The Gangster Movie Review
There is nothing more amazing to watch than a wonderful children’s film. If the filmmaker nails it they create a film that transcends time, culture and generation ala Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and when they miss you get something like Pocket Ninjas (1997). The modern blueprint for a successful children’s film can be found by looking at two men, Brad Bird and John Lasseter. When Bird appeared on the scene with Iron Giant (1999), though not a commercial success, it turned a lot of heads because, simply, the film is a masterpiece. John Lasseter is so well known he is a household name due to Pixar, but it’s his screenplays for Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Cars that helped define the successful family picture. The breadth of both Bird and Lasseter’s filmographies show concisely the fundamental rule of the true family film: never pander. The brilliance of something like Willy Wonka is that I can still watch that movie today, as an adult, and enjoy it because it works as a children’s film and on its own merits. That duality of story is what Bird and Lasseter have so perfected, and to show another example would be entirely redundant. It’s disappointing then to see, when blessed with so many modern cinematic examples on how to do it right, that filmmakers seem to still miss the boat. Though harboring sprinklings of brilliance here and there, Caley Wilson’s short film The Gangster (2009) overall seems to have evaded its intended mark and ultimately its audience.
It’s never an enjoyable thing to cut into a film, like natal surgery, it is heart wrenching for all involved. The Gangster does have a lot going for it. The cinematography is top notch as is the sound (the importance of which can never be understated) yet the story is very predictable and by the end credits I was struck with the odd feeling I had just watched a film based on a one note joke. The story centers on three friends, Baden (Justin Scriver), Michelle (Kyra Weisman) and Adam (Lukas Pallotta) who witness a “gangster car” leaving an abandoned house. The children are so enticed by the concept that the house may be a dumping site for dead bodies that they break in to have a look around.
Whereas the concept of childhood projection can be used in wonderful cinematic ways, here it is only hinted at and ultimately discarded for convention. The three child leads handle themselves competently, though at times the pace of their dialogue as well as their performances are stilted and disjointed. Still there is a clever exchange in the opening when Baden and Michelle discuss the presence of the gangster Caddy as being proof of dead bodies. It’s wonderful child logic and the exchange is witty, well paced and hits a high note with Baden exclaiming “Dead bodies. That’s what those cars are for. You pretty much got to kill someone before they’ll sell you one.” When Wilson allows himself to explore these element of child perception, the film shines. The short-lived moments inside the house, when Michelle goes in through a broken window to open the door for the others, are brilliant and expertly handled. They showcase Wilson’s undeniable filmmaking ability which makes his ultimate discarding of them so disappointing. His use of sound, muffled dialogue, lighting, set design and camera are so top notch here it feels like another film entirely. If these elements had been carried further, or explored in more detail, the culmination of the story would have been more satisfying. Yet Wilson tips his hand just a little too soon and gives the punch line of the story away before reveling it on screen.
Wilson definitely has some talent behind the camera, and there is no denying he’s a brave soul. Making a film centered on children is something certain filmmakers will never even attempt. For the most part he nails the logic and heart of a child, and his moments inside the house exploring perception verses reality is a stroke of genius. Yet he also makes the misstep of falling to convention and ultimately pandering to his perceived youth audience. There are ingredients in The Gangster that could make for a truly amazing film, and Wilson most definitely has the chops to do it. Evolving the concept and carrying it through, or even allowing the film to go over the top as in Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1978), would add immeasurably. Ultimately Wilson has offered us a competent first film rife with potential and possibilities.
The goal of any reviewer is never to stifle creativity like Wilson’s, but to say “Don’t hold back or second guess yourself.” The moments with Michelle inside the house alone harkens to a unique and burgeoning filmmaking talent if allowed to roam free. The Gangster has its flaws as does most first films, but it also has its moments of sly brilliance. Given time and focusing on what really works Wilson will most certainly come into his own. For now though The Gangster stands as an admirable first step.