Life and Death in L.A.: 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

'Snatch': A Well Oiled Machine About ... What?

Turkish (Jason Statham), Mickey O;Neil (Brad Pitt)
 and Tommy (Stephen Graham) in 'Snatch.'

The problem with "Snatch," Guy Ritchie's crime drama/comedy that looks at life through the eyes of Turkish (Jason Statham), a London promoter of unlicensed boxing matches, is that the film's not really about anything.

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty that happens plot-wise. There's a frenetic chase after an impossibly large diamond. And everyone involved faces life-threatening consequences for one reason or another — there's nothing like life-threatening consequences to ratchet-up the tension.

But the movie never pauses long enough to let us catch our breath and start to care about whether or not any of the characters get bumped off. Instead, it unfolds like circus performers getting shot out of a canon. And at that speed we're not supposed to notice that the material is a bit thin.

The characters all seem drawn from the pages of the comics. There is bespectacled Brick Top (Alan Ford), the crime boss who feeds victims of his wrath to the pigs. And there's the aforementioned Turkish, as well as Mickey O'Neil (Brad Pitt), an Irish gypsy bare-knuckle boxer whose thick "Traveller" dialect is all but impenetrable.

The film's furious pace keeps you engaged, but at the end it feels like a 90-minute junk-food banquet. Here, Ritchie, for all his talents, comes across as Quentin Tarantino-lite. He gets the action right. But unlike Tarantino, whose films let us get a bit closer to the characters, Ritchie never quite lets us rest and see the gangsters and louts as a lot more than cogs in a well-oiled machine. While Tarantino's movies take on substantial themes, such as redemption and loyalty, Ritchie merely cranks up the action.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ellroy Outing Splashes Blood, Violence On Screen

Rampart," with story and screenplay by James Ellroy, features Woody Harrelson as a dirty cop, Dave "Date Rape Dave" Brown, balancing a home life with two ex-wives as he becomes embroiled in the Los Angeles Police Department's infamous Rampart corruption scandal.

The Rampart scandal refers to widespread corruption in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (or CRASH) anti-gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Rampart Division in the late 1990s. More than 70 police officers in the CRASH unit were charged with misconduct, making it one of the most widespread cases of documented police misconduct in United States history. The convicted offenses include unprovoked shootings, unprovoked beatings, planting of evidence, framing of suspects, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury, and covering up evidence of these activities.

Word has it that "Rampart" is the most authentic of all Ellroy screen adaptations, in that it encompasses more of the bloody, brutal, vulgar world that his novels encapsulate. That's not to say it's smooth going all the way. It's reputed to be a bit of a mess, especially the last half hour.

Sounds like an A+ in atmosphere, and a "needs improvement" in screenwriting dexterity.

I'll go with the high-atmosphere admirers and check it out ASAP.

Monday, November 21, 2011

All Aboard Guy Ritchie's Quick-Cut, Malevolent Joy Ride

Normally I write here about movies and TV shows I've seen. But two Netflix discs have been sitting unwatched on my coffee table for nearly three weeks. It's been my cuckoo writing schedule that prevents me from hunkering down and watching stuff I'd like to see.

The two on-deck films are both Guy Ritchie-directed movies, "Snatch," and "RocknRolla." Opinion is divided among those I've spoken with on which is the better of the two -- some might say neither.

"Snatch"looks at, among other aspects of society, Irish "Travellers," a gypsy-like culture that exists in the U.K. and elsewhere. "RocknRolla" focuses on the pursuit of a cache of mob money that's up for grabs. That's about all I know about them.

I have my misgivings about Ritchie -- apart from that erstwhile marriage to a certain American celebrity whose name will not be mentioned here. Ritchie's trademark camera moves -- he makes the camera dodge around frozen images of a given scene at unexpected times -- usually bring the action to a halt. Computer-generated video effects have their place, but the stuff I've seen so far from this dirctor all seems filled with the requisite sound and fury, while signifying nothing.

His dialog is usually fast and funny, and he cuts his scenes with the attention-deficit-disorder crowd in mind. I can't quite decide whether I like him or find him annoying. I just may get around to watching these two flicks tonight, and maybe I'll decide then.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Forget About Plausibility, Just Entertain

As I've maintained, I am a dedicated Hitchcock fan, despite what any of his detractors might say. The dude gave us decades of spine-tingling delights, not the least of which is "Shadow of a Doubt," reviewed here by Roger Ebert.

Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, you just can't beat Hitch's crowd-pleasing melodramas that almost without exception -- "Torn Curtain" being one of his rare turkeys -- tells a riveting, if implausible story, that you can't stop watching.

It doesn't matter if bad guys are chasing Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint up George Washington's stoney nasal cavities on Mount Rushmore in "North By Northwest." Or that Jimmy Stewart is paying ridiculously close attention to neighbor Raymond Burr's comings and goings in "Rear Window." Once the projector starts rolling, we're hooked.

Hitchcock is to mysteries what Clint Eastwood has been to westerns and modern crime dramas -- a long-running act that knows how to entertain and doesn't worry too much about artistic pretensions. Both give people what they want without insulting their intelligence. What more could you ask for?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Garner Shoots From Hip -- Collateral Damage Results

James Garner, AKA Jim Rockford, the trailer park dwelling TV detective from "The Rockford Files," has published a biography. Instead of the usual Hollywood glad-handing, he talks about suing the studios, and he dishes dirt about co-stars, including Tony Franciosa, whom Garner clocked when Franciosa wouldn't stop punching stunt men instead of pulling his punches. He's also got some unflattering words for king of cool Steve McQueen. Much like his Rockford Files persona, Garner shoots from the hip -- what else would you expect from him?

Rockford was quite likeable, even as gruff as he sometimes could be. He was the antithesis of the cool, urban detective who drove sports cars and lived in penthouses. Rockford was no James Bond. He was too honest to make the real money that shadier characters in his profession could pocket on the sly. His trailer home by the sea -- you can still visit the trailer park where the show was filmed in Malibu -- was testament to his lack of interest in making the "big score." He was too much of a working class hero to go for the easy bucks. And let's face it, too much of a curmudgeon to fit in with the monied swells. He was an original.

"The Rockford Files" episodes are available on disc, of course, and are streamable on Netflix -- if anybody out there is still subscribing to Netflix.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kael's Writing Came Off Without A Hitch

With the press reviews of the new Pauline Kael bio, "A Life in the Dark," I was surprised to read that the doyenne of film critics had no affection for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe I'd heard something to that effect and forgot about it. It was easy to forgive the mecurial Kael her missteps occasionally. After all, who else could make us anticipate those semi-weekly reviews as we did with her writing in the New Yorker? Hitchcock's crime thrillers, such as "Dial M For Murder" (pictured above) practically redefined the detective movie genre. And what about "Strangers on a Train"? It's hard to dismiss Hitchcock when he turned out stunning films like that. All I can say is, no matter how brilliant your favorite writer may be, read carefully and remain skeptical. It's your best line of defense.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Bad, The Horrible And The Unbalanced

They say good villains make good drama. Here are my Top 5 favorite crime film villains. These five are particularly memorable as some of the screen's finest psychopaths. They look and sound normal at first. But if you cross them, things quickly become unpleasant.

1.) Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) "Cape Fear"

Max turns the crazy up loud, and mild mannered attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) and family get a sharp blast of it. If Max ever knocks on your door, turn off the lights and duck.

2.) Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) "Reservoir Dogs"

All I can say about Mr. Blonde is that he's the stealth psycho. His winning personality takes a turn for the worse when the old Steeler's Wheel classic, "Stuck in the Middle With You," begins to play.

3.) Noah Cross (John Huston) "Chinatown"

The "grand old man" of Los Angeles turns out to be a ruthless murderer. As Cross observes near the end of the film, "Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of ANYTHING."

That, he is.

4.) Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) "Out of the Past"

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) tries to break with the past and get away from crime boss Whit Sterling. But his past comes back to haunt him. Sterling is one frightening customer to have on your tail. "My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven't been able to find them."

5.) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) "Strangers on a Train"

Leaving the best for last, Bruno is one of director Alfred Hitchcock's all-time great antagonists. Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets Bruno by chance on a rail car, and the unsuspecting Haines's life rapidly slides into chaos at the hands of Mr. Antony.

Who are your favorites?

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Maybe Bond Will Be Worth The Ticket Price - For A Change

So Javier Bardem will be the next Bond Villain. Well played. For some time now, Bond films have been nothing to get excited about. Bardem may change that in the next, as yet unnamed, spy thriller.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ex- Undercover Officer Picks Top Gang Movies

OK, we've heard from director Martin Scorsese as well as the American Film Institute on which gangster films each source liked best.

Now, here's a list from a former undercover officer who infiltrated the mob.

If you live down the street from Louis Diaz in Costa Mesa, Calif., you probably have no idea that you are neighbors with one of the most successful undercover agents in law enforcement history. Diaz was an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in the 1970s when he infiltrated a notorious New York City organization headed by heroin dealer Leroy "Nicky" Barnes.

Louis Diaz' 10 favorite gangster movies

1. "On the Waterfront" (1954) - Marlon Brando coulda been a contender, except for his rotten brother.

2. "The Godfather, Part 2" (1974) - Diaz concurs with director Francis Ford Coppola that this sequel is superior to the original.

3. "The Godfather" (1972) - In my humble opinion, the best movie of all time ... period.

4. "Goodfellas" (1990) - Whatever you do, don't make Joe Pesci angry.

5. "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984) - Sergio Leone's epic (as in very long) about Jewish gangsters.

6. "The Untouchables" (1987) - De Niro swings for the fences.

7. "Raging Bull" (1980) - De Niro swings for a boxing title.

8. "A Bronx Tale" (1993) - De Niro directs a terrific film in which he plays the good guy, not the gangster.

9. "Scarface" (1983) - Say hello to Al Pacino's little friend.

10. "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938) - The classic about two childhood friends who take different paths James Cagney as the gangster and Pat O'Brien as the priest.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Your Witness: Mason On The Comeback Trail

If you're any kind of 1950s to '60s TV fan -- and I know you are -- you can probably conjure up the Fred Steiner composed "Perry Mason" theme song in your head. Once you do, it's hard to stop thinking about it -- sorry about that.

As a Perry Mason fan it's good news to learn that Robert Downey Jr. is developing a script that could bring him to the big screen as the famed fictional attorney who never lost a case.

According to Variety, rather than setting the movie in the present, as did the TV show, the Downey script will be more faithful to the books written by Erle Stanley Gardner, and will take place in the "rough and tumble" 1930s L.A.

Mason, the irrepressible defense attorney who could never resist a hopeless case, was a relentless force in getting to the bottom of every investigation he handled. He inevitably saw the truth that law enforcement and the state overlooked.

Gardner, born in Malden, Mass., was a virtual book-writing machine who cranked out 82 Perry Mason novels and dozens of short stories. His extremely popular Mason series sold more than 425 million copies. He mentored both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and sold more books than the two combined.

In addition to the "Perry Mason" TV show, starring Raymond Burr (pictured above), which ran from 1957 to 1966, the novels also inspired a 1930s radio program and a series of teleplays starring Burr that ran in the 1980s and '90s.

Aside from Downey in the title role, the feature film will include the familiar characters from the TV series, Mason's secretary Della Street, detective Paul Drake, and Mason's nemesis, prosecutor Hamilton Burger -- poor SOB never won a case.

It all sounds like perfect material for what could be a great piece of work by Downey: 1930s L.A. crime; murder; courtroom drama; a police investigation gone wrong, and brilliant deductions arrived at by a sophisticated legal mind. It's the stuff we can always use more of. The state rests.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Coens Crime-Comedy Coming To Small Screens

I'm looking forward to Joel and Ethan Coen's hour-long detective comedy, "HarveKarbo," which will be appearing on Fox TV ... soon, I hope.

The show follows surly private detective Harve Karbo as he delves into the seedy side of Hollywood high society and hangs out with his ne'er-do-well pals in El Segundo, Calif.

"HarveKarbo" just may be some must-see TV for fans of the Coen's twisted take on crime. And that means it will include their twisted take on crime films, because they're such dedicated movie geeks, and they enjoy commenting on the vintage stuff. Think of "Miller's Crossing," "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski" -- there are some really promising possibilities.

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It's a single-camera project the Coens are executive producing and creating with "Cedar Rapids" writer Phil Johnston, who's handling writing duties for the project.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

L.A. Noir Poetry: Month-Long Celebration Of Dark Side

Poetry and crime fit together like a fist and a set of brass knuckles.

At least that's what noted poet, biographer and editor Robert Polito will likely demonstrate in a program that kicks off a citywide month-long noir tribute, titled "Night and the City -- L.A. Noir in Poetry, Fiction and Film: Noir Immersion."

Polito's presentation starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Admission is free for Beyond Baroque members, $8 for non-members, $5 for students. Reservations are required: Call 310-822-3006.

Polito (pictured, left) is editor of the Library of America volumes “Crime Novels: American Noir of the ’30s and ’40s,” “Crime Novels: American Noir of the ’50s” and “The Selected Poems of Kenneth Fearing.” He is editor of “The Everyman James M. Cain” and “The Everyman Dashiell Hammett.”

Also appearing is vocalist Cristy Knowings. A short film will be shown.

Polito's most recent books are the poetry collection "Hollywood & God,"Farber on Film." His Jom Thompson biography, "Savage Art," won a Nation Book Critics Circle Award.

He is completing a new book, "Detours: Seven Noir Lives." His criticism appears regularly in Bookforum and Artforum, and he writes about art, poetry, and film for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is founder and director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the New School.

The Program Continues

Other notable events in the series include mystery writers Gary Phillips, Dick Lochte, poet Richard Modiano and writer Judith Freeman, author of "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved," talking about Raymond Chandler and his legacy on Nov. 4. That discussion will be followed by an evening with James Ellroy (pictured, left), author of "L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dahlia," and, most recently, "The Hilliker Curse."

On Oct. 29, Edgar Allan Poe Award-winning writer Naomi Hirahara and poet Carol Lem will discuss women in noir before a screening of "The Crimson Kimono," with an introduction by film noir scholar Alan K. Rode, all at the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo. Later that evening, a literary noir bar crawl, organized by PEN, will hit the streets of downtown.

On Nov. 5, the South Pasadena Library will screen the noir film "Union Station," with an introduction by historian Tom Zimmerman. The evening will include a tribute to star William Holden (pictured, right), who also starred in the noir classic "Sunset Boulevard" by actress Stefanie Powers.

Other events include poetry readings, theatrical performances, a continental noir breakfast with a featured noir guest, open mics, film screenings and literary discussions. The events take place across the city; some have free admission, others with ticket prices going up to $15. See the L.A. Poetry Festival site for complete schedule and details.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

The Humanity of a 'Mad Dog' in 'High Sierra'

In "High Sierra" (1941), Humphrey Bogart is Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, an ex-con who is full of contradictions. Earle, apparently a hardened criminal, gets sprung from prison, and the first place he wants to go is to a park, where the grass is growing underfoot and he can breathe the fresh air. He may be the only movie gangster of that era who could also be a card-carrying Sierra Club member.

Earle has a soft spot for a crippled girl and a dog, and although we like him better for it, neither of the two will do much to stop his inevitable demise in this film. In fact, his soft spots end up being the Achilles heel that helps bring him down.

The role was a breakout part for Bogart, one that allowed him to display a greater range of subtleties in his character -- albeit portraying another gangster, as he had in a string of movies preceding this one.

Earle is involved in a holdup plot that goes wrong, and then he's on the run. The film's climax comes in the mountains, and includes a high-speed car chase that showcases Raoul Walsh's lean, powerful direction.

Walsh shoots the sheer cliffs and overpowering, vast landscape of the Sierra Nevadas as a desolate spot, where tragedy is just around every hair-pin turn up the steep mountain road.

The press tags Earle with the "Mad Dog" moniker, and this gnaws at him no end. He's not really bad, it's the circumstances of his life and some bum choices that have brought him to this juncture in his life.

The irony is that Earle is ultimately trapped in nature, as he evades the law as best he can among the mountain peaks. He's caught in wide open space that holds him in its grip just as certainly as did prison bars and concrete. And from that, few escape.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Tabloid Photog Had Eye For Public Drama

"He will take his camera and ride off in search of new evidence that his city, even in her most drunken and disorderly and pathetic moments, is beautiful."

- William McCleery in 'Naked City'

New York shutterbug Arthur Fellig, AKA "Weegee" (June 12, 1899 – Dec. 26, 1968) didn't invent tabloid photography, but he turned it into high art.

Fellig earned his nickname, a phonetic rendering of Ouija, because of his frequent, seemingly prescient arrivals at scenes only minutes after crimes, fires or other emergencies were reported to authorities.

Weegee the photographer was the cigar-chewing saturnine poet of New York's Lower East Side in the 1930s and '40s. He prowled the streets at night, police radio in his car, in search of crime, fires, car crashes and any scene that would throw human nature and its frailties into relief. He also frequently focused his lens on the denizens of the night, whether they be Bowery flop house regulars, burlesque performers or rich folk slumming it amid the blood and beer in the streets.

Armed with a Speed Graphic camera, whose mighty flash bulbs poured stark, unyielding light onto scenes of dead gunmen splayed across sidewalks, grieving families watching their apartment building burn -- with a relative inside that firefighters couldn't get to, or the aftermath of twisted steel and still-warm corpses left in the path of an auto wreck, Weegee created a bold, unflinching view of the terror and joy of the urban condition.

With a darkroom setup in the trunk of his car, the self-taught photographer developed his own pictures on the fly, typed a descriptive blurb about each scene (see photo, left) and delivered the fruits of his labors to the papers in time for the "bulldog" edition.

It was the success of his first photography book, "Naked City" (1945), that made Weegee famous. And as Lee Friedlander noted... "It is one of the great ironies of 'Naked City' that although it established Weegee as an expressive photographer and helped prepare the way for his work to enter and belong in art museums, it produced one of the purest forms of the tabloid as we know it today." Film director Stanley Kubrick admired Weegee’s photographs so much so that he hired him as the stills photographer of "Doctor Strangelove." When Peter Sellers heard Weegee speak he apparently used Weegee’s voice for Dr Strangelove.

Weegee's book inspired "The Naked City," a 1948 crime film directed by Jules Dassin. The movie, shot partly in documentary style, was filmed on location on the streets of New York City. The director sought to capture the drama that Weegee delivered daily in those two-penny tabloids that gripped the city for decades. Dassin got the flavor of the times in his movie, but it's a fool's errand to try to equal the force of those simple black and white photos that served as an inspiration to Dassin, and likely, to other crime film directors, as well. Weegee was an exceedingly tough act to follow.

Friday, September 9, 2011

New 'Straw Dogs' Has Much Bark, Little Bite

Like Neil Labute's failed remake of the British horror classic "The Wickerman," Rod Lurie's attempt to resurrect "Straw Dogs," the 1971 Sam Peckinpah thriller, is a film that might leave you scratching your head in wonder. The wonder is why Lurie thinks the Peckinpah horrific shoot-em-up, originally set in a remote English village needed to be moved to a small Mississippi town. And, indeed, why this cliche-ridden remake was necessary at all.

One tip-off that preview audiences were in for something foul came when searching Rotten Tomatoes. "Straw Dogs" had no reviews just a couple of weeks before its release. That usually means the studio knows its got a monumental stinker on its hands, and keeps the press away.

"Straw Dogs" (2011) isn't quite the train wreck I feared it would be, but it's got some flat acting and holes in its logic you could drive your pickup truck through. The original "Straw Dogs," like the original "Wickerman," commented on the insularity of British small town life. Where the first "Straw Dogs" felt like a journey to a strange place that was very real and very frightening, the retooled version feels like a journey to a familiar, yet meaner land inhabited by the cast of "The Dukes of Hazard."

Moving the story to the deep South allows the filmmaker to trot out every tired hillbilly redneck stereotype imaginable. Although "Straw Dogs" presents a multitude of crime, the film, strictly speaking, is not a crime film. It has more in common with American westerns, particularly those that strive to present a morality tale.

Weighing down the production is lead actor James Marsden, who simply hasn't got the acting chops to play the story's nebbish hero, David Sumner. Those who have seen Dustin Hoffman in the original role know what big shoes Marsden has to fill. Both he and Kate Bosworth, as David's wife, Amy, struggle to create the kind of on-screen chemistry that would make us care about this couple. But to little avail.

The two come off as spoiled and arrogant -- she a TV star, and he a screenwriter working on a script about the siege of Leningrad. That's a clue about what's to come in this movie.

Alexander Skarsgård, as Charlie, the local tough who takes a shine to Amy, is a credible presence, but James Woods, as the wildly inappropriate old-codger Coach, chews the scenery unmercifully, and should have been told to take his performance down several dozen notches on the histrionics meter.

The townsfolk seem friendly, at first, but little by little hostility starts to show toward the pair, as they zip around town in a Jaguar, instead of in a proper pickup truck as the locals do. Before she became a TV star, Amy was a child of this backwater town, and we learn that she has a history here that helps lead to the couple's troubles.

The couple comes to the remote hamlet to live in Amy's family's now empty home, recently after, we assume, her father's passing. The barn's roof is in ruins, and Amy and David hire Charlie and his fetid brood of backwoodsmen who would fit well in certain scenes of "Deliverance," to fix it.

The movie isn't really about much of anything, although heavy-handed references to old forgotten former football heroes and veterans of the war in Afghanistan are tossed around, but what are they supposed to mean?

It's hard to figure why Screen Gems gave this one a green light. Judging from the demographic of the preview audience, I'd say that hardly anyone was even aware that this film is a remake of another, and fewer still have seen the original. Don't studios do remakes of well-known properties so they can save on the promotional ad campaign? The reasoning is that you spend less in advertising if you don't have to explain in your ads what the movie's about.

They missed the boat on this one. Maybe for starters they'll do an ad campaign that will explain why they decided to do this remake. I'm waiting.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Noir Evolves From The Black And White World

After having defined "film noir" as a black and white medium in a recent post, I'd like to point out that I was referring to the classic period of noir. That generally ran from 1941 to 1958, beginning with "The Maltese Falcon" and ending with "Touch of Evil."

But then came the noir revival, probably best exemplified by "Chinatown" (1974), the Technicolor detective story directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson -- possibly Polanski's greatest effort to date.

So how can a noir be shot in Technicolor, and lack atmospheric shadows and darkness that are the hallmark of the genre?

Polanski, masterfully, I think, gave the film a muted, almost faded look, like a picture postcard that sat too long in a sunny drugstore window.

The effect perfectly expresses the hazy, dusty sunlight typical of a Los Angeles summer day.

Additionally, it may not have been commercially viable to shoot a black and white "Chinatown." Who would have put up the $6 million to make a film that wasn't in color, even in the freewheeling early '70s?

Give due appreciation to cinematographers John A. Alonzo and the uncredited Stanley Cortez, too. They adapted Los Angeles's hazy, smoggy atmosphere to a new generation of in-color noir, and the genre's entire look was reborn because of it.

While the black and white films of the classic noir period suggest a universe that has broken free of its orbit and plunged into eternal darkness, "Chinatown"'s hazy, sun-scorched look implies a world where nothing is clear, even in broad daylight.

In "Chinatown," you see, meanings are always elusive and often misunderstood, and nothing is what it appears to be.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gangsters And Grifters: Know Your Favorite Betes Noire

I've seen lots of stories online these days about film noir, and that may mean that there's an uptick in noir interest among movie fans.

The question is: What exactly is a film noir, and how do you know if the movie you're watching is one?

Here are a few of my own guidelines to ponder. If the film you're watching ...

  • Was shot sometime between 1941 and 1958
  • Is in black and white
  • Features a hero who has a dark past, or gets involved in shady dealings
  • Makes ample use of shadows, and has an overall dark tone, both thematically and in cinematic terms
  • Has scenes in a roadhouse where the hero drinks black coffee and chain smokes unfiltered cigarettes
  • The hero merely says "Rye," and the bartender pours him whiskey, neat
  • A blond "femme fatale" lures the hero into a scheme that results in a battle to the death
  • There's a fair amount of gun play, and someone inevitably ends up dead.
  • Characters often speak in fragmented sentences, and trade wisecracks
  • Stars Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Barbara Stanwyck and the like

  • ... then, you might be watching a film noir.

    Films noir shouldn't be confused with gangster films, which are a slightly different genre that uses organized crime as its focal point.

    In a noir, the hero may have dealings with organized crime, but is essentially a lone wolf. Gangster films tend to focus on the dark side of the American dream. Gangsters essentially share many of the same values of home, family and prosperity, as do honest citizens. But their means of achieving their goals are what leads to their defeat.

    Typically, gangsters build a crime empire the way an entrepreneur would set up a legitimate business. They rise to the top because they are more efficient, and more ruthless, than their competitors.

    Their downfall inevitably comes when they stray from their Horatio Alger-like roots. It's usually pride before the fall. In the end their empire collapses, and the head gangster dies along with it.

    In noir, the hero isn't an entrepreneur. He's an alienated loner, sometimes in an existential crisis and desperate to break whatever shackles are holding him down. Sometimes he's living a more or less balanced life, and is unaware of the dissatisfaction gnawing within him.

    When he meets the femme fatale, everything changes. As a couple, their credo is, "Let's be bad together." There's something about the chemistry between the two that leads to crimes each wouldn't have committed alone.

    Needless to say, it often doesn't turn out well for the hero. But then again, you wouldn't expect it to.

    Sunday, September 4, 2011

    I Was A Punching Bag For The Mob

    This may not constitute a trend, but I've noted a similarity between Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), at right, the hapless meth dealer in "Breaking Bad," and Georgie (Frank Santorelli), below, the put-upon bartender at the Badda-Bing strip club in "The Sopranos."

    Both characters regularly take vicious beatings as a consequence of their employment, and that's something to ponder this Labor Day weekend.

    Jessie has most recently had his face rearranged by drug enforcement agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and regularly gets beaten stupid by every hood on the block.

    Meanwhile, his partner in crime and former high school chemistry teacher Walt White (Bryan Cranston) goes unscathed.

    Bartender Georgie, however, suffers mostly at the hands of his employer, mob boss Tony Soprano and occasionally others in the gang when the mood strikes.

    Tony has beaten Georgie with an ice bucket, a telephone receiver and a singing novelty fish, while Ralph "Ralphie" Cifaretto, (Joe Pantoliano) nearly took out Georgie's eye with a chain and padlock he swung like a mace.

    Let's all stand and offer a round of muted golf-applause in honor of these two fine gentlemen who regularly take one for the team.

    Monday, August 29, 2011

    'The Guard' Offers Laughs, Gasps In Equal Share

    "The Guard" IS an above-average film, by the way. I noted previously that it opened this past weekend in limited release.

    This self-proclaimed "fish-out-of-water" story -- there's a funny moment when one character identifies the activities taking place in the film as just that -- is, on the surface at least, "In The Heat of the Night" transported to Ireland. Don Cheedle is the black American FBI agent swimming with a foreign school of fish.

    The source of his dislocation isn't racial prejudice -- this is 2011, after all, and not "In The Heat of the Night"'s Deep South of 1967. Cheedle's FBI agent Wendell Everett is a visitor in a land where everyone, not just the criminals, speaks in code, and it's one he's not familiar with. His Gaelic partner in crime fighting, Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendon Gleeson) is a small-town constable with a taste for sly, ironic wit. At first, Everett can't decide whether Boyle is brilliant or an oafish idiot.

    Boyle is a bit weary of his life's work, policing petty crime and surveying auto accident scenes. Meanwhile, he's preoccupied with his mother, who is suffering from an unnamed illness that will soon end her days. As a country lawman, he's unprepared for the goings on when big-time gangsters come to his village (or is he?).

    Much of the action sequences are appropriately brutal -- it's clear that these bad guys are not to be toyed with. But overall, the comical interplay between Gleeson and Cheedle is too disarming to call "The Guard" a hard-boiled crime story.

    The film sets up the story's groundwork at a leisurely pace. But once it takes off we're hooked. By the end, the story almost magically elevates Gleeson's Sgt. Boyle to mythic proportions, although there's only the barest hint of magical realism in this film.

    The ending pays homage to numerous films of the gangster genre, and without going into detail you'll recognize the climax if you're familiar with bad-guy films of the 1930s. Even if you aren't, this one stands on its own.

    --Paul Parcellin

    Saturday, August 27, 2011

    Eye Of The Storm: Film Hurls Fury Into Your Living Room

    For East Coasters, the best crime movie for a stormy viewing: "Key Largo." Bogart, Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, revenge, revolvers and rum. All stuck in a Florida hurricane.

    Kick on the generator, put the disc in the machine, turn down the lights and let the atmosphere wash over you.

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    Gleeson, Cheedle Crime Comedy Gets Thumbs Up

    Critics say the crime film to see is "The Guard," opening this weekend in limited release. View trailer. It got a stunning 96 Percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    Word of mouth has been strong. Check it out at the cinemaplex in your 'hood.

    See Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in a behind-the-scenes featurette from "The Guard."

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    Bomb Shelter Days: Remembering Atomic Hell Fire

    Raise your hand if you recollect your parents setting up a bomb shelter in the basement around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    When the big one drops, they reasoned, we'll go live downstairs next to the oil burner and eat cold canned beans for a couple of weeks. First big rainstorm will wash away all the sneezing powder and we'll start again.

    Those, my friend, were the days.

    With the recent DVD re-release of "Kiss Me Deadly," the noir of the H-bomb age, I got to thinking about the good old days of nuclear holocaust paranoia, and how it's not such a big deal anymore.

    In "Kiss Me Deadly," Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer, the private detective hero of Mickey Spillane's novels, is on the trail of a suitcase full of hot nuclear soup. He's not quite sure what it is, but he knows it packs a bad-ass wallop.

    KMD would make a good double feature with "Pickup On South Street," with Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who unknowingly harvests some national security secrets from a mark's handbag. The government wants to get the microfilm back before the Communists do -- remember when they used to worry us? Now they lend us money and manufacture everything we own.

    Both films are terrific in their own way. Robert Aldrich, who directed "Kiss Me Deadly," and Samuel Fuller, director of "Pickup On South Street" both effectively convey the tensions that existed in those times. Hammer resorts to bullying tactics to get to the bottom of the nuclear "whatsit" he's after. And he must, because the future of the planet is at stake.

    Fuller puts the Commies in the hot seat. They will stop at nothing to get nuclear secrets. American G-Men have all the scruples, and are observant of the Constitution, no matter how difficult that makes their job.

    Need I say that all of this seems quaint now?

    These days, people with backpacks full of explosives are the ones who worry us. And as for atomic weapons, they seem about as modern and threatening as a cap and ball pistol in a firefight.

    But if the unthinkable should happen and the H-bomb once again becomes the focal point of Western paranoia, I'm hedging my bets. Just look for me downstairs ... I'll be in the bomb shelter.

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Get 'Ruthless' Via Online Streaming, Or Get Gone

    The New York Times will report in its Sunday edition that Edgar G. Ulmer's "Ruthless"(1948), is available to stream from Netflix in its full 105 minute version, rather than the 88-minute public domain cut that's been the only version available for years.
    Ulmer is also known for classic noirs "Detour" (1945) and "The Black Cat" (1934).
    Check out Dave Kehr's column in the Sunday Times. It's quite humorous. He likens Netflix's "recommendations for you" in its online streaming setup to a "surly, underpaid" video store clerk from 1985, who insists you watch movies you have no interest in.
    We've all been there.

    It's Alive! Ridley Scott Takes Another Shot At Sci-Fi Noir

    Ridley Scott, who directed the moody 1982 science-fiction film noir, "Blade Runner," will direct and produce a new feature that is being described as a “Blade Runner” follow-up for Alcon Entertainment, a Warner Brothers-based financing and production company.
    The original “Blade Runner,” which was adapted from the Philip K. Dick story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, starred Harrison Ford as a human bounty hunter (or is he?) charged with hunting down lifelike androids in a future version of Los Angeles.
    Producers are not yet revealing whether the film will be a prequel or a sequel.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Wacky Neighbor Whitey Coming To A Sitcom Near You?

    Everybody Loves Whitey
    Twentieth Century Fox has made a deal with writer-producer Peter Mehlman for a new comedy pilot about a young couple who get a new neighbor: notorious mobster Whitey Bulger.
    That makes a great deal of sense because Whitey was a million laughs. Just ask the people he extorted money from and terrorized.
    The Wrap reports that, "In the pilot pitch, a couple remain unaware that their next-door neighbor is a murderer. (The character is based on Bulger, but is not him.) The half-hour pilot will be taped with multiple cameras in front of a live studio audience."
    Of course, nothing says "comedy" like a mass murderer plunked down in Average Town U.S.A. Think of the humorous possibilities. Whitey offers to get a neighbor's cat out of a tree ... with a Glock. Teacher gives their kid a bad grade ... teacher's legs are mysteriously broken. Thanks, Uncle Whitey!
    Mehlman, who worked as a senior writer on "Seinfeld" for seven years, said his dream casting for Whitey would be John Malkovich.
    Were he still alive, I'd vote for Art Carney. He'd kill in the role.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    'Maltese Falcon' Director Gets Stamp Of Approval

    Legendary director John Huston is getting a commemorative postage stamp in his honor, and it will reference perhaps the best known film noir of all time.
    The art on the stamp is inspired by the 1941 movie "The Maltese Falcon." It depicts Humphrey Bogart holding the statue of the falcon. Huston's credits also include the Academy Award nominated films "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950), "Moulin Rouge" (1952) and "Prizzi's Honor" (1985).

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    A Bitter-Sweet End To 'Breaking Bad'

    The good news is that there's going to be a Season 5 of "Breaking Bad." The bad news is that those 16 episodes will be the last.
    It's hard to complain, because the ongoing hair-raising, death-defying antics of Walt White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkham (Aaron Paul), business partners in the methamphetamine trade, have been insanely fun and nail-bitingly tense to watch.
    Wisely, to maintain a sense of credibility, I think, the story is going to conclude. I'm not sure whether cast members wanted to end it or if producer Vince Gilligan decided it was time to bring the curtain down. Whatever. The timing seems right.
    Both Walt and Jesse crossed a critical line at the end of last season (I'll spare you the spoiler) and from here on it's going to be increasingly difficult to root for them. The wrap-up will come at a perfect time. It shows that, unlike so many other cable franchises, the folks running it are more interested in producing a good story rather than milking a cash cow.

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    Friday, August 12, 2011

    Third ‘Noir City: Chicago’ Festival Opens

    Diabolical twins, obsessed journalists and jail-breaking thugs are heading their way to the Music Box Theatre. The Film Noir Foundation’s third installment of “Noir City: Chicago” features no less than sixteen restored 35mm prints of must-see cinematic rarities. Ten of these noir classics have yet to land a DVD release, thus making this festival all the more essential for local cinephiles.
    The week-long festival kicks off Friday, Aug. 12, and includes criminally overlooked performances from Hollywood legends such as Humphrey Bogart, Anne Bancroft, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and Burt Lancaster. Acclaimed noir historians Alan K. Rode (“Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy”) and Foster Hirsch (“Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir”) will be presenting the pictures while offering their wealth of historical and filmic insight.
    Among this year’s most priceless treasures is “Deadline USA,” starring Bogart as a newspaper editor who refuses to stop chasing a vital story despite the impending death of his paper. That film is scheduled to make a superb double feature with “Chicago Deadline,” a long lost mystery-tinged melodrama that was shot on location in the Windy City over sixty years ago. Two Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pairings are included in the mix, as well as two films headlined by the underrated character actor Broderick Crawford.

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    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    Robert Ryan Gets Film Forum Tribute

    "BORN to play beautifully tortured, angry souls, the actor Robert Ryan was a familiar movie face for more than two decades in Hollywood’s classical years, his studio ups and downs, independent detours and outlier adventures paralleling the arc of American cinema as it went from a national pastime to near collapse."

    So begins Manohla Dargis's New York Times profile of Robert Ryan, "Robert Ryan’s Quiet Furies." Ryan played numerous tough guys and villains in noirs, war films and westerns throughout his career. His memorable crime dramas include “The Racket,” "Clash By Night," "The Set-Up," "Crossfire" and "House of Bamboo," among others. He is also remembered for his role in Sam Peckinpah's 1969 high-body-count western, "The Wild Bunch."
    The paper profiled Ryan in advance of a Film Forum series that will feature two dozen of the actor's movies.

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    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Criterion Discs Ladle Out Raw Doses Of Sam Fuller's Tabloid World

    It took me a while, meaning a couple of viewings of both movies plus additional time spent watching the extended features of Samuel Fuller's movies, "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss" before I began to get into them. Fuller, who was a wild-man director idolized by the upstarts of the European New Wave in the 1960s and later by Quentin Tarantino, started out life as a copy boy and then a reporter on New York tabloid newspapers. His movies look like the kind of stuff an ink-stained wretch might have cooked up. They're sort of raw, sometimes brutal in their depiction of violence, and often controversial for the topics they delve into -- violence, prostitution, child molestation. Fuller's movies bring to mind the sensationalism of Roger Corman's midnight movies. Criterion has come out with freshened new prints of both films. Check out the special features, especially for the interviews with Fuller, which alone are worth the price of the DVDs.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011

    Brit Slated To Step Into Big Al's Shoes

    English actor Tom Hardy, top right, is reportedly set to play notorious Chicago mobster Al Capone. The rising actor, who will be playing Batman's arch nemesis Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises," has reportedly signed on to star in "Cicero." The film, which Warners is hoping will spawn a trilogy, will focus on the early beginnings of Al Capone, bottom right, the America gangster who ruled Chicago's crime scene in the '20s and '30s.
    Hardy has been seen in the hit film "Inception." He's also expected to appear in a "Mad Max" reboot.
    Warner Bros. is hoping that "Harry Potter" director David Yates will helm the crime epic.
    Al Capone was famously played by Robert De Niro in "The Untouchables" (1987), by Rod Steiger in "Al Capone" (1959) and more recently by Stephen Graham in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
    Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Italian immigrants, Capone connected with gangs after being expelled from school at 14. In his early 20s, he moved to Chicago to take advantage of a new opportunity to make money smuggling illegal alcoholic beverages into the city during Prohibition. Despite his profession, Capone became a highly visible public figure. He made various charitable endeavors using the money he made from his activities, and was viewed by some as a modern-day Robin Hood. He died in 1947 in Miami Beach, Fla.

    Sunday, July 31, 2011

    How Bugsy Became A Hollywood Fixture

    Here is the final resting place (above) for one Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (left), who ruled L.A.'s underworld until one fateful night in 1947 when his reign came to an abrupt end. Siegel is credited with envisioning Las Vegas, then a dusty desert outpost, as a world-class gambling empire.
    But his luck ran out before he could cash his chips.
    On the night of June 20, 1947, as Siegel sat with his associate Allen Smiley in his girlfriend Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home, an unknown assailant fired at him through the window with a .30-caliber military M1 carbine, hitting him many times, including twice in the head. No one was charged with the murder, and the crime remains officially unsolved.
    Visit him at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, located conveniently close to Paramount Studios.
    The Flamingo Hotel (Below), Las Vegas, 1946 -- Siegel's last big project. The joint failed to bring an immediate profit, and it was the end for Bugsy.

    Friday, July 29, 2011

    Bogart Still Center Stage As American Screen Idol

    I talk about film here for the most part, but I would be shirking my duty as a reporter if I didn't mention a book that I finished reading some time ago that deserves to be noted in this forum. It's Stefan Kanfer's biography of Humphrey Bogart, "Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart." A side note: I didn't even receive a review copy of it. I paid full price. I'm just saying ...
    The author traces Bogie's life as a child of privilege growing up in a wealthy Manhattan family that later fell into economic hard times, and his ascent from New York theater to an extraordinary career that saw his trajectory shift from character actor to Hollywood leading man.
    The title comes from Raymond Chandler's comment upon learning that Bogart was to play Philip Marlowe in the screen adaptation of Chandler's novel, "The Big Sleep." Chandler said he approved of the casting choice because Bogart is "tough without a gun."The book is a clear, balanced history of one of the country's truly great actors. It also looks at how Bogart's reputation diminished sometime after his death, until the next generation again discovered his movies. He's remained an America film icon ever since. For Bogart fans and anyone else interested in film it's a very good read.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    The Twisted Ways of 'Good Neighbors'

    A twisted film noir with two or three very sick characters, the exact number dependant on your point of view, Good Neighbors takes supreme advantage of its grim setting —Montreal in the dead of winter. As any native will tell you, winters there can drive a person crazy.
    Although the film’s writer-director Jacob Tierney makes it pretty clear that the tenants of a multi-story apartment complex in the Notre Dame de Grace area are mentally shaky in the best of times. Good Neighbors is a film of acquired taste. If one is willing to accept humor in a movie about a serial killer, if one likes a thriller than emphasizes character over thrills, if one is susceptible to a cast of characters that includes three cats, then the movie has found its very selective target audience. The Canadian film will receive solid reviews and modest box-office returns in south of the border play dates, but Good Neighbors heralds a promising although by no means new talent in actor-turned-writer-director Tierney.
    The title is, of course, ironic. The surface friendliness of many of the residents of this aging but well appointed apartment building is mostly a façade. So when three of them seemingly hit it off, there is still general awkwardness all around since everyone feels uncomfortable in one another’s company.
    Then there is that serial killer, who menaces young women in the neighborhood. Louise (Emily Hampshire), who works as a waitress in a nearby Chinese restaurant, has become obsessed with the story, scouring Montreal newspapers for any and all stories about each victim. The latest one is a co-worker. Her wheelchair-bound downstairs neighbor Spencer (Scott Speedman) shares her predilection up to a point.
    But he mostly likes to keep to himself. Then a new tenant moves in, an elementary school teacher Victor (Jay Baruchel), recently returned to the city from a sojourn in China. Victor eagerly wants to make friends with the other two. Louise and Spencer reluctantly do so but remain wary of the newcomer. To their way of thinking, he is only a tad more agreeable than the crazy, drunken, foul-mouthed tenant (Anne-Marie Cadieux), who hates Louise’s cats. As the trio’s relationships develops, it is soon clear each is a troubled character. Louise’s life is oriented more to her felines, Mozart and Tia Maria, than to humans. Indeed you have to go back to the first 10 minutes of Robert Altman’s classic The Long Goodbye to find a movie where cats figure so prominently.
    Victor is almost a benign stalker, a little creepy in his keenness to ingratiate himself to the other tenants, especially Louise on whom he clearly has a crush and soon develops an imaginary love life. Oh, yes, he talks to his mirror too, which in certain movies is always a bad sign. Outwardly Spencer seemsthe best adjusted of the trio despite his handicap. But there is something about his false smile that you instantly distrust. Maybe Spencer is a little too easy-going.
    These three live above one another on three separate floors and the walls are paper-thin. In other words, it’s hard to keep secrets in this apartment complex although its manager, Mme Gauthier (veteran actress Micheline Lanctôt), will find herself completely in the dark when a murder takes place in the building itself. Tierney lets his cameras —and those cats, which expand to three when Victor’s cat from China, Balthazar, rejoins him —prowl all over the building from its lobby, stairway and hallways to the fire escape and snowy frontage on a surprisingly deserted street. The place is eerier than a haunted house.
    The tensions within the trio’s insular world and then outside their uneasy circle with a crazy neighbor and vicious killer on the loose mount steadily in Tierney’s well orchestrated script, based on a 1982 novel by Chrystine Brouillet. An American might not immediately realize it, but this is a period piece as the story is set in 1995 when all of Quebec was caught up in the referendum about whether the province should sucede from greater Canada. Thus, signs are everywhere urging citizens to vote Oui or Non, which the filmmaker clearly sees metaphorically as a question each character faces in his or her secret life.
    This also, as the director makes clear in press notes, puts his story outside the era of DNA and the Internet, which he calls the “death of noir.” Tierney more or less pulls off his elaborate and clever juggling act of elements macabre and disturbing within the seeming normalcy of domestic cats and friendly neighbors. The whole affair is very tongue-in-cheek, a kind of deconstruction of noir atmosphere and its tropes into a meditation on the treachery of the human heart. Working on a modest budget and taking advantage of its very limitations, he brings great vitality and ambiance to a paucity of sets and locations.
    Meanwhile his actors deliver wonderfully ambiguous performances. For this isn’t one of those movies where clarity only comes at the end. You’re aware of the identity of the killer before too long. What keeps you guessing is how everyone will react to what they know, or what think they know, about one another. None of which Tierney would have accomplished if it weren’t for animal wranglers Josée Juteau and Raymond Ducasse. Who says you can’t train cats? Opens: July 29 in Los Angeles.
    -- Hollywood Reporter

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    'Gangster Squad' Targets Stone

    Emma Stone is reportedly in negotiations for a role in "The Gangster Squad," the highly anticipated feature about the reign of L.A. underworld kingpin Mickey Cohen. Sean Penn is slated to portray the mobster.
    The 22-year-old Stone has been in the business for a good amount of time but got everyone's attention with breakout role in last summer's "Easy A." She's also expected to appear in the next "Spiderman" reboot.
    Stone has been offered the "Gangster Squad" role of Jean, a woman romantically attached to two men: the gangster Cohen and the police officer who is chasing him down.
    Ryan Gosling is playing Sgt. Jerry Wooters. Josh Brolin and Michael Pena also star.
    The movie is about Cohen, the Brooklyn-born gangster who was sent to Los Angeles by Meyer Lansky to keep an eye on Bugsy Siegel. Cohen became a mob kingpin himself in the 1940s, and at one point fired rounds from two .45-caliber handguns into the ceiling of the Hotel Roosevelt lobby.
    "Gangster Squad" is based on a series of articles by Paul Lieberman. "L.A. Rex" author Will Beall wrote the script.
    Ruben Fleischer is directing and Dan Lin and Kevin McCormick are producing.

    Monday, July 25, 2011

    Let There Be 'Brighton Rock'

    Some great news: "Brighton Rock," the acclaimed new adaptation of Graham Greene‘s classic novel, will be seen in U.S. theaters August 26, thanks to IFC. The film depicts the story of Pinkie, a lowly gangster who romances a naive, lonely waitress, Rose, after she discovers evidence he committed murder.
    Fans of British cinema will certainly remember the beloved 1947 version, starring Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, Carol Marsh as Rose, and the fine Hermione Baddeley as Rose’s motherly protector, Ida.
    In the new version, Control‘s Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, and Dame Helen Mirren step into the roles, with Andy Serkis and John Hurt rounding out the excellent cast. The film is 28 Weeks Later screenwriter Rowan Joffe‘s feature-film directorial debut.
    Carey Mulligan was slated to play Rose but decided to do "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" instead. Whether or not that was a wise move is up for debate, but Riseborough’s performance in the film is said to be “star-making.” The Guardian declared the film “masterpiece” and singled out Riseborough’s acting as particularly skillful. “To say her achievement deserves an Oscar would be somehow to demean it,” raved David Cox. Riseborough was one of our 5 British Breakout Film Stars of 2010, as well as one of our Top 5 British Actresses of the year.

    Saturday, July 23, 2011

    Nicholson Times Two Tonight

    A double bill of "Chinatown" and "The Two Jakes" with a special appearance by screenwriter Robert Towne. It takes place at The Aero in Santa Monica.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011

    Remembering the City's Prince of Pulp

    "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."
    -- Raymond Chandler, "Farewell, My Lovely," 1940

    This Saturday, July 23, marks the 123rd anniversary of the birth of one of this city's greatest fiction writers, Raymond Chandler. Chandler was born on July 23, 1888 in Chicago. But Los Angeles is the city with which he is most closely associated, and where his mystery novels are set.
    Chandler's most famous creation is private detective Philip Marlowe, who prowled the "mean streets" of Los Angeles, a term that Chandler coined. Marlowe was a citadel of moral fiber in a city that had long ago lost its way, seeming to spiral downward into a pit of decay and decadence. Through it all, Marlowe soldiered on, but it was a lonely struggle.
    Chandler turned to fiction writing after a failed career as an oil company executive. His hard drinking caused him to be fired in the midst of the Depression. He wrote short stories for pulp crime magazines, and eventually, by age 50, published his first novel, "The Big Sleep."
    His novels reflected his attitude toward Los Angeles -- the city is every bit a character in his fiction as is Marlowe. He saw L.A. as a sun-drenched paradise rotting from the inside, filled with hopefuls determined to reinvent themselves, and hucksters looking to make a quick score at the expense of the suckers.
    Hired on to adapt James M. Caine's novel "Double Indemnity" to the screen, Chandler not only co-wrote the script with director Billy Wilder, he appeared in one of the film's scenes, reading and smoking a cigarette in a hallway as Fred MacMurray walks by -- a fact that went undiscovered for 55 years.
    In addition to "Double Indemnity," Chandler also penned the "The Blue Dahlia" screenplay. His addiction to alcohol was so strong he allegedly went on a round-the-clock bender and dictated the script to secretaries in order to meet the deadline.
    He died in 1959 in La Jolla, Calif., tired, written out and alcoholic. It wasn't until some years after his death that American critics began to hold his writing in equal esteem with that of the country's other great authors. Disappointing for Chandler, but like Marlowe he more or less took his lot in stride. He was fighting the good fight.

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    Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    Crime Double Feature At LACMA

    Get set for a night of Los Angeles crime on film. Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye," based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same title and starring Elliot Gould (pictured at right), screens with Nicholas Ray's noir masterpiece "In A Lonely Place," starring Humphrey Bogart in one of his most masterful performances. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

    Saturday, July 16, 2011

    Googie Withers, “The Lady Vanishes,” “Night and the City”

    Googie Withers, 94, a British actress best known for her appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film “The Lady Vanishes,” died July 15 at her home in Sydney. The cause of death was not disclosed.
    Georgette Lizette Withers was born March 12, 1917, in Karachi, then part of British India. She was given her lifetime nickname by her Indian nanny.
    Her family moved back to Britain where Ms. Withers began acting at age 12. She was a dancer in a West End production in London when she was offered work in 1935 as a film extra in “The Girl in the Crowd.”
    Soon after starting work, director Michael Powell fired one of the female leads and she stepped into the role.
    Ms. Withers appeared in dozens of films in the 1930s and ’40s, but was probably best known for her role as Blanche in “The Lady Vanishes” playing opposite Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. She was dubbed by the English press as “the best bad girl in British films.”
    She appeared in many other films, including “It Always Rains On Sunday” (1947), in which she sheltered a killer on the run, played by John McCallum, an Australian actor she married in 1948.
    Ms. Withers also appeared in several British wartime dramas in the 1940s and played the memorable role of Helen Nosseross in the 1950 film noir classic “Night and the City,” directed by Jules Dassin and starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney.
    In the 1950s, she acted on the British stage before moving to Australia with her husband in 1958. The couple co-starred in 10 popular films together, and Ms. Withers had occasional theatrical roles on Broadway and in England through the 1980s.
    Ms. Withers won an acting award for her part as a prison governor in the 1970s British television series “Within These Walls.” She starred in the 1986 BBC adaptation of Anita Brookner’s novel “Hotel du Lac” and in a 1987 BBC production of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.”
    Ms. Withers appeared in the well-received 1994 film “Country Life,” directed by Michael Blakemore, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” set in Australia in 1919.
    In 1996, she portrayed a writer who furthers the career of pianist David Helfgott, played by Geoffrey Rush, in the popular film “Shine.”
    When she was 85 in 2002, Ms. Withers shared the stage in London’s West End with her husband and Vanessa Redgrave in Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan.”
    McCallum died last year at 91. Survivors include three children.