LA Confidential (1997)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

In 1950s Los Angeles, Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes are three police officers with drastically different lives. Exley, the son of a famous detective, is a no-nonsense, by-the-book politician, hoping to climb the LAPD’s ranks. White, a heavy drinker, is a violent, plainclothes officer with a pension for punishing wife beaters. And Vincennes; oh Vincennes. Vincennes is a celebrity cop, who acts as a consultant on a popular TV Show, and who makes extra cash by feeding tips to a gossip mag. These men have nothing in common, and would never even dream of working together. But when White’s partner, whom Exley had a hand in firing, winds up dead, and an item that Vincennes found on one of his raids is discovered at the crime scene, they wind up doing just that. And the more they dig, the more they realize how deep the conspiracy goes.

On paper, LA Confidential is the perfect movie for me. It’s a fast-paced thriller, with high production values, and a strong cast. It’s even a period piece. All my interest boxes are ticked. So why am I not crazy about it? Well, the simple answer is that every single aspect feels extremely familiar. All the main characters and plot points have been used before, in other, older noir films. In fact, if you took out the more explicit violence and language, and made it black and white, LA Confidential would be indistinguishable from those earlier movies. Now, as I’ve always said, there is nothing inherently wrong with a story being unoriginal. Every narrative in existence takes ideas from works that have proceeded it. But the best stories are the ones that are able to take those ideas, and make them their own. They change the setting, alter the tone, or break the rules by not giving you the ending you expect. Or, as in the case of movies like Deadpool and Their Finest, they openly acknowledge how cliched their narratives are, and so make fun of them. LA Confidential does none of those things. It is not parodying, drawing from, or even deconstructing the noir genre. It is just a noir film. It is a mystery, set in the 50s, in LA, involving corruption, murder, a flawed protagonist, or protagonists, in this case, and a femme fatale. That’s it. It doesn’t shock you with its ending, like Seven or Mother. It doesn’t have witty dialogue, like The Big Lebowski or The Nice Guys. It’s story, its cinematography, its score and its costumes are all very standard for the noir genre. And because everything about it is so familiar, you find yourself not caring as much.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I don’t think this is a bad film. The acting is superb, the costumes and sets are period accurate, and the tight pacing never allows for a dull moment. I whole-heartedly acknowledge that this is a competently crafted movie. But I’m also quite convinced that the reason it was so acclaimed when it first came out back in 97 was nostalgia. Critics who grew up with classic noir were most likely just happy to see something that reminded them of when they were young, and so declared the film to be better than it was. But, like I said, it’s not terrible. Just unoriginal. So if that doesn’t bother you, give it a look. You’ll probably like it.

Their Finest (2017)

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It’s 1940, and Britain is in serious need of a morale boost. Food is scarce, cities are being blitzed, and the British Army has just been driven off the continent at Dunkirk. Life, to put it bluntly, is shit. So, to give their country the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, the government begins churning out propaganda films, and because all the young men are off fighting, they hire women to write the scripts. Enter Catrin Cole, a novice screenwriter whose been given the task of adapting a “true” story to the big screen. She’s new to the business, and as she goes about bringing this story to life, she encounters all the typical roadblocks a screenwriter does; truth not lending itself to a traditional dramatic structure; producers demanding last minute changes to the script; cast members being difficult on set, etc. And yet, as hard as her job is, as difficult as her colleagues can be, Catrin finds herself falling in love with the business, and discovers a freedom in her work that she never experienced beforehand. Will it last? Well, you’ll just have to watch the film to find out.

Their Finest is a sweet, utterly charming movie. It’s funny, moving, beautifully-shot, and exceptionally well-acted. It is the total inverse of Dunkirk in every way. Dunkirk is a spectacle. Their Finest is a story. Dunkirk is about the war. Their Finest is about the home front. Dunkirk has no characters. Their Finest has several, very well-realized ones. But beyond simply providing a pleasant, alternate perspective on this period in British history, Their Finest is also just an all-around engaging film. You like these characters. You enjoy watching this picture get made. And because this is a movie about movie-making, the screenwriters are able to throw in some clever commentary on the tropes of the romance genre. Also, unlike many other films set during this era, Their Finest holds nothing back when it comes to portraying the devastating sexism that these women faced everyday. Yes, It’s difficult to watch, but it also makes you appreciate these ladies’ strength even more. And that’s always a good thing in my book.

That said, as charming as Their Finest is, it is still, ultimately, a romantic comedy, and comes with all the tropes and baggage that that entails. True, most of the cliches are addressed in the film within a film, and the screenwriters do come up with a clever way of not giving you the ending you expect. Still, there are several plot points in this movie that feel very familiar, like the main character starting off in an unhappy relationship, her meeting a new man, her significant other cheating on her, which makes it okay for her to be with the new guy, etc. But, like I said before, the film is well-written enough to recognize those cliches as cliches, and it does come up with interesting ways of subverting them. So it doesn’t bother me too much.

Guys, all I can say is this; Their Finest is a charming, well-written, well-acted little romance film, which does feature some cliches, but is also entertaining, and clever enough, to overcome them. I love it, and I think you’d love it too if you watched it. Please give it a look.

The Age Of Shadows (2016)

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When the Japanese learn that a resistance group is smuggling explosives into Seoul, they send Officer Lee Jung-Chool to stop them. An ethnic Korean with a history of selling out his countrymen, Lee is initially eager to bring the rebels down. But when one of the insurgents he has a hand in killing turns out to be his old classmate, he starts to have second thoughts about the whole affair.

The Age Of Shadows is a brilliantly-shot, beautifully-acted, solidly entertaining spy film. It’s got period-accurate sets, gorgeous costumes, and a nice-sounding score. And unlike Lust, Caution, which is set during the same era, and deals with similar themes of espionage, Age Of Shadows doesn’t put you to sleep. It’s got some great chases, and some spectacular scenes of suspense. Two sequences in particular, one in the beginning where a group of police officers are chasing a man across some rooftops, and one on a train where the Japanese are trying to find rebels, really stick out. They help elevate this film beyond a predictable, patriotic thriller, to something more exciting, and more universally appealing.

That said, I have no desire to watch this movie again. The biggest reason is the runtime. This movie is about 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and there are points where the pacing really does drag. Granted, those moments are quickly replaced with exciting sequences, like the ones I just mentioned, but, still, those slow bits definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. On top of that, as good as the acting in this movie is, there is little to no characterization. You get to know Officer Lee and the chief rebel a bit, since they’re given the most screen time, and have the most to say. But everything we know about everyone else is told to us in voice over, and we’re never really shown who these people are. We’re never given a scene where they all sit down, talk, and act like regular people. And that was a little disappointing.

Still, at the end of the day, I don’t regret having watched this movie, and would even recommend it to you all. If you’re a fan of spy films, Korean movies, or the director, Kim Jee-Woon, give this flick a look. You’ll probably wind up enjoying yourself.

Quiz Show (1994)

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It’s 1958. Twenty One is ABC’s most popular quiz show, and Herb Stempel, a volatile nerd, is the reigning champion. Realizing that Herb’s popularity has plateaued, and that Charles Van Doren, a handsome young college professor, would bring in far more viewers, Producer Dan Enright rigs the show by feeding Van Doren the answers, and forcing Stempel to flub an easy question. Outraged, Stempel goes on the war path, suing Enright and ABC in federal court. His litigation catches the attention of Dick Goodwin, special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the House Of Representatives (a position absolutely as boring as it sounds), and the two embark on a quest to expose the fraudulent nature of both Twenty One, and all game shows. And now we have a big courtroom drama, directed by Robert Redford, and starring John Turturro.

Quiz Show is a film I’d never heard of before. I only became aware of its existence after I stumbled upon it while idly scrolling through the “period pieces” section on Netflix. I was shocked, to say the least. I mean, a big budget movie, made by a famous director, with top tier talent, that got good reviews, which I’d never heard of before? Impossible. Surely there was a mistake. Surely this film, which currently holds a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was some sort of unsung masterpiece; a diamond in the rough, if you will. I simply had to watch it. I had to spread the word; to make others aware of its brilliance. Well, having just sat down and watched Quiz Show, I can understand why no one remembers it, and why it bombed at the box office when it first came out.

IT’S SO BORING! I’m talking grass growing, paint drying, doing your taxes level dull. It’s about two and a half hours long, and a good chunk of it consists of scenes that add nothing to the overall narrative. Scenes like Dick Goodwin going to buy a car, Dick Goodwin having sex with his wife, Charles van Doren running into his father at a restaurant, and Charles Van Doren throwing his father a birthday party. I suppose they’re meant to build character, but they really, really don’t. They just come off as pointless padding, and they leave you scratching your head, and checking your watch. And just as with La la Land, you never feel invested in the story because there are no stakes. What the movie boils down to is a bitter man, Stempel, trying to prove that TV game shows are rigged. Who cares? Who cares if game shows are rigged? I just assumed everyone knew that going in. Next thing you know you’ll be telling me professional wrestling and reality television are staged. Besides, rigging a game show to make it more dramatic isn’t, technically speaking, illegal. And even if it was, the movie makes Stempel out to be such an unlikable character that you don’t want to see him prevail. You don’t want him to pull back the curtain. You don’t want the world to find out that game shows are fake. Also, I have to ask, who the hell watches game shows anymore? I understand this is a period piece, but Redford was making this film for modern audiences. He had to have known that people probably didn’t care about quiz shows anymore. Combine this–the slow pacing, pointless scenes, and very low stakes–with lackluster dialogue and some questionable acting–I’m referring, of course, to Rob Morrow’s awful Boston accent–and you’ve got a dull, pointless, and ultimately forgettable movie. I totally understand why no one went to go see this when it came out, and why history has largely forgotten it. It’s terrible. Don’t watch it.

Changeling (2009)

 

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On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins came home from work, and found that her son, Walter, was not in the house. She looked in every room, scoured the entire neighborhood, but it was all to no avail. Walter had vanished. For five agonizing months, Christine waited for the authorities to find something, anything, that would indicate where her boy had gone. Then, finally, the police claimed that they’d located him, but when she was presented with the child in question, she realized that it wasn’t Walter. The boy was three inches shorter than her son, circumcised, and lacked certain knowledge that Walter would just instinctively have, like what his teacher’s name was, or which desk he’d sat at in school. But when Christine pointed this out to the police, and urged them to keep looking for her son, they refused, insisting she was mistaken. They hired doctors to explain away the physical discrepancies between Walter and this new boy, and got reporters to write articles smearing her as an incompetent, neglectful mother. Then, when all this failed, they locked her away in an insane asylum, claiming she was hysterical, and that she needed to be restrained, “for her own good.” It wasn’t until a detective, working on a completely unrelated case, uncovered a connection between her boy and the crimes of a serial killer that Christine got released, and people started listening to her.

This horrifying true story forms the basis of Changeling, a 2008 drama film, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Angelina Jolie. I’d never heard of it, or the events that inspired it, until I watched the movie this weekend, and now, with hindsight, I think that’s a shame. This is a well-made film, and it tells an incredible story from our past, which has far more relevance to the present than we might like to admit. The fact that a woman who spoke out against an authority figure was written off as hysterical, and even institutionalized, just so that she couldn’t threaten their position, is both terrifying, and not at all hard to believe. To this day, women around the world face huge amounts of backlash whenever they “rock the boat” by discussing mistreatment or abuse. That’s why so many rape cases go untried, the victims are too scared to speak out. For this reason, I highly urge everyone out there to watch Changeling. Because even though its set 89 years ago, what happens in it is still happening now. And if we want a better world, we need to learn from our past.

Now I realize that that statement will be enough to turn some of you off this film. After all, movies that are “important” aren’t always entertaining, or even well-crafted. I appreciate Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dear White People for their messages, not because I’m gripped by their stories or performances. Likewise, Schindler’s List, City of Life and Death and 12 Years A Slave are so painful to watch, in spite of their craftsmanship, that most of us can’t bear to see them again. Changeling is neither of those things. It’s not so heavy handed that you can’t get invested in the story, and its not so painful that you feel tempted to look away. The movie is 2 and a half hours long, and I was never once bored while I was watching it. The acting in it is also very good, and, as with all Clint Eastwood films, it looks very nice, with the costumes and sets being downright exquisite. So if you’re afraid that Changeling will be a boring, or excessively brutal issue movie, don’t worry. This film does get you to think, but not without entertaining you all the while.

The Keeping Room

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“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” This quote from William Tecumsah Sherman is what opens The Keeping Room, a contained, period-piece thriller that came out just last year. It also seems to be the film’s motto, since the movie is cruel, and it definitely leaves you wishing it were over sooner.

Set in “The American South” in 1865–seriously, that’s what they call it, not Alabama, or Georgia, or anywhere specific like that–the film focuses on three young women, two white sisters and their black slave, struggling to defend themselves from two marauding Union soldiers. While it boasts a talented cast, some realistic costumes and sets, a beautiful landscape, and passes the Bechdel test with flying colors–all things which I usually love to see in a movie–The Keeping Room is not a film I feel I can recommend to you all. The reason is simple: it is extremely boring.

This picture moves at a SNAIL’S pace. The first eight minutes, in addition to not having anything super important happen in them, have absolutely no dialogue. So straight off the bat, you’re left waiting, and wondering. On top of that, the film features tons of long, unbroken shots of characters just doing stuff, like chopping wood, or getting water. And when I say long, I mean just that. See, the average length for a shot in a movie is about 5 seconds. I counted, and the average length for a shot in this movie is eight seconds. That might not seem like much of a difference to you now, but, trust me, when you watch this film, it feels like an eternity. All my professors have told me the same thing, don’t linger on an image unless its important. Unless that swing, that broken wagon wheel, or that bowl, are somehow vital to the story, don’t just keep it on screen. Otherwise you’ll leave the audience wondering, “why am I staring at a swing, a broken wagon wheel, or a bowl?” That’s precisely what I thought when I watched this movie, and that is never a good sign.

In addition to the slow pacing, the film is frightfully serious, and wants you, the audience, to recognize how serious it is by having super long pauses with dramatic musical swells after anyone says or does something remotely important. In one scene, for instance, the younger sister, Louise, says that she doesn’t want to work in the fields anymore, declaring, “She [meaning Mad, the slave] is the n****r. Make her do it.” Everyone literally stops what they’re doing for about five seconds to stare at her, and then the older sister says in a super grave tone of voice, “We’re all n****rs now.” I honestly felt like laughing after I saw that. And the film is full of moments like it.

Now, I don’t want to be too hard on this movie, since, like I said, it does have merits. The acting is good. The costumes and the sets are nice. And the women do speak about subjects other than men, which is rare in most movies. But I honestly don’t feel like any of that matters, when you consider how boring it is, and also how horrific some of the violence gets. If, however, you don’t mind slower pacing, unnecessarily long shots, and rape in your entertainment, you might enjoy The Keeping Room. As for me, I don’t think I’ll ever watch this movie again.

Hail, Caesar! (Film Review)

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A phrase you often encounter when reading reviews of bad movies is “it has no plot.” When you hear that, you probably think, nothing happens in this movie. Well, that’s not necessarily true. A movie can have no plot, and still have lots of stuff happen in it. To have no plot, it just has to lack a single MAIN story. And what I mean by a main story is a single protagonist, with a clear goal, going up against various obstacles, experiencing a climax, and then changing as a result of all that they have gone through. John McLane fighting Hans Gruber and the other terrorists to save his wife in Die Hard, Martin Brody protecting Amity Island and his family from the Shark in Jaws, Indiana Jones racing against the Nazis to recover the ark in Raiders Of The Lost Ark–these are all perfect examples of films with main stories. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. They don’t have an excessive amount of sub-plots and supporting characters to distract us from the Main story, which is the protagonist with his or her goal, going up against an obstacle, ultimately achieving their objective, and becoming a better person as a result.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing all this up. Simple, the subject of today’s review, Hail, Caesar, the latest film written and directed by the Coen Brothers, has no plot. There’s no main story. Just sub-plots. No one goes up against any extreme obstacles, experiences any climaxes, or changes as a result of all that they’ve gone through. Now, to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve read my review for Wong Kar-Wai’s Days Of Being Wild, you know that I still enjoyed the film, despite it having no real plot. The acting, cinematography, color scheme, soundtrack, and most importantly, its emotional resonance all made the film enjoyable and touching. They made it worth watching. Hail, Caesar also has characteristics that make it worth watching–some beautiful sets and period costumes, some funny dialogue, a rich supporting cast–but, in the end, these things don’t make the film good. They’re just salt to cover up bland food.

For those of you who want to know what, exactly, I’m talking about, Hail, Caesar is set in the 1950s, in California. The main character, Josh Brolin, is the studio head for Capital Pictures. He is a man with a million things on his plate, and yet, somehow, he always manages to find time to go to Church and give confession. Now, the movie’s been advertised as a kidnapper comedy, with George Clooney being the dim-witted star who’s been mysteriously taken from the set of his latest feature, but that’s not really what the picture is about. It’s about the movies made back in the 1950s. There are several, rather lengthy, segments in this film where we just cut to various sound stages where different movies are being shot. These include a Western chase scene, a Gene Kelly style musical number, and a big water aerobics act. These segments have nothing to do with the kidnapper plot, and are really only there to paint a picture for us of what movies were like back in the day. Yes, they’re well-crafted, and relatively entertaining, but they have no purpose. This makes them distracting, and, ultimately, annoying. In addition to having all these cutaways, the film doesn’t really spend all that much time on the kidnapper story. We spend at least two thirds of the movie with a guy named Hogey Carmichael, a cowboy who can’t act, trying to act in a dramatic film, and failing miserably. And when we do return to the kidnaper plot, it’s not interesting. The Big Lebowski, another Coen Brothers Film dealing with kidnapping that I actually like, is able to keep the audience’s interest because it keeps us guessing the whole time. We don’t know, until the very end, whether or not the person who was kidnapped actually got kidnapped. The protagonist gets a severed toe in the mail, and a group of men actually come by his house and threaten to castrate him if he doesn’t pay. All of this creates genuine stakes. We believe that someone really could get hurt in all this, which makes the story as a whole more interesting. In Hail, Caesar, by contrast, we see who the kidnappers are very early on in the story, and we know that they have no intention of hurting Clooney. This causes any semblance of tension that was in the film beforehand to just vanish, and leaves us with far less interesting storylines, like will Hogey Carmichael learn how to act, will Scarlet Johansen find a father for her baby, and will Josh Brolin leave the movie business and go to work for Lockheed Martin?

All I can say is that, if you want to go to the movies and be mildly entertained for a few hours, and all while knowing that nothing you just saw will stick or resonate with you afterwards, go see Hail, Caesar. As for me, however, and it truly pains me to say this because I love the Coen Brothers, this is just a 5 out of 10. Apart from the acting and the period decor, I can’t think of anything that makes this movie worth my time or money.