John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things

It’s fascinating how human beings crave resolution, airtight narratives, explanation and a clear roadmap of where they’re going at all times, characteristics that that are evident in our creation and consumption of art. Every time a narrative comes along that eerily ducks the expectations of a clean, neatly wrapped and satisfying ending the resulting reaction can be hostile and downright explosive, and some of the reactions to John Lee Hancock’s unconventional cops vs killer thriller The Little Things have been just that. This is a script that was written in the 90’s I’m told, and shelved until it was dusted off for production this year, so naturally we have a measured, paced, atmospheric and story based film that feels not necessarily dated but just a little bit.. “untethered from time’ in a sense, and the effect is mesmerizing. Denzel plays Joe Deacon, a once hotshot homicide detective who lost it all over an obsessive hunt for a serial killer that resulted in divorce, a heart attack and being relegated to county sheriff somewhere far outside LA. When he returns for a simple day trip to evidence swap with colleagues, he swiftly gets pulled into the mystery of another killer operating near the city and teams up with the eager rookie detective (Rami Malek) assigned to the case, much to the concern and unimpressed huff of his former lieutenant (Terry Kinney). Is this the same killer who once drove him to the absolute edge? Is this case related in any way to the tangled web of mysteries from Joe’s past? Who is the impossibly creepy loner (Jared Leto) who taunts them both with very real details from the murders yet always seems to be one step beyond any suspicion or proof of involvement? This is a tantalizing, deliberately opaque jigsaw puzzle with quite a few pieces missing, hidden or otherwise unaccounted for, and the result can be maddening for some, mildly frustrating for others or an outright dealbreaker for those who simply can’t reconcile a story left unfinished. One has to invest laser focused attentiveness and studious detection skills to arrive at the same conclusions alongside our leads and have any idea what just happened, and this is even before the big reveals, or lack thereof. It evokes a genuine sense of mystery and I honestly wish more big Hollywood films had the nerve to pull narrative stunts like this, because it would effectively ween viewers off of the oversimplification, excessive exposition and ravenous need to make sense of everything that permeates North American filmgoing culture. Denzel is terrific here, letting the intensity and introspective obsessiveness his detective no doubt once had simmer on a dim low burn that comes with years of searching for answers to no avail. Malek does his wife eyed nosferatu shtick again, I’ve never been able to really connect with him as an actor but there’s no denying that he has presence, the exact essence and intention of which still eludes me. Leto is undoubtedly spooky as all hell but perhaps falls victim a tad to mannerism and histrionic flexing, yet still does a fine job in a difficult role to pull off. Director Hancock uses some absolutely sensational camera movements to create tension and atmosphere, as we see a lone girl jogging down an unlit side street, an ominous black car slinking in after her and then a slow time-lapse panning shot up over the LA horizon as the sun rises, just purely inspired creativity there. Thomas Newman does excellent music work as always, his score here is a melodic, fretful jangle of electronic rhythms and nocturnal passages that feels like the highway, the sky just before dawn, unanswered questions and decades of dark rumination wrapped up in one transfixing musical chorus. This film won’t be for everyone but I hope it at least imparts the harsh reality that not all stories are neatly wrapped packages of comforting resolution and beat-by-beat bullet points of what you can always expect to find in a serial killer thriller, because how boring would that be, to always and forever be able to predict narrative patterns and never once be surprised, scared or left in the dark? This story isn’t afraid to go to those dark intangible places, and more importantly, isn’t afraid to not return from them. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Rob Zombie’s CSI Miami: L.A.

Usually television shows employ ‘gun for hire’ directors who are expected to not so much have their own vision, but carry on the style, spirit and elemental energy of the show overall for tonal consistency. Every once in a while they’ll deviate though and hire a renowned artist for an episode’s departure into their own specific style, or a melding of both for something that feels fresh, exciting and unmistakably ‘that director.’ This allows for my periodic enjoyment of a particular show’s window of escape into something creative beyond the weekly slog of predictable monotony and let me tell you, CSI:Miami was the worst show monotony. Thankfully Rob Zombie not only peppered his unique, pop-art retro baroque elements into the scheme but the the network also decided to shift the episode’s action from Miami over to LA, flying in David Caruso’s Caine and his term of regulars to interact with a host of fresh new characters, all casted from the Zombie pool of underused cult and character actor icons. Caine & Co have travelled to LA on the trail of a shady pornographer (Paul Blackthorne) who was tried and acquitted of killing his wife and an additional girl back in Miami, prompting them to join forces with a no nonsense LAPD Captain (the great William Forsythe) and interrogate various sideshow suspects who range from cooperative to obstinate. Michael Madsen is in slick tough guy mode as the amoral former football star turned bodyguard for the porn kingpin, Sheri Moon Zombie is relaxed and down to earth as ever playing a good natured photographer with key intel on the case, and other Zombie troupe regulars briefly show up including Kristina Klebe and Jeff Daniel Philips. Perhaps the least cooperative person involved is a nasty, scumbag defends attorney played to the absolute scene stealing hilt by the unmistakable Malcom McDowell at his devilish best. It’s terrific seeing these kind of underground, Midnite Movie type faces all together in the same episode of a glossy, otherwise blandly routine piece of cable TV fluff, and I wish they’d gone this route more often and hired distinct, auteur talents to augment the proceedings. This is a terrific episode laced with dark humour (thanks to McDowell), moral ambiguity (Madsen is a real snake in disguise) and genuine pathos for the victims (Forsythe’s cop shows striking empathy and compassion in his actions). This episode (which almost feels like a standalone mini-film) also reinforces what some people refuse to admit about Zombie: he’s a smart, versatile, adaptable artist who is more than capable of calibrating his toolset beyond the raucous, rowdy and raunchy aesthetic sandbox he’s used to playing in and doing something different with his boundless creative spirit, which admittedly he doesn’t often do, but this is a terrific example of.

-Nate Hill

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

David Ayer’s Harsh Times

David Ayer’s Harsh Times sees Christian Bale in a character study of extreme dysfunction and maladjusted anger, it’s a tough, bitter film to watch but one that leaves a firebrand in its wake, for better or worse. Bale plays Jim, an Iraqi war vet who has come back stateside so internally fucked up and damaged that he can barely hold down a job or keep up steady relationships with anyone that don’t teeter towards self destruction. He spends his days meandering around the outskirts of LA with Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), his partner in petty crime and apprentice in all things spiteful and misanthropic, much to the dismay of Mike’s much more successful girlfriend (Eva Longoria). Jim is both psychologically broken and emotionally untethered, a dangerous combination if left unchecked, and the downward spiral of violence, drugs and antisocial behaviour he slides into is a sad, pitiable thing to see. Did Jim have an affinity for criminal activities before the war, or did his experience change him into the man he is now? What and where is the causality, if any? Where do the lines blur? Ayer keeps it close to the chest, but the clues are all there in Bale’s measured, incendiary performance that may be his best so far. Sparks of vitality still shine through, as when he shows interest in a job with the Bureau (JK Simmons has a great cameo as the chief interviewer), but even with that he causes corrosive friction, perhaps unintentionally. It’s a blistering character study of a guy whose environment has turned him hard, until he goes against the grain almost by second nature and circles a drain that was a long time coming and from which there is probably no escape. Mixed up with a whole bunch of the wrong kind of people from gangbangers to prolific drug runners, this film sees Jim hit the end of his road,. Both Bale and Ayer make it something powerful to watch, if miserable too.

-Nate Hill