Gangster Squad (2013)

GANGSTER SQUAD

A dull, rehashed disappointment

I had read many damning reviews of ‘Gangster Squad’, however I was ready to accept it as mere pulp fiction, and during the opening 40 minutes or so, it seemed like I would be able to, but by the closing credits, I discovered it wasn’t even good enough for that.

The film tells the story, which is ‘inspired by real events’, of a covert group of tough police officers who endeavour to stop Mickey Cohen’s criminal activity encroaching on Los Angeles. Strangely, the film boasts a popular cast with the likes of Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Nick Nolte.

It establishes its characters and premise pleasingly enough, but ultimately it fails to deliver through a lack of humour, narrative baggage, clichés and a slew of boring stock characters. The film draws parallels with the infinitely superior ‘LA Confidential’, however there are more similarities with ‘The Expendables’, only without the laughs and nostalgia.

When it attempts to create even a slight portion of pathos, it’s baggy and dull; the film is bereft of any emotional weight whatsoever. The film operated more like a video game than a film, with its silly elaborate action scenes and Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) feeling like the ‘boss’ villain rather than a human character. Actually, that comparison isn’t fair on the gaming industry; I have played and completed ‘Mafia II’, which has far more in the way of developed characters and narrative.

The film’s sole interest is period style; substance and veracity aren’t its top priorities. What occurs on screen is pure fantasy; the extent of its historical accuracy doesn’t go far beyond the fact that there was once indeed a man named ‘Mickey Cohen’ who wasn’t particularly nice.

The allure of 1940s Hollywood and its strong cast will bring ‘Gangster Squad’ to the attention of many people, however it is a formulaic, mediocre and superficial rehashing of films such as ‘Chinatown’ and ‘L.A. Confidential’.

50%

Advertisements

Easy Rider (1969)

easyrider

‘Easy Rider’ is more of an artifact than a film

‘Easy Rider’ is unquestionably important, it’s a seminal film. It was a large contributing factor to the birth of ‘New Hollywood’, an era of burgeoning talent and art that produced many of the greatest films ever made. Easy Rider is a transgressive, political film; few creations have been so lauded for capturing the zeitgeist.

However, to a modern audience, I feel it’s more of an artifact than a film. To be frank, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I didn’t find it that interesting, it didn’t resonate with me that much. One connection it made with me was how it almost shattered that romanticised idea of riding the highways of America. Well, it didn’t shatter it, but it certainly shows the potential emptiness of the experience. However, I’d still love to drive around America, but I’d gladly ditch the spirituality for clean hotel rooms and nice corpulent plates of Americana. I’d also prefer a muscle car.

So, given its legacy, ‘Easy Rider’ is a hard film to judge. It would be ignorant of me to totally trash it, but I do think it’s overrated, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to casual viewers.

60%

The Guard (2012)

guard-1

A clichéd, dull and unfunny effort from the elder McDonagh brother.

Like many others would have done, I bought this film after seeing Martin McDonagh’s ‘In Bruges’, meaning that naturally I would be comparing the two throughout. Unfortunately for writer/director John McDonagh, Martin’s elder brother, ‘The Guard’ didn’t fare well. In fact, it lacks everything that made ‘In Bruges’ so excellent; it lacks the pathos, the taut script, the characters and crucially, it completely lacks the humour.

Leading the cast are Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle as two very clichéd stock characters. Gleeson is the foul-mouthed, maverick guard whilst Cheadle is the officious, straight-laced F.B.I agent – yes I know, how very boring. However, not only is this construct completely trite, it’s also very poorly executed. It follows the usual buddy cop formula unconvincingly, the lack of developments means you don’t believe in their relationship at all. The rest of the characters are also hollow, unremarkable and never even slightly funny.

I chuckled briefly only a few times, however they were contrived chuckles of desperation rather than genuine outbursts of laughter. I like dark, politically incorrect humour; however it’s all rather unsophisticated and adolescent here. This is in stark contrast with ‘In Bruges’, which continues to make me laugh on every viewing.

The script is messy, dull and consequently rather labourious to follow. The film sets up its premise, then a bunch of stuff happens, and then there is a bloody, almost slapstick denouement full of bad sound effects and comedic injuries which are just silly rather than funny.

Not only is this film massively inferior to ‘In Bruges’, it’s also a sorry instalment in the buddy-cop genre which, along with a slew of other turds, is rapidly stripping ’48-Hrs.’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’ of their originality.

45%

Django Unchained (2012)

samuel-l-jackson-django-unchained-closeup-16x9

Tarantino delivers another provocative and hugely entertaining film.

I love the sense of occasion a Tarantino film has, he’s in the lucky position of being one of the most popular and controversial directors of the past twenty years. Some may find him self-indulgent, but the merits of his energetic, funny and flamboyant films are undeniable; it’s fantastic that he is able to make such edgy blockbusters.

‘Django’, which is effectively a ‘buddy film’, charts the relationship between German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave Schultz rescues. Together they endeavour to save Django’s wife from the notorious ‘Candie Land’, a vast plantation owned by the ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The film has a great ensemble cast. Jamie Foxx makes the most of his character, who for the most part is a ‘man-with-no-name’ figure. He accomplishes Tarantino’s goal of ‘giving Black American males a Western hero’. DiCaprio successfully depicts Candie as a pompous pseudo-intellectual and at times a nasty piece of work, however the extent to which he brushes off barbed comments from Django surprised me, there were moments where I wondered if  he was menacing or authoritative enough.  Based on the great ‘Killer Joe’ (2012), I wondered how Matthew McConaughey would have performed the role, he could have steeped it in menace, but I doubt he could have achieved the risible ignorance of DiCaprio.

Christoph Waltz again showcases his talent here, but his character in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ gave him more scope to perform his ‘charming but deadly’ persona. Samuel L. Jackson completely transforms into the character of Stephen, who is Candie’s geriatric butler and the ultimate uncle tom. Jackson’s performance is my favourite, he’s both a tragic and very nasty figure. Tarantino himself appears in the later stages of the film with an Australian accent that ranges from being incoherent to not very Australian at all – thankfully it’s strictly a cameo.

There are laughs all the way through ‘Django’, a notable example being when slave owner ‘Big Daddy'(Don Johnson) attempts to explain to a slave how she should treat the newly liberated and somewhat respected Django – it completely ridicules the nonsensical, pernicious madness of racism.

I also found myself disregarding any form of moral compass and laughing heartily at the more cartoonish displays of violence. There is one particular scene that is a veritable bloodbath, seldom in the annals of celluloid has there been a moment more deserving of the term!

Some have criticised the film’s length, however I had little trouble with its 165 minute running time. There were indeed sections of the film, chiefly before and during the ‘Candie Land’ period, which could have been trimmed perhaps, however I was perfectly content.

The majority won’t be disappointed, the film has all the earmarks of a Tarantino film – he is the ultimate fan boy auteur. I can’t wait to see it again.

89%

Pulp Fiction (1994)

pulp-fiction-w1280

Pulp Fiction is a film with few flaws particularly worth mentioning. Since its release in 1994, the film has become a modern classic. The film’s non-linear narrative leaps backwards and forwards in the characters’ shared experience, engaging you in such a way that you begin to run through your head the chronology of the characters’ stories, making sense of Tarantino and Avary’s complex script. This complexity makes Pulp Fiction easily re-watchable. I have seen it many times, and recently I was lucky enough to catch a screening at the Duke of York’s Picturehouse in Brighton, which was an experience that reminded me of how special this film is.

‘Pulp Fiction’ explores the following principal characters: Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, a pair of loquacious hit men who appear to exist in a style vacuum; Butch Coolidge, an ageing but courageous prize fighter; Marsellus Wallace, a seemingly omnipotent mobster and Mia Wallace, the flirtatious wife of Mr. Wallace whom Vincent Vega is assigned to take out to dinner. The characters’ stories famously clash with each other, regularly to chaotic and hilarious effect. Tarantino is yet to return to this kind of form.

After ‘Jackie Brown’ in 1998, he spent time making the entertaining but comparably meagre ‘Kill Bill’ films, which were well orchestrated viscera, but ultimately below him. He then made ‘Death Proof’, which was an offensively bad, juvenile piece of work with a script of unprecedented annoyance. However, Tarantino made a comeback with ‘Inglourious Basterds’, which had a rather appealing premise and many memorable scenes. 2013 sees the launch of ‘Django Unchained’, which, with its ensemble cast and inevitable flair, is one of the most exciting films of the year.

‘Pulp Fiction’ has all the components of a classic, it has the scope and the quality. It is the favourite film of many people, achieving a popularity similar to other classic crime films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, films that are firmly considered as ‘required viewing’.

94%

Hard Candy (2005)

Image

The film’s tightly-wound tension is spoilt by another of Ellen Page’s irritating, arrogant performances and a variety of narrative issues and implausibilities

In every Ellen Page film I have seen, her character is an infuriatingly smug, precocious, androgynous pain in the arse, and ‘Hard Candy’ is no different. In fact, it’s worse, her painfully irritating screen presence is accentuated by her total dominance in the film, she’s even more unbearable than she was in the ironically titled ‘Super’. When I realised her performance was going in this familiar loathsome direction, I almost stopped watching it, but I found the strength to continue.

It started strongly, the first 20 minutes of ‘Hard Candy’ are genuinely creepy and unsettling, mostly because of the ambiguity of the situation. It’s also here that Ellen Page is actually very good, she’s natural and only adds to the tension, she can give likable performances after all. However, it swiftly descends into a stressful, frustrating ordeal of a film. My main problem with it was that throughout Hayley’s antagonisation of Jeff, he isn’t a confirmed paedophile or threat. Jeff is actually a character one can empathise with. He’s clearly morally dubious, he has crossed the line in his contact with Hayley, but he seems to realise this – ‘Look. I’ve been lonely, okay? And that makes me stupid, but I am not a paedophile.’ Is Jeff saying that as a way out? What were his intentions before things turned against him? I didn’t know, but his innocence seemed credible, which made the majority of the film seem to be unjustified, sadistic torture committed by an irrational, evil and maddeningly arrogant psychopath.

Another of the film’s problems is straightforward implausibility. 5ft 1 Ellen Page, who looks like she must weigh under 100lbs, somehow gets Patrick Wilson in all sorts of predicaments which are simply impossible. The film can just about convince us of her dexterity with rope, but not that she can support Wilson’s bodyweight to such a laughable extent. Though ‘Hard Candy’ is undeniably powerful and gripping, it is unfortunately spoilt by Ellen Page and narrative issues.

65%

Funny Games (1997)

funnygamesy

It’s condescending in its ill-judged commentary, but ‘Funny Games’ is an undeniably gripping and powerful film

‘Funny Games’ is one of the most provocative films I have ever seen, if not the most. Michael Haneke revisits themes of the media and desensitisation like he did in ‘Benny’s Video’, however this time Haneke is directly confronting his audience about the violence they supposedly watch with relish.

The antagonist of the film actually addresses the audience, asking ‘Don’t you want some plot development?’, ‘You’re on their side, aren’t you?’ He needlessly injects this nasty film with condescension and pretension, and none of it really works, Haneke only succeeds in appearing smug and self-righteous. Haneke has said that he makes the viewer an ‘accomplice’ of the murderers. No he doesn’t, not at all. Not once did I even begin to want to be an ‘accomplice’, the antagonists are some of the most wretched I’ve ever seen, it’s nonsense. During the evil mind games that the killers inflict on the family, I felt like them, a victim, not an ‘accomplice’. I, like any other viewer, was desperately hoping that the family could somehow escape their captors.

The ill-judged provocation climaxes in a scene where Haneke ‘manipulates’ the audience, making them ‘applaud’ violence; but applauding is a completely justified response to the scene, which, without giving anything away, concerns the maiming of a truly reprehensible character. If Haneke himself was in Anna and Georg’s situation, he’d be utterly liberated by what occurs; it is the film’s most self-righteous, hypocritical scene. It is obvious that violence can be used accordingly, it is sometimes a necessity, and this particular scene is the most appropriate use of violence imaginable.

The majority of the violence one witnesses in film and TV is far removed from reality, people are aware and afraid of the ugly, messy truth of violence, the films that ‘Funny Games’ tries to chastise serve only as harmless escapism. Haneke seems very pleased with this creation, but he shouldn’t be, this rather ambitious film falls flat, achieving in merely riling its audience, not holding a mirror to their faces.

Haneke seems to think he has the viewer in a vice-like grip, and he does, but certainly not in the way he thinks he does, which is ‘manipulating’ and exposing sick little voyeurs. Instead, he keeps the stranglehold on his audience through his skill of building excruciating tension to the point where the eventual violence, which is never gratuitous, is wholly more devastating.

It’s undeniably powerful, and the acting is unsettlingly excellent; it’s a thoroughly unpleasant, tortuous film. However, if you need reminding of the ugly reality of violence, there are many films out there that will deliver without the pretense.

65%