Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gangster Squad

Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Written by Will Beall and Paul Lieberman (book). Starring Sean Penn (Mikey Cohen), Ryan Gosling (Sgt. Jerry Wooters), Emma Stone (Grace Faraday), Josh Brolin (Sgt. John O'Mara).

Bottom line: Gosling's dreaminess isn't enough to save what becomes a "just another crime movie": it has been done before but, unfortunately, doesn't bring anything new to the table.
When I saw the trailer for Gangster Squad, I let out a sigh because I was torn. On one hand, I didn't want to dismiss what looked like a cookie cutter gangster movie and, on the other...well, it looked like a cookie cutter gangster movie. I suppose a good thing it had going for it (which was also a bad sign for the movie as a whole) was the presence of Ryan Gosling. I tried my best to dismiss my preconceived notions as I watched it (if, for no other reason, this review).

Gangster Squad is a movie that feels very much like it was adapted from a book and if a movie feels that way, you know something is up. It opens and closes with the same monologue, in the hopes, I suspect, to make a cinematic moment. Unfortunately, this fails because the rest of the movie fails. It feels more cliche than anything; a sentiment that accurately describes the movie.

I was discussing my thoughts with a friend recently and my bottom line was something along the lines of, why would I go see this movie when I could just as well see The Untouchables? Both are dealing with organized crime about the same time and the ramshackle team assembled by a hardworking honest cop (among other similarities which I will mention).

"What makes The Untouchables so different from Gangster Squad," I was asked. Is The Untouchables such a ground breaking film? Heavens no, it is a simple action movie. It feels a little sophomoric to say "Well, the action in The Untouchables was better which makes it a better movie." After all, big explosions does not a good movie make. So, let me think about why this type of formula is good in one instance and not the other.

Consider, the main henchman, he is a big guy with a scarred white eye. He becomes a video game mini-boss by pulling out duel tommy guns. This, I believe is an indication of why Gangster Squad isn't successful. I mentioned above that The Untouchables had better action, not more, but better. There is substance which Gangster Squad lacks. Take the famous train station scene in The Untouchables as an example. A criminal is holding the key witness hostage. Holding the gun to the witness' head, the criminal yell 'The accountant and I are getting in a car and are driving away. On the count of three, I am going to blow him away.' A cop suddenly lets out a single shot to kill the criminal. The focus is not on the shot itself but the significance of that single shot. Gangster Squad emphasizes gun fights and we lose sight of the point. It feels like there is a fear that without massive gun battles, the audience would be disinterested and it cheapens the experience.

Overall, Gangster Squad isn't anything to write home about. It's like having the choice between a McDonald's cheeseburger or a well-made burger. Gangster Squad isn't new nor is it even good at being cliche. Pass on this and see something worthwhile.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gone In 60 Seconds

Written, Directed, Starring (and Produced by) H.B Halicki (Maindrian Pace/Vicinski). Also Starring Marion Busia (Pumkin Chase), Jerry Daugirda (Eugene Chase), James McIntyre (Stanley Chase)

Bottom Line: Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) is a car chase movie if there ever was one. It aims to create the experience of driving fast and does so beautifully.

In Quentin Taurantino’s Death Proof a couple of stunt drivers are trading car stories over lunch. Each mentions their dream cars. One of the top picks, I believe, is the 1971 Ford Mustang Fastback from Gone in 60 Seconds (“The 1974 version, of course, not any of that Angelina Jolie bull----“). Up to this point, my experience with Gone in 60 Seconds was, indeed, only with the 2000 remake starring Nicholas Cage. I have a soft spot in my heart for Nicholas Cage so I’ve always had a fondness for that movie. Now, I won’t be getting into a discussion about the merits of the remake or of Cage’s acting ability; I’ll save those topics for later. At the moment, I will look at the original Gone in 60 Seconds but I will do so a little differently than my previous reviews.

I normally start out with basic plot synopsis and then move onto parts that stick out to me most. I try to touch on some of the major topics about the movie, though I feel have a tendency to dwell on plot and characters. If I followed this outline here, I would be missing the point of the movie. Simply put, Gone in 60 Seconds is 70’s car porn if ever there was such a thing.

What does this mean? We are supposed to be watching for the cars and the car chases (not the plot). The introduction exemplifies the experience of this movie. We watch an unknown driver cruising down an empty morning road. In another movie, I would expect to see a shot of the steering wheel with the driver’s hands followed by a shot of his eyes before cutting to his jaw as he lights a cigarette. We don’t know anything about this man but he is the first person we see so he must be important. He steps out the car and we finally meet our hero. Now, in this case, the focus is away from the driver and on the car.

We see a shot over the hood to get a sense of the speed at which he drives. A couple super long shots capture the vehicle it flies down the road. We see the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror: the driver is integrated into the car itself. Alongside these images, the initial text appears on screen. The most telling credit is “Starring name Eleanor”. Eleanor, as we will learn, is the code name for a 1971 Ford Mustang Fastback. Even more interesting is that this is really the only credit in the start of the movie so the car itself takes center stage.

Story-wise, we follow a family of car thieves (who also work as insurance claim agents) get a job from some Argentinian gangsters to steal forty high-end cars. To give the heroes a Robin Hood tone, they only steal cars which have insurance (so the Man has to pay for a replacement). This also comes into play when the crew realizes that the “Eleanor” they stole didn’t have insurance. Nobody wants to steal from a nice, little old lady so they find another one. The police get wind of the theft and stake out the location. Cue a 40 minute chase scene. Just like that, by summarizing it as “a chase scene”, it is easy to dismiss what makes this movie so much fun.

I had always looked at a car chase as a bunch of fast cuts, screeching tires, a flipped over car here, a smashed police car there and then the hero arrives at his destination. Gone in 60 Seconds made me realize what I was missing. Instead of a bunch of tight city streets, we ride through on the highways and interstates across California. Long cuts of super long shots are intermixed with the camera on the hood of the car: the sound and power of the car is featured. Consequently, there is a noticeable and interesting effect on the style of the chase. The flow and sensation of speed create the excitement instead of quick cuts.

Overall, I would say that Halicki captured the experience of a car more than anything I have ever seen. The plot is nonexistent but, again, it doesn’t matter because our attention is elsewhere. I’d highly recommend this movie simply to experience a really good chase sequence just like I would recommend Enter the Dragon for the fight scenes.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Directed by Pete Travis. Written by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Alex Garland. Starring Karl Urban (Judge Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (Anderson), Lena Headey (Ma-Ma).

Bottom line: Really pretty but really disappointing if you expect anything other than veritable visual masturbation. If you want a Dredd-like experience, see the original (at least it has a sense of humor about itself).

The hour and thirty-five minute movie opens with a view of the 31st century dystopia that is Earth. Megacity stretches from Boston to D.C. Massive, two hundred story apartment blocks tower into the sky in an attempt to accommodate over-population. Violence and poverty run rampant. What is the first and last defense for society? Judges: the police, judge and executioner in one. Sound pretty groovy, right? If only the execution was little more than half decent.

This new remake of the ’95 Stallion flick Judge Dredd is much like the remake of Total Recall; it is edgier, sleeker and modern…and bad. It surprised me how much it reminded me of my experience watching Total Recall. When I watched that, I went back and re-watched the original just to make sure I wasn’t crazy in saying that it didn’t do Schwarzenegger justice (a sentiment the original confirmed).

In much the same way, I went ahead and watched the original. In this case, I had never actually seen Judge Dredd. What I saw was a picture perfect example of the mid-90’s: bright colors over big costumes, spandex, a goofy side-kick (Rob Schneider), super-beefy hero and villain and corny one liners.

I don’t want to base my review on a comparison between the original and the remake because, after all, they are independent movies. I did want to how the original stood up against my objections to the remake. That is, maybe I was disagreeing with a fundamental part of the Judge Dredd comic. For example, what if I didn’t like his helmet? The helmet, for the most part, comes with the territory of the character so it would have less of an impact on the film. Now, let’s say, the remake has some gratuitous sex that the original lacks, I would hold this film accountable for this individual poor choice.

Another reason why I wanted to see the original was to compare the plots of the two and think about the changes. In the original, Dredd is the best “street judge” in the city. He is a living legend until he is arrested for murder. Plot twist (and an almost twenty year old spoiler alert) he was actually part of a secret cloning project and his evil clone committed the murder to frame him.

The remake unfolds as follows. Dredd is told to take a rookie judge, Anderson (Thirlby), out for an assessment to see if she has what it takes to be a judge. What they expect to be a routine triple homicide/drug-bust turns out to be an all-out war with the city’s largest drug-gang.

The drug in question is a new one called Slo-Mo. It makes the user “experience reality at 1/1000% of normal speed”. What does this make me think of? Weed. We aren’t as concerned with the concept of cloning as we are with drugs nowadays. The interesting (and frustrating) part is the movie’s stance. This is a new drug. It is so new, Megacity’s best Judge, Dredd, hasn’t even heard of it. Nothing about it has been tested but it is assumed to be bad. This is all fine and dandy. Take an anti-Mary J stance.
Now, throughout the movie, we sit through a number of really sparkly, really pretty slow-motion sequences. (I could only imagine how cool they look in 3D)

Hold the phone. I thought this drug was bad. I thought this drug was so bad, its use warrants a five-year, solitary confinement prison sentence. All these drug users are doing is sitting on the couch (or in their sober-friend’s car) and getting high. There isn’t any second hand smoke. They only side effect, is a burning of the inner lips. By all accounts, drinking alcohol sounds more destructive! On top of that, why is the drug so pretty!? These junkies (though, honestly, no one is aware of the how addictive this drug is) think the visuals are pretty. I think the visuals are pretty. So what’s the deal with this ‘only when it is convenient’ relationship with slo-mo? Let’s talk about the Judges next.

We never hear much about Dredd. We never even see his face. We hear him speak like Bale-Batman but don’t know much about him. We don’t hear much about the rookie cop either. I dig it. This is one of the things that I liked about this movie. Let me just accept a character as a fact and move on with the story. He is an infamous Judge? Fine. Good. Where is he going today? She is a rookie and a powerful psychic? Fine. Cool. Where is she going today? Even the villain’s back story is pleasantly concise. The film has my time and attention for max, two hours and it wants to spend a quarter of it just setting the stage? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Anderson is a woman who wants to be a judge to help society. There is crime and unemployment and she wants to clean up the streets for the good of everyone. In the future, there are mutants with psychic powers. Unlike the rest of them, who are deformed and weak psychics, she is beautiful and powerful and based on her rational she has pure intent. She is childlike and the more rational counter to Dredd’s coldly justice dealing character. She is also unfortunately unsurprisingly sexualized.

At one point, a criminal asks,” What am I thinking of now?” Cut to a “violent sexual liaison between the two of us,” she replies, “in a pointless attempt to shock me”. He then says, “No. That wasn’t to shock you. If I wanted to shock you, I’d think of this”. We see her look of shock before she punches him but we don’t get to see what he was thinking.

What could the movie do? If it simply removed the images of her being raped, and kept the dialog we would’ve still been prompted to imagine it. At the same time, if they are trying to be so gritty, why not show us what actually shocked her. After all, we’ve already seen people getting skinned alive. This way the movie would’ve been consistently dark. It is just like the drug thing; it is convenient to spice things up with a little sex so the shot is included. Even though none of this is surprising, as I mentioned above, it’s still disappointing. The original, I might add, didn’t have any sex or nudity. I believe the worst it got was with a chick-fight at the end.

Maybe I am asking too much of a high budget, blockbuster sci-fi movie. Even though there is a wealth of material in the comic’s almost thirty-plus year existence. Even if they wanted to do an anti-drug film, that’s alright with me as long as there is something thought provoking. We are left with a lackluster action movie. Is it enough to watch it just for the sake of the action? There are better ways to spend an hour and a half, and better movies to see.