Tag Archives: film noir

HBO’s True Detective: Season 2

So just what was it about season two of HBO’s True Detective that caused such a monumental ruckus of ruthless criticism? Well, who can say. I imagine it had something to do with the dark, difficult and byzantine way that creator Nic Pizzolatto presents the material. Maybe it’s the fact that it had to follow the lightning in a bottle, southern gothic, out of left field mastery of season one. Simply just the shift in tone and setting? I’m reaching for straws here because the hate and rejection that this brilliant piece of television has amassed always flew over my head. This is deep, dark LA noir at its finest, most gorgeously dangerous and I love every challenging, impenetrable episode to bits.

The setting shifts from bayous of Louisiana, the amount of lead characters multiplies significantly and where there was once eerie folk horror and occult conspiracy we now find decadence, corruption most high and a focused, implosive inwardness in exploring each individual the narrative focuses on. Colin Farrell is unbearably intense as LA cop Ray Velcoro, a haunted addict who has fallen from the grace of both the department and his family, but isn’t down for the count quite yet. Vince Vaughn is emblematic of every career criminal trying to go straight as Frank Semyon, a stubborn small time kingpin with dreams of scoring big in California real estate. Rachel McAdams is haunted as Ani Bezzerides, a cop with a tragic past and the deep set trauma to prove it. Taylor Kitsch is Paul Woodrough, a pent up special ops veteran turned state trooper who rounds out this quartet as they’re faced with the kind of miserable, insurmountable odds one always finds in the best kind of film noirs. There’s an unsettling, decades old conspiracy afoot in the fictional yet uneasily realistic county of Vinci, CA, a brooding, festering menace that seems rooted in the now booming transportation system that has taken the economy by storm. Our heroes struggle to fight treachery, debauchery and excess run mad everywhere they turn, for their souls and California’s itself alike as the slogan for promotional material “We get the world we deserve” seems stingingly apparent throughout.

Farrell is my favourite as Velcoro, the anxiety ridden badass who displays the horrors of his past in the manic whites of his eyes and drowns them out with enough booze and blow to feed a city’s collective habit. He’s an antihero type, moonlighting as an enforcer for Vaughn but maintaining a fierce moral compass when all else is naught. Vaughn feasts on the stylized dialogue here and produces verbal poetry so good it hurts and you hit the rewind button just to hear his delivery again. His Frank is a hard, jaded piece of work with a soul hiding beneath the layers of anger and distrust for the world around him. McAdams’s Ani comes from a place of childhood trauma so unthinkable that they barely show it in hushed flashback, and it’s apparent in her caged animal body language, by far the actress’s most affecting work. Kitsch makes the slightest impression of the four and his arc didn’t seem as immediate as the others but he still did a bang up job in intense physicality. After the success of season one a host of excellent actors were drawn to this project, standouts here include David Morse as Ani’s commune leader dad, Kelly Reilly as Frank’s intuitive wife and second in command, Rick Springfield (!) as a shady plastic surgeon, Ritchie Coster as Vinci’s terminally alcoholic mayor, W. Earl Brown, James Frain, Ronny Cox, C.S. Lee, Lolita Davidovitch and the legendary Fred Ward as Ray’s bitterly prophetic ex-cop father.

Pizzolatto spins a very different kind of story here, one composed of long glances, deep shadows, arresting establishing shots of Vinci’s sprawling highway system, as dense and tough to navigate as the season’s central mystery, which isn’t one you get a sense of in just one, two or even three viewings. Impatience and frustration are easy to understand with this narrative, but one shouldn’t write off this piece so easily and I’m sure that’s what happened. A few people don’t have the time to invest in it, get hostile and throw some negative reviews out there and before you know it it becomes cool to hate and there’s folks throwing around words like ‘flawed’ before they’ve attempted a single episode, but that’s the way the internet works I suppose. Balls to them though, this is a deliciously dark, highly stylized, very emotional ride through a world whose themes, intentions and true colours aren’t readily visible until you descend several layers deep alongside these compelling characters. It’s thoughtful, pessimistic yet just hopeful enough to keep a candle lit in all that darkness and has some of the most beautiful acting, camera, dialogue and music work I’ve seen from anything. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

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David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake is for sure going to repel, frustrate and test people’s patience as I can already see by the hordes of nasty reviews, but I loved this thing. It’s one of those scintillating, fractal LA neo-noir flicks like The Big Lebowski that seems somehow well oiled and deliberately scattershot at the same time. Mitchell marched onto the scene five years ago with his acclaimed horror debut It Follows, but Silver Lake is a brand new bag and shows he can switch up tone, setting and genre pretty adeptly.

Andrew Garfield plays against type as Sam, a meandering loser who seems more interested in following a never ending path of hidden clues that only he seems to be able to make sense of than worrying about his heinously overdue rent. He plays the role like one of Neverland’s lost boys out on the skids, a sheepish, constantly perplexed flunkee who just can’t seem to get his shit together. After catching feels for a mysterious girl (Riley Keough) in his motel complex who promptly disappears the next morning, he believes he’s onto a secret society of people who leave cryptic messages in plain sight, on wall graffiti, stadium score screens and within popular music tracks. Is he actually onto something big, or is he just as crazy as the conspiracy theorizing comic book artist (Patrick Fischler, whose very presence cements the Mulholland Drive homage) and the paranoid drinking buddy (Topher Grace) whom he associates with? Well, he’s certainly unlocked something, and whether it’s Hollywood’s deepest set ring of secrets and conspiracies or simply emerging mental illness chipping away at his grasp on reality is something that Mitchell maddeningly and deliciously leaves up to us.

This is one unbelievably ambitious and stylized film, so much so that it’s two and a half hour runtime isn’t even enough to bring every story thread, subplot and circus sideshow to a conclusion, but there’s a nagging inkling that Mitchell meant to do exactly that and it wasn’t just because he didn’t know how to cap every idea off. By not telling us exactly what’s up with everything, we wonder more about the deeper layers behind Sam’s journey and the Byzantine forces that are somehow always just out of reach. What’s the point then, you may ask? Well, it’s a good question, and there may not even be one, which has obviously been a deal breaker for many who saw this. The journey, and the episodic silliness is what you come for I suppose, and your ability to deal with the nihilistic senselessness of it all is the barometer on whether you stay, and have positive words after.

Sure, it even irked me a bit that we never learned the identity of the mysterious serial killer of dogs (watch for a freaky Black Dahlia nod), or found out more about the Machiavellian Songwriter (I don’t even know who plays this guy as it’s clearly a younger dude under gobs of old man makeup a lá Jackass) who pulls unseen strings in the music industry, but did that stop me from enjoying and being stimulated by these sequences? No, and they’re some of the most memorable stuff I’ve seen onscreen in a while. The film may be all over the place and certainly trips over its shoelaces here and there, but it’s something bold, unheard of and even feels unique in the sub category of sunny, drunken and dazed out LA noir. There are moments of hysterical comedy and instances of blood freezing horror that both had me in stitches and genuinely spooked me out more than any film this year so far, and when a piece can lay claim to both in the same runtime, you know you’re onto something. This is probably headed for cult status, the marketing hasn’t really been kind and even seems to have tried to bury it (it’s on Amazon Prime) but I hope it finds its audience and endures, because it’s really something unique and special. Listen for another achingly beautiful score from Disasterpiece, who also did It Follows but switch the synths up for something even more retro and inspired by golden age Hollywood, like the film itself. My favourite of the year so far!

-Nate Hill

Robert Benton’s Twilight

The title Twilight obviously brings up bad memories of a franchise we’d all like to forget, but before that abomination ever entered the fold, the moniker belonged to a laconic, brightly lit yet darkly intoned LA film noir starring Paul Newman as an aging Hollywood private investigator. He’s a guy who was was never famous himself but seemingly behind the scenes of stardom and scandal and making a career out of it until his golden years find him living on the lavish estate of a fading starlet (Susan Sarandon) and her husband (Gene Hackman), also an actor of former stature. He’s always been in love with her but is also Hackman’s good buddy and it makes for a love triangle that is never too tense or melodramatic, but just as uncomfortable as it needs to be. He sort of serves as their homefront security officer and sorta just spies on Sarandon languishing by the pool and you can tell that the three of them are just mournful ghosts of what they probably were decades ago, haunting their surroundings like echoes rather than living in them.

Things get heavy for them once again when Newman takes on a shady job that involves delivering blackmail money, a situation that quickly snowballs into deceit, old wounds torn open and, of course, murder most foul. Something nasty is going on that dates years back into the collective past of these three individuals and has come back to bite them all squarely on the ass, and although it might not be the most innovative mystery narrative and certainly aspects are predictable, it’s just so much fun watching these master actors play it out in sunny Hollywood enclaves. Speaking of old pros, James Garner has a nice supporting role as an ex cop pal of Newman’s who helps him out with intel and backup. Watch for early career work from Liev Schreiber, who now stars on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, another LA noir story that I’m almost positive drew inspiration from this film. A very young and very naked Reese Witherspoon also shows up briefly, as well as Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, Giancarlo Esposito, Jason Clarke, John Spencer, Clint Howard and M. Emmett Walsh. Newman is terrific here in one of his older dude roles, his blue eyes lend just a hint of optimism to the downbeat noir archetype. Hackman and Sarandon say a lot with little dialogue and plenty of body language, embodying damaged souls with grace and grizzle.

I recently heard a character in Amazon’s Goliath (yet another LA noir- can you tell I’ve cultivated a fixation on the sub genre?) say that murders in LA and Hollywood are especially tricky to solve because anybody could know anybody or be connected to anything. That gives ample freedom to intertwine characters and set up strange encounters or resolutions to plot, which is always fun and evident here too. It’s a slow, sunny burn of a crime flick that isn’t designed to be particularly flashy or lurid, but unfolds at its own pace alongside Newman & Co. Good stuff.

-Nate Hill

Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen


A demon angel. A Badass Denzel Washington. Tony Soprano singing the Rolling Stones. Creeping psychological dread. Browned, burnished production design. A deliciously mean spirited, ballsy twist ending. All this and more can be found in Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen, an atmospheric spook-house of a flick that gets tone, fright and suspense just right. Nestled in that sweet spot of the 90’s where detective stories often had a neat supernatural twist (The Prophecy is another dope one), it’s a film that demonstrates the power of storytelling and atmosphere done right, like a campfire tale that cops tell their youngsters. Denzel is Hobbs, a detective who oversees the graphic execution of serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas, terror incarnate), a monster he once caught. Case closed, right? Not so much. Soon after he kicks the bucket, one or more copycat killers show up, and once again the crimes happen under Hobb’s watch. Coincidence? Paranormal? It’s a neat, eerie game of cat and mouse with an antagonist who possesses a few unearthly methods of skulking around in the dark. Hobbs is helped by his two colleagues, salt of the earth John Goodman and hothead James Gandolfini, bumps heads with the obstinate police captain (Donald Sutherland), and runs into his foe at every turn, each time in a new vessel which gives the actors, right down to extras, an opportunity to have some devilish fun. Embeth Davidz is her usual withdrawn self as a woman with ties to the killer’s past, and watch for Robert Joy and Gabriel Casseus as well. Composer Dun Tan’s unearthly drone of a score compliments the drab shadows, oppressive nocturnes and threatening frames of the film eerily as well, creating a mood-scape that drips ambience. The end is an acidic kick in the nuts, and I admire a film that has the stones to chuck in such a shock tactic, embracing the dread that has been built up to that point with one last sardonic, hopeless cackle. Film noir to it’s roots, subtly mystical, a perfect one to settle down with as we move into the Halloween season. 

-Nate Hill

DOUBLE INDEMNITY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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“It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Maybe you would have known Keyes the minute she mentioned accident insurance, but I didn’t. I felt like a million.” – Walter Neff

Adapted from the James M. Cain novella of the same name by Billy Wilder and acclaimed crime novelist Raymond Chandler (author of The Big Sleep), Double Indemnity (1944) is considered by many to be the quintessential film noir with its exquisite use of John F. Seitz’s atmospheric black and white cinematography – the use of shadows, silhouetted figures and darkness to convey a shadowy world of betrayal and murder (most famously, Venetian blind effects on walls or on characters’ faces so that it looks like the bars in a jail).

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a hot shot insurance salesman who falls for rich housewife, Phyllis Detrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) when she first appears to him clad only in a towel and asks, “Is there anything I can do?” which is a question loaded with suggestion. Neff is there under the pretense of renewing her husband’s automobile insurance. The dialogue between them crackles with delicious sexual tension as Phyllis draws Neff into her web, eventually convincing him to kill her husband and make it look like an accident so that she can collect the money.

Of course, it isn’t that easy and Neff’s friend and co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a persistent claims manager, investigates the case. Edward G. Robinson plays Keyes with grumpy charm, someone who isn’t happy unless he’s griping about phony claims and the foolhardiness of the company he works for. The exchanges between him and Fred MacMurray are priceless as their friendship permeates the snappy, sarcastic dialogue.

Phyllis is very unhappy and is drawn to her tryst with Neff because it is forbidden and their illegal plan excites her. Stanwyck’s character is an archetypal femme fatale: a scheming black widow that uses her sexual appeal to manipulate Neff into getting what she wants. Phyllis uses him and then gets rid of him once he outlives his usefulness. Stanwyck does a great job luring Neff with her faux vulnerability and slightly tawdry look (complete with trashy blond wig) and then coldly turns the screws on him at the crucial moment.

Up to that point, MacMurray had been known for starring in light comedies but was perfectly cast as the flawed salesman who falls for the wrong woman and finds that he’s capable of murder. It’s pretty easy to see why Neff falls for Phyllis – she’s beautiful and has access to a lot of money. The chemistry between him and Stanwyck is filled with all kinds of sexual tension – as much as they could sneak by the censors of the day and that’s part of the allure of the film: everything is suggested and nothing is explicit. For example, the husband’s murder is never shown just the sounds of him dying and shot of Phyllis’ face reacting (or rather not reacting) to what is happening that is very effective.

Looking at Double Indemnity now, it comes across as a fascinating snapshot of Los Angeles in the 1940s with its houses with classic Spanish architecture, when cars were all wonderfully big and stylish and men all wore hats. There are just enough location shots of the actual city mixed with studio interiors to convey a sense of place that doesn’t exist anymore.

L.A. Confidential: A Review by Nate Hill 

  
The finest Los Angeles film noir to ever come out of Hollywood, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a serpentine wonder, a two and a half hour parade of hard boiled detectives, sultry dames and shady dealings, all wrapped up in a multiple murder story that kicks everyone’s arc into gear, taking you places you didn’t think you’d see some of these people go. ‘Triple homicide at the nite owl’, barks the headline of a gossip rag run by a sleazy Danny Devito, and indeed the crime scene has everyone buzzing, from the shirt tuckers in the highest ranks of the LAPD, to the burly brass knuckle wearers on the brutish task force. Something is amiss with the case, and Sgt. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is a dogged straight arrow with a nose for corruption. He isn’t quite the formidable force needed to barge down certain doors or break certain bones though, and that’s where Det. Bud White (Russell Crowe) comes into play. The two are initially at each other’s throats following a cleanse of many of the department’s corrupt officers, spurred by Exley himself. It soon becomes clear that they have no choice but to work together, in order to smoke out the evil source of the crime, which may be closer to home than anyone thought. Crowe and Pearce were not the stars they are now back then, but came up from the farm league in sensational style, barging onto the Hollywood scene in shotgun toting, shit kicking style. Kim Basinger won an Oscar for her poised, complex turn as a call girl who works for a pimp named Pierce Patchett (a glib David Strathairn), an eccentric who pays surgeons to deck his girls out to look like movie starlets. My favourite performance in the film comes from a diabolical James Cromwell as Captain Dudley, a dangerous rogue who you don’t want to cross for fear of his unpredictability. Kevin Spacey is all style and self loathing as Jack Vincennes, a media mogul of a cop who advises on TV shows and hogs the press limelight like a boorish politician. The supporting cast is all across the board, including work from Simon Baker, Graham Beckel, Tomas Arana, Ron Rifkin, Brenda Bakke, Jack Conley and an amusing cameo from Paul Guilfoyle as Mickey Cohen. Adapting a novel by the great undisputed king of LA noir, James Ellroy, Hanson weaves a deadly web of sensation, intrigue and steamy goings on that never follows a readily discernable pattern of narrative, and constantly has tricks up it’s sleeves. Remember Rollo Tomassi.

Fallen Angels: Dead End For Delia- A Review by Nate Hill

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Fallen Angels was a super cool L.A. film noir television series that ran in the 90’s, only never to be heard from again, curiously. It attracted an incredible lineup of directors including Tom Hanks, Alfonso Cuaron, Steven Soderberg, Peter Bogdanovitch, Jonathan Kaplan, John Dahl, Keith Gprdon, Tom Cruise and more, with an even more unbelievable troupe of prolific actors. For whatever sad reason though, it was never really released or marketed well, and has never seen the light of day. Dead End For Delia is the first, and one of the best of the bunch, directed by Phil Joanou, with the lead roles taken by Gary Oldman and Gabrielle Anwar. I’ve always wanted to see the two of them do something together, and funnily enough they share almost no screen time, but having the two occupy space in any project is electric enough. Oldman plays Pat Keilly, a police sergeant who is summoned to the scene of a crime, only to find out that the murder victim is his wife Delia (Anwar). As he is led along a trail of clues as to who her killer might be, he discovers things about her and realizes that he may have never really known his wife, or the person she really was. Oldman does something interesting here; for most of the film his trademark intensity sits at a low boil, lulling us into a false sense of calm and seeming to be one of his more restrained exercises. Then, all of a sudden in the last act he downright explodes and goes on a tirade of fuming emotion that is quite something to see. Makes me wonder if he planned this with his performance, or if he surprised himself with the unexpected outburst. The whole series is solidly star studded, and in addition to Oldman and Anwar we get to see Meg Tilly, Wayne Knight, Paul Guilfoyle, Vondie Curtis Hall and the great Dan Hedaya who works overtime playing at least ten different characters all throughout the show. It’s filmed through a lacy lens, the windows on set always open, the gauzy curtains set unearthly adrift to let in that clammy, humid L.A. breeze that promises secrets you wish you never knew as soon as it brushes against you. Perhaps one day this forgotten show will get a lovely dvd box set. Until then you have to scavenge for fragments over in the scrap yard of youtube. Good luck.