Labor Day – LFF Film Review

Labor Day	Photo credit:  Dale Robinette

Jason Reitman made his name making high quality comedy dramas and Labor Day marks something of a departure for him as not only is it his first period film but also, in my opinion at least, is his first out-and-out drama. It is 1987 and an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) takes refuge in the house of a single mother (Kate Winslet) and her only son (Gattlin Griffith). He initially is holding mother and son against their will but as the long weekend passes he becomes less of a kidnapper and more of a refugee as he takes on the role of husband and father that both are missing from their lives.

Reitman is clearly trying to make something a little different to his normal fare here but is doing so in such a self-conscious way that I think he gets a little lost. Scenes within the house are so po-faced it is hard to take them seriously. Josh Brolin may be playing an escaped convict but he plays him as such a gentle giant, such a caring and considerate man, that it is hard to see why he would have escaped from jail in the first place rather than continue to serve his time. Winslet’s sad divorcee is a fragile creature and it is not hard to see why she might start to develop feelings for her kidnapper but the combination of her need for a saviour and his deliberate saviour-like qualities seems a little forced. Clark Gregg plays the ex-husband and father as a sweet and caring man who is perhaps a little bland thanks to limited characterisation. Again it is not obvious why we should see him as being so inadequate in the role of father for an escaped criminal to seem like a viable option. It is as though a particular outcome for the film was sought and so characters were written to suit.

The real star of the film is Gattlin Griffith as the son Henry. It is through his eyes we see this whole ordeal and maybe this is why some of the characters come across as caricatures. Griffith is very much viewing the film along with the audience as I don’t think either of us could ever quite decide if we wanted Brolin to get caught or not.

Jason Reitman has made a quality film with plenty of beautiful images and a raft of strong performances. The film is almost a tactile experience and has such a fully realised setting I felt like I could reach out and feel the roughness of the furniture or taste the peach pie. Where the films struggles is how seriously it takes itself considering its slightly implausible plot. At various times in the film I was incredulous when I realised that only two days had passed when the amount of change in the characters’ relationships would have requited much, much longer. It was a relief when the few scenes set outside the house brought with them laughter and I could take a breath as the story within the house wasn’t going to allow for any smiles unless you were considering how wondering Josh Brolin’s convict was as a family man.

Labor Day (Labour Day?) is a good film if a little too laboured (HA!) to be believable.

Labor Day screens at the festival on the 15th and 19th October and is in UK cinemas on 7th February 2014.

BFI London Film Festival 2013

Gangster Squad – Film Review

Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad opens on Sean Penn as real-life mobster Mickey Cohen, alone in a boxing ring. With a murderous glare and muscly arms more scary-looking than Madonna’s (incidentally, Penn’s ex-wife) he beats a punching bag violently whilst Josh Brolin details through voiceover how awesomely criminal Cohen is. Because director Ruben Fleischer doesn’t think this convinces us enough that Cohen is a cold-blooded psycho we cut to a remote location where he has a man chained to two cars pointing in opposite directions. Cohen instructs his goons to drive and audience cheers at the bloody violence thrown at them before they’ve even had a chance to sit down.

Mickey Cohen’s mafia occupation is a force that 1950s Hollywoodland can do without. That is why the incorruptible LAPD Chief recruits Josh Brolin’s equally honest Sgt. John O’Mara, a too-dedicated-to-the-force war veteran, to put together an unofficial squad to not just arrest Cohen but to destroy him.

Although some may find it odd that director Ruben Fleischer has seemingly taken a different route from his previous efforts Gangster Squad isn’t all that different from Zombieland and 30 Minutes Or Less. They all play host to dark humour, they all feature excessive violence, and they all play with their genres in ways that we don’t see often. It may play the plot straight but at the same time it is certainly no The Untouchables.

Gangster Squad 2

Without crossing into parody the squad O’Mara selects are pretty laughable. The gang are sincere in their efforts to take down Cohen’s operation but run into problems only Mr Bean could have if he ever challenged the mob. Needless to say, the misfits are incredibly hard to not love. Brolin is excellent as the group’s leader whose biggest flaw is his dedication to his Protect And Serve oath, constantly endangering himself, ticking his pregnant wife right off. As friend, Sgt. Jerry Wooter, Ryan Gosling somehow balances cutie-pie with hard-nosed cop brilliantly, falling in love with Cohen’s favourite “doll”, Grace, played by Emma Stone (which makes the pair two for two in playing love interests in a film they both star in – the other being Crazy Stupid Love). The rest of the gang consists of veteran character actor Robert Patrick whose skills put to shame loyal Michael Peña, doubter Anthony Mackie and the reserved but bold Giovanni Ribisi.

Sticking to cliché most of the way some may sneer at Gangster Squad, but it spreads itself equally between set pieces and long dialogues, making it easier watch than most crime films without becoming a soulless actioner.

Gangster Squad is one of those fine films that fills you with absurd excitement; the kind of film that has you imitating the characters for the rest of your evening. Just like I put my socks on my hands and pretend to shoot webs right after seeing any Spider-Man film, Gangster Squad had me adding “lickety split” to every sentence and firing an imaginary tommy gun everywhere as I travelled home. Les Miserables this weekend? Gangster Squad, lickety split!

4-Stars-Rather-Pleased