POSTED ON JANUARY 16, 2013:
Bullets Over Belgium
And a fulfilling romp with an amputee
Paris-born, writer/director Jacques Audiard has established a filmography of near-masterpieces over the last few years; most notably with his stunning 2009 film, A Prophet. It was basically one of the best mob movies since The Godfather. With Rust and Bone, the auteur has clearly stayed on top of his game while moving further afield.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, Bullhead) is a hardscrabble father to his 5-year old son, Sam (Armand Verdure in his film debut). Unemployed and grifting when Sam's mother goes MIA, Ali brings Sam to live with Ali's sister and her husband while he tries to get his life together. Skilled only in using his brawn -- Ali won a kickboxing championship once -- he picks up a bouncer job at a local nightclub and another gig for the same boss, illegally setting up video surveillance at the local grocery where his brother-in-law works.
True Intimacy. Boxer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) acts as the legs for amputee Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) in the moving Rust and Bones.
When a fight breaks out at the club, injuring a gorgeous brunette, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, The Dark Knight Rises), Ali winds up escorting her home -- with the thought that maybe he can get her in bed -- only to find her credulous boyfriend is none-too-appreciative of his efforts.
Turns out Stephanie is a whale trainer, killer whales to be exact, leading the gorgeous beasts through their tricks (or "behaviors" as I was once corrected by UTW's own Angela Evans) to the delight of orca-loving audiences. When one of the whales takes a wrong turn, Stephanie is critically wounded, losing both of her legs below knees.
Her life in ruins, Stephanie trades one primal beast for another when she strikes up a friendship with Ali. Unfortunately, Ali only sees as far as his next paycheck or orgasm. When she accompanies him to a series of underground, bare-knuckle fights that he competes in for money, she begins to fall for his noble, brute masculinity. And we get amputee sex.
But these events do not operate in a vacuum. When circumstances turn against Ali, the fruits of his choices test his mettle as surely as the strongest adversary. At least, that's what Mako would say.
There is little that is not striking about Rust and Bone. From the performances to the novelistic narrative to its languidly dreamy look, Audiard has made an exciting, vibrant, and sexy film brimming with genuine emotion.
He delves into his leads with easy confidence and naturalism. Ali is a rough-hewn man whose mistakes haven't defeated him, though they haven't taught him much either. His son is showing the effects, prone to tears and a desire to hide in small, enclosed spaces. Ali isn't a bad guy, not given to drinking or drugs, but his ability to raise his son responsibly is limited.
Stephanie's connection to her whales is closer than she has to most people, so when she's destroyed by them her will to live is reignited by Ali. It's only when she decides her life should go on (preferably with him) that Ali begins to earn his parallel and surprising arc.
Schoenaerts is great as Ali and Audiard seems to have a knack for picking actors who can bring marginalized, disadvantaged, yet capable (and sometimes violent) characters memorably to life -- earning sympathy and scorn but never disrespect. Meanwhile, Marion Cotillard is perfect and stunning as Stephanie, giving a beautifully controlled performance and utilizing the film's uncannily convincing FX to her advantage. It was a great turn that I wish I had seen before my awards voting deadline -- like many elements of Rust and Bone.
Writer/director Audiard weaves their lives together with grace and immediacy against the backdrop of his distinctive story, employing his gorgeous visual sense, brought to sumptuous life by his long-time cinematographer, Stéphane Fontaine (A Prophet). Languid underwater shots become gossamer, interspatial pauses that border the frontiers between excitingly cinematic chapters. Choice musical selections from the likes of Bon Iver and Lykke Li cement the idea that everyone involved pretty much knows what they are doing.
The miracle of Rust and Bone is that it all sounds like kind of a bummer, but it really isn't. It hums with humor and sexiness amongst the drama and brutality. It's uncompromising yet uplifting, without a whiff of manipulation -- thanks to a great script by Audiard and co-writer, Thomas Bidegain (Where Do We Go Now?), that weaves a tight, unexpected and deeply satisfying tale.
Gangster Squad probably enjoys a mid-January opening because the studio thought it was shit. It's not. Gangster Squad instantly feels like something you would willingly watch more than once if it were on cable and you were on the couch, awash in rainy day munchies, mid-afternoon chronic, and unwilling to go find the remote. Kind of like what I'll eventually do with Zero Dark Thirty.
That's not really a slam, either. I've seen The Day After Tomorrow 238 times that way. It's the second surest path to cinematic longevity that I know of.
Based on a series of L.A. Times articles by journalist Paul Lieberman, Gangster Squad tells the gritty and frankly cool story of a secret group of L.A. cops who are conscribed to take down a mob boss by any means necessary. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell writer Will Beall (Lethal Weapon 5) that when you want to recreate the classic, L.A. noir crime genre, that a convoluted plot is key. And someone else forgot to tell director Ruben Fleisher (Zombieland) that approaching the material like a comic book doesn't help to add any sense of depth. Despite an amazing cast, Gangster Squad is a bit like Warren Beatty's 1990 version of Dick Tracy without all the prosthetic noses.
Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) is Sgt. John O'Mara an ex-special forces, WWII vet who becomes an L.A. cop -- one bristling at the carte blanche control over the City of Angels held by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a Jewish mob boss who is burning bridges with the Chicago mafia in order to assert total control over drugs and vice on the West Coast.
Buying off cops and judges left and right, Cohen is bullet proof. So the chief of police, Bill Parker (a welcome and grizzled Nick Nolte) taps O'Mara to lead a posse to take Cohen down. The only rule: leave the badges at home.
O'Mara puts together his team: Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is O'Mara's alcoholic, yet quick-witted and deadly friend, who immediately attracts the eye of Cohen's girl, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone, reuniting with Gosling after 2011's surprisingly good Crazy, Stupid, Love).
Det. Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, Saving Private Ryan) is the communications expert; Det. Max Kennard (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2) is the grizzled, old-West gunman who can turn anything into Swiss cheese; Det. Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker) is the sole black cop willing to work with The Man. And Michael Peña (Observe and Report) brings up the rear as Det. Navidad Ramirez, a Mexican-American officer who sneaks onto the team prove his worth. Under O'Mara's swaggering and dangerous leadership, the incognito squad sets about dismantling Mickey Cohen's racket, and finding that justice comes with a price.
My Little Friend. Sean Penn adopts the classic gangster movie stance: looking constipated while ignoring that machine guns have kick in Gangster Squad.
Stripped of multi-layered plotting and saddled with thinly sketched caricatures -- as opposed to archetypal characters -- Gangster Squad lacks the meaty substance and complexity that are sacrosanct in noir crime films, while mostly wasting rich source material that was so well utilized by peers like L.A Confidential and Chinatown. If you are a fan of that period in L.A.'s corrupt, scandalous and compelling history, Gangster Squad's Cliff Notes version will leave you feeling unfulfilled while making the flick all too predictable.
But aside from that, director Fleischer infuses the proceedings with a sense of gleefully violent fun (if anything, Gangster Squad comes off as a serviceable action film) and his cast saves the shallow writing from itself. It's a great set of actors, chewing scenery like they were at a Chinese buffet.
Josh "We're Going to War" Brolin knows he's supposed to be a superhero and runs with it. Gosling is playing up his boyish yet debonair charms. Ribisi is as capable a nerd as he's ever been. Robert Patrick is cut from paper-thin writing, but he brings his all and succeeds. Mackie is equally watchable along with the great Michael Peña and Emma Stone, the problem being they all have almost no characters to work with. They're just running on an overabundance of talent that tips the balance in the Gangster Squad's favor. Seeing Sean Penn go full on evil as Mickey Cohen is probably worth the price of admission alone. If everyone else is at the Chinese buffet, Penn is the one eating the lobsters whole, shell and all.
Ruben Fleischer is a decent enough director and he brings a light-hearted tone to the film that matches the lightness of its construction (and which made Zombieland so disarmingly enjoyable), yet the tone -- and careless writing -- undermines the potential of his story.
Ultimately, Gangster Squad is fun, but it's hard not to feel like Fleischer squandered an amazing cast on a shallow vision of a time in history that has fueled many other and better films.
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