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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014

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Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling in "Gangster Squad," in theaters now.
Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling in "Gangster Squad," in theaters now.

"Gangster Squad" takes sensationalized aim at gangland nostalgia

Classic gangsters loved a good embarrassment of riches. Nice cars, fancy suits, expensive arm candy – the sky was the limit on how they could show off their wealth and power.

For a movie like "Gangster Squad" – which takes place amidst the glitz and glamour (and dirty world of organized crime) of late '40s Los Angeles – showing off is fine. In fact, it's pretty much a prerequisite. But, when the swanky style of the era meets the stylized swank of the movie's own excesses, things get out of hand.

"Gangster Squad" is the semi-true story of a group of LAPD officers tasked with taking down the city's most notorious crime boss, Mickey Cohen (played with smarmy zeal by Sean Penn). The secret band of righteous outlaws, led by Sergeant John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) and backed by a diversely skilled ensemble (played by Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie and Michael Pena), lay a promising foundation for the film despite its rote crime drama set-up. Unfortunately, their promise is smothered by their one-dimensional characters and unembellished screentime that only sets them up as a band of cliched white knights.

Nearly everything else about "Gangster Squad" is awash in what can best be described as "gangster camp." Everything about Cohen's high-class living is gratuitously ostentatious, from his fortified mansion and posh nightlife to his ludicrously mismatched partnership with etiquette coach Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Conversely, the down-and-dirty aspects of his ill-gotten lifestyle – the clandestine business meetings set in deviously noir locales, the cadre of goons armed with tommy guns tooling around L.A. in slick dark cars – wholly embrace the devil-may-care arrogance of a cartoonishly repugnant kingpin soaring too close to the sun.

The only thing more eyeroll-inducing than these prototypical ploys is "Gangster Squad"'s score. Its pensive, deep monotones don't flesh out until the near-climax, leaving it to plaintively drone over the…

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Internet security is one thing, but griping about invasions of privacy on Facebook is a little much.
Internet security is one thing, but griping about invasions of privacy on Facebook is a little much.

Go on, track me

It feels like not a week goes by without someone posting something about how Facebook's invading everyone's privacy, spying on your browser history, etc., ad nauseum. (These posts are usually made on Facebook, by the way.)

I understand the generic concern over the Orwellian slippery slope, but it doesn't take me too long to re-assess and arrive back at my old conclusion: Who cares?

Facebook tracks you. BFD. Plenty of other websites have cookies and sneaky tricks that do the same thing. Ninety-five percent of it is for advertising; the other five percent is so the government knows where you are in case aliens demand access to the Fort Knox DNA blood reserve where everyone's clones are kept in jars ... or so I've been told.

Point is, I don't care if some crazy ad wants to tell me Wisconsin residents get cheap insurance and free Viagra if I click on a GIF of a dancing granny. I just ignore it. And unless you're a CIA mega-hacker, you've already been tracked, so doing something about it now isn't going to do squat.

I'm still vigilant with my Facebook privacy settings. There are weird people out there, and they're far more likely to have ulterior motives against me. Is worrying over "The Man" or a super computer in Langley worth my time? Not really.

In fact, they can track me all they want – I'm sure my Netflix history and reposted memes are fascinating.

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables," in theaters today.
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables," in theaters today.

"Les Miserables" makes for a miserable movie

Merry Christmas, "Les Miz" lovers – I'm about to hate all over your musical.

All right, calm down. I don't hate the musical itself, per se. What I hate is its utterly superfluous big screen adaptation, which I'm about 90 percent sure is getting rave reviews only because people can't differentiate between "great musical" and "great musical lazily slapped onto film for mass consumption."

"Les Miserables," to the musical-inclined, is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a 19th-century French parole jumper who vows to care for young Cosette (Isabelle Allen/ Amanda Seyfried) after the death of her mother, Fantine (Anne Hathaway). "Les Miserables," to the musical-less-than-inclined, is that new movie with Hathaway ugly-crying into the camera as she belts out that Susan Boyle song.

Those in the latter camp will be sorely disappointed when Hathaway bites it within minutes of first appearing on screen, and that's the fault of a dirty marketing trick to get people into seats with her clout behind the trailers. It's a minor offense, though, compared to the rest of the more legitimate shortcomings that litter this two-and-a-half-hour trudge.

For all of the languid pace it takes up in later acts, "Les Miz" rushes through its exposition like the opening credits were on fire. It drops key points of the introduction in moments, scattered across characters in a muddled mess of sing-talking, which is itself hard to follow right from the beginning. The exchanges may as well have been in French, especially considering Valjean and Javert (Russell Crowe)'s penchants for referring to themselves in the third person.

It wasn't the completely musical dialogue that turned me off, though, but the constant soliloquizing. Having the characters talk to themselves to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to the audience might work on a Broadway stage, but in a movie – where "showing" takes precedent to "telling" – the device just comes off as lazy. After being translated from no…

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Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained," in theaters now.
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained," in theaters now.

"Django Unchained" is off the hook

Well, it took director Quentin Tarantino 20 years, but he finally got his Western ... kinda. 

Although it's fair to say he's been preparing his entire career with his raucously bloody shoot-'em-ups, Tarantino's time warming up has been well spent if "Django Unchained" is the final result. The antebellum revenge tale pits freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and eccentric German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) against sinister plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in a battle to rescue Django's captive wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). 

Because he just can't help himself, Tarantino hasn't just taken a good ol' Western showdown and dropped it onto a plantation; he's used a classic German folk tale to frame it (hence Broomhilda, the damsel in distress). The tale is actually explained in the film, but the metaphor fuels "Django" loosely from beginning to end. I say "loosely," because, well, there's just no cramping Tarantino's distinctive style. 

There's no mistaking "Django" for anything but a Tarantino flick. It's evident from the very first notes of the part spaghetti Western, part Blacksploitation introduction, complete with exposition-laden song lyrics and his perpetual soft spot for grindhouse cinema. It's Quent-sploitation at its finest, which is enough to isolate a solid portion of the average movie-going audience. Tarantino has carved out a niche of trademark in-your-face satire and over-the-top action, and "Django" is fraught with it. But, while it's easy to understand how that isn't everyone's cup of tea, there's more to this movie than meets the intro.

Naturally, the cast is on the top of the "awesome" list. Waltz, returning to Tarantino's direction after his award-winning turn as the cheerfully sadistic Col. Hans Landa in "Inglourious Basterds," is appropriately fantastic taking up the "good guy" torch as Django's mentor. He almost hits good overload, but then you snap back to reality and think, "Nahhh." 

In fact, a lot …

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