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Gangster Squad.

Director Ruben Fleischer breathed new life into the zombie genre by infusing comedy into his weird and quirky Zombieland. He successfully fussed the odd mix of contradicting elements of horror and hilarity.

He's not so successful with a similar attempt to blend genres in Gangster Squad. His decision to take a modern approach to a 1940s-style gangster story gives the film a jumbled feel. The modern touches seem out of place while the mob story lacks energy and tension.

There are some very good elements in this tale based loosely on the real story of the police officers who took a stand against organized crime in Los Angeles during the late 1940s. The team worked off the books and without any regard to the law. Anything was acceptable as long as the mob didn't get a foothold in Southern California.

Fleischer shot the movie with a wink and a nod to the gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s. The good guys--particularly Josh Brolin as squad leader Sgt. John O'Mara--are a hard-nosed group. Brolin even seems to channel the quiet cool of Humphrey Bogart as he guides his men through the no-rules war on crime.

Even the film's central bad guy, mobster Mickey Cohen, played by Sean Penn, looks like a refugee from a James Cagney movie with his evil stares and growling voice. The film's at its best when Brolin and Penn are on the screen together.

The actors are given a beautiful backdrop as Fleischer makes '40s Los Angeles look like a magical place, from its high-priced night clubs to the mysterious back alleys. The director opted for a more vibrant filming style rather than the dark, glooming film noir look of the gangster-movie era. In this case, the visual approach is better because it gives a more mystical look to the movie.

Then there are the problems.

Fleischer has tried to put a spin on the classic gangster story with modern dialogue and touches of humour. This artistic juxtaposition is a distraction. The characters come across more like a bunch of 21st century buddies going to a gangster theme party than as a crew trying to keep Los Angeles safe.

This is particularly jarring with Ryan Gosling, whose Sgt. Jerry Wooters is too cool for any room. Everything he says is a quip or witty banter. He ends up about two jokes short of becoming little more than the comic relief for the movie.

And his scenes with Emma Stone--as the beauty who willingly shares her love with mobster or cop--don't have the crisp dialogue of the '40s, where sexuality was discussed in double and triple entendre. There's no romance here. It's just another reminder that Fleischer's modern touch doesn't completely work.

This film is not a total miss, but it certainly isn't the direct hit that Zombieland was.

Everyone knows how Zero Dark Thirty ends: with the killing of Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani compound by SEAL Team Six.

But it's how it begins--with the hauntingly effective use of voices of the 9-11 victims and then a pummeling abuse of a prisoner at a clandestine CIA "black site"--that has inflamed the passions of both conservatives and liberals. Yet, as a viewer, it's like being shoved down a dark tunnel into a shadowy world of intrigue, suspicion and horror. That world comes brutally alive in Kathryn Bigelow's new film, a harrowing adventure behind the headlines that is at once a riveting procedural and, at the same time, a bracing political statement on the moral ambiguities of our war on terror.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA analyst who is single-mindedly on the trail of Osama bin Laden, even when her boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), wants her not to spend so much time on it. Maya is introduced to the world of "enhanced interrogation" through another agent, Dan (Jason Clarke), who lets her watch while he assaults and humiliates Ammar (Reda Kateb). At first, she seems uncomfortable, as if she might put a stop to it, but ultimately it only seems to harden her heart and resolve.

But it's going to take a lot more than jailhouse savagery to get Bin Laden. It's going to take gumshoe detective skills and that means everything else in Maya's life--which we're given few clues about--is pushed aside. (The person upon whom Maya is based is reportedly still an active CIA agent.)

It's the slow piecing together of evidence--along with the increasing urgency fueled by events such as the London bus bombing in 2005 and Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in 2008--that gives Maya the impetus to keep going.

Chastain, playing a very different character from the one people know her from in The Help, possesses a palpable toughness, even if she isn't physically overwhelming. There are a couple of moments that ring false (even if they did really happen), as when she uses a smart-mouth profanity in front of CIA director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini).

But those moments are overwhelmed by a performance that feels just right.

She's helped along by Clarke, an Australian actor who may now zoom to star status after years of yeoman work in everything from the TV series Brotherhood to the action movie Death Race.

Then there's the planning and the execution of the raid itself, the back half of the film, where you feel as if you're just one pair of night-vision-goggles away from the two SEAL Team members we get to know best, Patrick (Joel Edgerton) and Justin (Chris Pratt). As she displayed in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow is an expert at capturing the claustrophobia of combat.

Yet, after the deed is done, it doesn't feel quite celebratory for Maya. She seems to realize that the aftershock of war for her, and by extension all of us, will be around for a long time.

As written by Mark Boaz and envisioned by Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty is no simple, action-hero victory dance around Bin Laden's body. It's a powerful, philosophically troubling look at recent events strained through the prism of Bigelow's gripping artistic vision. Simply put, Zero Dark Thirty is the best film of 2012.

GANGSTER SQUAD

Cast: Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Running time: 113 minutes.

Rating: R for language, violence

ZERO DARK THIRTY

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Running time: 157 min

Rating: R for strong violence
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Title Annotation:Movies
Author:Bentley, Rick; Darling, Cary
Publication:Investigate HIS
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Feb 1, 2013
Words:1070
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