Fast Times at Ridgemont High Table Read: Aniston, Pitt, Roberts, Morgan Freeman, and of course Sean Penn

Posted on September 18, 2020 at 10:14 am

Copyright 2020 Jimmy KImmel
Imagine the 80’s classic “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” starring Oscar winners Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, John Legend, Matthew McConaughey and, of course, Sean Penn, plus Jennifer Aniston, Henry Golding, Jimmy Kimmel, and Shia LeBoeuf, and some comments from the original author, Cameron Crowe, who based the film on his own experiences as an undercover adult reporter pretending to be a high school kid, and director Amy Heckerling. As host Dane Cook and cast member (Mark “Rat” Ratner) reminds us, some changes have occurred since then so watch it with a sense of how far we’ve come rather than being surprised or offended. As much fun as it is to see these pros take on these roles, by far the best part is watching the actors enjoy each other’s performances, especially Sean Penn watching Shia LeBoeuf take on his iconic role of Spicoli.

And be sure to support Sean Penn’s charity, CORE, which supports COVID-19 testing and relief efforts.

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Cool Stuff

The Gunman

Posted on March 19, 2015 at 5:43 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality
Copyright Studio/Canal 2015
Copyright Studio/Canal 2015

Stars too often produce the kind of movie they want to star in, instead of the kind of movie anyone wants to watch. Co-writer/producer/star Sean Penn is clearly trying to make The Gunman a thinking person’s thriller. You can hear the pitch: a serious look at the exploitation and corruption of emerging economies with lots of slammin’ action! And a chase scene/shootout set at a bullfight!

Unfortunately, it fails as both political drama and action movie. The romance isn’t much, either. Its primary interest is in the many opportunities to see how buff Penn has become. If he had applied as much attention to beefing up the script as he did to beefing up his arms and abs (and showing them off in a surfing scene and a shower scene), the movie would have been much more than this week’s AARP action thriller. Instead, he hired Liam Neeson’s “Taken” director to stage a lot of shootouts in various locations. Been there, seen that, it was better.

Penn plays Jimmy, part of a team providing security in 2006 for humanitarian relief workers in the Republic of Congo, where we are informed that corruption and unrest are rampant in “the world’s deadliest conflict since WWII.”

Jimmy is very much in love with a gorgeous doctor with a beatific smile and gloriously tousled curls named Annie (Jasmine Trinca). She is so beautiful and adores him so completely that we know the moment she says, “See you later,” something will intervene. In case we missed that portent, Jimmy says, “I got a feeling we’re going operational.” He and his team have what we will learn is a “parallel contract with the mining interests.” Machete-wielding marauders create terror everywhere. But corporations with huge revenues at stake are sometimes the beneficiaries of unrest, and sometimes the cause of it. Jimmy is soon “into the wind” following assassination of a political leader who was cancelling all existing agreements with corporations extracting valuable minerals.

Eight years later, Jimmy is back helping to dig wells when three killers come after him, and he realizes that the powerful people who hired him to murder to protect their interests may now have decided to hire someone else to protect their interests further by making sure he never tells anyone what he did for them.

There is some potential in the premise, but it is quickly jettisoned for mind-numbing run-with-a-gun shoot-em-up scenes as battalions of Kevlar-vested guys with automatic weapons come after him. Somehow, he always manages to not only run between the bullets but overpower and outsmart the bad guys, even though he is suffering from brain damage and headaches, except when he isn’t.

He visits his former colleagues so that they can either help him out or try to kill him. Meanwhile, Annie serves the retro girlfriend role: unquestioning adoration, taking her clothes off, hiding behind him, and being taken hostage. And Idris Elba is wasted in a small role that primarily consists of a speech about building a treehouse, but at least he gets to talk about something, which is more than you can say about the Africans in the film.  For a movie that is supposed to be politically significant, it’s awfully retro-colonialist.

In the closing credits we are helpfully informed that despite the climactic bullfighting scene, Barcelona no longer allows bullfighting within its jurisdiction. No such disclaimers are made about the various atrocities — political, corporate, or cinematic.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong violence with many characters injured and killed, assorted different weapons, torture, execution and assassination, references to rape, a sexual situation, drinking, smoking, pharmaceuticals, and constant strong language.

Family discussion: How did Jim, Cox, Felix, and Stanley respond differently to the choices they made? What efforts are underway to provide more transparency in the impact that multinational corporations have in emerging economies?

If you like this, try: “Blood Diamond” and “The Constant Gardener”

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Drama Movies -- format Thriller

Fair Game

Posted on March 28, 2011 at 3:29 pm

It turns out that being a spy is not glamorous at all, especially when you are the mother of twins. Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) does not get to pick up a bunch of fun gadgets from Q or change from a wetsuit into a ball gown to crash a party at the palatial home of the bad guy. What she does do is a lot of tough, gritty research and a lot of painstaking relationship building with people who have every reason not to trust her. And sometimes she also had to threaten people who were pretty scary. And then come home and make dinner for her husband and children.

Her job at the CIA requires judgment, skill, courage, intelligence (in both senses of the word), loyalty, integrity, and the ability to keep a lot of secrets. While she had all of that, the people around her did not, and she found herself outed as a spy in the press, not for anything she did but because the government wanted to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). Suddenly she was out of a job but still not permitted to speak publicly, even to respond to the false and disparaging statements being made about her.

The problem was not that the White House made a mistake in thinking — and saying in the State of the Union address — that there was evidence that Iraq was making an effort to buy uranium from Africa to make nuclear weapons. The problem was that the White House made a mistake about how to respond when they were publicly contradicted. Former Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times saying that he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate this rumor and found no evidence of any such transaction, explaining the basis for his conclusion. Instead of responding on the substance, pointing to a better source of information, or accepting his conclusion and providing additional justification for concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the White House decided to discredit Joe Wilson, which involved telling the press that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a spy.

Director Doug Liman (who was his own cinematographer here) can make a scene with two people across a desk as gripping as the action scenes in he gave us in “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Based on the books by Plame and Wilson and on court transcripts and other records made available since the trial, he has given us their side of the story, with the leak of Plame’s role a weapon of mass destruction aimed at their reputations and their family. Because it is from their point of view, they are in almost every scene. That means we never see who is plotting against them or what the plot is; we just know that the most powerful men the world has ever known see them as “fair game,” or, even worse, as collateral damage. Liman, whose father was counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation, understands the culture of Washington well, the wonky dinner party debates, the show-boating, the passion, the long hours, the patriotism and the partisanship, the ends/means balancing act, and the way that sometimes everything boils down to a kind of middle school clique-ish brattiness.

Watts and Penn are outstanding, very compelling in the scenes about national security and even more so as what is going on affects their marriage. Penn lets us see that Wilson can be a bit of a blowhard and Watts lets us see that Plame knows that, can be frustrated by it, but loves him because she understands that it is a part of his passionate engagement with policy. Watts makes Plame a serious professional who achieves her objectives with preparation and diligence, though her being an exceptionally attractive woman made it easier to diminish and marginalize her, and she contributed to that by posing for Vanity Fair. The best surprise of the film is David Andrews as Scooter Libby, a wonderfully layered performance that shows us his mistrust of the career staff and his insecurity about the way they saw him. At the end of the day, you don’t need a Dr. Evil to be the bad guy. You just need a bully who thinks he can get away with it.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Spies

Interview: Doug Liman of ‘Fair Game’

Posted on November 4, 2010 at 3:53 pm

This isn’t director Doug Liman’s first spy movie. The director of the first “Bourne” film and the movie that brought Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” is among the best at showing us stunt-filled sagas with chases, explosions, and gunfights. But in this true spy story, Liman makes scenes of two people talking quietly as tense and scary as a shoot-out.
I spoke to Liman at Washington D.C.’s legendary Mayflower Hotel about “Fair Game,” based on the story of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, played in the film by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. I think it is one of the best films of the year.
I have met Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame and I think you and the cast captured them very well.
That’s one of the nice things about talking to the press in Washington. People here really do know Joe. It’s hard to find a reporter here who hasn’t met Joe Wilson. As portrayed in the film, it’s pretty accurate that he was out there. And not universally loved. But I love those people. Even when we’re at the Cannes film festival, Joe and Valerie were there, and people were asking, “Is it really real?” “What’s real and what’s not real?” — and we devoted a lot of effort to making sure that everything you see in the film did happen and is not exaggerated. So we’re at a party on the beach and right on cue you hear some squeal of feedback and Joe Wilson has found a microphone! On the beach! And Joe is giving a speech. People gathered, and “thanks everybody,” and then goes on to talk about how the Bill of Rights is really a Bill of Responsibilities — he is the character you see at the end of the movie.
I loved the way you gave us a spy who is not kick-boxing or attending glamorous events so she can sneak into the bad guy’s office and crack open his safe. She’s not “James Bondette.”
She’s not scaling the side of a building like Angelina Jolie does in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” But she still puts herself in harm’s way, getting into a strange man’s car in Kuala Lumpur. Being driven down remote windy roads with the nephew of an arms dealer. In real life, tht would be terrifying. In movies, we want to see someone hanging off the side of a cliff. But once you ground it in reality, the real-life things people do as spies are really extraordinary.
It’s not all that dissimilar to being a lawyer doing a deposition. You need to know everything about them before you walk into the room. It is preparation. It is methodical, hard work. That’s one of the reasons it was so outrageous what was done to our national security for political reasons. She was at the peak of her career. It takes 20 years to get to put the groundwork in to really accomplish things. The CIA is not like the movies where you get the assignment and an hour later you’re parachuting behind enemy lines. These operations take years and years of development of painstaking relationships and that all evaporate in the blink of an eye.

How do you respond to those who say this is a partisan film?
It’s not anti-Bush. It’s not partisan. I showed the film to one of Scooter Libby’s lawyers. The most villainy of the film is put onto Scooter Libby because we had the most facts about his guilt. I said, “Go ahead and poke holes in it.” I put it through a vetting process before making the film and even in post-production because new information was always coming in. The only hole the lawyer could find in the movie was he said, “You put scary music over Scooter Libby.” But the facts are in fact the facts; they cannot be challenged. Maybe telling this particular story versus telling a different story is an issue, but to me this is a film about an issue that should be unifying us not polarizing us, about the right we have as Americans to speak out and criticize our government without the fear of reprisal. That’s what it is to me to be an American. This is a story about someone speaking out against our government and the White House trying to destroy him.
David Andrews gives an extraordinary performance as Scooter Libby.

Casting is everything. I put a huge amount of work into casting and consistently across my career I am most proud of my bold choices I made in casting. You can’t say casting Sean Penn was a bold choice because he had just won an Oscar for best actor. But I was under a lot of pressure to put a movie star in as Scooter Libby because those are the only scenes without Joe or Valerie. They said, “If you don’t cast a movie star, those scenes won’t survive because people just want to watch movie stars.” I knew that from “The Bourne Identity.” A lot of great scenes ended up on the cutting room floor people Bourne wasn’t in them and people just wanted to follow Matt Damon. David Andrews did such a phenomenal job in his audition, I thought even though Sean Penn has just won the best actor Oscar, this was someone who could go toe-to-toe with him.
How do you maintain suspense when people know what really happened?
People don’t know, for the most part. Most of what’s being told in this movie has never been succinctly reported anywhere. Most people don’t know what Valerie Plame did for a living. And there has been so much intentional mis-information. It was crazy that people bought into it. It was self-referentially hypocritical. They said she was important enough to send him to Niger but not important enough to matter. Nobody was seeing that discrepancy. For me, this is a side of the story that’s never been told, what it felt like from their point of view.
My films are very rooted in specific people’s point of view. Some film-makers give a more global point of view, like God looking down at the characters. My films are more like you’re in the car with Jason Bourne and you only see what he sees. You very rarely cut to see someone else’s point of view. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” — every scene is from those characters’ point of view. They’re in literally every scene, very unusual in a big studio film. In keeping with that philosophy of film I’ve been developing, to see this story play out entirely from Joe’s or Valerie’s point of view, is a side of the story people have not seen before.
What about the other characters?
Because Valerie and Joe were participating, which is a bold move on their part. I’m an outspoken person myself and my films tend to be about anti-heroes, so they knew I was not going to sugarcoat it and show the bad stuff as well as the good stuff, and I’m forever grateful. Nobody in the White House would cooperate with me but because of the various criminal and Justice Department investigations I had an enormous amount of material that could be trusted.
People recounted specific scenes that took place inside the White House but there wasn’t enough material to balance the film the way I would have wanted. So I decided to borrow from Steven Spielberg. Most people know that when he was making “Jaws,” the shark never worked right, so he didn’t have nearly as much footage as he wanted. What he discovered by accident, which made him a superstar director, was that the less you saw of the shark, the scarier it was. So with “Fair Game,” the White House was going to be my broken shark. I wasn’t going to have enough material for inside the White House, but it would be scarier to see less of it. You’re on the outside looking at this monolithic building that houses the most powerful men in the world who are hellbent on destroying you. And you don’t get to see what they are doing. You can just be scared.

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Directors Interview

Milk

Posted on March 10, 2009 at 8:00 am

“My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you!”

This disarming introduction became the trademark of the man who would become the first out gay man to hold major elective office in the United States. With this greeting, Milk let his audience know that he understood their fears of homosexuality and could not only make a little gentle fun of them but could make fun of himself, too. He did want to recruit his audiences, not to being gay but to fighting for justice.

As the movie begins, Milk (Oscar-winner Sean Penn) is about to turn 40 and feels that he has never done anything important. So he and his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco) move to San Francisco, open a camera store, and begin to get involved in the community and to become active in opposing a system that perpetuated bigotry and abuse of the gay community. After running unsuccessfully, he makes an important change in his approach — instead of running against something, he starts to run for something, to talk about hope. He becomes a respected leader. He forges some unexpected alliances — with the Teamsters and with people who want pooper-scooper laws. He is elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. But he has enemies. There are threats. And finally, he is killed, along with the city’s mayor, by one of his former colleagues, Dan White (Josh Brolin).

This film has some of the elements of the traditional biopic, but Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black spares us the shorthand formative childhood experiences and minimizes the internal struggles. From the first moment we see Milk, picking up a stranger coming out of the subway on the eve of his 40th birthday we see a man who is already completely comfortable with who he is, a man of great sweetness and humor (both as in good humor and as in wit).

Every performance is impeccable, especially Penn, Franco, and Brolin. But what makes the movie so vibrant is the exquisitely evoked setting, not just the meticulously re-created Castro neighborhood of the 1970’s but the era, the moment, when so much seemed against what they were trying to achieve (the archival footage shows a casual homophobia that is a powerful reminder of how far we have come, even in an era of state initiatives to ban gay marriage. The sweetness and thrill of a heady new sense of possibilities in the pre-AIDS era is almost unbearably poignant. It is a tragic story but it is also a story of hope. It was hope, after all, that Milk learned to bring to his community. That community grew to include the entire city, and now, thanks to this film, to all of us.

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Based on a true story Drama
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