Category Archives: Film Noir

The Nice Guys (2016) Review

The Nice Guys is to LA crime stories what Deadpool is to superhero flicks: at once a celebration and a send-up. That’s just the kind of storytelling moviegoers have come to expect from Shane Black, who directed the film and co-wrote it. Black has a history of blending irreverence and violence going all the way back to his legendary script for Lethal Weapon (1987). However, Black didn’t become a name until the release of Iron Man 3, which saw a lukewarm reaction from fans.

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Several years before that Marvel film, Black made his directorial debut, with the black comedy/noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is great. In many ways, The Nice Guys feels like a spiritual successor to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With twisty detective plots, style to spare, comedy as black as night, and a plethora of interesting characters, the films would make for a great double feature, and they showcase exactly where Black’s directorial strengths lie. Is this a family film? No way. Does it include scenes that some may find painful to watch? You bet. Will you be entertained? Thoroughly.

Continue reading The Nice Guys (2016) Review

Chinatown (1974)

Roger Ebert Original 1974 review:

Roger Ebert Great Movies Review – 2000:

Based on a script by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson, 1974’s Chinatown takes place in 1930s Los Angeles. Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman who claims that her name is Evelyn Mulwray. She wants Gittes to follow her husband, Hollis, and discover whether he’s having an affair. Gittes gets some pictures of Hollis with a young woman and hands them over to Evelyn. The next day, the pictures are published on the front page of the newspaper and Gittes is confronted by another woman (Faye Dunaway) who explains that she — and not the woman who hired him — is the actual Evelyn Mulwray. Gittes then learns that Hollis has turned up dead, drowned in a reservoir.

chinatown3Gittes suspects that Hollis was murdered and launches his own investigation. This eventually leads Jake to Hollis’s former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston). Noah also happens to be the father of Evelyn and he offers double Gittes’ fee if Gittes will track down Hollis’s younger girlfriend. As his investigation continues, Gittes discovers that Hollis’ murder was connected to both the continued growth of Los Angeles as a city and a truly unspeakable act that occurred several years in the past. Nobody, it turns out, is what he or she originally appears to be. I really can’t say anything more without spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it before. Continue reading Chinatown (1974)

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo-0022Vertigo is a psychological thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as a former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, who has been forced into early retirement due to his discovery of crippling acrophobia and vertigo. Scottie is hired as a private investigator to follow a woman, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) who is behaving peculiarly. The film received mixed reviews upon initial release, but has garnered acclaim since and is now often cited as one of the defining works of his career. It is currently listed at #65 on the IMDb Top 250, which I think is a travesty. It shows you what type of list the IMDb Top 250 is, to see this film and others, like Citizen Kane, outside of the top 50, but The Dark Knight currently holds the #4 place. But in the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll, it replaced Citizen Kane as the best film of all time and has appeared repeatedly in best film polls by the American Film Institute.

I have to confess. This is one of those movies that you hear about and want to watch because others say it is so good. I’ve had it on my watch-list for years. This was one of the many Alfred Hitchcock films that my parents owned. But for some reason, unlike North by Northwest or The Birds or Psycho, I just never got around to watching this one. But I finally tackled this one on Saturday last year and have been digesting it ever since. This draft has literally been sitting in my project pile since March 2013 and if WordPress is correct in its count, I have made 67 different revisions in that time. Well, I finally watched it again tonight with the purpose of finishing what I started.

Ebert’s Great Movies Review from 1996

*** SPOILER ALERT *** Because of the nature of this film, I must warn anyone who reads further on that the rest of this review will contain spoilers. Please take the time to watch this classic before reading any more. *** SPOILER ALERT *** Continue reading Vertigo (1958)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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At this point, the story of Quentin Tarantino has become fodder of the dreams of independent and amatuer filmmakers. Just over 20 years ago, Tarantino was working at a video store and all he had were his dreams. Now he is considered to be one of the most creative and visionary storytellers of our generation. His name has been listed along those of Scorsese, Kubrick, and Hitchcock. This is the film that started all of that. Before Pulp Fiction rocketed him to fame, Reservoir Dogs shocked and surprised audiences and critics alike. Empire magazine called it the greatest independent film of all time. It cost 1.2 million to make and doubled that in box office reciepts even though it was shown in less than 100 theaters. Tarantino has cited Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing as one of the major influences for Reservoir Dogs. Sadly, I have not seen this earlier gem. But I see many similarities between Kubrick and Tarantino. Tarantino, the fast-talking former video store clerk remains a major player. In fact, of his seven features, five are listed in the IMDb Top 250:

  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Jackie Brown
  • Kill Bill
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Django Unchained

So, what can I say about Reservoir Dogs that hasn’t already been said? Not much, but I can say it again. It’s a straightforward heist film that follows the genre’s basic format. A group of talented professionals band together for one big score. The attempt goes awry and the members turn on each other in the aftermath. There’s also a traitor, often an undercover cop, who places the others in jeopardy, willingly or not. In his debut film, Tarantino takes this model and infuses it with his now signature style and breathes life and chaos into the predictable formula.

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First of all, Tarantino injects on the genre is his over-the-top dialogue, which has become more renowned because of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and his more recent projects. Reservoir Dogs opens with a lengthy conversation about the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, led by Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown. This type of pop-culture discussion from his characters would become a signature part of Tarantino’s movies going forward. Heist films aren’t generally known for their dialogue, so this was quite a dramatic change and widely expanded the audience for this movie. Characters mention Lee Marvin, Marlon Brando, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, The Lost Boys, and other enjoyable references. These guys may be involved in a daring crime, but they’re still people with other interests.

Secondly, Tarantino removes the normal focus of a heist film. The only scene we get of the heist is Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) fleeing from police after being ambushed. He recounts his escape to Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) after they gather at a vacant warehouse, which is the primary setting for the movie. By doing this, he deepens the film. The film really begins in the aftermath of the botched heist, and it’s jarring to leap right into the unknown situation. Mr. White is driving a getaway car while his cohort Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) writhes in the back seat and bleeds profusely from a gut shot. Most heist films introduce us to the characters and focus on their preparations for the big robbery. Tarantino does flash back to the time prior to the heist, but he’s not interested in their specific plans. Instead, he’s concerned with briefly setting up these professional thieves and their backgrounds.

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Third, heist movies typically focus on criminals, there usually is a lead character (or a group of characters) that we identify with and want to succeed. A good example is Frank Ocean, who we follow from the start of Oceans 11, and while we meet others, we are tied to Frank and root for him and his team, even though he is a crook. In Reservoir Dogs, it’s not clear who we should root for because Tarantino scrambles the narrative. If the story was told chronologically, we’d likely connect with Tim Roth’s undercover cop, known by the alias Mr. Orange. In this structure, however, we don’t learn his identity and back story until more than an hour into the movie. By that point, we’ve grown to like Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White, especially because of his loyalty to his comrade. Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink is also interesting, though he’s a bit too manic and doesn’t tip. After we see the lengthy interlude of Orange’s preparations to infiltrate the gang, we feel sorry for the guy, but he’s not really our hero. Tarantino is taking a real chance by stopping the forward plot so late in the game. Watching Orange rehearse his made-up story is a classic segment, but it only works if we’re invested in the story. Tarantino trusts that we’re interested enough in this world to stick with him until the final shootout.

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A fourth departure is the graphic violence, which keeps us on edge throughout the movie. Unlike gangster films, heist movies usually spend more time on the characters and plans of the heist and don’t include brutal killings. Tarantino actually moves some of the grisliest moments off-screen, but the overall nastiness remains. The prime example is Mr. Blond (Michael Madsen), who’s recently spent time in prison and has returned with a crazy streak. In the movie’s signature scene, he tortures a helpless cop, cuts off his ear, and prepares to burn him with gasoline. There’s no motive for this action beyond inflicting pain in the most vicious way possible. Strutting to the sweet sounds of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel, he delivers a frightening, yet cool depiction of a psychopath. This is not your everyday working-class thief.

The ending of the film is classic. It encapsulates the nihilism that we have seen throughout. We see loyalty and trust as well as betrayal and death. So, should everyone watch this film? Certainly not. If coarse language and violence is offensive to you, if you’ve seen other Tarantino films and been disgusted, then this won’t be for you. However, if you are a fan of gangster and heist movies or if you enjoy Tarantino’s style, you will like this first of his efforts. Tarantino injects his own unconventional style into the genre and delivers a powerful, energetic, and original film.

Do you agree with me? Am I way off on this one? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Words have failed me in attempting to describe this movie. I tried to write this review in early January, and here we are in late February and I am just now revisiting it. It probably doesn’t help that in that time span we have purchased and moved into our first house. We have lived in houses before obviously, but this is our house.

Anyway, onto the movie. Have you ever had a dream that freaked you out and left you gasping for breath as you rushed back to consciousness? When your loved ones come in the room to check if you are okay all you can say is I had a bad dream. Invariably they will ask what it was about, but we can’t say because 1) the dream is quickly retreating into our sub conscience, and 2) because no matter how well you explain what happened in the dream you sound psychotic. Mulholland Dr. is that creepy dream.

If you are not familiar with the works of David Lynch, I would recommend this movie as a good starting place. Also, the trailer doesn’t nearly do this film justice. The film and its core concept are too complex to boil down to a two-minute clip.

I like to compare it to music. If you’ve ever bought a song off iTunes because someone said that you would enjoy it; then analyzed the song and broke it down into all Its parts, you probably found that it wasn’t enjoyable at all. With that in mind, you have the sense of what it is like to convey the power of a film in which you can lose yourself. To truly enjoy it, you must surrender yourself to it. As Roger Ebert said, “If you require logic, see something else.”

David Lynch loves to make films which defy logic, but Mulholland Dr. follows no conventional plot structure, it simply ebbs and flows like a dream. I think it’s worth mentioning that this movie is an expanded version of an ABC television pilot. You thought Lost was confusing, I could imagine people cursing at their televisions in frustration as more questions arise with no answers in sight.

Also, this film features what I think should have been at the very least and Oscar Nominated performance by Naomi Watts. It would have been more deserved than Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, and far more that Renée Zellweger for Bridget Jones’ DiaryNaomi Watts is engaging on both sides of the coin of her character. On one hand she is Betty, the perky and naïve, but very talented newcomer to Hollywood. On the other, she is Diane, the frustrated and depressed reality of the too-good-to-be-true Betty. She pulls this off so well that I didn’t realize that it was the same actress playing both parts until well into watching the film the first time. I’m still waiting for Ms. Watts to reach the climax of her career, she has made a number of good films, but nothing to set her apart from every other fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde in Hollywood.

I thin that this film displays the secular hope for redemption. Diane is so depressed and disappointed with her life that she elaborately constructs a dream-place where things have gone better for her. We all have regrets, failures, and things that we wish we could change. But the good news is that in Christ, the dream becomes reality. Not that all the bad things disappear when we have Jesus; but that when we have Jesus, we have the strength to endure reality, with the hope of a future redemption and glorification with Jesus.

Do yourself a favor, check out Mulholland Dr. set aside all the distractions and just let it wash over you. Then come back and give me all your theories about what is really going on. There are literally dozens of different theories. If you’ve already seen the movie, you can check them out at Mulholland-Drive.net. I think this film will be successful in creeping you out and will stick in your head for days.

Content warning for my more conservative readers. This film contains several disturbing and violent images as well as a few graphic scenes of topless women engaging in passionate kissing.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I’m really glad I decided to tackle this mountain of film called the IMDb Top 250. In this post, I want to take a closer look at#248, Shadow of a Doubt. I consider myself a Hitchcock fan, but this is one of his masterpieces that I had never seen before. I’m not sure why I avoided it for so long, perhaps it was simply lack of opportunity. But no one has an excuse to not see this film. Heck, you don’t even have to pay for it. You can watch the whole thing right now on YouTube. In fact, Alfred Hitchcock on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972 said that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite of all his films. Being familiar with his films and sharing his dry and bleak sense of humor, I can see why.

The actors were superb, famous in their time, but not superstars. Teresa Wright, who remains the only performer ever to be nominated for Oscars for her first three films (The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver, The Pride of the Yankees), stars as young Charlie (Charlotte) who is tired of being a ordinary girl in an ordinary family. She believes that inviting her Uncle Charlie from Philadelphia will invite some much needed happiness to her depressing surroundings. But Uncle Charlie, portrayed superbly by Joseph Cotten who had a role in Citizen Kane and starred in The Magnificent Ambersons, has his own secret reasons for leaving Philadelphia to stay with his sister in Santa Rosa for an undetermined amount of time.

Hitchcock collaborated with Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, to portray Santa Rosa, California as Hometown U.S.A. With warm lighting and a friendly atmosphere, they deliberately makes us prefer the small Santa Rosa to the cold and industrial backdrop of Philadelphia. Hitchcock wanted to slowly introduce some darkness to these bright and cheerful surroundings. This was a social commentary in his day. While this film was produced and released in 1943, it is set in 1941. Many people my age wouldn’t even blink at the simple two year difference, but anyone who lived during those two years knows that they weren’t ordinary years. The bombing that occurred on December 7, 1941 irreparably changed the world the same way that the arrival of Uncle Charlie did that peaceful family and especially his admiring niece Charlotte.

Critics were quick to call this film cynical or morally vague, words that would come to characterize Hitchcock’s style of film-making, but in the wake of the great depression, a gruesome war, and the ever-present fear of nuclear holocaust the world itself became much more cynical and morally vague.  Much like Uncle Charlie, Hitchcock entered our country in a time of peace, as a welcomed guest, and he forever changed our whole way of thinking about movies.

As we get closer to Christmas, I know that I will inevitably see at least a scene or two from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. If you think about it, Hitchcock is like the anti-Capra. Another classic-film lover named Bill Wren said on his blog Piddleville, “Shadow of a Doubt presents us with an almost quintessential American town of the 1940′s. It’s almost Capra-esque. In a way, Shadow of a Doubt is George Bailey’s Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life except where Capra brings an angel to it, Hitchcock brings the devil.”

The singular flaw that prevents Shadow of a Doubt from being one of Hitchcock’s elite is the completely formulaic and totally unnecessary romance. It feels totally contrived and out of place. Perhaps this was Hitchcock’s way of showing that although young Charlie has grown through her ordeal, she hasn’t yet grown enough to see that the addition of others to your life will not make you happy if you cannot first be happy alone. If this was his aim, he was very subtle. Today, they would make a sequel in which we find out that her love interest is in fact a serial killer himself.

So what happens when young Charlie realizes the truth about her beloved Uncle? Will she get a chance to reveal his secret, or will he choke her into silent submission? I won’t ruin that ending of the movie for you. Take an hour and a half off and watch it yourself. By the end, you will be humming the Merry Widow Waltz and contemplating the state of the world. What do you think of Uncle Charlie’s assessment of our lives? “You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie.”

Thanks for watching with me. Next week provides a jump from pre-television wartime to fun loving computer animation and offers a much more lighthearted film, Toy Story 2. I hope you’ll join me.