Life and Death in L.A.: June 2011

Friday, June 24, 2011

RIP Peter Falk, TV's Columbo

Actor Peter Falk, who was best known for his role as "Columbo" has died, according to a statement released by his family. "Falk died peacefully at his Beverly Hills home in the evening of June 23. He was 83. I always enjoyed the show, and have been re-watching it in recent months via Netflix streaming. The great thing about the "Columbo" show was the character himself. Falk played the unpolished L.A.P.D. detective with a huge humanitarian streak. The show always followed the same structure: Each week we'd see the perpetrator commit a murder and try to cover it up, step by step. No mystery as to who did the deed. The puzzle was figuring out how the lawbreaker tripped himself up. Columbo would without fail find the one mistake and bring the perp to justice. Better still, the unassuming Columbo would invariably be pitted against a pompous, wealthy villain who would patronize the blue-collar detective and greatly underestimate his abilities. Columbo always nailed the self-important jerk. Great stuff. Wish there were more like it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Bin Laden of Boston Finally Nabbed ... In L.A.

Just for the record, I had no prior knowledge of the whereabouts of James "Whitey" Bulger when he was arrested by the FBI just a few miles from my home. The former Boston gang leader had been on the FBI's most wanted list for 15 years until he was apprehended yesterday in Santa Monica. He's going to Federal Court in downtown L.A. today, maybe even as I write this. In this video, some folks from Whitey's old neighborhood, "Southie," (South Boston) react to the arrest.
This marks the end of an era for organized crime in Boston. Whitey was the last of the old guard. He was the inspiration for Frank Costello, the role Jack Nicholson played in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed." There are also several books written about the legendary criminal. An excellent read is "Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI and A Devil's Deal," by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill.
Authorities will want to discuss with Whitey the 19 murders he is alleged to have committed or ordered. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

‘Breaking Bad’: Life and Meth in New Mexico

I finally saw the complete third season of AMC’s terrific series, “Breaking Bad,” hands down my favorite TV program of the past several years. In fact, I’ve got to say that BB might be the best thing on the tube – ever.
I hear your chiding. “Bold statement.”
Settle down and listen.
For it’s unpredictable twists, as well as the amount of heart the show displays, there are few, if any, that are better.
There’s more to talk about in this show than a mere blog posting can accommodate, from the protagonist, Albuquerque every-man Walt White’s relationship with his cohort, Jesse Pinkman, to his deteriorating marriage, and relationship with his handicapped teenaged son.
Bryan Cranston, who plays our anti-hero Walt White, achieves the near impossible (SPOILERS HERE, but if you haven’t heard, then you’ve been living in a Pakistani compound), he’s a likable guy who happens to be a meth manufacturer and dealer. It’s an incredible feat to make this work, but somehow Cranston does. This also speaks to the power of the “Breaking Bad” writers, who take hard-to-like characters and somehow make us root for them. (Another spoiler follows. If that’s a problem you should have already stopped reading.) The show’s conceit is that Walt suffers from terminal cancer. He’s got a handicapped son, a mortgage and a wife, and aside from being a high school chemistry teacher, he works a part-time job as a car wash attendant. And in economically broken America of the 2010s, he can no longer provide for his family.
We aren’t supposed to think, “So, under those circumstances, who WOULDN’T deal meth. Walt is a flawed character. He may be the dumbest genius we’ve ever seen on TV. He makes stupid choices, even though his heart is in the right place. Ultimately, we must feel sorry for his unsuspecting family.
Jesse, his partner in crime, is a former high school pupil of Walt’s, and a first-class screw-up. Together, they make beautiful music. Jesse knows the meth business – at least, somewhat – and Walt knows chemistry.
The sharpies and pros that they meet up with in the course of trying to run an illegal business are an education for Walt. Less so for Jesse, who has seen his share of drug-addled opportunists.
By Season 3, we see the transformation of Walt, from high school teacher to “gangsta.” And his mild-manner wife, Skyler, loses much of her innocence, as well.
There are too many sub-plots to discuss here, from the local drug king pin who seems to be a meek businessman, to the two strangely mute cousins who cross the border into Gringo-Land to raise a bit of hell with the locals and pursue Walt. I can only suggest that you see it, starting with Episode 1, Season 1. Immediately.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

IMDB Hit Parade Names Top 50 Noirs lists the top 50 films noir. The poll, it seems, is based on IMDB readers' ratings of noir titles. Some got a lot more votes than others, but apparently that doesn't matter. It's the number of rating stars the film gets. The choices are all good ones, but I'd like to have seen others, "D.O.A." for instance, make the cut. Which films do you think should have been included in a top 50 noir list?

1. 8.7 Sunset Blvd. (1950) 63,840
2. 8.6 Double Indemnity (1944) 43,265
3. 8.5 The Third Man (1949) 57,096
4. 8.3 The Maltese Falcon (1941) 57,659
5. 8.3 Touch of Evil (1958) 36,766
6. 8.3 Strangers on a Train (1951) 39,754
7. 8.2 Notorious (1946) 35,469
8. 8.2 The Big Sleep (1946) 32,415
9. 8.2 Ace in the Hole (1951) 8,418
10. 8.2 White Heat (1949) 11,181
11. 8.2 Rififi (1955) 9,629
12. 8.2 The Night of the Hunter (1955) 29,596
13. 8.2 The Killing (1956) 28,508
14. 8.2 Sweet Smell of Success (1957) 10,018
15. 8.2 Laura (1944) 15,424
16. 8.1 Shadow of a Doubt (1943) 23,601
17. 8.1 Out of the Past (1947) 11,770
18. 8.0 In a Lonely Place (1950) 7,256
19. 8.0 Night and the City (1950) 3,863
20. 8.0 The Big Heat (1953) 7,320
21. 8.0 Key Largo (1948) 16,042
22. 8.0 The Killers (1946) 6,569
23. 7.9 The Asphalt Jungle (1950) 9,372
24. 7.9 Mildred Pierce (1945) 8,281
25. 7.9 Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) 9,094
26. 7.9 Scarface (1932) 10,437
27. 7.9 Pickup on South Street (1953) 4,583
28. 7.9 Body and Soul (1947) 1,813
29. 7.9 Scarlet Street (1945) 4,179
30. 7.9 Bob le Flambeur (1956) 3,674
31. 7.8 The Set-Up (1949) 3,449
32. 7.8 Gun Crazy (1950) 3,670
33. 7.8 Thieves' Highway (1949) 1,742
34. 7.8 The Narrow Margin (1952) 2,552
35. 7.8 The Woman in the Window (1944) 3,925
36. 7.8 Nightmare Alley (1947) 2,862
37. 7.8 The Letter (1940) 4,251
38. 7.8 Gilda (1946) 9,817
39. 7.7 The Lady from Shanghai (1947) 9,007
40. 7.7 The Big Clock (1948) 2,638
41. 7.7 The Naked City (1948) 3,716
42. 7.7 Brute Force (1947) 2,553
43. 7.7 Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) 2,324
44. 7.7 Kiss Me Deadly (1955) 6,747
45. 7.7 Murder, My Sweet (1944) 4,314
46. 7.6 Spellbound (1945) 15,974
47. 7.6 Detective Story (1951) 2,309
48. 7.6 This Gun for Hire (1942) 2,685
49. 7.6 Leave Her to Heaven (1945) 3,457
50. 7.6 High Sierra (1941) 5,853

Friday, June 17, 2011

Feeling the 'Drive' To Survive

Premiering at the L.A. Film Festival
June 17, 2011.

In "Drive," the new film by Danish-born director Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling channels Steve McQueen's turbo-charged antics from films like "Bullet" and "The Getaway." In fact, McQueen would have been a shoo-in to play the hero, here known simply as "Driver," if the movie was filmed 40 years earlier.
There's a fair amount of burning rubber, screeching tires and gunshots -- not to mention copious amounts of blood spilled in sometimes rather gruesome fashion.
The story centers on Gosling's character, an L.A. movie stunt driver who races and flips over muscle cars as cameras roll and catch the action. At night he pursues another, but not entirely different, vocation. He's a getaway driver for stick-up artists.
A crush develops between him and his next door neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan). Trouble is, she's married. But she's got a little boy, and he and Driver bond.
Difficulties start when Driver takes on another crime assignment. This time he thinks he's going to help save Irene's husband from harm, but things don't go well, to say the least.
Among the cast are Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, who play wonderfully sleazy crime partners, and Bryan Cranston, of AMC's "Breaking Bad," who nicely inhabits the role of Driver's employer and sidekick, Shannon. He's got a dark past of his own. Christina Hendricks, of AMC's "Mad Men," makes an all-too-short appearance as Blanche, the woman who knows more than she's telling.
"Drive" lacks the richly detailed inner turmoil we sense in other recent crime thrillers, such as that between the deeply conflicted brothers-turned-robbers in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." But for those who take their crime films with a large dose of action, that might be a good thing. "Drive" floors the accelerator -- liberally. Go for the adrenaline rush and buckle up.

--Paul Parcellin

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cast Lines Up For 'Gangster Squad'

Just when you start to think that the studios have given up on the gangster film genre, a new crime film comes along and restores your faith – at least for now.
Warner Bros., the studio with one of the most storied rosters of crime films, is behind “The Gangster Squad,” based on the Los Angeles Time’s seven-part series on corruption in City Hall and the Police Department, and the East Coast mob’s attempt to infiltrate the City of Angels.
The movie’s logline – something about the LAPD's fight to keep East Coast Mafia types out of Los Angeles in the 1940s and ’50s, doesn’t exactly shout clear, high-stakes goal. But that will likely be fixed in copious script rewrites that are no doubt taking place as we speak.
The question is, will the movie breathe new life into standard gangster faire: a detective with a dark side; cops tempted to accept graft; horror upon horror, a detective discovers his colleagues are on the take? By all accounts, L.A. was as corrupt as Chicago during this era, and crime mostly centered on liquor, gambling and brothels – oh, yes, and murder. All of this is excellent fodder for retelling the story of smog-choked L.A. of yore.
The director, Ruben Fleischer, will determine whether it’s a stylish character study with brains (“L.A. Confidential”) or a well-intentioned misfire (“Mulholland Falls”). Fleischer did himself proud helming “Zombieland.” We’ll see in August how he does with a crime comedy when “30 Minutes or Less” opens. Clearly, he’s got a knack for funny, but his directing credentials are lacking thus far when it comes to straight-ahead drama.
Still, Sean Penn is an apt choice to play gang leader Mickey Cohen. I can think of few other stars who have the acting chops and physical presence to tackle the role. Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Fernando Lara and Michael Pena have also signed on to the cast. As yet, IMDB doesn’t list which role Brolin will play.
If all goes well, “The Gangster Squad” will be unreeling at a multiplex near you sometime in 2013.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Touring Scenes of the Crime (Film) II

Here's more about familiar sites you might take in if you wander the streets of Los Angeles.
Venice Beach stands in for a Mexican border town in Orson Welles' 1958 noir, "Touch of Evil." The film begins with a close-up of a man setting the timer on a bomb. The camera pulls back to show a long columned arcade, and then the man plants the bomb in the trunk of a sleek convertible.
A man and woman, laughing and embracing, get into the convertible and cruise down a crowded night-time street in a Mexican border town.
This shot, about four minutes long, was filmed as one long tracking shot, and is praised by film critics for the tension, atmosphere and cinematic sleight of hand it displays. The car drives through the crowded streets, passing the shabby arcades with their old-fashioned columns. As it stops for traffic cops, pushcart vendors, and herds of goats, we wonder - when will it explode? Who will it kill?
The introduction of the film's hero and his new bride, walking along with the slowly cruising car and standing beside it as they clear the border crossing, heightens the suspense.
Orson Welles used Windward Ave. in Venice as the location for this shoot. The car passes the columned hotels and liquor stores on the north side of Windward, then turns onto Ocean Front Walk, passing what is now the Sidewalk Cafe, and the remains of the Mecca Cafe - by then a bingo parlor.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hong Kong Noir Makes French Connection

Let the bonding begin. Hong Kong is featuring a two-month-long arts festival -- Le French May. In addition to music, dance and theater, a film program titled, "NOIR - A Film Noir Retrospective Bridging France and Hong Kong," has rolled out.
The festival features some of the best French crime movies from the last decade, it also includes a selection of classics from masters of the genre such as Jean-Pierre Melville, Bertrand Tavernier and Claude Chabrol.
The highlight of the program, however, has to be "Carte Blanche to Johnnie To" -- a collection of the very best Hong Kong gangster films influenced by the film noir genre. Arranged in close association with Milkyway Image and featuring the director's own personal choices, the festival will give audiences the chance to see films like "A Better Tomorrow," "City on Fire" and "As Tears Go By" on the big screen, as well as rarities such as Ann Hui's "The Secret," Wong Tin Lam's 1960 thriller "The Wild, Wild Rose." And Tsui Hark will be introducing the director's cut of his controversial "Dangerous Encounters: First Kind," which has not screened in Hong Kong for three decades.
The festivities kicked off last night with such luminaries as Johnnie To, Jacques Audiard and composer Xavier Jamaux in attendance, who will also be conducting a special filmmakers masterclass on June 5 free of charge. The program runs until June 26.

The official website includes information about the films screening and ticketing.

Thanks to

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Noir Served Asian, Italian Style

In a recent post I lamented that U.S. studios aren't interested in making crime films anymore, but on other shores things are different. Here's further evidence that the film noir genre thrives overseas:

CANNES - The Weinstein Company has landed one of the first big deals in Cannes this year, taking worldwide rights outside of Asia and French-speaking Europe for Dragon (Wu Xia), the martial arts film noir from director Peter Ho-Sun Chan (Bodyguards and Assassins), which premieres in a Midnight Screening here Saturday. Dragon stars Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tang Wei and features Hong Kong legend Jimmy Wang Yu (One Armed Swordsman) in his first film role in 17 years.

"The Double Hour," a spiffy new Italian film noir (see photo above), combines mystery and suspense with a love story in a twisty plot that’s worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. Viewers are kept guessing until the final denouement. The romantic leads, Ksenia Rappoport and Filippo Timi, though little known at the time, won best male and female acting awards at the 66th Venice International Film Festival in 2009. The Double Hour also received the Young Cinema Award at the Venice event.

The title refers to the moment on a digital watch when the minutes and hours are the same, for example 12:12. When this coincidence is noticed, the observer gets to make a wish. “It’s about the second chance or one’s capacity for grabbing that chance when it comes,” says director Giuseppe Capotondi. A Samuel Goldwyn Film release, the movie debuted in New York and Los Angeles in April, followed by a national rollout.

Thanks to Below The Line and

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