Friday Flicks: ‘Gangster Squad’ Pits Penn Against Gosling and Brolin

TIME breaks down which films to see and which to avoid this weekend.

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Warner Bros

Gangster Squad

Tagline: No Names. No Badges. No Mercy.

Much like the forgettable Ben Stiller comedy The Watch, which had to change its name following the Trayvon Martin shooting (it was originally titled Neighborhood Watch), Gangster Squad has had a troubled journey to a movie theater near you. It was due to open last September but was postponed until 2013 because of the tragic theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. A key scene involving a gunfight in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was subsequently deemed “inappropriate” and thus was removed, first from the trailer and then from the entire movie.

Set in the Los Angeles of 1949, Gangster Squad stars Sean Penn as the Brooklyn-born mob king Mickey Cohen and is the kind of role Penn revels in playing. He’s at the center of a whole host of nefarious activities and enjoys the protection of his own team of goons as well as local police and politicians. Is anyone possibly brave enough to step up and try and rock the status quo? Step forward, Sergeants John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who join forces to bring Cohen down. (Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Peña are also assembled by Nick Nolte’s Chief Parker to make up the team.) “Can you remind me of the difference between us and them?” asks Ribisi, to remind us that it’s one of those movies where the difference between good and evil is difficult to decipher. Emma Stone crops up in an almost obligatory romantic subplot as Gosling’s femme fatale, since their hook-up in Crazy Stupid Love clearly shouldn’t be a one-time deal.

Critics are pretty much split down the middle as to whether the film should be deemed a success. “Despite the flaws and the occasional corn, this is still one of the most exhilarating and entertaining action films in recent memory,” raves the New York Observer. “Gangster Squad is perfectly decent entertainment: it possesses a frequently witty script, a roster of likable, cool-looking stars, fizzy choreography and Sean Penn out-hamming Mr. Pricklepants,” zings Empire. But the Village Voice hammers it, concluding that “the lazy, trashy Gangster Squad is damning physical evidence that the war for the soul of Hollywood is in a bad way.” And the Hollywood Reporter makes a smart comparison, noting that “this lurid concoction superficially gets by thanks to a strong cast and jazzy period detail, but its cartoonish contrivances fail to convince and lack any of the depth, feeling or atmosphere of genre standard-bearers like L.A. Confidential.”

MORE: Warner Bros. to Recut Gangster Squad After Colorado Shooting

Quartet

Tagline: It’s never too late to change your tune.

Adapted by screenwriter Ronald Harwood from his own 1999 play, Quartet seems to be for the same crowd who found much to enjoy in last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

We’re in the U.K., and specifically at a care home in the countryside for retired actors and singers (which, of course, is where every British entertainer heads once their moment in the sun has passed). The focus is on four residents – Jean (Maggie Smith), Wilf (Billy Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins) and Reggie (Tom Courtenay) – and whether they’ll be able to overcome various stumbling blocks in order to perform the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto at a benefit for their home.

And despite the solid cast, most of the attention has surrounded a certain first-time 75-year-old American director by the name of Dustin Hoffman. Time Out London feels that Hoffman “draws endearing performances from his cast, and a host of supporting actors played by singers and musicians grounds its more farcical and rarefied elements in white-haired reality.” The Daily Telegraph was similarly charmed: “Quartet is a lovely old lolloping Labrador of a film. It bounds over to you, eyes bright and tail wagging, and you smilingly allow it curl up on your feet.” But TIME’s Mary Pols wasn’t nearly as enthused, calling the film “terribly cloying and cutesy”, while the Guardian went straight for the jugular: “It’s a movie with the atmosphere of a day centre in which the windows are never opened.” Ouch.

MORE: Kennedy Center Honors Letterman, Led Zeppelin, Dustin Hoffman
NewsFeed’s Flicks Pick: Neither film will be making it onto the 2013 year-end lists, but Quartet might be the more charming option — though as far as plot and cast are concerned, Gangster Squad has the firepower.

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