Life and Death in L.A.: November 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.