Saturday, May 18, 2013

Movie Reviews- Gangster Squad, Mama, Stand Up Guys

Gangster Squad
directed by Ruben Fleischer
This film is a little light on story and gloriously heavy on scenery, costume and surroundings. It's a trip to heaven if you are into late forties and early fifties clothes, cars, and art deco architecture or happen to yearn for a simpler time when men were men, women were dames and there was no problem that couldn't be solved with two fists and a .45. Gangster Squad is inspired by history but is not bound by it. It takes lots of liberties with the story. So if that appeals to you this movie could be worth your while. Despite some surface similarities it is nothing like LA Confidential, The Big Sleep or any other films with conflicted heroes or outright anti heroes. No here, the good guys are good, the bad guys are very bad and that's pretty much that. And all the girls are crazy about sharp dressed men...

I wrote about LA mobster Mickey Cohen before here. In Gangster Squad, Cohen (Sean Penn) is the quintessential bad guy. Quick tempered with a very broad NU YAWK accent, Cohen is the rising star bad guy in Los Angeles. He's got his fat little fingers in everything, prostitution, narcotics, gambling, bookmaking, loansharking, you name it he does it. A former boxer, Cohen is quick with his fists and doesn't mind throwing a beating to hapless subordinates. He doesn't like mistakes. Of course if you get off with a beating count yourself lucky as the quite sadistic Cohen has many other ways to enforce discipline, most of which involve removing you from the planet. Cohen's only rival for power in California is the older and more cautious Mafiosi Jack Dragna (Jon Polito) who is worried about Cohen's strength and insolence.

One person in the LAPD who is neither intimidated by Cohen nor in his pocket is Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) who is first seen rescuing a naive woman from a Cohen pimp platoon. O'Mara's actions come to the attention of Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) who has despaired of taking down Cohen by legal methods. He commissions O'Mara to put together a squad of non-corrupt cops to get Cohen. They aren't to kill him but are to destroy his businesses, humiliate him and if possible get some real evidence of Cohen's crimes. They won't be able to identify themselves as cops. If they're caught Parker will disavow all knowledge of their actions. O'Mara's wife Connie (Mirielle Enos) is initially upset that her husband will be going into more dangerous work. She's pregnant and thinks it's time her war vet/OSS hubby let someone else take the lead. But when she sees he can't be dissuaded she insists upon picking the team herself. The police officers she chooses are
  • Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a skilled knife man who hates drug dealers. 
  • Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) a Trace Adkins soundalike who is quicker and more deadly with a single action revolver than most men are with automatic weapons.
  • Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) an intense intelligent man who used to work in Army Intelligence. He's the surveillance and legal expert.
  • Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) who has little else to do besides hero worship Kennard.
  • Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) a lazy lady's man with a hidden conscience and a thing for Cohen's number one lady, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone
After a few missteps and the obligatory character conflicts, under O'Mara's leadership these men morph into a smooth oiled machine bringing the pain to Cohen all across Southern California. With the brief exception of Kennard explaining that from bigotry no one in the LAPD but him would work with Ramirez, the movie is thoroughly anachronistic with regards to race. No one ever calls Harris any slurs. He's even invited over to cookouts at his partners' homes. He enters white clubs with no problems. Right. Anyway Cohen isn't the type of gangster to take attacks lying down and he strikes back in vicious and quite personal ways. You can probably figure out the rest. This is a good fun romp but please don't look for anything more than that. Basically this is quality fast food. Very violent fast food. It's all broadly drawn but sometimes that's ok. Penn chews the scenery but in a good way. Sullivan Stapleton stars as Jack Whalen, a Cohen associate who is Wooters' good friend.

directed by Andy Muschietti
This movie starred Jessica Chastain's chest. Really. Ok, that aside what was this movie about? Basically it was an extended episode of Supernatural without the Winchester Brothers. Seriously, this is something which would have been better handled and experienced on the small screen. But it was a 100 minute movie so things had to be dragged out a little bit. As mentioned Chastain was quite noticeable in this film but perhaps women might enjoy looking at Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who appears in a dual role. But it's really Chastain's film all the way. She's the lead here and does a pretty good job of crafting a believable character. NCW doesn't have a whole lot to do as he disappears from the film for huge swaths of time. I'm actually glad I saw this on the small screen as I would have felt ever so slightly cheated if I had seen it in the theater.

The visual aspects were quite good. The director made a scary film without gore or much violence. Things are more implied than shown. The first ten minutes of the film are just as frightening than the remaining ninety minutes.

The film opens up with Jeffrey Desange (NCW) taking his daughters Victoria and Lily out for a drive. Sounds nice except for the little fact that Jeffrey has just murdered his wife and his business partners. The girls are toddlers. The older Victoria, who is three, is perceptive enough to ask about Mommy and their destination. Jeffrey drives them to an abandoned cabin. He is pretending that everything is okay when it's obvious he's at mental breakdown. Just as he is about to murder his daughters and presumably commit suicide ("You know Daddy loves you, right?") something, we can't tell what, grabs him away from the girls and breaks his neck. Something gives the girls a cherry. This scene is full of pathos as kids and animals have no ability to defend themselves against homicidal or otherwise dangerous adults, even if they can perceive the danger, which usually they can't. 
Zip over to Jeffrey's twin brother, Lucas (NCW again) who has heard about the murder of his sister-in-law and arrived at his brother's house frantically looking for his missing nieces. Lucas doesn't give up the hunt. For five years despite his limited funds, he's a freelance photographer and his girlfriend Annabelle (Chastain) is a struggling punk-rock bassist, he searches for his relatives. Finally the girls are found, just as Lucas' savings have run out. But the girls aren't the same. Victoria DeSange (Megan Charpentier) is filthy and feral. Her little sister Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) is even more so, with hardly any English language skills. Both scurry around on all fours and talk to each other in a strange patois. Victoria cleans up well. Lily less so. With the help of a doctor (Daniel Kash), Lucas (enthusiastically) and Annabelle (very reluctantly) obtain custody of the girls, over the objection of their maternal relative. The doctor arranges for the newly made family to live in a home where he can study the girls. But something returned with the girls from the woods. As you might expect from the title this is something that has taken a proprietary interest in the girls, and definitely doesn't appreciate either Lucas or Annabelle playing parent.

As mentioned, there's no gore at all but this is still a pretty creepy film thanks to reaction shots and the normal frights of being upstairs in a large house and swearing you heard something downstairs. After Lucas is temporarily removed from the board Annabelle finds that she has some maternal instincts that are kicking in just when she least expects them. I didn't particularly care for the ending and as mentioned this film could have been shortened by a good 20 minutes and not have lost much. But there you are. If you want a horror movie that doesn't rely on blood sprays, brutalized, naked and humiliated women or ridiculously gruesome murders, you could do worse than to check this movie out.

Stand Up Guys
directed by Fisher Stevens
Look it's Al Pacino in a movie. And he's not shouting in all of his scenes!!! Imagine that. This movie also starred Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken. I like these actors and they don't disappoint. It's rare that a movie featuring actors who are, for lack of a better word, old, treats both the characters and the situations with an enjoyable mix of comedy and sympathy. The film never lets you forget that the main characters are hearing Death's footsteps. Sex is not something they have a lot of natural energy for any longer; they aren't as physically intimidating as they used to be, which is what the younger contemptuous hoodlum Larry (Bill Burr) keeps telling them every time he sees them. But just because there's snow on the mountain top doesn't mean there's not fire down below. The characters played by Pacino, Arkin and Walken all take it to the limit one more time. They're old school. They do things the right way because they are indeed stand-up guys in a world where rules and class don't seem to matter any more.
The mobster Valentine (Pacino) has just been released from prison after doing a 28 year stint for an armed robbery in which at least one person was killed. Despite that, Val kept his mouth shut and did not rat out anyone else who was involved in the crime, most especially his friends the tired, depressed and less than debonair Doc (Christopher Walken) and the now asthmatic Hirsch (Alan Arkin). Doc looks every minute of his age and dresses it too. Val teases him about his "old man gin rummy" clothes.

Doc is Val's best friend. They go back together, way back. So Val is quite happy to see Doc and even happier to make a quick pit stop at the unassuming brothel run by the good natured Wendy (Lucy Punch). If there is such a thing as a hooker with a heart of gold that would be Wendy. She's taken over the business from her mother, who was friendly with Doc and Val. When, after some launch difficulties, Val is able to finally clear the pipes he notices that Doc is not as happy to see him as he should be. One of the people killed in the caper that sent Val to prison all those years ago was the son of Doc's and Val's boss, Claphands, (Mark Margolis-I remember him from Breaking Bad).
The permanently choleric Claphands blamed Val for his son's death but refused to have Val murdered in prison because he wanted him to suffer. Now that he's out Claphands wants him dead. And in the mob the best person to kill you is the person closest to you. Doc gets the order.

Both Val and Doc are angry about this but orders are orders. There's nothing for it except to break their wheelman Hirsch out of his nursing home and spend their last night together saving kidnapped women like Sylvia (Vanessa Ferlito), stealing cars, slow dancing with younger women in clubs, snorting Viagra, and slowly getting to know a friendly young waitress Alex (Addison Timlin) on whom Doc seems to have a fixation. But time is running out. Claphands wants Val dead by 10 AM or else. And even for the world that Val and Doc inhabit, Claphands is considered to be an especially vicious and totally unfeeling sort of gentleman. Disobeying a direct order from him is a sure ticket to the afterlife. Just irritating him is enough to get people quite worried about their immediate future.

This movie had a few cheap jokes, mostly around erectile dysfunction and priapism, but it's both a gentle comedy and a standard set action piece. It takes some turns you've mostly seen before and a couple you might not have. It has some things to say about friendship and honor. The ending is superb. You could say that Walken and Pacino could do these sorts of roles in their sleep and you'd probably be correct. But sometimes a familiar story is still a good story. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are classic for a reason. I liked this movie. YMMV. The soundtrack makes judicious use of old school soul and rock-n-roll. Julianna Margulies has a small role. Throughout the film you are reminded, as are the characters, that these are gangsters. They may be old. They don't have the strength they used to have. But a retired bada$$ is still a bada$$. Don't believe me? Just insult Doc in front of Val. You'll be surprised that an old man still has such an effective jab...
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