Gangster Squad

January 12, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”)
Written by: Will Beall (TV’s “Castle”)

As enjoyable as director Ruben Fleischer’s 2009 film “Zombieland” was (and to a lesser extent “30 Minutes or Less” in 2011), his foray into the criminal world of the 1940s with “Gangster Squad” is far from having the entertainment value a cast of this magnitude demands. It’s a glossed-over crime drama that feels like it’s been pulled straight from the Sunday funnies.

Hamming it up for the camera is two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn as gang leader and former boxer Mickey Cohen (an over-the-top role much like Al Pacino played in “Dick Tracy). If you need to know anything about Mickey, it’s that he owns everything in the Chicago area. You want guns? Go to Mickey. You want drugs? Mickey’s your man. You don’t play by the rules? Guess whose sending his tommy gun-toting goons to fill you with holes. Mickey.

On the right side of the law is Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who is given the task of recruiting a team of renegade police officers to do what very few lawmen would be brave enough to do: cross Mickey and his thugs and shut down his mob syndicate. Nevertheless, Sgt. O’Mara (with the help of his concerned wife, who “hand picks” the men she feels would best suit the job; a ridiculous notion) finds his men. They include Officers Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) and his right-hand man Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), the latter of whom has started to bed Mickey leading lady Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) because he can.

Aside from wishing it could be just as enticing as Brian De Palmas’ 1987 film “The Untouchables” (or any other acclaimed film in the genre of the last 75 years for that matter), “Gangster Squad” is not much more than a collection of talented actors playing dress up in their parent’s closet. Although the story based on true events, it’s diluted by Fleischer’s style-over-substance approach, which worked well in “Zombieland,” but not so much here. Will Beall’s screenplay also leaves much to be desired in character development. Each member of the skeleton crew Sgt. O’Mara fashions together is thinly-written.

What is a bit meatier, however, is Fleischer’s eye for ultra violence, which is bountiful throughout “Squad”  but ultimately gives the narrative minimal boost. If Fleischer and Beall focuses as much attention to the relationships and characters arcs as they did ripping a guy in half between two classic cars, “Gangster Squad” could’ve been a contender…at least in the amateur ranks.

Fair Game

November 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, David Andrews
Directed by: Doug Liman (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”)
Written by: Jez Butterworth (“The Last Legion”) and John-Henry Butterworth (debut)

Moviegoers on the more conservative side of the aisle might snicker when they hear others call “Fair Game” a fact-based political controversy about former CIA operative Valerie Plame, the internal leak ending her career in the agency, and the grand jury investigation that followed, but the film is compelling, thought-provoking cinema nonetheless.

For those who believe Plame’s memoir “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House,” from which the screenplay is adapted (along with her husband Joe’s book “The Politics of Truth”), “Fair Game” just might a maddening experience when you piece the narrative together.

“Fair Game,” directed by Doug Liman (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”), tells the story of Plame, whose identity as a member of the CIA is printed in a 2003 article of the Washington Post. Added to this disclosure of top secret information is the supposed reason behind it. Plame’s husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), who was sent to Africa to investigate a possible nuclear weapons deal between Niger and Iraq but found no evidence of such, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times degrading the George W. Bush Administration for invading Iraq and using the intelligence he gathered (in this case proved false) on his trip as a component of the motive for the attack.

Again, “Fair Game” is from one point of view, so depending on your politics (and depending if you judge a film based on those politics) the film might feel as fictional as a fairytale. Leave the politics off the table, however, and you’ll find an intelligent, well-written and sometimes heavy-handed account of the events that may or may not have taken place.

Aside from what went on inside the White House, “Fair Game” also examines the personal life of Plame and Wilson as their marriage is tested and professional careers are dragged through the mud during the ordeal. These elements of the film give a nice balance between the ugliness of the political world and what a controversy like this can actually do to a family.

Milk

December 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco
Directed by: Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”)
Written by: Dustin Lance Black (TV’s “Big Love”)

With all the governmental conspiracy in the news today (we’re finger wagging at you Gov. Blagojevich) and a blast-from-the-past take on the Richard Nixon scandal in the upcoming “Frost/Nixon,” a story of positive political effort is always welcomed even if the film ends on a tragic and all-too-real note.

The life of protagonist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn in an Oscar-worthy performance) in the biopic “Milk” is one of pain and rejection, but also one of perseverance and hope for a country caught in a social crossroads in the 1970s. The film, of course, becomes more prevalent today with the aftermath of Proposition 8 still looming in California causing the line between human rights and gay rights to blur more and more as both sides fight to define marriage.

In “Milk,” the Gay Movement is brought to the forefront through powerful storytelling and an interesting combination of narrative and old footage of news conferences, rallies, and the uprising of gay men and women through the streets of San Francisco.

Penn captures Milk’s essence in one of the best performances of the year. As Milk, he is able to skillfully develop the character between the different stages of his life – from a novice business owner to a gay rights activist to his election as a member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, a position that offered him a taller soap box to stand up on behalf of his fellow gay constituency.

While Penn is the virtuoso in this political opera, his supporting cast is just as riveting. As Milk’s first lover Scott Smith, James Franco (“Pineapple Express”) brings out the most human side of the larger-than-life politician. Franco’s affection for Harvey as a man and his affliction to understand him as a man of the people is valuable in seeing the entire picture. As Dan White, the man who ultimately ends up assassinating Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone (played by Victor Garber) in 1978, Josh Brolin is a complex character worthy of dissection. Between him and Franco, at least one of them should have an Oscar nomination come January.

It’s also great to see director Gus Van Sant ascend from his last three provoking albeit lesser-known films known as the “Death Trilogy” (“Gerry,” “Last Days” and “Elephant”). He goes a bit more mainstream in “Milk” but never bends in ways that are out of his element.

What Just Happened?

October 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Barry Levinson (“Man of the Year”)
Written by: Art Linson (debut)

When actors play themselves in movies, it can either go very well (John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich”) or seem too gimmicky (Julia Roberts as someone who looks like Julia Roberts in “Ocean’s 12”). It really depends on how the screenwriter decides to weave them into the story.

While most of these occurrences are edited down to quick and witty cameos (Tom Cruise playing himself playing Austin Powers in “The Spy Who Shagged Me” or Billy Idol playing himself in “The Wedding Singer”), “What Just Happens” decides to make it one of the cornerstones of its script, which falls flat after your realize screenwriter Art Linson is going to milk it as much as possible.

In all honesty, “What Just Happened” is a movie about a grizzly beard. The man behind the beard: Bruce Willis (played by Bruce Willis), who refuses to shave it before the production of his newest film much to the chagrin of Ben (Robert De Niro), the film’s producer.

Willis’ facial hair is only one of the many problems Ben has on his plate as a hard-working Hollywood producer. He also has his studio chief Lou (Catherine Keener) breathing down his neck after a test audience reacts negatively to Sean Penn’s new film, “Fiercely,” which needs to be re-edited for the Cannes Film Festival. Apparently, people don’t like when movies end with a beloved animal being gunned down point blank and left to twitch and die.

While “What Just Happened” plays on the absurdity of Hollywood and the cutthroats who live and work there, De Niro’s Ben never really expands any of these ideas to more than a few shouting matches and sessions with his shrink. Everyone is supposed to represent professionals in the industry, but Linson and director Barry Levinson deliver some surprisingly amateurish scenes. What’s happened to Levinson anyway? Since winning an Oscar for “Rain Man” and giving us gems like “The Natural” and “Good Morning Vietnam” in the 80s, he’s hit rock bottom with shockingly bad movies like “Envy,” “Bandits,” and “Man of the Year.” His last memorable film was “Wag the Dog” and that was 11 years ago.

There might be no business like show business, but in “What Just Happened” there’s nothing really interesting about what goes on behind the scenes of Hollywood’s most powerful players. It’s a cynical little piece that’s all talk and no action.