and One “Not Even Close Enough To Be a Cigarette Butt”
Reviews by Ken Burke
In our December 14 review of Hitchcock (Sasha Gervasi), Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik), and Anna Karenina (Joe Wright), the focus was on performances that were praised at various times in 2012 but weren’t likely to result in Oscar nominations, except for my thought that Helen Mirren had a good shot for playing Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville (that proved to be true for the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations but not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; some other mismatches occurred among these major statuette-nominators, as well as with the nominees chosen for the Oscars vs. those for the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Writers Guild but further comments on that will be forthcoming in mid-February with our Oscar-winner predictions). This week I’ll offer reviews of 2 other films that missed the boat on Oscar nominations despite some strong critical interest and 1—the first released in 2013 to occupy (if not waste) my time—that stepped off the dock and is sinking fast; essentially, this is a bit of a focus on also-rans for better things, but there’s just too much diversity here to allow a combined review so I’ll take them in order beginning with the best of the bunch.
Rust and Bone
This is a grim tale (in French with subtitles, if that matters) of two troubled souls trying to overcome personal demons in order to connect; powerfully done but disturbing.
Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os) is a French-Belgian co-production that gathered a lot of critical steam upon first release but that has largely dissipated, except for former Best Actress Oscar-winner (in Olivier Dahan‘s La vie en rose ) Marion Cotillard—as Stéphanie, a marine-animal trainer at a Marineland-like amusement park in Antibes, on the French Mediterranean coast, who loses the lower half of both legs in a freak accident—tapped as a Best Actress contender by both SAG and the Globes (in the latter’s Drama category, as they split some of their awards into Drama and Comedy or Musical, an option that often recognizes performances that don’t make the grade in other competitions [although for this year’s Oscars and SAGs we do have Bradley Cooper in a romantic comedy, Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell), and Hugh Jackman in a musical, Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)]). Despite the film’s initial positive response it’s nowhere to be found on the Oscar hopefuls’ lists and was competing only for Best Actress (Drama) and Best Foreign Language Film at the Globes, where I can now report that it won neither, with Cotillard losing to Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) and the film losing to the Austrian-produced-but-for-all-practical-purposes-French Amour (Michael Haneke)—further, Rust and Bone wasn’t even submitted by either Belgium or France as its Oscar contender, so now I’m really curious to see, respectively, Jaochim Lafosse’s Our Children (Á perdre la raison) and Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s The Intouchables if they are considered by their countrymen to be even better than Rust and Bone (to satisfy any further curiosities, various aspects of the full list of Oscar Foreign Language contenders can be found at contenders information and Foreign Language Oscar submissions; the Golden Globe nominees and winners are available at Golden Globe winners, among other locations). If you have a fear of water, orcas, amputation, brutal boxing matches, or Frenchmen who take you to a nightclub then leave you there on your artificial legs while they stroll off with a picked-up chick, then this film may be difficult to watch; otherwise, it’s a very compelling drama, marvelously well acted, about two potentially solid souls—Stéphanie and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts; I’ve also seen him as Alain in a few places despite him being called Ali within the film, in its subtitles, and in the official website, but maybe those who say differently interviewed the nurses at the hospital where he was born)—who have lost their moral and/or ambitional compasses and are dependent on each other in ways that they each take a very long time to realize as they search to find meaning in their lives, despite the various disasters that each faces as this complex story unfolds. We meet Ali first, leaving the toxic environment where his ex-wife has been using their very young son, Sam (Armand Verdure), as a drug runner, traveling with the kid to Antibes to live with his sister, Anna (Corrine Masiero), and her lover until he finds work, first as a bouncer at a trendy nightclub, later as a security guard. He meets Stéphanie on his first night at the first job, protecting her from a rowdy patron then driving her home (as he sours his good first impression by telling her that she “dresses like a whore”) where trouble immediately ensues for her with her live-in lover (no one has an easy time of anything in this film for very long).
When next they meet it’s months later after she gives Ali a call one night following her tragic accident at work when she falls bleeding into the orca tank, proving that even if these animals seem tame and know you on a regular basis they can still treat you as food when the proper circumstances present themselves (although the awful situation is presented in a sophisticated manner by Audiard, with hardly anything shown initially, then a later montage flashback of eloquent slo-mo shots of the event [that parallel the slo-mo performances of the “killer” whales shown just before one mistakenly crashes onto the trainer’s platform] and closeups of whale teeth that imply all you need to know without rubbing your eyes into graphic horror). Stéphanie is now a disheartened double-amputee (with her medically-enforced transition also shown in a series of quick vignettes), living alone with her stony, despondent attitude in a small insurance-provided apartment (a far cry from the fame and well-heeled surroundings of her former life). With this first visit, Ali shows no simpering sympathy (as an ex-boxer and working-class guy just trying to provide some sort of life for a son that he loves but fathers in a very aggressively physical manner he has little concern for social tact or timidity of any kind) but virtually pushes her out into the open air for the first time since leaving the hospital, then takes her to the beach where his indifferent decision to swim finally encourages her to respond, even though he has to carry her in and out of the water. They maintain a regular friendship after that, as she accompanies him to a series of clandestine, brutal boxing matches where his skills and sheer determination (along with some response to her presence when she breaks protocol and leaves their van [after getting artificial metal legs] to show herself at this all-male testosterone-fest, allowing him to overpower a much bigger opponent) provide him with enough extra income to be more generous to his sister and child (as Stéphanie is welcomed into their family circle as well), but he fails to recognize how distant he still is from her, so that even when they have sex (more like making love for her but seemingly just a physical experiment on his part to help her see if “it still works” for her) he still has easy encounters with just about any available woman, sees no problem in casually telling her about his other liaisons, and even leaving her at a nightclub in favor of a casual hook-up after taking her there with his boxing friends. Despite her growing admiration for Ali’s rough-mannered presence in her life she begins to realize that she may still have a closer connection with the whale who maimed her (assuming it is the same one on the other side of the glass when she goes back to her old job for a visit and still is able to get her watery companion to respond to her previous commands in a scene short in length but long in emotional impact and cinematic beauty) than she does with the mysterious man she’d like to know as her lover, so she gives him an ultimatum that helps domesticate his wild ways in a manner not unlike what she did with the whales. After that, things go well for them both personally and economically as she finds herself in the position of being his boxing manager, encouraging him on to victory upon victory.
However, this is not the type of story where conflicts easily end happily ever after, with implications that they may never do so; thus, more complications emerge, putting Ali to the test in other challenging situations. The first comes with an old “sin” coming back to haunt him, as his association with a former security guard who also worked against the employees of the guarded premises by secretly installing cameras to catch them stealing merchandise, taking too many breaks, or doing anything else their bosses would consider detrimental to company profits hurts his sister who simply had a habit of taking home expired food (which would have been thrown away but was still edible within a limited time frame) but is fired for theft. When she finds out that Ali was part of the team that installed the cameras, she’s furious so he slips away—leaving Sam, which upsets both Anna and Stéphanie even further—seemingly to Poland for training at a boxing academy with the hope of earning enough legitimate mayhem money to make things right for all concerned in his life. Anna’s truck-driver lover, Richard ([Jean-Michel Correia]—I think; names weren’t brandied about too clearly in this film and I’ve yet to find anything that confirms my understanding, so correct me if I’m wrong on this one), knows where Ali is and periodically brings Sam to visit. During one such occasion in the winter, father and son are enjoying playtime in the snow when Sam falls through a break in the lake’s icy crust; after a frantic attempt to locate his son, Ali hammers the ice with his fists to rescue Sam, fracturing his knuckles in the process. Both Dad and son survive—although much more slowly for the boy—with Ali finally admitting his love to Stéphanie in a long-distance phone call, so after she arrives to reunite the “family” we get some voiceover description of the difficulty of hand bones ever healing properly, yet the accompanying visuals allude to Ali winning some sort of championship belt, presumably stabilizing all their lives as they leave the Warsaw Sheraton, I suppose until the next tragedy sets in. This film is short on explication and long on implication as the story jump-cuts through time and space, so the filmmakers probably had to get the end credits rolling before we found ourselves at Sam’s high school graduation. Based purely on all of this description I could see how this narrative might sound like just one cruel twist of fate after another that could collapse into a tubful of bathos compressed from a season of a daytime soap opera (if there are any of these left anymore). However, the viewing experience provides a lot more subtly in the evolution of the two main characters; the appropriate acting approaches of the two leads is very effective in the opening up of two people who have been damaged in ways that they never anticipated, forcing them to either move forward or die trying (a nurse has to take a scalpel away from Stéphanie soon after she awakes to find her lower legs gone; Ali could easily have been killed or rendered brain dead in his unsanctioned bouts); and Marion Cotillard continues to show what a versatile actor she is in cinematic stories as varied as Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) to The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012), even when she has to perform as if amputated when that result only be seen on screen after CGI wizards perform limb removal in a manner improving in a spectacular manner on what was already convincing decades ago for Lt. Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise) in Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994).
Rust and Bone may not be what you go to movie theatres for (understandably so, given its grim content before the uplifting restoration of dignity and hope), but if you’re willing to endure its bone-chilling premises (sorry if that comes off as a pun), I think you’ll find it to be well worth your investment. As to what the “rust” in the title refers to, all I can speculate on is something akin to Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” (listen if you like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGMHSbcd_qI) where the latter is the bad side of her relationship with Bob Dylan (more on him later), seemingly encouraging her to reject a reconnection because the “diamonds” don’t balance out the undesirable “rust,” which she’s “already paid” for via the heartbreak of failed romance. Stéphanie and Ali have a lot of rust to scrape away as well in this film, but for them the work seems worth it in giving their relationship a second chance.
Not Fade Away
Time travel back to the pop music world of the 1960s as some average guys try to emulate their British Invasion heroes with varying degrees of success and fulfillment.
All Doug Damiano (John Magaro) wants in David Chase’s Not Fade Away is a first chance, to be a rock and roll star in the 1960s, just like his many famous idols but most especially The Rolling Stones, whose amplification (OK, that one was intended) of previous blues and pop songs (including their more upbeat version of Buddy Holly's tune that provided the title for this movie [Stones found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt_zum97kjE, original at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyTtFNGzFsE]) gives inspiration to him and his New Jersey high-school-and-beyond buddies to make music their lives, just as so many of us teenagers-into-early-twenties-Camelot-kids-as-would-be musicians hoped for such fame in those long-ago days of the British Invasion and its aftermath. On the one hand, I’m very taken by how Chase has effectively evoked the appearance (the tight pants, the Beatle boots with the Cuban heels as Doug insists, the quickly evolving hair lengths), attitude (loathing of parents, constant attempts to appear mature with a lit cigarette in hand), and aspirations (Doug quits college to put all of his energy into a recording-contract-less clump of mediocre musicians, of which he may have the best chance for success as a singer but none of whom are going to emerge as members of the E Street Band) of that long-ago-but-not-forgotten (at least by some of us insistent diehards) decade, but I also have to wonder if this conventional coming-of-age story is really communicable to multiple variations of generations or if it’s too successfully rooted in the ‘60s to really be relevant to anyone else. I have to say that I found it fascinating from a purely personal perspective because I could so easily project myself into Doug with his never-ending dreams to be a successful musician (and my own feeble attempts at such in high school [where I could play no instrument but was so determined to get a group together that I finally found the requisite musicians with me as the supposed Jagger-like frontman; however, at our first practice session they threw me out as not having a good enough voice—my revenge came in them never getting anything together after that either] and college [where I did have some success with others I met at the University of Texas’ Catholic Student Center, a fine bunch of players and singers with some irregular performances as The Original Sin, but in truth none of us ever saw our real career plans as having a chance of being derailed by the pressures and challenges of a musician’s life on the road]), just as I’ve been able ever since 1967 to see aspects of myself in Benjamin Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) confused, strategy-less post-college life in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (without the Mrs. Robinson aspects, believe me, but at least I did meet my marvelous future wife, Nina, in Berkeley—although it took me until 1987 to do it).
Doug’s Twilight Zones band (but don’t expect to get that too easily from the dialogue nor will you easily pick up on characters’ names because they rarely address each other with such, a conversational reality but one not too helpful if you’re trying to do more than just constant facial recognition; Chase also makes you pay attention to his jump-cut story structure where large chunks of time simply are left out forcing you to assume the events that must have occurred off-screen) also echoes the problems his Stones/Beatles/etc. idols suffered during this heady period of quick success and internal turmoil, as the more dynamic leader of his group leaves in a huff after the bandmates confirm that Doug is the better lead singer (leading him to take the mic position after a new drummer is recruited), then further frictions lead Doug to leave as well, heading out to Hollywood for a new vision of himself as an actor, which seems to come to an end even more quickly as his lover-girl abandons him at the first party they attend (shades of Rust and Bone; maybe there are conceptual connections here after all), literally on their first night in California after a cross-country drive, leaving Doug looking nostalgically into a music instruments store, raising the possibility that he’s off to NJ after all to patch things up with the Twilight Zones (if various accounts are to be believed, this sort of thing happened with Ringo, George, and John before Paul finally brought about the final split by releasing his first solo album in almost-direct competition with what then came to be the Fab Four’s last group effort, Let It Be [from past experience I know you think that’s a cue for a musical cutaway, but I’ll save that for later])—or maybe to become a roadie for Bruce Springsteen.
If Not Fade Away works for you, even if you’re not part of its target demographic (a likely marketing hope for Paramount, given how difficult it can sometimes be to get us Baby Boomers off of our couches and out to the theatre when Netflix is calling for us to stay home), it will likely have to be because something besides the depicted music of a far-distant era, restrictive parent-child situations of 50 years ago (where both Doug and girlfriend Grace [Bella Heathcote] resist their fathers’ oppressive family management, with both finally escaping from East Coast to West Coast to make a life of their own during the initial time of the great generational/cultural divide), and dated clothing styles (although in this photo from the waist down Doug now looks a bit contemporary to 2013, given that jeans are once again unisexually ultra-skinny and urban boots are migrating back to guys after decades of being standard wear for gals, but from the waist up he looks more like a cross between mid-‘60s Dylan—see the photos from the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde at Dylan photos [along with others over the years and other random stuff somehow related to him]—and Barry “The Fish” Melton from Country Joe and the Fish—evidence here as well at Fish photos with Barry as the one with the wild, curly hair—although both of these guys were involved with rock that took a more anti-Establishment sociopolitical turn rather than the merely-danceable beats played by Doug’s band and referenced with the actual music from the times in the soundtrack of Not Fade Away; Grace’s outfit also screams outdated ‘60s “Mod” dress for women as seen at Mod clothes, but this may have some sense of contemporary retro cachet as well for those who prefer "vintage" options) have some relevance for you because these well-appointed surface qualities probably separate the Now generation from their grandparents too much to be immediately interesting (much as I hate having to admit being old enough to qualify for that latter distinction, even though my only “offspring” are the loveable but standardly-wacky cats that have shared my life for the past 25 years). Somehow, the story of Doug, his band buddies, Grace, her older hippie sister, Joy (Dominique McElligott [the most despised of all of her generation in this movie, based on her attempt to live the bohemian artist’s life in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village before her parents institutionalize her in a manner more appropriate to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975; still only 1 of 3—along with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, 1934, and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, 1991—to sweep all of the major Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and 1 of the Screenwriting awards)]), and the whole experience of rebelling against the mind-numbingly institutionalized mores of the era (which show us now how ironically-named Joy wasn’t the crazy one but rather those who couldn’t understand her aversion to rigidity) must be able to transcend the music’s simple chords, the basic but colorful geometric fashion designs, and the antagonist attitudes of the days when Civil Rights were still in litigation and lifestyle rebellion was a transformational Beatnik dream in order to become ongoing universal symbols for breakaway triumphs before Chase’s loving homage to our collective youth (he's from 1945, 2 years before me) can be celebrated as a story that speaks to anyone trying to find substance for their idealistic dreams, not just Doug and those like him who merely yearned to be an opening act for someone minor of his time like The Strawberry Alarm Clock (many of you may have to Google this one, although I saw them in 1968 as an opening act themselves for the long-gone Buffalo Springfield and the still-surfin' Beach Boys; you can get a great psychedelic version of the Strawberry’s one big hit “Incense and Peppermints” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOk2T6Uweao or you can see a horrible video version [audio is fine] of the actual band at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhYLz63csS0 if you need more context here or to better appreciate the pseudo-stoned flow of this rambling—even for me—paragraph; I’m just trying to emulate the mood of those champagne-sodden stars at the Golden Globes I was watching just before I started writing all of this ongoing verbiage).
A final dynamic of Not Fade Away before it does fade away from your local multiplex (a likely reality given that it’s currently made only about $575,000 against a $20 million budget after a month in release) is the father-son dynamic between Doug and Dad Pat Damiano (Chase Sopranos favorite James Gandolfini [sounds like he should have been cast as the wizard if Peter Jackson wanted to do an Italian mob version of The Hobbit to further extend his constantly-growing franchise]; after their successful years together exploring the dysfunctional family issues of a not-so-up-and-coming mobster, Chase and Gandolfini work well together here, just as E Street’s Steven Van Zandt also returns from his Sopranos association with Chase to help give accuracy to the individual and performance personas of Doug’s band—literally turning actors into musicians during the prep period for the film—needed to authenticate the loving depiction of the 1960s). As if there’s not enough tension in the family over Doug’s resistance to anticipated conventionality, Dad reveals that he’s got terminal cancer and wants Doug to be prepared to absorb family responsibilities even though he doesn’t really think that his son is responsible enough to get a haircut or wear decent clothes (which for Pat means “what I’ve been wearing for 30 years whether I liked it or not”). Despite Pat’s opposition to everything his son holds sacred, at least he’s willing to talk man-to-man to the kid and give him some traveling money as Doug and Grace pull away for the trip west while Mom Antoinette (Molly Price) is just a constant drag on any space she occupies, spouting negativity and assuming that every action of Doug’s is designed to add more grief to her downtrodden life. You can easily understand why Doug wants to transcend his parents’ limited vision of what the future has to offer, whether by gaining that elusive recording contract in the Northeast or discovering a new life as an actor in the Far West, just as you can appreciate the aura of the era from all of the carefully-chosen details that give me a true sense of revisiting my “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” past (from Dylan’s “My Back Pages” [on the 1964 Another Side of Bob Dylan album]; I can’t find a decent video of him singing it so here’s The Byrds' version at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FUGzwUTN80). However, beyond my admiration for the fine attention to period specifics and the choices for an effectively-resonant soundtrack (matching one of the few other true successes I can recall for both of these aspects of historical pop-culture recreation, George Lucas’ 1973 American Graffiti, a film set in the late summer of 1962 about the same time that Not Fade Away begins so if you put them all into a triple-feature with The Graduate [and its exquisite Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack] you’d have a great time capsule of what mattered so much to the directors of all of these films, but I don’t think you’d have consistent quality with the middle episode, especially compared to what Lucas and Nichols achieved with theirs), I have basically the same reaction as I did when reviewing Steven Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (see the Oct. 13, 2012 blog posting), to which I also gave 3 ½ stars: Not Fade Away is an entertaining story to watch (although there are much darker sides to Wallflower that for narrative structural reasons are held back from us but in a manner that undermines the overall impact of the movie) and it’s seemingly something that could be understood by multiple generations (although I still wonder just how well, not having been able to discuss it with anyone outside my own crusty age bracket; however, the critics’ collective scores you can explore below come to only about 69, compared to my own approximate 70, so I don’t find anyone being too blown away by this sincere attempt to cruise in the WABAC Machine [which I know has other implications as a serious Internet archive tool when you’re discussing the actual computer-based Wayback Machine, but I’m referring to the time-travel device used by the intelligent dog Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle TV cartoon show]) but it's ultimately the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die (Play it, Sam!), just with music that might especially appeal to those of a certain age.
Some critics have been very complimentary of Chase and his nostalgia-dreams-come-to-life, but for me Not Fade Away has a great soundtrack (especially the 2 songs that finish off the end credits: The Beatles’ “I Got a Feelin’,“ which you can view at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP2XoLat4ck with footage from the famous Let It Be rooftop concern above the Abbey Road Studio in 1969 [prior to the 1970 release of the album and the movie], with “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” before we finally get to Paul and John in their musical dialogue with “Feelin’ " [the whole thing takes about 11 min., but if you need just the recorded version here it is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82pmQHA-jyY] and Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” for which I’ll direct you to http://vimeo.com/46076405 [you may need to be patient as this one loads], a version not from the Not Fade Away soundtrack, which uses the recorded song from his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, but a live performance in 1965 at London’s Royal Albert Hall) and the revisiting of some personal dissolved dreams about being a self-employed musician (which seems to have not actually happened for the Twilight Zones either, given that we open with a voiceover from Doug’s sister, Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), telling us that we’ve never heard of her brother’s band, unlike with Not Fade Away’s initially-confusing opening scene on a British train which she then explains was the first encounter of Mick and Keith who went on to become something you might still be aware of given their semi-50th anniversary finale concert [Mr. Richards says their real 50th comes in 2013, to celebrate the release of their first single], appropriately for this movie performed also in New Jersey) but not enough else. Chase gives us an energetic tour of his (my) youth (with nice inclusions of film clips such as Touch of Evil [Orson Welles, 1958] and South Pacific [Joshua Logan, 1958] on TV, Blow-Up [Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966—my awakening to what contemporary art was all about, truly a film that changed my life] in a theatre, Easy Rider [Dennis Hopper, 1969] at a drive-in), with a suddenly-appearing Evelyn dancing in a deserted, wind-blown L. A. street (with a final voiceover question about what was the most significant American contribution of the 20th century: nuclear power or rock ‘n roll?) to bring this fantasy to conclusion, but beneath the well-polished surface it’s really no more than a fairly standard coming-of-age tale of those times with little of the impact of what Nichols and Lucas had already done, within or at least very close to the actual era. Maybe I find so many appealing personal connections with Not Fade Away that I’m being overly-cautious in not praising it too much (and for many of you it may be a 4-or-more-star experience), but while it’s the cinematic establishment that’s leaving Rust and Bone in the dust, despite its stellar qualities, it’s clearly me in this case distancing myself from the potentially melodic accomplishments of Not Fade Away.
Travel even further back to post-WW II Los Angeles for the war between the cops and top gangster Mickey Cohen, but despite the big-name cast this is a just bloody retread.
Travel even further back to post-WW II Los Angeles for the war between the cops and top gangster Mickey Cohen, but despite the big-name cast this is a just bloody retread.
If there’s any common connection among these separately-reviewed offerings this week, it’s the distancing that someone (so far, the award-givers and your faithful critic) has established from their perspective and the work under consideration. Thus, we arrive at Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, which has occasioned much more distancing than either of the previous 2 combined. I have to think that I must be being generous in offering 2 ½ stars to something that has been shunned by those who make official pronouncements on the cinema world. My rating equates to roughly 50% but that’s a compliment compared to most others (I’ll save you the time to click the links below: Rotten Tomatoes 32, Metacritic 40, Movie Intelligence 40). The main complaints are that this attempt to revive fascination with the actual film noir world which was being constructed by the movie industry in Los Angeles in the late 1940s by setting a crime story based (about as loosely as possible) on the history of that time just leaves us with a cast whose talents are either wasted or pushed to obnoxious extremes while the violence is even more extreme, so much so that it overwhelms any hope of audience connection with the potentially attractive elements of this exploitatonal narrative (at least it’s rated with a cautionary R, and while it’s nowhere near as brutal as Tarantino’s Django Unchained it’s still something that you should approach carefully, unless you find some sort of fascination with a man being pulled apart by 2 cars which gives us a quick introduction to the interpersonal skills of real-life mobster Mickey Cohen [Sean Penn]). If Cohen is about as merciless as anyone could imagine as a self-proclaimed king of the city then his fresh-from-the-war adversary, Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), is barely less ruthless, probably because he can only bend police procedure so far before it snaps, although his fierce determination to bring down Cohen bears occasional fruit (as with his disruption of Cohen’s prostitution ring [“My entire crop of cunt is ruined!”]), eventually putting O’Mara into the position of being able to use a wealth of illegal tactics in an attempt to drive Cohen out of the city in order to disrupt his entire entrenched operation rather than just kill him, only to have another kingpin step in to continue the wave of crime that threatens to engulf the proper functioning of the metropolis (we see quickly that Cohen already has plenty of police and an influential judge on his payroll so it’s not easy to even challenge him, let alone try to arrest him for something).
The main problem with all this is given that Mickey Cohen, John O’Mara, and O’Mara’s Gangster Squad are all historical entities, unlike the Corleones of The Godfather fame (Francis Ford Coppola; 1972, 1974, 1990) who essentially were fictional versions of gangsters (although there may have been some real-world inspiration to novelist and screenwriter Mario Puzo, especially with another Jewish mobster, Hyman Roth [Lee Strasberg], in The Godfather: Part II based very much on the actual exploits of Myer Lansky), you might expect some connection to what actually went on in what O’Mara says is “not paradise but is the City of Angels”) in 1949, but the events of Gangster Squad bear little resemblance to what you’d find with a little research about both Cohen and the Squad (as a start you could look over the details offered at http://www.panmacmillan.com/book/paullieberman/gangstersquad, an interview with Paul Lieberman, former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of the book that the movie is very loosely based on, and some other facts as reported by a U.K. periodical located at http://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/going-out/film/gangster-squad-real-life-story-1532177; then you can follow up with more details on Cohen at http://www.biography.com/bio-now/beyond-gangster-squad-the-real-mickey-cohen-21090897) is that Cohen was jailed for tax evasion several times rather than murder as depicted in the movie and lived until he died in 1976 in his sleep at age 62 rather than being beaten to death by prison revenge-seekers as is broadly implied in Fleischer’s version for Warner Bros., a studio with a hallowed history of gangster movies but no particular investment in historical accuracy. If you wish to put all that aside and just assume that this treatment of Cohen is not intended to be any more reliable than what we might know of Lansky if we’re exposed only to Hyman Roth, then what do you have left for an entertaining night at the movies? Mostly what you have is a couple of cock-sure powerhouses, one—Cohen—propped up by a large, loyal, and deadly organization (“Los Angeles is my f***in’ destiny!”) and the other—O’Mara—with little support except for the few guys in his squad and a clandestine approval from Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte, looking like a wax museum version of himself) to disrupt Cohen’s operation in any way possible short of homicide (although such collateral damage might be expected in these circumstances). You can clearly see why Brolin was chosen to play the younger version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K in last summer’s Men in Black3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012; reviewed in this blog in the June 7, 2012 posting), both in physical resemblance and in ability to convey that fierce, no-nonsense attitude so it’s a bit hard to see O’Mara here in such a similar performance without expecting aliens to pop up with machine guns. Similarly, Penn seems to be channeling psychotic Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) from Raoul Walsh’s famous White Heat (ironically, or conveniently, released by Warner Bros. in 1949), a guy who never met a trigger he wasn’t willing to pull. You’re certainly glad to finally see him taken down by the end of Gangster Squad, just in retribution for the many cruel things he’s done over the course of the previous 100 min., but such 1-dimensional heroes and villains seem to be more appropriate to the stark contrasts between good and evil of the earlier 1930s WB gangster classics (Little Caesar [Mervyn LeRoy, 1931], The Public Enemy [William A. Wellman, 1931], The Petrified Forest [Archie Mayo, 1936]) than the more nuanced aspects of both sides of the law in later film noir crime stories also from WB such as Key Largo (John Huston, 1948) and White Heat from the time period being depicted, along with what we’re more used to seeing in the complex crime worlds crafted by Coppola and Scorsese in more recent years. Gangster Squad is just brutality, bullets, blood, and bodies (dead, that is) almost non-stop for its roughly 2-hr. assault on the screen (and us).
There are a lot of good character actors available in Gangster Squad to round out Cohen’s and O’Mara’s forces (especially Giovanni Ribisi as Officer Conway Keeler, O’Mara’s reluctant but effective surveillance expert who manages to get a bug placed within Cohen’s home which tips off the Gangster Squad for a lot of their guerrilla tactics), but the other primary known faces in this cast are Ryan Gosling as O’Mara’s unofficial second-in-command, Sgt. Jerry Wooters, and his eventual love interest, sultry, scarlet-clad Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), a further complication for all given that Wooters had to quietly seduce her away from being Cohen’s public prize (not that Mickey really cared to have her around all that much because she spent a lot of time in her small apartment—allowing Wooters easier access to her [so to speak]—rather than in Cohen’s mansion). Much has already been written about how these two engaging actors are given little to do in this movie except shoot on Gosling’s part and fret on Stone’s. But then, shooting, posturing (Cohen takes great delight in that, in public arenas, in verbal standoffs with the cops, in private execution orders to those who fail him even in the slightest way; however, O’Mara does quite a bit of this himself in the recruitment and ongoing motivational barking to his dedicated team of behind-the-scenes syndicate-destroyers), and fretting are about all this movie is built on so if you don’t want to see a bloody version of the kinds of taunts and attacks that go on in WWE wresting shows several times a week (no more blood in those so they could get everything into TV’s version of PG-13 approval—although that still allows guys to be beaten with metal chairs and other unofficial weapons so our social definition of acceptable violence continues to be as ambiguous as ever) then there’s not much I can conjure up to recommend Gangster Squad to you. The only aspects that got me up to the 2 ½ stars level were the depictions of post-war L.A. (a nice updating of the Chinatown [Roman Polanski, 1974] era without having to wallow in the mess that was The Two Jakes [Jack Nicholson, 1990], one of the worst sequels I’ve ever seen, right up there with Exorcist II: The Heretic [John Boorman, 1977]; although Ebert praises Jakes highly at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19900810/REVIEWS/8100303/1023, but I’ve got more opinions on my side with a 65 from Rotten Tomatoes and a 56 from Metacritic), the perverse pleasure of the absurd overacting of Sean Penn, and the related “allure” of seeing Brolin and Gosling doing a sort of imitation of McGarrett and Dano (Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan) from the current TV version of Hawaii Five-0 (do I really have to cue the music for this one?). Beyond that, Gangster Squad is just a constant morass of brutality that doesn’t add up to much so at least no one will be disappointed when it doesn’t receive any awards nominations or wins at the end of this year, except possibly at the annual Razzies anti-awards fest. (For a much better version of a small squad of well-known actors [Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia] going after a big-city major mobster [Robert De Niro as Al Capone] I’ll refer you to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables , where you get the added pleasure of a wonderful homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s famous Odessa Steps scene from his 1925 Battleship Potemkin, even better to look at [maybe] than Emma Stone in that clingy red dress.)
With that, I’ll leave you until next time when I’ll explore another nobly-intentioned film left in the Oscar dust, Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land (with the only other heavyweight still to come for review, Amour, still waiting to come to a theatre near me but will soon I hope).
If you’re interested in knowing more about Rust and Bone here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIscEZlVbCM (7 min. interview with actor Matthias Schoenaerts)
If you’re interested in knowing more about Not Fade Away here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8w_uqflpCcU&playnext=1&list=PLHFQwkzy0-1Tde7nBH9gwxv8hpZWxAyL8&feature=results_main (a great collection of clips related to this film with1960s performances from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley, and The Kinks among others)
If you’re interested in knowing more about Gangster Squad here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz8SH8_Vp_4 (17 min. of interviews with Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, and Anthony Mackie)
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