Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
Notorious Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen has been portrayed by several actors over the years, including Harvey Keitel, who copped an Oscar-nomination for "Bugsy." Now Sean Penn plays the former boxer-turned-mobster who became the prime West Coast promoter of drugs, gaming and prostitution as a cold, ruthless psychopath.
In 1949, LAPD Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a no-nonsense World War II combat vet, decided to take down Cohen, assembling an undercover "Gangster Squad" of renegade officers handpicked by his worried, pregnant wife, Connie (Mireille Enos), and authorized by crusading Commissioner William Parker (Nick Nolte). There's electronics whiz Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), black street enforcer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), grizzled sharp-shooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) with his Hispanic apprentice Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena), and cocky, womanizing rebel Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who falls for Mickey Cohen's moll, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), as they're waging guerrilla warfare.
Scripted by former LA homicide detective Will Beall from Paul Lieberman's series of articles and directed with an astonishing lack of subtlety by Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland"), this violently sensationalistic melodrama has a troubled history. A major machine-gun massacre that had been filmed at Hollywood's legendary Grauman's Chinese Theater -- and was shown in the theatrical "Coming Attractions" trailer -- was scrapped after the Aurora, Colo., tragedy and the confrontation restaged in Chinatown. Then the film's release was postponed in deference to the Newtown tragedy.
What remains is slick, synthetic, cartoonish schlock. Despite occasional comedic moments, it's filled with broadly caricatured performances that bear only a passing resemblance to historical truth. The real-life Mickey Cohen was known to be charismatic, charming the celebrated film colony along with journalists and politicians with parties at his Brentwood mansion.
What's most memorable is the production design, including a particularly grisly, introductory killing staged beneath the famed HOLLYWOODLAND sign (it was abbreviated shortly afterward) and the glitzy, art deco nightclubs like Slapsy Maxie's, where slinky femme fatales enticed tuxedo-clad customers.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Gangster Squad" is a garish, bullet-riddled 4 -- a completely forgettable flick.
Corruption is pervasive, particularly when it comes to energy concerns. In that vein, Gus Van Sant has fashioned a polemic about the dangers of a hydraulic drilling practice called fracking.
Farm-boy-turned-corporate-salesman Steve Butler (Matt Damon) has been dispatched by Global to the rural Pennsylvania town of McKinley with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to acquire natural gas-drilling rights. Hard hit by the economic decline of recent years, McKinley's citizens are suffering hard times. So Steve's job shouldn't be too difficult since Global is offering considerable profit to each individual farmer for the right to blast into their soil with pressurized chemicals to release natural gas. Some accept with alarming alacrity; others prove more recalcitrant.
Primary opposition comes from Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a high school science teacher who publicly challenges Steve's corporate agenda and calls for the townspeople to vote on the company's proposition, rather than just accept Global as their economic salvation. Adding to Steve's consternation is the arrival of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), a slick environmental agitator who launches an anti-Global campaign, pointing out that fracking not only contributes to air/water pollution but also proves deadly to livestock. Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), an attractive schoolmarm, is caught in the romantic rivalry between Steve and Dustin.
Even before its release, there have been protests by energy industry representatives, and it should be noted that part of the film's funding came from Image Nation Abu Dhabi, implying, perhaps, that the United Arab Emirates, the world's third-largest oil exporter, may have a vested interest in suppressing U.S. natural gas production.
Working as a screenwriter, Damon has collaborated previously with Van Sant on "Good Will Hunting" and "Gerry" -- and they've now added John Krasinski to this crisis-of-conscience dilemma as co-writer/co-producer. The professional acting ensemble, including Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, Titus Welliver and Tim Guinee, is first-rate, augmented by real-life residents of Avonsmore, Pa.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Promised Land" is a sensitive, sympathetic 6, appealing particularly to environmental activists.
"NOT FADE AWAY"
After achieving remarkable success as creator of HBO's "Sopranos," David Chase makes his directorial debut with this coming-of-age drama. Taking its name from a song popularized by Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones, it captures the shift in rock `n' roll that took place during the roughly five turbulent years between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and his brother Robert in 1968.
Intelligent yet insecure Douglas Damiano (John Magaro) is a drummer in a garage band with his guitarist friends Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Britt). Calling themselves the Twylight Zones, they play covers of the Stones, Bo Diddley and the Kinks. Doug's infatuated by Grace (Bella Heathcote), who doesn't pay much attention to him until one fateful evening when egomaniacal Gene has to skip a gig after swallowing a lit joint, promoting nerdy Doug into the vocalist spotlight. Wells is involved in a reckless accident, and they all experience discouraging self-awareness when they audition for a tough record producer (Brad Garrett).
As narrated by Doug's younger sister (Meg Guzulescu), there is generational conflict. Grace comes from a well-to-do, conservative household that's worried about her unstable, artsy sister (Dominique McElligott), while Doug's family is decidedly blue-collar Italian-American, typified by his judgmental, domineering father (James Gandolfini) and depressive mother (Molly Price). It's only after his father is diagnosed with cancer that he begins to understand self-involved Doug's need for creative fulfillment.
Writer/director Chase relies on his own, poignant rock-infused memories of growing up in suburban New Jersey to delineate these nostalgic, if cliched, characters, coupling them with a period soundtrack featuring the Beatles, the Left Bank, Small Faces, Elmore James, Robert Johnson and Lead Belly, in addition to the Stones, the Kinks, Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley. Steven Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, is music supervisor/executive producer.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Not Fade Away" is a bittersweet 6, serving as a wistful remembrance of the emerging 1960s counterculture.