Cinema Review: Gangster Squad

 

DIR: Ruben Fleischer • WRI: Will Beall • PRO: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross• DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert • DES: Maher Ahmad • CAST: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi

It’s quite obvious a significant level of effort was put into the production of Gangster Squad. A crack team of award-winning and well-regarded actors were persuaded to take part – whether through artistic or financial motivations we will never know. Considerable energy, both practical and computer generated, has been put into evoking 1949 Los Angeles. After principal photography had wrapped, Warner Bros. made the not insignificant decision to get everyone back together for expensive reshoots when a key ‘cinema shootout’ sequence drew unfortunate parallels with the Aurora massacre. So yes: time and money was undoubtedly spent getting Gangster Squad into theatres. Shame the script didn’t really deserve the effort.

 

The set up, supposedly inspired by true events: determined LAPD sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) is ordered by his chief (Nick Nolte) to set up a secret ‘guerrilla’ squad to take down increasingly powerful (and real-life) gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). O’Mara pulls together a team including an old gun (Robert Patrick), the old gun’s young protégée (Michael Pena), a tough but virtuous beat cop (Anthony Mackie) and a tech-head / family man (Giovanni Ribisi). There’s also Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who happens to be having an affair with Cohen’s moll Grace (Emma Stone). Can O’Mara save L.A. from corruption, while fulfilling his promise to his pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) to not get himself killed?

 

Here’s the thing: every time a character is introduced, every time a seemingly throwaway line of dialogue is given that little extra emphasis, every time the classic three-act structure requires a very particular plot development… you know exactly what’s coming next. Gangster Squad is lacking in the element of surprise, and Will Beall’s script is derivative to an absolute fault. There’s nothing you haven’t experienced before, often in vastly superior form. Given the film’s deep debt to countless film noir and gangster films past, some degree of familiarity is to be expected, but this is simply lazy. A surprisingly brutal duo of opening sequences tease that we’re in hard-boiled territory. Alas, everything that follows is soft and runny, right through to an unconvincingly sunny side up ending. The film taunts that it might probe the moral ambiguity of the increasingly unhinged police at the centre of the tale, but they are mere taunts. Those looking for character development, despair: Gangster Squad is not the motion picture you seek (although Enos as O’Mara’s wife is allowed to be a tad more proactive than might be expected from such a potentially thankless role).

 

Pitifully formulaic though it may be, it also passes the time without great offense being caused (ludicrously high ‘generic gangster’ body count aside). The cast have all done better, but no one embarrasses themselves, so hooray there. Director Ruben Fleisher’s direction isn’t anything to write home about, but the film is tightly paced with little waste. The action set pieces, barring some uneven attempts at slo-mo stylisation, are diverting, particularly an amusing prison breakout sequence. And while the film could hardly be accused of being the most intoxicating period drama ever made, mid twentieth century L.A. is evoked well enough through period detail and era-appropriate soundtrack choices.

 

So Gangster Squad is the dictionary definition of ‘alright’ then – passes the time, but near instantly forgettable due to its formulaic writing. Hollywood has produced worse films about Hollywoodland, but its also made much better.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

112 mins

Gangster Squad is released on 11th January 2013

Gangster SquadOfficial Website

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Cinema Review: This Must Be the Place

Droopy Plays Guitar

DIR: Paolo Sorrentino • WRI: Umberto Contarello, Paolo Sorrentino • PRO: Francesca Cima, Nicola Giuliano, Andrea Occhipinti, Mario Spedaletti • DOP: Luca Bigazzi • ED: Cristiano Travaglioli • DES: Stefania Cella • Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson

Over the last 10 years Paolo Sorrentino has emerged as one of the greatest of a new generation of European filmmakers. Through films such as The Consequences of Love and his political biopic, and opus, Il Divo, he has proven himself a master of stylish editing and perhaps the finest conjurer of perfectly framed imagery currently in the business.

Because of the praise hurled at him at Cannes and elsewhere, the pressure is on Sorrentino now with his new film This Must Be the Place, his English-language debut. And while it may not be the film that many hoped for, it is, unquestionably, a Sorrentino picture.

The new film stars Sean Penn (who practically demanded Sorrentino cast him in his next project after seeing Il Divo at Cannes in 2008) as an aging former rockstar, hiding from life and responsibilities in Dublin. Cheyenne, equal measures Boy George and The Cure’s Robert Smith, is a man living in the past; he still dresses as he did in his heyday, refusing to grow up, spending his time with friends half his age (if not literally, then emotionally stilted like himself). His character is complex, simultaneously wise and childlike, unable to take responsibility in his own life yet too eager to take it in the lives of others.

Like Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy, Cheyenne lives off royalties and does next to nothing with his days. His identity crisis is compounded when his elderly father falls ill, and he must return to the US for the first time in decades to face his past. But it is his father’s past he must come to terms with, as he becomes the heir to his father’s lifelong search – to find the man who terrorised him at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The film takes a wide turn as Cheyenne treks across America in search of this ancient Nazi, finding an idea of himself along the way.

The story of the film is troubled; plot threads in the film’s first (Irish) act are abandoned as the action moves Stateside, and the Nazi-hunting aim feels tacked on, Sorrentino doesn’t seem to care for this in the same way he does about Cheyenne, or feel the same anger he did over the political corruption on display in Il Divo. But that aside, this is a masterful production. Sorrentino’s use of evocative editing, punchy and unexpected musical cues and breathtaking, sometimes puzzling imagery leaves the likes of Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn in his dust.

From the moment the camera pans down the glacial facade of Dublin’s Aviva Stadium into the relative squalor of a grey Sandymount cul-de-sac, you know you’re in for a visual treat. Sorrentino may be the first filmmaker to find real beauty in modern Dublin. Similarly, his wide, endless shots of American Midwest reveal wonders the likes of which have not been caught on camera since Wim Wenders made Paris, Texas.

There are plenty of delights to be found throughout Cheyenne’s strange odyssey. Kitsch Americana abounds. The strangest of strangers are met, calling to mind the films of the Coen Brothers, littered with their brief, memorable eccentrics. Talking Heads legend David Byrne shows up to dispense advice to Cheyenne and unleash a hypnotic performance of the film’s title track. Harry Dean Stanton, another link to Paris, Texas, appears as a man who claims to have invented the wheeled suitcase.

Frances McDormand puts in a fine performance as Cheyenne’s devoted wife, but with so much of the musician’s history left unexplained, it’s hard to not feel like we’re missing something required to fully understand their relationship. Admirable support is offered up by Judd Hirsch and Kerry Condon, but this is really Sean Penn’s moment in the sun. Playing a character so utterly against type that most of his previous characters would probably want him dead, Penn conjures something familiar and yet confusingly new. He delivers profound, witty, lively comments from the mouth of this zombified goth, and brings surprising depth to a character who borders so precariously on parody.

While the film’s abandoning of its Irish storyline reeks of a bid for tax breaks, there’s no denying a wonderful work of art has been produced here. Sadly, it is not entirely a satisfying one, and the film’s concluding on a number of overly puzzling sequences leaves a sour taste in the mouth unbecoming of what has gone before.

While not the director’s finest work, it is still a noteworthy film, and should launch him swiftly on the international market, while reigniting the career of its star.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
This Must Be the Place is released on 23rd March 2012

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Irish feature competes for Palme d’Or

This year, the Cannes programme will see an Irish co-production competing for the coveted Palme d’Or. Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place, starring Sean Penn and Francis McDormand was filmed in Ireland and was developed with Irish company, Element Pictures.

The film tells the story of a bored, retired rock star who sets out to find his father’s executioner – an ex-Nazi war criminal who is a refugee in the U.S.

The Cannes Film Festval will take place 11–22 May 2011. For more information on the line up visit www.festival-cannes.com

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Fair Game

Fair Game

Dir: Doug Liman • WRI: Jez Butterworth, John Henry Butterworth • PRO: Doug Liman, Jez Butterworth, Akiva Goldsman, William Pohlad, Jerry Zucker, Janet Zucker • ED: Christopher Tellefsen • DOP: Doug Liman • DES: Jess Gonchor • Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, David Andrews, Noah Emmerich

Alas, my heart sank when I realized that the film I was about to see was not a remake of the 1995 forgotten Cindy Crawford-William Baldwin classic but a in fact change of pace low-key political drama from the go to high concept action film-maker of the past decade, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr & Mrs Smith) focusing on the Plame Affair, one of the key scandals in recent American political history. in which Valerie Plame was exposed as a covert CIA Intelligence operative by a Washington post columnist in 2003 due to leaks from officials of the Dubya administration thus compromising her job and her career.

As the film opens, Plame (Naomi Watts) is heading up the CIA’s Counter-proliferation department in Iran, establishing contacts and intelligence within the region in order to control and prevent the distribution and manufacturing of weapons thus minimizing or neutralizing any possible foreign threats to US soil. After being asked to head up an investigation into the possible sale of uranium to Iraq by Niger, her colleagues suggest the involvement of Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) in determining the truth of the allegations.

Wilson visits Niger and comes to the conclusion that no transaction had ever occurred between the two states but after the US invasion of Iraq in early 2003, he writes a column entitled ‘What I Didn’t Find in Africa’ in which he suggests that the Bush administration ignored or twisted the facts in order to exaggerate the threat presented by Saddam Hussein and justify an all out campaign of war against the Iraqi regime. In response, information is leaked by Bush officials to a journalist at the Washington Post, Plame is mentioned as an ‘agency operative’, thus exposing her as a CIA agent, compromising her intelligence and effectively ending her career. In effect, the government illegally executes an insidious smear campaign in order to discredit Wilson’s findings and deflect attention away from the Iraq War.

Liman’s film centres primarily on Plame and Wilson’s relationship as they go through their personal ordeal and presents a believable geo-political backdrop on a relatively tight budget with Liman being forced to use real news footage of events rather than recreating them wholesale although this could also be functioning as an effective strategy in keeping the audience involved rather than jarring them out of film’s version of the truth.

On a technical level, Fair Game is solidly put together, acted and directed with little of the flashy moves Liman has brought to his larger budget efforts as he adopts a low key approach throughout, submitting to the narrative and letting the intrinsic dramatic strength of the events pull the audience in. Or at least I assume that was his intention. In this reviewer’s case, as much as I admired the films level of craft – an artful artlessness if that’s possible – there was a certain urgency or energy lacking in Fair Game that was hard to put my finger on.

Watts and Penn, two fine actors portray Plame and Wilson with minimal histrionics, putting across their intelligence, integrity and love for each other, they never come across as particularly compelling or unique protagonists. Obviously, with a film based on a true story, adhesion to the facts and respectfulness towards those alive or dead is expected but here our main characters came across as mainly worthy and slightly dull with a storyline and rhythm that hum along at a comfortable speed with ever shifting up a gear.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a compelling story and it is one that was vital in exposing the degree of lawlessness that existed within Bush’s government at the time but when compared with other fact based Washington thrillers such as Alan J Pakula’s riveting All The President’s Men, Liman seems merely content to only present us with the facts and very few frills. He is fair minded in his approach, liberal it would seem; never fully committing to a point of view with the final result being a sleek showroom car lacking the fuel or fire to take it that extra mile it would need to burn in the memory.

Derek Mc Donnell

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Fair Game
is released on 11th March 2011

Fair Game – Official Website

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Milk

DIR: Gus Van Sant • WRI: Dustin Lance Black • PRO: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Michael London • DOP: Harris Savides • ED: Elliot Graham • DES: Bill Groom • CAST: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco

It seems inevitable that every year cinemagoers will be confronted with a prestigious biopic, complete with a heavily lauded central performance and awards galore. La Vie en Rose, Walk the Line, Ray, A Beautiful Mind, etc. have all come and collected their Academy Awards®, now it is the turn of Milk.

Milk tells the true story of the first openly gay man to be voted into American public office in 1977, Harvey Milk. Those hoping that the film’s divisive director, Gus Van Sant, would abandon the usual confinements of the Hollywood biopic may well be disappointed, as the narrative sticks to the usual tale of a down-on-their-luck hero overcoming his/her adversity to reach his/her goal in an unprecedented manner. While this goes some way to harming the authenticity of the story, it grants the often-aloof director the opportunity to express himself in a more universal manner, resulting in a highly engaging and entertaining film.

There is no surprise that Sean Penn delivers a wonderfully human and magnetic performance in the title role, or that he is supported by a solid ensemble cast, yet the casualness with which these mainly – and often overtly – homosexual characters are presented is incredibly uncharacteristic in such Hollywood fare, and should be applauded (and undoubtedly will be, especially in light of California’s recent Proposition 8 debate echoing the 1978 Proposition 6 debate depicted in Milk). This refreshingly casual approach lends the film a heart, something that is so often neglected in such a conventional biopic. It grounds Milk’s achievements with his love for life, for people, for freedom and is most crucially utilised in the depiction of Milk’s long-term relationship with Scott Smith (as played with delicate poignancy by James Franco). It is this relationship that transforms the closeted, lonely Milk we meet at the start, into the charismatic, fun and optimistically persistent politician who has since become recognised as one of the most significant public figures of the twentieth century. And who will continue to entertain, charm and inspire through this cinematic offering.

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What Just Happened



DIR: Barry Levinson • WRI: Art Linson • PRO: Mark Cuban, Robert De Niro, Art Linson, Jane Rosenthal • DOP: Stéphane Fontaine • ED: Hank Corwin • DES: Stefania Cella • CAST: Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, Bruce Willis, Micheal Wincott

Barry Levinson and Robert De Niro reunite in this complicated story, which retells two weeks in the life of a stressed and strained Hollywood producer. De Niro stars as Ben, a Hollywood producer who struggles to balance both his personal and professional life, both of which are cluttered with conflict and confrontation. At the beginning of the story, De Niro announces prophetically ‘Power. You have it, want it, or are afraid to lose it.’ This is the basic premise of the film, as Ben struggles to retain power in every relationship in which he is involved. The film features several subplots, in each of which Ben is required to fulfil another role. As a father, lover, counsellor and professional, Ben is constantly pandering to other people’s needs.

Ben’s first test of sanity comes in the guise of his latest release, Fierce, which has all the makings of a box-office flop, due to its edgy ending, which leaves test audiences in tears of pain. Studio Chief Lou (Catherine Keener) forces Ben to deal with his eccentric director (Micheal Wincott), who, along with Sean Penn (as himself), is struggling to resist conforming to generic Hollywood storylines.

On the other hand, Ben is instructed by another studio to ensure that Bruce Willis (who stars as himself) shaves his beard, which he is flatly refusing to do. These trivial and exhausting tasks take up the majority of Ben’s daily life, leaving him drained and constantly playing catch-up. On top of his confusing professional life is his personal life, where Ben has to balance two ex-wives and three kids. Ben’s life almost exhausts the viewer as much as it does him. He evokes a great deal of empathy from the viewer as he comes across as a decent and genuine man, caught up in a web of insider politics and complicated relationships. The performances are believable and strong, with Willis mocking his own stature as one of Hollywood’s most famous actors. De Niro is convincing as the seasoned producer, whose age is beginning to show some of his limitations and weaknesses.

Levinson has explored the theme of the darker side of Hollywood before, in Jimmy Hollywood (1994), but this time injects his creation with a harsh sense of reality. Ben is never recognised for all of his work, and every character we encounter suffers from some deep-rooted sense of unhappiness or longing for another life. The film does give a good impression of the less than glamorous lifestyle which is hidden by the thin veneer of Hollywood glitz and glamour. What it really comes down to is how many favours you can collect from the people with the power.

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