‘Gangster Squad’ goes for gorgeous gloss over true grit

Gangster Squad/2013/Warner Bros./113 min.

The much-hyped new neo-noir “Gangster Squad,” set in 1949 Los Angeles, falls prey to the same stereotypical failing that marks some Angelinos, then and now: It’s a wannabe. On the plus side, the movie is glossy looking and elegantly styled (many famous locations, from Slapsy Maxie’s to Clifton’s Cafeteria, are stunningly presented) with a star-studded cast.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer, there’s action aplenty, though it never feels like there’s much at stake. And its superficial, often cartoonish, virtues are undercut by a weak script, uneven performances and tepid emotion.

That’s too bad, given the long-standing allure of vintage LA and the fascinating source material for the film: Paul Lieberman’s crime saga, “Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles,” which was based on the work of a secret LAPD unit that aimed to guard the city against gangsters. (The book began as a 2008 LA Times series.)

Their primary target: the ruthless and immensely powerful mob leader Mickey Cohen, portrayed in the film by Sean Penn. Josh Brolin plays ambitious good cop Sgt. John O’Mara (married and devoted to his wife); Ryan Gosling turns in another spare, cool performance as the wayward Sgt. Jerry Wooters who tangles with Cohen’s supposed mistress (Emma Stone). A growling, leonine Nick Nolte as police chief William H. Parker must muddle through lines like this one, addressed to O’Mara: “Los Angeles is a damsel in distress. And I need you to save her.”

Penn’s Cohen has similar clunkers. He tells us: “Back east, I was a gangster, out here I’m God.”

The strong cast does what it can, with Brolin, Gosling and Stone making the best of what they are given. But, thanks to Will Beall’s cliche-ridden script, Nolte starts to get mannered and Penn gives us a 2-D Cohen, unrelentingly brutal and ever-menacing. As talented as Penn is, he doesn’t seem to connect with this character and physically he’s an odd choice to play a brawny baby-faced former boxer. In 1949, Cohen was 36; Penn is 52. And if you know much of Cohen’s backstory (he avoided sex because of his OCD disorder), it’s hard to buy into the love-triangle element of this story, which is only very loosely based on fact.

“L.A. Confidential” this is not. But if you fancy gorging on some glitzy eye candy, this should do nicely.

“Gangster Squad” opens today nationwide. You can read author Tere Tereba’s piece Beyond the Gangster Squad: the Real Mickey Cohen here. Tere’s book on Cohen was selected  by KCET as one of the best books of 2012. 

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

FNB free stuff: ‘Body Heat,’ ‘L.A. Confidential,’ ‘The Player’

This month, I am giving away a must-have neo-noir triple feature from Warner Bros. on Blu-ray: “Body Heat” (1981, Lawrence Kasdan), “L.A. Confidential” (1997, Curtis Hanson) and “The Player” (1992, Robert Altman). I will post reviews of “Body Heat” and “The Player” later this month.

(Paul is the winner of the April reader giveaway, a Criterion DVD set of “Criss Cross” and a TCM mug. Congrats to Paul and thanks to all who entered!)

To enter the May giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from May 1-31. We welcome comments, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early June. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Strong acting, stellar cast can’t save ‘Rampart’

Rampart/2011/Millennium Entertainment/108 min.

“This used to be a glorious soldiers’ department,” says Woody Harrelson as dirty LA cop and Vietnam vet Dave Brown early on in “Rampart” by director Oren Moverman.

He’s right. Beset by the Rampart scandal, the LAPD in 1999 is anything but glorious. And corrupt, bloodthirsty, womanizing, racist Dave is anything but sympathetic. Dave’s also oddly verbose at times, perhaps signaling that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

The best part of “Rampart” is the strong acting by Harrelson and the rest of the cast – Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, and a cameo from Steve Buscemi.

Despite the formidable acting, there’s scant character development, a turbid storyline and gimmicky camerawork. Sometimes the script, by Moverman and James Ellroy, just thuds. When Dave meets Linda (Wright) in a bar, his opening gambit is: “You’re wearing a courtroom suit and you have litigator eyes.” Really?

And when Beatty’s character, an ex-bad-cop, meets Dave in a library, he tells him: “I don’t play games. I don’t name names.”

As much as I wanted to like “Rampart,” I found the film unpleasant to watch. Granted, it is unpleasant subject matter, but dramatically this is a letdown. I had high hopes for “Rampart” because I admired Harrelson and Moverman’s excellent movie “The Messenger” from 2009. For really sizzling neo-noir stories of police corruption, give me “L.A. Confidential” (based on Ellroy’s novel) or “Serpico” anytime.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

8mm sizzles with noir-tinged rock: Friday at the Roxy

With a haunting voice, retro-glam sexiness, and material both subtle and raw, Juliette Beavan of 8mm melds a femme fatale’s sophistication with flinty rock energy. From the first searing notes, often punctuated by smoke and shadow, the songs draw you in like a Hitchcock thriller; lyrics linger in your head well beyond the show’s end. This part of “Crawl,” for instance, is hard to forget: “or maybe there’s another/ trick, another spell/ and I could change you/ and I’d draw you to me/ pull you to me, crawl to me./ draw you to me/ pull you to me/ call you to me/crawl to me.”
x
Her bandmates include her husband Sean Beavan (guitar, vocals) and Jon Nicholson (drums). They describe their sound as “trip-hop influenced pop-rock.” First-rate musicians, the guys are the perfect complement to Juliette’s vocals and keyboard.
x

Juliette Beavan of 8mm. Photo by Critter Newell

“That’s right, blame it on the girl,” she might tease them between songs, before adjusting her mic or straightening a cord. A New Orleans native, she’s fond of bringing beads, candy and banter to toss to the eager crowd, many of whom clutch cameras the way people used to flick lighters as preface to an encore.
x
Together since 2004, 8mm has an impressive resume that includes four albums and several tours (the US, Canada, the UK and Chile). Sean Beavan, who hails from Cleveland, formerly worked with bands such as Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and God Lives Underwater. He and Juliette write the songs; their work has been featured in the 2005 film “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” as well as in a number of TV shows, including “One Tree Hill,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Moonlight,” “Dirt,” Road Rules,” and “The Real World: Sydney.”
x
You can see 8mm for yourself Friday, June 3, at the Roxy Theatre, with the Kidney Thieves, Cage 9, The Shakers and DJ High Voltage. The show starts at 8 p.m. and 8mm goes on at 9 p.m.
x
I caught up with Juliette recently to chat about the band’s penchant for noir.
x
Film Noir Blonde: The band’s name is a film reference, your shows are richly atmospheric and your songs often deal with mystery, secrets, betrayal and hidden desire, much as a film noir would. Can you talk about how the aesthetic of film noir in general has been an influence for you?
Juliette Beavan: Yes, a reference to the film stock, because for us, 8mm film brings to mind smoky back rooms of 1930s Berlin, the first stag films, the early home movies … in other words, secrets, memories, longings (secret and professed) and decadence … all the things we try to bring to our music. They also happen to be things that are part and parcel to any good film noir. In addition, the look, the sleek styling, elegant and dangerous players, well, that sounds like a band to us!

8mm plays the Viper Room. Photo by Billy Howerdel

FNB: Any femmes fatales that stand out for you?
JB: Hahaha, are you gonna ask any questions with short answers? Where to start … Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Anne Baxter, Nora Zehetner in “Brick” does a wonderful job, not to mention (I know they’re not femmes fatales, but I would be remiss to leave the men out) Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives Bogey a run for his money in that film. And for the men, of course, there is the one and only Humphrey Bogart.

FNB: Of ’40s and ’50s singers or bands, who are your top favorites?
JB: Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Bing Crosby, to name a few.

x

8mm's Jon Nicholson, Juliette Beavan and Sean Beavan. Photo by Herwig Maurer

FNB: Do you essentially get into character when you perform, especially Juliette as the frontwoman?
JB: In a sense, yes, and it varies from song to song, because each one is a different story, character, sort of mini movie for us. I’m a storyteller not a character (like a GaGa or Madonna), so the approach is a little different. It only takes a note or two for me “see it” in my head again, to step into “her” shoes … from there it’s just natural.

You kind of have to use your whole body to tell the story, and the story becomes my own for that time.

FNB: Raymond Chandler said a good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. Do you think that’s true for writing songs and music?
JB: Certainly at times … what Sean plays makes me see stories, so I suppose you could say that is a bit of a distilling process to bring the story down into its key emotional components for a 3 minute song. However, there are other times when you get a “cosmic FedEx” (a term we’re stealing from Scott Russo of Unwritten Law). That’s where the song comes to you almost writing itself and you have to grab and get it down before it moves on. You know, the muse will find another host if you aren’t paying attention.

[Read more...]

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

‘L.A. Confidential’ a first-rate depiction of sun-baked sleaze

L.A. Confidential/1997/Warner Bros./138 min.

Life is good (and glitzy) in 1953 Los Angeles, if you don’t mind smoke and mirrors, hidden crime, rampant racism and more than a few dodgy cops. Corruption in the police force, long an undercurrent in classic noir, takes center stage in “L.A. Confidential,” a wry, stylish and devastating police drama directed by Curtis Hanson.

Hanson sets the tone of glib optimism masking darker secrets by opening the movie with shots of bright and cheerful ’50s postcards, the song “Accentuate the Positive (Eliminate the Negative)” and a Danny DeVito voiceover filling us in on some of the trouble that lurks in paradise.

The sophisticated script, by Hanson and Brian Helgeland, is based on the 1990 novel by James Ellroy, which cleverly weaves in actual Hollywood history while telling the see-speak-and-hear-all-evil story of three cops:

From left: James Cromwell, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey

*The jaded and jazzy Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey with a nod to Dean Martin) who pads his bank account by consulting for a TV police show (“Badge of Honor”) and feeding juicy info to “Hush Hush” tabloid columnist Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito). Sid meets looming deadlines with set-ups, celebrity exposés and the odd blackmail scheme. (“Hush Hush” magazine is based on the ’50s scandal mag “Confidential” and “Badge of Honor” is based on TV’s “Dragnet.”)

*Det. Lt. Edmund Jennings ‘Ed’ Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious newbie with a gift for finessing police politics. Exley wants to make his Dad proud, follows a strict moral code and doesn’t care about being one of the guys. And he won’t be, given that he testifies against his fellow cops and their part in “Bloody Christmas,” a true incident of LA cops beating up Mexican prisoners.

*Officer Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe), a thuggish beefcake who likes to take justice into his own hands, especially when it comes to violence against women. “His blood’s always up,” Exley says of White.

Presiding over the entire force and clashing with Exley in particular is Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), arrogant but understated until his latent psychopath rears his head.

“Bloody Christmas” is a mere prelude to a detailed catalog of vice and sin, as the story deepens and stretches to accommodate layer after layer of lies, double-dealing, betrayal and cover-up. Funny what can happen when mob leader and “honest haberdasher” Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) — a real-life criminal — is getting a time-out in jail.

Central to the tangle is the Nite Owl case, involving kidnapping, rape, robbery and murder, which of course is not what it looks like. White’s ex-partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) was among the bodies found in a dumpy diner, and, in pretty short order, three African-American guys with records end up taking the fall.

Kim Basinger won the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Additionally, the three cops find out about an upscale call-girl service, run by the suave, slick and urbane Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Patchett’s gimmick: All the girls resemble popular actresses — or they do after a few trips to a plastic surgeon. For instance, there’s a Veronica Lake look-alike named Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). Sure enough, such a business did apparently exist in ’50s Tinseltown, as recounted in Garson Kanin’s memoir “Hollywood.”

Bud White proves to be both smart and strong as he asks the tough questions and finds their well-guarded answers, one in the form of a rotten, rat-infested corpse who turns out to be a fellow cop. Shocker!

More storylines surface, such as the romance between Bud and good-hearted golden-girl Lynn, not to be confused with Veronica Lake. (Btw, the Lana Turner mixup scene is a hoot!) And as is the case in noir, it’s not long before Exley meets Lynn and creates a triangle of treachery. As the threads of the story unravel, and we see more darkness and deceit, deadly shoot-outs and bloody dust-ups, it’s clear that all strands lead back to a central source of evil. Hanson and Helgeland, courtesy of Ellroy, tell a tense, crisply paced, funny and chilling story nestled in a near-perfectly rendered world of sun-drenched, sleazy LA.

A hit at the Cannes Film Festival, “L.A. Confidential” also ranked on most major critics Top Ten lists for 1997. The film received Oscar noms for best movie, director, editing, art direction, cinematography, adapted screenplay, supporting actress, sound and music/original dramatic score. Composer Jerry Goldsmith also scored “Chinatown” from 1974 and 1992’s “Basic Instinct.”  “L.A. Confidential” won two: Basinger for supporting actress; Hanson and Helgeland for the screenplay.

Hanson’s film stands up beautifully and certainly holds its own among the great neo-noir movies, in the tradition of “Chinatown” and “Body Heat.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times sums up the appeal this way: “Its intricate plot is so nihilistic and cold around the heart, its nominal heroes so amoral, so willing to sell out anyone and everyone, that the film is as initially unnerving as it is finally irresistible.”

That said, there are several snags on the accuracy front. [Read more...]

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

‘L.A. Confidential’ quick hit

L.A. Confidential/1997/Warner Bros./138 min.

Kim Basinger won the Oscar for her portrayal of call-girl Lynn Bracken in this police corruption drama, set in vintage Hollywood. The script, co-written by director Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland from a James Ellroy novel, also snared the gold statuette. Co-starring with Basinger are: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, David Strathairn and Danny DeVito.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter