Monday, January 7, 2013

Fiona Shaw's Gangster Squad

Did you know, Mr Bleichert, that Ramona Boulevard is named after me."
"I didn't."
"When Emmett married me for my father's money, he promised my family that he would use his influence with the city's zoning board to have a street named after me. But all he could manage was a dead-end block in a red light district. In Lincoln... Hhhh-eights. Are you familiar with the neighbourhood, Mr Bleichert."
"I grew up there."
"Yes, well, then you'll know that Mexican prostitutes expose themselves from windows. I hear many of them know Mr Liscott by name!"
"Shut up!"
"I will sing for my supper when Mayor Bowran comes to dinner, but not for Madeleine's male whores. He's a common policeman, my god! How little you think of me.

The above is a transcript of one of Fiona Shaw's two incredibly memorable scenes from Brian De Palma's 2006 retelling of the famous "Black Dahlia" murder. It is inarguable one of just many incredibly odd scenes to be found across De Palma's altogether messy film, The Black Dahlia. A film that reached such sky high levels of badness that it veered directly into unintentionally camp laugh riot. Shaw, it would seem, is the only actor the whole affair who was able to see what film was being made and went about not only stealing it outright from everybody else, but doing so in a style that continues to amaze me to this very day. In just two brief scenes Fiona Shaw was able to give The Black Dahlia a legacy of some sort beyond being a pretty failure. One person once described her as an "utter loon" and who could argue with that? I know many hate this movie - and with good reason, I'd suggest - but I enjoy it as an exercise in complete and utter foolhardy, Hollywoodised rubbish. Shaw is the lone star amongst a collection of dull, imploding masses of clay (I'm looking at you Scarlett Johannson, Josh Hartnett, Aaron Echkart, and Hilary Swank as a ridiculously unsexy Russian lesbian who doesn't for a single moment look "just like that dead girl", no matter what Johansson's playing-in-mummy's-wardrobe performance would have you believe.)

I bring up The Black Dahlia because last night I saw Gangster Squad, new film by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) that got shafted to a January release date after the shooting tragedy at a Colorado movie theatre. Set two years after the events of The Black Dahlia, Gangster Squad shares a similarly styled aesthetic, although one that lacks the lush intricacies of Dahlia. Dione Beebe's overly computerised digital photography and the overly artificial sets don't have any of the eye-popping class of Vilmos Zsigmond's Oscar-nominated cinematography or uniquely specific sets from De Palma's movie. Mark Isham's musical score for the latter is equally fine, especially compared to Squad's Nolan-inspired boom score from Michael Bay collaborator Steve Jablonsky. If the actors are by and large better in Gangster Squad then that's more an indictment of The Black Dahlia, but they still fail to enliven a fairly mediocre movie. Emma Stone looks particularly lost at sea playing a sexy dame with eyes for Ryan Gosling's bad boy cop. That her entrance is a replication of Michelle Pfeiffer's breakthrough into cinema history in Scarface does her little favours.

Still, the film's biggest problem is its tone. Whether this is a result of having to (literally) go back to the editing room and recut the film to, at least, remove any trace of the infamous cinema shooting scene that caused such a controversy after the Aurora massacre, I'm not sure, but I think it's fair to say there was a problem long before that tragedy unfolded. I suspect there's little coincidence that Sean Penn's villain (as well as many of his henchmen) resemble Dick Tracy characters, but why then not go all the way and give the film an entirely cartoonish quality? It certainly would have made some of its more excessive directorial flourishes more palatable. I craved a scene or two that was as maddeningly bonkers as Fiona Shaw's inclusion in The Black Dahlia. I longed for a scene as deliciously in your face and technically savvy as that film's long take as the body of Elizabeth Short was found. Sadly none were to be found.

Similarly, if it's not going to reach the crazy end of the pool, why not go serious and aim for LA Confidential or The Untouchables? It's not as if the cast was wanting for something serious, but the no man's land that Gangster Squad finds itself in does nobody any favours. By the time Josh Brolin's leathery hide was chasing down buggies and latching on them like he was T1000 I'd long since given up interest. Which is a shame, but not altogether unsurprising. The aforementioned cinema scene looked like a film peak from the trailer so its exclusion is as disappointing in that regard as it is unnecessary. But, there's nothing they can do about it now. C

I will say this though: Gangster Squad's end credits are fabulous. It's not actually a diss to say they're the best part of the film because they're genuinely excellent. They were done by a company called Scarlet Letters and if you do go see the film please stay and watch them all.

You show 'em, Fiona!


Barry said...

Mia Kirshner was great as well :)

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