Y’all remember 1994? I barely do, personally. But, here’s a few joints I was feeling at the time, a mix of predictable choices and maybe a couple dark horses. (I got “Black Hole Sun” off Beavis & Butthead.)
I have a dumb Method Man story. When I was a kid, I didn’t know that songs got edited for radio and music video play. I mean, I knew there were songs with cuss words, and songs without cuss words. I just didn’t realize that there were also songs that had at one point had cuss words.
At the time, I was really into that “All I Need” video with Mary J Blige. It was creepy and weird and Mary J’s part was beautiful, so when I found out my uncle had the CD, I snuck into his room when he was at work (or maybe college?), turned the volume knob way down on his receiver, and loaded it up. I went straight to “All I Need,” ’cause that was the move.
AND WHOA. Is this the same guy? This guy is cussing all over the place. I listened to some other songs — more cuss words? Maybe it isn’t the same guy? So I put the CD back where I found it, confused.
A few days later, the music video came on while I was chilling with my uncle and I found it in me to ask about it. I don’t entirely remember the whole conversation, but I remember being pretty smooth about it. But I was probably ten years old, so I couldn’t have been that smooth. I was like, “Hey, is this the guy whose CD you have? The scary one?” and he said yeah. “But… he cusses?” Yep. “Oh.”
Their name sounds like a joke today, but it’s hard to overestimate how big Miami Bass was at the time, especially 69 Boyz. Nineteen Ninety Quad is the 1994 equivalent of like Rick Ross’s Teflon Don or Jay’s Blueprint Who Cares. It was all bangers, and every day on the way to school, we were singing either 69 Boyz, Tag Team, or them Bankhead Bounce dudes. Or making our own radio edits — “We don’t need no water, let the mother mother burn!”
TLC’s CrazySexyCool is one of the hardest albums ever. It’s cool if you disagree, but go back and re-listen to it. It’s super good. Despite a childhood ban on cussing, me and my cousin knew all of Bone’s “No Surrender” by heart. We wore that tape out. Liquid Swords, too.
-Psyche, I’ve been on tumblr, thinking out loud. Rick Ross dropped a line about rape in a song, backlash ensued, and eventually he apologized twice and Reebok dropped him from a sponsorship deal. It was a whole thing, I guess, but it sorta bugged me. I’ve spent some time trying to talk through it on tumblr, so follow the bouncing ball: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and then it stopped because some dumb Apple apologist wanted to be a dick to me but didn’t realize I invented being a dick, and then ends with this, on Rawse & Context. Maybe you’ll dig it? I dunno, but I wrote it.
This weekend, I watched Place Beyond the Pines and Seven Psychopaths. Pines was really very good, sort of aimed directly at my heart (it’s about daddy issues and criminals). Psychopaths was still good the second time around, and it was nice to catch things I missed the first time. In hindsight, it’s not so much a crime movie as a Hollywood movie, which is interesting. I’d say more about Pines, but it’s totally worth going in cold. The most I knew about it was Liz Barker’s review, which you should also probably read, if you’re curious about what the movie feels like.
My dude Mahershala Ali is in there, too. I like that guy a lot, whenever and wherever he shows up. Eva Mendes, too.
I also started rewatching Chappelle’s Show, which is still absurdly funny. I think I’m well into season two at this point.
Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying?
I’ve long enjoyed Los Angeles as a setting for crime movies or novels, especially ones set just after World War II. It’s not my favorite, on account of New York between the ’60s and ’80s being the best setting for everything, but it’s up there. The way it sprawls, the cities that make up what we think of as Los Angeles and their own little cultures and legends, the interstates, the desert, the mountains… I can’t get enough of Los Angeles. It’s beautiful.
With the exception of going to LA whenever I can to visit friends, though, my LA experience is limited to movies, music, and books. Which is cool, yeah, but that’s pop culture, right? It isn’t true. It might be accurate, but it isn’t real. My friend Tucker put me onto this fantastic book a couple years back, John Buntin’s L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. It’s really great. It’s a history that runs from the ’20s up through the Rodney King riots, and it really enhanced my mental picture of LA as a location and a culture. It almost retroactively justified my love of Los Angeles, in a way.
Gangster Squad debuted with a trailer that was something like this one:
They got me with the Just Blaaaaaaaaaaze!, Emma Stone as a cutie pie of a tired moll, Anthony Mackie, and Michael Peña. The rest is aight — Gosling was cool in Drive, Brolin is pretty okay, ROBERT PATRICK — but that’s what hooked me. All my friends who are smart about movies began each conversation we had about Gangster Squad with “Mannnnnnnnnnnn,” but I kept the faith, even after stories of reshoots and rewrites. Saw it release day, even.
I saw Killing Them Softly a couple weeks beforehand and didn’t really like it. I thought it was okayish, but a mess. But the further I got from it, the more I liked it. I thought about it a lot and finally got what they were going for. And now, I’m afraid I’ll love it if I see it again.
Gangster Squad is like that, but inverted. Here’s four reasons why.
Gangster Squad isn’t boring, but it ain’t new. If you’re going to it in search of spectacle, you will find it. Things explode while dudes walk away from them, there’s a posse up scene, there’s a plucky ethnic sidekick, and Ryan Gosling’s character approaches a shoot-out like life is cheap and he got bullets three-for-one at the gun store.
The weird thing about Gangster Squad is that you have to make a mental adjustment when you start watching it. I was expecting something in the vein of a knock-off Michael Mann or Tony Scott flick. Modern action and nihilism in an old setting. Instead, about ten minutes in, I had to readjust my expectations. There’s a strange noise filter over most of the movie, the dialogue is a bit much, and the gunplay is actually much more subdued and boring than I’d expected. I honestly had a moment where I thought “Wait, is this a weird period homage kind of movie and not a real movie? Why are they talking like that and why does it look like this?”
The setup is familiar, but one of the first details they reveal during the movie almost lost me entirely. Josh Brolin plays O’Mara (cool, Irish cop), a WWII vet (even better) who did some secret spy stuff during the war and is some kind of super-soldier (nah son). Ryan Gosling plays Wooters, another WWII vet (Wooters and O’Mara bond over the war at one point and it is the saddest, limpest thing since “O’Mara, you’re basically Captain America. Can you go kill some dudes for me, Nic Nolte playing Police Chief Bill Parker?”). Wooters is… dirty? Probably? He hangs out with mobsters, but he never actually does anything that’s dirty, so whatever. Some kid he liked dies in a shoot-out and Wooters has a change of heart and decides to start killing criminals. He also murders two criminals in the street immediately after but it still somehow a cop/allowed into crime clubs. Who cares. Emma Stone plays Grace Faraday, Mickey Cohen’s etiquette coach slash girlfriend. Great name. Flat character. Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen like a Dick Tracy villain crossed with the Joker.
The rest of the cast are just sketches. Anthony Mackie’s Coleman Harris is good with a thrown switchblade (sure, okay), hates heroin, and patrols whatever they said the black part of LA is. Robert Patrick and his Sam Elliott mustache is an ancient gunslinger by the name of Max Kennard. Michael Peña’s Navidad Ramirez is obviously Max Kennard’s illegitimate son who is following in his father’s footsteps and has the best name in the movie. (#2 is Grace Faraday because it’s a classy classic, followed by Coleman Harris. #worst is “Wooters.”)
That’s all they are. They’re a brief sentence and a one-liner in a gunfight to remind you that they have a personality.
Gangster Squad mines a rich period of American and Los Angeles history, but mucks it up for no reason. Part of my interest was seeing how they’d fit an action/adventure narrative into the very real story of Mickey Cohen. As it turns out, the answer is “They’re going to rewrite the story of Mickey Cohen entirely.”
Here’s a short list of things Mickey Cohen got up to in real life: sexual extortion, blackmail, boxing, bootlegging, walking into hotels and just firing his gun to try and draw some dudes out, sold love letters to a dead man to the news, and owned a bulletproof Cadillac.
Here’s a short list of things Mickey Cohen does in Gangster Squad: talks about boxing, orders hits, looks menacing, sets up a telephone scheme, says “I’m God,” and I guess goes to jail shortly before getting out of jail in the ’50s so he can hang out with Billy Graham and them.
He’s a cartoon, a Hollywood villain, and is nowhere near as amazing or fascinating as the real Mickey. He’s just some goon with a lot of other goons under him. He’s boring. He’s not scary, or charismatic, or anything. He’s Sean Penn in eight pounds of makeup, and that just isn’t interesting, especially when compared to the real deal. Mickey was flamboyant and charming. Penn doesn’t rate.
It doesn’t help that the squad of super cops all have gimmicks like they were superheroes. O’Mara is Captain America, Gosling is good at walking between crime and law (note: he doesn’t do this in any of the movie), Harris throws switchblades with deadly accuracy, Ramirez is plucky, and Kennard is I guess so old that he only knows how to use revolvers.
I realize that having regular dudes wouldn’t make for the most exciting movie, but we basically had regular dudes in real life and Cohen was eventually put away. Regular dudes on the warpath against an overwhelming threat? That’s great.
Everything doesn’t have to be the Dirty Dozen, and when you jazz it up like that, you lose a lot of the texture that made that time period so interesting. Open corruption, hard-driving politicians and cops attempting to clean up the joint, and actual factual race riots in the precincts are way more interesting than “oh yeah, this guy can throw a knife really fast.”
They should’ve mined that, instead of just taking the setting and stopping there. Real life is already rich and it doesn’t need generic embellishment to be watchable.
I love Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña, but what the heck were they doing in this movie? I will check out anything that Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña choose to do, pretty much, but Gangster Squad was amazingly mis-written from their perspective. Outside of a joke about Ramirez’s heritage being the reason why no one will partner with him but the dude who is obviously his absentee father and the black folks in LA hanging out with other blacks, that’s the only attention given to race in the movie.
Jackie Robinson was doing work and getting hate around the time that Gangster Squad was set, but somehow a black cop and a Mexican cop can hang out with white cops in bars and don’t get crap from their fellow police on account of their skin color? Nah, son. False. I don’t need a movie-stopping break for a discussion of the black and brown condition, but don’t suggest that things were all to the good by omitting the ugliness, either. They threw in a racial slur toward Mickey Cohen and that’s about it. It shatters what little verisimilitude the movie has, because America was wild racist in those days, including and/or especially the police.
Their roles are actually pretty symptomatic of what’s wrong with Gangster Squad. Instead of including them and doing a little extra legwork to show how they fit into the culture of the day, they’re just included in the crew with barely a mention given to their point. Coleman Harris is anti-heroin, Mickey Cohen deals heroin, so of course he’d be down with murdering him. Really? No. That is straight out of a comic book. O’Mara wouldn’t have gotten stand-up guys for this gig. He would’ve gotten a bunch of bent cops with guilty consciences.
Instead, he’s got the most unlikely Benetton Brigade ever, a big fat dollop of untruth that’s stinking up the whole movie. It’s pretending to be race-blind, and that’s terrible.
Ryan Gosling has a weird baby voice. Maybe I’m late to the party or something, but I’ve really only seen dude in Drive and he barely spoke in that. But in Gangster Squad, he says a lot of things, some of which are actually pretty cool but most of which are just “Because the genre demands it!” nonsense. “Don’t go,” he says, as Emma Stone walks out the door. “Don’t let me,” Emma Stone says, in the least convincing delivery of her life. “Please leave,” I say, watching this movie and wishing it was over.
But he waffles back and forth between baby voice and real voice and it doesn’t work at all.
Props for that scene where he fires at a car that’s speeding away, because his body language there is impeccable, but that’s in the trailer.
There’s probably a really good cut of Gangster Squad that halves the Gosling/Stone scenes, jacks up the police brutality, and ends with the whole squad dying that’s really, really good. As released, though? No thanks.
Like everybody else, I’ve been thinking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive since I saw it a while back. But first:
And a good song from the soundtrack:
(The Drive soundtrack’s really very good, by the way. Stretched out John Carpenter synths, real ’80s sort of sound.)
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this movie. I was actually thinking about it before falling asleep last night, and came up with a killer opening paragraph, but then I fell asleep. I had a couple of good email conversations with Morgan Jeske about it the day it came out, too. (Apologies to him if I accidentally steal any of his ideas.)
Drive is a movie that is aware that you watch movies. There’s a certain level of self-consciousness to a lot of modern films, sort of a Family Guy-esque drop in a reference and let you fill in the blank. Daniel Craig’s James Bond I think did this a few times to emphasize the difference between the sexy James Bond and the new thug, Die Hard 4 was better titled John McClane Versus Die Hard’s Bastard Children, Featuring Parkour Guy, Ninja Girl, and The Matrix Guy. It’s a wink at the audience, essentially, rather than any sort of effective storytelling. It’s a pat on the head, a congratulations for having seen a bunch of stupid movies. (Comics fans will know it as “continuity porn.”)
Drive comes off differently. It’s aware of the arc of your average action movie, it gets Michael Mann’s movies about dudes who are good at a thing, and it understands throwback aesthetics. And instead of rewarding the audience for knowing these things with a doggie biscuit and “Good boy!”, Refn and Amini use… I called it “negative space” in my emails to Morgan, and that’s really the best term I can come up for it. They simply don’t fully flesh out certain things, and we’re left with the responsibility of inferring the full shape.
It took me a while to realize that this is what they’re doing. It’s a very quiet movie, dialogue-wise, with an almost distractingly high number of knowing looks, tentative smiles, sidelong glances, and grins. There are precious few times where someone stands up and says, “I feel like this and so I am going to do that.” It works well, in context. It makes what could have been a cliché movie into something a little more ethereal. It’s to Drive‘s credit that it doesn’t quite feel like what it actually is.
The negative space thing is interesting. I had no trouble filling in any of the blanks in the movie, and it occurs to me that this is a sort of audience participation, too. I built part of this movie, maybe some fairly important parts, myself. That just strengthens my suspension of disbelief, since I’m not going to come up with something I can’t believe in, and strengthens the movie, too. It makes it more personal, more mine, than it would be if everything were clearly spelled out. For example, the romance part of the movie feels awkward and almost teenaged in demeanor. No one declares their love, and it isn’t even clear whether or not there’s a sexual aspect to their relationship. You assume so, sure, but was there really?
In Drive, Ryan Gosling’s character is nameless. It abstracts him as a person. He’s “The Driver.” What does he do? He drives. That isn’t the fullest explanation of who he is, but we’re left to interpret that for ourselves. We have to crystalize his abstraction into something we can believe in. For me, Gosling saying that he doesn’t carry a gun tripped something over in my head. He participates in sometimes violent crimes. He’d be held responsible in a court of law, but he divorces himself from the actual violence of the act. He won’t help you stick some place up and he won’t carry a gun. He’ll drive you from A to B, and that’s all you get. Is driving an adrenaline rush for him? It’s clearly something he’s good at, and he’s fairly clever, too. But he doesn’t want to carry a weapon or do the actual job. Does that keep him from overstepping his limits? “I don’t carry a gun” is a limit. It’s a rule, and we have rules because at some point someone did something that required the creation of the rule.
Bryan Cranston’s character mentions that Gosling just walked in off the street one day and asked for a gig. That suggests that he’s transient, and his lack of friends does, too. He’s not on the run from something, exactly, but he is escaping from something. Maybe he made a mistake or maybe he couldn’t do something any more.
So, working backwards: The Driver leaves some place (my first thought is Chicago, actually) and moves to LA. He left because, at some point, he carried a gun and something went sour and somebody died or worse. The Driver got off clean, but still had to vacate. He comes to LA, finds a small job, and falls back into an old habit, but is careful to keep the worst aspects of that habit at a distance. “I don’t carry a gun.” And then, when given sufficient reason, he falls back into those old habits, not with relish, but a sort of… grim determination. Like the end of The Big Fat Kill–”We gotta kill every last rat-bastard one of them. We gotta kill them because we need them dead.”
There isn’t pleasure in the act, not that I can see, so much as a responsibility. He’s good at what he does, whether that is driving or killing. The problem is that that opens up something inside him that’s genuinely ugly and terrible. He understands fear and theatrics, on at least a surface level. That fits with Refn’s idea that Drive is a superhero origin story. But Drive isn’t, not really. It’s the end of a thug’s life.
The Driver’s “sufficient reason” isn’t your traditional action movie love. He becomes attached to a neighbor, Carey Mulligan’s Irene, and her young son Benicio. He takes them on a tour of the LA river, and they have a brightly lit, fun, familial picnic at a beautiful, but polluted, locale. The picnic is shot like Heaven, and the implication is pretty clear. This is a place the Driver thinks is cool, and it is, but it’s also tainted. At the same time, this brief taste of Heaven is enough to show the Driver a way out of his life, something to grasp to pull himself out of his past.
I really don’t think that Irene and the Driver had a physical relationship. The Driver filled a need while her husband was locked up, whether it was security or a strong role model for Benicio. They both filled a need, really. Irene and Benicio represented Heaven for the Driver. There was so much unspoken in their relationship, and they were definitely into each other, but it seems very much like that they were in the budding stages of a relationship up to the point where Irene says “My husband’s coming back” while riding with the Driver somewhere. That line’s dropped in there with murderous finality, and may well be one of the longest sentences she’s uttered up to that point. It certainly felt like the one with the most impact.
There’s a scene late in the movie that directly juxtaposes the Driver’s past and present. He’s in an elevator going down (you don’t go down to Heaven, by the way) to the parking garage with Irene. A man in the elevator is clearly a shooter come to clean both of them up. Driver and Irene kiss in the elevator, completely with a bright, heavenly light, and then the Driver turns, slams the shooter against the elevator, and then kicks his head in. Thanatos and Eros right there, or maybe just Heaven and Hell. Irene steps out of the elevator and the doors close with the Driver in the bloody elevator. The doors literally closed on his future. He was always damned, and getting a taste of Heaven tipped him over just enough to ruin his equilibrium. He was closed off emotionally, and then Irene and Benicio opened him up, and then it was too late. You don’t get to pick and choose your emotions, and that bright red poison inside him came out at its first opportunity.
Later, the Driver tells the story of the scorpion and the frog. It feels really on the nose and eye-rolly, but after I thought about it some… it isn’t. The story doesn’t track. He didn’t ask for help. He was shanghaied into helping someone else. And then, after being betrayed, he set about the business of hurting people until things were put right. The only thing that applies is that scorpions hurt people. That’s their nature.
And that train of thought swung me back around to “I don’t carry a gun” (because if he had his tools, he would hurt people) and Irene and Benicio as escape hatch (because it is definitely both of them, not just Irene. He wants to go somewhere and be a family man) and the way that he stomped that guy out in the elevator. I don’t think that he would have harmed Irene and Benicio, but at some point, he would have hurt someone and fallen once again. The scorpion & frog speech wasn’t about what he was about to do to the people. It was about him. It was a confession. “This is what I do when you make me break my rules.”
It’s a well made movie, is what I’m saying. It encourages conjecture while still managing to be complete in and of itself. The conjecture is integral and superfluous at the same time. It knows you know how these shake out, so it can skip the exposition and backstory. That’s your half of the movie. Refn and Amini’s half informs and overrides yours, but the two halves make for a great whole.
It’s great. Visually, it works really well, too, but that’s another essay. I did want to share this image that Morgan sent over to me. It’s thumbnailed because there’s bare breasts and this is theoretically a worksafe site, but check this:
Look at the focal point of the frame. I like this level of attention paid to small details. The strippers in this scene almost act as the audience, watching with somehow rapt attention and blank faces, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the violence to come… yeah, I like this movie quite a bit. It hit the spot perfectly. I’m flying to Los Angeles today, and I basically just bought the Kindle version of Drive just because. It’s short, you know?
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