Michael Pena on Getting Real in David Ayer’s ‘End of Watch’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Actor Michael Peña has already played a few cops in his career, but in David Ayer’s “End of Watch” he gets to play his most realistic one yet. It also marks the biggest role Peña has had so far in a career which has seen him give excellent performances in “Crash,” “World Trade Center” and “Observe and Report.” Taking on the role of LAPD officer Mike Zavala reminded Peña of his days growing up in Chicago, and his preparation proved to be far more intense than he ever expected it to be.

Peña grew up in a particularly rough area of Chicago where the lure of gang life was always strong. The actor, however, said he “never wanted to be in a gang” and that he “didn’t want to follow anybody’s orders” as he always thought of himself as an individual even when he was really little. Still, playing Mike Zavala brought up a lot of memories of those days:

“I grew up in the ghetto, and the thing is when there were problems, I knew when to get away. But police go to the problems,” said Peña. “I didn’t do that growing up. Seeing it through Jake (Gyllenhaal’s) eyes, it re-ignited what I always knew, but I guess I had buried it. I’ve been living in Hollywood for the past 15 years. And reality just smacks you in the face – that feeling of potential danger everywhere.”

Like his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, Peña spent five months training with the Los Angeles Police Department which included ride-alongs which lasted 12 hours a day. There was also a good dose of weapons training, martial arts, boxing workouts, and lugging around chest cameras which were also called body cams.

“We did so many damn ride-alongs, dude,” said Peña. “At first it’s brand new, it’s awesome, and it’s amazing. You almost glamorize it in a way. Then you do ten more, and you start getting a little bored. Then ten more after that, you really get into the spirit of it. It was almost like a sport. We really wanted to get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a police officer.”

As for the body cams, Peña remembered them being “so heavy” and “gnarly.” It turned out though that some of the hardest things he had to do in “End of Watch” were not actually physical.

“I was driving a whole bunch,” Peña said. “Then you have the director (David Ayer) in back, which can be pretty nerve-wracking. Sometimes I didn’t know where life began and where the acting started.”

Pena and Gyllenhaal had never worked together before making “End of Watch,” and it apparently took some time to get the sense of brotherhood two cops can have.

“It took three months to click,” said Peña. “There’s a lot of pressure to play like brothers. We had to spend a lot of time together to opening up to each other as well as tactical training, rehearsing. Three months later we had a good rapport and we put that in the movie.”

It was also all the hard-hitting dialogue which Ayer came up with that made the working relationship between Peña’s and Gyllenhaal’s characters feels like a real brotherhood. Peña also admitted he and Gyllenhaal did very little in the way of improvisation on the set as neither of them wanted to mess with the director’s script.

“Nine times out of 10, you aren’t going to come up with something better,” Peña said.

Peña has certainly earned his moment in the spotlight, having given one memorable performance after another. His terrific work in “End of Watch” is not only a major step forward for him, but it also allows him to break through certain barriers which have been placed upon actors throughout the years:

“The script was written for actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and me – a Latin dude. It had to be a Latin dude, there is so much Latin (material) in it. Ten years ago, I don’t know if that would have been the case. I don’t know if it would have been so easy to do.”

SOURCES:

Brian Brooks, “‘End of Watch’ Star Michael Peña Sees Racial Barriers Coming Down in Hollywood,” Movieline.com, September 19, 2012.

Chris Vognar, “Michael Peña on ‘End of Watch:’ ‘We did so many damn ride-alongs,’” The Dallas Morning News, September 21, 2012.

Madeleine Marr, “Talking to ‘End of Watch’ star Michael Peña,” The Miami Herald, September 20, 2012.

Jake Gyllenhaal on His Intense Police Training for ‘End of Watch’

As Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Brian Taylor, actor Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets to play a cop for the first time in “End of Watch.” Written and directed by former South Central Los Angeles resident David Ayers, the movie follows two young police officers played by Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena who are marked for death by a notorious cartel after they confiscate money and firearms from them. Although it was shot in 22 days on a budget of just $7 million, Gyllenhaal did not skimp on the details and went through a seriously intense preparation which extended far beyond him simply getting a buzz cut.

Gyllenhaal underwent five months of serious training with the LAPD, and this included going on 12-hour ride-alongs through various crime-ridden neighborhoods. These ride-alongs had a schedule which started at 4:00 p.m. and went through to 4 a.m., and he went on them as much as three times a week.

“On my first ride-along in Inglewood, someone was murdered. We were the second car on the scene,” Gyllenhaal said of his experience. “That was definitely a wakeup call. We were involved in stolen vehicle chases. You see domestic violence, disputes that turn violent. You really see your city differently after that.”

Gyllenhaal admitted to getting a little nervous at times as he and the police rode up on crimes involving domestic disputes, attempted murders and stolen cars. The actor pointed out, however, that he was with some pretty amazing officers who made him feel very protected in such a dangerous environment. In addition, he went to a dojo in the mornings for fight training and also got a lot of exposure to weapons and tactical training as well.

“We did training with live ammunition and training with the SWAT Team a few times a week for six-hour sessions,” Gyllenhaal said. “We had to learn tactic exercises and moving exercises with live ammo and then we did fight training in Echo Park. David Ayer, our director, his best friend has a dojo, so we trained there in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting too. Eventually, after getting the crap beaten out of you and being on the street, you start to actually come into the role and feeling like you really can play the part.”

But one of the most interesting stories regarding his preparation to play Officer Brian Taylor involved him getting shot by a taser.

“I did get tased. We were at the police academy, and they asked us if we wanted to try it out and me being me said, ‘Yeah, of course, yeah!’ Actually, they gave us a choice between pepper spray and being tased,” Gyllenhaal recollected.

When it came to choosing getting tased or pepper sprayed, Gyllenhaal’s decision proved to be a well-informed one:

“Pepper spray is long and painful, it lasts for like 45 minutes and the taser just lasts for five second,” Gyllenhaal said. “But afterwards it’s actually kind of relaxing. After you’ve had thousands and thousands of volts of electricity going through your body.”

It looks like Gyllenhaal’s preparation for “End of Watch” has really paid off as he is getting some of the best reviews of his career. It is clear playing a police officer has had a tremendous impact on him as he talked of the stigma cops constantly deal with when they are out on the street in uniform. He has also gone on to say how the experience of making this movie has completely transformed not just his idea of law enforcement but of Los Angeles as well. When all is said and done, watching this film will do the same for the audience.

SOURCES:

Colin Covert, “Jake Gyllenhaal’s education on the mean streets,” Star Tribune, September 22, 2012.

Zac Shull, “Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal Talks ‘End of Watch,’ Training with Police & If He Gets Pass for Speeding,” Baller Status, September 21, 2012.

Justin Harp, “Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘I was tased while preparing for End of Watch,'” Digital Spy, September 18, 2012.

‘The Mule’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

THEMULE_1000739013_BD_OSLV_3D_FINAL_DOM_SKEW_6373b5a3

The fact that Clint Eastwood is still directing films at his age is nothing short of amazing.  When he is acting and directing them, it is even more impressive.  “The Mule” marks the first time he has directed and acted at the same time since 2008’s “Gran Torino,” so it’s been a while. He does not disappoint as the usual Eastwood touches are here.  He is a simple yet powerful filmmaker and actor.  He is not going to do a lot with the camera, but he trusts his actors, the writer, and he gives everyone them the space they need to tell the story.  It is what he has always done as a director.  He’s not a flashy filmmaker and he doesn’t need to be since he knows what works.

Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a 90-year old horticulturist from Peoria, Illinois who is seeing the world changing rapidly thanks to the Internet. The film starts out in 2005 and he is winning awards at conventions and making friends left and right.  However, he has forgotten about his family in the process.  He is not on good terms with them and they feel neglected.  Early on in the film, they show him missing out on his daughter’s wedding.  His real-life daughter (Alison Eastwood) is in the film, which is a nice touch.

33554224368_c8af0d0511_z

With the internet growing, Earl has now fallen on hard times.  When he shows up to visit his granddaughter at a brunch for her upcoming wedding, he notices his family has not forgiven him for putting work over family. He wants to make it up to them by pitching in for Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) upcoming wedding.  Someone approaches him at the brunch and informs him that all he has to do is drive and he can make a lot of money.  Driving is something he is very good at as he has driven in forty-one states and has never been pulled over or ever had a ticket.

Little does Earl know he will be driving for the cartel and carrying around some cocaine. Since he is such a good driver, and 90-years old, it seems like the perfect way for him to make some easy money and get back in the good graces of his family. At first, he only takes on one job and believes it will be enough to hold him over.  Before long, he is their top driver and highly thought of by the cartel.   However, two DEA agents played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña are trying to take down the cartel, and Earl may go down with them as well.

32488382547_95c3b15836_z

There is nothing here which is incredibly moving, profound, or earth shattering. The jokes about cell phone usage are a little overdone.  It is still very entertaining, however, and a very easy movie to watch. The film also features stellar performances from Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife, Richard Herd, Andy Garcia, and Clifton Collins Jr. Eastwood is the one leading the charge here, and he always plays it with his usual Eastwood calm, cool, and collected persona even when things get a little hairy.  He makes a decision and he sticks with it.

At 116 minutes, “The Mule” breezes by with humor, suspense, and tension.  At this rate, we don’t know how many more times Eastwood will be in front of the camera, and he is a Hollywood icon, so it’s always a treat.  I don’t see any upcoming films for him as a director/actor, and he is someone who should be cherished.  He still has it and will never lose it. I hope he lives forever and keeps making movies.  This is the kind of movie where you sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride Eastwood and company take you on for almost two hours.  It’s not great, but it’s still quite good.

* * * out of * * * *

______________________________________________________________________________

Blu-Ray Info: “The Mule” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity.

Audio Info: The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Spanish 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, Spanish, and French.

Video Info:  The film comes to you in 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1.

Special Features:

The Making of The Mule: Nobody Runs Forever (10:59): Clint Eastwood talks about how it was different from other projects he had done in the past.  It was inspired by true events as well. The screenwriter of “Gran Torino” wrote this film, which makes total sense.  Eastwood gives great details about how he approached the character. Many of the main cast members chime in with their thoughts on the film and working with Eastwood.  They also go into detail on how Eastwood was big on getting all of the little things right in this movie.

Toby Keith “Don’t Let the Old Man In” Music Video (02:54)

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Provides Marvel Fans with a Much-Needed Lightweight Adventure

Ant Man and the Wasp movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” I figured the masterminds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would give themselves a break for the rest of 2018. Even “Deadpool 2,” which features a Marvel Comics character  not a part of the MCU (not yet anyway), showed how dominant these comic book/superhero movies are no matter which studio puts them out. Surely, Marvel Studios and Disney would want to keep themselves from oversaturating the market, right?

Well, now we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a sequel which proves to be one of the MCU’s more lightweight adventures. Whereas “Avengers: Infinity War” was the “Empire Strikes Back” of this infinitely popular franchise, this one has a simple aim which is to entertain you and leave you laughing hysterically. It could not have come at a better time as us movie buffs are still recovering from the damage Thanos wrought on our heroes, and this one is removed from his wrath as it is keen to pick up things following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”

After helping out Captain America to where he violated the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has been placed under house arrest, and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have cut ties with him and gone into hiding. With only the occasional visit from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) to keep to keep him company, his days are marked by loneliness and desperate attempts to keep himself entertained with various activities like drumming, karaoke and business meetings with his former cellmate and business partner Luis (Michael Pena).

As with any superhero movie, these characters have to deal with mommy and daddy issues because heaven forbid any superhero experiences a trauma-free childhood. It turns out Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) had partnered with Hank’s Ant-Man as the Wasp in the past, and she was later presumed dead after becoming trapped in the microscopic quantum realm after disabling a nuclear missile. Scott, however, receives a message from Janet who is still alive and, like Kevin Flynn in “Tron: Legacy” has long since been imprisoned in a realm which offers no easy escape. This forces him to team up with Hank and Hope, who is now the new Wasp, in an effort to rescue her, and it comes with the usual obstacles of bad guys and inescapable scientific facts.

The first thing I have to say about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is how much I enjoyed the opening which has Scott going on a make-believe adventure with Cassie in his house as they have constructed a simple yet imaginative maze which they travel through with great enthusiasm. This scene reminded me of the wonderful imaginary worlds we created for ourselves as children, and it gets this sequel off to a terrific start as the filmmakers look to indulge in the same childlike imagination which they thankfully never outgrew.

The second thing worth pointing out is how this sequel is the first in the MCU to feature a female superhero in the movie’s title. While the DC Extended Universe can only catch up with the MCU in terms of quality and box office success, they are certainly ahead in terms of battling superhero sexism thanks to the brilliant “Wonder Woman.” It is only now Marvel is getting up to speed with the Wasp, and this is long overdue. It also helps how the Wasp is inhabited a pair of terrific actresses, Evangeline Lilly and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both provide this film with strong heroic characters who overcome their internal and external conflicts to make the world a better place for everyone including immigrants, legal and illegal.

Paul Rudd is one of the most likable dudes in the public eye right now, so it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit Scott Lang to where we are more than willing to forgive his criminal trespasses. His wonderful sense of humor infects every scene to where he sneaks in jokes we do not see coming. Rudd also has a terrific moment where Scott’s body is inhabited by another, and it is almost as inspired as when Lilly Tomlin invaded Steve Martin’s body in “All of Me.” More power to you Mr. Rudd.

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is almost stolen from Rudd by Michael Pena who returns as Luis. After suffering through the cinematic misfire which was “CHiPS,” Pena gets to use his comedic talents to much better effect here as he speeds through his dialogue with crazy energy while his character gets to experience what it is like to be a superhero with great glee. He is a riot here as he is forced to confess to a wide series of events under duress, and seeing him paint a vivid, if not entirely accurate account, of things past, provides this sequel with fantastic moments.

This time, Ant-Man and his companions have not one, but two antagonists to deal with. One is Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, who has the power to phase through objects which was the result of being afflicted with molecular instability. Ava is played by Hannah John-Kamen who creates a complex portrait of a person whose affliction was not of her own doing, and as someone who acts out of desperation as her life, which has been filled with more pain than pleasure, looks to be cut short. While her goals conflict with those of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Kamen makes us see how Ava can be devilish as well as a victim of circumstances, and she gives a very strong performance as a result.

The other antagonist is Sonny Burch, a black market criminal eager to exploit Hank Pym’s technology for his own benefit. Sonny is played with great relish by Walton Goggins who has shown a flair for delivering dialogue with a special panache in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Goggins brings this same flair to “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and it is fascinating to watch his portrayal throughout. Even as Sonny fumbles about in his attempts to steal what does not belong to him, I could not take my eyes off of Goggins as he makes this villain into more than what he must have seemed like on paper.

Peyton Reed, who directed “Ant-Man,” returns to the director’s chair for this sequel, and I got the feeling he had a little more fun here. No long burdened by having to portray this superhero’s origin story or the inescapable question of how the first movie would have turned out had Edgar Wright not walked away from it, Reed gets to indulge his inner child with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to where this sequel could almost pass for a children’s movie. Having said that, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as we watch these characters battle the bad guys and change the size of things and themselves to an amazing degree. Are there lapses in logic? Sure, but who cares?

Many in Hollywood like to talk about counterprogramming as studios are always carefully looking at when they can release the smaller indie movies in the wake of all these big budget blockbusters. In a sense, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is Marvel’s way of counterprogramming against itself as it positions this sequel as an easy going alternative to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther.” Whereas those two were among the biggest films in the MCU, this one is more like a nice rest stop where we can enjoy ourselves for a few hours and not worry too much about the other Avengers whose fates have yet to be permanently sealed. Some may consider this a disposable Marvel movie, but after ten years, it is clear how none of them can be the least bit disposable.

And yes, there are a couple of post-credit scenes, and if you are curious to see where this Marvel movie takes place in comparison to “Avengers: Infinity War,” one will answer this question in a way which will leave you with a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety ends up increasing with the movie’s coda which adds a question mark to the proceedings in the same way “Flash Gordon” did back in 1980. Yes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is designed to be a fun time at the multiplex, but it is in no position to leave any of these Avengers off the hook.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Ant-Man’ Proves to be More than the Average Origin Movie

Ant Man movie poster

Part of me will always wonder what “Ant-Man” would have looked like had Edgar Wright not left the project. Wright has long since proven to be a wonderful talent behind the camera with “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (my favorite movie of 2010) and “The World’s End,” all of which succeeded in giving audiences an awesomely entertaining time at the movies. He left this film after having been involved with its development for several years as Marvel had different plans for it than he did, and this usually spells trouble for any cinematic endeavor. But we can only wonder so much about what could have been until we realize we will never truly know since Wright’s version was never made. When all is said and done, “Ant-Man” proves to be a very entertaining time at the movies. It is yet another superhero origin story, but one which feels fresh and unlike others that just go through the motions.

We come to meet Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) just before he leaves prison after serving a sentence for robbery (but not armed robbery). Scott was once married and has a daughter who thinks the world of him, and he is desperate to make an honest living despite his law breaking past. After a job at Baskin Robbins goes bust for him, he is contacted by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant physicist who invites him to take his place as Ant-Man, a superhero who can take on the bad guys no matter how big or small he is.

When it comes to superhero movies, I have long since tired of the origin story as it feels like a setup for a franchise Hollywood studios are infinitely desperate for in this day and age. “Ant-Man,” however felt like a fresh and subversive take on the origin story to where I couldn’t remember the last of its kind I had seen. The only thing it did remind me of was the Monty Python sketch about ants which showed how strong they are when it comes to lifting things far greater than their weight. Watching it also had me excited at the possibilities of what one person could do if they are shrunk down to such a miniscule size, and this is even though we would like certain body parts to be larger than they already are.

Paul Rudd is a perfect choice to play Scott Lang as his effortless charisma makes you believe Scott is an ex-con who is ever so eager to turn his life around for the sake of his daughter. This is a role which could have been played either too seriously or broadly, but Rudd manages to find a balance to where this character is not the usual brooding super hero who has occupied many comic book movies to an annoying abandon.

Of course, every superhero movie needs a strong female character, and we get one here with Hope Van Dyne. The daughter of Hank Pym, she is played by Evangeline Lilly whom we all know from the “Lost” and for playing the elf Tauriel in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy. Lilly’s character has to deal with many conflicting emotions when it comes to her father and Scott, and it’s endlessly fascinating to see how she handles those emotions from start to finish. What could have been an easily disposable role is made all the more unforgettable thanks to Lilly’s committed performance as someone who is still stuck in the past and trying to make a better future for herself and everyone else.

Many of us, including myself, grew up watching Michael Douglas in movies like “Romancing the Stone,” “The War of the Roses” and “Fatal Attraction,” and he has since graduated to playing the role of elder statesman in. His performance as Hank Pym is one of the best I have seen Douglas give in some time as he imbues this character with a lot knowledge and wisdom as well as a lot of heart. Hank is a deeply flawed man who does what he can to protect his family, but he ends up unintentionally wounding those closest to him in the process. Douglas is perfectly cast here as he is great at making us root for someone we almost don’t want to root for, but we end up doing so all the same.

Then there’s Michael Pena who gives a terrific performance in each and every film he is in, and he steals one scene after another as Scott Lang’s best friend, Luis. Pena infuses an infectious energy in his performance which makes you want to be a part of Ant-Man’s plan to get back at the bad guys, and his performance as Luis is another memorable role he can add to his wide variety of roles he has performed to a great extent thus far.

And let’s not forget Corey Stoll who makes for a wonderfully detestable villain as Darren Cross, an ever so bitter student of Hank Pym who looks to go into the Ant-Man business for himself. Stoll has left quite the impression on audiences ever since his role as Ernest (“who wants to fight”) Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” It’s nice to see he doesn’t give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy we typically expect in a summer movie, and this makes his character of Darren all the more threatening.

“Ant-Man” was directed by Peyton Reed whose previous credits include “Yes Man,” “The Break-Up” and “Bring it On,” movies I should have seen already, but anyway. Reed does fine work in balancing out the characters here with the terrific special effects on display to where “Ant-Man” never comes across as the usual comic book movie fare. It makes me excited for what will come next.

We can be sure this will not be the last time we will see Ant-Man on the big screen. After all, what’s a Marvel movie without a franchise? You can expect the usual batch of post-credit sequences that will require you to sit through the end credits and appreciate the fact hundreds of people worked hard to make this movie a reality. But for a change, I don’t find myself looking to a Marvel sequel with sarcasm. I look forward to it as a promising continuation of a story which features one of the more unusual Avengers to inhabit this ever-growing cinematic universe.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Observe and Report’ is the Blackest of Black Comedies

Observe and Report movie poster

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which had an interview with Jody Hill, the writer/director of “Observe and Report.” Reading it was the best preparation I got for watching the movie as the trailers made it look like the typical Judd Apatow produced, Seth Rogen starring comedy. However, director Hill didn’t really see it as a comedy, and he said the term “dark comedy” didn’t really apply to the film the way he envisioned it. Hell, even Rogen went out of his way to call the film a “dangerous comedy.” I never would have guessed from the trailers which made the film seem like the average formulaic comedy I was more or less interested in seeing. I should have seen it coming it was not going to be what I expected it to be when I realized that Apatow had nothing to do with this.

If you’re thinking “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” redux, you’re dead wrong. With “Observe and Report,” you need to go in expecting “Taxi Driver” or “One Hour Photo” as if they were comedies. This is a very black comedy. We’re talking Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” black. It touches on several ever so touchy subjects such as drug abuse, date rape, alcoholism, delusional, and racial stereotypes among others. It is also proof of how comedy can be mined out of places and subjects you would never expect to find it in. Hill and Rogen prove to have a large pair of cojones on them as they take big risks with their subject matter and come out of it with many moments which are frickin’ hilarious. It says a lot about this movie how it can break taboos, many of which will easily offend people, and still have you laughing your ass off at the same time.

Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of Forest Ridge mall security. From the start, we can see this is a guy with a few screws loose. Along with his fellow mall cops, he laments at the fact none of them are allowed guns on the job. Ronnie is a hero in his own mind, and no one takes the job of what is essentially a “rent a cop” position as seriously as him. Ronnie also longs to join the police force, but he is kept from being accepted due to his bi-polar illness which he treats with the typical medication Scientologists rally against. This is not your typical Rogen character where you wonder if and when he will get the girl. Instead, you wonder if this guy is going to have a psychotic break and end up killing someone before it is too late.

Ronnie’s mission in life, however, becomes crystal clear to him when a flasher exposes himself to the girl of his dreams, makeup counter employee Brandi (Anna Faris). So distraught she is after this attack, Ronnie makes it his mission to catch the flasher before he can attack her again. But then the local police department gets involved in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta at his overplaying best), and Ronnie sees this as a threat to his mission. The way Ronnie sees it, this is his case and no one else’s. To let the local police take over would be the same as giving up control of the mall. Paul Blart may have taken his job as a mall cop seriously, but he has got nothing on Ronnie Barnhardt.

For Rogen, this movie represents a sharp change of pace. Through movies like “Knocked Up” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” he has perfected the role of lovable loser to the point where you could not see him in any other role. This usually results in a career which starts big and then crashes in record time. I was hoping to see him play some other role because I found him to be one of the funniest actors in quite some time, and I was in no mood to see him crash and burn. With his role in “Observe and Report,” Rogen finally breaks out of his comfort zone to play someone who is anything but lovable. He also never plays the role just for laughs which is a major plus. As Ronnie Barnhardt, he manages to find the heart of this delusional character, and he keeps the audience up with him even as Ronnie’s mental state continues to get worse.

Among the supporting cast in “Observe and Report” is Michael Pena. As Dennis, Ronnie’s second in command and best friend, Pena also goes against type to play a role we have never see him in before. He has proven to be the most dependable of supporting actors in movies like “Crash,” “Shooter,” and “World Trade Center” to name a few. As Dennis, he steals scenes from Rogen as his character ends up taking directions you never expect him to take. This is an inspired performance by Pena, and he serves, however briefly, as Ronnie’s conscience when he sees Ronnie is taking himself WAY too seriously. Dennis’ methods of loosening up Ronnie, however, are anything but safe and legal.

Another inspired performance in “Observe and Report” is from Celia Weston who plays Ronnie’s alcoholic mother who still lets her son live under her roof even though he is well into his 30’s. There is no doubt of how much Weston’s character loves her son even when she is hopelessly drunk, and it leads to where she tells one of Ronnie’s fellow mall cops of how she slept with his friends while he was in high school. This could have been a cruel and clichéd character, but Weston makes it a lot more.

You also have to give a lot of credit to Anna Faris who proves here she is not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get laughs. Throughout the movie, she never tries to sweeten her character of Brandi up like many actresses would. Brandi will easily remind you of all those spoiled rotten bitches you had the misfortune of going to high school with. Many may hate the way her character is treated in the movie, but to a large extent, Brandi brings a lot of it on herself. Like Rogen and Hill, Faris does not shy away from the unpleasant extremes of her role.

Then there is Ray Liotta, who will always be best remembered for playing Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” As Detective Harrison, Liotta is the perfect counterpoint to Rogen’s mentally unhinged mall cop. His strait-laced character has his shit together, but it doesn’t necessarily make him much better. One of the movie’s best moments has him taking Ronnie on a ride along which ends with him stranding Ronnie on a bad corner with a bunch of crack head drug dealers. How Ronnie ends up handling these dealers is something I would prefer not to spoil for you. Just when you think you know where the scene is going, Hill and Rogen pull the rug right out from under you.

Another really nice performance comes from Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, an employee at the mall’s coffee shop who is somewhat hindered by her leg being in a cast. While Brandi really wants nothing to do with Ronnie, Nell pines for him every time he comes to get his free cup of coffee. She also has to deal with an unsympathetic boss (Patton Oswalt) who picks on her whenever given the opportunity. She is a sweet presence in an otherwise nasty movie which seeks to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. For a moment, I thought this would turn into another tale of unrequited love a la “Rules of Attraction,” but Collette’s character gives Ronnie the emotional grounding he DESPERATLEY needs.

Hill’s biggest success with “Observe and Report” doesn’t lie in just the laughs he gets, but more in the fact he and the actors never just play everything just for laughs. There is no winking at the camera in this film. The actors don’t play it completely straight in this movie, but they take their roles seriously and never appear as if they all know they are in on the joke. If they did, the movie would not be anywhere as effective.

Hill’s breakthrough directorial effort was the movie “The Foot Fist Way” which served as the breakthrough for Danny McBride who went on to appear in “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder.” It is clear Hill revels in the portrait of people who live in their own world and are oblivious to what the world thinks of them. What Hill does here is ballsy to say the least.

“Observe and Report” also serves as a biting satire of the mall culture which serves as the movie’s setting. It ends up being symbolic of the melting pot which is the United States of America. Cultures of all kinds rub up against each other in the mall, and it unsettles our main character at times. Ronnie ends up having a tense moment with a character he thoughtlessly nicknames Sadamn (played by Aziz Ansari) who has filed a restraining order against Ronnie for past transgresses. This leads to one of the movie’s most insanely funniest moments as they say a barrage of “fuck you’s” to each other. The F-bomb is uttered almost endlessly in this scene to where you think they are going to give “Scarface” a run for its money in terms of how much the word is uttered.

This movie also continues the trend started with movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” of showing the penis in all its tiny glory. The audience I saw it with seemed more shocked by the “throbbing python of love,” as Robin Williams once described it, than they were with Rogen’s character holding a gun in his hand. After all these years, American audiences still prove to be an unknowingly hypocritical bunch as they find themselves more comfortable with the sight of a gun than with the appearance of a sexual organ.

Suffice to say, not everything in the movie works perfectly. The ending where Ronnie defends his place in the mall falls a little flat despite the use of Queen’s music from “Flash Gordon.” And granted, the mix of comedy and action and violence is a tricky road, but it is a road bound to have some inescapable potholes.

Still, when all is said and done, “Observe and Report” is a comedy with big cojones which cannot be easily ignored. It is not a movie for all tastes, but for those who are willing to travel a darkly comic path, there is much to find in this crazy film which dares to imagine a Travis Bickle-like character as a funny person despite himself. Do not say you weren’t warned.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

War on Everyone

war-on-everyone-movie-poster

With a title like “War on Everyone,” you might expect something along the lines of a Donald Trump documentary as it seems to perfectly describe his state of mind as he goes about pissing world leaders for no good reason. But it is actually a black comedy, with special emphasis on the word “black.” I find black comedies endlessly fascinating because, when they are done right, filmmakers can get me to laugh at things I have no business laughing at any other time or place. Every once in a while, we need a comedy with a bit of edge as movies can’t afford to be polite or politically correct all the time.

Having said that, “War on Everyone,” despite having a very talented filmmaker behind the camera and terrific actors in front of it, proves to be a big disappointment. There are some clever lines of dialogue here and there, but while writer and director John Michael McDonagh is in love with his own words and story to where the fun he had with his material seemed contagious, this fun does not translate over to the audience. Considering the talent involved, it should have been so much better.

Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bob Bolano (Michael Pena) are police detectives who are infinitely corrupt and do not allow rules and regulations to get in the way of blackmailing criminals who make the mistake of making a left turn into Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like Alec Baldwin in “Miami Blues,” they rob from people who rob from people, but they don’t give the money back to the poor. They are always on the lookout for a big payoff to help finance houses and apartments no cop could possibly afford on their own salary and pay for video games their kids will waste countless hours on.

But then they run afoul of British crime boss and unrepentant junkie James Mangan (Theo James), and he is not the average law-breaking citizen they typically deal with. Soon, Terry and Bob find themselves in a desperate situation which eventually becomes less about money and instead about settling a personal score.

McDonagh previously gave us the critically acclaimed buddy cop comedy “The Guard” as well as one of my favorite movies from 2014, “Calvary.” The latter made me very eager to check out “War on Everyone” as he looked like he could do no wrong. But this movie falls apart from the get go as the majority of the material left little in the way of laughs, and we get stuck with a couple of characters who frankly nowhere as interesting as McDonagh wants them to be,

Now characters don’t have to be likable for a movie to work, but they do have to at the very least be interesting. Terry and Bob feel more like they are made out of spare parts left over from a dozen other cop movies to where they barely exist as human beings. I didn’t care about their plight nor did I care about whether they lived or died. These are just two guys who hate everything and everybody in equal measure, and there isn’t much more to them.

It’s especially frustrating to say this because Skarsgard is typically a strong actor, and Pena is awesome in just about any movie he appears in. But Skarsgard is forced to play a character who is perpetually drunk and careless about life, and the only thing notable about him is his love of Glen Campbell music. As for Pena, he has terrific comedic skills but is unable to lift the material he has been given out of the dreary depths it is stuck in. In fact, he proves to be funnier in the trailer for the upcoming “CHiPS” movie than he does here, and that one looks terrible.

The other big problem with “War on Everyone” is the tone seems to be all over the place. McDonagh can’t seem to decide whether he wants the material to be broad or playfully realistic and, as a result, it feels like the other characters seem to be occupying different movies while inhabiting the same one. Caleb Landry Jones plays a jittery strip club manager named Birdwell, but he’s a little too edgy to where I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at or be fearful of him. Malcolm Barrett plays Reggie X, a black Muslim and ex-con, and his character goes in different directions to where it felt like McDonagh couldn’t decide what to do with him. Theo James plays Mangan as your typically cold villain to where any jokes he has fall flat because his performance feels depressingly one-note. And then there’s Paul Reiser who is wasted in a small role as Stanton, Terry and Bob’s boss. When Reiser isn’t able to make material like this funny, you know you’re in trouble.

“War on Everyone” feels like a jumble of ideas and situations which can’t find a cohesive plot on which to lay them on. It really sucks to say this because I still think McDonagh is a very talented filmmaker, and I have confidence he will bounce back from this misfire quickly. It’s clear he has watched a ton of cop movies and TV shows, but his screenplay feels like he threw a lot of elements in the air and then pinned them down at exactly where they landed.

This movie is being released a couple of weeks after Donald Trump became President, and it’s hard to watch it without thinking of how he has treated various ethnicities throughout the world (Muslims and Mexicans in particular). It’s hard to laugh at or with Bob and Terry as they spout off their objections of criminals based on the race or background as we are forced to deal with a new era of politics, so the timing of this movie’s release is unfortunate. Still, had it been released before all the Trump hoopla, I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference.

There are a number of great black comedies worth checking out like Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” or Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report,” which coincidentally co-stars Pena, and they are far more worth your time than “War on Everyone.”

* ½ out of * * * *

Save

Save

Fury

Fury movie poster

When it comes to David Ayer, you know he’s not going to slack off when it comes to researching his movie’s subject matter. His movies like the brilliant “End of Watch” and the underappreciated “Sabotage” had characters dealing with a vicious reality which they are forced to contend with on a regular basis, and Ayer makes us feel how frightening this reality is whether we want to be a part of it or not. That remains the case with “Fury,” a war film which takes us all the way back to the final days of World War II. It features all the usual characters we expect to see in a war film from the hardened Army sergeant to the innocent rookie, but you come out of it knowing what it feels like to be in a tank.

Brad Pitt stars as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a five-man tank crew which is ordered to make a final push into Nazi Germany during World War II. Don is saddled with a battle ready crew which includes Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their members, they are suddenly saddled with the most baby-faced rookie imaginable in Army Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Don doesn’t like Norman’s presence one little bit as he feels it threatens everyone’s safety, but his superiors force him to take him on regardless of his objections. As a result, Don is forced to make Norman grow up a lot sooner than he wants, and it’s all in the name of survival.

For a time, I thought that Norman was going to be like Jeremy Davies’ character from “Saving Private Ryan” in that he would be the wimp who wouldn’t have the nerve to kill the enemy until the very end. Don, however, doesn’t have the patience to wait for Norman to grow a pair and forces him to kill a Nazi prisoner early on. Lerman gives a tremendous performance as Norman, and it’s fascinating to watch him go from being an anxiety ridden soldier to a hardened war veteran who doesn’t hesitate to take out as many Nazis as humanly possible.

There haven’t been many tank movies in the history of cinema. The only ones I can think of are Kevin Reynolds’ “The Beast” which came out in 1988 and the Israeli war film “Lebanon” which depicted warfare as witnessed from inside a tank. It’ll be interesting to see how they compare to Fury which puts you right into these characters’ mindsets as they lay waste to their target without the benefit of ear protection. You come to feel as battered and hardened as the crew does during their patrol through enemy territory where they find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.

It’s hard to watch “Fury” without thinking of Pitt’s performance as Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” but he does succeed in making “Wardaddy” distinct from that character whether he is sporting facial hair or not. I always enjoy Pitt’s performances when he’s all dirtied up and free of his movie star looks, and this is one of them. You believe Pitt as a war veteran who has seen countless battles and has long since been worn down by them. But for Don, his main concern is keeping his crew alive, and Pitt is great at making you feel his character’s barely hidden vulnerability which is always on the verge of being exposed for all to see

Pena is an Ayer regular, having worked with him previously on “End of Watch,” and he has yet to disappoint in any role he takes on. As Trini, he gives us a character who was one of the many Latino military officers who fought for America back in the 1940’s. From start to finish, Pena makes Trini a war weary character who is not far from falling apart, and it makes for an intense performance.

I also give applause to Bernthal whose performance as Grady may not get all the recognition it deserves. On one hand Grady is a loathsome character we cannot stand to be around, but on the other he’s just a soldier trying to survive this war anyway he can. It’s rare to see an actor who makes you despise and sympathize with a character simultaneously, and Bernthal succeeds in pulling it off.

Another impressive performance in “Fury” comes from Shia LaBeouf as Boyd. Like Private Daniel Jackson in “Saving Private Ryan,” this guy is a trained killer but also quick to spout off passages from the Bible. Even after taking out a Nazi tank, he will still quote passages from that book with a great passion. LaBeouf got a lot of press for the method work he did on “Fury” which included pulling out a tooth, but seeing this movie is to be assured that all the work paid off for him.

Whether or not you consider “Fury” to be one of the best World War II movies ever made, it is one of the strongest to come out in the past few years. Ayer makes you feel the anxiety and exhaustion these soldiers go through while in battle, and you come out of this movie feeling as battered as they do. I very much liked what it had to offer, and I liked how Ayer didn’t try to sugarcoat reality for anyone in the slightest. That’s what makes his movies so unique and visceral.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

David Ayer Discusses an Unforgettable Scene in ‘Fury’

Fury movie poster

Fury” was written and directed by David Ayer, the man who gave us “Harsh Times,” “End of Watch” and “Sabotage.” This movie takes us back to World War II and stars Brad Pitt as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a Sherman tank and its five-man crew. We follow them as they go on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. They soon find themselves outnumbered, outgunned and saddled with a rookie soldier barely qualified to serve with them. But even as the odds continue to stack up against them, they stay with their tank which they have named Fury as they consider it the only home they have left.

I attended the “Fury” press conference held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, and among those there were Ayer and actors Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena. For me, one of the most memorable scenes comes when Pitt and Lerman enter an apartment belonging to a pair of German women and proceed to make themselves at home by cooking breakfast. Then they are joined by the rest of their crew who treat the women and the gathering with a lot of hostility. But as the scene goes on, we see them slowly regain a part of their humanity as they share stories which reduce them to tears.

This scene reminded me of a similar one in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” where a bunch of soldiers jeer a captive German girl when she appears onstage, but they begin to cry when she starts singing a sentimental folk song. I asked Ayer how the scene came about.

“That’s a really good question,” Ayer said. “I did a lot of primary source research, and you realize it’s a workaday world for these guys. It’s sort of a blue-collar existence for these tank crews at this point in the war. It’s go capture the town. Go get this town. Take this hill. Take this ridge. Capture that road junction. You’re given a laundry list of tasks and we think about all these famous battles and all these war-winning battles, but I liken these guys to coal miners. They put on their safety gear and go in and do their work and they come out at the end of the day. And a common pattern was they would capture a town and by early afternoon they’d be in control of it, and then they’d start kicking in cellar doors and looking for wine and looking for food, and they’d make… they locals would cook for them, and they’d do what guys do and pass out and get up the next day at 4 a.m. and take the next town.”

“Something is interesting about that, the idea that you’re in this war zone and there’s humanity and there’s people in there,” Ayer said. “In these movies there’s always a one-sided depiction of either side and of what happens when these people are together in this living room. I imagine this scene as the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner. I think we’ve all had those bad family dinners ourselves. The idea is this crew’s a family, and family can be love-hate. No one can wound you like a family member. No one can hurt you like your brother or sister who just says that one thing that spins you. That was what all the training and the boot camp and the rehearsal and the familiarity was all leading up to, for me, was really that scene. To get these guys as close as brothers so that they can go at each other like older brothers can.”

The other actors echoed Ayer’s sentiments about the dinner scene, and Pena, who plays Captain Trini “Gordo” Garcia, described it as the most intense scene he had to deliver in “Fury.”

“I remember we started shooting and I was an emotional mess,” Pena said. “David said, ‘Let me shoot the other guys first so you can get warmed up,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been doing this for five months, buddy. Let’s just go right now.’ Everyone had big scenes and we’d know when the next scene was coming up or when somebody’s big scene was coming up, and we’d try to be as supportive as possible. These guys Bernthal and Shia—we shot it in a day and a half or something like that. I don’t remember. But they were always there tearing up at every take, really supporting me, because it was almost like us against them. It’s like our big brother is playing favorites to this guy (Lerman) and we all took it very seriously. So when I tell the story about the horses, which he never wants repeated, these guys gave me the green light, so to speak, and they were emotionally there for me as well. So that was the toughest.”

Bernthal, who plays Grady Travis, also talked about that scene and how the countdown to it and others that were equally intense loomed over the actors during production.

“We all had those scenes that we sort of circled on the calendar,” Bernthal said. “We could pretty much count down to the hour of when we were going to get to those scenes. It’s sort of like what we were talking about before like family and going for the jugular. For me it felt like, looking back on it, it wasn’t about those scenes, but it was that at any moment everyone here and Shia and Brad and the boss were armed with this information that could cut you down and break you. And because we were familiar and so close with each other, David and the way he kind of orchestrates the thing, he’ll set people loose on people. He’ll set the camera on somebody’s face, and then rip them apart. Sometimes it’s something that another actor says, and sometimes it’s something he comes up with and whispers in your ear.”

“I’ll be honest with you, after just a month of shooting when he would walk towards me, I’d start to shake and sweat, because I know what was coming in my ear was going to break me,” Bernthal continued. “And even though you know what he’s trying to do and it’s for a result, it scares me now honestly just thinking about it. Also, to do that to one of these guys that you love so much, to see them and to get the word to go after that dude, go get him, and like David said, it’s family, so I know what to say to you to press your button. And it becomes this kind of perverse, beautiful game. We’re trying to cut each other down and break each other. That’s what family does. It was uniform among every tank veteran we talked to. You don’t pick your family. You don’t pick your tank crew. These guys are as close as units can possibly get. That’s what we were going for, that familiarity and that bond. It’s just as dangerous as it is lovely.”

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.