Category Archives: Watch This Not That

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Watch This, Then That: Gangster Squad/The Untouchables

In this series, I will take a look at a film releasing in theatres this week and recommend an older/classic film either as a double feature companion (if the new release looks to be worth watching) or a substitute (if it looks like the new release is of the skippable variety).

New Release: Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad

A misfit squad of cops going after gangster Mickey Cohen’s empire in 1940s Los Angeles? Yeah, sign me up for that. I’ve been interested in this since I heard about it, especially due to the presence of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in the cast, but I’m ultimately glad it got delayed from September to January. Once the trailers started coming out, it was fairly clear this wasn’t going to be a good movie in the sense of a The Departed or a Godfather, but an over-the-top fun genre flick, and that fits the post-Oscar-hopeful January moviegoing season perfectly.

I went to see it yesterday, and enjoyed it quite well for what it is – there are some plot holes that I didn’t feel like bothering either rationalizing or criticizing, because it’s a fun, rollicking ride. It manages that handily, with Sean Penn hamming it up as Cohen and the other cast hitting their admittedly single-faceted character notes with game aplomb. Its glossy look never quite approaches anything that actually feels like a lived-in Los Angeles, but it looks stylish and the fight scenes are well-choreographed – it’s a good look for the film, which never pretends to be realistic, but maxes out on the glamor of nostalgia. Don’t expect too much out of this, and you’ll likely have a fun time. Then come home and watch one of the major influences on Gangster Squad, 1987′s The Untouchables.

Double Feature: Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables

Funnily enough, I chose The Untouchables to double-feature with Gangster Squad early in the week, before I’d seen or even read reviews of Gangster Squad. I mean, it’s a fairly obvious pairing even with only superficial knowledge – they’re both about a somewhat unlikely squad of men going after a crime boss (Al Capone in this case) in the early-to-mid 20th century. Watching Gangster Squad put me even more in mind of The Untouchables with a climax centered on a set of hotel steps that reminded me of The Untouchables’ famous sequence in Union Station (itself an homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkim), but it had been long enough since I watched The Untouchables that I didn’t even realize how very many things Gangster Squad stole from DePalma’s film.

Rewatching it last night after seeing Gangster Squad reminded me pretty quickly, though. There are a TON of similarities in plotting, character setup, settings, etc. So if you’ve already seen The Untouchables and you’re a stickler for originality, you’ll likely be irritated at how much Gangster Squad cribs from the earlier film. I still think both are worth watching, but The Untouchables remains the vastly superior film. The stories are pretty similar, and Sean Penn’s Mickey Cohen is actually more menacing than Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, but The Untouchables showcases the best of Brian DePalma’s showy style, with some extremely well-done and effective camera movement, and a refreshing tendency to follow people with the camera to create solid in-depth compositions rather than just cutting back and forth, as Gangster Squad tends to do.

The emotional beats hit home more strongly, too, with Sean Connery impressing both comedically and tragically (he won a deserved Best Supporting Oscar for the film), and the various losses on the squad feeling much more meaningful than the similar losses do in Gangster Squad. DePalma also knows how to take his time, as in the long waiting period for the action to start in the train station sequence – a segment which ratchets up tension beautifully; Gangster Squad takes little time to build sequences like this, though it definitely has its own moments that remain effective.

In short, Gangster Squad can’t come near the quality of The Untouchables, but it is a fun genre ride in the midst of a fairly uninteresting January release schedule. So go watch it and enjoy it for what it is, then remind yourself of what films like this CAN be with a first watch or rewatch of The Untouchables.

The Untouchables is available from Netflix via both Instant Watch and DVD, or as a $2.99 rental from Amazon Instant.

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Watch This, Not That: This is 40/Two for the Road

In this series, I will take a look at a film releasing in theatres this week and recommend an older/classic film either as a double feature companion (if the new release looks to be worth watching) or a substitute (if it looks like the new release is of the skippable variety). If it’s a double feature suggestion, it’ll be titled “Watch This, THEN That” instead, of course, but they’ll all be under the same category for easy navigation. I’ve had this idea percolating in my head for a while, as a way to highlight and talk about both new and older films, since I enjoy both. As far as which new release I pick any given week, that’s up to my whims and which one lends itself best to double-featuring/replacing. Obviously, if you’re interested in a new release I’ve replaced, feel free to treat it as a double-feature suggestion instead.

New Release: Judd Apatow’s This is 40

I’ll admit upfront that I’m not a big Judd Apatow fan, whether he’s directing or only producing. I did enjoy Freaks and Geeks, but I disliked Knocked Up, Anchorman, and Talladega Nights, thought Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall were just okay, and haven’t seen anything from him since then. I was considering checking out This is 40, though, simply because the one part of Knocked Up I did like was the Paul Rudd/Leslie Mann subplot, about a mismatched couple on the brink of marital disaster as they approach middle age. It had a melancholy, a resonance, and a realistic tint to it that I found utterly lacking in the main plot, and I was curious to see if that translate over to a full-length film focused on these characters.

Now, granted, I haven’t seen it, but I’ve kept a close eye on the reactions from other bloggers I trust, and it hasn’t really been encouraging. It seems the same problems I had with Knocked Up (a shrill and mean-spirited undertone in a story that goes for easy, juvenile laughs more often than real emotions) surface here, just as they seem to in the trailer.

So instead, I’ll recommend an older film about a disintegrating marriage, 1967′s Two for the Road.

Watch This Instead: Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road

Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn play a long-married couple who have gotten to the point where silence and bickering are their two main modes of communication. As they drive to a party to which neither of them really wants to go, they think back about the entirety of their marriage, considering whether it’s worth it to try to keep going or just break it off. These reminiscences are treated as flashbacks, with the conceit that all of the memories take place as the couple is on a trip somewhere (on “the road,” as in the title), and rather than being signaled normal flashback techniques, the transitions are accomplished by a car passing, which turns out to be their car in another era, on another trip. It may sound gimmicky, but it works beautifully, because it basically collapses time in on itself.

You see, every one of these memories, whether it’s the early joy they took in each other’s company as they were falling in love, or the awkward trips taken in tandem with other couples (one time with one of his ex-girlfriends), or the recent, much more trying trips where fighting and standoffishness had become the order of the day, is in some way “the present,” because they’re all still part of who Finney and Hepburn are as individuals and as a couple. That happy young couple is still part of them, as is the resentful middle-aged couple, and the couple that defines themselves against who they might’ve become with other people. It’s a fascinating concept that I haven’t seen used very much, but really gets at the heart of why marriage breakup stories are so heartbreaking – this is a couple that once delighted in each other and now does not. What happened?

The answers aren’t easy, nor simple, just as they never are in real life. The film focuses almost solely on Finney and Hepburn and depends on their ability to convey different ages and relationship stages through dialogue and subtle facial expressions, and they are more than up to the task. This is one of the most adult films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in the best way possible – a film that treats not only its characters as adults but its audience as well, and gets at the raw emotional truths that underlie any story that purports to depict or explain the dissolution of a marriage. And yet it never feels dry or hard to watch, but is consistently entertaining and enjoyable, even as you ache for the couple in it.

Two for the Road is available on DVD from Netflix, or as a $2.99 rental from Amazon Instant.