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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Sean Penn

Sean Penn's Nazi-hunting film lands a distributor

September 21, 2011 |  2:33 pm

Sean Penn had two movies at  this year's Cannes Film Festival. The first, of course, was "The Tree of Life," which was released to media fanfare in May.

Now his second film, "This Must Be the Place," will find a home in the U.S. too.

The Weinstein Company announced Wednesday it had acquired the film, an international co-production shot in English.

Directed by Italian auteur Palo Sorrentino ("Il Divo"), the drama casts Penn as a wealthy retired rocker  who decides to seek out the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father. TWC co-chairman Harvey Weinstein noted that the film "proves once again that [Penn] is one of the finest actors of our time." Penn is next set to play period mobster Mickey Cohen in "The Gangster Squad."

No official release date has been set for "Place." But TWC's slate is already crowded this fall, which will see the release of silent-film "The Artist," football documentary "The Undefeated,"  Madonna’s sophomore directing effort “W.E.” and Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe turn in “My Week With Marilyn,” among other potential releases.


Is Sean Penn right about Malick's Tree of Life--or just bitter?

Sean Penn outdoes himself to earn the Oscar

--Susan King

Photo: Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life." Credit: Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight

Is Sean Penn right about Terrence Malick--or just bitter?

August 22, 2011 | 10:52 am

Sean Penn didn't do many, or really any, interviews at the time that "The Tree of Life" was released this spring. Now we know at least one reason why: He isn't a big fan of the movie.

Breaking his silence on the Terrence Malick opus, Penn told the French paper Le Figaro that he didn't connect with the movie, in which he has a supporting role as a spiritually haunted man wandering both a cold metropolis and an ethereal beach.

"I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact," he told the paper, according to New Yorker blogger Richard Brody.

And then, in the capper: "Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. ... Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly."

It's rare for any actor not named Shia LaBeouf to diss his own film, much less an Oscar-winning actor (though judging by reader reaction on various sites, Penn has some supporters out there).  And his comments play in sharp contrast to many other actors who've worked with Malick, from Sissy Spacek to Penn's "Tree" costar Brad Pitt, who've come to embrace the auteur on a professional and personal level and even feel protective of him. (Pitt said as much when we interviewed him in Cannes.)

On the other hand, Penn's comments aren't that surprising. When we talked to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki earlier this year, he said that Penn, perhaps because of his background as a director, was more thrown than the other actors by Malick's unconventional way of shooting.

And as Brody points out, Penn may have a little bit of a reason to be bitter: The film didn't allow for the kind of submerge-yourself-in-the-character performance that Penn loves. In fact, it didn't even really allow for speaking.

Whether Penn's riposte comes off as honest or sour grapes probably turns on whether you feel "The Tree of Life" is a masterpiece or a naked emperor, a subject about which there's been no obvious consensus.  Still, it does make one thing clearer: When Penn in the film convinces us he's tormented and annoyed, he may not have had to act that hard.


Cannnes 2011: Brad Pitt and 'The Tree of Life' gang defends Terrence Malick's absence

What Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is actually about

'Tree of Life' cinematographer: It was like no set I've ever worked on

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight

Around Town: Sean Penn, Jean Harlow, Seth Green and more

August 4, 2011 |  6:00 am

Sean Penn

The American Cinematheque welcomes Sean Penn, the UCLA Film & Television Archive celebrates the naughty early films of Jean Harlow and actor and "Robot Chicken" co-creator Seth Green programs the New Beverly Cinema this week.

Two-time Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn appears Thursday evening at the Cinematheque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for the 20th anniversary screening of his feature film directorial debut, "The Indian Runner," based on the Bruce Springsteen song "Highway Patrolman." Viggo Mortensen and David Morse star in this drama about the relationship between two brothers. Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis and a young Patricia Arquette also star. 

The Aero also continues its "Lonely Places: A Nicholas Ray Centennial" celebration Friday evening with a double bill of the filmmaker's allegorical 1954 Western "Johnny Guitar," with Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge, and the exceptional 1950 film noir "In a Lonely Place" with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Bogart also stars for Ray in the 1949 crime drama "Knock On Any Door," which screens Sunday with his 1956 thriller "Bigger Than Life."

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Cannes 2011: A spell of conflict, and then (some) resolution

May 22, 2011 |  6:45 pm


With the major awards handed out and the last of the cinephiles, partiers, salespeople and hangers-on finally packing up for calmer climes, let's take a moment to look back at this year's Cannes Film Festival in all its intensity and strangeness.

The 2011 edition of the world's most prestigious film gathering was historic in several ways. Egyptian directors banded together to create and premiere shorts about their country's revolution just three months after it happened, while more female directors landed in the main competition than ever before (a sharp contrast to Hollywood's glass ceiling).

Less nobly, for the first time in the history of Cannes, a filmmaker was declared persona non grata at the festival. Leave it to Lars.

It was, as might be expected with any 64th installment, sometimes a festival of the familiar — Harvey Weinstein spending millions on high-profile films from the likes of Meryl Streep and Shia LaBeouf, and Woody Allen embraced again, thanks to his opening-night movie, "Midnight in Paris."

But it was also a festival filled with paradox.  Cannes always contains multitudes, but the contradictions rarely have ever seemed this pungent, and they've seldom grabbed so many headlines. Cannes this year saw the European premiere of Mel Gibson's new film — and yet he had to settle for second place for the festival's biggest race-themed controversy. The Croisette also saw a silent film, Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," making some of the loudest noise.

It was a festival where the darkest of subjects, a school shooting, was given the flashiest of treatments with Lynne Ramsay's well-received "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Cannes is filled with old-timers and veterans, and yet one of the biggest splashes came from a young 'un first-timer, "Drive" director Nicolas Winding Refn.

And finally, there was the festival's biggest enigma, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," whose premiere ensured that the most scrutinized festival director was also the most invisible. Malick sat out the red carpet and the screening feting him and drove the point home when he also sat out the Palme d'Or ceremony Sunday, opting for his producers to accept on his behalf.

There was good and bad, strange and sane, in this year's Cannes. It's the favorable more than the dodgy one hopes will prevail, though in the end it will may well be that both co-exist. It was, after all, that kind of festival.

— Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France



What Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is actually about (yes, we finally see it)

Awards Tracker: Palme d'Or goes to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

In interview, Lars von Trier says he doesn't deserve a Palme d'Or

Photo: Sean Penn in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight.

Cannes 2011: Finally, the end of secrets on Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life'

May 13, 2011 |  3:11 pm

Tree For years, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” has hovered over the film world like a ghost, staying just out of reach. An intriguing, mysterious project starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, there were hints over the years that the movie tackled themes of faith, family and the reason for existence. And oh yes, there seemed to be a dinosaur involved too.

Last year, the movie almost came to the Cannes Film Festival — plans were in motion with organizers — before the enigmatic Malick and the producers pulled back as the festival drew near.

Not long after, the question began to percolate: Perhaps “The Tree of Life” would never come out? After all, Malick had taken an unusually long time to get a movie out before, waiting 20 years after his sophomore effort, “Days of Heaven,” to release his third film, the 1998 war drama “The Thin Red Line,” which was nominated for the best picture Oscar. The new film’s effects — including what looked like a computer-generated dinosaur, revealed in a leaked photo — were indeed taking years to assemble in postproduction. The process dragged out to such an extent that the film ended up with about a half-dozen editors; no one could afford to stay on long enough to complete the job.

All the whispers will finally come to an end Monday as “The Tree of Life” premieres in Cannes before arriving in U.S. theaters on May 27. In interviews, people who worked on “The Tree of Life” described a process filled with almost as much mystery as the themes the movie explores.

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Summit plays 'Fair Game'

April 29, 2010 |  5:24 pm

We told you a week ago that Summit would walk away with "Fair Game," the Sean Penn movie about the Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame affair that plays the upcoming Cannes Film Festival. Now they have, acquiring rights in several global territories as well as North America.

The movie played to distributors last week, with some finding it a little talky and others, including Focus and the Weinstein Co., also expressing interest, before Summit hammered out a deal. Get ready for "The Hurt Locker: The Return" next awards season.

--Steven Zeitchik

Summit among those who could play 'Fair Game'

April 22, 2010 |  4:47 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Sean Penn and the studio of "Twilight"?

For the last few days, several distributors have been circling the Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame drama "Fair Game," in which Penn stars as the truth-telling diplomat and Naomi Watts stars as Plame, his outed CIA agent wife. But one company has emerged as the lead contender to land the film about that ignoble chapter in American history -- and it's an interesting one.

Summit Entertainment, the mini-major best known for distributing the films in the Kristen Stewart vampire franchise, has an offer on the table. Although no deal is in place and several other studios are still in the mix -- these types of negotiations are famous for twisting in unexpected directions --  at the moment it looks as though Summit could well walk away with North American distribution rights.

Pen The deal would make sense on a number of levels. Although Summit is best known for commercial fare such as "Twilight," it got a pretty strong taste of awards glory when "The Hurt Locker" -- a movie about the Iraq war that it also acquired around the time of a major festival (after Toronto) -- captured the Academy Awards for best picture and director last month. Doug Liman's "Fair Game" is more overtly political and less action-oriented, but one can certainly imagine the company building a campaign around this one too, mobilizing critics and a certain group of tastemakers (and provoking certain Fox News pundits).

Summit will be peddling international rights to the film at the Cannes Film Festival next month via its foreign-sales arm. Could it also soon be readying a 2010 awards campaign?

--Steven Zeitchik

(Follow me on Twitter.)

Photo: Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in "Fair Game." Credit: River Road Entertainment

Sean Penn as George Bush's nightmare, and a question over who will play 'Fair Game'

April 21, 2010 |  6:58 pm

Almost every year in the weeks leading up to Cannes, there's a big, star-driven movie in need of a distributor that plays for buyers in Los Angeles in the hope of scoring a deal (last year it was the Terry Gilliam/Heath Ledger fantasy "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"). There are few things tougher than a celebrity-laden film coming into Cannes without a studio backer; the film doesn't get the same publicity muscle, and the anxiety that comes with putting a film's fate in the hands of a fickle festival audience can be a little tough for producers to bear.

This year's candidate is "Fair Game," in which Sean Penn plays former Bush administration attaché Joseph Wilson, who, after writing an op-ed piece critical of the Bush administration, found his wife Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) outed as a CIA agent. The movie takes director Doug Liman in a more serious direction than he's been taken in nearly of his any other films ("The Bourne Identity," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," etc.).

Tuesday night, CAA, which is selling domestic rights  -- and also packaged, located financing for and represents almost everyone associated with the movie (including Wilson and Plame) -- hosted a screening  for buyers. Top executives from nearly every major specialty division and mini-major turned out (Harvey Weinstein was among those in attendance, for a movie that could well be a kind of awards-y picture he specialized in back in the day), along with representatives from a few studios. Several distributors are said to be interested, and there could well be a deal in place before the film masses descend on the south of France.

We talked to a number of buyers who were at the screening, nearly all of whom agreed the movie was well made but also came with distinct marketing challenges. Given its political themes, it's the kind of film that will go over like gangbusters in Cannes, they said, but its larger audience remains a question mark. Some buyers pointed out that Liman's movie could face some of the same questions that Oliver Stone's "W." did in 2008 -- namely,  do audiences want to relive a difficult chapter in American history, one in which much of the public felt misled?

That's especially true here given that Sean Penn isn't inhabiting the kind of transformative role he did with, say, Harvey Milk, but instead one who talks earnestly about the absence of WMD and sounds a lot like, well, Sean Penn.

Buyers tend to talk down a film's commercial prospects after a distributor screening because they don't want to work up the price. Still, there are reasons to take their concerns seriously.  "Green Zone," a movie with a less polarizing star in Matt Damon and more of a thriller/action conceit, was a box-office flop for a big studio.  Then again, at the right price, and with a campaign built around awards and critical praise, "Fair Game" could find its niche. And not just among the French.

--Steven Zeitchik and John Horn

Photo: Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Credit: River Road Entertainment


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