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Hollywood's Deadly Dance

Three films filled with violence vary in their sincerity


With three new blockbusters, Americans have a unique opportunity to send a message to the gatekeepers of our popular culture. Hundreds of thousands of moviegoers will choose to invest in three films--Gangster Squad, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained--each blood-soaked and spinning on a different axis of violence. We can no longer dismiss such treatises as simply movies. Our support for films such as these portend our social nature.

Sean Penn, hidden somewhere beneath a ridiculous amount of prosthetics as 1940s mobster Mickey Cohen, scowls into the camera lens in the trailer for the soon-to-be-released Gangster Squad and mumbles to a trembling victim, "You're going to be begging for a bullet before it's over."

Gangster Squad, already pulled from two prior theatrical releases due to re-editing of violent scenes, promises third-rate dialogue ("Back home I was a gangster, now I'm God"), Depression-era jazz, finely coiffed cops and bad girls with hearts of gold. But make no mistake, the movie is about guns, lots of guns: pistols, shotguns, tommy guns. Guns are used when dialogue fails, and it apparently fails often here.

"We're going to war!" screams Josh Brolin as Sgt. John O'Mara.

Gangster Squad's sappy script is an insult to anyone who has worn a uniform (police or soldier), which appropriately brings us to another Friday, Jan. 11 nationwide release: Zero Dark Thirty, one of the best films of this--or any--year.

Zero Dark Thirty has made its way to the nation's front pages of late, criticized by some members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who said the film's scenes of torture are misleading. I must admit that when I hear such claptrap from our intelligence community (and I use the oxymoron cautiously), my sense is that Zero Dark Thirty probably cuts closer to the truth's core than Washington, D.C.'s cognescenti can tolerate.

The film does not favor torture by any means but portrays the events--as related by CIA sources--that led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. It's a densely detailed examination of humanity's most violent inclinations and how some readily wreak havoc on the body and soul of a prisoner to cull information. The film is bookended by despair (Sept. 11, 2001) and terror (the downfall of bin Laden) and cannot be missed. It's terribly violent, but Zero Dark Thirty is an examination of our own mental landscapes in an age of terror.

Which leads us to Django Unchained, also begging for our dollars at the local cineplex. This tasteless bloodbath is more ludicrous than lurid and therein lies its soul: Quentin Tarantino's increased desire to exploit rather than explain. Ripe with racism, Django represents everything that is wrong with the pulp fiction that Tarantino continues to pump out. He, nor any other filmmaker, gets a free pass to make our culture more violent by masking carnage as a carnival. It's shameful.

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Director: Quentin Tarantino

Producer: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Michael Shamberg, James W. Skotchdopole and Shannon McIntosh

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, David Steen, Dana Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Laura Cayouette, Sammi Rotibi, Donahue Fontenot, Escalante Lundy, Miriam Glover, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Jonah Hill and Lee Horsley

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Director: Ruben Fleischer

Producer: Dan Lin, Kevin McCormick, Michael Tadross, Paul Lieberman, Ruben Fleischer and Bruce Berman

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, John Aylward, Josh Pence, De'aundre Bonds, Jon Polito, Wade Williams, Mick Betancourt, Jack McGee, Mireille Enos and Troy Garity

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Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Producer: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison, Colin Wilson, Greg Shapiro and Ted Schipper

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Chris Pratt, Reda Kateb, James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Strong, Fares Fares, Yoav Levi, Scott Adkins, Fredric Lehne, Mark Duplass, Stephen Dillane and John Barrowman