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Column Fri Jan 11 2013

Gangster Squad, Amour, Somewhere Between & Tess

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Gangster Squad

Despite our great love for such contemporary gangster vs. law enforcement efforts such as The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential, even in those great films, the portrayal of the bad guys in particular is exaggerated, even bordering on cartoonish. But I like cartoons, and there are few things I love more than watching Robert De Niro making a David Mamet-written speech about the great American pastime while pacing around a table of his lieutenants just before he brains one of them with a baseball bat. It may be unbelievable, but it's simply great cinema.

And while I'm not comparing the quality of these older films to director Reuben Fleischer's latest, Gangster Squad, there's a level of outrageous behavior that infects just about every scene that Sean Penn is in. Penn plays Mickey Cohen, who in late-'40s Los Angeles wanted to take over the whores, drugs, gambling and gun-running rackets of not just of Southern California, but the whole state. Sometimes, Penn's performance is hilarious; other times it's ridiculous; but most times, it's both. Penn shares almost no scenes with the titular group of this film, and I suspect that's because Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) knew that if he put them side by side, you'd realize Penn is acting in an entirely different film than everyone else.

Reacting to Cohen growing power in L.A., Police Chief Parker (Nikc Nolte) recruits war hero turned cop John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) to pull together an off-the-books squad of fellow officers to take down Cohen's entire operation. At the suggestion of his wife (Mireille Enos), O'Mara doesn't recruit "boy scouts" for this squad; she suggests getting outcasts -- guys for whom keeping the peace is the priority, not advancement or glory. So the Gangster Squad is a group of outcasts including a cowboy type (Robert Patrick), his Mexican partner (Michael Peña), a communications expert (Giovanni Ribisi), a dedicated black officer (Anthony Mackie), and, with some coaxing, Jerry Wooters, a womanizing cop (Ryan Gosling) who would rather stay safe and drunk than get shot at (who wouldn't, right?). Wooters latest conquest just happens to be Cohen's dame (and etiquette coach), Grace, played by Emma Stone.

Some of the team's missions go off beautifully; others are disasters or set-ups to draw them out. One such sequence is an elaborately staged attempted drug bust in Chinatown (this is the sequence that replaces the excised movie theater shootout, removed and re-shot for obvious reasons last fall). It's a great, tense, nicely paced scene, and I wish there were more like them in Gangster Squad. Most of the action sequences in the film have the finesse of a mallet being dropped on your big toe (with an accompanying Looney Tunes sound effect turned up as loud as it can get). The film's climactic shoot out between the squad and Mickey's men doesn't have nearly the rhythm and timing of the Chinatown sequence, and it hurts the film's overall impact.

The other thing that is sadly missed is character development. I realize Gangster Squad isn't about talking and getting to know these guys on an intimate level, but give us some reasons to care if they live or die. The best we get is some minor input from Enos as Mrs. O'Mara, a plucky pregnant lady who seems to know people and what makes them tick better than any of the men on her husband's team. But the romance between Jerry and Grace lacks any real depth beyond sex, which is extraordinary since Gosling and Stone had such great chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love. That takes a special talent to remove chemistry from whence it already existed. And it's not that their performances are poor, but the material (written by occasional "Castle" writer Will Beall, from the Paul Lieberman novel) just isn't functional.

In fact, much of Gangster Squad is made up of moments in which the acting is forced to prop up a cliché-driven plot, and in many cases it's a pretty stable structure as a result. But other times, especially when the ham sandwich known as Sean Penn is on screen, the whole thing just comes crashing down. I've seen Gangster Squad twice, and you don't have to look hard to find things to have fun with. But you also don't have to search far to find things to make fun of (sorry, Troy Garity, but you look like you're wearing a gangster Halloween costume). It's fun weaving through the period lingo, the clothes look great, and the attitude is dead on. But there are definitely other instances where this feels like actors playing dress up, going through the motions of a gangster film but not really living it. The fact that the film tells you it's based on true events does not help its case; there is being real and feeling real. And very little in this movie feels real. It's a closer call than you might think, but I still can't quite give this one a pass.

Amour

Many of the films of the controversial and inspiring filmmaker Michael Haneke are about facing fears. Whether it's the characters in his works (such as The White Ribbon, The Piano Teacher, Caché or both versions of Funny Games) facing their own fears, often by walking head first into them; or audience members facing their fears. But with his latest award-winning work Amour, Haneke may be giving us his best example of the 70-year-old writer-director facing what terrifies him the most: growing old. But he examines the topic through the eyes of a couple in their 80s who truly love each other and would do anything to stop the other's pain.

There isn't much by way of a story with Amour. We're introduced to the couple -- Georges and Anne, played by two French acting royals, Jean-Louis Trintignant (Z, The Conformist, A Man and a Woman, My Night at Maud's) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour) -- living a comfortable life, going through each day with a sense of routine, bordering on the mundane, but they seem content. But rather than simply slipping into their lives peacefully, Haneke has a prologue featuring the police breaking into the couple's home. A feeling of dread begins to creep into our thoughts before we're taken back several months to quieter times.

For admirers of Haneke's work, Amour may feel strange in its initial sweetness. There are touches of his more confrontational style here and there at the beginning -- a front door lock has been tampered with, for example -- but he largely keeps the proceedings tepid for a while. Then during a breakfast conversation, Anne simply freezes; Georges panics and runs from the room for help, but when he returns Anne is back to normal with no memory of the pause.

Before long, however, that moment seems like a silly glitch compared to what follows, when a full-scale stroke hits Anne, rendering her partially paralyzed and in full-scale dementia, with a terrified Georges trying to help her maintain some level of dignity -- an impossible task under the circumstances. With their love comes a level of understanding about what must be done, which doesn't stop Georges from trying as hard as he can to see if there are any signs of the old Anne in her twisted shell of a body. Initially he enlists the help of a caretaker, but that doesn't work out. And the couple's utterly selfish and ultimately useless grown daughter (Isabelle Huppert, who absolutely nails her character's false sentimentality) essentially refuses to help or even come visit regularly.

For those younger readers out there, if the idea of seeing a film about the wretched process of growing old seems unbearable to you, I recommend you look at Amour as a horror film, and I say that only slightly joking. Haneke spares us nothing from the reality of taking care of someone who has lost all ability to take care of themselves or even communicate their needs. There's one sequence where Anne simply repeats the slurred word "hurts" in a muffled scream, and we don't know if she means she's in physical pain or if the totality of her condition is the focal point of her suffering. It's one of the most difficult scenes to watch in a film filled with such moments.

But as much as Amour is about suffering, it is also about devotion and mercy, to the point where that might actually be the ultimate point of the whole experience. In the end, the film practically places these virtues on an altar and makes them worthy gods to worship. Some may be turned off by the final act of Amour, but it should seem almost inevitable (hell, the opening practically tells you what's going to happen) to most. This magnificent work is likely destined to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar it was nominated for this week, and I for one would be so happy to see Haneke accept his long-overdue award.

Somewhere Between

The phenomenon surrounding a person who is adopted deciding whether or not to track down their birth parents is one that has haunted public policy and the law for decades. But imagine if the option of tracking down your parents wasn't available to you because the government and adoption agency conspired to keep the birth parents' names a secret. Welcome to our increasingly complicated relationship with the People's Republic of China, a nation that, in the late 1970s, passed a law that families could only have one child. What resulted from this policy were hundreds of thousands of unwanted baby girls who were simply abandoned on the streets or at orphanages around the nation of 1 billion souls.

In the years that followed, families from all over the world (including a healthy number from the United States) started adopting Chinese babies (almost all girls) to the point where there is an entire generation of teenage girls in America, born in China, many of whom are wondering where they came from and why their parents didn't want them. Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton begins Somewhere Between by describing a bit about the process of her adoption of a Chinese baby a few years ago, but expands her scope to profile four teenagers, all of who have excelled in school, and each feeling to varying degrees the urge to travel to China and meet their birth parents. In some cases, these girls are the only Asian kids at their school or neighborhoods. Each grapple with a certain amount of stereotyping (a couple even refer to themselves as "bananas" -- white on the inside, yellow on the outside) from their peers as well as abandonment issues.

Knowlton has a real gift for getting these girls to talk about being a product of and torn between two worlds, an issue that becomes a source of sensitivity as they get older. I was particularly fascinated and inspired by one girl who does make the journey to the province from which she was adopted and practically stumbles over her birth father within an hour of putting up posters announcing her search.

During the course of this quite moving work, we learn that there is a movement in the world to halt international adoptions (for reasons I was never quite clear about), and there are organizations/support groups of young Chinese women that meet around the world to discuss their unique situation and shares experiences of searching or finding birth parents. There are few touchy subjects left untouched in Somewhere Between, a film that does not shy away from discussions of race, gender and national identity. The one girl who seems the least interested in finding her parents believes that she is where she is for a reason, and that these are the parents she was meant to have. It makes perfect sense that there are those that feel this way, but there's something in her eyes that says she isn't being totally honest. This is a quietly devastating, intimately realized film that gets 2013 off to a great start for documentaries.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Somewhere Between director Linda Goldtein Knowlton will be in attendance for Q&As after four screenings over the opening weekend of the film. She will appear at the following showings: Friday, Jan. 11, 7:30pm; Saturday, Jan. 12, 3pm & 7:30pm; and Sunday, Jan. 13, 2pm.

Tess

I'll admit: I'd forgotten what a beautiful, vulnerable film Tess really is. Based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles and directed by Roman Polanski, the Oscar-winning Tess is still all about Nastassja Kinski's performance, which is equal parts mesmerizing and odd (I'll still never get over her bizarre accent, but that doesn't stop it from being charming).

Tess is living in abject poverty with her large family, including a drunk, out-of-work father, but she is blessed/cursed with true beauty and the recently acquired knowledge that her family are actually descendants of aristocrats. That doesn't make them any less poor, but it does empower her father to track down the closest relative and send Tess to their estate to look for employment. Instead what she gets is seduced by a man claiming to be her cousin (Leigh Lawson), but it turns out he only purchased the D'Urbervilles title (I guess you could do that back in the 1800s).

What follows is a succession of peaks and valleys in Tess's charmed and cursed life. She meets a lovely man in the form of a parson (Peter Firth), but before long she's back in the fields of the false aristocrat working herself sick every day, wanting no charity from anyone, least of all her seducer. The beautifully restored widescreen digital print that is floating around the country now is a splendor for the eyes, but fortunately the grainy quality of the original is kept intact. The film was made in 1980, but it looks at least 10-15 years older, and that's entirely intentional. Say what you want about Polanski, but the man knows how to film beautiful women (although Kinski was technically 17 when she made Tess), and there are moments here where Kinski's face simply makes you stop breathing for a few seconds. But there are other, darker moments in the film where things are unbearably ugly, grim, and layered in filth. Polanski is no less capable when it comes to the world's more grotesque qualities.

If this long-ignored classic floats through a cinema near you in this restored form, you need to gather those around you and just go. It's playing twice in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center -- on Saturday, Jan. 12 at 7:15pm; and Monday, Jan. 14 at 6:30pm.

 
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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