L.A. Confidential (1997)

Posted: January 20, 2012 in 1997, American, Drama, Mystery, Neo-noir

Curtis Hanson’s stylish neo-noir adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel paints a dark picture of the LAPD in the mid 1950’s depicting an organisation steeped in corruption and brutality.

Trimming significant excess from the source the film follows three radically different L.A. detectives as they investigate a shooting at an all night diner.  Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a slick narcotics detective and technical advisor for a popular TV drama whose ‘movie star’ veneer masks a man whose sold out.  Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) is a violent yet emotionally damaged homicide detective with his own moral code.  Finally, Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious, driven, by-the-book career cop whose detective father was killed on the job.  Each detective investigates the shooting in their own way but soon their paths cross as they discover there’s more to this crime than they first thought and soon they become embroiled in a complicated plot of corruption, drugs, murder, and prostitution.

Ed Exley – All I ever wanted was to measure up to my father.

Bud White – Now’s your chance… he died in the line of duty, didn’t he?

Nominated for 9 Academy Awards (it won two – Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Kim Basinger, and Best Screenplay – Adapted) L.A. Confidential was universally acclaimed for both it’s stars and it’s visual style.  Hanson and the films cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, studied many of the films of the era including The Bad and the Beautiful, In a Lonely Place, and The Tarnished Angels in order to achieve the right atmosphere however in order to avoid a feeling of nostalgia they shot like a contemporary film and used more naturalistic lighting than in a classic film noir.

Ultimately L.A. Confidential allows the hope of the period to shine through the gritty and rotten heart of it’s subject matter and draws the viewer in, engaging them, so that they become a part of the story.  Whilst you may hate the main characters initially for their thuggish, uptight, or slick ways I defy you not to start to care about them as their story develops and they begin to evolve before your eyes.


Citizen Kane (1941)

Posted: January 19, 2012 in 1941, American, Drama, Mystery

Hailed as “the greatest movie of all time” Citizen Kane was Orson Welles debut feature film which he not only starred in but also directed and co-wrote the screenplay for.  Having your debut film heaped with such praise should be taken as a major point of pride but considering that Welles was only 24 at the time it should be considered so much more.

Unfortunately with 70 years of praise and hype behind it new viewers should be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed by the film upon first watching it.  Subsequent viewings however will yield more enjoyment as the viewer becomes more impressed by it’s unique visual style (cinematographer Gregg Toland developed a technique for ensuring the the foreground, middle-ground, and background were all in focus simultaneously), simple yet engaging storyline, and outstanding acting.

Welles stars as the titular character of Charles Foster Kane, a reclusive millionaire media mogul, who dies virtually alone within the first 5 minutes leaving the contents of his mansion, his businesses, and his last word ‘Rosebud’ as his legacy.  It’s the latter of these that becomes the catalyst for the film as a group of newsreel men set out to interview Kane’s friends, family, and business associates in an effort to decipher the meaning behind this last word.  The interviews are told though a series of flashbacks to various periods in Kane’s life making use of non-linear storytelling to develop Kane’s character based on the interviewees perception of the man himself.  Masterfully controlled and edited the film avoids becoming confusing and serves to show a fully rounded individual and his progression from likeable, impetuous youth to grizzled, embittered old man over the (nearly) 2 hour run time.

During shooting newspaper magnate William Randal Hearst, with whom viewers can see an obvious comparison to Kane, attempted everything he could to prevent the film from being made even going so far as to accuse Orson Welles of being a Communist to prevent it’s release.  Although many consider the film to be based on Hearst’s life Welles claimed that the story was a composite on many individuals from that particular era, this can be seen to be true as there are also elements from the life of Samuel Insull (a Chicago utilities magnate from the time) represented in the film.

If I hadn’t been very rich I might have been a really great man

– Charles Foster Kane

Despite it’s success the film was originally a flop when it was first released and was universally booed at the 1941 Academy Awards every time one of it’s 9 nominations was announced.  The film was re-released for the public in the 1950’s after spending nearly a decade locked up in the RKO vaults.

Shot in black and white this 1965 exploitation film is considered by many to be one of the best trash cinema films ever made.

The film tells the story of three drag racing go-go dancers – Varla, the group’s leader and a psychopath, Rosie, an Italian with a secret crush on Varla, and Billie, a bubbly blonde who only wants to have fun.  Whilst drag racing in the desert the trio meet a couple leading to Varla eventually killing the man and kidnapping his girlfriend.  Whilst at a gas station the, now, four see a crippled old man and his son.  When the gas station attendant tells them that they live on a remote ranch with a stash of cash Varla begins to hatch a plan to relieve the old man of the money.  The group trail the family back to their ranch and, after searching for the money on the grounds, try to get the location of the money from the old mans sons but when this fails Varla’s psychopathic side comes out.

At the time the film featured scenes of gratuitous violence and sexuality, although the latter is tame considering Myer’s taste for women with considerable assets, and explores the theme of violence in women.  Considering the 40+ years that have passed since this film was originally shot and released these scenes seems tame by today’s standards.

Whilst the plot is simple the story has a tendency to jump around and the characters never get developed so there isn’t any understanding as to why Varla simply snaps and kills people and the other two girls don’t seem to exist other than to be ordered around by her.  Despite this many believe that Myer’s portrayal of women, especially in Faster, Pussycat! depicts them as strong figures and as such can be considered a positive force for female empowerment.

Given it’s cult status there’s no surprise that Faster, Pussycat! has inspired various imitations, such as 2009’s Bitch Slap, and music video homages like Queens of the Stone Age’s video for 3’s & 7’s.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Posted: January 12, 2012 in 2008, Asian, Western

The title to this 2008 Korean movie pays homage to Sergio Leone’s famous western ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’ and is the first Korean Western to be filmed in nearly 40 years.

Set in Manchuria, a largely desert like area of China similar to the wild west of America, during the 1930’s this tells the story of three characters chasing a treasure map for radically different reasons.  The Good, Park Do-won, is a bounty hunter with a deadly aim who is following the map hoping it will lead him to his quarry.  The Bad, Park Chang-yi, is a cold-blooded killer whose motives are unclear for wanting the map but is the main target for Park Do-won.  The Weird, Yoon Tae-goo, is a bumbling train robber who steals the map before he realises what it actually is and is then pursued for the remainder of the film by not only Park Chang-yi but also the Japanese Army and the Ghost Market Gang who want the map for their own selfish reasons.

Whilst light on actual story the film is wonderfully choreographed with plenty of bloody fight scenes and stunning visuals as the chase continues on at break neck speed.  With an escalating body count throughout the course of the film there’s something here for lovers of action and this kind of genre even if the plot is about as deep as a puddle.

Goodbye Lenin! (2003)

Posted: January 11, 2012 in 2003, Comedy, Drama, German

Billed as a comedy/drama I didn’t really find much to laugh about in this German film.  Whether this was down to the drama overshadowing any comedy or simply because the comedy referenced German events that I didn’t get I’m not sure.

The film is set in East Germany in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and centers around single mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) and her two children Alex (Daniel Brühl) and Ariane (Maria Simon).  Raising the two children alone after her husband defects to West Germany Christiane is passionate Socialist who, after witnessing Alex being arrested for participating in a protest march, suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma for 8 months.  During this period East Germany undergoes radical changes with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the influx of western culture into the previously insular country.  After Christiane awakes from her coma the doctors inform Alex that any sort of shock may lead to another heart attack and, feeling that these changes may be detrimental to his mothers health, Alex resolves to keep this from her.

Alex moves his mother back home and, with the help of his family, neighbours, and friends, they pretend that nothing has changed within the 4 walls of their flat whilst outside East Germany begins to welcome western ideals and businesses – Ariane gets a job working at Burger King and becomes involved with a West German whilst Alex gets a job installing satellite tv.  At home the family dress in typically East German clothing and, with the help of his friend Denis, Alex puts together false news stories and television shows in order to keep the illusion alive whilst hunting for East German goods that are proving increasingly difficult to find.

Ultimately the story is one of a boy who loves his mother and will do anything to protect her and is loosely based on the last few years of Lenin’s life where it was deemed that over-excitement might cause him health problems so he was kept in a controlled environment whilst Stalin had special newspapers printed for him editing any news about the political struggles of the time.  The film touches on the unification of Germany without going in to much detail of the experiences of the East German people which is a shame as some of the films most poignant scenes involve this especially when Alex goes grocery shopping only to discover that the shelves are bare, later to be replaced by western versions of the same foods forcing Alex to decant the contents into East German packaging in order to maintain the charade.  The film itself is beautifully shot, written, and acted and ultimately deserving of the many awards it won.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Posted: January 5, 2012 in 1957, Arthouse, Swedish

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman this Swedish Arthouse film tells the story of a battle weary knight, Antonius Block (played by Max Von Sydow), and his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), returning home to Sweden after ten years fighting in the Crusades.  Set during the Black Death a disillusioned Antonius struggles with his faith during their journey as they make their way to his estate to a reunion with his wife.

The title refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation – ‘And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour’ (Revelation 8.1).  The reference to silence in this passage refers to the silence of God which becomes a recurring theme within the film.

Arriving on a stony beach with his squire, Antonius is greeted by Death (Bengt Ekerot) who has come to claim him.  Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess with the caveat that Death cannot take him until the game is finished or Antonius loses.  Death agrees and the game continues over the course of the film.  The other characters cannot see Death and when the chess board comes out at various points in the film they believe he is playing himself.

During their journey Antonius and Jöns pass a sleeping troupe of actors consisting of Jof, his wife Mia, their infant son Mikael, and their actor/manager Skat.  Jof has visions, seeing the Virgin Mary teaching an infant Jesus to walk, however his wife is skeptical and doesn’t believe him.

As they continue their journey Antonius and Jöns arrive at a church, entering Antonius sees a monk in the confessional booth and tells him – ‘I met Death today.  We are playing chess.  My life has been a futile pursuit, a wandering, a great deal of talk without meaning.  I feel no bitterness or self-reproach because the lives of most people are very much like this.  But I will use my reprieve for one meaningful deed.’  After giving away the tactics of his chess game he discovers that the monk is none other than Death in disguise.  Leaving the church the pair continue on and arrive at an abandoned village, whilst there Jöns saves a girl from being raped by a corpse robber who turns out to be Raval, the priest who convinced Antonius to go to the crusade in the first place.  Jöns threatens to brand Raval’s face if he ever sees him again and the girl joins them on their travels.  Riding in to town the acting troupe of Jof, Mia, and Skat are performing, after introducing the other two Skat heads backstage before running away with Lisa, the blacksmiths wife.  During their performance they are interrupted by a procession penitents carrying crosses and censers, flagellating themselves and others in an effort to prove themselves worthy for God to save them from the plague.

Jof heads to the inn whilst Mia sets up camp outside of the town, whilst at the inn Jof is approached by the blacksmith, Plog, looking for his wife and spurred on by Raval the two torment him, forcing him to dance like a bear.  Jöns arrives and steps in and saves Jof then, true to his word, he cuts Raval’s face.  During this time Antonius and Mia have met and enjoyed a picnic together and when Jof and Jöns return Antonius invites the two to his estate where they will be safer from the plague.  The group continue on their journey through the woods joined byPlog who apologises for tormenting Jof.  During the journey they encounter Skat and Lisa who, dissatisfied with Skat, returns to her husband and, in order to avoid a fight with the blacksmith, Skat confuses him with words before pretending to kill himself.  After the companions leave Skat climbs a tree for the night which Death then proceeds to cut down, when Skat pleads Death responds that his ‘performance is cancelled on account of death’.

As they travel on through the darkness they encounter a group of soldiers taking a young girl to be burned for consorting with the Devil.  Antonius speaks with her and asks her to summon the Devil so that he may ask him about God, the girl claims to have done so but Antonius sees nothing so gives her some herbs to take away the pain.

Continuing on Antonius and his companions camp for the night where Death once again visits to conclude their chess game.  Jof awakens and sees Antonius playing chess with Death, telling his wife they decide to slip away whilst he is preoccupied.   Noticing the young family leaving Antonius distracts Death by knocking over the chess pieces allowing them to make good their escape, Death places the chess pieces back on the board and then wins the game telling Antonius – ‘When we meet again you and your entourage’s time will be over’.  Before leaving Death asks Antonius if he has completed his ‘meaningful deed’ yet to which he responds that he has.

Antonius is re-united with his wife and they enjoy one last supper before Death arrives to take them all.  In the mean time Jof, Mia, and baby Mikael have been sitting out a storm in their caravan and the next morning Jof informs Mia that he has seen Antonius and his followers being led away dancing by Death.

The Seventh Seal was developed from Bergmans own play ‘Wood Painting’  written in 1954 and was the seventeenth film he directed.  Shot over 35 days and with a budget of $150,000 it went on to help Bergman cement his reputation as a world-class director when the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.  The image of Death as a pale man dressed in black robes who plays chess with mortals became an iconic image and has been parodied many times including in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Young Ones and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Fight Club (1999)

Posted: January 3, 2012 in 1999, American, Drama

This is one of my favourite films and seeing as Sarah bought me the 10th Anniversary Edition on Blu-Ray for Christmas I figured this challenge was the perfect opportunity to break it out of it’s plastic wrapping and give it a spin.

First off don’t let the name put you off, Fight Club isn’t your typical no brainer pugilistic movie it’s a film with a message, a message that it delivers like a right hook to the face.  A scathing indictment of consumerism and the live to work ethic that holds sway over so many lives nowadays Fight Club’s story centers on an unnamed character (billed simply as ‘The Narrator’) played by Edward Norton who works in a white collar job he hates.  Plagued by insomnia, when he’s not at work his life consists of catalog shopping from IKEA and, following his doctors suggestion, visiting support groups for the terminally ill to give himself the sense of family and belonging that is missing from his life to allow him to sleep.  It’s at one of these support groups that The Narrator first meets Marla Singer played by Helena Bonham-Carter.  Like The Narrator Marla is a ‘tourist’ at the support groups and whilst he seeks intimacy he avoids it with Marla seeing that they are too alike.  Splitting up the support groups to avoid having to see Marla she still becomes a seductive recurring figure in his life.

I would flip through a catalog and wonder, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”  We used to read pornography.  Now it was the Horchow Collection.

During one of his work trips The Narrator encounters Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a self-assured, nihilistic manufacturer of soap.  Whilst their initial meeting is brief The Narrator develops a dependent relationship with Tyler after he returns to his apartment to discover that it has been destroyed in a fire.  Having no friends or family due to living in his consumer/work driven cocoon for so long The Narrator calls Tyler and, after an awkward conversation in a bar, Tyler agrees to let The Narrator stay with him but only if he fights him first.  As the film progresses The Narrator, under the guidance of Tyler, gradually lets go of his old lifestyle instead embracing a life of impulsiveness and freedom.  The pair create Fight Club, an underground bare knuckle fighting club where anything goes, and begin to attract more disillusioned men looking to break out of their rut and to feel something real and valuable.

Who you were in Fight Club is not who you were in the rest of the world.

A phone call from Marla insinuates her back into The Narrators life and she becomes involved with Tyler leading to a rift between the two and becomes the catalyst for the finale of the film.  Fight Club soon evolves into an underground anarchist movement with an anti-corporate manifesto called ‘Project Mayhem’ led by Tyler.  The Narrator begins to find himself on the fringe of the group and when a member of Project Mayhem is killed by police during a sabotage operation he wants to shut down the group but finds that he suddenly has no control and that it’s taken on a life of it’s own.  As The Narrator struggles to put an end to Project Mayhem the films twist is revealed and the final scene, scored to The Pixies hit Where is My Mind, leaves the viewer thinking “I did not see that coming”.

The decision to leave the main character unnamed serves to show him as an everyman that viewers can identify with in some way.  With it’s gritty visual style, exceptional scoring, and excellent casting the film is a masterpiece of modern cinema which deserves to be in everyone’s top ten list.

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.