Tag Archives: neo-noir

To Live and Die in L.A. – Review

11 Oct

I’ve talked about William Friedkin before on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll be doing it again in the not too distant future. He’s a brilliant film maker who has very rarely allowed his vision to be compromised, so even if his movies aren’t always gems, you have to respect the guy. I mean he did The Exorcist and The French Connection for heaven’s sake. One of his movies that doesn’t get nearly enough attention that it deserves is his 1985 neo-noir thriller To Live and Die in L.A. While the film has gotten a cult following over the years, it’s not one that I hear discussed too much. I’ve just recently watched it and at first, I didn’t really know what to make of it, but then when it was over I really stopped and thought about the movie as a whole, and I gotta say that it’s one of his stronger films. It may not be quite on the level of The Exorcist and The French Connection, but like those movies, it defies Hollywood norms and turns the concept of a clean narrative completely on its head.

Richard Chance (William Petersen) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene) are two secret service agents who are tracking down notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), whose fake bills can never seem to be contained. After a routine check of what is believed to be Masters’ printing lab, Hart is shot and killed by Masters and his bodyguard. This fills Chance with an overwhelming need for vengeance, a need that he makes explicit to his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow). As the investigation turns up new leads and the two earn Masters’ trust as two potential buyers of fake bills, more problems arise with the legality of their actions. Vukovich sees the danger in how deep they are getting, but Chance is so blinded by his hate for Masters that they may both fall down a criminal abyss and never find their ways out.

At its surface, this sounds like a pretty standard revenge thriller, and for most of the movie that’s how I saw it. I want to get my initial reactions out of the way first, because a lot of my complaints about the movie are still valid. For one thing, this film has a very strange way of editing that can either be seen as way too stylistic or just plain sloppy. Scenes end before it seems they should and we are transported to another time and place entirely. It’s hard to keep track of how much time has passed between these cuts and where we have just jumped to. It was also kind of hard to take Petersen’s performance seriously at some points. He’s supposed to be a hard boiled anti-hero, which does come across well at times, but other times it’s a bit too much and resulted in some unwanted laughter at his overly dramatic performance. Finally, for a while, the story seemed so plain and generic that I had a hard time getting into it. A serviceman who is consumed by revenge goes against authority to get what he wants. It’s your everyday “play by my own rules” scenario. Luckily, To Live and Die in L.A. offers a lot more than your standard revenge film, and that’s where this movie really stands out.

This is a movie that has to be seen in full to really appreciate everything it has to offer. It got to a point pretty late in the film where it kicked into high gear and made everything before it come into focus. Chance’s character is one of the tragic anti-heroes of film and the subtle manipulations he made throughout the movie may not hit you immediately, but it soon hits you like a brick. He manipulates his partner who get pushed further and further to the edge throughout the movie. He also manipulates a woman named Ruth, played by Darlanne Fluegel, a parolee who he extorts through his power as an officer of the law and through sex. It’s an odd relationship that fits in very well with the off putting nature of the movie. Along with the manipulation, which begs the question of just how evil Chance is compared to Masters, is deception all across the board that is revealed in the last scenes of the movie. This turns a standard revenge plot into a slow game of deceptive progression that heats up and finally explodes in the last act of the movie. This narrative progress is one that has be seen in full and made me appreciate the movie so much more.

Many people have linked this film to The French Connection because of the plot and the themes of crime and corruption. I definitely see it and I also see a link with the hopelessness that both films feature. The way this film is shot is classic Friedkin, with the dramatic scenes in close up, the fights almost uncinematic, and actions set pieces that are, on the flip side, very cinematic. Highlights of the movie include a brawl in a living room, a fantastic car chase that ends on the wrong side of the freeway, and a scene in a locker room that will make you feel like an anvil just fell on you. The cinematography by Robby Müller is excellent and really brings out the noir sensibilities this film clearly has. I know I keep saying this, but all of these elements are what save this movie from being generic and raises it to a movie that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since I’ve seen it.

To Live and Die in L.A. is a very well made movie that isn’t without its flaws. Some of the editing really didn’t work for me and Petersen’s performance was sometimes a bit too over the top for the realistic vibe that Friedkin was obviously going for. It’s still a very memorable, gritty, and ultimately tragic modern noir tale that takes viewers deep into the grimy underworld of criminal Los Angeles. It’s not Friedkin’s best work, but it’s a movie that deserves a lot more credit than it’s given. I definitely give this movie a recommendation. Give it a watch.

Final Grade: B+

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Bound – Review

29 Jan

Well with a new year comes new movies, and one that I’m really gearing up to see is the Wachowski’s newest film Jupiter Ascending. I don’t know if it’s gonna live up to my excitement, but what better way to get ready for it than talking about one of their earlier movies, their directorial debut in fact. When The Matrix arrived on the scene in 1999, it blew audiences into the stratosphere, but before that was a little, yet critically acclaimed, film called Bound. I didn’t know what to expect going into this movie, so my I went in not expecting too much, but what I got was a fantastic neo-noir film filled with sex, violence, and tension that forces you to the edge of your seat.

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Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-con and professional thief, has been hired to renovate an apartment that just so happens to be down the hall from mafia launderer Caesar (Joe Pantaliano) and his girlfriend Violet (Jennifer Tilly). The job starts innocently enough until Violet begins taking interest in Corky and the two begin a relationship behind Caesar’s back. Finally getting sick of the lifestyle, Violet confides in Corky that she wants out and to start a new life with Corky, and the only way to do that is to steal $2 million of stolen mafia money right from under Caesar’s nose. Corky soon concocts a plan and the two lovers set it into motion, but it soon begins to go very wrong when suspicions arise and bodies start piling up, literally.

To me, the Wachowskis are almost too cool. The Matrix movies (and yes, I mean all three) are some of the coolest examples of film making that I can think of. Cloud Atlas was an incredibly ambitious film, but I can’t really offer my thoughts on Speed Racer since I haven’t seen it. Now I can add Bound to the list of really cool work that the Wachowskis are responsible for. Like I said before, I really had no idea what to expect going into this movie, but what I got was a claustrophobic neo-noir with some of the tightest writing I may have ever seen. It’s not rare for the suspense of a movie to make me excited and tense, but the suspense in Bound didn’t seem to end at a certain point, and not only that but it was paced so well. It kept me needing to see what happened next by stretching out certain scenes, but I never felt bored during the entire two hours this movie was on.

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Like Danny Boyle and Kevin Smith both did so well in their debut films, the setting of Bound, for the most part, takes place in two apartments. Of course it reminded me of Shallow Grave a lot more than Clerks, but what I’m trying to say is that you don’t need a lot of set pieces and locations to make an intense movie. I don’t want this review to turn into a film essay, but it’s such an interesting choice to keep the action and story in such a confined place. Just think of the title of the movie: Bound. The characters are not only bound to each other and the plan they concoct, but also the small area of their apartments. This also just goes to show how excellent the writing is in this movie. It’s easy to have big shoot outs and chase scenes to create suspense, but creating suspense out of silence and confinement takes talent.

I feel like the word to describe this movie is simply just “cool,” which makes sense because noirs are traditionally thought of as being a really cool style of film making. Bouncing off the excellent screenwriting comes excellent dialogue that are, at the risk of sounding redundant, performed by a really cool cast. Like his characters in The Matrix and Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Joe Pantaliano proves once again that he’s really good at playing a scum bag. It’s fun to hate Pantaliano’s character, but it’s also fun looking down on him and laugh at how pathetic he is. The real focus of “cool” in this film revolves around Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. I love seeing badass women in movies, but seeing two badass women as leading characters in a noir film is just a dream come true.

Bound is one of the most impressive debut films I’ve ever seen, and as I mentioned before can join the ranks of debut films like Shallow GraveThe Following, and Clerks. It also reenforces the idea that less can often be more in creating a suspenseful and intense film. The cinematography combined with the stylistic camerawork and exceptional screenwriting makes me wish that in some alternate universe, I made this movie. It’s almost intimidating. The bottom line is that the Wachowskis are two very talented film makers, and solid evidence can be seen at their first attempt at a feature film. It’s almost too awesome.

Chinatown – Review

7 Apr

Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, film noir was a major genre/style in Hollywood. It was so influential that even after the height of its time, there were still film makers who were eager to implement its style and themes into their own films. Probably the most iconic neo-noir film to ever be made is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, released in 1974. With hard lighting, a twist on the femme fatale, and an anti-hero that would stand the tests of time, Chinatown wasn’t just an experiment to see if the genre could hold up thirty years after its peak, but it was also a brilliant film that is remembered today as a classic.

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J.J. Gittes (Jack Nocholson) is a private investigator hired to figure out if Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) is cheating on his wife. After the news story and Gittes’ photographs end up on the front page of the newspaper, he sets out to uncover why this has garnered such media attention, but soon learns that Hollis has been found dead in a reservoir, presumably having drowned. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) soon approaches Gittes with the intent to press charges after the story leaked into the newspaper, but soon decides to help him with his own personal investigation into the death of Hollis Mulwray. What Gittes uncovers, however, could never have been expected with a web of deceit and corruption that has links to L.A’s water supply, familial abuse, and thousands of acres of land that are worth millions.

It’s very easy to watch Chinatown and picture it as a black and white noir film from the 1940s, but the fact remains that it is from 1974 and there are elements from it that would never fly 30 years earlier from when it was made. Much like how Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch could be considered an anti-Western, Chinatown could be considered an anti-noir. That’s not just because there are things in the story that never would have been allowed with the code that was established in the early days of Hollywood, but also because there are certain plot points that would have been very unconventional for the times to the point that audiences would have been quite disturbed. Instead of calling it an “anti-noir” it would be more appropriate to call it a “revisionist noir.” Revisionist movies were actually very popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s because the film makers took genre conventions, flipped them upside down, and made their own films that would redefine Hollywood in the years to come.

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It may seem pretty obvious to say that the performances in this movie are all fantastic. Looking at the credits of talent that are in this film, it should really go without saying with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Even though the acting is all top notch, Chinatown is really a victory for the screenwriter, Robert Towne. It’s not everyday that I watch a movie and just get completely blown away by how masterful the screenplay is written. Throughout the entire run time of this movie, I was being twisted, turned, dragged, and mislead with Gittes always one step ahead of me. Even when the plot was starting to thicken, it felt like a seamless transition and I never felt like I was being jolted out of place.

After saying how excellent the screenplay is, I still need to touch on Roman Polanski’s expert direction. Recently I’ve reviewed Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, but Chinatown really takes it to a whole other level. One thing that really stuck out to me was the use of long takes while shots of dialogue were being filmed. Instead of cutting up a scene, Polanski would let the camera run, catching the actors in these long bits of dialogue that really got to show just how good they really were. Meanwhile, cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who went on to be the cinematographer on Scarface, made sure that the lighting was exactly right and hearken back to the golden age of cinema where detectives were the only thing keeping big cities safe from sadistic murderers.

Chinatown is one of those movies straight out of film history that will exceed your expectations. It’s easy to call a movie a classic, but it’s not quite as simple to explain why it is a classic. This film is a classic because it takes from the old and makes it feel completely new, while exploring themes of big business and corruption that were way ahead of its time. Add in some excellent performances, direction, and writing and you got yourself a movie that will never be forgotten. If you haven’t gotten the chance to see Chinatown, make sure you see it, maybe even more than once.

Insomnia – Review

30 Jan

I’ve reviewed some of Christopher Nolan’s work before, and as I’m sure I’ve said, he is one of the current most powerful forces in Hollywood. After dazzling critics and less mainstream audiences with Following and Memento, he was granted his first studio film. Insomnia, based off of a Norwegian film by the same name, is an interesting twist on the noir genre that also plays heavily with flawed human psychology and morality. The result is a crazy story with beautiful cinematography that is very well made and interesting, yet not Nolan’s best work by far.

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Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are to LAPD detectives assigned a job in Nightmute, Alaska to help solve a mystery concerning the murder of a seventeen year old girl. Upon arrival they meet Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) a young police officer who has studied Dormer’s work in the past and informs them that at this time of year, the sun doesn’t set in Nightmute. Eckhart soon tells Dormer that he will be cooperating in an internal affairs investigation that may end up ruining Dormer’s career and after an accidental tragedy strikes, it appears the hammer may be falling on Dormer sooner and swifter. As he begins losing sleep for days at a time, he is contacted by Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a writer and the person responsible for the girl’s death, but he is also the person that may get Dormer out of trouble.

In my opinion, the real star of this movie is the cinematographer, Wally Pfister, who’s went on to work with Nolan on every one of his movies since Insomnia. Being a neo-noir film, you would think that there would be a lot of shadows and darkness, but the interesting twist of taking place in an area where the sun doesn’t set gives Pfister a lot of room to play around with light and shadow in a way unconventional to the genre. The Alaskan setting is also filmed beautifully with mountains, lakes, and forests contrasted with small towns give the film a unique look. The best looking part of the movie is a chase through fog which gives the viewers the same sense of uncertainty as the characters.

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I need to give credit to Al Pacino and Robin Williams here too. They both knock it out of the park with their roles. Now, this may sound kind of naïve, but I was expecting that with Al Pacino. I always look at Robin Williams as more of a funny man, although I’m aware of his professional training in acting and his work in dramas before, but never a murder mystery. I was really into his performance here and he actually did a great job at making me feel uncomfortable.

Insomnia is a movie with a multi-layered story. There is a whole lot happening in the movie that you really need to wrap your head around all of it, and that isn’t always easy. That being said, I really like the story in this and it is perfect for Christopher Nolan’s direction, who’s always had a talent with dealing with strange situations. Still, compared to Nolan’s other pieces like The Dark Knight Trilogy and The PrestigeInsomnia doesn’t quite hold up to them. It just doesn’t have the power that his other films have, nor does it have a very satisfying conclusion.

Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia is a cool movie with a lot of cool ideas and a plot that takes it just a step further with all of its devices and twists. Something just doesn’t let it sit in the upper echelons of modern film with Nolan’s other movies. This is a more than adequate neo-noir psychological thriller, but it just didn’t really go as far as I wanted it to. Maybe that has to do with the conclusion which just sort of happens, leaving the movie to just drop off. Still, if you’re interested in Nolan’s work then Insomnia is a movie you should check out, even if it’s just to see it once.

L.A. Confidential – Review

15 Jan

Many people will argue that the golden age of Hollywood was between the late 1930s all the way up to the end of the 1950s. Genres were created and perfected in ways that have not been seen since then. Few films have tried and truly succeeded in recreating this image of these perfect years, but one film equally praises and criticizes. That film is L.A. Confidential, a detective story where good guys are just as corrupt as bad guys and everything is kept off the record, on the q.t., and very hush hush.

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1953. Los Angeles. To outsiders, it seems like a paradise just waiting to be explored. To its residents, it is a den of lust, corruption, and violence. After a bloody massacre at the Nite Owl café, three police officers’ lives and problems become tangled as each tries to solve the case for their own particular gains. They are: by the book Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), celebrity hound Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and the violent Bud White (Russell Crowe). Alliances are formed and torn apart as betrayal and greed worm their ways through the characters and, especially, when a few characters fall for a beautiful call girl, Lynn (Kim Basinger), who just might be the biggest connection to the case that these detectives have.

L.A. Confidential is more about the characters and the themes than it is about solving the actual mystery. I don’t want to say that the actual crime is pushed to the back burner, because it is visited time and again, especially towards the end, but this isn’t what the viewer is really paying attention to. First and foremost they are learning the characters and their motives, and then learning how their motives affect one another. Then the themes come to mind: corruption, greed, and a strange sense of dark nostalgia. These themes blend with the characters and shape their personalities to make a complex and adult character driven story.

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In order for these characters to be so memorable, the performances had to match their complexities. Thankfully, there is a very talented cast to support this movie. Kevin Spacey stands out as Vincennes. He’s a likable Hollywood dirt ball who just so happens to be a policeman and he plays the part very well with quick one liners that can quickly change to brooding seriousness.  Guy Pearce plays Exley, one of the most complicated characters of the film, perfectly straightforward. Russell Crowe is the weakest of the three, sometimes falling into to the pitfall of cliché, which isn’t necessarily his fault. Finally, Kim Basinger, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, is just fine but nothing really special. It doesn’t really have “Academy Award” written on the performance.

These characters would be nothing without the intelligent, borderline genius, screenplay. While the story itself kind of takes a place off to the side it still can’t be denied that it’s fantastic. It is pulp crime at its finest with a deep mystery filled with lies and violence. The dialogue is very personal and every line feels necessary. The other Academy Award that was honored to this movie was for Best Adapted Screenplay, which I feel is very well deserved.

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L.A. Confidential is a fantastic ride into the depths of crime of 1950s Los Angeles. The writing, complex story, and characters are all fantastic and supported by the magnificent performances. I loved this movie from beginning to end, not once getting bored throughout the entire two hours and fifteen minutes it was on. IF you live crime fiction and noir films then this is the film to boost your spirits.

Winter’s Bone – Review

12 Apr

After watching Winter’s BoneI looked around my living room at all of the stuff that I have and am proud. I felt like I had to do this after watching this film because of the almost post-apocalyptic surroundings that I found myself in for the last hour and forty minutes. The crazy thing is, it wasn’t an apocalyptic film, just one that examined a poor, drug riddled, rural community where violence and hatred is implied, and no one wants to deal with anyone outside of their families.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who has the responsibilities and concerns of a 40 year old. She is in charge of raising her younger brother and sister, and taking care of her mentally unstable mother. When her father goes missing a few days before his court date, and after putting the Dolly’s house up as collateral for his bond, Ree begins an investigation to find her father, dead or alive before her family loses the house. This investigation takes her into the darkest corners of her rural community to the point where her life and the lives of her family members are threatened.

The first thing I want to say about this film is that not once was I ever comfortable with my surroundings, and this is one of those movies that sucks you in so much you won’t even notice someone who walks right in front of you. So for the entire film, every scene was just a new situation that I wanted to get out of unscathed as soon as possible. The violence in this film is covertly menacing. There are more threats than there are actual scenes of brutality, but the threats are certainly not hollow.

That’s what makes this film succeed: it’s gritty realism. Not too much really happens in this film, which makes it feel sort of empty, but the realism makes up for it. If this situation were to actually occur in a lawless community like this one, I’m sure that Winter’s Bone accurately portrays how everything would unfold. The realism is also boosted by Jennifer Lawrence’s above average performance. The southern twang and headstrong bravery makes her the perfect heroine for this film. Underneath all of the bravery, however, lies the weakness and fear of a 17 year old in way over her head.

The cinematography is also worth praising. Everything in this film appears cold. The colors are really toned down and the grays and whites are accentuated to help immerse the viewer deeper into the world of the film. It works very well and is one of my favorite, if not my favorite, aspects of Winter’s Bone.

This is definitely not a perfect movie, however. In fact I got pretty bored quite often. A lot of reviews say this film holds non-stop thrills and breathtaking sequences. That isn’t really accurate at all. I’m not saying that I hate slow films, because I really enjoy slow films. I thought The American was a great movie, and it isn’t easy to find a film that drags on as much as that one. The problem here is that the story felt a little hollow. I understand that this probably wasn’t supposed to radiate in your face intensity, but there could have been a few more scenes that were exciting. One in particular is very memorable, but made me wish there were more like it.

All in all, I enjoyed Winter’s Bone. This film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. I don’t think it’s that good, but Jennifer Lawrence’s nomination for Best Actress was well deserved. This is a good neo-noir film that should definitely be respected for its masterful cinematography and subtlety, but it is by no means a masterpiece.