Film review – Gangster Squad (2013)

13 January 2013
Gangster Squad: Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)

Grace Faraday (Emma Stone) and Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling)

Director Ruben Fleischer is behind at least two films that gently parody while simultaneously pay tribute to popular genres. His 2009 film Zombieland is a conventionally self-aware film. It utilised a genre that audiences are accustomed to seeing endearingly made fun of while remaining respectful. The tone of the film was light, signalling to the audience that it was not to be taken too seriously. Fleischer’s gangster film Gangster Squad is an unconventionally self-aware film, which like the 2012 faux-historical film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov) does not utilise generic conventions that audiences are used to seeing explicitly parodied. Most radical of all, Gangster Squad plays it completely deadpan. Not that it could be mistaken for anything other than a hyperactive exaggeration of every single trope and archetype from the gangster genre, but it never overtly winks at the audience. For casual viewers it may seem to be playing it absurdly straight, when it is doing completely the opposite and with audacious relish.

Set in Los Angeles in 1949 Gangster Squad embraces the pulpy crime films and hardboiled fiction of the era. Post World War II disillusionment met early paranoia about the dawning nuclear era, and the cultural landscape was grim and bitter. Film noir was always a cynical and dark (thematically and literally) genre, but 1949 saw the end of the first wave of classic noir films being replaced by the far rawer and more violent wave of B-grade noirs by the likes of directors such as Joseph H Lewis, Robert Aldrich and Samuel Fuller. Not only does Gangster Squad pay cartoonish tribute to these films in style and content, but it also tips its fedora at classic films from the era, such as Billy Wilder’s non-B-grade masterpiece Sunset Blvd. (1950), with direct visual references. Furthermore, Gangster Squad is aware of the legacy of crime, gangster and action films to have come since so there are also moments that seem to be direct references to films such as Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983) The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) and Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987).

The film is a gangster version of Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), with a group of city cops forming an unclassified squad to obliterate a powerful crime syndicate ruled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). Cohen is more like an ultra-violent version of one of the super villains from Dick Tracey (Warren Beatty, 1990) than the historical figure he is based on. The head of the squad is Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who is similarly more like an indestructible super hero. As the married and noble ex-army man who wants to clean up the city he loves, O’Mara possesses many of the characteristics of the more reputable type of crime film hero. Unusually Gangster Squad has two heroic masculine protagonists, with the other being the far more conventional down-and-out cop Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) who is initially completely disillusioned and far too susceptible to temptation, which includes falling for Cohen’s girlfriend, femme fatale Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

It is a shame that the second half of Gangster Squad does not consistently deliver the same over-the-top-comic-book style of the first half. Nevertheless, it is a fun ride that signposts right from the beginning that it is working on a very stylised level in a similar yet far less apparent way to Sin City (Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, 2005). There is nothing clever about predicting what is going to happen in Gangster Squad because the film is so determined to fulfil every classic narrative development associated with the genre. And still there are elements of the story that do surprise. A lot of the humour in the film comes from scenarios that occur due to the squad being anything but a slick and effective operation. Lovingly pulpy yet honest and sincere about its intent, there is plenty in Gangster Squad for fans of the gangster genre to enjoy.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The Tree of Life (2011)

30 June 2011
The Tree of Life: Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. Terrence Malick has created a film with a quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema. Similarly to A Serious Man, The Tree of Life examines the lives of one family to explore the core question from The Book of Job of why is it that good people suffer. How can anybody believe in God in a universe that feels so godless? In the prologue to the film Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother of the family, narrates, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.’ Shortly after receiving the news of the death of her middle child the film switches to the perspective of her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult. It’s the anniversary of his brother’s death and by remembering his childhood he attempts to reconcile his conflict with the way of nature and the way of grace. The memories that then unfold on the screen not only position this conflict within the dynamic between his mother and his father (Brad Pitt), but also within the collective memory of all of creation from the Big Bang onwards.

To a degree Malick picks up where Stanley Kubrick left off with his epic exploration of humanity’s place in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A visual link between both films is established by the distinctive imagery by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull so that the creation of the universe sequence towards the start of The Tree of Life is something of an echo of the Star Gate sequence at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thematically Malick is possibly even bolder than Kubrick by channelling the immense creation themes through the experiences of a single family living in suburbia in 1950s Waco, Texas. More specifically, through Jack’s childhood memories so that like Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the recollections are segmented and combined with small non-naturalistic moments to reflect what impressions remained with Jack into his adult life. Memories of sibling rivalry, emerging sexuality and domestic conflict are mixed in with images such as his mother floating above the ground as she describes her joy of flying in a plane. Malick’s real stroke of genius is conveying the impression of an individual childhood as being as significant – and as filled with wonder, beauty and danger – as the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

The Tree of Life: Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life suggests a continual battle between nature, as a sort of Darwinist survival of the fittest, and grace, as a spiritual belief that kindness and love exists beyond the survival mechanism. Jack’s mother is clearly on the side of grace with a religious faith that sees her extending compassion wherever she can. Filled with professional disappointments and resentments, Jack’s father supports the ‘natural’ idea of an indifferent universe. Despite his love for his sons he increasingly becomes emotionally abusive by projecting his frustrations onto his family. The conflict is one Jack as an adult is still struggling with and it is a conflict Malick suggests predates humanity. In an extraordinary scene during the creation of the world sequence, a predatory dinosaur moves in to kill a weaker dinosaur and then reconsiders, to instead respond in a way that hints at a sort of primordial kindness. Does this early moment suggest that there is actually no battle between grace and nature at all since grace always existed within nature?

The possibility of the existence of something greater than the physical world is strongly explored in The Tree of Life. Malick is deliberately ambiguous in this regard, which is appropriate given just how far he delves into unknown terrain. However, we do get a glimpse of something that exists both beyond time and space, but also within humanity’s collective conscious. This may be what Mrs O’Brien interprets as heaven, but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime. It also evokes the belief from many early cultures that there is a place outside of the physical world where all spirits reside waiting to be born again (as expressed, for example, in the Indigenous Australian film Ten Canoes) although this is articulated in The Tree of Life as a place where memories of the living are also present.

The Tree of Life: Jack (Sean Penn)

Jack (Sean Penn)

However, The Tree of Life is not simply a conceptually or philosophically complex exercise, but a film of stunning beauty that seductively immerses the viewer. The camera is constantly moving, the sound is intricately designed so that the dialogue and voiceovers have a musical quality, and every shot is composed with Malick’s trademark perfection. There is a constant sense of momentum in The Tree of Life and the film even seems to speed by quicker on subsequent viewings. It is a film that demands to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate its complexity and artistry, but even a single screening is enough to make jaded viewers sit up, startled by the sensation of experiencing such cinematic lyricism.

Malick has clearly shot hours upon hours of footage of the interaction between the actors playing the O’Brien family members and then cut down that footage to create an impressionist montage of their lives. The strongly naturalistic performances by the actors ensure that the film does remain grounded amid the overwhelming use of film style. Penn delivers the muted anguish felt by adult Jack in small gestures and glances. Pitt’s performance is possibly his best to date as a fearful man who is also deeply vulnerable. Newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack along with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as his two brothers come across like seasoned professionals. However, this film really belongs to Chastain who is an absolute revelation as the silent, strong and unconditionally loving mother of the family.

Terrence Malick has never made a film anything short of extraordinary, but he has surpassed himself with The Tree of Life and produced a masterpiece that will surely only continue to grow in stature and significance over time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Cinema Autopsy’s predictions for the 81st Academy Awards

19 February 2009
Jamal (Dev Patel) and Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) from <em>Slumdog Millionaire</em>

Dev Patel as Jamal and Anil Kapoor as Prem Kumar from Slumdog Millionaire

As promised in my piece about the Academy Award nominees, here are my predictions for who I think will win the major awards and who I think should win the awards this Sunday night. If this year is like any other year then I will be way off the mark, but that’s not going to stop me from still having a go.


Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Reader and Milk are really the two most deserving films nominated but given the popularity of Slumdog Millionaire and it’s current winning streak at other awards then I think it is going to be the film that takes home the prize.

Predicted to win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should win: The Reader or Milk
Would annoy me if it won: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and frankly, despite initially liking it, the fuss over Slumdog Millionaire is starting to really turn me against it.
Also nominated: Frost/Nixon

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Film review – Milk (2008)

27 January 2009
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn)

Harvey Milk (Sean Penn)

Milk is a civil rights film about Harvey Milk, a prominent American gay rights activist in the 1970s who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Harvey’s story of overcoming bigotry and prejudice to inspire others and effect change evokes the better-known stories of African American civil rights activists who fought different types of persecution. As a member of the gay and lesbian community Harvey faced particular challenges. Police brutality, fear of violence, death threats, suicide and anti-homosexual hysteria fuelled by the religious right were all aspects of Harvey’s life. Milk is also a fascinating examination of the political process and it is a lot of fun witnessing Harvey’s transformation from hedonistic hippy into a slick, media savvy orator.

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