I remember reading this novel back in college, so it’s been a long road for Jonathan Lethem’s crime story to find its way to the big screen. Motherless Brooklyn is a decade-plus passion project for star/adapter/director Edward Norton, and it’s easy to see why an actor would want to latch onto the lead role. Lionel Essrog (Norton) suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and is given to verbal and physical tics he needs to indulge or else his brain feels like it will explode. He’s our eyes and ears into a criminal world that views him as a freak. It’s an intriguing vulnerability given sympathy, forethought, and it’s an intriguing way to make something old new again through a disadvantaged lens. Norton is great in the lead and Lionel feels like a companion portrait to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, another struggling man given to unconformable physical outbursts that make him feel isolated from society. The book was fascinating from being inside this unique headspace and understanding how Lionel’s brain operated with obsessions and various pressure valves. The movie, which Norton rewrote completely and set in the 1950s, is an acceptable film noir, but without that specific perspective it would get lost. It’s handsomely made and has plenty of enjoyable actors in supporting roles. There’s an intelligence to the storytelling and power dynamics, but the movie is also a bit too smart for its own good, losing its way in a convoluted mystery where the pieces don’t so much add up as they’re just given to you after a long enough wait. And the wait is long. This is 144 minutes and takes its sweet time, applying more and more layers of intrigue and period settings like Norton is checking a list of Noir Elements to include in his first directing work in 19 years (Keeping the Faith, anyone?). The world itself is surface-level interesting but the main character is the real hook, so getting more of the world without going deeper on the character, or expressly placing him in different predicaments where he can utilize his unheralded abilities, feels like wheel spinning. Motherless Brooklyn is strictly for genre fans or those who don’t need much more from their movies than a high-concept quirk.
Nate’s Grade: B
Serenity might have the most bizarre plot twist of any film this year, or maybe even the last few years. For the sake of you, dear reader, I’ll not spoil it, but it’s hard to talk about this neo-noir crime thriller without revealing its larger grand design. I have no real idea what writer/director Steven Knight, a talented wordsmith who has written Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders, was going for with this murky genre mishmash. Matthew McConaughey plays Dill, a local fisherman who for the first 18 minutes of the movie is obsessed with a hard-to-catch tuna like it’s Moby Dick. Literally, this is the key plot for 18 minutes. Then his old flame (Anne Hathaway) comes to town and looking for Dill to help her kill her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Now we’re on fertile noir ground, and then one hour in the film throws a curve ball that nobody will see coming, and it spends another 45 minutes dealing with those repercussions. Some of this added knowledge leads to creepy exchanges where Dill is peeling back the veneer of his sleepy island town residents, but really it’s a confusing and unnecessary twist that leads to strange thematic implications and tonal oddities that may lead to unintentional laughter. The sentimental ending conclusion, born out of murder both real and imaginary, feels like it was ripped out of Field of Dreams and forcibly grafted on. So much of the drama is about following what is expected of us, and there are more than a few passing, though intriguing, Truman Show-esque moments that reward further examination, but these are put on hold to slay the abusive husband/step dad through the power of an elusive fish. I don’t know what to make out of Serenity. The acting is fairly solid, the photography is stylish, and Knight knows how to spin a mystery, but to what end exactly? It feels like a passionate albeit misguided student film trying to say New Things about old tropes. In the end, it’s a fish tale that is better off being thrown back. See, I can do fish things too.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Happytime Murders asks one question on repeat: is something inherently funny just because a puppet does it? As I feared from the marketing, this is strictly a one-joke movie, and that joke being the entire concept of puppets behaving badly.
In a world where puppets and humans live side-by-side, Private Investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is investigating a series of grisly murders targeting the stars of a popular children’s sitcom. His ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), is forced to work with Phillips as the bodies and felt pile up. Together they trace the killer amid seedy drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, and criminals, all of them puppets.
For a depressing majority of the running time, the jokes are simply puppets swearing or puppets being randy. Very rarely will there be more thought given to the gags and setups. This reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted wherein too much of the comedy was centered on a teddy bear doing things we don’t normally associate a teddy bear doing. A puppet simply dropping an F-bomb is not a joke, just as a random person dropping an F-bomb is not a joke without some degree of setup and/or context. A puppet smoking is not funny on its own. A puppet drinking is not funny on its own. This is lazy writing that falls back on its surface-level shock value to compensate for the paucity of actual comedy. Too many jokes fizzle on screen, drawing at best the occasional generous chuckle. While you’re watching The Happytime Murders, you’re quite conscious of the fact that it should be funnier. You can feel the desperation on screen and the disappointment. I kept thinking, “Why did they settle for that joke? Why aren’t they doing more with the possibilities of their premise? Oh great, now it’s a joke about balls.” An R-rated puppet cop movie starring Melissa McCarthy should not be this uninspired.
Let’s tackle one scene emblematic of the film’s best assets and its shortcomings. Early in the first act, our puppet P.I. visits a puppet porn store/theater/film set. As soon as he enters, the curtain is pulled back and we see an octopus vigorously milking a cow’s udders, milky geysers freely spraying everywhere amid giddy cries. It’s a memorable visual with obvious sexual connotations and it’s one of the better moments to convey some degree of thought as far as developing the world of puppets. But then the scene just keeps going without any new development or complication. And then it keeps going. And then you realize that the filmmakers tapped out with the visual and had nothing else. The sequence at the porn store/theater/film set keeps sliding in more debauchery, especially with clips from an array of fetish films, a notable example being a fireman whipped by a Dalmatian dominatrix. Then in short order it becomes a murder scene and the fluff flies everywhere. Once again it becomes readily apparent how poorly handled the development process was with this film. There are puppets fighting, puppets doing drugs, puppets even having sex, but are there comic scenarios here? Infrequently. Without better crafting, the shock value naturally loses its impact and then the film gives up. It’s front loaded with the most memorable transgressions, and then it settles into a fairly mediocre cop movie that you have to remind yourself is a comedy because… puppets?
Instead, what the viewer gets is pretty much a standard cop movie with some film noir elements emphasized as reference. There is some half-hearted commentary about discrimination against puppets and how they’re seen as second-class citizens (like Bright). This too is dropped after the first act and the movie settles into a second-rate potboiler. If you remove the presence of puppets, too many scenes don’t even present humor. It’s more a cop movie than it is a comedy, and that realization perplexed and disappointed me. The lazy, crude sexual humor is a crutch they return to, though with diminished returns, as another attempt to jolt the lagging movie to life. It’s a tedious affair where the imagination feels capped. You’ll likely be reminded, as I was constantly, of the brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which tackled film noir tropes and cross-human integration. The difference is that Roger Rabbit thoroughly thought out its characters, plot, world, and satire, and I consider it to be one of the best-written films of all time. With The Happytime Murders, it has to resort to a Basic Instinct legs-crossing gag twice in 2018. This movie desperately needed a few more drafts from better skilled comedy writers to have more entertaining jokes than “puppet does non-puppet stuff.”
McCarthy (Life of the Party) is drifting on autopilot, desperately looking for ways to make this enterprise funnier. Her improv intuition runs into conflict with the simple nature that puppeteering demands a lot of preparation, so there are less off-script riffs. This is your standard brash, profane, ball-busting McCarthy performance we’ve gotten to know but there’s not a character here. Even in the realm of simplistic cop movie tropes, she’s still never more than the irritable partner who develops a begrudging respect. There is one interesting aspect to her character that the film does so little with. In a flashback, we see that she was critically injured in the line of duty and had to have an emergency puppet liver donation. The only thing ever done with this is the allowance that McCarthy is now able to snort puppet drugs that would ordinarily kill humans. That is it. There’s not even a joke related to this fact. It’s another example of the film’s deficiency of creativity.
The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie that has far too little imagination. The lewd vulgarity gets boring and becomes indicative of the lazy writing all around, the mere appearance of anything naughty meant to goose the audience into thinking they’re watching something really transgressive and provocative. The novelty wears off pretty quickly. Maya Rudolph as a cheerful secretary and the behind-the-scenes end credits were the best parts. What they’re really watching is a mediocre cop movie strung together with the flimsiest of genre tropes and a scant chuckle. Without better comedic writing and setups, you’re stuck with the story, and that’s not a good decision. This is a witless movie that doesn’t deserve its premise and is a waste of everyone’s time. At my preview screening, I could hear a child’s voice behind me and thought, “Oh my, a parent actually brought their child to see this movie? Did they not know?” That child never should have been in that theater, and not because of the raunchy content, but because that child deserved a better movie experience from their parent, a figure of trust.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Dear reader, I want you to know upfront that I’m writing this review for one major purpose, and that is to complain about its ending. Had this movie ended differently, I probably would have simply postponed writing about it. Then writer/director Aaron Katz (Land Ho!) went with his ending, and now we need to talk about Gemini, a neo-noir set in the world of movie stars, paparazzi, and sycophantic hangers-on in the city of angels.
The beginning thirty minutes do a fine job of establishing a world and perspective. We follow the day-to-day of Jill (Lola Kirke), a personal assistant to a popular actress, Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). She deals with pushy directors, invasive press, and boundary-blurring fan interactions. She’s Heather’s support and one of her best friends. Katz does a very effective job of establishing Jill’s world of responsibilities as well as her confusing sense of where she fits in this equation. Is she more hired-help or BFF? Heather backs out of a movie and talks about starting her own production company, with Jill and her developing projects that appeal to them. That night, Heather is fearful that someone has been following her and asks for a gun. Jill gives her one, loading the bullets. The next day, Jill comes back to Heather’s palatial home and finds her dead on the floor and the growing realization that she is the number one suspect (her fingerprints are on the gun).
That’s the first third of the movie and it works well. Katz’s screenplay slowly builds, organically establishing the complicated world of Jill and her general sense of being an outsider wherever she goes. Once the murder takes place, Gemini becomes more recognizable with its film noir elements, as Jill adopts a disguise and investigates a series of suspects that could have killed the starlet, including the director she spurned and an old boyfriend who has trouble letting go. This is also where Katz introduces a new threat in the presence of Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho). He’s a calm, empathetic man but he always seems to know more than he lets on, asking probing questions that Jill doesn’t feel comfortable answering. Each new trip to a suspect presents a different mood and aim. Jill’s visit with the director becomes a humorous sit-down where the guy theorizes who is guilty if it were a movie, finally concluding it would probably be Jill as a twist. Jill infiltrates the ex-boyfriend’s hotel room and has to avoid detection and it is an efficient small-scale suspense sequence. All the while the detective appears to be circling something.
The are several merits of Katz’s film that are worth mentioning. The acting is generally good all around, especially from Kirke (Gone Girl, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle). She’s a natural screen presence while still radiating a sense of relatability. There’s a lot going on behind those saucer-eyes of hers and I wish the movie served her better by the end. Kravtiz (Rough Night) and Cho (Star Trek Beyond) are both unpredictable in different ways, making the audience glean extra subtleties from their guarded performances. The sleek cinematography by Andrew Reed (Cold Weather) deals in cool teals and purples, creating a hazy, 1980s-esque atmosphere without becoming annoying omnipresent like in a Nicolas Refn film. It’s style without being eaten alive by it (Neon Demon broadside?). The musical score by Keegan DeWitt (Hearts Beat Loud) is suitably moody, working in typical noir elements like brass instruments with a modern ambient sensibility. Under Katz’s direction, the movie has fun with introducing classic noir tropes and giving them a twist, as well as diverting from them, like our heroine being an ordinary outsider.
And now comes the part where I must discuss the ending to Gemini and, in doing so, will spoil the movie significantly. If you’d like to continue reading and understand the bulk of my grievance, please proceed ahead with spoilers. This has served as your warning, dear reader.
As the film is nearing its end, it looks like Heather’s secret bisexual fling is being presented as the most likely candidate. The two of them were caught smooching by a late-night paparazzi and this could present some career problems. Jill sneaks away from the supposed lion’s den and heads out to a cabin in the California woods, the spot the fling was talking to. She enters the cabin and finds… Heather there alive and well. You see the dead body in Heather’s home was not her but the super eager fan they had encountered earlier, a look-alike made more obscured with parts of her brain missing. Apparently Heather killed her because she was stalking her and she feared for her life, or so she says. She hid out and waited for everything to die down. Jill is understandably very angry especially since she became the prime suspect. Heather is sorry but not that sorry. Do the crime scene investigators not take fingerprints? Blood samples? I’m uncertain of the timeline of Gemini but this fake-out could only last a couple days, charitably. It creates suspicion that there’s more than Heather is willingly admitting.
This sets up an exclusive interview with a big journalist, the first point in re-branding Heather after the news came out, and trying to push the narrative in the direction they want. Then all of a sudden Detective Ahn shows up at the taping and asks if he can watch as a favor. Jill considers this, confirming the case is closed, and allows it. All right, it’s at this point where all the major players are together in a crucible of secrets. Something good is going to happen, because why else bring these characters together in this moment? And then as the interview begins and Katz’s camera slowly pans over to the L.A. skyline and slowly zooms in, and this is where I started yelling at my screen. This is not an ending. This is five minutes away from an ending. The comeuppance of a starlet thinking she can get away with anything and put upon her vulnerable and faithful assistant is all set. The instincts of our wily detective will be proven right. Jill will have become a stronger character, able to suss out the truth and cut off a destructive force. Justice will be had, the truth will come out, and it will feel like a natural climax of the entire 90-minute movie. And then none of that happens. Nothing happens. It’s all setup and then the L.A. skyline (end spoilers).
Gemini is a frustrating movie with good acting, a dash of style, and some potently moody moments to tickle a neo-noir enthusiast. Until the ending. I was flabbergasted. Katz delivered a cop-out of an ending, and subsequently makes his overall film one that I don’t even think I can recommend, even to neo-noir acolytes. Gemini, I wrote this review because of your ending and I’m still waiting on one. I’ll be here if you need me.
Nate’s Grade: C
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a classic film noir and a classic crime drama about bad people doing bad things and doing them badly. It’s a rich narrative environment that has been explored in droves before and after. Double Indemnity was a box-office sensation, critical hit that was nominated for seven Oscars, and solidified Wilder as one of the most creative and daring writing and directing voices in cinema. This was only his third directing effort and it provided the freedom to make his own way through Hollywood. There’s a certain danger in going back to cinematic classics. It’s easy to see their influence in a sea of imitators and sometimes the accomplishments can be taken for granted just because the viewer is too removed from the initial splash the film made. Double Indemnity is a sharp, surefooted, and highly influential film that still resonates with suspense and intrigue. The formula was refined with Wilder at the helm and his genius can be readily recognized.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a mid 30s insurance salesman in Los Angeles. He gets into some big trouble when a prospective client, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), intimates that she would like to bump off her husband and profit from the act. Walter is appalled but also intrigued, drawn to the charms of the sexy Mrs. Dietrichson. He agrees and says they’re going to do it right. She takes out a hefty insurance policy on her husband that pays double for rare accidents, which spurs Neff to stage a phony accident where the injured Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) fell to his death off a train. The scheme is elaborate, with alibis, swapped identities, hiding places, and a minimal of public interactions. It seems perfectly executed that is until Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), starts inspecting closer feeling something is amiss. Neff must outwit his boss and co-workers and keep the scheme from getting further out of control.
“I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
Thanks to the morally and creatively restrictive Hays Code, it’s easy to see all the roadblocks that could have sabotaged the movie from getting made, let alone becoming a great film. It’s a movie not just about adulterers but they’re also murderers, and the script places you in their perspective, clinging to hope they might succeed in their scheme. Admittedly, the characters are punished for their misdeeds by the film’s end as the Hays Code would demand, but the film experience was different, and Wilder made it so early on. Within minutes, as Walter Neff dictates his confession in his boss’ empty office, he admits to being a killer, to killing Mr. Dietrichson, and in doing so out of a desire for Mrs. Dietrichson. By the very fact that he’s slumped over, panting heavily, and confessing in sordid detail, we can rightfully assume that he did not get away with it. What’s left for the audience to discover? Wilder has already established the major turns of his story for his audience and seemingly robbed us of any notion of surprise. But that’s where Wilder’s storytelling prowess emerges, because it’s not so much a story of whether something was done or would be done, it’s a story of how and how to elude capture.
We’re locked into Neff’s perspective, and with it as an experienced insurance salesman, he knows the proper way to stage a murder, make it look like an accident, and not get caught. It’s in the details that Wilder hooks us, and as we watch the trap unravel, the movie becomes an exercise in nervous tension wondering what will trip up our lovers. An audience generally gravitates to smart characters trying to outwit others, appreciating the wiles but also, perhaps, wanting to see if the scheme can be accomplished. It pushes the audience into an interesting position of rooting for our murderer. There’s a wonderful scene right after Neff and Phyllis have deposited the body of her dead husband. They’ve hopped in her car and are ready to flee the scene of the crime, and that’s when her car won’t start. Wilder simmers in the moment, luxuriating in the encroaching panic as key turn after key turn only results in the sounds of a stalled engine. Finally, it starts, but during the sequence you empathize with the killers and their panic. Wilder and company have done their job and at least some part of the audience is pushing for them to escape. What happens later tests audience loyalty, but we’re still firmly in the perspective and in the shoes of the film’s killer, the only killer in the picture at that. He’s our man.
“I think you’re rotten.”
“I think you’re swell – so long as I’m not your husband.”
The staples of noir cinema really came alive with Wilder’s excellent crime drama. The visual signifiers we associate with the genre are all here in accordance, like the chiaroscuro lighting that bathed the actors in swaths of invading darkness. The lighting does a great job of reflecting the sordid schemes of our lovers. As soon as Walter accepts, the lighting changes drastically and the layers of dark creep in on the actors’ faces. The dialogue by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (his first screenwriting gig in Hollywood) has that robust rat-a-tat rhythms of hardboiled genre fiction that we love. The twists and turns keep an audience glued even though we have already been told the major plot particulars. The inclusion of Mr. Dietrich’s twenty-something daughter Lola (Jean Heather) from his previous marriage presents an intriguing complication. She suspects her wicked stepmother might have something to do with her father’s death as well as her mother’s death. Walter Neff keeps tabs on her as a means of trying to dissuade whom she tells her suspicions to, as a means of manipulating her, but then when Lola reveals that her ex-boyfriend has been seeing Phyllis on a nightly basis, we don’t know what to think. Is Phyllis setting up her own scheme to kill Neff? Is Lola knowingly manipulating Neff to enact vengeance against her hated stepmother? Is there anyone a guy can trust? It’s a fine character and played sincerely by Heather (Going My Way) almost to the point of ache. She stopped acting altogether in 1949, to the detriment of us all.
But the ultimate femme fatale is Stanwyck (The Lady Eve). I think what makes her work is the fact that she doesn’t immediately leap to mind as a femme fatale. She’s not the most gorgeous actress in Hollywood, though clearly still an attractive woman. The stiff blonde wig they saddled her with doesn’t help on that front. She’s a temptress that doesn’t sizzle off the screen so much as step from the mind because she feels more realistic. Working within the repressive confines of the Hays Code, Stanwyck still knows how to provide a sexy smirk to things left unsaid with her character. There are a few looks she employs that could make you melt. A standout scene focuses entirely on her face. Her husband is being murdered just off screen. That violent act is left to our morbid imaginations while we watch Stanwyck’s subtle expression of satisfaction cross her face only to dissolve when she knows better. I wish MacMurray (The Absentminded Professor) was a better scene partner with her. He seems overly stiff like he’s trying harder to get out the stylized dialogue in the tone the director wants. Wilder finds ways to subvert the actor’s tendencies but I feel like he’s at best a likable but limited dolt of an actor.
“You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”
Phyllis is a classic femme fatale figure and Stanwyck plays her with a beautifully controlled sense of menace, but I want to offer a different theory as to what kind of twisted love story inhabits Double Indemnity. I think Walter Neff was never in love with Phyllis, though he acknowledged her beauty and general seductive effect. This much is clear from his first meeting with her where the insurance veteran can’t help himself with how forward and transparent his flirting is. He’s interested, though he’s also interested in getting a sale, and then when she floats the idea of life insurance, his tone immediately changes. The flirting stops cold and he promptly sees himself out. But he can’t stop thinking it over. I propose he isn’t drawn to Phyllis so much as he’s drawn to the intellectual challenge of pulling off the “perfect crime.” He considers himself a clever man and this would put all his skills to the test. He knows what agents look for to suss out foul play. He knows what the police ask about. Now he gets to see if he can fool them all. In this interpretation of mine it’s not Neff’s love for the dame that gets him but his love of his ego. There’s a cold manner in how often he calls Phyllis “baby,” lacking apparent affection and instead seemingly turning the pet name into something dutiful. Oh, but you’ll argue, his voice over goes into great detail about the magnetic and sexual appeal of Mrs. Dietrichson, and that’s the point to remember, that it’s his voice over. Neff is retelling this story, knowingly dictating his confession, and perhaps he’s playing into a narrative that removes some of the emphasis from his true intentions. I propose Neff is an unreliable narrator. Since it’s from his perspective, his words are all we know about Phyllis and her assumed seductress ways. Having the final word on his story would provide a perfect opportunity for Walter to alter the story as best he sees fit, shifting some blame onto the woman who done him wrong. I believe that in the end it was Walter Neff’s desire to prove he could outsmart the world of law enforcement and get away with murder that drove him onto this wayward path and not a woman as fetching as Stanwyck and her anklet may have been.
There’s a very unexpected emotional current that surfaces fully by the conclusion of Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson was at a transitional point in his career, having been the lead in a slew of older crime pictures. An audience was prepped from association to consider Robinson a disreputable character, just as they had prepped to consider MacMurray’s character a likeable fellow from his previous comedic roles. Wilder’s film flips audience expectations to great effect. MacMurray is the cunning murderer and Robinson is the moral center. Keyes is exceptionally skilled at insurance fraud and it naturally should be him that unknowingly tightens the noose around his beloved employee as he gets closer and closer to the truth. He just can’t see it; Walter Neff is so close he inhabits a blind spot. When Keyes does discover the truth, his crushing sense of disappointment he tries to hold back is an emotional moment that hits hard. It’s the professional and loving relationship between these men that helps to add something more to Double Indemnity; it’s got the noir staples we come to expect nowadays but it also has a surprisingly sweet and affecting father/son relationship between mentor and student. Robinson is terrific in the bravado moments like when he unleashes a torrent of statistical categories on suicide types and methods and he also sells the quiet hurt of a proud man who must admit he placed his trust in the wrong recipient.
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Double Indemnity is a film classic that holds up thanks to deft plotting that puts the audience in the place of the killers, solid twists and turns, and a clear understanding of the strengths of the genre. It’s a standout film noir that still stands rather tall. It’s always reassuring when the great pieces of art can still transport, still excite, and still resonate with the same feeling that communicates why they deserve their decades of plaudits and acclaim. Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers who could hop genres like few others. His foray into noir cinema left a long lasting legacy for the genre and its fans to follow, and Double Indemnity is still the crackling crime thriller it was under the Hays Code. Perhaps the scrutiny of censorship forced Wilder and Chandler to get more creative, and the finished product is a taut and stylish imprint that others eagerly copied. There’s just something inherently interesting about bad people doing bad things badly no matter the best intentions of the moral crusaders of its day.
Nate’s Grade: A
There was no stopping Titanic in 1997, iceberg be damned. James Cameron’s epic disaster movie had all the momentum of the times, and yet it’s a smaller movie that captured more of the critics and was far more deserving of the ultimate Oscar prizes that year. L.A. Confidential was based upon a James Ellroy novel that many argued was unfilmable. Enter journeyman director Curtis Hanson and novice screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and the pair stripped the book down from eight main characters to three, kept the spirit and essence of the book alive while rearranging the storylines for large-scale popcorn thrills. It’s been nearly twenty years since L.A. Confidential first seduced big screen audiences and its powers are still as alluring to this day. It’s a neo noir masterpiece.
In 1950s Los Angeles, not all is what it seems. The captain of the police, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is looking to keep the peace in the City of Angels as outside criminal elements are looking to fill the void from Mickey Cohen going to prison. Three police officers of very different stripes find themselves on the edges of a complicated murder case stemming from a massacre at the Nite Owl cafe. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a famous police captain and wants to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. He’s a political animal and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bruiser of a man who enforces his own level of justice when it comes to men who beat or harass women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a happily shady officer who serves as a consultant for a hit TV police procedural. The Night Owl case takes them into many sordid corridors of sex, money, and power, including Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), part of Pierce Pratchett’s (David Strathairn) stable of prostitutes meant to look like movie stars, the mysterious self-serving sources to tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and good cops and bad cops on the controversial L.A. police force.
This movie is a master class in plotting and structure, enough that it should be taught in film schools. By nature noir plots are meant to be busy and mysterious, and a guarantee for mystery is a Byzantine plot full of plenty of suspects, dispirit elements, and strange coincidences that eventually coalesce into a larger picture. The beauty of what Hanson and Helgeland have done is that they have made the script complex yet accessible, able to lose one’s self in the tangled web of intrigue but still able to see how all the myriad pieces fit perfectly together by the conclusion. There is an efficiency to the screenwriting that is mesmerizing. It all seems so effortless when you’re with storytellers this gifted or who have a divine connection to the source material. Forgoing the customary slow builds of recent film noir like the oft-cited Chinatown, L.A. Confidential just moves from the opening narration. Within the first 25 minutes, the movie has expertly set up all three of its main characters, what defines them, their separate goals, the obstacles in place, and previews how they will intersect into one another’s orbit, and then the Nite Owl case explodes. Every scene drives this narrative forward. Every scene reveals a little more depth to our characters or fleshes out a superb supporting cast. Every scene cements that contradictory theme of the glitzy allure and unseemly darkness of the post-war City of Angels. My only quibble is that before the truncated third act the movie resorts to a few easy shortcuts but by that point Hanson and Helgeland had more than earned their paces. This is one of the greatest modern screenplays, period (WGA listed it as #60 all-time).
There are so many remarkably assured sequences but I want to emphasize one in particular – Exley’s interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects. “Oh I’ll break him,” Exley promises his superior before entering into the first interrogation room. At first you’re with the other officers and morbidly curious with his arrogance. By the end, your jaw hangs in amazement at the intuitive pressure this man is expertly applying. It’s a terrific moment that allows Exley to masterfully manipulate three different men, taking pieces and running toward accurate insinuations, building momentum and clarity. Each man is different and each man offers a new piece of the overall puzzle. A slight reference by one unlocks another’s confession. An overheard sound byte pushes another into self-defense. I’m convinced it was this scene that ensured robust and thorough interrogation was a crucial element of the gameplay for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, a noble misfire that definitely looked to replicate Hanson’s film as a user experience.
Noir is one film genre with a visual code that can get the best of directors, but Hanson played this to his advantage. Classic noir is filled with criminal activity and the allure of sex and violence, typified perhaps best in the position of the untrustworthy but oh-so-sexy femme fatale. Yet the majority of film noir was produced in an era of censorship thanks to the implementation of the notorious Hayes Code, making sure that audiences didn’t enjoy the sordid elements too far. Free of these restrictions, some modern filmmakers take the opportunity to revisit the noir landscape and fill in the blanks of old, furnishing an outpouring of unrestrained exploitation elements. Brian DePalma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia (also based on an Ellroy novel) gets drunk on this mission, though “restrained” has never been a word I would associate with DePalma’s filmmaking anyway. My point, dear reader, is that it’s easy to get lost in the superficial trappings of the genre: sexy dames, corrupt lawmen, temptation, shootouts, schemes, and chiaroscuro lighting. It’s easy to dabble in these elements because they’re so nostalgic and celebrated.
Hanson did something different with his 1997 masterpiece. He builds upon the audience expectations with noir but he doesn’t let his complex story and characters come second to the visual spectacle of the famous genre. L.A. Confidential is in many ways a movie that straddles lines; old and new, indie and Hollywood classicism, and film noir and drama. It’s an adult film that doesn’t downplay its darkness, brutality, and moral ambiguity, yet when it comes to those exploitation elements, especially sex, it’s almost chaste. The relationship between Lynn and Bud seems refreshingly square, like it was pulled from Old Hollywood. The entire movie feels that way, an artifact that could exist any decade.
Hanson was something of a journeyman for most of his career, directing competent thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. As Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his eulogy for Hanson (he died in September 2016, a fact I shamefully didn’t know until writing this review), after 25 years in the industry the man became an earth-rattling auteur after the age of 50. That is a rarity. Who knew the guy had something this singularly brilliant within his grasp his entire career? The care he puts into the screen is evident from the opening montage onward. There’s an elusive magic to the filmmaking on display, a bracingly divine sense of how to move the camera for best effect, how to escalate and deescalate audience nerves. He knows his story structure and characters inside and out, but he also knows how to play an audience. His time making serviceable studio thrillers certainly helps him during the film’s climax, a bloody shootout that’s also a mini-siege thriller.
Hanson also assembled an incredible crew to enable his vision. The technical elements recreate the early 1950s L.A. time period with beguiling immediacy; the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat) gives a sense of the darker elements just under the surface without having to overly rely upon the film language of staid noir visuals. Peter Honess’ sharp editing provides a downright Thelma Schoonmaker-esque musical orchestration to the proceedings, especially as the multiple storylines and developments spill onto one another. Speaking of music, the score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) is thick with the jazzy overtones of the genre. It’s a score that simmers with sexual tension and malevolence. The casting director deserves a lifetime free pass. There are a whopping 80 speaking parts in the movie, and each person is a great hire that builds a richer film.
While the plot of L.A. Confidential sucks you in right away, its characters take hold the strongest. Film noir is one genre that has a codified cheat sheet of character archetypes, and this movie fulfills and subverts them, finding surprising and gratifying ways to further round out these figures into complex and nuanced human beings. The three main characters all provide a different approach to law enforcement and when we see them start to work together it’s a wholly wonderful turn of events. Bud is the muscle, Exley is the brain, and Vincennes is the charm, and each one attacks the Nite Owl case and its subsequent leads from different angles that best apply to their set of skills. Each of the three characters discovers new pieces of evidence, new contacts and suspects, and when they start to work together it not only provides a payoff with the combined evidence but with the satisfying nature of their teamwork. That’s because they become better people when they work together and each moves closer to some moral redemption.
Bud is the loyal cop with a hair trigger and a penchant for being a white knight to abused women. His personal history of abuse makes him seek justice, often by his own fists. He has a rigid moral code of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to cross lines to achieve it. He’s also tired of being a bully and wants to be more than just the muscle. Exley is a straight arrow with a strong sense of moral righteousness and a mind for politics. He knows how to play sides for his own gain. He’s not afraid of making enemies within the department, and his opportunistic choices create many. He’s trying to forge his own path outside the shadow of his father, a famous lawman who was gunned down by a random purse-snatcher (“Rollo Tamassi”). He has to learn that he can’t do everything on his own. Finally, Vincennes is in many ways the face of the department as an ambassador to the world of TV and film. He’s succumbed fully to the glamour of Hollywood but he’s also full of profound self-loathing, trying to count how many compromises he’s made in life and where it’s gotten him. The appeal of the old life is crumbling and his detective instincts are reawakened, spurring Vincennes into the fray and surprising even himself. It’s extremely rare for any movie to successfully develop more than one protagonist, let alone three, and yet L.A. Confidential achieves this milestone so that when we alternate perspectives there isn’t a drop in viewer interest. Each man brings something different and interesting, each man reveals new hidden depths, and each character is fascinating to watch in this setting.
The gifted actors take the already excellent written material and elevate it even further, turning an already sterling movie into one of the all-time greats. Almost twenty years later, it’s fun to see these famous actors when they were young and, arguably, in their prime. Spacey (House of Cards) was on a tear at this point in his career, between his two well-deserved Oscar wins, and having the time of his life in every role. His character seemingly has the least complexity, a man who knows he’s sold out but believes himself to be enjoying the ride, but Spacey offers poignant glimpses of the man behind all that oily charm and sly glances. There’s a scene where he stumbles across a mistake of his making and the subtle, haunted expression playing across his face is amazing. The man was capable of expressing so much, and still is. Crowe was still a couple years from his big breakout in 2000’s Gladiator but he put himself on the Hollywood map as Bud White. He’s a coil of anger and pain looking for an outlet, and Crowe is magnetic as hell. His glowers could burn right through you. Pearce (Memento) was another knockout that solidified leading man status thanks to his performance as the rigidly self-righteous Exley. He’s a character that thinks he’s above moral reproach, and his humbling is a necessary part of solving the case. Exley is constantly surprising his peers and it feels like Pearce does the same, showing exciting new capabilities from scene to scene, from his stirring hire-wire act with the interrogation scene to his understated glimmer of fear through a poker face. These three performances are golden.
Nobody better represents sleaze than Danny DeVito’s character and the man brings a merry lechery to his tabloid journalist/exposition device. His unquenchable thirst for the worst in humanity to sell more papers feels even more sadly relevant given the media climate that contributed to the recent presidential election. Kim Basinger (Batman) won an Oscar for her somber performance, which reinvigorated her career. She’s good but I can’t help but feel that she won the Oscar in a weak field (my choice would be Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights). David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is enjoyably nonplussed as a man who specializes in delivering vice. James Cromwell used every bit of audience warmth associated as the loveable farmer from Babe and used that to his advantage. His pragmatic police captain is a father figure for Exley and the audience and perfectly sets up a turn that leaves the audience spinning even twenty years later.
There are little details the could go unnoticed but confirm for me just how much thought was put into L.A. Confidential. Exley is chided by his superiors for wearing glasses as they think it makes him look weak. As the film develops and he gets more immersed in the Nite Owl case, his compulsions against violence and rash judgment start to waver about the same time he stops wearing his glasses, a subtle symbol of his difficulty to see things for what they truly are. I enjoyed that our introduction to Lynn is in a liquor store and she’s wearing a winter cloak that strongly resembles a nun’s habit. It’s a memorable costuming choice and also suggest Lynn’s penchant for straddling the line of devotion. The Patchett “whatever your heart desires” line of high-class prostitutes has allusions to our current media culture of celebrity worship and personalized sexual fantasies. It naturally ties into the exploitation of the dream factory of Hollywood that takes young ingénues with dreams in their head and squashes them pitilessly. It’s not the first film to explore the darker side of the film industry but that doesn’t make its themes lesser.
L.A. Confidential feels like the noir thrillers of old but stripped down to its essentials and given a new engine. It’s something that celebrates noir thrillers of old and Old Hollywood but it isn’t so lavish to either the genre or older time period that it loses sight of its own storytelling goals. The elaborate plot is complex and intensely engaging while still being accessible, populated with memorable and incredibly well developed characters, each given their own purpose and own insights that contribute to the larger whole. Hanson’s lasting accomplishment is a near-perfect masterpiece to the power of story structure and characterization. The three lead detectives are compelling on their own terms and the movie keeps them separate long enough that when they do come together it feels like a payoff all its own. Hanson recreates the world of classic film noir and makes it his own, using new Hollywood to lovingly recreate Old Hollywood. It’s the kind of movie I can watch again and again and discover new depths. It gave way to a wave of success for its participants. Hanson never quite delivered another movie on the level of L.A. Confidential, though I’ll posit that In Her Shoes is an underrated character piece. Helgeland has become a go-to screenwriter for many projects low (The Postman) and high (Mystic River) and became a director for A Knight’s Tale and 42. It’s a movie that plays just as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago, and that’s the mesmerizing power of great storytelling and acting. L.A. Confidential is a lasting achievement that proves once more the power of our darker impulses. It’s stylish, seductive, smart, subversive, and everything you could ask for in a movie.
Nate’s Grade: A
This is the last time someone will let Frank Miller direct. Astoundingly bad, The Spirit is borderline camp for every absurd and bizarre second. It careens all over the place, never settling on a tone. So one minute it will be hard-boiled noir and the next it will break down the fourth wall and amp up the goofy slapstick to Looney Tunes levels. The story is threadbare, the characters are half-developed ideas, and each scene almost exists in its own five-minute world before Miller barrels forward. Sure the flick has some appealing visuals, but even those are derivative of the superior Sin City. As a director, Miller doesn’t cut it. He will shoot scenes with nothing but close-ups, giving no point of establishment for the audience, and he’s too prone to random diversions. Miller displays zero ability, or a complete disregard, for directing actors; they are terrible in different ways. Gabriel Macht, as the back-from-the-dead crime fighter The Spirit, sounds like Paul Rudd doing a Harrison Ford impression. Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious criminal/mad scientist/also semi-immortal The Octopus, overacts to a degree not even seen by Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, as an evil assistant, can’t even hide her disdain and boredom. This stuff just becomes unchecked lunacy, but it still manages to be boring through and through. The hero is a stiff, all the women are sex objects, and the conflicts are pointless when the combatants can’t be killed. The only thing worth mentioning is that Eva Mendes is still a gorgeous looking woman. Even Miller couldn’t fumble that one.
Nate?s Grade: D
Steven Soderbergh has always seemed uncomfortable with his success and thus tried to stretch his creative wings with experimental gambles. They’re certainly ambitious but many times Soderbergh seems to be giving himself busy work. Did anyone see Bubble? I didn’t think so. The Good German is a film that wants to be seen as a forgotten relic from the 1940s, and Soderbergh went so far for period accuracy that he filmed with equipment from the same bygone era. That kind of artistic integrity is great, but what does it do to make the movie any better? The Good German aspires to be a cinematic cousin to Casablanca, even aping the iconic ending to that famous film. You’ll also get Chinatown déjà vu, especially when characters say, “Hey Jake, it’s Berlin.” The plot hinges on a murder around the Berlin conference with the Allied powers that will decide the fate of Europe and reshape the map. The story is too muddled and confusing and seems to amount to little to nothing after flirting with intrigue. The actors give hammy performances that may be true to the stagy, well-articulated acting styles of old Hollywood, but it does little in the realm of being enjoyable. Cate Blanchett is intended to be Marlena Dietrich, and George Clooney is intended to be Cary Grant, but neither manages to escape being a second-rate impression of their film noir forbears. There’s an interesting post-war story buried under all this period homage and Method-style artifice, but Soderbergh only seems interested in pleasing himself with these experimental errands, and this is coming from someone that loved Schitzopolis.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Probably too clever by half, this Tarantino knockoff is gloriously twisty and far more twisted than you may have thought from the surface. It’s a puzzle piece that winds up being vastly entertaining. Josh Hartnett does the best work of his career in an effervescent comedic performance, playing Slevin, a nobody mistaken for a somebody who owes different mobsters large sums of money. There are a lot of balls to keep juggling, but Lucky Number Slevin finds a way to keep the headstrong momentum constantly going. The neo-noir art direction is fabulous and eye-catching. Things get really dark in the last act, perhaps too dark for some, but for me, this was a crime caper that left me captivated by clever storytelling and flashy camerawork. Definitely for fans of the noir genre and for those with hard stomachs for violence.
Nate’s Grade: B
I appreciate movies that try something different. That isn’t to say I love all movies that try, like Gus van Sant’s latest collection of watch-grass-grow cinema. More often than not I appreciate stabs at originality even if it results in colossal failure. That’s why I can never beat too much on M. Night Shyamalan. When Brick came out last spring it had my attention immediately. Writer/director Rian Johnson placed a hard-boiled detective story in the contemporary setting of a high school. And true to my promise on my podcasts, I bought it the day it came out on DVD. For fans of crime fiction and excitingly bold cinema, rent this movie.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a kid that knows the ins and outs of the high school scene. He’s currently looking into what happened to Emily (Emile de Ravin), his ex-girlfriend who was last seen trying to fit in with the popular types. She was in some form of danger and contacted Brendan for help. With the help of The Brain (Matt O’Leary), an old friend, Brendan must negotiate a web of unsavory characters, each with their own game. There’s Dode (Noah Fleiss), a burnout who was last seen crushing on Emily. There’s Laura (Nora Zehetner), a rich girl accustomed to hanging out with bad boys. It all leads to The Pin (Lukas Haas), the man controlling the area’s drug supply and who, we’re told, is “way old, like 26.” The Pin’s been volatile ever since a brick of heroin went missing. If Brendan’s head isn’t spinning piecing together all the clues, surely the audience’s will be.
Brick is a film that refuses to simply be an afternoon afterthought. This is a movie that demands you sit on edge, poised to decode its complicated detective jargon and twisty storyline. It takes a while to first get into the movie because of its stylized dialogue and how straight everyone plays it. Johnson has recycled the same hard-boiled talk you’d expect coming from the mouths of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I heard that some theaters actually gave a glossary of terms and verbal exchanges for people who went to see Brick. Whether that’s true or not, your brain is working overtime to decipher what is being said, and I love that. I love that Brick doesn’t take time out to explain its terminology but expects you to keep up as best you can. I don?t want to scare readers off, because even if you don’t know any noir vernacular you’ll be able to know what’s going on, but it’s just cooler to be in on the fun. The snappy dialogue is only one part of Johnson’s extremely intelligent, very meaty script.
Brick relies on a gimmick, yes, but what an inventive and clever gimmick. There’s just an extra level of fun for film noir fans, spotting the same archetypes (mysterious damsel in over her head, femme fatales, goons, underworld boss) and locations (gin joints become house parties, detective offices become teen bedrooms). Brendan even gets chewed out by his superior who wants results… his assistant vice principal (Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree). There’s such a common language of film noir and its staples, and part of Brick‘s enjoyment is placing all of them. I’m fully aware that Brick will exist more as an artifact in a film class than as a film casual moviegoers will actively watch. The plot is blissfully twisty with many intriguing players, and once it’s all laid out it actually holds together. Brick is rewarding for those willing to stay attentive.
The movie succeeds because of how committed everyone is. The gimmick seems doomed to fail but the movie has creativity in spades. Of course it’s all highly unrealistic but it all works splendidly within the world it creates. Because the filmmakers play it all straight, you never look at the movie from an outside perspective. You’ll never laugh at it unless you’re giggling about how much fun it is. Unlike other recent brainteasers like Syriana, you do have an emotional connection to the movie and you do care about the characters and are interested to see where the story goes (and it’s not nearly as confounding as Syriana). I love that Brendan outsmarts everyone and sometimes he does it by taking a pounding. I love that he takes so many beatings that he actually gets sick from swallowing so much blood. It’s the attention to details like that where Brick shows its commitment to the world it has created. Brick is reveling instead of deconstructing the detective genre, like the audaciously cheeky Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
There are some humorous winks that remind you of Brick‘s gimmick, which is surprisingly easy to forget. The Pin’s mother serves juice to her son’s “friends;” The Pin walks along a beach discussing the details of his operations and then drops a peculiar non-sequitur, asking Brendan if he’s ever read J.R.R. Tolkien (“His descriptions of things is really good. He makes you want to be there.”) That moment has haunted me still months after I viewed Brick in a theater. The Pin is a scary bad guy but it’s that line that makes me go back and say, “Yeah, but they’re just kids.”
Johnson masterfully handles his actors. Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the most versatile young actors. He’s the moral anchor of the movie and Levitt carries the film on his back. He’s great handling the dialogue but even better making Brendan seem human in a highly stylized tale. Zehetner leaves quite an impression as a smoky seductress who may be the biggest player in the film. Haas plays his villain role to eerie perfection.
Brick is an exciting, disarming, demanding, vibrantly different movie that is stone cold cool. This is not the easiest movie to get into, but once you open up to its freshly retro wavelength then Brick is one greatly rewarding movie. Johnson has built a movie around a gimmick but it all holds together so well thanks to his total commitment. The dialogue is heavy in noir slang and the story is crammed with twists and surprises. I loved this movie from the first frame to the last. Johnson has found a refreshingly original movie by going back in time. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Nate’s Grade: A