Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened is an unfairly overlooked little Hollywood satire, a little less bombastic than his excellent Wag The Dog, but no less biting. It’s like Entourage on Zanax, a surprisingly laid back entry into an oeuvre that is usually foaming at the mouth with frenzy. Robert De Niro plays Ben, a very stressed out movie producer who is dealing with a zillion different things at once, most of which are going wrong. The character is based partly on real life Hollywood producer Art Linson, and his book. Ben has a lead actor (Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis) who refuses to shave his bushy beard for a film. Anyone who remembers the film The Edge with Alec Baldwin and how big his beard was in that, well, that’s where the idea came from. That’s just a taste of how many weird things that both Hollywood and his personal life toss at Ben. He’s also in post production on a Sean Penn film (Penn also plays himself) with a very stubborn and flamboyant director named Jeremy (Michael Wincott) who refuses to cut the film in accordance with the studio’s wishes (here manifested by an icy Catherine Keener). Ben’s daughter (a weepy Kristen Stewart) is going through personal crisis, he’s also got a bitter rivalry with an obnoxious writer (Stanley Tucci) and has to babysit an anxiety ridden agent (John Turturro). It’s all a lot for him to handle and we begin to see the turmoil start to boil under Ben’s cool exterior. The cast is beyond ridiculous, with additional work from Moon Bloodgood, Peter Jacobson, Lily Rabe and Robin Wright as Ben’s estranged wife. Standouts include Michael Wincott who is a comic gem and gives the film it’s life with his pissy, enraged and altogether charming performance. Willis is also priceless as he ruthlessly parodies himself to the hilt. It’s slight, it’s never too much and is probably a bit too laid back for its own good, but I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s always cool to see meta movies about the inner workings of Hollywood.
Faster is an action film with an eerie aura and a darkly unnerving bite to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s action through and through, a genre effort right to its marrow. And yet, there’s something oddly esoteric about it, an obvious extra effort put in by the filmmakers, namely first time action director George Tillman, to give every character an off kilter, bizarre cadence to ensure we won’t forget them. There’s clichés, no doubt, but they’re eclipsed by the strange, full moon weirdness of the rogues running about the film’s story. Dwayne Johnson fires up a furious protagonist in his first action role after a long and ridiculous stint in insufferable family comedies. He plays a quiet, hulking dude known only as Driver, reluctantly released from prison by a watchful Warden (Tom Berenger). Upon exiting the gate, he runs. And runs. And runs. He arrives at a small town junkyard where he tears a tarp of a vintage Chevelle which seems to be left there for him like a care package. From there he launches a bloody crusade of revenge that knows neither mercy nor discretion, and whose reasons we are only slowly allowed to know. He’s a one man wrecking ball, the murders piling up before we really have any idea what this guy is about. He’s been greatly wronged in the past, the culprits of which should all be running scared, as he comes looking for them one by one and with the juggernaut pace of a boulder tumbling down a mountain. Pretty soon there’s two cops on his trail, intrepid Cicero (Carla Gugino) and mopey sleazeball ‘Cop’ (Billy Bob Thornton), a dilapidated piece of work who mainlines heroin and clearly has a murky past. Soon there’s one hell of a hitman (Oliver Jackson Cohen) skulking around looking for Driver, an extreme sports enthusiast who has ‘beaten yoga’ and is avidly looking for the next big thrill. Johnson jumps from one ultra violent encounter to the next with all the corrosive ferocity of the grim reaper, tallying up the corpses until we’re all but sure he’s an inhuman elimination machine. Then.. the film curveballs us and throws a glint of humanity into the mix with some late third act emotion that only goes to show the filmmakers set out with more than a one track mind. Driver has been unspeakably betrayed, and his rampage is undeniably justified, but there’s a complexity to his quest that he didn’t see coming, and neither did those of us who expected pure action without a moral conundrum in sight. I say good on it for grasping something besides the thrills. A terrific cast populates the almost Oliver Stone – esque proceedings, including Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Mike Epps, Jennifer Carpenter (always superb), Matt Gerald, Xander Berkeley, Buzz Belmondo, Courtney Gains and more. It’s got the depth of a well written graphic novel and a level of thought out characterization that heaps of stale action entries wish they possessed.