Movie Review: LA Confidential (1997)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Writer: James Ellroy (novel) Brian Heigeland (screenplay)

Starring: Guy Pierce, Kevin Spacey, Russel Crowe, Kim Basinger

LA Confidential, simply put, is one of the most compelling, endlessly re-watchable thrillers of all time.  One thing that distinguishes this film from its rivals is the faithfulness to its source material.  I don’t mean the novel it was actually adapted from, James Elroy’s piece of the same name, which I haven’t read, I mean Dragnet (1952-9)Dragnet has its fingerprints all over the film, from the opening slightly satirical monologue delivered over a montage of scenes from the city, to the way the story tends to take place in a series of interrogations.  However, this isn’t Dragnet, and modern audiences need a bit more nuance and a bit more honesty.  Not every interrogation ends in a fade out.  Some interrogations end in blood, some end in death, and some end in sex.

The interrogation that ends in sex is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.  Kim Basinger (who won Best Actress for her performance) blazes the screen with wit, honesty and intensity.  Her character Lynn Bracken distinguishes herself early as an intelligent and capable woman, but the world in which she works as a high-class call girl only values her sexuality.  So when Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) knocks on her door in the middle of the night, and passionately kisses her, she resists at first.  She even says “fucking me and fucking Bud White (Russel Crowe) aren’t the same thing you know?”  Upon hearing this, a statement that correctly judged Exley’s true motives, he simply persists, and power relationships being what they were in the 50’s, she has no choice but to succumb.  This quasi-rape scene spurs the film on to its conclusion, but more than just a plot point, it showcases in horrific microcosm one of the film’s central themes; that when the police outstep their bounds, they become indistinguishable from the criminals they fight against.

This theme is shone most obviously in the performance of Russel Crowe, who is stunning as veteran detective Bud White.  When we first see officer White, he interrupts a domestic dispute not by ringing a doorbell or pounding on the door, but by yanking the christmas decorations off their roof.  Though it turned out officer White was justified, as his actions did put at least a temporary halt to an ongoing case of domestic abuse, I wonder who was going to pay for the destroyed christmas decorations.  Later in the film, White executes a man, shooting him in the chest, before taking care to pull out a second gun and stage the crime scene.  Both White (Crowe) and Exley (Pierce) are weak and morally compromised in their own ways, but by the end, they must join together to reach a satisfactory conclusion.  This brings us back to Dragnet.

Every episode of Dragnet ended with an arrest, showing that any mystery is solved and evil is punished, and though LA Confidential is definitely unconventional in most every respect, its ending draws everything together.  Through the masterful performance of everyone involved, particularly James Cromwell whom I believe should’ve won an oscar for his portrayal of Captain Dudley Smith, Curtis Hanson (Director) stitched together a remarkably compelling history lesson.  He shows through the slanted motives and animalistic desires of nearly each character involved, that nothing is exactly as it seems.

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Movie Review: LA Confidential (1997)

Movie Review: Cam

Many Netflix original movies have so far ranged from simply awful (The Cobbler, The Ridiculous 6) to charmingly loopy (The Babysitter, Turbo Kid), frequently producing content that simply would not fly in a theatrical release, either due to shocking and unexpected violence or the laziest of comic writing.  However, with 2017’s Wheelman Netflix showed that it could produce a first-rate thriller, creating a fast-paced, exciting ride, even if the plot was a little thin for a theatrical release.  2018’s Cam represents another step forward for the production team, crafting an immensely watchable and unconventional thrill ride, one that is familiar in the type of tension it brings to the fore yet wholly modern in its conclusion.

Though Cam was helmed by promising first-time director Daniel Goldharber (and co-written by Goldharber and Isabelle Link-Levy), the story comes from Ilsa Mazzei, who used her own experience as a working cam girl to color the piece with an unmistakable layer of authenticity.  The story concerns Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), an enterprising young woman who makes a more than healthy living as a cam girl, which is a term I was unaware of before I saw the film.  Cam girls make their money by performing an improvisational pornographic cabaret in front of their personal webcam, receiving suggestions and payment from legions of leering patrons.  The film offers a peek inside the world of the cam girl, including the friendships, collaborations, and antipathy shared among this society of modern entrepreneurs.  Early in the film’s runtime, however, Cam takes a turn to the dark underbelly of the Cam girl business, making of itself an unconventional and immensely watchable thriller.

As the movie never strays from her character’s point of view, Madeline Brewer delivers what could be a star-making performance, displaying in equal parts intelligence, strength, resourcefulness, and desperation.  As Ackerman and her cam girl pseudonym “Lola_Lola” are toyed with by a mysterious doppleganger, the film’s tension expands into unexpected avenues, keeping the tension tangible and unconventional.  There is at one point a threat that Ackerman’s cam girl persona might be exposed to her friends and family, and while a more conventional look into this business might cast this as the ultimate horror, Cam simply allows it to happen and then deals with the consequences.  The greater threat comes from the false “Lola_Lola,” and in a climactic showdown that takes place entirely on Ackerman’s webcam, she vanquishes the threat and regains control of her digital identity.

Though the film is littered with excellent supporting performances, most notably from Kevin Druid (13 Reasons Why) as Ackerman’s younger brother and Patch Darragh (The First Purge) as her most slavish patron, the film lives and breathes through its star.  Brewer’s performance acts as the perfect conduit for the statement being made by Ilsa Mazzei, that cam girls are not like prostitutes or even strippers whom could become victims of exploitation, but are more akin to explorers in a new field of profitable sexuality.  Though this statement might seem dubious to some, particularly Ackerman’s mother Lynne (Melora Walters), Cam constructs a fascinating argument, and heralds the arrival of exciting new talent in modern filmmaking.

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Movie Review: Cam

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

In 2014, the surprising hit John Wick created a diverting comic-book riff on the revenge drama, seeming like a one-off set piece that hit all the buttons action fans look for.  However, with John Wick: Chapter 2, the writer/director team of Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahelski have taken what I consider to be a significant step forward in the evolution of American action filmmaking.  Ditching the sentiment almost completely, they dove into the lunatic alternate reality they created, and came away with one of the most consistently enthralling and artistically expressive action movies I’ve ever seen.  It left me gasping, and as I pant for more I’m forced to admit that though this movie’s influences are many, from the riveting gun-fu of Hard Boiled to the intense close-quarter combat of Ong-Bak, in sheer audacious bravado this film stands alone (except for maybe Hard Boiled).

I say audacious because according to the entertainment section of businessinsider.com, the kill count of this blood-drenched magnum power shot stands at a staggering 128, meaning that the average stands at just over one kill every minute of the movie’s 122 minute runtime.  This mass of fatalities, however, is not stretched out over the entire movie, but is rather concentrated in two or three central shootouts (depending on how you determine when one shoot out ends and another begins), which see the inimitable Keanu Reeves transform into the mechanized killbot it seems he was always meant to be.  Because of his strangely vacuous performance style, which made him perfect for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the object of derisive laughter in Dangerous Liaisons, makes him this movie’s perfect protagonist.

I refer to Reeves’ character, the eponymous John Wick as a protagonist, not a hero, because John Wick: Chapter 2 has no real heroes.  In the first John Wick, the eponymous character’s thirst for revenge was ignited by the death of his beagle puppy named Daisy, a symbol of the love he’d had for his recently deceased wife.  In this second volume of the Wick saga, the movie’s central villain simply destroys his house, without even harming the new dog he never bothers to name.  It is notable that whereas Daisy, the puppy from the original film, was a cuddly little bundle of love, Wick’s new dog is a very obedient pit bull.  This is a signifier that in the first movie, Wick lost his soul, and though he at first remains reluctant to return to death-dealing, he ends up taking to it like a master executioner, killing without thought.

This singularity of purpose and lack of true motivation are two of the things that I believe make this movie a significant advancement in American action cinema.  Too often, even in justifiably regarded tentpoles of the genre like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, the action has to pause for the insertion of sentiment or (god forbid) romance, giving viewers like me a chance to go to the bathroom.  John Wick: Chapter 2 eschews any sentimental subplots, replacing them instead with an extraordinary visual panache.  Shootouts in an art exhibit containing a hall of mirrors and a topiary gallery that changes color depending on which side its viewed from are entrancing; so much so that they forego the need of an emotional undercurrent.  The movie’s director Chad Stahelski began in movies as a stuntman, most notably doubling for Reeves in The Matrix, and with this viscera-speckled opus, he shows that the closer one draws to violent action, the more such warfare becomes part of his identity.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Nobuaki Minegishi (comic), Park Chan-wook, Chun-hyeong Lim, Jo-yun Hwang (screenplay)

Actors: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Hye-jeong Kang

Available now on Netflix

When I first saw it in 2005, Park Chan-wook’s seminal standout Oldboy knocked me on my ass, enrapturing me in a world of heretofore unrealized filmmaking potential.  It seemed so alive.  From the first scene of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) yelping in drunken rage from a bench in the police station, it was plainly evident that this film was the work of a master.  From the exquisitely crafted set pieces to the relentless movement of the action scenes, it is easy to see why this movie, which was not originally submitted for competition to the Cannes film festival, ended up winning the Grand Prix (unofficial second place).  Though at it’s heart, Oldboy is in many ways a horror movie, and the squeamish might do themselves a favor by staying away, for those with the stomach for it, there is scarcely a better movie-watching experience to be had.

At the beginning of the movie, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a nondescript, drunken Korean office worker, is kidnapped and imprisoned in what seems like a shabby hotel room.  He is kept prisoner in this one room for fifteen years.  In these fifteen long years, while he trains himself obsessively, he also becomes increasingly unhinged.  When he is unexpectedly released inside of a suitcase on top of a high-rise, he has only one goal, to discover what happened to him.  This is a very compelling plot line, and though I believe it would have been engrossing enough to hold my interest whoever the performers were, Choi Min-sik does a superb job of making his character seem genuinely deranged.  When he is released on the skyscraper’s roof, he stops a man from committing suicide, only to break into a wide grin as the man finally does kill himself moments afterwards.

As the plot twists its way through various insane and unseemly revelations, Park Chan-wook fills the movie’s running time with unforgettable scenes and sequences, creating an entrancing head-trip of a movie.  One scene that is undoubtedly the movie’s feature attraction, a three-minute fight scene where the hero dispatches with a hallway full of faceless thugs using only a hammer, is only one of the notable scenes in Oldboy.  Choi Min-sik devouring a living octopus whole, as well as the villain (Yoo Ji-tae) clad in a gas mask and hazmat suit spooning a naked Oh Dae-su are two more examples of the enthralling artistry on display in this movie.

As the particularities of the plot reveal themselves and the story delivers a sickening denouement, the true intricacy of Oldboy reveals itself.  As the movie ends and each character’s path finds its own twisted conclusion, a message finally makes itself clear.  This is a movie about obsession, showing the way that vengeance, especially when taken to its greatest possible extremes, brings only evil into the world.  Through his use of ecstatically inventive filmmaking, Park Chan-wook has created an unflinching, deeply entertaining, and philosophically relevant work of art.

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Movie Review: Oldboy (2003)

Movie Review: Sing Street

Sing Street is boundlessly enjoyable and irresistibly euphoric, making it feel like the most worthwhile movie watching experience I’ve had in years.  Directed by John Carney, who achieved fame creating 2007’s surprise musical hit Once, again packs this film with very good original music (Composed by veteran music producer Gary Clark) to effectively enhance the emotional impact of the story.  The film takes the well-worn (i.e overdone) plot line of a troubled youth escaping his depressing home life through music, and while strictly adhering to every cliche of the genre, it elevates the story into something spectacular and life-affirming.

The film’s protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), an unassuming frail waif of a teen, who inside carries the heart of a champion.  Whereas in a typical coming of age/band formation story the protagonist would admire his muse from afar, crippled by nerves, Conor walks right up to her and asks if she wants a light for the unlit cigarette hanging from her lips.  Conor’s queen Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is a fascinating character, reacting to her own depressing circumstance with an iron-faced confidence, she stands on the stoop of the girl’s home where she lives across from the all boys school that Conor attends everyday, watching.

Rafina’s a ward of the State whom we’re led to believe may have been taken away from her father because of sexual abuse (this is only ever hinted at), and she has only threadbare dreams of becoming a model in London.  However, she is the catalyst that drives every major step in the creation of this band, and the chemistry she has with Conor quickly becomes the focal point of the movie.  Around this relationship Carney found a cast of extremely charming and talented teenagers, particularly Mark McKenna and Ian Kenny, to pack the rest of the film with hilariously honest moments.

Sing Street is a movie about dreams, and the way they can seem impossible until true passion and heartfelt fervor can put them in reach before you know it.  This brings us to another key character, Conor’s older brother Robert. Robert is a 20-something college dropout who once upon a time had musical dreams of his own, but rather than any type of jealousy, he loves imparting his love of popular music onto Conor.  Robert’s deep love for his little brother is written on his face at every scene.  At one moment in the film, Robert leaps into the air with triumphant joy at Conor’s courage and risk-taking, and watching Sing Street made me want to join along.

Sing Street (2016)

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor

Lucy Boynton as Raphina

Jack Reynor as Robert

Trailer addendum: This trailer, when I first saw it, seemed hokey like a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age story, and in a way that’s what Sing Street is, but having seen the movie, even the trailer is joyously powerful.

 

Movie Review: Sing Street

My Case for Michael Shannon as Batman

I recently saw Midnight Special, and though overall it left me somewhat cold, I did come out of the theater confident in one assertion: Michael Shannon should be the next actor to play Batman.  I say this because more than any other actor who’s played this iconic role, I believe Shannon has the perfect combination of an intimidating aspect, all-consuming passion, and absolute insanity that I’ve come to believe the role requires.  Because of this I believe that Shannon is by far the best choice to take the role of Batman, and that he could find new dimensions of character in Gotham City’s vigilant guardian.

For the straight-faced intimidating stare Batman uses when he shakes down criminals, look to Nelson Van Alden, Shannon’s character on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.  As Van Alden, Shannon brings an impenetrable gloominess and a clear-eyed certainty, both of which I think would be perfect for the caped crusader.  I envision Shannon in the cape and the mask beating a few street toughs silently, wordlessly and mercilessly, giving them all nightmares with his permanently stone faced glower.  He also would not need to modulate his voice (like Bale’s annoying rasp), as his bass mumble evokes the ultimate humorless authority figure.

I feel that Shannon would animate the untrusting, secretive and obsessive nature of Bruce Wayne.  Given Shannon’s wonderful performance in Jeff Nichols Take Shelter, wherein he plays a man consumed by terrifying nightmares and apocalyptic hallucinations.  As the film goes on, it is plainly evident in Shannon’s face that his character has an increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, and as this grasp evaporates he becomes more wide-eyed and desperate with each scene.  I believe Shannon would do well to bring these elements of inner torment and social disconnection to Bruce Wayne, perhaps ruling over board meetings by pounding on surfaces with unnerving intensity.

Bruce Wayne is not a well man, and Michael Shannon could portray this with effortless ease.  William Friedkin’s stellar nightmare Bug is a prime example of Shannon’s ability to play unhinged.  The physicality Shannon portrays in Bug is dangerous and manic, such as I believe has been lacking in previous portrayals of Gotham’s most eccentric citizen.

My Case for Michael Shannon as Batman