Gangsters

Posted on February 18, 2015

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I watched a couple three gangster pictures this week, and it seemed like a great theme for a post.

Pulp (1972)

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Michael Caine plays Mickey King, a man who dumped his wife, kids, and family business to run away to the Mediterranean to be creative. He found his calling write pulp adventure novels under a variety of pseudonyms, books with titles like, My Gun Is Long.

Mickey gets hired by Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), an aging movie star living on Malta, to write Preston’s biography. Gilbert gets killed, to no one’s surprise, and it’s up to Mickey to figure out what happened and why.

Caine’s deadpan voice-over keeps this movie light. He imagines himself one of the characters in his novels, and the over-the-top narrative is intentionally hilarious precisely because Mickey seems so unaware of the ridiculousness.

Rooney is dead-on as an aging actor who misses the attention, and his Gilbert is a thoroughly unpleasant narcissist.

Considering the terrible crime that sets off the events of this film, it’s hard to call it a comedy. It’s really a pulp adventure that acknowledges how ridiculous pulp adventure could be, and has a light tone as a result.

Thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

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Colin Farrell plays Marty, an Irish writer living and working in LA. He’s sold a script titled “Seven Psychopaths” but hasn’t actually written it yet. His buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) tries to help, in between the dog “borrowing” business he runs with Hans (Christopher Walken). It’s that business that gets them all in trouble, when Billy “borrows” Bonny, a Shih Tzu belonging to local gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), whose girlfriend, Angela (Olga Kurylenko) is sleeping with Billy.

I actually watched this movie three times in twenty-four hours, trying to follow the densely packed plot. Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed, does a marvelous job of keeping it all moving and making every little scene pay off. That said, I have some criticisms.

There are really only two characters in the movie, Marty and Hans. Everyone else exists to move the plot along. Marty and Hans have actual story arcs. No one else does.

The parallels between Marty’s script and the actual film are a little too on the nose.Marty is tired of “of all these stereotypical Hollywood murderer scumbag type psychopath movies.” He wants to write a movie about love and peace, but he’s stuck with delivering Seven Psychopaths. AT one point he says his movie should start out setting up a revenge action movie, but half way through the main characters should drive out into the desert and just talk – while he, Hans, and Billy are driving out into the desert and talking. Hans reads Marty’s script and points out that the female characters are terrible, which seems like meta-commentary on female characters in Hollywood movies, but again Marty has no insight. It never pays off.

Marty has no idea what a psychopath is or what makes a psychopath. He has no insight. That could be meta-commentary on Hollywood in general, but it means that some of the characters in our movie never pan out.

The marketing made this seem like a comedy. It is not. It’s more of a magical-realist crime film, if that makes any sense at all.

 

Stand Up Guys (2012)

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Doc (Christopher Walken) drives to prison. Val (Al Pacino) has served his time standing up, meaning he didn’t rat out his friends. Doc is picking him up. It’s been over twenty years since they saw each other, and there’s a lot of adjustments they have to make. Val quickly figures out that Doc is going to kill him. They talk about why, and about Doc’s deadline. Then they proceed to go out and have the time of their lives with another old friend, Hirsch (Alan Arkin). When the deadline finally comes, Val and Doc have to decide how they want to go out.

I really enjoyed this movie. The device of Val’s character being fresh out of prison after over twenty years gives us a chance to re-examine our world. Val hasn’t grown old with his friends. He hasn’t witnessed the process of aging. His knowledge of the world is limited to what he got from letters and television. So he holds up a mirror for us to see how we treat aging.

Doc has lived inside the cultural expectations for aging men, and though he simmers with resentment, he mostly accepts his role. Val jars him out of it, and reminds him how vital and powerful they still are.

This movie beautifully handles character arcs not only for Doc and Val, but for Hirsch, Alex (Addison Timlin, playing Doc’s granddaughter), and Nina (Juliana Margulies, playing Hirsch’s daughter).

Stand Up Guys may be a meditation on aging, but it’s still a gangster movie. In one night they visit a whore house, rob a pharmacy, go back to the whore house, steal a car, go to the ER, “rescue” Hirsch from a nursing home, evade the police, go to the whore house a third time, beat up some young gangsters, bury a friend, and steal some suits. They also eat several times, but that’s hardly gangster material.

The interesting part of that, for me, is that I never really felt like I knew how an action scene would end. Would youth and speed overcome age and cunning? Would Val take advantage of a situation to turn on Doc? Would Doc take advantage and complete his contract on Val? Would the cops catch them and send them all to jail?

Hats off to Fisher Stevens (director) and Noah Haidle (writer) for giving us suspenseful action sequences.

We do have to suspend our disbelief a little. Even though Val did his whole stretch and is not our on parole or probation, we still live in a surveillance state and this movie ignores that in favor of telling a good story. If you liked Tough Guys (1986, with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas), see Stand Up Guys the first chance you get.

 

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Posted in: Movies