L.A. Confidential

  • Title: L.A. Confidential
  • Director: Curtis Hanson
  • Date: 1997
  • Studio: Warner Brothers, Regency Entertainment
  • Genre: Drama, Mystery, Film Noir
  • Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, David Straithairn, Simon Baker (Credited as Simon Baker Denny)
  • Format: Widescreen, color
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Come to Los Angeles… there are jobs a plenty and land is cheap…”— Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito)

“I admire you as a policeman, particularly your adherance to violence as an adjunct to the job.” — Police Captain Dudley Smith to Lt. Bud White

“How’s it going to look in your report?” — Det. Lt. Exley
“It’ll look like justice. That’s what the man got, justice.”— Lt. Bud White

LA Confidential is a brilliant modern film noir. The film weaves deep layered characters into a complex plot of police corruption, graft, drugs, and murder. All the actors give brilliant performances. Russell Crowe, in an very early role, is Lt. Bud White, police captain Smith’s “enforcer” with a soft spot for abused women. Watching his journey from tough guy and bruiser to someone who actually starts to figure out what’s going on and who stops just following orders and starts to think — even when solving the case leads right back to the police department — is a joy in this film. Guy Pearce is the college-educated “new cop” who isn’t afraid to testify against other dirty cops, as long as it allows him to get ahead. But he too has to make decisions — does he “do what he’s told, and reap his reward” or does he follow a more difficult path and expose the corruption he and Bud have uncovered? And brilliant as always Kevin Spacey as “Hollywood Jack” Vincennes, who’s a technical advisor on the TV cop drama “Badge of Honor” (think “Dragnet”) and partners with tabloid reporter Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito) accepting payments to pass along info about upcoming busts so the reporter can photograph them. Sid, a pioneer in bottom-feeding tabloid journalism, and publisher of the tabloid “Hush-Hush” regularly gives Vincennes gifts and bribes, as well as passing along information. In other words, their partnership is two-way.

The film weaves a complicated plot, starting with the beating, in the LA lock-up, of several Mexican-Americans, resulting in the expulsion of several bad cops and the meeting of our characters and seeing how they react. Vincennes is transferred between departments and temporarily taken off “Badge of Honor” as Technical Advisor. White refuses to roll on his partner, or become a snitch. Exley not only offers up info as a snitch, but gives advice on how to get to other cops, though this gets him a promotion – it doesn’t endear him to the other cops. After “Bloody Christmas” but before the trial even starts, there’s a mass shooting at the Nite Owl coffee shop, one of the victims is White’s disgraced partner. The hunt for the killers leads to three young black men, who are brought in, questioned, escape, and then are caught again and killed.

However, all three of our main characters soon realize that the three men, though guilty of kidnapping and raping a young Mexican girl, aren’t guilty of the Nite Owl killings. And, again, the investigation, though it also involves a millionaire who’s running a high-class call girl outfit of girls “cut to look like movie stars” and heroin, ultimately leads right back to the police department. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you reading this who haven’t seen this brilliant Noir film.

This film starts with a sarcastic voice-over, by Danny Devito, describing the bright, sunny, perfect California that’s being sold as an image — only to expose a dark, dirty, and very corrupt underbelly.  Irony underlies a lot of the picture (such as showing the ground-breaking ceremony for the Santa Monica freeway “LA to the beach in 20 minutes”). But the characters also present an opening image that changes throughout the film — Bud White starts as a tough, an enforcer, a brutal cop, albeit with a soft spot for battered women and kids, but he develops, putting together a lot of the clues leading to an explanation of what really is going on. Exley seems like the college-educated “new cop” who won’t be able to hack it in the field – yet, he also manages to prove his smarts and his investigative chops, as well as his ability to handle violence when needed. Vincennes, “Hollywood Jack” has somehow lost his way. Asked, “Why’d you become a cop?” He answers, “I can’t remember”. Jack is like the tough, hard-boiled, cynical protagonists of a lot of Classic Noir. Yet, like those protagonists, his journey in the film is to discover that he can’t turn a blind eye to the corruption around him any more, especially when he inadvertently causes a young male actor/hooker to get murdered. There’s more to Jack than the smoothness one first sees.

The film is set in the 1950s, but the historical detail, though there, is not at the forefront of the film. The score is fantastic from Jerry Goldsmith’s original instrument themes, to the use of period music by Johnny Mercer and Dean Martin. The film also gets physically darker, as the characters discover the true darkness around them.

I highly, highly recommend this film. It has brilliant acting, brilliant writing, a dense, complex plot, and the feel of a true Noir film, but made in a modern style. The film is very intelligent — both the writing and dialogue and the plot. And, though violent and bloody at times, it’s still quite, quite worth seeing.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Batman Under the Red Hood

  • Title: Batman Under the Red Hood
  • Director: Brandon Vietti
  • Voice Director: Andrea Romano
  • Date: 2010
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Genre: Action, Mystery, Animation
  • Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, Neil Patrick Harris, Gary Cole, Jason Isaacs
  • Format: Color Animation, Widescreen
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“Could you just once say – ‘Let’s get in the car’, Is that so hard?” — Nightwing, as he finds himself talking to thin air

You really think I would stir up so much trouble and not make sure you knew it was me?” — Joker

Under the Red Hood is a major departure from previous WB Animation Batman films. Where those films (Mystery of the Batwoman, Subzero, and Mask of the Phantasm) felt like longer episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, this film is cinematic, full of action, and also tragic. In short, it feels like a film. It’s also very grounded in Batman graphic novels published by DC Comics, especially A Death in the Family and Under the Hood (Also collected as Under the Red Hood). And this film is violent. People die. Granted, most are criminals, but still – not for the under 15 set. This is a film for adults, which, again, is more in the same tone as the more adult Batman graphic novels.

The film opens with a scene from the end of my favorite Batman graphic novel, A Death in the Family, Joker beating Jason Todd/Robin nearly to death with a crowbar and then blowing him sky-high. Batman arrives, but too late to save Robin. The shot of Batman, standing in the rain, holding Jason’s dead body is nearly as effective as the still in the novel – where Batman is kneeling clutching Jason and has his head bowed. Jason’s death would haunt Bruce nearly as much as his parents’ death.

DeathofRobin1

The film then moves forward five years. Batman is out on patrol and ends up fighting Amazo (a killer android), Nightwing arrives and the two work together flawlessly. Nightwing (aka Dick Greyson), voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, I really liked. And I actually thought the re-casting worked. I preferred him to Loren Lester who had voiced Dick/Robin/Nightwing in Batman: The Animated Series. But what Batman discovers is that two new players are at work in Gotham:  Black Mask and the Red Hood. Black Mask is a gangster, similar to what we’ve seen before in Gotham City, but grotesquely disfigured with a skeletal black head. Red Hood is both attacking, and killing, criminals in Gotham, and taking a percentage of their take. Batman, at first with Nightwing’s help, goes after Red Hood. Since Red Hood was once upon a time an alias of the Joker, they pursue a lead to Arkham Asylum, checking in on the straight-jacket restrained Joker. But, Joker has been held tight, and even more convincingly, says he wouldn’t keep it a secret if he was causing chaos in Gotham.

After their first confrontation with Red Hood, Batman and Nightwing, now suffering a broken ankle, are in the Cave with Alfred (who’s bandaging said ankle) going through Batman’s video and audio recordings of the fight. Nightwing notes that Red Hood isn’t just some hood or gangster – he’s trained. Batman points out that even the ability to have knives that can cut his lines is unheard of. However, Batman also sends Nightwing away, asking Alfred to bring Dick home. In part, because Bruce still sees a need to protect Dick.

Once Dick is gone, Bruce reviews the audio, and thinks he hears the Red Hood call him “Bruce”. Only a handful of people know that Batman is Bruce Wayne. After another confrontation with the Red Hood, Bruce is able to get a blood sample for analysis. He’s running the sample through the computers in the cave, running a comparison. The results come back just as Alfred walks in. The result: a match between Red Hood and Jason Todd, startles the normally unflappable butler so much he drops the coffee service he’s carrying. But he also, immediately, tries to console Bruce, while trying to figure out what’s happened. Together, they dig up Jason’s grave. Bruce realizes he’s buried a latex dummy. Alfred tries to comfort Bruce, reminds him how distraught he was, but Bruce is angry with himself and insists he should have realized.

Bruce flies off to the middle of nowhere and confronts Ra’s al Ghul. Ghul explains exactly what happened. During a confrontation between himself and Batman five years before, in desperation, he had hired the Joker to provide a distraction. But, he hadn’t counted on the Joker’s madness or savagery. Ra’s, in short, actually felt bad about Jason’s death.  He arranges the switcharoo with the bodies and takes Jason’s body to a Lazarus pit. But, the resurrected Jason is quite literally, quite mad.

After he’s discovered the truth, Batman heads back to Gotham in his jet. Alfred talks to him over the video link.

“Sir, please take this to heart. Who Jason was before, how we lost him, and this dark miracle or curse that has brought about his return, it is not your fault.” — Alfred

“Then I got him killed. My partner. My soldier. My fault. I own that. I’ll carry that like everything else.” —Batman

The conversation is filled with everything I love about Bruce and Alfred’s relationship and nearly brought me to tears. Alfred cares so much for Bruce, the man he sees as a son. Bruce, however, can’t really accept that caring in any way. (He has the same problem accepting how Dick feels about him). And Bruce is, oh, so ready to take the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Brilliant writing.

The conversation is cut short, however, by Alfred’s discovery on the news that Joker is causing trouble. Batman needs to rush to the scene. Red Hood shows up where Joker is (who’s taken all of Gotham’s criminals who work for Red Hood hostage) and reveals everything was a plan to get an audience between himself and Joker. Joker scoffs but is then impressed. Then he’s on the run for his life. (Imagine — someone scarier than Joker chasing the Joker. And in this film, it works.) Red Hood catches the Joker, takes him to a room, and starts to beat the crap out of him with a crowbar — using the exact same taunting words Joker had used five years ago. Formerly confused as who Red Hood was, now Joker gets it, and still manages to insult Jason.

Batman does arrive and tries to stop Jason. In the fight, Jason tears off the cowl then removes his own red helmet. (He does return the cowl to Bruce) He leads Batman to Joker. Their conversation, again, is heartbreaking. Bruce tries to apologize and tries to make things right, but it doesn’t work. Finally, Jason tells a startled Bruce that he forgave him for dying (that is for Jason’s death). But he doesn’t forgive him for not killing the Joker. Batman tries to explain that he has thought about it, but that’s a dark pit he’d never crawl out of. Jason continues with — “I’m not talking about Penguin, or Scarecrow, or Dent — just him!” But Batman is adamant – he will not kill. So, Jason gives him a choice — kill the Joker or kill Jason (as he puts a gun to Joker’s head). Batman turns slowly walks away, then after Jason’s fired at him, he ducks the bullet as he turns back and throws a Batarang into Jason’s gun, which explodes and so does the room, with charges that Jason has set. Batman isn’t able to get everyone out safely.

This is a dark, violent story. But vintage Batman. Well, new Batman, to be precise. It’s an excellent, excellent movie, dealing with dark themes. The voice actors are good, especially Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing and Jensen Ackles as Jason Todd/Red Hood. I was very disappointed that Kevin Conroy, who was so excellent as Batman, and in many ways is my favorite Batman actor, (Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and old Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond, plus various DCAU movies) is re-cast with Bruce Greenwood. However, Greenwood does do a good job. And oddly enough, Batman, Alfred, and Joker, all sound very much like their counterparts in the Warner Brothers live-action movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

But, I also cannot stress enough just how good this film was. It’s cinematic, it’s shot or filmed like a film — with some really great shots (the close-up of Robin’s eye as he realizes the Joker’s rigged the place in Sarajevo to explode; Batman holding Jason’s broken body, etc). I also loved how flashbacks were introduced with ghost images that then became solid. The storyline is great and based in the books (always a plus for any filmed version of Batman). And, Warner’s has gotten away from the “no one can really die” code that makes it’s animated television shows occasionally resemble The A-Team (the original TV series, not the movie).

Recommendation: See it! Buy it! Appropriate for children over 15 and adults.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Sherlock Holmes

  • Title:  Sherlock Holmes
  • Director:  Guy Ritchie
  • Date:  2009
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  Action, Mystery
  • Cast:  Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“My mind rebels at stagnation, give me problems, give me work. The sooner the better.”  — Sherlock Holmes

“Holmes, you must widen your gaze. I’m concerned you underestimate the gravity of coming events. You and I are bound together on a journey that will twist the very fabric of Nature. But beneath your mask of logic, I sense a fragility that worries me. Steel your mind, Holmes. I need you.”  — Lord Blackwood

“It is a huge mistake to theorize before one has data. Inevitably, one begins to twist facts to suit theories … instead of theories to suit facts.”  — Sherlock Holmes

I loved this movie when I originally saw it, and it really loses none of it’s appeal upon subsequent re-watchings. Robert Downey Jr is playing Holmes as an action hero, as he should be played. And his relationship with Watson (Jude Law) is perfect! They complement each other perfectly, and one can see how they drive each other crazy but still have a strong friendship and caring for each other. Thrown also into the mix is Irene Adler (Yes, her name gets mis-pronounced — it should be “I–REIGN-ah”), but anyway — she and Holmes have known each other for awhile, and Watson tantalizingly says that Holmes and Adler ran into each other twice and she beat him both times. But Irene Adler still has secrets, and she’s working for a mysterious man. Even once she tries to get out from under his clutches — she is pulled back in, and can only warn Holmes about Professor Moriarty.

Meanwhile, Watson seeks to marry his Mary — and Holmes seeks to stop the wedding, since he can’t stand the thought of losing his friend, even to marriage. The Holmes and Watson relationship is intense; and on Watson’s side – you can see how he puts up with Holmes’ eccentricities because he truly cares for him, and he needs excitement in his life.

The plot of this film involves Lord Blackwood — who’s killing women in Satanic rituals. Holmes catches him in the opening act, and Blackwood is sentenced to die. He’s hanged and Watson confirms the death. Later, Blackwood seems to come back from the grave and continues his killing spree. But Holmes not only discovers exactly what is going on (all is not as it seems) but he stops a horrendous crime, confronts Blackwood, and insures he won’t trouble London again. To say more, would spoil the fun.

Director Guy Ritchie has Holmes talk through, in his head, what he’s going to do during a fight sequence (filmed in slow motion) then he films it at normal to normal/fast speed as Holmes takes action. This lets the audience in on how Holmes thinks and how fast he thinks. I also liked the scene of Holmes waiting in the restaurant for Watson and Mary, and we hear the over-whelming noise that Holmes hears. It’s almost as if rather than being a manic depressive as in the books or Jeremy Brett’s portrayal, this Holmes almost is an autistic savant. And, throughout the film there are visually stunning moments.

All in all, Sherlock Holmes, is a fun film. It sticks to much of the spirit of the original short stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though the plot is more bizarre. However, there were some bizarre plots in the later stories.  Also, the relationship of Holmes and Watson, always key to getting any interpretation of Sherlock Holmes correct was spot on. A highly enjoyable and well-made film.

Trivia:  Jude Law also appeared in an episode of Granada’s Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett (as Holmes) for ITV. The series title was The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, and the episode title was “Shoscombe Old Place”, and Law played Joe Barnes.

Recommendation:  See it!  Highly recommended!
Rating:  5 out of  5 Stars
Next Film:  Shrek

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

  • Title: The Maltese Falcon (1931)
  • Director: Roy Del Ruth
  • Date: 1931
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Genre: Mystery, Film Noir, Drama
  • Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels
  • Format: Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“This is murder and don’t you forget it!”  — Police Detective Dundee

This film is one of two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett classic mystery included on the Warner Brothers three-disc special edition of the classic Film Noir version starring Humphrey Bogart from 1941. I actually avoided watching it for over a week. However, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it might be. It’s no classic, but it’s not a disaster either.

Richard Cortez plays Sam Spade as a hopeless flirt, who trades quips with his secretary and is definitely having an affair with his partner’s wife (something alluded to in the 1941 edition, but definitely toned down). Archer, moreover, knows about his wife’s indiscretions. The only woman Sam doesn’t seem to flirt with, is his client, Ms. Wonderly.

Since we actually see Archer in this film, he’s slightly more sympathetic.

Watching the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is very much like watching a stage play version of a favorite film. Much of the dialogue is the same or recognizable, but it’s delivered completely differently by a different crew of actors, none of whom are well-known. I didn’t mind flirty Sam Spade, though Bogart gives a much more nuanced and haunted performance. Bogart’s Spade is a man on the edge. Cortez breezes through the film like he’s having a grand time, and even reminded me a bit of Errol Flynn. Bebe Daniels, in a way, I actually liked better than Mary Astor. At least she’s fairly straight-forward, even when she’s lying to Sam. (This version drops her multiple identities from the plot). But the bit players – Cairo, Gutman, even Wilbur are very bland here. The 1941 version is much better with Peter Lorre, Syndey Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr.

This film is much shorter (around 71 minutes), and less complicated. And, like a play, many larger (more expensive to film) scenes are dropped or mentioned but not shown (we never see Archer’s body, or the burning of La Paloma, the ship that brings the Falcon to San Francisco). Also cut is some of Sam’s wandering around the streets of his city, thinking things over.

  • Recommendation:  Skip it, unless you happen to get a free version as an extra, then you may as well watch it.
  • Rating:  2.5 Stars
  • Next Film:  Mary Poppins

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

  • Title:  The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  • Director:  John Huston
  • Date:  1941
  • Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures
  • Genre:  Drama, Mystery, Film Noir
  • Cast:  Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.
  • Format:  Black and White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“That’s good coming from you. What have you ever given me besides money? Ever given me any of your confidence, any of the truth? Haven’t you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else?” — Sam Spade

“Our private conversations have not been such that I am anxious to continue them. Forgive my speaking blunting but it is the truth.”  — Joel Cairo

“I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”  — Kasper “The Fat Man” Gutman

The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel almost defines the genre of Film Noir, though for Noir films, I prefer Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The Maltese Falcon is a tad long, and rather confusing, even after several viewings (and I have seen this film several times over the years). However, it still does have many Noir hallmarks:  the snappy, fast dialogue, the designing woman (or femme fatale), and introduces the Noir staple of the tough-as-nails, but honest, private detective.

Bogart, and the rest of the cast, which includes Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, as well as Elisha Cook, Jr. and Mary Astor are all good, and excellently cast in their roles. And this film is from the heyday of Warner Brothers, when the studio turned out dozens if not hundreds of Noir films (including their gangster films) a year. This is also a breakout film for Bogart, moving him from day player at Warner’s (oddly enough often playing “heavies” simliar to Cook’s role in this film) to leading roles.

The plot, involving the chase for the the Falcon (often called “The Black Bird”, and once, by Spade, “The dingus”), is more of a McGuffin — the real plot, and the driving force of the film is the murder of Spade’s partner, Archer, at the beginning of the film. This murder is nearly forgotten until the end, when the audience discovers that Sam hasn’t forgotten, at all, what happened to Archer. And, despite the fact that Sam may have had an affair with Archer’s wife (or she at least has a crush on him, she pretty much throws herself at Spade, while still in Widow’s Weeds), he still considers it his duty to do something about the murder of his partner, no matter what. Sam is an honorable man and will keep his honor, whatever the cost. Thus it is the conclusion of the film that is excellent and memorable.

The look of the film is great, and it’s set in atmospheric San Francisco, which helps, though I doubt it was filmed there.

Overall, The Maltese Falcon is one of those classic films one just really needs to see, and appreciate and occasionally re-watch. For such a dark film, enjoyable isn’t really the correct word, but it is a very good film, and an important contribution to Film Noir.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  The Maltese Falcon (1931)