Tag: sean penn

The Gunman

The Gunman (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“The Gunman,” based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel, is a tepid action-thriller, offering absolutely nothing new to the genre with turn of events that are generic and predictable. However, it is elevated—somewhat—by a few well-shot and nicely executed action sequences dispersed throughout its two-hour running time. It offers a tolerable experience but not one that is thrilling, escapist, or exciting.

Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) is a marksman assigned to assassinate the Minister of Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mission was a success which, as planned, has led to further political unrest, violence, and money for those who have control and power. Eight years later, however, Terrier, while drilling wells in Congo as a part of a humanistic movement, is found by men hired to kill him—this act seemingly directly tied to his final mission. Terrier leaves the country immediately to contact former colleagues who were with him during the night of the assassination.

The film lacking political intrigue is a most dire miscalculation. For instance, instead of us having a chance to learn about the brains and subterfuge behind every movement of a chess piece, we are given a tired subplot involving Terrier and a former girlfriend (Jasmine Tinca). The problem is that Annie is not at all a compelling character. She is supposed to be some kind of doctor in Congo, but we never learn or appreciate what she thinks or feel about the complex political situation unfolding before her.

The screenplay by Don Macpherson, Pete Travis, and Sean Penn does not help in providing substance. Motivations of the characters are very thin so the story does not draw us in such a way that we are invested in the lives of its protagonists. There is almost a pattern established prior to the halfway point: Terrier looking serious, an action scene, a piece of information is revealed to move the plot forward, rinse and repeat.

At least the action sequences provide some sort of entertainment. The hand-to-hand combat between Terrier and a fellow assassin (Peter Franzén) works because both are shown to be very lethal previously. Notice that the editing is highly efficient, almost creating a sort of dance around every punch, stab, and gun shot. I was reminded of the first three “Bourne” pictures, the rawness of two men who are fighting but are also thinking about their next moves, how they might be able to outsmart and ultimately render the opponent lifeless.

Directed by Pierre Morel, “The Gunman” might have been a more engaging film if the adaptation process had focused on providing a more detailed picture of the political mechanics of its backdrop. The first five minutes suggest that we are in for an action-thriller with equivalent levels of brain and brawn. Instead, we get a second cousin of “Taken” with only an eighth of its adrenaline and surprises.

The Game

The Game (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is the forty-eighth birthday of Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a filthy rich investment banker in San Francisco, but he is far from a celebratory mood. His father killed himself when he was forty-eight and the trauma of having witnessed the suicide lingers. Conrad (Sean Penn), Nicholas’ only sibling, hands his brother a birthday present. On the card is a name of a company, “Consumer Recreation Services” (CRS), and right below it is a telephone number. With a sly smile, Conrad claims it is the best thing that has ever happened to him and he insists that Nicholas call the number.

The premise of “The Game,” written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, scratched at the deepest layers of my curiosity. The first half is very strong as it is dedicated solely on our protagonist trying to figure out what CRS is exactly and what services it offers. However, the latter section is less engaging as it leans on combing through typical thriller elements like having to run from people with guns. And yet despite this, the myriad twists and turns come right out of left field. As an in-the-moment experience, the strands demand to be untangled.

Its title refers to a game but it is vague in terms of which party is supposed to be having fun. If I were Nicholas and I found a creepy wooden doll on my driveway, I would have called the company immediately and informed them that I would like to quit the game. But not Nicholas. As a man of wealth and power, he seems almost drawn to the dark turns. Douglas does a good job in allowing the pleasure his character feels to be translucent. Because of this subtlety, it is communicated that maybe Nicholas has not taken part in something this exciting for a long time. Though he suspects that the game might be dangerous, it might be worth seeing it through.

One of the most interesting scenes takes place in CRS. There, Nicholas is able to speak with a representative named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Nicholas asks to be explained to him the nature of the game. Jim circumvents the request and simply tells him that the game is specifically tailored for each person. Nicholas does not like this answer. He asks another question. Another roundabout answer. Something does not feel right. There is tension in the push-and-pull between the two.

Chases and shoot-outs are less fun and intriguing. They seem off tonally; it feels as though I were watching another psychological thriller with half a brain. Furthermore, we are subjected to lines like, “You’re the only one I can trust!” For a smart character like Nicholas, it just comes off dopey. Does it not occur to him that at that point in time, no one is to be trusted? Has he not learned anything from the terrible things that just happened to him? Certainly these scenes should have been excised in order to allow better flow.

By the time the ending comes, I was still interested in how the story will end but I felt somewhat exhausted by the twists. They are good twists—surprising—but the irregular pacing of the second half has taken its toll on what should be a lean, tightly controlled thriller. Directed by David Fincher, “The Game” looks great with its brooding darkness and the performances have layers. However, the execution of the two halves proves that giving birth to an ace thriller is not child’s play.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

The employees learn that LIFE magazine has been acquired which means that many of them will be let go during the transition—to be overseen by Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), an insensitive lout who sports a bad beard. It is critical that the magazine’s final cover be representative of its title and so Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), in charge of the photo units, is thrown in a panic when he discovers that negative twenty-five is missing.

Desperate to keep his job and quenching his subconscious’ need for adventure and excitement, Walter catches a plane to Greenland in hopes of meeting the elusive Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the photojournalist whose work frequents the magazine’s cover, and asking if he even sent the negative in the first place.

Based on the short story by James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a nice movie—and that is not a compliment. “Nice” is equated with watchable but harmless, offering occasional beautiful images but none offers an immediate, visceral response. I enjoyed some scenes as they are but my brain could not help but think that with such a viewer-friendly premise, the final product ought to have been much stronger.

Stiller plays a nondescript forty-two-year-old convincingly. The performer does a smart thing: He does not play the character to be pitied. Even though Walter is a bit of a bore, we remain drawn to him somewhat—which is difficult to pull off—because Stiller does not turn off his charm completely. It is minimized to a flicker but we sense it nonetheless. I wish Stiller would play more nuanced characters like this. He can be very good at it.

I wish I can say the same about the screenplay. It is correct to inject Walter’s daydreams with exoticism, silliness, and excitement. However, when Walter’s mind is pulled back to reality, the material is not that interesting. Sure, some of the lead character’s interactions with his crush at work, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig—who manages to hit the right notes just about every time), are cute and sweet but aside from the romantic aspect, it shows little to no brightness in the other aspects of Walter’s life.

Perhaps that is the point. But I did not find that realistic. In order to be a true contrast against the more fantastic elements, realism must be sharp. In truth, ordinary lives may be boring but they are not boring all the time. Here, we get the impression that the truth represents the opposite of the latter and that is a lie. Thus, the picture lacks a defined reference point. Supposed opposite elements do not clash as strongly and so we fail to get strong reactions when they collide.

The best scene in the picture is when Walter and the photojournalist he admires finally get a chance to meet. Penn gets one scene and he plays it to perfection. At its best, it reminded me of a most wonderful feeling I had while watching Penn’s “Into the Wild” for the first time. The conversation that transpires between Walter and Sean has a poetic rhythm to it. Notice how the scene takes its time. It seems unconcerned in showing us the next magical thing that a computer can create. At its worst, it made me look at the beautiful scenery—and that is not a jab.

I liked the message that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” based on the screenplay by Steve Conrad, has to impart. That is, great adventures can happen to all of us… but only if we are willing and present. One can visit foreign countries and explore the most exotic places but if the mind is somewhere else then there is no point. But notice that even when Walter is traveling to all sorts of places, clearly on a mission, there remains a tinge of sadness to him. Maybe Chris McCandless, during the final moments of “Into the Wild,” is right: Happiness is only real when shared.


Taps (1981)
★★ / ★★★★

Cadet Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) had been recently promoted to major by General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) who was in charge of Bunker Hill Military Academy. Moreland looked up to the general and wished to prove he was worthy of the promotion during the upcoming school year. But when General Bache announced that the school was in its final year because the land had been sold, Moreland and the other cadets seized the campus and wouldn’t stand down until their three demands were met. Based on the novel “Father Sky” by Devery Freeman and directed by Harold Becker, “Taps” aimed to explore rebellion in a military milieu but its arguments were too black and white for it to be more than superficially interesting. I paid special attention to Moreland because he defined honor as adopting a stance and seeing it through no matter what the cost. He was a good guy with friends like Cadet Captains Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and David Shawn (Tom Cruise), but his actions weren’t always practical. He believed he was doing the right thing by defending their school, which was essentially their home, but he wasn’t always sensitive to the needs of his fellowmen. He knew the concept of sacrifice but he didn’t fully understand how to implement such a concept wisely. He straddled the tricky stage between being a young civilian and a soldier. However, there were a plethora of missed opportunities for the main character’s beliefs to be challenged and ultimately make us think. There were a few awkward scenes when Moreland and Dwyer, roommates, would walk in on each other, give one another fierce looks but never speak. Perhaps their conversations didn’t make it past the cutting room floor. If so, it made me wonder why such head-scratching scenes made it to the final product. A meaningful conversation between two friends was exactly what the film required especially with the events that transpired in the film’s final five minutes. Even mundane conversations would have given their characters dimension. Both teenagers were smart and they respected each other. Having commonalities and eventually highlighting their differences would have provided extra tension aside from the fact that the real military was right outside the gates of the academy. Cruise’ bellicose character was not used efficiently. We were supposed to take him seriously but he was always present whenever the material needed comic relief. There was no evolution in his character so his actions toward the end felt too forced. “Taps” rested on conflict that we could see: the tanks and more experienced soldiers at the gate, the helicopters that hovered above, and the worried parents talking over the loudspeaker. The students’ rebellion was a personal matter, one even acknowledged the strike as their own war, but their inner turmoils weren’t fully explored. Like the military men on the other side of the gate, as audiences, we were kept mostly on the other side.

Fair Game

Fair Game (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a covert CIA agent who worked in the Anti-Proliferation program where she and her team gathered secret intelligence concerning possible weapons of mass destruction. She was connected internationally and she gained people’s trust even though their lives were on the line. But when a man in the government leaked her identity to the papers, with impunity, all for the sake of shallow revenge involving the article her husband (Sean Penn) wrote aimed to criticize the Bush administration, Valerie and her family’s lives were turned upside down my the media, politicians, and the people they knew back when they still had valuable anonymity. Directed by Doug Liman, “Fair Game” was an effective thriller about an injustice in America and the unnecessary betrayal Valerie had to go through just because some men wanted to remind themselves that they still had power. The acting was top-notch. Watts did a tremendous job in making Valerie sympathetic but not so much that we ended up feeling sorry for her. Instead, she controlled her character in such a way that, if we were in her shoes, we would be outraged by what was done to us, especially when all we wanted was what was best for our country. She was a smart and strong woman, fully capable of thinking on her feet, in a thankless job where they could easily deny connection to you when things went sour. I was surprised that she didn’t receive more acknowledgement for her performance here. Much of the film’s strength was the complexity she injected into Valerie. The suppressed emotions were just as vivid as the expressed. Penn was also wonderful as the husband hell-bent on finding some sort of elusive justice. Although not always making the smartest choices in which his strategy was to appear in all sorts of interviews to gain exposure, his persistence was admirable. I loved the scenes between Penn and Watts as they evaluated their marriage amidst the chaos of revealed identities and realizing that what they had romantically might be beyond repair. What’s more impressive was the picture worked even if it was based entirely on fiction. It was exciting because we cared for Valerie and her family, the enemy was invisible and powerful, and it offered no easy answer except for the fact that revealing a CIA agent’s identity, while very active in the field where other lives depended on her, was a crime. I thought “Fair Game” was brave for showing its audiences the nastiness and ugliness that happens in America just so we would have the comfortable illusion of control or prosperity. We (or most of us anyway while others remain in denial) are all the wiser of the incompetency of the Bush administration, but it isn’t any less maddening when we are reminded of the fact that we allowed charlatans to rule our country for eight years.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.

Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007

Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007 (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

2007 was one of my favorite years for movies released in the year 2000s because independent movies demanded to be noticed. My top ten favorite movies from that year largely consisted of indie films. Mario Diaz’ documentary discussed the hard work in getting independent movies financed, the long and arduous process of making such films, and hopefully getting them picked up by studios for wider distribution. It also highlighted the role of the renowned Gotham Awards in putting the spotlight on indie pictures so they could have a chance to be seen by audiences all over the world. Some successful passion projects included (but not limited to) Sean Penn’s free-spirited “Into the Wild,” the Coen Brothers’ ruthless “No Country for Old Men,” Tamara Jenkins’ vitriolic and wildly amusing “The Savages,” Todd Haynes’ philosophical “I’m Not There,” and Jason Reitman’s verbal exercise that was “Juno.” On the other side of the spectrum, although it did win key Gotham Awards, movies like Craig Zobel’s “Great World of Sound” didn’t quite captivate audiences in a worldwide scale. It was great to hear from the aforementioned filmmakers about what their movie meant to them. It was a nice reminder, especially for people like myself who watch hundreds of movies each year, that every film should be approached with an open mind. And if it somehow underwhelms us, it’s important to treat it with respect and explain why, in our opinion, it just didn’t work for us. Because all movies, whether they be good or bad in our eyes, have a story to them. The directors, the crew, the actors, and the producers take the time and the money to create something that would hopefully pass as a work of art. I think my love for independent feature films stemmed from the similar themes they so often tackled: identity, one’s place in the world, one’s relationship with others, and the way an individual received, processed, evaluated information, and how one’s thought differed from one’s actions. Independent movies appeal to me because I was going through those very same themes back in the tenth grade when I was just beginning to see movies as more than a source of entertainment. I was drawn to their daring subject matter, complex characterizations, and shocking honesty. I think that parallel will always be a part of the way I see motion pictures. That’s why I always lend a critical eye to the characters and the way they attempt to deal with and adapt to their specific circumstances. The documentary also shed light to the fact that women filmmakers weren’t as high profile and prolific as their male counterparts. It’s unfortunate because I strongly believe that women, in some ways, view things differently than men and it will benefit the world if women’s visions are shared just as equally as men’s. “Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007” needed an extra thirty to forty minutes for more in-depth exploration, but it managed to tackle many interesting ideas with the time that it had.