Actor Sean Penn’s painfully believable portrayal adds some redeeming value to R-rated ‘Flag Day’

Sean Penn directs and stars as John Vogel in “Flag Day,” one of his most painfully believable performances since his turn in “The Falcon and the Snowman” back in 1985.

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Film Fare . . . with M.V. Moorhead

Based on Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir Flim-Flam Man, “Flag Day” is roughly the zillionth telling of one of the perennial American dramas: The relationship with the father. The author’s often-absent dad, John Vogel, was a career criminal in the ’80s with everything from bank robbery to arson to counterfeiting on his record. He was also a sensitive, loving person who sketched and introduced his daughter and son to Chopin and marinated steaks.

MV Moorhead
M.V. Moorhead

Sean Penn, who directed and who plays John Vogel, makes us see how both of these personalities can exist, albeit uncomfortably, in one guy.

It’s one of his most painfully believable performances since his turn in “The Falcon and the Snowman” back in 1985. Like that guy, Penn’s John Vogel is one of those people who are both repellently obnoxious and charismatic, somehow at the same time.

He’s a hustler in the grand Willy Loman tradition, insisting, when asked what he does for a living, that he’s “an entrepreneur,” with many irons in the fire at any given time.

Penn’s daughter, Dylan Penn, is impressively un-histrionic and sympathetic as the grown-up version of Jennifer, taking over for a couple of first-rate younger actresses who play her earlier vintages. The director’s son, Hopper Penn, effectively plays Jennifer’s little brother as an adult.

Stylistically, the movie generates superbly convincing period atmosphere, and it has a ’70s art-cinema vibe. It’s like something by Terence Malick, with lots of leisurely montages cut to melancholy songs and deliberately grainy, home-movie-ish footage, and heavy use of Dylan Penn’s voice-over narration.

Virtually a catalog of severe family dysfunction, it’s a bitterly sad story, but seen strictly in terms of Jennifer’s accomplishment, it’s a pretty inspirational story, too.

I wondered why Jennifer’s beleaguered Mom (Katheryn Winnick) didn’t get more sympathy, until her inaction during a crisis about midpoint in the film makes it harder to like her.

Overall, though, “Flag Day” is yet another illustration of the tremendous, and tremendously unfair, emotional advantage that fathers tend to wield in the family dynamic, and in the Western narrative tradition.

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‘Don’t Breathe 2’ has outrageous, unsavory plot twist 

The 2016 shocker “Don’t Breathe” was, essentially, “Wait Until Dark” in reverse. Three thieves break into the home of a blind person, but this time, they discover that he’s an ex-Navy Seal with murderous skills that compensate for his blindness and then some, and that he knows the turf and they don’t.

The crooks find themselves fighting for their lives.

It was a gruesome but gripping and witty tale, and it was built around a stunning performance, by Stephen Lang as The Blind Man. The veteran Lang has long seemed to me like a great actor who’s never quite had his great role, and with The Blind Man he elevated this movie’s Grand Guignol corn, as by force of acting will, to an almost Shakespearean level.

For “Don’t Breathe 2,” co-written and directed by the Uruguayan Rodo Sayagues (who co-wrote the original), The Blind Man has been made the hero, more or less. This time, he’s fighting to rescue an adolescent girl, Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), from a cadre of slimy creeps connected to human-organ trafficking.

Although he wreaks gory havoc on the bad guys, his character is softened by comparison to the earlier film. This inevitably results in a shrinking of Lang’s power, though he’s still unforgettably baleful.

And “Don’t Breathe 2,” like the first film, has an outrageous and unsavory plot twist that you aren’t likely to see coming. But be forewarned: It’s hideously violent, and animals are among the targets.

Despite this, however, the movie does have a notably reverent attitude toward dogs. The Blind Man is reluctant to kill a dog even when his life may depend upon it, and the dog doesn’t fail to reward his consideration.

“Flag Day” is rated R and plays at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square in Scottsdale. “Don’t Breathe 2” is rated R and plays at Tempe Marketplace, Arizona Mills, Chandler Fashion 20 and other multiplexes Valley-wide.

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