and his son needs money to go to Stanford University, it only make sense that he continues traveling with T.K. and Colee to Vegas so he can win his son’s tuition playing blackjack (I guess they’ve never heard of student loans).

They are all brainless ideas that implode on paper and even more so when McAdams, Robbins, and Peña, all good actors in their own right, try to help director Neil Burger explain who military men and women are by putting a name and face on these universal characters. The problem is that Burger and writing partner Dirk Wittenborn have created a set of stories far too unbelievable to latch onto in any way.

Through their journey we never really learn what is going on inside the heads of these three soldiers or what it’s like coming home knowing the stay is only temporary. It’s obvious that Burger wants to say something about the emotional state of the soldiers once they hit American soil, but instead of connecting us to them thoughtfully, he throws too many obstacles in their way that don’t benefit the overall importance of the story. Why write a scene where Cheever locks the keys in the car when, five minutes later, they find someone to open it with a slim Jim? It feels like Burger and Wittenborn have strung together skits to form a hybrid dramedy that goes nowhere and wastes valuable time.

Michael Peña – The Lucky Ones

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Originally from Chicago, actor Michael Peña, who graduated from Hubbard High School, has led a successful 14-year career in Hollywood. From starring in a number of Academy Award-worthy films like “Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and “Babel,” to working alongside industry icons like Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, and Oliver Stone, Peña has created his own path to stardom and continues to be one of the most sought after Latino actors working today.

Currently, Peña stars in the film “The Lucky Ones” alongside Oscar winner Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”) and Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook”). In the film he plays T.K. Poole, a solider sent home from Iraq after suffering a painful and embarrassing injury during an ambush.

Along with his film, Peña is also celebrating the birth of his first child (a son named Roman) with his wife Brie. During a phone interview with me, he talked about the politics of his new movie and how luck has played a small part in his life.

You play a different kind of soldier in “The Lucky Ones” than you did in your last film “Lions for Lambs.” How did you approach this role?

It’s a totally different character with a totally different mindset. One is a guy who thinks he knows it all and the other is a guy who knows he has more to learn. I don’t think this movie has a lot to do with war to be honest. It’s more of a drama. In “Lions” I was in more of an action sequence.

The film may not be about war, but do you think it has political undertones?

I don’t think so. It does have people coming back from the war, but it doesn’t have anything to say about the war. It doesn’t have anything to say about Iraq. I think it has more humor than any political statements.

I read somewhere that the word Iraq isn’t said once in the film.

Exactly. I don’t think you have to. I don’t think you have to beat a dead horse especially since you know what war they’re coming from.

Did you talk to any soldiers before making this film?

I usually like interviewing people before I start a movie but it was hard to find anyone that had the misfortune of getting shot in [the groin] area. I basically just relied on the script and create the character based on that.

Your character’s name is T.K. Poole, so I’m assuming it wasn’t necessarily written for a Latino actor. How do you feel when you land roles like this in comparison to roles that were written for a Latino?

I don’t think it matters either way. I just think it’s cool that I’m Latino and I’m doing a role like this that is true to the character. I think if there are any more Latinos in the limelight I back them 100 percent.

Do you believe in luck?

The most real thing for me is that luck comes with hard work. You have to be in a position to be lucky.

Would you consider yourself lucky with the success you’ve had in your film career?

Sort of. I mean, it wasn’t an easy life in all honesty. I definitely struggled from time to time. There was a time I lived in a van and lived in a studio apartment for four years in New York. But I still worked hard. So, when it came time for a big break I was sure to take it.

What have you learned about yourself as an actor since breaking out in films like “Crash” and “World Trade Center?”

That I don’t know everything. That’s the one thing that I found out. You come into this [industry] saying, ‘All I got to do is this and this and that,’ but it’s a little more complicated than you think it is. It’s like a pitcher who pitches 90 mph and all of a sudden they ask him to throw a curve ball and it takes him years to learn how to throw that kind of pitch. There’s always more to learn.

Michael Peña – Shooter

June 7, 2007 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

With award-winning films like “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash” and “Babel” under his belt, Chicago-born actor Michael Peña has built himself a strong resume with the work he has been a part of for the past few years. In his most recent movie, “Shooter,” Peña plays Nick Memphis, an FBI rookie who gets caught up in the middle of a governmental scandal between an ex-Marine sniper (Mark Wahlberg) and the U.S. military.

Taking time to talk to me while L.A., Peña discussed the last seven years of his career, why he decided to quit his day job at a bank and jump into the film industry and his upcoming film “Lions for Lambs,” which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise.

It’s been a busy three years hasn’t it?

It has been a busy three years. Actually, it’s been a busy seven years. I started like seven years ago doing “Siempre Fi.” Steven Spielberg produced that, so that was really cool. I just kept on doing really cool work with a lot of people. My first supporting role was with Joaquin Phoenix and Ed Harris in “Buffalo Soldiers.”

What made you want to go into this business?

I was working at a bank and my best friend’s mom told me to go to an open call and I didn’t. You don’t think acting is possible. Then she made me promise her that I would go to another open call.

Did you go and line up for the part?

There was like 3,000 other kids and I just lined up. The producer asked me, “Can you act?” And I said, “Well, we’re going to find out.” I was like, “I work at a bank, dude but let’s try it out.”

Did you get the part?

I auditioned seven times for the lead but I didn’t get it. I got a featured extra part and I thought I had it made.

So, when did you decide to move to L.A.?

Two weeks after the movie finished I was in Los Angeles. I liked it. It was something I could do. At 19 years old I was like, “Why not? Anything can happen.”

What did people at home say? Did they say, “You have a good job, what are you doing?”

Not when you’re living in the ghetto. They’re like, “Do you’re thing man.”

How did you get ready for the role as an FBI agent in “Shooter?”

I went to go meet FBI guys. I met this one real rookie and he was eager as hell to be a good FBI agent. It’s one thing to read it in a script and one thing seeing somebody actually wanna be a good FBI agent. I asked him, “Why (do you want this) so much?” He said these FBI guys have the real-life experience that is unlike anything else – the way they interrogate, the way they can tell if you’re lying. It’s like moving out when you’re 19 years old. You don’t think that you’re gonna have to pay for gas, electricity and your like, “What’s going on?”

When did you get an agent?

I didn’t get an agent until my second or third gig. I didn’t even know you needed one. I just kept going to open calls. I thought that’s the way Marlon Brando did it.

How did you find out?

When somebody told me, “Hey,you need an agent!” I was like, “Wait a minute. You want me to pay 10 percent to somebody? Why can’t I just go to these open calls myself?” Then I found out that not everything has an open call.

What was it like working with Mark Wahlberg on this?

It was great. He’s a professional. He’s really prepared. Each and every day, he doesn’t complain. He just kept an intensity for the whole shoot. We would golf to unwind a little bit. I’m still trying to beat him.

He said he could take money off you on the golf course.

Really?

Yeah.

Is that what he said?

Yeah, really. He said he could stop working for a while and take money off you.

It’s because were playing on Thursday and he’s trying to get into my head.

Now you’re doing the film “Lions for Lambs” with Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep  and Robert Redford.

Just saying is kind of weird. At first Meryl was attached to it. And then Tom was attached and Robert. Then they asked me if Iwould like to have a meeting with Redford and I was like, “Are you kidding me? Robert Redford?” So,  I met with him and told him what I thought about the character. A few
weeks later I got a call telling me that I got the movie.

What have you learned about yourself as an actor over the past seven years? Have you evolved?

I’d like to think so. I try to be as pratical as possible. I try and not be too heady. But at the end of the day, it is the actor’s job to communicate the play or movie to the audience. I think I read that in a David Mamet book. Most people don’t go to the movies to see a performance. They want to be entertained and they want to see a story. How am I going to tell the story? That’s the one thing that I focus on.

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