Saturday, April 13, 2024

Movie Reviews: ‘Gangster Squad,’ ‘Nicky’s Family,’ ‘Rust and Bone’

One of those ultra-violent Hollywood films that moral-baiting politicians like to blame for society’s ills, “Gangster Squad” has a true-story pedigree behind it. But that doesn’t make its execution look any less ridiculous, verging on self-parody.

Inspired by the story of a secret police hit squad that took down maniacal mafioso Mickey Cohen in post-World War II Los Angeles, director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall litter their star-studded canvas with agonizingly bloody set-pieces – people drawn and quartered, their genitals burned with acid, electric drills bored into their skulls, those sort of pleasantries – with corny sentiments and chintzy platitudes that, in their own manipulative way, are just as offensive.

The heroes – antiheroes, really – are Josh Brolin’s straitlaced Sgt. John O’Mara and Ryan Gosling’s corrupt, lascivious Sgt. Jerry Wooters. They are hired by police chief Bill Parker – Nick Nolte, whose gravelly voice is beginning to sound positively extraterrestrial – to destroy the business interests of pugilist-turned-mob leader Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, who dials it up from his previous performances, if that’s even possible) and run him out of town. Cohen, in the true gangster fashion, “owns” Los Angeles, including, apparently, every judge and every cop with the exception of Parker’s fedora-sporting vigilantes.

O’Mara and Wooters corral a properly multicultural collective of ragtag assistants, among them Giovanni Ribisi’s introverted wireman, Anthony Mackie as a take-no-crap cop from Harlem, Robert Patrick as a mirthless sharpshooter extracted from a ‘70s Western, and Michael Pena as … just a hanger-on, really, because I suppose they needed a Mexican guy to fill a quota. The movie proceeds like a bumbling heist film-cum-neo-noir, as the gangster squad lurches closer and closer to Cohen’s inner sanctum.

There are women in this world too, though none of them are endowed by their creators with dimensionality. Mireille Enos is O’Mara’s wife Connie, the stereotypical dutiful (and pregnant) companion cleaning her crazy husband’s physical and mental wounds. Emma Stone plays Cohen’s wandering moll, and aside from single-handedly making smoking look sexy onscreen again, she’s barely able to enliven a stock character. (It’s true that feminists would be hard-pressed to find much complexity in the women from even the great Warner gangster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but in our more enlightened time, I come to expect more.)

I have a feeling that “Gangster Squad” wants to be “GoodFellas” but it’s not even “Boardwalk Empire.” It’s a very base and basic film, a tacky postwar costume piece that lacks the sweep, intelligence and poetry of these and other ventures in the gangster cinema pantheon, which justify their brutality amid thematically dense operas of grandeur and emotion. Even the film’s one salient point – that the actions of the gangster squad, which lead to the deaths of many innocent civilians, are not much different than Cohen’s thuggishness – is undercut by the sense of exhilaration we’re supposed to feel when the “good guys” win.

“Gangster Squad” opens Friday at most area theaters.

As the saying goes, there will not be a dry eye in the house by the end of “Nicky’s Family,” a blatantly heartstring-pulling documentary that is no less effective because of its blatancy. The “Nicky” in question is Nicholas Winton, a businessman and now a centenarian in Great Britain, who spearheaded a rescue operation at the outbreak of World War II that saved more than 650 Czech children from concentration camps. Slovakian director Matej Minac, whose three films, dating from 1999, revolve entirely around Winton, documents this global humanitarian’s story using sepia-tinged photos and re-enactments and interviews with the children he saved, many of whom have grown into flourishing careers with robust families. One of the children, Joe Schlesinger, now a Canadian television journalist, narrates this heartfelt movie.

The premise of this mass migration of Czech children to England – the only country that would accept them in the foster care system – is tragic. Parents and children were severed for the good of the kids; the parents, in most cases, perished in the camps. But Minac’s film is not depressing. He even manages to inject levity in the proceedings, with Winton remaining a quippy and spry 103-year-old and some of the interview subjects recalling their formative experiences in western Europe with warmth and humor.

Minac discovers a multitude of stories that snowball from Winton’s actions; so many of his “children” have gone on to successful, artistic, even world-changing careers, and their offspring were raised to believe in service, volunteerism and selflessness. Winton’s humility may be the greatest inspiration of all in this extraordinarily affecting movie; he’s never boasted about his actions and surely never will, which is OK – he has enough ambassadors around the world to do it for him.

Nicky’s Family opens Friday at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray in Delray Beach and Movies of Lake Worth in Lake Worth, Mos Art in Lake Park, The Last Picture Show in Tamarac, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables. There will be post-screening discussions, open to the public, at 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at Movies of Delray, at noon on Jan. 13 at Living Room Theaters, and at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 13 at the Last Picture Show at Tamarac.

“Rust and Bone,” the new movie from acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, is not an opera but it moves with a similar kind of emotional grandiosity, which, like opera, may turn off some viewers. It captures moments of joy that turn instantaneously into tragedy; love, lust, guilt, remorse, envy and tranquility are all present in a film full of fighting and fornicating – a genuine roller coaster of a movie that presents all of Life in its harshest extremities. Audiard’s shaky-camera style may earn comparisons to fly-on-the-wall hyper-realists like the Dardenne Brothers and Maurice Pialat, but his story is grander, almost too big for the widescreen frame.

Marion Cotillard has been receiving inevitable Oscar buzz for her performance as Stephanie; I say inevitable, because Oscar loves able-bodied actors who submit to physical deformity. In this case, Cotillard’s character loses both of her legs early on in a horrific accident at the aquatic theme park where she works (ironically, the first shot we see of Stephanie is an isolated image of her legs, prostrate on the ground outside a night club). That her plight looks so convincing in Cotillard’s portrayal is more a testament to the impressive CGI work than Cotillard’s perfectly capable acting. At any rate, actor Matthias Schoenaerts is given the more complex character, a ne’er-do-well single dad named Ali, and his performance is ultimately more memorable – a subtly seething powder keg of conflicting emotions.

Ali is not a good father; he regularly forgets to pick up his young boy from school. He can be abusive to the boy. His choice of professions – security guard, shady distributor of surveillance cameras, amateur fighter in backyard gambling rings – regularly puts himself and his small family (he lives with his sister, who barely scrapes by as a supermarket cashier) in physical and economic danger. He’ll have sex with anything that moves, provided there is no emotional attachment. Fighting and mating like an animal, Ali is a passionate and flawed man, one indeed fit for the opera.

He shares in Stephanie’s larger-than-life tragedy, first meeting her at a nightclub near the beginning and reconnecting after she loses her limbs. Their relationship turns from friendly to casually carnal; “Rust and Bone” may be the first time double-amputee sex has been shown in mainstream cinema.

Audiard does not judge Ali’s failures as a father nor does he pity Stephanie’s condition. In fact, what is most notable about his approach may be what he doesn’t do. He never sentimentalizes his characters or over-dramatizes the situations in which they find themselves, never falling into the rabbit holes of manipulation that a lesser Hollywood director would gladly plunge down. And when dealing with moments grand enough for an opera production, that’s quite an accomplishment.

“Rust and Bone” opens Friday at Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Regal Delray Beach 18, Cinemark Boynton Beach 14, Cinemark Paradise 24 in Davie, Regal South Beach 18 in Miami Beach, and the Coral Gables Art Cinema.

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