Tag Archives: HBO

City of Dark Angels: Nate’s Top Ten LA Noir films

Los Angeles is a place of bright sunny daydreams, hopeful aspirations of fame and fortune and the ever present hum of the Hollywood industry. It’s a fascinating arena to watch a film noir unfold but between the palms, roaming the hilly outskirts and permeating the cityscape is often a deep, sleazy corruption and sense of danger at every turn, apparent in many films that explore the dark, noirish side of town. Vice cops on the take, starlets on the run from powerfully evil forces, mobsters running the show from behind the scenes and grisly serial murderers that inspire films of their own, it’s all there and more. Here are my top ten in this sexy, beautiful and often hilarious sub-genre.. Oh one more thing! Please keep in mind I’m still a young’in and haven’t seen pretty much any of the old LA crime films dating back to black and white days of the 40’s and 50’s.. one day we’ll get to those, but for now these are my favourite one from a more contemporary scope of vision.. Enjoy!

10. Carl Franklin’s Devil In A Blue Dress

Denzel Washington sniffs out corruption most foul in this sweaty potboiler that includes a mysterious femme fatale (Jennifer Beals), a politician (the late Maury Chaykin) with some disturbing skeletons in his closet and a scary rogue cop (Tom Sizemore). The narrative is reliably serpentine, Denzel pulls off a smooth performance and the atmosphere is all grit, shadows and smoked out jazz clubs.

9. Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls

In this vision of 40’s LA, corruption has to stand up to Nick Nolte’s Max Hoover, an off the book vigilante cop who doles out brutal frontier style justice on gangsters along with his equally ruthless crew (Michael Madsen, Chris Penn and Chazz Palminteri). This one has a bad rep but it’s fantastic, the scope of the central mystery spans to the outskirts of town and includes a mysterious songbird (Jennifer Connolly), a weirdo Air Force colonel (John Malkovich) and more. It’s a positively star studded piece of work with cameos buried like hidden treasure throughout, a spectacular sense of time and place thanks to lavish production design and a hard edged, angry lead performance from Nolte at his most battered and distraught.

8. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

The buddy comedy gets a royal workout in this balls out pairing between Russell Crowe’s aloof thug for hire and Ryan Gosling’s moronic private eye. The plot here is almost impenetrable but it’s no matter, most of the fun is in the colourful, detailed 1970’s production design and Black’s trademark deadpan dialogue which we get in spades. Ooo, and an icily sexy turn from Kim Basinger as the city’s most corrupt government official, a deliberate callback to another film later on this list.

7. Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Combining elements of classic noir with the zany cartoon aesthetic and using stunning technology to do so, this miracle of a film parades around pretty much every animated character you can think of in a tale of humans living alongside ‘Toons’ in an alternate reality Los Angeles. A trip to Toon Town, the sultry femme fatale Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) a truly terrifying villain (Christopher Lloyd), an intrepid private eye (Bob Hoskins) and so much more can be found in this timeless, visually dazzling classic.

6. Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential

A sprawling, diabolical tale of police corruption, this brilliant, galvanizing piece of crime cinema launched the international careers of both Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, both providing solid, brawny tough guy turns. Kim Basinger gives arguably her best performance as a blonde bombshell starlet, Kevin Spacey is splendid as a headline hogging super cop who reeks of self loathing and James Cromwell makes for one terrifying villain as the last guy you want as a Police Commissioner. The real star here is the script, a labyrinthine tale that takes its time imparting revelations and ends with several dark secrets and a bang-up shootout. Oh, and remember Rollo Tomassi.

5. DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea

Val Kilmer explores the duality of man as both a nocturnal meth-head and a mournful trumpet player in this curious, dreamy and altogether captivating piece of pulp bliss. Populated by eccentric actors like Danny Trejo, R. Lee Ermey, Meat Loaf and Vincent D’Onofrio in a bizarre encore as a drug kingpin called Pooh Bear, this is one of the most distinctive and memorable crime flicks out there. From it’s haunting trumpet solos set against the sunset on the shores of the titular waters to the feverish late night shenanigans of Kilmer and his band of druggie freaks to a slow burn revenge subplot that creeps up from behind, this is a brilliant picture.

4. HBO’s True Detective: Season 2

This might be a controversial pick a) because it’s a season of television and not a feature film and b) because this season isn’t regarded as quality content in some circles. Well… with these lists I envision a world of blogging where film and TV occupy the same realm and also I will defend this incredible story to the grave. Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn play lost souls in a fictional California county who begin to uncover a dense, decades old trend of conspiracy and corruption in their midst. It’s bleak, fatalistic and hyper stylized but the truth of each character and the season’s dark themes overall shine through wonderfully. It’s one of my favourite seasons of television ever produced and simply undeserving of any dislike thrown its way.

3. Ethan & Joel Coen’s The Big Lebowski

What do marmots, nihilists, White Russians, bowling, sarsaparilla, interpretive dance, dirty undies and the sheriff of Malibu have in common? It’ll take a couple of viewings to completely string together the Coen’s farcical cult classic and distill it to a point of cohesion, but is that really the point anyways? This film has sort of spawned a subculture and taken on a life all its own. A purebred masterpiece of screwball elements, abstract dream sequences, stoned out tomfoolery and the bad guy from Roadhouse playing a pornographer who likes to draw dicks… what more do we need?

2. Michael Mann’s Collateral

There’s a point in this film where a lone coyote ambles across the LA interstate while Jamie Foxx’s introverted cab driver and Tom Cruise’s philosophical hitman look on in dreamy bemusement to the tune of Groove Armada’s haunting ‘Hands Of Time’ in the background. It’s striking for a few different reasons.. it serves the plot none other than to highlight both the savage, jungle law nature of Los Angeles and to remind us that the colour of this beast’s coat mirrors that of Cruise’s hair and leaves us to wonder if that is deliberate or just us making conjecture. Mann’s brilliant crime thriller is full of moments like these, subtle instances, eerie coincidences and mood setting interludes that make it something more than just your average cat and mouse thriller, something deep, meditative and primal.

1. Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

As a once aspiring actor I’ve always had this fantasy of becoming casted by accident and catapulted into the LA scene by sheer happenstance, and that’s exactly what happens to hapless Robert Downey Jr in this hilariously meta send up of noir in general. Of course the lucky break isn’t without strings attached, the main one being Val Kilmer’s scene stealing private detective Gay Perry. The two of them bicker their way down a rabbit hole involving an aspiring actress (Michelle Monaghan, luminous), a shady tycoon (Corbin Bernsen) and numerous other lowlifes and weirdos the great city has to offer. Downey and Kilmer win the day with their utterly hilarious and touching characterizations, spurred by Black’s winning dialogue and an overall sense that everyone involved has a deep love for all things Hollywood.

Thanks for reading!! What are some of your favourite LA Noirs?

-Nate Hill

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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

HBO’s True Detective: Season 3

In season 1 of HBO’s True Detective, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle observed that in a battle between light and dark, it looked to him as if the light appeared to be winning. The spectacular third season has has come to a close and without any spoilers it felt to me like that sentiment has never been more apparent in the series. The first story was a brilliantly existential gothic folk horror show gilded by unsettling conspiracies that went who knows how high up and permeated by the eerie, lived-in grottos of rural Louisiana. The second story was a brilliantly deep, dark, Byzantine labyrinth of California corruption, noir laced nihilism and fatalistic angst. The third story, no less phenomenal, sees a more intimate, emotional tale unfold against the mysterious backdrop of the Arkansas Ozarks, revolving around a crime the mechanizations of which gradually, steadily unfold in ways we both expect and also don’t. There’s a directness and fortitude to the story here where in the past seasons things could be a little more ambiguous and opaque, something I was fascinated by. Every season relies heavily on setting to make the case something you both remember and care about, from the sweaty bayous along the coast to the seedy industrial hum of Vinci. The Ozarks are considerably more picturesque with craggy mountains and thickets of boreal forest, but the atmosphere is no less portentous, the musical cues no less unnerving and the the clues embedded with no less regularity or tact.

One Arkansas evening, young Will and Julie Purcell (Lena McCarthy and Phoenix Elkin) disappear from their neighbourhood while riding bikes, prompting a statewide, decades long search that will go on to greatly affect the lives of everyone involved, especially those of the two lead detectives. Mahershala Ali is a pure sensation as Detective Wayne ‘Purple’ Hays, a haunted yet stalwart Viet Nam vet who can’t let the case go, Ali is a wonder whose eyes, physical mannerisms and tone of voice gravely and soulfully reflect a mystery that has entwined itself into his very essence. Stephen Dorff has been taking it easy for some years now, but casting him as gruff, take-no-shit Detective Roland West has proved a stroke of genius. Dorff has dimension and depth in the role, obstinately turning a somewhat second fiddle character into a complete scene stealer and fleshed out human being who is utterly compelling to watch and listen to. They are surrounded by a pitch perfect supporting cast that all turn in fantastic work. Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer are both knockouts as the parents of the missing children, underrated Carmen Ejogo gives a career best as Wayne’s wife and true crime author Amelia Hays, while captivating turns are observed from Brett Cullen, Michael Greyeyes, John Tenney, Ray Fisher, Steven Williams, Lauren Sweetser, Sarah Gadon and a welcome appearance from the legendary Michael Rooker.

‘Time takes everything but the truth’, we see emblazoned on the posters, something that goes from promotional slogan to sediment truth once we see how the show plays out in the unique fashion of three separate timelines unfolding simultaneously in a rhythmic dance that takes time getting used to but is such a fascinating way to tell this tale. We join our detectives in 1980 as the initial disappearance happens, in 1990 as the seemingly wrapped up case is reopened and again in 2015 when new facts come to light and the mystery approaches a conclusion that’s always just around the corner. Hays suffers from dementia in the third timeline and we see how this has affected his memory of the case, relationship to his family and his own familiarity with a psyche that is slowly fragmenting. Such a scattered trio of narratives could have proved too tough to fluidly impart, but there’s a remarkably steady hand in editing, direction and performance that makes the story as a whole, and each circling chapter really shine and come across clearly. Both time and memory are essential in not just understanding this story, but feeling your way through intuitively, because as Wayne’s mind starts to go, that in a sense is all he can do anymore in some instances. This is in many ways a departure from the two other seasons even though on the surface it appears to be very similar to the first. This i believe is a smokescreen of sorts and by every episode we see a unique story unfold that’s filled with secrets and explores obsession, heartbreak, violence, mental illness, the sad plight of Viet Nam vets, corruption, love, family, friendship and the darkness that ever dwells on the fringes of human society, always just a step outside our brightly lit towns, be it in a ghostly fog filled cave or mysterious grove of trees. A story worth telling, and a story worth hearing. Bring on season four please, I don’t see this hot streak stopping anytime soon.

-Nate Hill

Michael Mann’s Luck: A short lived masterpiece 


Michael Mann’s Luck was a painfully short lived HBO original series with reach-for-the-stars potential, a mind blowing cast and a terse, eccentric script from David Milch, all fuelling a brilliant ensemble storyline set in a pristine Los Angeles horse racing track. I’ll get the elephant out of the room right away: the series was cancelled due to a few of the horses dying on set, for whatever reasons. Had it been allowed to continue though, I imagine it would have gone on to become one of the network’s, and Mann’s, most hallowed and heralded works. Dustin Hoffman is the centrepiece of the cast as Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, a sharp witted Jewish mobster who’s recent stretch in the joint has somewhat dulled his edge. Nevertheless, he slyly takes a stab at playing his hand with horse ownership, joined by his charismatic driver Gus (Dennis Farina, reliably wonderful). There’s all kinds of other hoopla going on, and it’s cool to see the story focus on both the upper crust elite doing their shady deals as well as everyday joes tossing their money into these worshipped games. Kevin Dunn is terrific as a disabled firebrand of a gambler, joined by his two scrappy pals (Ritchie Koster and Jason Gedrick) as they try out their own brand of luck. Jill Hennessy is a determined horse trainer who clashes with a belligerent owner (Yul Vasquez), and there’s two ominous crime kingpins played by Michael Gambon and Ted Levine who hover in the shadows as well. Further still is a heartbreaking turn from Richard ‘Bing Bong’ Kind as a stressed out jockey manager, Nick Nolte as a crusty, broken-down horse trainer, Joan Allen, Alan Rosenberg, Spencer Garrett, Don Harvey, Ian Hart, W. Earl Brown, Shaun Toub, Bruce Davison, Frank Collison, Mercedes Rhuel, Tony Curran and a cameo from Jurgen Pröchnow as the stern owner of the whole track. How’s that for a cast. I must say that the dense, peculiar dialogue from Milch takes some time getting used to, but once you tune in to it’s jive, it’s pure poetry being rattled off by every character, and a gorgeously structured, meticulously layered script at that. The actors are all on a plane of pure excellence as well, many of them turning in career best efforts and bringing their roles vividly to life. The cinematography from various artists is pure spun gold too, every sparkling irrigation sprinkler, glistening horse coat, careful closeup and crop of dirt kicked up by hooves captured succinctly and smoothly. This seriously is as near to a perfect season of television as one can get, and it kills me that it got cut down before it had a chance to really get going, because just think of the places it could have gone. At least we still have this first glorious season to admire, and I recommend every minute of it. 

-Nate Hill

HBO’s Witness Protection 


The sad thing about HBO original films is that they air pretty quick and without notice, then are scarcely heard from again, despite having really good stories and production design to boast, with no theatrical crowd to ever share them with. Witness Protection is one among many of these, a brilliant, surprisingly thoughtful mobster melodrama starring Tom Sizemore in a rare and commanding lead role. He plays Boston area gangster Bobby ‘Bats’ Batton here, a wiseguy who gets a rude awakening one night when a violent attempt is made on his life by rival crime factions, striking at home while his family are there. His lifestyle has inadvertently put those he loves in danger and now there are consequences, as grimly outlined by Forest Whitaker’s sympathetic FBI agent. Bobby, his wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is so great, why isn’t she in stuff anymore?), son (Shawn Hatosy) and young daughter (Sky McCole Bartusiak, who famously died young a few years ago) are relocated into the witness protection program run by the Feds, given new identities, their lives uprooted and their future uncertain. Now, I searched for this film for years (it’s near impossible to find) thinking there’d be some kind of actuon intrigue angle, a few gunfights as his enemies tracked him down, but such is not the case. This is a mature film, a meditation on what it takes to change who we are when our choices endanger the lives of those we are supposed to protect. Bobby is a man of violence who grew up in a certain way, and he has transformed that into his livelihood. But it’s also a risky creed to cling to, and eventually a line is crossed, the line between balancing a chaotic life, or letting it run away from you. He’s forced to change, to show honesty and the will power to go straight, and this causes intense strain on the relationships with each of his family members, both individually and as a group. It’s equal parts fascinating, heartbreaking and hopeful to see a family go from one extreme to the other, and every facet of the situation is explored in a script that feels authentic and unforced. Sizemore and Mastrantonio deliver powerhouse work that stuns and stings, inhabiting uncomfortable moments of personal anguish with gravity to spare. This one isn’t your typical crime drama, and is all the better for it. 

-Nate Hill

HBO’s Vendetta: A Review by Nate Hill

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Vendetta is a tough film to watch without feeling sadness and outrage, but such is the stuff that HBO churns out, honest pieces of history that sting you with their refusal to honey coat or gloss over the nasty details (I’m looking at you, History Channel). This one takes place in 1890 New York City, a time of mass Irish and Italian immigration which spurred a ton of unrest among those already settled and raised in that area. Everyone is fighting tooth and nail for a piece of the pie and a chance to feed their families, and the ones with a bunch of pie just greedily want more. The influx of Italians is a cause for insidious worry for James Houston (Christopher Walken), an obscenely wealthy and deeply corrupt piece of shit. He’s joined by equally nasty William Parkinson (Luke Askew), and Mayor Joe Shakespeare (Kenneth Welsh), as the trio cook up an evil scheme to implicate a few young Italian men in the mysterious death of a sympathetic and kindly Irish police chief (Clancy Brown). This sets in motion a tragic outbreak of riots and and angry acts of violence against the Italians. Even their union representitive Joseph Macheca  (Joaquim De Almeida) cannot bring peace or stop what Walken and team have started. You may think why make a film of this, as it heads straight for the bleakest of resolutions, but I think it’s important to shine a light on even the darkest patches of history, in order to understand the levels of deception and human cruelty so that we may see it coming before it’s too late next time around. This was a terrible, terrible event and the film hits you square in the face with it’s blunt truth and unwavering honesty. Kudos to HBO fpr taking it on. Watch for the late Edward Herrmann and Bruce Davison as rival lawyers in the chaos.

PTS PRESENTS CINEMATOGRAPHER’S CORNER with PAUL CAMERON

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793c55ef-3227-46d8-82e3-3cb271a88e1fPodcasting Them Softly is extremely honored to present a chat with the fantastic cinematographer Paul Cameron. Paul has been responsible for shooting some of our absolute favorite modern action films, from his collaborations with the late Tony Scott including MAN ON FIRE, DEJA VU, and the BMW films entry BEAT THE DEVIL, to his groundbreaking work on Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL. Other efforts include the slick and gritty actioners GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS from director Dominic Sena and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the crazy-fun cyber-terrorism thriller SWORDFISH with John Travolta and Hugh Jackman, the lens-flare gorgeous Total Recall remake, and the underrated thriller Dead Man Down. Paul has some massive projects coming up next year and beyond, with the HBO series WESTWORLD from Jonathan Nolan hitting TV screens in 2016, and he’s just wrapped principal photography on the latest PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN installment which is set for release in summer 2017. As most listeners of this podcast will know, we are both huge fans of Tony Scott and his artistically expressive aesthetic, so it was a real highlight to get a chance to speak with one of his key camera collaborators. We hope you enjoy!