Just so we're clear, I have enormous respect for Sean Penn.
I've been a fan since the early days of "Taps" and "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" and "Bad Boys," and watching the choices he's made over the years, both in front of the camera and occasionally behind it as well, I've remained impressed by his talent.
Like many truly gifted people, though, he is capable of spectacular flame outs when they push themselves, and Penn has had his share of terrible moments onscreen. He's been let down by directors sometimes, but he's also made some big crazy choices that haven't paid off in the end, and I think it's only when you are capable of greatness that you are also capable of doing something almost unspeakably bad.
I am still wrestling with "This Must Be The Place," a new film he stars in for director Paolo Sorrentino, because it is a narrative disaster, but a fascinating disaster. The movie's so bad in so many ways, and yet I was riveted by the display I saw unfolding. This is the sort of bad movie that is almost a textbook study. I want to spend time with it and try to really pull apart how many things just plain misfire, starting with the core concept of the picture.
Sean Penn goes so gloriously off the rails that you have to see it to believe it
Just so we're clear, I have enormous respect for Sean Penn.
A horror film for people who have never seen horror films, this one does not work
When we bring the entire team to Sundance or Toronto or any other festival, we try to each pick one part of the festival to cover. That doesn't mean we're restricted to only one section, but that's our general focus. For me, any time a festival has a Midnight Movies section, I'll be the one covering that. Sundance is no exception, and tonight, I was at one of the two midnight screenings. They showed "Tim & Eric's Billion $ Movie" at the Library, and I'll catch up with that in a few days. They also screened "The Pact" at the Egyptian, and that's where I was.
I may have chosen poorly.
Last year, Nicholas McCarthy was here with a short film, also called "The Pact," and it appears someone who saw the film decided to give McCarthy the chance to expand it to feature-length. I just saw the short film for the first time on Thursday, and I liked the short. I thought it was stylish and effective, and it demonstrated a clear ability on the part of McCarthy to craft chilling suspense and strong visuals. The short starred Jewel Staite and Sam Ball as a brother and sister who are called back to the house they grew up in to deal with the death of their mother. In the short, it's obvious that these two didn't get along with Mom while she was alive, and it seems that although she's dead, she lingers on in spirit form.
Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh lend superstar clout to an essential documentary
Like many people, I have watched the Berlinger/Sinofsky "Paradise Lost" documentaries as they've been made and aired over the years, and I had my sense of righteous indignation poked and prodded by the filmmakers in regards to the case of the West Memphis Three. I've donated money to their legal defense on three separate occasions, and I have found myself emotionally invested in their eventual release to a degree that surprise s me, considering these are not people I know or am connected to in any way.
Several years ago, I first heard that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had become interested in the case, and that they were becoming involved in a very direct way. At the time, there was no talk of a new documentary of the topic, but instead it sounded like they were working to prove who the guilty party was, hoping that would help free Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelly. I was told that Fran and Peter weren't interested in having their names connected to the matter in public, but that they were simply doing this out of a sense of moral obligation. I filed it away as "interesting information I can't do anything with" and didn't really think about it again.
Reviews and interviews are fine, but what's Sundance really like?
Just as we drove into Park City on Wednesday afternoon, the first flakes of snow were starting to fall, and now, as I prepare to get a few hours sleep on a very, very early Friday morning, we've seen that snow and a fair amount of sleet pile up quickly. And if there's snow, then as far as this Los Angeles resident is concerned, it is time for Sundance.
Now that my year is built around film festivals, I'm starting to really enjoy the way each festival has its own clear identity. Sundance is not SXSW which is not Cannes which is not Toronto which clearly is not Fantastic Fest. Those five festivals give me milestones by which to measure my year now, and so for me, Sundance means the film year is starting from a clean slate, and my first impressions of what sort of year in movies lies ahead start here. This is where I test the wind, read the tea leaves, and dig in for the first real challenge on each new calendar.
I've come to grow quite fond of Sundance overall. I like their mix of films, I like the way they break things down and the different categories, and I like the taste they show as programmers. As with most film festivals, what they program is entirely dependent on what's ready, what's available, and how things time out, and what Sundance has going for it is that it's such a major milestone for filmmakers to show something here that people will intentionally set their post-production schedules on movies around the submission dates for Sundance.
George Lucas finally finishes a long-time dream project to mixed results
Anyone who watched "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" probably has a pretty good idea of what they can expect from the long-rumored George Lucas production of "Red Tails" now that it's actually opening in theaters.
The story of the Tuskeegee Airmen is a significant one, and worth telling. HBO took a shot at it a while ago, and Lucas has been trying to get his version made for what feels like decades now. I admire the intent, because a film like this and a story like this can be inspirational and connect young African-American audiences to a history they may not know about. If that's the only thing the film accomplishes, then I'm sure Lucas will count it as a success, and I do hope parents take their kids to see it.
I also hope it is the start of a conversation, and not the entire thing.
Australian drama offers some solid performances but uneven narrative
At heart, "Wish You Were Here" is an effective piece about the way secrets can serve as a cancer in a marriage. It's well-performed across the board, it's incredibly well-shot, and I think much of it works in terms of tone and mood. There are some major plot issues that you have to forgive, though, and it might be enough to derail the experience for some viewers.
Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith, "Wish You Were Here" fractures time to tell the story of a group of Australians who take a trip to Cambodia. During the trip, one of them vanishes, and the rest of them return home to deal with the emotional fallout. Not everyone is working with the same information, though, and little by little, the truth comes out, with some devastating fallout. Dave Flannery (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Alice (Felicity Price, who also co-wrote the film) are parents, and they step back into this life they've built, with their four-year-old and their five-year-old and another one on the way. Alice's sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) was the one who was dating Jeremy (Antony Starr), the guy who disappeared, and she's the one who seems to be most directly affected at first. Gradually, though, Dave and Alice are forced to deal with something unspoken, something that threatens their family, and that's the real driving force in the film.
A viewing of a post-apocalyptic exploitation film sets off an unexpected reaction
This was originally supposed to be a review of the Xavier Gens film "The Divide."
That will not be happening.
Over the course of my life, I'd wager I've seen at least 10,000 movies. Maybe more. I've had years where I've mainlined as many as 500 movies, many of them older catalog titles. I have a voracious appetite for all types of movies, both high art and low. I love smart sophisticated movies, I love experimental films, and I love genre junk. I love any movie that offers me a genuine experience of some sort, where there's something that moves me or that I recognize as true and well-observed or where someone just plain surprises me. I am open to pretty much anything when I sit down to a new film.
But at the age of 41, at about 94 minutes into "The Divide," I reached a breaking point, and I realized that I am pretty much incapable of sitting through one more cheap, pointless, exploitative rape in a movie.
His future's looking brighter than ever based on the films he's in this year
Now that I've seen both "21 Jump Street" and "Haywire," I am officially prepared to say that 2012 is the year Channing Tatum turned the corner.
I've known people who are fans of his work since "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints," and I've certainly seen most of his films up to this point. I've always felt like he was tough to cast just right, and whatever his most vocal supporters saw in that work, I wasn't seeing it. I thought he showed signs of life in things like "Stop-Loss" or his supporting freakshow role in "The Dilemma," but he still wasn't connecting for me across the board.
Now, with this one-two punch, I'm seeing a much looser, funnier, alive presence onscreen, and I think the same is true of our interview when we sat down to talk about "Haywire." I'm not sure what happened, but it can't just be that the material is better. It's like something opened up inside of him, and suddenly he's able to project whatever that new energy and joy is, and it's really apparent in the work.
What's young Obi-Wan up to these days?
Ewan McGregor was, at one point, on track to be a gigantic movie star.
Instead, his career has become something much more interesting and unusual and hard to pinpoint, and I'm glad. McGregor made such a strong impression with his first few major film roles in the Danny Boyle films "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting," and by the time he was cast as Young Obi-Wan in "The Phantom Menace," he appeared to be on track to be one of the biggest actors of his age.
His heart does not appear to lie in the blockbuster mainstream world, though, and he's spent years now moving back and forth between the indie world and Hollywood, and his choices seem to me to be genuinely motivated by his own particular interests. Well before Michael Fassbender was getting teased about his equipment on the Golden Globes by George Clooney, Ewan McGregor was the Guy Who Liked To Show His Junk, and the contrast between that and his appearances in the "Star Wars" films and a "Nanny McPhee" sequel and "Robots" is pretty startling. Not many people are able to effortlessly switch modes like that, but I think it's in no small part because McGregor is so quietly charismatic.
Jeff Smith's cult comic epic also gets a writer and an animation studio
The most unusual thing about this story is the idea of Warner Bros. getting back into feature animation, something that has not been a great strength of theirs in the past.
As much as I adore "The Iron Giant," I can acknowledge based on what I know about that process that it is a good thing Warner shut down their feature animation division in '99. Every now and then, you'll see a studio get the idea that they should be making animated films so they can get a slice of that financial pie, and they'll spend a lot of time and money to do so, and inevitably we'll get one or two movies that cost way too much and underperform, and then the studios get right back out of that business. Remember when 20th Century Fox bought Don Bluth a giant animation studio in Arizona? You know… the one that was supposed to replace the giant animation studio that Bluth ran into the ground in Ireland? And do you remember when that entire thing went belly up about a year and a half later?