From L.A., Russia, Germany and London With Love

Posted on April 22, 2013
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“Gangster Squad,” set in Los Angeles in 1949, loosely tells the story of an elite L.A.P.D. crime-fighting unit set up to combat the imminent takeover of L.A.’s streets by notorious mobster Mickey Cohen, who was slowly but surely becoming the kingpin of the city’s dope, vice and gambling dens. He had the politicians and the police in his pockets, and it was up to police chief Bill Parker to wipe the slate clean: He empowered a small group of honest, maverick cops to form “The Gangster Squad” to fight fire with fire — and bring down Cohen at all costs — civil liberties be hanged. It’s an exciting tale with a lot of violence — divorced somewhat from reality — but that’s photo to be expected when one has to make a movie from reality. The set pieces, of course, are the violent gun battles and explosions that take down cops, crooks and innocent bystanders alike. There’s some weak writing, underdeveloped characters, and a lackluster romance (between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, both out of their league here) but, like the ‘B’ films of the 40s and 50s, this outing is all about atmosphere, death, tragedy and redemption. It got a bum rap from a lot of critics and performed luke-warm at the boxoffice. But don’t read anything into it and just go along for the ride. A plus: lush 1940s production design and costumes, and recreations of mid-century Los Angeles. Fun extras include “The Gangland Files” (a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes on the real-life Gangster Squad, Mickey Cohen, the sets, the costumes, the characters and more); “Rogues Gallery: Mickey Cohen” (a docu TV series episode on Cohen); and a Los Angeles Then and Now featurette. Directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) and starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Mireille Enos.

“Ivan’s Childhood”(1962 — Russia): The debut feature by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (“Andrei Rublev”), “Ivan’s Childhood” stands as one of the great anti-war films of all time, right up there with “Paths of Glory,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “La Grande Illusion” — even though there is very little war action in the film. Through off-kilter camera angles, moody panoramic shots, shadowy lighting, and poetic photo flashbacks and dream sequences, the film charts a young Russian boy’s determination to help his fellow soldiers infiltrate the Nazi lines as an advance scout. The present — gritty, dirty WWII sequences infused with dread but also with a comradeship and love among the protagonists that stabs into your heart — and the past — young Ivan’s idyllic pre-war life with his mother — co-exist in an involving scenario that is a monument to honor, responsibility, love — and the horrors of war. This is grand filmmaking from a director whose cinematic life was all too short (he died at 56 after only a handful of films). The January 22 Criterion Collection Blu-ray boasts a handsome B&W transfer, an illuminating appreciation of Tarkovsky and “Ivan’s Childhood” featuring Vida T. Johnson, co-author of “The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue”; interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova; “Between Two Films,” Tarkovsky’s essay on “Ivan’s Childhood,” and “Ivan’s Willow,” a poem by the director’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky.

“The Tin Drum” (1979 — Germany): “The Tin Drum” is one of those films that mobilizes audiences into black and white contingents — you either love the film or really, really hate it. Director Volker Schlondorff’s film, based on Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s acclaimed 1959 novel, shared the Grand Prix at Cannes (with “Apocalypse Now”) and won the Academy Award as best foreign film, and as been hailed as an indictment of fascism and an attack against the ease in which people can become indifferent — or partake in — the inhumanity photo of the world. The film revolved around Oskar, born in Germany in 1924 with an advanced intellect. On his third birthday, repulsed by the hypocrisy of adults and the irresponsibility of society, he refuses to grow older, and takes shelter behind his tin drum, which he pounds on incessantly as he encounters the madness and folly of humankind. Oskar, however, is no innocent, and becomes tainted by the world around him that he despises. It’s a surreal amalgam of bizarre imagery, eroticism, female frontal nudity, incest, coprophagy and other perverse acts against a riveting story and breathtaking cinematography. When it was released in 1997 on video, the film became the center of a censorship storm in Oklahoma City when a Christian fundamentalist group got a judge to declare that the film contained child pornography (as defined by Oklahoma’s obscenity laws). Local police seized copies of the film and threatened to arrest anyone possessing a copy. U.S. federal courts overruled the district judge but not until after much chest-beating on the part of conservatives. The January 15 Criterion Collection Blu-ray features a restored, longer version of the film with a new interview with Schlondorff; a German audio recording from 1987 of author Gunter Grass reading an excerpt from the novel with musical accompaniment, illustrated with the corresponding scene from the film; television interview excerpts featuring Schlondorff, Grass, actors David Bennent and Mario Adorf, and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere reflecting on their experiences making the film; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and 1978 statements by Grass about the adaptation of his novel.

“The Hour” (2011-2012): For a series to make it on TV, you need four main ingredients: characters you can get involved with, interesting situations, linking arcs between episodes and characters, and love/romance (ever notice how love trumps work on TV?). BBC’s “The Hour” had this in spades. Set behind the scenes of the BBC newsroom of a new investigative news program in 1956-1957, the series followed the reporters and photo newscasters as they struggled with crime, corruption, censorship, personal infidelities, long-simmering relationships, glamour and stardom — all against the backdrop of a British MP sex scandal, the deployment of atomic weapons in England, the Suez crisis, the launching of Sputnik and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. The beauty of the series was it’s juxtaposition of renegade, liberal journalists going up against the conservatism and bowdlerization of 1950s Britain with real events transpiring behind — and motivating — their actions. Throw in great writing and acting (Dominic West, Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw, Anton Lesser, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Burn Gorman, Anna Chancellor, Joshua McGuire, Lisa Greenwood and Oona Chaplin) and the BBC had a critically acclaimed hit. Unfortunately, ratings for the second year of the show dropped below what BBC2 required for a series to be continued, and “The Hour” was cancelled in February of this year. A shame — but you can still see episodes courtesy of BBC Home Entertainment, which offers “The Hour” and “The Hour: Season 2” in two-disc sets in DVD and Blu-ray.


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