FLAG DAY (2021)

August 19, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Life is full of choices, however sometimes destiny takes charge and there’s little we can do about it. One’s parents are the most obvious and crucial example. We don’t choose our parents and yet their impact on our lives is unavoidable. Jennifer Vogel’s book, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life”, has been adapted for the screen by the FORD V FERRARI screenwriting brothers, Jez Butterworth and JohnHenry Butterworth. The film is directed by two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, who also co-stars.

Told through the eyes of Jennifer (played here by Sean Penn’s daughter Dylan Penn, a lookalike of her mother Robin Wright), this is the “based on a true story” of John Vogel, but also the story of Jennifer, who managed to overcome challenges that stemmed from her far-from-ideal childhood. Jennifer’s mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings”) is an alcoholic and has a tumultuous marriage to John, a con man who constantly spews bombast and fabrications (aka lies) as he tries to scam the system and impress his family with his big plans (that go nowhere).

Since the film opens with a law enforcement standoff, and with Jennifer being interviewed by a Federal Marshal (Oscar winner Regina King), we know how John’s saga concludes, and most of the movie is spent in Jennifer’s memories to paint the picture of her dad and her life. Some of these are “flashes” of moments, while others are extended segments where we really get a feel for the father that cluttered a daughter’s mind and life. It’s tough to watch 105 minutes of a guy with little redeeming value.

This is not the place to detail what we see, but it’s at times disturbing to see the memories of a father who doesn’t so much slip in and out of the lives of Jennifer, younger brother Nick (played by Sean’s son Hopper Jack Penn), and mom Patty, as he appears and vanishes in proverbial explosions akin to the Wicked Witch of the West. Given that her mom is equally inept at parenting, high school Jennifer seems destined to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Covering a period from 1975 through 1992, we see Jennifer as a young kid, and then Ms. Penn takes over the role in high school. She is also our narrator, some of which is overwrought for a film that mostly strives to stay grounded in family dynamics, as Jennifer works to overcome. In addition to the previously mentioned appearance by Ms. King, there are also brief yet effective turns by Josh Brolin (as John’s brother Uncle Beck), Dale Dickey (as John’s crusty mother), Norbert Leo Butz (as Patty’s sleazy boyfriend), and Eddie Marsan (near the film’s end).

In addition to overuse of voiceover, director Penn includes a few too many song/musical interludes. Some of these songs are excellent (Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard), but they feel a bit heavy-handed and forced into the film. In fact, melodrama is chosen over nuance on multiple occasions, but when the film is good, it’s very good. The best scenes are between father and daughter, Sean and Dylan, the latter of which shows flashes of incredible depth. We look forward to more of her work. As for Sean, can you name another actor whose natural look better exemplifies a guy who has had the snot kicked out of him by life (even if he’s made his own bed)? He portrays John Vogel as a con man who believes achieving the American Dream is something he’s owed, not something to earn. His love of Chopin is not enough to excuse his horrific parenting, scamming, or felonious behavior. There are various forms of freedom, and Jennifer must discover freedom from someone who has prevented you from being her true self.

Opens in select theaters on August 20, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


CITIZEN PENN (2021, doc)

May 6, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As a two-time Oscar winner for MILK (2008) and MYSTIC RIVER (2003), Sean Penn is unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation. He’s also an accomplished writer, director, and producer, and has been in two high-profile marriages/divorces: once to pop superstar Madonna, and then to actress Robin Wright. Over the years, Penn has been labeled Hollywood’s bad boy, anti-American, an opportunist, an activist, a philanthropist, and a humanitarian. Documentarian Don Hardy sets the stage by acknowledging all of that, and then focuses on Sean Penn’s work with his relief organization J/P HRO (now CORE).

Director Hardy interviews Penn in what appears to be his living room. Penn rarely stops smoking and does an admirable job of taking us through how he became more than just a celebrity seeking a photo op. It was 2010 when Haiti was hit by a massive 7.0 earthquake that killed 250,000, injured 300,000, and displaced 1.5 million from their home. Penn’s personal life was at a fork, and he viewed this as a way to do the right thing and help those in need. So he made some calls and along with other volunteers, headed to Haiti. Penn describes this as “building the airplane after takeoff”. Stunned by the devastation, Penn used his connections to garner medical supplies and other items.

Despite facing cynicism from many, Penn mostly avoided cameras, except when he granted interviews to Anderson Cooper on CNN in hopes of raising awareness and funds for relief efforts. Penn spent several months in Haiti and his team evolved from emergency relief (medical support, food, clean water) to temporary housing, to the removal of tons of debris and rubble, and finally to new development. One of the camps that housed 60,000 people began as a tent city and is today a new city of its own.

Director Hardy weaves in some terrific video footage that corresponds to Penn’s recollections, and there are especially tension-filled moments involving diphtheria, cholera, and an emergency birth. To Penn’s credit, he doesn’t harp on the political unrest within Haiti, and spends his time and energy on helping the citizens and his JP/HRO team as best he can. We also see clips of the organization’s annual gala and witness Penn’s growing frustration at the number of wealthy individuals who partake in the food, party, and music, yet don’t crack open a checkbook. He shows gratitude to those who are generous, but can’t hide his distaste for the others – proving that his passion goes much deeper than good PR.

Penn recruited Ann Lee from her work at the U.N. to head the newly named CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and the relief work from this organization has carried on through Hurricane Matthew in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 Pandemic, as they distributed tests to underserved areas. You may be the kind that volunteers for everything. Or you may be the kind that critiques others while lounging on your sofa. But even if your political views don’t align with Penn’s, the film will surely have you respecting his sacrifices for those in needs. His are real actions … nothing for “show”.

Premiering on Discovery+ on May 6, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE GUNMAN (2015)

March 20, 2015

gunman Greetings again from the darkness. Sean Penn becomes the latest addition to the AARP action hero club … a very crowded club these days. Unfortunately for Mr. Penn, he lacks the smirky charm of Bruce Wills, the uber-cool of Denzel Washington, and he fails to generate the empathy of Liam Neeson. He simply doesn’t come across as a very likable guy, and certainly not someone we can root for.

Based on the novel of Jean-Patrick Manchette, the movie starts out in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Penn is a mercenary disguised as part of a mining security detail. The first 20 minutes are convoluted and introduce numerous characters and sub-plots that leave us wondering if there are any good guys here … other than Penn’s idealistic doctor girlfriend played by Jasmine Trinca. A sure sign of a weak script is a film that is bookended by “newscasts” to explain both what is going to happen as well as what just happened.

Pierre Morel directed the first Taken movie, and his cast is stellar: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance. Somehow that combination delivers a hokey, over-acted, cheesy dialogue mess featuring absurd shoot-outs and action sequences that try to convince us Penn is some kind of quasi-superhero. His transformation from geopolitical hit-man to humanitarian is tough to buy, and it’s downright chuckle-inducing to see the times he manages to show off his sculpted torso. We can only assume his personal trainer received a bonus for each shirtless scene.

The story bounces from Africa to London to Barcelona to Gibraltar and back to Barcelona. It does include the best use of a live bull so far this year, though the actual bullfighting is somehow one of the least gruesome segments of the entire film. The film isn’t as sneaky as it thinks it is in making a statement about multinational corporations raiding Third World resources. Evidently, the message is that former assassins can be forgiven if they are re-born as committed to humanitarian causes, but capitalistic companies cannot possibly justify their work in impoverished areas.

All of the above could be shrugged off if so many wasted opportunities didn’t consistently frustrate. Penn has scenes with all of the other actors mentioned above, but there is almost no interaction between the others. Why no confrontations between Idris and Javier? How about one sequence with Penn, Javier and Winstone squaring off? So many fun actors, but so little cross-over. Frustration may be the best overall description for this one, and it encompasses everything from script to dialogue to camera work.

watch the trailer:

 


THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

December 15, 2013

mitty1 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. In the moment, daydreams can feel like real life. Such is the existence of Walter Mitty, the milquetoast main character of James Thurber’s 1939 “New Yorker” short story. This is no remake of Danny Kaye’s 1947 movie, and thank goodness for that … no one wants to see Ben Stiller singing and dancing. Mr. Stiller not only takes on the role of the zoned out Mitty, but he also directs.

mitty4 Walter is a quiet, photo lab geek at Life Magazine, the long time publication that is closing its doors. Of course, in real life, those doors closed years ago, but the magazine name makes for the perfect contradiction to Mitty’s humdrum existence. The transition team is in place led by the snide, bearded corporate presence of Adam Scott. Photographer extraordinaire Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) has delivered the perfect shot for the final cover. Only one problem: Walter has misplaced the negative (yes, O’Connell still shoots on FILM).

This gaffe leads Walter to cross paths with a co-worker played by Kristen Wiig, whom he has secretly admired both across the office and by staring at her eHarmony profile online. Their investigative work leads Walter on the first real journey of his life. He even breaks free of the family stranglehold of his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) and gets a pep talk and well timed boost from Patton Oswalt.

mitty2 Walter’s expedition leads him to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas, and Afghanistan by way of Yemen. He also encounters a wild helicopter pilot and ride, sharks, an erupting volcano, drinking beer from giant glass boots, a sad and aggressive Karoke singer, and takes an accelerated ride via skateboard. Rather than changing Walter, these experiences just bring out a lust for life that was previously only flashed through his periods of fantasy zone outs.

The acting is very strong in this one, and that comes from a guy who is not much of a Stiller fan. His beaten down demeanor and stone-faced expressions are spot on for the Mitty role. Ms. MacLaine, Ms. Hahn, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Scott all add very nice comedic touches and Sean Penn captures the rugged fearlessness of a world weary photographer who recognizes the depth within Mitty.

If you are a fan of Thurber’s short story then you must know artistic license is taken to turn it in to full length feature. Screenwriter Steven Conrad provides Life magazine as a foundation, and sends Walter to some of the most beautiful places on earth during the journey. He even gives us a “poetry falcon” (my first) and a curious parody of “Benjamin Button” (a bit out of place). Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh delivers these locations to us in stunning fashion. The film is beautiful to look, and thanks to the score from Theodore Shapiro, it’s complimented by well fitting music.

This is one of those crowd-pleasing movies filled with sentimentality and charm. Critics will bash it, but most of us can relate to the underdog lead and his delusions of grandeur.

**NOTE: the opening and closing credits are works of art in their own right … so be seated early and hang around a few extra minutes.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a feel good, slightly quirky movie for the grown-ups over the holidays

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the next Citizen Kane (in other words, many critics are going to bash it despite it being a crowd pleaser).

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGWO2w0H2V8

 


GANGSTER SQUAD (2013)

January 9, 2013

gangster Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, I am one of those who take movies very seriously. Good movies make me happy (even the sad ones), and bad movies make me sulk. Every now and then, one comes along that I find myself enjoying despite the warning buzzers blasting in my film snob brain. Such is the latest from director Ruben Fleisher (who also directed the entertaining Zombieland).

“Inspired by true events” should always be interpreted as a disclaimer that the movie will play fast and loose with history and the details of the story. Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen, a renowned Los Angeles gangster from the late 40’s. Due to widespread police corruption, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) authorized an “off the books” team to take down mob operations (gambling, prostitution, etc). This much was gangster4documented in Paul Lieberman’s book. How this story is presented by Fleisher and screenwriter Will Beall (signed on for the Justice League movie) has more in common with a comic book than actual history.

The movie is extremely beautiful to look at. It’s slick and stylish with a glamorous color palette, and the production design is top notch – capturing the look and feel of a booming Los Angeles. If you are expecting the next L.A. Confidential or even The Untouchables, you will be disappointed. It’s more in line with Dick Tracy, Scarface, and Hoffa. In other words … it looks great and the action, characters and dialogue are all way over the top!

gangster3 The cast is superb, but most are underutilized. Josh Brolin is the tough leader of the squad that features Ryan Gosling (the token cool womanizer), Robert Patrick (the token dead-eye gunslinger), Anthony Mackie (the innercity, knife-wielding token black cop), Giovanni Ribisi (the token geeky electronics expert), and Michael Pena (the rookie and token Hispanic cop). Unfortunately, my crude descriptions are just about as in-depth as the movie goes with any of them. In fact, Yvette Tucker playing Carmen Miranda, gets almost as much screen time as any of these cops as she sings “Chica Chica Boom Chic”.

The violence is cartoonish in its fervor. The aim of these gangsters is among the worst in movie history, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Using Tommy Guns and pistols, my estimate is that one in every 167 shots actually hits an intended target. Many elaborate set pieces are destroyed in the process. The exception is Robert Patrick’s character, who is actually featured in a detective serial. He never misses … even after being wounded. Penn plays Cohen as a ruthless mob boss, unwilling to accept any failure from his crew. And you know what that means. No pink slips here … just ugly death via power drill, burning elevator or classic car tug-of-war.

An interesting note is the presence of three actors from recent cult TV shows. Holt McCallany (Lights Out), Mireille Enos (The Killing) and Troy Garity (Boss) all have key roles in the film, as does Jon Polito, whose face gangster2and voice make him a must-cast in any gangster film.

If you are able to turn off the logical and reasoning part of your brain … just sit back and enjoy Emma Stone smoking a cig while wearing a red evening gown, an understated Ryan Gosling with an odd speech pattern, Sean Penn wearing a prosthetic nose and spewing hilarious bad guy lines, and the creepy feeling that Josh Brolin is just 25 years away from looking and sounding exactly like Nick Nolte … then hopefully you can take this one for what it is – a guilty pleasure.

**NOTE: the closing credits are a work of art … a tribute to the classic postcards from early Los Angeles

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you’re up for a rollicking good time … bullets flying, tongue firmly planted in cheek

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect historical accuracy and pure drama in your gangster flicks

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRVvEHk7xOs

 


THE TREE OF LIFE

June 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Rare are the times that I find myself lacking words to express my opinion on a movie just watched. But writer/director Terrence Malick does not play fair. First of all, what director makes only five films in 40 years? Who makes a film about CREATION, life, evolution, spirituality, death and existence? What director seems to thrive when no real story is needed to make his points? Which director can so mess with the viewer’s head through visual artistry never before seen on screen? The answer to these questions, of course, is Terrence Malick. And I hold him responsible the fact that I remain in somewhat of a semi-conscious fog four days after watching his latest masterpiece.

 Any attempt to explain this film would be futile. It is so ripe for interpretation and quite a personal, intimate journey for any viewer who will open themselves up to the experience. What I can tell you is that much of the film is focused on a typical family living in small town rural Texas in the early 1950’s. Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, the stern disciplinarian father and husband to Jessica Chastain‘s much softer Mrs. O’Brien.

Near the beginning of the film, we get Mrs. O’Brien as narrator explaining that when she was a child, the nuns informed that in life one must choose between Nature and Grace. Nature being the real time of real life, whereas Grace is the more spiritual approach. Clearly, Mr. O’Brien has chosen Nature, while his wife embodies Grace. Watching their three boys evolve in this household is quite a cinematical treat – and is done with so little dialogue, it’s almost shocking to the senses.

 One of the many things that jumped out at me was the set and production design of Jack Fisk. Mr. Fisk is a frequent collaborator with Mr. Malick and is also the husband of Sissy Spacek, who starred in Malick’s first knockout film Badlands. Unlike many films, I did not have the feeling I was watching a movie about the 50’s. Instead, the look is directly IN the 50’s … slamming screen doors, tree houses, and family supper time! But don’t think for a moment that this is a story about the O’Brien’s and their sons. This family is merely Malick’s vessel for showing the earthly connections between the universe and each of the particles within. If you think this sounds a bit pretentious, you should know that Mr. Malick graduated from Harvard with a philosophy degree, became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and a professor at MIT. This is a thinking man and an artist.

 Actually I would describe the experience as viewing an art exhibit and listening to poetry. Even the use of Smetana’s The Moldau River is an example of music melding into film. It really sweeps over and through you, and takes you on a trip of introspection. So many human emotions are touched – the need to be loved, appreciated and respected. We see the oldest O’Brien son later in life. Sean Penn plays him as a very successful middle aged adult who still struggles with the death of a brother and communication skills learned from his childhood. This is an odd sequence but provided to give balance to the flurry of emotions the younger boy survives.

This was the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or winner and that means little if you don’t let go as you walk into the theatre. It’s a contemplative journey that you can either take part in or fight. My advice is to open up and let this beautiful impression of all life take your mind places it may have never been before.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are ready and willing for an emotional and intellectual and spiritual journey that will have you contemplating life for many days after you leave the theatre.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you found The Hangover Part II to be too heavily intellectualized for your movie tastes.