Cinemax Friday: Tactical Assault (1998, directed by Mark Griffiths)


War does strange things to people.

Captain Doc Holiday (Rutger Hauer!) was a damn good air force pilot until 1991.  During the Gulf War, he snapped and tried to shoot down a civilian airline that was flying over Iraqi airspace.  The only thing that stopped Holiday from committing a crime against humanity was his best friend, Capt. Lee Banning (Robert Patrick!!).  Banning fired on Holiday, shooting down his plane.  As a result, while Banning’s been moving up the ranks, Holiday has spent the last six years in an Iraqi POW camp.

By the time Holiday gets out, Banning is now a colonel and he’s married.  His wife (Isabel Glasser) is pregnant.  Banning seems to have everything he could want but he’s haunted by guilt over what happened to Holiday.  He arranges for Holiday to be assigned to his unit and tries to make amends.  Unfortunately, for Banning and his wife, Holiday holds a grudge and he’s played by Rutger Hauer so you know he’s not going to let things go anytime soon.

Is Tactical Assault worth tracking down?  It’s a low budge action movie that stars not only Robert Patrick but also Rutger Hauer so the answer should be obvious.  Of course it’s worth tracking down!  Robert Patrick and Rutger Hauer were direct-to-video film gods and putting them in the same movie is like getting the ghosts of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson to all star in an afterlife production of Macbeth.  Along with being convincing in action scenes, both Robert Patrick and Rutger Hauer could actually act so there’s a little more more depth to Tactical Assault than just Top Gun-style dogfights.  Of course, if all you’re looking for is Top Gun-style dogfights, Tactical Assault has got you covered.  This is a movie that understands that some things can only be settled in the sky.

Finally, the main reason you should see Tactical Assault is because it has a scene where Rutger Hauer chases Robert Patrick … in a tank!  It doesn’t get much better than that!

The Things You Find On Netflix: The Laundromat (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


To say that Meryl Streep gives a bad performance in The Laundromat actually does a disservice to your average, run-of-the-mill bad performance.

Meryl Streep instead gives an absolutely terrible performance in The Laundromat, playing not one, not two, but three characters.  One of the characters is Ellen Martin, a middle-class widow from Michigan whose attempts to collect a fair settlement after the death of her husband provides a portal in the world of shady con men and corrupt financial institutions.  One of the characters is a secret, which means that Meryl wears a lot of make-up and frumpy clothes.  That said, from the minute the character appeared on screen, I went, “Oh, there’s Meryl again.”  Then, in her third role, Meryl plays herself, demanding campaign finance reform and striking a Statue of Liberty pose while holding a hairbrush instead of a torch.

Really, it’s the type of horrendous performance that could only be delivered by a truly great actress.  (If Meryl Streep is the modern Norma Shearer, this is her Romeo and Juliet.)  Watching Meryl Streep play the role of Ellen, It occurred to me that Meryl is one of those actresses who is incapable of being authentic but who can certainly act the Hell out of pretending to be authentic.  You never forget that Meryl Streep is acting and that’s one reason why her best performances are usually the ones where she’s playing theatrical characters, whether they’re politicians like Margaret Thatcher, celebrities like Julia Child, or the Witch in Into the Woods.  But when you cast Meryl as someone who is basically supposed to be a member of the “common people,” it just doesn’t work.  Laura Dern, Laurie Metcalf, Allison Janney, even Annette Bening probably could have done a decent job playing Ellen Martin but Meryl is just too Meryl.  As for her other two performances in The Laundromat, they don’t work because one is meant to be a joke on the audience and the other is just a retread of her standard “I’m just a middle class woman from New Jersey and I love the little people” awards show speech.

Of course, The Laundromat itself is a remarkably bad film.  Again, it takes a lot of talent to make a film this bad.  Watching the film, I found myself wondering why, at this point in his celebrated career, Steven Soderbergh would decide to become a second-rate Adam McKay, especially when McKay himself is just a third-rate Jean-Luc Godard?  The film is structured so that, while Ellen is obsessing on why she’s getting screwed over by the insurance companies, we’re also treated to scenes of Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas talking directly to the camera and explaining to use why the poor are always going to get screwed over by the rich.  That’s probably true but the film gets so heavy-handed in its execution that the resulting migraine is going to be due less to outrage and more due to the sledgehammer that Soderbergh takes to your head.

Along with Ellen’s story, we also get to see several other stories featuring people and their money.  Jeffrey Wright is a crooked accountant who has two families.  And then there’s an African businessman who bribes his wife and daughter with shares in a non-existent company and then we take a trip to China, where we learn about cyanide and organ harvesting. And yes, I get it.  It shows how a crime committed in China is ultimately felt by a widow living in Michigan.  But one can’t help but wish that Soderbergh had just focuses on one story, instead of trying to imitate the worst moments of The Big Short.

Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are technically playing the film’s villains but they’re both so charming that The Laundromat at times seems like more of a recruiting film for aspiring money launderers than anything else.  (To continue the Adam McKay comparison, it’s a bit like how Vice actually left audiences feeling sympathy for Dick Cheney as opposed to writing petitions to send to The Hague.)  It desperately wants to leave us outraged but Soderbegh gets so caught up in his own cutesy storytelling techniques that it just leaves us feeling somewhat annoyed.  Watching the film, one gets the feeling that the perfect directors for The Laundromat would have been the Coen Brothers, who are capable of outrage but whose detached style would have kept them from bludgeoning the audience with it.  Soderbergh is too angry to be effective.

As I said, there’s a lot of talented people involved in The Laundromat.  It’s full of people who have done great work in the past and who will do great work in the future.  As for The Laundromat, it’s a legitimate contender for the biggest disappointment of the year.

Stallone Acts: Cop Land (1997, directed by James Mangold)


Garrison, New Jersey is a middle class suburb that is known as Cop Land.  Under the direction of Lt. Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), several NYPD cops have made their home in Garrison, financing their homes with bribes that they received from mob boss Tony Torillo (Tony Sirico).  The corrupt cops of Garrison, New Jersey live, work, and play together, secure in the knowledge that they can do whatever they want because Donlan has handpicked the sheriff.

Sheriff Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone) always dreamed of being a New York cop but, as the result of diving into icy waters to save a drowning girl, Freddy is now deaf in one ear.  Even though he knows that they are all corrupt, Freddy still idolizes cops like Donlan, especially when Donlan dangles the possibility of pulling a few strings and getting Freddy an NYPD job in front of him.  The overweight and quiet Freddy spends most of his time at the local bar, where he’s the subject of constant ribbing from the “real” cops.  Among the cops, Freddy’s only real friend appears to be disgraced narcotics detective, Gary Figgis (Ray Liotta).

After Donlan’s nephew, Murray Babitch (Michael Rapaport), kills two African-American teenagers and then fakes his own death to escape prosecution, Internal Affairs Lt. Moe Tilden (Robert De Niro) approaches Freddy and asks for his help in investigating the corrupt cops of Garrison.  At first, Freddy refuses but he is soon forced to reconsider.

After he became a star, the idea that Sylvester Stallone was a bad actor because so universally accepted that people forgot that, before he played Rocky and Rambo, Stallone was a busy and respectable character actor.  Though his range may have been limited and Stallone went through a period where he seemed to always pick the worst scripts available, Stallone was never as terrible as the critics often claimed.  In the 90s, when it became clear that both the Rocky and the Rambo films had temporarily run their course, Stallone attempted to reinvent his image.  Demolition Man showed that Stallone could laugh at himself and Cop Land was meant to show that Stallone could act.

For the most part, Stallone succeeded.  Though there are a few scenes where the movie does seem to be trying too hard to remind us that Freddy is not a typical action hero, this is still one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances.  Stallone plays Freddy as a tired and beaten-down man who knows that he’s getting one final chance to prove himself.  It helps that Stallone’s surrounded by some of the best tough guy actors of the 90s.  Freddy’s awkwardness around the “real” cops is mirrored by how strange it initially is to see Stallone acting opposite actors like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta.  Cop Land becomes not only about Freddy proving himself as a cop but Stallone proving himself as an actor.

The film itself is sometimes overstuffed.  Along with the corruption investigation and the search for Murray Babitch, there’s also a subplot about Freddy’s unrequited love for Liz Randone (Annabella Sciorra) and her husband’s (Peter Berg) affair with Donlan’s wife (Cathy Moriarty).  There’s enough plot here for a Scorsese epic and it’s more than Cop Land‘s 108-minute run time can handle.  Cop Land is at its best when it concentrates on Freddy and his attempt to prove to himself that he’s something more than everyone else believes.  The most effective scenes are the ones where Freddy quietly drinks at the local tavern, listening to Gary shoot his mouth off and stoically dealing with the taunts of the people that he’s supposed to police.  By the time that Freddy finally stands up for himself, both you and he have had enough of everyone talking down to him.  The film’s climax, in which a deafened Freddy battles the corrupt cops of Garrison, is an action classic.

Though the story centers on Stallone, Cop Land has got a huge ensemble cast.  While it’s hard to buy Janeane Garofalo as a rookie deputy, Ray Liotta and Robert Patrick almost steal the film as two very different cops.  Interestingly, many members of the cast would go on to appear on The Sopranos.  Along with Sirico, Sciorra, Patrick, and Garofalo, keep an eye out for Frank Vincent, Arthur Nascarella, Frank Pelligrino, John Ventimiglia, Garry Pastore,  and Edie Falco in small roles.

Cop Land was considered to be a box office disappointment when it was released and Stallone has said that the film’s failure convinced people that he was just an over-the-hill action star and that, for eight years after it was released, he couldn’t get anyone to take his phone calls.  At the time, Cop Land‘s mixed critical and box office reception was due to the high expectations for both the film and Stallone’s performance.  In hindsight, it’s clear that Cop Land was a flawed but worthy film and that Stallone’s performance remains one of his best.

 

A Movie A Day #115: Zero Tolerance (1994, directed by Joseph Mehri)


In Zero Tolerance, Robert Patrick plays Jeff Douglas, an FBI agent who is sent down to Mexico to pick up a recently captured drug dealer.  Ray Manta (Titus Welliver) is the head of the White Hand drug cartel and he is not happy about having been arrested.  When Ray tells Jeff that his entire family is being held hostage and will be killed unless Ray is allowed to escape, Jeff demands that Ray give him his word that no harm will come to his wife and children.  Ray gives his “word of honor,” not realizing that his associates have already killed Jeff’s family.  Jeff is now out for revenge and he is not going to let the FBI, with its rules and procedures, stand in his way.  Jeff is not only out to get Ray.  He is also going to track down and kill every member of the White Hand, which includes everyone from Mick Fleetwood (yes, that Mick Fleetwood) to Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter (playing almost exactly the same role that he played in Marked for Death and Only The Strong) to Ator the Invincible himself, Miles O’Keeffe.

(How much keeffe is in this movie?  Miles O’Keeffe!  Ha ha, that never gets old!)

Robert Patrick is one of those actors who can make any movie worth watching and Zero Tolerance, an otherwise forgettable revenge flick, is proof of that.  No one plays a revenge seeking killing machine with as much panache as Robert Patrick.  After his family is killed, Patrick crosses the country, stopping everywhere from New Orleans and Las Vegas and seeing vengeance with a determination that almost makes Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood seem mellow by comparison.  This is the type of movie where Robert Patrick literally drives his car through the side of a helicopter and, even after the helicopter explodes, still emerges unscathed.

There’s only one man who could pull that off.

Robert Patrick.

Insomina File No. 16: Kill The Messenger (dir by Michael Cuesta)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Kill_the_Messenger_poster

Last night, if you were awake and unable to get any sleep at 1:45 in the morning, you could have turned over to Cinemax and watched the 2014 conspiracy thriller, Kill The Messenger.

Kill The Messenger opens with one of those title cards that assures us that the movie we’re about to see is based on a true story.  We are then introduced to Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a California-based reporter who we know is a rebel because he has a precisely trimmed goatee.  Gary is interviewing a suspected drug smuggler (Robert Patrick) at the smuggler’s luxurious mansion.  Suddenly, the DEA storms the house, shouting insults and roughly throwing everyone to the ground, including Gary.  It’s actually exciting and promising opening, one that perfectly establishes both Gary as a truth seeker and the U.S. government as an invading army that’s fighting a war that’s full of collateral damage.

Gary, of course, has nothing to do with smuggling drugs.  He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If he was treated unfairly by the DEA, it’s just because the government is serious about winning the war on drugs!

Or is it?

Following up on a tip, Gary comes across evidence that, in order to raise money for pro-Amercian rebels in Central America, the CIA not only helped to smuggle drugs into the U.S. but also arranged for the drugs to largely be sold in poor, minority neighbors where, in theory, no one would notice or care.

When the story is finally published, Gary is briefly a celebrity.  Not surprisingly, the government denies his accusations and start tying to discredit him.  However, Gary also finds himself being targeted by his fellow journalists.  Angry over being outscooped by a relatively unknown reporter, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both launch their own investigations.  Instead of investigating Gary’s allegations, they jealously and viciously investigate Gary himself.

Soon, both Gary’s career and his family are falling apart and Gary finds himself growing more and more paranoid…

Remember when everyone was expecting Kill The Messenger to be a really big deal?  It was due to come out towards the end of 2014, right in the middle of Oscar season.  Jeremy Renner was being talked up as a contender for best actor.  Then the film came out, it played in a handful of theaters for a week or two, and then it sunk into obscurity.  Some commentators even complained that Focus Features buried the release of Kill The Messenger and that the film was ignored because of its leftist politics…

Of course, it’s just as probable that Focus Features realized that The Theory of Everything was more likely to charm audiences than a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic.

Or it could have just been that, despite telling a potentially intriguing story, Kill The Messenger was an oddly bland film.  Other than one scene in which he admits to cheating on his wife, Gary Webb is portrayed as being such a saint that it actually causes the film to lose credibility.  (Don’t get me wrong.  For all I know, he was a saint.  But, from a cinematic point of view, sainthood is never compelling.)  This is one of those earnest films that gets so heavy-handed that, even if you agree with what the movie is saying, you still resent being manipulated.  (Of course, some of us have grown so cynical about the media that we automatically doubt the veracity any movie that opens with those dreaded words: “Based on a true story.”)  Watching Kill The Messenger, one gets the feeling that a documentary about Gary Webb would probably be more compelling (and convincing) than a fictionalized dramatization.

(Unfortunately, if you think it’s difficult to get an audience to watch a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic, just try to get them to watch a documentary about … well, anything.  I know most of our readers would probably happily watch a documentary but that’s because y’all are the best and a thousand times better than the average person.  Love you!)

Here’s what did work about Kill The Messenger: the performances.  Jeremy Renner, who also produced this film, gives an excellent performance as Gary, especially in the scenes where he realizes that both the government and the press are now conspiring about him.  Rosemarie DeWitt has the traditionally thankless role of being the supportive wife but she still does a good job.  And finally, Ray Liotta shows up for one scene and is absolutely chilling in that way that only Ray Liotta can be.

Kill The Messenger doesn’t quite work but, thanks to the cast, it is, at the very least, a watchable misfire.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace

Film Review: Endless Love (dir by Shana Feste)


EDL_31_5_Promo_4C_2F.indd

Oh, what a disappointing film this turned out to be!

When the trailer for Endless Love came out way back in the closing days of 2013, both me and my BFF Evelyn were seriously excited about seeing it.  The trailer was great!  It featured Florence + The Machine!  The movie looked hot and sexy and fun and…

Well, let’s just rewatch the trailer, shall we?

Here’s the thing:  Sometimes, trailers lie.

I saw Endless Love when it was originally released in February but I didn’t review it.  I meant to review it but somehow I never got around to doing so.  And, unfortunately, the film itself was so bland and forgettable that I actually struggled to think of anything to say about it.  Some movies make you laugh.  Some movies make you cry.  Some movies make you mad.  And some movies are just there.

Endless Love is a just there type of movie.

That said, when I saw that Endless Love would be making its cable debut on Cinemax on Saturday night, I decided to give it a second chance.  “Who knows?” I thought to myself, “Maybe I just went into the film with unrealistic expectations.  Maybe I was just in a bitchy mood when I saw it.  Maybe, on a second viewing, I’ll discover that Endless Love works on a purely emotional level…”

No such luck!  Having watched Endless Love a second time, I can now actually remember enough about the film to finally get around to writing a review.  However, I have also now been reminded why I didn’t care much about the film the first time I saw it.

Endless Love is essentially a collection of generically pretty scenes that all feature pretty performers thinking about love, talking about, and making love.  Recent high school graduates David (Alex Pettyfer) and Jade (Gabriella Wilde) start going out.  Jade comes from a wealthy family.  David does not.  Jade’s overly protective father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), does not approve of the relationship because Jade has an ivy league future ahead of her while David has no plans to attend college at all.  Jade becomes more rebellious.  David lectures Hugh on the fact that nothing is more important than love.  Hugh takes out a restraining order against David.  Jade goes off to college.  David tries to secretly see her.  And, of course, there’s a fire.

(Though, unlike in the original Endless Love, the fire is not deliberately set.  This is Endless Love  reimagined as a Nicholas Sparks novel.)

And who really cares?

The problem with Endless Love is that we’re supposed to care about David and Jade and we’re supposed love how obsessed they are with each other but David and Jade are two of the most boring people ever so who cares?  Alex Pettyfer is nice to look at.  Gabriella Wilde is pretty.  But, as a couple, they have next to no chemistry.  Instead, they come across like one of those vapid couples that my boyfriend and I always worry we’re going to end up getting trapped in an endless conversation with.

(“How did you two meet?  Wait, before you start — let me tell you how we met… It’s a great story…you guys are going to love this…we were both attending kindergarten on a dance scholarship but the ballet kids all hated the ballroom kids.  Then they moved to Iceland and I asked my dad if we could move to Greenland and then…”)

And again, this just shows the power of a good trailer.  Watching the trailer, you would never guess how boring David and Jade truly are.  Incidentally, the best parts of the trailer are all taken from a “David and Jade dating” montage that occurs about halfway through the film.  As such, the scenes that made me want to see Endless Love pretty much just serve as filler in the actual film.

Also, Florence + The Machine are nowhere to be heard in the actual film.  And their haunting, atmospheric music would have been out of place anyway.  Florence + The Machine embraces the power of ambiguity and Endless Love takes place in a world where there is no ambiguity.

However, there is a lot of blue.

Seriously!  (And yes, I do realize that there’s a typo in my tweet but everyone is allowed to be illiterate on twitter so get off my back.)  This movie opens with a high school graduation where everyone is wearing a blue robe and the entire cast is so oppressively cheerful and overwhelmingly pleasant-looking that I briefly wondered if they were supposed to be a graduating class or a cult.  Later on, David works at a valet at a country club and, of course, he wears a blue shirt.  Everyone who belongs to the club also appears to be wearing a blue shirt, except that it’s a lighter shade of blue than David’s blue.  It’s just odd-looking and reinforces the feeling that Endless Love is less a movie and more a collection of commercial outtakes.

Endless Love, of course, is a remake of a film from the early 80s.  The first Endless Love isn’t very good but it’s at least a lot of unintentional fun!  And you can read my review of it (and even watch the film!) by clicking here.

Back to School #52: The Faculty (dir by Robert Rodriguez)


3494-b-the-faculty

Have you ever wanted to see Jon Stewart get stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle?

If you answered yes, then 1998’s The Faculty might be the film for you!

The Faculty takes a look at what happens when a new alien species happens to turn up outside of a painfully normal high school in Ohio.  By painfully normal, I mean that Herrington High School is just as messed up as you would expect a suburban high school to be.  The teachers are all underpaid and resentful of their principal (Bebe Neuwrith).  Prof. Furlong (Jon Stewart) is the overqualified science teacher who will perhaps be a little too excited about the chance to examine a new alien species.  Coach Willis (Robert Patrick) is the emotionally shut off coach of the school’s losing football team.  Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie) is the drama teacher who struggles to promote creativity in a school that’s more interested in blind conformity.  Miss Burke (Famke Janssen) is the teacher who cares too much.  And, finally, there’s Nurse Harper (Salma Hayek), who looks a lot like Salma Hayek.

And, as typical as the teachers may be, the students are even more so.  We get to know a few and they all neatly fit into the expected stereotypes.  Casey (Elijah Wood) is the nerdy outcast who is regularly picked on by … well, by everyone.  Deliliah (Jordana Brewster) is the status-obsessed head cheerleader who has just broken up with her boyfriend, Stan (Shawn Hatosy), because he quit the football team.  Zeke (Josh Hartnett) is the school rebel, the kid who is repeating his senior year and who sells synthetic drugs out of the trunk of his car.  Stokes (Clea DuVall) is an intentional outcast who pretends to be a lesbian and has a crush on Stan.  And finally, there’s Marybeth (Laura Harris), a new transfer student who speaks with a Southern accent.

These students would seem to have nothing in common but they’re going to have to work together because the entire faculty of Herrington High has been taken over by aliens!  Fortunately, the aliens are vulnerable to Zeke’s drugs, which is something that is learned after Jon Stewart takes a hypodermic to the eye…

When one looks over the top Texas filmmakers (director like Terrence Malick, Richard Linklater, Mike Judge, and David Gorden Green), Robert Rodriguez often comes across as being both the most likable and the least interesting.  Like his frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez fills his movies with references and homages to other films but, unlike Tarantino, there rarely seems to be much going on behind all of those references.  However, Rodriguez’s referential style works well in The Faculty because, along with acting as an homage to both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Faculty also manages to tap into a universal truth.

Teachers are weird!

Or, at least, they seem weird when you’re a student.  Now that I’m out of high school, I can look back and see that my teachers were actually pretty normal.  They were people who did their jobs and, as much as I like to think that I was everyone’s all-time favorite, I’m sure that there have been other brilliant, asthmatic, redheaded, aspiring ballerinas who have sat in their class.  My teachers spent a lot of time talking about things that I may not have been interested in but that wasn’t because they were obsessed with talking to me about algebra or chemistry or anything like that.  They were just doing their job, just like everyone else does.

But, seriously, when you’re a student, it’s easy to believe that your teachers have been possessed by an alien life form.

Probably the best thing about The Faculty is the fact that the aliens cause the teachers to act in ways that are the exact opposite of their usual personalities.  For most of the teachers, this means that they turn into homicidal lunatics.  But, in the case of Coach Willis, this actually leads to him not only becoming a happy, well-adjusted human being but it also turns him into a good coach.  Suddenly, Willis is getting emotional about the games, his team loves him, and he even gets a win!

Go Coach Willis!

As for the film itself, it’s not bad at all.

Lisa’s rating: 7 out of 10.

Film Review: Gangster Squad (dir by Ruben Fleischer)


Gangster Squad

Do you remember Gangster Squad?

This film, which tells the story of hard-boiled cops and psychotic gangsters in 1940s Los Angeles, was originally meant to be released in September of 2012 but the release date was moved back because the film originally featured a gun battle in a movie theater.  After the real-life movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, that scene was reshot and the release of Gangster Squad was delayed until January of this year.  The critics absolutely hated it, audiences stayed away, and Gangster Squad was the first high-profile flop of 2013.

I was among those who ignored the film when it was first playing at theaters.  After all, it was January and I was more interested in following the Oscar race than going to see a film that, by all accounts, was somewhat terrible.  However, now that Gangster Squad is showing up on a nearly nightly basis on Cinemax, I recently got a chance to see the movie and you know what?

The critics were wrong.

Gangster Squad tells a familiar story.  In fact, the film features not a single character or plot twist that hasn’t shown up in another movie.  The setting is Los Angeles in the 1940s.  Ruthless gangster Mickey Cohen (a totally over-the-top Sean Penn) is the king of the city’s underworld.  How crazy is Mickey Cohen?  He’s so crazy that, when we first see him, he’s watching as another gangster is literally ripped in half.  He’s so crazy that, in the middle of a gun battle, he yells, “Here comes Santy Claus!” as he fires his machine gun.  That’s how crazy Mickey Cohen is.

Sean Penn in Gangster Squad

Seriously crazy.

Fortunately, righteous police chief William H. Parker (Nick Nolte) refuses to allow a little thing like due process to keep him from pursuing Mickey.  Parker calls Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to his office and, after delivering a long and flowery monologue that verges on incoherence, he finally explains that O’Mara’s mission is to put together an elite squad of cops and to take Mickey out by any means necessary!  (Usually, I try to exercise some restraint when it comes to punctuation but Gangster Squad is one of those films that demands exclamation points.)

This is followed by a series of properly colorful scenes in which O’Mara recruits his gangster squad.

Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is a cynical World War II veteran who is, at first, skeptical of O’Mara and his squad.  Wooters, however, changes his mind after a saintly shoeshine boy is gunned down in front of him.  Wooters is also having an affair with Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), who happens to also be Cohen’s girlfriend.

Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie) is a black cop who is good with a knife and who lost his cousin to the heroin distributed by Cohen’s mob.  Watching the friendly and playful interaction between Harris and all of the film’s white characters provides us with one of our first clues that Gangster Squad is not necessarily aiming to be a historically accurate portrait of America in the 1940s.

Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is a wiretapper and a family man.  Keeler’s fate is pretty much sealed the minute that he tells O’Mara that he’s willing to risk death just to make the world a better place for his son.

Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) is a former old west gunslinger who now spends his time killing gangsters.  Max, we’re told, may be old but he’s also personally shot over a 100 gangsters.  Max also has a younger partner, an honest cop named Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena).

GANGSTER SQUAD

The Gangster Squad

As you can probably guess at this point, there’s not a single cliché that is not employed by Gangster Squad.  However, and this is what I think several critics missed, the film deliberately takes its clichés to such an extreme that they go from being flaws to being strengths.  By so enthusiastically going overboard in its embrace of the conventions of the gangster film genre and, at the same time, acknowledging the fact that the audience is also familiar with those clichés, Gangster Squad creates its own vibrant and compulsively watchable fantasy world.  The world of Gangster Squad has little to do with any sort of historical reality.  Instead, it’s a  world constructed solely out of other gangster movies.

Taking all of this (and the fact that the film is directed by Ruben Fleischer of Zomieland and 30 Minutes or Less fame) into consideration, it’s pretty obvious that Gangster Squad is not a film that’s meant to be taken seriously.  And yet, that’s what so many critics did when the film was first released in January.  Instead of appreciating the film for paying over-the-top homage to the gangster films of the past, critics attacked it for being an example of style over substance.

And, to give the critics their due, they were exactly right.  There is no substance to Gangster Squad.  Instead, the film is a total celebration of style.

And what style!  In Fleischer’s hands, 1940s Los Angeles is a colorful wonderland of pure excess, a vibrant landscape of dark alleys and swanky nightclubs that literally glow on-screen and are populated by tough men and sultry women in clothing that might not have been found hanging in every closet in the 40s but should have been.  (Seriously, when Emma Stone first appears on-screen, she’s wearing a red gown that is simply to die for.)

This Christmas, I want both Ryan Gosling and the dress.

This Christmas, I want both Ryan Gosling and the dress.

For the viewer who is willing to give themselves over to the film’s over-the-top aesthetic and are willing to appreciate it for what it is (as opposed to condemning it for what it isn’t), Gangster Squad is a watchable, entertaining, and fun movie.  And what’s so bad about that?

I’m glad that I finally got a chance to see Gangster Squad.  Is it one of the great gangster films?  No.  The great gangster films have both style and substance but, quite frankly, if I can only have one than I would prefer something stylish and fun like Gangster Squad to something like Killing Them Softly.

(Then again, I would prefer just about anything to sitting through Killing Them Softly for a second time.)

So, enjoy Gangster Squad.  Watch it for the style.  Have fun.  And most importantly, remember that critics are as often wrong as they are right.

Emma Stone in Gangster Squad

Film Review: Lovelace (dir by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)


About halfway through the new biopic Lovelace, there’s a scene where former porno actress Linda Lovelace (played by Amanda Seyfried) is hooked up to a lie detector.  The polygraph examiner explains that he’s going to ask Linda a few test questions to get a reading.

“Is your name Linda Lovelace?” he asks.

Visibly nervous, Linda replies, “Can you ask something simpler?”

It’s a great scene because it establishes the central mystery of both the film and the title character.

Just who exactly was Linda Lovelace?

A girl whose main talent was apparently giving head, Lovelace became a star in the 70s when she starred in Deep Throat, the first (and perhaps only) hardcore film to become a legitimate mainstream hit.  For a brief while, Lovelace was the face of the American sex industry.  However, her attempts to have a mainstream film career failed and Lovelace retreated into obscurity.

Several years later, she wrote a book called Ordeal.  In Ordeal, Lovelace claimed that she was forced, by her abusive husband, to perform in Deep Throat.  Whereas Lovelace, during her brief stardom, originally claimed to simply be a sexual adventurer who performed on camera because it was liberating, the post-stardom Lovelace presented herself as being a brainwashed victim.  Or, as Lovelace herself put it, “When you watch Deep Throat, you’re watching me getting raped.”  While several people disputed the authenticity of Ordeal, Lovelace herself passed a polygraph examination.  Lovelace then became an anti-pornography activist before, once again, descending into obscurity and eventually dying in an automotive accident in 2002.

Lovelace deals with the issue of figuring out just who Linda Lovelace was by basically telling her story twice.

During the first 45 minutes of the film, we see how young Linda Boreman first meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard).  Everything about Chuck — from his mustache to his perm to his flashy clothes — practically screams sleaze but, since he’s played by Peter Sarsgaard, he also has an undeniable charm.  (With this film and An Education, Sarsgaard has proven himself to be the definitive older man who your parents warned you about.)  Chuck and Linda eventually marry and, when they need money, Linda turns to “acting” in order to pay the bills.

Under the watchful eye of producers Bobby Cannavale and Chris Noth, director Hank Azaria, and co-star Adam Brody, Linda stars in Deep Throat and becomes the face of the sexual revolution.  While there are occasional hints that things might not be perfect (bruises are often visible on Linda’s arms and legs), Linda seems to truly love the spotlight.  Even Hugh Hefner (played by James Franco, who is way too hot to only have a cameo) says she’s going to be a huge star.

And then, rather abruptly, we jump forward six years.  Linda is now writing Ordeal and we once again see how she first married Chuck Traynor, starred in Deep Throat, and came to be a star..  However, we now see the story through her eyes.  We see that Chuck wasn’t just controlling but that he was also an abusive psychopath who would hold a gun to her head in order to get a performance out of her.  We see that, during the shooting of Deep Throat, she was regularly beaten by her husband.  We see Linda attempting to reconnect with her strict and tradition parents (played by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick).  We see the ugliness that was hidden underneath the glamour.

Considering the subject matter and the talent involved, Lovelace should have been one of the most interesting films of 2013 but, unfortunately, the two separate halves of the film just don’t come together.  While the first half of the film does a good job of capturing the absurdity of sudden fame, the second half of the film falls apart.

Oddly enough, Chuck Traynor and Linda Lovelace only come across as real human beings during the superficial first half of the film.  During the second half of the film, both Chuck and Linda come across as one-dimensional ciphers.  Linda becomes such a total victim and Chuck becomes such a melodramatic villain that neither one of them is all that compelling as a character.  Instead of being disturbing and revealing, the second half of the film just feels like another generic film about the price of fame.

Most of what I know about Linda Lovelace and Chuck Traynor comes from two sources — the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat and Legs McNiel’s and Jennifer Osborne’s book The Other Hollywood.  In both the book and the documentary, Lovelace comes across as being a rather pathetic figure who was exploited by both the adult film industry and the anti-pornography activists who used her as a symbol.  Both the industry and the activists abandoned Linda once her novelty was gone.  Ironically, even though both the documentary and the book are rather critical of her, it is there that she comes across as a far more interesting, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic figure than she does in this biopic.

With all that in mind, Lovelace is not necessarily a failure as a film.  The 70s are convincingly recreated and there’s a few scenes that hint at the type of film that this could have been if the filmmakers had been willing to take a few more risks.

The film is also full of excellent performances.  Seyfried is sympathetic and believable as Linda and, up until the second half of the film requires him to abandon all shades of ambiguity, Sarsgaard perfectly captures the sleazy charm that someone like Chuck Traynor would need to survive.  As Linda’s strict mother, Sharon Stone  is surprisingly strong.  Just watch the scene where Linda’s mom explains to her that she has to go back to abusive husband because that’s what marriage is all about and you’ll see an example of great acting.  Even better is Robert Patrick, who brings a poignant sadness to the role of Linda’s father.  The scene where he tells Linda that he saw her on film is heartbreaking.

Lovelace is a film of hits and misses.  Sadly, it misses the big picture but a few individual parts and performances are strong enough to justify sacrificing spending 93 minutes to watch it.

Review: True Blood 6.8 “Dead Meat”


True Blood

If nothing else, this episode will always be remembered for confirming what all of us ladies already knew.  High heels are murder!

Seriously, if you had any doubts about whether or not Sarah Newlin (played, with manic glee, by Anna Camp) truly was batshit crazy, all you had to do was watch tonight’s episode.

First off, she’s refusing to tell anyone that Gov. Burrell is dead and it wouldn’t surprise me if she’s got his severed head in the trunk of her car.

Secondly, when Mrs. Suzuki came by Vamp Camp to check out what was going on with the Tru Blood production, Sarah ended up chasing her through the prison.  Now, I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that it is next to impossible to successfully run away from a crazed maniac while wearing high heels.  That still doesn’t stop Mrs. Suzuki from trying but, once she ends up tripping on a steel grating, Sarah proceeds to beat her to death with one of her own high heels.  Underneath the grating, a grateful group of male vampires feast on Suzuki’s blood.  “Thank you, Jesus!” an orgasmic Sarah proclaims.

This macabre chase scene — coming towards the end of tonight’s episode — perfectly sums up season 6 of True Blood.  It was over the top, silly, melodramatic, vaguely sordid, and yet definitely effective.

Mrs. Suzuki was murdered to prevent her from telling the FDA about Sarah’s plan to give all the vampires Tru Blood that’s been spiked with Hep V.  The first batch of infected Tru Blood was given to the prisoners during tonight’s episode.  James, the hot new vampire who Jessica is now in love with, warned the Rev. Newlin not to drink the infected blood.  This led to Sarah demanding to know why Newlin was refusing to drink the blood.  Since Newlin is a weasel, he quickly revealed the names of every vampire who knows the truth about the new Tru Blood.

As a result, Newlin, James, Pam, Tara, Willa, and Jessica all found themselves in that white death chamber that Bill keeps seeing in his visions of the future.  As Jessica quickly figures out, this is where they’re going to stay until the sun rises, the ceiling opens up, and they’re all burned to death.

Bill, however, has a plan.  As he tells Sookie, he wants to allow all the vampires at Vamp Camp to drink Warlow’s blood so that they can be immune to the sunlight.  Warlow tells Sookie that he’ll only do it if Sookie agrees to be “his.”  So, once again, the future of the vampires pretty much depends upon Sookie surrendering any shred of independence from the whims and needs of the men in her life.

So, as must happen at least once during every season of True Blood, Sookie prepared to sacrifice herself.  She took Bill to the faerie dimension so that she could give herself over to Warlow and then Warlow could give himself over to Bill.  However, as soon as she and Bill arrived, they discovered that Eric had gotten there first and had already drained Warlow.

And that, quite simply, is why I love Eric.  While everyone else talks and broods, Eric gets stuff done.

Finally, in case you were wondering how long it would take Sam to get over Luna, the answer is eight episodes.  Sam returned to Bon Temps for Terry’s funeral and, upon arrival, he discovered that Alcide had rescued Nicole from the werewolves (and, in the process, had surrendered the title of pack leader to Rikki).  Sam discovered that Nicole’s pregnant and, within a few scenes, the two of them were declaring their love for each other.  Nicole is a boring character and werewolf politics tend to put me to sleep unless they involve Alcide getting naked.  Since Alcide kept his clothes on tonight, I have to admit that I pretty much zoned during the majority of the Sam/Nicole/Alcide scenes.

But no matter!  Between Sookie preparing (yet again) to sacrifice herself and Sarah getting crazier by the minute, tonight’s episode was a lot of fun.  I assume that Eric is now heading towards the Vamp Camp and I can’t wait to see what happens once he arrives.

Random Thoughts and Observations:

  • Tonight’s unofficial scene count: 48
  • I always enjoy it when Bill and Eric get to argue.  Alexander Skarsgard and Stephen Moyer really throw themselves into those scenes.
  • Nora may be dead by Lucy Griffiths — much like Arliss Howard and Todd Lowe — is still listed in the opening credits.
  • Rev. Newlin seemed to have a thing for people who have had sex with Jessica.
  • I was a little surprised that Alcide didn’t know who Terry was.
  • I’m proud to say that, in last week’s review, I totally guessed Bill’s plan for Warlow’s blood.
  • “Mother, I can fly!”
  • “The only way he’ll agree to help you is if I agree to become his faerie vampire bride!  So there!”
  • “How about that, you motherfucking monster!?”
  • “I’m trying to decide if I’ll be more uncomfortable in here or out there!”
  • “Sarah Newlin!?”  “Don’t tell me you’re a fan!”