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Posts Tagged ‘Sean Penn’

Ah, a new year is upon us, bringing with it the usual abrupt shift in the type of films going on general release: from glittering festive spectaculars with no ulterior motive beyond simply luring in an audience, to more thoughtful, high-minded pieces made with half an eye on the Academy Award shortlist. It is, as I’m sure I’ve said before, the multiplex’s answer to a January detox, and I sometimes find it a little hard to cope with – could they not spread these films out just a bit more?

Oh well, such is life. One of the first off the blocks this year is Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller, produced by Ben Stiller, and starring Ben Stiller too. Well, that’s one way of keeping the budget down. Something about the trailer for this film, the first time I saw it, really put me off: it looked terribly twee and a little bit hackneyed, with the secret of finding happiness in a humdrum life promised by a gaggle of multi-millionaire film industry creative types. However, a close family member fancied going to the cinema, but wasn’t keen on the Mandela movie, so off we went to see it anyway (I will, as regular readers know, turn up to almost anything, especially if someone else is buying the ticket).

mitty

Stiller plays the eponymous character, a reserved everyman working in the photo archive of Life magazine. His true nature, which is that of an adventurous romantic, only finds expression through his rich and bewildering fantasy life – even if this does threaten to give him a reputation as a chronic daydreamer amongst those who know him. One of his most meaningful relationships is with a photojournalist (Sean Penn) whom he has never actually met. He certainly seems to have no realistic prospect of getting with a co-worker he quietly bears a torch for (played by Kristen Wiig – the co-worker, not the torch).

Then the magazine is bought out by a gaggle of bearded, suited nincompoops who announce the physical edition of the periodical is to be discontinued. The cover of the special last issue is to be a photograph specially taken by Penn’s character, and entrusted to Walter’s care – but he can’t find it anywhere! If he is to meet his obligation to the magazine, Walter is going to have to track his friend down and find out where the missing negative is…

This is based on a famous short story by James Thurber, although I suspect not a great deal of the original has survived. One of the things that gives the lie to my attempts to seem properly cultured is that there are many celebrated literary figures like Thurber with whom I am barely familiar – this case being particularly inexcusable, as Thurber short stories are always popping up in the books I constantly use at work. A Thurber admirer would probably have their own view of Stiller’s movie, but I have to say I very much enjoyed it in the end.

On paper it does look like a by-the-numbers, carpe diem, live your dreams piece of fluff – but it is lifted well above this level by some beautiful photography, inventive direction, and a cleverly reserved and slightly off-beat script. This is considerably less broad than most of the films I have seen from Ben Stiller, and much more to my taste. The more spectacular excursions into Walter’s dream-life are very funny, but to begin with the real world of the film exists at a slight angle to reality too – there’s an odd but subtle formalism to the designs and some of the dialogue that helps to smooth the joins between fantasy and reality. As Walter becomes more rooted in the real world, this diminishes somewhat – and it’s to Stiller’s credit that this is done with such great subtlety.

The transformation of Walter Mitty from, essentially, a ‘grey piece of paper’ to an inspirational, aspirational hero is perhaps not done with quite the same level of nuance – we are tipped off to the kind of person he was in his youth very early on – but this was always going to be a difficult balancing act. Personally, I liked the film very much – but then the story of a man escaping from the confines of a dispiriting office job and going on a series of surreal international adventures was always going to chime with me in a very particular way.

I think this is a good film, though it is arguably quite old-fashioned – the central message of going out and experiencing the world first-hand, rather than living in daydreams or cocooning yourself in management-speak and only communicating via the internet, is arguably nothing very new or surprising. Nevertheless it still seems to me to have some validity to it, and I did find the film bringing back a lot of memories and even stirring up just a little of my own spirit of adventure. I understand it has received mixed reviews, which rather surprises me. As of now, this is the best new film I have seen in 2014. This is not saying much, but I suspect it has a good chance of still being near the top of the list in twelve months’ time – and that is noteworthy. A very thoughtful and wise movie; entertaining, too.

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This early in the New Year, most cinemas are knee-deep either in highbrow Christmas blockbusters still hanging in there, or earnest, serious-minded Oscar contenders trying to build up some momentum ahead of the coming gong season. However, on the principle some people won’t be interested in either of those things, a few unrepentantly basic genre movies have snuck out, as usual. Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad certainly qualifies as one of them, despite the fact that the size of the budget and the calibre of the cast might indicate otherwise.

gangster-squad

This is one of those movies with no discernible ambition to do anything new; its success or failure has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with the polished assembly of parts you have probably seen before (many times before, in some cases). It’s 1949 and the rising power in the L.A. underworld is a ruthless ex-boxer turned gang boss, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). He has the town in his pocket, thinks he owns enough judges and policemen to make him untouchable, deals ruthlessly with his rivals, and so on.

However, the chief of the LAPD (Nick Nolte) is not about to roll over to this guy and assigns stone-faced veteran cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin doing his Tommy Lee Jones impression again) to bring him down – using whatever tactics the job may require, none of that due process foolishness involved. In a slightly surprising development, O’Mara lets his heavily pregnant wife choose the other members of the team, which may explain why one of them appears to be a wild west gunslinger who’s wandered into the wrong film. O’Mara’s second in command is high-living maverick Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has a special connection to the case, mainly because he’s knocking off Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone).

And you can probably write the rest for yourself: the Gangster Squad gets off to a shaky start, but soon gets the mob’s attention, things go back and forth for a while, the Squad member who’s basically been walking around with a bullseye on his face all film gets killed in a stakes-raising development, and so on. It is, to be blunt, very formulaic and highly derivative, most obviously from The Untouchables.

Having said that, just because something is formulaic that doesn’t mean it’s incompetent, and the reason cliches exist is because they actually work. Gangster Squad is a professionally assembled film, it looks polished, the characters have something of the coolness they’re clearly supposed to (they all wear fedoras – except the cowboy, who wears a stetson – and smoke like chimneys), and with a cast like this the performances are obviously going to be decent. The action scenes, which are frequent, are well-choreographed, and the plot does grip to some extent even though you nearly always know roughly what’s going to happen.

On the other hand, it would be nice for a film in this kind of hard-boiled genre to go beyond the basic requirements of the form – for instance, it’s such a relentlessly blokey film. There are two proper female characters, O’Mara’s wife and Wooters’ girlfriend. The wife spends most of the film in either the kitchen or the bathroom, tearfully asking her husband not to go off to fight (obviously he doesn’t listen to her, or there’d be no movie). Emma Stone as the girlfriend doesn’t spend the whole movie in bed, but her role is largely decorative and a real waste of her talents. Both roles are secondary to those of the men, and we never really get a sense of them as people in their own right.

Then again, it is 1949, and this is a movie aimed full-bloodedly at a male demographic. Gangster Squad has had its release date shoved back by four months to allow a major sequence to be reshot – the original featured a gunfight in a cinema, which for obvious reasons you can’t really put in an entertainment-minded movie these days. From watching this film, I can deduce that it is considered inappropriate to show people firing guns in a moviehouse, but perfectly okay to depict dozens of people being blown away by submachine guns in any other urban environment. What a curious and somewhat counterintuitive world it is we live in.

This is still a savagely violent film in places – someone gets literally ripped in half very early on – but the director seems, rather slyly, to have front-loaded it to some extent: a lot of the really intensely nasty stuff happens very early on, giving you an instant impression that this is an extremely violent movie, an impression which lingers even after the film calms down a bit. It’s not quite as graphic as it seemed at the time, now I consider it, but this is still a really strong 15 and definitely not for the squeamish.

This isn’t actually a bad film, and perhaps the fact I’ve never really been a particular fan of gangster movies is a factor in my indifference to it. It’s solid enough genre stuff, but the best thing about it is probably the late-40s art direction and costuming. But from the talent involved, you’d be forgiven for expecting something rather more striking.

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Sometimes I’m not sure that my habit of routinely referring to the local Picturehouse cinema as ‘the arthouse’ is wholly justified – quite often it does end up showing the same films as the coffeeshop and other multiplexes. For example, The Iron Lady, The Artist, The Best Exotic Whatever and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (no thanks) have all played at both, while Marley starts at the Picturehouse this weekend. (Usually, given the choice, I follow the wise advice of Dr K and support the smaller cinema, so cue guilt from me for having already seen the reggae biopic at a larger venue.) And the so-called arthouse cinema’s latest classic revival of a film by a noted European auteur is not Orpheus or Bande a Part, but a blood-drenched and wildly excessive piece of heavy-metal SF satire that spawned a relatively major franchise (needless to say I have already bought my ticket).

Then again, it does often show movies I can’t imagine the coffeeshop giving any kind of a chance, big names and quality or not. Actually, I’m not sure if Sean Penn still counts as a big name or not – he’s still a well-known figure, but I’m not sure whether that’s due to his acting or his penchant for shooting his mouth off about the various political causes he’s taken up. But he’s still making movies, such as Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place. To describe this film as off-beat is a major understatement.

Penn plays Cheyenne, a fifty-year-old Goth rock star living a life of aimless bafflement in suburban Dublin, for reasons the film does not address directly (but which may have something to do with the fact this film was part-funded by the Irish Film Board). He and his wife (Frances McDormand) seem happy enough, his weekly visits to a local graveyard notwithstanding. But then news arrives from America: Cheyenne’s father is dying.

Cheyenne and his father have had a distant relationship for many years, but something still moves Cheyenne to take up the obsession that has dominated his father’s later years – incarcerated in Auschwitz as a youth, the old man was fixated on finding the man he considered the greatest of his tormentors amongst the camp guards. Pausing only to consult with veteran Nazi-hunter Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), and – for somewhat less obvious reasons – art-rock legend David Byrne (David Byrne, duh), Cheyenne sets out to complete his father’s quest…

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: not another middle-aged Goth hunting a Nazi war criminal comedy drama road movie! ‘Fraid so, folks – but it’s not as straightforward as that sounds. Seeing this film, the over-riding impression I took away with me was of Sean Penn’s performance, which is extraordinary. I’m not saying it’s necessarily extraordinarily good, but it’s very, very striking. Penn really goes for the Goth look, with fright-wig hair and full make-up practically throughout the movie. He looks ostentatiously ridiculous even when not dressed to play sport (as he is in a couple of scenes), but Penn ups the ante even further with an effete, almost wheedling vocal performance and a whole array of mannered facial tics. He doesn’t so much just grab your attention, as wrest it away from you and run off howling.

The wild over-the-topness of this is particularly strange, as there’s a lot more drama than there is comedy in the course of this film. I suppose this isn’t that surprising, given the focus of the plot, but there’s a constant tension between the look-at-me strangeness of what Penn is doing and the genuine emotions at the heart of a lot of the script. Cheyenne is surrounded by people living their lives and coping with their own emotional problems – unrequited love, trouble with their parents, bereavement – and these are, on the whole, sincerely written and convincing played by the large supporting cast. The film is much more about these people and their effect on Cheyenne than it is his search for the war criminal.

That said, the film isn’t completely po-faced and does contain some very funny scenes, but the memorable ones are more serious in tone – most striking is a discussion between Penn and Byrne in which, for the first time, Penn’s emotional detachment crumbles and we get a glimpse of the man within for the first time. This is when we start to understand why he still maintains the same outrageously affected appearance he had when he was a teenager – it is a mechanism for hiding from the world, from time, and from himself, and the rest of the film is about how he slowly reconnects with all these things.

This is a visually brilliant film, with impeccably composed shots and lustrous cinematography throughout – the southern USA looks gorgeous on the screen, suburban Dublin perhaps less so. For a while I wondered if this wasn’t just another showy-offy film like (possibly) There Will Be Blood, with Penn going into method overload and the cameraman and director running amuck in their own departments too. But in the end I’m not sure if that’s the case. The road-movie element is a little bit hackneyed, and the quest plotline also far from original, but the character studies and scenes along the way add up to create a quietly moving composite portrait of human emotional frailty.

Even so, I’m not sure This Must Be The Place isn’t a bit less than the sum of its parts, for all that it’s more about the journey than the denouement. And perhaps the filmmakers felt the same thing – the very end of the film feels like an attempt to be enigmatic and provoke discussion amongst the audience. I’m not sure what it means; the obvious answer has the drawback of seeming wildly implausible, but the film doesn’t point towards any others.

Nevertheless, this is an engaging and entertaining film, even if it never quite completely comes together as a coherent whole. Anyone going solely by appearances is probably not going to take it seriously – which is a shame, because I think it deserves at least that much.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 4th March 2004:

It’s over ten years since Clint Eastwood’s long service and considerable skills both as an actor and director were justly rewarded by the Oscars awarded to Unforgiven. Clint has, of course, kept working as solidly as ever since then, but the honest truth is that (with the odd exception) the actual movies haven’t really been anything special.

However, this run of mediocre films has been broken in impressive style with Mystic River, a crime drama based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Set in Boston, it’s the story of trio of men, once childhood friends, who are brought together by violence and tragedy. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a semi-reformed criminal and tough guy, a devoted family man. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective, struggling after his wife has left him. And Dave (Tim Robbins) is a man left with permanent psychological scars after being kidnapped and abused as a child. When Jimmy’s teenaged daughter is murdered, Sean finds he and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) have been assigned to the case, while Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) finds herself having terrible suspicions about just what her husband was doing on the night of the killing…

Yes, well, not a lot of laughs in this one (and a total absence of performing orang-utans too). But don’t let that put you off, as this is an utterly engrossing and thought-provoking film built with scarcely a dud performance anywhere in it. The plot is complex, with a lot of back-story, most of which emerges through the minutae of the police investigation – but it’s never confusing or contrived. The other main strand of the film concerns Penn coming to terms with the death of his daughter and the growing suspicions surrounding Robbins’ character. It’s more emotionally involving, but equally absorbing, and the two complement each other perfectly.

I’m always slightly wary of films which set out to make serious points and send messages to the audience, but Mystic River manages to do this subtly and calmly. It’s interesting that Clint Eastwood, an actor for many years synonymous with a certain kind of cinematic violence (and whose primary big-screen persona was basically that of Angel of Death) has chosen to make a film suffused with a tremendous dread of and hatred for violence of all kinds. Violence causes violence, the story suggests, resulting in people trapped in a cycle of anger and revenge out of which good can never come. It’s a grim moral, and this is an intense and often brooding film, but it’s also a compulsively watchable one.

Clint’s direction is appropriately unflashy for the most part, and he does sterling double-duty as composer of a low-key but very effective soundtrack. But he must surely take some of the credit for a welter of superb performances from virtually the entire principle cast. Robbins exudes a strange shambling menace as the emotionally damaged Dave, Marcia Gay Harden is outstanding as his wife (and if you ask me deserved to win the Oscar eventually picked up by Renee Zellweger), and Penn is never less than utterly convincing as Jimmy, a man virtually unhinged by grief and rage. Some of these performances are perhaps a little obvious and mannered, but no less praiseworthy for that.

Mystic River perhaps outstays its welcome a bit, and the slightly odd, ambiguous ending will not be to everyone’s taste. But it is a superb drama, tightly written and brilliantly performed, and thoroughly deserving of your attention. I think it bears comparison with the best of Clint Eastwood’s past work, and is also a major piece of evidence for those who would claim that his achievements as a director far surpass those of his acting career. Highly recommended.

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